Monday, August 21, 2006

No Cheating on the Vision Test

I had an eye exam today and got to wondering about those eye charts. It used to be that the letters were printed on paper and hung on an easel; now they're projected on the wall and manipulated electronically.

I became curious as to whether the lines of letters were always the same, theoretically allowing one to memorize the letters and to thereby cheat on the eye exam. You may think there isn't likely to be a high interest in that, but you might be surprised. For example, I could see people using that method as a way to avoid restrictions on driver's licenses or to escape that dreaded "over the hill" verdict when bifocals are prescribed to those more concerned about vanity than clarity.

I asked the ophthalmologist about this and he demonstrated how the letters can be randomized or changed by the click of a remote control. He did acknowledge that he rarely used that feature. So I can only assume that our society has a sprinkling of people improperly credentialed as having 20/20 vision, all because they memorized the bottom line on the eye chart. Knowing that if there is no vision the people will perish, I will be watching for these near-sighted offenders and will do my part to bring them to justice.

This got me to thinking about what a previous President Bush once called the "vision thing," referring not to an ophthalmological issue but to the need for people who can take the long view and see possibilities that most others overlook. Visionary leadership occurs when one can read the changing lines of type, never believing that memorizing yesterday's chart will be sufficient today or tomorrow.

There's an old saying that "hindsight is 20/20." Perhaps that is so. The visionary will not avoid looking back, but will also understand that the world beyond the farthest hill is what must be known, if imperfectly. There can be no cheating on this vision test, but there will certainly be new ways of seeing.

Can you read the bottom line?: C E P A E

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Prairie at Sea

I reported a while back that my wife and I had gone on an Alaskan cruise in July, a first time experience for both of us. We had a great time traveling for a week from Seattle to Juneau and other ports, looking out upon the glacial beauty of the Inside Passage. It was good for us in ways we had not imagined and it gave us time to talk about many things, some personal, some global.

We had long wanted to take a cruise but had not actively pursued it. Then one day back in January we were listening to A Prairie Home Companion, a favorite radio show we tune in each week on NPR. An eclectic mix of music and comedy, the show stars Garrison Keillor, a funky philosopher/writer/musician who stirs his homespun tales into a tasty stew of cultural commentary, political satire, and poignant slices of life. The music is in many ways the heart of it and it comes from many directions--country, jazz, pop, folk, even classical at times.

Listening that day we discovered that Keillor and his show had chartered a ship and were taking a cruise with 1500 or so listeners of the program. The convergence of a Holland America cruise line and A Prairie Home Companion theme was something we couldn't resist. We signed up.

It isn't often that one can experience the wisdom of the prairie in the vast open waters of the sea. But people from diverse backgrounds formed community, became friends, talked about shared values and sometimes about conflicting ones. On this huge ship with its grand dining room and spacious lounges we found ourselves thinking at times about the simple, yet important things. In the lavish comfort of a luxury cruise line there was still opportunity to ponder the deeper human questions.

Even so, we could not fully escape the world's realities. As we walked the deck or sat comfortably in chairs looking out to the sea, the frightening sounds of air raid sirens and incoming missiles played hauntingly through television speakers as CNN broadcast continual coverage of the war in Lebanon and Israel.

But through it all it was the music that provided the zestful foundation of what happened that week, pulling us from our inbred rationality and luring us to dance. The lyrics were sprinkled liberally into the stew, some of them words that might suck desperately for life if spoken, but miraculously gave life when sung.

I know there are moral complexities here. It's easy for people who can afford a cruise to talk about a needy world while eating an elegant five course dinner. The irony is not lost on me, nor has it been in the past when I have had to balance what one sees during many trips into the developing world with the fact that I wanted my own kids to go to college and have a good life, something impossible in many cultures.

But still... I continue to believe that something redemptive does happen when one takes a slice of the prairie to the glacial beauty of the sea. Nothing gets resolved, to be sure. But Powder Milk Biscuits and Lutheran guilt and news from Lake Wobegon (all concepts very familiar to APHC listeners) have something to contribute to the dialogue that must occur in this broken, yet beautiful world.

If the prairie can come to the sea just imagine what else is possible. The city to the farm? The rich to the poor? The gay to the straight? The pit bull to the cocker spaniel? The Muslim to the Christian?

It makes one want to climb aboard the ship of human hope, sprinkle in some music, break bread at a common table, tell some stories, and talk about where we've each come from, what we've each seen and heard. Maybe then we can come to know something of each other. In that way, through our shared stories, the prairie truly could talk to the sea, and likewise the sea to the prairie. What a world that would be!

All aboard?

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Moderated Comments

When I started this blog it was primarily for my own amusement, and that remains my central purpose. However, a number of you have invested time in making thoughtful observations about the various topics, and that has been a rewarding and somewhat unexpected bonus.

Early on I noticed some "anonymous" comments that were generic compliments about the site. That appealed nicely to my hubris, until I realized that they were repititious both in content and spelling errors. They also encouraged people to click on embedded links to other sites. Clearly some mischief was afoot.

My philosophy is always one of open dialogue and free speech. However, these postings come not from human beings interested in ideas, but from automated bots trolling for unsuspecting victims. Whether they are advertising links or malicious spyware, I cannot allow the blog to be used in this way.

Therefore, I will be moderating comments on the blog so as to weed out these troublesome bots. I have also gone back and deleted all that I could find on previous postings. This means only that there will be a short delay from the time a comment is posted until it appears on the blog. I will certainly not use this to censor content (unless it is obscene or libelous), but only to protect users of the blog from being victimized by those who seem to have nothing better to do than prey on the goodwill of others.

I'm sorry for the need to do this, but I prefer to head off any potential difficulty for those of you gracious enough to read these musings from time to time.