Thursday, February 25, 2021

Ferlinghetti -- No longer awaiting a rebirth of wonder

 "And I am awaiting, perpetually and forever, a renaissance of wonder."

Like many young people in the 70s and 80s I discovered the words of Lawrence Ferlinghetti sometime during my adolescence. Certainly it was linked to my learning of the Beats and reading Ginsburg's Howl for the first time and realizing there was a whole world of poetry and literature I'd never fathomed. And it was the kind of writing that could be found in and published by City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. And when I first read Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind, I realized poetry could sound like the wonderfully strange meanderings of my mind, and that was pretty cool.

The poem "Sometime During Eternity" blew the mind of this young Catholic boy, and it is the first poem I memorized and performed publicly (beyond, of course, basic class requirements). Ferlinghetti had a way of being reverent and irreverent at the same time. Later, while in college studying to be a teacher, one of my professors used a few lines from "I Am Waiting" to talk about using the magic of childlike wonder as as a foundation for learning and teaching. Years later the poem would be something I regularly used to open the school year in my classes, and it became the inspiration for one of my first published pieces of commentary in the Denver Post, "Awaiting - still - a Renaissance of Wonder."

Rest in peace, dear poet. Godspeed.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

From Boredom to Beginner

 Maybe it's not that you're bored. It could just be that you're boring.

The pandemic has certainly found us all spending a lot more time with ourselves, and as a result many adults are uttering or feeling something they haven't since they were kids with their mobility and options limited -- "I'm bored."

Plenty of time to do nothing, and plenty of nothing to do. That's how we're feeling. And it has led to some interesting changes and choices for people, everything from sourdough starters to knitting to walking their own neighborhoods that they've never really experienced from the sidewalk. And it's also affected the economy and our finances as "tedium shapes what people buy and how productive we are." In a piece for the New York Times, Sydney Ember reports on "The Boredom Economy" and people like Mark Hawkins who spend a lot of time intentionally doing nothing.

When you have nothing to do, you actually have anything and everything to do, and that can be a pretty neat place to be. Reading about the boredom economy got me thinking about Tom Vanderbilt's book Beginners: The Joy & Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, which I recently finished and truly enjoyed. Vanderbilt chronicles his novice attempts to acquire new skills and talents including chess, singing, and surfing, but he also provides a vast amount of material and resources about how we learn and why learning new skills is worth our time ... especially if we're bored.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

40% of Colorado Teachers Might Quit

This year has been tough all over professionally, and no one is feeling great. The challenges in education have been particularly acute, as individuals, communities, and the nation at large struggle over the issue of how to safely conduct school in the midst of a pandemic. Remote school and hybrid learning are nobody's idea of an effective learning community, and there seems to be no easy answer. While there's light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, at least concerning next year, the stress of school is taking a toll. 

And it might be a generation altering shift, as many teachers are considering whether they can continue to do the job. A recent poll of licensed teachers in Colorado indicated as many as "40% of teachers are considering" leaving the profession. Low pay, safety issues, unmanageable workloads, and lack of support are some key reasons that many teachers are feeling they have no choice left but to walk away.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

State Testing Can Wait -- Learning Takes Priority

 As the spring approaches and anxiety about state standardized testing kicks into high gear while school boards object and the state drags its feet, my column for this week in The Villager unpacks the issue:

If you want kids to learn reading, writing, and math, then you regularly test to assess their knowledge and skills in those areas. That rationale came from President George W. Bush, following his partnership with Senator Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. NCLB established a nationwide mandate of annual standardized testing for kids from third grade through high school. Annual state testing is now the norm, and we have come to accept it as a standard part of public education. However, the past year has been anything but normal, and the state of Colorado should suspend CMAS testing this spring.

In the midst of a health crisis ....

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Flopping, an Embarrassing Part of Lebron's Legacy

Until someone shows me a video montage of flops by Michael Jordan, I’m not having any discussion of the NBA GOAT and Lebron James. Lebron is an incredible baller, truly a generational force, but the practice of flopping is cheating, and LeBron James has taken this twenty-first century form of athletic cheating to an embarrassing level. Lebron's flop-apalooza took center stage the other night in a game against the Memphis Grizzlies when his animated fall was called out vociferously by the Memphis broadcasting crew.

"Are you serious? Are you kidding me, man?... That is awful, horrible, whatever other words you can come up with that are synonyms with those. That's what that was."

Granted, many people will argue the game has simply changed, and it's not wrong for any player to take whatever advantage he can to succeed. But, come on, man! That change to the game and the deliberate choice by Lebron to take advantage is beyond the pale. As Kevin Garnett says in his new memoir "Can you imagine not being able to hand-check Jordan?" That's the new game with no hand-checking, and that's the reason people like Barkley and Rodman turn their noses up at talk of "the greatest" in today's game. But the flopping is a different kind of cheating to me. It's just an embarrassing part of his game, a trick that was not part of Magic's or Bird's or MJ's, and it's a stain on "King James," his legacy, and any claim of being the GOAT.

LB is such a talented, gifted athlete who is also a class act as a human being off the court. He has done so much for the game, for his teammates, and for vast numbers of people in need. He truly is blessed by the gods in terms of his prowess, and he absolutely works as hard as anyone in the league ever has. He is truly a genius in his vision on the court. And that is what makes the flopping all the more egregious. He simply doesn't need to do it. Ever. Yet he has embraced that tactic to a level nearly no other player in the league does. Everyone knows that King James is King of the flop. No one is criticized more for it, and that's why Barkley just shrugs and laughs at him, and then apologizes for the handicapped defenders. In a league that has established hands-off rules on defense, opposing teams literally have no ability to reign him in near the hoop. He doesn't ever need to flop or take an extra step. 

Admittedly, this sounds like a bit of griping to the younger gen to "get off my lawn," (and I definitely have an inclination to be a grumpy old man), but I am just so disappointed in him and embarrassed for what he has done in that area. It's just a shame, and he alone can fix it. He is truly legendary, but I'd like the NBA to start hitting him with regular technical fouls as a warning to get back to the game of basketball.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The President Should be the Best Among Us

The Presidency is kind of like being head cheerleader, tasked with inspiring us to believe in ourselves and win the big game. The best presidents have always lifted us up reminding us that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” as we “Ask not what our country can do for you but what you can do for your country” because “It’s morning again in America” and no matter what challenges confront us, we know that “Yes, we can.”

Sunday, February 14, 2021

"Oops" & the F-word

I tend to measure my day and well-being according to the "Mazenko F-index" -- how many times I react by using the f-word. And, I'm realizing that if I ever get to the point where I naturally and instinctively say "oops," instead of "aw, f--k," then I will be making real progress as a human being.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Look for the Pony

My dad was the eternal optimist. 

One of his favorite stories was about two brothers - a pessimist and an optimist - who were tasked with cleaning up a huge pile of horse manure. As the pessimist whined and complained about the work and the mess, the other brother just started digging through the pile. When the first brother asked what he was doing, the optimist looked up to say, “With all this horsesh-t around, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.” 

Look for the pony, my friends. Always look for the pony.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Re-thinking School After the Pandemic

 I'm currently writing a weekly column called "Unpacking the Backpack" for our local newspaper, The Villager. 

This week's piece is about "Re-thinking School After the Pandemic":

“I actually kinda like the hybrid schedule.”

My high-school-age daughter revealed this feeling at dinner, and I was rather surprised, knowing how much she’d complained about missing school. Granted, she’s concerned about not learning enough to be prepared for next year, and she truly misses being around people. However, from an academic and mental well-being view, she actually prefers two days in-person with a couple days out of class to do the work, study, and review. She even suggested a permanent four-day week with office hours, support services, and extracurriculars on the fifth. I kinda like her idea.

The pandemic has forced families and schools to re-think ....

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Schrodinger's Hamlet & Tarantino's Cat

Literature saves lives; it conquers death, erases impermanence, and counters irrelevance; it preserves the essence of life, and thus offers resurrection and even immortality. And despite my having spent decades teaching literature and language and acquiring an advanced degree in literary studies, it took a teenage student of mine to uncover and reveal to me the life saving power of literature.

Years ago in my AP English Language class, I opened a lesson by saying something crass like “OK, so, it’s time to kill Hamlet” because we were about to finish Shakespeare’s masterful tragedy that day in class. That little quip led to a fascinating discussion of the lives of literary characters and the roles they play. Out of the discussion, we coined the phrase Schrodinger's Hamlet, and I joked that our ideas would make a great master's thesis or dissertation for one of them someday.

For years, the idea stuck around in the back of my mind, and as I've been writing a lot more in these strange times, I finally gave in and went for it myself, crafting a piece that was published this week on Curator Magazine. It was a great deal of fun to write and then edit with the staff at Curator, and I'm really happy with the final product.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Taiwan Needs the World's Acknowledgment, Support, & Respect

Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith apparently hit a nerve in the fragile ego of the Chinese government and state-run media last week when he published his piece "Taiwan is a Civilization." Following his profile on Taiwan, in which he argued Americans must become more aware of Taiwan, some member of the Chinese government's social media arm criticized him for praising Taiwan even though he's never been there. The fact that they took the time to criticize the post and tweet indicates just how seriously the People's Republic takes the Taiwan Question. 

I'm appreciative of Smith's spotlight on Taiwan, formally known as The Republic of China on Taiwan, because this island nation needs attention from the world and deserves international recognition. While China becomes quite angry when anyone refers to Taiwan as a country, it is most definitely a distinct nation, state, culture, economy, and, yes, even a civilization. It is a thriving democratic republic of twenty-five million people with a vibrant economy of mixed-market capitalism, and while it is the primary investor in mainland China and a prominent trade partner and investor with practically everyone, it is also vulnerable to oppression, if not annihilation by the communist party across the Taiwan Strait.

I lived and worked in Taiwan for five wonderful years in the mid-1990s, and I have a deep appreciation for the island the Dutch called Formosa, or beautiful island, and the wonderful people who live there. Taiwan has never been a part of mainland China, and it has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, a fact that has been assured by the United States' support of the island's autonomy according to the Taiwan Communiques. That agreement must never be compromised, and every new White House administration needs to be reminded of America's commitment and responsibility. I can still recall being in Taiwan during 1996, which was their first direct presidential election, as well as the first ever direct election of a national leader in any Chinese-speaking land, and I vividly recall the communist party's attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese voters and the world at large. China held military exercises in the air above Taiwan, firing missiles literally across the island and triggering air raid warnings on the streets of Taipei. It was an egregious affront to diplomacy.

At that time, the Clinton Administration parked two aircraft carriers at the north and south end of the Taiwan Strait, officially as observers but unofficially as a warning to China to not attempt the unimaginable. China officially warned the US to not enter the Strait. The US forces didn't budge and stared down the Communist military leaders. Ultimately, the election occurred, the Chinese stood down, the United States pulled back, and the region returned to its now-seventy-year-old status of detente. The Biden administration should take note of that time in history and use it as a guide for any ripple in the waters of the Taiwan Strait.

And, to Noah Smith's point, Americans should become as familiar with Taiwan as they are with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. And they should make sure their representatives are also aware and willing to support and defend the peaceful democratic society. And Americans should also consider visiting the beautiful island when the pandemic eases. It is a rich, exciting, welcoming, and intriguing place.

Thanks, Noah.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Bobby Bones & Morgan Wallen

I really enjoy the music of country singer Morgan Wallen, and I am disgusted, angered, and deeply saddened by the news that came out Thursday morning. 

As I drove to work on Thursday morning, I happened to tune in to Bobby Bones show on 106.7 The Bull in Denver, and I am very glad I did. Bones is arguably the voice in country music radio, as his nationally syndicated show reaches more than nine million listeners everyday. And with that platform, he gave a roughly ten minute response and statement to the news of Morgan Wallen on video, drunk and shouting a racial slur. Bones' commentary was heartfelt, authentic, and what the world needed to hear.

The entire segment is worth listening to, but I want to comment on a few parts. First of all, Bones notes that he woke up to an avalanche of texts from the industry, and the corporate voices were wondering whether he was going to prepare a statement, whether the show would play Morgan's music, and what he thought the response would be. Bones did not want to prepare a statement, as he wanted to take time to process and gather his thoughts and troubled emotions. And then when a caller to the show asked what he thought, Bones commented that well, yes he had some things to say.

Bones was deeply impacted and disturbed by the video of Wallen, noting that word doesn't even enter his mind. It's just not something he would ever think to say. But it clearly is in Wallen's mind. And that changes everything. Bones noted that while he is not a supporter of cancel culture, he is a proponent of "go away for a while." Morgan Wallen has a lot of work to do on himself. Bones (and I) does not believe people are beyond redemption, or that this is an unforgiveable action. But Morgan Wallen needs to go away "and get right." There is much more in the dialogue, and I was particularly affected by Bones' memories of his experience with his high school football team. "This is every day for them," he recalled with a heavy heart.

We still have a lot of work to do. And Bobby Bones took a big step for us with his words. I'm glad he said what he said, and I'm glad I was listening at the time because it helped me process some heavy feelings.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Love Them

 "And these three remain - faith, hope, & love. But the greatest of these is love." -Corinthians 13:13

Parenting begins with unconditional love, and it's what always remains. Based on a line from a sappy family-romantic comedy from the mid-90s, I wrote a reflection on the idea of love as the best parenting advice. It was recently published on Fatherly, a parenting magazine, as "Love Your Kids, But Also Love the Act of Loving Them." Here's a bit from the opening.

 “Love them.”

That’s the best parenting advice I’ve ever heard. It comes from a culminating scene near the end of a somewhat obscure but sappy little gem of a movie from 1995. The film Bye Bye Love, with Paul Reiser, Randy Quaid, and Matthew Modine, arrived a few years before my wife and I married and had our first child, but I’ve always remembered the scene with the advice and all its sappy sentiment. And, even now, as my kids are into high school and college, and I enter my fifties reflecting on the love with which I was raised, and the same love I hope has guided my parenting, I remember this movie and its guiding principle for being a mom or dad.

First, a bit of a warning about this film I view so fondly and nostalgically: the movie received pretty harsh reviews from Roger Ebert who called it “a soppy sitcom that would like to pass as a quasi-heartfelt story,” and the Washington Post critic who decried it as “a warm fuzzy commercial.” I won’t counter with anything other than the simple admission: “I really liked it,” and I’ve wept through a lot of commercials. I especially like the wisdom that comes at the end from a dad who has seemed anything but soppy, warm, or fuzzy throughout the film. His insight is a sentiment that’s apparent throughout the film, but it’s only verbalized in the final ten minutes: “Love them. Just love them.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Groundhog Day - Your Existential New Year

Ever since the 1993 film from Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, the term "Groundhog Day" has become synonymous with mundane repetition and mindless boring redundancy in our daily lives and jobs, but the film was never really about that. Instead, the message of the movie and the life of weatherman Phil Connor is about rebirth and the chance every day to make our seemingly boring repetitive lives whatever we want them to be. I've written about this idea several times, most recently on my blog post from 2019:

The film Groundhog Day is actually a wonderful primer for the wisdom of existentialism, and when I taught the philosophy in my college literature class, I would often lead or conclude with a viewing of Bill Murray’s brilliant portrayal of a man trying to bring some sense of meaning to a life that seems nothing short of absurd. Clearly, the idea of living the same day over and over again in an unfulfilling, dull, mundane place and repeating the seemingly mindless tasks of a pointless job is portrayed as a curse and a cruel joke, and that realization is at the heart of existentialism. Life makes no sense. Phil spends many years in disgruntled fashion viewing his life as exactly that, a cruel meaningless joke of an existence. However, the movie shifts when Phil considers his situation as an opportunity and a second chance at reinvention with the opportunity to get it right.

And in this essay I wrote for Medium:

Groundhog Day is a film with a message — each of us will wake up again and again to the same existence that at times seems pointless. The only point is that you have the rest of your life to make it exactly what you want it to be. Bringing meaning to our daily lives was a focus of the numerous American writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose poem “A Psalm of Life” advised us that “neither joy, and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow find us further than today.” The point is progress; the goal is getting better. What F. Scott Fitzgerald called Gatsby’s “Platonic conception of himself” was simply the eternal quest for the ideal, for striving to become our own best selves. Life is an endlessly repeating opportunity to improve. In Bill Murray’s role as Phil Connor, we can find a second chance at New Year’s resolutions and an opportunity to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “live the life you have imagined.”

Thus, rather than a sad story about emptiness, the film and the day is a great chance to re-think and embrace the rich potential of our lives every day we live. Think about it. And perhaps even considering watching the film every year to brighten and warm up the dark days of winter.