Saturday, December 26

Reflections on Christmas Day 2009

I woke up Christmas morning to temperatures in the upper 30s. The snow in the driveway had turned to slush. With a forecast of rain and temperatures in the low 40s and with the weather turning colder and bringing snow in the evening, I knew I should get out and shovel the slush.

It was quiet and overcast, drizzling lightly, as I shoveled. I paused every now and then, and not just because this was “heart attack” slush—wet and heavy, but just to enjoy the sounds of the morning. As I shoveled, I thought and prayed. I am so grateful to have what I have and sought that peace of contentment.

I came in and set the timer for 2 hours as I wanted to check my slush level after it had “warmed up” a bit more. I turned on the radio and smiled as I heard “O Holy Night,” one of my favorite songs of the Christmas season. I settled at the kitchen table with a cup of tea (Earl Grey) and the paper and when I finished with the paper, I started on a stack of magazines. I seem to read my magazines in spurts and because so many of them are weekly newsmagazines, I get to catch up and fill in some gaps about what has been doing on in the world. I got up to replenish my tea when the light in the kitchen changed and I realized the sun had come out. I looked out and yes, there was a bit of blue sky and that misty-looking winter sun. A gentle, soft light less about physical warmth than spiritual and emotional affirmation.

Mine is a solitary Christmas and that is by choice. The past few years I’ve been out of the country at this time of year—I love the cold and snow and go places I can explore and tromp in the snow. This year I started a new job on November 30 which made vacation time impossible. By the time I had negotiated some options at work, it was too late to make the extensive travel plans I had considered: time with dear friends; a visit with my folks; and a celebration of birthday, the holidays, and the New Year with my sister and her family. Instead, as I have for so many years, I get to spend Christmas alone, which seems sad and pitiable to many, but I like this time alone to think, to reflect, to listen to Christmas music, to pray, and, of course, to watch Christmas movies. I’ll get to spend some time with my folks just after the Christmas holidays, when the weather is no less predictable and holiday travel may be only moderately less stressful. I’ll be back in Florida in mid-January so may get to see my friends then. And I’ll try to travel to Texas in spring to see my sister and her family.

I thought more about Christmas and its meaning as I read. The newspaper had its fair share of “feel good” stories, much like those I’d been hearing on the radio for the past week. Like millions of others, I’d watched several of the Christmas movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife, and White Christmas.

And I really thought nothing of all of those stories and their themes of peace, contentment, giving, and love until I read an interview of Bill Maher in Newsweek in which he spoke of his plans for Christmas and his disinterest in celebrating “the whole baby-Jesus thing.” While he has good memories of Christmas as a child, he believes it’s a good time of year for people to assess where they have been ethically over the year, though I would think one might do that kind of assessment throughout the year. The statements that stopped me were these: “That’s the problem with faith, Joe [Scarborough]. What it does is kind of screws up your priorities. Your priorities shouldn’t be saving your own ass, which is the focus of Christianity. The focus should be, I’m a good person, and I do that just for the sake of being good.” What disturbs me is his perception of Christianity, though I can understand why he might see it that way.

But then he hadn’t read the story of the Muellers, who were struggling to care for their children but who always received a check or a job or something they needed when they needed it. The Tribune ran a story on them in September and there was an immediate outpouring of generosity, and yet the moments of miracle continue to occur. In this story, Mrs. Mueller spoke of her faith in terms of Philippians 4:19—“And my God will meet your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” The coolest part of the story, though, is this. A man who had had his own large family calculated how much it would cost to buy enough milk for a year. . . and wrote a check. Of his actions he said, “I think it’s really more the miraculous way [God] provides for those who have faith. I’m just the middle man. God provided for them. They put their faith out there. It was my job to affect the depth of their faith.”

And while the Muellers are cared for, at least for now, I was reminded of the pain that remains in the world. For every family of Muellers, there are too many yet in want and need. For every individual who writes a check to help buy milk for children, there are those who refuse to extend a helping hand. For every Secret Santa who acts in the legacy of Larry Stewart, there are those who can and don’t.

At the end of my day of quiet indulgence, I thought again about how fortunate I am and I am thankful for all of those who give of their time and their money, whether they are famous and can help draw attention and resources to a crisis or willing to act in anonymity. I don’t know and can’t know what moves some of people to act generously. Perhaps it is Bill Maher’s philosophy of acting ethically and being what they consider a “good” person. Perhaps it is because they are being used in wonderful and mysterious ways. Perhaps it is because they realize it is their jobs to affect the depths of someone’s faith.

As with so many other holidays, this one encourages us to stop and consider the act of giving, to think about what it truly means to bring about peace on Earth and good will to all. I hope that, in spite of the drama of the season, of the air incident in Detroit, of all of the other emotional baggage that hangs over this holiday and lingers for months after, we can continue to find ways to sustain those sensibilities of giving, of caring, of sharing hope.

Tuesday, December 1

Drafting Dick Cheney: A Commentary of the Republican Party

Dick Cheney made going rogue popular long before Sarah Palin contemplated writing her book never mind thinking that she had the corner on that particular market. And a few days ago I saw a story that a group of people were planning to draft Dick Cheney, which puzzled me for a few minutes. My mental digression imagined drafting Dick Cheney for military service though we no longer have the draft yet I found that concept quite compelling considering Mr. Cheney's involvement in the WMD debacle and his position on escalating tensions in the Middle East, though I suspect he would see his efforts in a considerably different light. But then I read the title more closely and even skimmed the opening lines of the story to discover a group of people were seriously considering drafting Dick Cheney to run for president in 2012.

My next mental digression tried to imagine the sort of people who would want to draft a man like Dick Cheney for president of the United States as I just had to wonder where they had been living for the past 10 years and if they'd been paying attention to anything and a few other character notes that aren't particularly flattering nor very nice. The good news is that Cheney seems not to be interested, but it's not quite 2010 and as Cheney himself says, "it's far too soon to be handicapping." Sigh. I don't see "no" in there.

But then I started thinking about Sarah Palin and her book tour and the media flak and the RNC and the hobgoblins that seem to have invaded the majority of Republican politicians and remembering my experience of visiting the RNC web site in September. I went to the web site to use the "Tell Us What You Think" link which didn't work and which I found more irritating than amusing. I also found it rather indicative of the GOP.

You may recall that in September Joe Wilson, Republican Congressman from South Carolina, shouted "You lie!" during the president's health care reform speech. I wanted to share what I thought as this event was an interesting culmination of several not-quite-cascading, but certainly painful events. It occurred to me then that the RNC may have disconnected that link because it was already tired of hearing what people really thought about the party and its politicians.

Almost immediately after the incident, Wilson's web site was "offline for maintenance." I bet. And my thinking was then, as it now, that the GOP needs to be offline for a little maintenance. Joe Wilson, Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, and Michael Steele, chair of the RNC, are symptoms of a widespread and deeply rooted disease.

If the "Tell Us What You Think" link had worked--and it might still not work; I haven't checked it recently because I don't think the RNC really wants to know--this is what I would have said and would say.

I'm a white female registered Republican who is often embarassed to admit that fact. I'm gainfully employed, for which I am truly thankful, and reasonably well-educated (I have a Ph.D.). On the page with the ineffectual "Tell Us What You Think" link, I was asked what I would like to see in the GOP. I would like to see actual leadership, professional behavior, humility becoming a public servant, better attitudes towards pretty much everyone, and, perhaps most importantly, vision.

You are an embarassment. You have taken up a mantle of hate-mongering and rhetorical hysteria. If you don't intend to be racist, you give every opportunity for people to cast you in such a light. Your voice is strident and cluttered; you seem incapable of being anything but incendiary and reactionary. You have touted no vision or certainly nothing new but tired ideas that reflect oblique or clouded thinking of an older time. You are old, boring, narrow-minded, and increasingly constipated of thought. While I will not likely ever become a Democrat, I am appalled by your behavior, your guerilla tactics of leadership, your lack of vision, and your lack of relevance. Arlen Spector, who switched to the Democrat side of the aisle only this year, appeared in a town hall and had the gall to say that he didn't have to be there. Really? Do you all forget for whom you work? It's really not the lobbyists. Did you forget the part about being in public SERVICE? In your myopic need to attack all things related to or coming from Obama, have you completely lost sight of what you were elected to do? Serve not the lobbyists or the special interest groups, but the Amerian people?

A lot of people don't care for this president, but, unlike Rush Limbaugh who was idiotic enough to say he hopes Obama fails, I most fervently hope the GOVERNMENT succeeds. If Obama fails, then Congress fails. If Congress fails, the America fails. Get a grip. That includes you clowns.

