Where I’ve been.


Where we’re going is more important than where we’ve been.

Yet, we all come to be the people we are from somewhere.   Life has a serendipitous way of landing us places we never expected, much less planned.  One thing leads to the next and suddenly we’re doing something in the far left field of our original life-plan.

I participate in a mentoring group at Stanford called The Product Realization Network.  Once a month graduate students present their ideas for new products and based on our individual talents, we offer free and often valuable counsel.  Last year there was a young woman, majoring in electrical engineering, who proposed a web business that tracked the circuitous routes of successful people.  Her idea was to encourage students to forget straight-line career trajectories by looking at the zigs and zags most of us have traveled to arrive at where we are today.

My own life has been no exception.

During my freshman year at Bowdoin, I took a photography course from the college’s photographer-in-residence, John McKee.  John had recently held an exhibition at Bowdoin’s Walker Art Museum called As Maine Goes… and had developed a cult-like following of admirers and would-be photographers.  I learned darkroom techniques, the zone system and basics of composition, all within John’s spare and elegant framework.  He was a spare and elegant man himself, living a Zen inspired life alone in an austere 18th century Maine farmhouse, which he kept unheated and nearly empty.  While his photographic vision and passion for “the print” rubbed off on me, somehow his personal aesthetics did not.  The beauty of an empty room is something I admire, and perhaps even long for, but have never achieved as evidenced by every cluttered space I’ve ever occupied.

While at Bowdoin my photographer friend John O’Hern and I spent many, many days driving up and down the Maine coast taking pictures, from Olsen’s Farm where Andrew Wyeth painted Christina’s World, to Popham Beach, to wild asters in Rockport, to the lighthouse at Pemaquid Point.  It’s where my taste in painters and painting was formed.  Winslow Homer (his paint-box and kit housed in Bowdoin,) Marsden Hartley, Andrew Wyeth, John Marin, Fairfield Porter and Rockwell Kent…these remain favorites today and have led to my own pursuit of watercolor painting.

All of this was preparation for one of the formative experiences of my life, working at Aperture, the photographic foundation founded by Minor White and then under its (in)famous publisher, Michael Hoffman.  Arriving back in the States from having obtained a graduate degree in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College, Dublin, I had written to Michael expressing my desire to work at Aperture.  From the moment we met at his Manhattan apartment on East 36th Street it was assumed I would.  For the next three years I was Managing Editor, living in Duchess County, New York, where Aperture maintained its headquarters to be near Michael’s immaculate late 18th century farmstead compound in Pine Plains.

Such extraordinary experiences!  Aperture gave me the opportunity to meet every famous living photographer, from Paul, and his wife Hazel, Strand, to Ansel Adams, Paul Caponigro, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brett Weston, to the mysterious Frederick Sommer and the chronicler of the Ghosts along the Mississippi, Clarence John Laughlin.  We would visit Dorothy Norman at her house on Farewell Lane in South Hampton and talk about Alfred Steiglitz.  And rummage through boxes of prints by George Platt Lynes at the house where he died.  Having the opportunity to handle prints by all the great 19th century photographers—Frederick Evans, Julia Margaret Cameron, P. H. Emerson, Samuel Bourne, among others—was a rare privilege.  (I gave away an Emerson print to someone I once loved and wonder what’s become of it.)

On weekends Michael’s house became a destination for photographers and visiting artists of all stripes.  I listened for hours to Paul Caponigro playing Thomas de Hartmann’s haunting music from Gurgeiff on the piano.

As Managing Editor I was involved in the selection and publication of Aperture’s monographs and the quarterly magazine.  I spent nearly a month working daily with Marvin Israel, the designer and Diane Arbus’s last lover, in his tower overlooking lower Fifth Avenue, as we edited Aperture’s landmark Arbus monograph.   Then, there was selecting and editing The Last Empire: Photographs of British India, which involved convincing very private collectors like Sam Wagstaff to lend their treasures—Queen Victoria’s Empress of India and Dehli Durbar albums– and Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy, to write the introduction (we had breakfast together in Manhattan.)

A close friend at the time was a young photographer, Mark Goodman, who on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, was recording the people and everyday life of Millerton, New York, the mostly blue collar Dutchess County town where Aperture was based.  Mark’s Millerton portraits capture a time and place, now gentrified out of recognition, as poignantly as Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange.

