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Practically Idealistic blog
The title for this blog originated with use of the term “practical idealist” in this 1996 opinion piece, which asked: “To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?” A century and a half earlier, Emerson, in his 1841 essay Circles, wrote: “There are degrees in idealism.  We learn first to play with it academically. . . .  Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments.  Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true.  It now shows itself ethical and practical.”  John Dewey and Mahatma Gandhi embraced practical idealism in the 20th century, as did UN Secretary General U Thant.  Al Gore invoked it in a 1998 speech. In the context of this blog, the term is meant to convey idealism tempered but not overwhelmed by realism: a search for the ideal on a path guided by common sense.
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Monday, January 26, 2009

Basketball , Politics, and Purpose

Sharing with President Obama an interest in basketball – in my case, UConn and Celtics basketball especially – I noticed a couple of related articles.

In this January 22 column "Inauguration Inspires Calhoun" the Courant’s Jeff Jacobs describes the civic-minded and politically engaged coach of the UConn men’s basketball team, Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun.   

This January 22 Boston Globe piece, by Julian Benbow, features one of Calhoun’s greatest former players, now known as one of the NBA’s most professional and best people, Ray Allen.

An October 2008 article, "Domestic Violence No Game,"  expressed concern about the alleged conduct of a UConn player who was expelled before ever playing a game.  This article should be understood in the context of Calhoun's, his players', and the university's many significant accomplishments.  The recent features on Calhoun and Allen suggest this broader context.
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Having been a fan of UConn basketball since the freshman year (1978-79) of Corny Thompson and Mike McKay just before the Big East began -- those games in the old UConn Fieldhouse were a treat for a kid! -- I especially remember two games from the 1990s as the best so far I have been able to attend in person:

 *The stunning 1990 contest where the hitherto humble Huskies upset Georgetown (and Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo), transforming the Hartford Civic Center crowd into a joyful thunder as UConn opened with a 14-0 lead;

 *The 1996 Big East Championship game in Madison Square Garden where the Huskies shut out an Allen Iverson-led Hoya team in the final minutes, culminated by Ray Allen's winning shot.  (A friend had obtained seats so close to the floor that we could observe the petitely powerful Iverson snacking on cookies nearby on the Georgetown bench.)
. . . . .

Of course,  I never got remotely close to the privilege of playing with or against Ray Allen at any level!  But surprisingly, there is just a degree of separation or two between his glorious basketball career and my laughable one.

A January 15, 1995 New York Times account cites Ray Allen’s role in a UConn victory over Big East rival Providence, led by a 6 foot 8 senior forward who, as a 6’5’’ high-school freshman, once goal-tended my shot in a 1986-87 game.  With that goal-tend, the future Providence player contributed one-eighth of my meager 16-point (1 point per game) total as a varsity basketball player in 11th grade! 

(I was more at my level the year before, averaging 10 per game on the JV as a sophomore on a – how shall we say? – talent-starved, victory-challenged team whose highlight was its irrepressible coach, Stephen Hill.) 

I’ve never much regretted passing up the chance to earn a second varsity letter in 1987-88, though the introduction of the three-point shot in our league that year would have been tempting.  Instead of riding the pine and having my shots goal-tended, I opted that winter to volunteer in Nashua, New Hampshire and northeastern Connecticut for the nascent Presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis.  Twenty winters later, Nashua was again the destination on behalf of another primary competitor, as mentioned in the January 20 post below. . .

11:00 pm est 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Obamas, a Global American Family

This January 21 New York Times article by Jodi Kantor vividly illustrated the compelling stories and pluralism of the Obama extended family:

"A Portrait of Change:  In First Family, a Nation's Many Faces"

One could argue there is not only biography and demography here, but also implications for both domestic and international relations.

A June 2006 essay asserted: “A happy consequence -- and a cushion -- of increasing globalization will be more global families. Call this intimate diplomacy. Countries including the United States and Canada have long prospered through immigration. Further weaving together the planet's continents and citizens should be our aim. Love and marriage -- the deepest forms of trade and investment -- complete the tapestry.”

9:42 am est 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Slumdog Millionaire" and the Many Indian Realities

Last night my wife -- who is from New Delhi and remains a citizen of India -- and I saw "Slumdog Millionaire." The night before, a friend of ours had recommended it with the disclaimer that she admitted a favorable bias: she knows the author, Vikas Swarup, of the novel on which the film is based.

