Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Occupy Loneliness: A Sociological Phenomenon - Review of "Jeff, One Lonely Guy" by Jeff Ragsdale et al.

When I read Amazon's blurb about Jeff Ragsdale's new book, I knew I had to read it. The part of me that is a sociologist and a student of communication and networking hungered to understand what the buzz was all about.

Last fall, Jeff was in the dumps after a break-up with his girlfriend. Desperate for human contact, he posted an old-fashioned flyer on telephone poles throughout Manhattan - from 72nd St. down to Houston St. The flyer said simply:

"If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me (347) 469-3173. - Jeff, one lonely guy"

As I write this review, I feel as if I should have The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" playing in the background.

As soon as I read the text of the flyer on page 1 of the book, I decided to conduct an experiment; I called the number. I was not sure if Jeff was still accepting calls since the message had gone viral on the Internet and tens of thousands of individuals from all over the world had texted and called him. Two days later, while I was in a dinner meeting, Jeff returned my call. We chatted briefly and set up an appointment for a proper conversation a few days hence. That follow-up conversation has just taken place.

I learned that in the past six months, the number of calls and text messages that Jeff has received now exceeds 65,000! Surely, he has touched a raw nerve of a malaise of interpersonal disconnection of pandemic proportions.

In the book's introduction, co-author David Shields offered some insightful comments about Jeff: "I think of Jeff and the people portrayed here in the same way. This is Dostoevsky's 'Notes from the Underground' told by and for and in the digital age. This is the authentic sound of human beings at ground level, often in economic freefall, trying to connect in whatever way possible, below the radar of Big Media. This is Occupy Loneliness. The is America singing - singing a dirge. (Page vii)

As I anticipated my follow-up conversation with Jeff, I made my way through the book's transcript of some of his most poignant exchanges with fellow lonely men and women. As I neared the book's finish, I was prepared to ask Jeff a question about how this experience of interacting with more than 65,000 individuals had changed his view of humanity - and his view of himself. And then I came across a partial answer on page 127:

"Hamlet says, 'I am with more offences at my beck tan I have thoughts to put them in. imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.' I'm heavily flawed. One positive feature I have, though, is a self-reflexive nature.. I know I've made many mistakes, but I do learn from them. I'm constantly charting what I did wrong - what I did right - and trying to improve. I'm a roving, sloshing workinprogress (sic)." (Page 127)

When Jeff and I spoke for the second time, I read that quotation to him and made the observation that this philosophy struck me as very close to the military mindset that many of my friend have of conducting an "After Action Review" following any significant encounter or action.

Jeff mentioned that he started this outreach with a bit of a cynical outlook and low expectations. "I thought perhaps I might hear from 20 people. So far, it has been more than 65,000, and out of that vast number, about 200 of the people have been amazing."

What does all of this mean, and how will Jeff move beyond the initial barrage of phone calls and tentative attempts and forming a human connection? He envisions somehow launching a movement along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous - a peer-to-peer phone network for lonely people to connect with one another.

I told Jeff that I could also envision a realty TV show that he would host, or a Broadway musical that would combine elements of RENT, Jerry Springer the Opera, Oliver and Annie. "Where Is Love?" "Maybe Far Away, or Maybe Real Near By."

It will be fascinating to see where all of this mishegoss may lead. Stay tuned.

I plan to meet with Jeff the next time I travel to NYC. I offered to connect him with a few individuals who may be willing to serve as advisors to help him think through how to launch the network that he dreams about.

I encourage you to visit Jeff's website, and read the recent article in the New York Park, The New Yorker, his interview with Fox-TV, the piece in Oprah's Blog, etc.

I would be interested in your thoughts and comments.



Monday, April 09, 2012

A Surprisingly Human History - "Coal" by Barbara Freese

I am not sure I would be aware of this remarkable book had I not had the fortune to share office space with Eric Grunebaum, one of the producers of a documentary film called "The Last Mountain." The film was aired at the 2011 Sundance Festival. As Eric and I were discussing the film and its theme of the destruction being wrought in West Virginia by coal mining techniques, he sensed my interest in the topic and handed me a copy of "Coal - A Human History." I am glad that he did.

In her polemical treatment of the history of coal and its impact over the centuries on several civilizations, Barbara Freese does indeed tell a very human history, highlighting the impact - for good and for ill - that coal has had, especially in the UK, the U.S. and in China. Her research is solid; her writing and summarizations are fair and impactful. As I reader, I was encouraged to "dig deep" in trying to understand the historical background of coal and the role that it has played in shaping the world and planet we inhabit today.

