Cutting the Apron Strings


I have divorced cable, which appears to be a popular pastime among my friends and neighbors. Like an ex-smoker, I chose the TV version of a nicotine patch, Sling, which enables me to get a limited number of channels at a much lower price.  I have Netflix and Great Courses Plus and Roku, so I do not lack news and entertainment.  I miss Jeopardy.  I miss MSNBC, which is hard to get without full service cable, but I can watch Rachel Maddow on my TV the next day, and I usually go to bed around 9:30 and watch it the next day anyway. I don’t miss AT&T with their outrageous prices and huge lineup of junk channels and constant attempts to sell me more.

There’s an old song with a line “if I can’t be with the one I love, I’ll love the one I’m with.”  That’s how I am feeling right now as I explore other offerings and options.  Less news, mostly relying on CNN (whose initials, ironically, are for Cable News Network). Clemson football on ESPN—that’s the only sport I watch. More documentaries, movies. Classical music streaming from my TV on amazon music as I go about my daily routine. Very old Jeopardy shows when Alex had more hair and less of it was gray and the questions come from my prime years.   Or as Carla told me when she had to totally change her eating habits because of lupus and related allergies: “Mom, we just eat from a very small part of the food spectrum.  I just picked up my plate and moved to a different part.”

Habits are comfortable, but they can easily become ruts or worse, addictions.  I admit that an addiction to Jeopardy is pretty harmless, but for several years I have had my cable scheduled to record it every night just in case I am not there, and when I return from a trip, I catch up. TV itself is an addiction, although I rarely watch it until I find myself winding down from the day around 5:30 or 6

Television has been a great gift in creating a wider community of shared information and experiences, just as email and the internet have.  But they come at a cost. That cost is in neglecting live relationships, distraction, being overwhelmed by the full inbox and the facebook messages, providing an outlet for all kinds of crazies, becoming a nation of couch potatoes. I can’t bring myself to completely divorce television, but I feel like I have made a step in a positive direction.


Our Non-Binary World

Scientists, pollsters, many religions, politicians, television pundits, and lots of other groups seem to have no gray in their color palette.  Everything is either black or white, true of false, right or wrong.  We don’t want nuanced answers to questions of abortion, gun control, or even “would you like to go to a movie?”  (It depends. What’s playing and where and at what time? Are we going to go to dinner first? Who’s paying?)

The standards of “proof” in statistical research, known as confidence intervals, set a very high standard for considering a hypothesis to be true.  When that standard is applied, it increases the likelihood that the researcher will reject as false something that is actually true. The problem is that there are gradations of truth, and researchers struggle with how to control for circumstances that might give false positives or negatives.

When we move from the laboratory to daily life, we sometimes find that an attitude of perceived certainty has spread to other parts of our human experience where nuance is more appropriate yes or no, right or wrong, approve or disapprove.  Abortion on demand versus abortion never ever ever misses all the complexities of the specific situation.  Gun control is not either-or—background checks and an assault rifle ban does not mean “the government is coming for your guns.”

Sometimes the answer should not bet either-or, but both-and.  When the right demands that we end the Affordable Care Act ( Obamacare) while the left advocates Medicare for all, those of us who spend our lives swimming in the muddled middle are looking for a compromise, a good enough solution, which is what Obamacare was and still is. We can affirm the nuanced decision in Roe v. Wade that sets duration of pregnancy as a determining factor in considering abortion. We can put reasonable constraints on access to guns without trashing the second amendment. We can respect people’s religious beliefs as long as they do not trample on the rights and beliefs of others. That’s what democracy is all about.

If we can reframe the public conversation away from sound bites and taking firm and unyielding positions toward a search for common ground, compromise (not a four letter word) and a due respect for the thoughts and opinions of others who see things differently, perhaps we can learn to dwell together in peace.

So for starters, take out your mental set of paints paints and mix up some gray. As we know from some very fine fiction, you can create at least fifty shades.  Just ask Sherwin-Williams.


Socialism and Capitalism in the Election Wars

None of the candidates for president can use either of these words as anything but an insult.  And they are right.  Pure capitalism or pure socialism would be a horror for people living under either one.  But purity is overrated.  I alwahs  return to Aristotle, the virtue always residing in the center of the fulcrum between its extreme and its opposite. Capitalism champions freedom, socialism champions equality.  But none of us want to live in a society of total freedom.  Remember the four freedoms? Freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear? Both capitalists and socialists pay lip service to the first two.  In order to sort out the conflict,  we need to add another pair, because there are not just freedoms of and freedoms from but also freedoms to–freedom to succeed, freedom to fail.

