Elizabeth C. Reilly

The early Hindu astrologers used a magnet—an iron fish compass that floated in a vessel of oil and pointed to the North. The Sanskrit word for the mariner's compass is Maccha Yantra, or fish machine. It provides direction, and, metaphorically, illumination and enlightenment. These essays began in 2006 in India. Since then, my work has expanded to Mexico, China, the European Union, and Afghanistan. Join me on a journey throughout this flat world, where Maccha Yantra will help guide our path.

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Location: Malibu, California, United States

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Punching Holes in the Darkness: One Woman’s Journey Toward Leading in a Global Society

My object in living is to unite 
My avocation and my vocation 
As my two eyes make one in sight. 
Only where love and need are one, 
And the work is play for mortal stakes, 
Is the deed ever really done 
For Heaven and the future's sakes. 
Two Tramps in Mud-Time, Robert Frost

Education gives individuals possibilities. From the time I was a young child, this was the message that my mother and father relentlessly repeated. It is therefore no surprise that I view them as my first teachers—the ones who instilled in me the fervent and passionate drive to become educated and to become an educator. Somewhere in the mists of my early years of teaching and my first administrative position in the Kindergarten through twelfth grade educational system, I came to recognize with growing clarity that being a teacher meant being above all a learner, and that being a school leader meant being a teacher of teachers. John Dewey said that it is not enough for a man [or woman] to be good, but that he or she must be good for something. I saw that it was my work to see the gifts in others—both children and colleagues—and to help them discover these gifts and to use them wisely. I experienced George Eliot’s words in very real ways: “What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” This, then, is the fundamental purpose of education, the goal of teaching, and my work as a teacher, scholar, and educational leader. 

The Early Years 

Wonders happen if we can succeed in passing through the harshest danger; 
but only in a bright and purely granted achievement can we realize the wonder. 
Rainer Maria Rilke 

In the graduate work that preceded my first year of teaching, I basked in the erudition of William Blake and John Donne. On entering my first urban high school following commencement, I learned that my students not only disliked poetry, but that they could neither read nor write. At lunch they would riot in the parking lot, but remarkably return to class when the bell rang. Carlos showed me his knife wound. Sonia chatted about her pregnancy. I reflected on Donne: “Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, For thou art not so…” How was it that my students could not see his relevance to their own lives? 
My teaching life in those early years resembled in great measure the halls of hell as I tried valiantly to make meaning of a profession that left me empty—and, in the words of Parker Palmer—embroiled in a fearful way of knowing. Not only were my students alienated from our school and from me, but my colleagues to a great degree reflected fear, anger, and a bone-aching weariness with the work at hand. One teacher, our union representative, saw it as her duty to file as many grievances alleging contractual violations against our principal as possible each week. By the end of my second year of teaching, baskets of essays in hand, I sat exhausted and demoralized in our faculty room. I remarked to one of the history teachers, “Joe, I just don’t know if I can keep doing this.” His response remains memorable. He looked up from his newspaper and replied, “Elizabeth, you’re young. Get out while you can.” Thus was the extent of my mentoring. I quit teaching and found a position as an editor. 

Winter Becomes Spring

Then let not winter's ragged hand deface 
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill'd: 
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place 
With beauty's treasure… 
William Shakespeare 

It was Larry Ratto who raised me from the ashes. Several months into my new position, I received a telephone call from a principal of yet another urban high school. I had heard of his school. It was in the barrio. The trains sped by behind the stadium. “I would like to talk with you about our fabulous school, Elizabeth. My teachers work together and develop curriculum that is cutting edge. They participate in the most current of professional development. Why, yes, it is true the students struggle with reading and writing, but you will love this place,” Larry shared. It was perhaps the best sales job I had had in my life, but on visiting Sunset High School and finding the principal’s vision of his school spellbinding, I accepted the position on the spot. Reilly, E. C., Punching Holes in the Darkness 4 
The school was indeed a place where both students and staff thrived. It was a place such as Robert Bellah described in Community Properly Understood. He wrote, “Community is not about silent consensus; it is a form of intelligent, reflective life, in which there is indeed consensus, but where the consensus can be challenged and changed—often gradually, sometimes radically—over time.” From the moment I drove across the railroad tracks those many years ago to this day, I have never again questioned what it is that is my life’s work. 