My time at Aperture also led to formative associations with a number of other non-profit small presses, whose publications we distributed.  Chief among these were The Jargon Society, published by the North Carolina poet and polymath Jonathan Williams, and The Eakins Press, published by the kindest man I’ve ever known, George Leslie Katz.   Through Leslie and his writer wife Jane Mayhall, I became friends with Lincoln Kirstein, then the chairman of The New York City Ballet and noted arts patron.  Parties at Lincoln’s brownstone were events from another world.  He kept Serge Diaghilev’s calling card on his front hall table, as though the Russian ballet impresario had dropped by yesterday.  Leslie introduced me to an effete New York world of another, nearly extinct, generation. (Today it is no more.) We would have lunch with Monroe Wheeler at his apartment and once took tea with Father Flye, of James Agee fame, at St. Luke’s Rectory. (Father Flye was the only person I ever knew with an ear trumpet!)

I became Secretary of The Jargon Society, and with that role became friends not only with Jonathan Williams, but also with his authors, patrons and many, many artist friends.

Of lasting importance was my friendship with the writer Paul Metcalf, Herman Melville’s great grandson, and his wife Nancy.  Their house in the Berkshires became a haven for me, as it did for so many others.  Paul’s mother Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Melville’s granddaughter, was an important fixture among Melville scholars, and herself the discoverer of many Melville manuscripts, including Billy Budd, stored in a bread box by Melville’s daughter.  Paul had grown up in the Berkshires near Melville’s home Eagle Hill and was a Melville authority himself, as well as using his heritage as a springboard to his own wonderful, highly creative writing.  Spending a day with Paul at Eagle Hill, listening to him tell the family stories, was unforgettable.

Then there were the Jargon Society annual meetings in Winston-Salem and Highlands, North Carolina.  Always hosted by Philip Hanes, the meetings were adventures in art and literature and nature and Southern hospitality—whether skinny dipping down rock slides in frigid mountain streams of the Southern Appalachians, to visiting the grave of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus tales, with English poet Basil Bunting in tow, to dinners at Philip and Joan Hanes elegant anti-bellum house, lovingly disassembled in tide-water Virginia and moved to Winston-Salem as a wedding present from Philip’s mother.

The love of fine printing and small presses along with classic photography has stayed with me ever since.  I bought a small hand letterpress a few years ago—having taken courses in typography and printing at the New School in Manhattan—but have yet to set it up.  Maybe next week.  Photography has been a closer affection, both collecting and taking pictures.  Even here, though, I’ve been selling more prints than buying, and am more likely to make photo books on Snapfish than drop off film at one of the few processors left in San Francisco.

What were the photographic aesthetics that these key influencers engendered?  Originality of vision, composition, quality of the print, grandeur, commitment.

Novelty alone does not make a photograph great.  Technique alone does not make a photograph great.   Subject matter alone does not make a photograph great.

Why does Diane Arbus succeed when her many imitators fail?  Why is a landscape photo by Ansel Adams magnificent and one by, say me, merely pictorial?

While an amateur photographer, I do know what makes a photograph great.  I got myself in many sticky situations with agency art directors who didn’t want, or respect, the opinion of some account guy.  Today I just keep my mouth shut and pursue my passion on my own.  Plus the craft has changed so much, from dark rooms to computers.  I think the advance has been spectacular. And, there’s still a role for traditional photographers—not commercially, but still a given for the art photography market.  Even I take far more pictures with my little digital Leica than with my old SLR’s and rangefinders.  I gave away my wooden 8 X 10 view camera  years ago.  Talk about a lot of trouble—but oh the detail and resolution.  I also gave away my Polaroid, another antique from another era.

This reminds me of a favorite Pepsi commercial created by BBDO.  An archeology professor is excavating an ancient tomb and finds a peculiar object encrusted in dirt and grime.  He carefully removes this covering to reveal a Coca-Cola bottle.  One of the students asks what it is and, bewildered, he answers, “I have no idea.”

We Are What We Read?

This evening I was watching an old Charlie Rose interview with the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane.  Lane happens to be my favorite critic and is a wonderful writer for the magazine on his off weeks—he shares the film critic role with David Denby—when he writes articles and profiles of people who interest him.  Somewhere in my files I’ve kept his profiles of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and P. G. Wodehouse.  Who can resist anyone who writes, about Wodehouse, “There is one short story, “Uncle Fred Flits By,” that I try not to study in depth more than once a fortnight.”

In his interview with Charlie Rose, Lane talks about the need for a film critic to know history and art and literature and popular culture; to be involved in the world; to have perspective.  Lane possesses such a breadth of knowledge.  It’s one reason his reviews are so much more than film reviews.

