Wednesday, November 3

To American Politicians: Do NOT Misread the American Public

This morning I heard a few post-election celebration speeches. I heard phrases like "the American people have spoken" and "this is a clear win for the ________ party" and "we now have a clear mandate." No, no, and no.

In some places, politicians seem to believe that their win indicates something specific about what the voters want. And yet, if any politicians have been paying attention to the media even a little bit, they'll know that far too many voters were exercising their right to throw out the incumbent just because. It's not because the other candidate is any better because often that's not the case. But the other candidate was not the person in office, so maybe, just maybe there could be actual change.

But then I heard a politician who managed to retain his office talking about the battle not being over and how he pledged to continue to fight and, with a very clear jab at the Republicans, he stated how the best way to govern was not through endless filibusters.

On the radio this morning I heard the government described as "divisive," though perhaps, given the context, she meant "divided." But "divisive" works because the Republicans don't seem to be in any mood to play nicely. In fact, they seem determined to thwart anything and everything the Democrats may try to do.

And how does that help the American people? Oh wait, I know. . .it doesn't!!

An AP report states that the American people are trying to tell the government to "slow down." President Obama, who has had an incredibly ambitious plan for his first term, said:
"I think people started looking at all this, and it felt as if government was getting much more intrusive into people's lives than they were accustomed to," the diminished president conceded. He took responsibility for not doing enough to alter the ways of the capital, from hyper-partisanship to back-room dealing. "We were in such a hurry to get things done that we didn't change how things were done."
This from the man who claimed he would work hard to change the way things worked, or not, in Washington.

We know the country is divided. We heard that throughout this campaign with the hateful language, the attack ads, the name-calling, the finger-pointing, and more. But we also heard responses from the American people that made me wonder how any politician could possibly imagine a way to appease anyone. We know the sticking points: health care, jobs, debt, jobs, taxes, jobs.

This can't be about ideology: I'm right and you're wrong. This has to be, I think, about finding common ground to provide the best possible solution for the majority of the American people. Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." But my favorite Lincoln quote that I would love to share with politicians is this one: "I am a firm believer in the American people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crises. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

Let's just forget about who the American voter might be punishing or rebuking and who we might be celebrating or embracing. Let's just acknowledge that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have all of the answers. Let's acknowledge there is room in this great country for the Greens, the Libertarians, the Independents, and yes, the Tea Partiers. But let us remember that the federal government is "we the people" and we the people really can be depended upon to meet national crises.

So if given the opportunity to address politicians, I would say this: "Just tell us truth, no matter how ugly or painful. Just give us the real facts. Only then can we begin to trust you, only then can we begin to have any confidence in you and your willingness to do what's best for the country rather than worrying about your re-election or your legacy. Only then can we begin to make good decisions to support you or to let you know what is really working for us or what is not working for us. Keep in mind we don't all have to agree and we won't. But don't fill us with false hope by pretending to promise quick changes because we may need to reminded that some things just take time. As much as it seems not to be part of a politician's DNA, be honest. Try it; you just might find that Lincoln was right to believe in the American people."

Tuesday, November 2

America on Election Day

This morning
It was barely light as people pulled up to the polling place. Strangers nodded, acknowledging each other's presence, but not quite making eye contact. There was an aura of sobriety, perhaps because people were pondering difficult choices. "Do I vote a straight party ticket?" "Am I voting against an incumbent or for a viable candidate?"

The poll workers were cordial, helpful, friendly. They were, of course, at the start of what would be a very long day. People spoke in hushed voices. There was some conversation between neighbors, people who knew each other. A man asked after another man' family. They shared a quiet laugh. For the most part, people entered the polling place quietly, cast their votes, put on their "I Voted" sticker, and exited quietly.

Before today
The Chicago Tribune published a challenge in its editorial on Saturday. The editorial challenge began on the front page and above the banner. It begins this way:

When you swore you'd fix Illinois. . .

. . . you had Tuesday in mind. Let your fury rise and your blood pressure build: George Ryan. Rod Blagojevich. Job creation 48th in the U.S. Public education spending 18th, but public education performance 38th. Clouted university admissions at your kid's expense. Corruption galore. Diluted ethics reforms that protect party bosses. FBI agents and federal prosecutors struggling to police public officials because voters haven't.

So keep your word. Fix Illinois. Fire incumbents who blocked reforms. Stop. Their. Spending. Elect problem solvers.

I'm not sure the good folks of the Tribune will get what they want, but the article got my attention and made me think though, perhaps, not for the reasons the editorial team hoped or expected. Tonight I was thinking about pictures I saw after the election in Afghanistan. Two men struggling along a mountainous path carrying a large locked box; a man with a weapon trailing behind them. He was, I assume, the guard. To protect the integrity of the voting? Unless he was paid off to make sure the votes didn't to their destination. Or he was protecting the corrupted votes. Of course, a single "guard" could easily be overpowered by more than one person with a weapon.

And then I started thinking about the steps Americans have taken to protect the vote, the quality of the voting, the integrity of the votes after only a few but dramatically shocking, even scandalous, voting improprieties. Though Illinoisans joke about people voting early and often, whether dead or alive, it was clear at my polling place that those judges took their responsiblities seriously and the appreciated their task to protect my vote. My. Single. Vote. Pretty cool.

As I watch the election results, I'm not entirely surprised by what I see so far. Christine O'Donnell defeated in Maryland, though I am shocked she got 40% of the vote. As of this moment, Republicans will take the House which means that Nancy Pelosi will not longer be Speaker. The commentators have observed that John Boehner will beome Speaker of the House and that, unlike Pelosi or Gingrich, Boehner is unlikely to grandstand or celebrate excessively. Both Pelosi and Gingrich brought loud and dramatic attention to their ascendancy and that of their party which caused their party counterparts to get, well, miffed. Smug gloating and over-the-top celebration doesn't do much to build a sense of rapport or camarderie. If they had been football players, they would have been penalized for taunting and/or excessive celebration.

In Illinois, Pat Quinn (D) and the incumbent candidate for governor has a slight edge as does Alexi Giannoulias (D), who is running for the Illinois Senate. In fact, most of the races in Illinois are close. But most the incumbents remain in office. I have to wonder how they will few the election results when all is said and done. Will they see that their 6% lead is NOT a mandate? Will they understand that a close race means that people remain divided and, perhaps, voted not for the "best" candidate but the one they thought might do the least harm?