The Bountiful Harvest

Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us, but we can’t strike them all by ourselves. 
Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel 

Under Larry Ratto’s mentorship I blossomed. He saw in me leadership potential and groomed me to become a school administrator. By my late twenties I had held two important administrative roles and continued my professional learning so that by my mid-thirties I enrolled in a doctoral program with the eventual goal of becoming a university professor. While as a young teacher I recognized the influence I could have on my students, as I gained experience, I realized that my work could benefit far more children if I were to work with their teachers and administrators. Perhaps there was a touch of masochism in me, for I learned early on that children were cupcakes when compared to the challenges of teaching adult learners. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, I would chide the educators I worked with by telling them that we acted like the age we taught. Although the work was daunting and the needs of urban educators vast, I sought environments that pushed me intellectually and challenged me to imagine, in the words of Ben and Roz Zander, the art of possibility. 
It was also during those early years that I adopted the habit of appointing other educators as mentors. In the beginning I was more subtle in seeking the guidance of others; over time, however, I gained boldness and when I recognized an individual I knew could teach me, I would announce, “You are my mentor. You don’t get a vote.” I simply could not imagine moving forward without the counsel of others more skillful, wise, creative, and heart-filled. Frequently these individuals were my supervisors in the school systems where I served, and because my own early administrative career was punctuated with more certificates, credentials, and degrees, many mentors were my university professors. Others that had immeasurable impact have a legacy of educational endeavors across the globe. Doctors Arthur Costa, Robert Garmston, Robert Hanson, Annie Herda, Linda Lambert, George Perrazo, Jodie Servatius, Harvey Silver, and Richard Strong are most notable as my teachers and guides. They each still whisper in my ear more than I can say. 
My doctoral work in the late 1980s coincided with the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and I chose to pursue my dissertation research in Moscow. I had first visited the USSR during the height of the Cold War—the Leonid Brezhnev era—and I came to recognize at the age of twenty the difference between an ideology and its people. With Mikhail Gorbachev as the General Secretary of the Communist Party beginning in 1985 and the “Evil Empire” on the fateful march toward collapse, the USSR made the nightly news in the United States. The bread lines caught the world’s attention, but I asked myself, “What of education? Who is telling the story of what it will take to transform a society steeped in Communist ideology into a democracy?” 
Tackling the Soviet bureaucracy was no easy feat, but those early years of glasnost and perestroika—of openness and change—gave birth to educator exchange programs with the West. Through my work with education and technology, I traveled to Russia and presented at a conference in Troisk, a scientific community previously closed to Westerners. Staying for two weeks with a Russian physicist and his family, I shared with them my research proposal and gained their support. Even in the midst of the most significant social change of the 20th century, the Russians were my selfless and gracious teachers. 
Spending weeks or more at a time in Moscow, traveling to outlying republics, and returning to the United States in between resulted in a gulf of cultural dissonance for me. A reporter from a major San Francisco newspaper interviewed me and queried, “I can see what you have to offer them, but whatever do you gain from this?” On one visit to St. Petersburg with several of my Russian friends, I met a group of American tourists visiting the Hermitage. In learning that I lived in Moscow for extended periods, one woman asked, “How do you stand the food?” I was appalled at my fellow countrymen’s lack of sensitivity toward and understanding of other cultures. Over the coming year with precious few basic necessities for themselves, my Russian friends fed me, clothed me, housed me, chauffeured me to interviews and conferences, and treated me as an honored member of their families. I could not help but to be humbled and transformed by the kindness of strangers. 
Although I remained in school leadership in the Kindergarten through twelfth grade educational setting for the final decade of the 20th century, the dream of becoming a university professor held fast. What I did not understand, however, was that the transition would require a transformation from being a consumer of educational practice to an elucidator of theory and practice. The glass ceiling was thick, indeed, and seemingly impenetrable. Undaunted, I taught any graduate course in education I could talk my way into, frequently taking on obligations that paid little in the short run but provided invaluable experience and curriculum vitae appeal. 
By the turn of the 21st century I had found my way into a full time appointment in higher education. One institution that greatly valued scholarship provided an environment conducive to reawakening the academic that had lain dormant for nearly a decade. Other institutions valued superior teaching as a professor. I had the opportunity, then, to refine my work with adults in graduate level education. More than that, I began serving as an advisor to students during the arduous journey of dissertation work. Several of my colleagues served as unofficial mentors during these early years of higher education induction, teaching me to navigate each aspect of the academy’s triptych: teaching, scholarship, and service. Within seven years of entering higher education, I was appointed as a full, tenured professor. With the title come obligations: to mentor, to challenge, to inspire, and to nurture. I embrace them fully. 

The Journey Continues

open your heart: 
i'll give you a treasure 
of tiniest world 
a piece of forever 
e. e. cummings 

In a story attributed to author Robert Louis Stevenson, as a child his family lived on a hillside overlooking a small town in 19th century Scotland. Robert was intrigued by the work of the old lamplighters who went about with a ladder and a torch, lighting the street lights after dusk. One evening, as Robert stood watching with fascination, his nanny asked him, "Robert, what in the world are you looking at out there?" With great excitement he exclaimed, "Look at that man! He's punching holes in the darkness!" 
I believe it is our task, our moral imperative in our time on earth to punch holes in the darkness—in the darkness of ignorance, of hate, of deprivation, of suffering, and of injustice. I echo what Martin Luther King said on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, "I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality." It always begins for me with the places in my heart that whisper, “Here is what you must do in this world, Elizabeth, to make it different, to make it better.” Times of reflection permit the voices from within to speak to me and the voices from without to challenge me to consider new paths, as well as to confirm current directions my life is taking. If I approach my work with my heart open to possibilities, then even if many things seem confusing in the moment, over time, clarity emerges and I have a way to step forward with greater boldness. 
I work with leaders. They may be leaders in the private sector, in government, in education, or in non-governmental organizations. Some find their way into my university classroom and others I work with, boots on the ground, in their countries. If I had to identify what I hope the time we spend together would result in, it would be that when we part, we do so with greater passion for the work that we do: that regardless of our particular positions, we recognize that leadership is what we do, not what we talk about, and that we part more greatly inspired to serve others. It is my hope that we each understand that we have an obligation to serve and to help in raising up future leaders. 
Finally, I want individuals to possess a larger view of the world—a burden, if you will—to recognize that what time we have on this planet is our opportunity to heal this world. In holding this world view, we should recognize as Mark Gerzon says, that we can hold integral vision—that ability to see many aspects of a circumstance—and that we can hold both the local concerns of our organizations, our own cultures and traditions, and country simultaneously with a global view of our world. We recognize in this expanded view that what happens today in countries thirteen or more time zones from us affects our lives. 
Opening our hearts…listening to the inner voices and the outer voices…allowing the muse of inspiration to touch us…feeling the passion to make a difference both locally and globally…and stepping forward with boldness, not alone, but with a community of like-minded colleagues…this is what the messages of my work are. 
Mother Theresa, whose service to the poor has touched me since childhood, particularly inspired me as I began my work in India in the first decade of the 21st century. She wrote, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.” If my students and I are each that pencil, we are sending not one love letter, but a sheaf of love letters to a world so greatly in need of our care. 
The years of endeavor that have brought me to places and spaces in my profession that have afforded me the opportunity to use the thermals as the birds do in flight and on many occasions to soar with others seemingly effortlessly. At other points in my profession, I have stood on treacherous precipices and viewed great darkness. The particulars of these occasions are less relevant that the lessons learned. Whether I stand in the presence of greatness as I have had the privilege so many times or in the presence of individuals who would poison another human being, an effort, or a community, I strive to learn from each individual that comes my way. As Rumi said, “Read the book of your life which has been given you. A voice comes to your soul saying, ‘Lift your foot; cross over; move into emptiness of question and answer and question…’” We may not always like nor agree with the questions and the answers, and we may not even see clearly what those questions are at times, but we have the opportunity to learn. We need only cross over and be open. This is a choice, moment by moment. 
The message of my parents, those first teachers, endures: education gives individuals possibilities. As a young immigrant, it raised my mother from the ravages of poverty to a life in which she meaningfully contributed her gifts as a philanthropist. Education led my father from the fields where he harvested crops from the time he could walk to a prestigious appointment as a jurist. This is my message as an educator to my students, to my colleagues, and to those with whom I work in our global society. “You are a gift to the world. I will help you find your gifts so that you may contribute to its healing.” 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sun-Kissed Summer Bounty

Hundreds of them have the blush of the sun’s kiss. For two years, I have missed apricots on my little tree, but this year it produced a bumper crop. My father says apricots can be a temperamental fruit to grow, and he has seen trees do the very same thing as mine: produce wildly and then take a break. I thought perhaps the lack of apricots was due to The Great Bee Death, about which I had been hearing so much. Although Malibu is not exactly the optimum place for stone fruit since we have so little heat and an abundance of fog, I have waited patiently for them to ripen, chasing off robins and blackbirds daily who were looking for a sweet treat.

This evening marked the first picking of the crop, which was a bit of a precarious task since various cacti grace the base of the tree. I enlisted my youngest son, Kevin, to join me, and the result was a glorious array of sun-burnished, pale orange fruits. We tried several and declared them perfect.

Caitlin, my youngest, who is enjoying the French countryside this week, is having the opportunity to try many a mouth-watering dessert, but she knows her mother is no slouch when it comes to sweets, and in particular, when it comes to French sweets. I began baking at age seven, producing with my cousin, Denis, a mile high cake with sea foam frosting and a chocolate drizzle. I recall that our families were so impressed that I was thereafter declared my mother’s dessert chef for her parties. When Julia Childs began her television series, my mother christened me, “The French Chef,” because I managed with aplomb to dirty every dish in the kitchen whenever I cooked.

