Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Measures of Excellence, and "the GOAT"

With the news the NBA has renamed the league MVP Award after Michael Jordan, discussions of greatness, and who is the greatest basketball player of all time – or “the GOAT” – will ensue all over again. However, I might suggest the conversation is already over. For, when the MVP trophy is literally named after you, it’s safe to say you are the MVP-est of MVPs. Or as NBA Commissioner David Stern said when awarding Jordan his second of five MVP awards: “You are simply the standard by which basketball excellence is measured.”

When an individual sets the standard for excellence, he is by default the greatest of all time; any achievements after that basically seem derivative. Of course, comparisons between eras are always difficult. In today’s NBA where there is no hand-checking, traveling and carrying are just standards of dribbling, and flopping has become a way of life to gain an advantage, not to mention a cheap path to the free-throw line to pad scoring totals, the two potentials GOATs of the NBA – Michael Jordan and Lebron James – actually played noticeably different games.

While some sports fans may argue the statistical measuring sticks for basketball prowess from points to assists to rebounds to longevity lean in favor of Lebron James, or other players to come later, I’m skeptical that discussions of excellence will ever be about anyone other than Michael Jordan. Straight numbers can go both ways, and interested fans can read endless commentary aligning all relevant numbers for both players. In those articles, the conclusion is generally that superiority is subjective and too close to call. However, “greatness” in terms of overall impact on and dominance over the game, as well as the general assessment by players, coaches, commentators, and fans, always end with Michael Jordan being the marker by which all others, including Lebron James, are judged.

The concept of greatness, or especially the measure of “greatest-ness” is obviously a rather subjective and relative idea. Excellence and pinnacles of achievement have always been highly valued by societies and cultures. As humans we simply stand in awe and respect of individuals who push the boundaries to unimagined heights. And, the interest goes beyond athletics. The same argument can be made about artists, especially in terms of innovation and game-changing practice. In many people’s view, Pablo Picasso is probably the greatest artist of all time, the GOArtisT if you will – because of his vast and diverse achievements over a lifetime. When any individual is responsible for so many incredible innovative game-changing achievements, the others coming later simply can’t truly pass them. Others may achieve equally great success, and many have, but it won’t be better.

A similar standard of comparison can be applied to objective rationalist areas as well, such as science and mathematics. In the exciting news out of the energy world, the scientists who recently achieved landmark developments in pursuit of fusion energy are astoundingly brilliant people. Their achievements will go down in history as truly legendary. But are they greater than Einstein or Feynman or Turing? I have a hard time supporting any claim like that. And, of course, the innovative nature of these scientists and thinkers must give nod to previous visionaries such as Isaac Newton or Galileo or Pythagoras or Euclid.

And the GOAT discussions arise in all sports – On the PGA, is it Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods? Where do we place two-sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? And with Argentina’s thrilling victory in Sunday’s World Cup, does Lionel Messi stake a claim to being the best soccer player of all time? It’s not really about any singular achievement, but about standards of excellence beyond all the rest. For that reason, in the world of sports, Jim Thorpe will always be the greatest athlete in history, in my view.

So, back to basketball and the MVP. I believe the “standard by which excellence is measured” is the reasonable gauge for the GOAT. Basically, the comparisons will always start and end with MJ. And it’s not because he was the first. The gauge and comparison isn’t Bill Russell. It’s not Magic or Bird or Wilt or Kareem or Dr. J. And fifty years from now it won’t be anyone else. It won’t be Lebron. It’s not Lebron now, and it won’t ever be. The discussion of all GOATs in the NBA past, present, and future will always go back to “Is he better than Jordan?”

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Thoughts, Quips, & Comments

For my last Villager column of 2022, I decided to simply write up some of the random wanderings of my mind -- the type of things I occasionally post on various social media.

“Sometimes I just think funny things.”

That line is one of my favorites from the classic Dudley Moore film Arthur from 1981. And I always think about it when random thoughts, quips, and comments pop into my head or come at me from a friend in a casual conversation. We all have those random instances of a wise or profound or thoughtful or silly or poignant or just interesting thought. And a few years ago I started collecting a list of mine. So, for this week’s column, I thought I’d list a few favorites.

Before you can have a good week, you can have a good day. And before a good day, you can have a good hour. And before a good hour, you can have a good moment. So, here’s to more good moments.

The Dalai Lama once said something to the effect of, you suffer because you want something that doesn’t belong to you. And while I’ve understood the Buddhist beliefs around suffering and attachment, the simplicity of his words provides clarity for me.

Years ago during a moment of ennui and melancholy, I voiced a worry that I had perhaps lost my faith. A young but wise and spiritual man told me that, on the contrary, faith is what remains when all else seems hopeless. Faith is not something you lose – it’s what you turn to when feeling lost.

I no longer double check the mailbox slot to make sure the letter went all the way down, and I think that’s a sign I’m finally growing up.

Growing up in the Midwest means a natural balance of maintaining a hopeful idealism in “the way things ought to be” while also holding onto an honest pragmatism about “the way things actually are.”

From a physiological standpoint considering the rules of physics and what we know about human reaction time, it should be impossible to hit a 95-mph fastball from 60 feet 6 inches away. According to the laws of physics and aerodynamics, bumblebees should not be able to fly. Neither professional baseball players nor bees know this. And no one should ever tell them.

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

I think the key to artists is they never stop noticing the world. When they create art, it is to remind us of the fascinating brilliance of everything. Picasso said every child is an artist. The key is to not forget that when we grow up. Look around and notice the infinite complexity and simple beauty of the world.

A primary tenet of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors is to first, do no harm. I think that’s a pretty good tenet for all professions and really everyone in their personal lives. It’s part of my daily quest to the kinder, gentler Michael.

One of the best bits of advice a colleague ever gave me as a teacher was “Don’t become a caricature of yourself.”

Arguably, the greatest day, week, month, and year of your life is the current one. It’s always the current one. For it’s the only one that truly exists, and it is here to be embraced for all it’s worth.

My dad was the eternal optimist. He was always looking for and reminding me of the positives in any situation. Often he had a wonderful anecdote to illustrate his point. One of his favorite stories was about two brothers – a pessimist and an optimist – who were tasked with cleaning up a huge pile of horse manure. As the pessimist whined and complained about the work and the mess, the other brother just started digging through the pile. When the first brother asked what he was doing, the optimist simply looked up to say, “With all this horse s–t around, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.”

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

Friday, December 16, 2022

A Rushmore Revolution

In a recent column for The Villager, I revisit an old piece and idea I wrote about many years. Specifically, I'm thinking about the type of leadership and vision that is too often lacking among today's politicians and legislators.

In a popular film from 1991, Grand Canyon by Lawrence Kasdan, a character played by Danny Glover tells Kevin Kline’s character to “get yourself to the Grand Canyon.” In a movie about personal discovery and re-defining faith in society and the self, the Grand Canyon serves as a point of inspiration, implying that a trip to this wonder of the world might provide some degree of epiphany about a person’s direction in life. The Grand Canyon is a place to go and recharge, restoring faith and encouraging a sense of awe and wonder. These days, following a tumultuous election and years of angst as political pundits continually divide the nation into Red and Blue states, I think America needs to “get itself to Mount Rushmore.”

The uniqueness of this monument to the icons of American history is the universality of these men. In an increasingly partisan country, the men of Rushmore are regularly claimed by both political legacies. At any given time these monoliths of American political rhetoric are adopted by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. While that might seem complicated and confusing, it should actually be seen as comforting and validating. The point is that these presidents are both and neither. They are all, as well as none, of the above. Beyond party and ideology, they are, quite simply, Americans.

When I look at the faces on that cliff in South Dakota, I see leadership on the grandest scale. These are men who held deep powerful convictions, yet acted in the most pragmatic ways. While Jefferson believed in limiting the power of the federal government, he used such power without shame when purchasing the Louisiana territory. While Lincoln knew the Constitution and the law as well as anyone, he was not above manipulating both to save the union. Roosevelt was a fearless capitalist, who nonetheless, was not afraid to use the strong arm of Washington to restrict the more troublesome qualities of the economic system. None of these men were so rigidly foolish to believe one ideology or party had all the answers. In fact, some might say the brilliance of the Founding Fathers lay in their understanding they didn’t know everything, and could not foresee the challenges America would face.

These men governed in a way that was always best for America. Far more than is the norm for political leaders in the twenty-first century, the Rushmore presidents were deeply devoted to keeping the promise that is delivered in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I can’t help but believe the men of Rushmore would be profoundly dismayed by the nature of political discourse in America today. It’s not that they opposed differences of opinions. Think of Jefferson’s disputes with Adams, Lincoln’s presiding over the greatest division in American history, and Roosevelt splitting off to form a third party in 1912. What each of these men did throughout their careers was fight the corruption of the ideals upon which America was founded.

I can’t imagine what they would think if they knew that more than $14 billion was spent on the 2020 election campaigns. While Jefferson wrote the book, so to speak, on free speech, I can imagine he would suggest, “That’s some darn expensive speech.” I can almost see Roosevelt’s sneer. I can feel Lincoln’s eyes staring with profound disappointment. America needs the men of Mount Rushmore. America needs a Rushmore Revolution.

We need a new political movement that is neither Republican nor Democrat, one not driven by ideology. We need a perspective that acknowledges the value of both sides, one not simply focused on beating the other party for control. We need a group of men and women who will devote themselves to a common goal, making the best decisions for the best of all Americans. We need to make a fresh start, and then we need to ask ourselves. What would Washington do? What would Jefferson do? What would Lincoln do? What would Roosevelt do?

We need to streamline a government and a political system, so with all the pragmatism of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, we can stop shouting at each other and criticizing each other and demeaning each other, and simply fix the problems. We need to find the commonality that is the greatness of the men of Rushmore.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Gratitude Journal

Taking time to reflect on and write about the good things is a healthy practice. My thoughts in a recent column for The Villager:

Each year in November, I introduce my classes to the practice of keeping a gratitude journal. Research suggests that people, who take a few minutes each day to reflect and write down good things in their lives, and who do so consistently for at least twenty-one straight days, will feel and exhibit improved mental health and well-being. Thinking good thoughts and being grateful for positive aspects of our lives, no matter how small, actually makes us feel better. It improves our attitudes toward ourselves, our communities, and the world at large.

A few years ago, Cherry Creek High School implemented a student-led program called Sources of Strength, which focuses on building and sustaining positive school culture. In the first year, students were encouraged to identify positive influences in their life, from mentors and friends to healthy activities and mental health. Through advisory classes, each student was given the opportunity to keep a gratitude journal. It’s a mindfulness practice, and for three weeks each November, my students get settled and prepared for class by reflecting quietly and writing down three positives in their lives – as a class we take a few moments to voluntarily share out loud.

I am grateful for so many things in my life, and first and foremost are the many people who mean so much to me. My wife of thirty years and my wonderful children who are wise beyond their years are sources of joy and strength in my life. I also value my colleagues at Cherry Creek High School. The daily sense of collegiality and professionalism that I encounter is truly a source of good fortune. From engaging professional conversations to thoughtful and supportive discussions to silly chats about the most random of things, the people of Creek fill my day with positivity.

I’m also honestly thankful for my students, all of them over a thirty-year career. The young people I have the pleasure of working with continually improve me. When I think about the greatest accomplishment in my life, it’s undoubtedly my teaching career and the kids who make it a fulfilling vocation. As much as I try to educate them, these hardworking, fun-loving citizens of Generation Z teach me a great deal as well. And at a place like Creek, I regularly encounter ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. From top-ranked academic achievements to inspiring athletics to stunning fine arts performances to dedicated participation in a vast collection of clubs and activities, the kids these days amaze me. One particularly gratifying aspect of Cherry Creek High School is the Unified programs, which pair special needs students and their mainstream peers in theater productions, sports leagues, activities, and adaptive classes. I am truly grateful to work in such an inclusive environment.

I am also grateful for the simple unsung conveniences of contemporary life. I appreciate all the technologies that make life so much more efficient. From digital music platforms like Pandora, Spotify, and YouTube to simple web applications and software like GoogleDocs and even wireless projectors in the classroom, tech just makes life nicer. I also value my home, my short walk to school each day, and the community of Greenwood Village. From the city workers who maintain our parks and guarantee well-plowed streets to the Parks & Rec department that offers regular enrichment activities, my village is a wonderful place to live.

Finally, I am thankful for the arts in all their beautiful forms. Music is an indispensable form of joy in my daily life. From the cool jazz I listen to each morning to the pop, rock, and country I hear throughout the day to the lo-fi chill hop in the background as I write to the punk rock that energizes my workouts, music brings a rhythm to my life. I also appreciate simple culinary pleasures like pumpkin pancakes, St. Louis specialties like toasted ravioli and thin crust pizza, and of course, coffee because, well, … coffee.

The practice of journaling is a positive act and practice which has thousands of years of evidence to validate its benefits. From the meditations of Marcus Aurelius to the reflections of Michel Montaigne and St. Thomas Aquinas to the journals of Henry Thoreau, taking time to write and reflect everyday, or at least regularly, is a valuable contributor to overall mental health and well being. And a good place to start is writing a gratitude journal for the next twenty-one days.

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.