Staying Awake

Several years ago, a colleague and I agreed that we should just call each other at 3:00 a.m. and talk about a difficult project we were working on because we knew we would both be awake worrying about it anyway.   The project eventually ended in a generally positive way, and I went back to sleeping through the night until the next difficult issue came along.

The world appears to be very bleak at 3:00 a.m., but it miraculously seems to get better after some sleep and the daily sunrise.  Our problems don’t disappear; we just get some fresh perspective when blood flows to different parts of our body and we recognize that dealing with challenges is a necessary part of life.

The advent of social media has probably heightened the drama and fear surrounding new challenges, while occasionally offering some reassuring insight.  A friend of mine posted the following timeline that illustrates my point:

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I don’t think we should ignore concerns like those listed above anymore than I think we should ignore symptoms of illness we might be personally experiencing.  Taking reasonable precautions rather than blaming others or forecasting doom makes more sense to me.

I remember writing a similar column for a newspaper about Y2K (the supposedly fatal flaw in computers that would cause them all to crash at the beginning of the year 2000) and being criticized by some readers for not taking the problem seriously.  We did take it seriously; but we didn’t panic, spend recklessly, or otherwise waste time and energy on a problem that was mostly theoretical by the time the Year 2000 actually arrived.

It’s reassuring to know that at the other end of the timeline, sensible precautions are being taken in Oregon to deal with infectious diseases, including Ebola.  I am grateful for the many people who are risking their lives to care for those who are infected, and I appreciate the good efforts of all those who are working to keep the rest of us safe.  I am sure people involved in this work are worrying about the problem at 3:00 a.m., and I’m hopeful they will awake with wisdom and resolve to keep fighting the problem.  My part at the moment is to be aware of the nature of the threat, keep it in perspective, and act based on the best available information.  The issues that keep me awake at night are much closer to home, and I suspect that’s true for most of us.

Learning from Jordan

The most common response to my announcement that I would be doing some work in Jordan during the last two weeks in August was concern for my safety.  We have all been reading about violence in the Middle East, and the common assumption seems to be that all countries in the region are afflicted with it.  Jordan is not only peaceful, but an amazing and attractive place to visit.

A colleague and I were asked to make presentations at three local government workshops focusing on economic development as a part of the Local Enterprise Support (LENS) Project sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development.  The International City-County Management Association (ICMA) is a partner on this project, charged with connecting U.S. managers and subject-matter experts to counterparts in Jordan.  My colleague was Dr. Colleen Johnson, a U.S. economist and former Oregon mayor, who presented a case study on a local development project.  We were privileged to work with the former director of the Jordanian customs service and noted economist, Dr. Khalid Wazani.  There is a great pool of talented and educated people in Jordan, and it shows in the quality of services and new development.

Jordanian resources are currently challenged, however, by a flood of refugees from Syria and Iraq.  Several hundred thousand people have moved into a country of about nine million people that is 2¾ times smaller than the state of Oregon.  The LENS program seeks to help create economic opportunities for Jordanians and refugees alike.

Tourism, long an important part of Jordan’s economy, has suffered unfairly from the violence surrounding the nation.  We had the opportunity to drive around the country and visit incredible places such as the Dead Sea, Mount Nebo, the ruins at Jerash, Umm Qais, Bethany, Madaba, and, of course, Petra.  The people of Jordan were welcoming, hospitable, and kind as we visited some of the most incredible historic sites in the world.  I have visited Roman ruins throughout the old empire and have found none that give a better sense of its grandeur than those in Jordan.  Petra defies description and offers some amazing hikes through terrain similar to the American Southwest.  We saw no hint of violence and experienced nothing that made us feel unsafe.

Agriculture and manufacturing are also important to Jordan’s economy, and both have been affected by neighboring conflict.  Jordanian farmers are unable to export much of their produce to traditional markets and, in some cases, destroy their produce for want of buyers.  Food going to waste while children go hungry in nearby countries is just another example of the many tragic consequences of war in the Middle East.  Cities are interested in developing more food processing capacity to take advantage of fresh produce that is currently wasted, and local governments are also trying to stimulate entrepreneurs.

Jordanian cities will be participating in a new City Links partnership in the coming months, and I hope other city officials will be able to participate.   Being a part of this program offers opportunities for growth and understanding that cannot be gained in traditional training.  Jordan can use our help, but I believe we have as much to learn from the people of this remarkable country as we can offer to them.

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Critical Thinking

Albany’s 150th anniversary celebration was a great success from my perspective.  Several hundred people visited City Hall to enjoy some talks about historic Albany, listen to music, square dance, share in refreshments, and tour the city in a trolley.  The only criticism I heard came from a woman who confronted me about having to wait a half hour for the trolley.  I pointed out that the trolley was making a circuit of the historic districts that lasted about 40 minutes and that it would be arriving back at City Hall soon.  I was being lectured about how badly this event had been organized when I was able to point out that the trolley was arriving back at City Hall right on time.

Criticism can be an important incentive to improve; but when it is constant, personal, and frequently wrong, it is discouraging and destructive.  Most of us understand this principle when it applies to our relationships because we know that constantly berating a spouse or children leads to resentment and separation.  I trade barbs with my closest friends, but I have no friends who frequently criticize me in front of others.  Despite what most of us know about how harmful criticism can be, many of us seem to have few inhibitions about criticizing public figures regardless of how much or little we know about the person or situation in question.

I stopped reading anonymous blog postings a few years ago, mostly because I hoped they did not represent the thinking of any significant number of the general population.  A newspaper editor recently referred to these rants as the “sewer” of his publication, which raises the question of why they exist at all.  I strongly believe in honest debate between competing opinions and just as strongly do not believe anonymous, ill-informed attacks serve any constructive purpose.  Generations of newspapers required letter writers to provide their name and address before publication, but somehow that standard disappeared coincident with the decline of newspaper circulation.

It is rare to see irrefutable proof to support public criticism and much of what passes for factual analysis is arguable at best.  True critical thinking is not entertaining and probably wouldn’t play well on television or in the newspapers.  Perhaps that’s why we see so little of it.  Even-handed analysis requires hard work and resources that very few people are able or willing to expend.  We generally settle for using convenient facts to support our point of view rather than looking at information that contradicts our conclusions.

 

I have been as guilty as anyone about making snap judgments and drawing conclusions based on weak facts; however, I have learned through unpleasant experience, and am still learning, to be slow before criticizing and respectful of opinions I don’t like.

 

I am most grateful for all the good work that went into Albany’s 150th anniversary celebration and for the many volunteers who give of their time to make Albany a good place to live.  The occasional potshot should not obscure the fact that there are many generous people who live in this community.