Sometimes I daydream about the fun I would have being someone else for a day or two.  Anthony Lane is decidedly on my list.  Mayor Bloomberg.  Or, imagine the thrill being Tobias Meyer—worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s—conducting an evening sale in London.  He has the distinction of selling the world’s most costly painting, a $104.2 million Picasso.  When asked what he does, he answered, “I make art expensive.”

Now, what does any of this have to do with marketing?  Nothing and everything.  Have you ever tried to have a conversation with a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur about anything other than his latest idea?  Hopeless.  This is undoubtedly a generalization, but the very idea of “knowing things” in the broadest sense is a unknown concept.  A former friend once reported that she overheard three young employees at Google wondering where Tonga was and deciding it was somewhere in the Caribbean.  I know very intelligent Stanford grads who couldn’t identify a Californian field of columbine.  Most surprising to me was one of my MBA students at USF who, on the day of the star’s death, asked, “Who’s Elizabeth Taylor?”

Maybe none of this matters.  I wonder, though.  I’ve worked with many companies on the development of brand campaigns.  Brand campaigns are always driven by one person at a company.  (I’ve written elsewhere in this blog that I believe all marketing begins with one person.)  The most successful are people with broad experience and an all-encompassing worldview.  People who know psychology and history and music and symbols; who have a cultural frame of reference in which to think about themselves and the brand they want to establish.  Brands don’t live in isolation of the world around them. Clients who believe that a brand is its advertising miss the point entirely.

The top branding experience I’ve had was working with the management at Philips on a new global brand campaign, based, ironically, on their dull as dishwater tagline “Let’s Make Things Better.” The reason it was great was because the initiative was led by two exceptionally intelligent, well read, cultured individuals: Gerard Dufour and Kevin Greene.  When Kevin, head of global advertising, came to brief the agency he had no deck, no PowerPoint, no strategy hand-out (that came later once the higher goal was communicated.)  What he had was a reel of TV commercials: ten of the world’s best commercials in his opinion.  They were from many different categories and times.  Each was outstanding.  He simply said, “I want that.  I want a commercial on that reel.  I want you to make Philips famous.”  The process to get there was the most informed, intellectual route imaginable—interspersed with dinner conversation about Mikhail Bulgakov’s great novel The Master and Margarita, or a detailed history of Scottish single malt makers.  Kevin’s colorful, half-Spanish-half-French boss Gerald Dufour, head of global marketing at Philips, only added to this unconventional route to produce an advertising campaign.  At the time, Gerald’s best friend was the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, the director of the Mariinsky Theatre and the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.  Gerald and Valery took us to a production of Boris Godunov at the Met.  When Gerald evaluated music for a commercial, he knew what he was doing.  Too often, I hear clients say things like, “I’m not loving it…”  Gee, that’s helpful: as though it has anything to do with an assistant brand manager’s personal taste.

Speaking of music and advertising, when I led global brand advertising for Fujitsu, our senior client, the head of Corporate Advertising, was Yasuo Sangu.  Sangu-san was a remarkable man, not least because he was also the founder and president of the Frank Sinatra Society of Japan!   Not only did he know every imaginable detail about Sinatra and his music—he had an entire room in his house devoted to Sinatra with thousands of recordings—but he was a world expert on jazz.  When recording music for a commercial, Sangu-san would request specific musicians for each instrumental role.  Many, many times he would call from Tokyo saying, “I see there’s going to be a special on PBS tomorrow night in New York of a 1950’s Sinatra/Garland concert.  Could you tape it and send it to me please.”

We learn things by way of many pathways.  Our parents and families; school; travel; museums; work.  Being in the street.  Listening to music. Looking at everything with a sense of wonder.  Being open to all that’s new, that’s different.  And reading.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in all of the above, both in having so many advantages presented and taking advantage of all of them.  Reading, however, is available to everyone.

Among the very well read, I’m in the minor leagues.  (You might say Susan Sontag headed the Majors.)  Yet, reading has been a constant in my life since a small child.  How I look at the world largely has been informed by what I’ve read.  The single most moving and consequential course I had at Bowdoin was Literature as Philosophy, taught by the eccentric and brilliant philosopher C. Douglas McGee.  (Doug and his wife Phoebe became life-long friends.)  What the course and Professor McGee gave me was the profound understanding that a novel could be more than a novel: it could be a framework for living, for viewing the world in a larger way, for deeper insight into the human soul.  The books we read and discussed are the touchstones to the way I think and the foundation to the idea I have that there are certain books that help to make us civilized.

