Making Meaning of a Death Count by Walking in a Cemetery

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my attempts to make sense of death counts. Yesterday, my friend, Joe Mathews, wrote about his own brilliantly simple way to do the same: he took a walk in a cemetery.

Joe chose to walk in the original Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. As he explains:

Since Forest Lawn opened here 114 years ago, in 1906, it has interred 340,000 souls on this property. Under current projections, the United States will experience 340,000 COVID deaths by sometime in January, 10 months after the March lockdowns began.

Such statistics are sobering and tragic. They also reflect a fundamental human failure: We experience individual death intensely, but struggle to recognize death in the aggregate. That’s why we can more forcefully rally together in response to one death—like the police killing of George Floyd—than in response to escalating numbers of COVID deaths scrolling across our screens.

Our myopia is why we need cemeteries right now, and not just as places to bury our dead.

Read the whole piece. There’s lots of good stuff about the history of Forest Lawn and of some of the folks who are buried there. And go take a walk through a cemetery. I’ve never walked any of the cemeteries in Colma, as Joe suggested for Bay Area folks, but the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland is a peaceful place to walk and think.

Norms, Strategy, and Thanksgiving Duck Revisited

It’s been nine years since I and my family started eating duck for Thanksgiving. I have also happily introduced several friends to the concept, although surprisingly, I know of no permanent converts. Some (many?) of my friends actually like turkey. But I think the biggest factor is that culture, norms, and traditions are remarkably powerful.

I get it. My family ate turkey for over thirty years before converting. When I consider how much more I enjoy Thanksgiving now, and how much less stressful it is to prepare the meal, I marvel at how long it took us to make the switch.

I see individuals and groups struggle with this all the time. Goal-setting and strategy are more often an exercise in documenting what you’re already doing rather than a deep examination of where you’re trying to go and why. The latter requires that you make a choice, and making choices is hard.

That’s not to say that doing things because that’s why you’ve always done them is a bad thing. The most important thing is that you’re being intentional, and that you know why you’re being intentional. Chesterton’s Fence definitely applies.

Firing People and Being Fired

You can tell a lot about a person’s relationship to power from whether or not they’ve ever fired anyone and how. Do they understand the scope of their power, both formal and informal? Do they realize that not firing someone can be just as impactful in both positive and negative ways as firing someone? How do they deal with the aftermath?

I would love to experiment with getting folks to talk about their experiences firing others and being fired as a way to talk about power and to align around what success and failure might look like for everyone involved when power is wielded.

Good Group Process Is Like a Duck Gliding Through Water

People vastly overrate the importance of facilitation in group process. Preparation and practice are much more important. While good group process always has an element of emergence, when I observe or hear stories about processes or meetings that go bad, I can almost always trace it to poor preparation.

I was recently talking about this with my sister and my partner, and my sister compared it to a duck gliding in water. It looks seamless on the surface, but it belies the rigorous, consistent paddling underneath. “Yes, that’s it!” I exclaimed. Both my sister and my partner were incredulous that I had never heard of that metaphor before, but I don’t care. I love it!

Eating Extinct Animals

Yesterday, I wrote about how we may have eaten the Woolly Mammoth to extinction. Today, I want to write about eating extinct animals today.

Last year, I took care of my nephews in Cincinnati for a week while my sister and brother-in-law were on a trip. I decided to make it a point to work my way through their packed freezer, which had some truly ancient and scary looking items, including some cod that was older than my then nine-year old nephew and that had survived a move several years earlier.

Around the same time, I was reading Steven Rinella’s, American Buffalo, an excellent book about this iconic animal’s role throughout human history. At one point, Rinella mentions a mummified, 36,000 year old Steppe Bison in Alaska, and writes off-handedly:

Dale Guthrie, a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska, cooked and ate part of the animal’s neck. He reported it to be “well aged but still a little tough.”

I did a double-take when I read this line. It seemed wrong in more ways than one. I was also intrigued, so I did a little research, and I feel good about the overall ethics and wisdom of the move. It turns out that eating ancient animals is a thing, although Woolly Mammoth apparently does not keep well.

It made me feel a whole lot better about cooking that decade-old cod for my nephews. I ended up turning it into a tasty fishcake, which forever boosted their respect for my cooking abilities.