Monday, December 5, 2022

The Kids Are All Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

College Admissions: More than a Test Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Can Civics Class Make us More Civil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Oil, Gas, & Energy Independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2022

Is Our Democracy Truly Representative?

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

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

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

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Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Thoreau: the Walden Pond Punk

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 31, 2022

Keep Colorado Local & Independent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

New Year's in the Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

10% Happier? At what cost?

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

“Stressed out, busy moms turn to microdosing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Tuesday, September 20, 2022

No More Salingers

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

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


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

....

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Le Mot Juste

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


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

Algebra

Sucks

Bad

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

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

In a station of the metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

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

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

The sadness of eating

Pizza

On Christmas Eve

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

Classroom quiet

The children

Take a quiz

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

Saturday, September 3, 2022

A Person on Whom Nothing is Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

America's Little Problem

Last week's column for The Villager.

Canvas and cocktails, manicures and mojitos, beard trims and bourbon, soccer practice and sangria – is there anything American adults do these days without having a sip? Let’s face it, Americans have a drinking problem. When young parents can’t have an afternoon playdate without it being accompanied by a glass of wine, there could be a problem. When adults can’t go watch a baseball practice or lacrosse match without slipping a Truly or White Claw in their purse or pocket, there might be a problem. When supermarkets offer beer and wine on tap to sip while you shop, there’s definitely a problem.

The increasing and ubiquitous imbibing by the American public was recently investigated and reported on by Kate Julian, an editor for The Atlantic, who published her findings in an important article entitled “America Has a Drinking Problem.” According to Julian, per capita drinking has increased nearly 10% in the past twenty years. That rate is not all that surprisingly considered the overwhelming presence of alcohol marketing that has come along at the same time. Whereas advertising of hard spirits was once tightly regulated and forbidden on television, the beverage industry has been all too willing and able to flood the market with promotions.

The pandemic certainly didn’t help. I know I placed a few Drizly orders and attended Zoom happy hours when we were all stuck at home for months at a time. However, the latitude the nation allowed itself with drinking during the lockdown has turned into habits many people find difficult to let go. And as I noted earlier, even at a time when the number of bars and drinking establishments has gone down over the years, the number of places where it’s become acceptable, fashionable, even expected to imbibe has increased dramatically. From hair salons to Starbucks and spas, it seems every business is applying for a license to serve these days.

I remember the first time I realized movie theaters were selling booze. My first thought was well, that’s kind of nice. I might enjoy a glass of wine or a beer while watching a flick, just like I might do at home. My second thought was, uh-oh, this could be opening a door that is going to be tough to close. I mean the extra butter on the movie popcorn was already an indulgence. The cocktail might be worse. For, it’s not news that drinking alcohol is simply not healthy or good for anyone. Granted, there are always stories and studies that suggest red wine lowers cholesterol, and that an occasional cocktail can lower stress. But every beer or glass of wine or seltzer is extra empty calories packing on the bulging waistlines of middle age America.

Now, to be clear, I’m no teetotaler. Nor am I scolding mature people for enjoying adult beverages. Growing up Irish and Slovakian, I come from cultures and traditions that appreciate fermented drinks of many kinds. In fact, my parents enjoyed an evening ritual of gin and tonics along with a tour of their garden, and there was often beer or wine with dinner. It’s actually a wonderful time to be a drinker, especially in a place like Denver – craft cocktails from niche distilleries, brewpubs on many corners, a booming wine industry – heck, Colorado has even been called “beer’s Napa Valley.” As Edward Slingerland explains in his book, Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, human beings enjoy drinking, always have and always will.

And, of course, America has already had its battles with going on the wagon nationally. At numerous times from the moment our earliest settlers began drinking pumpkin ales after the booze they brought from Europe ran out, the country’s tolerance and intolerance has waxed and waned. Various temperance movements have restricted access, the most significant being the colossal failure known as Prohibition from 1920-1933. No one will ever pass that kind of legislation again. However, on an individual and even small community basis, Americans are starting to wake up to the fact that there might be a problem.

Drinking is obviously most problematic if people are using it to self-medicate. Recreation is one thing – drinking to relieve stress and anxiety is something altogether more problematic. In Colorado more and more places want to sell booze, and as communities are being asked to approve increased access to alcohol consumption, it might be time to consider saying, “Thanks, but we’ve had enough.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Generation Xercise

I've published a similar version of this column before, and this version was my column last week for the Villager. After yesterday's news of the death of Olivia Newton John, I was rattled by having just written about her. However, the column still has value, maybe even more sow, and so I'm reprinting here.


