TVNewser

— insider source for and about broadcast network and cable news — 

Nobody has to tell anybody that we live in a 24/7 news cycle.

But the nature of ‘news’ has changed dramatically in a very short time. Some would even say that what passes for news these days is just a lot of celebrity gossip with a snippet of war-zone coverage and a political scandal or mud-sling thrown in for good measure.

Regardless, we still want to find out what’s going on in the world or our little corner of it. So do the folks who actually work in the news biz. Who knew?

So. Where do the news “professionals” go for the latest on their industry?

To a blog-cum-website, TVNewser from mediabistro.com. Launched in 2004 by Brian Stelter, a reporter for The New York Times who was then a 20-year-old senior journalism student at Towson University near Baltimore, Maryland, the blogsite provides up-to-the minute daily info about what’s happening in the teevee news biz. You’ll find ratings stats, who’s watching what (demographic breakdowns by program), links to major cable and broadcast resources, and lists of topics, archives, and recent ‘newsworthy’ events.

Great quote from one day’s entries on the TVNewser website —
The Hollywood Reporter: “Tune in to Fox News for comedy done right.”

If you’re really into this stuff — as most of the well-known talking heads seem to be, you can also sign up for the “Daily Media Newsfeed” via email to get your fix.

Be warned: news, blogs, email — all this electronic buzz about the electronic buzz can be addictive….

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

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Blink

— The Power of Thinking Without Thinking — 

Three intriguing premises underpin Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent examination of human interaction. First, “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” Second, “when should we trust our instincts, and when should we be wary of them? …When our powers of rapid cognition go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood.” And third, Gladwell wants to convince us that “our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.” In fact, he says that’s his most important task.

As in his first book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell is ever the cultural storyteller. His examples in Blink are many and varied — as is human nature and the circumstances in which it acts. Gladwell begins with a situation in the art-and-museum world and takes us on a journey through the realms of gambling, car sales, furniture design, food tasting, music, acting, medicine, police work, the military, and athletics, to name just a few. By the time we finish reading, the connections are not as far-fetched as that simple listing might seem.

Gladwell opens by describing an artifact being considered for acquisition by a famous museum. Was this ancient statue the real thing — and if it was, how could the museum be certain, since its provenance was incomplete? An intensive review process lasting fourteen months involved geologists and legal experts, as well as tests with electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction, among others. But while scientists and lawyers immersed themselves in analysis, many art experts said the statue just “didn’t look right.” When seeing the piece for the first time, their initial reactions — the blink of Gladwell’s focus — told them something was wrong. And ultimately, those initial two-second impressions proved right. The statue was a modern forgery.

So how could all the analysis have been wrong? That’s the dilemma of “rapid cognition,” or “thin-slicing.” We’ve been conditioned to disregard snap judgments and put our faith in thorough investigation. Gladwell contends that we can achieve greater benefit from intelligently combining those two modes of knowing. In fact, we can gain the most by educating ourselves about our ability to thin-slice and by appreciating the context for our snap-judgment perceptions.

Most humans have the capacity for instantaneous assessment — snap judgment — of the information contained in facial expressions. Based on the entire range of muscles used in a human face, scientists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen identified a total of forty-three movements they termed action units.

Action units can be combined or layered to create as many as ten thousand “visible facial configurations.” Of these, about three thousand seem to ‘mean’ something, resulting in an “essential repertoire of human facial displays of emotion.” That knowledge accumulates in each of us from birth and is critical to our existence because most of us get most of our information about the world and our place in it from ‘reading’ emotions on others’ faces.

A very thoughtful description of what happens — or doesn’t — in the case of autism serves to highlight the survival value of what Gladwell calls “mind-reading,” which, in this context, is a sensitivity to the information conveyed through slight changes in facial features. Most of us “read” faces and quickly extrapolate what people are thinking. An autistic person sees only objects — a person’s face is the same as a light switch or a car. Autistic people don’t generate a context for what they see and are clueless about what may be going on in someone else’s mind.

