5/07/2009

“Good Morning! I love you!” and a Bermuda Shorts’ Moment …


Johnny Barnes - Bermuda's Icon

Kindness is Everywhere.
 
Eugene, the taxi driver, was late. Sitting in a hotel lobby, the delay in his coming gave me a moment to complete my post-card writing intended for “my enemies” [with an ‘I wish you were here, too’-type of a message]. Michael Levon got a call from Eugene to take me to the airport. Michael, in his 50s, I guess, is an old-timer among the taxi drivers in Hamilton. On the way to the airport I got a 20-minute detailed culturally rich expose about the island.

“If you fall down, somebody will pick you up,” he stated in a plain Bermudian-English. “They teach us to say ‘Good morning’ the moment we are in school. When we are this high …” He moved his hand from a steering wheel and showed me how high the children are when they learn to say ‘Good morning.’ It was OK with a 20-miles-per-hour speed limit, I thought. “It stays with us for later,” he added.

“We always greet each other. Even when we just passed somebody. It’s ‘Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!’. We know that it’s the Smith’s or Jones’s boy or girl that greeted us. We know where they live. We know their family. When they get in trouble, an accident or something, we know they need help and we help them.”

In Bermuda, if you fall down, someone will pick you up. …

Three is an illustration to support Michael Levon’s excitement about Bermuda’s milieu of friendliness. When I asked Michael about Johnny Barnes, he went on another lengthy monologue, this time about the Bermuda’s living Mister PR is. “He is our icon. He is special,” Michael smiled as he explained who Mr. Barnes is.

Johnny Barnes has a 45-year run as a “Good Morning! I love you,” and exemplifies the Spirit of Bermuda [check out his statue] near the Crown Lane roundabout when he greets motorists every morning (rain or shine) and solidifies Bermuda’s friendliness.

On June 23 this year Johnny will be 86. Before he retired he was a diesel mechanic and a driver. “My mother told me to never pass a day without recognizing someone; making someone’s life brighter,” Johnny told me when I met him on the first Tuesday in May. “I’ve been doing this for 45 years.” He said that this is a blessing for him and a calling. It’s easier to pass a day when someone is there to tell you that you are being loved, Johnny seemed to be saying. Bermuda is an island where kindness is practiced.

When I went back to see Johnny next morning, I saw his head bowed in prayer. He was in a circle and holding hands with three women. They were praying. He, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, and the three women… Who knows?  Does it really matter? This was his moment of silence with three Bermudian women who moments ago came to promote their cause. The cars were passing by the roundabout.

“When someone wants to promote something, they go to Johnny Barnes’ roundabout,” Michael, the taxi driver, told me. Mr. Barnes is the selling point.

My taxi driver was right. I saw it in detail that morning.

“I am sure someone is going to take up that baton,” Michael, my taxi driver said emphatically. “Someone will step in after he is gone.”

Bermuda [Bright-Pink] Shorts. 

Yes, I bought my very own bright-pink Bermuda shorts. I already own the other elements of the Bermudian business attire for men, including a blazer. Formality and tradition is something you cannot miss when in Bermuda.

Being the last vestige of the British Empire’s colonial interests, Bermuda puts on display their version of the traditions of formality a la British governance. Propriety of behavior in public is part of that package. The islanders added a sense of pragmatism given the hot weather and the near-steaming humidity of summer months.

So, even today a visitor can spot Bermuda businessmen in their blazer-and-tie attire that includes … bright-pink shorts. Though today the business lifestyle of the island is slowly being replaced by a liberal tendency to wear a less fashionable formal business attire, one expects to see many a native displaying allegiance to tradition.

So, pink is everywhere and is Bermuda’s trademark color – an assortment of perfumes are called Pink; a gentle pastel-like pink tint of the sands; many of the cottages are pink or are painted with other pastel shades; or the bright-pink shorts as a business fashion for men. Honestly, that’s the way I like it, too. With some sensitivity to my own color preferences, I wore a pink shirt and a pink tie. “You fit in,” said one of my hospitable hosts as he continued to greet every passer-by.

Bermuda is a land where kindness is a rule of the day, and life seems gentler. Bermuda is also a land where color pink is a choice. Add the azure color of water and all of a sudden you note that it’s not bad to have a country distinguished by colors. It beats a black & white existence elsewhere.

 

4/05/2009

Sugar. It ain't good for you.


For me the 2009 Spring began when I was admonished by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh, two "subversive theologians" from Canada. Invited by Zack Plantak from Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland, they graced the 2009 Keough Lectures. They woke me up to the fact that I have been asleep while the Creation is abused. Their treatment of the Pauline Letter to the Romans [chapter 8] requires of me a dose of radical thinking and action about my Mother Earth, together with its environment, fauna and flora, its animal kingdom, and its human guardians.

