Brush With Greatness: Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014

Fouad AjamiMy favorite professor passed away this week.

Fouad Ajami — Iranian by heritage, Lebanese by birth, American by choice — was an assistant professor of politics at Princeton in the late 1970s, and I took his International Relations course freshman year. He didn’t get tenure there — bad call, Princeton — and left in 1980 to become director of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins, where he thrived for 30 years.

He was a bit of an imp at Princeton, and I mean that in a nice way.  You can see it in his picture — I remember the same grin, framed in a darker beard.  When I was casting about for a major after realizing that I wasn’t cut out for [shudder] physics, my enjoyment of his course was part of why I chose Politics.  I wish I could say I remembered some profound insight he shared that shaped my political development, but I can’t. I probably got a B in the course, because that’s how I rolled.  In classes I liked.

Here’s what I remember: he quoted Lyndon Johnson’s characterization of Vietnam as “a raggedy-assed, third-rate country,” and said some American leaders dismissed a wide variety of countries in that way.  As he made his pedagogical point, he just seemed delighted by the fact that he was saying a bad word in front of a classroom at a prestigious school and he could get away with it because we were nominal adults.  He grinned that grin.

He became my favorite professor retroactively three decades later, when I discovered that my emerging world view was finding eloquent expression in his commentary in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. I blogged about him here and here and here. Since no one ever follows links on my blog (prove me wrong, I double-dare you), I’ll quote a passage from September 11, 2009, in which he championed the decision to go to war in Iraq:

Those were not Afghans who had struck American soil on 9/11. They were Arabs. Their terrorism came out of the pathologies of Arab political life. Their financiers were Arabs, and so were those crowds in Cairo and Nablus and Amman that had winked at the terror and had seen those attacks as America getting its comeuppance on that terrible day. Kabul had not sufficed as a return address in that twilight war; it was important to take the war into the Arab world itself, and the despot in Baghdad had drawn the short straw. He had been brazen and defiant at a time of genuine American concern, and a lesson was made of him.

Professor Ajami never wavered in his belief that America made the right choice by overthrowing Saddam Hussein.  I wholeheartedly share that viewpoint. Despite the years of mismanagement of the war, the world is a better place today because of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I expect that will continue to be true despite the feckless blunderings of our current commander in chief.

In 2011, Ajami retired from Johns Hopkins and decamped to Stanford, where he was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His colleagues there have performed the invaluable service of compiling a page of links to his “best and recent articles,” the last of which was published in the Wall Street Journal on June 16, less than two weeks before he succumbed to cancer at the age of 68.  It was vintage Ajami, headlined “The Men Who Sealed Iraq’s Disaster With a Handshake.” In case you have any doubt, the men in question are Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

 (This post is the fourth installment in my Brush with Greatness series.)

A Personal Message of Joy, to Several Constituencies

December 21, 2013: Last day on the job

Maplewood peeps: Look for me no more behind the deli counter at Kings. After 12 months of a second stint of slicing meat and washing dishes, I’ve replaced my income there with a part-time job that involves a desk.

Princeton peeps: When they told us “there’s no limit to what you can do with a Princeton degree,” did you realize they meant no limit in either direction? 🙂 Kidding aside, in this economy I’ve been thankful for the income, and for the expansion of my paradigm of service.

Episcopeeps: I’m delighted to announce that I am again becoming a professional Episcopalian.  In January I start work as part-time Director of Communications at Christ Church Ridgewood, serving a community of faith through newsletters, bulletins, social media and more.

December 2009: An earlier stint at Kings (with a cooler hat) led to a longer post

Communications peeps: As I mentioned, my new job is a part-time gig, so I remain very interested in freelance writing and editing opportunities.  Let me know if I can help your organization meet your communications needs.

As we prepare to ring in the New Year, I’m grateful for the precious gift of Today and excited by the prospect of Tomorrow. I’m grateful to Fr. Greg Lisby, and look forward to serving God and the people of Christ Church. Always and forever, I’m grateful for my beautiful wife Nina Nicholson, the Web Goddess, who never ceases to love and inspire me.