At the other end of the spectrum, Gladwell points out that children who grow up in homes where alcoholism or other forms of physical and emotional abuse are prevalent become extremely sensitive to fleeting changes in facial expression because their lives truly depend upon the ability to “read” the alcoholic’s or abuser’s mind and get out of the way.

Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, the contents of our minds show most often on our faces. That’s not an argument for becoming a stone-face; it points out the need to educate ourselves about when we can trust our instincts and when we can’t.

The range of Gladwell’s examples makes the information he presents useful to virtually everyone. He shows how a counselor can predict divorce using only four factors (defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, contempt) through ‘sideways’ observation of married couples talking about their pets. Another study found that the doctors who are likely to be sued for medical malpractice can be identified by their personal treatment of patients: do they rush through patient interactions, ignore them, or treat people poorly? If so, they’re more likely to end up in court.

Gladwell also dives into the speed-dating phenomenon and shows how we can be accurately assessed — as much as 95 percent of the time — by strangers whose only knowledge of us comes from time spent looking around our homes or personal spaces.

Also debunked are myths about two police officers in a car being more effective than one (one person has to wait for back-up, which reduces the possibility of violence, while two officers often succumb to peer pressure and bravado under stress, which can lead to injuries that didn’t have to happen), and the marketing opportunities lost by a blind dependence on focus group information.

In one key Blink section, we see the effects of rapid decision-making, especially the kind required in military combat. In a war game, Blue Team (US and allies, with access to all the information in the world) is skunked big-time by a “rogue commander” with minimal resources (Red Team, headed by a “gunslinger” — a retired US Marine with two tours in Vietnam under his belt), who recognizes that survival, let alone winning, means he has to be creative. Blue Team, on the other hand, succumbs to ‘analysis paralysis.’

Another important Blink topic deals with “priming” — demonstrating how bias (for or against) can be induced through strategic placement of words and pictures. Gladwell describes the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which examines the role “unconscious [i.e. implicit] associations play in our beliefs and behaviors.” Several interactive examples are provided in the book, or you can try your hand at an online version.

Gladwell was astounded at his own responses to the test — and his inability to change his responses, no matter how many times he repeated the test. But awareness is critical, because awareness of bias can help us avoid the “Warren Harding Factor,” where we project leadership or other capability onto people simply because they’re tall, handsome/beautiful, or sound authoritative, even if they may not have skill or substance. As communicators who work on many levels, that awareness can help us be more effective in our interactions.

Gladwell makes us aware of the value of snap judgments, as well as how they can be distorted. Why do these judgments become corrupted and why are we usually so oblivious to that fact? “Because we are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious.”

When confronted with such prejudice, what must we do? “Solve the problem,” says Gladwell. Don’t be “resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye.” Learn to “control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place,” and thereby “control rapid cognition.” When we control rapid cognition, “we can prevent the people fighting wars or staffing emergency rooms or policing the streets from making mistakes.”

More is at stake than just the obvious, too. We don’t need a lot in order to improve situations and opportunities. We don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel, invest huge sums of money in the problem, or build new facilities. We just need to blink.

By “paying attention to the tiniest detail, the first two seconds” of the interaction, we can see people and situations for who and what they truly are. In just the blink of an eye.

Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Published: New York: Little, Brown and Company ©2005

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

99.3 Random Acts of Marketing

Bite-sized business tips in a regular-sized package. What a deal!

Written by the owner of an ad agency in the central United States, Random Acts serves as both a reminder of what you may already know about marketing your products, services, or organization, and a gently humorous nudge to get busy about putting that knowledge to use.

Whether we like it or not, in our 24/7 constant-contact world, all business owners and employees are de facto marketers for the places they work, the clients they hold in relationship, and the products and services they provide.

Totally new ideas may be few and far between, but, as author/marketing guru McLellan points out, success often comes by doing the obvious and the mundane consistently and regularly. He quotes facts and figures — also an appropriate thing to do in marketing materials that cry for specificity instead of glittering generalities — and he mixes in anecdotes, bullet points, and references to other useful resources.

