Category Archives: Reflections

Boys Will Be Boys

We didn’t know their names.  We hadn’t seen their faces.  We really didn’t know much of anything about them, except that there were twelve soccer players altogether, accompanied by their coach.  They had crawled up into the inner reaches of a cave, exploring with the excitement and energy that 12-year old boys seem to have, when outside rains created rising waters inside the cave, submerging the very passages that the boys had used hours before.  They became trapped.

We all know the story by now, as it became a topic of international attention.  News sources from around the world featured daily updates about the fate of the boys; indeed, nine days elapsed before rescuers even discovered the boys still alive, but each and every day we received updates about rescuers’ progress.  It was no less than a miracle that the team survived so long underground.  And then we waited and watched as rescue teams- made up of Thai, U.S. and other international support- completed the meticulous planning and execution of the rescue itself.  In the end, there was a universal sigh of relief from all corners of the globe that these young lives had been saved.  Maybe the world needed a unified success in something, anything, at this time of extreme nationalism and name-calling.

The international interest and support puzzles me.  I readily understand the empathy and emotional attachment that we feel: imagining one’s own children in such dire circumstances is a nightmare that most parents have, and to which even non-parents can relate.  The anguish and outrage expressed in the U.S. on behalf of children separated from their parents at the border with Mexico demonstrated our ability to activate on behalf of kids.  But the capture of the entire international conscience over the fate of 12 boys astounds me.  There have been and continue to be almost daily events which threaten the lives of children, in many cases far more than a dozen young lives, and for which we show almost casual interest at best.  Sometimes the young lives are lost, and the world takes little note.  Middle East violence has destroyed young lives as a matter of policy.  Syrian war has made no distinctions between use of nerve gas on adults or children.  In Nicaragua, young people are being killed or “disappeared” each day during the current political turmoil, and the world barely knows of it.  What made the Thai soccer team so different for us?

Was it the uniforms?  Was there something about the context of a boys’ athletic team?  Perhaps the difference was due to the nature of the threat: not imposed by politics or other man-made conventions, but rather from Nature herself.  Maybe it’s easier to root for people confronting the forces of natural calamity than to be forced to choose sides in a conflict.  Someone suggested to me that we have a limited capacity for empathy in crises, and that we are more capable of emotion for smaller numbers of victims: we can handle our fears and grief for 12, but it’s much more difficult for, say, 1,000.  For whatever the reason, we seem to pick and choose the victims who we will care about.  It baffles me.  And I feel badly for those other victims who wait for the caress of human accompaniment, prayers and support, even when it never comes.

My reflections over this brought to mind a scene from the movie, “Schindler’s List,” where Schindler is in despair over Jews he could not ultimately help away from Nazi danger, despite his urgent desire to save them:

“I could have got more out.  I could have got more.  I don’t know.  If I’d just…  I could have got more….  If I’d made more money.  I threw away so much money.  You have no idea.  If I’d just….

I didn’t do enough!  This car.  Someone would have bought this car.  Why did I keep the car?  Ten people right there.  Ten people.  Ten more people.  This pin.  Two people.  This is gold.  Two more people.  He would have given me two for it, at least one.  One more person.  I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t.  And I… didn’t.” 

Sometimes conscience is too slow, or too selective, and becomes numbed by the happy drama of boys being boys….

 

 

 

Father’s Day

Yesterday was Father’s Day in the U.S. , that commercial innovation designed to sell goods and greeting cards and, oh yes, to recognize the important role of dads in our society.  The date also happens to be my wedding anniversary, that moment in time forty-six years ago when Katie and I formed our official Sheppard partnership.  It’s a nice overlap.  Certainly, the marital partnership led to the four children who called their father yesterday with thanks and good wishes.  Marriage and fatherhood.  It was a good day.

It seems conventional and predictable, to celebrate these kinds of events in our lives.  That does not diminish their enjoyment, but it recognizes the expectation that celebrations of family are meant to happen, and often.  I felt a special gratitude yesterday, maybe because I keep getting older, with an increasing awareness that, despite their regularity, these special days are finite in life.  Or maybe there was a nagging awareness in the back of my mind about children elsewhere in our country being separated from their fathers and mothers in the name of the law.  And that is disturbing.