So I’ve created a list of the books that have been most meaningful to me. This is obviously a highly personal list.  It reflects my own preferences and life experience.  It’s clearly the list of an American.   There are “great” books on the list, as well as not so great but wonderful to me.  I’ve read all of them–some many times.  A Confederacy of Dunces I’ve read more than ten times, to date–every time I feel sad and low. It cheers me up immensely.   (Based on the number of times I’ve read it, I guess those feelings have been too frequent.)   Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s A Time of Gifts is maybe my favorite book.  The Iliad is the start of it all for me.  I’m reading two new translations right now.  There are parts that no matter how many times I read them I always cry: Priam’s plea to Achilles for the body of his son Hector; Hector’s farewell to his wife and son. What father could not be brought to tears by these passages?

Jules Henry’s Pathways to Madness is perhaps the most important book–for me–that I’ve read.  Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita my favorite novel (although that’s a hard one…Henry James’s The Ambassadors is a very close second.)  Over this past summer I reread Brideshead Revisited four times because it’s the saddest, most nostalgic novel I know and it suited my heart-broken mood, unfortunately.  (Even though a crusty Bowdoin English professor called it the best of 2nd rate novels.)  Haruki Murakami is my favorite contemporary novelist…no, wait, that would be W. G. Sebald, but he died in a car accident ten years ago so maybe he doesn’t count as contemporary.

Then there are also terrific one-off reads that pop up—but don’t make the list– like last year’s biography of Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff.  Or best sellers I refused to read, and then did, and was happily surprised by how good they were, like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Or Stephen King (everyone should read his On Writing.)

Clearly no one else on earth would select this list of books.  I used to think if anyone else ever read all these books they would be a civilized person, just like me.  But then I realized they would simply be a lot like me, and who would want to be that.  No equation with civilized.  Maybe well-read, but hardly civilized.  One can be illiterate and civilized.

So here they are.  My plan was to select 100, but as usual that too-limited plan was abandoned, so now I label the list 100+ Books.

100+ Books

A Personal Selection

Niland Mortimer



Euripides-Medea, The Trojan Women

Plato-The Republic, The Symposium


Aristophanes-The Frogs

Sophocles-Oedipus the King

Virgil-The Aeneid


William Shakespeare-Plays, Sonnets

John Milton—Paradise Lost

W.B.Yeats—Collected Poems

Henry Fielding—Tom Jones

James Boswell—Life of Samuel Johnson

Virginia Woolf-To the Lighthouse

Samuel Beckett-Waiting for Godot

Dante-Divine Comedy

Chaucer-The Canterbury Tales

Walt Whitman—Leaves of Grass

Henry James-The Ambassadors

Henry James-The Golden Bowl

William James-Varieties of Religious Experience

E. M. Forster-A Passage to India, Howards End

Patrick Leigh-Fermor-A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and Water, Mani

Charles Dickens-Bleak House, Pickwick Papers

Jane Austen-Pride and Prejudice

Emily Bronte-Wuthering Heights

William Wordsworth; John Keats; S. T. Coleridge—all of it.

Thomas Mann-The Magic Mountain

Thomas Mann-Dr. Faustus

Joseph Conrad-Heart of Darkness, Victory

George Santayana-The Last Puritan

Herman Melville-Moby Dick

Melville-Billy Budd

Nathaniel Hawthorne-The Scarlet Letter, stories

T. Nansen-Farthest North

Bible-Old Testament (only)

Fernand Braudel—The Mediterranean

Ivan Turgenev-Home of the Gentry, Fathers and Sons

D.H. Lawrence -Women in Love

Gustav Flaubert-Madame Bovary

Leo Tolstoy-War and Peace

Dostoyevsky-Crime and Punishment

Dostoyevsky-The Brothers Karamazov


H. D. Thoreau–Walden

R. W. Emerson–Essays

T.S. Elliott-The Waste Land, Four Quartets

George Meredith-The Egoist, Modern Love

Cervantes-Don Quixote

Yukio Mishima-The Sea of Fertility

Colin Thubron-Shadow of the Silk Road

Lawrence Durrell-Bitter Lemons, The Alexandria Quartet

Marcel Proust-Remembrance of Things Past

John Swain-River of Time

James Joyce-Ulysses, Dubliners

DeToqueville-Democracy in America, The Old Regime and the Revolution

W.G. Sebald-Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn

George Elliott-Middlemarch

Jan Morris—Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Venice

H.V.Morton, In Search of London

Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World

Stephen Hawking-A Brief History of Time

Flannery O’Connor—Collected Stories

Eudora Welty-Collected Stories, Losing Battles

George Orwell-1984

Mary Lavin—Collected Stories

William Faulkner-The Sound and the Fury

Haruki Murakami—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84

Yasunari Kawabata—The Master of Go

Charles Darwin-The Origin of Species

Sigmund Freud-Civilization and its Discontents

James Fraser-The Golden Bough

F. Scott Fitzgerald-The Great Gatsby

V.S. Naipaul—In A Free State

Harold Acton—The Bourbons of Naples

Balzac—The Human Comedy—yes, all of it.