More than once, we are treated to the admonition to think of our audience(s) instead of ourselves when developing marketing materials and approaches. That’s a reminder that never grows old, especially in our ultra-consumer-driven world. Just because we’ve seen the ad or heard the story a hundred/thousand times doesn’t mean our potential customers have encountered it at all.

“According to a study by Thomas Publishing Company,” states McLellan, “most marketers give up too early. The study reveals 80% of sales to businesses are made on or after the fifth contact, but only 10% of all marketing efforts go beyond three times!

“When planning your marketing efforts, remember that frequency is critical to success. You have to get your customers’ attention, pique their interest and create the need for your product or service. Then, you have to stay under their nose until they are ready to buy. No single ad or direct mail piece can be expected to accomplish all that in a couple of attempts.”

The book is set up in an interesting format: all the information nuggets are on the right-hand pages. All the left-hand pages are blank, with the heading “Random notes:” — leaving plenty of space for you to doodle your own ideas and applications.

Random Acts is an easy read, but don’t let that fool you. You’ll learn everything from how using the two-letter U.S. state abbreviations can save you money on your direct mail projects to the value of thinking about marketing campaigns, not just brochures or one-off splashes. Like the adage about the irresistibility of potato chips or chocolate chip cookies, take just one taste of these Random Acts and you’ll stick around for the whole book.

Author: Drew McLellan
Published: Des Moines, Iowa: Innova Training & Consulting ©2003

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

The Drunkard’s Walk

— How Randomness Rules Our Lives —

Full disclosure: I’m about as far from a mathematician as real person can get. Arithmetic, yes. Calculus, statistics, probabilities — not so much. Yet, awareness of the principles of this latter group, turns out, is critical to daily functioning, especially as life gets both more complex and simpler. Who knew?

Well, apparently, Mlodinow and a lot of others, who have a hard time getting through to the rest of us. But Mlodinow, holder of a doctorate in physics — and a writer for television series such as MacGyver (yes!) and Star Trek: The Next Generation — is that rare breed of specialist who can also describe his subject in an engaging way, a way that can make mind-boggling concepts relatively more accessible to average citizens who may never think “math” past the chore of balancing the checkbook. Yes, some of us still use checkbooks.

So here I am, intrigued by the blurb about this book recommended by another author I found interesting (Daniel Gilbert of Stumbling on Happiness) and hoping I can make heads or tails (more about the odds and probabilities of coin tossing inside) of a discussion of chance, probability, and randomness — even as I, like most humans, want to believe there is logic and reason, as well as magic, at large in the world.

I’m not yet ready to give up on the value of intuition. Neither is Mlodinow, interestingly enough. But after a number of metaphorical whacks on the side of the head — encounters with ostensibly known quantities that proved to be anything but — it seemed important that I learn as much as possible about whether or not the odds were ever going to be on my side. The answer, according to Mlodinow, is that they are about as much as they are not. Good to know.

“The theory of randomness is fundamentally a codification of common sense. But it is also a field of subtlety, a field in which great experts have been famously wrong and expert gamblers infamously correct. What it takes to understand randomness and overcome our misconceptions is both experience and a lot of careful thinking.” Mlodinow provides information about both. Just because something happens in proximity to something else doesn’t mean one is the cause of the other, even if we would like that to be so. It may be, but then again, it may not. We must take care to make the distinction.

Think bell curves. Regression to the mean. Sample space. Coefficient correlations. All these seemingly esoteric phrases describe real activities of real human beings, unpredictable lot that we are. Mlodinow’s gift is that he can describe these mathematical concepts in actual and often humorous examples. We get a fascinating history lesson, too, with stories of overlapping effort, often mutually unknown, starting as early as the ancient Greeks and Romans and moving through the likes of Galileo, the Bernoulli family, Descartes, Fourier, Pascal, Fermat (he of the Last Theorem), Lavoisier, Newton, Poincaré, Einstein, and other lesser known but no less important minds at work on everything from astronomy observations, rates of mortality during the Black Plague, games of chance, and the chest measurements of soldiers being fitted for uniforms.