In the early fall of 1981, the kids of Generation X were enticed to get in shape, or just pay attention to fitness, or at least entertain our adolescent selves watching others get sweaty. Oh, sure, we had the first two Rocky movies to get us up and moving, and the third film revolutionized the training montage for sports films in 1982. But it was the early days of MTV that first got us going, or at least thinking about going. For that September featured the release of Olivia Newton John’s “Physical,” and both music videos and adolescent boys were never the same.

Now, as the forgotten generation makes their way through their fifties and approaches retirement age, perhaps it’s time to remember that Aussie’s advice. Everyone should make health and fitness a daily priority, but for Generation X, it’s time to get serious about getting physical, to become Generation Xercise. I hate to say it, my friends, but we’ve gotten soft, and fitness is no longer optional. This is mandatory. We’re running out of time, and our waists can’t wait. Recent studies predict Gen X may live longer than the Baby Boomers, but their overall health will be poorer. Living longer, but in pain and sickness, is a cruel trick of the contemporary age, and we need to flip the narrative. Remember the dean from Animal House: “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.” Well, overweight, out of shape, lethargic, and generally grumpy is no way to go through retirement.

It’s time to make peace with the church of fitness. Research shows the primary target of the fitness industry is people in their fifties, with age 55 being a prime consumer. So, it’s time, and Gen Xers literally can’t afford to not get moving. In our fifties, we should be hitting the U-curve in terms of overall well being and satisfaction. The kids are older now, we’re settling into the sweet spot of career arcs, and we have time again to pay attention to ourselves. So beyond sprucing up the house and taking some well-deserved vacations, it’s time to get fit. Try a daily 9-minute workout, or heck, even a 7-minute workout, both of which were featured in the New York Times health sections. Walk for thirty minutes a day. Get your stretch on. Take the pushup challenge, or just do some pushups every day. It doesn’t matter what we do, as long as we’re doing something. If the Covid pandemic did anything, it hopefully made us want to get moving, get out of the house.

Granted, people of all ages and generations should prioritize regular exercise. However, Boomers and the Greatest Generation probably won’t pick up new routines, while Millennials and Gen Z still benefit from youthful vitality. But there won’t be a better time for people of a certain age to get back in shape. Reminders are everywhere, and as the parents of Gen X hit their golden years, we have a good view of where we’re headed healthwise. Being the sandwich generation facing a generational tug of war is not easy amidst midlife crises and the stress of caring for growing kids and aging parents. A commitment to physical and mental health and wellness can help. It will help. At this point we need all the positive endorphins we can get, and we’ve known for years about the link between exercise and mental health.

Thinking forward, the finance of fitness cannot be discounted either. We should not ignore fiscal arguments for physical fitness, especially in an ever increasingly perilous health care environment. The greatest burden Americans put on personal, state, and federal budgets is the rising cost of medical care. And many health costs for people past age fifty are lifestyle based and entirely preventable. Thus, the best thing we can do for our country and ourselves is to spend as little money as possible treating illness because we invested in health instead.

Olivia Newton John looks and feels amazing at the age of seventy-three, even as she battles breast cancer again. And Jane Fonda is still as stunning and fit as always, and still working out, at the age of eighty-four. So, let’s do this. This is not a drill. This is not optional. This is what has been waiting for us. As we move out of child-rearing and career-building and into our Act III, it’s time for Generation Xercise.

Let’s get physical.


Monday, August 1, 2022

The Slow-Brewed Beauty of Sun Tea

This week's column for The Villager is a nostalgic look at the culture of sun tea. It was inspired by a tweet from writer Amanda Fortini

“Does anyone remember sun tea?”

While scrolling through Twitter the other day, I ran across a question with that nostalgic sentiment. I was immediately flooded with memories of summertime in the 1970s and 80s when it seemed like every house in the neighborhood had a Lipton Sun Tea jar on the back porch. And memories of that commonality was kind of the point of the question. While sipping iced tea in the summer is as American as apple pie, and while I’m sure many people enjoy their tea leaves kissed by the sun, the tradition of sun tea seems to be of another time and place with a specific way of life tied to it.

