Monday, May 15, 2006

A trip down south

As I prepare for a trip to Baton Rouge at the end of the month, I sometimes wonder if I'm giving up vacation time that could be better spent on the garden or on my dining room remodeling.

But my lesson for the year seems to about generosity... so look at this for the encouragement I received today to keep on giving, and so receive.


Hi, all:
Received this from a Louisiana friend of mine and thought it was a powerful reason for us to go Down South and help out. I think the TP stands for Times Picayune, the biggest paper in New Orleans.
Noted TP columnist Chris Rose delivered the commencement address this
weekend at Ursuline Academy. If you didn't see it in the paper, it is
well worth the read:

"I have faced many personal challenges in the days since last August, but an inspirational speech to a couple hundred restless Catholic schoolgirls -- and their parents -- strikes me as the most daunting yet.
For what it's worth, this is what I came up with:
Good evening. As you look at me, I know what you're thinking. Just what you need: Another old man who doesn't understand you, giving you advice, rendering forth the wisdom of the ages like some geezer sage from the Paleozoic Era here to utter inspirational platitudes from Dear Abby and that fine self-help manual, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."
Or worse: "Oh, the Places You'll Go."
Those are all great books; don't get me wrong. But in kindergarten, they didn't teach you how to siphon gas during a natural disaster, how to send a distress signal with a flashlight and how to decontaminate a refrigerator -- to say nothing of how to properly open, season and heat a National Guard-issued MRE without burning your hands.
We in New Orleans were always different from folks elsewhere. Now we're real different. I wager that you learned more about life, death and everything in between this past year than in the rest of your life combined.
You are survivors. The Katrina Kids. The Children of the Storm.
And yes, I am middle-aged. Eisenhower was in office when I was born.
Eisenhower was a president. Of this country. Anyway . . .
Yes, I am from the past. I do not own an iPod. I do not text message. I don't have a tattoo on my lower back. I think skateboarding is dangerous. I think ketchup should be red and only red. Energy drinks give me the shakes. I don't know who the lead singer of Maroon 5 is. I think Bruce Springsteen is cool.
For those of you still awake . . . .
I have an advantage that commencement speakers didn't have when I was your age: the Internet. Yes, there was a time before the Internet. It was a long time ago. It sucked.
My kids marvel when I tell them that television was once just in black and white. And that no matter how many channels you tuned into, you couldn't find Hilary Duff on any of them.
They don't believe me.
So I checked out some Web sites for tips about making a graduation speech, but I came up wanting. Most said to lean heavily on inspirational quotes from famous people, but if Ursuline Academy wanted Einstein or Mark Twain to give you a speech, I suppose they would have arranged for Einstein or Twain to be here today.
With the digital technology available today, I suppose that's almost possible.
And I found out that I could even purchase an audience-tested motivational commencement speech online for only $25 -- a much higher fee than the going rate for college term papers; I suppose they are mindful of the budgetary constraints of students as opposed to, say . . . someone who gives a graduation speech.
One Web site pointed out that nobody listens to the graduation speaker anyway because everyone is distracted and preoccupied, but if you make a winking reference to alcohol, you'll catch everyone's attention.
But I'm not going to do that. That would be a cheap gimmick.
And now that I have your attention, let me lay some heavy on you.
There are commencement exercises all over this country today but you and your fellow graduates from the Gulf Coast are different, very different. Particularly here in New Orleans.
The water, it came to your school. The gasoline, chemicals, sewage and blood came to your doorstep. It settled into the ground of this courtyard where we now gather.
Not a pleasant notion to consider on this joyous occasion but, there you are: The elephant is out of its cage again.
You must never forget what happened here. You must take that experience with you into the world.
You must, as they say, represent New Orleans.
I can tell you from my years of work and travel that to be from New Orleans has always been an interesting proposition. Historically, if you were, say, in Europe, and you told someone you were from the United States, generally they would shrug. But if you told them you were from New Orleans, they would want you to pull up a chair at their table, they would want to know more about you and your city.
On our domestic shores, historically, when New Orleanians check into college dormitories their freshman years of college, they are an immediate attraction, and not just because everyone assumes their partying credentials are higher than everyone else's.
You are interesting because where you come from is interesting, unique, colorful, diverse and tolerant. People have always wanted to know about it, to see it for themselves, to touch the magic here if by no other means than by the picture painted by your words, your stories.
Tell them what happened here.
I'm not going to offer you the language to describe it or the politics to color it; use your own words and thoughts.
But I'll give you an example:
My daughter was asked to write about her experiences over the past year when she came back to school in New Orleans in January and this is what she wrote: "There was a Hurricane. Some people died. Some of them were kids."
My daughter was 6 when she wrote that. It just doesn't strike me as what you would wish for your child to write in her first-grade journal, but there it is.