My intention here is not to wade into the great immigration debate within our country; there are enough voices disagreeing about that already.  But there is a distinction between enforcing border security versus tearing families apart as a punishment for border violation.  The practice is not only philosophically reprehensible, even as a deterrent to illegal immigration, but carries an eerie similarity to the separation of Jewish children from their parents at Nazi concentration camps.  Our nation’s posture on this matter is an expression of our values and our morality; I wonder whether this is truly a reflection of who we have become as a people.

The U.S. Attorney General has responded to the criticisms of this policy of separation by observing, “Well, we are not putting them in jail.”  To excuse an abusive and inhumane practice by comparing it to something even worse is no excuse at all.  At the end of the day, after all the explanations and defenses and rationalizations, children are being taken from their parents. In some cases, according to government personnel, they are taken under the pretext of taking them for a bath, and with no guarantee of ever being reunited with mom and dad.  It’s a punishment which the children do not deserve in any context.  But here in the U.S.?

Further defense of the practice falls along the lines of “the law,” that the law requires that this practice be carried out, and that if the practice is to end, it must be the U.S. Congress (noted these days for its inability to pass any kind of meaningful legislation) which takes the responsibility.  But it must be noted that the immigration law being referenced in this defense was also the law under at least two previous administrations.  In neither case was the separation of families used as a means of torture.

We are at an immigration crossroads in our country.  The topic has been discussed and debated, leveraged and used, with words couched in sympathy and actions devoid of empathy: more than 1300 children have been separated from their families thus far.  The untruths about which political party is more to blame is meaningless.  On Father’s Day, 2018, children are being separated from their families.  That’s all we need to know.

I had a memorable Father’s Day and anniversary yesterday.  It was a good day.  But it could have been a lot better….

 

 

The Way We Look

On a particularly dark and blustery day in January, I hiked across campus, a briefcase in hand, though I wanted desperately to put my hand in my deep coat pocket.  I came upon the only other human being I could see, looking out from the narrowest of openings in the hood of my storm coat.  In fact, I recognized the man and I offered a “good morning,” though he could not possibly have known who I was.  The day was too cold for me to stop and identify myself and his hurried passage let me know that he felt the same.

Once inside the building, I shed my high-tech barriers to the cold and stepped into the rest room to shake off the cold and un-bunch my sweater (something that cold weather people do as a matter of course).   While I was there, the professor hosting my appearance in class came in, too, and remarked about my heavy Filson sweater..  “Wow,” he exclaimed, “nice look! You always have such great sweaters.”

After the class, I mentioned to my host that I was headed for the athletic center to run indoors, since there was no way I was even thinking about an outdoor jog.  He said that he was headed for the center, as well,  and we braved the winter once more to the lower campus.  As we changed into running clothes,  a handball friend of mine stopped by to chat.  We regularly berate and tease one another to maintain our healthy competitive relationship, and this day he  said, with a mixture of derision and compliment, “Wow, you really are in shape!  I wouldn’t have expected an old guy to still have such pins. Too bad they don’t help you on the court.  But at least your legs look strong!”

I laughed him off.  I ran the indoor oval by myself, glad for the run and the chance to burn off some nervous energy.  I was scheduled for a small but uncomfortable surgical procedure that afternoon at the local clinic, and the exercise provided good preparation:  I was tired enough that the discomfort was minimal and the process short.  Better yet, the news that afternoon was good: the doctor came back into the exam room to say that the results were excellent.  “The pictures we got from inside were even better than what we could tell outside,” he offered.  “You look good.”

I felt some relief at my prognosis, so much so that I actually stopped by the church to offer a few thoughts of gratitude inside the quiet sanctuary.  As I sat alone, however, the senior pastor happened to walk in and saw me sitting alone.  He tentatively approached, not wishing to intrude but not daring to ignore.  I assured him that my visit was one of thanks and not petitioning.  He smiled at that, and replied,  “I’m available in any case, if you like.  I’d never presume to know what anyone’s thinking to bring them here late on a weekday.”