You might not think it’s true — and many people didn’t/don’t — that the wisest decision is to change your selection of Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3 on Let’s Make a Deal if you missed the correct answer the first time and Monty Hall offered you the opportunity to switch. The odds of success are truly different than seems logical, because most of us actually base our “logic” on the intuition humans get from our skill at pattern recognition and 20/20 hindsight. We’re hard-wired to fill in the blanks of the missing detail we can’t see at a distance. But then we get in our own way by seeing only what we expect to see, even when confronted with the facts.

Given its obsession with statistics, sports is rife with examples of randomness, even if we might want the outcome to be otherwise. Just review the 1961 home-run race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Then there are all the other aspects of life and business we wish we could predict with certainty. How else to account for market-research focus groups, political polls, and such?

So when it comes to determining whether a CEO is worth the salary, a Hollywood movie will succeed at the box office, or a book, even by a well-known author, will turn into a best-seller, we can use all the numbers in the world, but we may miss the mark by a mile.

And what about that most legal of gambling opportunities — stock trades and market performance? Or the wizardry of financial advisors? Along with automobile accidents, wine ratings, SAT scores, insurance rates, and weather forecasts, we have a lot to learn about how randomness influences everything. Even the iPod’s “randomizer” algorithm had to be adjusted mathematically to be less random in order to make it seem more random to its human listeners. Go figure.

Exactly.

Although the awareness that “human intuition is ill suited to situations involving uncertainty was known as early as the 1930s,” only recently has “a new academic field…emerged to study how people make judgments and decisions when faced with imperfect or incomplete information. [This] research has shown that when chance is involved, people’s thought processes are often seriously flawed.” The Drunkard’s Walk is the name of the principle, an apt visual description of the phenomenon. It’s also Mlodinow’s attempt in book form to get this academic work into the mainstream of society where it can do the rest of us some good.

Says Mlodinow: “A lot of what happens to us — success in our careers, in our investments, and in our life decisions, both major and minor — is as much the result of random factors as the result of skill, preparedness, and hard work. So the reality that we perceive is not a direct reflection of the people or circumstances that underlie it but is instead an image blurred by the randomizing effects of unforeseeable or fluctuating external forces. That is not to say that ability doesn’t matter — it is one of the factors that increase the chances of success — but the connection between actions and results is not as direct as we might like to believe. Thus our past is not so easy to understand, nor is our future so easy to predict, and in both enterprises we benefit from looking beyond the superficial explanations.”

Let The Drunkard’s Walk be your guide.

Author: Leonard Mlodinow
Published: New York: Pantheon Books ©2008

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Creating the Innovation Culture

— Leveraging Visionaries, Dissenters, and Other Useful Troublemakers in Your Organization —

Although the word innovation may be part of most current corporate mantras, the manifestation and acceptance of it for millions of workers and their organizations often seems far away. It’s also interesting to discover some in the business press who have long touted the “i” word as gospel are now, apparently, qualifying their statements. Case in point is the January 2004 cover story in the business magazine Fast Company about Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs.

Fast Company is by no means decrying innovation — it is, after all, their stock in trade. But the article presents a cautionary tale and some useful perspective on the drive to innovate your way to business success. While Steve Jobs and Apple’s computers may always stay at the far-out end of the innovation spectrum, most companies would do well simply to allow even a breath of modestly fresh air into the organizational atmosphere. If that’s the situation in your shop, Frances Horibe’s book Creating the Innovation Culture offers another way to look at the world.

Every organization needs to innovate — develop new products, services, customer experiences, delivery methods, processes, procedures, etc., etc. — to keep from rapidly dying the dinosaur death of stultifying irrelevance. But innovation is essentially incompatible with the average organizational structure, behavior, and sustenance. By definition, organizations institutionalize and standardize whatever it was that originally brought them success — and they just keep doing it. That may have worked for Henry Ford, but that approach doesn’t work any longer.

