Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Lesson From The Desert

I’m composing this among the sand, cacti, and scents of Sedona, Arizona on my way back east from California’s Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park (photo above by Scott Mansfield), and the Mohave.  I know with that itinerary some of you wags out there are thinking, “Siger’s getting his just deserts.”

Palm Springs
I’ll forgive you for the thought if you’ll forgive me for the pun.

I find something magical about deserts.  I don’t know why that is.  I live on an island yet deserts arouse me in much the same way as the sea.  For instance, a few days ago in Joshua Tree I stood among massive granite boulder formations I’d never seen before and yet I sensed that I had.  But how could that be and where?   

Then it hit me: underwater. I free dive in the Aegean off the shores of Mykonos and Delos, and the granite shapes I’m so used to rising up at me from the sea floor now surrounded me in a California desert.  Even the flora reminded me of shapes that grow beneath the sea. 

Amazing.  Just add water to the desert and voila I’m back in Greece!

Scuba, not free-diving
I realize that referring to deserts, underwater, and Greece in the same thought may seem a strained attempt to segue into the elephant in the room anytime Greece is mentioned these days, but I promise you I had no such intention.

It’s all too predictable anyway.  The news I mean.  It’s as if I’m watching an endless loop of a Punch and Judy show played out against the same tired sets and staging.   

Here we are again, back atop Athens’ Hotel Grande Bretagne overlooking Syntagma Square in front of Greece’s Parliament Building, “cue the black hooded hooligans,” “launch the marble chunks and molotovs,” “send in the police,” “pan to the politicians pontificating,” and don’t forget to “burn a few cars,” and “torch some shops.”

Attikon Cinema then
Okay, I admit that what happened in Athens last weekend was tragic beyond any demonstrations of recent memory (though Greece remains the safest country in the European Union, as difficult as that may be to believe with the patently violent (televised) demonstrations) as rioters destroyed the Attikon cinema—one of the few remaining neoclassical buildings from Athens’ glory days of 100 years ago—to punctuate misguidedly the general feeling among the Greek citizenry that its Parliament is corrupt, incapable, and out for itself as it allows Greece's destiny to slip more and more out of its own hands with every passing day.

...and now
And, yes, the country is gearing up for a very interesting summer of repercussions.

But, still, it’s the same old storyline with the same characters, same speeches, same inaction.  Hmm, dare one say, “therein lies the rub”?

I recently saw a staunch supporter of her homeland describe it as “The Greece of Hopelessness.” That’s a pretty fair opinion on the state of things if you confine yourself to what’s in the news, but perhaps because I’m by nature more optimistic…or have seen first hand the granite that is Greece beneath its surface…I see things somewhat differently.  

No doubt the country faces very difficult times, but there’s hope out there that this is Greece’s chance to find and hit its “restart button,” one that will return the country to its lost core values...such as one carved above Delphi by Athenians 2500 years ago: “Nothing in Excess.”  

But how can Greece possibly return to such glory when so many consider their country a vast desert of despair?  Suggestion: just add reason.



  1. Beautiful pictures. You find yourself in some breathtaking places :)
    As for Greece, and more countries in Europe, and, oh yes, the USA-I'm sort of holding my breath.

  2. You write that a solution to the problem can be found by applying reason. If people had taken the time to weigh the options, the mess wouldn't have happened.

    "Nothing in excess" requires accepting the lost notion of delayed gratification. People bought homes they couldn't afford, got mortgages at interest rates that were exorbitant and that simple math could have shown them they couldn't afford. But mortgage lenders rode over any doubts they may have had and convinced them they deserved a $600,000.00 home on a $50,000 a year income.

    The mess was the logical next step in the insane parenting philosophy that insisted that the only thing necessary for a child to be a success is an outsize ego created when by never letting a child hear a negative word. Grade inflation got its start in private schools when parents deluded themselves into believing that paying through the nose guaranteed high grades. Parents weren't paying for C's. At one point, I worked in a small private school. I was something of a thorn in their bed of roses when I questioned the quality of an education that put 3/4's of the student body on the honor roll. How can being on the honor roll (published in the weekly paper) by important when you know your child got an A in English but doesn't know the difference between a noun and a verb?