Here is my contribution for this early April evening. 

Dr Janusz Korczak was a pedagogue, and a guardian of the homeless, neglected and the often abandoned children. He refused to leave the Warsaw Ghetto because of his adopted children. Korczak, like thousands of others met his fate in a gas chamber of Treblinka concentration camp. Korczak’s forte was “ethical sensitivity” in education and a belief that one should place physical development of a child on the same level as his or her culture of feelings and emotional life. In his journal he wrote this little memoir about sparrows:

            During the summer, the windows were usually open and they would come into the room and sit on a flower pot. If I was also sitting still, they were not afraid. But once, when I entered the room unexpectedly, a sparrow flew away and being scared off, it could not find a way out and hit the window glass. It was stunned. Maybe hurt, even. Later, before I entered my room, I would knock on the door. But now, it’s winter time and I have once again asked the glass-fitter to come and cut out a small piece of the window so that sparrows could come in and eat. It would be warmer for them inside.

This little gem of a story reveals the secret of Korczak’s educational success. When from time to time he received psychologically crippled children into his new homes for orphans, he treated them the same way he would treat the sparrows. All he wanted was that the boys and girls would not be afraid any more.

Thank you, Janusz Korczak, for your example, kindness and generosity of the human spirit. 

So, do you care to do something for yourself and for ... all of us? Take care of the Creation. This may even lead you to forgive the odd sparrow indulging on a sugar bow just a few yards away! It's you for whom sugar is not good. And that's my Creation moment on this Spring April evening.


3/27/2009

Watch out! Your DNA will make you do stuff you had no idea you could do


This is a pretty much an armchair comment that I am inclined to make. The other day I received results of an assessment that was conducted at work of individuals who are in the management level. Similarly to others (some 70-80 people), a few weeks ago I was asked to provide names of two people (plus two back-up names) who may be acquainted with me and my work who would be asked questions about my performance, and so forth, and if there were areas that need to be addressed in making me a better manager/professional, and so forth.

One gets a few surprises in such an assessment. First, we were all told that this is not an evaluation. But then, we were not quite sure what this is actually going to mean when the data is gathered in.

Anyway, the assessment result – from a statistical point of view – did not yield a 100% score. My score was 8.83 on a scale of 10. Conclusion – I am not perfect, or at least the score was not 10 point. The points indicated areas of strengths and performance, but the comments of four people about their perception of my work, style and areas of needed growth made me aware of perceptions, which I seem to create as people meet me or look at me from the sidelines.

The stuff to deal with first – I learned that I have so many ideas and that I should sometime focus more on a few priorities, but I learned that I improved a lot in my relations with others. That’s an important area for me to focus. I also learned that with age and experience I got maturity … and another comment points to “growth needed” in building team and affirming staff. This sounds like someone has described a permanent “work of God” for me. I am taking up the challenge.

Now, my colleagues in a way that made me blush have exposed my DNA to me. Yes, it’s true. They see me also as an ideas person, and as being creative, as well as having a gift for defining quality. I would be stupid not to enjoy the moment!

There are things that we don’t notice ourselves, though honesty is looking straight into our own eyes in a morning bathroom mirror. We show empathy because that’s what our DNA prompts us to do. There are skills we improve on, but there are things that we say and do that do not need to be defended as they are natural to you or me. I make choices in life because I make them. Choices do not need to be defended, really. 

My armchair seems to be enjoying me, too. Yes, I am beginning to sense that maturity is an asset. But, if your armchair is stainless steel, search for a pillow. Your butt will appreciate it.

[Photo above - Stellenbosch, South Africa; below - Oxford, Maryland]


3/13/2009

Kissing through the glass does not excite me!



This blog entry is inspired by my recent visit to Sydney. So, there will be a few images to illustrate my encounters with the Land of Oz and moments this visit created. The Aussies have a way with their language and manage to be very earthy about it. It seems that if the can't find a better, and a more kosher way of expressing themselves in public, they just simply put an XXXX in it's place. One wonders ...

The Rocks, a made-for-tourists and not so Bohemian harbor attraction will attract you with many art galleries, billboards, and creative street art. Clever, simple, yet in-your-face sort of stuff. The city center provides a flashback of tradition and a mixture of cosmopolitan brand of Britishness with exotic ethnicities, all best expressed in the 19th century Strand passage, the Queen Victoria Building [the Waiting for Godot-like line of commuters, below], and casual tone. It seems that once the businesspeople leave the the steps of their offices the ties must come off! 
 
