Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Teaching as Performance Art

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

“Mr. Mazenko, you could be an actor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Faith is What Remains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Schools are in Crisis ... and always have been

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Democracy isn’t Light or Transient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Gifted, Advanced, & Average

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

"Every child is gifted in their own way."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some people are just gifted.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Puffs - Magical Fun on Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Substack: the new magazine

I love the sharp wit and insight of this comment:

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

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

Monday, November 1, 2021

Steve Martin

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

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Progress Isn’t Always the Goal

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

"There has been lots of progress in my lifetime, but I'm afraid it's headed in the wrong direction," said Ogden Nash on April 4, 1959 in The New Yorker. "Progress may have been all right once, but it's gone on too long."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 21, 2021

No Better Time

This week's column for The Villager:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 15, 2021

Fear or Faith?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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