The movie  is generating controversy.  According to a Tribune Newspapers article by Mark Magnier, “The story of an impoverished street child in Mumbai, which has won 10 Oscar nods, is a stereotypical Western portrayal, Indians say, that ignores the wealth and progress their country has seen. . . . Even as American audiences gush over [the film] some Indians are groaning over what they see as yet another stereotypical foreign depiction of their nation, accentuating squalor, corruption and resilient-if-impoverished natives.”

Having seen the movie last night, my wife and I can understand the criticism.  But on balance we liked and would recommend it – and wouldn’t want to reveal details to anyone who might see it.  We'll have to talk with friends and colleagues from Mumbai itself to get their views.

This 2006 account, “From New Haven to New Delhi,” discussed some contradictions and complexities of India.

10:11 pm est 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama, His Dreams and Ours

Before the New Hampshire primary more than a year ago, I caught a ride from New Haven with a neighbor.  As we headed to Nashua to canvass, we discovered that each of us had read Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, and agreed most readers of that book would be inclined, as we were, to be sympathetic to his candidacy.  (Weeks later, there was a chance to test that proposition with another neighbor, who was persuaded to read the book before the Connecticut primary and reported that it did propel her from an undecided voter into the Obama camp.)

That memoir evokes Emerson's 1837 observations in The American Scholar, in which he said that books "are for nothing but to inspire."   He continued, "Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth."  Further, "a man, rightly viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men." 

Himself a fan of Emerson, our new President is a scholar driven to action (not "subordinate" in his case), and his books, speeches and example have indeed inspired many.  The introspection, struggles, and wisdom of his 1990s memoir hint at the promise which a decade later stirred millions to invest their votes and their hopes in his election.  Today's inauguration (following his election discussed in early November posts below) officially marks his assumption of the enormous responsibilities before him and our country.

Tonight I dug up the text of my July 27, 2004 letter (excerpted below) to then-State Senator Obama, on the occasion of his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention -- and I pondered how much has changed in four and a half years.   The global economic downturn, devastating job losses and fiscal crises are especially striking. Continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are among numerous other problems with severe human and dollar costs.  To be naive would be dangerous.  But change happens.  That state senator is now President of the United States.  New leadership is here, along with what we hope will be invigorated bipartisanship and civic fortitude among the "fellow citizens" our new President addressed today.

Early in another administration, this 1994 article reflected my own early-twenties sense of contingency and cautious hopefulness about the future.  Now, January 20, 2009, the inauguration of Barack Obama carries the dreams of generations of Americans -- and the respect of much of the world -- forward to confront even greater challenges.

Over lunch today, my family gathered to watch the President's swearing-in, hear his speech and Elizabeth Alexander's poetry.  We video-taped the moment so that our three- and one-year-old children might someday have a memory of it.

Though I've still never met Barack Obama, it feels like I've been acquainted with him remotely for more than a decade since reading his memoir.  There are qualities evident in that book to which we all can aspire and to which the nation subsequently responded.  (Getting on his mailing list in 2004 led me to receive successive holiday cards with charming pictures of the Obama family that also promoted a sense of connection, however remote in fact!)  Character, candor, caring.  Toughness.  Principled pragmatism.  A tolerance for complexity combined with an ability to focus through it.  Experience in overcoming adversity.  Curiosity.   Seeing the best in others, finding common ground.  It's that familiarity even in obscurity that's part of his appeal to voters, that joins charisma to ideas.

Congratulations, President Obama; it's a source of cheer to have you in this monumental job.  Best wishes to you, your family, and our country.  As Lincoln wrote to Grant in spring 1864, “And now with a brave army, and a just cause, may God sustain you.”
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My July 27, 2004 letter to then State-Senator Obama read in part:

"Several years ago, while in my mid-twenties, I was moved by and deeply impressed with Dreams from My Father.  . . . Tonight . . .  your hopeful spirit and refreshing candor were inspiring.  As someone of mixed Jewish American and Protestant German immigrant descent who recently married an Indian woman of Muslim descent, I also shared with my wife a sense of optimism tonight about your pioneering status as an American who can transcend the narrow labels of religion, ethnicity, ideology, and national origin.  As Thoreau wrote, 'It is never too late to give up our prejudices.'  Even your self-deprecating comment about the 'skinny guy' with a 'funny name' was something with which I could identify!  . . . Your record on — and obvious passion for — educational opportunity is just one source of my enthusiasm about your promise as an American leader. . . "

10:55 pm est 

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Day of Service, MLK Day

Devoting a day to service can be compared with designating a month to, say:

   Blood donors and mentoring, respectively (January)

   Black history (February)

   Women's history (March)

   Hispanic heritage (September 15-October 15)

   Domestic violence awareness (October)

As one month is not enough and only begins to suggest the significance of such matters, a single day can scarcely capture the value of service.  Still, the symbolic power may be real and help to generate broader effects.