As David Carlson, an Alcatel vice president, states in the dust cover blurbs for this book, “It was George Bernard Shaw who once remarked with undeniable logic that all progress has to depend on the ‘unreasonable man’ because they are the ones who don’t adapt to the world as it is. This, of course, makes perfect sense, but only up to the point where one is faced with having to deal with the reality of it in an organization.” Aye, there’s the rub.

Creative behavior — dissent — is both the challenge and the opportunity. But how do we manage to swallow that whole cookie without choking? Horibe offers many suggestions. She recognizes that innovation is about “different ideas that challenge traditional assumptions and ways of doing business,” that being different is too often perceived as “dissent, which leads to conflict.” Dissenters are those unwelcome folks who may be seen as the “wild ducks of the organization, because they won’t fly in formation,” but who can also bring new ideas and fresh perspectives. Managers, however much they say they want to encourage these new thoughts, must have appropriate ways to deal with the delicate balance between innovation and status quo, avoiding the conflict that can paralyze forward movement.

Horibe shows how to encourage dissent (innovation), how organizations knowingly and unknowingly stifle dissent, how to recognize when healthy dissent turns into unproductive conflict, how middle managers can become brokers for opportunities in innovation and collaboration, how to coach dissenters, and how to create processes that support innovation. Not one who’s lost in the Pollyanna permafrost that denies any problems inherent in the nature of innovation, Horibe provides excellent examples, sample dialogues you can practice with your colleagues and direct reports, and end-of-chapter summaries that cut to the chase.

If you’ve been wondering how to keep a handle on your organization at the same time you’re trying to evolve it into the next phase, you’ll pick up some useful strategies in this book. Then, it’s up to you to actually do something with them.

Author: Frances Horibe
Published: Toronto: John Wiley & Sons Canada Limited ©2001

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Dead Poets Society

My, how far we’ve come — or have we? Some things, like the trials of adolescence, never seem to change. The only differences are the contexts and the forms. Dead Poets Society shows us the tug of conformity from one of the most conformist of American decades, the 1950s. But wait! Doesn’t every decade or social framework demand some kind of conformity? Are bobby sox and saddle shoes really all that different from tattoos and body piercings? Belonging somewhere is so important for us social creatures. How do we decide where we do or don’t fit in? Films have been exploring such questions forever.

Set in what seems to be a New England boarding school or ‘academy’ for boys of, say, eight to eighteen years of age, Dead Poets immerses us in the world of navy blazers and whitewall haircuts, “tradition-discipline-honor-excellence” codes, raging hormones, and the struggles of young men to discover themselves and their place.

Bucking mom or dad to pursue acting instead of law or medical school — speaking truth to power, as we know it now — was virtually unheard of in 1956. (It’s hard enough to find such bravery yet today.) In the context of a boys’ prep school, with tradition and discipline enshrined, breaking out of the mold was both heretical and physically dangerous. Teachers were enforcers as much as imparters of knowledge. But, on occasion, a teacher who shelters his own spark becomes the mentor and example we crave. After that, anything can happen.

More than twenty years on, this film holds its meaning and is worth a look for affecting performances. Robin Williams plays the academy alumnus who returns to teach poetry, to challenge and inspire his youthful charges to break out of conformist constraints. A young Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Fast Food Nation, Lord of War, Gattica, Waking Life) gives a memorable performance as an adolescent virtually invisible to his parents and struggling with how brave to be at school. Robert Sean Leonard of TV’s House, looking like a young and skinny Jim Carrey without the craziness, catches the existential fire and finds his muse but struggles to counter family pressure.

This is also the film that turned an aphorism from ancient Latin — carpe diem (seize the day) — into a cultural catchphrase. And over a decade or so, it morphed into everything from three-day festivals for carp (yes, the fish) to calligraphic wall hangings.

Cast: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Norman Lloyd,
Lara Flynn Boyle, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Alexandra Powers
Director: Peter Weir
Theatrical release: 1989; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

I Am Sam

Even with Academy Award® nominee Sean Penn in the pivotal title role, there are all kinds of ways this film could have gone south — but it didn’t. Big-blue-eyed, wispy blonde seven-year-old Dakota Fanning found a spot on everyone’s radar with this older-than-her-years performance. She more than holds her own with Hollywood A-listers Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Dianne Wiest. So do challenged actors Brad and Joe from L.A. Goal, the sheltered workshop where filmmakers did months of research before beginning to write the script.