To all my peeps, and all who read these words: May the spirit of Christmas continue in your life as Epiphany approaches, and may you find joy and prosperity in the New Year.

(Photos by the Web Goddess, of course)


In Search of A Thoughtful Liberal Economist

Dean Baker

A Facebook friend whose opinions I respect, and who is more liberal than me, pointed me in the direction of a blog by Dean Baker [link may work for signed-in Facebook members only], saying Baker is “a fine, clear-thinking economist, [and] he’s also an uncannily good press critic.”

Sounds great — I’ve been looking for a source for regular commentary from a left-leaning economist, to balance out the right-leaning observations of my classmate Greg Mankiw.   But I’m afraid I’m still looking.

Baker’s credentials are impeccable — not as lofty as Mankiw’s, but there’s no shame in being more peccable than Greg.  (Or do I mean “less peccable?”)  But where Mankiw consistently treats opposing viewpoints with respect, Baker indulges in the common blogger habit of treating opposing viewpoints with contempt.

Let’s take a look at a few of Baker’s recent posts (emphasis added):

Has God Been Talking to the Washington Post?

In its article covering President Obama’s speech on the budget yesterday the Washington Post told readers that:

“Obama acknowledged that the debt must be tackled faster than he has previously proposed.”

It is only possible to “acknowledge” something which is true. The Post obviously believes it is true that “the debt must be tackled faster than he has previously proposed,” but that does not make it so. This is the Post’s opinion. A real newspaper would have reported that President Obama “said that the debt must be tackled faster than he has previously proposed.” It would not have implied that its view of the world is the unquestioned reality, especially in a front page news story.

Tendentious nonsense.  If the Post is not “a real newspaper,” then no such animal exists, and the paper’s use of the word “acknowledge” is eminently defensible.  To be fair, Baker goes on to make some thoughtful observations, which you can read for yourself if interested.

OK, let’s try another sample, this one quoted in its entirety:

Dana Milbank Missed the Health Care Reform Act
This is the only thing that readers can infer from his reference to President Obama’s “refusal to propose a viable solution” to the debt problem. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office projects that the health care bill approved by Congress last year will trim tens of trillions of dollars off the long-term deficit. One can only conclude that Milbank wasn’t aware of the bill in making this accusation.

Tendentious drivel (a category that is one tick worse than tendentious nonsense).  Readers certainly could infer that Milbank doesn’t believe the CBO estimates, which were promptly rejected by a former director of… um… the Congressional Budget Office.  They could infer that Milbank — knowing that two federal district court judges already have declared the individual mandate unconstitutional — has skipped ahead to the part of the story where the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Obamacare altogether, thereby rendering it not “viable”.

But wait… Baker’s blog is called “Beat the Press,” and press criticism is his schtick.  OK, let’s look at the post that inspired my Facebook friend to praise Baker in the first place.

Misrepresenting the Policy Debate on China: Is the NYT Covering Up for Obama

The NYT discussed the agenda of an upcoming meeting of G-20 finance ministers. It focused on efforts to pressure China to raise the value of its currency.

This discussion implied that the United States must depend on its ability to pressure China to change its currency policy. In fact, the United States does not have to rely on China changing its policy, it can force a change with unilateral action.

Specifically, just as China sets an official exchange rate of the yuan against the dollar that is below the market value of the yuan, the U.S. could set an exchange rate of the dollar against the yuan that is equal to the market value of the yuan.

Tendentious drivel on stilts.  Yes, it’s technically correct that the U.S. could move the exchange rate unilaterally — thereby touching off a currency war.  The first rule of warfare is that the enemy gets a vote, too.  And China is by far America’s biggest creditor, holding more than $2 trillion in US Treasury securities. There is nothing to keep China from selling, say, half of its holdings… thereby dramatically driving down the value of US Treasury securities. That would make the subprime mortgage crisis look like a hiccup.

Baker apparently has opined that this is a “non-threat.”  I’ll look for that article next time I get a chance, but in the meantime it’s simply sophistry for Baker to pretend that the Chinese would have no recourse.  Another Facebooker provided links to Paul Krugman, but there I draw the line.  Krugman may have the biggest peccability factor in all of economics, but life is too short to waste part of it reading Krugman.

