Thursday, December 31

Happy New Year: 16, 10, 2

Yes it's that time of the year. Reflection and resolution. Updating the new calendar. Turning the page of your journal or starting a new one. That fresh page/new start feeling of the morning. . .depending on how much you partied on New Year's Eve.

A friend of mine shared this post recently: 16 Goals To Set For Next Year That Are More About Enjoying What You Have Than Chasing What You Don't. Yep, it's quite a title and the point is well taken. Why not learn to enjoy what you do have rather than worry about what you don't or try to figure out how to get it?

I recommend you spend a few minutes reading the article; really reading it. None of it's hard and all of it is quite doable. So even if one of your resolutions is to lose weight and get fit (and we won't talk about how many years that particular resolution has been on anyone's list, will we?), goal 4 contributes to that. The less we obsess about our body image and weight, the more likely we are to stop stressing about our body image and weight which could mean we do less stress-eating and get more sleep (sleep deprivation contributes to weight loss difficulty), which means we might be able to do more which means, yes, we might start to lose weight and feel more fit physically and mentally.

Making more time for friends (#3) might mean more bike rides or walks with friends which, you know, contributes to a whole bunch of things including feeling more relaxed.

Eric Zorn, a columnist for the The Chicago Tribune, recently published a piece on doing something for 10 minutes a day. 10 minutes. Not really much time in the grand scheme of things. I thought about this in context of the 16 goals and how easy it will be to set aside 10 minutes to attend to one (or more) of those goals each day. And that made thinking about the goals even easier. 10 minutes each day. . . to talk with a friend, to go for a walk with a friend, to read a book (not sure I'd be able to stop at 10 minutes), to start to go through those bins in the garage and in the basement to figure out what stays and what goes.

Educators talk about teaching students to "chunk" larger tasks into more manageable ones. We see chunking strategies in the work place and in approaches to writing.

Now Zorn committed 10 minutes per day to one particular thing: playing the fiddle. I like that, but, well, it's me and I have to mash-up stuff. So I'm thinking of Benjamin Franklin's 2 questions, 10 minutes a day (or 10MaD, as Zorn abbreviated it), and 16 goals.

Franklin's questions are these. In the morning he asked, "What good shall I do this day?" and in the evening he asked, "What good have I done this day?" And I'm thinking that for at least 10 minutes each day I can easily do something related to one of the goals. At the beginning of each day I can reflect on what good I will try to do and how I will try to use my 10 minutes and for which goal(s). At the end of each day I can reflect on what I have done and how I used my 10 minutes and for which goal(s).

I'm not sure I'm disciplined enough to do this for much longer than a week or so, but it will be interesting to give it a try and see what happens. If nothing else, I know it will help reinforce my hope to be kinder and more thoughtful, and to be more appreciative of the friends who help tell the story of my life.

Tuesday, November 17

Slip sliding: Contemplating today's complexities

When I arrived at O'Hare airport last night, there were teams of people putting up Christmas, er, holiday decorations. Ribbons and lights festooned the ticketing areas and they were putting lights on ginormous wreaths. I couldn't help but think of the sputtering brouhaha over the Starbucks red cups, those that some wingnut evangelical Christians suggest Starbucks is anti-Christian, and I speak as an evangelical Christian who fervently hopes she's not a wingnut. Oh for the love. They seem to have forgotten another threatened boycott over the mermaid. I am exasperated that people seem to think that God cares about mermaids, doves on coffee cups, or much else of that ilk.

This morning, as I was drinking my pour-through coffee and reading the newspaper, I saw that United is reconsidering its on-board coffee. I was thrilled because the coffee in the United Clubs and on its planes is horrible. Yep, first-world problems.

Then I turned my attention to the important news of the day. Political leaders wrestling with how to handle, or not handle, thousands of migrants. Muslims being frustrated and terrified that they are being once again swept up into the free-for-all of anti-Islam sentiment.

A friend of mine posted something the other day about students responding to microaggressions. Yep, it's a real thing. I can see this getting out of hand with some folks who will begin to use the idea of a microaggression as an excuse for something. But having read an article on racial microaggressions, I was acutely aware of my own lopsided thinking when I was visiting a high school yesterday. I didn't see many Caucasians; most of the students, and teachers, are African-American or Hispanic. I saw a blonde girl with lighter skin and immediately thought, "Oh, a white girl. . .unless she's a light-skinned Latina with blonde hair." Because I know that not all Spanish-speaking people are dark-haired. Why did I think that? Because, just like everyone else, some part of me wanted to see someone like myself. No one at the school cared that I'm white but it is a deep-seated need, I think, to find some kind of solidarity.

