<![CDATA[Let Me Be Frank - Blog]]>Mon, 04 Jan 2021 07:44:03 -0500Weebly<![CDATA[Covid-19 reminds us that life on Earth is a game of existential dodgeball]]>Sun, 29 Mar 2020 23:51:45 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/covid-19-reminds-us-that-life-on-earth-is-a-game-of-existential-dodgeball
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH
The deadly coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world in early 2020 brings to mind a wonderfully astute passage from the start of Bill Bryson’s entertaining romp through science: “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” 

He writes: 
“To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most—99.99 percent—are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.”

And so we do. The planet creates and the planet destroys and one outcome is as good as the other, apparently. It is a maker, breaker planet. If our planet had feelings, which it decidedly doesn’t (sorry Gaia fans), Earth could best be described as ambivalent toward life.  ​​
So along comes the novel coronavirus, technically named SARS-CoV-2, which causes the dreaded Covid-19 disease. It’s both fascinating and horrible that death can come calling in so minute a package. Virus particles are about one-millionth of an inch, or about 1,000 times smaller than a bacterium. I know; I have trouble visualizing that, too. At least as unhelpful is this fun fact: 55 million of them could fit in the period at the end of this sentence. That is beyond comprehension.  

And yet this absurdly minuscule packet of genetic material hijacks cells to do its bidding, which is to create more absurdly minuscule packets of genetic material. And it will do this even if the collateral damage is the eventual death of many hosts, which would be counterproductive if there weren’t so many more hosts for the virus left to infect.  

You have to hand it to nature. When it comes to death and destruction, it can go as mind-bogglingly small as a virus or as breathtakingly large as a volcano or earthquake. That is quite the range.   

The Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder that life on this planet is a game of existential dodgeball not just for us as individuals but, sometimes entire species. The new coronavirus will, tragically, take many lives but our species will survive it. We’re not yet the dinosaurs after the asteroid that ended their 140-million year reign. That’s the good news. The bad news: one day we will be.
<![CDATA["America, you know I love you but we've got to change"]]>Sun, 14 Oct 2018 16:53:40 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/america-you-know-i-love-you-but-weve-got-to-change
To be in love with the idea of what America could be, and to know what it is and has been, is to suffer.

That pain suffuses a musical work I only recently stumbled across, “The Transformations Suite,” by composer Samora Pinderhughes. ​
Inc​orporating spoken word poetry and soul-searing vocals into a jazz ensemble, Pinderhughe’s suite is an hour-long meditation on the hurt the nation has inflicted on so many for so long for the benefit of so few. It is also a plea for America to, as Dr. King said, “live up to the true meaning of its creed.”

The suite is specifically a response to the unjustified police violence behind too  many headlines of our time. But it also recalls the nation’s tragic history, a history that for many Americans is as hidden from polite view as were the humans stacked like cordwood in the holds of ships during the Middle Passage.

In its way, the suite is also a love letter from the heartbroken to the cruel subject of his affection. In a performance of the piece at a church in Berkeley, Calif. in 2016, the  disappointment is palpable. But so is the hope. 

“America, you know I love you but we’ve got to change,” sings Jehbreal Jackson in his evocative, glass smooth tenor-falsetto. “We can’t keep going on like this.” It is a message known to everyone who has had a troubled relationship that brought them to the edge of despair but not the end of love. 

Listen to the entire suite. It will well repay your time. This clip gives a sense of the beauty and intensity of this confrontational work which, I hope, finds a much larger audience.

<![CDATA[What's Swastika Man doing in this Black Panther photo?]]>Sun, 29 Jul 2018 00:33:08 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/whats-swastika-man-doing-in-this-black-panther-photo
Black Panther Party leader Elbert "Big Man" Howard speaks publicly in 1970 while a white guy wearing a swastika listens nearby.
Elbert “Big Man” Howard was an unfamiliar name, at least to me, until I learned of him in his obituary in the New York Times. Howard,  who just died at age 80, was a founder of the Black Panther Party, a driving force behind its community programs, like free health clinics and prisoner re-entry efforts.

Illustrating the New York Times obit was an intriguing photo. It captured Howard in 1970, with his perfectly shaped ‘fro, holding a microphone as he speaks to a crowd in some unidentified location. Meanwhile, standing a small distance from Howard, was a young white man wearing, of all things, a necklace featuring a large swastika pendant.​
What on Earth was that about? Was this a part of the Panthers' history previously unknown to me; a dalliance with George Lincoln Rockwell's American Nazis? Which, of course, would make absolutely no sense, considering the Panthers were death to white supremacy. The photo caption offered no answer. Neither did the obit. But once again Google came to the rescue.

According to a 1967 article from The Atlantic magazine, the stomach-wrenching symbol of Germany’s justly despised Nazi Party of the early 20th Century was apparently adopted by some young Americans in the 1960s counterculture both for its shock value and to signal that generation’s rejection of their parents' values forged in the furnace of World War II.

From the article titled “The Flowering of the Hippies” in the September 1967 issue by a writer named Mark Harris:​
​“The ennobling idea of the hippies, forgotten or lost in the visual scene, diverted by chemistry, was their plan for community. For community had come. What kind of community, upon what model? Hippies wore brilliant Mexican chalecos, Oriental robes, and red-Indian headdress. They dressed as cowboys. They dressed as frontiersmen. They dressed as Puritans. Doubtful who they were, trying on new clothes, how could they know where they were going until they saw what fit? They wore military insignia. Among bracelets and bells they wore Nazi swastikas and the German Iron Cross, knowing, without knowing much more, that the swastika offended the Establishment, and no enemy of the Establishment could be all bad. They had been born, give or take a year or two, in the year of Hiroshima.”
​It certainly makes more sense that hippie culture would find common cause with the Panthers than American Nazis ever would. Or than motorcycle gangs would (they apparently also were known to use the swastika to symbolize their bad-ass, outsider status.)

So Swastika Man was more than likely a friend, not foe, of the black power movement represented by the Panthers and “Big Man” Howard. The fog of cognitive dissonance caused by the photo has lifted.
<![CDATA[When curiosity goes wrong]]>Fri, 13 Apr 2018 00:49:53 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/when-curiosity-goes-wrong
Hampton Beach, NH, August 2014.
(This post about a racial incident I experienced a few years back was originally published in August 2014 on my blog that was deleted, in toto, by my previous web hosting company. Moral of the story: pay attention to those emails from your web hosting company. They might contain a bill you need to pay to keep your website from being "disappeared." 

Fortunately I kept a copy of the 2014 post. It got a lot of attention then from my Facebook friends four years ago. I'm republishing it in part because one of the friends I was with that evening is now besieged by an aggressive cancer. This is my way of remembering a foul experience that, we had no way of knowing then, we would now recall as the good old days.)

Curiosity can be a weapon.

During a recent trip to the New Hampshire ocean-side town of Hampton Beach with two childhood friends, we experienced a moment that revealed the ugly side of curiosity. The old Dave Chappelle Show could have done a skit about the encounter, calling it “When Curiosity Goes Wrong,” a sister concept to its bitingly clever “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”
We had found a restaurant we enjoyed so much that we dined there three consecutive evenings. On the third night, after yet another great meal and much spirited conversation, we headed to the upstairs bar to check out a musician highly recommended by a waitress.

Shortly after the three of us middle-aged men who happen to be black -- a veteran TV sports producer, a senior Air Force non-commissioned officer and I, a recovering Washington journalist – found a bar table with stools, a middle-aged woman who happened to be white, approached and stood next to my right elbow.

“Three black guys walk into a restaurant...,” she said.

Instantly, we all thought this the beginning of a joke. Probably a tasteless one of the “a rabbi, priest and imam walk into a bar” variety. We were certainly curious. Where was she headed with this? We soon found out.

“And I just want to know what you're doing here?” she said. “It's unusual to see blacks in this part of New Hampshire and in this restaurant and I just wanted to know why you're here? I've been coming here for 15 years and I want to make sure you're going to uphold the high standards we have here.”

Even as I write this, a few weeks removed, I can feel my heart rate increase.

“What?” one of my friends said, shaking his head before planting his face in his palm.

“I'm going to get a drink” said my other friend, pushing disgustedly up and away from the encounter.

“Whoa,” I said.

“I don't mean to be rude,” she said.

“Well, you are.” I said. “What if you walked into a restaurant where you were the only white person and someone asked you what you were doing there? How would you feel?”

To this, she said she had been in an all-black place, a soul-food restaurant somewhere, and that a black woman had sat her “big-fat ass down” next to her to try and show her how to properly eat something.

“Time-out,” I said. “That's enough. You've got to go. We've been really patient with you. Now please go.”

And she did. She was put out but she headed back for her seat at the bar.

We left shortly afterward, determined that we wouldn't allow this encounter to ruin our time at the beach. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't affect us. 

As I sorted through the meaning (or meaninglessness) of the encounter, it struck me that the woman's behavior, probably less inhibited than it usual thanks to alcohol, fit into the curiosity theme I intend to explore with this blog.

She certainly demonstrated curiosity by approaching us. Key to curiosity is an assertive exploration of what's novel in one's environment and we certainly were novel. The three nights we visited the popular restaurant, we never saw any other black people there.

She asked a question that likely crossed the minds of other patrons: what are those guys doing here? Other questions that I imagine occurred to the people in the restaurant were what's their story? And did they play for the Celtics or Patriots? (We range from 6'3” to 6'7”. Indeed, we met as teenagers who played youth basketball together.)

But then her curiosity went off the rails with her “there goes the neighborhood” attitude that our very blackness made us potential threats to one of her favorite night spots.

In short, she quickly went from demonstrating curiosity to the very antithesis of curiosity – racial stereotyping. To unthinkingly ascribe the least positive behavior demonstrated by some members of a group to all members of that group is to stereotype and she certainly did that by suggesting that our skin color alone made us dubious characters to be interrogated.

She provided a strong example of how human curiosity can be the handmaiden to that other human tendency to crudely and quickly sort what we encounter in the world into categories of the good and the bad, often with horrible results.

In hindsight, that strange New England interaction has fueled my curiosity about that woman. Assuming she did consume alcohol before she descended on us, how many drinks did it take before she could act so boorishly? Two? More? Just one?

Where did she grow up and what was her family like? Does she have any relatives or friends who aren't white? One of my buddies noticed she had been seated at the bar with a white man. What was their conversation immediately before she approached us? How about after she returned from our table? Did she remember the encounter the next day? Where would she place herself on the spectrum of racial tolerance and intolerance? (She did go to that soul-food restaurant, after all.) If three black strangers walked into her favorite bar in the future, would she behave with them as she did with us? These are questions I'd love answers for.  
<![CDATA['Remember me, but forget my fate']]>Sat, 31 Mar 2018 16:53:55 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/remember-me-but-forget-my-fate
From my first hearing until now of "Dido's Lament," composer Henry Purcell's aria from "Dido and Aeneas," the song has struck me, as it has so many, for its simple beauty and universal plea of the dying to those left behind: Remember me when I am gone. 

Dido, the Queen of Carthage, who dies from that ancient staple of melodrama, a broken heart after being abandoned by Aeneas, the Trojan prince, not only asks her court to remember her but to forget the misfortune at the end of her life's end.
Over the years, I have often thought about Dido's final request. With nearly every premature passing of a relative or friend by disease or accident, I have reminded myself that it is the wondrousness of their very existence, brief though it was, that our departed would want us to fix on, not the car wreck, not the cancer. Forget their fates, they would tell us. That's what I hope to remember to say, if there's time enough, when my own end approaches. 

Maybe in that moment my mind's eye will conjure up operatic star Jessye Norman, arrayed in queenly finery, singing "Dido's Lament" in what may be the most moving version of the aria ever performed. There are certainly far worse ways to go. 
<![CDATA[Want to get away? Try mind-traveling space]]>Fri, 30 Mar 2018 02:05:14 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/want-to-get-away-try-mind-traveling-space
The famous Hubble Telescope Deep Field photo showing hundreds of galaxies of many billions of stars each.
Space is the ultimate getaway. Whenever the world is too much with me in the form of bad news either near or remote, I draw an odd sort of comfort from musing about stars and recalling that the Universe really could care less about us.

A million dyspeptic tweets on Twitter are as meaningful to the Universe as a million grains of moon dust. War, elections, hurricanes, police shootings. The Universe is unmoved by what moves us Earthlings.
No matter the latest headlines from Washington or elsewhere, the black hole at the center of our galaxy, its mass several million times that of our Sun, disappears anything getting too close -- interstellar dust and gas, stars, planets. Billions of stars -- red giants, white dwarfs, neutron stars -- turn nuclear fusion into light. Billions of galaxies zip away from each other under the influence of dark energy, whatever that is. Like "Ol’ Man River" from Jerome Kern’s famous “Showboat” musical, the Universe “just keeps rollin’ along.” 

That the Universe is indifferent to us is actually positive. I prefer my Universe to be pure physics and math without the emotion or illogic that endlessly trip up us humans, causing so many of us to inflict misery on so many others of us. Maybe if we truly understood our place in the cosmic scheme, we’d show each other more mercy.  
The Universe doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t condescend. It’s not hypocritical or driven by passion. It is, quite literally, above it all. That’s what makes learning about it, wondering about it, marveling over it, a welcome respite. An imagination that leaves Earth’s orbit can find a sanctuary so big that it would take 13.7 billion light years before you reach the edge of it. 
<![CDATA[Curiosity's Mars landing still amazes 5 years on]]>Sat, 28 Oct 2017 21:44:16 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/curiositys-mars-landing-still-amazes-5-years-onIt’s easy to be blasé about us humans having a machine on Mars, the Curiosity rover, that is exploring the planet and sending back copious data. More than five years after it landed on Mars, it is still functioning (and tweeting!), though it’s apparently been having problems of late with its drill.  

But just because most of us have forgotten, if we ever even knew, that our Mars rover is still rolling about collecting scientific data to enlarge our understanding of the planet, that doesn’t make the fact of the Curiosity rover’s continued existence any less remarkable.  (Curiosity is actually one of two rovers we have on Mars still communicating with us. The other, Opportunity, has been on Mars for 13 years.)

Nor does that ignorance make it’s landing on Mars in one piece in the first place any less mind-blowing.

One of my favorite science videos is called “Seven Minutes of Terror” in which engineers explain the Rube Goldberg-like complexity of the techniques they used to softly land Curiosity successfully. The Opportunity rover was surrounded by large inflated balls that cushioned its far harder landing in which it was dropped and bounced on the martian surface until it came to a stop.

Something that didn't occur to me until I had seen the video maybe two dozen times was this: will it require using a similarly complicated landing sequence when we finally land humans on Mars? It seems like we'd need to since we humans are even more fragile than the Curiosity rover, aren't we?
<![CDATA[If Richard Dawkins were a rapper...]]>Sun, 22 Oct 2017 04:00:00 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/if-richard-dawkins-were-a-rapper
So much of popular entertainment is mindless, which probably explains why it’s both popular and entertaining. 

Rap, the newest form of popular entertainment, has more often than not played to the lowest common denominator of human concerns. But as Lin-Manuel Miranda so famously proved with “Hamilton,” it need not be that way. 

True, there have long been "conscious rappers" who have used their music to protest police violence, war, political leadership or social conditions. But few and far between are the rappers who promote challenging ideas of science and rationality in their work, and do so with a lyrical complexity that rivals good literature.
Two such rappers I only recently learned of but who have been turning out great work for years are Greydon Square and Baba Brinkman

The two could not be more different. Square, whose real name is Eddie Collins, has the more dramatic biography of the two. African American and straight out of Compton, he was raised in a group home, gangbanged as a teen and wound up in juvenile detention. He enlisted in the Army, served in Iraq and later became deeply interested in physics and computer science. 

After his first album, “The Compton Effect”, the titles of his succeeding albums have referenced astrophysics: “The Kardashev Scale,” is named for the method astrophysicists use to theoretically sort civilizations across the Universe based on how well they harness  energy. Another album was titled “Omniverse.” These titles suggest rather expansive ambitions, to say the least.   

"I'm an artist who creates music  for intellectuals," Square says in a video on his landing page on Bandcamp.  "Who creates music for thinkers, people who are analytical, people who like fringe concepts in science and science fiction. That's really my lane," he says. 

Dirk Murray “Baba” Brinkman is a white Canadian who was raised by well-connected parents in British Columbia. His mother is a member of Canada’s Parliament who also co-founded reforestation companies with her husband. Baba has a master’s degree in comparative literature. 

His first rap splash was a hip hop retelling of the Canterbury Tales. Later, he delivered rap guides to business, religion, evolution, human nature, medicine and consciousness.

Like Square, his ambitions are cosmic. Besides rapping, he's an actor and a playwright. He estimates he  personally planted more than one million trees while working for his parents. 

While they come from very different backgrounds, both Square and Brinkman converged on atheism and aren’t shy in giving voice to their stance that all religions fail abysmally at explaining the “how” of the universe, and are shackles on human curiosity and knowledge. When you listen to Square and Brinkman's work, it’s as though Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and famous atheist, were a rapper.  Brinkman has a music video for his song "Neighborhood Atheism" in which Square appears.  
Carl Sagan is a role model for both men, as he is to many of us who wish the “demon-haunted world” would come to grips, sooner rather than later, with the evidence-based nature of reality. 

​These two rappers have captured my imagination. They will capture the imaginations of many more before they’re done. Thanks to the Internet for serendipitously leading me to them. Such discoveries almost make up for having to endure the Internet’s worst features. Almost. ​​
<![CDATA[A marble in the desert]]>Sat, 14 Oct 2017 04:00:00 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/a-marble-in-the-desert
How do you show the planets and distances of our Solar System to scale if you use a marble to depict our Earth in your scale model? It helps to find a desert.

In what had to be one of the most ambitious efforts ever to portray the relative sizes of the planets and their orbits around the Sun, several buddies took to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. With the Sun represented by what looks like a very large white beach ball, the men place each planet in its respective orbit, marking out a diameter of 3.5 miles from the their Sun to Neptune.

​The YouTube video of their effort has gotten more than 3.5 million well deserved views. What an inventive way to demonstrate the unfathomable vastness of our Solar System and, by extrapolation, the Universe beyond, as well as just how puny our place in the Cosmos really is. 

<![CDATA["It worked out for me. It will work out for you"]]>Fri, 30 Jun 2017 07:00:00 GMThttp://thefrankjames.com/blog/it-worked-out-for-me-it-will-work-out-for-you-too
On May 20, 2017 I had the rare privilege, for me at least, of giving an important speech to an audience of critical thinkers, that is, young people less than 24 hours away from officially becoming graduates of my alma mater, Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. 

I was deeply moved to be asked to be the baccalaureate ceremony speaker. So much emotion, so many memories.  I've been a part of the Dickinson family for a very long time. 

The speech made me ask myself: what would I want to hear from a speaker on the weekend in which I crossed from college undergraduate to graduate? The answer came fairly readily: you can never wrong with a message of hope. Read on for a transcript. 
Thank you Savannah for that very kind introduction.  

I am profoundly honored and moved by this opportunity to speak to you, the Class of 2017, today.  

During my many return visits to our extraordinarily beautiful college as a member of the board of trustees, I have enjoyed meeting many of you in the Class of 2017.  

You have deeply impressed me – with your intelligence,  your passion and your poise. I have no doubt you will also impress the world beyond these limestone walls.

As I stand here looking out at you, my mind travels back to my own commencement exercises here nearly 40 years ago.

It's so hard to believe it’s been almost forty years since I descended Old West’s time worn steps.  

I recall that Hanna Holburn Gray, then President of the University of Chicago, the first woman to lead that institution, was our commencement speaker. I can't remember a word she said. I went on YouTube to see if I could find archival footage of her speech that day. No luck.

You in the Class of 2017 won’t have that problem. We record and live stream all our commencements now. 
Forty years from now you'll be able to call up the video of
Adm. Stavridis's speech tomorrow and watch it as you
sit in your living room, maybe on the planet Mars, in Elon Musk City.    

My strongest memory from that commencement day in 1979 is a moment I still deeply regret.

It involved one of the most lovable professors at the college for many years, Joe Schiffman. He taught English and American Studies. There's a memorial to him by Bosler, a Japanese maple tree and a marker. The marker gives his life span: 1914 to 1999. In quotes are the words: “beloved teacher, husband, father, friend.”   

He was my teacher, mentor, friend and father figure. Besides being his student, I was his research assistant.

Professor Schiffman was quite a character.

When he taught Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, he would enter the classroom wearing an old-fashioned fisherman’s rain slicker and carrying a harpoon.

I don’t think a professor could get away with carrying a harpoon around campus these days. Maybe that’s progress ---  I’m not sure.

As if that weren’t enough to make him a campus legend, on the first day in his class, you could count on him to walk around the room, peer intently into the faces of first timers to his classroom and announce to each what his or her name was.

With his full head of white hair, he would lean over toward a student and say "You must be Rebecca. Can I call you Becky?" He would do that to every new student to his class.  

You see, he had memorized their faces and names from photos he had his research assistants like me cut out from the yearly booklet that contained pictures of all first years. He cared for his students enough to do that. He wanted to make everyone feel that they belonged.

Anyway, after the end of the 1979 commencement exercises, a beaming Professor Schiffman, his wife Bess at his side, approached me, my mom Enid and my dad Vincent. The Schiffmans invited us to join them at a local restaurant for lunch. It would be their treat, they said.

My parents were willing but I wasn’t. I haltingly declined the invitation. “Uhhh, thanks, but we already have a lunch reservation,” I said, which was true. But that wasn't the real reason.

The actual reason was I was afraid my salt-of-the-earth, Jamaican immigrant, non-college educated parents might embarrass me in front of the Schiffmans.
They might've misconjugated a verb or something. I couldn't take that risk.
I can still remember the look of disappointment on the Schiffmans’ and my parents’ faces. What a missed opportunity. Those two couples should’ve had the chance to break bread together, to celebrate my achievement together.    
Looking back on it now, I find it hard to believe that I feared my parents could possibly embarrass me in front of a guy who wore a rain slicker and carried a harpoon to class to teach Moby Dick.

Even without
college educations, my parents were smart, friendly folks who loved to talk and laugh and knew, in their own way, how to put strangers at ease. There was really nothing to fear.

But my 21-year old brain was blind in that moment to anything but my parents’ potential to embarrass me. My fears won out that day.

Fellow Dickinsonians, do not repeat my mistake tomorrow. If a beloved professor offers to buy you and your family lunch, say yes. It’s a free meal. F---R---E---E.

But seriously, it’s remarkable how, even on a day that epitomizes so much hope, like the day of your college commencement, fear is right there too.

In fact, it seems like those two always travel together, fear and hope. They are like conjoined twins --  where you find one, you find the other.

My fear of the potential for my parents to embarrass me in front of my learned professor wasn’t my only worry on my commencement day.

I was also anxious about what came the day after commencement. I didn’t have a career path figured out. I wasn’t going to graduate school. I didn’t even have a job lined up.

I had hope that once I started really looking for a job I’d get one. But hope wasn’t going to pay my share of the rent in the house I lived in on South Street. Those were nervous times.  

I’m guessing that for many of you, this weekend of hope and joy, this commencement weekend, is also a time of some fear and anxiety.  

Even for those of you with jobs, or seats waiting for you in graduate or professional schools, there is still uncertainty. There are still questions only the future can answer.

Will you be as successful at the next level as you were at Dickinson? Will you find meaningful work that pays well? 

And then, there are the big, cosmic worries, issues like global warming, our dysfunctional national politics, or the dystopian future in which, some experts say, artificial intelligence will take all our jobs.

So, yes, there’s much to be anxious about even at this time of hope.
But I think you have every reason to allow your hopes to vastly outweigh your fears. Here’s why.

You are among the fortunate few who have ever lived who are getting bachelor’s degrees from a first-rate liberal arts college.

Now, I don’t know how many people have gotten liberal arts degrees in human history but it’s been a relatively paltry number. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that 108 billion people have ever lived, seven  billion being alive right now.

Given that maybe four percent of U.S. graduates of not-for-profit colleges get degrees from small liberal arts institutions, you can see that you are indeed among the fortunate few.

To earn that degree, you’ve shown curiosity, persistence and empathy. You’ve also demonstrated creativity, critical thinking and superior communications skills.

Some of you have been innovators. Many of you have been leaders. You have a global perspective, strengthened by studying abroad. You think creatively, critically and flexibly. And you’ve learned how to keep learning, a skill that will allow you to better adapt to an uncertain future. That means if the industry you’re in implodes around you the way journalism did around me due to the Internet, you’ll just climb out of the smoking ruins and move on to whatever’s next.     

Experts say it’s precisely college graduates like you who are most likely to thrive in a world ever more reliant on technology.

Then there’s the confidence that comes from having been in a place like this where scholars like Joe Schiffman know your name and, indeed, become lifelong friends. With professors like these standing behind you, believing in you, it’s hard to not believe in yourself.

I’m sure the knowledge of how much my professors believed in this kid from The Bronx, gave me the chutzpah to write and talk my way onto The Wall Street Journal.
And, by the way, Dickinson got me in the door there. The Wall Street Journal’s national editor at the time, the guy who hired me, was a Haverford College graduate who, of course, knew of Dickinson.

All right --- I’ve debated with myself about whether I should  tell you one of the reasons Dickinson left such a strong impression on this guy. I’ve decided to tell you.

It just so happened that editor not only attended Haverford College but also grew up in the town of Haverford.

Among his favorite childhood memories, he told me during my job interview, were the times Dickinson’s football team would visit Haverford.

He told me that Dickinson students who traveled to Haverford to cheer on the Red Devils would essentially run amok in his neighborhood, jump over backyard fences and throw people’s patio furniture into their swimming pools. This enraged all the homeowners, including his parents, but amused the child who later became that editor who interviewed me for my first journalism job.

Now you see why I wasn’t sure I should share that story with you. Not so noble Dickinsonia.

Anyway, that began a 33-year career in journalism where I witnessed amazing history and got to tell many great stories for a living.  

To think that the skinny young man with a big afro (yes, I had a big afro as hard as that may be to believe today) that the skinny young man who sat there 38 years ago with no job lined up would become a successful journalist at three of the nation’s top news organizations still amazes me.

To think that the skinny young man who sat there would one day cover South Africa’s first truly Democratic presidential elections in 1994, and even get to meet Nelson Mandela, and shake his hand, still amazes me.

To think that the skinny young man who sat there would become a pioneering newspaper blogger and that I’d live-blog the scene at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver when Sen. Barack Obama officially became the first African American presidential nominee of one of the two major political parties still amazes me.

To think that the skinny young man who sat there would go on to become a writer at NPR, and friends with Nina Totenberg, the network’s famed Supreme Court reporter, still amazes me. And that after my journalism career ended, Nina would mention me to a legendary lawyer friend of hers at WilmerHale, one of the nation’s top law firms, and that I would get the chance to do public relations for that firm, still amazes me. By the way, WilmerHale was in the news this week. The Justice Department named one of our partners, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, special counsel to investigate the alleged Russian influence on the 2016 Presidential election. It’s been a busy week for me.  

And all of this happened for a guy who didn’t have a clue what his first job would be when he sat right there.

But it worked out for me. It will work out for you.  

Dickinson Class of 2017, enjoy tomorrow. Savor it. You’ve earned every twinge of pride you will feel.  

And, remember, try not to do anything tomorrow that you’ll regret for the next 40 years. I still can’t believe I turned down that free lunch!       

Thank you.