Sunday, December 30

Reflections on 2012

I know there are a lot of folks who do a Christmas or holiday letter about this time of year.  It’s a sort of highlight reel of one’s life.  I like to read them.  I like to know what’s going on in my friends’ lives.  We don’t write letters any more.  We post on Facebook so there are short bursts of information, or whatever we choose to post: pictures, pithy sayings, commentary, etc.

In fact, I just read something on Facebook about not being able to look forward if we insist on looking back. I agree and disagree with that. We can’t dwell in the past, but we have to learn from it. That’s what reflection is all about. I can’t change other people. I can’t change circumstances. But I can change me.

Everyone in media, or so it seems, is producing some sort of "Best of" highlight for 2012. The pictures, the books, the movies, the news stories, and more that moved us most in 2012. The names of luminaries who died in 2012. The tragic moments held forever in a snapshot, literally and figuratively.

2012 was somewhat tumultuous for me, but no more so or less so than for others. My significant moments were my significant moments. Some of those moments were shared by others who experienced them and remember them differently. As I think back on 2012, I know there are things I would do differently. . . because I know more now and see things differently now.

So as I think back on 2012, nothing in particular leaps out at me as a particularly timeless moment, but perhaps my memory is faulty. I recall the joy and exhilaration of riding in the open cockpit of a biplane. And the pure joy of just being out riding a bike. Moments of personal triumph for a project done well. Moments of reflection when the last page of a really good book is turned. Afterglow of an enjoyable and fun time with a friend. All in all, with all of its highs and lows, 2012 was a pretty good year for me.

I generally don't make resolutions. I think they are a waste of time because we can make resolutions whenever we want, but I completely get the symbolism of making resolutions with a new year. So I have three resolutions that do not start nor stop with a calendar year.  First, I want to be a nicer person.  Second, I want to give more thoughtfully. Sure, I'd like to lose weight and exercise more and I know some of those things will make me feel better about me. But I also know myself well enough to know that even though I aspire to being a recluse who writes brilliant works of fiction and non-fiction alike, I'm truly and profoundly grateful for being able to give to others, whether it is my time, my money, my expertise. Third, I want to enjoy moments as they occur. I don't want to be so busy that I miss moments. The last will be the hardest because, as I look at my calendar and see how busy I will be once I go back to work officially in the new year, moments will quickly blur.

Even if I don't remember all of the moments of 2013, this time next year I want to be able to know that at least I enjoyed them as they occurred and that somehow, even if in small ways, they made a difference in who I am and how I see the world.

Sunday, December 23

Giving the gift of giving

Looking for that last-minute gift for the person who has everything? or won't give you a list? or is just hard to buy for? Check out DonorsChoose.org, a classroom-focused charity to which a friend, Jules Burke, introduced me.

There are bunches of similar charities: Kiva.org, heifer.org, and more. But what I like about DonorsChoose, in spite of Oprah Winfrey being in on the endorsement action, is that classroom teachers are identifying specific materials and resources for specific reasons for their kids. I've supported music, math, and science projects. Just recently I supported a teacher who wanted to buy chess games for his students because of the many things they can learn through playing chess, and not just chess. One of the reasons I like giving certificates for DonorsChoose is that the individual can choose the project to support and reap the benefits of that grateful teacher and those delighted kids.

So if you're stuck this year, find a way to give a gift that allows that difficult-to-buy-for person to pay it forward in a meaningful way. And if you really want to make a difference that goes on and on and on and on, support a teacher who is seeking to find ways to teach her students to love learning, who is working to keep his students in school.

One of those kids in one of those classrooms may be the one who discovers or invents or does something astonishing.

Or one of those kids may stay in school because of what you enabled a teacher to do.

And that is no small thing.

Saturday, December 22

Moving My Cheese

I started Friday morning in the culvert. It was about 14F and the wind had blown the garbage can into the culvert. So before the garbage truck came, I put on some clothes I didn't mind getting slimed and pulled on my rain boots and went to haul the garbage can, which was handle side down in the muck) from the culvert, which I did and shoved the thing to the side of the road.You can be sure I was especially grateful for hot water and soap.

Later that day I had a conversation with my boss. I work for a fairly small company that is growing, burgeoning, quite nearly exploding. We are doing good stuff and it is a challenge to keep up because rapid growth often means making changes to keep up with that growth. No one can get too comfortable with any organizational structure or with any organizational process because we are constantly adapting.

For a period of time I had consulted for a company and we had daylong strategic planning meetings every month, and then we had executive something-or-another meetings every week. We spent a lot of time in meetings, which was good in some ways, but often it seemed as though we didn't move. We planned. We discussed the plan. We reviewed the plan. We reviewed decisions made because of the plan.

I spent a few minutes today reading I Moved Your Cheese by Deepak Malhotra. It's been on my pile of things to read. Once I picked it up, I realized it would take about an hour to read. If you've read Who Moved My Cheese? you'll know that book was meant to be a motivational work to help you understand how to manage change, which is inevitable. Mr. Malhotra came along to tell us that we are not mice and we do not exist in a maze.

The older, wiser mouse points out that the younger mouse, by escaping the maze, "refused to accept the assumptions, the rules, and the constraints that others had accepted" (p. 65).  The older, wiser mouse explained that most mice defined themselves in reference to the maze.

The point?  Perhaps the inevitable is not inevitable.  Perhaps what we take for granted shouldn't be taken for granted.

