Wednesday, December 31

Thoughts on The Shack

So I finally read The Shack. I've had it for a while, but just never got around to reading it.

Many critics, writing teachers, and others of that ilk have written about the importance of the first line. I mention this because I was nearly as irritated with the first line of the Foreword of The Shack as I was with what's-his-name's purpose-driven stuff (I didn't get past the first chapter of the book that started a dynasty of sorts). The first line of the Foreword reads: "Who wouldn't be skeptical when a man claims to have spent an entire weekend with God, in a shack no less?" Well, me. Maybe some of that old Navigator training really did rub off on me or maybe it's because I've been thinking about taking a spiritual retreat. My thinking was "Good for you! Good for you for making the time to spend an entire weekend being in the presence of God."

But I knew the line is meant to be a set-up for the rest of the story cleverly titled The Shack, which led me to think that the protagonist wouldn't be going to the shack with Thomas Merton-like intentions of a spiritual retreat.

So I read the book and, overall, I liked it. Parts of it dragged as Young (and perhaps his collaborators) worked very hard to hammer home a point. I came away from the book with some thoughts that were interesting to me, though they may be of no value to you.

1. The garden.
I loved the image of Sarayu and Mack working in the garden that was his soul. Given the portrait of his life, the number of weeds and roots and such were not surprising. It did give me pause to think about how messy and chaotic the garden of my soul might look.

2. Ten Commandments.
Some years ago Pastor Colin Smith at Arlington Heights Free Church, now named something else, spoke on the Ten Commandments. He said that the "Thou shalt not" of each commandment was not an injunction on behavior; it's not God shaking his finger at us and telling us what NOT to do. Instead, because of the work of Jesus Christ, "Thou shalt not" tells us that these are things will shall not do if we live freely and fully in Him.

3. I knew I was right about "ought" or I'm free to be one with God.
I was intrigued by the comments about independence and dependence. I've long experienced a great deal of resistance to the word "ought." I caution my students in their use of the word "ought" when they talk about what they believe "ought" to be the case for books, behavior, etc. It is a very judgmental word and quickly establishes there are only certain behaviors, words, etc. that are "appropriate," which means allowable. The language is not only judgmental, but restrictive. But I was also intrigued by the comments about expectations and responsibilities. The notion of expectations is also judgmental. One of the reasons so many of us are so miserable is because of expectations we think others have of us or because of expectations we foist on others, often without letting them know we have such expectations of them. Thus they are bound to disappoint us in some way.

I was in the office on Tue, 12/30. I talked to a few folks about their Christmas holiday and was rather surprised that nearly everyone expressed relief that Christmas was behind them, that they didn't have to spend any more time with family. Some weird, messed-up composite of expectations and responsibilities along with guilt and a few other ingredients, no doubt, is responsible for that. Their comments had nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with familial expectations and responsibilities, which are often inextricably linked.

At one point, Papa (God) reminds Mack there is no need for ritual. That's a man-made thing; we are comfortable with ritual for many reasons. But too often ritual becomes it's own means to an end and suddenly we have to complete a particular ritual for something to happen or so something won't happen.

4. Just say "no" to institutions and "yes" to relationships.
And that leads to the next point. We've created a lot of institutions; a lot of religious institutions that have become so focused on the being of the institution that the reason for the institution has been overlooked or forgotten. This isn't a recent phenomenon; I think this behavior has been going on since the Fall. We create institutions or organizations stained with restrictions the moment we form an exclusive club, the moment we try to exercise power over someone else.

We're not very good at pure relationships, though. Those ideas of "ought" along with expectations and responsibilities insist on creeping in. We find it hard to enjoy relationships for the moments we are able to share without cluttering them with institutional and prescriptive restrictions. Still if we practice just being "in the moment" as goofy as that might sound, we are likely to be a lot more content with our relationships. It was Jim Elliott who said, "Wherever you are, be all there." Focused on the moment, on the task, on the person. We're so much better living in the past or in the future than we are living in the present and yet, we all squander too many moments not being all there in any given moment.

5. I don't see what God sees.
Towards the end of The Shack, Sarayu enables Mack to see the world very differently. It is the authors' idea of what God sees: not just what is, but what can be and will be. So when I look at a person who irritates me for reasons I think are perfectly justifiable, I do not see any of what God sees or how God sees it. I cannot and will not because I am not God, but just thinking about seeing others the way God might see others could help change not only my vision, but my attitude, my perspective, and my own sense of "ought" and its companion "expectations."

As I read those passages in the book, I thought briefly about passages in Ezekiel and in Revelation, of the dimensions that God must be able to see, and wondered again about the selfishness of humanity that we have always been so cavalier about our treatment of the Earth, so presumptuous about our "rights" to whatever we might think we have the "right" to at any given time. No matter how clearly I will try to see anything, I will never on this Earth and in this life see what God sees.

6. God is very fond of me. . . and everyone else. Really.
I liked that this phrase, this concept, was repeated over and over again. We get confused about that word "love" and theologians have to explain again about the differences between eros, koinonia, and agape. But we can understand "fondness." Even if we can't articulate a meaning for the word, it likely brings to mind warmth of feeling, perhaps compassion, perhaps even whatever we might understand "love" to be from someone who has our best interests at heart.

In light of the current events in Gaza and the impact the Israeli airstrikes seem to be having to continue to radicalize and mobilize the Arab community, it seems odd but incredibly necessary to talk about the love of God. I know that a Jew and a Muslim would not see God as I might. I do not know enough about their traditions and their beliefs to make any kind of observation that could be of any value. But there was another observation in The Shack made about Christianity that I found interesting: Jesus does not want to make anyone a Christian. He wants to join them into their transformation into sons and daughters of God, into God's Beloved. More importantly, God is willing to pursue us to transform us.

So then I wondered what might happen if we took nothing else but that idea from The Shack. If we labeled ourselves "believers" if we had to be labeled. If we realized that it really is all about the relationship with God and the relationship as He defines it, not as we try to prescribe it with expectations and "ought". I'm not sure, but I bet it would be startling and beautiful.

I don't make resolutions at the beginning of a New Year. It's pointless because I make resolutions throughout the year and often the same one more than once which is why the whole thing is completely pointless. And even though I'm not throwing myself on The Shack bandwagon because then it becomes it's on idol, it's own ritual and that just gets ugly, it has given me much to think about. So, if nothing else, perhaps in 2009, at the very least, I can remember that God is very fond of me.

Monday, December 29

Reflection and Resolution

I started to write about reflection and resolution and found myself drifting off onto a variety of tangents. So I saved the draft, went downstairs to make another cup of tea and read the paper. The headlines today are about the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and the difficulties this creates for the Obama transition team and what Obama had hoped to do in the Middle East (pray more for leadership). In the first section of the paper there are articles about women and heart disease (be more mindful of my health, get my a$$ and the rest of me to the fitness center for real). There is also a report that eco-Leo DiCaprio traded in his Toyota Prius for a $147,000 Tesla Roadster, a high-performance electric car (I got nuthin').

And then I read the comics. I have to say that the so-called funnies rarely make me laugh. I might grin or occasionally chuckle, but the out loud laugh is rare. Today I laughed out loud. I read Mutts, which is a strip I don't usually follow. But the second panel caught my eye: "You don't smoke!!" says the dog character. I had to back up and there in the first panel is the cat with its list of resolutions and #1 is "Shtop Shmoking" (the slurry thing is one of the reasons I don't care for this strip; it's irrational, I know, but there it is). We know the second panel so I skipped it to the third panel which reads: "I figured I'd shtart with some easy ones." Yep. That made me laugh. Out loud.

Then I read Frazz, which I do follow and which may be one of my all-time favorites strips. It's in the same vein, of course, of fulfilling a resolution that's easy simply because it can't be done or needn't be done anyway. Mrs. Olsen had vowed to give up lardo. In the third panel she says "I don't know what it is. I just know you can't get it here." And while I laughed out loud, her comment in the fourth panel made me stop to think for a moment: "Man, I could use some lardo!". And there it is. The reason for so many failed resolutions. The moment we try to give up something we have an irrational yearning for it. Cheap psychology, I know. Probably not correct, but you know what I mean.

A lot of people are reflecting this time of the year. In newspapers, online, and in magazines, people are recalling "the best of" a variety of things in 2008 and reflecting on the moments that past unacknowledged, the people who are no longer with us, the significant events that seemed to compel or impel some sort of change or difference. I know there is something hopeful about putting up a new calendar. Turning that first page of a brand new year. Though January 1, 2009 will look no different in many ways than December 31, 2008, it is the FACT that is is January 1 with a new number at the end of the year that makes such a difference. Clean slate and all that. Depending on how we spent December 31, we wake up to January 1 with hope and determination that this year things will be different; I will be different. And perhaps we have made our lists, starting with the easy ones. Small successes can make their own kind of difference.