J.R.R.Tolkien-The Lord of the Rings

Mikhail Bulgakov-The Master and Margarita

Lampedusa-The Leopard

Marquez-One Hundred Years of Solitude

Antoine de Saint-Exupery-Wind, Sand and Stars

Ernest Hemingway-A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Thomas Wolfe-Look Homeward, Angel

Descartes-Meditations on First Philosophy

Hume-A Treatise of Human Nature

Jung-Psychological Types

Locke-An Essay Concerning Human Understanding


Jules Henry-Pathways to Madness

Willa Cather-The Song of the Lark, My Antonia

John Updike-Rabbit Angstrom novels

M.F.K. Fisher-Two Towns in Provence

Iris Origo-War in the Val D’Orcia

Albert Camus-The Stranger

Jules Henry-Pathways to Madness

Marguerite Yourcenar-Memoirs of Hadrian

Mark Twain-Huckleberry Finn, Innocents Abroad

Robert Byron-The Road to Oxiana

Tatiana Metternich-Tatiana

Marie Vassilchikov-Berlin Diaries

Gunter Grass—The Tim Drum

Waverly Root, The Food of Italy, The Food of France

Toole, J.K.-The Confederacy of Dunces

V. Nabokov-Speak, Memory, Lolita

Maurice O’Sullivan—Twenty Years A-Growing

Norman Lewis—Voices of the Old Sea

Rebecca West-Black Lamb and Gray Falcon

Wallace Stevens—Collected Poems

Barbara Grizutti Harrison-Italian Days

Tim O’Brien-The Things They Carried

Stephen King-Carrie

John Steinbeck—The Grapes of Wrath

Thorton Wilder—Our Town

J.D. Salinger—The Catcher in the Rye

Ford Maddox Ford-The Good Soldier

Somerville & Ross—Experiences of an Irish R.M.

John Synge—The Playboy of the Western World

Sherwood Anderson-Many Marriages, Collected Stories

C.V. Cavafy-Collected Poems

Mikhail Lermontov-A Hero of Our Time

Claude Levi-Strauss—Triste Tropiques

Kenneth Clark-Civilisation

Evelyn Waugh-Brideshead Revisited

Oliver Statler-Japanese Inn, Japanese Pilgrimage

Barbara Pym-A Few Green Leaves

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—The Sufferings of Young Werther

Henrik Ibsen—Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, Ghosts

Guy Davenport-Tatlin

Edmund de Waal—The Hare with Amber Eyes

Michel Houellebecq—The Map and the Territory

Peter Carey—The True History of the Kelly Gang

A. B. Facey—A Fortunate Life

Simon Schama—Landscape and Memory, Citizens

Jane Jacobs—The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Bill Wilson—AA Big Book

Wallace Stegner—Crossing to Safety

J. M. Synge—The Playboy of the Western World

Henry Beston—The Outermost House

Dunbar’s Number

I’m rereading Robin Dunbar’s How Many Friends Does One Person Need.  Were I a philanthropist, I would buy a copy for every person in America—especially every teenager.  Were I a benevolent dictator, I would demand its reading.  The number in the title is 150—the limit on the number of social relationships that humans can have, a figure that is now graced by the name “Dunbar’s Number.”  It’s based on the relationship between the size of the neocortex and group size, first seen in nonhuman primates and then shown to be valid for humans, from pre-history to today—Facebook not withstanding.  Dunbar’s book is an unflinching look at the effects of evolutionary natural selection, of how we can’t fool Mother Nature.  When we try, the results are disastrously consequential.

I’m not at all sure I could extend the list of my friendships even to 150.  Most of us have no more than three or four friends who know everything about us, and us them. Friends for whom we would go out of our way to help, to lend money, to share the most intimate confidences.  Then there’s another ring of friendships—maybe around 10 to 20 people—who are one step removed from the first ring of friends.  And so on, until we get to acquaintances, friends of friends.  From prehistoric tribes to successful business practices today, Dunbar pegs the optimal number at 150.