My Friday morning did not start well, and certainly not as I had planned. As I walked down the driveway, I thought about all of the things that could go wrong and how I might manage those. I hadn't counted on being able to brace against the culvert pipe which made my task a bit easier, though no less smelly.

At the end of the day, my cheese had been moved. A few times. I think about the folks who spend so much time talking about strategic plans and working according to expectations and trying to follow whatever rules they think are in place. That is their maze. I think about my current situation in which there seems to be no plan, and sometimes there isn't any actual plan.

At the end of any day my cheese is moved, and probably several times because so few things go as expected, because there is an unexpected problem or situation or phone call or something. Over the years I've learned to ask questions or to try to understand some of the changes I've experienced, but also to try to recognize those that simply are.

I suppose the bottom line is this. It is the rare day that everything goes as planned. It is the rare event that is executed absolutely flawlessly. Sometimes in the midst of an unpleasant or difficult task there is one small thing that can make the difference, an unexpected change in circumstance. There is change we can manage, to which we may need to adapt, and about which we may be able to gain some understanding or perspective; there is change we must simply accept. We can become blind to our circumstances, allowing them to define us and accepting any limitations as immutable. Or, we can refuse to accept assumptions or conventional wisdom and we can refuse to be limited by constraints everyone else has accepted. We can, as a colleague of mine has said, work out of the box and off of the page. Now that's moving some cheese.

Monday, December 17

Hey! Intrigued by the Duck Commander

Just recently I wrote about reality shows.  Over the weekend I was introduced to Duck Dynasty. I kid you not. On A&E. Self-professed rednecks from Louisiana who have become multimillionaires by selling duck calls. . .and assorted paraphernalia related to the show.

Duck Commander is a family-owned business. There is sibling rivalry, conflict between generations, and some actual hunting. It would not be my first choice for any kind of television watching, but I was fascinated. And not just because each episode ends with the entire family around a big ol' table praying before dinner. And not just because the patriarch is a Bible believin', Bible preachin' man. And not just because Si (short for Silas) is one of the most intriguing characters on TV.

As I watched with my friends, I could not help but think about how some might react to this show and these people. Among the watchers was a down South boy who grew up hunting and knows his way around sundry hunting equipment. Like the men of the Duck Dynasty, he is educated. Yes, two of the brothers are college-educated. One is quite an impressive sales guy.

In some ways, the men of the Duck Dynasty know they are parodies of themselves. There are times what they say and do is just over the top. But one of the brothers seems to be the main cinematographer, so they maintain significant control over what is shown and how it is shown. Which tells me they are perfectly okay with making fun of rednecks, making fun of themselves.

In one episode, Miss Kay, the matriarch of the clan, was able to take over a local restaurant. She prepared the kind of food she's accustomed to cooking, though nothing too extreme for the citified folks. Still, there was someone at a table who announced they were pescatarians and that one of their group needed gluten-free food. The redneck boys mocked the pescatarians for their pretentiousness. Miss Kay fairly soon realized the restaurant business is harder than cooking for a house full of somewhat wild and bushy-faced men.

Papa Phil has serious disdain for Yuppies, which is just about anyone who cannot live in the woods and kill their own food. He is a smart guy. A bit scary. But the guy I'd like to be around when the lights go out.

I like this show. Mostly. I won't go out of my way to watch it, but Si cracks me up and I truly appreciate the self-awareness of the family. The other thing I appreciate is that they are who and what they are, and if you want to make fun of it, they probably already have. And hey! if you don't like who and what they are, they don't care. . .and they are armed, Jack!

Wednesday, December 12

Right to work

There has been much brouhaha in the past several months about the "right to work" legislation, often perceived as attacks on unions.  Just recently Michigan, apparently a former bastion of unions, became a "right to work" state amid protests, lofty rhetoric, and threats.

This is controversial for a lot of reasons, and not just because a lot of folks are having their cheese moved.  This isn't a small move from some, but possibly even changing the type of their cheese.

I've said this before but will repeat it, I'm not a fan of unions.  I think that too often the threat of strike puts a stranglehold on the possibility of actual negotiations; however, I also think that far too many management structures claim to be transparent but are not so workers are rightly suspicious of motives and just how much truth they're really getting.  But I also think publicly-owned companies fail to give enough credence to the impact Wall Street and stockholders have on decisions being made.  I also think plain old greed and hubris have hands in this game, too.  So, in my opinion, it's not simply a matter of worker versus management.  Ever.

As stated in the Michigan article listed above:
As 1 of 24 states with right-to-work laws, Michigan will prohibit requiring nonunion employees to pay unions for negotiating contracts, representing them in grievances and other services. Supporters say the laws give workers freedom of association and promote job creation, while critics insist the real intent is to drain unions of funds need to bargain effectively.
Now I have to say this is cleverly stated.  One of the ideas behind this legislation is to give workers the right to choose to be a union member.  Those who are not union members, however, may get the benefits of the union negotiations.  By the same token, they may also bear the consequences of any negatives.  But if they are not a member of the union, there are certain rules they don't have to follow.  Some may see getting the advantages of union representation and negotiation as a sort of freeloading; others may not.  Those of us who have never had the so-called protection of unions struggle to understand the general fairness of unions when it is considered across all types of workers as opposed to the usual pitting of workers against management, typically portrayed as greedy and unconcerned about the plights of their workers.

There is always more to the story.  Always.

As reported here
Right-to-work laws forbid contracts between companies and unions that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf. Although business groups and conservatives cast the issue in terms of workplace freedom, unions note that the laws allow workers to opt out of supporting the union although they reap the benefits of the collective bargaining. Since the laws tend to weaken unions generally, unions, as well as President Barack Obama, call the legislation "right to work for less."
But if you really want to know more about the genesis of the right to work movement, you need to read the Taft Hartley Act of 1947 and then go to the NLRB site to see the amendments made to that Act, and why.

Once you have done that, you will actually be better informed about the right to work legislation and make your own decisions about its validity and quality, and stop listening to the media and politicians for anything remotely akin to objective and accurate information.  And don't take my word for it either.

Thursday, December 6

Why "reality" shows are bad for us

NPR recently reported on the Honey Boo Boo-ification of American television.  Mike Rowe and Dirty Jobs will be no more.  I won't miss it as I never watched it, but I do appreciate what Mike Rowe does and how he celebrated a layer of American worker we choose not to think about, or simply ignore.

I've never watched whatever show has catapulted Honey Boo Boo some level of infamy.  I know she's a child.  I understand, from the NPR piece, that the producers give the show subtitles.  I'm guessing the way it is edited makes those who watch it feel smarter and superior to Honey Boo Boo and her family.

Reality shows are not reality, of course.  They are completely fiction created by adroit editing.  I do watch some shows of that ilk.  I'm a huge fan of Chopped and some of the other competition shows on the Food Network Channel.  I have watched The Glee Project and this is the first year in a while that I haven't watched Amazing Race.  But I'm also very aware there are editors busily choosing and splicing to tell the kind of story they think will bring viewers.  I know that's true even on the Food Network Channel shows even though I think there's more than enough drama without manufacturing it.

So not only do we lose the remotest possibility of any decent story telling with these heavily edited and heavily skewed "reality" shows, but we lose the remotest possibility of being able to experience legitimate drama that gives us some sense of hope in the quality of humanity.  Instead, the garbage tends to make us feel superior to those poor schmoes which encourages us to be condescending, which encourages us to be bullies.

Reality shows are our version of yellow journalism, our version of sensationalism, which even Jon Stewart deplores.  In that article, NYU journalism professors Mitchell Stephens that "sensationalism is unavoidable in news - because we humans are wired, probably for reasons of natural selection, to be alert to sensations, particularly those involving sex and violence."  Stephens also seems to believe that sensationalism "serves a function by promoting the spread of information to less-literate audiences and strengthening the social fabric."  I'm sorry.  That last bit made me throw up in my mouth.

Talk about condescending and talk about misguided.  So less literate people are capable of processing so-called information only if it's in the context of sex and violence?  That's because they are less cultured? less sophisticated? less smart?  Or maybe it's because less literate people are simply more prone to sex and violence.

Balderdash.

If this out-of-context paraphrase is remotely accurate, Professor Mitchell is, in my opinion, an idiot.  I'm not sure I have enough energy and heartburn medication to read his book for myself to find out.  But if this is what television programmers believe, then heaven help us all.

We already know that too many politicians think the "average" American is stupid.  With the media believing the same thing, our culture will be increasingly dumbed down and we will be an increasingly bullying society.

It is an appalling commentary on the American public that one of the best ways we seem to have to feel good about ourselves (because some psycho-babble, TV evangelist charlatan told us we needed to feel good about ourselves and we bought into that bullsh*t) is to belittle someone else.

That makes us a culture of bullies.

If you're looking for an anecdote to some of what ails you culturally, check out Jeremiad by Josh Mason.  I have other ideas, but that may be the least controversial.

Sunday, November 18

Anticipating Thanksgiving

The Food Network has been showing past Thanksgiving-themed episodes of Chopped and the Thanksgiving hotline with some of the more luminary of the Food Network stars to answer questions.  The Black Friday commercials are increasing.  The shelves of the grocery stores have been featuring typical Thanksgiving ingredients for a few weeks now.

If I had to choose a favorite holiday, it would be Thanksgiving.  Yes, because it's about food, but also because it's about family (however you might choose to define "family") and friends.

For the past several years I've been fortunate enough to be part of a group of friends who celebrate Thanksgiving in large, fine style.  There are a number of people who contribute to the food, bringing wines and favorite side dishes and desserts.  There are conversations in different corners and spaces of the house.  People drift from conversation to conversation, stopping to nibble at the appetizers.

Some time later, people start to put dishes on the table.  Soon the turkey is carved and earnest eating of the Thanksgiving fare begins.

Dinner take some time as people talk, compliment and comment on the food, talk about family traditions, and just enjoy the company.

There are those who need to leave early to make a dessert stop elsewhere and others who come to join the crew for dessert.

The undercurrent is one of thanks.  Thanks for friends, for family, for possibilities, for options.  Thanks for all that we have and that from which we have to choose


The context of that first Thanksgiving was to celebrate survival; to celebrate and be thankful for those Native Americans who helped ensure that survival.  It was, in some respects, a way of paying forward.

If you are one who is able to celebrate Thanksgiving, who will have a table crowded with food, who will be in the people whose company you enjoy, be thankful.  And think of those who do not.  Those for whom Thanksgiving might be another seemingly meaningless day for any one of a number of reasons.  Those who may have lost much in the fury that was Superstorm Sandy or in the circumstances of its aftermath, or in other tragedies through which so many often struggle just to survive.  And if you have a chance to help a food pantry or a soup kitchen, or if you can contribute to one, or if you can write a check to Meals on Wheels or a local charitable agency or religious organization that provides for those in need, please do so.


We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. -Thornton Wilder

Tuesday, November 6

Election Day 2012

It's here.  At last.  Election Day.  Soon the irritating election signs will be additional detritus for someone to clean up, though certainly those eager beaver electioneers aren't quite as eager to collect their signs as they are to post them everywhere there is a scrap of open space.

Just the other night I read two interesting pieces.  One an opinion piece titled "My plea to the undecided: Stay home!".  Mr. Greenfield is rude, condescending, and alarmingly close to being an idiot, in my personal opinion.

Another piece is titled "Why 40% of Americans Won't Vote for President," which is an interesting and informative little ditty worth reading.  I'm intrigued by the observation that people don't vote because it is inconvenient.  No, let me restate.  I'm appalled by the observation that people don't vote because it is inconvenient or that we might somehow suffer from too many opportunities to vote.

I don't think people are undecided so much as they are overinformed, but many of us recognize that we aren't really overinformed because there isn't a single candidate who tells the truth.  They shade the truth or skirt the truth because they have way too many messages for way too many groups, and they alert to and wary of when and how the media might pounce.

I'm smart enough to know that I'm not only overinformed, but underinformed. . . and because of the truth shading and truth skirting and the negative ads and all of the other bullshit that comes along with electioneering.

I also recognize my hypocrisy.  I didn't vote this year because, quite frankly, I didn't want to.  I'm not undecided.  I just don't know enough about any of these candidates to make an informed decision.  I wish electioneering hadn't become a sport in this country.  I wish that politicians and the media hadn't turned such a remarkable right and opportunity into what seems like a guessing game for voters and a game of "gotcha" for political campaign groups and the media.

I hope you did go out and vote.  I hope you exercised what is and should be a sacred right.  I hope that as part of your right to vote, as part of that freedom to express your opinion, you also gave pause to think about the implications of your vote as well as about how we have allowed our political system to become a game of sorts to far too many people.

People like to blame the media for all sorts of things, and often rightly so.  But we have given them that power by being interested in the salacious.  The media claims to give the people what it wants and we seem to want to be a mean-spirited, trash-talking, tattle-telling, bullying, and petulant society.

Think about that as you think about the direction of this country and the people who might best be able to pull us from our tailspin of incivility.

Oh, and try to be nice to each other today.  As a friend of mine said the other day, "Being nice matters."

Thursday, October 18

It's not just about Lance Armstrong

So Lance is left with pretty much nothing now.  He's been stripped of his Tour de France titles, his Nike deal, his chairmanship with the organization built on his will to survive.  He's been abandoned by scores of people no doubt, who see that he is no longer their path to any kind of vicarious glory.

I agree with Dan Wetzel that both Nike and Livestrong have misstepped here.  Here's an alert to Nike and every other sports organization supporting anyone in cycling for the past decade: drop them all.  Drop them all.  Everyone who has biked with any of the teams implicated through this doping scandal.  Anyone looking at Miguel Indurain yet?  After all, he won five Tour de France titles in a row.  Maybe he's a little worried he might get stripped of his titles, too.

And while we're sniffing out drugs, what's happening in those baseball clubhouses?  Or in those football training rooms?  Seriously.  Does anyone really believe that no athlete is still cheating?  Still using drugs?

I don't condone drugs, but I'm not sure I blame them.  After all, have you listened to the media?  Have you heard and read how commentators rip into players for not playing to the level of their talent?  How did we even know what an individual's actual level of talent actually looks like any more?

We can't ignore the fans.  Fans have such a ridiculously high expectation for wins, they have no patience for the player who has a bad.  Like fans have never had a bad day at work.  It's just lucky for the fans, that they don't make mistakes on national TV in front of thousands (maybe only hundreds) of paying spectators.

So if self-righteous organizations like Nike are going to abandon Lance Armstrong, they'd better sever relationships with every single athlete with which they have an endorsement agreement; otherwise, they're just being hypocritical and grandstanding.

American sports arenas have become versions of the Roman Colosseum.  And we know what happened to the gladiators who lost.

Shame on them, yes.  But shame on us, too.

Wednesday, October 17

Why do you have to be so mean?

It starts with a small jab.  Just a little remark.  Maybe even sort of intended as a joke.  But it sounds a little off; not quite as funny because it was only sort of intended as a joke.  So the reply is a little sharper.  And before you know it, the tone and the tension has escalated and people are ready to throw punches.

There are a lot of very real haters, and then there are those who just make a lot of noise and toss way too much negativity into the universe.  Can we talk sports for a minute?  I get rivalries.  I think it's great to have a strong rivalry for a lot of good reasons.  But then are people who seem to genuinely hate the opposition.  I mean "hate" in the full ugly sense of the word.

I live in Bears country; Chicago Bears, that is.  I'm a Packer fan.  There are folks with whom I can share some friendly gibes back and forth, but we have tremendous respect for the athletic ability on both teams.  I mean, you've seen Brian Urlacher play, right?  What I don't get are the people who seem to take that rivalry too far and who say the most hateful and ugly things.  To what end?  It's not as though they're suiting up and getting crushed on the field.

In early October Chiefs fans cheered the head injury of their QB, Matt Cassel.  Players sounded off about that, and rightly so.  It's bad enough to cheer for any injury, especially of someone on your own team.  It's downright sickening to cheer for a head injury.  Dislike the guy, but don't wish serious injury on him.  That's just unconscionable.

Also recently I've read on Facebook about political signs being stolen from yards.  Not too long ago I read of a woman, we'll call her Joan, who was shocked she was unfriended by a friend, we'll call her Susan, on Facebook.  Susan told Joan she'd refriend her after the election; apparently Susan just wasn't up to reading whatever political drivel Joan posted on her Facebook page.  So. . . Susan is telling Joan that she's willing to be Joan's friend as long as Joan doesn't say anything with which Susan disagrees?

Then we get to the actual politics.  $332 million spent on TV ads.  The  majority of money spent by both camps is for negative ads.  People claim to dislike negative ads and yet, for some reason, they work.  But do they work? Do they really work?  Or do people just get worn down?

The media seemed a bit giddy about the tension between Obama and Romney in the most recent debate.  What really got my attention was the observation that it was clear that neither man likes the other.

So, think about this.  They don't have to like each other, but wouldn't it be amazing if they actually respected the opinion of the other?  After all, whatever they spout is opinion or position, and subject to change. 

And if the two presidential candidates started to exhibit some respect, perhaps even debated rather than pontificated, maybe, just maybe, we'd get something done. 

Because if the two presidential candidates agreed to disagree, but talk about the actual facts AND agreed there might be some value in some of the ideas of the other party, then maybe, just maybe, the people in the Senate and the House might start to do the same. 

And then maybe, just maybe, people would start to respect the opinions of others and have actual discussions rather than try to wear each other down and then decide the other is a jerk for failing to agree. 

And then maybe, just maybe, if there were actual discussions, there could be actual solutions.

And then maybe, just maybe, other people would start listening and discussing rather than arguing and unfriending each other because they don't see eye-to-eye on everything.

And then maybe, just maybe, the world would be a little nicer and a little less mean.  After all, bullying is bullying.  Whether it's online or in presidential debates.

Sunday, September 30

"It's the not knowing"

Last week I spent some quality time with my folks, at least in a manner of speaking.  The parental units are going through some physical challenges just now, which contribute to some emotional and psychological challenges, which contribute to their own physical challenges.  It's quite an interesting circle on which many physicians and armchair therapists might comment.  But that's not the point.

The point is a comment my mom made: "It's the not knowing."

She's right.  It's the not knowing.  It's the not knowing about just about anything we confront or experience in our lives.  It's not knowing the outcomes.  It's not knowing the response of others.  It's not knowing if what we're hoping will be.  It's not knowing.

And with not knowing comes more tension and, perhaps, more need to try to know and to try to control what we know, how we know it, and when we know it.

One of my mother's many pet phrases just now is "It is what it is."  I've written on that before.  I despise that phrase and the few days with my mother did nothing to help me appreciate it.  Yes, in some cases she has no control and yes, in some instances, the situation is what the situation is.  But we always, always, always have a choice in how we respond to that situation.  The great shoulder shrug of "it is what it is" suggests we have abandoned any hope, any responsibility, any accountability, anything.  It is a phrase of hopelessness.  Now, that's not how she intends it.  Her intent is to help her manage the unmanageable.

We talked a lot about her response to things.  Well, she talked, I listened, and occasionally asked questions.

"It is what it is" dispenses with the fragility of emotion that informs "It's the not knowing."  There is no point in worrying about what one can't know if it just is what it is.  I think that's fatalistic and suspect it's unhealthy on a number of levels.

There are things I cannot and will not know.  There are things I don't care to know.  There are things I wished I knew, things I wished I knew better,  But there are a few things I know and one is that I can decide how to respond to situations.

There are some things she will learn and will not like.  There are some things she may not know for a while.  She can choose how to respond to the not knowing, to the information she doesn't want to hear or doesn't like just as she chooses to respond to the information that is hopeful and encouraging.

I believe in the One who has a plan for my life.  I believe that things happen for a reason, even if they are inscrutable to me.  And my hope rests in a host of experiences, but also the words of encouragement and hope I find in the Bible.

For some, not knowing leads to a bunker mentality; keeping one's head down and trying to minimize exposure.  Rather than view "It's the not knowing" as a phrase of helplessness or of hopelessness, I prefer to turn that on its head.  Not knowing leads to insight, leads to learning, leads to collaboration with others, leads to depending on others, leads to asking and answering hard questions, and sometimes, just sometimes, leads to amazing adventures and experiences.

Wednesday, September 26

A new world order? Listen up!

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, his last speech in front of the world body as president of Iran.  My personal opinion is that his call for a new world order should scare the world.  And it should really smack some sense into our politicians.

And then there is this poll about who lies more: Romney or Obama.  Unbelievable.  This is what we've come to?  Measuring who lies more?

Every year we have the politician who claims he or she will not stoop to negative campaigns.  That lasts about 45 seconds.  Maybe.

In an interview, Ahmadinejad said "God willing, a new order will come and will do away with ... everything that distances us," Ahmadinejad told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday, speaking through a translator. "All of the animosity, all of the lack of sincerity will come to an end. It will institute fairness and justice."

That kind of talk will be very attractive to many people, especially because our political system is rife with animosity, insincerity, and mistrust AND distrust of anyone who does not seem to think like us.  Further, we seem increasingly impatient with and intolerant of other ways of thinking.  Don't agree with Obamacare?  You must be a __________, though "thinking person with a different opinion" is very acceptable here.  We don't seem to be able to disagree any more and we don't seem to be able to have actual debates.

Instead we are like the protestors and so-called extremists who have rioted and killed over the video that apparently mocks the Prophet Mohammad.  (As an aside: imagine if Christians reacted that way every time someone said "Jesus!" or "Jesus Christ!" and didn't use it in prayer?)  Any more we seem to howl and get violent, if not in action then in words, when someone doesn't agree with us.  So the 1st Amendment is okay for some but not for others?  It's suitable only if what the other person says agrees with me?

These kinds of behaviors and attitudes continue to degrade our sensibilities about ourselves as Americans and certainly don't help our reputation.

So maybe, just maybe, Ahmadinejad's speech will end up slapping some sense into politicians and their cronies who continue to belittle and belabor, who continue to dissemble, who continue to prop up half-truths to win at all costs at the expense of working collaboratively, at the expense of every American.  Probably not.  I'm just not that hopeful any more. . . and find myself yearning for a time when "[a]ll of the animosity, all of the lack of sincerity will come to an end."

Thursday, September 20

The Scandal of a Strike


Chicago Public School teachers went back to work on Wednesday after the first strike in 25 years that was contentious, angry, and, in my opinion, pointless.  And 350,000 students went without school for 7 full days while the Chicago Teachers Union made a point.

In July 2012, the Chicago Tribune published an article about teacher evaluations.  The US DOE was pressuring Illinois to put the new evaluations in place for the 2014-15 school year, starting the roll-out of the evaluation system this fall.  The state has an evaluation program in place and CPS wanted the standards to be higher for CPS teachers.  The CTU wanted the standards to be closer to the US DOE minimum.

(Scott Olson, Getty Images)
Karen Lewis, CTU president, was all smiles and relief when a tentative agreement was reached.  After all, she was in the spotlight. . . alot.  She wrote a scathing editorial published in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, September 14 in response to an article in which Bruce Rauner, a wealthy venture capitalist and adviser to Mayor Emmanuel, waded into the fray with some incendiary remarks.  Rauner advocates charter schools and vouchers.  Rauner quotes the remarks of Bob Chanin, general counsel of the National Education Association, saying that Chanin "made it clear at a recent NEA convention when he declared that teachers unions are focused on protecting their massive power '... not because of the merits of our positions, not because we care about children, and not because we have a vision for a great public school for every child. The NEA and its affiliates … have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues every year.'"  Rauner does make the mistake of making a sweeping generalization about the quality of CPS teachers when he reports one instance of a teacher division incorrectly, but the article does not indicate if Rauner used that teacher as an example of greater and more systemic incompetence or if he was just attempting to prove a point with that single example.  If it's the latter, I'd give him a C.

But Ms. Lewis' reply was vituperative.  She accused Rauner of being angry and writing with venom; I thought it was some anger, but mostly sadness and a sense of resignation.  She trashes Rauner and wonders if he'd ever visited a CPS school reporting the inadequacy of facilities and the lack of materials.  Meanwhile, teachers all over the world are doing remarkable teaching with less.  And then she accuses him of some conspiracy, which was even more ludicrous than the rant itself.

At the end of the day, Karen Lewis may think the union "won," but most of the world seems to see this differently.  A CPS parent writes that many recognized the strike was never really about money.  She writes
We parents who want an educational system that can rescue those most at risk, realizing that no contractual agreement will solve those glaring inequalities. Real reform involves shifts in the economy that will take a groundswell of public support, collaboration, research and planning to accomplish. Most parents realize it is not what is happening in Chicago. If CTU continues to position this strike as a referendum on decades' worth of failed public policy while keeping our children out of school, you risk eventually losing my trust and support.
 And that is an important risk; almost as big as risking the education of 350,000 students for not winning much, if anything.  As reported in a Washington Post blog,
All told, teachers won big on school days, got basically nothing on class size or air conditioning, got an ambiguous result relative to the district’s offers on pay and recall policy, and got a big win on evaluations, but not as big as the win they’d have gotten earlier this week. So the teachers definitely got more than they’d have gotten absent a strike, but some of the issues they were loudest on, such as class size, didn’t change at all.
The end result is that the Chicago public schools will base more of evaluations on tests, base more of their layoffs and recalls on evaluations rather than seniority, and have longer school days than before Emanuel took office.

Thursday, August 30

Politics: One of the most pointless games ever

I hate politics.  I can say that unequivocally and without trying to couch the word "hate" in anything resembling political correctness, a phrase, by the way, I think has become a blight on our ability to think clearly.

Politics and politicking have become a year-round event, which is one of the reasons politicians are seemingly incapable of making decisions: fear of not getting re-elected whenever that re-election campaign might be.

NOTE: In my opinion, politics is not the same as public service.  It used to be, but any more politics seems to be about gamemanship and maneuvering to get elected rather than doing any actual public good.  Not only elected public officials are guilty of politics; some of them actual want to do well by doing good.

And I am fed up with organizations that threaten candidates with dire outcomes should the candidate not toe a particular party line.  I actually laughed out loud when listening to NPR the other day when it was reported that many of the parties within the GOP simply ignore the platform planks with which they disagree.  Duh.

So a friend of mine posted a fact check site after Paul Ryan's speech at the RNC.  I know this may be shocking, but apparently the candidate dissembled and misrepresented, but I love, LOVE that the "proof" is taken out of context.  The fact check was conducted by the Annenberg Foundation, very much a family affair.  Wallis Annenberg is the boss of the Foundation, very much the well-to-do, socialite philanthropist.