I Am Sam is a well-realized story of love and family that transcends place and time. In fact, the main characters show us two ends of the parental and social spectrum, which are not as far apart as it might seem at first. Who’s to say that the obsessive-compulsive perfectionism of the high-powered lawyer is any more or less dysfunctional than that of the mentally challenged father who must have order in his world?

The story revolves around the parental rights of Sam, a single father with the mental age of about seven and who’s daughter Lucy has, in many ways, surpassed him. As Lucy nears her seventh birthday, nightly story-time reading expands beyond Sam’s favorite Dr. Seuss — Green Eggs and Ham (Sam, I am) — to Stellaluna. Sam struggles with the new book and wants to return to familiar territory. Although Lucy has no problem with the new story, she doesn’t want to say the word “different,” because she realizes that it describes this man she loves.

As the child struggles with her emotions about her father and her friends, a series of misadventures leads to the intervention of social services, with Lucy ultimately taken away from Sam. The film then immerses us in Sam’s journey, as he links up with a powerful “four-name” lawyer and encounters the courts and foster-care system, to bring Lucy back home. It’s an emotionally engaging and fulfilling film experience.

When the filmmakers do a good job of developing the film, one of the best things about a DVD version is all the “extra” stuff and backstory that ends up on the disk. In the documentary about Becoming Sam, writer/producer/director Jessie Nelson describes how the seed of the film came from her own experience as a new parent who was at wit’s end in caring for her sick child.

There’s also fascinating background about the research, casting, character development, look and feel, and the music, which is based on Beatles songs covered by artists like Eddie Vetter, Ben Harper, Rufus Wainright, Ben Folds, The Black Crowes, The Wallflowers, Sarah MacLachlan, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, Sheryl Crow, and others.

Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianne Wiest, Dakota Fanning, Richard Schiff,
Doug Hutchison, Loretta Devine, Laura Dern
Writer/Producer/Director: Jessie Nelson, with assists
Theatrical release: 2001; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Great Museums

— celebrate America’s ‘year of the museum’ — 2006 — anytime online —

No matter where you travel in the United States — or, for that matter, around the world — you can find some kind of museum to visit. And why not give it a go?

Whether you enjoy the Old Masters, contemporary art, sculpture, historical memorabilia, rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis, farm life, classic cars, giant balls of twine, or anything else, some organization has probably collected it, catalogued it, and put it on display. The Great Museums website offers a chance to learn about places and spaces online that you might never have the chance to visit in person.

Based on Marjorie Schwarzer’s book Riches, Rivals & Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America, the original series of videos was shown on PBS and can now be found online at Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and elsewhere. Beyond links to the videos, the Great Museums website continues to expand its collection of video tours of America’s museums and offers a wide range of collateral materials, including DVDs and books. Choose Explore Great Museums to see video clips of places across the country.

Get even more information at the website for American Alliance of Museums. Then, after finishing your online visit, take some time to get out and see the real thing.

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

The Spiral Staircase

— My Climb Out of Darkness — 

The Universe has a way of getting our attention — guiding us into the life for which our gifts are best suited. Idiosyncratic humans that we are, we often struggle against these messages, thinking we know better, determined to do whatever it is in our own way, intent on “making our mark,” or “going it alone.” Even so (perhaps, especially because of this attitude?), many of us spend lengthy periods in bewilderment and angst, wondering what is our true purpose in life. We seek guidance, direction, help from activities or work or the latest celebrity or book or guru. We want “The Secret” without the requirement of effort. But knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, does take effort. The unfolding can be messy, unpleasant, filled with anxiety, or challenge, even if the outcome is ultimately brilliant.

Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s best-known writers on matters of religion, myth, and spirituality, seems not to consider her life one of brilliance, satisfied instead to find something akin to a soft glow with staying power, even if it flickers occasionally, as most do, in strong winds. In The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong shares her journey of discovering purpose and making a life despite (because of?) the challenge of undiagnosed illness and the violence to her spirit done by years of harsh emotional conditioning. This elegant, authentic, very readable memoir picks up where Beginning the World, Armstrong’s earlier (and unsatisfactory to her) attempt at autobiography, leaves off. Staircase explores what has happened to her since she left the convent after seven years of studying to become a Catholic nun.

Although the outcome of that experience was a loss of faith, Armstrong regained her spirit and has become a leading figure in worldwide interfaith dialogue. Her books on various aspects of Christianity, as well as Islam, Buddha, Muhammad, Jerusalem, the Crusades, Genesis, St. Paul, and others, offer an ecumenical perspective on the world’s important wisdom traditions and their impact on believers and non-believers alike. Especially since the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States, Armstrong has been a sought-after resource on the true nature of Islam, the challenges of fundamentalism in all faiths, and opportunities for common ground across doctrines.

As a British teenager in the 1950s, Armstrong grew up in a period of radical change, one where “many of my generation, born in the last years or in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War” had an “inchoate yearning for transformation.” She is all too clear that “postwar Britain was not an easy place to grow up. We may have defeated Hitler, but the war had ruined us. Britain was now a second-rate power, and food, clothing, and petrol were strictly rationed well into the 1950s. Because thousands of homes had been destroyed during the blitz, there was a grave housing crisis. Our cities were scarred with desolate bomb sites and filled with towering heaps of rubble. The center of Birmingham was not completely rebuilt until after I left for the convent [in 1962]. After the war, we were in debt to the United States for 3 billion pounds, our empire was dismantled, and though we were fed on a surfeit of films celebrating Britain’s endurance and victory, nobody seemed prepared to look facts in the face and decide what our future role in the world should be. Young Britons, like myself, who came to maturity in this twilight confusion of austerity, repression, nostalgia, frustration, and denial wanted not only a different world but to be changed ourselves.”

While Armstrong’s journey of transformation took her into the convent, she likens it to “the quasi-religious fervor inspired by the rock ‘n’ roll records that fell like manna from heaven between 1954 and 1959 on a country that had no tradition of Afro-American music. It seemed to promise a new world…. In the world conjured up by rock ‘n’ roll, nobody had to do national service or listen to endless stories about the war….” Having been a product of a convent school and uncomfortable with the raucousness of the rock ‘n’ roll 1960s life that seemed to be unfolding in Britain and elsewhere, Armstrong opted for God and religious study as her path to a purposeful life. Needless to say, things didn’t work out quite as she envisioned.

Clear-eyed in her description of the challenges, successes, and personal devastation of her convent experience, Armstrong nevertheless acknowledges that the choice to take this path was hers and hers alone. In fact, family and friends actively discouraged her, although her parents finally relented. What no one knew, however, was the toll it would ultimately take on this impressionable seventeen-year-old, especially since the prevailing religious philosophy was that any difficulties were the result of inappropriate emotionality. In the book, Armstrong details her struggle with this attitude, with the philosophy, and with recurring physical symptoms no one knew how to interpret. When she encountered medical professionals, they opted for psychological approaches that contributed to Armstrong thinking herself nearly mad and unfit for gainful employment — completely misunderstanding for many years what would finally be diagnosed as temporal lobe epilepsy. Today, with medication, her symptoms are controlled; her work and life have stabilized.

The stability brings Armstrong full circle — or up another rung on the spiral staircase. The book’s title comes from “T.S. Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday, a sequence of six poems that traces the process of spiritual recovery.” Armstrong describes it as “central to my journey…. In Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday, we watch the poet painfully climbing a spiral staircase. This image is reflected in the twisting sentences of the verse, which often revolves upon itself, repeating the same words and phrases, apparently making little headway, but pushing steadily forward nevertheless. My own life has progressed in the same way. For years, it seemed a hard, Lenten journey, but without the prospect of Easter. I toiled round and round in pointless circles, covering the same ground, repeating the same mistakes, quite unable to see where I was going. Yet all the time, without realizing it, I was slowly climbing out of the darkness.”