Brush With “Greatness”: Following in Helen Thomas’s Footsteps

(Home News photo by Dick Costello)

I have the (pick an adjective) distinction of being only the second journalist to interview Jimmy Carter after he left office in early 1981.  The first, Carter told me, was Helen Thomas, the long-time White House correspondent who resigned under pressure today after making astonishingly offensive comments to the effect that “the Jews” should get the hell out of “Palestine” and go “home” to Germany and Poland.

But enough about Helen Thomas. That handsome young fellow on the right in the photo is me, nearly 30 years (and 40 pounds) ago.  You’ll recognize Jimmy, and of course the other two guys are Secret Service.  I was frankly surprised that I got as close to the former President as I did without being frisked, or at least asked to open my coat.  This was before Reagan was shot, but after the unsuccessful attempts on President Ford.

I was a recently minted Princeton graduate working as a cub reporter at The Home News, a small (but high-quality!) daily newspaper in New Brunswick, NJ.  Carter was visiting Princeton to check out potential colleges for his daughter Amy, and we had heard that his habit was to go out for a run in the early morning hours.  Princeton bordered on towns in our circulation area — close enough to authorize mileage reimbursement for a long-shot assignment.  The assignment editor said he picked me because I knew the campus, but I suspect it had more to do with the 6 a.m. start time and my lack of seniority.

Carter stayed at one of the gated mansions the university owns just off campus (for Princeton buffs, it was either Palmer House or Lowrie House, I forget which).  There were two gates to the property, and I walked back and forth from one to the other, sometimes stamping my feet to stay warm.  I’m pretty sure it was in March.  Between my Princeton loans and my unprincely salary, generic white sneakers were the best I could do for footwear.

All of a sudden the gate swung open — the gate I wasn’t at, of course — and Carter walked out with his bodyguards.  I trotted over, told him my name and affiliation, and said I had recently graduated from Princeton.  He said something like, “good, you can give me a tour, then.” Turns out he had forgotten his running shoes, so we walked.  Much better for note-taking.

About that time Dick Costello arrived.  He was the paper’s senior photographer, and he took the photo.  These days he would upload it wirelessly to the paper’s FTP site, but on that day he grinned and waved and dashed for his car, hoping he had something in focus as he raced up Route 1 to swish smelly chemicals in a darkened room.

We crossed Nassau Street… strike that.

The former President and I crossed Nassau Street — probably at the light, although I certainly would have jaywalked if I were alone — and walked through the FitzRandolph Gates in front of Nassau Hall.  I can’t remember whether I had the presence of mind to tell him that Nassau Hall briefly was the seat of the fledgling United States government during the Revolutionary War.  I do remember telling him, in my role as tour guide, that “these are mostly dormitories” around us.  I think I said that twice.  (Holy crap, this guy was President just a few months ago!)

Despite the passage of time, I’m kind of astonished at how little I remember of our walk.  I had voted against the man twice (John Anderson in 1980 and… um… Eugene McCarthy in 1976).  The previous spring, after shedding the objectivity shackles of my work for the student newspaper, I had marched in demonstrations protesting Carter’s decision to reinstate registration for the draft.

All that was as if it had never been.  I was star-struck.  I was 22.

The Home News was one of the last afternoon papers in the country, and the front-page deadlines were in the early morning.  I found a pay phone and called in a few factoids in time for the One-Star Edition, then I headed for my own car.

As soon as I walked in to the newsroom I started hearing murmurs.  He didn’t ask this, he didn’t ask that.  He got nothing.  What a wasted opportunity.  My self-esteem meter was perpetually frozen in the “I suck” position, and it didn’t take much to deflate me.

I was asked to write a second-day, “I-interviewed-Jimmy-Carter” article, and I turned in a draft that focused on how much I suck.  I can still remember Tom Hester, the City Editor, holding the delete button while a couple of self-rebuking paragraphs scrolled off the screen.  “Listen, these guys didn’t get the story.  YOU got the story.”