By my early twenties, I had already lived abroad, so was quite attuned to European cuisine. Alice Medrich opened Cocolat in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, and it was not long before her amazing French tortes found their way into Bon Appétit magazine. I determined to master the art of the perfect genoise and the slick ganache. I cannot recall one flop. None was difficult—just time consuming and a bit expensive, given our limited budget while my older daughter, Anna’s daddy was in law school. Good chocolate, fresh nuts, and unsalted butter were luxuries on this teacher’s salary.

I have also been on a mission to teach my son, Kevin, the fine art of cooking, and as he finished dinner, I told him he was going to learn to make Clafoutis d’Abricot—a French dessert that is a bit of a cross between a pudding and a cake. The typical clafoutis is made of fresh cherries, but as my daughter, Anna, best said it: we like to eat the cherries as is and we have a tree filled with apricots. The batter is nothing more than a basic pancake or crepe batter. We first whipped that up in the food processor, with Kevin doing the measuring. As soon as we left the batter to rest, we began to prepare the apricots. Because the apricots are fully organic—no sprays of any sort—they only needed a quick rinse. Into the 9-inch pan they went, along with a bit of sugar and a pat of butter. We brought the pan to a quick simmer and pulled it off the heat. Kevin poured the batter on top and in it went into the oven.

Less than fifteen minutes later, we pulled out this glorious soufflé-like dish. I served up a portion, graced it with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, and dusted it with confectioner’s sugar. Not too sweet, clafoutis is a perfect light dessert—one that brings back memories of the French countryside and of sunny afternoons. Here is our recipe for Clafoutis d’Abricot, which you can enjoy with any fresh fruit you have on hand or in garden.

Clafoutis d’Abricot Elizabeth et Kevin

Serves 4

½ cup all purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs
¼ cup granulated white sugar
¾ cup milk
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¾ - 1 pound fresh sweet apricots
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons granulated white sugar

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F and place the rack in the center of the oven. Wash the apricots, slice in half, and remove pits.

In your food processor or blender place the flour, salt, eggs, ¼ c. sugar, milk, and vanilla extract. Process for about 45 - 60 seconds, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Once the batter is completely smooth, let it rest while you prepare the fruit.

In a large 9-inch heavy nonstick ovenproof skillet melt the butter over medium heat making sure the melted butter coats the bottom and sides of the pan. When the butter is bubbling, add the pitted apricots, skin side up. Add just enough apricots to cover the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 T. of granulated sugar. Cook until the apricots have softened a bit and the mixture has turned into a syrup (1 - 2 minutes). Pour the batter over the apricots and bake for about 15 minutes or until the clafoutis is puffed, set, and golden brown around the edges. Do not open the oven door until the end of the baking time or it may collapse. Serve immediately with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and vanilla ice cream or softly whipped cream. Bon appétit!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Commencement: The End of One Journey, the Beginning of the Next

Each educational endeavor we pursue has beginnings and endings. A student matriculates when s/he begins the course of study. When an individual completes that course of study from a university setting, one does not graduate. Instead, we proclaim the rite of passage unique to higher education, "Commencement." I have always loved this term. Commencement is a brilliant amalgam of the past and the future bound in a common moment. 

Although I no longer serve as a professor at my beloved former institution, Pepperdine University, I have had the privilege of continuing the journey toward Commencement with some of my doctoral students whose dissertations I chaired far before I left for my present institution, Loyola Marymount University. The role of a dissertation chairperson is perhaps as unique as the term "commencement" is to higher education. It is reserved exclusively for those of the professorate who oversee the work of doctoral level students. It is a sacred trust. It requires years of commitment from the Chair, or "Faculty Advisor," as well as from the candidate. The journey can result in a bond between the two that is forged for a lifetime.

The path of the dissertation is to a great degree a lonely one. A candidate completes the prescribed course of study for the doctoral degree and is then left in the hands of his/her Chair. To varying degrees, universities have support structures in the form of seminars or study groups to help a candidate through the dissertation, but principally it is the task of the Chair to serve as Virgil--the soothing voice of reason--to Dante--the individual on the journey.

The path does wend its way through the Inferno, through Purgatorio, and finally to Paradiso.

I often have said to my doctoral students, “In the midst of your pursuit of the doctorate, life happens.” It is life happening that can derail doctoral students from completing the dissertation. In the midst of my own dissertation, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I needed to care for her, I needed to continue to raise my then-only child, Anna, and I needed to run a school district. Clearly, each of these monumental challenges could have served as a reason to set aside the dissertation--to become one of the dreaded "ABD's" of the planet: a candidate who completes "All but Dissertation." Instead, I did what I counsel each of my students: use the challenge—the defining moment—to move you toward, rather than away from, commencement.