No matter what the result, I'm certain I'll be left with a vague uneasiness because of the political diviseness. Pundits talk about the ungliness of this campaign. There have been stories about how campaigns have been funded. This country came together in unprecedented ways after 9/11, but that same event has caused some of the worst of the hateful rhetoric and the deepest divisions. (As an aside: wouldn't it be nice if negative attack ads could be classified as "hate speech?"). The Wall Street/banking/housing debacles contributed to the venom, backstabbing, and more hateful, unproductive rhetoric. Rather than joining forces to solve the problem, politicians started slinging accusations and assigning blame to the other party, one or more prior presidents, etc.

So my fear is that it will take another attack on America, something hugely tragic, to get our attention again and remind us how to work together and that we need to work together. That while there is room for a difference of opinion, and that while conversation and negotiation and collaboration and even disagreement can be complex and even difficult, those tensions, in which people might agree to disagree, might give rise to solutions one group or another might not possibly discover on their own.

My fear is that because of grand-standing, finger-pointing, and name-calling we have missed opportunities to be truly visionary and innovative; we have missed opportunities for improvement as we have dragged each other into the morass of dissension and counterproductive conflicts.

Tomorrow morning the make-up of the US House of Representatives will be different as will that of the US Senate, though perhaps not as dramatically. I can only hope that those politicians will remember the anger of the American people and will try their best to work together. I can only hope.

Tuesday, October 26

Attitude conditioning?

I was looking through my email quickly and saw something from Groupon. "Attitude conditioning? That can't be right," I thought. And it wasn't. The ad was for altitude conditioning, which makes so much more sense. But there was still something intriguing to me about the notion of conditioning one's attitude.

I have a colleague who likes to say that the only thing we can control is our attitudes. I believe there are a few more things, but many of the other things are related to one's attitude. Years and years ago I remember talking with someone about choosing to be happy. She scoffed at the idea, preferring to burrow a little deeper into her discontent. Okay, so "happy" was a bit of a stretch, so we talked about choosing to be something other than spiteful, vengeful, discontent, disgruntled, etc.

We've all heard that bromide: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Those of not inclined towards perkiness nor towards optimism have a few other ideas of what one might do with those lemons, but that is, of course, a matter of choice.

The phrase "attitude adjustment" has been around for decades and we all know that's basically an adult time-out, a period of time to step away from the madness or chaos or whatever it is, do a primal yell or adopt a yoga pose or take a deep breath and find one's mello or center or whatever. The idea is to step away, however, and adjust one's attitude, or choose a different way to respond to whatever the situation may be.

But that's still different from conditioning one's attitude and I really like that idea. So with altitude condition, an individual goes through a series of planned stages to prepare for a change in altitude. Someone from a low altitude environment who wants to compete in a high altitude, for example, has to acclimatize. That means a slow ascent to the target altitude, appropriate hydration, gradually increasing activity once at the target altitude. It's like any kind of conditioning: it cannot happen overnight, it has to be done in stages, and it has to be well-planned. If I were to go through a physical conditioning program, I'd have to work my way up to a target number of reps or a target amount of weight to lift, etc. I can't go from being a couch potato to running a marathon without appropriate training and conditioning.

While I might choose to go through that kind of conditioning, I'd do so because I had a particular goal in mind. And I'd know ahead of time that my conditioning plan might represent a lot of time and hard work. Is that the same with attitude conditioning? I don't know. I suppose it depends on where one is and where one needs or wants to go.

I'm blessed to be in a work situation and one that I really like, but I've been in a work situation that required a pep talk every morning so I could get out of bed. That was a sort of attitude conditioning, I think. There are always people with whom we have difficulty working. Prepping (or bracing) ourselves to work with that individual is a form of attitude conditioning, I think, and conditioning that gets easier each time we choose to work well with an individual who otherwise seems difficult.

So I think that conditioning one's attitude is a matter of choice and each day we choose to exercise our attitudes in a particular way, the easier it should get. Just like any kind of conditioning.

Monday, October 25

Thinking about elections

Early voting has started in the US. The report is that the Democrats are off to a good start so far. Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University, asserts that while the numbers are good, they aren't as good as in 2008. He also notes he would have expected to see more Republicans voting early if there is what he calls a "pure enthusiasm gap."

That's all well and good, I suppose, but I also wonder if there remains a voter antipathy for pretty much anyone on the stump. I saw a great editorial cartoon the other day with the Democrats jackass, er, donkey on one side and the Republican Dumbo, er, elephant standing at their respective podiums, pointing at each other and shouting "I'm not him." We have far too many politicians telling me what a horrible, unethical, untrustworthy, and miserable scoundrel their opponents are but no one, NO ONE is willing to say with any absolute certainty what they will do. Of course they won't. Who is that certain? And if they say what they really think might work rather than what they won't do, they probably figure they haven't a snowball's chance in Florida in July of getting elected.

But I think they mostly say nothing about what they'll do once in office because they haven't a clue.

I don't usually watch 60 Minutes, but I watched a bit of it on Sunday, October 24 while waiting for football to start and for The Amazing Race, which follows. Anyway, the bit I watched was a report on the employment situation. Boomers who had been unemployed for about two years. Boomers with college degrees, many with Master's degrees, and a few with doctorates. Most had expected to retire from their companies.

What the 60 Minutes staff assert is that the real unemployment rate is not below 10% but is actually closer to 17.5%, and that the unemployment rate in California is 22%. The reason the real unemployment rate might be scandalously higher than the federal government reports is because the fed doesn't report the people who are no longer on unemployment for a number of reasons.

If this number is true, then I'm even angrier that the primary focus of the Obama Administration seemed to have been health care reform which seems to be causing gradual increases in the cost of health care for me. But I'll set that aside because I'm grateful to have health insurance at all. But what I really want to know is what the politicians and the banks and the big employers are going to do about jobs.

I keep hearing that manufacturing jobs lost to overseas are gone forever. What were those morons thinking when they outsourced all those jobs to companies overseas? Who the heck did they think were going to buy their goods and services? The people overseas? I'm just so irritated that anyone thought that was a good long-term business model.