 
In a "Statement of Design Intent for the Financial Times Millennium Bridge Competition, 1996," the architects stated, that they "propose ... a bridge where sociality becomes the dominant practical purpose, a structure which allows and suggests the unhurried appreciation of the complexities of views and activities on both sides of of the river and on the river itself. ..." [Judith Dupre, Bridges, 1997]. I like this. This is saying that not only what happens on the bridge, but also underneath it provides opportunities to consider and appreciate. That's what I saw to explore of the Sydney Harbour Bridge by going below it. To walk on it was simply too expensive for the obvious experience and exhaustion that it would offer. 


People in in love. They are everywhere. I saw a couple in Brasov [see the previous blog entry] and Sydney offered a couple of couples immortalizing their union and joy digitally. These are cool moments and an opportunity to intrude someone's high moment for your own benefit! 




The Sydney Opera House needs no introduction, and it's sail boat-like design and aesthetics enchant as one of the architectural marvels of the world. The people of Sydney are lucky, and good on them! Among them are my friends, Pat and John Banks, and their lovely family. Sitting in the shadow of the opera's walls, or in the heat of a sunny Summer day made me appreciate how Australian this architectural marvel is, and how proud they all are of it!



While in Sydney, I reflected on something that is occupying my thinking these days: the reality of the virtual in communication. I've concluded that I am still waiting for my own tipping point. Let me explain.  A little note in the February 11 British daily Independent caught my attention. It was reported that coffee, chocolate and Facebook are the most common addictions in the UK. It was based on a poll of 3,000 people under 30 conducted for a livingTV addiction show Rehab. These current vices have replaced (they said ousted) favorites such as drugs, sex and cigarettes. 

Well, I am not ready to get addicted to ... Facebook. Not yet, anyway.

Isn't it enough to be part of the human race itself? Plenty to cope with in our real common predicament already. The proliferation of social networks and their impact on our lifestyle is staggering and defies imagination of what it will still evolve into. Yes, it's cool. Yes, it's useful. Yes, its popular. And yes, it very virtual. I am using bits of the virtual like everyone else [this blog, ha!]. But I am not quite ready to accept a notion that social networking provides basically virtual handshaking, as one successful and real businessman put it. I somehow worry about confusing the real touch, and the culture of feeling that we all need, with the authenticity that the virtual seems to offer. 

OK. Here are the figures - MySpace has a 125 million users worldwide. If it were a nation, it would be the 11th largest. Facebook jumped from 12 million users in 2006 to 175 million presently. What scared me was a statistic I heard that in no-time one user enlarged his circle of friends by one million. That's crazy. Frankly, I still prefer to have a real one non-digital friend to dialogue with me without the virtual authenticity. And besides, a garden offers nature's bounties. It will always beat the output of any virtual moment. [Dedicated to John Smith, a real friend from Southampton, who made me think when he challenged my passionate defense of virtual communication. Cheers, John!]

3/10/2009

It was snowing in the Dracula Wonderland



It takes three, four hours by road to reach the city of Brasov. A mid-February Friday afternoon trip from Bucharest is no joy when it's snowing. At least it was daylight. A trip to Brasov was offering an escape from a stressful reality of a lifestyle of modernity mingled with technology one is normally surrounded by. I was heading for a 14th century wonderland of Eastern Europe, Brasov, once one of the powerful medieval fortresses of Transylvania. 


Someone said that it would be snowing in Brasov, yet the city of Bucharest was moving out to enjoy a weekend of winter sports at Poiana Brasov mountain range, or a wedding-in-the-snow at the 15th century White Tower outside the fortress walls. Did they ever ...


For me it was the snow-covered rooftops of Brasov, the time-blackened city walls, towers and a town square, that's what attracted me. For one more day or so, I could reclaim a few vestiges of history and piece together a mosaic of styles - Romanic, Gothic, Byzantine, Renaissance or Baroque. Add to it expressions of religious influences - Roman Catholic, Orthodox, the Reformation age, Jewish ... This was different! Walking down the Nicolae Iorga Street and its tiny Jewish cemetery all seemed very black & white. The connection with such a diverse past was powerful, even when the snow was turning into slush.


Snowing or not, a visit to Bran and one of the castles associated with the cruel Vlad the Impaler, fictionally made famous as Count Dracula, had a different take. It looked spooky. If it wasn't for the colors of the market stalls offering local goat cheese and a myriad of gory souvenirs, the Teutonic castle walls looked foreboding. Only the Queen Marie's of Romania portraits which dotted the castle's interior rooms brightened the spooky atmosphere of a place where the enemies of the evil Vlad met their destiny. To make a livable residence, the queen installed an elevator in the fountain in the interior court. A comment from Carmen, our local guide, reconnected me at once with my profession: The queen knew the power of the image. She sold her profile to Camay cosmetics. Apparently, this wasn't some legend.  