I think the clips are up in the attic somewhere, but I’m not up for confronting whatever else lurks in those boxes.  (The photo has been hanging on my dining room wall since I rediscovered it a decade ago.)  I remember I asked Carter if he ever planned to run for office again, and I solemnly reported (for the first time!) that he said he would not.  If I’d thought about it, I could have fleshed out the story by saying that he also had no plans to join the Apollo space program or try out for the Mets.

Jimmy Carter went on to become either the best ex-president in history or the worst, depending on whom you ask.  Amy went to Brown University.  The Home News merged first with The News Tribune of Woodbridge and then with the Courier News of Somerville.  The combined operation sells fewer papers than The Home News alone sold in 1981 — although it still dwarfs my blog readership.  “Cos” retired a few years ago, and I got to catch up with old friends at his retirement party.  Hester graduated to the Star-Ledger of Newark, where he won a piece of a Pulitzer covering Gov. Jim McGreevey’s resignation in 2005.  I’ve made some progress with my self-esteem issues.

And Helen Thomas, whom Taranto has consistently described as “American journalism’s crazy old aunt in the attic,” is approximately four times as old as I was that day in 1981, although less than twice as old as I am now.  I have no idea what that signifies, but it seemed to make sense to close with something about her.

Ajami Offers Wisdom on Islam and the Middle East

My old professor Fouad Ajami, who flourished at Johns Hopkins after starting his academic career at Princeton, discusses Islam and the Middle East on Peter Robinson’s well-crafted Uncommon Knowledge video series.  There is no transcript, but I’ve painstakingly transcribed a few passages, and in some cases I’ve added links to my own posts along similar lines.  (I didn’t take notes this well in the good professor’s course, but I might have if his lectures had a pause button.)

We can be proud of what we have done in Iraq.  America has midwifed a binational state — that means Arab and Kurd — and we have midwifed a democratic entity in the heart of the Middle East…. I think history will be immensely kind to what he [President Bush] did in Iraq. [Hear, hear.]

I don’t think President Obama should make Afghanistan the so-called “central front” in the war on terror.  Because in the bazaar, that just increases the price of the Afghan real estate. It gives the Afghans the sense they can blackmail us — that we’re so dependent on their largesse, so dependent on their hospitality.  We must tell the Afghans unequivocably that we have other concerns in this war on terror.

Iran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear [weapons]… There are two men in the world, and only two men in the world, who can prevent this.  One of them is President Obama, and the other one is Prime Minister Netanyahu.  So either President Obama, or Prime Minister Netanyahu, puts a halt to this Iranian drive, or the Iranians will have what they want.  [There may be two men who could, but only one who likely will.]

People who say that there is no moderate Islam trouble me, because I know that the battle for Islam is not yet lost… We believe it’s an open battle. We know that the radical Islamists are trying to hijack the faith and “weaponize” Islam so to speak… but I can’t go that far and say there is no moderate Islam. I know for example there are many jurists in the Islamic world who are keen to get Islam back from the radicals. [From his lips to Allah’s ears.]

He [Obama] doesn’t understand this Arabic expression… “My brother and I against my cousin.  My cousin and I aganist a stranger.” There’s one thing Arabs and Muslims don’t like, which is someone who comes into their midst and trashes his own.  President Obama walked in to Cairo and spoke poorly of the Iraq war, and apologized for America.  It was a terrible mistake. And even the people at the receiving end, they may enjoy his taunts of President Bush and his attacks on the Iraq war — but you are never respected.  If you break with your own, you break with your own.

We need less of the global apology tour and more of the ringing assertion of America’s role in the world that Obama delivered so effectively in his Nobel Prize speech.

Brush With Greatness: Elena Elenadana Kagan

Unless every news outlet on the Internets has it wrong, once again President Obama is nominating a Princeton alumna to the Supreme Court.  Unlike Sonia Sotomayor, this time I actually knew her.

Elena Kagan was a year behind me, and I worked with her at The Daily Princetonian.  Every night a small rotating team of Prince reporters and editors would “work press” — oversee the production of the paper throughout the evening and sometimes into the early morning.  We would proofread, rewrite headlines and cut stories to make them fit, and when she and I worked press together or when I edited her stories, I briefly would have been her supervisor.  I don’t recall any such occasion, but I have no doubt that my wisdom and dedicated professionalism helped inspire… ah, nevermind.