I must stress that the moment-by-moment decision to complete the dissertation is not without its perils. It is perhaps why I frequently hear commencement speakers or Deans or Presidents of Universities praise the family and friends. I have seen marriages end, as did my own when I undertook doctoral studies. Some of my students have faced the death of a loved one and challenges to their own health. On the other hand, some students have added marriage or the birth of their own children to the doctoral plate. Every imaginable life passage becomes a part of the tapestry in the pursuit of the doctorate. Some of these events are tragic; other joyous. But each one returns the candidate to the question of, "Will I complete the dissertation?" Frequently, the late-night conversations I have with my dissertation students are less about data analysis and more about our purpose on this planet. I have alternately been big sister, mother, coach, mentor, and psychiatrist, depending on the need and the moment. In the midst of doctoral education, life happens. 

On the occasion of this particular Commencement, the Graduate School of Education and Psychology, I had the opportunity to participate in the rite of passage of several of my former doctoral students. For me, their appreciation of my small role in their journey is exceeded only by the privilege I have of finally seeing them in the greater context of their lives--with their spouses, their children, their parents, and their friends.

I tip a toast your way, Dr. Donna Lewis and Dr. Carolyn Miller, for permitting me to serve not only as your professor, but also as the guide on the dissertation journey. I tip a toast also toward my many other doctoral students from years past, who did complete the dissertation and with whom I have celebrated. Each commencement is a reminder of those occasions of joy and of great accomplishment. In the midst of doctoral education, life happened. Let the new journey commence.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Reconfiguring the Common into the Uncommon

Caitlin is my second child (and my last) to participate in the Malibu High School Seventh Grade Renaissance Project—one that has historically served as a significant and anticipated rite of passage for all children. I must confess that I did experience much of the angst about which Mr. Gene Bream spoke with my first child’s experience, for prior to that project, Kevin never viewed himself as an artist in any manner, and would frequently enlist his little sister’s support with many of the creative projects that his middle school teachers required. Yet that project served as the catalyst to help Kevin view himself as creative with the visual arts. In the two years since the Renaissance Project, he has demonstrated in countless projects his own innovative and authentic means of expression.

Following Kevin’s completion of a highly successful project—one that his teacher requested to share with the next year’s class—I carefully tucked away all of the art supplies and paper in a bag marked, “Seventh Grade Bream Project.” This spring I took out the bag and handed it to Caitlin when she came home with her detailed instructions for the project. As Caitlin is highly organized and independent in her learning, I recognized that I would have to prod less to make sure she was staying on target with her project. I did know that any of us is subject to procrastination, however, and wanted to make sure Caitlin had everything she needed to be successful.

Once our kitchen table became transformed into a full-time artist’s studio, I moved meals to the dining room. Caitlin had full run of the table, which was resplendent with newspapers, small plastic plates that served as her palettes, a large water glass, tubes of acrylic paints, and a dozen or more brushes. I must confess I enjoyed watching her project unfold from pristine, white canvas to washed canvas to one that expressed in its own unique manner the profound, absurdity of Magritte’s The Gradation of Fire. When she completed her work only several nights ago to much celebration, I found myself quite perplexed as to what to do with the beautiful confusion that now graced the table. The process had been as remarkable to watch as the product was to behold, and I reflected on her challenges and successes of the many weeks of work.
“I cannot get the colors to blend properly, Mom!”

“Don’t the flames look great?”

“The paint keeps dripping. I am so frustrated.”

“ I love how everything seems to be on fire.”

“I’ve run out of burnt umber and I need it now.”

I hadn’t the heart to change anything, and so, as I gazed at Caitlin with signed painting in hand and the table-studio, I did nothing but stack the palettes of dried paint and organize the brushes. As Caitlin began completing the writing portions of the assignment, she asked me one day, “Mom, why did Mr. Bream have us do this project?” To address her teacher’s writing prompt, she had already come up with several ideas on her own, and as I looked at her, and then toward the art supplies, and finally back at her once again, I offered, “Perhaps it is because art is reconfiguring the common into the uncommon.”

Reconfiguring the common into the uncommon. Inspiration struck. I asked Caitlin if she had any plans to use some of the plates, the stained paper, the damaged paint brushes, or the empty tubes of color. Would she mind terribly if I made a collage from her discarded supplies? I explained to her that I intended to take those common things and create something new and different.