Capitalism in its purest form adds the last two freedoms while dropping the freedoms from. We all want the freedom to succeed.  The freedom to fail, maybe not so much, although it is inherent in pure capitalism.  Without the freedom to fail, there are no consequences to mistakes, excessive risk-taking, or bad judgment. The discipline of the marketplace is essential to capitalism, which is why a real capitalist doesn’t endorse freedom from want and fear.

Socialism has the opposite problem. Socialism protects us from want and fear by guaranteeing equality independent of effort.  We lose the incentives which are a key aspect of the success of capitalism.  Without incentives to work, to try, to succeed, there will be less innovation, less productivity, and a lower standard of living for everyone.

So in the real world of the muddled middle in which we live, we cobble together a blend of capitalism and socialism.  We provide a floor, a social safety net offering a minimally adequate access to housing, food, and health care, but if you want more than the bare minimum, you have to earn it.  The debate going on not just this year but for my entire lifetime (which has been pretty long) is not between the extremes but exactly where we think that muddled middle should be..  The much-maligned moderate is the one who is willing to tweak, to compromise, to realize that sometimes the best is the enemy of the good enough.  That’s what I want in a presidential candidate, and for the most part, that is what we have elected in the last 70 years. Let’s hope we can find that candidate again.




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Sinister and Gauche: Life on the Left

The Latin word for left is sinistra.  The French word is gauche.  Neither is a very attractive way of describing those of us who are left-handed and find ourselves on the left side of politics and religion.  Which is me.  I was born into a traditional mainstream Protestant Republican family, but they were all right-handed and pretty left-brained. At least I was born after the public schools ended the practice of trying to convert lefties to write with their right hands.

There is a subset of left-handed people who, like me, score high on standardized tests and have allergies, a set of characteristics associated with good left-right brain integration.  Don’t ask me why that’s true.  It’s science, more correlation than causation, but I’ll take it.  Having good left-right brain integration, I can get my imaginative, mystic, creative  right side of the  brain ( I call it the place where God hangs out) to collaborate with my linear, analytical left side of the brain.  It’s a useful way to be, especially as a teacher, writer, policy analyst, and public speaker.

There are definitely drawbacks to being a lefty in a world designed by and for right-handed people.  Think of those desks with chairs attached in high school and college.  The writing space is on the right side.  Notebooks. Cars. Soup ladles.  Scissors. Lefties are more prone to accidents in a world designed for the right-handed majority.But we are probably also more adaptable, and often more ambidextrous at least in limited ways.  I use knives and scissors with my right hand, always have, and I am a pretty poor batter on either side of the bat. My mother could teach me to sew but not to knit, which I had to teach myself because everything was backwards.

Having embraced my leftness bodily, I turned to the left side of the mind and spirit and embraced first the political left and then the religious left (after all, I came of age in the sixties).   Not too far left in either case.  I always joked that my mother was so relieved that I came home from college after my freshman year neither pregnant nor communist that she didn’t mind that I had become a Democrat. Far left in religion is atheism, but that didn’t speak to me, so I gradually found my religious home in Unitarian Universalism, the left frontier of mainstream organized religion.

Being a liberal left-handed Yankee (raised and educated in New England) female professor at a conservative (in the 1960s) largely male, recently military southern University was not all drawbacks.  In fact, my first department head said if I was just black, I would be perfect. He could check off all the diversity boxes.  I would be much less useful in that respect if I had wound up on the Left Coast, also known as the Pacific Northwest.

Sinister and gauche?  Fine, I’ll take it.  I rejoice in all my varieties of leftness. And to my Righty friends in body, some also in mind and spirit, I wish you equal comfort in discovering and experience your rightness.  Just try not to confuse right and left with right and wrong.


Lone Rangers and Residual Obligants

Leadership in volunteer organizations has high turnover and frequent burnout.  If you are paid staff or a volunteer leader in a church, civic organization, or other volunteer community, you need to brace yourself for that possibility, whether it is burning out yourself or the constant challenge of finding, training, and supporting new leaders. Why does this happen?  One explanation is what I call the Lone Ranger syndrome.

In order to describe the work of corporations, economists have invented a fictional character called the residual claimant.  That’s the person, or persons, who get what’s left over after the revenues roll in and the company’s suppliers and workers and banks have been paid.  That leftover is called profit—or loss.  In a for-profit company, profit or loss belongs to the residual claimant—the owners in a privately owned company, the stockholders in a publicly traded company.

In volunteer organizations, there is no residual claimant, because presumably there is no profit or loss.  But there is something similar.  In these organizations, people accept various responsibilities. They may sort groceries or do client intake in a food bank, coach a kids’ basketball team or take care of the grounds, edit the newsletter or make the coffee.  But there are usually some leftover responsibilities that don’t belong to anyone in particular. It may be putting the chairs back after a meeting, or welcoming visitors, but whatever the leftover chores are, they belong to the person (or people) I call the residual obligant.  In most volunteer organizations, it’s the paid staff, or the president, or some of each.

