Three rules for staying sane on Twitter

I confess. I like Twitter. So what if The Synonym Finder lists these equivalents for the word “twitter”?

  • jabber,
  • babble,
  • prate,
  • twaddle,
  • be in a flutter,
  • be excited,
  • be agitated,
  • be in a dither,
  • be wrought up,
  • fuss,
  • and fidget.

As much as people complain about Twitter—you’ll hear them say, “It’s a cesspool!”—I’ve enjoyed my nine years on the platform (@joegoski). Occasionally, my foot may begin to slip into the gooey stuff, but recalling my three rules for Twitter sanity brings me back to dry ground.

The first rule is to remember that Twitter is a minority taste. Half of American Twitter users have fewer than 30 followers and follow only about 100 contributors, according to the Pew Research Centre. There’s no reason to think that Canadian users are much different. Revel in your exclusivity!

The second rule is to recognize that the people who might drive you crazy on Twitter are a tiny minority. Pew Research found that 90% of the tweets in the U.S. were created by a mere 10% of adult Twitter users. So, when you read a news story that claims “Twitter blew up” over some controversial statement, remember that it’s relatively few people who have lost their minds. And they’re shouting at each other, not you. You don’t have to be one of them.

The final rule is to stretch your imagination by following many more sites than you currently follow. Really go for it. Among the 620 sites I follow are: pundits, polls, and politicians; bishops, priests, and sisters; poets; sports teams; consultants; businesses; and some outliers that add joy to my timeline.

Here are screen captures from a few of my favourite outliers :

@realTimeWWII posts several tweets a day following the chronology of the Second World War. The timeline is currently in 1942. Check out this Tweets about a U-boat attack in Canadian waters:

@RoyalFamily tweets about the activities of members of the British royal family and posts images from the family’s colourful past. Listening to the audiogram of the Queen’s radio speech to children, delivered when she was a mere 14 years old, made me pause to give thanks for this remarkable woman.

@BLMedieval posts images and links to blog posts about some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts that have survived the centuries. Don’t miss their retweets of scholars’ favourite decorative elements and moving incidentals, like Anne Boleyn’s note to her husband in the margins of her Book of Hours.

@Tweetolectology maps fascinating details about dialects in the British Isles. Who can resist looking into the answers to questions like “Do you pronounce the ‘w’ in words like ‘woman’ and ‘wood'” or what word do you use to describe being very cold? (Hint: ‘starving’ is an accepted term.)

@OTBaseballPhoto posts pictures from baseball’s past. If you’ve ever wondered what Yankee stadium looked like from the air during its construction or what Casey Stengel looked like as a young man, this is the site for you.

So, prattle on proudly, avoiding the muck and decorating your timeline with little jewels of joy. I hope to see you in my timeline.

Piercing Albert Speer’s disguise

My father-in-law’s telegram to his wife, announcing that his tour of duty as a bomber pilot was over. Note the date: one day after D-Day.

“He is just like us!” gushed George Ball, a high-level American diplomat, upon meeting Albert Speer shortly after the end of the war. Yes, that Albert Speer—minister of armaments, exploiter of slave-labour, close associate of Goebbels, friend of Hitler.

Nearly forty years after his death, the question about his career that sticks with me is: “How did Speer manage to rehabilitate his reputation to such an extent that he became a wealthy author supported by prominent journalists, historians, and politicians from both sides of the political spectrum?” Surely, his supporters couldn’t have believed him when he denied knowing about the Holocaust. How did they overlook his use of slave labour to keep the German economy going? What was behind their suspension of disbelief?

The self-interest of his audience is a good place to start looking for an answer. Like Speer, a large class of educated professionals had done well out of their service to the state. Speer’s claims that he did not know about the crimes and that he was not really a Nazi provided cover for them and a template for their own self-justification. Mark Falcoff, in reviewing Magnus Brechtken’s Albert Speer, Eine Deutsche Karriere in the October 2020 issue of The New Criterion, notes that “The public and private hierarchies of the Bonn republic were in fact honeycombed with minor replicas of Albert Speer.”

When I think of Speer, I try to reconcile two images. One is of the urbane, charming, almost romantic figure who had been cleansed by his time in Spandau prison. The other is of our former neighbour, Mrs. Skorupa, who had come to Canada as a Displaced Person after the war; she had been one Speer’s multitude of slaves, assigned to work in a munitions factory. Unlike Speer, she did not have the support of the sleek and self-satisfied. And unlike Speer, she did not have the luxury of forgetting about forced labour. But now, with each passing year, the slave-master’s false mask chips and fades while the image of my kind neighbour stands unchanged as a silent witness to evil. I wonder what George Ball would have made of her.

6 reasons I feel thankful during the pandemic

Is celebrating Thanksgiving during a pandemic a sign of madness? Is there anything to be grateful for when so many have died, so many have lost their jobs, so many are isolated and fearful?

No, it’s not madness. And yes, there’s everything to be grateful for.

La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, “The moderation of people who are fortunate comes from the calmness that good fortune gives to their temperament,” bites hard. It’s easy to be grateful when life moves along a paved road of our own choosing. When life turns onto a muddy trail we didn’t choose, it’s hard to remember that today’s setbacks and losses don’t erase the gifts and blessings we’ve received in the past; it’s harder to call to mind the gifts and blessings we enjoy in the present; it’s harder yet to anticipate our ultimate happiness.

Because recalling our blessings in times of trouble is so hard—so unnatural—it’s important to make a conscious effort to balance the scales. I know…I should do this every day. Instead, I get caught up in the flow of events. That’s why having a day on the public calendar set aside for giving thanks is so valuable; it reminds me gently to recall the personal and communal blessings that have come my way.

Name it and praise it

Any list of blessings is bound to be incomplete. Rather than giving in to the fear of forgetting something important, I’d rather get on with it and deal with regrets later.

How can one adequately thank God for the gift of life and the existence of everyone and everything around us? In moments of elation, moments of loss, and all moments between, He offers his friendship and guidance.

I give thanks for my immediate and extended family: my wife, children, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, sister, aunt, cousins, nephews, nieces, and those who have gone to their rest. They are my joy and inspiration.

The months-long closure and limited reopening of our churches have brought home to me how important our faith community is. Clergy and lay people together reached out to our brothers and sisters, kept the flame alive and worked hard to reopen our spiritual home safely.

Like everyone else I deeply appreciate the people who occupied the front lines as we face this pandemic. The medical staff and essential service workers put themselves at risk when the direction and outcome of the pandemic were so uncertain. Not to be overlooked, others kept our stores, gas stations, charities, and schools functioning.

My own spell of unemployment reinforced my admiration and thanks for the business people who have struggled to keep their businesses open to provide necessary services and maintain the employment of as many people as possible. Business is risky at the best of times. Facing the unknown with so many jobs at stake is not a challenge I would have welcomed.

I also appreciated the public officials who have endured unimaginable pressure to make decisions on our behalf. For months now, they have evaluated conflicting medical advice and weighed competing interests with no time for sober second thought. When the pandemic has passed, hindsight will deliver a verdict on the effectiveness of their actions. Their good faith, though, shouldn’t be in question.

With hope, I look forward to Thanksgiving 2021, when the worst of the pandemic and its after-effects may be behind us. With gratitude, I look back on 2020 and the many lessons it has taught me.

Morphing into Eleanor Rigby

In the end, shall we admit that the anthem of the 60’s generation is Eleanor Rigby? That we’ve gone from being the Pepsi Generation and never trusting anyone over thirty to sitting on park benches, hoping someone will stop to say “Hello”?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Happy to Chat Bench

Alexa, turn off ads

Alexa joined our household over the Christmas holidays this year. It seemed the right thing to do—we’re empty-nesters, so we have room for a sociable companion.

The move-in went smoothly. Alexa lives in an Echo speaker. She occupies a small amount of space and eats much less than the kids did. So far, so good. She connected to our wi-fi without help from the kids, another big bonus.

After just a week, we’re starting to get comfortable with Alexa. When I ask her to turn down the volume, she does. When I ask for a weather forecast, she cheerfully tells me that it’s -30 outside with the windchill. And when I ask her to play Oscar Peterson, my frustration with the cold snap melts away.

Who could complain?

Only someone who pays attention to what may be coming to Alexa in the near future. “Amazon is looking into the possibilities of product promotion voiced by Alexa on Echo devices.” Ouch!

What might that look like?

“Alexa, how do I remove a red wine stain?”

“Use Product X from Company Y in liberal amounts. Scrub intensely. Repeat until Product X is gone.”

When that day comes, I’ll be looking for a good response to this command: “Alexa, turn off ads, suggestions and nudges.”

If that doesn’t work, there’ll be one last command: “Alexa, show yourself to the door.”

Pentecost in Ottawa

A moment of recognition came to me during the first reading at Mass yesterday, the Feast of Pentecost. The reading concludes:

Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power. (Acts, 2:7-11)

Our congregation that day, as on every other Sunday, was as diverse as the crowd in Jerusalem. The lector proclaiming the reading was from Liberia. The celebrant was from the US; he was assisted by a priest visiting from Ethiopia. The choir included musicians from Indonesia, the Philippines, and St. Lucia. The volunteer who trained the altar servers was from Pakistan. Two people in the pew behind me were from Holland. Other families I know hailed from Cameroon, Syria, Iraq, Germany, Scotland, India, and nearly every province and territory in Canada.

On a Sunday morning in suburban Ottawa, united by the Spirit,  attentive to the Word, one in our diversity … home.


Requiem: Consolation and Contemplation

CD Requiem, Priestly Fraternity of St PeterA beautiful and timeless addition to my music library arrived this week. The liner notes for Requiem, a recording of the Gregorian chant repertoire for the Mass and burial of the dead, promises that “the calmness of the chant reveals a spirit of rest or repose.” The recording delivers on its promise.

Dies iræ carried me back to my younger days, when I assisted at funerals in a country church, and forward through the years, bringing to mind so many final partings. Most moving was In Paradisum: “May the Angels lead you into Paradise,” our fondest wish for those we have lost.