Where does this take me? Nowhere in particular. My thoughts are like a kaleidoscope.

Too much hate and too much ignorance. Too many people unwilling to think for themselves. Too many people unwilling or unable to do more than react, or overreact, to what others are telling them.

After the Paris attacks, Pope Francis decried them as part of a "piecemeal third world war." I thought of that observation as I reflected on this convergence of the G20 summit, the Paris attacks, the number of people fleeing the destruction of their homelands and generally because of the violence of ISIS. I wondered if people were started to think of those murdered by ISIS as martyrs to a cause and not just because I did. I wondered if at what point politicians stop trying to protect their political asses or their legacies and act with some forethought about what makes the most sense for the world rather than whatever tiny pieces of history they hope to occupy in the future.

I wondered at what point we might start thinking of others before we think of ourselves, before we react to real and imagined slights, before we think we might have been offended. I wondered when we might become compassionate people who decide it's really not healthy to seek revenge for whatever might have happened recently or a few centuries ago, or both. I wondered when adults would become sufficiently adults so that 9-year-old children aren't lured to their deaths. I wondered when instead of sniping at each other about the difficult situations in which we find ourselves, we would step down from our imagined righteous vantage points and have actual conversations.

I wondered, especially as Americans approach Thanksgiving and the world approaches the winter holidays--Kwanzaa, St. Lucia Day, Hanukkah, Advent, Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe, The Prophet's Birthday, and, of course, Christmas.

I have friends who celebrate many things in multiple ways in December because they celebrate their heritages as well as their traditions, and sometimes to honor their friends and their friends' traditions. I know that many will be offended by the idea of celebrating something that is not part of their own tradition; so be it. I remember when the pastor of the Conservative Baptist church I was attending included elements of the Seder in his sermon. Why? Because much of Christianity is informed by its Judaic roots. As someone who is Jewish by birth but Christian by choice, I loved that. By the same token, I appreciate my friends who celebrate their faith through routes different from my own, who grew up in the Episcopalian church, was saved in a Southern Baptist church, and now align myself with the Evangelical Free church.

I have a copy of the Qur'an. It's a translation with commentary. I've read only parts of it but plan to read it in its entirety this holiday season. I need to understand this book of Islam better so I know what the heck I might be trying to talk about when I wonder about the differences between Islam and my own faith.

I wonder, too, about how not to slip slide into a morass of confusion and realize it's hard. But it occurs to me that those who shout with conviction informed by something I don't recognize but often looks like hate might be doing so out of fear as well as some ignorance. Does God hate? Yes, He hates sin and those who profess Christ are sinners saved by grace, which means we're still sinners because, well, we struggle to put God first. Always. For some, however, that means God hates a lot of things but I often think they believe God hates what makes them uncomfortable.

In Exodus 20:3, Scripture says "You shall have no other gods before me" (NIV). I'm not a theologian so I'm approaching this simply. To me that says, "Don't worship anything else but God. Don't worship money, your career, your opinion of yourself, your own views. Worship God. Period." 

And then I think about 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'" (NIV). And that love your neighbor thing is hard. Just hard. Just really hard. Mostly, I think, because we don't really know what that means.

What I know for sure is that conversations about faith, beliefs, microaggressions, macroaggressions, tolerance, and more are hard. But I think they've become harder because too many of us want to be right. I don't think any of these conversations are going to get any easier.

Thursday, October 15

The colliding ideas of "free" speech and tolerance

It's easy to be offensive these days just as it's easy to take offense.

I was thinking about this the other day when I saw or heard something that yet again prompted me to have an internal dialogue about the whatever it was. I'm deliberately vague because, unlike others, I'm reluctant to expose some of my thinking and opinions to the trolls and troglodytes who rise up with outrage when anyone says (or doesn't say) anything that in any way offends them. And then whoever has said or hasn't said whatever that has caused an avalanche of social media whatever-shaming offers up a statement of profound apology for saying or not saying whatever it was that caused the howling to begin. The apology has become a knee-jerk reaction to the vociferous clamoring of the unruly and offended.

But in these United States, that's what free speech is all about.