Why do we make resolutions for a new year? There are many reasons and I think the source for resolutions is a sort of discontent with who and what we are, a sense that we can be better people. But I also think that we may believe that if we keep our resolutions, then somehow our lives will be happier and "better," though that seems to be an elusive concept as "better" may not be quantifiable. It is more or different from the life we have now. More comfortable? More stable? Somehow, just "better."

We each tend to focus on the personal because there are limits to what we think we can control. I should have sufficient discipline to control my own behavior and somehow the ball dropping in Times Square, the clean new page of a new calendar of a new year will help mitigate that improve my self-discipline. But then we all joke about how long we'll be able to keep our resolutions because we know that none of those symbols is sufficient to change of lifetime of bad behavior. And then we hear the life coaches telling us not to try to take on too much, not to try to overhaul our lives but to make small changes to have small successes to motivate us to further change and better discipline and better lives and more happiness because, after all, that's what we're chasing, right? Happiness?

I tend not to make resolutions for the new year because, if I'm honest with myself, I'm always making resolutions. I think that's probably true of most of us. We make resolutions about the things we want to change in ourselves or about ourselves and we set target dates for starting: "Okay, next Wednesday is a full moon so that's the day I'm going to start. . . ". That gives us a few days between now and then to binge on whatever behavior we want to change or whatever thing we plan to give up. It's the last hurrah. The opportunity to get it out of our systems. The problem is, of course, the target date comes and something doesn't quite work out so we set another target date. It becomes an endless cycle of getting ready to do something.

As I reflect on my own 2008, I know there are a lot of things I could have done and should have done differently. I hope I can learn from my mistakes though there are plenty I find myself making over and over again. But as I look back at 2008, I see there are many things that went well. So I will celebrate the good and try to learn from the bad, and then move on.

I always resolve to get more exercise (see paragraph 1) and lose weight. Those are not easy ones, though both are important. I have a list of things crashing about in my head of things I'd like to do and things I'd like to improve, all accomplishable and not requiring a lot of ramp-up time or target dates or that much effort on my part. Not really. An easy one? Hmmm. Pray more. I think the hardest one may to be to procrastinate less. I'm just not real sure when I'll be able to get around to that one.

Monday, December 22

Why should we be surprised?

There is news coverage this morning that the banks won't tell its lenders how it's using the bailout money. Of course, unlike banks, the Treasury Department and Congress, as representatives of the lenders--that would be us, the taxpayers--handed out money pretty much willy nilly. Now you know when you go to borrow money from a bank for any reason whatsoever you have to fill out and sign about a zillion forms, have everything notarized, document who you are and your every predilection and intention. And yet, we handed over billions to banks with virtually no oversight.

In the earlier AIG fiasco, people were told the money for the corporate blowout event at a resort was not using bailout money. Of course, under pressure, they canceled that event. Of course, then they went on a secret event.

Now we're being told the banks aren't tracking how they are spending our money, so we'll never know if they are spending our money wisely, if they are spending our money to help our economy, or if they've not learned a single thing and are simply doing what they really do best: make profits for themselves.

I am not outraged by the banks' behaviors. I am beyond outraged. I have to remember, though, that a lot of folks who are also in difficult straits work at some of those banks. I am, however, disgusted by our politicians--all of them--and further disgusted by the arrogance of those who have been entrusted with the economic well-being of our country. Quite honestly, because of the way the banks are behaving with the money I have loaned them and given that it was loaned them with the expectation that they would serve the country, I think their behavior borders on treason. They have most certainly betrayed our trust. And because we don't know what they are doing with the money--if and how they are investing it, if and how they are spending it, and if and why they are saving it--we have no way of knowing if they are still trying to make a quick, speculative buck in ways that are advantageous only to a privileged few and even more detrimental to the health and well-being of this country.

Hank Paulson now has much pull with the banks as I do. I certainly hope the Obama Secretary of the Treasury Geithner will come in kickin' ass and takin' names.

Wednesday, December 3

What I believe about all students

I read Vicki Davis' blog who wrote about Martha Thornburgh of Opening Doors to Digital Learning who was asked the question “Do you believe all students can meet standards?” Please read about her response on her blog. The “All Students Meme” came about as a result.

1. Share three things that you believe about all students.
2. Reflect on your thoughts in your blog. (If you do not have a blog, you can share your ideas in a comment from this post.)
3. Be sure to link to this post and to where you were first tagged.
4. Tag your response with AllStudentsMeme
5. Invite others to join the conversation by tagging them to be a part of the meme.

All Students Meme

When I think about students, I think about both college students--undergraduate and graduate--as well as K-12 students. I teach undergraduates, I develop content for graduate students who then work with K-12 students.

1. I believe that all students can achieve more than we imagine when we give them the opportunity, skills, and resources to reach as far as they are able and want. Even if we can't give them access to the latest and greatest resources, we can give the strategies and tools. We can instill confidence in their abilities to pursue their interests and coach them to find their way through those areas of education that might not excite or interest them as much.
2. I believe that all students are willing and able to work provide we give them reason or at least rationale, that we not irritate them with busywork, that we give them constructive criticism that enables them to improve and see the purpose of their learning experience.
3. I think all students tap into our passion as well as our discontent. They know we're bored by teaching something; they know when we are excited and interested in our subject and feel confident about our lessons. While I don't think we should try to mask our own disinterest by trying to create "fun" activities and while I don't think education should be entertainment, I do believe there is lots of room for kids and teachers to enjoy their learning and teaching and for kids to have legitimate fun while they are learning. But I also believe that students should be enabled and allowed to find their own joy in their learning experiences. If a student makes a discovery that moves them, energizes them, causes them more wonder, I should encourage that and help them find additional avenues for exploration and learning. Even if what has charged them moves me not at all. Because I believe it is not at all about me, but about the students and their learning.

Wednesday, November 26

So much. . .

. . . for which to be thankful. Though there have been a ton of things about which to write lately, I've not managed to be disciplined enough to write about them. Rather than do a hodge podge of topics, I thought I'd focus on the fact that we Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday.

This is an interesting holiday. Many of us have commented on the encroachment of holidays in the stores. Christmas things up before Halloween. We'll get to Christmas and, before you know it, the stores will be displaying merchandise for Valentine's Day. There's something wrong with capitalism working too hard to get the jump on everyone else, but that's a different blog post. Back to Thanksgiving.

There were some teachers who were doing some events focusing on myths of the so-called First Thanksgiving: the role of the Indians, the role of the Pilgrims, the importance of corn, etc. It is a deeply embedded story that seems to have to be retold in every school every year. There are, of course, variations on the debunking of such myths: the CNN version is geared towards what adults can tell kids and Mr. Shenkman's version at the History News Network focuses as much on the so-called Pilgrims as the event itself.

Regardless of the historical view of Thanksgiving, there are a few ceremonially-pardoned turkeys while thousands are prepared to be stuffed and put on the table for soon-to-be over-stuffed people. Families gather, joyfully and reluctantly. It is a joyous, raucous time for some. For others a time of tension and clinched teeth.

For many others the day is spent in a shelter where others spend a bit of extra time and perhaps a bit of extra money making sure that the homeless and otherwise needy have a semblance of a Thanksgiving feast.

Though there has often been controversy over the actuality of Thanksgiving (not really in the fall; not really in 1621; etc.), FDR caused a bit more controversy when he and his family celebrated Thanksgiving on November 23, 1939 rather than on November 30. The historical precedence for Thanksgiving being on the last Thursday in November was established by President Abraham Lincoln when he declared it thus in 1863. Though the holiday had no fixed date, presidents continued to follow the precedence when they issued their Thanksgiving Proclamation.

In 1939, however, FDR had a bit of an economic crisis on his hands. Statistics had shown that people did not begin their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving. (That may be because most people prefer to celebrate their holidays in order and one at a time.) In 1933, there were five Thursdays in November so Thanksgiving fell on November 30, which meant there were fewer shopping days until Christmas. FDR ignored the pleas of businesses in 1933, but in 1939, once again there were five Thursdays in November so he declared that Thanksgiving would be on November 23.

Some business leaders were happy, but thousands of letters flowed into the White House. Schools were disrupted because of plans for Thanksgiving breaks, Thanksgiving plays, and, of course, football games. Small businesses were concerned about suffering loss of business because they counted on some of that last-minute shopping before Thanksgiving. Family plans were turned topsy turvy if states chose to defy the proclamation because people in different states might not have had the same holiday weekend.

Finally, on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law that declared that Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November. It's fairly obvious that early on we lost the gist of Thanksgiving, with or without the historical myths.

Thanksgiving became the day before Black Friday: the official launch of the Christmas shopping season. This year, because of the current economic situation, businesses have been trying to entice people to begin that Christmas shopping a bit earlier. So this Thursday in November has become about school plays, eating too much, family gatherings (with or without tension), preemptory church service reminding us to be thankful, football, and girding ourselves for Christmas shopping. Bah! Humbug!

I intend to spend the day with a good friend. I may get up to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, or not. I'll read the paper, have some tea. I'll think about my friends, my colleagues, my students, my family. I may even make a few phone calls because that also seems to be compulsory on holidays. A friend of mine will have a meal together--she's asked me to reprise a salmon dish I made up a few weeks ago. And then maybe we'll go to a movie or watch football or take a walk.

I don't know if I'll be especially more thankful on this day than any other, though, because every day I am thankful for my friends, my colleagues, my family, my work. Every day I am thankful for the opportunities to learn, to be challenged. Every day I am thankful for the freedom I have in this country to speak my mind without fear, though perhaps with occasional harassment from those who disagree with me. Every day I am thankful for what God has given me. Every day I am thankful He shows me grace and mercy. Every day I am thankful that I have this day for which to be thankful.

Sunday, November 16

Tolerance fails T-shirt test

"Tolerance fails T-shirt test" is the title of a column written by John Kass for Thursday's Chicago Tribune. I'm not an avid reader of Kass because I often disagree with him or he annoys me, but I do appreciate his forthright view of things.

In this particular article, Kass related the experiment by Catherine Vogt, an 8th grader at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. The school is in Oak Park, IL, which is a very nice Chicago suburb. Anyway, as Kass tells it, Vogt had heard about Obama's message of inclusion and consulted with her history teacher before conducting her experiment prior to the election.

So one day she wore a T-shirt to school on which she had written the words "McCain Girl" in red. She was vilified. She was told she was stupid; there were death threats. She did not engage in conversation, she did not try to defend her position; she simply wanted to see how people would react. Students and teachers alike reacted badly. Only a few students pulled her aside to whisper they agreed with her, so there were a few closet McCain supporters who were afraid to express their opinions.

The next day she wore a T-shirt with "Obama Girl" written in blue. Catherine regained her senses, wasn't stupid anymore, teachers relaxed. Some people accused her a being a flip-flopper; that she couldn't be for one candidate one day and the other candidate the next. [Apparently it's not possible to change one's mind about anything ever and not be labeled a flip-flopper. We have the media to thank for that.]

Kass reports that they "asked the teacher, Norma Cassin-Pountney, whether it was ironic that Catherine would be subject to such intolerance from pro-Obama supporters in a community that prides itself on its liberal outlook." The teacher said they discussed that irony in class and she believes the 8th graders understood what they claimed to believe and how they behaved. Yes, well, call me cynical, but I can understand why they would say that in class but remain as clueless as they were when they responded to Catherine's T-shirt messages. There are adults who would know enough to say they understood but still, at heart, be unwilling to relinquish their hate, their disdain, or whatever label one might want to put on their ignorant behavior and attitude. But then you have to ask, and I mean you have to ask, where did they learn to think and behave that way? Were they following the majority in their school because we know what peer pressure can do? Or were they mimicking the behavior of their parents?

In Kass' follow-up article on Friday, he reported she had done a round of TV and radio interviews. Kass notes that Catherine learned a lot; that she, the child of a liberal Democratic mom and a conservative Republican dad, learned that kids most definitely learned their politics and their patterns of behavior from parents.

But with glory also comes some responsibility and consequences. In the aftermath of her experiment, kids and adults were nervous Catherine had named names, but her experiment seems to have been an objective one. No one but Catherine and the speaker knows who said what and I'm guessing they are just as concerned about the fact that Catherine knows and probably remembers what they said to her. There are certain phrases and tones that become seared in one's memory; all of us have experienced that. And then the parents got involved, being all outraged that she didn't follow some protocol but probably mostly being embarrassed that they were called out by the behavior of their children.

There is a lot to be learned from Catherine's experiments. Keep in mind she conducted her experiment before the election. In the aftermath of the election, the Tribune did report that Republicans who had supported McCain were being vilified for their stupidity or were being laughed at because they backed the loser. Grown-ups.

Ours is a culture obsessed with winning and losing. Only in America can we have successful TV shows with titles like "Biggest Loser" because the people who win have lost the most weight. But we watch competitions hoping our team will win and cheering against the losers. And when our team loses, we trash talk about the winners while the winners gloat over our defeat. So why are we surprised when that trash talk demeanor shows up in politics, as it has for generations. This is no big surprise.

By extension ours is also a culture that seems to be obsessed with being right or wrong. There are those who are already carping about how the Obama-gogues who are worshipping at the altar of the liberal and inclusive Democratic Party of Obama are not so liberal nor inclusive, but I can only imagine how very finetuned their scale of measurement might be.

If we take giant step away from politics, we'll see that this same behavior exists in far too many people about far too many issues and on both sides of the issue. Part of that seems to be because we don't want to engage in discussion or dialogue but an intervention because someone who disagrees with us must be wrong (or stupid).

Those 8th graders at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School probably really didn't know what they meant when they claimed Vogt was stupid for alleging to be a McCain girl. I'm not sure they would have been equipped to ask her why she supported McCain rather than resort so quickly to name-calling, but I wonder, too, if the parents of those or any other 8th graders would have been equipped or willing to discuss the issues rather than resort to name-calling.

Thursday, November 13

Bailout for bonuses??

So let me get this straight: major financial institutions that were in serious financial trouble because they made poor or downright bad financial decisions were able to con Congress into giving them 700 billion dollars of taxpayers' money. That $700 billion representing some kind of debt that we will have to manage over time because so-called financial wizards a) exercised extraordinarily bad judgment, b) demonstrated fiscal irresponsibility and stupidity, or c) are just plain greedy. Perhaps d) all of the above.

Now, Treasury Secretary Ted Paulson's Goldman Sach's buddies are planning to their ineffective, perhaps even criminally negligent employees bonuses. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, "bonuses for traders, bankers, and executives can be a multiple of their salaries, which range from about $80,000 to $600,000" (para 7). The bonuses are performance based. According to the same article and other sources, Goldman's profit has dropped 47% so far this year and the stock price has plummeted 67%. So these people are getting bonuses for what? In any other corporate environment, those folks would have been asked to pack up their personal belongings and clear out by the end of a business day. By my reckoning, and considering the writedowns, credit losses, and job cuts in most financial industry companies, performance was pretty shoddy. If anything, those people who got big bonuses last year and who still have jobs should just be grateful they aren't being asked to return funds and that they still have jobs.

Some companies, such as Citigroup and Wells Fargo, are suggested that bailout funds won't be used for bonuses. Like they can tell? How absurd is it that suggestion?

CBS News reports that the bailout package specified that the top five individuals cannot get a golden parachute; compensation is not limited for other employees.

Apparently spokespeople for these organizations are saying that compensation is important to keeping quality employees. Goldman Sach's CEO Lloyd Blankfein was quoted on November 11 as saying "The real core strategy of Goldman Sachs at its heart is to be able to recruit and retain the best people that we can get. Compensation plays an important role." In the CBS News report, Stephen Gandel, a senior writer for Money magazine, stated "Compensation should be down 70 percent but, because all this new money is coming from the government, the firms are now saying they can pay more, and so they're only going to cut bonuses by 40 percent."

Memo to companies: That new money is coming from the taxpayers, many of whom are in foreclosed properties, have lost their jobs, may lose their jobs, are struggling to make ends meet. You do not deserve any kind of bonus and certainly not with my money from my pocket.

Memo to Mr. Blankfein: You need to redefine what you mean by "quality" and "best" because clearly a whole bunch of folks at Goldman Sachs aren't very good at their jobs.

Wednesday, November 5

Wildly Conflicted

It's over. It's just begun. Overjoyed. Filled with trepidation. Hopeful. Hateful.

As I read some of the articles and blogs, and then the posted comments to the articles and blogs, I'm amazed by the degree of venom spewing from both sides. The Dems seem to hate the GOP and all it represents and the Republicans seem to think Obama and the his Democratic coterie will lead the country to socialism.

So the election is over but a new era has just begun. The United States has elected a biracial man for its president. That is historic and a new era. That the man is a relatively inexperienced former freshman Senator will inform his presidency as will the apparent fact that he is a thoughtful individual who works hard to build consensus, who seems calm under fire, and who seems to surround himself with individuals who are also thoughtful, intelligent, and not given to wild extremes. But rhetoric about leadership is not leadership. President-elect Obama did not give us much to review in terms of his political chops. After all, he barely served his freshman (as in first) term in the Senate.

Obama speaks of change and one of the first things I think he has to do is change the way he talks about and to Republicans. If he wants to lead by example, it will be up to him to stop the demonizing and villification of all things Republican. I've heard he plans to have a Republican on his Cabinet. Tokenism already? An attempt to extend the olive branch?

If the hateful diatribes are to begin to subside--and they will not completely because some people seem compelled to be hateful--Obama and his team cannot, must not gloat. And neither should a single Democrat. There must be no political pillaging by the victor. Instead, every single Democratic elected official--if we're talking about real change--will push hard for campaign and political reform by eliminating political action committees and lobbyists, but most importantly, they will treat their Republican colleagues and their Republican constituents with respect and dignity.