In describing a particularly bleak period in England when many deaths resulted from the smog that often descended upon London, she offers a perspective that serves as a cautionary tale for modern society if we fail to ask the right questions:

"Nineteenth century Londoners probably had the statistical skills to detect these deaths long before they actually did, if they had only looked. This was, after all, the city where John Graunt had shown two centuries earlier how much can be learned by counting the dead. Perhaps they didn't look because they had been living so long in a fog of their own making that they simply took it for granted. They stopped asking the harder questions about the impact this unnatural new world they'd created so energetically was having on its human inhabitants." (Page 100)

This book will be of interest to those who are concerned about the environment, who are interested in the Industrial Revolution, and those who seek to "ignite" the fire of their intellectual curiosity about a particularly fascinating aspect of our developmental history.

For information about "The Last Mountain," follow this link:

Mini-Review of Harlan Coben's latest: "Stay Close"

As soon as I learn that Harlan Coben has written another book, I rush to obtain a copy. He has never disappointed. Coben has managed, over the course of his career, to make many otherwise prosaic locales in New Jersey appear to be both intriguing and memorable. In this latest work, much if the action is set in seedy Atlantic City and the nearby Barrens.

The cover art for "Stay Close" tells much about the theme of this novel - the serene suburban setting is not what it appears to be; the iconic white picket fence has been breached. The mother of the house, soccer mom, Megan, has a long buried sordid past. The skeletons in her closet come charging out - disrupting her serene second life, and involved her in a complex serial murder web. The characters, in true Coben fashion, are finely drawn and even the rogues are individuals the reader comes to care about, even down to the Ken and Barbie Bible-quoting sadistic pair of enforcers. The American dream has never been more nightmarish.



Wednesday, April 04, 2012

West Point + Harvard + Veteran = No Job by Jeff Bryan

I thank Jeff for his permission to reproduce this article.

My friend, Jeff Bryan, is a West Point grad, veteran of two deployments to Iraq and a current graduate student at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Government. The Fletcher Forum recently published this fascinating article by Jeff about how our government is missing out on a valuable resource by failing to be aggressive enough in hiring qualified veterans.

West Point + Harvard + Veteran = No Job

by JEFF BRYAN on APRIL 3, 2012

On December 18, 2011, the final U.S. military patrol departed Iraq. Along with it went a depth of knowledge regarding Iraq’s people, culture, and networks. But even as American forces leave the region, the United States can continue to utilize the knowledge, experience, and capabilities its veterans have developed over the course of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan by re-hiring these individuals in new capacities.

The only problem is that, so far, America’s government agencies are not effectively capitalizing on this unparalleled opportunity.

These agencies are missing out. Our junior leaders who served in Iraq and Afghanistan developed expertise and competencies that reach far beyond mere wartime skills. Within the course of a typical day, a patrol leader directs security, acts as a diplomat, and gathers intelligence. These leaders have rebuilt critical infrastructure, negotiated with tribal elders, and developed informant networks. Through counterinsurgency warfare, our veterans have acquired the coveted ability to operate in complex and ambiguous environments. Many of them now deeply understand how developing countries function from the ground up.

Despite these unique skills, the government is not actively recruiting recently separated junior military leaders into its ranks.

Due to the budget deficit, government agencies are undergoing hiring freezes that preclude some of our best, brightest, and most experienced young men and women from continuing their service to our nation.

Two of my Army colleagues are recent graduates of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Not only are these individuals Harvard graduates, but both are also West Point graduates who have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are some of the best individuals that our nation has to offer. Yet both have been turned down by two separate government agencies and are increasingly considering careers outside of government. It’s not because they do not want to serve, but because they are unable to serve.

I know many other veterans who want to continue serving their nation in the State Department, CIA, or FBI after taking off their uniform. During the government hiring boom between 2001 and 2008, while our veterans were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the door was wide open for new employees. In 2006, for example, the FBI issued a report stating that in 2001 there were 401 new hires and in 2006 there were 1,610 new hires. Then, after the 2008 financial crisis, our veterans began returning home to hiring freezes. The door to employment was shut in their faces. According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America 2012 Member Survey, “since government agencies at all levels are shedding, the threat to veteran employment may grow.”

Although most government agencies utilize Veterans’ Preference policies, requiring that they favor veterans who apply to federal jobs, there is insignificant outreach to service members separating from the armed forces. Additionally, the Veterans’ Preference policy does not reward actual experience and accomplishments, but instead rewards disability ratings. For example, a veteran who served for 3 months in Kuwait, but has a service-related disability, would have a higher preference than a veteran who served 30 months in Iraq but has no such service-related disability.

All things being equal between two candidates applying for government positions (age, experience and education), the veteran candidate with significant combat experience should receive preference not out of a proclamation of gratitude, but because that candidate’s experience makes them better equipped to serve and lead in our government. This goes beyond the adage that, “veterans served us, now we must serve them.” The opportunity cost of not taking advantage of veterans’ existing expertise –particularly that of former non-commissioned officers and junior officers — will be a serious detriment to America’s future.

Historically our nation’s veterans have made large-scale impacts within the government. In addition to famous high-ranking military officers, such as Colin Powell and David Petraeus, there are many veterans who separated from the military as unknown junior officers. Many of these individuals found considerable success in their subsequent government service. For example, FBI Director Robert Mueller served as a Marine Corps platoon leader in Vietnam. Former Secretary of State George Shultz served as a Marine Corps artillery officer in the Pacific during World War II. The current U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, served as an Army infantry officer in Vietnam.

