weekend update: leadership edition

Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.

  • Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
  • I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
  • Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.
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what I’m watching

I was inspired by my brother’s podcast, Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This(listen to the latest episode here) to begin regularly reporting on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  But since the blog format is less tolerant of long-windedness than the podcast format, I am going to focus on just one of these today—on the three movies I watched this past weekend, to be exact.

  1. Logan.  I may have mentioned before that I’m a regular platelet donor and that one of my favorite parts about donating (aside from knowing that I’m helping to save people’s lives) is getting to watch a movie while tucked under one or more electric blankets.  Last Thursday, I chose to watch Logan, the first X-Men movie—indeed, the first Marvel movie—to have Oscar hopes.  I’m always a little hesitant to watch violent movies while donating because it’s hard to escape or even look away from a particularly gruesome scene when I’m strapped to a bed, but even though this R-rated film was very violent (more than I expected), I’m glad I watched it.  Probably the most striking feature of Logan is how well it captures the artistic trends and cultural anxieties of 2017.  The setting—a not-too-distant, not-quite-apocalyptic future (technology still works, but things are quickly falling apart, especially along the US/Mexico border)—reminded me of The Walking Dead and even more of its borderland spinoff Fear the Walking Dead.  Fears about genetic experimentation devoid of human conscience were represented in the character Laura, basically an 11-year-old female Wolverine, who, in her silent and deadpan (and occasionally delighted) observation of the “normal” world, reminded me of Eleven from Stranger Things.  The cinematography made the whole world look hot and tired, and the music (especially the Johnny Cash song in the credits) added to the weary and foreboding tone.  In spite of the cynicism of both the characters and the general tone, the movie still had the heart of a more traditional Marvel film, and I nearly cried at the end.  I had always thought of Wolverine as one of the least interesting X-Men, but, like many viewers of this startling film, I’ve done a complete reversal on that opinion.
  2. Jaws.  One of our local theaters was showing this 1975 classic last week, and I saw it Friday night.  It was my first time seeing it in many years, and it was both gorier (they blew up a shark!) and better than I remembered.  John Williams’s score, though sometimes over the top, is a classic of his early style.  The acting is fantastic, the writing is straightforward yet understated, and even though the special effects are not what they would be today, the pacing of the film contributes to a dramatic tension that never lets up.  I’m kind of a sucker for male bonding stories, so I really like the camaraderie (and tension—more tension) among the three men who go out to hunt down the shark.  It’s a classic seafaring story.  And now that I’ve used the word “classic” three times in one paragraph, I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll move on.
  3. Moonlight.  On Saturday night, I finally watched the real Best Picture winner of 2017.  I can’t comment on whether it’s better or worse than La La Land; the movies are too different.  But I can say that it’s very good.  And although it couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to Jaws in every way, Moonlight, too, has some great dramatic tension.  I think I may have been holding my breath for the last 20 minutes of the movie as I watched the main character and his old high school friend (and lover? That’s what he wants to find out) conversationally dance around and around the topic neither of them wants to broach.  The score of this movie is also excellent, and the camera work and lighting, combined with the bright colors of many of the buildings in Miami, make everything look not cheerful but lurid and sad, in keeping with the story.  And Maharshala Ali deserved that Best Supporting Actor win, even though he’s only in the first third of the film.

If you’ve seen any of these movies, let me know what you thought.  Next week I’ll be back with what I’m reading.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart

I am writing this post from a fog of hunger.  I did just eat a little container of hummus (150 calories) and five naan dippers (another 150), but I don’t think the energy has kicked in yet.  So bear with me.

Last week I started participating in an eight-week weight loss program sponsored by my employer.  When I first signed up, in April, I referred to it as a “wellness” or “fitness” program because I couldn’t bring myself to say the dreaded WL phrase.  And even now, as I’m writing this, a whole host of qualifiers comes clamoring to my mind because I feel like I need to justify my participation to you (and to me): “I don’t want or need to lose a lot of weight, just ten pounds.” Or “I’m doing this because I’m planning to run a half-marathon at the end of the summer” (thereby letting you know that I’m already an active person).  I.e., I don’t really need to lose weight, at least not as badly as that other employee that I just saw walking down the hall, who should have been the one to sign up.  Etc.  In fact, when I showed up for the first session last Tuesday, I kind of hoped they would send me away–“Oh, you’re too skinny for this program!”  But they didn’t.  So I finally had to admit that maybe I actually needed to be there.