We have found ways to try to define hate speech, defamation, slander, and other forms of speech that our society deems as unjustifiable and outside of the confines of that which is free, as we should. I believe, however, that because we seem to have become a society of intolerant tolerance, it is harder and harder to have a conversation; it is increasingly more difficult to express an honest position or opinion without being carved up through social media because hears or reads a hint of something that potentially offends them.

A recent article encapsulated much of this recently: Freedom of Speech? Not at Brown University. While the words "safe" and "safety" were used only a few times in this article, that seemed to be the crux of the publishing matter. How to make sure everyone feels safe and how to make sure everyone feels included is nearly impossible. Actually, I'm certain it's impossible.

Author Emily Shire cites her colleague Lizzie Crocker whose article How a Gay Conservative and a Radical Feminist Were Banned from a College's Feminism Debate also challenges the increasingly dizzying rationale for promoting or not promoting certain opportunities for speech. Crocker notes Bindel's observation that "she was 'outvoted' in the end, but she felt she'd 'done my job' and helped to provoke an insightful discussion" (italics mine).

Crocker also asks who gives organizations such as student unions authority to determine what is "safe" and "unsafe." It was, after all, the student union that disinvited the speakers from the feminism debate and, if you haven't read the article, speakers who were already parlaying via Twitter and showing a great enthusiasm for the conversation and discussion they would be allowed to provoke. Crocker states "they claim to protect us from harm and violence, but too often they conflate offense with harm, and the fear of offending has become its own form of extremism."

In the 1990s we experienced an increasing rise in the use of the term "politically correct." The PC movement has its own history but I think its influences are still being felt today. We continue to struggle to navigate how to be inclusive, fair, reasonable, and somehow manage to offend no one.

Here's a painful reality check: we will never ever be utterly and absolutely inclusive, fair, reasonable, and inoffensive to all people all of the time. If that is to be the case, then complete silence must fall upon the entire world for the rest of time. No one can be permitted to say anything to anyone about anything. Extreme? Sure. Ridiculous. No doubt.

But as we worry about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time so we don't offend someone or so people don't think ill of us or so we don't provoke the "wrong" reactions, we are in danger of becoming a society in which no speech will be permitted, in which all speech is at risk of being censured because it made someone feel "unsafe."

Voltaire is widely misquoted as having said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It's a good paraphrase of Voltaire's intent and pretty darned catchy. Some have suggested what Voltaire actually said in his Essays on Tolerance is "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too," but I can find no proof of that even though I really like that idea, too. However, because of the paraphrase and potential misquote, I got to read a good portion of Voltaire's Toleration and Other Essays [1755]. In "Whether Intolerance Is of Natural and Human Law," Voltaire writes--and please keep in mind the time in which he wrote:
Natural law is that indicated to men by nature. You have reared a child; he owes you respect as a father, gratitude as a benefactor. You have a right to the products of the soil that you have cultivated with your own hands. You have given or received a promise; it must be kept. Human law must in every case be based on natural law. All over the earth the great principle of both is: Do not unto others what you would that they do not unto you. Now, in virtue of this principle, one man cannot say to another: “Believe what I believe, and what thou canst not believe, or thou shalt perish.” Thus do men speak in Portugal, Spain, and Goa. In some other countries they are now content to say: “Believe, or I detest thee; believe, or I will do thee all the harm I can. Monster, thou sharest not my religion, and therefore hast no religion; thou shalt be a thing of horror to thy neighbours, thy city, and thy province.”
If it were a point of human law to behave thus, the Japanese should detest the Chinese, who should abhor the Siamese; the Siamese, in turn, should persecute the Thibetans, who should fall upon the Hindoos. A Mogul should tear out the heart of the first Malabarian he met; the Malabarian should slay the Persian, who might massacre the Turk; and all of them should fling themselves against the Christians, who have so long devoured each other.
The supposed right of intolerance is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger; nay, it is far worse, for tigers do but tear in order to have food, while we rend each other for paragraphs.
 Voltaire also writes in his banned Treatise on Tolerance on the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas as though he were able to speak to the religious intolerant:
This little globe, which is no more than a point, rolls, together with many other globes, in that immensity of space in which we are lost. Man, who is about five feet high, is certainly a very inconsiderable part of the creation; but one of those hardly visible beings says to some of his neighbors in Arabia or South Africa: Listen to me, for the God of all these worlds has enlightened me. There are about nine hundred millions of us little insects who inhabit the earth, but my ant-hill alone is cherished by God who holds all the rest in horror for all eternity; those who live with me upon my spot will alone be happy, and all the rest eternally wretched.
My point? We seem to find more and more reasons to castigate one another, and, seem to be eager to find reasons to do so. We are increasingly intolerant of the beliefs of others--religious and otherwise--and have no compunction about attempting to troll and shame them on social media. We seem to find it easier to creep into odd corners of extremism than engage in actual conversation, to understand the reasons for someone else's ideas.