In addition to the story of Armstrong’s personal journey, we are also treated to a taste of her ‘new’ path — her scholarship regarding the world’s wisdom traditions, their points of commonality, and their emphasis on “practical compassion.” Although she felt ready to abandon her study of God and religion upon leaving the convent, Armstrong found explanations both profound and understandable as she continued to encounter several religious experts. Armstrong recalls a conversation with Hyam Maccoby, Judaic scholar and librarian at London’s Leo Baeck College, in which “he had told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice. Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in certain ways, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific, or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.” Hence, “the one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, it was good theology….”

Armstrong also recognizes the useful and necessary mythological analogies to what Joseph Campbell describes as “following your bliss” or what Parker Palmer urges in his book Let Your Life Speak. Palmer talks about “way closing” and “way opening” and how, regardless of the amount of effort we put into the search, we often cannot discover our true purpose (“way opening”) until we look back and inventory the avenues that closed to us for any number of reasons. Those paths probably evaporated because our ideas for ourselves cannot compare with the wonder of what the Universe has in store for us, once we get our egos out of our own way. Armstrong states: “The great myths show that when you follow somebody else’s path, you go astray. The hero has to set off by himself, leaving the old world and the old ways behind. He must venture into the darkness of the unknown, where there is no map and no clear route. He must fight his own monsters, not somebody else’s, explore his own labyrinth, and endure his own ordeal before he can find what is missing in his life. Thus transfigured, he (or she) can bring something of value to the world that has been left behind.”

“In mythology,” says Armstrong, “stairs frequently symbolize a breakthrough to a new level of consciousness. For a long time I assumed that I had finished with religion forever, yet in the end, the strange and seemingly arbitrary revolutions of my life led me to the kind of transformation that — I now believe — was what I was seeking all those years ago, when I packed my suitcase, entered my convent, and set off to find God.”

Author: Karen Armstrong
Published: New York: Alfred A. Knopf ©2004

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

The Ultimate Gift

Put the dynamite young actor Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) in just about any film and you’ll likely have a winner. But The Ultimate Gift also brims with a wealth of additional talent both in front and behind the camera. Then, too, there’s a pretty good story to work with — from Jim Stovall’s best-selling novel of the same name.

The opening titles flash forward and back to reveal information that’s crucial to the narrative, alerting us to pay attention early and throughout. Soon, we encounter Jason, a spoiled trust-fund twenty-something intent on disrupting whatever’s going on — or sullenly refusing to participate. When his grandfather dies and the entire family is called together for the reading of the will, the truth about this seemingly privileged life becomes painfully clear.

Watching this family self-destruct over the dividing of material wealth calls into question whether any of them can be redeemed. Grandpa ‘Red’ seems to think Jason can — and he’s left a unique message for the young man. But Jason’s inheritance depends on his ability to complete twelve challenges and receive twelve gifts. While what Red has in mind might not seem like gifts to someone from Jason’s background, eventually, Jason realizes their value. And the end titles do a nice job of enumerating the list.

At a time when many films are filled with horror, destruction, abuse, and harsh language, a film like The Ultimate Gift could seem like a throwback to Pollyanna thinking. But it’s not syrupy at all. Yes, it has a ‘message,’ and, yes, some of the circumstances conveniently work out for the benefit of the story line. But tell me about a film that doesn’t rely on such techniques.

The Ultimate Gift is not heavy-handed in style or tone, and it’s a real treat to see so many fine actors truly enjoying their work together. The DVD offers several short additions to the film, including a behind-the-scenes look at the “Making of…” the film and the interactions of cast and crew.

As Red says, “I lost everything three or four times. It’s the perfect place to start” searching for the ultimate gift. So what’s your dream?

Cast: Drew Fuller, Bill Cobbs, Abigail Breslin, Ali Hillis, James Garner,
Brian Dennehy, Lee Meriwether
Director: Michael O. Sajbel
Theatrical release: 2007; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos