All posts by pcostello

Story-smart, Story-competent, or Storywise? Our 2012 Manifesto

Everyone can learn to tell a good story.  A lot of great courses and great teachers will train you how, and no wonder they are popular.  But not all of them offer the same thing.

Storytelling 101 is surely a good basic skill to have. These introductory courses  aim to make us story-competent. It will help us at our daughters wedding or our son’s bar-mitzvah when we have to give a speech.  We will deliver that staff report with more panache and even get people laughing at our jokes. Who wants to be story-incompetent anyway? One doesn’t have to be boring or collapse in  a feverish sweat every time we have to speak in public.

Next, you can pay a lot more money and sign on to the real masters of the story-craft who not only teach you the skills, but take you across the bridge to the world of branding and marketing. These are the high powered consultants who will teach you as a leader or as a company exec to make your story stand out, to be clear, to be resonant, to be memorable, to be sticky, to have buzz, to  delight clients, to create attraction, to set up force fields of attention, to be a purple elephant, to be a springboard, to be fresh and current.

These are all what I call the add-ons that promise to make us story-smart. And who wants to be story-dumb?  Products like cars nowadays are seen as stories on wheels. That is what you are selling, stories.  Strategic plans are no longer turgid point A-F memorandums but Future Stories, Visioning, Dreams of Possibility.

We go to a seminar and get inspired to chase that budget allocation to bring your staff and executive team away on a story retreat. Getting them story-competent and story-smart promises to  transform your organization.  That’s the story at least. Right? But will it?

What if no matter how powerful these shiny new set of tools are, that you have missed what most practitioners have missed-about the real power of story that lies beyond its sheer instrumentality.

Something essential is missing from the thriving story-expert industry right now. We give you a  user’s  manual on how to use stories, but no bible of why, when, or to what end?  What we don’t teach is the most obvious thing about stories.  Stories are dangerous!

Stories cause wars. Stories bring famines. Stories  protect dictators. Stories abuse women.  Or to put it another way. Anti-semitism is the result of a well told story.  Think Protocol of the Elders of Zion or Mein Kempf. Racism is the result of a time-tested story.  Think Birth of a Nation. Homophobia is the result of a compelling story. Think Sodom and Gomorrah.  Sexism is the result of a macho story. Think Playboy. Even the economic recession is the result of brilliant stories told to us by all those highly sophisticated story competent and story-smart people at Lehmann brothers and AIG and the Fed.  Watch the old AIG ad , for instance, about the kid who can’t get to sleep and his Dad tells him, “Buddy, we’re with AIG.” We bought this bill of goods because we thought being story competent and story smart was enough. But clearly it wasn’t.

Stories are not some bright new, shiny, faddishly fascinating bundle of tricks for the board room, or the marketing team. No, they are the oldest and most lethal weapons known to man.  In ancient times, someone could put a story curse on you, and you would shrivel up and die. Today, they call it character assassination, and who needs to point a bone when you have Facebook or Youtube to expose you to the world?  It is not vodoo, its stories.  World wars start because  a leader buys a deadly story that he sells to his people, Predictably, a story will start World War Three. We live in dangerous times made even more dangerous by dangerous, out-of-control stories.  What we most need to learn is how to resist their seductions, to  discern, to decide, to become storywise.

As valuable as it is,  we don’t all have to be great tellers of tales. To fail as a fabulist is not fatal. We don’t all have to be marketing gurus, the seth godins of our tribe. Sometimes, just making a good product that speaks for itself can be a successful strategy.  We might be story-competent,  and that is good. We won’t be boring anymore. We might be story-smart, and that is great, because people will buy our product, our ideas, our bundled sub-prime mortgage packages.  But the survival of the human project demands much more than that right now. We have to become storywise.

Our planet, our species , even our culture itself is poised on the brink of enormous change.  Technology can broadcast a million stories a second.  Advocates and lobbying groups assault us with competing arguments that so contradict and confuse us that we end up overwhelmed. Climate change, vaccinations and autism, cell phone radiation,  diet supplements,  gas pipelines, Toyota cars,  Israel and Palestine, you name it, there is a compelling story on one side as compelling as the story on the other side. It is no longer an issue of knowledge, not even an issue of competence. At the end, it boils down to wisdom; making the wisest choices about what story to buy, rather than the easiest, cheapest, or the most popular.

If we are not storywise, we end up being storystupid. That means being totally vulnerable to all those other motivated people out there who are paying their big money to learn how to be story-smart and story-competent. All these graduates are being taught how to use their stories on us! Stories are their most effective tools for selling, to persuade us that someone is a friend, someone else an enemy, like those WMD’s in Iraq- a great story! Or to cajole us to vote for their brilliant  presidential candidate,  like John Edwards! Now wasn’t he so handsome and charismatic! Or stories told so we will believe that  women need men to decide their reproductive rights, or that God will smite us down for same-sex marriage , or that some ethnic minority from across the border is bad, mad, and stealing our jobs.

We are story consumers far more than we are story creators. Hence what we need most of all is some consumer protection, the protection that only becoming storywise can provide.  What does it mean to become storywise?

I am glad you asked. Stay tuned for the next few columns in the Republic of Stories where we will we explain our narrative philosophy, one we have been applying for the past 17 years at the Center for Narrative Studies. We want to  give you some practical examples,  tell you the results of our applications of this Storywise method to politics and peace around the world. We also want to offer you some affordable chances for training and coaching in the coming months.


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To Become Storywise- Lesson one, what is the story of the story?

To be storywise means first of all to ditch the story we are telling or being told about stories. Stories are not the answer, the save all, fix all, buy all, of leadership, economy, innovation or anything else. That is pure marketing hype. Substitute God or America or Buddha into any of the claims we story gurus perenially make and you see at once we are prone to messianic overstatement. Beware the breathless salesman!


Your first exercise in the storywise lesson book is to dissect the argument that I am making to you here about becoming storywise. Why should you buy my story? Aren’t I doing exactly the same as the story competent and story-smart merchants are doing? Maybe? Maybe not? How would you know the difference?

Once you have given me the once over, apply that same trick to yourself. Why would anyone buy your story? Behind our technique lurks something more important. But what is it? How would you describe that internal tribunal of yours that gets to decide?


Our challenge to you is, don’t buy this or any bill of goods before you question it, to test it. When you have decided, become more conscious of what made you decide.  Overhear yourself in that most private  discernment process.

If you do want to try storywise, work out why? Or why not? Maybe it says something about what you feel to be right and moral and true? Or the opposite? Maybe you  have been conned and sold short before, seduced by some story that cost you? Then you have a good enough reason to want to wise up. But I don’t want you to pay up before you wise up. This is not another con. Wise up as to why you need to be storywise.


Storywise is not about telling stories better. Technique can only takes us so far. It is about telling better stories and knowing how to smell a ruse. Some stories, whether true or not, are deadly. There are ways we can teach you how to tell. You can learn how to recognize the characteristics of a con, and save yourself or your company or your nation from disaster. These principles are all embedded in a new field of practice called narrative ethics that identify the clear warning signs. They apply to electing presidents as much as to buying your refrigerator or the used car.


One founding principle of narrative ethics is to recognize you as the expert of your own life. Often, your own unclaimed skills are contained in those life memories of when you knew something was not right, or something didn’t seem genuine. Think of that undbeatable offer that, at the time, seemed too good to be true and you turned it down, and it was too good to be true! Think of the boy or girl you didn’t marry, the job you didn’t take, the promotion you turned down, the great job you left. Most of us have a living experience of being storywise already, but  don’t know how can we can tap that latent power, how to discover what we didn’t even know we knew.

Part of surviving into adulthood involves growing an instinct, a nose, a sixth sense. Some call it intuition, but storywise believes its an awareness that can be harvested. Storywise means shaping the stories that shape us. To do that, you first have to know how you are being shaped. Storywise stands out as a prophet among the story industry to say, “We have to stop conning ourselves and our clients”-Stories may be great for children but their power is nuclear in its capacity for destruction.  Some stories need to be handled as HAZMAT, hazardous materials. No story is innocent.


Watch this space at the Republic of stories to show you what a storywise point of view might look and sound like. We are going to need it for the coming elections, for the economic revival that everyone is preaching but refusing to practice, for the crisis of global climate that seems to be cooling, for the impact of new technology that some boost but more lament, for the next round of Middle East peace talks that will happen on cue in December 2012,  the rise and fall of China, and for President Obama Mk II. You think in 2008, we were sold a story. We ain’t seen nothing yet!


Our media and our political system that feeds off it rely on us to be uncritical consumers. The story they peddle to us too often makes us sound like we don’t have brains. That is why we end up shouting at the TV set. The revolution begins when the people stop buying this crap. Its OK to occupy the squares, and to have teach-ins, but this storywise project is an inside job. You can stay warm. We don’t need tents. Change happens when we withhold our belief, when we suspend judgment. Lincoln’s words for it were “When we disenthrall ourselves.” The story-smart gurus tell us that we need a rallying cry, like “Just Do it” or “We are the other 99%”. Well, I think we have one, if we can use a uncouth term beloved of those crazy Australians. The T- shirt will say “Storywise-shaping the stories that shape us,” on the front, and on the back, “Lets boycott the Bullshit.” Let us know if you want to join the movement. We’ll send you a T-shirt.

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Election Results as Obama’s Hermeneutical challenge

What do they mean, these election results?The GOP took back the House-Clearly, the voters were rejecting outright the Obama agenda. Oh yeah? The Democrats held on to the Senate-Clearly, the voters were repudiating the Tea Party agenda.  What?The recent elections in the UK and Australia left both electorates in the quandary of a hung Parliament-and as one commentator said, the voters have spoken, we just still don’t know what they said.

It took a while to shake down. In the UK, it finally meant a coalition between the Conservatives and Progressives, and a bold program of reform and budget cuts. In Australia, the Labor Government barely hung on with three Independents, and has taken the warning, now seriously treading water. Here in the USA, the mid-terms are a bit of an anomaly, asking people to go back and redo what they thought they did only 2 years before. No wonder so many don’t vote. Too much already. Giving people every two years to change their mind is like asking your kids every five minutes are they having  fun yet. You learn not to ask. The anti-Obama crowd were at pains to tell us that this was a referendum on the President.  If so, it’s one he can’t lose since his name was not on the ballot. Funny that.  To make an election about someone we are NOT voting for, rather than about those we are.  Must be magical.

If you thought that was a little bizarre, think of the voters in Denver who voted down Prop 300 which wanted to set up a City Commission to study extra-terrestials.  Even ET (Phone home) didn’t vote for it, and it failed, despite a huge anonymous donation that some suspected came from the Martian Chamber of Commerce. Kathleen Parker’s Washington Post Op Ed today, (page positioned right of center of page A19) boldly  opines, “Narrative schmarrative,” the results happened not because Obama was a bad communicator but a lousy listener.  That’s something you’d expect Michelle to be saying, not a pundit. George Will (on the far right of A19)  says, the results show the nation recoiling from liberalism, a repudiation of progressivism. OK George. On the far left of page A19, David Broder weighs in: Obama needs to go back to Plan A of a broad bi-partisan outreach, since he has now thrown off the shackles of Pelosi and Reid. Obama held a press conference to get ahead of the bad news to call it a “shellacking” which is a great word if nothing else. The results, he said, show his programs are not working fast enough.  It was the pace of progress, not the programs, and people’s lack of patience. So there you have it, folks.  We get to choose our meanings.

It reminds me of a story of a friend who went to the doctors with a sniffle only to be told, you either have a bad flu or leukemia-take your pick.  I’ll take the flu please. The election results are the results. Bad news? Good News? No News that is new? Or perhaps the people have had a chance to refocus, to revisit some of the choices of 2008, to send their State and Congress Reps a message of sorts, which was- some of you are doing a good enough job, some of you are fired.  Simple as that. Of course, a hermeneutic of suspicion says, nothing is simple, there is always bad news and bad intent, all you have to do is look hard enough to find a conspiracy. But  Occam’s razor says, the simpler and more elegantly economic the explanation is, the better our minds work. Applied to the Mid Terms, it boils down to the people voting. Some candidates won. Some Lost.  And the President is still in the White House. And we may have earned 6 months grace before the 2012 campaign becomes the media obsession. Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, we have to work out what our own lives mean, what our wife means when she says you are ‘too tough on the kids’, or what your teenager means when he says, ‘ Don’t be too cool, Dad.”If Obama revives his hermeneutic of hope, he will know he”s got two more years to rescue the economy, and reconnect his hope to the nation’s hurting heartland.  But he knew that long before Tuesday.  It’s called leadership, a quality that wins in the end, but in the middle passage, doesn’t complain or explain,  because when did any of us not have to risk being wrong in order to end up right?

On the advantages of being Naive

At a seminar recently with a group of Israeli and Palestinian artists here on a Cultural Exchange, I was describing  our new program, New Story Leadership, and how unlike other leadership programs, we base our work around the power of stories.

I could see that some of the writers in the group were clearly getting it, how to apply a set of literary ideas and practices to peace building. But others were frowning with frustration, until one gentleman put up his hand to tell me that ‘These ideas are all very well but you are totally naive.”  I was curious to find out why he said that. He explained, “The Middle East is much more complicated.”  I wasn’t sure what to say except to acknowledge his opinions. But for the rest of the seminar, his comments acted as a mocking chorus, questioning  every statement I made.

I should be used to that by now, as I imagine most people are, who dare to do Middle East peace work. A year or so back when NSL was nothing more than an idea, there was a veritable chorus of folks who told us we were mad, that we had no idea of what we were doing, that we had no financial plan, (which was pretty much true then) that we would have to have a bus load of trauma counselors ready for anyone we brought to Washington from Gaza, that the people-to-people approach of other programs was a waste of time, that this other program was a disaster, that this newer program was trapped in funding politics, and on and on.  The coup de grace came from an activist in Jerusalem who got so furious with our idea of bringing young Israeli and Palestinian students to Washington to work together in internships, that she walked out on our coffee date screaming, “You are nothing but a revolutionary tourist!” I have been called many things before, but never that.  She was right about the tourist, it being my first visit to the region, but revolutionary was  way too flattering.

The New Story Leadership did get up and running and last summer, we had our first ten students, five Palestinians and five Israelis and they had an extraordinary experience, one that seems to have made a difference even at this early stage. But for us, even to have launched the program in the face of all these disqualifying narratives was in itself probably the greatest achievement.  They said we couldn’t do it.

The Middle East as a story system aggressively defends its territory-there are “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out Stories” told everywhere, and one begins to understand why the subject is so full of pessimism and frustration. But one suspects that these are often the voices of the many vested interests that profit from the conflict NOT being solved.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton keeps saying that ‘ the status quo is not sustainable’ but the point is that for 63 years, it has been quite sustainable. As I told the artists rather facetiously, if peace was declared tomorrow between Palestine and Israel, there would be 5 million peace workers out of a job. Including me. The Middle East seems to support the biggest Peace Industry in the world.

When I revisit that seminar conversation, I want to replay it so that next time when someone says that we are naive, I am going to own it with pride. The theologians call it a second naivete but it is the same idea, that someone coming new to a challenge has the advantage of a mature ignorance. Life teaches you that you don’t need to know half of what you think you do, and the real challenge is what you need to unlearn. When one is working with the younger generation, who would want to burden them with any more than what they already carry from their experiences of war and occupation? It is a crime to discount their hope by calling them naive-they are supposed to be! We have to discover our second naivete, and make sure they don’t  too quickly lose their first.

That is why we assert our three core ideas in a very naive and uncomplicated way,

  • first,  that stories matter
  • second, that the Middle East needs a new story if it is going to find a sustainable path to peace
  • third, that the young people whose future is most at stake need to be inspired to take the lead by creating that story together

David Grossman, the great Israeli novelist has a new book called “To the End of the Land.” In an interview recently, he said

” We need some naivete to continue to believe in the option to change things-even in order to believe in mankind.”

So, here’s to naivete.

Here’s to refusing to see things other than clearly and simply, no matter how complicated.

Of course it can be complicated, but the simplest things  mostly are, strangely enough. And its we who complicate them!

Defending the right to be afraid-to be very afraid.

An NPR journalist, (now former) appears on FOX news earlier this week to share that when he gets on a plane with passengers wearing traditional Muslim dress, he feels AFRAID.

Because he got fired for it, FOX is now publicly campaigning against NPR to defend the right of a journalist to be afraid. Whatever about the debate,  the interesting fact is that FEAR is in the news-and one’s right to be afraid.  And it seems we as citizens are being invited every day to more fully exercise that right. Fear terrorists, fear immigrants, fear child predators, fear the government, fear Death Panels, fear China, fear Iran, fear Arabs, fear Muslims, fear the Tea Party, fear Sarah Palin, fear Obama, fear gay marriage. We could even say “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” but FDR beat us to it. Is it just me or does anyone else suspect an election is coming on?

Elections used to be about fresh and bold new ideas and inspiring candidates. Now they have a default position which is about manufacturing fear. Watch any attack ad and you are told, “someone is too dangerous” “someone else is too radical”  etc etc. It is what we wrote about in The Presidential Plot, which turns out to be a manual that applies to any election, 2008 or 2010 or 2012.

Here is an except:

THE CATASTROPHE FALLACY (Chapter 13, page 185)

We know the old preacher’s trick is to tell us, “The end is nigh!” and so, we must convert now or eternally perish. It used to work, but nowadays, government and politics have supplanted it with their own “Fear of the Future” story package. It’s how insurance makes its business, but not normally the business of government.

That is what made the Millennium Bug so irresistible, because no one could contradict it, and no one was prepared to be wrong, because the stakes were too high. No one wanted planes or Wall Street to crash. We were disarmed by the pseudo consequentialism of the story. Threaten someone with a future catastrophe if you want them to pay attention, and if you can scare them enough, they won’t contradict you because who can contradict fear?

The preacher preaches Hellfire, and the Doomsdayist describes the nuclear winter and Homeland Security warns of another 9-11, and we see it in our imaginations and so we feel it. Fear is physiological and it takes over to make even the fake feel real. No one can prove its right, which is why it’s so powerful, and no one can prove its wrong, which makes it so hard to disarm, and no one can afford to dismiss it in case it is right. Any dissent can be labeled as a reckless disregard for the future.

The same brilliant narrative cunning informs the way we go to war, whether it is Vietnam and the dominos falling, or we fight the terrorists in Iraq rather than they follow us here. (Another Cheney concoction) Or think about the gay marriage question and evangelists warning us that if we legalize it, marriage will be destroyed. No one can prove it, and no one can disprove it, and no one wants marriage destroyed. So it’s narrative checkmate. The military hawks love this ploy because if you dare to oppose the war, you will be accused of not supporting the troops and putting their lives in danger. Prove it? They can’t. Disprove it? You can’t. Will you risk it? No.

When you want to shut someone up, concoct the lethal mixture of fear and the future, and put the burden of proof on your opponent, which is to say, you prove me wrong, when in fact the burden of proof is logically on the person trying to persuade you.

The campaigns will use this tactic to perfection around the issues of the economy and taxes, or health care or Iraq or the current catastrophist narratives about energy and global warming. These predictions might be right, but if they disqualify dissent, they are dogma parading as data. The church gave that business away some time back, but trading in narrative futures by peddling some fact-proof dogmas about that future is still a thriving business.

In a later chapter, we will offer some antidotes to these poisonous story strategies, and elaborate a narrative ethic that in summary says that any story that stories over or stories out other voices is narratively unethical and a threat to the Republic of Stories where every voice has to count, especially the voice of dissent and the voice of the minority.

If you want to read more, grab yourself a copy  The Presidential Plot-How elections work

Young Leaders from Middle East ask for a say in peace

Dear President Abbas, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Secretary of State Clinton:

We are Liel Maghen, an Israeli from Tel Aviv, and Mariam Ashour, a Palestinian from Gaza, two voices from a generation of over 3 million young Israelis and Palestinians. We write to you with a sense of urgency, because we believe our future rests in your hands as you renew the peace talks this week.

We have just graduated, along with four other Palestinians and four other Israelis, from a new program called New Story Leadership. The Washington Post, Fox News, and National Public Radio have all recently carried stories of our summer in Washington, where we lived and worked together.

As part of our program we participated in many panels, conferences and roundtable discussions about the Middle East, and we found that people who lacked our experience and perspective were trying to tell our story. They emphasized only the points of disagreement and none of the opportunities for compromise.  Thus, we felt compelled to speak up, to ask to be heard, to attempt to educate listeners about how desperate our generation is, on both sides, for a peaceful and lasting resolution.

Liel’s life changed forever when a close friend and fellow Israeli soldier was killed in Lebanon. This friend was a hero of war.  But this loss motivated Liel into a quest to look for different kinds of heroes, heroes of peace. He found them in co existence meetings, where people faced their fear and tried to overcome their hatred by creating personal connection with the other side. Mariam’s perspective changed this summer when, having never met an Israeli before, she lived and worked with them for the first time. Coming from Gaza, she had seen  family members and friends killed in the conflict. She herself had even been blocked at check points for over a year from taking up a Hope Fund scholarship in the USA. So  she had ample reason to feel the way she did. But this summer, living and working with Israelis, against all expectations, she developed a deep trust and hope that a better future is indeed possible.  The other program participants have even more compelling stories, but we all arrived at the same conclusion: good faith political negotiations depend on trust and understanding that can only come from personal connection and friendships.

We urge you to understand that you cannot, and need not, achieve a peace agreement alone. Young people are those who are most able to bridge the conflict. Thus, we must be a part of the peace process as well. We, as a generation, have the capacity to change the course of history with fresh ideas, new energy, and most of all, hope. Our generation brings new messages of compromise, reconciliation, and willingness to work together. We cannot sit idly by while others, even our own leaders, meet and discuss our future without including our voice. Now that peace talks are about to resume, this is the time for you to engage us in developing a new, and more inclusive, process for finding a resolution. We ask the negotiation team to meet, as soon as possible, with a representative body of young people in order to develop a process, which will include us.

Although the peace negotiations will inevitably meet great challenges, we want to assure you that we are gathering a chorus of young voices from around the world who expect you to be the heroes of change. We expect you to make all reasonable efforts to finally bring peace to our region. You would become the heroes we would tell our children about, those who by making difficult decisions ensured a better future for them. History will show that when the critical moment came, you listened to the young generation and you found a way to protect our shared future.

Our prayers go with you as you embrace this historic quest.

Liel Maghen   NSL Graduate 2010 The Arava Institute
Mariam Ashour NSL Graduate 2010 Columbia College


2 comments so far…

  • Marvin H. Shaub, Ph.D. Said on September 2nd, 2010 at 10:23 am:

    I am a college professor and will teach international negotiation in the coming school year. I would be interested in following your activities relating to the Middle Eastern Peace Process.

    Best regards.


  • Marjorie Roberts, Ph.D Said on September 3rd, 2010 at 9:04 pm:

    I am a psychologist and a co-founder of a training center for psychotherapists. Much of my work is in creating new dialogues and giving voice to those who have not been included in the dialogues previously. You and your colleagues have contributed to this process. Please continue your efforts. Your work is encouraging.

Is Obama in Trouble, what happened to the story

I have just watched the Obama Oval Office speech, the second of his time as President.

I know the talking heads have already made a big deal about the stilted, professorial style, the lecture tone, the folded hands in front, the total formality. It was certainly no fireside chat. But something else was missing, and it is dire-more than a lack of policy, or a boring lecture on war and deficits.

What was missing?  A Story. This is a President who just visited the wounded at Walter Reed and the troops in Texas to express the appreciation of a gratelful nation, and what did he bring back????Nothing but talking points.   This is the president… speaking in the Oval office, THE OVAL OFFICE,  with the ghosts of FDR after Pearl Harbor, LBJ after Vietnam. The place screams of stories, but that hallowed place did not speak tonight.  This president who once snuck out to Dover to greet the remains of warriors on their last journey home,  is determined to keep his feelings private. All we are good for tonight is  Cliches and Pabulum.  Not a story in sight-No witness, no personal sense of the weight of war and how it weighs on any Commander in Chief.  Stunning performance, Mr President.

Iraq has cost us almost 5000 young lives and one trillion dolars, and the Commander in Chief can barely mention two names, Petraeus and Bush. What about Private Guiterrez, the first American soldier killed in Iraq, who was an immigrant from the streets of  Guatamela City, whose only dream was to come to America and join the marines, or Specialist Morganne McBeth, a 19 year old African American from Virginia, one of the last to die before the US pull out. Are they worth a shout out along with Petraeus and Bush?

This President might want to ignore a Glenn Beck March on Washington for Votes and Ratings, but at least Beck can cry on camera, he can connect his feelings to the great stories that surrounded him on the weekend, the monuments to Lincoln and Washington and King. Whatever you might think of Beck’s views, he tells a story.  I  used to remember a Candidate who could quote Lincoln and King in almost every speech he made. Where did he go?

President Obama seems to have fallen prey to the  grey bureaucrats who write safe,boring speeches, who warn him elections are close, and that he will be punished for any courage or honesty.  So he decides its better to be boring. And he has no story to tell.

For the candidate who got elected on his story and his ability to tell it- to not be telling the nation a story about where we are, and how  he connects to the visceral pain of a country at war, a country that feels more and more lost, is to choose to become irrelevant. If he doesn’t seem to care, why should we?

Memo to President Obama, and can anyone please, please forward this to him-his chief earnings come not from Executive Office but from “Dreams from my Father” when he told us his story. What has happened to convince him that in an address to the nation on war and peace, on what really, really matters,  not a story in sight.  Now that is a story.

Washington and Being Snowed Under

‘Snowed Under” is a familiar excuse we all use to say ‘We are Sooooo busy.’ But this past week in Washington DC, we are indeed “snowed under” and it means the very opposite. Unless we are driving a snow plough or salting the roads, we aren’t necessarily busy at all, not with our usual routine at least. Most of us are confined to quarters, rugging up for the next blizzard.

For a city so used to a daily frenzy of 2 million commuters, the streets are eerily quiet, undisturbed by Metro buses or normal traffic. It has that “The Day After” ( the Bomb’) feel that would startle a visitor-’What happened? Where did everyone go?’ Was it an earthquake? Another terrorist attack?

Last sabbath the white stuff fell like manna and it didn’t stop. The poor old trees were so snowed over that many fell onto wires. The inevitable power outages rippled through the county and 250,000 plus lost power. We were lucky only losing power for 10 hours because  some are still waiting in the dark. The radio was urging us to call the power company to report outages. When you dialed 1, and then 3, and then 2 to hear it in English,  the message was reassuring “Our brave workers are on the job day and night.” Great.  But then the words trailed off, telling us ‘This might well be a ‘multi-day event.’  Whoa! A what event? Then it finished with a brilliant example of non-directive counseling ’suggesting that “these  circumstances might make it important for  perhaps some users to adjust their plans accordingly.”

Presumably what they meant was- ‘it might still be snowing on Monday, OK?’ and ‘ that if you were on a kidney machine or severely pregnant, then HELLO! you had better hatch a back up plan when the roads got blocked or power went out.’ But that would be way too direct for Washington where in the year of Obama,  we have got so used to strategic indirection. I called back three later times and got the exact same message. No updates, no estimates of repair time. It’s as if the power company had recorded one vague message to last two weeks before they all skipped town to the Caribbean.

As a recovering English teacher, the language breakdown disturbed me even more than the snow or the cold. I had never heard anything being called a “multi-day event” before. We have multi-vitamin capsules and multi-grain bread, and that means they have lots of vitamins in the one pill, and lots of grains in the one loaf. Maybe they meant that ten hours without power is going to feel like  three days. But if it wasn’t bad enough to lose  power, why make it worse by robbing language of its power to deal with it?

Our best companion during the snow siege was my battery operated radio. In fact, what I now call my multi-battery radio. I had it on the local all-day news station and it was like having someone to talk to while I shivered in the dark. Every five minutes, they were warning kids NOT to be walking on the uncleared sidewalks, telling students NOT to be throwing snow balls around Dupont Circle, telling drivers NOT to be driving the wrong way over Key bridge. To all snow shovellers, they said, ‘Be sure, you  bend the knees.’  It felt like coming home from college and being yelled at by Mom for leaving your socks on the floor and feeling reassured. It was Warm and Fuzzy Worry Wort Radio. As they used to say about the Pope raising the Cardinal’s  urinals 6 inches to keep them on their toes,, the radio kept us on ours.

The other strange phenomenon about snow storms is that it brings out the primal ape in us guys. We get out there, rolled up and rugged like fat polar bears, our shovels aloft. We know that if we shift two inches of snow now, its not going to make the slightest difference when 6 more inches fall and it all turns to ice. But we were not meant to sit and mope, we are men of action. Snow awakens some ancient bonding ritual.  In our reptilian brains, if  Sun means go bask in it, Snow means get frisky in it.  We have to do something and at least it keeps us warm.

All my neighbors were out there so I joined them, though embarasingly shovel-less and armed only with my pathetic 6 inch plastic dustpan. Two young lads across the road must have seen me and felt a boy scout’s duty to help this old codger. They kindly shoveled my driveway out. One was from Gonzaga and plays on the football team; the other from SIdwell Friends and goes to school with the Obama girls.  It could be described as a multi-student encounter, I guess,  and I am grateful to  Jesuits and Quakers apiece.

Now we are hunkered down again. The snow has become a multi-multi- day event, this being Tuesday and the last fall being Sunday. Schools are closed. Universities are closed. Even the Government is closed. What the Republicans have worked for all year has finally been achieved  by Snowmageddon 2010.  I haven’t seen any flakes yet, but I did go multi-item shopping ( now I am getting the hang of this)  to get more wine and chips. The  bare essentials, I know.

If you call, or if you are waiting in London or Paris, Belfast or Brisbane for that contract to be returned, we will tell you that we are snowed under, and we really mean it. Our multi-day event continues, and we are adjusting our plans accordingly, and in the background, our ‘over the Top’ radio is still telling drivers “TURN those headlights on! NOW!”

Obama after a year- The need for Courage over compromise

Oh the stories we shared on Inauguration Day a little over a year ago, the feelings we had of the beginning of a brave new world, the sense of common purpose among the huddled masses on that cold, cold day-where did they all go? Why did the dream die so soon?Today, we have a stalled Presidency and a stuck Congress leading a stalled economy of a stuck nation. We are waiting for respite from the recession more eagerly than we are waiting for our recent snow to melt. We are waiting for someone to tell us that this will get better, that there is way out of this mess and that we are indeed traveling in the right direction because frankly, more and more of us think we aren’t. What we are waiting for ultimately, is leadership and vision, the very things we thought we were expectantly celebrating on that freezing January day last year.Promises have become excuses, mixed with Tea Party angst,  a weird Palin-McCain redux, and people abandoning ship.  Powerful Congressmen are  resigning in frustration, citing a worn out election cliche “the system’s broken.” But this time, they mean it. The only response from the White House seems to be a Presidential make-over. If ever there was an ominous signal that they don’t get it, rehiring David Plouffe showed they saw the rumblings less in terms of the future of the country, and more in terms of the future of this Presidency.  Plouffe is employed to stage a less ‘out of touch’ Obama, reaching out to the masses, at least one photo op a week. The Cinderella cycle that I wrote about in my book The Presidential Plot starts all over again. Government by fairytale does not work.The system may be broken but the founders broke it, giving us a government of three independent parts. They designed a broken system in the first place.  A king would have been much easier. Any Government divided over major issues is healthy. That is the way it was meant to operate, because the Constitution was created by thinkers who feared tyranny  more than factionalism. If the President wanted one thing and the Congress another, and the Court decided that both were unconstitutional, the founders did not see that as broken so much as how the will of the majority finally got worked out in compromise. What they did not envisage was that government would become so contradictory as to be unintelligible, that it would make no sense, or that it would veer off into a dangerous lunacy.Steve Pearlstein captured the contradictions in his insightful column today.  (Washington Post Feb 17th 2010 A-8) “They want Wall Street to be reined in….but they are against regulation.” Affordable health care but no government role, more jobs but less spending to create them, a balanced budget but no spending cuts. It is insane, and that is what Obama as the leader has to stop complaining about and start confronting, to bring America back to some sanity.  When Congressmen sponsor a bill only to cynically kill it, or when they dramatically oppose a stimulus package in Washington and then, shamelessly claim the credit in their electorate for federal projects, you realize that politics has taken the art of hypocrisy to a whole new level. Throw in a Supreme Court that flouts election reform in one huge precedent shattering decision, and you have it all.Governments come and go. Some we like. Some we abhor. But the bottom line for goverment to work is that it makes sense. Some people thought Ronald Reagan was an heroic President, some that he was a disaster, but we knew what he stood for, we knew his vision for reviving Pax Americana. The vision that he was able to communicate so persuasively galvanized a nation into  both support and opposition. Voters knew what they were supporting or rejecting. Candidate Obama like Reagan, used every rhetorical flourish he could to rally the voters to a vision that”Washington was indeed broken” and that ‘partisan bickering was eating away the people’s trust.’ He told us all of that, and we agreed, and many of us voted him in as Sheriff to clean up Dodge. But a year later, the headlines scream, “Washington is broken” and ‘partisan bickering is undermining trust, ‘ and it is President Obama himself who is telling us this in his first State of the Union address.  At least Obama gets to reprise some of his best stump speeches. But he has had a year to start making it better, and it would appear to be getting worse.Obama is not succeeding in precisely the area of reform he promised to come to Washington to achieve. His story as President is shifting beyond his control, fragmenting into disconnected and drawn out campaigns on energy and finance and health care and defense. There is no Big picture, no Big Story, no integrating  vision of how this all fits, and where we are now in relation to the goal we need to reach. All we have is lots of little stories, competing and contradicting each other, and Obama acting as a White House drone plane, hovering over the halls of Congress, hoping to pick off votes and not get shot down, but never prepared to take courage, to get on the ground, to wrestle hand to hand with the obstructionists and the opportunists that seem to have infected the business of government.President Obama let Congress lead where he should have led. He stirred up a vision of a brave new world in getting elected, and then choked on it, deciding that pragmatism is the safer bet.  Audacity is only for selling books, it seems. The President needs to find his courage. He needs to re-read some of his best electioneering speeches and craft from them a more compelling vision. If we are going to Renew America’s Promise, as he says, what does that mean, other than a piece of puffy politicking. How come a President Kennedy could send Americans to the moon, and this administration can’t even replace the space shuttle and we will have to hitch a ride with the Russians? How come we are only planning some high speed rail corridors when Europe and Japan have over 40? What ever happened to Greater America, the land of dreams and opportunity? We are lacking meaningful government because we are lacking meaningful leadership.  It is all playing out as predicted when, In my book written almost 18 months back, I wrote