Let go of your ridiculously fragile egos, suck it up the President Bush wasn't the greatest president ever, remember that President Reagan wasn't quite as perfect as you seem to recollect, realize that though President Obama did not get a majority vote and that his ratings have gone down, there are a LOT of people who still believe in him. They want to believe, you see, that there are reasons to HOPE for CHANGE.

So instead of taking potshots behind whatever ideological barricads you have erected and instead of being so gleeful about small election wins, spend some time thinking about the direction in which the country is going and the paths we have stumbled down so far; realize that so-called Republican values may be outmoded ad may need to be updated though, to be honest, I have no idea what the RNC stands for any more except belligerent tirades from fear-mongering ultraright loudmouths who can't or won't listen. Start be proactive.

The GOP continues its death march to irrelevance. There is still time, but not much.

Wednesday, November 25

Word Matters

Words of the Year
Just recently the folks at the Oxford University Press (OUP) announced that the word of the year for 2009 is (drum roll, please): “unfriend.” Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary program, states that “[i]n the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year” (Oxford WOTY).

Another word bandied about this year is “admonish,” which was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2009. Roland Burris, the Blagojevich-appointed senator of Illinois, was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee (I’m sure there’s an oxymoron in there) for “providing “incorrect, inconsistent, misleading or incomplete information to the public and the Senate.’” Representative Joe Wilson was admonished by the House leadership for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama. In fact, Peter A. Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large, states that “[a]dmonish shot to the top of the list three days after Representative Joe Wilson's outburst during a speech made by President Obama, and it remained among our top lookups for weeks.” Sokolowski went on to say that “[w]hen the House announced plans to ‘admonish’ Representative Wilson, the word was understood to be technical or official, and it has been repeated often in coverage of recent contentious political issues. While this particular story wasn't very important in the context of a year's worth of news, it triggered enormous interest in this word.”

For the OUP folks, other words considered for word of the year (and in no particular order) included “hashtag,” “birther,” “intexticated,” “sexting,” “teabagger,” “brown state,” and “green state.” For the Merriam folks, alternative words included “emaciated,” “nugatory,” “pandemic,” “furlough,” and “philanderer.”

What interests me is that the OUP list of words includes a number of created words while the Merriam Webster folks seem to have settled for more commonplace words already in our vocabulary. This process of creating words seems to have increased over the past several years and, I think, technology helped lead the way.

I am old enough to remember when certain words were hyphenated and it took some time for them to become those hyphen-less compound words. I remember when currently non-hyphenated words were hyphenated; words such as “antismoking,” “coworker,” “interoffice,” and “nonemergency.” A bit of a digression to explain that pesky hyphen.

The digression
Fundamentally, the use of the hyphen has to do with rules of grammar and parts of speech. For example, you might say “This was a low-budget job.” That hyphenated word “low-budget” describes the kind of job it was, so we have taken two separate words and combined them to create an adjective describing the job.

“Anti” is a prefix used to modify a variety of words: smoking, abortion, union, etc. Its counterpart is “pro,” so folks might be anti-abortion or pro-abortion, or anti-union or pro-union, but in current writing, if you support the no-smoking legislation in some states, you are “antismoking” rather than “anti-smoking.” You will, no doubt, see an inconsistency because rules of hyphenation do not seem to be fixed by any one grammar guru. Instead, you see a gradual emergence and acceptance over time. For example, teachers, who may give in-class assignments, used to give “home-work” but now give “homework.”

Another good example of hyphenated words that become combined over time is email or, if you prefer, e-mail. Once upon time we began using this thing called “electronic mail” to differentiate it from the mail we received via the U.S. Postal Service. “Electronic mail” is a mouthful so folks started using “e-mail” and that hyphen reminded us it was a compound word as we joined the words “electronic” and “mail.” I long ago dropped the hyphen in favor of “email,” though I know that is not a universal usage. . . yet. More on hyphens and other such things in some other post.

Newly created words
What prompted this thinking about created words was not the words of the year, but some words I came across in my reading, specifically “advergaming,” “nocebo,” and “scientainment.”

Nocebo is defined as “the worsening of a patient’s healthy due to the expectation that a drug will cause adverse side effects,” so it’s a play on the placebo effect. It’s a horrifying concept of people being able to convince themselves of adverse side effects not actually caused by a medication simply because they believe they will experience such side effects. I can’t imagine the diagnostic complications caused by the nocebo effect.

We have scientainment thanks Richard Heene and the Balloon Boy story. In the aftermath of the balloon chase, we learned that the Heene family had been on Wife Swap not once, but twice (which seems to speak volumes about this group), and that because Heene seems to fancy himself some sort of a science guy, he was trying to pitch a new reality show that would combine science and entertainment.

And finally there is advergaming which is the use of video games to advertise something. Apparently the concept has been around since the 1980s when companies created games to promote their products. I remember CDs accompanying various products, but never thought too much about them as I simply threw away the CDs. But the term advergames has been around since 2001, coined by Wired! magazine because of the free online games available to advertise products. It’s quite an impressive approach to advertising and takes the concept of product placement to an entirely different level.

I remain intrigued by the development of new words. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems we have more such words created these days as a variety of worlds—technology, medicine, business, education—not just collide, but seem to coalesce in a variety of ways. Is that good for us in the long run? I’ll get back to you on that.

Monday, October 26

Tuesday, October 20 was the NCTE-sponsored National Day on Writing. NCTE had been touting its National Gallery of Writing (http://www.galleryofwriting.org/) for months and yesterday was the big unveil via webcast.

I thought periodically about contributing something, but could never decide on a genre or topic. I was quite wishy washy about the whole thing. But the other night I started thinking about writing in general and the kinds of writing that have influenced me and what popped into my head? Jingles and TV show tag lines. Then random lines from shows and songs. Yes, I’m a product of popular culture in many ways and on many levels. Herewith, in no particular order nor segregated by medium, a few of those influences:
GE. We bring good things to life.
Good to the last drop.
It’s the story of a lovely lady. . .
Just do it.
I’d walk a mile for a camel.
Out of the clear blue western sky comes. . . Sky King
Don’t leave home without it.
My bologna has a first name. . .
Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.
Be all that you can be.
Have it your way.
It’s the real thing.
Mmm. Mmm. Good.
You got some ‘xplainin’ to do, Lucy.

The longer I thought about these, the more lines careened and crashed through my head which made sleep nearly impossible. So I tried to shift mental gears so I could sleep. Still, every now and then, I think of a few more choice lines or song titles and the parade of recollection begins again.

What to make of all this? I dunno. But I do know that I have not yet managed to tame the involuntary need to quote a line from a movie or a fragment of a song when someone says something that triggers that connection. My students, bless their undergraduate hearts, are too young to have any idea what I’m talking about most of the time, and that’s not just when I’m blathering about popular culture. When I mentioned Fleetwood Mac not too long ago, I was rewarded only with blank looks. Not a scintilla of recognition. And only a few have recognized lines from Princess Bride and I tell you, that is quite unacceptable.

I know I’m not alone in this quoting thing. I wonder if we Boomers just have more or better quotable stuff than these here young whippersnappers. I think so. Well, I’m not going to dwell on it, but it was fun to consider the things that make up “the fabric of our lives.” After all, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it."

Thursday, October 1

Happy Birthday, Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971. I was there, sort of. I lived in Orlando and tracked the bulldozing of fields and the gradual development of what would become the Magic Kingdom.

Like so many other kids in the Orlando area, I soon got a job there. Disney paid above what was then minimum wage and the costumes were way cooler than what I was wearing for my job at McDonald's. Yes, the drive was further, but, well, it was the Magic Kingdom.

The magic wore off soon enough for me. I worked on the monorail when the drivers still gave the spiel ("I'll be your pilot from the main gate to the Magic Kingdom. Please remain seated at all times. No smoking, eating, or drinkin while on board.") and occasionally entertained guests in the driver's cone. After several months of the monorail, I moved to Main Street and retail, working in the stuffed animals department of the Emporium. Better costume though the work wasn't any less challenging. It's hard to work at a theme park where the expectations are that the employees love their jobs and serve the public with a cheerful, helpful smile. Even when they're being idiots. But there was an interesting camaraderie among those who worked at Disney and I like to think it was more than the fact that we knew where the tunnels were and some of the stories behind the magic, though I can't tell you how depressed I was to see the guy playing Donald Duck smoking a stogie on his break, Donald's head propped on a table. Sometimes it was hard to know that there was reality behind the magic.

I grew up with Disney. I remember watching The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. I remember being enthralled by Disney extravangazas and still love Fantasia and Cinderella because I love the hopefulness and determinaton in "Bibbity Bobbity Boo." I know it's a silly song of nonsense words, but I cannot think of the song without seeing the small critters working so hard and with such love to create Cinderella's dress. That's a very powerful message that still moves me.