Think about the times when you were the residual obligant.  How did it make you it feel? Virtuous? Resentful? You are not alone, even though you may feel that way.  The leftover tasks that don’t seem to belong to anyone are the ones that make leaders burn out. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a call that someone has had to drop an obligation or needed a meeting covered. I may need to find someone to drive a member somewhere or be there to sign for a package or fill in for a missing speaker/teacher/geeter//cake provider.  I recall the time that a colleague was supposed to give a speech in a distant county, and he called in sick.  The group asked if he would send the speech and they would read it.  Turned out, not to my surprise, he hadn’t written it yet, and wasn’t planning to.  It was five days before my daughter’s wedding, and her in-laws were arriving that day, holding the rehearsal dinner three days later at my house.  I hadn’t cleaned the refrigerator.  I wrote the speech and sent it to the group, and three of my close friends cleaned the refrigerator for me. It was great delegating, because I was the only other person equipped to write that particular speech, and my friends were happy to be able to support me and my family in getting ready for the wedding.

One response to the challenge of unassigned duties is a common style of leadership in volunteer communities that I call the “Lone Ranger syndrome.” For women, it might be called the Supermom syndrome.  It’s easier to do it myself than to hunt down a volunteer or pester a teenage daughter. But being unwilling or unable to delegate is a form of failure in leadership, because part of your job is to teach people (or offspring) what it means to be part of a community or a family.

The Lone Ranger leadership styles takes various forms.  The first is the delusion of superman (or more often, woman). The thinking process goes like this: I know better than these fools and I can set everything straight single-handedly.  Give me advice I can agree with if you want to belong to my team, which is not really a team because I get to make all the decisions and take all the credit.

The second style might be labeled helicopter mom, a term popular among University faculty and staff working with young adults. It is based on fear and the need to control. Here the thought process is like this: If I really delegate, I lose control.  The person to whom I delegated may screw up and I will have to clean up the mess. So even when I delegate I am sorely tempted to continue to oversee, second guess, and often overrule. This style relies heavily on preventing people from making mistakes, but making mistakes is actually one of the primary ways by which we learn.

The third Lone Ranger leadership style is based on an aversion to asking for help.  It’s easier to do it all myself. Watch this person burn out.  Watch this person scare off anyone else from picking up her mantle because the job looks too overwhelming.  I have operated in that style in the past, but I hope I have learned better.

What all three Lone Rangers have in common is that they fail to create a sense of ownership among others and to develop new leadership that can pick up the ball when it’s time to move on.  All three styles are also an invitation to burnout. A lone ranger or superman operating style fails to build and sustain the connected web of community that can prevent or mitigate future problems and crises. So lone rangers need to be appreciated for their good intentions but schooled in the ways of community, a hard task in a society that is very individualistic.

Each of us needs to look at our own operating style in leadership roles or the qualities we look for in choosing leaders. We need to reflect on how our communities—families, neighborhoods, congregations, nations—can all work better if we adopt, model, teach and/or applaud a leadership style that is intentionally collaborative. Delegation is an important form of collaboration. It’s also the best way to resist becoming the residual obligant.

There are three important ways to keep that from happening.  One is to have clear job descriptions for positions and committees and volunteer roles.  The second is to delegate. And the third is to break down the work into more manageable pieces so that no one has to do anything all the time.

Writing job descriptions may sound tedious, and you wonder if anyone Is going to read them.  Hopefully the nominating committee will read them.  Or perhaps the new treasurer or the membership chair of the program chair will take the time to get to know them.  Just as the president has to delegate, so can these other leaders delegate specific tasks to members of their committees or teams and not become an unplanned and unwilling residual obligant. So one of your tasks as a leader is to make sure there are job descriptions and that everyone gets one when they come on board.

Delegate is a great word to have in your leadership vocabulary.  Maybe you have just had a discussion about how to make the annual meeting attractive so that more members will attend, get enthused, get involved, and work to further the organization’s mission and purpose.  But there are details. Publicity, food and drink, venue, invitations, program, decorations…. DON’T say I can do that the first time there is a silence.  Some of these responsibilities fall in the purview of committees. Other tasks can be broken down into single assignments.  There may be suggestions of people to ask. Develop a protocol for making sure that the tasks are covered, and make it clear that if there aren’t volunteers enough, it won’t happen—whatever it is.  At the end of the meeting, reinforce the plan for sharing responsibility by reviewing who has agreed to do what and having the secretary append that list to the minutes. And try NOT to check up on people and make sure they are doing what they promised to.  A simple email reminder to everyone involved should be sufficient.  Yes, your leaders and volunteers have things to do, places to go, but so do you.  You have a life.  Keep living it.