I’m “country” enough to know well the traditions and culture of sweet tea, which was memorably called “the house wine of the South” by Dolly Parton’s character in Steel Magnolias. Sweet tea is an institution for many people, reminding them of specific people, places, and times linked to a special recipe. Its identity is inextricably connected to regional culture, captured in the phrase “as Southern as sweet tea.” And that tasty beverage is truly wonderful in all its syrupy sweetness. But sun tea is something else altogether. It’s not only about the taste, but about the ritual. Sun tea is about a sense of patience and understanding of the slow process. The sun tea jar is prepared and set out in the early morning, and it works its magic while we go about our daily business. And then it’s enjoyed in the afternoon when the work is done.

Sun tea brews slowly, steeped in the warmth of the sun and the gradual passage of time. Time and warmth, those are the keys. Time and warmth are also two qualities which contribute to a meaningful life and a sense of community. And, let’s face it, time and warmth are qualities and virtues that are too often lacking these days. Far too often we are unwilling to give each other our time. Too often our interactions fail to include our warmth. Sipping an ice cold glass of sun tea on the porch with friends and family while we listened to a baseball game on the radio seems like a bygone tradition. Sun tea reminds me of a simpler time in my life, in this country, in the world. Sun tea is slow, and it’s easygoing, and it’s special for the ritual and the image.

A friend of mine was living and working abroad in Australia a few years ago, and when I visited him, the culture and lifestyle of the land down under reminded me a bit of the culture of sun tea. As we spent time in Sydney and then up on the Gold Coast, we noticed and reflected on how easygoing and homey the Aussies seemed. From people watching rugby at the neighborhood pub to the regulars at the local bakery, everyone we met made us feel welcome, like we’d been living there for years. My buddy told me that living in Australia reminded him a bit of growing up in America in the late 70s and early 80s, back when the world and our society seemed a bit less manic. It was the time before mass commercialization and twenty-four hour news and social media and nonstop marketing and politics. Businesses were more local and independent before franchising changed the face of small town Main Street. Everyone felt a bit more familiar and connected. That was the time of sun tea.

As a lifelong iced tea drinker, I must admit I haven’t brewed sun tea in decades. I generally make my iced tea in the teapot on the stove, and then let the leaves steep overnight. In the morning, the tea goes in the fridge. So, the waiting is the same, but the process lacks some of the quaint culture of sun tea. Additionally, in these days when it seems like everything good is also bad for you, some health experts advise against brewing sun tea because the water never gets hot enough to kill the bacteria in the water or on the leaves. Boiling the water solves that problem. That said, I don’t ever recall getting sick from sun tea, and distilled water is available to mitigate the risk.

Savoring sun tea is savoring summer is savoring life. “Does anyone remember sun tea?” I do, fondly.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Handshake Line

I've been on a bit of a hiatus from the column this summer while I relaxed, played, traveled, and worked on other writing projects. Last week I got back to my weekly column for The Villager with this piece inspired by the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As a parent, educator, and sports fan, I think there’s no better display of sportsmanship than the handshake line tradition of the National Hockey League. As much as we all enjoyed watching the Avs players hoisting the Stanley Cup this year, I equally enjoyed, as I always do, the handshake line at the end of the final game. In the most intense and aggressive of sports, one in which fighting is practically an expected part of the game, the handshake line at the end of a playoff series is an admirable tradition of respect, humility, forgiveness, honor, and class.

Following the intense, controversy-filled playoff series between the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, many people might have expected bad blood to taint the tradition. Many might have wondered whether Blues and Avs players would even shake hands. Yet, there was never the slightest hesitation after the final horn blew. When asked about the post-series handshake line, Avs forward Naz Kadri downplayed any lingering negativity, telling the press the handshake line was not a problem. “Nah, people leave that stuff on the ice,” he explained.

Americans, nay people in general, have long been too serious about winning and losing in sports. From historical accounts of English soccer hooliganism to the ubiquitous news reports of parents-gone-wild at youth sports events, we don’t handle our excitement about athletics very well. And in a society at a time when manners, decorum, and goodwill fade from daily life, including in the once-hallowed halls of Congress, Americans’ immature antipathy for the other side is getting worse, even when that other side is just across a gym or field. There’s no better example of how bad it has become than discussions this year about canceling the handshake line.

At a Michigan-Wisconsin basketball game last March, coach Juwan Howard’s words and actions in the handshake line led to punches being thrown and a melee among players. Following that embarrassing fiasco, veteran sportscaster Dick Vitale made the sad, silly suggestion that “it’s time to eliminate the line after games of shaking hands” because there have been “too many incidents.” In reality, these incidents indicate all the more reason to keep the handshake line and to emphasize its importance. Grown ups need to manage their emotions. Adults need to re-learn the rules of sportsmanship. After former NBA star Kendrick Perkins supported doing away with handshake lines, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith simply rolled his eyes dismissively, saying “That’s utterly ridiculous.” Of course, we all make mistakes, and coach Juwan Howard should also be acknowledged for one of the most endearing moments of this year’s NCAA tournament when he held and consoled Tennessee player Kennedy Chandler who was devastated after a huge upset loss to Michigan. The handshake was replaced with a hug.

Sociologists and anthropologists believe the handshake has two possible origins. One was to demonstrate “peaceful intent” by showing the hand carries no weapon. The other symbolically signifies a relationship and bond between two people. It represents a shared humanity and a spirit of goodwill and connection. Athletes should play with passion and intensity, but not with anger. Fans should cheer on their teams with equal enthusiasm, but not contempt or rage. And a post-game handshake should be a no-brainer. If any athlete or coach can’t tell the difference, they should walk away from the game until they’ve figured that out.

Whether on the playground or at the professional level, the reality remains – it’s just a game. Even when it’s a career, it’s still a game. In playing “for the love of the game,” respect for the competition and the opponent should be fundamental, and sportsmanship should never take a backseat. Shake hands. Have some class. Control yourselves. Show some respect. At the end of this year’s Wimbledon Men’s Championship, the intense match between Novak Djokovic and Nick Krygrios ended with a handshake and smiles at the net. Two incredibly talented tennis players who also wear their fiery emotions on their sleeves found a way to honor and respect each other in victory and defeat.

Athletic competition is a key element of the human experience. Drawing from the earliest civilizations, it’s a testament to the value of achievement and excellence. Sportsmanship is a virtue that derives from the act of competition. Humility and gratitude in winning, respect and graciousness in losing – that’s what the handshake line is all about. It’s something I hope we never lose.

Monday, June 6, 2022

School’s Out for Summer

This week's column for The Villager.

As the school doors shut on another year, the screen door opens into summer. The annual break from formal schooling generally arrives near Memorial Day when the pools open, camps begin, part-time jobs ensue, and warm weather recreation kicks off. Summer vacation is a much needed respite from the rigors of schooling, both for students and teachers. In fact, each summer as that last bell rings, and the kids go streaming out the doors, the young ones only think they’re the people most excited about the break.

Yet every year, some curmudgeons and critics try to take the joy out of summer vacation by suggesting schools do away with the annual time off from classes. As blasphemous as that may sound, especially to anyone under the age of eighteen, the anti-summer voices believe they have a pretty strong argument that there is no real need for students to take the months of June and July off from classes. Critics of summer vacation fret about the alleged “summer slide” that happens each year when kids take an eight week break from formal schooling and instruction.

Some studies have suggested that during the summer months, some students regress in their math and reading skills, arriving back in the fall behind the learning levels they were at in May. Thus, it’ll be no surprise this year when people discuss the learning loss associated with the pandemic and conclude kids are falling behind and have no time to take a break. However, the data on the summer slide has always been selective in its criticism, and it rarely paints a full picture of student learning. Additionally, it’s simply wrong to conclude that the only learning a child achieves happens within the walls of a classroom. Kids not only have time to take a break; they need and benefit from the time off.

Much criticism of summer break is actually based on a myth. Despite evidence to the contrary, many people believe summer vacation is a relic of America’s agrarian past when schools supposedly let children out during June and July to work on the farms. That’s actually false. In reality, throughout the nineteenth century, American schools were generally in session during the summer. It was only in rural areas that schools took breaks in the spring and fall for planting and harvest. Anyone who’s familiar with agrarian life knows those are the seasons extra help is needed on the farm, not the middle of July. The concept of summer vacation was actually created in the days before air conditioning to appease middle and upper-class families who fled hot, crowded cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago each June to “summer” in resort areas like the Catskills or the Dells.

That said, the practice of taking a break from school in the summer has stuck around because it’s actually a good idea. The benefits of summer vacation aren’t simply about increased playtime and sleeping late. Summer breaks are filled with opportunities for growth and learning that extend well beyond the confines of the classroom. Many people cherish the memories and appreciate the value of summer camps, which offer all sorts of experiences for recreation, friendship, and learning. Whether kids attend day camps or leave home to stay for a week or even a month, the independence and camaraderie of camp can be a truly special experience. Summer sports leagues provide similar benefits as young people immerse themselves in their love of the game. Summer vacation is also a time to release kids from regimented schedules, letting them explore, daydream, goof off, and simply play.

Summer employment is an additional benefit of the annual break from school, whether that’s entrepreneurship for young kids running a lemonade stand, doing yard work, or babysitting, or it’s teenagers earning real paychecks at part-time jobs from lifeguarding to retail. And, it’s not just kids who take advantage of summer jobs. Because teachers work on ten-month contracts, many of them supplement their income with summer jobs as well. Often the managers of the neighborhood pools or the directors of those summer camps are teachers.

So, here’s to summer vacation in all its glory. Let us never forget the joy and benefits of summertime. Except for those unfortunate few stuck in the worst idea of all – summer school.



Monday, May 30, 2022

The Science of Gun Violence & Regulation

This from the Scientific American:

The Science Is Clear: Gun Control Saves Lives
By enacting simple laws that make guns safer and harder to get, we can prevent killings like the ones in Uvalde and Buffalo:

The science is abundantly clear: More guns do not stop crime. Guns kill more children each year than auto accidents. More children die by gunfire in a year than on-duty police officers and active military members. Guns are a public health crisis, just like COVID, and in this, we are failing our children, over and over again.

In the 1970s, I knew the National Rifle Association to be a gun-safety organization. Attending gun safety presentations, workshops, and even "day camps" where young people could learn to safely operate and respect firearms was a part of my youth. To that end, I simply can't fathom the opposition to regulation. Regulation is the key to solving the disagreement about how to solve America's alarming gun violence problem. It would seem that people who support gun ownership and possession would be the leaders in establishing the discussion.

And yet ...

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Class of 2022, Live Artfully

I've never given a graduation commencement speech. But if I did, it would sound something like this, my latest column for The Villager:

In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich advised that year’s graduates to “Wear Sunscreen.” Humanities professor Neil Postman once told a graduating class they must choose between being Athenians or Visigoths, urging them to use education to cultivate a fulfilling life. Iconic contemporary novelist David Foster Wallace went viral with a commencement speech entitled “This is Water.” Novelist Carl Hiaasen wrote the book Assume the Worst about advice you’ll never hear in a commencement speech. And, of course, Steve Jobs told Stanford grads the way to do great work is to love what you do. Giving advice to young graduates each May is a timeless tradition, though in many ways it’s probably also a pointless one. Ultimately, we all have to figure it out for ourselves.

Despite the negative talk about the youth, public education, and the country in general, I look to young people, filled with hope. You are our pride and joy, our best and brightest, and the future belongs to you. The question is what are you going to do with it? The twenty-first century is a time constantly in flux, undergoing perpetual change. While that can be unsettling and even scary, it can also be tremendously exciting. The future truly is wide open, and the challenge is to find your path, to carve out your niche, to make your impact. When Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Woods to live, he said he wished to “live deliberately.” My advice is to extend that idea and “live artfully,” carefully crafting and thoughtfully creating the canvas, the sculpture, the picture of your life.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Denver Arts Festival - May 28/29

This weekend the Denver Arts Festival returns for its twenty-third year. After chatting with festival director Jim DeLutes, I wrote up a little preview for 303 Magazine:

Jim DeLutes, a local photographer and director of Denver Arts Festival, has one goal for art patrons who visit the event: “Everyone walks away with a smile.”

DeLutes has been involved with the Denver Arts Festival for each of its 23 years, starting as an artist promoting his photography and later moving into a directorial role. While he is an artist himself, the work as a director gives him an equal amount of pleasure for the opportunity to celebrate and “support Colorado artists who aren’t always represented at the larger gatherings,” as he puts it. He says the value of an art festival is the chance to “get the public interested in following and perhaps collecting an artist.” Festivals are the perfect setting to interact with the art and the artist simultaneously. It’s always a treat to engage with the creator, discuss the process, learn about a medium or technique or just appreciate the art together.

Monday, May 16, 2022

White Noise Inside the Supermarket

Like so many of us during the early days of the pandemic, I returned to reading some older works that might offer some insight into the way we were feeling. For me, one of those books was Don Delillo's postmodern classic White Noise from 1985. That reading led to the following piece of lit crit, recently published by Porridge Magazine.

Wandering the aisles of my neighborhood supermarket, the kind of place Don DeLillo once wrote evoked “a sense of replenishment … and fullness of being,” I tread cautiously out of suspicion and respect for the potential “airborne toxic event” that is the coronavirus pandemic. As the world continues to pass milestones of Covid infections, I have gradually come to realize that, like The Clash’s Joe Strummer, I am feeling “all lost in the supermarket; I can longer shop happily.” Now, more than two years since the pandemic was declared, as society cautiously emerges from quarantine cocoons while also facing a return to some restrictions amidst fears of the delta and omicron variants, I’m still wearing a mask in crowded places like our nearby grocery store, despite being vaccinated and boosted. And, in a socially distant world where the supermarket was the last bastion of a semi-normal suburban existence, I’m thinking of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise.