While we talk a lot about free speech, it seems to me that we have no idea what that really means.

Monday, October 12

Reflecting on sororities and leaning in

Life rarely happens the way we expect. I'm so often surprised by events; pleasantly surprised most of the time, I might add.

This past summer I went to a Kappa Delta Delta Eta reunion. It was the first reunion of any kind I'd attended. In fact, I wrote a blog post about the experience and that blog post was shared with the editor of the sorority magazine by one of my sisters, and then I was asked if it would be all right for the blog post to be published as an article. I hesitated but agreed to have it published in the most recent issue of The Angelos. I was both flattered and nervous.

In the same issue is a letter from the National President of Kappa Delta, Alison Jakes Argersinger. In her article she suggests that "sorority girl" still seems to have negative connotations. Movies and social media don't help combat that image but I've also realized that those sorority women who are successful in their fields--regardless of those fields--might struggle to associate their success with being in a sorority.

That made me reflect on Sheryl Sandberg's message of "Lean in." I haven't read her book but I did watch her December 2010 TED Talk, "Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders" and her December 2013 TED Talk, "So We Leaned In. . .Now What?". So I could talk a bit about those TED Talks and Sandberg's message, but what intrigues me most is her emphasis on stories and the importance of our personal stories that inform, frame, influence, and shape our professional stories, and vice versa.

What also interests me are her stories about Lean In circles and their potential. What does that have to do with a sorority? I can't speak for any other sorority, but I can speak to my experience with Kappa Delta and the Delta Etas of University of South Florida, both way back then and more recently. We are a group of women who support and encourage each other because we have a bond. It is both strange and wonderful to me.

Whether or not they are in a sorority, we need to do a better job of recognizing and acknowledging the talents, capacities, and capabilities of women, and encourage them to be their best selves and to tell their stories.

What Lean In circles can do for women around the world, sororities can also do for women during and after college. Perhaps we can be more intentional about thinking about how we help women prepare for life after college, which seems to be more complex and more difficult. Perhaps we can be more intentional about how we gather and engage with one another. I'm not saying we should dispense with gatherings for purely social reasons because we need those, but even at our retreat, the social was interspersed with the professional and the personal because that is how women tend to think and be when they are with other women.
A sorority experience isn't for every young woman, I know. But I do believe the sisterhood women can find in a sorority, and which can be a lifetime influence, can make a difference in how they see and conduct themselves, can help them be participants at the table, can help them lean in, and can help them develop and tell their own stories.

Thursday, October 1

The time for reconnecting is now, not later

Last night I learned that a former colleague, Jimmy Scherrer, passed away suddenly. Just about a month ago.

What's really, really strange is that I was just thinking about Jimmy last week, wondering how he was doing and thinking I was well overdue in reaching out to him. Now it's too late.

I first met Jimmy when he was teaching in LAUSD. He was an amazing math teacher and coach, getting kids engaged and listening. I got to work with him not only in creating some video for teachers to learn about his teaching strategies, but he helped write some content for at least one graduate course to help teachers learn to see not only math content differently, but to complete reimagine teaching math. I loved working with Jimmy.

We kept in touch sporadically. For a while we emailed regularly while he was working on his doctorate. I was, selfishly, hoping to work with him again because he was such a wonderful educational talent. But then he got really busy as he worked on his degree and dissertation, our communication fell off, and I just didn't reconnect even when I thought of him. I'd heard he finished and had moved to NC State; I'm not sure how I knew that. I kept thinking I should email him to congratulate him. Stuff got in the way, or I was lazy, or a combination of the two. Regardless, I failed to reach out so we did not reconnect.

Maybe that was how it was meant to be but I don't think so. I've learned that when people come to mind, it behooves me to shoot an email to say "Hey!" and let that person know I've been thinking about him or her. That's it. No agenda. Just "Hello!" and "I hope you're okay."

Well, NC State was lucky to have him. I feel fortunate to have known him. I know his students at NC State miss him and were moved by his passion for teaching and learning.

It is too late for me to reconnect with Jimmy. This is, however, a somber reminder that the moment to reconnect is the moment that person comes to mind. Not later because, well, there might not be a later.