As I launched into the design of the collage, another thought came to mind. Was this not another of Mr. Bream’s reasons for the project—so that our children might serve as muses to us all? With all of the contagions on the planet, this was one of the best of viruses any of us could hope to catch.

Elizabeth C. Reilly is most importantly Caitlin Reilly’s mother, but also a former high school English teacher who now serves as Professor of Educational Leadership at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Down and Out in Malibu

Saturday morning. Ostensibly the only day I can sleep in. I had, however, volunteered for Sherpa duty for my son and his fellow athletes and had agreed to chauffeur them to the bus at Malibu High School by 6:45 a.m. The teenagers were sprinkled hither and yon along our 27 miles of beach, and so by necessity I was up early—far too early for my tastes. Making the long, dark drive down the empty Pacific Coast Highway, I arrived at Ralph’s Market just a bit after 6 a.m. to grab some coffee. Starbuck's was open, but I had been mourning the sale of Diedrich's Coffee a year back and refused on principle to set foot in yet-another-Starbucks-in-Malibu.

I vaguely recalled the store was not opened 24 hours a day any longer because of the economic situation, but I was not certain. Large stacks of firewood and cases of water surrounded the entrance to the store. I noted a man loading bundles of the firewood into the rear of a new, pearl-colored Mercedes Benz.

Great, the store must be open, I concluded.

As I approached the front door, I bumped into the glass. I could see employees, but as I knocked, thinking perhaps the door was stuck, no one inside responded to me.

The man with the purloined wood quipped, “Well, I guess I just got free firewood.”

As if that wasn’t the plan all along, I thought. He jumped into the backseat of the shiny car and the driver sped off. A full-blown heist in Malibu.

I went to the other door to let the employees know that someone was walking off with their merchandise. The produce man stacked apples inside. I knocked. I called to him. He paid no attention to me.

After collecting the athletes and dropping them off at their high school, I returned to Ralph’s, which was then opened. I looked around for the manager, who usually hovers around the check-out stands. No manager. I concluded my shopping, winding my way through the stockers and their pallets of soda and chips, and went to check out.

“You know,” I reported to the clerk,” I was here around 6 a.m., but you were closed. Some guy in a new Mercedes Benz was walking off with your firewood, and I tried to notify the employees, but no one inside would even so much as look at me.”

“You don’t say,” she replied, less amazed that her colleagues had done nothing and more amazed with my tale.

“Funny thing,” the customer behind me remarked. “There’s a guy in a new Mercedes Benz selling firewood out on the Pacific Coast Highway this morning.”

We all laughed uproariously.

What is not uproariously funny, I noted as I drove back home, is the ghost town appearance of the Pacific Coast Highway these days. My twenty-seven miles of white, sandy beach are littered with shuttered businesses. Pet Headquarters, the former haunt of the rich and famous for chi-chi cats and dogs, doggie designer handbags, and biscotti is gone. It was one of my children’s favorite places, but one where “if you had to ask the price, you couldn’t afford it.” Our rule was, “You can look and pet the pooches, but the moment you ask to purchase one, your mother disappears down the highway with you in tow.” One time I asked how much they wanted for a cat that my son was petting: a cool, five thousand dollars.

“Cats are free agents,” I muttered. “Who on earth would pay for a cat?”

Numerous realty offices have closed. Restaurants—only having opened in the last year—are gone not with a bang but a whimper. On a recent weeknight, a colleague and I caught the late show at our tiny movie theatre. I inquired as to the many businesses closed around us and one young woman said the plan was to replace them with designer shops.

I burst into laughter. “Are you kidding me? Who can afford Juicy Couture and Ralph Lauren these days, if ever? And more shops are coming?” I am not holding my breath.

It gets worse, though. On the online list serve for Malibu High School parents, recent postings included one mother’s request for old books so that she could sell them to make ends meet. Another was looking for part-time housekeeping to pay her bills. Could this be the bastion of double-wides that only a year back sold for a minimum of a cool million? When the track and field coach offered to order sports bags for around $30 per athlete, a parent offered to buy an additional bag for a student who could not afford it. But in a place where appearances can mean everything and reality little, would any parent actually step forward and say he could not afford this for his child?

The ugly truth is that this global economic crisis has infiltrated into the haven of the rich and famous. As surely as the fog slips over the ocean and up the canyons at night, the financial downturn has settled over us as a death shroud. I’ve heard tell of those in town who lost millions to Bernie Madoff’s make off. And that was after everyone’s 401K’s tanked. My realtor friend told me that the number of foreclosures in town is record-breaking. You can count more For Sale signs than surfboards these days. She, herself, hasn’t sold a home in a year. I’ve come to ask my friends how their “AK 47’s” are doing, which they find hopelessly amusing, given that I hang in war zones with bodyguards who tote them with as much grace as the actresses with their Louis Vuitton handbags at

And therein lay the stark and odd contrasts. Nobu still has a crowd. The new restaurant,
Charlie's, which just opened across from the Malibu Pier, was packed last Thursday night. Each dessert is eight dollars and most tables were ordering them. Just yesterday, Rosenthal Winery’s Tasting Room by Beau Rivage Restaurant was overflowing with tasters imbibing—and it’s not free, either. Someone, somewhere is still flush. But who? Or, are they really?