As for this election, I'm reluctant to vote for anyone. In my state, Illinois, my choices for governor are Pat Quinn and Bill Brady. Lesser of two evils. I look at the rest of the slate and I'm not at all encouraged by anything I hear from anyone.

In April of this year, a town in Wisconsin elected a 22-year-old as mayor. There was a story earlier this month that a 20-year-old girl was elected police chief of Guadalupe. An in August, a 20-year-old was elected as the youngest MP in Australia. Maybe there is some value in electing kids who are barely old enough to have graduated from college. They have fewer preconceived ideas of what "ought" to be. They are not yet dragged about their noses or their balls (thanks to Rush Limbaugh's "balls to the wall" comment in September about getting Christine O'Donnell elected) by corporate, political, party, or other influences. They may not be "wise" enough to make long-term decisions, but I have to think that many of them can't be much worse than those made by so-called career politicians.

So why hasn't there been a throng of people rushing to early election? Seriously? Have you seen our options?

Monday, October 18

A brief reflection: Oct 18, 2010

I celebrated a birthday today. It's interesting to me how a birthday is a sort of special "new year" event for the individual. People wish the birthday celebrant well and hope for a good year much like we tend to wish each other at the start of a calendar year.

With a birthday we mark the end of a year of life and the beginning of another year of life so it is, in many ways, a "new year." So I've been thinking about resolutions, which I rarely make for the calendar new year and which seem hardly worth making for a birthday new year. Nevertheless, it's hard not to think about how this year might be different from that last. How I might behave differently, which habits I might try to break and which I might try to instill. At this point, I have no clue.

But I was also thinking about the well wishes and how gratifying it is for people to remember one's birthday. Though others might share that day, it's still special in that people make a particular point of wishing one a "Happy Birthday." For those of us on Facebook, it's quite encouraging to see a long list of wall posts with birthday good wishes. I didn't have a Sally Fields "You like me! You really like me!" moment--well, maybe a small one--but I did feel incredibly fortunate, incredibly blessed.

A random odd thought. I was reading something about a comedian; I want to see it was Larry the Cable Guy, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he was talking about overhearing his son whispering to their baby and was fairly sure he heard "I love Jesus, Reagan. Do you love Jesus?" He then went on to say that he realized his son was saying "I love Cheez-Its." That made me laugh out loud for four reasons: 1) I'd just see the "Cheesus" episode of Glee, which seemed a little odd and disjointed in spots, and yet thought-provoking; 2) a friend of mine just had a baby and named her Reagan; 3) I love Cheez-Its; and 4) I love Jesus, though I'm fairly certain I manage not to confuse the two.

So at the end of this birthday day, I've not really done a lot of self-reflection about this birthday and this new year of life. This is I do know, however. First, I'm incredibly grateful to have another year of life. Second, I feel incredibly blessed to have so many friends and colleagues and acquaintances who seem to care for me quite genuinely. Third, I'm honored to be able to be a part of these peoples' lives and if I resolve anything, I resolve to be more generous to and for those people who mean so much to me.

Sunday, September 19

Not quite politics as usual

I just read an article in which Bill Clinton asserts people should listen to the tea party. I thought I needed to clean my contacts or something because that just didn’t seem right. In an interview, Clinton said, "I think there are a lot of real people in this tea party movement who are saying something that everyone should hear, which is [that] it seems like everyone but average Americans are doing all right here." He went on to say that while banks and those who helped cause the financial crisis seem to have recovered, average Americans are still struggling to pay their mortgages, to put their kids through college, etc.

I've done a little reading about the tea party. I'm a lot confused by who they are and what they stand for. Like some other moderate Republicans, undoubtedly I'd be considered a RINO by the tea party folks, I'm not a fan of Glenn Beck. I'm confused by Sarah Palin and her intentions. While I appreciate the anger and frustration towards the existing government and I think the pig-headed obstinacy of the Republicans not to try to work with the Democrats at all on any level for any initiative, even one they might agree with, is ridiculously foolhardy and short-sighted. I think the Republican establishment had better wake up and realize that it's mostly "old" as in "outdated" and it's been a long time since it was "grand."

I've said before I don't know what the Republicans really stand for any more, but then I don't know what the Democrats stand for any more other than really big government and apparently thinking that most Americans are too stupid to take care of themselves or even understand how government works. To be fair, though, the Republicans often seem to think the same and, truth be told, most Americans don't know how government works.

So from that perspective I find myself somewhat aligned with the thinking of the tea party, that whole "throw all of the bums out!" sensibility. But I also have a high respect for institutional knowledge. Not institutional corruption, of course. And not the high-handed self-aggrandizement that seems to be necessary in DC. Nor the sense that there are ways things have to be done because that's the way it works in DC.

Today's political situation reminds me of three movies, though there are plenty of films with applicable messages. The first is The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) with Alan Alda and Meryl Streep. Alda plays a liberal senator who has to compromise his values to make some deals that will further his career, and probably help him get re-elected. The second is Wag the Dog (1997) which shows spin doctoring at its worst as a Hollywood producer manufactures a war and manipulates the media. And the third is The Candidate (1962) with Robert Redford who plays an idealistic young lawyer who runs for Senate with no intention of winning, because he despises the compromises and necessity of deal-making, but wants to bring important issues to the voters. When it begins to look as though he might win, he begins to wrestle with his ambition and his conscience. It is, however, the story of a man who realizes he has sold out for something he isn't sure he even wants.

What does this have to do with the tea party? Nothing really. My point is that nothing about politics is "as usual" these days and I think that's a good thing. What I would love to see is everyone taking a giant step back to assess and re-assess what they stand for and what they really believe in. Theoretically, even politicians believe in public service to some extent, though it's absurdly hard to tell these days.

I think the Republicans have been lost for a while now and just about everything they say and do seems to be a knee-jerk reaction in opposition of anything a Democrat says or does. What would be really cool is if the Republicans would stop thinking about the Democrats and how many seats they have and just think about what it really means to be a Republican and what it really should mean to be a Republican and what it can mean to be a Republican when looking at the breadth of interpretations within the party.