My favorite time at Walt Disney World was after the park closed. All the guests were gone and the streets were quiet. I remember walking down Main Street at 2A, the lights twinkling and my footsteps echoing against the storefronts. That's when I believed again in pixie dust and the magic of Disney.

So Happy Birthday Walt Disney World. May you continue to share those magical moments for years to come.

Wednesday, September 9

Love Potion Number 9

You know, I'm not really very good with songs--I usually have no idea who recorded what or when, but I do remember song titles and snippets of songs, sometimes even with the right lyrics. So on this auspicious date of 090909, I suppose it makes sense that some song with the number 9 popped into my head. And the song was Love Potion Number 9 which I find curious myself.

Anyway, I was just talking about 9 as the universal number in my classical literature class last week because the number 9 shows up often in The Odyssey, as do many other numbers. I bedazzled (or possibly befuddled) my students by showing that cool property of 9 with the multiplying and adding thing. Multiply any number by 9 then add the numbers of the product, continuing to "reduce" the results and the result will be. . . . . 9. So multiply 435 * 9 and you get 3,915. Then you the numbers or digits of the product: 3 + 9 + 1 + 5 = 18 and then 1 + 8 which equals 9. Seriously, try it with any multidigit number. Go ahead. I'll wait.

There's been a lot of conversation about the significance of the number 9 and the importance of today's date: 090909. For the Chinese, apparently, this ranks second to 080808 which is, as you no doubt recall, the date on which they launched the Olympics and with spectacular fanfare and celebration.

Some of the hoopla seems to be simply because these date configurations don't happen very often, but it is kind of cool. A friend of mine was quite excited at the prospect of 04:05:06 on 070809. I didn't celebrate that event as it was, after all, shortly after 4 o'clock in the morning and lasted but a second. Way too easy to miss.

But we do see the number 9 quite often in literature. In fact, Odysseus refers to 9 quite often and then whatever happens occurs on the 10th day, so he must endure or survive 9 nights. What else is significant about 9? Well, it is the last single digit in base 10. It signifies completeness in the Baha'i faith. There are 9 choirs of angels in the Christian hierarchy of Angels. Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. The number 9 is considered a perfect and divine number in Hinduism. There are 9 forms of the Chinese dragon. So it seems there could be something to the idea of the number 9 and what it seems to represent. After all, there is that special and very powerful love potion number 9.

Tuesday, September 8

Slow down, you move too fast

Apparently Simon & Garfunkel were right. For those of you old enough to remember when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were a duo, you probably recall "Feeling Groovy" also known as the "59th Street Bridge" song. The song began with these memorable lines:
Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
The pace of the song is a fun, happy-go-lucky, breezy sort of tune that tends to make you feel, well, groovy.

Anyway, earlier today I heard someone talking about breathing patterns and the doctors have found most Americans take about 20 breaths per minute. I feel like I'm going to hyperventilate just thinking about breathing that fast. Apparently optimal breathing is about 6 breaths per minute with a longer exhale than inhale. And, of course, you should be breathing from your diaphragm, not your chest. I also heard that we get approximately 80 to 90% of our energy from the way we breath, which seems odd, but I understand how panting at 20 breaths per minute could be exhausting.

An article in Wikipedia suggests that optimal adult breathing is 12-20 breaths per minute, which means that 6 is really, really slow. The article also states that of two groups being tested for optimum breathing, [o]ne of the groups learned 'complete yoga breathing,' a style of respiration that encourages slow, deep breathing at a rate of about six breaths per minute. Those patients continued practicing the breathing method at home for an hour a day. After a month, the patients practicing the breathing technique breathed more slowly, had higher levels of blood oxygen, and performed better on exercise tests."

So there may be something to that slow breathing. No doubt, there is something to the idea of slowing down, relaxing a bit more, "looking for fun and feeling groovy"!

As for my breathing count? I should mention that my blood pressure, even when I'm really incredibly stressed remains low. I counted my breathing and found that I'm at 12 breaths per minute. Not bad, I suppose, but apparently room for feeling a little more groovy.

Monday, September 7

Labor Day 2009

Today is Labor Day. The last long weekend before school starts in many parts of the country. The last gasp of summer, if you've actually had summer. The last long weekend for any kind of getaway weekend. The last back-to-school sale weekend.

Labor Day, though, has a history. It is over 100 years old as the very first day celebrating those who work for a living was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City and sponsored by the Central Labor Union. In 884, the Central Labor Union selected the first Monday in September as the date for the holiday and the union urged other organizations to mark that date as a "workingmen's holiday." The idea quickly spread with the growth of labor organizations and labor unions, and the following year, Labor Day was celebrated in many of the industrial cities in the country.

Legislation for Labor Day evolved. Oregon was the first state to pass Labor Day legislation doing so in February 1887. Four more states enacted Labor Day legislation that same year: Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. By 1890, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit and by 1894, 23 other of the then 44 states in the U.S. had legislated Labor Day. In June 1894, Congress created national legislation designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day for the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories.

In the early days of the holiday, emphasis was on the workers and the contributions of the workers. Certainly the labor unions took advantage of the holidy to purport the advantages of the labor organizations but it is quite clear that, over the years, any declaration of appreciation for the American worker has been sidelined in favor of blow-out sales, last-minute vacations, the start of school (and football), and just a welcome three-day weekend.

How we work has changed dramatically since 1882. The role of the agragrian society is still hugely important and the work of some farmers hasn't changed appeciably in over 100 years. They still work long hours and nearly every day of the week. Many industrial workers in the U.S. have labor unions that protect the number of hours they work, the duration and number of number of breaks they get, and just about everything else that can be covered in a contract. The rest of us workers, whether we have the corner office still often reviled by the labor unions (though a good many labor "bosses" seem to have such offices themselves) or a cubicle in the dun-colored "cubicleland," just do our jobs, without union protection and often without any safety net if we work in an "at will" state. If we are hourly employees, we work our hours, as required, and probably most of us do the best job we can because we are fortunate enough to like our work and/or because we have personal integrity to do the best we can. And we work overtime when asked because we do get overtime pay and because we may worry about the consequences of not working overtime when asked. Most of us, though, are team players, whether hourly or salaried employees, and want to do the best we can for our places of work.

If we are salaried employees, we probably work long hours because of expectations and/or because of the work that needs to be done. When there are layoffs because of a recession or other economic factors, many of us take on the work of others--without grumbling too loudly or being careful to whom we grumble--and do what needs to be done.

I'm not saying that everyone in the American workforce is happy with his or her work situation; I'd be willing to bet that a significant number are not. And I'm not saying that we should abandon Labor Day because the holiday no longer celebrates the American worker as overtly as it was once intended. I am saying, however, that because we have such a holiday, whether our work is "blue collar" or "white collar," whether it is a trade or a profession, whether it is a factory or a school or a towering office building, it might not hurt for those of us who are in supervisory positions to take a few minutes on Tuesday to say "thanks" to the folks who work for us and with us.

I would also say that even though we have managed to create a day of recognition for administrative assistants (no doubt an invention of Hallmark), Tuesday would be a very good day to take the time to thank those people who make your day-to-day work possible: the folks who clean your buildings, who work as security, who provide whatever support is necessary to make sure your business runs as it needs. Those folks work hard and so often in the shadows or behind the scenes, but they are as critical to anyone's success as anyone else in the building.

Sunday, August 30

Love the one you're with

In 1970, Stephen Stills wrote "Love the One You're With." Reading the lyrics now, I've learned that I really didn't have all of the words right, which is no big surprise, but I'm struck by the probable message behind images like "a rose in the fisted glove and the eagle flies with the dove." Those of us old enough to remember Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young singing this song in 1971 were probably more interested in the implications of these lyrics: "and if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with."

I'm not sure why that song popped into my head when I learned that 48-year-old acquaintance dropped dead this afternoon of a heart attack while playing golf. He was in good shape and played golf often. Just goes to show you. . . . what?

This morning I got an email from a former student. I hear from her every now and then. She pops in with an email that she's sending to a bunch of people. Today's was about a woman who was coming to grips with the sudden loss of her spouse and the realization that there would be no more opportunities to do a lot of things.

All of this occurs with rather thundering impact in the wake of the death and burial of Senator Ted Kennedy with all of the hoopla and attention that garnered. At least Senator Kennedy's family had some time to prepare, as much as one really can prepare for a loved one's imminent death. At least they had the opportunity to say good-bye and try to express how much he meant to them. What am I supposed to be taking from this? I'm not sure exactly, but this is what I'm taking from it at this moment.

First, it is rare that we have preparation for that final moment. There is a reason philosophers and theologians advise us to live each day as though it is our last.

