Friday, January 5, 2018

Ideas Junkies & their Gurus

America is fascinated with ideas - just take a look at the non-fiction bestseller lists across the country and then review the careers of people like Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, Daniel Pink, Thomas Friedman, and others. We love to read and think about cool stuff. As a self-diagnosed "ideas junkie," I have been thinking a lot about my list of favorite thinkers and ideas-writers. I got to thinking about this when I recently read a review of Daniel Mendelsohn's new book An Odyssey: a Father, a Son, and an Epic. 

Looking in to Mendelsohn's work, I discovered him to be a thoughtful and erudite literary and social critic. His website led me to other works of criticism, and I just disappeared down the rabbit-hole of more and more books. Literally, I (and many others) just can't get enough of writers who so smoothly introduce the general populace to ideas and information that we would probably never encounter on our own. Perhaps no one has done this so effectively - and to such success - as former journalist Malcolm Gladwell who taught us about The Tipping Point and people known as Outliers

So, who do you like to read?  Here are some people I like to call "Ideas Gurus" who catch my attention regularly with the cool stuff they've been reading and thinking about:

Thomas Friedman

David Brooks

Daniel Pink

Daniel Khaneman

Stephen Levitt

Thursday, January 4, 2018

"I am What I am" - Poem, 2018

Art, more art. That is what I regularly tell myself ... and others. Being a creator more than being a consumer, seeing the world as an artist does - these are my goals for 2018. So, to begin this new year in pursuit of art, I offer this poem that I just ran across in an old folder at school and that I apparently wrote years ago, though I can't recall when.

I am what I am; 
Teacher, husband, father,
I am what I am.
More conservative than most people expect,
More liberal than I might admit,
I am what I am.
A traditionalist who likes to push the envelope; 
a painfully shy extrovert,
I am what I am.
Smart enough to know better, foolish enough to
make the same mistake twice,
or three times.
I am what I am.
Fiercely loyal to those I know well,
strongly suspicious of too many others;
I am cautious and carefree, and while 
I am always learning and usually willing
to listen, I figured it all out a long
time ago.
I am what I am.
Madly in love with my wife, amazed with,
inspired by, devoted to, and enamored of
my children, I live for my family,
and I can't get enough of them.
I am what I am.
In perpetual pursuit of the truth, constantly
refining my craft, fascinated by the whole
world, desirous of everything
at once, I am completely satisfied, but
always questing for more.
I am maniacally, cautiously
at peace with my life.
I am what I am.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

Well, here we are again. It's a white Christmas in Denver, and the family is here and safe and warm, and I'm reflecting on another year. Listening to, I am reminiscing about my favorite holiday songs, many of which take me back nostalgically to working winter breaks at the Pasta House, Co. in the St. Louis area. The Christmas tape had songs like:


And, now that it's thirty years later, and I'm living in Colorado, I've added a few favorites to my list such as:

Looking back, I realize that twelve months ago I was "Looking for Something about Life." I imagine I'm still doing the same in 2017. A year later I've managed to learn a little about playing piano, and I am forever trying to work a bit more art and culture into my life. The world continues to baffle me, though I am inclined to worry less about that which I cannot change, and I've come to realize that people will believe or not believe what they want with little help from me. Thus, I am trying to focus on hugging my people and tending my own garden as much as I can.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Mendelsohn: a father & son study The Odyssey

Man, I really dig smart people. And veteran scholar and critic Daniel Mendelsohn definitely qualifies as one of the smartest people in the contemporary humanities world. If you're a reader, and especially if you are a reader of reviews and essays on the classics and humanities, you've most likely read some DM before, as he has been publishing critical commentary for years. Now he's released perhaps his most personal work with his re-visiting of Homer's The Odyssey in a seminar class at Bard College with his 81-year-old father sitting in on the class. Wash Post writer Wendy Smith offers an engaging and inviting overview of the man and his project as "Daniel Mendelsohn learns that teaching his dad 'The Odyssey' is a classic trip."

Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the finest critics writing today and the most broadly erudite, as comfortable and astute assessing blockbuster movies as he is when writing about classical Greek and Roman literature. He’s also an elegant and moving memoirist, of his personal history in “The Elusive Embrace” and of his family’s entanglement with the Holocaust in “The Lost.”  His lovely new book, “An Odyssey,”draws on all Mendelsohn’s talents as he braids critical exegeses into intimate reminiscences to illuminate them both. His 2011 seminar at Bard College on the “Odyssey” becomes a voyage of discovery not just for his students but also for Mendelsohn, who gets more than he bargained for when his 81-year-old father, Jay, decides to sit in on the class.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Art, more art - in Denver

Some time around a year ago, I concluded that what I need more of in my life was art. Art, jazz, photography, food, culture, .... life. The reality was that while I am pretty well-established and successful in my personal and professional lives, I was reeling from a sense of ennui, and I needed to be reminded that music, art, literature, and culture are the "things we stay alive for." For that reason, I am glad that even as a school administrator, I have remained in the classroom with a connection to the humanities that give us meaning and understanding. And I am also thankful for writers and critics like Denver's Ray Rinaldi and the Denver Post for continuing to cover the art world as an indispensable part of news and society. Reading about those neighborhoods where art is thriving, I am inspired and fulfilled, not to mention reminded to see the world like an artist.