That might be what grown-ups would do.

Maybe expecting that kind of behavior and thinking from politicians of any party persuasion is asking too much.

Friday, September 10

Contemplating September 11

A particular pastor of a small, no-longer-obscure church in Gainesville, FL got way too much press for threatening to burn one or more copies of the Koran. It was an interesting irony to me that the name of this church is the Dove World Outreach. Methinks something is very much amiss.

Think about this for just a few minutes: the dove is often a symbol of peace; I'm fairly certain the world includes Muslim countries; and "outreach" suggests a different sort of conversation with those who are not of the same faith or mindset. In fact, even in some of the weirdest so-called Christian denominations (and there are many), "outreach" means reaching out someone to try to find a common ground and probably engage in some or a lot of proselytizing. The word usually does not mean threaten to deface or destroy something of representative value.

As an aside, the Dove World Outreach Center has been taking more than a little heat. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the web hosting company pulled down the DWOC web site for violation of the acceptable use policy.

And then there were stories last night and today about how Mr. Jones agreed to postpone the burning of the Koran provided Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf agrees to find another location for the Cordoba House, a community center and mosque that is proposed to be built within blocks of New York’s Ground Zero. An imam in Florida claims to have brokered a meeting with Mr. Jones and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Get real. Well, if the media is willing to give disgraced former Blagojevich way too much air time and print space, why not this individual from Gainesville? I'm not sure, though, if the media truly thinks this is news or if the so-called news has become some perplexing form of reality show-like infomation. I'm not sure that I can take any news outlet seriously any more about anything.

Meanwhile, back in the extremist so-called Christian world, a church in Kansas has announced that it will take over the Koran-burning task. It wearies me.

September 11, 2001 will not easily be forgotten by the American people though we are clearly at risk of demonizing the wrong people and of twisting our collective memory into something truly horrible and irresponsible. Was September 11, 2001 a tragedy of epic proportion in this country? Absolutely. A friend of mine is a NY firefighter. He was not on duty that day but answered the call to help with whatever rescue operations were possible; his house lost family that day. I have other connections to those who were in Manhattan or who were on planes, though none of the tragedy was directly mine. Still, even at my distance, the pain, anguish, and horror were palpable. I remember listening to the radio on my way to work that morning in shocked disbelief and not being able to get to a television fast enough to try to make sense of the senseless. I am still jarred by those images, and I am still sickened by the way the way too many generalize the behavior and intentions and actions of those who caused all of that death and destruction.

This is what I think I know. The people responsible for the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center were not like any of the Muslims I know, all of whom are kind, funny, smart, delightful people. The people responsible for the September 11 attach were and are extremists who have debased Islam into a perversion of itself. They were people who selected particular verses and concepts from the Koran to serve their own twisted vision not only of Americans, but of their own purpose and their own religion.

Not unlike, it seems, Mr. Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center or that like-minded church in Kansas.

I find the convergence around these dates fascinating. Beginning at sunset on Wednesday, September 8, Jews celebrated Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish New Year, which marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance and culminates with the fast of Yom Kippur. Many Muslims this morning began the three-day celebration of Eid-il-Fitr, which marks the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan. And some representatives of Christianity, many of whom no doubt like to quote John 3:16 and speak of the God of love, spew hate.

President Obama has called for religious tolerance. I might go a different route. On September 11, let's call a religious truce. Let us lay down our rhetoric, our heightened emotions, our hateful signs. Let us take the day to pause in thinking we have the right or even the obligation to hurl epithets or hurtful or hateful statements at someone who is not like us, regardless of who or what we might be or in whom or in what we might believe. So rather than tolerance, a big ol' religious timeout and time of reflection.

And to those who claim to be Christians, especially evangelical Christians, let's spend some time contemplating Galatians 2:20--"For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (NIV, Galatians 2:19-22) and Matthew 22: 37-40--"Jesus replied: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.'" (NIV).

From my probably skewed view of the world, it can be very hard to love God with this entirety of being. And believers know that because humanity is created in the image of God, believers are to love themselves, to respect themselves, to honor themselves with humility. It probably wouldn't hurt to mediate for some time on Romans 6 through 8; actually the whole book of Romans.

But it probably wouldn't hurt to spend some contemplating what brought Islamic extremists to their incomprehensible hatred of America, a hatred so great they willingly, perhaps even joyfully, perform inconceivable acts of violence in the name of religious martyrdom.

Monday, August 2

A crisis in creativity?

The cover story in the July 19 issue of Newsweek was titled "The Creativity Crisis." I read the first few paragraphs and immediately decided that if there is in fact a crisis in creativity we can blame the Internet, television, and texting though I suppose we should throw in video games for good measure. I thought a little more--having read no further, by the way--and decided we should also blame the lack of time kids spend outdoors or indoors pretending and making up their own games.

I remember when the swing set in my backyard was a fort or a community of treehouses (probably after I'd read Swiss Family Robinson) or part of a 3-ring circus or just an obstacle course. I remember making up games with my friends and all of us contributing to the rules and changing the rules when we were losing or it was no longer fun, or just changing the game entirely. I remember hanging out reading comic books and then making up re-enactments of some of the comic book stories, if we could, and then just going off on our own tangents. (Having houses being built in the neighborhood helped some of those games, by the way. They were one-story homes--I grew up in Florida--and we could often get in and play around in the frames. I'm sure the builders loved that.) So I was somewhat convinced that because I was somewhat forced to be imaginative at play, I'm somewhat more creative today. And yes, the qualifiers are deliberate because, compared to many of my colleagues, I don't think I'm that creative. Okay, so back to the article.

I read a bit more of the article and I must say that I vacillated in my response: agreed, disagreed, bellowed that something was preposterous, thoughtfully admitted there could be some merit to an idea, and so on and so on (and scooby dooby doo-bee).

I kept thinking about kids I've been around and worked with. I remember a kid a friend of mine adopted. She'd been in foster care and group homes from a young age and at the age of 9 seemed incapable of imagination. I remember saying "Let's pretend. . ." to her and getting a completely blank response from her. She had no clue how to pretend. But I worked with and taught other kids who absolutely amazed me with their creativity, with how they see things and see the world. And then I re-read the article, slowly and carefully.

And yes, the research and studies are interesting. I'm not crazy about some sort of test for creativity, and I disagreed that someone who chose not to incorporate a specific figure in a specific (pre-conceived?) way was less creative than others. Why was there specific criteria for incorporating a figure in a drawing to demonstrate creativity? Call me crazy, but aren't exacting rules for how something "ought" to be done antithetical to creativity?

To me, one of the important lines in the article in this one: "They lost interest because they stopped asking questions." The context is this: "Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. . . By middle school they've pretty much stopped asking. It's no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet."

So we want kids to be lifelong learners. What do learners do? Ask questions. Maybe they don't articulate specific questions, but what drives learners to learn is an unanswered question, that inevitably leads to other unanswered questions. What drives learners are the "what if?" moments of life. What drives learners are the moments of recognition that perhaps, just perhaps what they've just read or just heard or just seen is not quite all there is and maybe there is more to know or hear or see or do or be.

I was formulating my thinking on this idea of creativity, who is creative, and what encourages or promotes creativity when I read "Building a Better Playground" in the August 9 issue of TIME. Playgrounds today, as you probably know, are insurance litigation nightmares, or so we might be led to believe. No more jungle gyms--a kid could fall off and get hurt; no more of those carousel things that you had to hang onto while someone else pushed the thing around as fast as it could go and if you held on and leaned over backwards you could get really, really dizzy. I'm surprised they still have swings because you know kids can try to jump off those things when they swing really high. Okay, the article subtitle is: "Swings and slides don't foster much creativity. Why cities are joining the loose-parts revolution." Sigh, and balderdash. Swings and slides don't foster much creativity because kids aren't encourage to pretend or make-believe that inanimate objects, like a swingset, can be a house on stilts and the ground below is really water filled with stuff that could eat you. . . until you fell and then the ground was a dense underbrush or a desert or whatever we wanted it to be. (See above about changing rules; applies to pretending, too.)

According to this article, parents and kids are dissatisfied with swings and slides only playgrounds. No, duh. So someone has created foam blocks that kids can play with so kids can. . . wait for it. . ."make anything children can think of--a car, a river, a fort, a flower--and are deliberately big so kids will be more likely to assist each other with them" (p. 46) -- or fight over them or whatever, but let's not quibble. So it costs roughly $6K for the Imagination Playground blocks and then there might be additional expense of "play associates" who are "tasked with making sure kids use the equipment safely and, with any luck, keeping helicopter parents from hovering too close" at a rate of about $15 per hour. Play associates?

So remember when I mentioned reading comic books and Swiss Family Robinson and how my friends' play and mine seemed to stem, in some part, from some imaginative recreation of what we'd read and then just working with what we had and going from there? We didn't have "play associates" but our parents weren't helicopter parents either.

I don't think we have a crisis of creativity. I think we have a paralysis of allowing kids, encouraging kids to play, to ask ridiculous questions and then courage them to try to figure out an answer to that ridiculous question. I think we are too quick to shut down the ridiculous because it is ridiculous instead of exploring where the question came from and where it could go, which might not be at all ridiculous. I think we have so structured every nanosecond of a kid's life that he doesn't have to time wonder and wonder and dreams are the stuff of creativity. And one of the saddest things to me is that we seem to think that being silly is silly and a waste of time. When grown-up stop celebrating silliness and wonder and the occasionally ridiculous question, we stop celebrating and encouraging creativity.

Saturday, July 31

Today's word: Infrastructure

I read an article in today's paper about some of the road systems that need to be upgraded or renovated and about areas that are desperate for expanded or new roads. And then I saw an article about bridges needing to be fixed and realized the number of articles I've seen recently in which people have referred to our transportation infrastructure.

And that reminded me of a presentation by Karen Cator, the Director of the Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education. In her presentation, she remarked on the importance of a technology infrastructure and how difficult it will be to accomplish most of the rest to the educational technology plan without the infrastructure.

We all understand, I hope, the importance of an infrastructure as it is a foundation or framework, as it represents necessary resources. In other words, an infrastructure is a non-negotiable. In other words, without an infrastructure or a solid infrastructure or an infrastructure in good and dependable condition, bad things can happen. I find myself thinking about Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

I learned the value of a good public transportation system when I lived and worked in places without one. I've learned the value of a good road rebuilding and maintenance program from living in the northeast and the midwest, experiencing potholes and that jaw-rattling, spine-jarring washboard road damage that inevitably comes with spring.

The Chicagoland area has had a number of road programs delayed because of a strike. The ripple effect of that damage is probably calculable, but not by me. What I know is this: the car repair people are likely to be happiest because they may continue to get business because the roads aren't fixed. In the mean time, those who supply materials for road building and repair aren't quite so happy and neither are the workers idled by the strike unless they really support the strike. And there's a limited period of time for working on roads in the Chicagoland area which means that the roads not fixed and those not built before winter will not be fixed or built until next spring, if we're lucky. And the compounded damage to the bad roads will only make the repairs that much more expensive and the potential danger to the drivers that much worse.

As I think about the strike and what it costs everyone, I think about the social and cultural infrastructure that is influenced, supported, and impacted by a strike or by any other organizational or individual activity (or inactivity). I think about how repairs will be more expensive and how the lack of repairs will make conditions that much worse. Which makes me think about local issues, such as a home for women in danger of closing because of lack of funding, and national issues, such as immigration reform. Which makes me think that the problems with our roads and transportation infrastructure is but a microcosm of the national infrastructure problem we have.

We have, many of us, become so consumed by or focused on a particular problem that we are unable or unwilling to see the affect that problem has elsewhere. I know it can be dangerous to use a biblical reference, but here goes. 1 Corinthians 12:14-26 speaks of the importance of the relationships of the parts of the body. The passage is metaphorical, but it works in thinking about a national infrastructure because the 1 Corinthians 12:26 reads, "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it."

I don't think we can consider the cracks and fissures in our transportation system without realizing they can, in large and small ways, contribute to cracks and fissures in our cultural and social infrastructures. And I do think that if something goes well in one system, it can have a positive influence or effect on another.

What's my point? Good question. While I understand people focusing on issues about which they are passionate: immigration reform, gun control, welfare reform, etc., I think it is imperative that people watch out for possible unintended consequences when messing around with infrastructures. What seems like reform or improvement for one infrastructure system may serve to create a crack in another.

Sunday, July 11

After the vacation

So I've returned from vacation. It's Sunday afternoon. I'm in the office. I'd unpacked and done some laundry before I left the house. I'll stop at the grocery store on the way home.

I did manage to keep up with some of the email, but there's always so much going on. Documents that need to be reviewed, presentations to be prepared or reviewed, meetings to be scheduled or rescheduled. The demands of my job are no different from those of anyone else in a similar situation or position. And because I'll be out of the office for business stuff much of next week, I feel compelled to be in the office to catch up. Some may call that "work ethic;" I suspect, as I've noted before, there's a little guilt mixed in there as well. On the other hand, it's quiet and I'm uninterrupted, so I've gotten a lot done and so feel less tension about tomorrow morning.

I can head home soon and perhaps do something a bit relaxing because re-entry from vacation can be a little bit disorienting and, in it's own way, exhausting.

I did finally finish The Private Patient. I was pretty sure I knew "whodunit" and I was right. This one didn't tie up quite as I would have liked, but it's a good vacation novel. I'd started The Hunger Games series before I'd left on vacation and started the 2nd in the series a night or two before I came home from vacation. I stayed up way too late last night to finish it. The books remind me of "The Lottery" with elements of The Giver and some other books with a dash of the influence of the Roman Empire tossed in. Like a whole bunch of adolescent readers, I'm eagerly awaiting the release of the 3rd in the series on August 24.

I never did get to that bag of books I'd hauled up with me. Ah well, just so much to read and know and so little time.

Speaking of which, I should say something about the vacation itself. My friend and I went to Tofte, MN which is quite a ways up on Lake Superior. I liked being in Tofte though a bit closer to Grand Marais would have been good.

We arrived on Saturday, July 3. Found a place for a late dinner and managed to get some milk and stuff for breakfast. We had a leisurely Sunday morning and then moseyed up to Grand Marais. It's a nice little touristy town that reminded me a bit of Mackinaw, MI but also Depoe Bay, OR. Maybe it was the fudge shop. ;)

Did some hiking on Monday, about 4.5 miles and had some great views of Lake Superior. I kept expecting to see a fin break the surface, but no such thing happens in the greatest of the Great Lakes. Tuesday was a 20+-mile mountain biking jaunt that included outracing hordes of biting flies which, by the way, are not a bit dissuaded by substantial amounts of Off! DeepWoods. All in all, though, it was a good ride. Wednesday was more hiking, and this time in the Cascade River State Park. We did about 6 miles that day with quite a bit of up and down, but some really nice trails. Thursday was kayaking day. We did about 6 miles mostly open water kayaking in Lake Superior. The folks at Sawtooth Outfitters were absolutely wonderful. Friday was a shorter biking day; we did about 18 miles including a stint on Devil Track Lake Road, which was quite stunning. It was a wonderfully physically exhausting week!

As for food, we found the Cook County Whole Foods Coop and IGA in Grand Marais, so were able to stock up on water as well as just stuff we needed for PB sandwiches and the occasional "at home" meal.

You'll want to avoid Bluefin Bay Grille, at least don't get the fish there. The walleye was undercooked and dreadfully seasoned; the salmon was overcooked. Too late we realized that most others were getting burgers or sandwiches, so that might be safer fare.

You will most definitely want to go to The Angry Trout. Outstanding food. Great service. Delightful ambience. And check out the interior architecture. There are no nails--everything is pegged or fitted with incredible craftsmanship. And the food is really, really good.

The Coho Cafe was nice--good food, reasonable price, good service. But you'll definitely want to go to The Pie Place. The menu looks good, but we went only for pie. Good stuff!

Yep, it was a good trip. A lot we didn't get to see or do, and would definitely be a place to which I'd return.

Tuesday, July 6

On Vacations

I'm on vacation and yet for the past 3 hours I've been working. Yes, I'm something of a workaholic although I've reduced that addiction a bit as I've gotten older. It just seems that with certain rank comes not only privilege, but responsibility so sometimes work just has to be done. Of course, being more connected doesn't help because with connectivity possibilities comes a certain expectation, methinks, from a variety of people. Then there's guilt, but that may be my own personal predilection.

I'd like to blame the Internet, but that's not really fair because I've been working on vacations even when I've not had Internet access. Right now I'm in a location with erratic cell phone service, but I can get to the Internet from a variety of locations, so I'm accessible and have access.

I used to think that schlepping a bagful of articles and books, all related somehow to my work, wasn't really work but a sort of professional development. But that's really kind of work. Just for the record, I've not yet touched that bag of stuff that I really do want to read because I'm trying to finish the P.D. James novel I started (The Private Patient) but after a day of hiking or biking, I'm just a bit too weary to read more than a few pages.

e-entry after vacation is hard enough as it is. I already make sure I have a buffer day between return and work, and not just so I can go to the grocery store and get laundry done. But it's that transition time from a different pace and energy.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I like working or checking in with work while on vacation. Then I've got a fairly clear picture of what's going on while I'm gone, I don't have to worry about brush fires erupting into difficult conflagrations, and I'm not dizzied by the sheer onslaught of emails if I manage to keep them in check.

And so, back to my regularly scheduled vacation.

Sunday, April 25

Rejecting the RNC, sort of

I'm just going to say this: Michael Steele is a danger to the RNC, but, to be fair, no more dangerous than a host of other Republicans. What prompted this recent round of exasperation (and a return to blogging) is the most recent RNC survey, which is, I'd wager, a fascinating study for those who try to build surveys to gather actual unbiased information. . . if those truly exist.

I've marked up the thing and will return it though I know it will be rejected because I've written all over it. But I've decided to share some of my answers.

Question 1: Do you support the Obama Administration's efforts to eliminate further testing and deployment of an intercontintental defense system? I marked "undecided" because I don't know enough about it and would have to do some research on the position and its implications. But I applaud the RNC for a great first question that is clearly designed to stir up some emotion and attitude.

