Wednesday, February 6, 2013

George Lockwood: A Life of Achievement

In a pivotal scene in the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets, Helen Hunt's character Carol insists that Jack Nicholson's character Melvin give her one compliment. He hesitates, hems and haws and stammers something nonsensical. Carol doesn't understand how it's a compliment.

Then Melvin blurts out: 'You make me want to be a better man'.

That scene has always stuck with me over the years and it is particularly relevant today as we mourn the loss of our cherished father, grandfather, husband, uncle and great friend to so many. Throughout his life, Dad made us all want to be better men and women. I would like to take a few minutes to tell you about Dad and why he deserves such praise.

Everyone here today knows something about the life of George Lockwood, from his early life on a dairy farm in a small town in upstate New York to his career heights in the world of journalism. What is perhaps lost or unknown is a simple fact: Dad made choices that always propelled him forward in life.

Though he knew disappointment like all of us, Dad possessed an indomitable spirit that was impervious to failure or wallowing in self pity.

His mother Evelyn encouraged him to pursue achievements beyond their little farm in Westerlo, New York, but she could not have known that he would end his days having travelled the world many times, received a Pulitzer Prize in his 30s, raised four independent children and inspired colleagues to be their very best for more than four decades in his chosen profession of journalism.

These days, the entire field seems beleaguered and unreliable. The newspapers are going the way of the dodo bird. The public is skeptical of the press - and rightfully so. With Dad at the helm of a news organisation, however, accuracy and objectivity always held sway.

I remember many occasions as a child listening to Dad talk about the importance of objectivity in journalism. Facts always mattered, and not just any facts, but the relevant facts that told an entire story. As an expert editor, Dad would strike even the most innocuous sounding word from a reporter's piece if it slanted the article in any way. He reminded me how the use of the passive voice could be a subtle way of showing bias.

How did this translate into his parenting style? Well, he was strict and demanding there, too. Audrey, Cary, Noah and I were expected to be respectful of our elders. He surely encouraged us to participate in family discussions and he always made sure we were present for the many Milwaukee Journal parties he and my mother hosted at our house over the years. The difference was, we were to act as adults, not as whiney brats. He expected us to speak in turn, allow others to express their opinions and accept that no two opinions were alike. Today I attribute my calm resolve to Dad's numerous lessons about the rules of good conversation.

Many outside observers note that Lockwoods wear their emotions just below the surface, never too overt nor repressed. The common trait we all share, to one degree or another, is patient resolve.

Audrey may pound her fists in righteous indignation over this or that bigoted politician, but in her most personal moments, she carefully listens and respects others' often wildly divergent views from her own.

Cary, on the other hand, is the cool cucumber in the family. For my entire life, I have watched him go about his business quietly, intently and with an unparalleled focus. And yet, don't you dare get on his bad side, because then the beast can emerge.

Noah is sometimes mischaracterised as belligerent. It is a word that I think makes him bristle to this day. Nevertheless, what I see in Noah is a passionate desire to be himself and to express himself without kowtowing to others.

And then there's me. In my early years, I lived in the shadow of three siblings, each with big and brash personalities of their own. I sought, quietly and resolutely, to carve out my own unique personality. I've spent nearly three decades as the world adventurer and lover of language. I've gone from my late teenage years and early 20s living in French speaking countries, to teaching English in post-Communist Slovakia to now a resident of Sydney, Australia.

You may wonder what these brief stories have to do with Dad. In a word: everything. All that we are and all that we do as his children are because he paved the way for us. When I was a kid, I would roll my eyes when Dad gave his 'roots and wings' speech at the dinner table. I mean, how many times did he have to tell the damn story before it sank in? I get it, Dad, you and Mom created a foundation for us so we could take flight as independent adults.

Today, I am grateful for the repetition. I think of it often when I must make tough decisions about the course of my life. More than five years ago when I was struggling a bit personally, I recalled Dad's words and they helped me make the biggest and best decision to date.