The government can only work if the story works. If the story doesn’t work, then that signals a fundamental breakdown in meaning making, that things don’t make sense anymore because they are not going anywhere, and no matter what individual initiatives work, there is no center to the whole, and things fall apart, as Yeats predicted. We need the coherent story. We need the big story that inhabits and enlivens the little stories. As a manager friend from Lockheed Martin loves to quote to me, Leadership is meaning making in a community of practice. If the breakdown is at the level of meaning, then is it any wonder that we as citizens feel powerless and stuck. (The Presidential Plot P.255)

Our Sincere Apologies to Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods apologizing for not being a virtuous golfer is totally implausible. but let me explain. Try this on for implausible.

Imagine if Mother Teresa was  little known to be a fair golfer. Imagine that she lost the Sisters of Charity PGA  with such bad temper, throwing her clubs in the lake,  that she was forced to step aside from all her charity work while the scandal played out. Imagine that as she went on retreat, word slowly leaked out that she had lost other  major charity tournaments too,  punched  officials, and regularly  ran her caddy off the course.  Imagine her Order hushing it all up, and then the public shock, that the saintly lady was simply not the nice  golfer we just presumed her to be.  Saints play nice, we thought.

Now that is what I mean by implausible.

It is as mad to expect Mother Teresa to be a saintly golfer as it is to expect Tiger Woods to be a golfing saint.  I know, the cry is “role model, role model” and even Tiger added that to his litany of supposed sins, that he had let the young kids down. But who told him that? Not any kids I know.

Kids will take up golf at 5 years old because they have seen the cute video of Tiger at that age. But where did his pretensions of such singular virtue come from? Someone in rehab must be feeding his delusions of  being the Mother Teresa of Augusta, all to deepen his shame. Twelve Step doesn’t work, they say, unless you hit the deepest rough called Rock Bottom. You wrecked your marriage, you cad!!!! How bad do you feel?  But get this-You wrecked millions of kids lives too! Now how bad do you feel?

We all want our sports stars to be nice human beings, for sure, but that is not what attracts our homage. It is the home runs they hit, the passes they throw or catch, the 30 foot impossible putts they sink.  If we confuse virtuosity on the field with virtue in the play of  life, then that is  surely our fault, not theirs.

But of course, along come  sponsors with check books in hand. They want to buy a piece of the legend. They burnish the player’s image to esteem their own products.  They know that Tiger’s demographic is universal, and even grandmothers adore him playing. He has to be “every mother’s son.” But it is all a pure marketing exercise.

Tiger  probably couldn’t care a dime for these products before they offered to pay him 40 million to care.  Who wouldn’t sell their smile for that? The Faustian bargain is, “We make you look good. You make us look good. Just keep on winning majors.”

Then the wheels fall off and the poor wife and family have to deal with lies and human appetites gone awry, and a marriage wrecked,  or so it would seem. And that is truly a tragedy within the personal circle of his family and friends.  But what has it to do with me or my kids,  or anyone else for that matter? Role model for golf-yes. Soul model for Life? You’re kdding me!

It can only come down to the sponsors feeding the media. They have paid top dollar. They need to recoup their money. They desperately need Tiger’s soul washed clean, spun dry and recycled to get back him back on the course, trailing  tales of glory about scoring again, but on the greens this time.

That for mine is the sorry and sordid truth of the apology. It was as sincere as the sponsors could make it, and as profound  as those  smarmy  journalists who sounded off like modern day inquisitors because, boo hoo,  they were not  invited. Who knew sports journalists were moral philosophers and marriage counsellors.

So Tiger, I  want to  apologize to you on behalf of your adoring public.  Sincerely. I  know this has been a hard time  for all of us but I  do ask you to leave our families out of this,  and not to hound them  but blame us alone. This is totally our fault. Alright.  It is not an excuse, but we have been under all sorts of pressure.  The media have been provoking us, saying ‘Tiger will never come back. He’s washed up,  the greatest “could have been champion”  in history. ‘ We wanted to smack them so hard with a 9 iron, and we would have if it weren’t for our  faith. In you.

We so desperately want to be able to tell our kids we actually saw you play. We want you to get your mojo back.  I know most of us have had our flings, and screwed up, but the world didn’t care. And we would have loved for you to have  been offered the same privacy, but we had no choice. We had to put you through this ritual humiliation, and we are deeply, (pause for breath)  deeply sorry.  How else could we work out a way for us to come back and watch you play, and not have someone  screaming in our ear that we were condoning your sexual promiscuity, or dissing your wife and all betrayed women. We just want so bad to see you play again and win. So do your 12 steps, make amends and all, and come back with an improved swing, so  we can get back to our weekends of watching you play, having time away from our screaming  kids,  and drinking with the boys. You’ve been our role model all along. Don’t let us down.