Friday, December 14, 2018

Niche-y Nietzsche

I first discovered Nietzsche in middle school when I read Danny Sugarman’s biography of Jim Morrison No One Here Gets Out Alive. In describing Morrison’s formative years, especially the books he read, Sugarman mentioned the writings of Nietzsche as being hugely influential in the early self-education of the future Lizard King, and for a young suburban kid fascinated by the rise of punk and the rebellious music of the 1960s, the writer-philosopher who developed the concept of the ubermensch and explored the depths of nihilism seemed to be to perfect inroad into the intellectual side of cool.

Over the years, I've been casually intrigued by how many times and ways references would come up time and again to Western Civ’s most challenging philosopher. That consistent presence just deepened and reiterated to me the significance of this complicated man. To know Nietzsche was to know something elitist-ly subversive. Thirty-five years after I first learned of Nietzsche, his presence still pops up in culture and conversation, and the recent publication of John Kaag’s Hiking with Nietzsche has pushed the original Superman onto our cultural radar again. What is it about this man that makes me (us) want to buy the book just based on the title? Mention Nietzsche and you immediately perk interest. We want to know Nietzsche even if we don’t know why. We want to cite him. We want to understand him. We want to be in the know about him.

There is just something niche-y about Nietzsche.

In “Hiking With Nietzsche, ” Mr. Kaag turns from these homegrown, largely optimistic philosophers and considers Friedrich Nietzsche, the German thinker best known for such pronouncements as “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Why? What is it about Hitler’s favorite philosopher that holds Mr. Kaag’s attention? Mr. Kaag admits that “Nietzsche’s philosophy is sometimes pooh-poohed as juvenile—the product of a megalomaniac that is perhaps well suited to the self-absorption and naïveté of the teenage years but best outgrown by the time one reaches adulthood.” Mr. Kaag’s own wife, a student of Immanuel Kant, loathes Nietzsche. True to cliché, Mr. Kaag’s fascination with Nietzsche is rooted in his adolescence. Years later, having reached a period of relative calm and happiness in his life, he feels compelled to reclaim and come to terms with a raw, wild element from his past that Nietzsche inspired and exemplified.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Gratitude Journaling

Coming out of the Thanksgiving holiday and heading into the holiday season, it's always on our minds to be grateful for what we have. As my school has committed to a culture-building initiative as part of our Sources of Strength program, we implemented a month of gratitude activities, one of which is a daily "Gratefulness Journal." Much has been written about the value and benefit of a regular, daily focus on gratitude; for example, check out this TED Talk on gratitude:

In writing my 21-day "Gratefulness Journal," here are some of the things I'm thankful for:

  • Cookies & pie
  • Cherry Creek High School and all it offers for me and my family
  • Loving parents
  • the right to vote in peaceful elections with smooth transfer of power
  • dependable electricity and clean drinkable water
  • hardworking dependable colleagues
  • my students who are so easy to teach
  • Jazz
  • print journalism and daily newspapers
  • satirists - Saturday Night Live
  • art - abstract expressionism
  • Hettie
  • Post-it notes
  • the seasons - snowy wintery Colorado mornings
  • Greenwood Village Public Works
  • safe air travel
  • books
  • JK Rowling and the Harry Potter books
  • coffee
  • Holiday songs
  • First Bank pens
  • Sudafed, Tylenol, & Advil
  • people like Alex Honnold who push the limits
  • doctors and nurses
  • public libraries
  • naps

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Living Artfully - finding Thoreau in art and the art of living

" .... because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."  -- Henry David Thoreau

In the past couple years, I have begun to discover art and the art of living in ways that I'd long imagined, but have never really visualized. And, as I've been working through a unit of Romanticism and Transcendentalism with my classes, I have pondered and discussed the Thoreauvian approach to our dailiness. What HDT described as living deliberately, I've tried to re-imagine as living artfully. Though I never took an art class, and I certainly don't consider myself an artist or even artistic, I am trying to experience more art in my life, and subsequently experience life as art.

Art and the art of living pops up all over the place if we take the time to notice and appreciate it. This morning in the Wall Street Journal weekend edition I was reminded in a column by Frank Wilczek about the brilliance found in the art and research our earliest neuro-scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Before visiting MIT this summer with my family, I don't know that I'd ever heard of RyC, but I was captivated when I discovered the exhibit of his drawings at the MIT Museum. To learn that he was accurately drawing his ideas of what neurons looked like decades before we had the MRI technology to know for sure was practically magical to me. If you've never see Ramon y Cajal's work (and don't have plans to visit MIT soon), it's worth taking a look at his vision of The Beautiful Brain.

I thought again of art's importance while reading Lance Esplund's Masterpiece reflection about his first "life changing encounter with art." For a future art critic like Esplund, it was odd but familiar and gratifying to hear him reveal how his first experience with arts masters left him empty and not connected. Truly we know that Rembrandt and Da Vinci are great - we may just not be moved by them. Then along comes something sublime in a different way - for Esplund that work was Paul Klee's "Howling Dog."  Something in the colors or the style grabbed him emotionally and let him directly experience the art in the way that Klee intended. And that is the sort of living artfully that I seek more of in my life. Not all of us go on to become erudite art critics, but we can all appreciate looking at the world more artfully.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Free Solo - "Alex Honnold and the Pursuit of Perfect"

See. This. Movie.

Knowing of Alex Honnold from previous stories on his free solo climbing accomplishments, I was intrigued and excited to learn not only that he had free soloed El Capitan, the "center of the rock climbing universe" and the most incredible rock wall on earth, but also that a film crew had been there to capture it all. And now that I've seen it, I am all the more amazed. The climb was a monumental task that is a remarkable human achievement and may be the greatest athletic feat of all time. The film does it all justice. Free Solo from filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is, in a single word, breathtaking.

Learning intimately the story of Alex Honnold and the El Cap climb was a fascinating, inspiring, and, for me actually, emotionally draining experience, for it was joining a truly unique human being as he sought the edge of human achievement and pushed that edge to an area many never thought it could go. Man has always been fascinated by dominant physical achievement and the pursuit of excellence. It was integral to the culture of the Greeks, and it was a primary element of the Heroic Ideal found in the stories of early epic heroes such as Beowulf. We love excellence. We are fascinated by it, and in many ways, we revere it. As we should. For by pushing the boundaries of physical achievement, we develop tangible evidence of just what is possible. Experiencing the arduous process of imagining, envisioning, planning, practicing, and finally achieving a free solo climb of El Capitan is a truly gratifying experience. Interestingly, the movie feels like a thriller at times, which is pretty cool considering we know how the movie ends. But, during the actual climb I must say that my palms were literally sweaty. It was a captivating bit of film to say the least.

In some ways, this is a movie about an athlete. But in other ways this is a significant, meaningful, and important film about a legendary moment in time.

It is in Alex's own words "delightful."

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Roger Scruton explains Conservatism

I refrain from using the terms conservative and liberal to describe or refer to people (and even ideas and issues) anymore because I don't feel like people authentically use and align with those terms, or they will mis-apply them to pieces of legislation and the way they vote. No, these days the only valid terms are Republican and Democrat. Americans identify themselves by whom they voted for in the last election. And, that is not the essence of ideas and ideologies like conservatism and liberalism to me.

Roger Scruton, a writer and public intellectual, may be able to help.

The most important piece of insight and distinction is that conservatism is actually classical liberalism. And, the basic premise to keep in mind is that classical liberalism in terms of the Enlightenment (18th century, neo-Classical Age) is committed to the concept of individual and natural rights. At the core of that, of course, is freedom; and the idea of freedom is where the Republicans and the Democrats get into all sorts of trouble leading to confusing disagreements. (By the way, a great source of intellectual debate about this can be found in Patrick Deneen's wonderful book Why Liberalism Failed ). In its soul, the idea of conservatism is about opposition to radical change, and it's about a commitment to norms and traditions of culture. That perspective leads us to a neat little book by Scruton on the essence and history of conservatism - Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition. 

One of the most important pieces of insight in the book comes in the last chapter, where Scruton succinctly summarizes the primary canons of conservatism according to the esteemed Russell Kirk. I appreciate Scruton's work for the honesty and integrity with which he explores a line of thought outside of the somewhat obscene partisan politicizing of ideas going on in both the United States and Great Britain these days. Clearly, the election of Donald Trump is both a cause and effect of the mess that has been made of conservatism as a label and the GOP as a brand. For me, the sense of decorum and character which have always been a commitment of conservatives has been so egregiously tainted that it's absolutely necessary to identify the culprits as Republicans, not as conservatives. And, it's subsequently important to look outside the parties to explore and discover the philosophy. Perhaps someday, we can return to the purity of classical liberal thought, and we might even reach a day where people once again can choose between two human beings in an election, and not two entrenched political parties.