My point?  I think reasonable skepticism makes sense and it's worth knowing who is not only behind the advertisements for any candidate, but knowing who is behind the fact-checking.  None of this information is presented with any kind of objectivity, and we do ourselves a disservice to think any differently.

If we're to be an informed citizenship, we have to be as completely informed as we reasonably can be.  Just because it's on the Internet doesn't mean it's true; just because it looks professional, doesn't mean it's right.

Wednesday, August 29

Turn signals: A refresher

Disclaimer: I am not a driving instructor nor do I play one on TV.

I'm fascinated by the use or non-use of turn signals.  For those who may a bit uncertain on the concept or who have trouble understanding what might be happening should they see a turn signal blinking on a car, herewith.

One of my favorites is situational.  You're behind a car with the turn signal blinking.  As you approach any side road on which a turn might be made, you will naturally brace to start braking as is the case when approaching an intersection at which a turn might be made.  But these are the messages the driver could be sending:
  • I'm going to turn and slow down nearly to a complete stop as I make that turn because I'm oblivious to any cars behind me;
  • I know I need to turn somewhere along here but I'm not quite sure which is the right street; 
  • I'm going to turn eventually so just leave me alone; or
  • Dude, I turned about 8 miles back onto this road and just haven't turned off my signal.

Another favorite occurs when driving on the expressway or highway, especially during rush hour when everyone else's time and schedule is far more important than yours, or so other drivers seem to think.  These are the true believers in the law of defensive driving, which means that you must always been on the defensive for some nincompoop do something stupid.  In this case the turn signal often pops on even as the driver is starting to cross the line, and quite probably into your lane requiring you to slam on your brakes.  The message that driver is sending is this: "I know I'm supposed to use this turn thingy when I change lanes so I'm hitting it as I change lanes but only when I remember."

What those drivers don't quite seem to understand is that the turn signal is a signal of an intent to turn and there's a smidge of responsibility on the driver's part to make sure there is room for the lane change.

Another favorite is when a driver is trying to pull out of a shopping center, gas station, or just about any place and waiting for a break in traffic.  While watching for that break, and being sufficiently responsible to wait for an appropriate break, the waiting driver might see cars slowing down but not trust the driver is really turning in.  A turn signal would help, and I'm pretty sure they have these newfangled gadgets even on the fancy schmancy expensive cars.

So here's the deal:
  1. If you're planning to turn at an intersection or side street, you're supposed to start signaling at about 300 feet but several car lengths can work too.  It's a courtesy and it's information for those around you.
  2. If you're driving on a highway or expressway, start to your signal to inform others of your intent and then use those mirror thingys on the side of your card and dangling somewhere on the inside of your windshield to make sure there is room for you to change lanes without making other people slam on their brakes.
  3. When you're getting ready to turn into a parking lot of any kind, see #1.  Signal as you approach the parking lot because, well, it's a courtesy and information for those who may be waiting to get back on the street.
You see?  Turn signals are not a complicated part of your vehicle and actually kind of useful.  Trust me on this.

Sunday, August 26

USADA & Lance Armstrong: Nothing but noise

The media has piled on Lance Armstrong and has been bleating about the USADA stripping Armstrong of his Tour de France titles.  But the Tour de France is not run nor sponsored by the USADA so I don't see how the USADA can strip him of those titles.  Sure, ban him for life from that part of the sport, the one from which he's retired.  So whatever the USADA has claimed to have done is meaningless and, therefore, seems that much more spiteful.

Meanwhile, the International Cycling Union had been waiting to make any comment, and there has been nary a peep from the Tour de France people: sponsors, partners, anyone.

Something of passing interest is a quote in this August 24 ESPN article: "USADA reacted quickly and treated Armstrong's decision as an admission of guilt, hanging the label of drug cheat on an athlete who was a hero to thousands for overcoming life-threatening testicular cancer and for his foundation's support for cancer research."  How do I read between those lines?  Some jumped-up, self-righteous biking prigs, ignoring how long Armstrong has been fighting these allegations that seem to made up of jealous rivalry, people who feel left out of Armstrong's halo effect glory, and other pompous indignation, claimed vindication and victory that is not only hollow, but undermines an organization that could have been viewed as both valued and valuable, which is seemingly neither.

BTW, the International Cycling Union has made a statement that is a non-statement, themselves seemingly weary of what could be viewed as a witch hunt.  That statement garnered little attention because it's less interesting than trying to shred someone's reputation.

What's also not big news for the media but telling news is that donations for Armstrong's donation have not faltered.  In fact, "The Livestrong foundation's CEO, Doug Ulman, told ESPN on Friday night that unsolicited donations were up almost 25 times as compared to Thursday."

So to the USADA and its so-called big news, "Meh."

Fashion sense vs common sense

I don't get all of my news from Yahoo! but I do confess that occasionally I am sufficiently tantalized by a deliberately provocative headline to skim the story.  This one is titled "Airlines can say: You can't wear that."

I travel fairly frequently and usually for business, so dress accordingly.  I remember my grandmother and even my mother talking about dressing for travel, but that was way, way back in the day when women wore hats and gloves and people could still smoke in theaters.  I remember people gawking and gasping when young people just wore any old thing to go shopping but there were times, only a generation or two ago, when "going out" was a social event and it meant dressing with care.

