Thursday, December 31, 2020

Closing the Book on This One

Looking back, I realized I did not blog at all in the month of December, 2019. There are good reasons for that. And, now I've blogged pretty much every day this month, and that feels right. I have a habit of setting large unrealistic goals and silly timelines for writing and art and personal growth during the regular breaks I get from school. This year was, of course, no exception; and despite good intentions I have not finished three paintings, though I did one, and I have not practiced and perfected a song on the piano, though I am further along than I was last month. And, I did not finish editing my collection of essays and op-eds -- which incidentally was a goal for all of 2020. 

Oh, well. 2020.

As we bid farewell to an arbitrary collection of 365 days, we know nothing really changes tomorrow. And the same goes for me the next day when I turn fifty-one, though I like to tell myself something is different, or could be. As far as final thoughts on this year, I have to share an annual tradition in journalism and commentary that is one of the few enjoyable things about looking back on the worst year of our lives. To that I give you Dave Barry's "Year in Review: Trying to Find some Humor in a Tough 2020." While there wasn't much to laugh or even smile about these last ten months, it helps to look back on the absurdity of it all. And no one exposes and ridicules absurdity better than he.

Beyond that, with an eye toward how we somehow heal and get better, get further down the road in 2021, I've been reflecting on David Brooks' column "2020 Taught us How to Fix This." Brooks is, in my opinion, an incredibly bright and erudite thinker who poses some relevant and interesting insights for us. In this piece, he is addressing the vast divides we have found between us, and he exposes the downside, or perhaps inadequacy, of the trainings and education we believe can heal our prejudices and biases. Hint: they probably can't. But I will counter that they may for any one individual make a difference. And if they do, then they're always worth it. The key, I think, is to try, and we can only do this by being together, which is Brooks' other point, being together and communicating. For, as I noted in one of my better pieces of writing this year, "As Long As We're Talking," there is hope.

And for one final little chuckle, I have to give a shout out to Avenue Beat, some girls from Peoria, IL, for their song "F-2020" all too relevant goodbye and kiss off to the year none of us wanted, and all of us want to forget. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Exercise for 4 Minutes? How 'bout 4 Seconds?

The news on working on out just keeps getting better.

This year, Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times has been covering the research on the benefits of brief bursts of high energy interval workouts. Who knew the benefits could come from as short as four seconds of intense exercise? I've been a fan of the interval workouts for a while now. A few years ago, I ran across a piece in the paper about the "7-minute workout," which I modified as my own 9-minute workout. Now, I have a few different short but intense workouts that I believe are an asset in my overall good health as a 50-year-old.



Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Live as He Lived

So, in glancing at the First Reading from today's liturgy, which comes from the first epistle of John chapter two, I had an interesting thought about faith and how we live. The verses I'm thinking about advise:

But whoever keeps his word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him. 
This is the way we may know that we are in union with him:
whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked

And, I have to say, not meaning to offend but merely to ponder, that in the contemporary world, especially American society, we seem to have many more "pharisees" than we do disciples, and it seems that these people of implied superior sanctity have potentially turned attendance at services and the reading and study of scripture into their own version of the golden calf. Does that sound strange, that the actions of the service and the reading of the Word could actually become a sort of false idol, so to speak? I don't think so. The public profession of faith and the practice of the service would seem to me to ring a bit hollow if we did not act in accordance with the model, for "This is how we know we are in him; whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did."

Now, of course this observation is obviously influenced by the Catholic school kid in me -- the idea that actions matter and that actions are the ministry we are called to. And, I have to say, I don't see enough of that ministry in the world today, nor granted, do I exhibit it enough myself. For it is written "anyone who hates a brother or sister is in darkness." And there is no shortage of darkness going around these day. It's worth noting a little further into the epistle is one of my favorite and to me perhaps the most important of verses:  "God is love." Yep, that pretty much says it all - love, compassion, empathy, charity, and service. But above all love.

So, while this post is a definitely a departure from my usual fare on this blog, these thoughts were on my mind, and so I thought I'd share. 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Billionaires: Please Buy Us. Love, Print Newspapers

In reading former journalist Tom Zoellner's new book of essays, The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America, I was particularly struck by his nostalgic ponderings of print journalism, small town newspapers, and his job at the Appleton Post-Crescent. Small town print newspapers like the Post-Crescent or the Alton Telegraph are certainly in danger of going under, especially when big city newspapers like the Denver Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times are facing dire times as well. And it doesn't help that beyond the fading interest in buying and reading a daily print paper among the general population, the large scale papers are being gutted and bled dry by soul sucking hedge funds such as Alden Capital, which are run by shallow soulless business vampires like Randall Smith and his next generation clone Heath Freeman. These men are determined to almost singlehandedly destroy print journalism and daily papers in the United States even if the market doesn't decide to and if many readers still want a daily paper.

So, daily newspapers, which have long been the life blood of an educated electorate, need a savior. For, even though many people choose TV news or random blogs, remember that all the information contained in an hour-long TV show can be found on a single page of a newspaper, and all those bloggers still check the daily papers like the New York Times before logging on to share their view. Yes, print journalism and small town papers need a sugar-daddy, like Jeff Bezos has done for the Washington Post , local philanthropist Paul Huntsmen did for the Salt Lake Tribune, eventually turning it to a non-profit, and Glen Taylor did with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. There are enough billionaires who must have, at one time, enjoyed a print paper with their cup of coffee, or at least recall watching their parents and grandparents enjoy that. Surely, they could find it in their hearts and conscience to park some of their assets in newspapers like the Denver Post or St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Even if the papers don't make money, they could provide a valuable service in terms of information, culture, .... and jobs for goodness sake. 

So, come billionaires, whattaya say? Do it for the little guy. Save the newspapers.


Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Way Pete Souza Saw It -- It's about Dignity

Late in the documentary The Way I See It from Focus Features, the former White House photographer of the Obama administration Pete Souza says something to the effect of "I wouldn't be doing this if it were Jeb Bush or John Kasich. It wouldn't be necessary. This is not a partisan issue." The "this" he refers to is his political activism via Instagram posts aimed at challenging, mocking, even trolling the unsavory, embarrassing, and even dangerous behavior and tweets of outgoing President Donald Trump. Basically, Souza counters Trump tantrums, rants, and threats with positive and moving photos from the Obama years as a way of demonstrating how the President is supposed to behave -- with dignity. 

Pete Souza is spot on, and the documentary, which spotlights both the Obama and Reagan years, is a beautiful work of art that reminds us of the way things ought to be, and I highly recommend it. The Obama era covered eight scandal-free years and dignified leadership from a true man, a mensch, a good person who honored the office and the legacy of Washington and Lincoln. Outside of his politics -- and he was a true politician and Democrat -- Barack Obama was a man of character. And that is the non-negotiable quality we must have in a President. And that is why the current administration is so unsettling and simply so .... wrong. It's why the GOP is in a ethical conundrum, it's why Never Trumpers rightfully voice their concerns, it's why many people are "conservative but not Republican."

Barack Obama was a very good man and president. As was George W Bush. As was Bill Clinton. As was George HW Bush. As was Ronald Reagan. As was Jimmy Carter. As was Gerald Ford. As was Richard Nixon ..... and so on. And I pause with the inclusion of Clinton and Nixon, for these were men with ethical lapses, to be sure. And they undoubtedly tarnished their legacy, their years in the White House, and the very office of the Presidency. But those mistakes were exactly that -- mistakes. Those good men made bad decisions. They were not undignified and embarrassingly so on a daily if not hourly basis. They were not woefully unfit for the highest office in the land. They were not the truly sad situation that has burdened our nation for past four (actually closer to five) years.