As for Jimmy, rest in peace, my friend. You are missed.

Thursday, September 17

Modeling bad behavior in football, and getting away with it

Football is a violent sport. Agreed.

Players are trained to hit each other with a professional caution in spite of all of the factors: whether or not they'll have a job, whether or not the hitter will get hurt, winning or losing, adrenaline, etc.

We applaud big hits. We applaud when the flatted player gets up and walks off the field.

We are outraged by the poor treatment of players whose brains are addled through concussion, whose bodies are battered because of the violence of the sport.

We are, apparently, less outraged by the antics of players like Ndamukong Suh, now of the Miami Dolphins, and only one of many players whose questionable sportsmanship has somehow been deemed okay by the football powers that be. I guess boys will be boys, right? Suh faced a fine for an action that was not a kick but managed to dislodge a player's helmet. Fascinating.

So, this being the case, why are we surprised by the actions of high school players who look to professional players as their models for behavior. After all, if a guy like Suh can get away with behaviors on the field that would get people off the field locked up for assault and battery, perhaps more, then why not? It's part of the game, right? And, after all, boys will be boys.

Sure, the Linden kid got kicked off the football team and will be suspended, but the school board has different concerns about liability, publicity, etc. And the kids who hit a ref were likewise suspended. These kids don't (and shouldn't, in my opinion) have a union or an opportunity to appeal. There is, after all, video.

After the Brady incident and after Suh's ability to get his game suspensions appealed, I'm not surprised kids might think they can get away with incredibly unnecessary violence, especially if a coach's comment had anything to do with the kids who thought they could somehow get even with a ref by taking him out.

But there's a lot of money in football and there are too many of spectators who like to see the big hit even though, in my opinion, that's not the appeal of football.

Until professional players are punished as criminals for criminal on-field behavior, college and high school kids are going to continue to model their behaviors after players they admire, even if the behaviors and the lack of discipline isn't admirable. And even if the players don't want to be role models. It doesn't work that way; just ask Charles Barkley. In 1993, he famously said he's not a role model. Today he realizes it doesn't work that way. Never has, probably never will.

Professional athletes, coaches of those athletes, and owners of those teams need to learn that on-field behavior speaks volumes and much louder than all of the apologies and expressions of disappointment, horror, disgust, and remorse that follow in the carefully constructed and managed sound bites that follow.

Thursday, September 10

In gratitude of caregivers

My mother and my stepfather have dementia; hers seems to be worse than his. On some days. I know I'm not alone. Dozens of Boomers find themselves in the same situation as I. In fact, we could be one humongous support group.

About a month ago my mother fell and broke her hip. This was followed by surgery, which was followed by rehab, and because of the curious mix of dementia and anesthesia, is being followed by more rehab. What happens four weeks from now after she has her follow-up check-up is anyone's guess.

I don't live near my folks. Moving her and my stepdad closer to any of the siblings is improbable. I suspect we all go through the same process of rationalization: keeping them where they are keeps them closer to their doctors, to their church, to their old neighborhood friends. The priests from their church still visit them though they've not been to that church in years. One of my mother's neighborhood friends still visits every few weeks and is still relieved Mom remembers her, or seems to. I think my rationale is as much about those who are still invested in their lives as anything else.

This week I've been able to visit with them. I met with the rehab care team to get a better sense of how she is progressing, to confirm or deny some of her stories. As far as I know my mother was never a supermodel living in a nudist colony in the Pacific islands though she did work for the telephone company in California. Makes me wonder about those telephone operators back in the day.

My stepdad remains at the assisted living facility, leaving the apartment more than he did when she was there, which makes me wonder if he is simply lonely or if he is coming into his own again. And then I wonder what will happen if/when they are again living together. But I can't wonder about that too much or worry about the consequences for at least another four weeks.

Though I know I am not alone and, as I said, people my age could form a nationwide support group, I am still surprised, and yet relieved, when others experience similar things as I. The differences in personality and behavior when she is with me as opposed to when she is with other people, wondering which is the "real" person or if this is simply a fascinating demonstration of the brain at work, when an individual knows she is with strangers and should behave with civility as opposed to being with family when she can be the mean-spirited hag. I confess it is exhausting and I'm still astonished when people tell me what a delight my mother is and how sweet she is.

I am still surprised when she asserts something as fact with considerable authority and confidence when I know that thing hasn't an ounce of truth. Yet it is her truth for that moment in time. And so I am less shocked--and I stopped trying to clarify or correct her months and months ago--when she conveys these incidents as truth and considerably more fascinated to know what informs these fanciful fabrications. Except for the nudist colony. I do not want to know.

And then, suddenly, there is the fullness of her and her lucidity for a moment or two, or maybe several moments. Then it's as though the brain can no longer hold its breath or carry the weight and she, whoever she really is, disappears again.

What's weird is that even some of the fabrications have some elements of truth so I can almost see how she has woven those stories. What's also weird is the consistency of her thinking and personality in some of those stories, even with me who seems to be a trigger that brings out the worst in her.

What's weird is how she says one thing to me and then something else to one of her therapists, and the answer she gives to her therapists is the more socially acceptable answer or statement so it suggests the brain still manages to differentiate.

At the end of a couple of hours, I'm exhausted. Perhaps I react to everything differently because of the emotional baggage I carry to our visits (I've tried leaving it elsewhere, but this baggage is hard to lose) and because of our history. I remain in awe of the therapists and nurses, men and women of all ages, who are so gracious and patient with all of these residents. I can only begin to imagine how exhausted they are at the end of day, and even then I'm sure I'm not close to what they carry away and try to shed before they return to their own families.

Not long after my mother was moved to post-surgery rehab, I was able to connect with someone who likes being a caregiver to the elderly. Perhaps she manages as she does because she has no history with these folks and because she is with them for only an hour or two each visit. But the fact that she is able and willing to visit with my mother and my stepfather, to be my proxy when I cannot be around--physically or emotionally--makes it easier for me to visit knowing there is someone else who can see and hear them from a different vantage point and help me find some balance, emotionally and in perspective.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to try to cope with all of this without the caregivers at assisted living, skilled nursing, and rehab facilities. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in their shoes, but I am immensely grateful for them. Every day.

Wednesday, August 26

The "wretched refuse" coming to America: Some thoughts about immigration

When I was a kid, granted that was a very long time ago, we had to learn this poem. We recited it. We talked about it, though we talked little about the woman who wrote it and why she wrote it. Emma Lazarus became a footnote to her own work. So I didn't know about her work with refugees, that she was of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent, and that really didn't matter. Even as a kid, these words resonated with me and spoke to what supposedly contributed to the greatness of America.

Paying occasional attention to my teachers, I vaguely remember learning about the founding of this country. As I grew older and became a better learner, I paid better attention to my professors but also read on my own. And most of us know that the United States of America was established and founded by immigrants.

Long before the "American Dream" became a thing, this country represented a place where hard work, ingenuity, and perseverance meant the possibility of a new and better life. So the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses came to America and yearned to breathe free.

Some came for freedom, some came to escape, some came for reasons we'll never know. But they seemed to know that setting foot on these shores meant the possibility of a new start.

I don't know why we're so surprised by the immigration issue, but I'm deeply disturbed by incomprehensible amount of ignorance. Setting aside Trump and his combative rhetoric to "get them the hell out of our country," and setting aside the other candidates' waffling bloviating on the topic of immigration, it would be wonderful if we could get objective facts about illegal immigrants and the impact of immigrants in this country. I'm not hopeful that's possible, but I'll start with Pew Research's five facts:

  1. In 2014, illegal immigrants made up 3.5% of the population. I'm not sure how they know that since I'm guessing most illegal immigrants are reluctant to raise their hands and be counted, but let's assume that the number is reasonably accurate. Even if they make up 5% of the population, that's a very minor minority.
  2. Mexicans make up about half of the illegal immigrant population. That doesn't really surprise me given what I read is happening in Mexico: the government seems helpless against the drug cartels and those who claim to be part of law enforcement (I use the word "enforcement" advisedly) seem to shrug off their responsibilities for enforcing anything that looks like a law.
  3. Six states account for 60% of the illegal immigrants. No surprise which states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. Okay, maybe Illinois is a little surprising, but not the others. Nevada has a larger concentrated population of unauthorized immigrants at 8%.
  4. Unauthorized immigrants make up 5.1% of the U.S. labor force. I grew up in Florida and I knew we had a lot of transient migrant workers. They were the one willing to work in the groves and fields to pick the fruit. They were the ones who traveled to work the jobs that no one else was willing to work and employers would hire them because they were willing and cheap and worked off the books. 
  5. About 7% of K-12 students had at least one unauthorized immigrant parent in 2012.
Now it's possible, even likely, those numbers have increased over the years. It's probable that many of the immigrants are criminals or have criminal pasts, but that's likely true of some of the people who come in the front door.

