Monday, December 5, 2022

The Kids Are All Right

In a recent column for The Villager, I share some positive thoughts about young people, the state of their world, and thoughts on the future.

I don’t fret about “kids these days.” At least not much. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher. Maybe it’s because I’ve parented two children through the teenage years. Maybe it’s because I’m just the eternal optimist, though that’s probably a dubious claim to many who know me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a member of Generation X, an often maligned if not altogether overlooked demographic. Gen Xers were first referenced in “A Nation at Risk,” the pessimistic report on education in the early 80s that predicted “a rising tide of mediocrity.” Later on, Xers were called the “Slacker Generation,” who would amount to nothing. Needless to say, they are the innovative people who, in the 1990s, went on to build the internet as we know it today.

Regardless, I’m simply not worried about young people, and I never have been. Worrying about the youth of the day, as older generations are always wont to do, and as even many contemporary teens themselves do, has become a bit of a national pastime. In fact, it's become a bit of an obsession, and I don’t think that’s a healthy attitude, nor do I believe it’s an accurate portrayal of Gen Z. Tracy Moore, a Los Angeles-based writer, thinks likewise, and she recently published a piece in the Washington Post letting us know that “The kids are alright, take it from a Gen X parent.” I’ve made the same claim over the years, and have even written those words before. The kids are all right.

According to a parent like Tracey Moore, the generation of kids born after 1998 is “the most diverse, engaged, social-justice-minded, purpose-driven generation yet, and we have every reason to anticipate their success, or at least not to presume their failure.” This perspective is borne out by extensive studies on Generation Z from the Pew Research Center. The kids these days have many positive attributes and much to be proud of. My own kids are in many ways wiser and more balanced at the age of seventeen than I feel like I was at the age of twenty-seven. My students regularly produce writing that surpasses work I did in my undergraduate degree. In fact, across many content areas, students are achieving at admirable levels. The knowledge and skills these kids possess will serve us all well going forward.

One of the most recent causes for alarm and sources for criticism of Gen Z is the recent release of national standardized test scores known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, also referred to as “the nation’s report card.” Lower reading and math scores across the board from fourth through twelfth grade suggest students are far behind the expected academic levels previous to the pandemic. There’s little doubt that two years of inconsistent in-person learning has impacted students’ education. How could it not have? That said, society has long placed too much significance on those standardized assessments, which are given to a cross-section of kids nationwide in a voluntary format. And it’s far too soon to judge the long-term impact of the learning. In the meantime, educators will simply do what they do best, which is teach the students in front of them. And who knows, maybe we’ll learn that we greatly overestimated the value of those tests.

Yes, many people might concede, but what about their obsessive use of social media and the apparent need to post everything and live their lives online? Certainly, the kids of today are tuned in and influenced by media in ways unimaginable decades ago. However, I truly believe the twenty-four-hour talk radio culture and negative talking-head programming on cable TV is every bit as subversive and insidious as Instagram and Tik-Tok are. And to be perfectly honest, young people often seem more attuned to the downsides and problems of their media. They regularly mock it even as they engage with it.

I refuse to look at young people today and tell them they are damaged. I refuse to engage in the idea of ongoing trauma. Each generation faces its challenges, and somehow comes out on the other side. I once read a New York Times column in which the writer opined that it’s amazing the human race survived, knowing we all had to be nineteen at some point. How true. So, here’s looking at you Gen Z, with hope and optimism. I believe in the youth as I believe in the future.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

College Admissions: More than a Test Score

The upcoming Supreme Court decision on affirmative action and considerations of race in college admissions - specifically in the lawsuit against Harvard - has sparked intense debate over the college admissions process. My thoughts in a recent column for The Villager:

When the calendar flipped to November last week, most Americans didn’t notice the huge collective holding of breath as high school seniors pushed submit on their college applications. The first of November is the initial big deadline for many college programs, especially for students putting in their chips for an early decision or early action admission to top tier schools. Coincidentally, college admissions also made headlines last week as the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a civil suit filed against Harvard University regarding affirmative action and the consideration of race in college admissions.

The lawsuit was filed by Edward Blum and the non-profit Students for Fair Admissions who, according to their website, “believe racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.” They seek to prevent colleges which accept federal funds from considering race in the admissions process. According to testimony in the case, Megan McCardle of the Washington Post suggested “Asian-Americans would be 43% of Harvard admissions, as opposed to the current rate of 19%, if only academics’’ were considered. That term, “academics,” is the crux of the debate. For, while affirmative action is debatable, and people have different opinions on diversity, it’s tough to believe students were specifically denied based on their race.