Second, I really have to take care of some personal business so as not to create additional problems for those left behind. Please note: I want to be cremated and it would be really cool if my ashes could be scattered from a hot air balloon but I'm pretty sure that couldn't happen; I want my stuff given to charity or sold and the funds given to charity and no one is to wear black at any memorial service anyone may bother to have for me.

Third, I need to be sure to tell people I care about that I care about them and what they mean to me. Last year I received an email with the title "Today is your day" from a friend of mine. She sent an email to me telling me why she appreciated me and was glad to be my friend. Apparently she was going through everyone she knew to share those things with them. How cool is that?

So while I'm not you should necessarily "love the one you're with" and probably not the way it was intended in those naughty 70s, I do think you should be sure to tell the one you're with and who is important to you why that person is important to you.

Tuesday, August 18

Is handwriting really dead?

If handwriting is dead, I missed the funeral. I read an article by Claire Suddath published in the August 3 issue of TIME in which she declared that we are "witnessing the death of handwriting" (p. 48). Before I got too far in the article, I did a quick Google search, as one tends to do when encountering something that triggers the skepticism-meter.

Suddath asserts that cursive "started to lose its clout back in the 1920s" which came as a surprise to me. But then she talked more about handwriting so it occurred to me that perhaps cursive is perhaps on life support, but the necessity of handwriting seems to have a different place. Suddath states that 1990 was the "year of the great alphabet change" and that her class was "one of the last to learn the loops and squibbles" (p. 48). Wow. I missed that, too. Back to Google.

I'm old enough to remember practicing the Palmer method using that newsprint with the light blue lines that carefully demarcated where loops and tops and bottoms of letters should be. We practiced both printing and cursive. I don't use cursive any more except for my signature; I didn't get on board with the cool scribble style so I still have to write out my whole name for certain things. My handwriting has evolved, perhaps devolved, to a smooshed cursive/printing style ages ago. Somewhat surprisingly, I get compliments on my handwriting. But it is legible and I think that's what Suddath is really trying to emphasize; it's not so much that handwriting is dead or dying, but that there is less emphasis on teaching children to write legibly.

Lots of folks point to technology as the culprit. After all, typing on a laptop or a smartphone or in IM means I don't have to write by hand. Students may be taking more standardized tests, especially in earlier grades. I can't imagine that to be true, but I can imagine that teachers would find it harder and harder to find time to help students practice their handwriting.

Suddath included a puzzling observation by Linda Garcia, an elementary teacher who had taught Ms. Suddath. Garcia worries that eventually students will not be able to read cursive and I have to assume it's because they won't recognize it. I'm not sure about that, though. But Suddath also includes a statement by 15-year-old Alex McCarter who is allowed to use a computer for standardized tests because his handwriting is so bad. He's planning to keep his handwriting bad in spite of his mother's attempts to help him improve his penmanship.

Okay, so let me get back to my Google searches on the new alphabet of 1990 and cursive's loss of clout. A 2006 Washington Post article by Margaret Webb Pressler doesn't confirm Suddath's assertion about the disintegration of the importance of cursive in the 1920s, but does confirm my thinking that teachers have found it harder to include handwriting instruction and/or practice in their teaching time. There were also two other interesting points.

First, Jim Mohr, a history professor at the University of Oregon, has found that students appreciate handwritten documents. "There's a kind of personal authenticity to individual writing that's hard to capture any other way."

Second, it may be that handwriting contributes to certain cognitive skills. "The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one" (¶ 16). Steve Graham at Vanderbilt University did a study with a group of first-graders who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. "The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex" (¶ 17).

Okay, so there is at least one good reason for kids to learn and to practice at least some fundamental handwriting skills. Legibility is probably not optional, though. As for the so-called great alphabet change, I did find a few scholarly articles on the shift in handwriting instruction, so that confirmed my impression that Suddath wasn't quite sure what she was talking about and just wanted to write a piece about penmanship and handwriting and had a certain number of space she had to fill (and how did she get away with stating that the poor penmanship of physicians results in "thousands of deaths a year" without offering an iota of support?). None of the articles made it seem like handwriting was dead or even in danger of imminent death. I did find a 1998 article about the important relationship between handwriting and cognitive skills, and a presentation that suggests that having kids learn basics of handwriting will make a difference with their fine motor skills.

So I don't think handwriting is dead. I'm not even sure it's mostly dead. Cursive might be, but I'm not going to mourn its passing. We may need Miracle Max to help change our perceptions about the importance of handwriting and we may need to work a bit harder to convince the digikids that writing has some value, but handwriting seems to be with us for a little while longer.

Wednesday, August 12

Economic indicators: Chocolate & cars

There were two articles in the August 7 edition of The Chicago Tribune that really caught my eye. The first one was a piece by Jonah Goldberg in which he discussed the economic virtues of the Cash for Clunkers program. I hadn't heard anything about this program until it was running out of money and people were discussing if Congress should throw another $2B at it.

What I learned is that buyers can get up to $4500 of taxpayer money for turning in a "clunker" to buy a more fuel efficient vehicle. The dealer has to complete a lot of paperwork for Uncle Sam and prove the clunker has been destroyed or rendered undriveable, and then Uncle Sam will, eventually, process the paperwork and reimburse the dealer. Well, you know that is going to happen with remarkable inefficiency. Federal government + paperwork = endless bureaucratic inefficiencies. I'd heard a piece on the radio--NPR, I think--in which auto recyclers were interviewed and they were more than a little miffed about having to euthanize perfectly good vehicles. The engine, apparently, is the most expensive part of the car. Dealers have to pour a silica mixture into the engine and run it until it seizes. That way there is no chance of any kind of skullduggery about recycling clunkers and trying to get an extra $4500 out of Uncle Sam for the same car. I get that, but I do have to wonder if the engines couldn't be rebuilt somehow to be more fuel efficient or if they couldn't serve some other purpose that practice for the car compactor guy.

Regardless of Mr. Goldberg's observations, and I do agree that I'm not sure there was a lot of thoughtful analysis of unintended consequences of the Cash for Clunkers program--like the fact that it would run when Ford was in its summer production hiatus which meant that Ford dealerships would have a hard time replenishing their car stock which seems a little counterproductive to me. I'm not alone in thinking the program falls a bit short. Natasha Bishop explains the program, and why it doesn't work and David Sanger of the New York Times offers considerable more insight than I.

Now let's talk about chocolate, which is the more important topic anyway. There was a lovely little chocolate shop called Ethel's Chocolate Lounge. As you walked into its lovely purple environment and inhaled the delirium-inducing scents of chocolate, then gazed into the cases at delightfully hand-painted truffles and tried not to drool on the glass, it was hard not to relax at least for a little while. I read that, alas, Mars had pulled the plug on Ethel's in the Chicago area, but then I read someone has opened a place called Anna Shea's in the Arboretum in South Barrington. Of course, it's South Barrington, which is a very posh neighborhood. But she's expanded the offerings to include coffee, gelato, fondue, and wines that go with chocolates. Well then, there was an Ethel's in Deer Park, which is fairly close to my house. But the Arboretum is only about 15 or 20 minutes from my house, which is also quite close. So I suppose I shall have to go visit. If only to inhale.

Sunday, July 26

Black Hills Road Trip

There are those who believe that there is nothing to see as you drive west on I-90 through southern Minnesota into South Dakota. Perhaps to some the miles and miles and miles of corn and soy might seem like "nothing," but there are moments of exceptions and there is something mesmerizing about those rows of corn. Homesteads. Some newer or at least well-kept; some quite old with barns leaning towards the earth as they slowly disintegrate. Windmills and windmill "farms." Bee hives, though I'm not quite sure why the hives are so close to road. It is, to me, miles of unwinding and peacefulness.

My friend and I called it a driving day on Saturday, July 18 when we got to Sioux Falls, SD though we got the last room in a Microtel because of a softball tournament and the Sioux Falls JazzFest. I would have stayed up to listen, but I was too tired. What is it about riding and driving, listening to and singing along with classic rock that can be so exhausting? Rhetorical question, of course.

On the road early on Sunday, July 19 as we headed to Mitchell, SD and the Corn Palace. Laugh if you will, but it was quite fun. Each year there is a new theme for the Corn Palace; this year is America's Destinations. It takes about 275,000 ears of corn to decorate the Corn Palace each year and I can only imagine how many hours to tear down the remnant of the prior year's theme and begin to build the new year's theme. Then we were off to Wall Drug in Wall, SD. Wall Drug is unabashedly a tourist attraction with 76,000 square feet of tsotchkes though there are some real products. I did manage to resist buying a cane with a hidden sword. I've noticed that's not an item that can be purchased through the Wall Drug web site.

We decided not to wander through the Badlands on the way out, so we arrived at Hisega Lodge around 5P MT or so. The lodge is a wonderful place with a delightful history. It's well off Hwy 44 on a road that winds back into the hills. There's a creek that burbles under the road and near the lodge which simply adds to its charm and that peaceful, easy feeling. Carol and Kenn Duncan are marvelous and charming people. She's a fabulous cook who will give you more food than you can possibly eat but you won't want to stop eating what she's given you. And the coffee is very good; hot and ready at 7A. Kenn is a teacher, runner, drummer, road biker with a deliciously quirky sense of humor. The staff--Sheila, MJ, and Carrie--are lovely, friendly women.

At breakfast on Monday, July 20, we ate with Ron Hagen, another guest who was leaving that day. Ron is the founder and CEO of The Hagen Group and was back in the area for his 50th high school reunion and he had some wonderful information and insight on what to see and do. So after we gorged ourselves on a fruit salad with yogurt, strawberry rhubarb cobbler, and an egg, chicken, and artichoke frittata, we waddled to gather our stuff so we could head out to explore.
We drove west and south to go to the Crazy Horse Memorial. It astonished me to learn the project started in 1946 with the selection of the location. The carving of this mountain is far from over! It's an extraordinary endeavor and well worth visiting as well as supporting. There is a museum and plenty of opportunity to get a sense of the history not only of the place, but Crazy Horse and his people as well as the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, and his dream for this tremendous carving. The white sculpted replica that gives you an up close idea of what the carving will look like whenever it's completed is a mere 1/34 of the actual size! After our visit at Crazy Horse, we went on into Custer State Park to take the wildlife loop from west to east. We saw antelope, elk, "wild" burros, prairie dogs, and buffalo. My favorite sign? "Do not approach any rattlesnakes." People have to be told that? Really?

Ron had told us to travel through Custer State Park and the wildlife loop from west to east so that we could take Iron Mountain Road from south to north heading up towards Keystone and Mount Rushmore. The reason is that there are tunnels along the road that are designed in such a way to give drivers great views of Mount Rushmore. The tunnels themselves are pretty cool, too. And then on to Mount Rushmore itself, which is truly impressive. There's a wonderful museum there along with the ubiquitous gift shop where you can get Mount Rushmore in varying sizes. We did the trek that allowed us to see the monument as closely as one might; there were some information signs along the route, but also a museum that offers more information about the project and the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum.

We decided to head north and west on Tuesday, July 21 to go to Devil's Tower. Devil’s Tower is a remarkable place and was America’s first monument. It was established as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. There are several theories about the how and why of Devil’s Tower, but that didn’t really matter to me. I was there to enjoy the view. There is a nice hike around the base of the Tower and then another hike, Joyner Ridge, from which this photo was taken. There were a few climbers on the east face of the Tower the day we were there, which was cool to watch but not something I’d ever want to try.

Wednesday was a biking day and opted to trek part of the George Mickelson Trail. We rented bikes with fat nubby tires and weird suspension. Definitely not road bikes, but probably not full-fledge mountain bikes. We left from Hill City and rode up to the Mystic Trailhead. It was a gorgeous day for a ride. We did about 30 miles as an out and back. The first 8 miles had been a gradual uphill with a 4% grade, but that meant the last 8 miles were a lovely gradual downhill. That night we had dinner at a place on 385 called the Sugar Shack. It’s a very casual place (Bikers Welcome!) with great burgers. By far one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.

Thursday was a hiking day. We tried to do a hike near the lodge. Carol walked with us to point out the beginning of the trail and she tried to explain where to find the fire trails to get to what she described as amazing views, but we couldn’t find the trail start so we opted to go to one of the several trailheads we’d seen and go from there. We’re clearly not expeditioners because we had trouble figuring out which way was north. But it worked out well because we found a nice place to take a break before we headed back. Then we went to the Pactola Reservoir and found a place to put our feet in the water. It was cold and really relaxing. That night we went into town for the Rapid City Summer Nights event; it was a local band playing so it was basically a street party with two-steeping and some incredible fiddle playin'. It was a lot of fun.

Friday meant it was time to head home, which we did reluctantly. Megan and Brandon were leaving that morning as well. They had arrived on Monday as newlyweds; the lodge was a wedding present from Brandon’s mom. I thought that was kind of awkward, but they seemed delighted to be there. They are a sweet, young couple and a real pleasure to hang out with.

We finally got in the car and on the road by about 10A MT, but decided to go a bit south out of Rapid City to drive through the Badlands. We missed the road that would have taken us more directly through the Badlands, but what we saw on a rather warm day was enough for me. I have a much better understanding of why it’s called the Badlands: hot, stark, desolate. We did a quick 20-minute loop that gave us a bit of a closer view (and again saw the “Do not approach rattlesnakes!”) sign and that was plenty. Besides, I've seen hoodoos in Bryce Canyon and lighting across the canyons near Canyon Reef in Utah. THAT was awesome.

We made it as far as Albert Lea, MN on Friday. Had a bit of trouble finding a hotel room because Albert Lea was hosting the Bus Roadeo. I am absolutely serious about that. This is, apparently, a pretty big deal and sponsored or supported by the American Public Transportation Association. Who knew?

It was a great trip. Truly relaxing and enjoyable. I was totally exhausted by the time I got home, but happy to be so.

Thursday, July 9

Reflection, contemplation

Today I learned that a very dear friend of mine may have only about 4 months to live. She has been battling an aggressive cancer for quite some time now, but managed to finish an award-winning dissertation in spite of it. We were hopeful that an earlier treatment would make a difference and she seemed to go into remission for a bit, but the cancer returned and certainly with a vengeance.

It's not just that Janet is only a few months older than I, it's just that Janet is such an incredibly remarkable person. She is so bright, so capable. She is incredibly quick-witted, funny. But she is also a remarkably insightful person. I think of how much she has to offer and wonder how it could be possible that she has such a dreadful prognosis. And like the hundreds if not thousands who know her, I pray for a miracle.

A mutual friend said that Janet is putting her affairs in order--giving things away, having her sister sell some things on eBay. She has packed her office at Eastern and has applied for disability. I can only imagine the pain her family is experiencing--her sister, her brother, her nieces and nephews.

I read on Facebook earlier today of a young girl whose parents were in a motorcycle accident. I sort of assumed they were riding the motorcycle and thought it was pretty cool her folks were tooling around that way. Her parents have broken bones and are in a lot of pain, but they are alive and, apparently, will recuperate reasonably well. This young woman was grateful to God, and rightly so, that her parents are all right. I could not help but wonder how she would have been feeling and what she would have been thinking if the prognosis for her parents was less positive.

People are confronted with tragedy every day and it is never unaccompanied. That tragedy always comes with some form of emotional or spiritual or psychological pain, perhaps all of those forms of pain.

While Janet seems to have accepted the fact that she is on her "final journey," and while I have suspected that to be the case for some months now, I cannot help but try to deny that, reject it as even a possible truth. Janet? She is too fun-loving, too well-loved! I never got to join her and her family "down the shore"! I want to be able to spend more time with her! I want to see what incredible things she is going to do with her doctorate! A lot of that is about me, which isn't unusual, because it's hard not to think about the gaping hole she'll leave behind even though we don't see each other often. I think that is because those who are being left behind struggle with a vast and torturous array of crashing and conflicting emotions.

I do not yet yield her to that silent spectre. I know that she is a Bible-believing evangelical Christian who believes she is going home; I have to pray that provides her with sufficient comfort, perhaps even hope, through her pain. Even still, selfishly, I'm not ready to let her go.

Yes, four months is a long time but we all know how quickly weeks fly by. Yes, a miracle is possible and I pray for an extraordinary miracle of healing and well-being, but I also know that God may choose to answer that prayer very differently from what I picture in my head and heart.

This sort of news, of course, puts a lot of things in perspective. So much of my life and my concerns seem trivial in the face of hers. I'm not inspired by her battle; I'm humbled by it. I'm not comforted by her stoicism or her rationale and pragmatic approach; I'm amazed by it. I want to examine all I know of her life and all I know of her living to learn from her for as long as I'm privileged to do so.

And let me say this: anyone who has heard Janet laugh, has been incredibly blessed.

Monday, July 6

The Gutenberg Elegies

In 1994, Sven Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Let me just say that Mr. Birkerts was not prescient. While he groused about the computer, he never could have imagined instant messaging, text messaging, Twitter, or Facebook.

It's important to note the Mr. Birkerts was concerned about the fate of "reading," not the fate of text. Early in his book he speaks of American Short Story class he taught to undergraduates during which he wanted to introduce the students to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and others. He was surprised that his students struggled with these writers and their styles. Birkerts did spend some time with his students discussing their apparent lack of interest or ability and observes that "they were not, with a few exceptions--readers--never had been" (p. 19). He learned they "occupied themselves with music, TV, and videos; that they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density" (p. 19), but the students also struggled with the language, the structure of the works, etc. From this and like observations, Birkerts believes that we are fated to be incapable of reading. I oversimply, of course, but that seems to be the general direction of his concerns.

Of course, he does not tell us how he framed the questions or how he moderated the conversation. And he does not seem to contemplate the possibility of using more contemporary American short stories to engage his students before moving on to some of the more classic short stories.

After spending an inordinate amount of time telling the story of his life so the reader has some sense of why he became a critic, he moves to the chapter dramatically titled "The Death of Literature." He does, however, differentiate between what we generally call "fiction" and once we deemed "Literature." He has a point. There was once a time that books were a form of art, that they played an important and significant role in examining society and history, generally doing so with a Purpose. Somewhere in the midst of the rise and evolution of literary criticism, academia appropriated Literature and became to formalize it, deconstruct it, and otherwise examine it through a host of critical lenses. Even books that people once enjoyed reading for the sake of reading became Literature and if the books didn't seem to contribute Something to Society, they were scarcely worth reading.

But authors, bless 'em, kept writing. Yes, there has been a transformation, but it's not as though the technology/TV generation ruined literature. There was romance long before Danielle Steele; there was pulp long before there was Danielle Steele.

Birkerts asserts that "[l]iterature--serious fiction and poetry and the discourse that has always accompanied them and helped make them a way of talking about important and difficult aspects of our universal experience. . ." (p. 191) seems to have slipped to the margins of public and even scholarly interest.

I suspect that Mr. Birkerts is a literary elitist and would argue that reading popular fiction doesn't count even though many of us who have taught literature have used so called "popular fiction" in our classes if for no other reason than it exposes students to a variety of works. I'm not sure how Birkerts would classify Morrison's The Bluest Eye or Potok's The Chosen or Allende's The House of the Spirits or Achebe's Things Fall Apart. But these are all books students read in literature classes along with some of the so-called classics.

Mr. Birkerts goes on to say that technology is

antithetical to inwardness. . . . inward experience, including all aesthetic experience, unfolds in one kind of time; electronic communications, of their very nature, depend upon--indeed create--another. The time of the self is deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it. To the degree that we immerse ourselves in a book. . . to that degree we surrender our awareness of the present as a coordinate on a grid (p. 193).
In one sense, Mr. Birkerts was prescient. In the chapter titled "Coda: The Faustian Pact," he states that he foresees the "wholesale wiring of America" (p. 215) and "ever more complex and efficient technological systems being interposed between the individual and the harsh constraints of nature" (p. 215). He believed, in 1994, that our face-to-face time would diminish and we would spend more time interacting with others via our computer screens. Birkerts quotes Mitchell Kapor's "Democracy and the New Information Highway", which was originally published in 1993 in the Boston Review. Kapor wrote about the expanding information highway that would make available movies, catalogs, magazines, newspapers, courses, and more through a few clicks "of a remote control" (p. 217). Kapor also states that "[t]wo-way video conferencing will revolutionize business meetings, visits to the doctor, and heart-to-heart talks" (p. 217). And this was long before Skype!

It is clear to me, however, that Birkerts is most concerned about time. He asserts that duration is "deep time, time experienced without the awareness of time passing" (p. 219). And believes that "[w]e have destroyed that duration. We have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings. We have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities" (p. 219).

Birkerts does speak some truths as he notes that we are expected to be able to multitask, but I think he overstates the demise of civilization when he suggests we have lost or are losing our sense of distance, that we cannot imagine traveling several miles to visit someone when we can do it instanteously over the wires.

It probably comes as no surprise that Mr. Birkerts finds the Kindle a complete anathema. I suppose that having found that the ensuing years have not proven him right about the demise of reading--the popularity of the Harry Potter series must have been a nasty shock--he had to find some other target to bemoan the disintegraton of the literary.

Dr. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College (IL) quotes Birkerts in a blog post. Apparently Birkerts was afraid that the Kindle will become a "one-stop outlet, a speedy and irrestibly efficient leveler of context" (¶ 4). Apparently Birkerts also gets a little miffed that someone uses a Blackberry to look up a word. Really?

Dr. Jacobs is not the only who thinks Birkerts was and is a little off the mark. You might also find entertaining the exchange between Wen Stephenson and Mr. Birkerts published in 1996. And then there is Edward Champion who begins his blog (2007) with this phrase: "The reputedly intelligent Sven Birkerts. . ."; it doesn't get much better after that. Mr. Champion's blog post is in response to Birkerts' 2007 article published in the Boston Globe. The title of the article? "Lost in the blogosphere: Why literary blogging won't save our literary culture."

Birkerts seems not to like the fluidity of the blogosphere and that one can lost in the labyrinth of links, though he does admit that to being immersed at depth. However, he also says:

The implicit immediacy and ephemerality of "post" and "update," the deeply embedded assumption of referentiality (linkage being part of the point of blogging), not to mention a new of-the-moment ethos among so many of the bloggers (especially the younger ones) favors a less formal, less linear, and essentially unedited mode of argument. While more traditional print-based standards are still in place on sites like Slate and the online offerings of numerous print magazines, many of the blogs venture a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of "I've been thinking . . ." approach. At some level it's the difference between amateur and professional. What we gain in independence and freshness we lose in authority and accountability.
I think it's that highlighted phrase that really bugs Mr. Birkerts. It's not the electronic medium; it's the fact that anyone and everyone can be a writer which also means that anyone and everyone can be a reader and that anyone and everyone can be a critic.

What we have seen is that reading has not died. Yes, how kids and adults read and what we read may have changed. I occasionally mourn how difficult it is to get kids to read more classic texts, but there are so many great books out there, the real difficulty is choosing which painfully small microcosm of books to choose for a 15-week semester. Perhaps the books I select for my students are not what Mr. Birkerts might call Literature, but there are some texts that the so-called experts have called Literature that just don't seem that good to me.

One more observation, though I could make several more. Birkerts worried about the collapse of the duration, but also of our view of the world--that perhaps we would be more constrained because of electronic communications. I cannot help but think of the work of Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis and the Flat Classroom Project. Or the work of Sharon Peters and Teachers Without Borders. Or so many others I've met only through electronic medium and yet with whom I know I have an affinity, perhaps even a relationship.

If anything, teachers are using Web 2.0 technologies not only to expand their students' educational horizons, but to expand their ways of thinking about learning, about reading, and about writing.

One of the absolute best kickers, though, is the NCTE National Gallery of Writing project. This is an incredibly ambitious project through which the NCTE hopes to get every single person in the world to contribute at least one piece of writing. With all of that writing, someone's got to be reading!

Read on!

Monday, June 15

Contemplating Patriotism

I don't really think of myself as a patriot in the way that many of those who serve this country do. But the definition of "patriot" is fairly broad and, therefore, forgiving. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, "patriot" means "one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests."

This is a big country and I've been privileged to see a lot of it. When I think of myself in the context of patriotism, I don't think of loving America, the physical country and its geography. While there is a whole bunch of it of which I'm extremely fond, there are parts I can do without.

But I love the general idea of the United States of America, our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the efforts of those who first came to this country and those who carved out the idea of these United States of America and those who worked and died to make these United States of America a reality.

I think about this every once in a while when I'm in a place where a diversity of cultures and languages are co-existing, even collaborating, when there are no divides based on race, creed, or anything else. I love seeing people really behaving as though skin color doesn't matter; when that happens, I'm proud of what this country represents and can represent.

Heaven knows we are not remotely close to perfect, though I fear there are a few too many in various positions of power and influence who seem to think so. But even the challenge of those discussions and arguments reinforce the powerful opportunity for speech we have in this country.

A lot of this came home to me yesterday for a few reasons. First, I was reviewing the what happened on June 14 in history and learned that in 1777, Congress adopted the Stars & Stripes as the national flag. And June 14, 1877 was the first Flag Day and marked the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the national flag. I thought about what had had to happen to get to June 14, 1777 to be able to select a national flag and then what had transpired in the intervening 100 years before my country marked its first official Flag Day.

Second, I was following the story of Iranian election. The story is even more compelling today as I read and heard about the thousands of young people who ignored that they had been forbidden to gather and that through word-of-mouth they are planning to gather and protest again tomorrow. The government has, apparently, shut down cell phone access as well as online access, but the word is spreading and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has asked for an investigation into possible voter fraud, even after he certified the election results with what seemed like exceptional response. I am awed by the energy and passion of the Iranian people. I loved the sign that read, "I want my vote back." If only we could find a way to counteract the electoral numbness in this country; if only we could find a way to help the American people feel as though their votes actually matter.

Third, I went to the grocery store. That in itself isn't a particularly patriotic event, though I'm often acutely aware that as I stand in a aisle complaining that my brand of something seems to have been discontinued that I have a ridiculous amount of choice. What did inexplicably reduce me to tears as I wandered some of the aisles was a group of family members collecting goods for members of a Marine Expeditionary Force. I was moved by the number of people in the store who were, like me, looking first at the list on a piece of paper and then checking the aisles and shelves to get what they had said could be shipped. I'd set aside one of my recyclable bags so I could fill it with sunscreen, cough drops, lip balm, wet wipes, yo yos (they wanted fun stuff, too), and a bunch of other stuff somehow feeling that this contribution was paltry.

I'm not a fan of the Iraq War. While I think we did a good thing in toppling Saddam Hussein, I think we did a bad thing in not being prepared for such a quick turn of events and for certainly not being prepared for the condition of the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. We seemed to make a lot of stupid and arrogant mistakes and have been paying for that hubris for the past 6 years. Even still, men and women are in Iraq for a reason and they are serving my country so that I can wander around a grocery story and buy whatever I want whenever I want. While there are an unconscionable number of people in this country who cannot do as I do, the fact is that there are opportunities and possibilities here that exist nowhere else and precisely because of those men and women who have served this country in a variety of ways.

And so, as I handed my stuff over to the young boy who said "Thank you" so politely, and as I nodded to the young woman who asked me if I wanted a "Support our Troops" bracelet because I was unable to speak and very grateful for my sunglasses, I thought about patriotism and what it means to me.

I vote, but I don't do much else to promote the interests of this country. I'm informed, I pay taxes, I support the USO, there's an American flag that always flies in the front of my house, and now I have a yellow "Support our Troops" bracelet. But I'm just a short step away from those who don't bother to vote. I'm too old to fight in the military and never would have pursued that option anyway for a number of reasons. I don't suppose there's a category for uncoordinated people who are accident-prone, but I'd have to be in that category. But there are things I can do to support my country's authority and its interests and it doesn't have to be big like run for office. Now I just have to identify what that thing might be and do it well.

Sunday, June 7

Lions for Lambs: If you don't STAND for something, you might FALL for anything

I finally saw Lions for Lambs. One of things I like about getting DVDs from the library or through Netflix is that I can watch some of the extra stuff on the DVD and I did enjoy watching the interviews with the actors.

I really enjoyed the film. It's a thoughtful, considered film that makes some wonderful points without hammering any its possible messages to the viewer. I appreciate the deft performances Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise. I loved that politicians and the media were taken to task for their parts in offering the people propaganda rather than news even though they call it "news." I loved that words were treated with care and there were subtle reminders that context and intent are important. I loved that Redford's character, Dr. Malley, saw one of his professorial roles as chiding the msmart and faux malcontent, challenging him to think bigger and beyond himself, and encouraging him to do more than sit on the sidelines and take potshots at those taking a chance by being in the game.

What I really, really loved, though, is the idea of skipping or changing the junior year. I don't think it could work for all students in all majors and the options might have to be broadened to allow different kinds of opportunities so that pre-med students are working with Doctors without Borders or in free clinics in urban areas, and that pre-law students are doing unpaid internships with overtaxed public defenders' offices or with some other agencies that try to provide legal services to underserved people, and that those inclined to social work are working with any of hundreds of social services agencies that are desperate for help but have no money, and that those inclined to go into criminal justice work with prisons or prisoner support programs or some other agency that, like the social services agencies, are desperate for help but have no money.

The State of California has been in the news for its staggering financial crisis. The State of Illinois has been in the news because its politicians remained focused on being heroic rather than honest; perhaps they should watch Lions for Lambs and realize we are weary of propaganda and empty political rhetoric. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn believes the only way to take care of the budget crisis is to raise the income tax. I've heard 50% and 67% as the amount of the increase, and, like Schwarzenegger, Quinn says there will be dire consequences even if the government makes big cuts and still doesn't raise taxes.

What Quinn and his colleagues don't seem to understand is that people in Cook County especially do NOT trust politicians. At all. This is true of Mayor Daley and Cook County President Todd Stroger. There is absolutely no such thing as transparency in any way shape or form in Illinois politics and I just have to wonder if they truly believe we will continue to swallow the hogwash they insist on offering.

But I also have to make note of the so-called editorial expose efforts of the Chicago Tribune, especially the political commentators. Can I trust their motives any more than I can trust the politicians who are seemingly more concerned with re-election than actually serving the public?

So my thanks to Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise for making such a fine and thoughtful film. Kudos to Matthew Michalel Carnahan for writing this screenplay. If I taught political science in college or related courses in high school, I'd make sure this film was part of the curriculum.

A few final thoughts. I loved the ending of the film. I loved that it was open-ended, that the young man well-played by Andrew Garfield was sitting, watching TV, as though thoughtfully chewing his lip and contemplating his situation and quite probably his future. I loved that it left the viewer with no concrete answers in the hopes, I suspect, of challenging viewers to think about what they stand for and, perhaps most importantly, why.

Printer's Row Book Fair

The Chicago Tribune Printer's Row Lit Fest/Book Fair was this weekend. I went yesterday with a friend of mine. As we prepared to cross the street to the start of the tents and displays, I looked around at those who also waited to cross the street and at the others who were already passing the sawhorses that demarcated the entrance. I asked my friend what she thought might be the median age of the attendees. She answered immediately: "37." I agreed with her.

We arrived around 1P on an overcast and coolish day, immediately plunging into the throng. We soon decided to pass by the first few stalls because everyone seemed to have stopped at them. Soon we settled into a sort of rhythm as we bent our heads to look at book spines, bumped into others as intent as we on the lines and shelves of books.

I did buy a few book there because, well, $7 for a $14 paperback is a good deal and while I could check it out of the library, I'd forget it was something I was interested in and that would be one more title on one more list. I mean, my Netflix queue list is ridiculously long, so I bought them. Never mind that the stacks of books around my house are ridiculous.

But I noticed a couple of things. First, people were generally very polite, apologizing for bumping to each other and making way for egress and entrance in the crowded stalls.

Second, my friend and I were wrong about the median age. There were a LOT of young people at the book fest. Of course, the lit fest/book fair is scheduled after most colleges and universities are out so most of those were college students. There is a tremendous draw because there are big name authors present for presentations and book signings. But I was pleasantly surprised to see so many kids at the book fest. I felt reassured that reading is not completely passe and mused that perhaps we have been too quick to begin to mourn the death of the books.

Wednesday, April 1

Gentle April Fool's Prank. . . sort of

A couple of weeks ago someone on my team distributed this letter of resignation cake picture. I thought it was kind of funny; there was a lot of commentary about the young man's shoes. I responded to the group that if anyone was thinking of giving me a letter of resignation cake, they had better make sure the cake was chocolate.

So what happened today? I was writing on my whiteboard in my office which meant that my back was mostly to the door. I heard one of my project managers as she walked in, turned to see the team crowding into my office and they were holding


I'm sure my face registered shock as they chortled as they shouted "April Fool's!!". Well, at least the cake was chocolate. And quite yummy I might add.

Sunday, March 29

Random Thoughts on a Snowy Spring Day

It's March 29 and we got about 4" of snow. Not much compared to other parts of the country, but it is funny to look out and see heavy wet snow bending the branches of trees. My friend talked about sprinkling grass seed on top of the snow, but the robins and other birds might think it is feed meant for them. Still, I appreciate the idea of trying to seed and water at the same time.

Today's Frazz comic strip made me laugh out loud. March weather in like a lion, but out like a lab. . . as in golden lab or labrador retriever. Anyone who knows or has owned a lab knows what that's like: wanting to be in, wanting to be out, wanting to be in, wanting to be out.

March Madness is all about basketball? I think not. March Madness. Ides of March (that became significant only because of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar). Snow in March. March is mad as in "crazy" (erratic, askew) or maybe even "madcap" (capricious, reckless, foolish). It's a transition from winter to spring. It is the month during which most of Lent is observed: the 40-day Christian observation of prayer and fasting prior to Easter. And St. Patrick's Day.

Treehouses. There was an article in the March 9 Chicago Tribune about the danger of treehouses. Apparently about 2,800 children are injured because of accidents linked to treehouses; of course those injuries range from bruises to broken bones and there is no breakdown on the statistics. Shoot. If bruises are part of national injury surveys, then I need to wear a helmet and body armor wherever I go. Those door facings are always jumping out to body check me! And what is up with those coffee tables repositioning themselves to try to tackle me at shin level.

I don't mean to minimize the possible injuries that are associated with children at play. . . in treehouses, swing sets, playgrounds in general, forts made of giant boxes, etc. And I did appreciate that the author of the article, James Janega, was not being strident or suggesting an anti-treehouse movement. There are some practical suggestions about the height of the treehouse and potential reasonable safety measures parents can take. And I loved this sentence: "And then just accept the idea of risk."

