Brad Rourke's Blog

Why I Want To Be A Boomerang Household

November 22, 2014 · Leave a Comment

Almost ten years ago, when the kids were still in elementary school and I was two years into what would be a long period of working independently in my home office, a situation that my wife had enjoyed already for eight years, I wrote a column for The Christian Science Monitor about my situation.

And my situation? It was perfect. Everything — home, family, economic well being — all revolved around our thriving household:

As I rise in the early morning, I often imagine a farmhouse in a small, agricultural community, perhaps in Maine 80 years ago. This imaginary farm provides the means for the family’s getting by. The chickens give up eggs; the cows, milk; and the soil, vegetables. Well-tended, the farm generates income at market as well as sustenance at home. It is the economic engine of the family. All hands work at making it run.

Our own house is like that farm, updated for the early 21st century. Instead of milking the cows, I fire up my screen and scan the night’s e-mail. Instead of harvesting the turnips, my wife drafts a new report for a client. Instead of feeding the chickens, the kids could collate a mailing (admittedly a rare occurrence). All of this puts food on the table. And it all happens at home. . . .

Xenophon, “history’s first professional writer” according to one classics professor, was born in Athens around 430 BC. His Oeconomicus is influential. It is a housekeeping manual, a discussion between the immortal Socrates and another man, concerning the best way to keep an estate. In this work, the two agree that it is “the business of the good economist to manage his own house or estate well.” It is from this household care manual that we get the word “economics.” It’s about the inflows and outflows that go into keeping a home. Seen this way, “home economics” is redundant: Economy is about the home to begin with.

Now, with daughter at college, son considering, and parents retired, I find I want to double down on this way of thinking. We live in uncertain times. They are made all the more uncertain by social norms that dictate young people should grow up and get out, that as seniors age they should seek out “retirement communities” where they can live with others like themselves.

I want to be a countervailing force.

IMG_0224.JPGI want my house to be, and remain, an intergenerational beacon. I want my wife’s mother to choose to live with us in retirement. I want my kids to boomerang back home, not in failure but by choice. Or, at least, I hope for those concerned to see this as a viable and desirable alternative.

So much research points to the benefits of intergenerational connections, and yet our social structures tell us that “moving back home” (both for old and young) is to be avoided. What if it were the norm? It is, after all, why humans choose to cohabit and live in company: to thrive and be secure. Why should a modern life obviate this evolutionary imperative?

In my ideal fantasy, multiple generations live in our 21st century farmhouse, supporting one another, providing the social network and glue that help us thrive. And — hope of hopes — this ethos gets passed on so that my kids feel the same way, welcoming both their parents as well as their adult children to continue to thrive together as we row our lifeboat through the currents.

I can dream, can’t I?

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

→ Leave a CommentCategories: culture · daily life · housekeeping

Immigration: Stalemate or Progress?

November 7, 2014 · 2 Comments

2014-11-07 10.20.08-1When I arrived at my office this morning and saw the cover of The Wall Street Journal, I knew I had to write a post about the difference between the dominant political narratives of issues, and the more nuanced way that the public sees the same issues — in this case, having to do with immigration. The president and the speaker are at loggerheads on this already (or still, depending on how you look at it). Just those juxtaposed images tell the story of exactly the kind of political stalemate that Americans are incensed about.

This from my post at Inside Public Judgment:

Kettering research over decades suggests that the way difficult issues like immigration are framed by policy leaders and experts is often at odds, or at least out of step with, the way in which people see those issues. Where the dominant political discourse frequently sees conflict, people in communities are wrestling with tensions among the things they hold valuable. This is not a question of one solution versus another. Instead, the question individuals must wrestle with is, what am I willing to give up—and under what conditions.

On immigration, Kettering research suggests that people see this issue in a more nuanced way than the binary amnesty-vs.-tough-borders way in which the issue has been portrayed in the media. Their concerns center on a range of things that are held commonly valuable by all—our self-image as a welcoming nation, personal and national security, and the reality seen by many that our prosperity depends on immigrants. These concerns became the basis for the options in a guide for public deliberation that Kettering prepared for the National Issues Forums Institute, Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis? Three options are outlined, each rooted in a different view of the problem:

1. Welcome New Arrivals. A rich combination of diverse cultures is what defines us as a people. We must preserve our heritage as a nation of immigrants by shoring up our existing system while also providing an acceptable way for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living here to earn the right to citizenship.

2. Protect Our Borders. Failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration undermines our national security, stiffens competition for scarce jobs, and strains the public purse. We need tighter control of our borders, tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, and stricter limits on the number of immigrants legally accepted into the country.

3. Promote Economic Prosperity. To remain competitive in the 21st-century global economy, we need to acknowledge the key role that immigrants play in keeping the US economy dynamic and robust. This option favors a range of flexible measures, such as annual adjustments to immigration quotas, that put a priority on our economic needs.

The difficulty of immigration lies in the tensions between these things. One reason this issue is so intractable is that these tensions must be worked through by the public before there can be any durable policy solution.

Read the whole piece here.

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Robin Williams and Ordinary Tragedy [UPDATED]

August 12, 2014 · Leave a Comment

[UPDATE: Today (8/14) we learned via a statement from his wife that Robin Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and he was not ready yet to share the diagnosis with the rest of the world. She also reports that Williams’ sobriety was “intact.” The below essay could have been written in the aftermath of any celebrity death that related in some way to a struggle with sobriety, so I will let it stand. However, it does not apply to Williams in this case. I (like many) write before I had all the facts. This is a lesson to learn. — Brad Rourke]

What to say about the death of Robin Williams. It is tragic and like so many I feel a deep sense of loss. It’s funny how you feel like you come to know certain celebrities solely by the cues you pick up from their roles and interviews and what is written about them. As if they are friends.

Robin Williams in 2011

Robin Williams in 2011

But I also know how ordinary this death was — like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Another life claimed by addiction. Happens every day. I personally knew a number of people who also died, and a number of people for whom it is a surprise they are alive (and a proof of grace).

Some, like Williams and Hoffman, had long-term sobriety. Yes mental illness appears to be involved but the greater factor appears to be the drama of alcohol and drugs. Each had a long spell of sobriety that was recently lost, and they were struggling to regain an even keel.

Such deaths are wasted unless we can take something from them. The lesson I take is that just being sober for some number of years does not cure a person. The disease of addiction is powerful and must be respected. It is the disease that says “I do not exist. You’re fine.” Truly, the essence of the devil.

But here is the good news, to the survivors, to we who face addiction. Sobriety is within reach, even after relapse. Others who face this disease want to help — indeed, need to help, as it keeps us sober. “No matter how far down the scale we have fallen, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” This is not an extravagant promise.

That is the message we carry: there is a solution. It is available to all, and there is help in literally every city, town, and village. It is there for those who want it and we need only seek it. We will be welcomed and understood in those places.

Photo: Eva Rinaldi

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A Song About A Bridge

May 24, 2014 · Leave a Comment

BridgeEarlier today a friend of mine was talking about a difficult time in his life and it reminded me of a song I wrote some time ago that used his experience as a starting point. My friend spent time living under a bridge after going through some difficult times. Thing was, he didn’t see his situation as particularly bad — he had a roof, after all, and others he knew did not. It took him some time to change his life, but now that bridge is a distant memory.

That bridge and my friend’s attitude toward it stuck with me, and I eventually wrote a song. There’s a song by Nickel Creek that is from the standpoint of a lighthouse that I was into at the time, and I tried to imagine a relationship between my friend and the bridge — from the bridge’s point of view.

I never recorded this song with any of the bands I have been in, but I did create a demo of the song in 2012, as I was collecting songs for a project I have in the back of my mind called “Exile’s Hymnal.”

This song is called “Nowhere Else At All.” I hope you like it.

Nowhere Else At All
By Brad Rourke

They roll
Across my back
Soul after soul after soul
To work
Back again
It makes no sense or difference where they go

If I could choose my day
And only do what spoke to me
I would crumble into rubble
And I’d leave the road alone
To make its noise

Only thing
I got no choice
So here I’ll stand
Alone for one and all
The bridge from nowhere near
Crossing over into
Nowhere else at all

Above they drive
Below they walk
A backpack and a gun to call their home
No one sees
Beneath their feet
The city stretches out take its own

In the rain
That never stops
There’s shelter underneath my steady back
For a man
Who’s lost his luck
Who don’t suppose it’s ever coming back

I’ll be the walls and roof
All for this man to give him proof
That something he relied on
Listened to him when he thought
He’d lost his voice

Only thing
I got no choice
So here I’ll stand
And shelter one and all
The bridge from nowhere near
Crossing over into
Nowhere else at all
The bridge from nowhere near
Crossing over into
Nowhere else at all

Photo credit: Shaun Bell (Flickr)

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Work, Art, and Leisure Collide: Remembering Two Songs By The West End

May 4, 2014 · 3 Comments

Today I happened to play an old playlist while I took a run. In the mix, a song came on that took me back and sent me on a reverie. I thought I’d share it.

Some years ago I was in a band called The West End along with my good friends and neighbors Monique DeFrees (drums), Mike Shawn (keys and vox), and Matthew Taylor (bass). I played guitar and sang. Later, another good friend, Kate Gordon joined and improved our vocals immensely. We played about 2/3 covers and 1/3 originals — it was the originals that kept me in the game because I loved writing and performing new songs. I saw them as similar to blog posts or essays.

(Most people don’t go out to see original live music except by established bands so we had to also play covers that people recognized. We made them our own, but it still was never as fun as for me playing our own music.)

Eventually, we saved enough money by playing gigs to pay for recording studio time, a producer, and CD duplication — and we had ourselves an album! It was called This Ride Could Be My Last.

The song that came on my playlist was from that album. I hadn’t listened in a while. You know what? It holds up.

But I wanted to share a bit about where the song came from. There are two songs on the album that relate directly to a professional project I had been working on. The songs are “Father Lou” and “They Go.”

The Project: End of Life Decisions

At the time I wrote these songs, I was embroiled in research for an issue guide I was working on for a client, the Kettering Foundation. The topic of the issue guide (a report designed to support public deliberation on a difficult topics) was the end of life. Who decides what happens at the end of life? How do we as a society want to think about the notion of assisted suicide? Euthanasia? How do we balance personal freedom with sound and fair policy? More than perhaps many such pieces of work, the topic was quite wrenching.

(In case you are interested, the issue guide is available here.)

Building a Song From an Observation: “Father Lou”

The first song that comes out of this period is a quick little number called “Father Lou.” It started out (in my mind) as a very slow, dirge-like tune — but my bandmates wisely told me to speed it up. Click the player below to listen:

This song came to me sort of fully-formed, and it unfolded in my mind all while I was on a run (like today’s) through a sketchy area in Memphis, Tennessee.

Part of the work we do in developing issue guides like the one I was working on is hold focus groups with ordinary people to talk about the issue at hand. We want to see how real people talk about the issue, what their chief concerns are, and how they start out thinking about the issue. Focus group houses are in all kinds of neighborhoods, some fancy and some marginal. I find myself fairly often in marginal areas because we want to get “truly ordinary” folks in our groups, not the professional types that are more easily recruited to take part in focus groups in fancy facilities (these usually cater to corporate clients).

Anyway, there I was in Memphis, and the group was later that night but it was mid-day. So I went for a run through the neighborhood. I came upon a set of city blocks where it seemed like every other driveway had a car on blocks. The other driveways also had cars in them, and it took me a while to figure out why this might seem out of place to me: It was midday and in many other neighborhoods these cars would all be at work. But here they were.

So the lines that would become the third verse popped into my head. And then the song sort of built itself as I ran.

It’s not about end of life questions, it is actually about a character I had in my head at the time — a priest who goes to a Skid Row area thinking he is going to rescue everyone there. Little does he know that people see him as a figure of fun and ridicule, and eventually they turn on him.

(At the end of this post you can read the full lyrics.)

Song as Issue Guide: “They Go.”

Another song on the album is more directly related to this end of life issue guide. The stories I heard as I listened to focus groups while working on this guide got deep into my head and rattled around. One day, while taking a stroll outside a Dayton hotel, this scenario of someone stuck alone in a hospital with a terminal illness came into my head. Somehow this mixed with an image I had of a family member who had recently had heart surgery — he complained to me in a conversation about how the nurses come and go all through the night while he tried to rest and recuperate.

These two ideas mixed together and I wrote a song about this person alone in a hospital, with a terminal illness, writing a letter to a friend. The two friends had promised one another on some drunken night to “take care of it” if either was hospitalized and incapacitated, destined for a lingering death.

So this song popped out: The chorus is based on the “coming and going” all night, while the overall theme comes directly from the thoughts running through my head as I developed a framework for public deliberation on the topic of end of life decisions.

I hope you like them.

The Lyrics

In case you are interested (I usually want to know them), here are the lyrics for each song:

FATHER LOU
By Brad Rourke

There’s a certain part of town
Where the fire trucks never run
There’s nothing there to burn
That would be missed by anyone
There’s a sidewalk over there
Behind the sheriff’s impound lot
Where bedrooms are reserved
By spreading cardboard out

Into this place comes a man
Trying to do the best he can
Sent there on a mission from the lord
Save these lost sheep from the sword

He walks these crooked streets
Spreading handouts all around
Like everyone’s a mark
And the carnival’s in town
They all stick out their hands
And gladly take his grace
Some laugh behind his back
And others in his face

How many times before he learns
Watch your back or get your fingers burned
Saving souls is no work for the weak
You’ll catch your death just standing on the street

There’s a certain part of town
Where cars stay home all day
Some on blocks and others got no place
To go to anyway
Remember Father Lou
He used to hang around down here
Until we jacked him for his wallet
And his body disappeared

Into this place came a man
Trying to do the best he can
Sent here on a mission from the lord
Save us lost sheep from the sword
Save us lost sheep from the sword
Save us lost sheep from the sword

And, finally:

THEY GO
By Brad Rourke

Come and see me where I’m at
I wish I could pay for that
You’ll have to make your own way
I might not last another day

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive

There’s nothing private in this room
The lights always seem to go out too soon
Right when I’m just settling down
Nothing left for me but the night sounds

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive

Hope this message reaches you
And if it does you’ll know what to do
Remember that night of promises
Do what you said if it comes to this

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive
They come, they go
I’m alone most of the time
They come, they go
If you hurry you’ll make it here in plenty of time

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