The Democrats absolutely must not engage in a single bit of unilateral action; they must work very hard to include the tattered remnants of the Republican party in all discussions. This is a political reparation, I think. How fitting it is to be led by a man of color.

Saturday, October 25

Just a little respect

There is a great "My Turn" in the October 20 issue of Newsweek. Heather Robinson left a youth services profession to go into teaching. Like many other teachers, she is tired of people treating her work as a teaching professional as though it was a short-hour babysitting job.

Americans talk a lot about the quality of education and are quick to place blame on teachers. Undoubtedly there are some bad teachers, but there are bad CEOs (we've seen a lot of evidence of that recently), bad plumbers (including those with licenses), bad politicians, and the list can go on and on. We don't hear too often about the good teachers or the exemplary ones, but there are a lot of very good teachers working hard in their classrooms to help kids learn.

I work with teachers all the time; some more directly than others. I'm constantly impressed by the work they do, by their passion for their craft and their students, by their concern that they aren't doing enough or can't do more. I hear about their exhaustion, their frustration with uninvolved parents and with administrators who are slightly above clueless or just so taken with their own authority and position they are not effective.

Ms. Robinson spoke of her frustration that people too often thinking teaching isn't a real job, that the hours are cushy, that she gets summers off, that she might get bored doing the same thing over and over again. Too often people think teachers are done with their day when the last school bell rings. Those are people who don't know actual classroom teachers because then they would know that there is grading to do, planning to do, IEPs to manage, and so much more. Most classroom teachers will spend at least a few hours each evening finishing their work day and far too many still feel behind.

The really good teachers don't have the summer off as many are inclined to believe. That's the time teachers can really focus on improving their skills and understanding of teaching, get recharged through professional development, catch up on their research and reading, and revisit all those notes on lesson plans to make changes for the upcoming year.

Every day is not remotely close to the same. Even if a teacher has the same course four times in a row, the kids are not the same, so the teaching and learning experience constantly has to be managed for the group of kids at that time. And though 4th period may be the "quiet" class and 7th period the "rowdy" class, there are times when even those class personalities are not the same. As Robinson states, "Teachers are not on autopilot--we make thousands of decisions each day while working hard to produce a quality product that provides each student with what she needs and deserves" (p. 19).

She goes on to say "After all of the long hours, grueling days, mountains of paperwork, emotional exhaustion, and misperceptions about the profession that I dearly love and would trade for no other, we continue to pour ourselves into the work because it's too important not to. How can we not give all of ourselves, our intellect, and our talents to this work? After all, it is our current students whom we will be voting for in a future presidential election, who will care for us when we're ill, and who will educate our grandchildren" (p. 19).

Teaching is a profession. An honorable and important profession.

Be thankful for the teachers who touch your life, who touch the lives of your children, your family, your friends, your neighbors. Be thankful for the teachers who taught you how to read, how to think, how to do math, or how to improve on any of those skills. Be thankful for the teachers who challenged you and encouraged you, who made you believe more was possible, that you were capable of reaching farther and doing more than you could imagine. Be thankful for the teachers who weren't as good because they made you appreciate the good ones even more.

Please treat those teachers with respect and honor their profession for the important role it has in the fabric of our society.

Sunday, October 19

Birthdays. Days of celebration. Of self-indulgence. Of self-reflection. Days of fond memories or painful ones. I met someone the other day who hasn't celebrated a birthday since she's been married because her husband doesn't believe in birthdays. She didn't seem bitter about it or resigned to it, but perhaps they celebrate each other differently and don't need a single day to focus on the other.

I've not been a big fan of birthdays and not because I don't like getting older. I don't like getting older, but I'm not one to let my behavior or self-perception be dictated by a number. People who know me could tell you that. I used to think I didn't like birthdays because I don't have a lot of fond memories of birthdays. But then people made a big deal about my 29th birthday when a friend threw a huge surprise party. I was thrilled but a little embarrassed that people were paying so much attention to me. I have realized that while I don't mind the recognition, I don't like too much attention.

One of the things I do like about birthdays is hearing from people who care about me. In our busy electronic lives you'd think it would be easy to keep in touch, but somehow it's still hard to keep in touch with people of any degree of acquaintanceship or friendship. So a birthday allows us to make that special effort to reach out to someone and express whatever sentiments are appropriate for that relationship.

This particular birthday is not a Significant one in that it is a 0 birthday (30, 40, 50, 60). But I've made a commitment to do a few things for myself between this birthday and the next. One of the things is to take care better care of myself and that includes the occasional indulgence. Yesterday morning a friend of mine and I walked to breakfast. A bit later in the day we got a massage. Later that day I had dinner with a friend. In between I talked with friends who called on the phone; friends I don't see often and whose friendships I value immensely. It was a deliciously pleasant day. I have a ticket for hot air ballooning next Sunday at sunrise, weather permitting. That will be awesome.

My birthday also reminds me that I need to reach out to my friends, to the people I appreciate and value and let them know they are valued. Reconnecting with friends is another gift to myself. I can only hope that my friendship may be valuable to others.

Friday, October 17

Thinking about the economy

I'm not usually one to think much about the economy. Like thousands of Americans, I groused about the cost of gas. And I'm truly enjoying the much lower prices. Like thousands if not millions of Americans, I was outraged by the bailout. I've often wondered how and why our economy is driven by Wall Street. How did brokers and speculators become the arbiters of the economy? How did the economy work before there was Wall Street?

There has been talk about a recession for months. We're in one; we're not in one. We're in one and it's bad; we're in one and it could be worse. None of the so-called economic experts seem to know or agree. I don't know about you, but that makes me very nervous. If professional economists don't know what's going on, how in the world can the average American have any idea? Of course we don't know and most of us don't really want to know. Perhaps we think economics is too complicated and just hope someone will fix it.

Recently, though, I've developed this somewhat aberrant interest in the economy. An extension of the economic climate, I suppose, and the feeling of utter helplessness as I watch our so-called leaders and the candidates for president behave like the Keystone Kops. The absence of leadership, the absence of honesty, the absence of regulation is an incredible tragedy.

So a colleague of mine told me about an episode of Bill Maher during which David Walker, former Comptroller General, appeared. Now I'm a moderate Republican with random Democratic leanings, but I'm not a fan of Bill Maher. He's a bright man, no doubt, but a bit too left for my taste. Anyway, I was intrigued by the interview, so I did a bit more Google research and found information about a document titled I.O.U.S.A.: The Movie so I had to backtrack and discovered a few companies using the name Agora.

That intrigued me because Agora was an open place for assembly in ancient Greece. I didn't spend a lot of time at Agora Financial (I'll go back later), but also found a web site for Agora Entertainment, which is, of course, a part of Agora Financial. But there I found information about the book I.O.U.S.A. which led me to an article I can't find right now which led me to some other books about the economy and what incredibly bad shape we're in right now.

So, I went to Barnes & Noble after work tonight and bought I.O.U.S.A.--in addition to a few adolescent literature novels (it's research, really) and a few picture books (also school-related) and The Economist. I find I'm increasingly fascinated by this labyrinthine world of economics, but even more intrigued by the role of the taxpayer.

We really do have a starring role in this continuing drama. The federal government cannot function without us. Neither can the city, county, or state governments. And that seems to be one of the points of some of these economists. None of us wants higher taxes but nearly everyone wants a certain level of service. That doesn't come for free.

Of course, we also want our civil servants (there's a long riff on that phrase of civil servants who are often not particularly "civil" and are not remotely interested in being a "servant") to be individuals of integrity, who are willing to be transparent and held accountable for their actions. Raise your hand if you remember the last time any politician or government official at any level of any government was scrupulously honest, willing to be transparent and accountable.

And there, my friends, lies the problem. We don't trust Congress; CBS reports a 12% approval rating. Fifty-seven percent of Americans polled believe the economy is the most important issue. We may not understand the intricacies of the economy, but we understand when things seem to be spiraling out of control.

Quite honestly, I think Barack Obama will be elected president. It's nearly a foregone conclusion. The Washington Post just endorsed him though it also stated its concern about his relative lack of experience. The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times have also endorsed Obama, which comes as no surprise to me. Apparently the Trib hasn't backed a Democrat in years, but Obama is also a hometown guy. The article in the Post states this: "Yes, we have reservations and concerns, almost inevitably, given Mr. Obama's relatively brief experience in national politics. But we also have enormous hopes."

It's that last sentence that scares me. Mr. Obama will inherit some huge problems, including the biggest, most serious, and most far-reaching: the economy. He needs to have a definitive plan that involves more than bailouts. He had better make sure he has the keenest economic minds accessible to him and be willing to ignore them when they get too cerbral about economic practices of the everyday folks. And he had better be prepared to get very very busy his first day because he won't have the full 100 days to demonstrate his competence and capabilities to those who have placed such high hopes in him.