You -- all of us -- are marked for life by what happened here and if you go out into the world and you shrug it off -- if you are soooo over the Katrina thing -- then you are doing a disservice to yourself and to the community that gave you your spirit and identity.
Like it or not, this storm, these circumstances, have marked you. My belief is that your generation and those who come after you in this town will be extraordinarily resilient. That is a good quality to carry with you. You have seen and have suffered loss.
For those of you who fall into that huge swath of our community known as "lost everything," people try to tell you it was just stuff, get over it, at least you're alive and what you lost was just stuff.
Yeah, well. It was your stuff. It took 17 years to get that stuff. And if it all disappeared in one day then, hell yeah, it's all right to be mad about that.
But move on. Make the anger work for you.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson we have learned as a community is humility. The great equalizer. We have been targeted by our circumstances as the recipients of the greatest outpouring of donations, charity and volunteer help in American history.
People from elsewhere, people we don't know, saved us. They gave us their money and their time and they cleared our streets and protected our homes and, funny thing, most of us don't even know who they were. Or are.
They expected -- and in most cases received -- nothing in return.
Are you ready to do the same for someone else when the time comes?
Think about it. Discuss amongst yourselves. And get ready. Because that time will come, many times over, in your lifetime.
Life is short. Now you know that. What happened here shows how it can all be gone tomorrow. So just do it. Seize the day. Carpe Diem. I am Tiger Woods. Rise up. Make Levees, Not War. Vote for Pedro. Whatever.
Just do something important with your young life. Don't sit around and wait until you're 50 to suddenly understand how precious all of this is.
There's always the story of the bitter, angry old man who picks on little children and never says thank you to the waiter or waitress and doesn't say hello to the mailman.
And then one day the old guy gets cancer and a wake-up call, reality check, and he realizes how little time is left and suddenly he's volunteering at the oncology ward at Children's Hospital and he asks after the bank teller's mama and he stops and pets the neighbor's dog and he tells everyone that he can: I never knew how beautiful it all was.
Don't be that guy. Nobody likes that guy.
New Orleans got cancer this past year. We got our wake-up call and if you're living an existence here that is without purpose and mission, then you are asleep.
Twice in my column in recent months I have invoked the words of a Magazine Street barber named Aidan Gill, whose call to arms is the most powerful I have heard since the storm.
He said: "A time will come when someone asks you: 'What were you doing about it?' You can't tell them: 'I was just watching it. I was just an innocent bystander.' Let me tell you something: There are no innocent bystanders in this."
No truer words have been spoken.
I can't tell you what, exactly, to do; how to engage in your community. I wouldn't be so presumptuous; the philosophy here is think for yourself and find your own way.
But if finding your own way involves putting on work boots and heavy gloves this summer and going into neighborhoods you've never seen in this city before, then all the better.
There are tens of thousands of people and institutions that need help in this community and not all of them are going to make it -- but by God, it's not going to be because we didn't try. It's not going to be because we didn't give everything we had -- our hearts, our souls and our bodies -- into saving this place and making it better than it ever was.
Your home.
There are no innocent bystanders. Not in this courtyard. Not in this neighborhood. Not in this city. Not now. Not ever.
One more thing, and this is important:
Be kind to your parents.
I will tell you something that they cannot or will not tell you and it is this: They are consumed right now with a world of worry and doubt that is crushing in its weight.
Maybe you can see this at home or maybe they are good at hiding it from you because that's what parents do -- spend most of our lives trying to shield our children from pain.
They won't tell you this so I will: They're scared. They're terrified. We're all terrified.
Everything we know and love is at risk. So be kind to them.
It's like we're all in a big boat right now, paddling for our lives and we've got to be together of one mind to get through this.
So get in the boat and grab a paddle and get ready for the ride of your lives.
Nothing is more rewarding than a purpose-driven life. And it is here, outside your door, every morning -- or afternoon -- when you wake up.
Don't miss the boat."

Thanks, Jo for sharing; thanks, Mr. Rose, for your encouragement.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Idea Store


Just back from a quick trip to Denver, where I spent the day with a fine group of public librarians.

Why don't you use your library? When the question was studied in London, one group came up with suggested improvements to what is perceived as an important or very important service:

"However, most users and non-users felt that the service was run-down and old-fashioned. Most interesting were the
responses of non-users - particularly since over 70% of the population are not regular library users. People either didn’t
have the time, felt the opening hours were inconvenient, found little of interest, a poor selection of books or didn’t like the atmosphere. When asked what would make a difference, non-users wanted:

• Longer opening hours
• Access to shopping
• Council information services
• Sunday opening
• Art and exhibitions
• Video lending
• Better book stock"

Check out the rest at the Idea Store: