Robins Dark and Light

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AMONG the first signs of an organization's entropy, its coming apart - the dark robin's presence - is the stop in making time for celebration and ritual, observes Max DePree, management sage. This holds, I would add, not just for businesses but for whole societies, for communities, schools, families, for friendships ... and even for our relations with our own selves.

The Gridiron, the Washington journalists' club annual dinner, was held last Saturday at the Capitol Hilton, right at the verge of spring. If you want to know winter, a true winter of the soul, it could be something like Washington life as a series of hearings, constituent audiences, televised House and Senate floor speeches in deserted chambers, weekend plane-rides to the home district to make yourself familiar to voters and a stranger to your family.

In politics, self-importance becomes its own punishment. The strain of achievement takes its toll on the whole community. And the mistakes - President Clinton's handling of Whitewater, Ed Rollins's overstatement about black vote suppression - can accumulate like dirty snow on Northern streets and depress an entire national leadership's spirits.

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Kidding about our troubles, and affirming the values we all share despite our differences, is the light robin we look to find.

At the Gridiron, no one is spared - president, press, the first and second ladies, and everyone who goofed or who has aspired perhaps somewhat beyond his stature. The mighty are in attendance, a thousand souls in all, turning to see how each notable takes his round of kidding - and he or she had better show they can take a joke. To know when and how to laugh at oneself, like it or not, is a fair test of leadership. A thin skin disqualifies.

Our society is getting less practiced in ceremony, to our loss. The high point of the Gridiron dinners for me is the opening round of military service anthems, played by the United States Marine Band: At each section of the medley, members of the audience who once served in that branch stand at attention; it's a moving reminder that behind the American government system, which may appear absurd and disappointing in its performance, lies a core of values that men and women would fight and die for.

In your school or office do you put aside routine and gather often enough to kid, celebrate, and affirm?

This month have you had a family dinner?

Have you sought a way to spend time with a son or daughter?

Laughter is a useful check against any manipulativeness in ceremony and ritual.

Those of us who work over-earnestly suffer dark robins of our own making. Are we allowed some self-celebration, some private spring, an exuberance to lift our spirits and end our isolation?

Winter is the grind of professionalism, the weight of precedence, the incessancy of demands. Spring is the arrival of variety.

There is a time to laugh, to cry, to end complaint, to give thanks for a cycle of experience ending and a cycle arriving.

Mass media create global celebrations with events such as the Olympics. These are coming to substitute for the more real direct relationships we share - at the jobs that consume most of our waking hours, in the towns and school communities on whose campuses we live, and with family and friends with whom we share continuities.

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