Question 2: Should Republications fight congressional Democrats' efforts to grant full unconditional amnesty to illegal immigrants? Wow. Well done. This questions draw several lines of demarcation and inflames all kinds of passions in one fell swoop, but it also overlooks a whole host of factors. Any self-respecting Republican running for office these days is bound to keep quiet on this issue if there is the remotest possibility of supporting such an amnesty program, which may or may not be so incredibly all-encompassing as suggested by this question. My answer? "No," and not just to be contrary, though mostly to be contrary.

Question 3: Do you agree with Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi's efforts to impose massive tax hikes on the American people? And this is where I started hyperventilating. Really? I mean, they left out "Hussein" on this. And "massive" tax hikes?

Question 4: Do you believe that the federal government should maintain a permanent ownership stake in large auto companies? This question frightened me a little because it makes sense. And no, I don't want to own any auto companies.

I feel compelled at this point to remind people the American citizens are the federal government. Those people in the Congress work for us--and do need to be reminded of that. Anyone in government--let me repeat that, anyone in government--is paid by our taxes. Their health care--two-thirds paid for by the federal government (that's you and me) and one-third paid by the employee (that could still be you and me because our taxes pay them) and their salaries and their federally-funded travel and anything else that is federally-funded is paid for by our taxes.

Question 5: Do you support giving foreign terrorists full judicial privileges and rights that are granted to U.S. citizens? Oy. This is such a loaded question. Do I want foreign citizens who are guilty until proven innocent able to have their day in court? Yes. Do I want foreign citizens accused of military crimes tried in civilian courts? No. Do I think military tribunals are fair? I have no idea because I don't know anything about the laws that govern a military tribunal, but I do know that war is unpredictable and dangerous. And I do know that we further muddy the waters by expecting our soldiers who are placed in hostile territory and in battle to behave the same way they would in a civil and non-military situation. It is ludicrous to expect that non-combatants won't get hurt in war. It is absurd to think that in the time of a battle an individual is going to think or react beyond surviving, beyond instinctively behaving as they've been trained. There will be no "Excuse me, sir, I just need to make sure you're not a bad guy before I shoot you because this situation is a little uncertain to me and I think you might be a bad guy but I really don't want all the bad press I'll get at home if you turn out not to be a bad guy." Like he'd get past the first syllable if it really is a bad guy. But it's not that simple. It's never that simple.

Question 7 (Yes, I skipped the one about supporting drillng for fossil fuels off U.S. coasts because my answer is "no." Bad timing for the survey given the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico this week): Do you support the Democrats' efforts to create a massive new federal government bureacracy that would be run by unionized government employees and would have complete control of your healthcare costs and choices? This is the question that put me over the edge and it was at this point I started shouting at the survey. This is the point at which the RNC took off the gloves and just started getting mean and, I dare say, a little desperate.

How stupid does the RNC think people really are? My fear is that people are stupid enough to fall for this hyperbole because this question hits a lot of hot spots for many Republicans, including myself. And yes, I'm still a Republican, sort of.

I don't believe in big government. I am not a fan of unions. I do believe in fiscal conversativism though I don't always practice it myself. But I also believe that as human being we have some responsibility to help those in need, but to help them get back on their feet so they can stand on their own. So when I got to this question, I just threw down my pen in disgust. Seriously? This is how we're going to go into the midterm elections? This is how we're going to attempt to have any conversation? We're not going to try to be the grown-ups and attempt any reasonable conversation?

After this question, I started marking "yes," "no," AND "undecided" because I don't have enough information and some of these questions are not simple binaries. Should we normalize relations with Cuba? I don't know. What does that mean? What are the pros and cons? Can the RNC give me an objective answer with the pros and the cons and some reasonable argument one way or the other?

Do I believe Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress have the best interests of you, your family, and your community in mind? Well, actually, I think they do. I think they are in many ways misguided and I think Nancy Pelosi is arrogant and condescending and represents far too many politicians of both political persuasions who think the majority of the American people are too ignorant to take care of themselves. Which is absurdly ironic on so many levels.

One of my favorite questions is this one: Do you agree that President Obama and Democrats in Congress seem more concerned about passing their liberal pet-programs than creating jobs and getting the economy going? This, my dear RNC, is a very dangerous question. This is very much a situation of the pot calling the kettle black. Shall we review the Republicans' efforts to pad bills with their own entitlements? Shall we look at Republican attempts for earmarks, for pork? Shall we look at Republican efforts to attach potentially unpassable bills to those that are more likely to pass? Do not get self-righteous. That is a very, very dangerous game to play and will come back to bite you. Hard.

Here's another favorite question: Do you believe that this nation's Founding Fathers intended for the federal government to micro-manage state and local functions such as healthcare, child care, and unemployment assistance? Seriously? You asked this question? With a straight face? Get a grip, RNC. Your hysteria is running you amok. First, our Founding Fathers likely never imagined such programs as health care and unemployment. Ben Franklin was raised in a time when there were still apprentices. There was a far greater sense of independence in the Founding Fathers, I think, and a far greater belief that human beings were capable of reason, of rational thought, of balanced discourse. They lived, after all, in the Age of Enlightenment. I think this nation's Founding Fathers would be appalled by both the Democrats and the Republicans and wonder how the heck we managed to get everything so very wrong.

The last question of the survey is a doozy: Do you feel that total Democrat control of both chambers of Congress and the Presidency will make our nation more prosperous, safe and free? Talk about another loaded question. Let's ask the inverse: Would total control by the Republicans be any better? Nope. Basically total control by either party is a bad idea and would make our Founding Fathers roll over in their respective graves. Would a Congress of men and women who are willing to work together for the good of the country and the good of the people make our country better? Hard to know, but I think men and women who work together and respect any others' opinions and who are willing to compromise toward the good of the country will make our country far better than it is now. I think that politicians who think they know better than anyone else; who demonstrate the hard, ugly side of intolerance; who have let their sense of power go to their heads--and that's on the federal, state, and local levels (I'm talking to you, Michael Madigan)--are dangerous.