Another way to delegate is to assign someone or some group, perhaps the membership committee, to be responsible for identifying potential volunteers. So when you need helpers to coordinate an event or perform a regular service, ask the membership committee to find someone.  Making a habit of delegation even when it seems easier to do it yourself is actually a service to the organization.  You are modeling delegation, and setting a pattern of shared responsibility that hopefully will last after the end of your presidency. If you are in a system where there is a president in waiting—a vice president with expectation of succession, or a president-elect—make sure you are communicating that lesson not just by example but also the need for a broader base of volunteer participation.  It builds community, forges new connections, and makes the organization stronger and more effective.

The third strategy is to break big assignments down into small parts.  So if all Amy has to do at the fundraiser is to set up tables and help decorate them, that’s a doable task. Maybe next year she will do more, but this year she can feel like she is useful, appreciated, and part of a team. One step at a time.

There is an important relationship between delegating and creating a sense of ownership.  In a largely volunteer organization, people who aren’t asked to do anything feel less like owners and more like customers. In a democratic society, whether it’s local government, parent teachers associations, community theater, community food banks, Rotary Clubs, or churches, you want active and engaged owners, not complaining customers. So next time you say to yourself, okay, I can do that, stop.  You aren’t doing yourself or the organization any favors. Ask Tonto. Ask your teenager. Ask a committee. Ask, and it may surprise you what you receive in return.





Hyphenate with Care

In reading religious and cultural history, I have been struck by several hyphenations that would have been and sometimes still are objectionable to at least one partner in the hyphen.  In reading the Sister Fidelma novels, set in 7th century Ireland, her husband Eadulf is often referred to as “the Saxon.”  Patiently, he replies, I’m an Angle.  No luck, Eadulf, you are stuck with the Anglo-Saxons for eternity.

Then there is Greco-Roman.  It’s true that there was a cultural influence, but the Romans (who conquered the Greeks) had no particular fondness for Greece.  Because of the influence of Greek literature, theatre, religion, and philosophy on Roman culture, however, the two have been in a somewhat acrimonious marriage for eternity as Greco-Roman culture.  Likewise Judao-Christian: consider how badly the Christians have historically treated their religious ancestors.  I’m pretty sure that neither the Greeks nor the Jews (nor, for that matter, the Angles) really consented to being reduced to an adjective. How hard is it to say Jewish and Christian, Greek and Roman if you insist on lumping them together for some purpose? That’s why our language has conjunctions, which don’t have to be replaced by a dashed line.

Yes, there are places for hyphenation. It is one of the ways in which the English language figures out how to have a noun modify an adjective (Star-spangled banner, star-crossed lovers, etc.). It is a way of identifying heritage as well as nationality or citizenship—African-American and Italian-American, for example.  It’s also fine when it is done by choice.  Many women and increasingly couples hyphenate last names, so Jane Smith and Ryan Jones become Smith-Jones, or Jones-Smith, but neither becomes an adjective.  I’m not sure what happens when their daughter Jennifer Smith-Jones marries Edward Morse-Riley, but that’s for them to figure out.

So please hyphenate sparingly, respectfully, and with the consent of those whose names you may be taking in vain.  Or just muster the strength to type the word “and” instead of a hyphen.




I Pledge Allegiance?

I do not like the pledge to the flag.  Mind you, I love my country, right or wrong (and frequently wrong).  But it took me a very long time to figure out what I was supposed to be saying with the words pledge allegiance.  I figured out the pledge part when I became a Brownie scout, but allegiance is not on the early elementary school vocabulary list.  Couldn’t find it in Dick and Jane, or the Bobbsey Twins. in medieval times, one owed allegiance (service in exchange for protection) to one’s liege lord or feudal overlord.  I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a feudal overlord around these parts in recent memory.

The pledge is a kind of loyalty oath, followed by a lot of exaggerated claims about how good we are as a nation.  Is it indivisible? Not really. Do we have liberty and justice for all?  Arguable.  Goals, yes.  Description of the state of the union, not.

So I would like to suggest that the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts and the Rotary clubs and yes, my own beloved League of Women Voters, consider a more appropriate way of affirming their patriotism on those public occasions when they feel moved to do so.  With just a few verb changes in the last line, we could recite a ringing affirmation that commits us not just to agree about how wonderful we are but to actually try to make it happen.  That alternative is the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.  With my teeny tiny edits, this is how it would read:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, did ordain and do promise to support establish this Constitution for the United States of America.  I am certain that the founding fathers would not object tinkering with a couple of verbs to move that affirmation from 1787 to 2019.

And while we are at it, can we replace the unsingable, militaristic Star Spangled Banner with the more lovely, inspirational, aspirational America the Beautiful?  Or is that asking too much?