That was the first hurdle to be leaped (not that I’m quite up to jumping hurdles yet.  Next obstacle: Committing to a daily calorie goal.  I really, really hate counting calories.  In fact, I have serious philosophical problems with the whole idea of treating food as nothing but fuel.  I’m pretty sure chefs think of themselves as artists, not bioengineers.  And we all recognize that a gift of food–especially homemade–is a lot more meaningful than a free tank of gas, monetary value aside.  (See my post called “food speaks.”)  In addition to my theoretical objections, I hate the inconvenience of having to know or guess the caloric content of everything I eat.  What about the chicken jalapeno popper soup that was already in my refrigerator when the program started, which I made from a recipe that didn’t include nutrition facts?  It has a lot of fresh vegetables in it, and one of the main ingredients of the “creamy” broth is cauliflower, so it’s actually pretty healthy.  But I don’t know how many calories are in it, so I end up making a guess that’s probably wildly inaccurate.  And I know it’s cheating to lowball the estimate, so I guess high–and probably cheat myself out of 100 calories I could have eaten.  (Maybe that’s why I’m so hungry this afternoon, come to think of it.)  Ironically, this calorie-counting thing has me cooking less and eating more packaged foods: at least this way I know what to record in MyFitnessPal.

The exercise part is the easiest for me; as I mentioned (and I’ll say it again, in case you missed it the first time), I’m already a pretty active person.  This works to my advantage because, logically, I get to add calories onto my daily intake whenever I exercise.  So I’ve been doing this thing that I’m pretty sure is antithetical to the spirit of this program: If I’m getting toward the end of the day and I realize I’m not going to have enough calories left to eat a snack while watching Fear the Walking Dead, or whatever, I’ll get in a quick extra workout to buy myself some more calories.  I actually worked out three times on Sunday, and I had three snacks during Fear (hey, it was the two-hour season premiere).

I’m fully aware of how pathetic this is.  I also know that when I go back and read through this post, I’m going to hate how whiny I sound.  And I already want to apologize to Bruce Springsteen for appropriating his song title because it was the first clever saying with the word “hungry” in it that I could think of.  But I’m going to go ahead and post this before I change my mind because I think some of you can relate.  And we all like reading about stuff we can relate to.  Now to find out how many calories are in a fun-size 3 Musketeers, because I’m still hungry.

food speaks

In Fear the Walking Dead, my current Sunday night TV show, a major character named Nick recently wanted to comfort a little girl whose father had been fed as a sacrifice to the infected dead.  But the little girl speaks only Spanish, and Nick speaks only English, so he ended up communicating his care by giving her a Gansito–a little individually-wrapped snack cake he obtained at some peril to his life.

In The Tale of Despereaux, a book I’m getting ready to discuss with my children’s lit students, soup is a pivotal symbol.  The cook makes a surreptitious batch of soup (which has been outlawed) as an act of courage and defiance.  The hero–a mouse–draws strength for his climactic act from a few spoonfuls of the cook’s secret soup.  And at the end of the story, the major characters, some of whom were formerly enemies, celebrate by eating soup (now legal) around a lavish dinner table.

I spent this past weekend at Virginia Beach with three of my dearest friends, and as we discussed on the last night, some of our favorite memories from the trip had to do with meals: the conversations around the table, the atmosphere in the restaurants (or outside on the patio next to the boardwalk), and, of course, the food.  At lunch on Saturday, I traded my last fried shrimp taco for the rest of one friend’s macaroni and cheese, and we both got enough joy out of this simple swap that we were still talking about it hours later.  It was an act that involved giving, receiving, and trying new things: some of life’s greatest joys.

I’ve told these stories because it’s hard to say what I want to say any other way, without resorting to platitudes.  If you’ve ever been moved to tears by a gift of food (even a vending machine snack cake), felt disproportionately happy watching people eat something you cooked, or looked forward for days to a dinner party (or a pizza and movie night), you know what I mean.

This topic isn’t as simple as I wish I could pretend it is.  Not everybody gets a warm glowy feeling from eating with other people.  Some people have dietary restrictions due to allergies, illnesses, or convictions, and other people say insensitive things to them because they can’t understand (I have said these kinds of things more often than I care to think about).  Others have eating disorders that make this a painfully thorny issue.  And we can’t ignore the fact that millions of people don’t have enough food for basic subsistence.

So I’m not going to make sweeping generalizations like “Food is a universal language.”  It’s not.  But just like anything that functions as a vehicle of communication between people (only more so, because food literally becomes part of us), food allows us to make small steps toward understanding.  Small steps like refraining from judging someone because of what they eat or don’t eat, or how they eat.  Like accepting a meal without feeling obligated to give something in return.  Like taking the time to know what a person really likes, wants, and needs.  This is how we connect with people.  This is how food speaks.