Martin Luther King Jr. said,  "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"

On the day we recognize his birthday, some service activity is appropriate.  Tomorrow afternoon I'll be at New Haven Reads, whose Book Bank and tutors are assets to our community.

10:44 pm est 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Coffee for Blood

Nicholas Kristof’s recent column, "Bleeding Heart Tightwads," argues – in citing Who Really Cares by Arthur Brooks – that “if liberals and moderates gave blood as often as conservatives . . . the American blood supply would increase by 45 percent.”

Let’s take that as a personal challenge.  One reason I was careful not to enter malarial zones during a recent trip to Malaysia was in order to stay on schedule as a blood donor to the American Red Cross.  Blood donors have intrinsic motivation for giving; it's an easy way to help someone else.

During January -- National Volunteer Blood Donor Month -- Dunkin' Donuts is offering an additional incentive: a coupon for a pound of its coffee to any blood donor.  Sign up to bleed, and then to replenish with caffeine what Gen. Jack D. Ripper from “Dr. Strangelove” might call your “precious bodily fluids”!

To donate blood through the American Red Cross, individuals must be at least 17 years of age, weigh at least 110 pounds, and be in general good health.

To make an appointment: call 1-800-GIVE LIFE, or go online at the American Red Cross.
7:55 pm est 

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Return from Malaysia

My wife, our two children, and I treasured seeing Malaysia with my parents-in-law, a rare opportunity for us all to be together (only the second time, after a trip to India almost four years ago, that we have visited them, as they more often come to us in the U.S.).  This has likely been a once-in-a-lifetime trip.  For our three-year-old daughter, the highlights have been seeing and touching animals including an elephant (which we rode), two pythons, a crocodile, etc.

She and we also enjoyed the ferry rides between the Malaysian peninsula and Langkawi Island, though there was some confusion in Kuala Perlis about which ferry to take, at which gate.  Evidently most Westerners and many other tourists fly from KL, or elsewhere, to Langkawi.  We seemed to be the only Westerners on the much lower-budget ferry -- which interestingly featured rows of seats recycled from old airplanes -- though there were many Europeans and other Westerners among the tourists once we reached Langkawi.  (My wife, a citizen of India, might rightly object to being lumped in as a "Westerner," but she is now a permanent resident of the U.S. as well as a parent of two children who are U.S. citizens of mixed heritage!) 

A man in Langkawi reported that there were many fewer Russian visitors in December 2008 than a year earlier, due to the steep decline in the Russian markets.

A memorable global moment occurred on the island when I struck up a conversation with a teenager from Finland who was wearing an Obama "HOPE" t-shirt that his mother had brought from New York.
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The Emirates airline staff are impressive in the many languages they collectively speak, including Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Tagalog, Swahili, and others besides English.   

Also worthy of mention is the Dubai airport, which we passed through a second time on our return to New York's JFK.  As in Kuala Lumpur, there was the paradoxical juxtaposition of, say, decorated Christmas trees and caroling about snow with fully veiled women in an Islamic culture where the weather is always warm. 

Even more than KL and not surprisingly in a place where monarchy and commerce meet, Dubai seems essentially about money -- brand-conscious consumerism amid gleaming, climate-controlled spaces and stores.  It makes for a curious few hours and as a walkable airport mall does as a diversion beat the more mundane traffic-clogged strips so typical of the U.S.  But I'm not much of a shopper, period -- certainly not of luxury goods.  At any rate, I would rather be shopping at Trader Joe's or Shaw's -- or better yet, Nica's or Romeo's at home in New Haven!

The new year arrived as we traveled all day.  Flying northwest from KL, we experienced the dawning of 2009 in multiple time zones, economy class with alternately sleeping, crying, and smiling kids.  From the beginning of our trip in the a.m. of December 31 in Perlis, through the drive 300 miles south to KL, the flights to Dubai and on to JFK and then the driving of a rental car back to New Haven, we have been on the road or in the air approximately 35 of the past 40 hours.  We have no regrets!

Best wishes for the new year, amid a troubling economic and security situation that calls for better and more widely shared fortunes at home and abroad. . . .

8:20 pm est 

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