Regardless of politics, Pete Souza is right. It's about dignity. Thankfully, that virtue will soon return to the Oval Office. Hopefully it returns to the rest of us as well.


 

Saturday, December 26, 2020

In Pursuit of the Ideal

 "Neither joy and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way,

But to act that each tomorrow,

Find us further than today.

In one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite poems, American transcendentalist poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow advises us to seek progress on the path toward enlightenment -- basically work each day to simply get better. We will never be a perfect person, but we might become a better one - a better husband or wife, a better son or daughter, a better student, a better teacher, a better employee or boss, a better community member, a better citizen, a better friend. That pursuit of the ideal is at the heart of romantic thought, no doubt, but it has a place among classical thinking as well. 

The ideal, and a "defense of ideals," is at the foundation and starting off point for one of Mark Edmundson's most important and moving works, Self and Soul. Edmundson, a humanities professor at the University of Virginia, is a writer and thinker I deeply admire and enjoy for his work in exploring and explaining the point of the liberal arts and the question of why we read, why we write, why we study, and why we seek to learn about the human condition. In a world increasingly and unsettling moving in the direction of technological progress, economic growth, utilitarian focus, and material gain, I join Edmundson in worrying and wondering about the cultivation of the spirit. The humanities and the arts, I believe, are our source for understanding why we live -- the development of virtue and values.

If we seek to heal, if we hope to start fresh, if we seek a new path, if we desire some sense of unity and community in the future, we would benefit from returning to the humanities and the traditions of the classical world, the cultivation and pursuit of three ideals -- courage, compassion, and contemplation.  

At risk of "a mere existence based on desire, without hope, fulness, or ultimate meaning ... We can do better," Edmundson tells us. We can do better.

Let's do better. Let's be better.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Could We Start Again, Please?

At times, we all would like a do-over, a reset, a second chance. An opportunity to start again. And this year, which has at times seemed like we're on a perpetual loop of uncertainty and despair, the idea of starting new and fresh is at times unsettling and appealing. But I'm thinking about that fresh start, re-birth, that do-over, that reset on December 25, 2020, on Christmas. 

Christmas is a time to celebrate new life, a new life which came to us with news of light in darkness, of warmth in the cold, of truth in a time of despair. While we know that Easter and the spring equinox are the holidays and times associated with re-birth and the earth awakening from slumber, it's also worth thinking about the message of Christmas and the winter solstice as a celebration of life. The birth of Christ remembered during winter is a reminder that in the dark days of winter, or in the dark days of a pandemic, or in the darkness of a divided nation and society, or in the darkness of violence and uncertainty, that we always have the chance to start again. 

In the troubled times we've been facing, I have tried to be hopeful. Perhaps it's the sappy romantic in me, but I believe in the pursuit of the ideal. And I have faith, just like light in the darkness and warmth in the cold and a birth in the middle of winter, that we can always start again. With our friends, with our community, with our politics and our economics and our struggles for truth and understanding, we can start again.


 I've been living to see you
Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this
This was unexpected, what do I do now?
Could we start again please?
I've been very hopeful, so far
Now for the first time I think we're going wrong
Hurry up and tell me this is just a dream
Oh could we start again please?
I think you've made your point now
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home
Before it gets too frightening, we ought to call a halt
So could we start again please?
I've been living to see you
Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this
This was unexpected, what do I do now?
Could we start again please?
I think you've made your point now
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home
Before it gets too frightening, we ought to call a halt
So could we start again please?
So could we start again please?
So could we start again?


Thursday, December 24, 2020

Where I'm Supposed to Be

 After the Buffalo Bills' relentless scorching of the Denver Broncos last week, Bills quarterback Josh Allen was asked about John Elway's decision back in the 2017 NFL draft to pass on picking Allen at number 5, and instead picking an outside linebacker Bradley Chubb.

"I'm where I'm supposed to be," was Allen's simple reply.

There's a lot of wisdom in that statement, and also a significant amount of subtext. Should the Bronco's have taken the young QB in the draft? The Broncos' endless struggles at that position since the departure of Peyton Manning, and John Elway's apparent inability to measure and judge talent and potential at his former position indicate that Allen was a missed call at the line by Elway & Co. And, for that reason, Josh Allen has every right to be miffed at the Denver Donkeys. Thus, it's not surprising the game meant just a bit more for Allen than a regular season game, and it's not a stretch to think the Bills QB and coaching staff relished running roughshod over the increasingly hapless Broncos.

So, is there a place we're "supposed to be"? Sure, it was just a quip, and a clever response to the media. But I like the confident comfort Allen has taken with his position. Certainly, it's not a question of fate or destiny -- we all have choices and options and myriad paths lie before us. The important point, I believe, is remembering that wherever you go, there you are.

My wife and I had a nice chat last night about where we are, and of course, where we could have been. The road to our life in suburban Colorado, in a nice little community, working at an excellent school, has been circuitous as well as fortuitous. I might have taken a job at my old high school upon graduating in 1992, we might have opened a bakery and surf shop in Kenting, Taiwan in the mid '90s, our jobs and Julie's culinary education could have gone different ways in the city of Chicago, we could have ended up buying my grandmother's house and opening a B&B, I may have gone the Ph.D route following my Master's degree and the birth of our son, Julie's pastry catering business could have become something more than it was, I might have sold one or two of those screenplays to a Hollywood production company that was tantalizingly interested (for a few minutes), .... and so on and so on and so on.

But wherever we went, here we now are. And, like Jake Allen, no matter where I've been, it's "where I'm supposed to be."




Tuesday, December 22, 2020

How Educated Are We?

As we struggle through this bizarre year, and worry quite honestly about what is being missed and who is falling behind and what the fall out will actually be, I think we need to scrutinize every bit of data and truly reflect on what is really going on in schools. And what has been for the past fifty years ago. So, here are a few things to consider:

As of 2020, we can assert that the US is more educated than ever before:
90% of people 25 and over have graduated high school. In the 1940s it was 24%
Additionally, approximately 70% go onto 2-4 year college
And, according to Gallup Polls 82% of parents are satisfied or very satisfied with their child’s education, as well as their own education. 50% are satisfied with the education system in America. So, that’s kind of like congressional approval ratings, right? Everyone despises Congress, but not their own representatives.

It’s also worth noting that in many ways, kids are learning more than ever before. For example,
The standard 9th grade math class is Algebra I, but many students now finish that in middle school. I took AlgebraII/Trig in 11th grade, but my daughter took the same class in 8th grade. And my son took AP Calculus in 8th grade. Today, nearly a million students take calculus every year. And, perhaps the most impressive development is Advanced Placement classes offered by the College Board. AP Classes are college classes taken in high school.

In 2018 = 1.25 million 2018 grads took 4.2 million AP exams. 40% of class took at least one AP out of 38 possible AP classes. My AP English Lang & Comp students regularly do the type of writing I didn’t achieve until graduate school.