Each year the student journalists would elect a member of the next year’s graduating class to serve as Chairman, and that person would oversee the paper for the coming year.  Elections typically went through several ballots and into the night.  My outgoing class ran the election for her incoming class, and Elena came in second (a lot better than I had fared the year before).  She arrived at the party after the balloting looking disappointed but composed, and I was impressed by her quiet dignity.

She was a hard-working, serious person.  A new TV show called Saturday Night Live was a massive hit on college campuses across the nation, and the late Gilda Radner played a recurring character called Roseanne Rosannadanna, a loopy newscaster.  For reasons lost in the mists of time, a few of us started referring to her as Elena Elenadana Kagan.  I remember being startled to learn that she had never watched SNL and had no idea what we were talking about.

I’ve had no contact with her since I graduated. I’d like to be able to say that I knew she was destined for great things, but I had no such insight.  I will say that years ago, when I read she had been named Dean of Harvard Law School, that I was impressed but not particularly surprised.

Before he died in 2008 at the age of 111, a man from my church was the oldest living alumnus of both Rutgers University and Harvard Law School.  At his funeral I learned that Harvard had honored him, and his family was surprised and grateful at how much time Dean Kagan spent talking with them and making them welcome.

Unlike Sotomayor, Kagan has no paper trail of judicial activism.  Her politics undoubtedly are to the left of mine, but that would be the case with any Obama nominee, and I see no reason to oppose her nomination (much to her relief, I’m sure).  Besides, since I didn’t know her classmate Eliot Spitzer, she’ll become the most prominent person about whom I can say “I knew her when” — and how cool is that?

As GOP Looks for Leaders and Ideas, It Should Consider “Opportunity Conservatism”

K-Lo in The Corner linked the other day to a year-0ld National Review article about a potential next-generation GOP leader, Ted Cruz, the former Solicitor General of Texas.  Turns out he’s Princeton Class of 1992, for those of you who care about such things.  He needs some better photos, but I like the way he sounds.  From the article:

Cruz has no problem diagnosing what’s wrong with his party. For starters, he hates how the GOP “systematically undervalues” the importance of communication. “We heard a number of times Republicans speaking about Barack Obama and almost derisively saying, ‘Well, he gives a good speech’ — as if that were a moral failing, evidence that he must be superficial if he can give a good speech,” Cruz says. “I think what we misunderstand is that the ability to persuade and inspire is the single most important tool any public leader has. If you think about what was Ronald Reagan’s greatest moment of leadership, I would suggest it was standing at the Brandenburg Gate, saying ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ That was a speech!”

“One thing Republicans do that I think is disastrous is that many conservatives try and beat their chest and say, We are so terribly conservative — Attila the Hun, he was a squish! [But] what Reagan did was say, ‘The values I’m talking about are commonsense American values that have been part of this country for over 200 years. They’re the values that have been in every small town and every small business throughout this country.’ And he connected with people.”

Cruz makes the case for what he calls “opportunity conservatism”: “The vision of ‘opportunity conservatives’ is simple and direct: policies that enhance opportunity, that further personal responsibility and the chance to realize the American dream, are good for the polity. Policies that limit options, constrain opportunity, and develop dependency are not.”

Cruz hasn’t even made it through his first primary election yet, so it’s perhaps premature to predict how far he will go in politics. But, in keeping with his own political vision, it’s probably safe to say that Cruz is a conservative with a lot of opportunities ahead of him.

And he said the bit about limiting options and developing dependency before anybody had even heard the term “Obamacare”.

Slap a Warning Label on the CBO Scoring

Princeton classmate and über-economist Greg Mankiw cautions that the Congressional Budget Office numbers that Democrats are trumpeting do not withstand scrutiny.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the CBO scoring of the health bill.  Here is one thing people should understand about their numbers: When they estimate the budget impact of a bill like this, they assume the path of GDP is unchanged.