I recognise that it takes courage to uproot oneself at age 41, but do you know what Dad said when I told him I was moving to Sydney? 'When can your mother and I come visit?'

Over several decades, I have also come to know Dad's colleagues and friends. Without exception, they gush their admiration. My partner Steve was overjoyed he was able to spend time during Dad's last year getting to know him. Just months ago, during our Thanksgiving visit to St Joseph, Missouri, Steve pulled out his iPad to show Dad how comics had migrated to the new and exciting electronic platform.

Steve demonstrated how to tap, pinch and swipe the screen. It touched me to watch someone take such an interest in Dad, but I quickly understood why: Dad always took an active interest in others. This is what I most loved about Dad. He had a way of inspiring others to rise to every occasion.

As my family mourns the loss of our wonderful father, grandfather and husband, I am reminded of Aristotle's great-souled man, as described in his Ethics. He is the man of high integrity and values, who pursues his goals valiantly, but neither boasts nor shies from the recognition of his achievements. If ever there were an embodiment of these ideals, Dad surely possessed them. In his words and deeds, Dad lived by his principles. All of us celebrating his life today are living proof of his radiant light extending out to each and every one of us.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


On Facebook, I have not hidden my admiration for a new writer making news recently. Hugh Howey, author of a series of dystopian science fiction novellas called Wool, did the unthinkable in the publishing world: he not only turned down two seven-figure offers from big publishing houses, but in the deal he did sign, he managed to retain his eBook rights. That alone has caused me to start calling him Trailblazer Hugh.

Now, ordinarily, this would be fascinating news because it is precedent setting for writers all over the planet. What makes Hugh’s story rise to the heroic for me is one simple fact: he’s living his dream. He not only has written a compelling work of fiction which I highly recommend, but he’s done it on his own terms.

What’s more for me is it has kick started my motivation to resume writing my book, from which I took a long break. Writers who don’t write often have their excuses for not writing, and mine are no different: I moved house, I started a new job, I found a partner whom I love dearly, etc. Sure, these may be legitimate reasons for a time, but did any of those things stop me from writing? Did they take up so much head space that I was incapable of continuing? No and no. 

The simple fact remains that I just stopped. I wasn’t blocked or stymied or self conscious about my writing skill. I didn’t run out of ideas for my book. I didn’t even engage in the self flagellating that some writers do, i.e. I’m no good and no-one would want to read my drivel. Quite the contrary. I am brimming with ideas and have a story to tell that I think people will want to read. But dammit, I stopped writing it for at least 18 months. And now I’ve resumed. It feels great.

So what changed? Why now? I assure you, it has nothing to do with a New Year’s resolution. I’ve never made them and I’ve never reneged on them. 

What changed is Hugh Howey came into my life. Yeah, that sounds creepy, like I’m stalking him from halfway across the planet. I first encountered Howey on, sheerly by accident. His Wool books came up as a suggestion after I’d bought several of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, better known as Game of Thrones. I clicked on the link for the first Wool novella, read the synopsis and thought hmmm, that seems interesting. Then I saw that there were several novellas in the series collected into one Kindle omnibus edition, for the unbeatable price of $5.99 USD. I thought why not, six bucks is no big outlay for a book by an unknown author.

The rest is history. I raced through each story, anxious to find out what happened next. Since this isn’t a book review, I won’t reveal anything about the plot of Wool. Buy it yourself and find out what the hubbub is all about. 

After reading the first few novellas, I was curious to find out more about this Hugh Howey character, so I found his website: He posts there regularly about his most awesome life as a professional writer. Now that sounds a bit adolescent, I realise. What 30-something man has an ‘awesome’ life, especially in these days of recessionary America. Hugh does. If you watch his YouTube videos, you get a real sense of his delight over his current fortunes as a writer. He’s like a kid in a candy store. God bless him for it.