By the time I reached home, the events of the day had worked their way deep into my energy reserves.  I flopped into a recliner chair and allowed the footrest to lift my feet.  I lay there for several minutes, replaying the events and the people of the day.  I hoped that my next opportunity to speak with a class might allow a focus on layers, from parkas to physiques, from anatomy to the content of my character….

 

 

 

Toward the Re-Invention of “Fair Trade” (updated edition)

The height of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not. Plato

Even an honest man sins in the face of an open treasure. Saying.

The VII song of the Odyessy tells how the goddess Circe warned Ulysses that the sailors of those waters were so enchanted by the song of the sirens that they went mad, and lost control of their ships. To not succumb to that enchantment, Ulysses asked that he be tied to the mast of the ship, and that the oarsmen have wax put in their ears, and ordered that if he, because of the spell of their song, would ask that they free him, instead they should tighten the knots. So it was that Ulysses and his oarsmen were saved, and the sirens, failing in their objective, threw themselves off the cliff.

Facing unfair commercial relations, Fair Trade (FT) emerged as an alternative so that people who organized might improve their lives and be a space of solidarity among different actors beyond their countries´ borders. Nevertheless, in our case study in Nicaragua and Central America, we show that the institutional structure of power relationships under the market control of elites is like the sirens in the myth, capable of seducing the FT network, turning it against its own principles, and turning solidarity into just a bunch of words, numbers and papers. How can FT tie itself up so as to not succumb to the song of the sirens, and in this way, grow, enhancing its FT alternative principles? To respond to this question we take as a given that there are exceptional cooperatives, organizations, and people who confirm the importance of organizing and cultivating global solidarity, and that there are successful cooperatives, in countries in the south as well as in the north, in FT as well as outside of it. Nevertheless, in this article we study certain practices of the FT framework that seem to indicate its involution, and on that basis we suggest its reinvention. To do so we focus on coffee, which constitutes 70% of the volume of what is sold through FT.

Pull down full article here

 

Chicken Feed

This Easter has been a sweet deal for candy manufacturers: more than $2 billion was spent on candy alone this season, and the overall spending on all Easter-related purchases figures to be the second-highest in U.S. history.  (I know that I didn’t receive any chocolate bunnies on Easter Sunday, so somebody else has been taking more than their share. ) But it started me thinking about wants and needs and central Easter messages.

That candy cost isn’t exactly chicken feed.  By comparison, the total amount of all U.S. aid to Nicaragua in 2017 was $31.3 million, 15% of all that candy.  I only offer the comparison here for contrast; neither I nor most Nicaraguans would argue for greater aid dependency on the U.S.  But it’s quite a difference in sums when one considers the two categories: resources for basic human living standards in Nica versus Easter candy consumption in the U.S.   Setting aside such notions as national boundaries, something seems inequitable in all of that, no matter to what political or economic perspective one may subscribe.  Let me elaborate.

I spent a week with my colleague Mark in Nicaragua last month, visiting with rural partners, hearing about their struggles with various harvests, understanding the need for late repayments in several cases, and attending a two-day workshop designed to teach information analysis, so that these producers might go about their work on a more data-driven basis.

Our week did not represent some kind of hight-level financial development.  We lunched with them on rice and beans.  We spoke with some, in impromptu huddles, about small loans and the most basic tenets of our partnerships: accompaniment, transparency, functioning bodies of governance, broad-based participation, and collaboration within the coops.  We described the nature of goals and goal-setting.  They asked us about work processes.  We laughed some.  The interactions may have been at their most basic level, but they were important and appreciated.  Basic stuff usually is.

What does any of that have to do with Easter candy sales?  Simply this: the sweet taste in the mouth from a dissolving Peep or jelly bean is both artificial and temporary.  And it can never take away the bad taste in the mouth from the recognition that we spend more on candy than on the very lives of others who are in significant need for their basic survival.  That bad taste comes from recognition that our own lives are made up of moments, moments of priority and precedence, wherein we have the free will to decide how we will spend our time and our money and our spirit.  Those decisions impact the impoverished in profound ways, and as importantly, paint the portrait of who we truly are.   And they do leave a taste in the mouth, one kind or another.