What I have told my children is this: In a world such as we are in at present, there is a circle-the-wagons mentality that can take hold. It consists of two aspects: first, we pretend that everything is just fine and belly up to the bar, prices be damned. Second, we hold the sneaking suspicion that it is awful out there beyond our little enclave—and perhaps even within our own walled city—but we are going to hoard and refuse to share. It’s not unlike what you faced when you were five and the kid in your kindergarten class would not give up the stuffed dog you wanted to hold.

There is, however, another way to view this time, and it really is a choice. A couple of nights ago on The Colbert Report, Princeton philosophy professor
Peter Singer was presenting his new book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. In Colbert’s perfectly cheeky manner, he questioned why any of the remaining wealthy would want to share, including himself in his expensive alligator shoes. And whatever would the poor do with his Audi? Dr. Singer asked this question:

“If you were walking by the lake and you saw a child drowning, would you risk your alligator shoes and jump in and save her or keep going?"

Singer challenges us to recognize that drowning children are all around us. I would add that they are not even that far beyond our doorstep, if we only choose to pay attention. Furthermore, he impels us to face the moral imperative of doing something about it.

I go a bit beyond Dr. Singer, though. I believe that we are in the midst of a defining moment as civil society. It is not only that people are starving, but that they are starving for a voice and a place that matters. As I reflect on the tens of thousands of lawyers in Pakistan who are taking to the streets this very day who are hungry for a just society; the millions of Afghan children who are hungry for an education; and the people in my own state who are hungry for meaningful work, I recognize I cannot afford to wring my hands and worry only about myself.

Robert Frost reminds us that, “The best way out is always through.” I would suggest that the only way out is by taking the hands of others and then proceeding through. Take a moment today to decide where you can help someone who is starving—for a meal, for a voice, for a purpose. Now, leave the wagon and take action. My hunch is you will find your own belly, heart, and mind full, as well.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Hafa Adai: Over One-half a World Away

Jessica Barcinas Taylor replied quickly to my email.

"I had to laugh when you gave me the address for your hotel here on Saipan. We don't use addresses! When you land, you'll understand everything."

It dawned on me that what the locals call their "tiny speck in the ocean" where I would spend the next two weeks would be easily navigable. When I have told people I was coming to Saipan, the reactions have been somewhat similar.

"Spain should not be so cold this time of year."

"You'll love the sushi in Japan."

"I do not know anyone who goes to Saigon."

Saipan. The Commonwealth of the United States of America. That means it is ours. It is us. Saipan became affiliated with the USA following World War II, when we took it from the Japanese, who took it from the Germans, who in turn took it from Spain, who took it from the indigeneous peoples--the Chamorro and Carolinians, which still do live here. Saipan, which is part of a necklace of islands called the Mariana Islands, is in the area of the Pacific Ocean we call Micronesia. It is barely 35 minutes from Guam and has two, other close neighbors, Tinian and Rota--two additional tinier specks in the ocean. Off the coast of azure water rest at least three US aircraft carriers that stand poised to protect Saipan and her sister islands, should the need arise. Unlike a lot of the places I spend time, I do not see soldiers wielding AK-47s. Its ethos is a great deal similar to Hawaii in terms of weather, food, and sensibility.

To get to Saipan is a several step endeavor even from California. You can fly to Narita International in Tokyo, drop down to Guam, and then hop down to Saipan or you can fly through Honolulu, and then follow the route through Guam and onto Saipan. What I do know is that it results in about 6,500 frequent flier miles each way, a cross over the International Date Line, and 18 time zones beyond California.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reunion Across Sixteen Time Zones

A Force of Nature in the Flat World
Daily I experience the remarkably few degrees of separation between others and me in this very flat world. Back in April in Boston, I met William Valentino, a Vice President with Bayer China, whose daughter worked in Kabul, Afghanistan, from where I had only returned days before. Who hangs out in war zones, let alone works in them? Yet there it was: Bill’s daughter and me in the same land-locked country in South Asia, donning hijab, helping to rebuild a nation in crisis. Bill, quite the force of nature with his vast array of social programs which he oversees in China, agreed to host my doctoral students in Beijing in May, where it just so happened was my next destination. The students were utterly taken with his work and his lifelong commitment to the nation. HIV-AIDS, rural development, education—little escapes Bayer’s touch.