The anecdotes, selected for specific reasons no doubt, are interesting.  Would I want to ride on the plane with the individual who wore the T-shirt bearing the words "Terrists gonna kill us all"?  Would I find it an appropriate anti-racial profiling phrase?  No and no.  I give Arjit Guha a big red X for lacking common sense.  Yes, protest racial profiling but not in that way or on a plane.  Not clever.

Do I want to see anyone's boxers or briefs because he's wearing low-hanging pants?  No.  Do I want to see a middle-aged cross-dresser? Well, not if he's wearing only women's underwear.  I don't want to see women wearing only underwear.  But if he's well-dressed, I don't care.

I understand the argument of people being able to wear what they want when they've purchased a ticket, especially because travelers feel harassed by what seem to be fees for everything.  But that sense of entitlement isn't going to lead anywhere nice or good.

Instead, I much prefer John Gordon's observation: "It's an unspoken rule that when you go out in public, you should be respectful."

And if it isn't an unspoken rule for everyone to try to be respectful of those around you, perhaps it should be a spoken and even written rule.  In my mind, being respectful of others starts with being respectful of yourself.  If you have self-respect, you are more likely--in my personal opinion and based on nothing other than my opinion--to be respectful of others. 

Herewith: "When you go out in public, please be respectful. . . of yourself and then of others."

Wednesday, July 25

The Student, The Athlete, The Implications

Disclaimer: I have friends who are coaches.  I love sports.  I often struggled to help students balance between their educations and their athletic scholarships that were paying for their educations.

The story of Penn State and its stunning list of failures in the Sandusky case will go and on (and on and on) in infamy.  And not just because the media will chew on this until there is no color and no flavor left in that particular bone, but because of the impact the NCAA decision will have on the university as a whole.

$60M.  Sixty million dollars.  That is the amount of revenue from football.  Yes, Penn State paid Paterno a little over $1M to coach and there was a substantial coaching staff.  Yes, there are expenses in running a highly competitive program; there are expenses in running any program but the greater the expectations, the greater the expenses.

The premier sports programs at universities fund the less glamorous sports, and help ensure the university can be in compliance with Title IX regulations.  But premier sports can also fund new buildings and not necessarily just athletic ones.  And premier sports can also help fund any number of other initiatives that universities implement to remain relevant, timely, competitive, interesting, valued, or just to keep the alumni and/or boosters happy.

This is a complex issue.  Penn State and its alumni are tarnished in an unimaginable way.  Other football programs are sifting through the Penn State roster of players and recruits to see who they can lure away though I doubt it'll take much coaxing.  But all of those students playing the less "glamorous" sports will also suffer and those students, many of whom have fewer options for athletic or even academic scholarships, may find themselves in difficult situations if they are inclined to move to another university.

The ripple effects will soon touch most if not all of the Penn State population.  The angst, the suffering, the frustration are just beginning.  But Penn State is not the whole story.  It's not even part of the real story.

The real story is our love affair with sports and how we create celebrities out of athletes.  The real story is the obscene amount of money we pay people because we place so much value on these games, even those completely mucked up by the nonsense we call the BCS Championship, but that's a different post.

A story today shows how badly our world is tilted because college coaches are paid upwards of $1M to coach football.  That's just the head coach.  And according to this story about the highest paid college football coaches, Paterno was in the middle of the pack.

And parents wonder why tuition goes up?  This could contribute to it.  ON THE OTHER HAND, without these premier programs, is it possible that tuition could be higher?  How does one choose between the possibilities paid for by the revenues of such a program with the potential of not having those options for one's students?  Perhaps making such a decision does not measure up to the sword of Damocles, but it is a difficult decision nonetheless.

Some may rejoice in the comeuppance of the flawed leadership of Penn State and the football program, but don't ever forget that the real tragedy of this entire event centers on the victims of Sandusky's sexual abuse.  Even so, the tragic repercussions continue and will continue as the entire student population, the staff, and the faculty of the university are affected by the NCAA sanctions.

Every football coach, every athletic coach, every administrator needs to take a hard look at themselves and their programs and ask: "Could this happen to me?"  "Could this happen here?"  And then take brave, determined, and proactive steps to make sure it isn't happening and won't happen.  Ever.

The price is much too high.  For absolutely everyone.  Including you.

Sunday, July 1

Why failure needs to be an option

When I think of failure, I think of Willy Loman.  Not so much because Willy was a failure himself, but because he does not allow himself to acknowledge any shortcomings and does not seem to know how to learn from failures in his life.  In other words, he allows himself to be defined by what he did rather than who he is and could be.  It's not that simple, of course.  His family, the time in which he lived, and more contributed to the character who was Willy Loman.

But let's think about this word "failure."  The phrase "Failure is not an option" was immortalized by the film, Apollo 13 and continued to build momentum, including in books like Gene Kranz's Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond.


Failure has a terrible connotation. It is the opposite of success and we know how much our culture values whatever it seems to perceive as "success."  Money? Power? Position?  I suspect we have a skewed view of failure because we have such a warped view of success.


One of my favorite quotes is by Booker T. Washington, whose life story is also inspirational, no matter one's color or gender.  Mr. Washington said: "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed."

That sounds to me like moving beyond what others might call failure.  Consider these quotes by two men who knew a lot about success and about failure:
     "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."  Winston Churchill
     "Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It's courage that counts. " John Wooden


So we can stay completely and absolutely in a comfort zone and never risk either success or failure.  Or we can take risks.  Because it is through both success and failure we can learn and we can grow in so many ways through learning.

Life can equal risk.  What we do with our opportunities is up to us.