Last month in Nicaragua I heard the observation of a producer who was considering the raising of a few chickens as a supplement to his coffee-growing efforts.  His words of hesitation were like a fist to the gut.  “The corn that my hens eat,” he observed, “could be food for my family.”  He was not speaking about candy corn.

Easter is a season of resurrection and salvation, of new beginnings and new chances.  It is a time of reflection for many about the life and example of Jesus and the basis of those who claim followership of his teaching.  It also gives me pause to think about the price of candy and the value of corn….

 

 

 

Grant-Making in Nicaragua

The following reflection was written during my recent week in Nicaragua.  I had the unusual experience of writing it on paper, with a pencil, no less.  It was composed in nearly “real time,” as if for a journal, and only minutes after the experience occurred.  Maybe that’s partly how it came to be such a personal, emotional record.  (And for the record, writing with paper and pencil still works.)

The time is 8:35.  We are overnighting in the municipality of El Cua, in the department of Jinotega.   The mountains of Peñas Blancas are just behind us; indeed, the road from the mountains to El Cua features some of the most beautiful kms anywhere on earth.  The vistas around each corner are filled with valleys and peaks that truly steal the breath away.  Hotel El Chepita is arguably one of the more modern accommodation in the town,  though in order to flush the toilet in my bathroom, I am required to lift up on the back of the toilet until the stopper, which is somehow attached to the tank lid, is pulled up and the flush can commence.

We are a little late getting in.  We arrive to an empty registration desk and even the desk bell fails to summon anyone to receive us.  Mark calls the phone number for the hotel and we can hear the distant ringing of a phone, but it has no more effect than the bell.  A guest from the lobby, impatiently waiting to retrieve her room key,  comes to the desk and bangs on that desk bell with a fury.  But the assault proves to be no more effective than the other summons, so we simply wait and discuss other lodging options.

After maybe 15 minutes, a young woman comes running to the desk with profuse apologies and a promise to get us registered immediately.  She defends herself by explaining that she is the only person working at the hotel in that moment and she is having understandable difficulty covering all bases.  As she records our identities, she does inquire whether it would be acceptable if one of the rooms has no TV.  Since I still do not speak Spanish with any skill even approaching “just getting by,” a TV is of no import to me so the registration continues.

The room, not unexpectedly, is sparse in its appointments.  There is no chair.  No table.  No clothing hooks adorn the walls, the bathroom has no counters, my room looks directly across the narrow street to a discotheque (yes, even in this era) and the music there is only drowned out by the persistent roar of motorcycle and truck engines racing down our street.  I can shut my slat-style windows, but I need the air in my air-conditioner-free room.  Besides, two of the glass louvers are missing from my windows, so the effectiveness in shutting out noise is highly suspect.  But the barking dogs in the property next to ours do take a break every half-hour or so to rest their voices.

My room is dark and hot.  (Oh-oh, there go the dogs again.)  I keep the single overhead light turned off, to reduce the heat and the depressing feeling that overhead lights always convey to me.  The overhead fan tries hard to keep up with the heat in this upstairs room, but the blades cannot turn fast enough to generate any meaningful cooling.  All I can do is to lie on my bed in the dark and read by the light of my Kindle.  I keep the bathroom light on, though, because the 8 o’clock hour is too early to fall asleep for the night, even in weary Nicaragua.

Staring across the room into that dimly-lit WC gives me pause to wonder to myself how I possibly came to be in a place like this on a Tuesday in March.  It is certainly unlike any place I ever experience in the course of my “normal” life.