Within hours of the tragic earthquake during our visit, Bayer was providing relief efforts to the victims. My tour guide in China, Lili Li, who had been in touch with Bill at my request before our arrival, asked if he was from Szechuan province. I laughed uproariously as I explained to her that Bill was not Asian, but rather a Caucasian boy from New Jersey. His Mandarin was that good, as was his navigation of Chinese restaurant protocol, where we enjoyed the choicest slices of Peking duck, thanks to his gracious manners. Following that visit, he and I learned that we were both invited to present at the Asian Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility in Singapore in November. A reunion was clearly in the making.

Singapore via Switzerland
Another reunion was also on the horizon, however. In flight between Kuala Lumpur and Bangalore in April 2006, I met Peter Andrist, Vice President of Business Development for GateGourmet, that multinational corporation that provides food for many of the airports throughout the world. (For my first story about Peter, see my blog titled Culture 101 from Tuesday, April 18, 2006.) A Swiss-born citizen whose company was based in Seattle, Washington and who lived in Bangkok, Peter Andrist is responsible for acquisitions for his company throughout Asia. Peter represents to me the epitome of a leader for the 21st century—an individual who can flow with alacrity and confidence in and out of cultures. Peter appreciates the differences between and amongst the many nations in which he finds himself and yet knows how to build bridges with people. Little daunts him and nearly everything brings a twinkle to his eyes. These past two and one-half years we have stayed in touch, although I had not had the opportunity to meet with him whilst he lived in Bangkok and to conduct a formal interview about leadership.

Around May of this year, Peter mentioned to me that he would be moving to Singapore, where coincidentally I would find myself this November, and so it was that we made a plan to meet once again and talk about leadership in a global society. In one of Singapore’s typical torrential deluges, Peter greeted me with his intense blue eyes and wide smile, and we headed to Indochine Waterfront, a marvelous restaurant featuring cuisine from several Asian nations, situated on the Singapore River in the old colonial civic district. Glasses of Sauvignon Blanc in hand, we toasted our reunion and proceeded to talk about foreign policy, Asian cuisine, corporate social responsibility, and the many things we had been doing since the time last we had met at 36,000 feet over Malaysia Airlines’ famous satay.

Over intensely spicy Thai seafood Tom Yam soup and Vit Quay Gion Ton Kin—French duck fillets grilled with herbs and spices—I reminded Peter that his love of food reflected his childhood desire to be a chef. He laughed that I had remembered this very first story he had shared with me, but added to it when I asked how it was that he embraced a world far beyond the tiny town in Switzerland in which he had grown up.

“Do not laugh, Elizabeth, but Switzerland has a Navy. Yes, I know we are land-locked, but it is so, as amusing as that is. I wanted not only to be a chef, but one aboard a large ship,” Peter added.

At age fifteen, he set off for Genoa, Italy where he caught a freighter to Lebanon.
Reflecting at the prospect of my young son, who just turned fourteen, taking off around the world on his own, I queried if this distressed his mother. Peter replied that he did not have the typical teenage vices—no drugs, no criminal intent—and so as the eldest child, he had some amount of leverage to chart his own course.

“This was just before the war in 1971 and so Beirut was simply lovely. Now, of course, it is utterly destroyed. The ship had perhaps only seven small cabins for passengers. I made friends with a Catholic priest on board. When we disembarked, the priest greeted his cargo—a new Mercedes Benz automobile filled with arms.”

“Peter,” I probed, “You know that priests take vows of poverty. What on earth was a priest doing with an expensive German car and a cache of weapons?”

“Recall I was a child,” he reminded me. “Had I been older, I would have asked such questions, but what did I know?”

Following this first taste of the world, Peter never lost his love of travel. Speaking a raft of languages fluently, he has lived in many nations and has a deep love of the varying colors of the many cultures he encounters. Ankor Wat in Cambodia? Several times. Viet Nam. The same. Egypt. Please. He lived there. I found it quite surprising, then, to learn that I had somehow managed to find myself earlier this year in a country in which Peter had never been: Afghanistan. He was utterly captivated with my stories of the challenges the Afghan people face each day: security, education, meaningful work for their hands, a roof over their heads.

“When I met the Chancellor of Kabul Medical University, he said to my student, Mirwais, and me, ‘I am going to tell you about my school, I am going to answer your questions about leadership, and at the end, I am going to ask for your help.’ Peter, that month in Afghanistan transformed me. There is much to do, much to do.”

Peter and I agreed to continue the conversation and to imagine what we might do to continue our work in the world.