That's a great motto for life: Just accept the idea of risk. For all of the risk management parents may take to safeguard their children for any possibility in life, there will always be something else. And it's good for kids to learn how to handle the consequences of risk.

When I was a kid (I think I was in 2nd or 3rd grade) there were some houses being built in the neighborhood. There is something very compelling about the interior frame of a house. We felt the need, of course, to climb the framing. And then we discovered a ladder to the roof of the house. The temptation was too great. I'm not sure we thought about it for more than a few milliseconds before climbing up that ladder. There we were on the roof! We could see for miles! Well, okay, a few houses in each direction, but that was pretty amazing for us. We sat up there for quite a while. Then it was time for each of us to go home for supper. But someone had moved the ladder. Uh-oh. We raced around the edges of the roof looking for it, but it was GONE.

We were far enough away from anyone's house that we couldn't shout for help and then we remembered we weren't supposed to be climbing in the houses anyway. Each of us had some dulled and distant recollection of being told to stay away from, out of, something about the houses being built. None of us could remember that admonishment exactly, but we were pretty sure that if we got caught, we were likely to be in trouble.

But we had no choice but to jump. It was a one-story house, but suddenly the distance to the ground looked really, really far. I distinctly remember thinking that my mother would kill me if I broke my leg. But you know how many times we'd jumped off the swings after making them go as high as we could? Lots. Or jumped out of a tree because that was easier than trying to climb back down? A bunch. Somehow this seemed more daring and more dangerous.

One of the boys went first. Dropped and rolled. Grinned broadly. Didn't get hurt. Another boy went next. Landed a little awkwardly. Might have sprained his ankle, but that was nothing new for any of us. I went next. Managed to drop and roll like the first boy. Got a few bruises and a scrape from some gravel. Not a big deal. The last two kids jumped at the same time. One of the girls landed on a hidden branch and got poked; drew a little blood. The other was fine. We were relieved and exhilirated. We jumped off the roof of a house! We didn't get hurt! It worked out to be a good consequence of accepting risk though every one of us knew it could have turned out much differently. Lesson learned? Maybe. I've never forgotten the experience though.

Friday, March 6

Part of the problem or part of the solution?

I have a piece of paper on my bulletin board on which I've carefully typed the words: "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem."

As I've looked at it recently, I've reflected on the times I've been part of the problem and those during which I've tried to be part of the solution. Over the past few weeks, I fear the balance has been more in favor of being part of the problem rather than solution. So then I found myself wondering why that may be.

The company I work for has been going through some organizational changes, some of which have not made me happy for reasons that really aren't important and that really aren't very good. At the end of the day, I still have a job (so far). I'm luckier than many. So my recent problem-oriented behavior suggests that I've mostly been petty, which is unusual for me. That's not to say I can't be petty because I can be, but I tend to try to keep that thinking in my head rather than act on it.

What I've had the disquieting opportunity to see is the ripple effect of my pettiness and how it smacks of that junior high behavior I so often disdain, but also how it can be hurtful to people with whom I have to continue to work.

As I have witnessed or experienced the error of my ways, I've been able to redirect with those people I've hurt or offended. That process is not particularly pleasant, but it is restorative. Perhaps those individuals will, over time, forget my clumsy behavior. I think I need to behave as though they have, but keep in mind that perhaps they have not.

Like many, it's easy for me to focus on the negative of any situation, though I've become more adept at processing the information, learning from it, and moving on. I used to anguish over the negative comments in my course evaluations. Now I read them, consider the negative comments in balance with the positive ones, consider the context and weigh the likely motivation of the student(s) to determine if there is something I can do the next time, and move on.

In some meetings with some people now, I am often acutely aware of a little voice in my head reminding me of my more negative behavior and even more aware of how that voice influences how I behave in the meeting and how I respond to some questions or comments. I don't always know if that is me still attempting to do penance or if that is me trying to be part of the solution.

I really do prefer to be part of the solution. Not only is there less mental self-flagellation, but it's a more positive effort in general that can genuinely help others feel good about themselves and their work.

I suppose I could get a tiny balance and drop something in one tray each time I'm part of the problem and drop something in the other tray each time I'm part of the solution, but I think it's dangerous to keep score like that, at least for me. And I think I know when I've been naughty or nice; something in my psyche seems to be aware of that behavioral and attitudinal imbalance.

Just now I seem to be working more on the solution side. I'm hoping I can continue that streak for a while. It's just a much pleasanter perspective on my work world and a much nicer view of my colleagues.

Here's to being a useful and collaborative part of the solution.

Sunday, March 1

The Art of Writing

I confess that I have not read any of the Twilight book by Stephanie Meyer and I'm not sure that I will. My stack of books I really want to read grows higher and higher, so I'm being selective.

Ms. Meyer moved a little lower on my list after the recent smackdown by Stephen King, an author who has produced quite a number of books, though I think I've read only a couple by him. Mark Flanagan reported on Stephen King calling out Stephanie Meyer as did The Guardian, but quite likely because King seems to admire the writing abilities of one J.K. Rowling. The blogosphere rumbled a bit with the Meyer loyalists lining up to call King petty and jealous, which I found quite amusing, and suggesting King can't write very well either. So very junior high, but then the audience for which Meyer writes is of the pre-teen/teen demographic.

There was another Meyer smackdown by someone who posted to a blog. The writer basically said that Meyer fans shouldn't get too excited because Meyer writes books for teens that are written at a 5th grade level. I'd heard that before and I'm not surprised, but I'll follow-up on the reading level crisis in my other blog. But I also read that Meyer has stopped work on her current manuscript because someone leaked a draft to the 'net; that seems a little pouty to me, but perhaps she's feeling wounded because Stephen King essentially called her a hack. A fairly successful hack, of course, given that her book was made into a movie and the movie seemed to do well and kids can't seem to get enough of her books.

I was thinking about that as I settled into English Creek by Ivan Doig. I love the work of Ivan Doig. Every once in a while I just have to stop and re-read a sentence, sometimes read it out loud to really hear how it sounds and get a clearer sense of the images in the words. I recently found one such paragraph is in English Creek and one such sentence is the last one in the paragraph. Enjoy.
My brother and my father. I am hard put to know how to describe them as they seemed to me then, in that time when I was looking up at them from fourteen years of age. How to lay each onto paper, for a map is never the country itself, only some ink suggesting the way to get there (p. 30).

Monday, February 23

Someone's in the kitchen with Michelle Obama

As I was cruising through stories and pictures about the Oscars (I confess I watched mainly to see Hugh Jackman sing and dance), I happened to see a link for a story about Michelle Obama inviting culinary students to the White House. Had to go check it out. You can read the story, but the video is so much more interesting.

What I really like about this story is that it reinforces Mrs. Obama's efforts to emphasize the importance of family. I also like the fact that she reinforces the role of the White House. Most of all, though, I love the fact that she gives a shout out to the White House kitchen staff. We know there are lots of people working all the time for a variety of events--some public, some diplomatic, some private. So what was very, very cool was the fact that she gave those culinary students an opportunity to learn about internships at the White House. Now that is a serious cooking gig.

There has been some chatter about Michelle Obama and how she will fill the role of First Lady. Comparisons to Jackie Kennedy started early; references to Hillary Clinton as First Lady and her very public non-traditional stance have also abounded. I think in Michelle Obama we see a very intriguing mix of the mom who wants to focus on her family and the woman as professional.

I have a weird sort of digression here. I have a crush on Meryl Streep. It's a non-sexual crush; I just think she's an incredible talent and would love to meet her. I'm sure I'm not alone. I was looking up some information on her in www.imdb.com and discovered some other web sites and then found there are a bunch of interview clips on YouTube. I shouldn't be surprised, but I've been watching the interviews she did when promoting Mamma Mia!, a movie I loved.

So what does Meryl Streep have to do with Michelle Obama? Ms. Streep has done an incredible job of separating her professional life from her family life. She has made her children a priority. We know little about them because she has made a point to insure their privacy and some element of normalcy for them. And yet she has this legendary career as a remarkably gifted actress. Her professional life is in the spotlight. Her private life is not.

I think that Michelle Obama will do much the same to the extent that she is able. She lives in the White House, which is meant to be the people's house. And yet, there are family quarters which are private.

I have a lot of respect for parents who wish to protect their children, who wish to try to give them something akin to "normal," whatever that may be, but who certainly want to try to raise their children out of the very public eye. Michelle Obama's professional life as First Lady is very much in the spotlight. Perhaps she will be able to manage to keep her private, family life somewhat private and public only when she chooses it to be.