I think both Democrats and Republicans have reached new levels of low. I think:
  • both political camps and all of their spin-offs are too often deliberately misleading, attempting to the damn their "enemies" without offering any actual solutions;
  • the media doesn't help but creates even more ridiculous drama by failing to be objective;
  • think the American people are overwhelmed by the multitude of channels from which they can get so-called information and are no longer able to differentiate fact from opinion;
  • all of the political talk is mostly white noise any more;
  • the RNC remains in danger of being reactive, divisive, and unproductively chasing the wrong things and generally behaving like a bunch of junior high kids (and I mean no offense to junior high kids); and
  • the general purpose of the survey was to indulge in hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric for all of the wrong reasons.

What we are witnessing in Congress right now is an after-school fight. The political parties have adopted gang mentalities and the American people are the innocent bystanders who are going to get caught in the crossfire of this ugly and unproductive battle of the egos.

I wish I knew of a good way to mitigate this, but I'm not sure how electing anyone else is going to solve the problem unless we manage to elect some reasonable grown-ups who are not motivated by one-upmanship or by a false sense of power. Until the people in Congress and in legislatives roles at all levels remember they are public servants, we will remain a desperate, dying democracy gasping for air.

Saturday, January 2

A Compendium

'Tis the season for reflection, resolution, and football. I've enjoyed some of the "best of" and "worst of" lists for the 1st decade of this century and I think there's some value to limiting one's recollections to a sort of top ten list. Mine for 2009? My job with my former employer slowly slipped into some weird organizational abyss and I was fortunate enough to make a move elsewhere. I stopped teaching at Wheaton and started teaching at Trinity. Good for me and, I hope, good for Trinity. Other than that the year was filled with ups and downs mostly meaningful to me. Resolutions? Get a tattoo, go to 5 Guys in Deer Park, write some letters by hand, try to keep up with my readings and my blogs.

DOT legislation will ground planes. Nice job.
Steve Chapman wrote a commentary about the airlines and travelers. We want to fly inexpensively, but apparently we still want amenities. I gave up looking for amenities a long time ago; I’m just hoping seatbelts on the plane or the seat don’t start to fall into that category. You may laugh, but I’ve been on a commercial flight elsewhere where seats being bolted to the floor seemed optional and seat belts were more cosmetic than useful. It could happen here. But the point of Chapman’s piece was the recent DOT regulation about planes on the tarmac and the so-called passenger bill of rights. So now airlines cannot keep planes on the runway for more than two hours without furnishing food and water or risk extraordinary fines.

The response? Anyone who has flown commercial airlines over the past few years knows that, without a doubt, more flights will be canceled. Too bad those nincompoops in the DOT are so poorly informed.

Chapman points out that planes stuck on the tarmac for an extended period of time get a LOT of media attention. Of course they do. It’s dramatic to talk about people stuck in a confined tube for an extended period of time. And incidents like the one in Mesaba, Minnesota contribute to such media attention. But, as Chapman notes, there are only 1,500 flights stranded on the runway for more than three hours. Keep in mind that over 9 million flights depart airports each year. That’s 9,000,000,000 flights. Chapman asserts the new regulation targets a situation that “occurs once for every 6,200 flights.”

So I’m irritated by this new invasion of the government that seems to believe no organization can run anything as well as it can. Please. Check the budget again, if you don’t mind. Double-check those last few bills you passed and see how many earmarks managed to pile on. What’s absolutely nauseating, however, is the attitude of the Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, quoted in the Mesaba, Minnestoa story, by the way, who seems to believe that airlines and all of the air traffic control people are not capable of managing timetables and flights.

Chapman writes: "The DOT rule flows from two presumptions common in Washington: 1) that private businesses have insufficient motivation to satisfy their patrons; and 2) that government regulators are capable of making better operational decisions than the people whose livelihoods are at stake."

As with Harry Reid’s Senate and the so-called health care reform, I think it’s possible to say that just because a task was completed does not mean it was done well.

Book review
I’ve recently read the first three books of the 5-book Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I see the 4th is out in paperback, so a trip to my local bookstore is imminent. I’ve enjoyed these books by Rick Riordan. The premise is that the Greek gods are still alive and petty; that half-bloods are the children of an affair between a god and a mortal; that Kronos, the King of Titans, is being reconstituted and gathering his evil forces to overthrow the Olympians and regain his place.

Riordan does not assume his readers, especially his targeted readers, are familiar with the Greek gods or the epic battle between the Titans and the Olympians. He portrays them without any pedantic overtures, so these books could be used to supplement study of Greek mythology.

There are a few things that intrigue me about these books. First, Riordan’s portrayal of the gods and the way he intersects with well-known stories, such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Second, just as the Greeks may have used the gods to explain the unexplainable, the people in his stories use the gods and the battles between them to explain the unexplainable, although the Mist the gods use to manipulate what mortals can and cannot see is a nice device to dissemble why we mere mortals cannot see the mythic monsters in our midst. Probably just as well. The ones we can see are scary enough.

Anyway, the last thing that intrigues me isn’t really about these books but how J.K. Rowling has influenced, and some may say ruined, the way we read such plots. Percy is an adolescent whose powers and parentage have been hidden from him. He just knows weird things happen and have been happening more often as he gets older. Percy isn’t always too quick on the uptake; he’s fiercely loyal to his friends (this, we are told, is his fatal flaw as a hero); he’s a bit impetuous and doesn’t always listen well. His sidekicks are Annabeth and Grover, a satyr who is willing and loyal but not always so very brave, though, like another male sidekick we know, he has his shining moments. Annabeth is the daughter of Athena, goddess of wisdom (among other things) and, interestingly, the companion of heroes and goddess of heroic endeavors. You might want to re-read or skim Athena’s role in The Odyssey. And, of course, Annabeth is level-headed and smart. So it makes sense that Annabeth would accompany Percy on his quests. The Kronos plot line reminds me of a certain notoriously evil character who had been badly damaged by his enemies and dependent on his minions to make him whole again and help him regain his evil bad self and strength. And, like the eerie connected relationship between Voldemort and Harry Potter, Kronos and Percy have a weird mind meld thing going on.

So even though the series reminds me of Harry Potter and his quests, Percy Jackson and his quests are fun stories with mythic creatures and monsters and epic battles. And no small smattering of Greek mythology along the way. Percy Jackson and the Olympians, then, unlike the Harry Potter books, can offer some legitimate educational benefit. And if you don’t care about learning about the Greek gods and monsters, they’re a pretty fun read.