Escaping from reality is an essential part of life's safety valves needed to cope with ... the reality. A Dracula tale can be useful at times, even when a local tries to persuade you that this is only a legend. Right, I said, and turned away. A disturbed dream is no dream at all.

The Dracula reality - no, not the blood and guts stuff. No. This is not appealing to me at all. The Dracula reality also happens in the freezing rain. But soon all slowly turning into snow. And it's the snow that covers everything. Or nearly everything.

1/28/2009

Maasai Will Make You Wonder


Driving deep into the Maasai Land which surround Nairobi, Kenya, is fine until you get off the main asphalt road. When you hit the trail in your jeep all of a sudden you forget the potholes on the main road. The scenery also changes. The savannah and the frequently encountered cattle make you forget the city and its noise. The land of the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people whose culture is largely closed to the world. 

Things are changing for the Maasai as I was able to witness on my recent visit to the Kisaju region in the Rift Valley, just 50 or so miles from Nairobi. Scores of them are adjusting their habits and their diet, some of the younger ones attend literacy classes and groups are involved with a variety of income-generating activities. The cows, the goat, and the sheep are still synonymous with the Maasai. So are their colorful dresses, accented with elaborate beadwork, adorning the women as they come to church. It's Sabbath, January 17, 2009. One by one, perhaps with family head at the helm, they walk to church; their at first diminutive figures, then walking tall, straight and with proud determination, with small children in their mother's arms or trekking behind. 
The best of that color is on full display when a group of six women walk to the front of the church singing. Now, that your world music, Ray, I told myself! I couldn't have asked for more as the swaying movement of the singers and their high-pitched voices sing a song about their liberty in God.

As usual, words are not adequate to replace the images. Here is a selection of them from Kisaju and Inchorri - two Adventist communities in the Maasai Land, some 2,000 meters above the sea level. The women at prayer. The children pierce each visitor with their gaze. And then, the lone figure of a 70-year old grandfather and his grand child. "I am William Nanka. I live up there," he pointed his hand toward his hilltop homestead. "And this is my church. These are my children."

Tranquility of the moment. Never enough of it, though. The peaceful aura around them makes an impression on me. Another world discovered. Another moment to cherish. 

1/24/2009

The Week of January 20, 2009

Three moments of the week enriched my experience - a Barack Obama's ascendency to the White House, watching all 257 minutes of Steven Soderbergh's Che (including a Q&A with Benicio Del Toro) and an ongoing reflection on the ugliness of the situation in Zimbabwe. 

The first moment was the contagious resolve expressed by the new American president to change and take us forward. There was a moment during his inaugural speech that made me truly hopeful. Decades ago one president promised us the moon, this new president is taking us there. That's how I felt.

The Che experience - which I was awarded to enjoy courtesy of my friend and videographer, David Brillhart - was more than I was asking for. Honestly, I felt that the film should not end. It was at once near-hypnotic and devoid of Soderbergh's, it seemed, personal views. What amazed me - something that crossed my mind only while watching the film - that Che's [as a person; as a revolutionary] appeal is in the fact that he was out there, in Bolivia and among the people he didn't know, yet he was there for them and all the way. Personally, while rejecting armed struggle and being of a different world view, somehow and strangely I feel indebted to men and women who stand up also for my freedom. 

Some reviewers called the film flat, others called it a draining experience, flawed, so forth. Not a reviewer, I consider the film and the story quite absorbing and engaging. Whatever ... It was a moment to remember during the week of January 20.

On Thursdays, Zimbabwe is the focus of my weekly fast. The genocidal crimes and pain of the innocents have been created by a madman obsessed with power hit my own indifference. A couple of weeks ago, and once again, Archbishop Tutu pricked my conscience with a challenge - this time to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe. Starvation, cholera, apathy and hopelessness of a land whose innocent victims are countless children and women all are crying to high haven. 

This week's end topped my anger and my resolve with a news feature in The New York Times about scores of desperate and destitute Zimbabwe children whose plight takes them from hell into South Africa's milieu of the "unwelcome" and resentment. The report's images were stark: "Crossing the border can be a simple chore ... But for the uninitiated and the destitute, the journey is as uncertain as the undercurrents of the Limpopo and the appetites of the crocodiles." The unlucky ones are prey to the "swindlers, thieves and rapists." Can this get worse?

Standing on the E Street corner, David and I saw Del Toro walking in our direction. We shook hands and exchanged our initial "wow" comments about his stellar performance in Che. I shared with him a moment of my own connection with Sierra Maestra where I participated in dedication a church in Buey Arriba just over a year ago. The house of worship serves as a point of reference and an inspiration to a different kind of mission and to a different brand of revolutionaries ...

There on the E Street corner a moment of vanity took over and we asked Del Toro to sign the film folders. He did. Then we moved on ...