Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Here, There and Everywhere

Penny Lane isn’t even my favorite Beatles song, but I found myself having some hard to describe emotions as I traveled down Penny Lane in Liverpool a couple of days ago. Yes, there is a roundabout with a barber shop on one side and a bank on the other. (The barber shaves another customer, we see the banker sitting waiting for a trim….) The shelter at the roundabout (where a pretty nurse sells poppies from a tray) was the bus transfer center for that part of Liverpool, and John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney would have met there most every day traveling to school. George’s dad (with the wonderful name Harry Harrison) was a bus driver, and they probably rode downtown often on his bus. Paul and George’s houses were down one main street leading toward that place, while John lived down another. Around the corner from John’s house, almost in his backyard, were the grounds of a Salvation Army home called Strawberry Field.

Monday afternoon I was on a bus called “The Magical Mystery Tour” sitting next to my son Jesse with Amanda and Gretchen sitting behind us, seeing these places and lots of others – like the house Ringo was born in, the house George was born in, Paul’s house where John and Paul wrote over one hundred songs and practiced them in the bathroom because the acoustics were great in there, and even the church hall where on a summer day in 1957 Paul was introduced to John at a performance by John’s group “The Quarrymen.” (There is a cemetery behind the church and yes, there is a gravestone there for a woman named “Eleanor Rigby.”) You could throw a stone from the church to Strawberry Field and pick it up and throw it again and hit John’s house.

One of my earliest memories is watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in February, 1964. My parents were scandalized by their long hair and loud music, and my brothers and I loved them. I remember seeing the movie “Help” in its first run in our local theater in Sharonville, Ohio, and being in awe of my older brother who saw The Beatles live at Crosley Field in Cincinnati in 1966. We bought every Beatles album when it came out, and I still have them all on CD. I saw Paul when I was a senior in high school on his Wings Over America tour and I remember learning of John’s murder while watching a Monday Night Football game in 1980. The Beatles and their music wove in and out of my childhood in powerful ways.

So let’s get back to my feelings as we were driving down Penny Lane. I felt a very strong emotional surge – maybe the best word for it is nostalgia, and I know I am not the first person to feel it or to be led to Liverpool because of it. The city has real problems keeping the street signs for Penny Lane in place, and this Monday, on a non-descript February afternoon, there was a bus load of pilgrims from all over the world on the tour. What is it we all were seeking? Some sort of understanding of our childhoods? Some sort of connection to our idols? I’m not sure. Maybe it is just the same feeling that caused Lennon and McCartney to write songs about Liverpool.

So, if Penny Lane isn’t my favorite Beatles song, what is? It all depends on what day it is and what sort of mood I’m in. There are way too many possibilities. Today, my favorite isn’t even technically a Beatles song, but a song by a Beatle, the song “Beautiful Boy” by John, written for his son Sean. Yesterday, sitting in the legendary “Cavern Club,” listening to a very talented John Lennon impersonator, we requested “Beautiful Boy” and enjoyed it very much. One line sticks with me: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Fatherly advice for all of us.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When a 90% Success Rate Means Total Failure

I drove my car over the Rhine (Rijn in Dutch) river at Arnhem today. No big deal, hundreds of cars go over the bridge daily, but I went over it with a sense of history. This bridge is the famous “Bridge Too Far.”

You probably know that name, but may be fuzzy on the details. Here’s a little history. The Allies invaded Europe at Normandy in June, 1944. They got bogged down in France and Belgium by the end of the summer. Anxious to end the war by Christmas, the British General Bernard Law Montgomery devised a plan to attack Germany from the North through Holland. This plan became known as “Operation Market Garden,” and became the biggest Allied disaster of the war. The plan called for the largest deployment of airborne troops in history. The paratroopers jumped more or less on a line from Eindhoven to Nijmegen to Arnhem. Because Holland is an endless series of rivers and canals, these forces were supposed to capture several bridges along the way and hold them while armored divisions raced northwards out of Belgium and then massed together to pour into Germany. But the intelligence was wrong – the Germans had much stronger forces than the Allies imagined, the fighting was intense, the armored divisions were supposed to travel north up one highway and some of the bridges they were supposed to hold had already been destroyed. The Allies never fully got control of that highway. The paratroopers had been sent with two-day supplies of food and ammunition, and their relief never reached them.

The fighting was especially intense around Arnhem. British and Polish forces landed there and took the northern end of the bridge I crossed today. It was the furthest bridge in the plan, and they held it for several days despite brutal opposition. They were surrounded, and about one week after they jumped in had to retreat out of Arnhem. A bit over 2000 troops were able to escape by cover of night. 17,000 others were killed in Arnhem.

Arnhem was more or less destroyed. Looking today, I noticed that, with the exception of a magnificent church, every building around the bridge was recent. The Dutch Resistance, thinking liberation was at hand, came out of hiding and were decimated. The winter of 1944-45 became the worst winter in Dutch history – it is called “The Hunger Winter” here, and huge numbers of people starved to death.