Obama has been talking like a miracle worker. A political, financial, and educational wizard who can and will institute change. Expectations for him have escalated beyond reason. He had better be able to institute startling changes within a very short period of time. People are counting on it. People are counting on him. The economies of the world are counting on him. Within a short period of time he has to demonstrate his leadership and institute change. He won't have 100 days.

Thursday, October 9

Is the Sky Falling?

This morning's news brought the report that the Dow had dropped to an historic low and on the anniversary of the historic high from 2007. Why are the so-called financial wizards so surprised? Didn't they live through preceding bursting bubbles? Were they so incredibly arrogant they thought it wouldn't happen to them? Or are they that stupidly greedy? I'm voting for the latter by the way.

We also learned this morning that AIG had planned an event at the $400 a night Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay in California. And that event was scheduled to take place after we had just handed them a pile of money AND they asked for another $37.8 billion loan. What is even more appalling is that AIG had already spent about $444K on some other event. An AIG representative claimed that this Half Moon Bay event was a key meeting, an annual event for 50 AIG employees. Can you say "junket"? Can you say "boondoggle"?

Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate's Finance Committee, understandably went ballistic. He sent a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke "demanding to know what powers the Fed has to fire AIG staff, limit executive compensation and assess the activities of AIG's senior management. Baucus also asked Bernanke for names of Fed employees who authorized or knew about the retreat, and what the Fed is doing to recoup any unauthorized expenditures." Awesome.

But such behavior does not bode well for the country. Not surprisingly, there was another ripple effect because of AIG's actions--the company's stock plummeted to a record loss. Who in the world--and I do mean world--should ever trust AIG again? Not the taxpayers and certainly not investors. AIG's leadership has demonstrated it is completely cavalier about its fiduciary responsibility and callous about the well-being of the American taxpayers who would have made that so-called key meeting possible. On the other hand, some really shrewd business person could be in a position to make quite an impressive move by taking over AIG.

Another company recently in the news for other reasons, Wachovia, has called off an all-expenses paid cruise to the Greek Isles for 75 A.G. Edwards brokers and their spouses or significant others. A Wachovia spokesperson claimed the trip was a way to recognize its top financial advisors. Hold on here a moment. Top financial advisors?? Seriously? And Wachovia is to have its bad debt purchased by the federal government, that is us, of course, that taxpayers? Seriously?

Clearly the financial wizards of this country were planning to operate business-as-usual with taxpayer money. They aren't repentant. They aren't troubled by their excess and lousy decision-making. They have no remorse about keeping ridiculous bonuses for running a company into the ground.

Looking at a list of stories on Yahoo!, I see these story titles:
  • Jobless claims drop from 7-year high
  • Retirement accounts have lost $2 trillion
  • Payrolls drop by most in 5 years
  • Factory orders drop by 4 percent in August

And, on top of that, Iceland may have to declare bankruptcy.

Though I still think we are in the middle of some financial forest fire, no doubt it is dangerous and difficult and lots of people are getting hurt. What I think the taxpayer's need to see if some financial responsibility on the part of those clowns on Wall Street and those in big executive offices with their ginormous golden parachutes. We need some remorse, we need to see some significant change of behavior, we need to see some change of practice, and we need to see some self-regulation.

Now that I think of it, I wouldn't mind seeing that kind of response and behavior in members of Congress. Instead of pointing fingers, it would be nice if the politicians and the business executives would actually do something constructive and behave responsibly. Talk about wishful thinking.

Monday, October 6

Campaign 2008: Let the Mudslinging Begin

I am appalled and I am saddened by the most recent turn of events in this year's campaign. I'm not surprised. In both cases it seems that mudslinging and negative campaigning is the option of the somewhat desparate. And hasn't anyone yet learned that the American public, for all its voyeurism through tabloids and TV, really doesn't care for negative campaigning? That we're smart enough to know that it's a disingenuous and seriously expensive form of not answering the questions?

Tomorrow night is the 2nd presidential debate and with this sort of atmosphere, it promises to have the potential of bombast and extraordinary political rhetoric. The debate on Tue, Oct 7 is supposed to based on questions submitted by the American people. I wish I'd known that was an option--not sure how I missed that--because I do have a few questions.

As sophomoric as it may seem, I wouldn't mind if the debate could actually entail a bit of role playing. Groups of people come up with scenarios that might even be variations of real-life past events. Let the candidates see the scenarios for the first time at the beginning of the "role play" and be given 3 minutes to come up with as many key questions, points, notes, etc. they can. As though they were in an emergency Cabinet meeting or whatever meeting the situation calls for. Who do they need what information from? What else do they need to know to make a critical decision?

Ideally the candidates would write on a screen similar to that one used in Jeopardy and ideally the screens could be displayed side-by-side at the same time. An earlier coin toss would have determined who would speak first to his scenario thinking and be given time to explain his thinking. What would be even cooler is if members of the audience could be allowed to ask questions, although it might make more sense for key members of certain agencies to be present to participate in a Q&A. Then we could see our future leader interacting with the very individuals or levels of individuals with whom they would be working for at least the next four years.

Obama says we need to know about McCain and Keating. Well then, we also need to know more about Obama and the Daley Machine and Obama and Rezko. Except we don't. What we need to know is how these people will behave as Commander-in-Chief. What we really need to know is, as much as possible, the details of any plans recognizing there is a great deal these candidates don't know and won't know until they get into office. What we really need to know who is these folks are considering for Cabinet officials or, at the very least, the specific qualifications for which they are looking in those members of Cabinet, especially the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Security of Treasury. It wouldn't hurt to know who they're thinking of for National Security Advisor and, I suppose, Homeland Security.

But let's end the negative campaigning. Stop the smearing. Stop the mudslinging.

Dear Candidates: Talk to the American people about what you can do for the country and how we can help you accomplish your goals. Shut up about the other guy. Please.

Saturday, October 4

Edonis Project

Explore the edonis project ning an international teachmeet opportunity. As David Noble states in the Ning, edonis (educators online impact study) will run for at least three years, identifying, for example:
  • trends in educators’ use of Web 2.0 tools
  • impact on teaching and learning, and professional development
  • good practice
  • implications for the learning sector and government

Ning participants' involvement means replying to some questions, completing an occasional survey, participating in occasional online discussions, and more.

Quoting now, David says "The study will form part of my doctoral thesis, provisionally titled, 'Educators’ use of the social web to support teaching and learning, and professional development.' Your participation will be recognised within the published thesis and with a yearly Professional Development (CPD/PD) certificate. At each stage of the study, you will be able to choose to annonymise your contribution."


Tuesday, September 30

Financial forest fire

The US and world economies have been in varying degrees of turmoil for the past several days, especially as the US Congress has been discussing the merits of a proposed $700B bailout plan (in between sessions of haranguing each other across the aisle while suggesting this will be a bipartisan effort).

Treasury Secretary Paulson said there would be dire consequences if Congress didn't pass the bailout bill as soon as possible. Economists lined up to talk about their perspectives of the foolhardiness or wisdom behind the plan. Congressional members lined up to talk about their respective party stand and stump a bit to make sure the "Main Street" Americans they serve are aware of their position on the plan. There was a great deal of posturing, a great deal of rhetoric, but apparently there was a great deal of conversation that led to a proposed bill. Unfortunately, that bill was defeated on Monday by the House--Democrats blaming the Republicans and vise versa--and the Dow plunged 778 points.

Come Tuesday, Wall Street was doing brisk business as the bargain hunters sniffed around for opportunities. NYSE traders suggest there is still the potential for dire consequences if something doesn't happen soon. But all through this exercise in posturing, politicking, and planning, a certain kind of herd mentality has settled in.

I've talked with friends who believed the bailout plan was the best option ever until economists began to suggest there might be other options and then pundits started yammering. Then they shifted gears to follow some other lead dog, but many of them are simply dazed, confused, and very uncertain. John K. Galbraith, writing in the Washington Post, was one of those who suggested the bailout isn't necessary.

There has been some recent discussion about how the mortgage crisis through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae is being handled. Essentially all activity was put on hold until the regulators could evaluate the status of mortgages to determine who could be eligible for a modify loan, perhaps extended years on the mortgage, etc. In other words, rather than crash through the foreclosure process, the regulators took a long hard look to determine what might be the best course of action. It's got to be a grueling process because they need to review each case individually, but it seems to serve all of the parties reasonably fairly.

This whole teetering of the financial system seems to me to be much like a financial forest fire. The end result of a forest fire is an ugly thing with ground and trees charred and blackened, no apparent signs of life. The consequences of a forest fire can be devastating: lost homes, lost livelihoods, even lost lives. It is not a small thing. But a contained forest fire, one that doesn't roar down a canyon and gobble up buildings in its way--is also a cleansing process. Overgrown underbrush, dead trees, dying trees, and more are cleaned out in a forest fire. Where it looks as though there is no life, new life is soon beginning.

The rebirth of a forest is a slow thing; Mother Nature takes her time. Though I do not wish any further loss of homes or loss of livelihoods, I think a rush to a solution is not the best alternative. Though I think plenty of our congressional leaders have been and are being petty, I think there is a great deal of perhaps unintentioned wisdom in spending a bit more time to think through the root causes of the financial straits in which we find ourselves.

It's easy to toss hedge fund or short traders or any other Wall Street insider to the wolves; they are, after all, the worst of the worst greedy, risk-taking capitalists, or so some like to say. Does Wall Street need more regulation? Probably. Is it ridiculous that an executive who has run a company into the ground or let it fail gets a multimillion dollar exit package? Absolutely. Is it a slippery slope to continue bailouts? Absolutely. Does it make more sense to put regulations in place recognizing there will always be scalawags and snake oil salesmen who will find away around the rules? You bet. Does it make more sense to make sure that the consequences of messing with other peoples' money and livelihoods are truly dire, even uncomfortable? You bet. Does it make sense to stop giving lip service to bipartisan efforts and actually be bipartisan? to stop campaigning for election or re-election and do the right thing for the people? No doubt about it.

Too bad we don't have financial firemen who can calmly and diligently "contain and control" this financial wildfire while others methodically draft a rebuilding plan with a clear vision of trying to do the best thing for as many people as possible. And then get buy-in from the people who matter, helping them understand that every niche constituency is not going to get served first or best.

It's a tough place we're in, but I sort of think we have to let it finishing burning to the ground. I just hope the rebirth and regeneration makes it all worth while and we don't botch it.

Sunday, September 28

Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week began on Saturday, September 27 and runs through Saturday, October 4. (Let's ignore, just for the moment, that the duration is longer than an actual week.)

The American Library Assocation regularly promotes and celebrates Banned Books Week. As the ALA notes on its site, Banned Books Week (BBW) "celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met."

When I teach Children's Literature and Adolescent, I do talk about Banned Books Week, but also what seems to be the premises or thinking behind challenging books or banning books. I ask my students to investigate the censorship policies at the public libraries and the school libraries because I want them capable of making their own decisions about censorship, about challening books, about banning books. I don't want them to accept anyone else's thinking, including mine.

The 10 most challenged books in 2007 have been listed numerous times, and I'll list them again:
  1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  3. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
  4. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  7. TTYL by Lauren Myracle
  8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  9. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
  10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The ALA keeps track of challenged and banned books, but also the reason books have been challenged. The reasons for the 2007 books can be found here.

There is a difference between a book being challenged and a book being banned, but not much. A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict a book from public access. When a book has been banned, you might assume the challenge has been successful.

But I believe readers must be careful about saying anyone should have any access to any book though that takes me down a slightly different road of what might be appropriate or accessible to readers. Classroom teachers seem to give a lot of credence to what is "age appropriate." They have reasons for that, of course, but the parameters often seem arbitrary or without any latitude. Reading teachers, for example, focus on age appropriate vocabulary, which is one of the reasons Doreen Cronin's delightful Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type is not always encouraged as a book for young or emerging readers. It's got a few big words in it that might not be "age appropriate." But that's a diatribe for a different time.

Having said that, however, I do believe that some books are not appropriate for some readers. I think anyone recommending books to children or young readers have to be discerning about the reader to whom the book is being recommended. I'm cautious with some of my recommendations for some of my adult friends; why would I be less careful with students and kids? So here's my taken on this top 10 list:

  • I've not read And Tango Makes Three. I wouldn't use it for my Children's Lit class because I teach at Wheaton College and it could be problematic. I'll mention it and let my students decide for themselves. As for the premise: there are gay couples in the real world; there are gay couples in the real world who have real children and are excellent parents. It's entirely possible this book will help someone think through their own preconceptions, ideas, whatever about whatever bugs them about this book. There's another blog post in that, too.
  • I hated The Chocolate War. I thought it was a terrible book and not just because of the conclusion, though that played a key part in my dislike of the book. I taught it a few semesters in Adolescent Literature because I thought I was being too narrow-minded about the book, but none of my students liked it and none of my friends liked it so I'd challenge it simply because I think it's a stupid book.
  • I haven't read Olive's Ocean book, nor have I read The Golden Compass so I can't comment.
  • Poor Huck. Twain's classic has been tagged with racism for a very long time. I wonder how many of the people who have tried to ban this book have actually read this book or paid any attention to the context of the writing or know anything about the author.
  • The Color Purple is an extraordinary book. I do remember one incident when I used it in an African-American Literature class. One of my students something to this effect, "I do wish you'd warned us about the self-love parts." I almost laughed but she was earnest. The students went on to tell me they just liked to be warned that there may be some elements that might make them uncomfortable. For all of their apparent worldliness, it's important to remember that college kids are just college kids. I appreciated her comment and, from then on, gave students a heads up. I developed my own sort of warning system by telling them there is "earthy" language (a colleague used that term to describe Anne Lamott's writing) and there are elements of sexuality. Depending on the students and the book, I might give them a rating of 1 to 5 on the sexual elements.
  • TTYL. This is abook that should never have been published. The worst thing is that there are others: TTFN and l8r, g8r. The first was quaint using text messaging as it's motif, but the characters are shallow and insipid, the plot is dorky, and the whole book is just dreck. I went to her web site and was horrified to learn she's written a lot of book. Sheesh. Really? Someone keeps publishing that junk? Wow. Scary. I think her books should be banned because they are an affront to anything remotely literary.
  • I love I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and this is another book I think people reacted to without considering its context or purpose.
  • I haven't read Robie's book, but it looks like a non-fiction book about growing into adolescence, but based on what I've seen of it, I can imagine why some people have challenged it. I'm going to guess that those are the same folks who cannot bring themselves to say "penis" or "vagina," who claim to want their children to think of their bodies and the functions of the body as something normal, but who cannot talk about any of those functions without gettting embarrassed. I might not agree with Robie's take on some of what he says, but I can see how such a book might be helpful for the conversation that far too many parents are reluctant to have with their kids. And if their kids don't learn something remotely close to the truth about their bodies and sex from their parents, they're going to find out from their friends and through experimentation. That, as we all know, is too often a recipe for disaster.
  • I liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I've blogged about it (freestylebooks.blogspot.com). The reasons it has been challenged are: "Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group." I get why some folks get all nervous about real life intruding in their fiction, but I don't understand why this book is considered unsuitable for the age group. Charlie, the protagonist, is in high school. High school is a tough place these days, even in towns that believe themselves to be idyllic and immune. Maybe it's because Charlie reads The Catcher in the Rye and becomes friends with a group involved in productions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There could be a lot of reasons to be concerned about this book, but I love the fact that it enables kids to talk about high school and how hard it can be just to get through a day, never mind attend class and actually learn something.

I'm not a fan of banning books. I am a fan of using discernment in making recommendations and making sure that all readers know what they like and why they like it. The inverse is also true. I want my students to know why they don't like something and I ask them for concrete reasons.

If the sex makes them uncomfortable, fine. I can respect that. If the theme or topic makes them uncomfortable and they can tell me why, I can respect that too. But having them figure out why they don't like a particular book makes them more informed about themselves as readers and as citizens of the world.

Informed readers are welcome to ban books from their own shelves and their own reading for their own reasons. Just don't tell me what I can't read and why I can't read it.

Sunday, September 21

Relevant? What does that mean?

It's been a while since I last posted, though I often wonder if it makes any difference. There are millions of bloggers and it seems only a few are read regularly if at all. So there is an odd sensibility about writing to cyberspace and wondering if and where and how one's words might be heard.

I've changed the name of my blog from "Freestyle Pen" to "Peripatetic Pen." I like the word "peripatetic," but then, I like words in general. What prompted this particular stream of consciousness thinking is an entry I saw in someone's Facebook profile. Something about getalife church. There is so much going on in that phrase "get a life" and the way it has been used and is often used. Too often, I think, it's intended as a sort of slur: "Aw man, you need to get a life." So of course I had to go to the link to investigate the church that urges people to get a life.

That's kind of profound when you think about it. Christianity, without its frills and excesses, thinking in context of 1st century Christianity without overlays of interpretation and any other intellectual, political, or philosophical baggage, is about people getting a new life. There are scores of Bible verses I could reference here, such as Romans 6:4. Because I've not been to church in a few years though I've been thinking about finding a new church (a different blog post required), I wanted to learn more about this new church. The goals are straightforward, no frills, Biblical: fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and obey the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). Simple, yet very complex.

So then I checked out the church values and this is where I got stuck. I like the notes in italics and wish they had used only those instead of the cutesy one-liners. The one that really got to me is this one: "If it's not relevant, it's not God." What does that mean? You value "relevance." That's another one of those abstract and amorphous words like "tolerance."