Thursday, May 12, 2022

What's in a Grade?

The detrimental effect of zeros in a gradebook has become an important issue in education circles lately. I address that problematic assessment practices, as well as a couple other controversies, in this week's column for The Villager.

Giving zeros to students who fail to complete work seems to make sense – if no work is submitted, a teacher cannot rationally assign points. However, in a point-based grading system, a few zeros can mathematically eliminate a student from ever passing a class. In a philosophical way, such a punitive structure may not make sense in a system designed to educate and assess learning against standards, as opposed to the simple accumulation of points. The issue has been aptly summed up in a paper called The Case Against Zero.

When I heard of schools eliminating zeros from grading policies, I instinctively recoiled at the sheer audacity. How can teachers not be allowed to give zeros? However, in scrutinizing my own assessment practices, as any professional educator should routinely do, I’m taking a fresh look at assessment. Two years ago at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, I participated in a professional development session about standards-based grading, and I was struck by the discrepancy between letter and numeric grading. The traditional system of assigning points and assessing grades based on percentages is at odds with the practice of converting those scores to letter grades, which are the only record on a student’s transcript. Basically, the practice used by most schools appears illogical and mathematically flawed.

Most schools use two separate grading systems which literally don’t match up and contradict each other. Assignments are generally measured by a 100-point percentage system. Using those scales, any grade below a 60% is considered failing. That means only 40% of the scale passes and grants credit. However, schools then convert number grades to a letter system of A, B, C, D, F. In that letter scale, 80% of the grades pass with credit. Thus, in a four-point standards-based system, a zero out of four is a legitimate grade to represent failure. However, in a 100-point system where the lowest passing D is a 60%, the mathematically accurate measure for an F, or failure, is 50, not zero.

Assigning zeros in a 100-point system is actually mathematically disingenuous. It punishes failure at twice the rate of awarding success. Failing to complete work should receive a failing grade, but assigning a zero is disproportionate to achievement. For, in a quarter or semester of work, a few zeros on individual assignments can lead to failure of an entire semester, a result which inaccurately measures a student’s entire work portfolio. Consequently, failure can have residual effects such as increasing drop-out rates, which have catastrophic consequences on both personal and societal levels.

Policies regarding deadlines and late work are another problem area of assessment. During the pandemic, amidst remote learning and a literal disconnect between teachers and students, schools implemented more gracious and forgiving practices, and it was a valuable opportunity for teachers to assess what they are actually assessing. However, some teachers from elementary through high school refuse to accept late work, or assign it just half credit. That seems absurdly punitive and not in the spirit of assessing achievement. How can a teacher rationally accept quality work, yet assign it a failing grade based on submission schedule? Docking points, or refusing to give late work an “A,” seems reasonable. Failing completed work does not.

Teachers often justify punitive late work policies by emphasizing personal responsibility. Some even tell students that “in the real world” late work gets you fired, which is not really accurate. How many teachers are late to class occasionally, late grading and returning work, late updating grades in the system, late responding to a parent or student communication? How many are fired or lose pay for that? Clearly, teaching responsibility is important, though it’s not in any curriculum or state learning standards. Teachers are not truly teaching kids a lesson by failing late work, and the real world will teach those lessons soon enough. To paraphrase a student’s view: “Schools have exams and failing grades. The workplace has performance assessment and development goals.”

Ultimately, the primary question for teachers, schools, and families when talking about grades is what exactly they are assessing. Is it skills, knowledge, or compliance? Are teachers assessing learning against standards, or just compliance with assigned tasks? Should schools revisit point and letter-based grading systems? It seems unorthodox to ask, but it’s a legitimate question. Achievement of standards should be the marker, and as controversial as it sounds, critics have a valid case that assigning zeros makes zero sense. There might be a better way.



Monday, May 2, 2022

The Joy of Art Returns

The Governor’s Art Show in Colorado for the 2022 year premiered last weekend at the Loveland Art Museum, and it did not disappoint. I visited last Saturday and wrote up a review/feature of 303 Magazine. 

“Happy and hopeful.” That’s how one patron described the paintings of landscape artist Rick Young at the opening gala for the Governor’s Art Show in Loveland. The exhibit premiered Saturday, April 23, at the Loveland Art Museum featuring more than two hundred works from sixty Colorado artists. Show Director Ruth Scott described the opening gala the night before as an “amazing crowd with a real buzz of excitement for getting back to celebrating art.” People were emailing and calling weeks in advance in anticipation of the show. They won’t be disappointed by the richly curated and diverse show, exhibiting some of the best art Colorado has to offer.

In a state known for breathtaking mountain views, as well as stunning sunrises and sunsets, it’s no surprise to find a healthy representation of landscapes produced by the artists who live and work here. From vivid photorealism to soft impressionist takes to abstraction, this show offers numerous media in which to appreciate the environment. Acrylic painter Rick Young “uses color expressively, rather than representationally,” noting the vibrant pinks, purples, and oranges in his work. In “Trails End,” centered by a towering cairn, Rick’s lively colors and signature curved brush strokes used to express movement exaggerate, or perhaps accentuate, the scenery of the hike he is recreating on canvas.

John Lintott’s mountain landscapes take a different approach with sharply detailed realism capturing the stark beauty in the semi-arid landscape of Western Colorado and the West. He balances the scenes with brightly colored vegetation, like the tree along the river in “Boney Desolation,” accentuating the intricate features of the rocky hills behind it. His attention to detail comes from “a lot of time outside observing.” Refraction of light is a key interest of Colorado artists, whether it’s bursts of light through the trees in Kathleen Lanzoni’s “Shining Through,” the soft glow coming through the windows in Kim English’s “Home Office,” or the golden hue of water lilies in Dix Baines’ “Silver and Gold Light.”

A sense of joyous vitality runs through this year’s exhibit with sculptures and other visual art celebrating movement and a clear joie de vivre. Clay Enoch’s bronze sculptures capture a group of energetic kids in a “Jump” and on the slope anticipating a “First Run.” A similar energy is found in Danny Haskew’s sculpture “Dance Within, Wear Only Sky,” and that poetic beauty of movement is celebrated in numerous other pieces featuring dancers. The skillfully curated layout at the museum emphasizes such subjects, as with the bronze piece “In the Wings II” by Jane Dedecker placed near the huge oil piece “Fervent Reclamation” of a dancer by Jen Starling, creating a beautiful display of both anticipation and action.

There’s a clear sense of fun and whimsy in many pieces, such as the tempting, delicious still lifes of donuts from Gregory Block. Anyone who has visited Voodoo Donuts and wanted to capture the memory will love Block’s “Box Set” and “Jubilee,” which look like they were delivered by a bakery, rather than an oil painter. The fun is also present during the artist meet-and-greet, which occurs every Saturday afternoon of the show from 2:00 – 4:00. Artists Sabrina Stiles and Douglas Wodark were laughing and chatting about their artistic process, describing the “sheer joy, and playful,” feeling of creation where “you’re just having fun.”

Similarly, watercolorist Kathleen Lanzoni described her process as “controlled playfulness,” which is required with a medium that will quickly take on a mind of its own. In two landscapes, Lanzoni blends colors with a loose style that “lets the colors run and do their magic.” The effect she gets in working from light to dark, creates a powerful sunburst coming through the trees in her piece. The technique complements and reflects the natural landscapes she paints, like the colors which so smoothly blend along trails.

The show also provides a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the beauty, even the mystery of Colorado, as the artists remind us to stop and look at the world around us. A thoughtful reflective theme is seen in numerous wildlife images, whether it’s animals sitting in repose like Timothy Nimmo’s coyote in “Wary Rest” or the impossible-to-ignore intensity of Douglas Wodark’s stunning buffalo, “Standing Strong.” The paintings and sculptures evoke a sense of strength and calm and hope. That “happy and hopeful” feeling is also present in various pictures of bird eggs, such as the work of Elaine St. Louis, an oil painter, whose four pictures are different varieties of birds. In noting her own picture of eggs in a nest, Lanzoni observed “maybe we’ve been nesting for a couple years” and now it’s time for spring and rebirth.

The Governor’s Art Show is an investment in and celebration of the arts community in Colorado. In a statement for the show’s program, Governor Jared Polis endorses the show, noting how it “encourages investment by recognizing current Colorado artists” with the goal of “growing and supporting the art industry which contributes $3.7 billion” to the state's economy.