There is a museum outside of Arnhem where the British headquarters was, and one of the most moving things I saw today was a monument given jointly by the UK and Poland to the people of Arnhem in September, 1994, on the 50th Anniversary of Operation Market Garden. I’m paraphrasing, but it more or less said “You expected liberation when we came, but instead we brought destruction and devastation to you. You have never blamed us, and we will never forget that.” I contrasted that honest statement to a quote I saw from General Montgomery inside the museum. He said, “Operation Market Garden was 90% successful.”

What a perverse way of looking at one’s own colossal mistakes that cost tens of thousands of lives.

It left me thinking that there is a gap between making a true statement and telling the truth. Monty could probably defend that statement statistically, that 90% of what was supposed to happen did in fact happen. But it was a horrible failure. The death toll of Operation Market Garden is one thing, but you also have to add the death toll of the Battle of the Bulge, the German counter-attack through Belgium that Christmas to the total cost of Market Garden. Monty was a small man with a huge ego, and unable to admit how wrong he was.

Why can’t some leaders admit mistakes?

Among the endless tragedies of Market Garden is that the Polish Commander objected to the plan from the start. He expressed his reservations that his men were supposed to be part of a surprise attack, but would be dropped some 10 miles from their target because the British felt the area around the bridge too marshy to jump into. The Polish Commander asked, “What could be surprising about landing ten miles away from where you want to go?” But in the military chain of command, after one expresses his reservations, he obeys orders. The soldiers under his command were decimated.

At what point is it okay to say, “I’m not going to follow. I am not going to lead others to their destruction”?

I have seen leadership bestowed on whoever has the biggest ego and is most aggressive, loudest, and most intimidating. But those sort of leaders never last, do they?

It was sobering to visit the area around Arnhem and think of all that happened there a generation ago. One wonders what we have learned from disasters like Operation Market Garden.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Making a Day Among Masterpieces a Masterpiece

What if you lived in the Netherlands but knew you were only going to be there for another six weeks or so? What would you do?

Most of the people who read this blog have found out through other channels that we are returning to the US in March. But if you didn’t know that, now you do. I won’t explore why here, but if you read this blog carefully, it’s pretty much all there.

So, if you’re me, you say to yourself, “I’ve got to go visit The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” She lives on a wall about thirty-five minutes away in The Hague. Today, because the sun was shining, we went and saw her. (We had to walk a bit from the train station and I waited for a decent day to make that walk.) She lived up to expectations. The light in The Girl with the Pearl Earring alone is worth staring at for a long time. As is her blue turban. And her beautiful face. What a thrill to see the real thing! She is the “Mona Lisa” of Northern Europe, and she is stunning. And not only her, but lots of other incredible masterpieces, like Vermeer’s “View of Delft,” a bunch of paintings by Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens, along with masterpieces by Jan Steen and Frans Hals and many others. We went to the Mauritshaus today and it was magnificent. I could feel my soul expanding as the day went on. I am so blessed to be able to see these incredible paintings in person.

What crossed my mind is, “Why don’t we live like this all the time? Why don’t we take advantage of our days and make them special instead of just plodding along?” I’ve heard this message a thousand times in a thousand ways. John Wooden likes to say, “Make each day a masterpiece.” Jesus said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were going to live forever.” (I’m sure John Wooden would enjoy being included with Jesus and Gandhi!)

This attitude of making where you are right now count is called mindfulness in Eastern thought. It is a very positive way to live. The secret of contentment and happiness, according to this idea, is to remain in the present moment. This idea –this discipline-has come to mean a lot to me over the past few months. Here’s a quick primer on the foundations of mindfulness:

Non-judging – Turn off the part of your brain that immediately sorts everything into “good” or “bad” and instead impartially accept your own experiences.

Patient – A form of wisdom, patience demonstrates that we understand things must unfold in their own time.

Innocent - To see the richness of the present moment, we need to see it as if we are seeing it for the first time.

Trusting – Trust your intuition, your feelings, yourself, your gut, your own wisdom.

Non-striving – Getting over “if/then” thinking is the key – “if this happens, then I will be content or happy or fulfilled.” We tend to live expecting some future thing to make us content – “if” I get this job or this house or this whatever, “then” life will really work. So we manipulate things so we get what we want …and it NEVER fulfills us.

Accepting – See things as they really are in the present. We spend way too much energy denying and resisting reality. Accept reality and start from there.

Letting Go – Detachment is the key to all of the behaviors described above. Let go of people, events, things, the past, the future…whatever it is we hold onto. Peace is found in letting go.

Cultivating mindfulness means to cultivate “being” instead of “doing.” It is a rich way to live. What’s stopping you from enjoying something beautiful close to you?