I’ve since become a Facebook friend of his and I follow his Twitter feeds. He genuinely enjoys his fans and responds to them personally. I avoid filling his wall with gushing words of fan-induced praise, knowing that his primary goal is his writing, which brings me back to my own writing and why I’ve begun again. It’s Hugh’s simple advice, encapsulated in one word: finish!

Yes, it’s all so easy. Finish. Get the draft done. Then fix it. It’s advice that writing instructors for centuries have been giving. It all seemed so abstract to me until Hugh said it, but because he said it and in such simple and friendly terms, it has motivated me to do it.

I will finish my book.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ode to the Greek Spirit

To my readers: the following is a book review I wrote some years ago, but I find it as relevant (and as surprisingly well written) as when I originally published it.


Who were the ancient Greeks and why do they still move us? Their society is as alien to us as their language. Yet Greece still beckons us more than two millennia since the fall of Athens. The pinnacle of Greek culture lasted a mere century, yet it has left its mark on all of western society. The great intellectual institutions, such as philosophy, science and literature, originated in Greece. Beyond these marvels, however, lies a value so fundamentally important - and enduring - that a basic understanding of the Greeks is as important today as ever.
In The Greek Way, author Edith Hamilton covers the height of Greek culture in the 5th century BC. She begins by contrasting the east and west - an approach that becomes clear as one reads along. The east, according to Hamilton, stood for faith and force, while Greece embodied the opposite values of reason and freedom. Early in the book, Hamilton writes: ‘In a world where the irrational had played the chief role, they (the Greeks) came forward as the protagonists of the mind’. Thus, the Greeks introduced to the world the idea that the universe was orderly, that man's senses were valid and, as a consequence, that man's proper purpose was to live his own life to the fullest. These are discoveries that many westerners take for granted today, but not Edith Hamilton. Throughout the book, she constantly reminds the reader of the awe and beauty of the Greek spirit.
An important corollary of the Greek view that the world is knowable was their belief in the supremacy of independence. Hamilton paints a vivid portrait of the major Greek writers, statesmen and philosophers, all of whom possessed just such an intransigent commitment to independence. She writes: ‘Authoritarianism and submissiveness were not the direction it (the Greeks' spirit) pointed to. A high-spirited people full of physical vigour do not obey easily…’ and further: ‘...each man must himself be a research worker in the truth if he were ever to attain to any share in it…’
5th century Athens was also the birthplace of political freedom. Though Hamilton does not provide a thorough analysis of this great development, she does offer hints throughout. In her chapter on the historian Herodotus, she explains his view of the Greeks during the war against the Persians: ‘A free democracy resisted a slave-supported tyranny’. ‘Mere numbers were powerless against the spirit of free men fighting to defend their freedom’. Why did Herodotus believe that free men were more powerful? Hamilton answers: ‘The basis of Athenian democracy was the conviction...that the average man can be depended upon to do his duty and to use good sense in doing it. Trust the individual was the avowed doctrine in Athens, and expressed or unexpressed it was common to Greece’.
The Greeks, contrary to popular myth, were not a particularly religious people. While it is true that they had their gods, it is important to note that they did not place great importance on mystical beliefs. Indeed, what gods they did revere were the opposite of the Christian doctrine that man was made ‘in God's image’. The Greek gods were made in the image of man. They were neither omnipotent nor omnipresent. Hamilton contrasts the Greek and eastern views of religion: ‘Before Greece, all religion was magical’. She further illustrates that mystical beliefs were based on fear of the unknown, whereas the Greeks ‘changed a world that was full of fear into a world full of beauty’.
A minor flaw in Hamilton's book is her overuse of examples, particularly in the chapters where she discusses the playwrights Aristophanes, Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Though she deftly contrasts the Greek way of writing with the eastern and modern approaches, the reader drowns in the minutiae. Hamilton was perhaps attempting to impress the reader with her depth of knowledge, but given the tone of the rest of the book, these examples disrupt her otherwise clear and concise writing.
The Greek Way is a joy to read. In it, Hamilton presents an integrated view of ancient Greece and the important legacy left for modern man. She successfully shows that the Greeks were rational, purposeful and happy people, intent on achieving their values in this world. If one could choose a single expression that characterises the essence of Greek values, it is man worship. The Greeks worshiped man for what he was and what he could be. In Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, we see that spirit shine brightly down through the ages. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Goodbye, Irascible Girl

Mollie Martinelli: 1982 - 2012

Today I got some sad news. Really sad news in fact. An old friend from Phoenix died suddenly at barely 30 years old.
I first met Mollie Martinelli at The Wild Card, a little club in Chandler, Arizona. The ‘Card’, as regulars came to know it, was the kind of place where anyone was welcome. Nobody cared about your background, rich or poor, employed or not. Nobody cared whether you were straight, gay or somewhere in between. All who frequented the Card considered it a comfortable home away from home where the drinks were strong, the menu better than most American bars provide and the shows and events always entertaining.
My ex-partner Randy and I became regulars there in 2005, around the time Mollie did. She sported a masculine look, festooned with tattoos and piercings that young people do today. I admit neither are my cup of tea and consequently when I first saw Mollie, I must confess I was put off by her look. But then I got to know her. Underneath the spiky hair, the tattoos and piercings lived a bubbly girl. While her anger sometimes shone through, the mood I remember most was positive and smiling. She was friendly and chatty to just about anyone she encountered at the Card. Over time she began to host karaoke nights and DJ’d for shows.
Over my remaining years in Arizona, I spent many many evenings at the Wild Card and therefore came to know Mollie well. She had loves and losses like the rest of us, but always seemed quick with a kind word. For as long as I knew her, she was studying in college while at the same time working and enjoying herself with friends. Whilst I did not know her intimately, she struck me as ambitious and driven to success. On the occasions I made the trek back to Phoenix from Sydney, Mollie would give me a big bear hug when I saw her again and ask about how my life was going in Australia. She genuinely was interested in what I had to say.
I cannot begin to imagine what her close friends and loved ones are going through now. It would be trite of me to offer the usual platitudes, so instead I am writing this short tribute to her.
Mollie, you were sometimes irascible and sometimes difficult, but what I admired in you was your spirit, your get up and go, your moxie and your devotion to your values. I think you even aspired to greatness and I would have loved to have seen you succeed in life beyond your wildest fantasies. As it stands, I will remember the fond times at the Wild Card, your wonderful wit and everything else that made you an original.
Rest in peace, my irascible one. I will miss you greatly.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The End of...

During a trip to Southern California more than a decade ago to visit some good friends of mine, I had the opportunity to visit the Computational Biology department at CalTech University. My friend Stephen had worked there for many years and his profession intrigued me greatly. Now, I am no scientist by trade or vocation, but I revere good scientists and the results of their exacting work: the application of science to create the incredible products we all enjoy and often take for granted.
On this particular day, Stephen explained to me what computational biology meant in terms I could grasp:
‘Do you see those blips on the screen moving closer together?’ he asked me. ‘Those blips represent genes’.
‘What is the purpose of the computer program?’
‘To track movement of genes, but also, it frees the scientists to engage in higher level thinking’.
‘So it’s like office automation in a way, right? Instead of having to perform tedious office tasks, secretaries can now focus on more interesting things’.
‘That’s exactly right! Scientists can focus their energies on solving even more complex problems because the computers are now performing the menial work of gene mapping’.
This exchange many years ago got me thinking about human progress, and more specifically how technology enables us to think better and to come up with ever more innovative products. What is technology but the rational mind applied to the creation of the tools we need to thrive and advance?
Not everyone loves technology the way I do, but everyone surely benefits from it. Nevertheless, over dinner conversation recently, a friend of my partner’s was discussing how he thought all the iPhones and iPads were great gadgets, but sooner or later they would eliminate work. His theory was that with our lives so completely automated, there would be no jobs left for people to do.
Does this viewpoint sound familiar? It isn’t a new one. For a century or more, one pundit after another has declared the end of work, the end of education, the end of reading, the end of relationships - all due to technological advances. After all, with everything done for us by machines, why bother making any effort to live productively at all?
The problem with this thinking is it limits the person who believes it from considering the infinite possibilities for working and living. Who could have imagined just 15 years ago that many of us would be enjoying our lives with fantastic, always connected computing devices that perform an ever more dizzying array of tasks. Thanks to the iPhone and smart phones in general, the charming expression ‘there’s an app for that’ has crept into our modern vernacular. We may use the phrase with irony, but we also love the ability to get things done quickly and with seemingly little effort. We have scientists and technologists to thank for this happy existence.
So what is the future of work? What kinds of productive endeavours will our children and grandchildren engage in decades from now? Who can say? We are only limited by our ability to think and by political systems that erode our freedoms, with the latter being the greatest threat we face today. The late, great economist, Julian Simon, titled one of his books The Ultimate Resource. He was not referring to the natural resources we convert to make the products we need to survive, but to man himself. Man is in fact the only resource whose protection we ought to cherish, for it is the reasoning mind that makes everything we enjoy possible.
Every day, I raise my glass in silent thanks to those men and women, who, through their active minds, make my very existence possible and my life worth living. The end of work? Not by a long shot.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Signal That Motivates

‘Six meat pies for 10 dollars’, noted my partner while we were driving in Newcastle, New South Wales recently. He had read it on a sign and I replied that it was a great deal. This seemingly insignificant event got me thinking about why it seemed cheap. Nothing about meat pies as such would provide a clue (and especially not for those of you who live outside Australia), but something does provide the context for knowing how to declare whether something is cheap or expensive. That something is the price system.
Now, if you visit a pie shop in Australia, you will likely pay four or five dollars per pie. Therefore, six for 10 dollars is indeed inexpensive by comparison. None of this is interesting in isolation from the entire network of prices we live with every day. If you pause to consider how prices motivate a great number of your choices in life, it is instructive to think about how you would live if there were no prices.
A story from my year teaching English in Slovakia provides just such a backdrop for what happens when prices are eliminated from daily life. A Slovak friend discussed with me on a number of occasions how he would run a bread kiosk on the main street in Prešov. For starters, he would not charge the same prices as the other kiosks because none of them made any money. My friend had spent a certain amount of time in the US and therefore ‘knew’ how the capitalist system worked. He would charge at least twice what the other bread vendors did.
‘Would you sell the same bread?’ I asked.
‘Of course! Why would I trouble myself with different bread when I know what kind people like to buy’.
‘Then why would you charge so much more?’
‘Because I want to make money!’
‘But how will you persuade people your bread is worth twice the amount they can pay elsewhere?’
‘I don’t need to. They will know that my bread is better because it is more expensive’.
‘But if it is exactly the same bread, why would people buy yours? Wouldn’t people think you’re just ripping them off so you can make a quick buck?’
‘People are not smart enough to know this!’
This exchange brought home to me the idea that it is not an individual business that sets prices in isolation from all other businesses. Indeed, the price one charges for anything must reflect what people are willing to spend based on their values and incomes. Therefore, if a loaf of bread in Slovakia typically cost the equivalent of 50 cents, charging a dollar would not motivate a buyer to change vendors - or not for long.
I did not fault my friend for his faulty reasoning. After all, he had grown up in a socialist country where prices did not exist and thus he had never learnt their function. To him, a price was an arbitrary figure to be chosen at whim. Additionally, the habit of comparison shopping was only beginning to take hold.
I spent months discussing the western system to him, even though I myself was far from an expert on the subject. I based my knowledge not on theoretical study but on decades of living in freer countries. I knew what an average loaf of bread cost in various countries and I also knew that a more expensive loaf cost more because of better or specialised ingredients. And so it went for everything from cars to stereos to bicycles. I realised over time that prices are how people make the simplest decisions about how to conduct their lives. Will I go out for dinner Friday night with my friends to the hot new cafe in Sydney? I’d better check their menu online and decide if it’s worth the cost, versus staying home and cooking. Will I spend the weekend away with my partner or will we stay home and do something locally, instead? A check of hotel and restaurant prices will determine our choice to go away or not.
Now consider the resulting chaos if no price system existed, as I experienced in Slovakia. What if, instead of individual buyers and sellers setting prices constantly, we had elected officials decreeing what things ‘should’ cost, and not just for the things some of us think of as ‘free’, but everything. To those of us brought up in the semi-free nations of the western world, we would quickly find out what life was like under the Soviet bloc dictatorships. I found out myself what that system did to people on a daily basis. Since then, I have made myself the solemn promise that I would never take my freedom for granted again.
Since returning to the west nearly two decades ago, I’ve spent years learning about history and economics. From my studies, I have concluded that I revere prices in the same way I am devoted to my loved ones: they reflect the rational choices we all make to ensure our lives are better and happier.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Banana Incident

As I trudged up the hill away from my dormitory in Prešov, Slovakia, I noticed something odd on the train tracks below the viaduct. There were unusual bits of some yellow substance strewn at random intervals all over the place. After a minute, I recognised them as banana peels. I thought to myself how bizarre a sight, especially since I hadn't seen bananas for sale once in the city since I’d arrived the previous September. Why now? And why so many banana peels? Had passengers thrown them out the windows of the trains as they passed through the city? I was at a loss to explain it.
Later in the day, after I’d finished teaching at the local high school, I went to the shops in town. I found that bananas had indeed come to Prešov, but how? Yes, the communist era had officially ended nearly four years before, but there were many remnants of the command economy still in place. Notably, the system of distribution of goods had not fully been privatised. Even though I had lived in the country for seven months, I still held to many of the notions about the free movement of goods and services most Americans take for granted. Hence my confusion over the bananas.
Within less than a day, all the bananas in Prešov had disappeared, despite their exorbitant price in every shop I visited. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had already begun to grasp the principle of supply and demand, even in a distorted market like Slovakia. When a scarce item came onto the market and especially one as obviously desirable as bananas, people bought them up regardless of price. And further, I noticed people buying them in quantities I had never seen before then. Instead of a bunch or two, as one would see in western supermarkets, I saw little old ladies with ten or more bunches stuffed into their baskets and satchels. Didn’t they know the bananas would spoil before they had a chance to eat them all?
Then I remembered what I’d seen on the train tracks. The little old ladies - and anyone else who had hoarded the bananas - ate them up with reckless abandon. In a country where ‘capitalist consumption’ was still looked upon with suspicion, there was an awful lot of consumption going on. In a country whose ruling ideology had forced people to live for the sake of their comrades, I witnessed what appeared to be more callous disregard than brotherly love.
I fully admit I knew little about economics or political philosophy at the time. When I left the United States to go teach English in Slovakia, I held the typical views of the majority of liberal arts university graduates, which is to say vaguely leftwing, but not educated. I entered the country with the notion that communism or socialism had been improperly applied. When I left the country the following year, full of observations of daily life in a former dictatorship, my basic politics hadn't changed much yet, but I had primed my mind with the seeds of how my worldview was to change over the coming decades.
Today, nearly 20 years after I left Slovakia, I still think about the ways my experiences have coloured who I’ve become in the intervening years. While most of my high school and university peers have held to the same ideas with which they were brought up, my views changed because I removed myself from my familiar surroundings. I had no choice but to observe in order to try to grasp the strange habits of the people in a country I called home for a time.
In the end, what I learnt was to exercise my ability to think independently, without regard for the popularity of my conclusions. In other words, I grew up.