Just some things to consider about the state of education.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Cabinet Posts, Pete Buttigieg, Ben Shapiro, & the Politics of Nonsense

So, in another entry about the abysmal state of infotainment in political talk show commentary that is literally hurting America, I have to say I'm as disappointed in Ben Shapiro of the DailyWire as I am in Tucker Carlson of FoxNews. Their schtick represents a genuine emptiness in both Gen X and Millennial conservatism, and that's a real shame because they are both smart, well-educated men with a gift for commentary. It's their choice of subject matter that lacks depth and authenticity. Case in point - these recent Tweets from Shapiro:

  • For the record, my four-year-old son also loves trains. He should not be Secretary of Transportation.
  • I proposed to my wife in her college residential housing. This does not mean I should be either Secretary of Education or Housing & Urban Development

Now, on a purely logical and rational basis, and in a theoretical sense as well, I agree with the insinuation about President-Elect Joe Biden's nomination of Pete Buttigieg for Secretary of Transportation. I don't believe he is qualified to lead that department, certainly not like the current secretary Elaine Chao. And I don't believe Mayor Pete is the best choice for that role. Of course, I understand the politics of building a cabinet and the often dubious nature of the word "qualified" for some of those positions. I think Pete Buttigieg is a brilliant young man who has an impressive education and record of professional experience. And I think he is a skilled politician who will bring an important voice and degree of insight to the Biden Administration. Truly, in terms of patronage jobs, I think an ambassadorship would have been a great role. 

But what about the politics of Shapiro and his denigration of Biden's picks?

The problem is the inconsistency of the standard from which he's criticizing. If Shapiro hadn't been silent for the past four years in regards to the qualifications of cabinet members, he might be pursuing a legitimate line of debate. And it's an interesting and important discussion to have. But he has been silent and complacent even when equally or more egregious appointments of unqualified people for cabinet posts have been conducted by the Trump Administration and the McConnell Senate. So, obviously Shapiro doesn't really care about cabinet posts and qualifications or experience in those roles. Thus, his current line of social media attacks and podcast rants simply emphasizes how he's really just a political hack trying to score points, views, and hits on social media. And again, like with Tucker Carlson, that's a real shame. We need to be better than this. And both Shapiro and Carlson are smarter than that. Sadly, they remind me a lot of the kid I was at eighteen, talking big politics with mostly bluster in my briefcase. And, that's the problem -- they've never grown beyond that.

And, as I've written this, Shapiro tweeted again about Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert interviewing Obama and Biden, and we're right back where we were in 2004 with Tucker in the Crossfire. Shapiro ironically notes he is "happy our age of entertainment-first politics is drawing to a close." In fact, he is just another textbook example of entertainment-first infotainers who obfuscate issues and genuine debate or discussion in pursuit of ratings, money, viewership, and, of course, power. Truly, as I noted before, I believe both sides are hurting America, and the Don-Lemon-Rachel-Madow-Lawrence-O'Donnell versions are every bit as deleterious as the Carlson-Ingraham-Hannity-Shapiro lane. And, really, if we want to talk qualifications or experience, does Ben Shapiro truly feel justified in challenging and criticizing people like Buttigieg? He shouldn't. And he ought to be a bit embarrassed by his attempts to demean a rather successful and influential politician. The four-year-old playing with trains comparison and the college dorm reference were just silly. That's not quality commentary; it's simply juvenile hectoring.

The tradition of conservatism running back to Barry Goldwater and Russell Kirk deserves far better than what Shapiro and Carlson are selling to audiences today. And that is hurting America. And it is a real shame. Let's hope someday, Shapiro and Tucker Carlson will stop following the legacy of media clowns like Morton Downey Jr., Rush Limbaugh, or Sean Hannity, and will instead look to conservatives like David French, Jay Nordlinger, David Frum, and Ross Douthat for guidance on generating reasoned, rational arguments that promote positive discussion.
 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Baseball Doesn't Need the DH, the Shift, or Progress of any kind -- It's Perfect

"There has been lots of progress in my lifetime, but I'm afraid it's headed in the wrong direction," said Ogden Nash on April 4, 1959 in The New Yorker. "Progress may have been all right once, but it's gone on too long."

I'm thinking about those poetic and prophetic words as I consider baseball, America's pastoral sports tradition and the forces of progress that seek to change, nay "improve" it. And I'm having none of it. When America's past time undergoes changes in terms of rules and tradition in the next few years, it will be just one more symptom of the creeping shadow of progress on that one thing that "reminds us of all that was once good, and could be good again." And in the short term, it will also be just another lingering side effect of the Covid pandemic that led to a shortened major league season and the sly imposition of the designated hitter on the National League. 

In today's Denver Post, old school small ball manager Bud Black discussed changes in baseball and conceded that he is coming around to support the addition of the designated hitter. That really hurts a purist and a traditionalist like me. Though Buddy did please me by also saying he would consider rules preventing the shift. I've never liked the DH, and the shift is new enough that I had to pause for a while to consider its benefit and authenticity. And I don't like it either. The shift, to me, is simply the absurdist silly end result of the over-reliance on tech and computer algorithms in managing an old game, a tradition reaching back to the nineteenth century. Thus, just like rules in football against illegal formations, ineligible receivers, and illegal men down field, a rule against the shift would preserve the tradition laid out by the inventors of the game with sound reason and good intention all those years ago. We need not improve on the nearly perfect geometry of the field and the established positions.

While the addition of the DH across both leagues this season was grounded in common sense rationale of health for players, the addition of it universally is driven not by safety but by money. Progressive forces and bean counters assert the game must evolve in order to keep audiences engaged, that it must liven things up to appeal to younger generations. That, of course, is a nonsense argument outside of the nature of sport and competition, if only because it's not really about improving the game but increasing ticket sales and television ratings. For the notion that baseball is slow and boring has always bemused me, as I sit through endless stretches of downtime on Sunday afternoons watching football which, to be perfectly honest, has very short spurts of action in between long stretches of standing around. The simple reality is that there are many things we don't need to improve, and wouldn't bother trying if the business side weren't involved. For didn't we all grow up playing endless whiffle ball games that could stretch for hours? If you don't understand this, then, for the love of the game, watch The Sandlot, and do it soon.

Writer and public intellectual William F Buckley once said, "A conservative is a person who stands athwart history, yelling Stop!" And these days we have far too few people who ask whether this innovation or that development is actually such a good idea. I recall hearing of the reasoning behind Howard Schultz's decision to buy back his controlling ownership of Starbucks. Basically, the corporate owners had been focused on endless expansion, opening more stores and developing more new products, all in pursuit of ever-increasing quarterly profits and shareholder prices. And while Wall Street financiers will always take that route, sometimes the purists like Schultz realize that most of us just want a good cup of coffee, and we want it to taste like coffee.



Thursday, December 17, 2020

Is the World Causing Learning Disabilities?

I've been in education too long to not wonder whether our technological world is a factor in, if not the outright cause, of many learning disabilities we see in far too many young kids. Granted, there is a strong argument that these disabilities have always been present, and society is simply getting better at identifying, diagnosing, and accommodating for them.  From dyslexia/dysgraphia to ADD/ADHD to processing speed disparities to anxiety and more, there is no doubt that every year it seems more kids struggle with learning from conditions that literally inhibit them from accessing curriculum and learning on a level playing field.

I think a lot about cognitive psychology and its ability to explain what is going on, and when I think about cog-psyche, I always think about Dan Willingham, who has taught me much about how people learn and the importance of core knowledge in building brain development. The simple truth for me is there is very good reason that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time for kids under the age of two, and for no more than thirty minutes a day until the age of six. The negative impact of these blue-LED, two-dimensional light shows on young brains is just not a good idea. And truly, it doesn't seem like anyone legitimately says such tech is a good idea -- at least not since the days the mother who parked her baby in front of the TV for hours at a time, and made millions off of what could only be a truly unsettling lack of parenting. The whole idea creeped me out.