Recall that the bill raises taxes substantially.  Some of these tax hikes are the explicit tax increases on capital income to pay for the insurance subsidies.  Some of these tax hikes are the implicit marginal rate increases from the phase-out of the insurance subsidies as a person’s income rises.  Both of these would be expected to reduce GDP growth.

Greg is cogent and instructive as always, but I confess I was intrigued even more by the custom warning label he posted on his blog (shown above).  After downloading the JPEG file, on a hunch I Googled its filename, warninglabel.jpg, and sure enough, the top result was a Warning Label Generator with multiple customization options.

It’s disappointing that despite offering more than 40 alternatives, none of the icons have a financial theme.  So I settled for a health care theme, at right.


Honest Labor: From Mach 2 to Muenster to Madison

(Welcome, Maplewood Patch readers, and thanks to Mary Mann for the kind words.)

A summer evening in 1995: My boss’s boss, a Merrill Lynch executive who has never called me at home, calls me at home.  His opening line still ranks in my mind as one of the most interesting possible ways to start a business conversation:  “Kirk, do you have a passport?”

It turns out I do.  “OK, pack a bag, you’re getting on the Concorde to London in the morning.  We’re buying a British firm, and you’re going to write the script for the press conference.”

A September morning in 2009: The manager of the local supermarket flips through my application, which discloses work experience and a salary history he’s not used to seeing.  Plus there’s the whole Princeton thing.

He says, “all I have to offer is a job in the deli. Are you sure about this?”

It’s an excellent question, and the answer isn’t obvious, even to me.  But I manage to convince both of us.

The Concorde was surprisingly cramped inside. The main thing that distinguished the experience from a puddle-jumping commuter plane was the digital display at the front of the cabin, which indicated we topped out at Mach 2 (over 1,300 mph) and 60,000 feet.

I had been told to pack for three days, but I ended up staying for 10.  Those were flush times on Wall Street, and Merrill’s executives and support Gumbys alike were all housed at The Dorchester, widely considered one of the world’s finest hotels.  (I suppose it is — they certainly kept up with my laundry needs.)

The target company was called Smith New Court.  Late one night, at a crucial juncture of the negotiations, it became necessary to briefly evict the Smith New Court personnel from the giant Dorchester suite where the talks were being held, so the Merrill team could confer by speaker phone with other executives in New York.  The Smithies needed a place to cool their heels, and the hotel’s business center was closed.

I was in my single room down the hall, casually dressed and thinking about bed, when there came a knock at my door.  Suddenly a wave of bespoke-suited Brits came flooding into the room, including the top two executives of Smith New Court, herded by a junior member of the Merrill team.

Padding around in my bare feet, I served sodas and spring water from the minibar and tried to make everyone at home.  Nervous laughter and small talk ensued for half an hour or so.  Then the negotiations resumed, and a billion-dollar deal was struck.

There were more trips to London that summer, and over the next dozen years, various employers and clients sent me to Tokyo, Cologne, Shanghai and Cleveland.  (I was able to squeeze in an Indians game — Jacobs Field is as nice as they say it is.)

I was the speechwriter for a CEO, I edited internal websites for two huge companies, I prepped executives for Congressional testimony, I helped clients spin bankruptcies, regulatory issues and involuntary CEO transitions.  I developed a taste for custom shirts, car service and single-malt whiskey.

For a job that pays $10 an hour, the deli counter gig wasn’t bad.  Probably the worst part was having to stand on my aging feet throughout a six-hour shift, except for a 15-minute break.  That, and cleaning the goo off the cheese slicer at closing time.

I generally enjoyed waiting on customers, most of whom responded well to a cheerful smile.  I learned that even though customers usually want their roast beef “sliced thin,” you have to set the slicer thicker than for turkey.  I discovered that low-sodium ham isn’t bad, but low-fat cheese tastes like glue.  Management wanted us to up-sell, so I said “would you like some salad with that?” and flattered myself that I was honing my marketing skills.  At one time or another, at least three fellow employees asked some variation of “how old are you, anyway?”

I had started my own consulting business in 2007, and I did pretty well for a while.  Then I did OK for a while.  Then the economy imploded, and after having virtually no income for a year, it had become clear that my entrepreneurial experiment was, at the very least, ill-timed.

