Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Life You Have Imagined

As we approach the end of the year, it's time for the obligatory reflection on where we've been, where we're going, and how we feel about it.

Near the end of Walden, (Life in the Woods), transcendental writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau advises readers to believe “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” As the world wraps up another calendar year, amidst a pandemic approaching its second year of disruption, we will all again take stock of our lives and our year as the clock ticks toward midnight on December 31. While the examined life is not always a satisfying experience, the inclination to reflect and even judge our lives is a natural feeling that is nearly impossible to ignore.

Thoreau’s advice in Walden is a reminder of our powers of self determination and our ability to not only chart our course in life but to also manage how we perceive it. It’s easy to feel a lack of control at points in our lives, and it’s even easier to fall prey to that inclination in times of crisis and uncertainty, like in a global pandemic that just won’t seem to end. Thoreau certainly faced his share of challenge and uncertainty, losing his siblings to disease early in life before succumbing to tuberculosis himself at the age of forty-four. Yet by all accounts, including his own extensive writings, he seemed to never miss a chance to live the life he wanted. Many other writers and artists have sought to explain the conundrum we all face in making sense of our daily lives. And sometimes the lessons can be found in the most unexpected places.

In the film Stranger Than Fiction, the character Harold Crick played by Will Ferrell realizes his life is being narrated by some nameless voice, and he is actually the character in a story, one where he is going to die very soon. As Harold attempts to understand the voice and find some explanation for the dire fate that is quickly approaching, he begins to look at his life with fresh eyes and a sense of urgency. In a rather panicked conversation with an English scholar who has tried to discover the narrative Harold is living, the professor, played whimsically by Dustin Hoffman, advises him to simply live his life and accept the story as it is plays out. That somewhat dismissive advice is, of course, the same guideline we must all live by. Obviously Harold protests, saying “this isn’t a story to me or a philosophy or literary theory, it’s my life.” The professor smiles and tells him to simply “Go out and make it the one you’ve always wanted.” That guidance is the key to the film, and it is also the insight offered by Thoreau.

In many ways the movie Stranger Than Fiction and the advice from the English professor are a succinct reflection of the philosophy of existentialism. Life is basically what the individual makes of it, nothing more and nothing less. Starting with Soren Kierkegaard in the late nineteenth century and continuing with Jean Paul Sarte and Albert Camus in the middle of the twentieth, the existentialists addressed the challenge of living in a seemingly absurdist world, an increasingly apt description these days. At times it seems like the only meaning and purpose in our life is that which we individually and randomly assign to it. In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the existentialist writer Albert Camus ponders the absurd fate of the mythical Greek hero Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to endlessly roll a huge rock to the top of a mountain, at which point the stone would roll back down. Yet, in embracing a fate rather than lamenting a burden, Camus ends by asserting we “must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

So, as we continue to enjoy the holiday season, bidding farewell to one year while preparing to welcome another, we will again succumb to the irresistible need to reflect on the past and make resolutions for the future. As we seek to understand the lives we live, the benefits we enjoy, the opportunities we receive, and the challenges we face, we can look to Thoreau, we can commiserate with Harold Crick, we can ponder Camus and Sisyphus. And, as we do, looking back in reflection and forward with anticipation on the last day of December, here’s to imagining ourselves happy and living the lives we have imagined.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

On Notebooks, Joan Didion, & Christmas Morning

On Christmas morning, I'm reading the paper and doing some writing and thinking of Joan Didion, who passed away this week at the age of eighty-seven. As the memories and reflections and tributes pour out, we can't help but reflect on her contributions to the simple act of writing down what we know, what we see, what we hear, and even what we wonder.

It was from Didion on keeping a notebook that many of us discovered the idea of writing down snippets of thought, phrases or references from an article, or perhaps dialogue overheard that isn’t really to include in pieces later as much to remind us of who we are, what our thought processes were, and what it means to simply notice and think. As I've been reading back through pieces about and by Didion and writing, I realize it's been  been officially a decade since I started keeping a notebook. It was the winter of 2011, sometime around Thanksgiving, that I started jotting down thoughts in a notebook. I also started walking regularly, perhaps to get out of the house and certainly to collect my thoughts. And I'm still collecting my thoughts, occasionally posting them here, or perhaps weaving them into a column for The Villager.

Perhaps I'll start second semester with Didion’s essay to set the tone for my students being writers of creative nonfiction, at least as long as they’re in my class, seeing the world like an artist.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Christmas Eve

“It's Christmas Eve. It's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year we are the people that we always hoped we would be.”

— Frank Cross, Scrooged

Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Novelty of Manners

A novel of manners has lessons on the novelty of manners. Here's this week's column for The Villager.

At times it seems we live beyond the pale.

In contemporary American society, crass, rude, and careless behavior too often masquerades as bold, assertive, and independent expression. The manners, traditions, and customs that once seemed so central to American life seem to fade on a daily basis, replaced by people acting on base instincts. The decorum that should be sacrosanct in institutions like Congress is no longer practiced, required, or even expected. The basic decency that should be standard in places like the schoolhouse and the church parking lot is embarrassingly absent. Sometimes I think contemporary American society needs a few more Lady Catherines.

Jane Austen’s timeless novel Pride & Prejudice is considered a novel of manners for its detailed examination of the customs, institutions, and culture of the time in which the story is set. The novel is also a rather intricate tale of relationships and traditions, as well as biting satire and social criticism of the society its characters inhabit. It is a wonderfully entertaining narrative as well a rich character study of numerous personalities inherent in regency England. One of those characters, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is often perceived as somewhat of a villain, a snobby elitist member of the nobility who seeks only to destroy the inevitable union of Elizabeth and Darcy. And, of course, she is that and more. Her suspicion, judgment, and ridicule of the Bennett sisters is scathingly cold. Alas, it is also fair. Despite her callous contempt for people beneath her social class, Lady Catherine is also correct in much of her criticisms of the Bennett family. They are, at times, embarrassingly crass and inappropriate.

The true wisdom and beauty of Austen’s novel is that she simultaneously upholds the institutions and values of her society as she satirizes and criticizes them. The book is a novel of decorum and manners, two important tenets of civilized society. Both qualities are severely lacking in young Lydia Bennett, as well as the rakish Wickham who nearly destroys the Bennett family by stealing the virtue of their youngest and most naive daughter. Fortunately for Lydia, her older sister Elizabeth is not so crass and careless. And, it's Elizabeth’s inherent goodness which unites her with the gentleman Darcy who resolves the family drama with tact and discretion. Ultimately, when Elizabeth Bennett stands up to Lady Catherine, she actually represents all the poise, reserve, and class the rest of her family lacked. I can only imagine what the institutionally reserved Lady Catherine or the naturally refined Elizabeth Bennett might think of contemporary society.

In a recent column for The Atlantic, conservative columnist David Brooks laments a similar lack of manners and decorum in the nature of American politics. An erudite scholar and social critic in his own right, Brooks often looks to the great thinkers of the neoclassical era for insight into the human condition. Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume were concerned that man’s faculty for reason was not strong enough to control his inclination to selfishness. As a result of Hume’s concern, and to an extent those of Lady Catherine, nineteenth century writers crafted their vision “about how we produce good citizens—people who are moderate in their zeal, sympathetic to the marginalized, reliable in their diligence, and willing to sacrifice the private interest for public good.”

Noting specifically the increasingly crass behavior among some members of the Republican party, Brooks fears the party has strayed far from the principles of conservative godfather Edmund Burke. In reviewing the writings of Hume and Burke, Brooks ponders how the country arrived at this point. Brooks reminds readers how Burke, in some ways a contemporary of the Lady Catherines in nineteenth century England, lamented an increasingly blunt and mannerless society and stressed the importance of dignified behavior in our leaders and citizens. “Manners are of more importance than laws'' asserts Burke, for “upon them, in great measure, the laws depend.” Clearly, the lessons of the nineteenth century are lost on many people today, including those at the highest reaches of society and government.

In discussing his novel The Lord of the Flies, William Golding once explained how the story’s moral “is that the shape of a society must depend upon the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system, however apparently logical or respectable.” That ethical nature seems to be in short supply in a society looking increasingly beyond the pale.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Less Than Zero: a Gen X Christmas Movie

It's time for the annual debates about Christmas movies, and the non-Christmasy Christmas movies. Yes, maybe Die Hard, probably Die Hard. But if you're between the age of forty-five and sixty, you probably recall another holiday season film from 1987, Less Than Zero. 

The 80s film based on Bret Easton Ellis' first novel is truly a Christmas movie. I wrote about this a few years for Medium. Here are my thoughts on a GenX Christmas.

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.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

This Thing We Call Literature

I've been reading much non-fiction about art and literature lately. Here are some thoughts from this week's column in The Villager.

In the teaching of composition and literature, I always remind my students that words have connotations in addition to their denotation, or dictionary definition. It's worth noting the word literature has a connotation as well. The general consensus is that literature is more highbrow than popular fiction, and it's almost expected to be less-than-accessible to the average reader. Literature is the long, complicated, sometimes boring stuff we read in school. The definition I've tended to use with my students is that literature is "the stuff that matters."

I always distinguish between good storytelling and literature. Stephanie Meyer's incredibly popular Twilight series from 2005, I’ve explained to my students, is a great story, but actually contains rather weak writing, and it certainly won't ever be studied, nor will it even be thought of a generation from now. Stephen King, one of the most successful and talented fiction writers of the contemporary age once made a similar observation of Meyer, noting she “can’t write worth a darn.” I tend to agree, though many readers of classic literature might make the same criticism of King. Of course, we could be wrong. And there are far more scholarly and erudite people to explain and resolve this. Arthur Krystal is definitely one of those.

Krystal is one of my favorite critics, writers, and thinkers, and I've lately been reading several of his books of essays and criticism, notably his latest work This Thing We Call Literature, which is the inspiration for this column. Krystal is, I believe, first and foremost an essayist, and he spends much of his practice in the form pondering the very nature of writing and storytelling. One of his targets in the book is the idea in contemporary society that literature is whatever we want it to be, or even worse, anything that is written. He draws insight and perspective from the theory posited in a book of literary criticism entitled A New Literary History of America, which makes the astute observation that Bob Dylan is potentially the most well-known and significant poet in America today. This perspective is, of course, validated by his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Add to that the 2018 awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for music to rapper Kendrick Lamar, and you can see the argument take shape.

Exploring the depths of my original comment about popular writers like Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer, Krystal's discussion of commercial or genre fiction versus literary fiction is the crux of differing views about literature. For example, he notes the significance of popularity in weighing a literary work's significance, and he concedes the obvious reality that the works of Charles Dickens were actually the popular fiction of their time, read by a public including many who had nothing more than an eighth grade education. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Edmund Wilson's classic New Yorker essay disparaging popular crime fiction, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" When I ran across an excerpt from that essay years ago, it opened my eyes to the battle over literature and popular fiction. Certainly, popularity is not the barometer by which we measure quality - fast food and reality TV being examples of the flaw in that logic.

That said, Pop Culture has a distinctly different status than it did even twenty years ago. As Krystal notes: “If you think Buffy the Vampire Slayer deserves to be the subject of an academic dissertation ... then you are living in the right time.” No doubt. And I am certainly one to elevate Buffy to the body of work worthy of study. For years, I have half-joked to my classes that my first scholarly work of literary criticism will be centered on the three Bs of western culture studies: "The Bible, Beowulf, & Buffy." But I don't disagree with Krystal or Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom that there are clear distinctions for that which we deem literature. I'd also agree that postmodern obfuscation of ideas like quality, morality, and truth are doing no service to culture. There's the good stuff that matters and won't soon be forgotten, and there's everything else.

Anyway, if you want to ponder some thoughts on language and literature, check out Arthur Krystal. Read some popular fiction as well. And then perhaps follow that with some classic literature. Having recently introduced my students to Jane Austen’s timeless classic Pride and Prejudice, I can’t recommend it enough.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Immersive Van "no" Gogh

I’ve decided against seeing the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit everyone raves about, despite loving Van Gogh since I was a child. For some reason the idea of blending twenty-first century digital technology with the sublime oil paintings of a nineteenth century Impressionist master just makes me uneasy.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Helicopter, Snowplow, & Stealth Fighter Parents

This week's column for The Villager:

Helicopter parent.

It's a loaded term with a cynical pejorative connotation, especially in the world of educators. People often look with contempt at parents who quite literally seem to care too much. And, in the era of overzealous mothers contacting college professors about grades or even employers about interviews and promotions, it’s easy to criticize and ridicule such behavior. However, after nearly thirty years in education, I have a slightly qualified view of over-active parenting. As an educator, I have always said I’d much rather deal with a helicopter parent who hovers too much than an absentee parent who just doesn't seem to care. I've seen both kinds of parenting, and the risks of disengaged, careless, or even resentful parenting are just too damaging. For, as esteemed author Elie Wiesel so wisely reminded us, "The opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference."

Now it appears there is a bit of validation for helicopter parenting. According to researcher and writer Pamela Druckerman "the bad news about helicopter parenting" is "it works." With that news, I would imagine most critics immediately key in on the word "works." How exactly does it work, and at what cost to the child? According to numerous studies, the most effective parents are, in fact, authoritative. However, that authoritative approach doesn’t simply mean demanding obedience. It actually focuses on developing qualities such as adaptability, problem-solving, self-efficacy, and independence. Parenting is about methodically leading children to adulthood, nurturing their growth and independence.

However, a new parenting term has recently hit the lexicon -- snowplow parents. Snowplow parents are people who do everything they can to "clear the road" of any obstacles for their children. This approach is complicated because everyone wants what is best for their kids, and no one wants to see his child struggle unnecessarily. At the same time, reasonable people understand that struggle and adversity are part of growing up, and often "what we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly," as noted by Thomas Paine. When children are young, it is right to protect them from the harsh realities of the world -- even if we inadvertently introduce them to death, destruction, and betrayal at an early age by showing them video games and Disney movies. Beyond that minor indiscretion, parents simply want childhood to be relatively pleasant.

Once kids reach adolescence, and the rules of competition and comparison come into play, we must begin to evaluate those sink-or-swim moments, as our kids learn to take care of themselves. Snowplow parents won't allow the sinking, mistakenly believing that smoothing the road for the kid is more important than teaching the driving skills and coping strategies to prepare kids to ride solo. There are varying levels of snowplow behavior, with the Lori Loughlin-Felicity Huffman version being the most insane. That “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal will perhaps provide a moment of reflection for parents, kids, and college admissions officers to reevaluate the often Faustian system we have created.

Of course, I've never advocated for helicopter parenting, even as I seek to understand it. The term seemed to arise from the Baby Boomer parenting style which sought to protect their Millennial kids from taking the risks and making the mistakes of their parents. I much prefer the structured and supportive but more free-range parenting style associated with Gen Xers who want their children to have the freedom and develop the resilience they did as children in the 70s and 80s. At the heart is the idea of loving them, but not obsessing over them. It's caring for them by teaching them and expecting them to care for themselves and others. It's also about trusting them to be the human beings we raised, even if that means knowing they will make mistakes and occasionally disappoint us and themselves. That's when they need love and support the most.

Effective parents don’t hover, they don’t helicopter, and they certainly don’t snowplow. However, they are neither aloof nor disengaged. Generational writer and sociologist Neil Howe has termed Gen X parents “Stealth Fighter Parents.” They are aware and involved in the lives of their children, choosing where, when, and how much. If an issue “seems below their threshold of importance,” they will let it go, “saving their energy” and probably their nerves. But if the situation “shows up on their radar … they will strike, rapidly and in force, and often without warning.” The target might be peers or other adults, but most likely it’s the kids themselves. Ultimately, it’s simply about being involved and caring while gradually letting them learn to fly.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Teaching as Performance Art

Teachers are in many ways performers. I've written several pieces about this idea before, and I've recently updated those for my column this week in The Villager.

“Mr. Mazenko, you could be an actor.”

One of my students recently gave me that compliment after I had finished reading a poem aloud in various voices for a lesson on tone and interpretation. I responded with, “I am an actor.” It's the Mazenko Show -- five performances a day, five days a week for ten months of the year. That, of course, excludes test days, though even handing out tests can be a rather dramatic scene.

While calling myself an actor is figurative, there is an element of acting to my job. My students often refuse to believe me when I describe myself as somewhat shy and rather introverted. Obviously, my classroom persona seems to defy any possibility of reserve or anxiety. In the classroom, I’m generally enthusiastic, energetic and, yes, quite vocal and outgoing. However, a teacher’s class persona is in some ways just a show. It's a performance. Interestingly, this quality is something people in "the real world" never truly understand. When friends and acquaintances in the private sector talk about a big presentation they have coming up at work, I think, "me, too. All day. Everyday."

Being on stage as much as teachers are, we really have to be performers, and effective teachers, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, "know our song well before we start singing." However, outside of the classroom, teachers can be rather reserved around other people. They can get nervous giving presentations to colleagues, and they can be surprisingly passive at social events. Many professional entertainers describe a similar feeling. Comedians, for example, are often troubled by the expectation to be funny all the time. Their show takes a lot of work, and it's not always so easy. In fact, many comedians reveal they were not the class clowns or the life of the party, but instead were the observers. They watched carefully what happened around them, and their understanding of humanity is what drives their art.

The distinction between our work and real selves comes up regularly as I talk to students about who they are. Though teachers project confidence and knowledge in the classroom, we are still human, and it takes a lot of effort to put on the show each day. After twenty-nine years in the classroom, I now realize the key is not just performance or entertainment, but the art of engagement. If the teacher creates an engaging lesson that is tailored to the students sitting in front of him or her, then the entertaining quality can take many different forms.

The performance aspect became my shtick early in my career, and it seemed almost necessary and more comfortable to do it that way. My high intensity approach has much to do with my first job out of college, teaching English as a second language in Taiwan. Though I trained to be a high school literature and writing teacher, I was teaching elementary school kids, and even kindergarten for a year. The fun, engaging performance style connected with the kids who were often reluctantly learning English because they had no choice. Thus, the rather rigid curriculum was centered on games and activities, and the school liked a high energy approach.

After five years teaching in cram schools, I returned to the States and taught middle school for a couple years at a Catholic school in Chicago before transitioning to high school in a suburban district. And, at each stop along the way, I discovered that a performance approach seemed to promote engagement. In all honesty, I now realize I may have been overestimating the engagement level, especially when I consider how school is often just a place where kids go to watch adults work. I also had a great mentor who once advised me to make sure I don't become a caricature of myself. Reflecting on these ideas is helpful. We do need to be "on" quite a bit, but it's important to remember we can also be human beings and be vulnerable. Otherwise, it's easy to burn out.

Reflection is the key. I tell newer teachers to simply be thoughtful about what you do every day, and ultimately be true to yourself and whatever your style of engagement is. At the end of the day and the sound of the bell and the rise of the curtain, the only important consideration is whatever engages the audience in the show.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Faith is What Remains

Feeling a bit pensive with this week's column in The Villager. It's a good time of the year to be reflective and appreciate what is.

Many years ago during a moment of ennui and melancholy, I voiced a concern that perhaps I had lost my faith. It was a time in my life that I was experiencing a fading sense of belief and trust in many things, including myself. Feeling a bit unmoored and listless, I occasionally found myself apathetic and disinterested in many things I once found meaningful. It wasn’t a particularly dark or depressed feeling, just a dull sense of emptiness.

At that time in a rather brief but enlightening conversation, a wise and spiritual young man told me that, on the contrary, faith is not something you can lose. “Faith,” he said casually but with a calm confidence, “faith is what remains when all else seems hopeless. Faith is not something you lose -- it’s what you turn to when you are feeling lost.” Few conversations have stayed with me as long and as vividly as that one. And I have recalled it often, especially in the past couple years. Faith is what reminds us that every day there are many opportunities to smile, laugh, and love.

I have heard and read that the pandemic has increased feelings of anxiety and despair in many people as they fret about the state of the world and their place in it. As the pandemic approaches two years, many of us are simply exhausted by the news and the uncertainty of our daily lives. However, amidst those uneasy feelings, a recent poll indicated that a majority of people feel their mental health is better than it’s ever been and a key reason is because the last few years have given them the opportunity to think about it. Rather than losing hope in the world, people are finding faith in themselves.

Part of that change can be attributed to a simple focus on mental health, and some have discovered clarity through the art of mindfulness. For the past few years, I’ve added mindfulness practice into my life and my classroom. It started with a simple app called 10% Happier, which had several free guided meditations with a man named Joseph Goldstein who simply encourages listeners to “Sit and know you are sitting. Breathe and know you are breathing.” That sort of calm, reflective guidance allows people to step outside of the external factors that stress them and just be still for a moment.

An old old Peanuts cartoon I remember from my youth indicated “happiness is a warm puppy.” And that’s true for many people, except for me. I’m allergic. But I appreciate the idea of finding happiness in life’s simple pleasures. A happy man never really ever asks if he is. Thus, asking “Am I happy?” probably indicates the answer. Doing something about it is the challenge. Steve Jobs once said, “For the past 33 years, I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

One thing people can change is their mindset, and practices such as mindfulness can improve mental well being. Another change is a practice that becomes common every November, the act of being thankful. Gratitude and being actively aware of positives in our lives has been shown to improve mental health. And one simple practice that has a beneficial effect is gratitude journaling. Studies have shown that simply taking time each day for twenty one days to write down three things in our lives for which we are grateful has a positive mental health benefit. And one of those things that I have tried to remember each day is what I learned many years ago about faith.

Of course, faith is not limited to a religion or belief system. While faith can be spiritual, it can also be metaphysical, and there’s a relationship between faith and hope. According to some, faith is trust in the past, whereas hope is trust in the future. As Andy Defrane writes to his friend Red at the end of Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Just like faith. Because faith isn’t something you ever lose. Faith is what remains.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Schools are in Crisis ... and always have been

"Everything about American education is getting bigger all the time: the number of students enrolled, the amount of dollars it spends--and the vast amount of pedagogical gobbledygook. As it gets bigger, more and more people are insistently asking: is it any good? The complaining voice is not that of a few carping malcontents but a multitude of doubters deeply skeptical of what is being produced in the way of a people who should be personally content, socially responsible, and politically effective. Thoughtful parents--often aghast at what is being done and not being done--organize, agitate, protest and petition.”

– "U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis" LIFE Magazine October 16, 1950

This clip comes courtesy of Robert Pondiscio, a teacher, parent, writer, and education pundit. Such relics from the recent past are important to keep in mind as we ponder the state of schools and contemporary society. As an educator and writer, I've often shared a similar bit of perspective, which I put in one of my earlier columns, as well as a presentation at the University of Denver, called "Unpacking the Backpack."

Unpacking the Backpack - What’s Really Going on in Education

"Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners and contempt for authority. They disrespect their elders and love gossip and socializing instead of exercise. They no longer rise when adults enter the room. They challenge their parents, scarf their food, and tyrannize their teachers."

While you might think those comments were part of a recent NBC news special or an article in the New York Times, they have actually been attributed to Socrates in the fifth century, BC. We hear much criticism of young people and public education these days. Some pessimists and curmudgeons even argue both are in a state of ruin. I assert, however, such views are naive, and there is more to the story.

So, are schools failing or is public education still the great American success story? The answer, of course, is yes.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Democracy isn’t Light or Transient

While I tend not to veer into political issues, especially those of local government and philosophy, in my column for The Villager, this week's entry originated out of my class's study of the Age of Reason and our analysis of the Declaration of Independence. So, I offer these thoughts on the state of -- and the original vision for -- the republic.

“Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”

So wrote Thomas Jefferson arguing for the colonies’ independence from British rule. When the American colonists separated from England, there wasn’t much faith that a new country and government would survive, much less thrive. In fact, many early Americans simply hoped the republic would last twenty years. Now, two-hundred forty-five years later, the republic has avoided splintering into factions while truly becoming a “government long established.”

Each fall during a unit on the Age of Reason, my class spends time deconstructing and analyzing both the language and ideas of the country’s founding document; the experience is a revelation and a reminder every year. The American experiment in self-government was rooted in the Enlightenment, drawing from European philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The ideas were mostly theoretical on the continent, and put to the test across the ocean in the colonies. Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, believed first and foremost in stability and the enduring of institutions against chaos and disorder. In establishing his beliefs about government, Burke contrasted the revolutions in both America and France, praising the American colonists for establishing a government and not descending into anarchy and chaos.

The American republic has survived because of a common understanding and shared commitment to the vision of a united group of states which, while widely spread and unique, are still one country. The one time in the country’s storied history that threatened division was, of course, the Civil War. That conflict was of monumental, profound significance, freeing an enslaved race of people and affirming the vision that all men are created equal and no one shall live in bondage. That cause was neither light, nor transient. As President Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” Ultimately, with the guiding words of Lincoln appealing to “the better angels of our nature,” the nation healed and reunited.

The past couple decades have seen an increasingly vocal population that decides and acts based on ultimatums and intransigence. Recall elections, the splintering of collaborative departments, and even talk of secession at the county and state level are all examples of careless disregard for the institutions of democracy. The January 6 attack on the nation’s capitol following frustration over a lost election is the most egregious affront to the vision and sacrifices of 1776. All these rebukes of established government are indicative of an increasingly thin-skinned constitution in the American people who seem incapable of accepting any difference of opinion or heterogeneity to their world. Recall elections are a huge waste of time and money, and they’re a sign of the whiny petulance that currently infects our politics and our lives. Barring evidence of obviously illegal activity or ethics violations, the recall election is always simply the next election.

Similarly, the rash decision of political leaders in Douglas County to leave Tri-County health over a mask mandate is precisely the sort of frivolous action that Jefferson would have dismissed as light and transient. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, who crafted the Federalist Papers to defend the Constitution, would have looked askance at recent moves by legislators in three Maryland counties to secede from the state. Talk of secession would be absurd if it weren’t so dangerous. Similar movements have percolated in Colorado’s Weld county, where some residents want to join Wyoming. Parts of eastern Oregon want to join Idaho. And it seems like every year, there’s a bill in Texas to form its own country.

The “take-my-ball-and-go-home” attitude that influences such action is not the same resolve and firm political conviction that led to the establishment of the United States, nor is it reflective of the honorable commitment to save the union in the name of freedom and equality. Instead, it’s flippant, rash, and, quite frankly, un-American. To be rash is to not be conservative, prudent, or respectful, and such political tantrums are an affront to the vision which expects each generation to conserve the foundation upon which our societies, our communities, and our republic is built.

We all need a little more faith and a lot more patience in the systems and traditions that establish the blanket of comfort under which we rest so comfortably, and we should reaffirm our commitment to “governments long established.”

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Gifted, Advanced, & Average

Last week's column for The Villager -- to coincide with NAGC, the national organization for gifted education, coming to Colorado for the national conference.

"Every child is gifted in their own way."

That was the tagline years ago in a commercial for some cram school, and I've never liked it. Beyond the grammatical error and the manipulative advertising, the idea of everyone being gifted is a flawed, disingenuous idea. Obviously all people have individual interests, inclinations, strengths, motivations, even knacks. And many people are quite good at what they do, whatever it is. That said, the average person is, of course, average.

Yet, that poses an important question: Is there something special about the term gifted? I truly believe there is. In fact, there’s something special, unique, unusual, and even extraordinary about many gifted people throughout history. Individuals ranging from Leonard Da Vinci and Michelangelo to Albert Einstein and Marie Curie to Amadeus Mozart and Misty Copeland to Michael Jordan and Babe Didrickson defy all standards and expectations of achievement. These individuals quite simply have gifts not possessed by most humans.

In the field of education, the term gifted has a unique and significant definition and connotation. Advanced academic learning, acceleration, honors classes, enrichment activities -- these are all important in educating children, but they are not necessarily synonymous with or a substitute for giftedness. In most states giftedness, or GT, refers to legally defined exceptionalities that are guaranteed support under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In that regard, all schools should have staff and resources under a gifted title, as opposed to just "advanced academic services," which is what some school districts shortsightedly call it.

This weekend Colorado hosts the annual conference for NAGC, the National Association for Gifted Children, at the Gaylord Convention Center, where thousands of educators and advocates will meet to address important issues and share ideas. Groups like NAGC and CAGT, Colorado’s gifted education organization, play an important role in maintaining support for gifted students because nationwide many people try to minimize and even eliminate advanced learning. For example, in California new math curriculum guidelines, which are not binding but recommended, actually claim to reject “the cult of giftedness.” And in New York Schools, gifted programs and high achieving magnet schools are facing scrutiny or elimination for being elitist and exclusionary. The Atlantic even recently carried an article entitled “Should Princeton Exist?”

Of course, this is not to say the term gifted is always accurately, appropriately, and equitably applied. White and affluent students are disproportionately identified compared to other demographics, and while the benchmark for gifted identification is supposed to be the 95th percentile, that can lead to nearly all bright hardworking students being labeled gifted. Metrics are tough because in many ways giftedness can be a "know-it-when-you-see-it" quality. Many schools have incredibly smart, high achieving students, but that doesn't mean they’re gifted. Some achieve through much hard work and access to vast resources. That should be honored, but it's not always gifted. If someone masters a standard, class, or skill after diligent practice, that's wonderful. But if someone masters it almost immediately, is that not truly exceptional?

A great example of the distinction I'm getting at can be found by digging into the problematic claims by Malcolm Gladwell in the book The Outliers which popularized, and many say distorted, the ten-thousand-hours-to-mastery theory. While Gladwell's loose reading and interpretation of data has been exposed as inaccurate by numerous researchers, many still believe it. And that can complicate discussions of giftedness.

One of the best counterarguments to Gladwell’s disputed claim and to critics of giftedness is David Epstein's The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Achievement. His research spotlights elite athletes who achieved incredible mastery in their field in far less time than ten thousand hours. He also contrasts gifted athletes with the competitors they bested who had accumulated practice in excess of the established norms. In reality, some people master skills and knowledge with hard work and access, and others simply do it naturally in far less time.

Bill Gates is described in Gladwell's book as having great access to resources which led to his success. That's true. But he is also truly gifted. A real genius. The same can be said for someone like Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes. To be an NFL quarterback, you have to work pretty hard and be pretty awesome. However, some people exist outside the norms. And some achieve exceptionality beyond just the summation of access and hard work.

Some people are just gifted.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Puffs - Magical Fun on Stage

This past week for my column in The Villager, I wrote a review/promo for the fall play at my high school. Our fine arts program is quite exceptional, and I enjoyed the play, as well as a chance to do a bit of local arts spotlight and critique. After attending the dress rehearsal on a Monday night, I crafted a little write-up of the play and the school's production. "Puffs, or a Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic" is a wonderfully entertaining parody of one of the most significant book series in publishing history. If you get a chance to see a local production, I'd recommend checking it out.

The Boy-Who-Lived is mostly a side character, and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named isn’t much of a threat at all. But the magical world created by J.K. Rowling twenty years ago is unmistakable, not to mention a laugh riot, on the stage at Cherry Creek High School this weekend. Creek theater kicks off their season with a performance of Puffs, Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic.

The show, which parodies the tale of a well-known boy wizard, is structured as sketch comedy, with endless transitions and few scenes lasting more than two minutes. The result is a non-stop freight train of sarcastic quips and comments. Those unfamiliar with J.K. Rowling’s magical stories will certainly miss some of the best fun in the puns and wordplay, but there’s plenty to enjoy for even the most inexperienced Potterverse fans. Currently one of the most produced plays in the country, Puffs is a hot commodity in theater, and each acting troupe puts its own spin on a familiar tale. Clearly, the kids at Cherry Creek are doing some cutting edge theater work.

While the script is obviously a parody piece, writer Matt Cox describes it as an exploration of the non-traditional hero. The story follows the struggles of an orphaned young wizard named Wayne whose parents perished in a regrettable chocolate frog incident. Arriving at school, he is sorted into one of the less glamorous houses, the Puffs. They are the lovable losers who fail spectacularly, always trying to convince enemies they are “not a threat.” In school competitions, Puffs are simply aiming to not finish last. Yet, while Puffs may be third place in the standings, by the end of the show they will be number one in your hearts. For this show is not about being a hero as much as it is being the hero of your own story.

The show definitely has the feel of a teen comedy with budding relationships linking a silly but sweet story of friendship amidst the absurd drama of high school, a key element which made the works of J.K Rowling so appealing. Fans of Saturday Night Live and John Hughes movies can both enjoy the show, as it spoofs both fantasy literature and the drama of the teenage years. The humor is definitely for more mature audiences, with jokes and exaggerated moments of snogging, lots of absurdly dramatic screaming, flying teddy bears crashing around the stage, and a high school party fueled by indulgence in butterbeer.

As the show spoofs a beloved story while paying homage to classic teen comedy, you can’t look away too long, or you might miss the joke. Fortunately, a nameless but wise and wisecracking narrator guides the audience through the seven years and whimsical fun of Puffs. Each year at school is introduced with a sardonic twist on the original plot, as the trio at the center of the story explore the role of sidekicks who share “the desire of the onlooker’s heart.” Yet just when the show gets sentimental, with characters writing letters home to a sappy 80s soundtrack, slapstick physical comedy arrives with the quick flick of a wand, or even a lightsaber. Fans of the Potter books will also appreciate some not-so-subtle digs at the movies.

Following a pandemic-limited year, Creek’s thespians deemed 2021-22 “Our Comeback Season,” and after a string of more serious dramatic productions, theater teacher and director Alex Burkhart noted “it’s time to laugh.” He hopes the audience will appreciate the challenge and the magic of ensemble work, as actors play off each other with character switches and physical comedy. The script presents a real challenge for the actors, with a script demanding lines seem effortless to hit their mark. In fact, this show was designed for and first produced in small comedy improv clubs.

The Fine Arts program at Cherry Creek has many talented thespians with a skilled technical crew, and the show is an impressive achievement for a high school to pull off. It's tough to believe this production is put on entirely by teenagers with a cast and crew that is precisely the age of the characters they bring to life. Puffs is great fun but also rather quick-paced, and you may want to see it again to catch all the jokes you missed the first time. Tickets are available for purchase online simply by going to the Cherry Creek High School website.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Substack: the new magazine

I love the sharp wit and insight of this comment:

Prediction: The atomization of American journalism into a million email newsletters will soon lead to the invention of something called a "magazine" that presents a well-curated collection of news, features and essays.

It comes from Ron Charred, a writer for the WashPo, and it nails the shifting dynamic of commentary-journalism. Basically, the rise of Substack as a medium, platform, and venue for popular opinion writers has replaced the role of the newspaper column writer.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Steve Martin

I first saw Steve Martin on SNL in 1978, and I have never lost my fascination with and admiration for this artist and his art. Regarding lists of famous people you’d invite to dinner or drinks, Steve Martin tops my list every time. Steve Martin may be the most interesting man in the world.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Progress Isn’t Always the Goal

I wrote about this idea a couple months ago in regard to baseball, and I recently revised for my column in The Villager.

"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've been thinking about those poetic and prophetic words lately as I consider the evolving nature of contemporary society. As beloved teen movie hero Ferris Bueller once wisely noted, “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.” Life does, in fact, move quickly, growing and changing, usually for the better. Yet sometimes humanity falls prey to the change-for-change’s-sake mentality, and that gives me pause. Generally, long-established institutions resist quick change, and one I’ve long relied on for consistency is baseball. Sadly, even the most traditional of games is under pressure to change.

As the sports world prepares for the fall classic, there is a coming showdown between America's pastoral sports tradition and progressive forces that seek to change, nay "improve" it. And I'm having none of it. When America's past-time undergoes changes in rules over the next few years, it will be just one more example of progress corrupting the one thing that "reminds us of all that was once good, and could be good again," to quote the movie Field of Dreams. It will be another side effect of the Covid pandemic that shortened the 2020 season and allowed the sly imposition of the designated hitter on the National League. Yet, change will not improve the game, and much will be lost.

Last spring in an interview with the Denver Post, old school manager Bud Black conceded he is coming around to supporting the addition of the designated hitter. That really hurts the purists and traditionalists. Granted, Buddy said he’d consider rules preventing the shift, a recent innovation that’s killing offense in games. I've never liked the DH, and the shift is new enough I had to pause to consider its benefit. And I don't like it either. The shift is simply the absurdist end result of using computer algorithms to manage a game with ties to the nineteenth century. Thus, just as football prohibits illegal formations, ineligible receivers, and illegal men downfield, outlawing the shift would preserve the tradition laid out by baseball’s inventors with sound reason and good intentions. We need not improve on the perfect geometry of the field and the established positions.

While the expansion of the DH in 2020 was grounded in common sense rationale of health for players, the continuation is driven not by safety but by money. Progressive forces and bean counters assert the game must evolve to keep audiences engaged, that it must liven up to appeal to younger generations. That’s a nonsense argument outside of the nature of sport, if only because it's not really about improving the game but increasing ticket sales and television ratings. Simply put, many things don't need improvement. For, didn't we grow up playing endless wiffle ball games that stretched for hours? If you don't understand this, then, for the love of the game, watch The Sandlot soon.

Too often, in a fast-paced technological world, long-standing practices are altered in the name of innovation. In the world of education, teachers and students must always evaluate whether a new app or new website or new technique will positively impact student achievement and learning outcomes, or whether it is simply “technology for technology’s sake.” The pandemic led to the adoption of online learning models out of necessity, and many changes will actually remain a part of pedagogy because they improve learning. Others must be let go because while convenient they aren’t necessarily preferable.

I recall hearing Howard Schultz's reason for buying back his controlling ownership of Starbucks. Basically, corporate shareholders focused on endless expansion, opening more stores and developing new products, all in pursuit of ever-increasing quarterly profits and shareholder prices. While Wall Street will always take that route, sometimes purists like Schultz realize most of us just want a good cup of coffee. Writer and public intellectual William F. Buckley once said, "A conservative is a person who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’"

These days we have far too few people like Buckley, Shultz, Nash, and even Buddie Black who ask whether this innovation or that development is actually such a good idea.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Listen to the Trees, and read about them, too.

Laura Miller's writing on books for Slate is always engaging as well as thoughtful, informative, and even surprising. Her latest piece on all the trees in books lately is a perfect example of this:

In the penultimate episode of Ted Lasso’s second season, junior coach Nate is feeling shirty, complaining to his co-workers that Ted, the head coach who gave him a chance when everyone else overlooked him, is taking credit for Nate’s brilliant ideas. Coach Beard looks up from the book he’s reading and remarks, “We used to believe that trees competed with each other for light. Suzanne Simard’s fieldwork challenged that perception, and we now realize that the forest is a socialist community. Trees work in harmony to share the sunlight.” Coach Beard’s choice of reading material—Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures—is partly an in-joke. (In an earlier episode, Beard accidentally got high on mushroom tea.) But it’s also a nod to the role subterranean fungi play in linking the roots of forest trees to one another, forming what one of the first journals to print Simard’s research called the “Wood Wide Web.”

From this fun introduction, Miller dives headfirst into the myth and reality of the wisdom of the trees ... and perhaps the Lorax. But this piece also scrutinizes the claims and thoroughly investigates the messages from the many popular books touting anthropomorphism of the world's tallest inhabitants. And she arrives at a satisfactory conclusion with a bit of her own personal insight and experience.

As someone who takes a walk in the woods almost every day to get a break from all that, I’ve found that the thing I love most about trees is how different they are from human beings. They are still, slow, unfathomable, quiet. What a marvel to share the world with beings so alien, whose experience, if it can even be called that, I’ll never truly grasp. I find their otherness calming, it’s true, but I don’t expect them to teach me anything. Just getting this chance to coexist with them is a blessing worth fighting for. And besides, what’s the point of looking around you if all you really want to see is yourself?

Thursday, October 21, 2021

No Better Time

This week's column for The Villager:

Stadium seating in movie theaters, wheeled luggage with extendable handles, and UV-protection swim shirts -- where was all this genius when I was growing up?

Seriously. Sometimes I ponder many of the modern conveniences we have, from refrigeration to smartphones to jetliners, and I marvel at the creativity and industriousness of the human race. The design, invention, and production of advanced technology, including smartphones and computers and microprocessors, certainly required a great deal of research and development, much of which had to grow from previous achievements. Clearly, many of our conveniences are the results of "standing on the shoulders of giants.” On the other hand, other comforts of modern life are simply a result of someone noticing a better way of doing things.

For example, something as simple and obvious as tiered stadium-style seating in a movie theater seems like such a no-brainer. Yet, having memories of being a child in the 1970s and literally being forced to view a movie through the gap between the shoulders of two adults sitting in front of me, I still wonder why it took so long to figure that out. I feel the same way about wheeled luggage, which is practically indispensable now and makes cruising down the airport concourse a walk in the park. Do you have memories of lugging awkward heavy suitcases prior to the wheeled cart? Remember the luggage carts in the airport? Who was the genius who finally said, "Enough! I'm putting wheels and a handle on this."

Regardless of how we got them or how subtly they actually change our lives, simple conveniences like these certainly make life just a bit more pleasant than even just a decade ago. Stephen Pinker would agree with me. The esteemed psychology professor and contemporary philosopher has long noted what a wonderful time it is to be alive. Despite all our grumbling and complaining about the miserable state of the world, a convincing case can be made that the current era is truly the best time to be alive. While we can certainly look nostalgically back to a time before Covid and before the War on Terror and before a 24-7-365 hyper-connected world and before franchising and before advanced weaponry and before, oh, so many things, the hard data about life in the twenty-first century is that it's a mighty good time to be alive and kicking on this Earth.

As an educator I think often about how we tell young people to value their days in high school or college as “the best days of their lives.” Obviously, the times in our lives with a bit more freedom and a bit less responsibility are preferable to other times when we are burdened with the heavy lifting of life in general. Clearly, times of relative calm, peace, and prosperity are better than eras of conflict, tragedy, and anxiety. That said, it’s helpful to remember that while our current state can always be better, it could easily be worse as well. My advice to my students, and to people in general, is that the best year of your life is always the current one. If the present year is not the best so far, you might be doing something wrong, and you should consider changing course or at least changing your mindset immediately. Or to paraphrase the wisdom I learned many years ago while working a job in maintenance at an apartment for retired people: “Any day you wake up on the right side of the grass is a good one.”

For a bit more insight and information on the debate, and for a truly much more erudite, informed, insightful, and inspiring read, critics and curmudgeons might consider checking out Pinker's book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, & Progress. I don’t know if Pinker is correct, or if the naysayers are. Are we living in a Golden Age, or is this the beginning of an inevitable decline? Are things better now than they’ve ever been, or are our nostaIgic yearnings for some bygone era valid. Truly, we can’t ever fully assess and unequivocally determine if the current year, or any other era for that matter, is the greatest time in human history.

All I know is that I suffered many a sunburn as a child, and I would have loved a UV-protection swim shirt back then.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Fear or Faith?

As the off-year elections heat up, and city council elections along with school board campaigns are suddenly intense battles for the survival of the republic, I reflect on tone, messaging, and the politics of fear. I have never been a fan of arguments based on catastrophic predictions, such as one last week when Colorado representative Ken Buck tweeted a fearmongering string of nonsense which claimed the Biden administration is destroying the economy. Relax, Francis. And read this week's column for The Villager.

“Fear or faith -- which will be our master?”

Tom Hanks asked that question during his commencement speech at Yale University back in 2011, yet it is as timely as ever. Sharing a brief parable about three men who struggled with various fears and who sought out a wise master to help them conquer their fears, Hanks advised the soon-to-be graduates to be wary of voices that push fear, anxiety, and negativity rather than hope, faith, and optimism. “Fear will get the worst of the best of us,” he told them, “And peddlers of influence count on that.”

The politics of fear too often consume our attention, edging out any positivity in news programming. The selling of fear and danger overshadows the ability of many people to appreciate the relative goodness of their daily lives. Discussions of society, culture, education and government are often overwhelmed by warnings about losing out and falling behind. From school board elections to city council campaigns to congressional races, the messaging is increasingly rooted in fear rather than faith.

Our media-saturated, hyperconnected world is well constructed to foster fear even in seemingly safe, stable, and secure situations. In the field of education, for example, it’s not unusual to hear students speak of the future and their future not with excitement and aspiration but with unease and angst. Unfortunately, in contemporary American society, well-educated students who attend excellent schools and establish impressive credentials often live in fear and anxiety that they will not get into college. Or they will not get into a good college. Or it won’t be a good enough college. Or it’s not the right college. And, thus ironically, people who are actually well positioned to succeed end up consumed by fear of failure.

That fear has led to the cottage industry of private college counselors and tutoring centers who prey on the fears of middle and upper class families. They offer extra but often unnecessary help navigating the college admissions game, often at the cost of thousands of dollars. The Varsity Blues scandal of 2019 which ensnared many wealthy families in a scheme to gain admission to college “through the side door” was one of the more extreme examples of fear overshadowing faith. While that story was the most public of these scandals, irrational fears about college admission continue to percolate. Anxiety among successful students with bright futures is a sad commentary on how fear can overwhelm reason.

A similar fear about losing out and falling behind has consumed national politics for many years. Fareed Zakaria began his 2008 book The Post-American World by explaining "This is not a book about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else." Yet Zakaria’s research into “the rise of the rest” did nothing to ease concerns among many Americans that the country was falling behind and that the nation’s best days were behind us. A book intended to explain the benefit of an ever-expanding prosperity around the world actually exacerbated the common fear in the United States that if someone gains, someone else has to lose.

Living in fear is incredibly stressful, especially when the problems and obstacles are mostly imagined or greatly exaggerated. In the 1959 novel A Separate Peace, author John Knowles concluded the coming-of-age story with protagonist Gene’s realization that “all of them constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against an enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who had never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.” Straw men and the bogeyman are easy products to sell to an unassuming customer in an increasingly anxious world. Falling prey to imagined threats is perhaps what we should worry about the most.

Every day is a new opportunity to decide how we want to view our lives, our communities, and our future. When we reflect on the state of our world, we should balance our reason and emotion. When we choose people to represent us, we must ask if we want leaders who campaign on fear, suspicion, and mistrust, or if we would be better served by those who seek to promote confidence, faith, and optimism. For, as we know but too often forget from the wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 Inaugural Address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Fear or faith -- what’s it going to be?

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Best Ticket in Town

The Fine Arts program at my school inspires me and fills my heart on a regular basis. Last night, I spent the early evening enjoying our jazz choir sing at their annual Jazz on the Green event as part of our HoCo week. Last week, I attended the first jazz concert of the year, and it made me so happy, I was moved to write about it. Here's this week's column for The Villager. Support the fine arts programs in your schools.

The Denver area has a thriving music scene, and jazz fans have numerous venues from Dazzle and Nocturne to City Park Jazz where they can enjoy artists exploring America’s original music genre. But on Friday night the hottest music ticket in the Denver Tech Center was the Fine Arts Theater at Cherry Creek High School. In recent weeks, performing arts programs at schools throughout the metro area began their fall season with choirs, bands, and orchestras taking the stage to entertain friends, family, and the community. Friday was the turn for Cherry Creek’s renowned jazz program, and when these young, cool cats took the stage, they did not disappoint.

Band director Tim Libby, a phenomenally gifted trumpet player in his own right, has built a truly impressive band and music program during the past twenty years at Cherry Creek. The school’s large talented population enables him to field two complete jazz ensembles, Jazz A and Jazz B, with horn sections, percussion units, guitarists, and piano players. Along with his colleague Jessica Vaughn, Libby cultivates a rich music program built around collaboration and tradition. Those qualities are particularly important in some years like the current one which has just four players returning to the Jazz A lineup and many new students stepping into the program and genre for the first time.

Jazz A’s first piece of the night, “Front Burner” by Sammy Nestico, featured eight separate solos, displaying the range of the band. Libby told the crowd, “I asked the band if they wanted fewer but longer solos or shorter solos with more people. They chose more solos.” That spirit of camaraderie emanated throughout the evening. With each song, Libby recounted the piece and individual highlights, such as the beautifully melodic and soulful performance of tenor sax player Isabella Sandvall on “Skylark” by Hoagy Carmichael. Pianist NK also received a shoutout for “playing the role of Count Basie.” That’s high praise for a high school student, and Krause kept a steady groove on the keyboard, which was complemented by drummer CH making “his first public jazz appearance.” H's tempo was solid and in control through all four pieces, as he worked the cymbals and snare drum masterfully, keeping a steady hand.

Libby promised the third piece of the night would have some “experiments going on” as they played “Nye Time” by Mike Dana, a composition Creek’s jazz players dedicated to Bill Nye, the Science Guy, an education hero to many students. With that song the evening took on a cool groovy feel that evoked the streets of New York or San Francisco while emanating a 70’s cinematic vibe. Several times, guitarist RD took off on intricate solos that hinted at a Carlos Santana influence, or perhaps a Pat Matheny vibe. And, like they often do, Cherry Creek jazz fans got a treat later in the evening when band director Libby casually strolled on stage, his silver trumpet hanging nonchalantly from his hand. It’s always a joy for these students to jam with the teacher.

Jazz A’s performance was set up by a solid set from Jazz B featuring several big band swing tunes including “Ain’t Misbehavin” by Fats Waller and “Boogie Lou” by Paul Baker. Jazz B is led by Jessica Vaughn, who is in her first year at Cherry Creek, stepping in to work half of an impressive band program after Tim Libby transitioned into a new role this year as the Coordinator for the entire Fine Arts Department.

The Cherry Creek Performing Arts program is vast with high levels of participation and the kind of excellence that would be expected only at an arts magnet school. The program includes eight bands, seven choirs, and three different orchestras. Each of these programs put on numerous public concerts each year, usually aligning with the seasons. Additionally, the theater program stages three performances a year, including this year’s play “Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic” in November and the musical “Mama Mia” in March.

Denver undoubtedly has a vast music and arts scene, and it’s important to remember our young people as talented members and a viable part of that world. Just as we support athletic competitions in our communities, we should check in with the local high schools arts programs and make events like Friday Night Jazz a part of our Friday Night Lights.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Somewhere Else & Back

In this week's column for The Villager, I revisit the idea of living abroad, which I've written about before. I recently revised the piece after learning about another former student who has followed my path and moved to Taiwan to teach English. 

I recently learned that a third former student of mine has moved to Taiwan to teach English, and I couldn’t be happier for all these young people who have heard the call to escape their comfort zone and seek opportunity beyond the borders of the familiar. One of these students lived with her husband on the island nation off the coast of China for nearly five years, embracing the expat experience and even raising their first child there. The experience of living abroad, of immersing ourselves in a new culture, of becoming a part of another community, can be an invaluable education, and it was an opportunity I pursued nearly thirty years ago. It’s also a piece of advice I highly recommend to anyone who has the chance. Get out of your country for a while. Go somewhere else and see what the world has to teach you.

In the summer after my college graduation, I interviewed for a teaching job at my former high school in the small town of Alton, Illinois, 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 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 1991 recession and state spending cuts to education didn’t help either. Additionally, my wife’s former college 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 our time in Southeast Asia, the idea of moving abroad has been one of the most consistent pieces of advice I give my students: go somewhere else for a little while. Take leave of your bubble and flee the familiar. Get out of your country; 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 five years, teaching and traveling the world. We went to Hong 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 made our way back to the United States and lived for a short time in the city of Chicago, where she worked as a pastry chef and I taught middle school. A few years later we made our way to Colorado, a place we’d never been before.

Moving home after our time abroad was also equally important and refreshing. Following years as expats, the Midwest of our youth actually became exciting and new again simply as a result of our time away. While it may be cliche to believe that absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s fairly certain that being somewhere else for a while can make everything about home seem all the more special. Going without familiar conveniences and feeling like an outsider can be a truly enlightening experience. It’s eye-opening to be in a place where no one looks like you. It’s disorienting to be in a place where no one sounds like you. It’s also worth it.

Mary Smirch, the Chicago Tribune columnist known for her graduation piece entitled Wear Sunscreen, advised young people to “Live in New York once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in LA once, but leave before it makes you soft.” I fully support that advice, as well as the subtle sarcasm directed at both cities. I would extend that advice to include moving beyond your national borders.

Monday, September 27, 2021

AOC's Met Gala dress & poetic irony

$30,000 ticket, check. $275,000 table, check. $3000 dress, check. Attending one of the most lavish celebrations of the wealthiest global elites and wearing a dress that says "Tax the Rich" — priceless.

By now you've probably heard the buzz and seen the pics of Representative Alexandra Ortiz-Cortez (NY) at the Met Gala. While AOC, as she is commonly known, impressed and entertained some people with her dress and political statement, others saw the move as glib and crass. In my view, both sides are taking the image and the action too seriously and probably missing the point. 

The "Tax the Rich" dress at the Met Gala was nothing short of hilarious, ironic, and amusing. It was a perfectly crisp and apt moment in a world that has become all too absurd in its one-sided seriousness. The great satirists from Mark Twain to H.L. Mencken are, in my opinion, looking down and nodding in sardonic approval. And, while I don't often agree with Rep. Ortiz-Cortez, and while I often find myself rolling my eyes at her public statements, I really enjoyed this moment.

Wear that dress, girl. Flaunt it. And to quote the inimitable Robin Williams, "Joke 'em if they can't take a ____."

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Whimsical Vicissitudes of Writing Poetry

The cursor is winking at me,
daring me to start.
So, this is it,
and here I go.
Poems will come,
or they will go.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Bigger Isn’t Better for School Districts

This week's column for The Villager:

In Illinois where I grew up, single high school districts are the norm rather than the exception. While Chicago Public Schools is a massive organization with thousands of schools, areas outside the nation’s third largest city are organized into smaller, more manageable units. Generally several elementary schools feed into a few middle schools which transition to one high school. That model is common practice throughout the Midwest, and it’s standard for much of rural Colorado. In urban and suburban areas, however, school districts often contain numerous high schools with dozens of feeders, and that can negatively impact student achievement.

The Denver metro area contains several huge school districts, both in neighborhoods and numbers of students. The Cherry Creek School District educates nearly fifty-five thousand students. Douglas County serves a student population of sixty-three thousand. Both JeffCo and Denver Public schools handle roughly eighty thousand kids apiece. These large districts also cover massive areas over hundreds of square miles. Large systems are rarely the most efficient ones, and it’s not unreasonable to believe a school district of two high schools with no more than fifteen elementary schools feeding into three or four middle schools is as large as any centralized education system should be.

Granted, large schools are not necessarily problems unto themselves. Some of the best schools in the country, from Cherry Creek in Greenwood Village to Lane Tech in Chicago, provide high level comprehensive education to student bodies as large as four thousand students. And while at one time, education advocacy groups like the Gates Foundation tried to break up large schools, few people promote that idea anymore. In fact, Bill Gates once pushed for smaller schools only to later concede he was wrong to pursue that goal. In schools, however, the personnel are directly connected to the students. By contrast at the district level, the larger the system, the more removed the decision-making is from the clientele.

Thus, the issue of large districts being less than adequately responsive to all their students remains a problem. Most teachers and parents acknowledge the problems of centralization in which pivotal educational decisions are made by people far removed from the classrooms and the children they serve. That is certainly the problem with state education departments. Colorado witnessed that challenge first hand in the past decade with initiatives like Common Core and mandates like state standardized testing. The powers that be in central offices often have little personal knowledge of or connection to the children in the classrooms. In a field where nothing is more important than relationships, the distance can be a significant problem. That disconnect affects students on all issues ranging from curriculum and instruction to simple transportation.

In Colorado where weather patterns can vary widely from region to region, town to town, even neighborhood to neighborhood, the existence of huge school districts creates disparity in making the best decision for all kids. For example, in determining whether to call a snow day or delayed start, superintendents must gauge weather and road conditions. In large Front Range districts, neighborhoods on one side may have deep snow, unplowed roads, and blizzard-like winds while neighborhoods on the other side see calm conditions with a simple dusting. Because of centralized transportation systems, districts must make an all-or-nothing call, and that inadequately serves half the students and families. Cancelling school for no clear reason or sending families and buses onto roads in dangerous conditions is a lose-lose decision for school leaders. And district offices receive plenty of complaints from both sides.

Local control is the essence of public education in the United States. That philosophy is the foundation of school boards and the reason the country at large opposes a national curriculum or federalized education system. Thus, large complex bureaucratic systems that are far removed from the neighborhoods and people they serve runs contradictory to the very nature of education, local control, and responsiveness. It may take a village to raise a child, but sixty thousand people hardly seems like a village.

Following the completion of the 2020 Census, the state of Colorado is redrawing the lines of congressional districts. For Colorado and others states that gained representation, that means smaller districts which are hopefully more responsive to the people. Perhaps the next step is to scrutinize the size and boundary lines of school districts and break them up into smaller, more authentic, and more responsive units which can more effectively understand and serve the needs of their students and families.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

What Now?

Anne Patchett, writer and bookstore owner, used her commencement speaker gig at Sara Lawrence College in 2006 to ask the important question for college grads, and really, for everyone at a moment of transition:  What now?

The speech was so well received that Patchett eventually released a book-length version of her ideas about what comes next when we stand at those conclusions, those transitions, those crossroads. The reflective nature of Patchett's work is readable and relevant for most anyone, and I found myself nodding in understanding as she shared her realization that ... I didn't become a writer until I worked at TGIFridays.  

Holding a bachelor's of English and an MFA, Patchett speaks honestly and candidly about how, of all her journeys and classes and courses of study, ... none of them taught me the most important thing: how to be alone, how to stare ... I learned as much from waitressing as I did from teaching. I really appreciated Patchett's thoughtful reflection and insight, having long felt that the best education I ever received was the years I spent waiting tables in an Italian restaurant.

If you're interested in a few more details of the speech and book, Maria Popova at Brainpickings also has a post with some selections from Patchett's book-length version of her speech.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Way We Were before September changed it all

This week's column for The Villager"

"Turn on your television ... a plane just hit the World Trade Center in New York."

I can't even imagine how many times those words were uttered twenty years ago, but like nearly everyone of age at the time, I can tell you exactly where I was the moment I learned. And I know almost every moment of that day and the mournful, hollow, existential days that followed. The approach and passing of September 11, 2021 brought much discussion and contemplation of that fateful day two decades past. But what about the "carefree" summer months leading up to that horrific moment? Who were we before the towers fell?

This past weekend in the Washington Post, Dan Zak and Ellen McCarthy put together a powerful piece of reflection that is both beautifully written and hauntingly thoughtful in its look back twenty years plus to the Summer of 2001, “The Summer Before 9/11.” Zak and McCarthy remind us how those summer days were “Freewheeling. Foreboding. Then came the Fall.” And as I read their retrospective piece, I thought deeply about the way we were, how it was, what it’s like now, and where we go next.

During the summer of 2001, Shrek and the Fast and the Furious premiered at the box office, and both films would go on to become huge film franchises. Many of us probably spent a fair amount of time in cool movie theaters because June and July were real scorchers across much of the country. Songs like Train’s "Drops of Jupiter" and “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child were playing on the radio because at that time there was no Pandora, no Spotify, and no YouTube to stream the music. However, music lovers would soon be able to listen to those songs and others on their new iPods, which premiered just a few weeks after the world fell apart.

If you were at the beach that summer, you might have been reading Jonathan Franzen’s huge bestseller, The Corrections. Later in the year, you’d spend time talking about the Oprah controversy when Franzen dissed her book club. Other popular reads were Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and David McCullough's John Adams, though you might not have taken them to the beach after Time Magazine declared 2001 “The summer of the Shark.” In the news we read about the tech bubble bursting and how, despite a trillion dollar tax cut, the economy was mostly treading water that summer.

In the summer of 2001, I was teaching high school English in southern Illinois, just outside St. Louis, while finishing up my master’s degree in English Language and Literature. I was beginning to think about Ph.D programs, as I spent a fair amount of time researching and writing in the air conditioned graduate library of Washington University, St. Louis. My wife, also a teacher, was pregnant with our first child; our son would be born six months after the planes hit the towers. I know now how we wondered what kind of world our children would inherit.

In many ways September 11, 2001, is a pivotal event. However, in the aftermath of twenty years, it’s clear the date also became an entire era, the post-9/11 world. And if that is accurate, then it’s worth considering what the previous era was. Was it just one day or is it an entire mindset? Did the moment change the world? If so, then what was it like before? What did we lose and also what did we gain? And what has changed that doesn’t fit smoothly into the gain-loss columns. While the country did not feel quite as divisive then as it does now, we were in the early days of the most contested presidency in a hundred years. And to be perfectly honest, the partisan bickery had been stewing since at least 1994. So, all was not necessarily well and good in the days before the fall of the towers. But then again, it never really is.

In a beautiful remembrance at the Flight 93 memorial last weekend, former President George W Bush noted, as so many have, that the fateful September morning twenty years ago changed everyone forever. That is undoubtedly true, and with that in mind, it’s important to note specifically who we were and how we changed.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Even the terrible things

Mary Schmich was, until her retirement this year, the metro columnist for the Chicago Tribune,

Last year she released a collection of her columns, and the title piece is one of her most well-known, as well as a poignant and timely reflection for the times in which we live. She wrote "Even the terrible things seem beautiful to me now" in 2011 around Thanksgiving after her mother shared that observation one fall.

What she was saying that day, I think, was that it's all life. The things that hurt your heart, wound your pride, drain your hope, leave you lost, confuse you to the point of madness. That's life, life with its endless, shifting sensations and its appalling urgency and its relentless drive toward mystery.

What could be better than that? What could you be more thankful for than that?

Maybe we can't see the beauty in the terrible things until we're approaching the final beauty and terror. In other words, death: the ultimate proportion gauge.

Maybe only when you take your last step back from the canvas can you see how gorgeous all those wrong strokes and smudges look when viewed together.

All of the best times in my life have grown directly out of the worst times. What feels like manure often turns out to be fertilizer.

But what I took from my mother's remark wasn't just that good may grow out of bad. It's that the bad is its own beauty.

Monday, September 13, 2021

George W Bush and the country he knows

On the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, former President George W Bush spoke at the memorial site for Flight 93 at its crash site in Pennsylvania. His words were succinct, direct, and heartfelt, and his message said so much in a rather brief reflection, the whole speech lasting just over nine minutes. Few people will ever know the incredible burden President Bush must carry for being the Commander in Chief during the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Knowing that, he used this time of reflection to share with us all, not just his honor for the people who died as heroes, but also his thoughts about "the America I know."

On America's day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor's hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.

At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know.

At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know.

At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.

This is not mere nostalgia; it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been -- and what we can be again.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

A La Carte Journalism

Though I've written about this issue before, this week's column in The Villager is about the financial struggles of print journalism, notably daily newspapers, and my ideas on how the industry could better serve its customers while improving its service model.

In an age of struggle for print journalism, newspapers have tried to survive by implementing paywalls for access to their digital content -- and they’re doing it all wrong. That’s not surprising for an industry that is responsible for covering the news yet somehow missed realizing how drastically the rise of online advertising was going to subvert their revenue streams. It’s no doubt the print journalism world should have seen the changes coming and should have been better able to adapt.

That said, the power and influence of these news organizations was clearly subverted by the freedom given to tech companies like Google and Facebook to exploit digital advertising revenue while dispensing other companies’ news content for free. The paywall seemed to be the only counter-move for newspapers. The problem with paywalls is the all-or-nothing approach. As a resident of Denver, I subscribe to the Denver Post, The Villager, and occasionally local magazines such as 5280. These print sources are where I receive the bulk of my news, both local and national. However, I’m also a regular reader of national and international news sources like the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and the Guardian.

Sometimes a friend posts or emails an article I would like to read, such as a column from Peggy Noonan or Jason Gay in the Wall Street Journal, or a feature story from James Hamblin of The Atlantic. And while I really want to read the article and might be willing to pay for it, that doesn’t mean I want or need a $200 yearly subscription to a publication I don’t read daily. It seems odd that I could walk across the street and purchase a paper copy of the entire newspaper for $2.00, but can’t have the same convenience digitally. I can buy a print magazine for $5.00, but I can’t access a couple digital articles for the same price. That said, I’d be happy to pay $.50 - $2.00 for single articles, or a package of ten.

Some newspapers offer voluntary payment options as a way to offset production costs. For example, The Guardian has a model I like for its flexibility and concept of individual contributions. Once or twice a year, I send ten or twenty dollars to The Guardian because I value the content I read there. I don’t read that paper daily or even weekly, but I do so regularly enough that I want to support the company. Similarly, many bloggers, open source sites, and independent freelance writers offer voluntary payment models. Wikipedia and Maria Popova’s Brainpickings are a couple of good examples of the patronage concept that readers should support. In fact, nearly everyone I know uses Wikipedia at some point, and considering we appreciate and consume the product, we should all be willing to pony up a little cash to support it.

In order to better serve consumers, print journalism organizations should offer a la carte options for readers to access single articles or small blocks of content for the price of a daily paper, rather than a yearly subscription fee. Additionally, news magazines and newspapers should develop apps and web delivery software that inhibits search engines like Google and social media sites like Facebook from connecting with their content without a guarantee of some sort of ad revenue. Producers should be able to profit from and protect their content. Thus, if customers use Google to access news sites and also produce revenue from ads while doing so, Google has a market-based responsibility to pay for the content it uses, promotes, and links to. The same goes for any article posted to Facebook that in turn creates ad-based profit for the social media company.

To that end, legislation may be necessary to protect the market system for producers to make money from their content. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, sponsored by Colorado Representative Ken Buck, is an important step in preserving the freedom and viability of the press. Newspaper writers from local beat reporters to national investigative journalists work incredibly hard to provide the public with the information it needs and desires. They deserve to be compensated for their work. Thus, the industry and consumers need to work together on a better system because the Fourth Estate is an essential part of a democratic society, and it must be preserved and supported.