I know there are plenty of people who don't want the storm-tossed, the homeless, or the wretched refuse. But what we don't know is how many of those who struggle to come to this country do so because they can no longer be and do in their own countries. I've had taxi drivers who were engineers, doctors, and teachers in their own countries but don't have the money (yet) to get the certifications they follow their passions in this country, but they do what they do so their families will have a better life. I've had students whose parents came to this country precisely so their children could be educated in this country but who want to return to their home countries to give back so others don't have to flee to have a better life.

Perhaps I'm naive in thinking that many unauthorized immigrants often work more than job so their children can have a better life or to protect their loved ones from unimaginable harm and persecution in their own countries. I've no doubt some percentage of those who come here come to escape legal ramifications in their own country, but despicable people are born here, too.

I can't help but wonder what talent is among those unauthorized immigrants. 

Perhaps it is romantic and ideal to claim that we are a nation of immigrants, but I know my mother's father was not born in this country and my father's grandfather was not born in this country. That makes me a generational immigrant. I know that PBS offers a course with one of its objectives being that students will be able to "[a]rticulate that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and that America's immigrant past is reflected in our language, culture, and traditions."

In 1980, The Jazz Singer popularized Neil Diamond's "Coming to America." In his lyrics Diamond states that some are never looking back, which is true, but I believe many continue to look back because they miss home and what it means to them. They come to this country to survive: because they have no other choice.

I know that many came to this country by force rather than by choice and we are foolish to ignore the impact slavery has had and has on this country.

I know that too often fear and ignorance inform people's impressions of the superiority of their race or their culture.

I know that if we are honest with ourselves, and we are rarely honest with ourselves, we would admit we're all a bit racist at times in our lives.

But I also believe that when we tap into that which is at root of the formation of this country, when we hear the echoes of those first immigrants and are reminded of the power of the possibility of freedom and choice, then we are not so surprised by the words of Emma Lazarus's poem, by the electrifying image of the Mother of Exiles: the Statue of Liberty.

Only in America could there be such a presidential candidate as Donald Trump. Only in America could there be a meeting of Black Lives Matter activists and presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. Only in America could activists routinely disrupt candidates' speeches. Only in America can the voiceless hope to have a voice. [Only in America can lobbyists and SuperPACs buy legislation and elections under the guise of self-righteously proclaimed democracy, but that's a different post.]

There is so much that makes this country great and so much that tears at the greatness of this country. I think we have forgotten what made us great, though I'm sure we'd all disagree on what has made us great. I smile at that because I think that disagreement and the passion for our arguments is part of what makes us great, but that's another post.

In the end, I don't think there's an easy answer or solution for those who have come into the country without authorization. We know they come for various reasons and often because their own countries are imploding so whatever we choose to do is resolving the symptom and not the problems over which we have little or no control. But perhaps by changing some of our authorization systems we make it easier for immigrants to become more than what they were. Some will always yearn for home and perhaps becoming more than they were will give them the opportunity to return home to work to make a difference. Still others will choose to remain in this country and try to give back in whatever small and large ways they may know how. Perhaps some of us who were born here can learn what it means to be grateful for what we have. Perhaps.

Monday, June 29

The sun never sets on KD sisterhood

Just recently I attended a weekend retreat with sisters of the Delta Eta chapter of Kappa Delta. There were some "old" sisters I remembered and some sisters who pledged after I had graduated from USF.

I was there at the behest and encouragement of my sorority little sister, and I went with some reservations about how well I would fit in. After all, I never married and I have no children. I have found that when I am with women around my age, the conversation inevitably focuses on family, children, and grandchildren so I can only listen as I have nothing to contribute. But I also take my camera because, if nothing else, I can take pictures.

Several of the sisters have been far more involved with and connected to the sorority post-graduation. In fact, to be honest, I scarcely glance at the sorority magazine when it comes to my house. There is an alumnae group of KDs in my area and I have made half-hearted attempts to get together with them, but my reluctance is informed by the same sense of a lack of true connection. My interests, passions, and lifestyle (never married, no children; I'm sure there's an acronym for that) just don't ever seem to align with most of the women.