I applied for dozens of full-time communications jobs while I was trying to drum up clients, and it was hard to decide which was more depressing — forcing myself to network with people who weren’t going to do business with me, or crafting thoughtful cover letters to hiring managers who weren’t going to interview me.  The guilty knowledge that I “should be doing more” repeatedly collided with the paralyzing reality that nothing in particular had to be done today.

At 51 (which is not old, dammit!), I’ve learned some hard things about the job market.  It turns out that if the job description calls for “8-10 years of experience” in a role, that’s not really a minimum — it’s more like a maximum.

It turns out that “overqualified” is code for “too old.”  (I’ve promised myself that the next time a potential employer tells me I’m overqualified, I’m going to offer to work below my full capacity.)

I kind of dared myself into applying for the supermarket job.  While commiserating with another idle consultant about the work we did back in the day, I heard myself saying, “at this point, I can’t imagine turning down any job at any salary.”

The instant I said it, I started wondering whether I really meant it.  When I saw the words “Now hiring!” on my supermarket receipt, it was time to put up or shut up.

The supermarket manager, naturally, said I was overqualified.  If the line had come to me in time, I would have said “I’ve never worked retail before — maybe I’m underqualified.”  The manager looked to be about my age, maybe he felt some kinship.  For whatever reason, he gave me a shot.

As it turned out, I was only there three months.  My new gig is a step up in both status and pay.  On January 4 I became the parish administrator of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ.  I’m now responsible for producing four weekly service bulletins and running the busy office at one of the largest Episcopal churches in North Jersey.

I got the position the old-fashioned way — through family connections.  Up until a few months ago, it had been the Web Goddess’s job for five years.

My beloved left Grace Church after she parlayed her years of self-taught website work and her knowledge of all things Episcopal into a newly created job, as Director of Communications and Technology for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, which includes 108 parishes in northern New Jersey.  She has quickly started raising the profile of the diocese by redesigning a weekly newsletter and leveraging social media, while supporting the bishop’s communications activities.  It’s her first professional venture into the arena where I’ve played for 30 years, and she’s a natural talent.

So, let’s review: My wife landed a job in my field when I couldn’t.  Now I have the admin job she held before her promotion.  How’s the ol’ ego holding up, Kirk?

Well, negotiations with my ego are continuing.  Ironically, each recent improvement in my income has brought fresh challenges for my self esteem.

For most of 2009 I was entirely supported by my wife’s income and savings.  By any objective measure, a part-time supermarket job was a step up from unemployment, and I made a conscious choice to take pride in my work.  But it took a while to get used to being spotted by friends in my white coat and funny hat.  The Web Goddess aptly called it a “survival job,” and I used that term as protective cover.

The full-time church job feels more like a career transition.  It also feels like an abandonment of the conceit that I’m a primary bread-winner who belongs in a globe-trotting world.  I’m not sure I would have been open to taking the job if I had not just spent three months slicing cheese and cleaning up.

It helps — a lot — that I like the people I’m working with, and I care about the organization.  For more than a decade the Web Goddess and I have found fulfillment and a powerful sense of community at our home parish of St. George’s Episcopal, and Grace is a similar environment in many ways.  I see and feel the spiritual nourishment that Grace provides to its parishioners, and I feel privileged to have an opportunity to help.

I don’t expect I’ll be there until retirement, but the priest who is now my boss asked, quite reasonably, for a one-year commitment, so I’m not looking for jobs in 2010.  (Part-time projects in my off hours are another matter… let me know if I can help your business or organization meet your communications needs.)

Long ago I learned that job satisfaction does not primarily depend on how much money you make, or the type of work you do, or the prestige of the organization you serve.  In 12 years at Merrill Lynch I played several different roles while my income steadily grew, and I went through cycles of being both energized and miserable.

No, the most important factor in job satisfaction is whether you get along with your immediate boss.  It’s still early days at Grace, but I’m liking my chances, working for a woman of the cloth.  (In the words of the prominent Episcopal theologian Robin Williams, “Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.”)

In addition to a paycheck, my new job provides support for my spiritual infrastructure.  It helps me focus on living one day at a time, and on being grateful for all the blessings in my life.