But then I thought I should double-check the meaning of the word "relevant": "1 a: having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand b: affording evidence tending to prove or disprove the matter at issue or under discussion ." Revisiting the value of the Life Church, I had to wonder, again, what they mean, but then I started thinking about the way people use the word "relevant."

When I'm in a meeting and someone raises an issue that takes us down some rabbit trail, I know the issue is not relevant; it's not significant or pertinent to the matter at hand or under discussion. How does that apply to God and a value of the church, that one values relevance? In relation to what?

While I was looking up "relevant" to find what might be significant to that particular matter, I learned (or relearned) there is a magazine titled Relevant. I had to check that out, too. The first paragraph of the "What We Believe" section reads: "RELEVANT is a multimedia company looking to impact culture with the message that even though religion may be seen as irrelevant, a personal relationship with God is a relevant -- and vital -- aspect of a fulfilled life. We want to engage people in a conversation about faith. We want to challenge worldviews and cause people to see God outside the box they've put Him in."

Okay, so some people think religion is irrelevant; insignificant to the matter at hand. What is that matter at hand? Life? The magazine folks believe that a personal relationship with God is a relevant aspect of a fulfilled life. Which suggests to me that people are using "relevant" as a synonym for "significant" or "important."

I can't think about the people who want to be "relevant," who talk about education needing to be "relevant," who talk about students wanting what they learn to be "relevant." But no one talks about the matter at hand. I think when people talk about wanting to be relevant, they mean they want to be significant to someone; they don't want to be unimportant or insignificant. I think people are often afraid of being ignored or overlooked, maybe just unappreciated. When people talk about wanting their lives to be relevant, I think they mean they want to leave some sort of a mark on the world, no matter how small; they don't want to feel as though they have not touched another's soul.

When we talk about education needing to be relevant, I think what we really mean is that we want to make sure that kids learn stuff of value, though I think we also struggle over what valuable education really is and how to figure out if kids have learned enough of value. When students talk about wanting their education to be relevant, I think they really mean they don't want to be bored, they don't want to be lost, and they really do want to understand how they are going to be able to use their learning in the future. I think they really do want to understand how their learning connects to help them be and become significant in their worlds.

In that sense, they do want to be relevant and the matter at hand is much larger as it's life. They don't want to be irrelevant to their families, their friends, their communities, their worlds. In that sense, we all want to be relevant: we all want to matter to someone, to something. That's one of the reasons people love It's a Wonderful Life. George got to see what life would have been like without him; he got to see that he was important, significant, relevant to the lives of the people he loved, to his community. That was his "matter at hand."

We don't get the opportunity to see what life would have been like without us, but I believe we like to think that we have made and are making a difference. I still don't know what Life Church means or intends by that relevance value statement. I think they should revisit it (and most of their value statements, to be honest). One of their later value statements refers to the Nicene Creed: "In the essentials we have unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity." Combined with their relevance statement, I think what they really mean is "Don't sweat the small stuff. " And that's actually very biblical, too.

So what's my point? Good question. I started this because I was thinking about language and the way we use words, how those words get hijacked or morphed for different purposes and intentions, but how the root intention might still be the same. As I said earlier, I think the word "relevance" has become very popular and is being used when people really mean "significant" or "important." But I wonder if those words sound too self-centered so the word "relevant" seems safer and more egalitarian. At root, however, we are talking about a sensibility of not wanting to be lost in this great big world, that has gotten both larger and smaller through technology. But that's the stuff of a different post.

Friday, September 5

Just Ramblin, No 18. Same Ole, Same Ole

I am weary of political rhetoric. I am weary of people twisting words and meanings. I am weary of people seeming to try to want to see the worst in anyone who does not agree with them on everything. I am weary of people try to dredge up old remarks and situations as though comments or decisions made 10 or 15 years ago, or even a few years ago, reflect what one thinks or believes now. Please God that we're all wiser now with more experience and information. I triple dog dare anyone to say that they have exactly all of the same positions, impressions, opinions on everything they had 10 or 15 years ago, or even a few years ago.

But, like a moth to a flame, I cannot resist what others are saying and thinking. I read yesterday's editorials in my local newspaper. They're editorials so people can say whatever they want to say. I wish they'd tone down the righteous histrionics but I'm guilty of that myself on occasion, so never mind. Anyway, one guy wrote as his "fact" that Bush "has been president for nearly eight years and Republicans controlled Congress for most of that period. Only since 2007 have Democrats held Capitol Hill." I got stuck on the word "controlled" and spent a little too much time deconstructing the text. But I'm not sure having the majority necessarily means being in control, especially of Congress and in the absence of bipartisanship.

I'd love to blame party politics for the general muck up in Congress, but I think lobbyists and special interests of the politicians as well as the groups that court them are at root of much of the problems in Congress.

I've been thinking a lot about convention speeches of both Obama and McCain. I am a Republican with Independent and Democrat leanings. I am undecided. I abhor Illinois politics and am revolted by Chicago and Cook County politicking. I've decided, for better or worse, that the campaign rhetoric is simply that: rhetoric. They can stand up there and recite poetry for all I care because the promises are empty. None of these individuals has any inkling of what they will really be able to do once in office because they don't know nearly enough about what's really going on. So I'm stuck with character, record, and gut instinct.

Then someone on Plurk shared something her students sent her. Two sites differentiating between liberals and conservatives. One is at StudentDailyNews.com and the other is American Thinker. What I like about these sites is that they provide a good starting point for discussion and exploration. I don't like there are no citations, no way to determine where either site gathered its information or how. I also don't like that the sites seem to suggest there are complexities and nuances to those terms "conservative" and "liberal" or, as American Thinker states, "progressive."

Someone else on Plurk shared her blog in which she commented on an issue with Palin and an alleged attempt to ban books. What is striking about the resources she referenced is that two of the sources are blogs and one is the School Library Journal. The SLJ article notes that some of the information in the blogs is speculative, but all note that the incident occurred in 1996 when Palin was mayor of Wasilla. At the end, no books were actually banned and no one really seems to know if Palin had actual titles in mind. So this might be another tempest in a teapot.

Now, I like Sarah Palin. I'm not over the moon about her, but I think she is delightfully refreshing. I have no idea if she is equipped to be VP, but I have no idea if Obama is really equipped to be president just as I don't really know if McCain is really equipped to be president. Let's set that aside for the moment. I was never a Hillary fan. Never. I felt no guilt in not supporting her just because she's a woman of a certain age. I've known men who were better feminists, so it wasn't a gender issue.

What I'm getting at is that those who run for office do their best, we hope, to represent themselves as they are: their core beliefs, values, and positions; their experience with all of its warts and how they have come to believe what they believe now. I don't care if people change their minds. I do it all the time. What I do care about is why they change their minds, what has influenced their decisions over time and, perhaps, how much time has passed.

If in 1996 Sarah Palin talked to the librarian and the possibility of banning some books, well, she had her reasons which, apparently, weren't very strong because it seems no books were banned. It seems to me the greater concern would be about the intimation that Governor Palin tried to fire a librarian for disagreeing with her. Because of the more recent alleged brother-in-law incident, I'd be more concerned about a possible pattern of getting rid of people who don't agree with her.

But I'd also have to say that before we jump on any bandwagons or start stringing up any scapegoats, we need to make sure we have gathered as much information as possible. All of us have read or known of too many reputations that have been damaged because of hints and allegations based on supposition and speculation.

If we don't make those very basic kinds of changes for common decency and civility, well, we are destined to continue to exist in the same sort of toxic political atmosphere in which we've barely managed to survive for a lot longer than anyone really cares to remember.

Tuesday, September 2

Just Ramblin, No. 17: Changin' Politics

So people were reveling in the afterglow of Obama's speech and the DNC when McCain made his incredible announcement about Sarah Palin. I wonder what was the land speed record for getting to Google and looking up something, anything on her. Goodness knows the media was incredibly cranky that it knew nothing about her.

I have to say that I was most impressed that the story didn't break until McCain was ready to announce it. Caught everyone by surprise. I was on Plurk with some of my Plurk buddies and some of the Obama supporters threw up their virtual hands almost immediately and suggested the best course of action was to move to Canada. Now THAT surprised me. I was completely taken aback by the response of well-educated folks, black and white, male and female, who with minutes believed that McCain would be elected because he had selected a female VP. And that was without knowing a thing about her!

So now we know a little bit about her. I loved some of the editorial cartoons. One showing Palin dressed for hunting and holding a rifle; the tag line stating she'll be a better VP because she's a better shot than Cheney. We know now that her husband was arrested for DUI when he was in his 20s. Todd Palin and a few million Americans. That morsel didn't interest the media hounds as it got dropped right away. But they are gnawing feverishly on the fact that Bristol Palin, age 17, is pregnant and not married though she and her sweetheart plan to marry. I'm not sure what the media is hoping to wrest from this other than Sarah Palin is a mother who is having to cope with a daughter who is pregnant out of wedlock. We also know that Sarah Palin is a mother of 5 and her youngest has Down's, so we know she is a working mom who knows family hardship and heartbreak. What storm of controversy can the media hope to create?

They've moved on to the whole vetting thing. Did McCain know enough about her before he chose her? After all, they only met in February. Seems like a whirlwind courtship. Maybe he jumped too fast for what seems like the most attractive candidate choice? Shouldn't he have picked someone with a more solid background, even Lieberman. But then the media would have been casting greater aspersions on the man who ran for president as a Democrat and then became a Republican. I thought people could change parties in this country, so what's the point of chasing that down? Again. The media has been strangely quiet about Biden and the plagiarism event that forced him to step down from his own presidential bid in 1987. Surely the Obama folks knew about that in their vetting process but seemed to believe it was sufficiently past tense not to make a difference.

What I found most noteworthy about the media coverage is the need to focus on Hurricane Gustav, especially with a truncated Republican National Convention, and the need to read between all sorts of lines that probably weren't present. But they had air time to fill, so they had to pontificate about something. But I was also bemused by the fact that Obama, somewhat belatedly, suggested he could appeal to his vast Internet network, to raise money for folks in the southeast. Meanwhile, John McCain and Sarah Palin were in the thick of things. Being presidential-like and having a perfect opportunity to reinforce his message that he will put the country first.

I have no idea who will make the better president or the better vice president. Right now I'm way too entertained by the righteous indignation on both sides of the media aisle who are busy dismissing the platforms and the capabilities of the opposition and coming as close as possible excoriating the opposition for the lack or presence of whatever is the offensive topic du jour.

I know I'm not the voice of reason is the blogosphere and media melee, but I would like to remind everyone that the president can do precious little without the support of Congress. So unless Congress changes, not much will change regardless of who is president. And, if I may, Congress had an approval rating of only 18% in May 2008. One of the lowest on record. But then that rating dropped to 14% in July 2008, a record low. What is even more striking to me is that, reported by Gallup with that 14% approval rating is this: "The most recent decline comes almost exclusively from Democrats, whose approval of Congress fell from 23% in June to 11% in July, while independents' and Republicans' views of Congress did not change much. As a result, Republicans are now slightly more likely than Democrats to approve of the job the Democratic-controlled Congress is doing (19% vs. 11%)."

I just wonder why no one in the media is talking about what a crappy job Congress is doing. Is it because 3 of 4 nominees for president and vice president are Senators? And then the media would have to focus specifically on what the candidates have or have not done as politicians, leaders, members of the government? Just askin'.

Thursday, August 28

Just Ramblin, No 16: Politics of change?

Today is a big day. Barack Obama accepted the nomination as the first African-American presidential candidate. The day is made even more significant by the fact that today is the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The media started working that connection early. Yes, it's a big day for the Democratic party. Yes, it's a big day for the country.

But I worry about this notion of change and who will or won't bring change. I know that the Democrats are working hard to position their guy as a super-duper change agent and show that a vote for McCain is a vote for continuing the work of the Bush administration. I get that. And I know that too many American people will get caught up in the hype and mania and might not think through the rhetoric.

Here's my deal. I live in the Chicago suburbs. I'm originally from Florida and I've lived in New York so I've experienced a variety of approaches to politics. But Chicago and Illinois, well, this is where politics has been raised to an art form.

The Daley Dynasty goes without saying. But in Chicagoland we have also witnessed other dynasties in the making. Todd Stroger took over for John Stroger, his father, as Cook Country Board President. He's doing a terrible job, but there seems to be no opportunity for change. It is business as usual. Michael Madigan is the Speaker of the House and Chair of the Illinois Democratic Party. His daughter, Lisa Madigan is the Attorney General of Illinois. Emil Jones is the President of the Illinois Senate. He's 73 and plans to retire this year. Almost immediately, party leaders determined it would best for Emil Jones III to replace his father. Oh, they are all Democrats.

In the spirit of full disclosure, yep, I'm a Republican though I plan to change my party affiliation to Independent this November. But I'm ambivalent about politicians anyway. I listened to Mr. Obama's acceptance speech. He hit all the right notes, struck all the right chords. But his list of promises for health care, taxes, jobs, education, and more. Seriously? Does the Obama campaign believe that most or any of those campaign promises are reasonable? possible? How are they going to insure Congressional support? how is he going to control lobbyists or the members of Congress who respond to lobbyists and political action committees?

What strikes me is the realization that one individual runs for president and shares his (or some day her) ideals and values, hopes and dreams for the country. But the president does not have sole responsibility for decision-making in this country. The president cannot fulfill any of his campaign promises without the support, the backing, and the votes of Congress. I'm disappointed that Obama spent so much time bashing McCain. I would have preferred he spend more time talking about his plans, his hopes, and how he planned to accomplish some of those things, how he hopes to work with Congress and other political organizations to implement change. I would have liked to have heard him talk about ways he might be able to work with the Republican party to find a common ground.

Change is really hard and a lot of people are not comfortable with change. It's probably too great of a stretch to talk about the USSR, but for some odd reason I can't help but think about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Theoretically the Russian states began to adopt democracy. But it doesn't take a political expert to see that those folks struggled with change and gradually, over the years, have returned to the sort of governmental structure and conformity that existed when the Soviet Union was still unified. It's no big surprise with Vladimir Putin, former KGB officer, at the helm.

I'm impressed with the style and presentation of Barack Obama and I've seriously considered voting for him. But his list of things that he will do as president is just shy of "world peace" and it worries me that his reach may exceed his grasp. I can only hope that if he really believes he can accomplish even a tenth of this, his campaign team is busily working the members of Congress to make sure they are completely and unstintingly on board with his plans. And I hope his campaign team is working hard to form alliances with any Republicans who may be left in Congress because the alliance will be necessary and I do worry about Obama's lack of experience, potential naivete of how things seem to work in DC (though Biden should help him navigate some of those treacherous waters). Changing DC "business as usual" would be an amazing accomplishment.

Regardless, we witnessed history tonight. Good for Barack Obama and I hope he has a great campaign. As painful as this incredibly lengthy campaign has been, the rest does promise to one heckuva ride!

Wednesday, August 20

Just Ramblin, No. 15: The Olympics stories we don't hear or see

I love the Olympics, but I am weary of them. I am weary of the politicizing that inevitably accompanies the Olympics, but even more so this year. There has been so much commentary about China and Beijing and the 2008 Olympics: constraints, restraints, and raising the bar. China has been praised and vilified and while that may true for any host nation/city of the Olympics, critics seem to have been particularly vocal for this Olympics.

Of course we have had to hear the stories of the possibly underage gymnasts and how anyone in a sport that requires judging has been getting a raw deal and the Chinese have been getting all the benefit of the doubt. I have to wonder what other nations' presses are reporting about the fairness of the judging or is it only us Americans who are being such whiny spoilsports. Is the judging always "fair"? Probably not. Depends on your perspective and what you know about the sport and that's probably true of judging for any sport in any competition. It's just that the Olympics is a particularly ginormous stage.

So I'm all tired and don't care about the gold medal race between China and the US, though I'm pretty sure a bunch of other countries are competing in all of the events. I mean, last time I checked I saw athletes from other countries in the events. What I'm really digging are the hard-to-find stories about some really cool accomplishments.

For example, how being the athlete to get India's very first individual gold medal? So it was in an air rifle competition. So what? It was a competition that was awarded a gold medal. And a nation rejoiced.

Sometimes winning big does not mean gold, but bronze. Though it was hard to find a thoughtful (read "objective") report, I think it is very cool that Afghanistan will be able to celebrate its first Olympic medal. Rohullah Nikpai took the bronze by upsetting world flyweight tae kwon do champion Juan Antonio Ramos of Spain. Yes, it may be bronze, but it is a medal.

And there were the Mongolians honking horns, waving flags, and singing the national anthem after Tuvshinbayar Naidan won the country first ever gold Olympic medal.

The people of Bahrain celebrated enthusiastically as well when Rashid Ramzi won that country's first Olympic medal ever and that first Olympic medal is gold. After Ramzi won, he said, “I didn’t believe in my wildest dreams that I’d be Olympic champion. But the dream didn’t come from nothing. I had to work hard to achieve it. I can’t find words to describe this victory.”

That could be the victory speech for any Olympic athlete. No one coasted to victory. No one coasted to get to the Olympics. Every athlete worked hard. Every athlete, whether backed by an enormous and well-funded sports organization or fortunate to find a sponsor to have some of the right equipment, worked hard. Worked hard because of his or her passion for the sport. To represent their country, to bring honor to their country is a bonus for them.

I believe those who compete honorably and with dignity regardless of the outcome are the heroes and winners of the Olympics. Oh I know they are hyper-competitive and want to do their best and most of them seem to do their bests. So they are to be commended, even if they don't have a medal to show for their efforts. But those folks who have won over the most improbable of odds or who are able to be the first to take home a medal for their countries, well, those are the real stories worth telling.