From Scruton (p. 144):

Kirk's philosophy is founded in the following canons or states of mind:
  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the 'variety and mystery' of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize 'natural' distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and a recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Greenwood Village - Comprehensive Plan

When I moved to theVillage sixteen years ago with my wife and young son, I felt welcome and immediately became a part of the community. As a teacher at Cherry Creek High School, I was fortunate to live in the community where I work. Granted I traded a 2200 sq ft house in Illinois for a 1400 sq ft townhouse, but it was home, and affordable for a teacher. Now with the proposed comprehensive plan revisions, I fear the welcome mat has been removed. Restricting any new housing development to single-family homes on quarter acre lots effectively eliminates any new residents who can’t afford $800K+ homes. Teachers in Cherry Creek start at $40K/year and top out at $80K after 30 years and a master degree. I don’t know of any police officers, firefighters, or city maintenance workers making more than that. And, I’m not complaining about the pay in public service – I’m very happy with my living. While I’ll never afford a house in Sundance or The Preserve or One Cherry Lane, I’ve made a home here. Unfortunately, the Council’s plans intend to ensure that no more people like me are welcome to the Village, and I find that sad. When the housing market passed me by, that’s economics. But when government zones to exclude the middle class, well, that’s just embarrassing. And it’s not the Village I used to know. In fact, the Council’s plans seem to be focused on preserving a subdivision, not a town or community or village. Similar intentions in the plan about transportation baffle me. The traffic in Greenwood Village stems not from residents, especially those who might prefer living near and using the light rail. It’s the 60K non-residents who work in GV Mon-Fri, 9-5 who clog our streets. But they don’t keep our shops and restaurants in business, and they don’t attend Fall Fest and GV Day. Their kids don’t attend our schools or play on our teams. They don’t make a Village – they don’t make this a home. So, why would the Council seek only to bring in more transient workers and zero new residents and homemakers? I’ve heard that Cherry Creek students think my AP English Lang class is really hard – they’re sometimes afraid to take it. Soon they get over their fear and even love the class. I hope the Council can learn from them that there’s no need to Save Our Village from the likes of people me. When I was growing up in Illinois, my immediate neighborhood had doctors and lawyers and business owners and teachers and plumbers and more. It was a true community. Yet that has faded over the years, as communities become increasingly closed off and isolated. 20 years ago, Robert Putnam warned us in his book Bowling Alone that a collection of houses does not a community make. It’s certainly not a Village. Let’s not dismiss him and close ourselves off.

The previous text is from my public comments at the November 13 meeting of the Greenwood Village, CO Planning & Zoning commission. The P & Z commission voted unanimously to approve the amendments to the Greenwood Village Comprehensive Plan and to send the amended plan on to the Council. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Taylor Wilson, Tom Clynes, & the story of playing with fusion

At the annual CAGT (Colorado Association for Gifted & Talented), I just had the pleasure of listening to non-fiction travel and science writer Tom Clynes share the story of a precocious and incredibly gifted young man named Taylor Wilson, who basically built a nuclear fusion reactor at the age of sixteen. What began as a magazine article for Popular Science became a book called The Boy Who Played with Fusion. The story of Taylor is most certainly an engaging - and quite unbelievable - one. But I am equally impressed with the skill and craft of Clynes whose keynote presentation was perfect for the CAGT crowd.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Ben Sasse, Loneliness, & the Partisan Divide

Do we have "an epidemic of loneliness?" And is that what is driving the uncomfortable partisan divide that many people believe is the new normal in the United States.

Loneliness? Hmmm. Well, that's what Ben Sasse, the junior senator from Nebraska, is positing as the root of the anxiety and tension and general malaise he sees in contemporary American society. In Sasse's latest book Them: Why We Hate Each Other - and how to Heal, the senator describes how loneliness and a lack of community is the primary challenge the nation is facing. There is plenty of data to support his concerns that "Loneliness in “epidemic proportions” is producing a “loneliness literature” of sociological and medical findings about the effect of loneliness on individuals’ brains and bodies, and on communities (thank you to George Will for summarizing). Certainly, Americans are less connected to their communities than they were decades ago when the nation was smaller, less mobile, and less economically stratified. Even though people seem to be more connected to the nation as whole through media and technology, it's been pretty clear that community connections are weakening, a phenomenon described in sociological works such as Robert Putnam's well known book Bowling Alone

However, I'm not sure I agree that it's loneliness as much as it is emptiness. Not all people need people, but people definitely need something. We might be less consumed by tribalism and ideological divisions if we had more art, music, nature, fitness, wisdom, nutrition, and quiet in our lives. Solitude is not loneliness. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Is late work a big deal?

"Mr. Mazenko, I wrote my paper, but ...."


It is inevitable each year on one assignment or another that a student will not have the work present in class in hard copy at the moment that it is "due." And, thus teachers are forced into dealing with the issue of "late work." Do you accept late work? For full credit? Do you knock off points or a letter grade? Is the penalty based on minutes or hours or days? Do you give kids that disappointed look? Do you publicly shame the kids for forgetting (or neglecting) their school work? Do you believe you have to teach them a lesson? Do you tell yourself it's for their own good?

Do you have an inflated and unreasonable sense of self worth regarding your class and assignments?

Each year I share with my students a little bit of advice whenever the first assignment and issue of late work arises. Drawing from a "life strategy" in Jay McGraw's funny little self-help book Life Strategies for Teens, I remind students that "There is no reality - only perception of it." It doesn't matter if you did it; it only matters if you can prove it. And veteran teachers have heard so many endless variations on the missing homework story - "My printer ran out of ink. My hard drive crashed. I left my backpack in the trunk (it's always the trunk) of my friend's car, and I can't get it back because his sister took the car back to college in Nebraska this weekend, and she can't get the paper and send it to me because she parked illegally and the car was towed and the lot is only open from Wednesday to Friday ....." Thus, teachers are naturally inclined, when they hear the words, "I did it, but ..." to reserve some doubt, immediately thinking, "No, you didn't."  And, it really doesn't matter if you did. Because not doing it and not having it are the same thing.

That said, I am pretty flexible when it comes to turning work in late. For, let's be realistic; we all forget things from time to time. I've forgotten to bring copies or my book. I see teachers running back to the office all the time. I've forgotten to bring documents or information to meetings. It happens. And, we can all do ourselves a favor by getting past the inclination to stare disappointedly at kids and shame them for very human mistakes. And, we should stop telling ourselves that we are teaching them very important lessons about personal responsibility because someday their bosses won't put up with such carelessness. Oh, please. There was a time when I was a bit more rigid about these things. And I certainly am attuned to students taking advantage of situations and trying to get something for nothing. But only offering half-credit for completed work that is tardy in some ways - sometimes by only an hour or two - is nonsense. That's not what grades are meant to assess.

As I've matured in the field of education and parenting, and I've begun "Rethinking Homework," and as I've thought a lot about "The Case Against Zero," I have also begun to reconsider late work.

Give a kid a break sometime.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Is this my crowd? Identity politics and the new normal

In the past couple weeks, I've ventured into LoDo (lower downtown Denver) for a couple of cultural events: a beer/food pairing at Oscar Blues Brew Pub and the Crush Walls Art Festival in RiNo (River North neighborhood). Both were great fun and enriching experiences, though I recently noted to a colleague that I had a couple weird moments of self-awareness when I noticed the mixed crowd of twenty-something hipster Millennials alongside a fair number of forty-something Gen Xers. And, I thought, rather uncharacteristically, Is This My Crowd? We joked about how that might be the perfect title for my memoir.

Who am I? That's a never-ending question for the average American, and that quest for a sense of self is foundational to our national DNA.

However, that sense of identity, both personal and geographical, is at the heart of our troubling national divide. If there truly is a troubling national divide. And, that leads me to a nice bit of social commentary via a couple book reviews in the Weekend Wall Street Journal. Political writer and review Barton Swaim (whose Twitter feed has apparently deleted. Hmmmm) takes a look at the new work from Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity & the Politics of Resentment. Swaim & Fukuyama explain how "the modern quest for dignity may be traced back to Martin Luther, who first expressed 'the notion, central to questions of identity, that the inner self is deep and possesses many layers that can be exposed only through private introspection.'" I like that simple idea, as well as the extrapolation that it was Jean Jacques Rousseau who redefined the idea without the theological component and "elevated the individual to a status of all importance ..."

The complicated notion of the individual and the concepts of individual liberty are both the calling cards and Achilles' heels for progressive Democrats and pseudo-conservative Republicans. While it seems fairly straightforward and honest for Fukuyama to note "the desire for the state to recognize one's basic dignity has been at the core of democratic movements since the French Revolution," the emerging identity politics and selective applications of personal and individual liberty are the complicating factors in today's politics. Just how much do we really support the ideas of personal freedom and individual liberty? Well, we only do so on the readings of issues that resonate with us. Whose personal liberty is at risk and under attack in the case of the Christian baker and the gay customer?

Figure that out in a mutually beneficial and acceptable way, and you win.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Who are the primary & indispensable thinkers?

At the very beginning of my AP English Language & Composition class each year, I present the challenge for my students to become, in the words of Henry James, "people on whom nothing is lost." The challenge begins with my reading of "The Parlor Metaphor" from Kenneth Burke's description of the "Unending Conversation" in his Philosophy of the Literary Form. That situation of entering a conversation already underway is the task any time an AP Lang student sits for an essay - for, they never really know what the question or topic will be. Will they be asked to analyze the strategies Queen Elizabeth used to inspire the forces at Tilbury, or will they be tasked with breaking down the satire of Jennifer Price making sense of plastic pink flamingos?

Regardless of the topic, they must be able to play.

To this end, I seek to build a body of core knowledge for my students, and we do this together through the study of both fiction and non-fiction literature. They will come to understand bits of early Romanticism with the work of Jane Austen, and they will learn a bit about utilitarianism with Dickens' Hard Times. I touch on post-modernism with O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and we explore transcendentalism with Thoreau's work as well as Krakauer's Into the Wild. I've often included a unit on Enlightenment thinkers when I do a unit of political speeches and documents, mostly American, and we write on the strategies used by people such as Thomas Paine to influence his audience in The Crisis. 

Recently, I've kicked around an idea of creating specialists, or content experts, for the major philosophers they might encounter and want to incorporate in their analyses. For example, when we are reading a novel or story or speech or argumentative prompt, I think it might be cool to have one group who could pose thoughts on the Nietzschean or Freudian or Lockean or Thoreauvian view. And, now I'm trying to determine who would be the top 9 or 10 thinkers to assign. Here are my front runners:

  • Plato
  • Aristotle
  • John Locke
  • Jean Jacques Rousseau
  • Friedrich Nietzsche 
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Adam Smith
  • Karl Marx
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Rene Descartes
  • Carl Jung
  • Georg Hegel
  • Arthur Schopenhaur
  • Jeremy Benthem
  • John Stewart Mill

Sunday, August 12, 2018

I won't sleep well tonight ...

I won't sleep well tonight.

That's not a terrible thing. In fact, it's probably a good sign. It will mean that I still genuinely care about the job I do, and I remain passionate and inspired about the importance of the responsibility I have been given.

I won't sleep well tonight. And, even at 8:30, I know it, and I anticipate it. The impending restlessness rests in a giddy anticipation of the coming morning. Dinner is finished, and the family drifts off into the evening rituals. Dishes and lunches and laundry and tomorrow's outfits and books and some TV. Reminders of the daily schedule are around the house in post-it notes and piles of materials.

Even as my eyelids become a bit heavy, and my movements slow in the relaxed ease of a Sunday evening, I won't sleep well tonight. A bit of bourbon before dinner contributes to the calm, but it won't make a difference when I hit the mattress. It's not actually anxiety, you know. Too much connotation with that word. But anxious, excited, ready? Of course. All those words get at the reason why I won't sleep well tonight.

Even though I've been back at it for a couple weeks now, the atmosphere of tomorrow is different. It's the anticipation of the starting bell, and the incredible buzz of energy as we all descend on campus to meet and greet and get on to the business at hand. There's a long road out in front of us - 40 weeks on the road to be exact. But it promises to be an interesting journey, as it always is. The same road,but different scenery. So much to see and do. Yeah, it's definitely anticipation.

The clock marches on, and the alarm is already set. I'll piddle around downstairs for a while as I always do. As I've been doing for a quarter century. There's no hurry to roll into bed because I'll just toss and turn. At some point, she'll tell me to come to bed, to at least rest my eyes and my body. And, of course, I will. But it'll be sometime past midnight that I'll be up and around the house. Just feeling the feelings. Reading a book won't help tonight - I won't be able to focus.

Of course, there's no real reason why I won't sleep well tonight. I'm certainly ready for tomorrow, and I can fairly anticipate how it will go. The pattern is pretty much the same, and there is no more prep work to be done. I won't even be tired in the morning, no matter how restless I am tonight, because the energy will carry me through. But I'm still anxious as always, for I have so many ideas and so many plans and so many visions of how it all will be. I'm so excited for it to turn out just as I imagined it - better than I imagined it.

Tomorrow is the first day of school.

And, I won't sleep well tonight.