The lawsuit claims Asians students are discriminated against because of affirmative action and Harvard considering race. However, when the lawsuit focuses on “academics,” it literally means GPA and test scores only, and that’s the problem. Claimants seem to want admission to be based solely on their higher test scores and GPA. However, colleges assess applications on a body of evidence with as many as twelve distinct categories. To claim Harvard, or any college, should only admit the students topping a list of GPA and test scores is incredibly myopic. Scores are simply one or two data points which measure an arguably narrow skill set. Colleges want to, can, and should be allowed to assess applicants and build their student body based on a full body of evidence including non-standardized factors.

Much talent and potential is simply not standardized. In fact, the EQ, or emotional quotient, is equally important if not more significant in predicting success. It’s also highly valued by employers, which is why interviews and portfolios are used rather than test scores for hiring. The top percent of SAT test takers and grade point accumulators aren’t automatically and necessarily the “best student body.” There are countless strong leaders in any school who make significant contributions and are impressive students and people even though, and maybe because, they don’t just have top grades. In fact, many successful people were “C” students, including some who went on to occupy the White House or start groundbreaking companies.

Another problem is the Harvard lawsuit singling out students on affirmative action, as opposed to targeting legacy admissions, athletes, donors’ kids, and students of faculty, who actually make up 40% of Harvards’ class. Those students’ scores aren’t necessarily as high as the plaintiffs either, but the lawsuit doesn’t claim discrimination there. Additionally, standardized tests are easily gameable and often representative of wealth. In the real world, employers can hire whoever they want, and a lawsuit claiming Goldman Sachs, or any other company, can’t hire a person because another applicant has higher SATs would be patently absurd. The same freedom to “hire,” or admit in this case, should be the right and freedom of schools. It’s not that the claimants didn’t get into college. They just didn’t get the one they wanted.

Ultimately, the lawsuit’s argument is negated by the nature of the complaint. It claims Asian students with higher GPA and test scores were not admitted but other students with lower scores were. And that’s fine. Colleges assess applicants holistically. They don’t, and shouldn’t be forced to, accept students based on a simple “cut list” of the top test scores and GPA. As an educator with a college student and a high school senior, I constantly hear from colleges that admission is not just scores – it’s a body of evidence, as it should be. A student with a 3.8 and 1350 SAT is not automatically a lesser applicant who brings less to the student body than one with a 4.3 and a 1580. Colleges want a diverse group of talents, strengths, backgrounds, and personalities, and they should have the freedom to build a student body based on that distinction. Test scores are one data point – there are myriad others.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Can Civics Class Make us More Civil?

In light of the recent election and the overwhelming barrage of negative media and ads on political issues, I wondered about the connection between education in civics and social studies and the ability of people to respectfully disagree on political issues. My thoughts in a recent column for The Villager:

Several years ago, the Colorado Legislature voted down a law which would have made the United States citizenship test a requirement for high school graduation. This rejection was necessary and appropriate because the reasoning behind the requirement was simply wrong. A high school diploma encompasses a body of evidence in competency for multiple disciplines and skills developed across thousands of hours: graduation is literally not about one test in one subset of one subject area. No school or society should invalidate a student’s entire body of work across multiple curricular areas and thousands of hours by disproportionately weighting a single standardized test of randomly chosen facts. However, beyond that obvious reason, Colorado rejected the law because the belief that answering simple multiple choice questions is a necessary and indispensable component of being a productive citizen is flawed.

Granted, citizens can easily understand why the law about the citizenship test was proposed. Obviously society should expect that all adults know the basic rules of representative government. And at times it seems like too many people are clueless about the nature of our representative democracy. However, in many ways the standardized test for citizenship is not much more than a trivia game, and factual knowledge does not correlate with civil behavior and citizenship. If that were true, the events of January 6, 2021 would never have happened. Civics is rooted in the idea of being “civil” and being citizens who understand and engage in the participatory role of a democratic republic. Of course, understanding how the government works and what the role of a citizen is are integral parts of civics knowledge. If we understand that, then we clearly know fact-based objective tests have no indication of true civics knowledge and good citizenship.

The citizenship test, like many content-based standardized tests, is nothing but a trivia contest, a bunch of Jeopardy questions masquerading as knowledge and wisdom. And that’s not what civics is really about. When looking at how students learn and understand civics, the data usually focuses on the small number of people who can “identify the three branches of government.” But the more important question is whether they truly know how the government works for them. Do they understand how representation works? Do they know how the state taxes their income and returns that money to them in benefits, infrastructure, defense, and yes even rebates? Do they really know what they mean when they claim to support smaller government or increased regulations? Michael Lewis’ book The Fifth Risk explored the problems that arise when people don’t truly understand, and thus cannot appreciate, how their government systems and public institutions function.

Jason Kosanovich, a social studies teacher in the southeast Denver suburbs, believes teens are actually yearning to understand civics and participate in their government, but often they don’t know how. Helping them understand the local relevance is, or at least should be, at the heart of civics education. It’s far too easy for young people to be turned off by the logistics when government class is simply about basic definitions of structure and system and functions. “When we make it relevant and local,” he told me “they actually really care.”

Teens, in the experience of many educators like Mr. Kosanovich, are actually quite passionate about issues that directly affect them and which they experience everyday. They care about potholes in their neighborhood and the constitutionality of red light cameras. And while those issues aren’t exactly trivial, young people are also dialed in to serious political issues about the privacy of healthcare, public safety balanced against individual rights, and issues of labor and industrial policies. When given the opportunity to engage with real world issues, they will research what their HOA says about the property rights of homeowners to display a flag or a banner. When it comes to local government especially, they truly care about what it does. Civics class should capitalize on the natural curiosity of kids and their tendency to be passionate about their rights.

Civics should be about understanding the role of a citizen in our communities. Programs like “We the People” are a great way for kids to engage, though few schools actually implement it. Knowledge of civics imparts an understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of the individual’s participatory role in that government, including the responsibility to maintain it. As one civics teacher noted when asked whether civics class can make people more civil, “I certainly hope so.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Oil, Gas, & Energy Independence

When gas prices first started going through the ceiling earlier this year, I was asked about writing a column to explain why. Energy, commodities, and economics are not really my area of expertise, but I did ponder the issue for a while. My thoughts are in a recent column for The Villager.

The United States is the largest oil producer in the world. That might be hard to believe when you’re at a gas station, filling up and watching helplessly as those numbers scroll by. In fact, according to the US Energy Information Administration, America produces nearly double the oil output of its next closest competitor, Saudi Arabia. Thus, when news broke that OPEC, the multinational cartel of oil producing states, announced a cut in daily production of two million barrels, many Americans wondered how that would affect prices at the pump.

Because it’s election season, the price of gas leads to soundbites from candidates who use the oil industry as a campaign issue. Whenever politicians and pundits talk about oil and gas, someone inevitably uses the term “energy independence,” suggesting the United States could free itself from imported oil. However, because oil is a global commodity traded by international corporations, the belief that America could keep all domestic oil and be independent of foreign imports might be a myth rather than an accurate description of oil economics. As one graduate student at Princeton studying global finance and statistics told me, “commodity markets are complex beasts.”

However, regardless of whether energy independence is viable, he does believe “it’s important to have a diversified stream of generally friendly energy suppliers, the friendliest of course, being America herself.” The problem is that while America produces the most oil, it also consumes the most, and it will never produce enough domestic energy to meet its daily needs. Even if it could, oil would not stay within domestic borders because it goes wherever markets demand it. Guaranteeing the oil stays domestic would mean nationalizing the industry, and no one wants that. Even in countries where the industry is owned by the government, there are still exports and shortages. In fact, the Iranian government claims it pursues atomic energy because it exports much of its oil.

Shannon Osaka of the Washington Post reports, “even if U.S. production exactly matched U.S. demand, the country would still be importing and exporting oil constantly. Crude oil can be heavy or light, sweet or sour, and those qualities affect how much it needs to be refined and for what uses. U.S. oil companies constantly export crude oil and import refined oil, and vice versa.” Obviously, oil is an international commodity bought and sold across national boundaries. Thus, it’s somewhat of a myth to believe the United States would or could ever drill and refine all the oil it needs, effectively eliminating a need for imports and achieving what the public is told is “energy independence.” Osak also notes that while President “Biden has urged oil producers in the United States to drill more to help lower prices, the president simply doesn’t have authority to order companies to produce more. And oil companies, recently burned from price crashes in the beginning of 2020, are hesitant to repeat the same mistakes.”

Dan Haley of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association often uses the term “energy security,” as opposed to independence. It seems more accurate to develop policies around being “energy secure.” Haley explains that “For many people, energy independence means domestic energy production – the need for the United States to produce more of its own resources so we can rely less on foreign countries.” And the issue is not simply producing oil, but turning that raw material into usable consumer products. Haley points out that “our refineries were built at a time when we were importing more foreign crude, and they are designed to process that type of oil. I don’t believe we have built a new refinery in this country since the 1970s. So we will always rely on a certain amount of foreign oil, but the idea is to rely on trading partners and allies, not those who are hostile to our country.”

In terms of the global market and America’s role, the supply/demand of oil is truly a “complex beast.” America has been exporting oil for many years, even when supply seems short and prices at the pump skyrocket. That can be troubling for consumers to understand. Regardless, in talking about the health of the domestic industry, Haley explained that “In 2018, the U.S. became a net exporter of energy, and I think that’s good for the world.” I think we can all agree with Dan on that one.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Is Our Democracy Truly Representative?

As we head into election week, and people prepare to anxiously watch the returns, stoked by claims that the "democracy is on the ballot," I am wondering if the people who are elected tomorrow will truly represent their constituents, or just those who voted for them. My thoughts in a recent column:

As midterm elections approach, I’m just spit balling ideas here, and I think voters should honestly reflect on President George Washington’s advice upon leaving the Presidency – political parties need to take a back seat to representative democracy. Basically, it would be a great thing for the country if elected legislators and officials started representing their district and constituents, rather than representing special interests and their political parties. And representing district constituents should include all residents, not just 51 percent of them.

In his book The Conservative Sensibility, columnist George Will discusses the problems of majority rule, and explains how the Constitution and systems of the United States are intended to protect minority views from a tyranny of the majority. In a time when elections, votes, and polls are often divided by a couple percentage points or less, it seems all the more important for leaders to commit to more authentic representation of all their citizens.


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Thoreau: the Walden Pond Punk

Going back more than twenty years ago, a conversation with a colleague about punk led me to connect the life and work of Henry David Thoreau with the rebellious music and subculture which arose in New York and London in the 1970s and 80s. For many years, whenever I started a unit on transcendentalism in my English classes, I would play Bad Religion's "You Are (the Govt)" as I introduced Thoreau as the original American punk rocker. Recently I developed some writing on that idea, which included a conference paper at the recent Midwest Popular Culture Association conference in Chicago, and this shorter magazine piece for Pop Matters.  

Henry David Thoreau has played many roles as an American writer and philosopher – environmentalist, abolitionist, progressive, libertarian, and punk rock poet. While the punk label is less well known, if acknowledged at all, it’s every bit as valid and worthy of discussion. The punk of Thoreau, the transcendental punk whose lineage runs throughout American history, is not the stereotyped punk of spiked hair, tattered clothes, anarchy symbols spayed across leather jackets, mosh pits, slam dancing, and loud, fast, riveting guitar rock. It’s the punk of individual liberty, authenticity in the sense of self, and the rejection of conformity amidst a mindless society.

Those ideas from “The Punk Manifesto” by Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin remind me of Thoreau’s essays on individuality and self-reliance. Similarly, Thoreau’s philosophy resonates with countless punk rock songs and tenets of punk subculture. Thus, for as long as I’ve been teaching transcendentalism in my English classes, I have always introduced Henry David Thoreau’s ideas through Punk’s philosophy. 

Years ago, while teaching high school in southern Illinois, I spoke with a colleague and former punk musician in the ’80s St. Louis scene about Punk, punk rock, and various punks at our school. Some kids he mentored were always in trouble, drinking, fighting, and cutting class. He tried to help by explaining what Punk meant to him. “I tell them,” he said, “It’s never been about the music or the clothing or the clubs or the fighting or anything like that.” It’s always been about the attitude – the sense of self amidst a society that seeks to conform and crush it. 

Read the rest here on Pop Matters. 

Monday, October 31, 2022

Keep Colorado Local & Independent

The state of Colorado has a thriving beer, wine, and spirits industry, and that economy can be linked to the unique structure of local, independent liquor stores. However, the corporate supermarket industry has long been envious of those small business owners. Thus, during election season, the Colorado ballot will inevitably see propositions to allow increased sales in national grocery chains. My thoughts are in this week's column for The Villager.

“If it ain’t broke, then don’t try to fix it.”

Everyone knows that’s the first rule for governing, or any decision making really. And that sagely advice runs through my mind every time another ballot issue about liquor sales and supermarkets comes up, like clockwork, around election time. This year Colorado ballots have three separate liquor-related propositions, and only one of them should even be considered by voters. Proposition 124 will remove the limit on licenses individuals can hold, allowing independent liquor store owners to expand. This change is necessary for parity between liquor stores and supermarkets, which have been selling beer since 2016 and are allowed more licenses than independent owners. The other two propositions, 125 and 126, are simply more unnecessary legislation attempting to correct a problem that doesn’t exist.

Colorodans appreciate and value the role of the independent business owner in supporting a vast market of craft breweries, wineries, and distilleries. There’s a reason the Mile High state is called “Beer’s Napa Valley,” and it’s related to the state being a bit of an incubator for independent businesses that appeal to and are supported by local markets. Visiting one of Colorado’s brew pubs opens consumers to local specialties, and local liquor stores often stock neighboring businesses’ products for retail. Thus, locally-owned businesses are able to support each other and the community. That model took a hit several years ago when the state allowed beer sales at supermarkets, and independent stores saw a noticeable drop in revenue. The sale of wine and spirits enabled small businesses to remain solvent.

As every Coloradan knows, local supermarkets always have a liquor store nearby, and for decades these businesses peacefully coexisted. However, the big three grocers of King Soopers, Safeway, and Walmart covet the livelihood of independent owners, and for many years have been trying to edge out the little guy. While Coloradans appreciate the local model, newcomers to the state who are used to beer, wine, and liquor sales in supermarkets are likely to support the national corporate chains because that’s what they’re used to. I know, having been one of those new residents twenty years ago, when I moved from Illinois. I still recall wandering the aisle of my King Soopers, looking for some wine. When I asked a young clerk stocking the aisle, he just smiled and said, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

When that clerk pointed me across the parking lot to my local beverage store, I came to appreciate the value of an independent liquor store the minute I walked in and was greeted by a staff that knew their product and had a wide variety of it. While some consumers talk about their need for convenience in one-stop shopping, that model is not actually the norm nationwide. In fact, only seventeen states offer liquor sales in supermarkets. Perhaps more interestingly, seven states actually have state-owned liquor stores, and they are not the types of places you’d expect to have socialism managing the booze industry: Alabama, Idaho, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia all own their liquor stores directly.

If supermarkets are allowed to sell wine, and eventually spirits in their quest to monopolize all food and beverage sales, the stores will inevitably sacrifice shelf space for those products, an unnecessary move for a business model designed to provide for the daily necessities of food and household products. The big three corporate chains are certainly not hurting for business, and they don’t need to nose in on someone else’s. The most unnecessary of the ballot props is the call for third-party delivery of booze. Currently, many liquor stores have sanctioned delivery services, which many of us discovered during the spring and summer of 2020. But expanding delivery leaves too much margin for error in terms of underage sales, and it’s one more example of trying to fix a non-problem.

The reality is that Colorado’s unique system for liquor sales works quite well for everyone, except the out-of-state corporate supermarkets. The Walmartification of Main Street across America has succeeded in providing consumers with cookie-cutter one-stop shopping, though it’s always been at the expense of local independent business owners. Other than Proposition 124, these ballot proposals seem like one more example of change for change’s sake, which is the downside of progressivism. The more prudent and conservative approach is to stop legislating every aspect of our lives and not try to fix what ain’t broke.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

New Year's in the Fall

I've posted on this idea before, but I revised the pieces for one of my recent columns in The Villager, and so I thought I'd post the follow-up here as well. This one is a bit late, as I originally published it right after Labor Day. Yet, even as we move into November, and fall starts to feel like winter, the sentiment remains. Fall is also a time of rebirth:

On Labor Day weekend I mowed the lawn for probably the last time of the year, as I sensed the late summer southern exposure is sending the grass into its dormant state. That chore came after cutting down and raking up what is left of the tiger lilies. And it was just before I started pulling the first of the leaves out of the gutter. Yep, fall is coming, and all of my chores were part of the “fall cleaning.” For me, the cleaning up in early September is always part of the alternative off-track New Year’s weekend celebration we all know as Labor Day. Seeing the end of summer holiday as a sort of new year is an idea I’ve kicked around and practiced for a few years now, having heard similar views from friends, neighbors, and other writers.

Labor Day really is the perfect time for a “spring cleaning” of our houses and our lives. We all know the first weekend in September as the end of summer when the pools close and kids return to school, as days and nights cool off. Though many schools and communities are long past the days of school starting after Labor Day, it’s still a great weekend for one last hurrah of play and carefree whateverness. After that three-day respite, weekend activities tend to dial back a bit in the fall, and it’s a time we can turn inward for how we will make this year our best yet. The natural connection to the seasons changing and a move toward hibernation can open our minds as well as our closets.

Americans are always game for ideas of reinvention, as it’s practically written throughout our history and our quirky little traditions. New Year’s Resolutions and spring cleaning are embedded in our spirit, times when we recharge and remake ourselves. We simply love the idea of starting over. However, to be honest, I’ve never really felt like the middle of winter is the optimal time to reset and “clean out the garage,” literally or metaphorically. The traditional end of summer, on the other hand, is a perfect time to clean up and reset. What shall we do with this moment and this transition? One other writer who has thoughts on this is Mike Vardy who wrote an insightful column years ago describing “Why Labor Day has Become my New Year’s Day.”

The idea of reinvention in pursuit of finally getting it right is, in my view, the whole point of living. It’s what Transcendentalist poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow meant when he wrote “Neither joy and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow finds us further than today.” Getting better is the goal, and we can make a resolution to change any day of the year. That point of view is developed by Mike Varcy in his book The Front Nine: How to Start the Year You Want Anytime You Want. Anytime can be a good time to make a fresh start. Granted, many of us naturally gravitate to traditional schedules, which makes a weekend like Labor Day the perfect time for a fresh start.

So, as we head into the fall, I’m trying to live deliberately and artfully. As my children finish up high school and college, transitioning into their adult lives, and I head into my fifties, it’s time to begin thinking about what comes next, to make some plans for what Act III will look like. For example, a couple years ago, I started learning to play the piano, and I’m actually starting to feel more comfortable at the keyboard. Someday I might actually be a piano player. I have a new streak started on Duolingo with my French Lessons, trying to recall those four years studying it in high school. My health and fitness are good for middle age; or at least my doctor had no complaints during my recent annual check-up. Finally, as I continue to try and meditate every day, I am starting to believe I may be just a bit less stressed and, perhaps, even a kinder gentler Michael than I was last year.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

10% Happier? At what cost?

"Undoubtedly, life in contemporary America can be busy, even hectic, and Americans are notoriously bad at slowing down, taking a break, and practicing self care. Too often people respond to challenges by relying on some sort of substance to help them deal with the dissatisfaction." In a recent column for The Villager, I share some thoughts on a story in Colorado media about drug use as a coping mechanism.

“Stressed out, busy moms turn to microdosing.”

That recent headline in the Denver Post both caught my attention and freaked me out. The article from Colorado Public Radio reported on a new trend among working moms in Denver – taking small amounts of psychedelic mushrooms to help them deal with the overwhelming nature of their lives. The impetus for this habit is the “mounting stress and anxiety of what it is to be a mother on the go in 2022.” Apparently those pressures must be significantly different than they have been for previous generations, as the solution is radically different as well.

“It's just 10 percent helpful,” said Courtney, a mother of two who works in the cannabis industry and microdoses mushrooms. “You're 10 percent more patient, 10 percent more joyful, maybe 10 percent more willing to play and roll around in the grass with your kids. And 10 percent goes a pretty long way. Sometimes that’s all you need.”

So, that’s ten percent more helpful, patient, joyful, and playful. And, I guess, we might add, ten percent more drug-dependent. That’s the telling detail that gives me pause – the reliance upon intoxicating chemicals to deal with everyday life. Granted, as the CPR article notes, the use of a chemical “mother’s little helper,” as the Rolling Stones’ described it in their 1966 song, goes back generations. And relying on a pill or a drink to calm the nerves at the end of the day is not at all limited to working moms. In fact, a wind down cocktail at the end of the day is as much a part of the daily routine for many adults as breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

But self-prescribing psychotropic drugs is certainly not routine, even as the use of psilocybin is becoming more accepted in the medical community. Michael Pollan, a journalist and professor at UC-Berkeley, has written about the growing research into the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of a wide range of mental illnesses. His book “How to Change Your Mind” discusses studies into using such drugs to literally change a person’s brain chemistry and improve their mental well being. That said, most medical experts would caution against experimenting with self medicating, especially with no evidence for dosages or safety of the drugs. Thus, even as the medical community researches the substances and looks for medical benefits, many people are in fact experimenting on themselves.

It’s the 10 percent comment from the mom in the CPR story that intrigues me, as it reminds me of another approach to stress. A few years ago I ran across a book from Dan Harris titled “10% Happier Revised Edition: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story.” Harris is a former ABC news anchor who struggled with addiction and suffered a panic attack on air. After struggling with his mental well being, he used his journalistic skills in search of a cure for his inability to handle the stress of his life. Ultimately, he found mindfulness and meditation as the answer to his problems. In response, he wrote a book and developed an app to help others access help through mindfulness instructors such as the esteemed Joseph Goldstein.

What is it that has left so many people struggling and incapable of managing their daily lives? And why do so many turn to medications to handle work, family, and life? Undoubtedly, life in contemporary America can be busy, even hectic, and Americans are notoriously bad at slowing down, taking a break, and practicing self care. Too often people respond to challenges by relying on some sort of substance to help them deal with the dissatisfaction. And, at the same time that CPR is reporting on microdosing moms, NPR is reporting on the increasing rates of marijuana and hallucinogen use among teens, which are at their highest rates in two decades.

In his classic treatise on “Walden, a Life in the Woods,” Transcendentalist writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau advised readers to “Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.” Too often, he warned us, “Our lives are frittered away by detail,” and people are overwhelmed with lives they have filled with materials, responsibilities, and expectations beyond their own abilities to handle. If someone needs a bottle of chardonnay or a psychedelic trip to deal with their lives, they might want to consider changing their priorities.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

No More Salingers

Can any single author truly be the "voice of a generation"? Will any author ever represent such common generational ideas that we trust one voice to speak for all? Having written my master's thesis on the Canadian author Douglas Coupland, pegged the voice of Generation X, I take a look at that conundrum with this recent piece for The Curator magazine.

I once read a pop culture essay which identified thriller writer John Grisham as “this generation’s Charles Dickens.” Part of me smiled at the cool insight the reference provided to an author I enjoyed escaping with; the other part of me rolled my eyes in snobby contempt for such an outrageous, aloof, and absurd statement. Can any writer truly be compared to Dickens, and if so, wouldn’t a writer like Jonathan Franzen or Toni Morrison more likely be the Dickens of Grisham’s generation? Or perhaps a better question is: can we be done with tagging any contemporary writer as “this generation’s” Dickens or Twain or Austen or any other distinct voice from the past? I’ve felt this way often, most recently with the rise of Irish writer and Trinity grad Sally Rooney, who by age twenty-seven was garnering raves for her first two novels, Normal People and Conversations with Friends, and who was referred to by her editor at Faber & Faber as the “Snapchat generation’s Salinger.” Perhaps it’s time to end the “voice of a generation” moniker and let Salinger and the others rest in peace while allowing all authors to just be themselves.

In her most recent work, Beautiful World, Where Are You? Rooney has taken aim at her literary celebrity, portraying a young novelist’s discomfort with her fame and the expectations that come from speaking so aptly to and for a large demographic, in her case the Millennials, which may or may not be “the Snapchat generation.” In creating the character of Alice, a famous author who has just released her third novel and laments both her success and her valuing of that success, Rooney takes a meta-fictional and clearly sardonic approach to being the latest Salinger. As Alice secludes herself in a seaside cottage for much of the novel, though occasionally jetting off to Paris for a book tour, it’s easy to understand the tug-of-war that has been the life of celebrity novelists in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Would Rooney’s fans actually be impressed with the comparison to Salinger? Would they even consider being the next Salinger a compliment? With what we know now of Salinger’s not-so-private life, the answer is probably not. And that’s all more reason to end the tradition.


Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Le Mot Juste

One of my favorite lessons to teach is about the power of "the right word." That's the focus of one of my recent columns for The Villager.

According to Mark Twain “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Twain was undoubtedly a master of language, and when I teach rhetoric, Twain’s sentiment is central to understanding effective word choice. The goal is to affect the reader with what the French call le mot juste, “the right word.” One way I introduce my students to the power of diction is through the three-word poem. I learned it from a colleague, and one year it produced a true work of art, which I share with my students. The following is one of the best three-word poems I’ve ever read.




The students always laugh, or nod approvingly, at the blunt criticism of math, a nemesis to many. However, the lesson is not just about the rhetorical effect, but about how the writer achieved the final product through numerous drafts. His initial poem was “I Hate Algebra,” which was mostly an expression of anxiety about an upcoming quiz. In revising, he decided the source of angst was algebra, not him. So, on revision he removed the word “I” and added the contemptuous word “sucks.” The second draft became “Algebra Really Sucks,” which is certainly an improvement. However, the writer realized “really” is actually a weak modifier and doesn’t enhance the effect. The final draft is powerful and effective for the feeling it evokes, emphasized even more through intentionally poor grammar.

My plan is for students to craft a three-line poem, using the most effective language, and to explain their writing and revising process. The simple structure – just three total lines – is not too overwhelming, as I’m not a fan of forcing kids to be creative and poetic. The lesson is introduced through imagism, the style of poetry developed in the 20th century and popularized by Lost Generation poets like Ezra Pound. The conciseness of the genre makes it accessible and less intimidating to students while also encouraging tight command of language. We begin with Pound's classic poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

In a station of the metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

As students make sense of the poem by discussing word choice and structure, the word "apparition" is key, noting the suddenness of the appearance. The use of the colon reveals meaning through analogy, as the faces are fragile, delicate, diverse, and vulnerable "petals on a wet black bough." The simplicity of the poem creates its impact, which is meant to be immediate and momentary, rather than expansive and drawn out. Imagism captures a moment, intending it for observation, much like a painting or sculpture.

I also share poems from an American Buddhist monk named Joe Wagner, whom I met years ago in Taiwan. Joe's poetry is linked to his meditation and intention to live deliberately and self-aware because "poetry has the ability to stop the reader from thinking about life and directly experience it instead." That insight suggests a meditative quality. In his three-line poems, Joe’s philosophy of poetry seeks brevity as a goal. If a poem is too long, it risks losing the reader to the inevitable wanderings of the restless mind. If the goal is to impact that mind, the poem must stop the reader from thinking too much. I share several examples of Joe's poetry, revealing them slowly, one line at a time, which enhances the effect of the words.

The sadness of eating


On Christmas Eve

The power of the poem comes from the simplicity of the language and the structure which emphasizes the starkness of the moment. Another example perfectly captures a moment in every teacher’s life, one which students are generally aloof to.

Classroom quiet

The children

Take a quiz

Each poem produces insightful and enlightened nods and murmurs in the classroom. The kids get it. When I ask students to create a three-line poem, they also submit an analysis of their process. While I don't require numerous drafts, I do expect that their analysis paragraphs reflect an idea of revision and editing. These poems are also presented to the class. However, unlike my lesson, these poems are simply recited and received with no comment or analysis in class. Many produce great reactions, from gasps to sighs to laughter, and students hopefully grasp an appreciation for “the right word.”

Saturday, September 3, 2022

A Person on Whom Nothing is Lost

To begin the school year, I always share with my AP Lang students the concept of "the unending conversation" via the parlor metaphor from Kenneth Burke. That idea was also my column for The Villager.

"Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, [one] too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress."

The previous scenario from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) serves as a metaphor for what the esteemed rhetorician and philosopher deemed the “unending conversation.” It’s the situation all people find themselves in by simply joining history as it is in progress. We’re all late to the party, but we’ve also all arrived just in time. It’s the job of our lives to “listen for a while, catch the tenor of the argument, and put in our oar.” Burke’s parlor metaphor is the spirit around which I frame my classroom each year, and the tradition of the unending conversation is the guiding factor for nearly everything I read, write, and teach. My goal is always to ask my students to think, as well as to think about their own thinking. Not only should they have a deep understanding of what they actually know, but also what they don’t. That will serve them well in becoming what Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers envisioned as integral to a free society – an educated citizenry.

When my students in AP English Language & Composition sit for the national exam each May, they never know what sort of content they will be asked to read, analyze, and write about. One writing prompt might ask them to analyze rhetorical choices made in a speech by Queen Elizabeth, rallying her forces at the battle of Tilbury in 1588. Another might ask them to use their general knowledge to develop a position on the difference between dissent and disagreement, citing examples from history, literature, current events, pop culture, and personal experience. Regardless of the question and their familiarity with it, they need to be able to “step into the parlor” and participate in the conversation. No matter what the game is, they need to be ready to play.

As they become better readers, writers, and thinkers, we try to take the advice of esteemed American author Henry James who encouraged students to be people “on whom nothing is lost.” The goal is obviously not to know everything, which is impossible. Instead, it’s about building a body of knowledge and familiarity with many ideas, concepts, facts, theories, etc. It’s about being an informed, educated person who has some knowledge, along with the ability to synthesize what they know with any situation. It’s about becoming a fully actualized human being, a true adult.

James described his advice this way: “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.” The person on whom nothing is lost is the ultimate goal and the desired result of a classical liberal arts education. It’s why we learn about everything in school, as opposed to simply that which we are interested in, that which we like and find easy, or that which we will need for a job.

Of course, the advice from Burke and James is not just about how we educate ourselves – it’s also about how we live our lives. That’s why I encourage my students to be interested in everything, especially the unfamiliar. Take time to notice the world. Be aware and mindful of the mundane as well as the exciting. At one time in our lives, we were insatiably curious. We wanted to know everything. We incessantly asked how and why. And if we are living as we should, then we have never lost that desire to know.