There’s something else going on, however, with having more than 550 Friends on Facebook, as I do.  I know a man with more than 4,000.  What’s this about?  Has social media changed our world, or is Friends simply the wrong word?  Wouldn’t Links be better?  Social theorists call these ecosystems of influence and this is a construct I understand and believe.  Yet for the most part these are not my friends.  Oh, maybe a few are and I know these are within my 150 because they are the Friends who read and comment on my postings, and whose postings I also read and comment on.  There’s an exchange that might also occur in real life if I were to see them. I care about these Friends.

I’m thinking of paring my Friends on Facebook down to 150.  [I sincerely hope the other 400 take no offense.] I’m really not too interested in sharing my experience, or attempting to influence, people outside of my inner rings.  It’s rather like the 20-year-old waiter who spontaneously tells me his favorite items on the menu.  Why in the world would I care, or even believe his dubious judgment is in any way equal, or superior, to mine?  It’s not as though Andre Soltner shared his preferences with me.

Andrew Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur and notorious foe of the social web, writes about how everyone is an expert online.  A blogger with no expertise may be read with the same legitimacy as a true expert in the field.  Everyone’s a musician, a photographer, a diarist, a celebrity.  Keen fears a future “where ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”  That pretty much sums it up!  We have gone far beyond Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame.”

Lady Gaga has more fans on Twitter than anyone else: as of today, 19,923,324 and growing.  One might say this is a colossal exercise in the irrelevant.  But as reported in a recent article in The New York Times, Lady Gaga is extending her considerable influence to promote a social cause to reduce bullying and increase fairness in schools.  It’s her Born This Way Foundation, launched at Harvard last week, with the mission of creating a kinder and braver world. Who wouldn’t like that (the Republican primary candidates notwithstanding)?  It just might work.  But it isn’t about Friends.

I wonder, though, about the growth of Facebook, and its competitors abroad.  Is there a point at which all these Friends don’t really matter?  Does the platform become simply a framework for advertising and self-promotion rather than an exchange between friends?  Many people pointlessly compete to see who has the most number of Friends.  I had a friend who even counts the number of birthday greetings posted to her Facebook wall as an indication of her popularity and perhaps even self-worth.  How much more significant would it be to get a call on one’s birthday, or a letter, or even a direct email greeting?  Especially since our awareness of the birthday is prompted by Facebook itself!

So if our influence—and I’m talking about ordinary people like me, not celebrities like Lady Gaga—is reasonably limited to our circles of friends, how do ecosystems function and spread?  I think they begin as small conversations, and extend, initially, from one person to another.  That’s where sharing becomes relevant because it gives an idea the opportunity to extend beyond one’s own circle into another’s.  And another.  And another.  It’s exactly as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.  There comes a time when the influence of an individual tips to the group, then tips outside the group to a population never even conceived by the original influencer.  Remember Gladwell’s story about the re-emergence of Hush Puppy shoes?  What started out as counter-culture statement by a few hipsters in the East Village spread to larger and larger circles of people until the nearly defunct company became a nationally accepted brand once again.  (At which point hipsters everywhere stopped wearing them.)

Sometimes one person’s influence can be tragic.  It’s one of the reasons I actually tear up reading Robin Dunbar’s book.  Like Dunbar, I believe in science to explain why we humans behave in the ways we do.  New knowledge gained from advances in neuroscience and genetics have added immeasurably to our understanding of evolution and natural selection, of who we are.  This knowledge does not make us super-human, but more human.  As Newton observed, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Yet, when we have someone on the national stage who is intent on inflicting a personal belief system on the American government and people—a belief system that is anti-science, anti-education, anti-women, anti-health care, anti-fairness, even anti-Constitutional—then I despair for our collective future as a civilized nation.  That this person commands support and popularity, all in the name of “values,” is a malaise I fail to comprehend.  We become little different from the theocracies of the Middle East.

It’s my hope that all of us who oppose such bigotry and prejudice will use their own circle of influence to create a wave of sanity that builds to an ocean of hope.  It’s not about opposing the individual about whom I’m writing.  He’s entitled to his beliefs.  [Although in an election year it does come down to opposing an individual.]

It’s about opposing a culture of limits, as opposed to a culture of possibility; a culture defined by exclusion, as opposed to inclusion; a culture of narrowness, as opposed to a culture of expansiveness.

Start with our friends, our community of 150 friends.  It’s my moral obligation to my children and my children’s children.  It’s a moral obligation to myself.