    I was teaching 7th grade in a private school. A student failed the test. Next day she brings back the test and tells me her mother said all her answers were correct and I was wrong. Having acquired a lot of experience and knowing the parental entitlement philosophy, I only used the tests that were included in the teaching materials. I offered to give her a copy of the answer sheet and the address of the textbook publisher, but the mother decided to drop the issue.

    That incident occurred twelve years ago, so the student is in her early twenties now. I bt her mother is still safeguarding her self esteem by sacrificing the child's right to make mistakes and learn from them.

    When one of my kids was in elementary school, parents of kids being considered for an accelerated program were invited to an informational meeting with a man who was an expert in such things. He wasn't what most of the parents expected. He told a story about a child who played the tuba better than any other student in the school. His tuba prowess was known across the city. One day, he is invited to participate in a program with all the kids who were the best tuba players in their cities. When he came home after his first day, he put his tuba in the trash. No one had prepared him for being with kids who were all the best tuba players in their ponds. He hadn't realized that he was the only tuba player in his pond so being the best wasn't the result of diligent practice and commitment to the instrument. He was the best because he had the pond to himself. There were no challengers to his belief in himself. The speaker was telling parents that they had a responsibility to prepare their kids for dose of the real world.

    Unless a child is the internationally recognized tuba-playing equivalent of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, there is always someone better.

  3. Wonderful comment, Beth, and I couldn't agree more. The son of a friend of mine graduated summa from a pretty good High School in our area, and got into Yale. When his father asked how he was doing, he said, "You don't understand, Dad, here everyone is a 4.00." He did well, but I think expectations of hard work and earning what you get have really changed. The terrible lending practices that fueled those who wanted a part of the dream are immoral at best. And the saddest thing, is only those who got burned are paying. I can understand their anger. I'm certainly not a reactionary, but a little balance, or reason , as Jeff points out would certainly better our world.

  4. Thanks, Lil, and yes I agree I'm lucky to get to see these places. I guess you could say my Pittsburgh roots inspired my wanderlust:)

    Beth, our world should only be so perfect as to realize each child is special in his or her own way. A psychiatrist friend of mine in NYC once told me that his absolutely most screwed up patients were Wall Street lawyer types who'd been tops in their class from pre-school through law school but we're passed over for partnership in their law firms. It was their very first failure and devastated them for the rest of their lives.

    One must learn to lose if you're to have any chance at being tough enough to make it in the real world, let alone excel. That's why I think grade inflation is training wheels for hubris before the fall.

  5. Excellent. So well said; so well written. Pls let me know when you plan to give a Writer's Workshop geared not only to the art of writing, but to writing about Greek themes for fiction or non-fiction. Once again, you are more Greek than the Greeks.

    Poppy Psinakis Patterson

  6. Thanks, Poppy, glad your comment found its way over from my Facebook page. Now to find someway to make you a regular contributor here!

  7. Bless you, Jeff. Great piece, great pictures, although I still can't believe you didn't call me in Los Angeles.

  8. If I were in Los Angeles you'd be the very first person I'd call. But, honest, I wasn't in Los Angeles, or even nearby. The closest I came to LA was Joshua Tree. Though I guess I could have called you and said I was in Los Angeles, but tied up in meetings so I couldn't get over to see you. Nah, that would have been too LA.

  9. I fear for Greece Jeff. Unelected technocrats inflicting pain upon a whole a populace, disenfranchising and alienating them in a stroke, can only end one way: badly. I hope I'm wrong.

  10. One of the blessings of growing up in a small Kansas town is that people learned to live with their own mediocrity. Sounds like a strange attitude, but it worked. The school play had to wait until the football season was over and we were expected to be in the school chorus whether we could sing a note or not.

    Many a frightened kid went out for football so the school could field a team. Being good or competent simply had nothing to do with anything.

    This get 'er done attitude has been an enormous help for my writing. I think that's why I had the nerve to go for a top agent and Simon & Schuster when I sallied forth. I thought it made sense to try--simply because it was always expected. And lo and behold--it worked. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

  11. Dan, the deck is stacked as you say, and yes, Charlotte (missed hearing from you), sometimes you just have to suck it up, take on the odds, and do what you must to make what you want happen. The Greeks are at that point now. They have the heritage, now to find the will.