Think about human development and the slow methodical way that humans learn to understand the world. They spend the first three-to-six months literally on their backs looking up at the world, taking it all in, processing info at incredible rates, and building synapses like wildfire. The world is a three-dimensional place, and the brain needs vast amounts of time to synthesize all the information and stimuli. 2D flashy lights are not what the world is or should be, and taking away from the basics of depth perception can't be anything but deleterious for kids. Rather than playing with a cell phone or tablet, babies need to be staring at something like this:


They should be playing with toys, not tech. And I worry that parenting choices made mostly out of convenience, distraction, and naivety are literally hurting their kids' brains. And they may be a root cause of learning disabilities.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Tucker Carlson: Still Hurting America

So, I am just continually disappointed by Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, and that's a real shame because I honestly thought he had a lot of potential to generate authentic discussion and debate. Tucker is a smart, clever, well-educated guy who has a loyal audience and a broad platform for socio-political discussion. Yet, just as Jon Stewart admonished him for on CNN's Crossfire in 2004, Tucker Carlson simply uses his show to mislead and enflame his viewers and ultimately just hurt America. After all these years to grow into a thoughtful and reasoned conservative voice, Tucker instead just collects his lavish salary by obfuscating issues, stifling reasoned discussion, and increasing animosity and division. That hurts us all.

And it doesn't have to be that way. But it will until Carlson finally grows up.

Case in point is his monologue and show opener from last week during which he appeared to criticize "crony capitalism" and decry the deceitful, if not corrupt, corporate practices that have reaped record profits during the pandemic and financial crisis. Specifically, Carlson took aim at companies like Amazon, Google, Netflix, Goldman Sachs, & Walmart for profiting off a financial meltdown while working class Americans struggle, facing low wages and lost jobs, and small businesses fail to keep up. It was a rather populist message (to draw on Bill O'Reilly's traditional misappropriation of that term) that would seem to put Carlson at squarely at odds with the Republican Party, the Trump White House, the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017, free market conservatives, his own views from the early 2000s, and his time with the Daily Caller.

Carlson sternly calls out the excesses of these corporations and their lobbyists, noting "these people are a disaster for capitalism" as we all know the "rich are getting richer, and the poor poorer." Yet, he then deftly shifts blame for the privileged power those entities have to the Democrats and Progressives, and calls up the looming spectre of socialism to distract viewers from the root causes of the problem and instead promote even greater support for the GOP platform and Republican fiscal policies that ensure the current disparity he claims to oppose will continue. He even pretends to call for a "one-time Covid fee" (or tax) applied to their profits, which could then be redistributed to American workers and small businesses in need of a bail out. As if. Tucker Carlson acts as if he truly wants the federal government to tax one company's profits and give them to others. A few questions:

  • Which party would more likely support and implement such a plan?
  • If House Speaker Pelosi drafted and passed such a plan, would McConnell get it through the Senate? Would President Trump sign it?
Tucker further clouds the issue and misdirects his viewers by attacking his most recent favorite target, Rep. Alex Ocasio-Cortez. AOC is the type of legislator who would actually support and pass his Covid fee, and he would subsequently rail against her socialist agenda. That's obvious. But more troubling is the seething hypocrisy in his attacks on the young Congresswoman. For he urges his viewers to "laugh at" AOC because she is a "vacuous idiot." That sort of insult is embarrassing at the minimum. But to worsen the obfuscation, Carlson disparages AOC as "a rich girl narcissist." Let's clarify:
  • Tucker Carlson makes $6 million a year. He is worth $30 million
  • AOC makes $174,000 a year. She has a net worth of $100K

My head is truly spinning from the manipulation and misdirection. To be honest, Tucker Carlson's nightly rants and pseudo-discussions of politics are truly just sad. Far from being a reasoned political analyst who is legitimately interested in debate, Carlson is simply nothing but a shock jock who is preaching to the choir ideas he doesn't even truly understand or actually believe just to make money.

And, I want to be clear: I am not a supporter of AOC in terms of her political views or legislative agenda. In fact, almost like one of her fellow freshman Congressman Rep Tim Burchett  of Tennessee, who counts her as a friend, "I don't agree with a doggone thing she says." And I also believe that it's not just Carlson who is "hurting America" with his brand of infotainment. The entire news commentary genre is bad for the country, and it has been harming discourse and dividing communities since the early 2000s. Truly, I also believe that Don Lemon is hurting America in many of the same ways the Fox News commentators are. Thus, it's just disappointing. And I wish Tucker would realize, like Jon Stewart tried so earnestly to convince him years ago, that he could be helping. And he'd still be the successful TV personality he is. 

Tucker, please. We're asking you. "Stop hurting America."



*Update:
Since I've posted, Tucker has spent three nights ranting about Jill Biden having an education doctorate.
I'm just shaking my head. Such a shame.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Dolly Parton - Comin' by it natural

 Sarah Smarsh didn't set out to write a book about Dolly Parton or about the socio-cultural significance of country music, but that's exactly what happened when in the midst of the 2016-17 political season, she was researching and writing a lot commentary about the white working class and the complicated nature of Red State politics, conservatism, and the Republican Party. Those topics are easily over-generalized, and a deeper understanding of them is the focus of Smarsh's first book, Heartland; a Memoir of Working Hard & Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. That book was along the same vein as another white working class memoir, J.D. Vances' Hillbilly Elegy, which was recently turned into a film.

The Dolly Parton angle came to Smarsh when she learned of a fellowship offer from the music magazine No Depression to research and write about "the sociocultural significance of a roots music genre." The result of her work is She Come by it Natural: Dolly Parton & the Women Who Lived Her Songs. I'm looking forward to reading this for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that I, like Marsh, have been feeling recently that "country music is rarely given consideration as a sophisticated art form." In fact, I have been considering some similar research of the beautiful nature of storytelling and the narrative art of country music. 

My interest has been sparked, and my connection to country music has been inspired by the recent arrival of a new country station in Denver, 106.7 The Bull.

* Thanks to John Williams of the New York Times for his profile.



Sunday, December 13, 2020

Start Saving for Retirement when you Turn 18

While it may seem a bit boring to talk about, it's never too early to start saving for retirement. I've been advising my students of that for nearly twenty years -- as soon as they start earning money, they should make a practice of saving 10% of everything they earn, and they should start paying themselves first by opening a Roth-IRA as soon as they have earnings to save. I first learned those lessons from my dad who advised me in my twenties to start investing some extra money I'd made while teaching abroad, and I refined them for my students after reading David Bach's The Automatic Millionaire. Based on Bach's book and a short column from the Market Watch in the Wall Street Journal about the magic of compound interest, I developed a quick financial primer that I used as an intro to class early in the year. I've learned since that some of my students, now approaching their thirties, have been saving since high school. They're not the only ones. Elizabeth Harris of the New York Times profiles three twenty-something Millennial/GenZers who have already started saving for retirement.

When Dray Farley was 15, he watched a video his favorite gamer had posted on YouTube. But it wasn’t about Call of Duty.

“It was how to get rich in 22 years, and the general math and concept of compound interest, the snowball effect, and how eventually your gains are making gains,” Mr. Farley said. “And that’s what first got me thinking about retirement accounts.”

Mr. Farley, now 21 and completing his final semester at Cornell, knows his middle and high school gaming habit was an unlikely path to an interest in saving and investing. But after his own college experience and internship were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic last spring, he said he valued saving even more.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Stopping the next Virus before it Starts

 While some people fear the Covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been rushed to the market and perhaps developed too quickly, it's important to know they were basically designed by mid-January, a little more than a month after the first infection was identified in Wuhan. That's the way that immunology, virology, and medical research works. And we must remember that reality and use that model to plan for the next outbreaks long before they ever happen. That means like right now. 

Basically, we benefited from the research which was begun back in the early 2000s in response to the SARS and MERS outbreaks, which were also coronaviruses, or of a similar background. Unlike the yearly flu vaccines the medical community develops in response to different influenza strains that arise each year, the Covid antidotes don't use weakened or dead viruses but instead rely on the genetic sequence and train our bodies to recognize and nullify the virus whenever encountered. 

And with that concept, the medical community led by the CDC, NIH, and WHO must invest in research to predict future threats and develop vaccines that can be adapted for whatever virus arises. That sort of planning and preparation will of course require coordinated national and international response teams funded by governments, foundations, and pharmaceutical companies. For that to happen we need strong leadership and trust in the medical community. Let's hope that happens.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Losing Weight & Getting in Shape during the Pandemic

I lost weight and improved my fitness during the pandemic, especially during the height of quarantine. And apparently that's an anomaly as I'm learning through reports of Weight Gain & Stress Eating in the Pandemic. The need for comfort food and the isolation and extended downtime we've all experienced since early last March have led to a new phenomenon -- "the pandemic fifteen." But that wasn't my experience, and the key to it was sticking to routines. 

I am truly a creature of habit, and I really depend on my rituals to keep me sane. So, when the quarantine hit, and with it the urge to cocoon with Netflix, booze, and baked goods, I knew I needed to stick to my habits if I was going to avoid weight gain and less fitness. And, that was all the more necessary with the rise of "Zoom Happy Hours," which I joined even when they happened on nights I normally don't drink. I'm mostly a weekend imbiber, so even a glass of wine on a Wednesday or Thursday is usually a sign of giving in to temptation or needing a stress reliever after a tense day. 

So, in quarantine and since then, I have limited adult beverages and sweets to a Thursday-Sunday window. And I start the week with an intermittent fast on Mondays and Tuesday -- so just lunch and dinner. And I ease back into a bit of indulgence by Thursday. By Friday night, all bets are off, though only after I've completed a workout. And working out became a new challenge when the gym and pools closed down. My workouts are my own cross-fit interval training on Tuesday and Wednesday. I take Mondays and Thursdays off, but I always get in 2-3 miles of walking on those days -- another must during quarantine because I was used to get 10-14K steps a day on my 82-acre school campus.

So, the key was routine. I just set a plan and willed myself to it. It actually brought and kept a sense of normalcy in my life, and I ended losing 4-5 pounds and feeling better.


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Rita Moreno Writes Opposite-Handed

 In this week's edition of Spry Magazine, an incredibly spry and zestful 89-year-old Rita Moreno offers tips on how she stays so fit and mentally sharp. Beyond playing a lot of games like Scrabble and Rummicube, which I love, she also said:

I do things with my opposite hand as well. I write with my left hand at least three times a week. When I first started it as a brain exercise, it looked like the handwriting of a psychotic person. But I’m very good at it now, and it’s rather pretty handwriting. At least four times a week ...

That activity really intrigued and impressed me, and it's something I want to try and add into my life. For the past year or so, I have been trying to learn the piano, and in the early days, I was amazed at how hard I had to think and concentrate on my fingers. As the movements became more familiar, I could feel my mind changing just a bit. Drawing and painting has had the same effect, especially because I hadn't really done either since elementary school. 

The idea of writing opposite handed reminded me of a goal or desire to improve my normal handwriting, and perhaps even "try my hand" at calligraphy and graphic design. These are all great activities to, of course, stay mentally sharp as we age; but equally importantly they are also ways to enrich our lives. So, I am going to try and remember to do more of this.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Living Artfully & the Wisdom of Georgia O'Keefe

 For a while now, I have known I would like to have more art in my life, in my consciousness, in the way I view the world. Living artfully has been a goal for a few years now, and to that end I've tried to bring more art into my life and into the world. I'm trying to play piano, I have a sketch book, and (until the pandemic hit last March), I started taking art classes again for the first time since probably elementary school. And looking to and learning about artists is a key to help us see the world like an artist and live artfully. Websites like Artsy are great places for this guidance, such as "How to be an Artist, according to Georgia O'Keefe."

As I look with admiration, awe, reverence, (and yes even a bit of envy), I know its naive to believe the works are in any way effortless. They are a lot of effort, and, as O'Keefe notes, "the notion that you can make [or be] an artist overnight is a fallacy." Great artists don't just happen with a flash of brilliance but instead are created through the school of experience. O'Keefe was a great model, an artist who did it all naturally, yet worked incredibly hard at it. And the best advice she had was open our eyes and observe the world with a passion and intensity.

I've always loved the idea of "seeing the world like an artist," and I always reveled in the fruits of the way artists see the world. 


Monday, December 7, 2020

Math Rock Music - Yep, it's a thing

 I thought I knew quite a bit about rock music, especially in terms of genre (though I'm still looking for a clear difference between country and indie folk music - other than I know it when I hear it). But in terms of music trivia, I can still learn new things, as I did while reading a great piece of Gen X era cultural commentary. Jason Diamond, a pop culture critic in Brooklyn, has written The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs, and having grown up in the Chicago suburbs which I know well, he offers an insightful take on something so seemingly innocuous we forget its a thing, except perhaps around election time. 

In the course of looking back on one neighborhood of his youth, specifically the one that coincided with the end of his parents marriage and questions about what could have been, Diamond mentions the 90s indie band American Football as the perfect soundtrack for driving old streets of Buffalo Grove, IL and waxing nostalgic about a time and place that doesn't exist anymore. One of the band's founders was from BG, and the band formed downstate in Urbana, home to the University of Illinois. Recognizing the name, but not being able to place the sound, I looked into the band and ran across the a reference to them as a prime example of the sub-genre "math rock." That was intriguing, and digging into it was fun.

With a strong connection to the 90s sub-genre "emo," math rock is distinctive for its unique rhythms and time signatures. So, rather than the standard four beats per measure, or 4/4 time, math rock might groove on something odd such as 7/8 or even 13/8 time, which is really funky to think about but makes a lot of sense when you listen to some songs. The songs also don't necessary follow the verse-chorus-bridge structure, and listening to it, as the song wanders its way through "rhythmically complex" structures, can be an adventure. For me, the quirky guitar riffs and lyric runs just seem to evoke the 90s.

So, math rock. Yep, it's a thing.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

In Parasite, Both Families are Dysfunctional

 Over Thanksgiving Week, we re-watched last year's best film, Bong Joon-ho's absurdist tragi-comedy Parasite, and that led to some pretty deep dinner discussion about our perceptions of the two Korean families and about BJH's thematic intentions. Our family was split on both those issues, with my wife and daughter viewing the Kim's quite negatively while my son and I argued that the Park family is equally flawed, if not more so.

Taking from the title and the entire point of the film: both families are parasites.

It's all too easy to blame the lower class Kims for their crass behavior in using and exploiting the incredibly gullible and uber-wealthy Parks. That's not the point -- the social stratification of Korean society, which is brilliantly portrayed by the high-low living arrangements, is the target of the dark satire and criticism. Yes, the Kims are basically criminals and con artists, exploiting every opportunity from stealing the wi-fi of their upstairs neighbors to conning their way into jobs for the full family in the Park's upper-class world. And their inability to restrain themselves in any way to simply hold down what may be seen as "good jobs they should be thankful for" is terribly sad. Even more tragic is how their choices ultimately lead to the death of their oldest daughter and the virtual imprisonment of the father. They are not completely sympathetic characters -- though, it's worth noting they are the protagonists and clearly set up as anti-heroes. We are not looking for them to fail and lose their jobs. And we can't look away from their incredibly clever but ultimately deceptive and amoral abuse of their opportunities.

And, of course, it's all too easy to see the Parks as simple innocent victims of the Kims' criminality, culminating in the bloody and senseless murder of Mr. Park by the psychotic husband of the former housekeeper who was shamelessly pushed out of her job by the Kims. Yet the Parks are equally morally bankrupt, symbolic of a careless oligarchy which is shamelessly aloof to the pathetic conditions of the working class. Mrs. Park is certainly the "beautiful little fool" that Daisy Buchanan hoped to raise, though her quickly contemptuous judgment of others is not at all flattering. And it's laughable how she falsely claims to value relationships and trusting people she knows when the Kims are able to so quickly win her trust and manipulate her choices. The Parks are basically a Korean version of Fitzgerald's Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Their shallow, self-absorbed egotism and insensitivity are nowhere more blatant than the decision to host a truly ostentatious and completely unnecessary birthday party for their son on the day after a massive rainstorm has left the Kims and thousands of Seoul's most vulnerable homeless, living in a makeshift shelter in a high school gym.

The Kims are tragic figures not only for their poverty and vulnerable status in life, but also because their quick wits and talents of chicanery are wasted by their limited opportunities and their natural inclination to simply pursue short term gains. They are all incredibly smart and talented in some areas, for their guile is truly an admirable business skill. Yet Korean society will never allow them to rise, as evidenced by how the son will never get into a university, despite being as smart and knowledgeable as his friend, and his sister will never use her skills in art, design, and even psychology for anything other than the next con. How sad that her parents can only wonder at how "she'd make a great con artist." Viewers would be naive to try and project educated, upper-middle class "virtues," inclinations, and choices onto people who have not had the benefits and supports to cultivate such prudence. The Kims are, of course, going to simply ride this job opportunity for as long as possible, milking every possible perk, even to the point of excessively drinking the Park's expensive whiskies, because they may never get this chance again, and life has taught them to seize what they can in the moment. That's the lesson of the streets; that's the necessity and survival instinct of people who must scam to get by.

The Parks are by contrast so flawed in their emotional intelligence and basic skills of decision making that viewers have to question and ultimately conclude their status in life can only be seen as a perk of privilege that they were obviously born into. Mrs. Park is a neurotic mess of insecurity, even as she seeks to project the other, and she is a complete failure as a parent, though that would seem to be her only role and responsibility. And Mr. Park is very clear in his rigid adherence to social rules established by birth and career status, noting how he just can't accept people who "cross the lines." The Kims and all the working class people had better know their place, and he is quick to make clear how expendable they are. His attitude toward his previous driver and Mr. Kim expose just how dismissive he is toward people in his employ, even as he pretends to care about them as human beings. His disdainful behavior is nowhere more clear than in the moments before his death when he chats with Mr. Kim about the plan to surprise his son, but then feels the need to passively threaten Mr. Kim with his job for appearing disinterested in playing such games. He is a driver, not a personal servant for the amusement of the Park family, and he is working on his day off, following the complete destruction of his home in the storm. This is to say nothing of Mr. Park hysterically screaming at Kim to come drive his family to safety as Kim's daughter lay there dying. It's the height of tragic absurdity.

Bong Joon-ho crafted a scathingly brilliant jeuvenalian satire of disparities in Korean socio-economic stratification, and his filming of the discrepancies exposes just how far apart yet eerily close these two families are. For even deeper analysis of this dichotomy, check out this explication of the film by writer Chadwick Jenkins for Pop Matters:  Bong Joon-ho's Parasite & the Geometry of Suffering.


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Unpacking the Back: What's Really Going on in Schools?

Are American schools failing with students falling further and further behind, or is public education still the great American success story? The answer, of course, is YES.

For as long as we’ve had schools in the United States, we have provided high quality education among the best in the world to many students while at the same time failing to meet the basic educational needs of many others. And we have been criticizing and complaining about those schools for just as long.

Education News Resources:





Education Reporters, Writers, Critics:

Valerie Strauss - The Answer Sheet of the Washington Post



Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute

Joanne Jacobs - education blogger - Linking & Thinking on Education

TED Talks


Chimamanda Adichie -- "The Danger of a Single Story" 


Sir Ken Robinson -- "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" 


Books to Read

Why Johnny Can't Read - Rudolph Flesch


Real Education -- Charles Murray



Other Information

Education Levels in the United States

Understanding Poverty's Role in PISA Test Scores


The Shrinking of the Liberal Arts


Family & Environment and Education Achievement

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning




Sunday, November 29, 2020

Jack Kemp: "The Bleeding Heart Conservative"

In the early 1980s, my political coming-of-age coincided with the Reagan Era and the emergence, as well as eventual dominance in the GOP, of supply-side thinking. One of the earliest memories I have of being intrigued by a politician outside my electoral area was a key figure in those two historical events. Jack Kemp was the original compassionate conservative, long before the late 90s led George W Bush to both need and smoothly co-opt the qualifier. And in 1987-88 when I was becoming politically active and ready to participate and vote in my first presidential election, Jack Kemp was the Republican who inspired and intrigued me. Jack Kemp was a man who preached and sought prosperity for all Americans, and truly pursued policies based on that idealistic, albeit somewhat naive, belief and plan. It was never about political power or winning elections or appealing to a segment of the electorate. Kemp was a true evangelist for the American Dream. Everything he did was about pursing the Kemp Doctrine: "upward mobility, economic opportunity, cultural diversity, and racial justice." He was a politician who was "principled, dynamic, positive, cheerful, inclusive, bipartisan, optimistic, unorthodox, disposed to compromise .... interested in ideas and action, not political tactics or personal attacks." Jack Kemp was an American. And we can use another Republican like him.





Friday, November 27, 2020

Oligarchy, Conservatism, & the Fading Sense of Community

Our community is not as strong, I fear, as it once was because our society is becoming less made up of communities. Two interesting columns in my paper this morning caught my eye -- the first was a piece on the economy from progressive writer Fared Manjoo who observes: Even in the Pandemic, the Billionaires are Winning. The sad irony of the contemporary economy is that amidst massive economic and public health losses due to the Covid-19 health crisis, the stock market continues to surge, and investors reap incredible financial gains. The Walmart trio has increased their own personal wealth  by a staggering $47 billion just since March when for most people the world fell apart. The CEO of Zoom has gone from a net worth of $1 billion to nearly $20 billion. And Jeff Bezos, the world's wealthiest man, has increased his fortune to $182 billion. Now, purely based on market forces and valuations, these people have not so radically improved the world, the economy, their product, the lives of millions, the benefits of their workers, or most notably, their communities. 

And that's just rather unseemly to me.

The other column catching my attention aligns with the increasing disappointment and utter bafflement at the workings of the GOP by those of us who might describe ourselves as conservative but not Republican. David Brooks, a never Trumper and a true Burkean conservative, opines about The Rotting of the Republican Mind. Brooks' criticisms, like those of people such as David French and Jay Nordinger, are focused on the moral and ethical capitulation of the contemporary GOP, a condition that writer and commentator of the tech revolution Kurt Anderson would hearken back to the 1980s, but that I would more link to the mid 90s and the rise of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. Basically, the values of Burke and Kirk about the importance of stability in society based on moral principals and a shared sense of community have been abandoned for a political platform that is more around an agenda of "holding on to what's mine."

Granted, in a free, or more accurately, mixed-market capitalist system, the opportunity for the investor class to amass such wealth is certainly within their rights, so to speak. That doesn't, however, mean that they should with little regard to the system as a whole. I still hearken back to the Kempian idea of enterprise zones that would in theory help all boats rise. The current financial structure doesn't support that, and it exposes the flaw in Kemp's supply-side faith. He actually believed the suppliers would invest in the idea of broadening the prosperity and increasing the size of the pie. But that has not happened, and our communities have become increasingly stratified as wealth and power become increasingly concentrated in a oligarchic plutocracy.

What to do? You can’t argue people out of paranoia. If you try to point out factual errors, you only entrench false belief. The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.

Rebuilding trust is, obviously, the work of a generation.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Running is Good for your Knees

I've never understood or agreed with people who don't run because it "hurts the knees." Or worse, they don't run anymore because being a runner in high school and/or college "ruined their knees." If running hurts your knees, it's likely you're just doing it wrong. The "heel strike" is the primary cause of pain. Runners, true runners, run on the balls of their feet, and it's the quads and calf muscles that absorb the shock. Thus, the knee is not the target of force in running. Knees should have little to do with it. And, these days there is an ever-growing body of research that supports the idea that running is actually good for your knees. Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times spotlights the research that speculates running not only won't ruin your knees but is actually good for them, including the idea that it may prompt cartilage self repair.

Could running actually be good for your knees?

That idea is at the heart of a fascinating new study of the differing effects of running and walking on the knee joint. Using motion capture and sophisticated computer modeling, the study confirms that running pummels knees more than walking does. But in the process, the authors conclude, running likely also fortifies and bulks up the cartilage, the rubbery tissue that cushions the ends of bones. The findings raise the beguiling possibility that, instead of harming knees, running might fortify them and help to stave off knee arthritis.

Monday, November 23, 2020

A Wonderful Little Piano Memoir

Sometimes reading about someone else's passion can be just the key to discovering your own. In what Publisher's Weekly calls "a warmhearted insight into a private Paris" an American expat writer Thad Carhart shares his rediscovery of the piano later in life and also provides a window on a side of Paris few outsiders will ever know. A year ago I purchased a keyboard after years of appreciating from afar the beauty of the only instrument that can also serve as a piece of fine art furnishing. Having grown up with a piano in the house but never having learned to play, I decided that as part of a desire to live more artfully, I wanted to learn to play. The piano instructor at my school gave me a few tips, handing me the introductory manual for his beginners piano class, and for the past year for maybe an hour a week, I have fooled around on the piano. Thad Carhart's beautiful gem of a memoir The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier has inspired me to continue my practice with the hopes of someday being able to fill my house with something approaching music. I really loved this little book as a meditation on art and life.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Somewhere Else & Back

In the summer after my college graduation, I interviewed for a teaching job at my former high school in the small town of Alton, IL, and then I promptly moved eight thousand miles across the world to teach English at a buxiban, or “cram school,” in Taipei, Taiwan. It was one of the boldest moves I ever took, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Of course, I had help in the choice, specifically because the young woman I was slowly falling in love with was heading to Taiwan to teach, and I didn’t really have any other plans. It was 1992, and English teaching jobs weren’t exactly falling into my lap, not that I was searching too diligently. The ‘91 recession and state spending cuts didn’t help either. And my wife’s former roommate, who was Taiwanese, was returning home to live with her parents and mentioned the idea of us teaching there. So, after a visit to the Educational Placement Office of the University of Illinois, where we found a rather basic flyer offering teaching positions in Taipei at the Hess Language School, Julie and I bought our tickets and boarded a plane. 

Since that time in Southeast Asia, the idea of moving abroad has been one of the most consistent pieces of advice and encouragement I give my students: go somewhere else for a little while. Take leave of your comfort zone and flee the familiar. Get out of your country; even if you love, leave it. This leap of faith may simply be a semester abroad during school, or it could be a work-study program or a job-swap. It might be a single gig for your company or a one-year appointment. Whatever it is, when the opportunity to travel is available, take it. My wife and I ended up staying in Taiwan for nearly five years, teaching and traveling the world. We went to Honk Kong for weekends, lived a month in a bungalow on the Greek isle of Paros, spent a week surfing and lounging on Bali, and got engaged in the botanical garden of Rome. Eventually, we moved back to the United States and lived a couple years in the city of Chicago, where she worked as a pastry chef and I taught middle school. Moving home after time abroad was so refreshing, and the Midwest became new again.

When we moved to Taiwan, one of the first books I read was Peter Mayle’s best-selling memoir A Year in Provence, in which he recounts moving to the south of France in his fifties. It was the perfect complement to our journey, a bemused and whimsical reflection on his decision to uproot himself and purchase an old house in the south of France. And about that time I was learning of others my age who were willing to travel for work and adventure. An old friend took a job out of college driving one of the Oscar Meyer Weiner-mobiles around the country, a year-long gig she parlayed into a job as entertainment guide and travel writer on a luxury cruise ship. She introduced me to a twenty-three old coworker who just happened to have “the greatest job ever” as the ship’s golf pro, which basically consisted of living for free while giving golf lessons at the ship's simulator and accompanying wealthy retirees for rounds at exclusive exotic resorts around the world. That gig might only be bested by news of an old fraternity buddy who took a job as a scuba instructor on a private resort island owned by a huge cruise ship company. Some friends spent summers working for the forestry industry planting saplings in Canada, and others camped and hiked around Alaska, supporting themselves in the salmon canneries. You can imagine which of these jobs was the least fulfilling but most memorable by smell alone. Last year I spent a couple weeks in Australia, exploring Sydney and the Gold Coast, visiting a friend who’d also said yes when his tech company asked him to move his family “Down Under” for a short-term assignment. In all, the people willing to take a chance on going somewhere else have almost always returned home with wonderful memories and few regrets about their decision to go somewhere else.

In an essay from his first book All I Need to Know about Life I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum wrote about lessons he’s learned from a lifetime on the move, having lived thirty-seven places in fifty-one years. In one of his many reflections, he described picking up a couple hitchhikers who were holding a sign “Somewhere Else and Back,” a slight twist on the discontented sign “Anywhere But Here” mentality he recalled from the Sixties. They told him they actually liked their home, but they just wanted to be “somewhere else for a while.” It’s not an uncommon feeling, Fulghum notes, for people throughout history. The nomadic itch has always been part of man’s collective DNA. For much of his later adult life, Fulghum and his wife have divided their time between a houseboat in Seattle and the island of Crete, and both places are equally home to him, albeit in different ways.

Granted, I know many of the stories I share seem to come with a bit of privilege. Many young people simply don’t have the option, opportunity, or luxury of uprooting themselves for a year or more of adventure. However, looking outside our comfort zone for opportunities is rarely bad advice, even if most people aren’t willing or able to take the chance. I grew up in southern Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi, and I knew of people who had never crossed the river into St. Louis. I’ve also lived for years in Denver, and I know of people who have never ventured the forty-minutes west into the Rocky Mountains. In reality, most Americans settle within twenty miles of where they grew up. And the idea of having roots and “staying put” as Scott Russell Sanders wrote is an admirable and perhaps even preferable mindset to the endless migration of people who Salman Rushdie said “root themselves in ideas rather than places” and who Pico Iyer called “global souls.” Certainly, settling down is a goal for most, for that’s how a house becomes a home, and our homes become communities. That said, I will still always recommend to my students the simple idea of “somewhere else” as a worthwhile destination.





Thursday, November 12, 2020

Less Than Zero: A GenX Christmas Movie

 On November 6, 1987, just a few weeks after an epic stock market crash signifying the end of 80s consumer excess and portending darker more austere days to come, theaters premiered a flashy yet noir version of the teen film genre based on an even darker novel from a few years before. Less Than Zero, based on the Bret Easton Ellis book of the same name, was set in Beverly Hills where Yale student Clay comes home for the holidays. Set during the Christmas season, the film could aptly be viewed as a Christmas movie in the spirit of the hollow, empty materialism the day too often represents. This ain't a Hallmark film for sure. It is, however, "a very Gen X Christmas movie."

Here are some thoughts from my latest piece on Medium:

Thirty years ago, Clay came back to LA for Christmas, and the holiday movie was never the same. For Generation X, a group of people raised on disappointment, the cinematic version of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero is a true Christmas movie exposing the hollow superficial excess of the holiday season and specifically the 1980s. A visually stunning film from cinematographer Edward Lachman, the movie captures and spotlights all the glitz of the holiday season, especially in Beverly Hills, while not looking away from the vacuous lack of substance behind the style, the holiday, and the state of the American family. Director Marek Kanievska created a haunting music video of a Christmas movie with film noir elements amidst the bright lights of holiday decorations.




Monday, November 9, 2020

Achieving at Grade Level

So, I was recently checking out some info on the site The 74 Million, an education-reform organization from former journalist Campbell Brown, and I noted a comment and raison d'etre from their About page:  " ... less than half of our students can read or do math at grade level." A comment and statistic like that would lead most people to conclude America's education system is a disastrous failure, which is a position and statement that I regularly scrutinize and challenge. Today we have access to more data on student achievement and schools than at any time in history, but it's important to "unpack the data," as the lingo goes. 

With the "less than half" comment in mind, I'm pondering what exactly we mean and think we know by the term "grade level." How does that term and association align with our understanding of statistics and averages? Is the term and the assessment tool used to determine it based on how the "average student" would achieve at that age/grade? Or is it the bare minimum that a student could achieve. The distinction between these terms would seem to be an integral and indispensable bit information in drawing conclusions about individual kids, school systems, and the entire idea of education and education reform. And I'm not sure we're all on the same page. 

Clearly, in most measuring situations, half of the data is above average (or the mean or the median ...) and half of the data is below average. Right? That is certainly true for cognitive tests. And obviously not all students are the same, with some performing below, some at, and some above average. In terms of grade level, which again is arbitrarily linked to age and assumptions about standards of development, the goal would seem to be that every student at a certain age must perform "at or above" grade level. Thus, there is no place for below average. 

So, how do we reconcile this? And how do we address shortcomings without falling into the whimsical description and expectation from Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where "all the children are above average"?


Saturday, November 7, 2020

November 7, 2020

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds ...” 

                                                          — A. Lincoln, Second Inaugural

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Am I My Brother's Keeper?: Classical Liberalism, Conservatives, & the Communities We Need for the Stability We Crave

"Am I my brother's keeper?"

So asked Cain of the Lord, and considering the tone of God's inquiry and the status of Cain as basically the world's first murderer and representation of man's inhumanity to man, the answer is, well, yes, you are and should have been. That idea of a responsibility to our neighbors and our community has been on my mind lately, especially as it can seem at times as if we are falling apart as a nation at the very time we should and must be coming together. Conservative writer David French is truly concerned about the division, and certainly the protests in the street coinciding with a president who publicly espouses a mistrust of the institutions he's sworn to protect give us reason to pause and even fret. On the other hand, I still ground myself in faith for the country and the communities in which we live. And it's the value and importance of community that French identifies as really the hope to avoid a dramatic and even violent split in our society. Edmund Burke, the founding father of conservatism, called these units of community "little platoons," the traditional structures of society to connect us and build stability through community.

It's in these communities that we will find hope. David Brooks' recently addressed the role we play in the lives of our neighbors in his column "Two Cheers for Liberalism." Much of what has been happening in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has destabilized and even decimated communities beginning with the family. From the marginalization of independent farms in rural American that practice the agrianism of people like writer and poet Wendell Berry to the dissolution of family neighborhoods in urban settings facing job losses that established a middle class living, we are as Charles Murray wrote "coming apart." From fading factory jobs to failing family farms, the instability in the economy has resulted in instability in the families and neighborhoods. Rampant drug use from the opioid epidemic in rural counties to the crack and meth problems ravaging the cities and suburbs, stability is at risk. Institutions create stability in society and the keys are the family, the church, the schools, and the local governments. That is why, as I tried to explain to an acquaintance recently, why she should pay taxes to support schools when she doesn't have kids in them. The stable community those schools provide benefits all of us.

The problem of a society and economy increasingly managed by companies like Google and Amazon is that while the profits benefit some, the net loss to communities exacerbates the problems we oppose and seek to mitigate. The self interest and monopolistic power of these companies have ultimately weakened the very communities which they claim as their consumers. Mike Rowe, a tireless advocate for the value of skilled labor, has pointed out that the tech industry creates millionaires among a select few who design the product, but that prosperity doesn't extend to those who build, transport, sell, and buy the products. A single fax machine is worthless with no one to connect to. That same idea can be extrapolated through so many of our innovations. The tech companies have similarly cannibalized the heart of the information industry that gave them so much of their content. 

Granted, I grew up as a Gen X conservative in the Reagan Era of the 1980s when we all learned "Greed is good," or so Gordon Gecko so glibly pontificated in Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street. We are driven by self interest and that does create progress and growth in society. But understanding and believing in the opportunities provided by the system of mixed-market capitalism under which the United States has thrived for so long does not mean endorsing extremes of behavior and ideology that have come to dominate political discourse since the mid 1990s. So, as the country struggles with its belief systems and extreme views about where the nation is heading, it's important to remember the stability that this country, with very little disruption, has operated under for so many years and to reject that quip from William Buckley. Yes, Bill, extremism in the defense of liberty is a vice. It's exactly the idea of extremism and radicalism that conservatism opposed and exists to counter.

In outlining his political philosophy Edmund Burke strongly opposed the radical anarchy and social disorder of the French Revolution. Most people feel the same way -- we value our communities and a society in which we can live safely and get up each day with the opportunity to thrive based on our individual actions and characteristics. Basically, we want to get up in the morning and know that the lights will come on, and people will drive on the right side of the road.  From Burke to Kirk, the value of stability in society and the institutions which establish it and maintain it are the primary focus and building blocks of a conservative mindset and the common national identify that connects us as one nation.

Yes, we are our brother's keeper.