These days, the Golden Triangle is the serious contender. While other districts have been turned upside down by gentrification, the triangle has remained a reliable place to see good work, due mostly to the fact that four of the city’s most venerable and trusted dealers call it home, with William Havu, Sandra Phillips, Tina Goodwin and Bobbi Walker all running namesake businesses within a few blocks of each other. The neighborhood also happens to overlap geographically with the city’s well-hyped Museum District, which means it hones in on the arty aura of the Clyfford Still Museum, the Denver Art Museum, The Art hotel and, starting in March, the newly relocated Kirkland Museum.

The world is alive. Get out there and see it.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

George Will explains the Wedding Cake/Gay Marriage Issue

Making a cake is not practicing or "exercising" Christianity. For me, it's that simple. It's all in the words of the amendment:

Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Having been born and raised Catholic, and having practiced that religion for many years, I understand the perspective of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Philips, who believes that his religion and faith do not approve of homosexuality and subsequently the legality/legitimacy of same-sex marriage. That said, I cannot fathom how he extrapolates that belief into arguing that conducting business at his cake shop constitutes violating his religious beliefs. While I do know the origin of the opposition to homosexuality in Scripture, I also know that doing a job is not practicing the religion, and nowhere in Scripture does it expect, command, or encourage the faithful to deny doing business with anyone, including those believed to be in a state of sin.

Making a cake ain't going to church or receiving a sacrament, Jack, and thus you are wrong in your interpretation of your faith, the Constitution, and the law.

Conservative writer George Will expounds on the issue as well this week in his commentary, More Wrongs than Rights in Masterpiece Cake Shop Case anticipating the Supreme Court ruling on the cake issue and Colorado's anti-discrimination legislation.

The First Amendment speaks of speech; its presence in a political document establishes its core purpose as the protection of speech intended for public persuasion. The amendment has, however, been rightly construed broadly to protect many expressive activities. Many, but there must be limits.
Phillips was neither asked nor required to attend, let alone participate in, the wedding. Same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Colorado, so Craig and Mullins were to be married in Massachusetts. The cake was for a subsequent reception in Denver. But even if the cake were to have been consumed at a wedding, Phillips’ creation of the cake before the ceremony would not have constituted participation in any meaningful sense.
I do believe Will goes a bit off base when he criticizes the plaintiffs for filing the case. Sure they could have gone to other shops, George. But that's not the point. Other consumers in other towns might not have that luxury, so the case had to be resolved, and Philips had to be sued.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Stop Reporting Local Bad News

There was another traffic accident (break in, house fire, fight, robbery, hit-and-run, etc.) in Colorado today. I would know about this event, of course, if I happened to tune in for my local news, broadcasts which are seeing a noticeable decline according to recent sweeps.

The chief reason for the decline is obvious: Digital devices continue to draw attention away from television as younger audiences desert the medium in droves. According to a September 2017 Pew Report, in a drastic change from a generation ago, “the internet substantially outpaces TV as a regular news source for adults younger than 50.” It’s also possible that KUSA was hurt by the loss of a viewer favorite, longtime anchor Adele Arakawa, who left in June after 24 years on top of the ratings.

Or perhaps it's because the stories they feature are not really news. Perhaps one reason viewership declines is that no one really needs to, or wants to, hear news about a traffic accident or criminal act that is not "newsworthy" to others in any relevant way. Henry David Thoreau in Walden: or, Life in the Woods noted that "to a philosopher all news is gossip," and he can't fathom ever getting much communication via mail or otherwise that was actually worth the paper it was printed on.

Daily life in contemporary America, especially in a large metropolitan area like Denver, is filled with fascinating and newsworthy stories with pertinent information and knowledge that can lead to a more erudite population. But single traffic accidents or singular instances of criminal activity like robberies and break-ins aren't such information. When I flip the news on and see a report on a local crime, followed by a traffic accident, followed by a house fire, followed by .... well, you know, then I am uninterested and turn off the news. I am not a more informed citizen, voter, father, teacher, or neighbor because I learned of a traffic accident in Thorton or a robbery in Aurora.

Give viewers more illuminating matter, and perhaps they will return.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

New Policy for Dept on Ed Civil Rights?

"So, can a teacher have a Christmas tree and a crucifix on his/her desk?"

As we approach the "holiday season," which of course includes Christmas, the annual questions about religious holiday displays on public property will once again flare up on news commentary and social media. There are clear guidelines for what can be deemed acceptable displays, but those are always going to be contextual based on the time, place, and people. And these questions are part of a larger socio-cultural question about civil rights in schools that spans a range from Christmas songs to reading lists.

At the federal level it appears there will be some changes in how the US Dept of Education handles such issues, with the emphasis moving to "individual complaints rather than systemic problems."

WASHINGTON — The Education Department wants to narrow the scope of civil rights investigations at schools, focusing on individual complaints rather than systemic problems, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press. Under the Obama administration, when a student complained of discrimination in a particular class or school, the education agency would examine the case but also look at whether the incident was part of a broader, systemic problem that needed to be fixed. Proposed revisions to the department's civil rights procedures, distributed last week among civil rights officials at the department, remove the word "systemic" from the guidelines.
It seems unimaginable to me that we still debate reading lists and are "banning" books like Fahrenheit 451, but apparently that's where we still are.

Monday, November 27, 2017

"The World is Too Much with Us ..."

In these times, these strangely complicated, yet oversimplified times, it's worth looking back to the 18th century for some insight from the masters. Is our progress really a regression? Do we "lay waste our powers" when we spend too much time "getting and spending"? Is there something we can learn from "heading out under the open skies and listening to Nature's teachings"?

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. --Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn

Ponder and get back to me.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Does Bill Gates Ignore the Family Connection?

In reading a bit of commentary from The Villager, a community newspaper in southeast Denver, I ran across an interesting bit of ed-reform criticism from writer Joneen Mackenzie, who publishes a regular relationship column for the paper. Mackenzie's piece about how "Families Play a Key Role in Child's Success" calls out Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation for ignoring and excluding the role of family relationships as they seek to reform and improve public education. Specifically, she references and summarizes an article by Ian Rowe of the Fordham Institute that criticizes Gates and all his "investments" in ed-reform because of his "Neglecting to mention family structure and stability—and, more importantly, omitting any strategy to use schools to strengthen those levers—undermines the very ability of all of us who have committed our lives to improve outcomes for children." 

This important factor in the academic success of children is a complicated bit of sociology, and it poses a challenging dilemma for anyone attempting to improve educational outcomes for students whose lives outside of school not only fail to support an academic focus but more than like subvert and compromises them. The tough conversation also wades into complicated socio-cultural arguments about the importance of two-parent homes and the ability of all parents to adequately contribute to their children's education. If we're being honest, we can't fix or solve the challenges kids face outside of their school time. Or can we?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

We Need Electricians more than Business Majors

About a month ago I helped coordinate and host a career fair at our high school, and the information students can glean about careers is incredibly important these days. Nearly two dozen trade schools, contractors, and career association reps provided information to our students about working in culinary arts, cosmetology, plumbing, landscape design, auto-body repair, and electrical trades. In chatting with a representative from the electricians apprenticeships, I was surprised (well, not really) to learn that a journeyman electrician with several years experience and working forty hours a week can pull in as much as $80,000 annually. And there is no drought for work in Colorado - in fact, there is a shortage for this sort of skilled labor, and job vacancies with impressive salaries abound. Some electricians who are willing to travel and stay at job sites for 2-6 months or longer can expect to pull down high six figures (even reaching $200K) because contractors are so desperate for skilled electricians that in some places they pay time-and-a-half for the first forty hours a week. At a time with the average family income in the United States hovering around $54K, and a time when the average college student is carrying loan debt of $30K or more, the news on opportunities for electricians needs more prominence. And, rather shockingly, one of the primary reasons for such a shortage of laborers is the inability of people to reliably show up for work five days a week and be able to pass a drug test. Yes, thanks to marijuana legalization, it seems everyone who could or would work in the trades can't be trusted to actually do the job. Now, that's truly sad.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Edward Luce & the "Time to Start Thinking" about the "Retreat of Western Liberalism" and making "America Great Again"

It's hard to believe that Edward Luce first warned of the risks to American greatness and the "retreat of Western Liberalism" way back in 2011 with his first book Time to Start Thinking. That was back when Mitt Romney was squaring off against Barack Obama in a smart, well-argued presidential campaign between two clear-thinking and respectable leaders who simply had different ideas about the challenges facing American society in the twenty-first century. What happened to that? Oh, to go back to a time when we argued about whether Russia was a friend or enemy. It seems so quaint.

The challenges facing American society on the multiple fronts of economics, finance, politics, culture, and world vision are not beyond us if we're willing to think long and hard about them as we debate who we are and how we got here. And that quest for clarity and truth can certainly be helped by the erudite views of a (somewhat) objective observer without the baggage of American identity politics. Enter Edward Luce, columnist for the Financial Times and writer of several books on geo-politics and finance. Luce has the education and insight to offer critical analysis of our economic sector and the misplaced emphasis on corporate spreadsheets rather than wages and spending power. He also has some pretty powerful revelations about our misunderstanding of what our own military leaders think in regards to their mission and their budget.

In Time to Start Thinking, Luce covers in-depth "The Lonely Middle Class" and its struggles to survive amidst growing automation, innovation, and re-direction. Sadly, Americans continually look to Washington and politics as the source of our troubles, but the reality is that our society has frayed throughout a decreased sense of community, a misguided understanding of economics, an outdated approach to education, and a refusal to align downturns in finances and employment with the true deciders in those areas.  Perhaps the best part of Luce's books is found in his opposition to including a checklist of policy suggestions which will repair our present and improve our future. Those have become all too cliche. Instead his book simply offers important history and perspective to consider.