During a decade of counterinsurgency combat, America’s veterans have successfully led soldiers through what has been dubbed the “graduate level of warfare.” I believe these same veterans will be best equipped to lead in the graduate level of diplomacy, intelligence, and law enforcement. In the future, our government’s foreign policy will demand an understanding of how to improve failed and failing states. This will be instrumental in our mission to deny terrorist safe havens while securing a more just and peaceful world. The government’s failure to recruit veterans with this type of knowledge isn’t just a disservice to veterans, but a disservice to the nation.

The war in Iraq is over and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, leading to a shrinking window of opportunity for the government to act. This is why President Obama needs to direct his agency heads to actively recruit our new veterans — not out of gratitude, but because they are best prepared to lead our nation as we move into an uncertain and complex future.

Jeff Bryan is currently a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is a 2004 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and served two tours in Iraq.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A Trigonometry of Relationships - Mini-Review of "The First Warm Evening of the Year" by Jamie M. Saul

Jamie M. Saul's new novel, "The First Warm Evening of the Year" is populated with ghosts. Spectral protagonists lurk in every chapter, beginning with the recently deceased Laura. Knowing she was dying, Laura instructed her lawyer to make a posthumous request to a friend she had not seen in twenty years for him to serve as the executor of her estate. Thus was Geoffrey Tremont ripped from his easy life as a voice-over actor in New York City and thrust into the middle of complex relational trigonometric functions in the sleepy Berkshire town of Shady Grove. There are sines, cosines, tangents and secants of triangular relationships running in every direction, providing clues on how to take the measure of the book's characters.

Geoffrey meets Marian, also a friend of Laura. Together, for almost twenty years these two women were the "young widows of Shady Grove," each mourning in her own way the loss of Marian's Buddy and Laura's Steve. Throughout the course of the narrative, Geoffrey and Marian warily and oh-so-cautiously take the measure of one another to figure out how they should responsibly deal with the instant attraction they felt for each other. There is Rita to consider, Geoffrey's convenient and casual girlfriend in the City; there is also Eliot, Marian's safe companion of long standing. Geoffrey and Marian are like two lumps of anthracite coal - reluctant to ignite, but full of pent-up potential energy that may begin to glow and throw off a great deal of heat under the right conditions.

Geoffrey's gay psychiatrist brother, Alex and Laura's ne'er-do-well brother, Simon, the failed ballet dancer, add a satisfying subplot and scrim against which Geoffrey's actions and motives are reflected.

Along the way, as I read this novel, I was often reminded of one of my favorite Woody Allen films, "Interiors." There is not much external actions, but there is constant inner turmoil and inter-relational complexities being revealed and explored. The writing is rich and the story is well told. We want Geoffrey and Marian to find a way to dispel the ghosts that would keep them at arm's length from one another.



Monday, April 02, 2012

Rush to Harvard Square To See Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" by the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club

I was lucky enough to see the original Broadway production of "Sunday in the Park with George" starring Bernadette Peters and Many Patinkin. So, the bar had been set high for any future productions of this marvelous musical. I was not sure what to expect this weekend when I made my way to the Loeb Theater for the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club's presentation of the play. I was blown away!

When "Sunday in the Park with George" opened in the early 1980's, the technology available to depict some of the show's most interesting graphic concepts was primitive by today's standards. Under Director, Ryan Halprin and Video/Projection Director, Sean Goller, this cast and crew have utilized a variety of projection and animation technologies that have vaulted this production to a whole new level of storytelling.

The ensemble cast was wonderful, faithfully adding their own individual brushstrokes to the overall portrait being painted in this production. The brilliant use of technology and the creativity of the design and production teams both framed and illuminated the show in wonderful and breathtaking ways. They have done a marvelous job of "Putting It Together."

You have three more opportunities this week to catch this beautifully conceived and executed production.

And that, as Sondheim said, "is the state of the art"!



A Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about the chaos of reality and the forms we use to make sense of it, Sunday in the Park with George combines innovative storytelling with Sondheim’s masterful score to bring the characters of Seurat’s most famous painting to life. With a focus on modern visual art, technology, and movement as a means of storytelling, we will explore both the unending allure of art and the devastating toll of obsessing over it. Join us as Harvard artists from diverse disciplines converge on one stage to tell a story that will both consume and inspire anyone who has ever had an artistic experience.

Thursday, April 5th @ 8pm
Friday, April 6th @ 8pm
Saturday, April 7th @ 8pm

On the Loeb Mainstage at 64 Brattle St.

Tickets available at the Harvard Box Office
$8 students; $12 general admission

Directed and Choreographed by Ryan Halprin
Music Directed by Sam Schoenberg
Produced by Anna Kelsey, Andrea Moreno, and Natalie Feldman