Recorded by priests and seminarians of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter at their seminary in Denton, Nebraska, Requiem is available directly from the Order or can be purchased on Amazon. A feature article in the Miami Herald supplies interesting context; the following video describes the recording project and provides samples of the chants.


Donald Trump, the second coming of who?


Long before Trump, there was George Washington Plunkitt. Brash, garrulous, opportunistic, Plunkitt milked New York’s public projects in a time of intense immigration and economic growth. He despised civic reformers. He reveled in the intimate, all-consuming politics of his day. Unlike his cautious peers, Plunkitt held little back when talking about his views and methods.

Plunkitt summed up his approach to public life in the phrase, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

Just let me explain by examples. My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft.

Would Trump deny that he is an opportunist? Probably not. Like Plunkitt, he treats opportunism as a political virtue, to be used for the benefit of his country. As for taking personal advantage, my guess is that he would echo Plunkitt: “When a man works in politics, he should get something out of it.

How does a billionaire like Trump connect with a mass audience? Plunkitt would have warned him:

Puttin’ on style don’t pay in politics. The people won’t stand for it. If you’ve got an achin’ for style, sit down on it till you have made your pile….

Trump tackled the problem head on. Remember the smirking reports about him eating fast food on his plane? Or the sneers at his red baseball caps? The message to his audience was “Deep down, I’m one of you.” His opponent’s slick, corporate-style logo looked disciplined, balanced, expensively-designed and, in hindsight, antiseptic. Trump, who clearly understands the value of professional design for his business interests, chose a deliberately “undesigned” look. The result? A potent mix of success-signals (the plane, the hotels, the bling) and plain-folk signals that reinforced his message.

Politicians live and die by their words. Plunkitt advised would-be politicians: “If you’re makin’ speeches in a campaign, talk the language the people talk. Don’t try to show how the situation is by quotin’ Shakespeare.” Can anyone doubt that Trump speaks in the simplest way possible? According to the Boston Globe, Trump delivered his campaign speeches at a Grade 4 level. A ten-year-old child could understand his words.  (Incidentally, Hillary Clinton spoke at a Grade 8 level and Bernie Sanders at a Grade 10 level.)

On surviving in politics, Plunkitt had one piece of advice: “You must study human nature and act accordin’. You can’t study human nature in books.” Trump’s immersion in backroom politics and private deal-making has undoubtedly taught him a lot about the self-serving, treacherous side of human nature. His marketing experience in developing attractive brands and properties appeals to the aspirations of his customers. Developing a successful television program has kept him in touch with mass audience preferences. He could say, with Plunkitt:

I know what they like and what they don’t like, what they are strong at and what they are weak in, and I reach them by approachin’ at the right side.

Plunkitt’s political career began before the Civil War and endured for nearly fifty years. Since his time, the population has exploded and the economy has grown more complex. Mass communication has changed the pace of politics. Yet the words of this machine politician speak across the years and shine a surprisingly bright light on the politics of our day.


The Founder’s Mentality: Find it or Flounder


It’s not often that I meet a legendary business leader. It’s less often that I receive a book in the mail from that person. So when Robert K. Irving sent me a copy of The Founder’s Mentality by Chris Zook and James Allen, I was eager to discover what Mr. Irving found to be so compelling.

What I found was a book that answered the twin questions: why do successful, growing organizations stall, and what can their leaders do to restore sustainable growth? Every business has to find an answer to those questions. So do volunteer organizations.

I work for a family-owned business that lives many of the same values that Mr. Irving described as the bedrock of his companies. I was not surprised, then, that The Founder’s Mentality is applicable to my work. What delighted me was how relevant it is to my volunteer activities.

What does the founder’s mentality look like?

  • It features a bold sense of mission that everyone in the organization understands.
  • It obsesses about the front line, where employees interact with customers and suppliers.
  • It shares an owner’s mindset, which is biased towards action and against bureaucracy.

As I worked through the opening chapters, I kept nodding in recognition. Among others, I recognized:

  • Robert K. Irving, who had paid a visit to our company—a new customer—to personally ask whether we were being well served and to explore whether we could find more opportunities to do business together.
  • Ward Griffin, whose passion for customer service has been the north star during our company’s growth over the past two decades.
  • Fr. Michael White from Timonium, Maryland, and Fr. James Mallon from Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaders in a movement to build vibrant, energetic Catholic parishes.

The authors maintain that success and growth present an organization with potentially lethal challenges. As they grow, businesses become more complex. They offer more products, they cover larger areas, they hire more people. Volunteer organizations introduce more programs and recruit more volunteers. Each addition adds complexity and dilutes the common vision. Growth stalls and, at best, the organization treads water.

Reigniting growth depends on adopting, maintaining, and spreading the founder’s mentality throughout the organization. A sampling of the recommended practical steps include:

  • Embed the front-line obsession throughout the organization.
  • Open up the lines of communication.
  • Share the burden of leadership.

Do I recommend The Founder’s Mentality? Heartily. For anyone who cares about their business or volunteer organization, it offers important insights and practical suggestions. I expect it will be part of my working library for years to come.