And that is precisely the point.  The sounds, the smells, the conditions reveal the life of rural Nicaragua in ways that words or even photographs cannot.  At this moment, I would not choose to be in any other place but this.  In a single, isolated moment I am confronted with gratitude for the good fortune of my life, the shame of my self-centeredness, a humility at my recognition of being the most fortunate of men, an anger that I have not shown the strength and wisdom to have accomplished more, a thankfulness for the men and women here who have taught me even as I posed as the teacher, and gratefulness at being permitted to be among people who are at war with the injustice of their poverty.  Ironically, this place and time represents privilege: my privilege at the opportunity to become a part of their lives, if only for a short time.

To be sure, this evening I miss my wife and the comforts of our Iowa home, as I always do when I travel.  But I am filled up tonight in ways that I could not at home.  In this moment, it turns out that the most important grant during this trip is the one made to me….

 

The Virtue of Virtues

A long-time friend of mine recently bestowed a gift on me, one that has intrigued, perplexed and annoyed all at the same time.  It may seem strange that one small gift could accomplish all of this, but given the nature of the giver, I would expect no less.

George is an octogenarian, and one who has stuffed a great many experiences into his years, whether in vocation, family, service to others or contemplation of self.  For these reasons, as well as the fact that he is simply a very nice man, I enjoy meeting with him every so often for excellent conversation.  Neither one of us will ever be able to recount the winners and losers at The Academy Awards, but both of us like to expound upon what is right and what is wrong with the world today.  We both pretend to have the answers, if not the questions.

The gift he brought to me is no less than a presentation of life’s virtues.  One hundred thoughtful descriptions of moral excellence and goodness of character are printed on 4X5 cards, along with certain actions which embody the particular virtue.  They are a product of The Virtues Project, an international initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life.  Each day at breakfast, I’m confronted with a new aspect of right action and thinking which may or may not be attributable to myself.  But they’re good triggers for thought and conversation with my wife, as I either claim ownership of a virtue or confess my weakness of it.  (I am too afraid to keep track of whether I have more “hits” than “misses.”)  The object is not keeping score, but reflecting on one’s personal posture.

The experience is stimulating.  I mean, how often do most of us have the questions posed about our daily existence and how we have chosen to live it?  Consider matters of integrity.  Honesty.  Humanity.  Commitment. Honor.  Gratitude.  Faith.  Empathy.  Grace.  Generosity.  Love.  Peacefulness.  Responsibility. Sacrifice.  Tolerance.  Truth.   The list is as long as it is deep.  Serious reflection of virtue is sobering, affirming and complex, all at the same time.

Yet there is a sort of elitist quality about contemplation of such things.  My past week in Nicaragua reminds me that consideration of manners and philosophies often becomes subjugated in light of the daily grind of feeding one’s family or securing the particulars of suitable shelter.   In some cases, circumstances tend to bend absolute virtues, or at least place them in conflict with other virtuous aims.

I do not imply that Nicaraguan peasants are without virtuous living; in fact, the reality is quite the opposite.  My experiences with rural Nica farmers often have been object lessons about living with dignity and hope despite enormously difficult circumstances.  Virtuous behaviors come from within, cultivated from generations of living in concert with their faith, the earth and one another, rather than from a conscious deliberation of what “ought to be.”

What occurs to me in the understanding of living against great odds is that the opportunity for meditation on matters of virtue and how to cultivate such behaviors is almost non-existent.  The conscious deliberation of what “ought to be” is too often a luxury afforded to those who are well off enough to indulge in contemplation of 4X5 cards.

Perhaps the observations are of no note.  Certainly, those who have been blessed with opportunity for musing on such matters have brought about only a modest degree of change and equity in the world: children still starve against the virtues of  Generosity, Humanity, Justice, Mercy and Sacrifice.  In my own reading of the virtues, I long for the recognition of them inherent within myself, regardless of the words on the cards.  But it is not always so, and the gentle reminders of what I could be are blessings to embrace.

There’s still time.  The questions are not complete, the answers not finished, our lives are not done, our legacies are not written and our virtues are not known until the end of our days….

 

 

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

I’m preparing for another visit to Nicaragua next week, the first since last August.  I’m excited to be going again, but the length of time between visits has caused me to forget my usual routines for getting ready and the result is that I’m already feeling like I’m behind.  To further compress things, I was supposed to be headed to Minnesota earlier this week,  but a winter storm and prudence dictated that, after I shoveled out the driveway, I stay “hunkered down” for the next 24 hours.  I’ll need to re-schedule that meeting for the second time!  On top of that, we’re working on some WPF transitions, preparing for the retirement of our office manager, hiring a Nica consultant following another retirement, and interviewing several new Board candidates.  Where’s the time going to come from?

In addition to the immediate travel logistics, there are family matters, as well.  Our twin daughters’ birthday is rapidly approaching and we need to pick a date for celebrating.  Another daughter is participating in a body-building competition and we’ll absolutely be in attendance for it.  We have income taxes to complete and file, a dentist appointment is just ahead, there’s a fix to some flooring that needs to be made, we’ve got to schedule the furnace guy for a mechanical issue, and Katie’s sister is about to move from our house into her own place.  Time’s up!

One of the maxims about growing older is the reality that time seems to speed up.  For many, some of the same old routines take longer, there seem to be more things to accomplish than ever before, and the need for rest each night tends to move up ever so slightly.  The result is a feeling that things are moving faster.  There’s nothing new in any of this: it’s simply the cycle of life as it moves inexorably from start to finish, except for those to whom it is happening, of course.  There just never seems to be enough time and the window of availability just keeps getting smaller every day.

In preparing for my travels, I naturally re-orient myself to Nicaragua as I prepare to adjust from a U.S. lifestyle to a Central American one.  I think about how things will be different next week, from the language to the food to the evening accommodations, from an environment of material excess to one of a perpetual search for basic needs.  And I couldn’t help but reflect on another notable difference: the passage of time.

Our anxieties about time are a product of a society that needs to run with precision.  It doesn’t provide much allowance for delays and its tolerance for being late is thin.  A case in point is my inability to drive 160 miles to the Twin Cities for a long-planned meeting, due to ice and snow.  My luncheon partner was fully understanding and my decision was absolutely the right one to make, but all day long I suffered with guilt and a sense of letting people down.  You may attribute those feelings to an overly-sensitive psyche, but it’s the product of a culture which expects timely completion of plans, no matter what the circumstances.  Snow?  Drive through it.  12-hour days to finish a project?  Just do it, as Nike ads admonish us.

In contrast, my meetings within the rural sectors of Nicaragua next week will not have such expectations.  Sessions to be held with governing bodies of the cooperatives may or may not begin at 2:00 P.M.  as scheduled.  It may take some participants longer to arrive at a central meeting location, as they travel long distances- often by foot-  from their farms in order to attend.  Where available, transportation is unreliable.  The demand of the farm is sometimes a priority that just can’t be denied, even against the obligation to attend a meeting on behalf of the coop.  A weather event might wash away a bridge.  There are not many clocks.  And sometimes it is the North Americans who arrive late, having encountered other delays in the day or on the roads.  2:00 in Nica means, “as close to 2:00 as you can make it.”

Does casualness with regard to time irritate people in Nica the way it most certainly does in the U.S.?  Not in an apparent way.  Rural peasants evince an acceptance of the informality of time that is part of their lives; people subject to systemic indigence learn to cultivate a tolerance to all sorts of inconvenience and oppression. Of course, there are some sectors of society for whom time is a tyrant, but in the rural sectors where our work is accomplished, there is neither luxury nor tyranny of the clock.

In the countryside, matters are attended to as people are able.  The demands of small farm production and subsistence living conspire to direct peasants in their work, not according to the clock, but according to what circumstances allow.  It’s not that time is disrespected, but that it, too, must fall victim to the injustice of poverty.  Poverty is not selective of its prey.

Time.  I’m not sure whether there is greater health in the Nicaraguan’s acceptance of its limitations or in the tight expectations of it in U.S. life.  Maybe the truth is somewhere in between.  What I do know is that having the choice of one circumstance over the other is a far greater advantage than having to tolerate one which is imposed.  Nicaraguans seek a reality that provides the choice.  And it’s about time they have it….