And I am richly blessed.  I’m safe, and healthy, and in love with my wife.  I’m a United States citizen, having won that lottery the day I was born. I have a fixed-rate mortgage, and positive equity in a comfortable house in a nice town.  Around the world, billions of people would trade places with me in a heartbeat.

The job gives me a reason to get out the door in the morning, and I look forward to arriving at the office.  I’m doing real work that needs to be done, and I stretch myself to meet deadlines. People are counting on me, and I get recognized when I do good work.

If things get hectic, across the hall from the office is a … sanctuary … where I can seek through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God.  Staff meetings end with the words “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

I may never again make the kind of money I made a few short years ago, but I won’t have that kind of pressure, either.  Not that it’s a slow-paced job — there are more than 1,000 parishioners, four Sunday bulletins in two different liturgies, a Eucharist or prayer service every day of the year, multiple tenants in a large physical plant, an office that buzzes with activity.  The Web Goddess set a high standard of efficiency and excellence, and all the details seem overwhelming sometimes.

But it’s not the corporate world.  After letting a detail slip one day, I told the Rector I was used to an environment where I’d be crucified for a minor transgression like that.  She replied, “we think one crucifixion was enough — we focus more on redemption.”



Going Back to Old Nassau

The Class of 1980 has what counts as a muted and tasteful class costume, by Princeton standards."

The Class of 1980 has what counts as a muted and tasteful class costume, by Princeton standards, with line drawings of Nassau Hall as design elements.

Today I had the high privilege and distinct honor of fighting the wind with the parade banner for the Princeton Class of 1980, leading a hardy band of quintagenerians in an off-year reunion march at the “Best Damn Place of All,” in the words of the song.

My senior picture.  Sheesh.

My senior picture. Sheesh.

When asked which side of the banner I would like to hold, I promptly said “I should have the right,” as the lovely Web Goddess rolled her Obama-supporting eyes.

The P-rade is an annual pilgrimage for me — since graduation I have never lived more than an hour away from campus, and while I haven’t made it back  every year, I’m sure I’ve been to more than 20 of my 29 reunions.  After the P-rade I always swing by The Daily Princetonian picnic, but this year I was disappointed at not finding any of the folks I worked with when I got my start as a writer.

I did see an old Princetonian friend earlier in the day, when Joel Achenbach ’82 ably moderated a panel titled “Money, Greed and the Economy: Views from the Fourth Estate.”  In addition to his day job as a reporter and columnist at the Washington Post, Joel is the Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, which sponsored the panel, and where I got one of my first actual paychecks as a freelance (I repurposed my Junior Paper about the arrival of casino gambling in Atlantic City, I think I got $100 for the article, which never ran).

Columnist George Will sat three spots away from tormentor Josh Marshall

Columnist George Will sat three spots away from tormentor Josh Marshall

The panel featured George F. Will *68 (the asterisk indicating a graduate degree) as the headliner.  The advance program advertised Katrina vanden Heuvel ’81, editor of The Nation; she was a no-show, but the Obstreperous Lefty chair was ably filled by Josh Marshall ’91 of Talking Points Memo, who seemed to take delight in sniping at George Will.   After accusing Will of having “an ideological stake” in what he was saying — pot, meet kettle –  he boasted that he was “the only business owner on the panel, I meet a payroll, I don’t just write a column.” Will replied mildly that his GFW Inc. meets a payroll — it appears to have six employees.

The discussion was interesting — Will got a laugh when he said the press generally has not focused on the “300 million real culprits” behind the economic collapse.  Peter Slevin ’78, the Washington Post’s Chicago bureau chief, told of interviewing people with $25,000 salaries who had $400,000 mortgages, as part of a lively discussion on personal responsibility and perverse banking incentives.

All in all, a long and tiring day, under beautiful blue skies, low humidity, and a nice breeze that I enjoyed once I stopped carrying the banner.  Next year is my 30th reunion, and there will be more classmates in attendance.  I’ve heard it said that no other university in the country makes as big a deal about reunions as Princeton, and I think that may well be true.

(Reunions photos by the Web Goddess)