The show is collaboratively sponsored by the Loveland and Thompson Valley Rotary clubs. Ruth Scott explained that curation is “nearly a year-long process” with artist calls for submission going out in August through November and then selected by a five-person jury. This year’s selection jury consisted of Maureen Corey, Loveland Museum Curator; Don Hamilton, artist; Dr. Jennifer Henneman, Denver Art Museum, associate curator; Scott Kelley, patron; and Tal Walton, artist. The show has no specific theme or requirement for medium or style, according to Scott, who says selection “is simply all about the quality of the art. Whatever moves the jurors” is what makes the show.

Proceeds from the show help support multiple causes including scholarships for art students and the purchase of art supplies for the Thompson School District. All works are available for sale in person and online, and interested patrons can preview the entire selection on the website for the show. Granted, photos can never replace the experience of being up close and personal with art, so a visit to the museum is a must. The show runs through May 22, and tickets for non-members are $7.00.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

A New Plan for Teacher Pay

Playing with a bit of satire for this week's column in The Villager. Or, perhaps it's a really great idea for school funding.

The country is facing a serious teacher shortage, as fewer young people see the profession as a viable career move. And teacher salaries is a key issue. According to Chalkbeat, the average Colorado teacher makes $51,000 a year, though in rural districts the pay can be significantly lower where starting teachers make just $25,000 a year and earn only $40,000 annually after a twenty-year career. In a state with above average housing prices and a high cost of living even before inflation, the challenge to lure young professionals to teaching with lucrative salaries remains a problem.

However, this isn’t a column to complain about teacher pay. As an educator for nearly thirty years, I’ve always been quite satisfied with the living I make. Granted, teachers earn twenty percent less than comparably educated workers in the private sector. The reason is teachers are only paid for ten months of work. Despite what many people believe, teachers aren’t given a year-long salary for only forty weeks of work. Most schools have yearly contracts of roughly 180 days, though districts often disperse pay over twelve months for obvious reasons. The one perk meant to offset the public-private pay gap is a pension system that offers an earlier retirement age than Social Security, which teachers don’t receive.

Many people believe society undervalues teachers and has misplaced priorities. They think it's wrong that professional athletes make millions of dollars to play a game while some teachers struggle to pay the bills. I completely disagree with that comparison. I won’t fault any athlete for earning as much as they can. I once heard Oprah ramble on about how athletes should make less and “teachers should make a million dollars a year.” That’s nonsense, even if it weren’t coming from a billionaire television personality. Athletes earn millions for one simple reason – they generate that money. It’s all about revenue, especially advertising.

Millions of fans pay hefty ticket prices to watch adults play a game for our entertainment. Millions more tune in to televised games which generate billions of dollars in advertising revenue. Athletes deserve a share of the money they produce. Teaching doesn’t produce revenue. No one is buying tickets for even the most entertaining classrooms. And advertisers are not throwing money at schools and teachers for advertising space. However, perhaps they could. Maybe they should. So, I’m thinking about advertising and endorsement deals for teachers.

Picture this: a teacher walks into the classroom where anxious students await the lesson or assessment. The teacher announces, “Ok, today we have a quiz on multiplying polynomials … and this quiz is brought to you by Quiznos.” Or Starbucks. Or Nike. Or T-Mobile. Students receive a copy of the test with company logos splashed across the top of the page. At the bottom of the paper is a coupon for ten-percent off their next purchase. It could even be used to incentivize achievement. Students would receive higher discounts, premiums, and perks for better grades. The possibilities are endless.

As an English teacher reads an intense passage, he might add, “Wow, this character could use an ice cold Coca-Cola.” Business teachers could offer financial literacy lessons, as well as discounted prices for opening an IRA or new bank account. Teachers and schools have a captive audience which is a virtual goldmine of current and future consumers. Why not take advantage of that widely available advertising opportunity? Teachers often wear clothing with school logos, which is nice to support the school, but not remotely lucrative. So, why aren’t teachers sporting company logos and getting a nice kickback from advertisers?

Interestingly, some teachers do make million dollar salaries. Kim Ki-hoon, a popular private tutor and cram school teacher in South Korea earns $4 million a year because his test prep lectures are so popular in the country where high stakes testing for high school and college admissions is even more intense than America’s. And Deanne Jump is a kindergarten teacher who has earned more than a million dollars selling her lesson plans and class materials online.

So, now that college athletes have been freed by the courts to capitalize on their marketability, perhaps the same courtesy might be extended to educators. Critics of public education have long argued that schools need to work more like the business world. So, why not let market forces work their magic in the classroom? And if not, then maybe teachers could just set a tip jar on their desks.