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.