But, that's not the point. And I was reminded of that this weekend when I gathered with these women, these sisters, for a weekend with the theme "The sun never sets on KD sisterhood." Did I spend a lot of time just listening? Yes. But I also remembered the songs we sang which are the songs they still sing. I remembered the difference my "class" made when we made a tiny inroad into diversity history, and I'm pleased to see that trend continues.

More importantly, because of the sisterhood, we instantly shared something. When I was in college, that was all rhetoric. I was too young to think about lifetime relationships. But now, nearly 40 (!!!!) years later, I truly understand the power of lifetime relationships.

I have been fairly close to my sorority little sister over the years, but lost touch with many of those in her pledge class. Memories flooded back when I saw again the faces of Barbara, Karen, Denise, and Angie. More memories were dredged up as we "remembered when" and recalled not only times but names. Synapses struggled to reconnect but did so, perhaps falteringly at times, as the younger sisters sang songs that have not passed my vocal cords in decades.

By Friday night not only had I reconnected with women who were precious to me, but I made connections with women who have become more significant for me. There were no strangers, only unfamiliar faces and names. I am so delighted to have reconnected with that pledge class and to see the women they have become and are. I am equally delighted to have met new sisters and to have begun to form relationships that may deepen into friendships.

In life, not all of us have siblings or strong and deep relationships with our siblings. That's not what KD sisterhood is about, and I had forgotten that. On the USF Kappa Delta web site, the reasons for being a part of the KD sisterhood are simple. "Members encourage each other to be their best selves and hold each other accountable. Best of all, the Kappa Delta experience allows members to meet and learn from others with different backgrounds and interests."

So much of the Kappa Delta tradition reinforces that and this weekend retreat reminded me that not only does the sun never set on KD sisterhood, but reinforced the truth of AOT.

Monday, June 15

Slippery Slope from Helping to Enabling

At what point does helping become enabling?

I like to help. Most of the time. When it comes to help people manage their technology, especially when they're trying to set up for a presentation, I'm more than willing to try to help them troubleshoot.

There are times, however, I find myself "helping" colleagues and then wonder if just maybe they could have done whatever themselves or if I would have served them better by showing them what to do the next time. There are situations in which time is a factor and it is just easier to do it. There are other times it's clear the individual doesn't really want to know and I realize I'm just going to get called again, that I've contributed to a situation of learned helplessness and I've definitely crossed the line from helping to enabling. It's not even about being thanked when I help, or the occasional sense of entitlement from those asking for help, though I admit the latter is grating.

I did a little research on the difference and, sadly, almost all of the articles and examples are about various forms of addiction. But I gleaned enough to realize that when I do not allow or expect someone else to develop a capability they could easily have, then I've enabled them not to learn. Of course, as I just said, there are those who just don't want to learn. In those cases, I may have to take more drastic actions so as not to be expected to be at their technological beck and call.

Here's what's also interesting to me. Most of these folks are educators. It reminds me how rarely we see behaviors and attitudes in ourselves that we do not or cannot tolerate in others and certainly do not want to permit in our classrooms.

Educators are constantly fussing about students not taking ownership and responsibility of their learning. Yet, when a teacher asks for help for the same thing over and over again, that teacher is modeling a different behavior. Kids figure that out. Fast.

So I will continue to help when and where needed. I will, however, raise my expectations that those I'm helping will learn some of the fundamentals I've done repeatedly for them, or just go deaf when they call my name.

Monday, June 8

Game of Thrones: A Perspective

My most important disclaimer: I've not read the books. I started to but, quite honestly, it's a big series and I really didn't want to be disappointed if I loved the books and the show didn't emphasize whatever I thought was important.

I've been following the online outrage when something doesn't follow the books, though I find it absurd to think that everything in each of those books could possibly be included in the show. Peter Jackson had to make choices with The Fellowship of the Rings and subsequent films. It's not as though the Game of Thrones showrunners have that much more time.

But I have to say that the whole Ramsay/Sansa marriage consummation scene was much ado about nothing. It was tastefully filmed and it should have come as no surprise that Ramsay would not make love to his new bride. It came as know surprise that he wanted to show off in front of Theon, to make them both suffer. Although why the camera spent so much time on Theon made no sense. Maybe it's because his suffering continues at multiple levels?

The most recent episode of Game of Thrones was, in my opinion, even more ado about nothing. I was more disturbed by what's-his-face insisting on a young girl than some of the other stuff, which was blandly predictable. Sure the Sons of Harpy was a smidge of surprise, but not really. That Dany reunited with Drogon was nice, but that whole arena segment was underwhelming. We got to see that Dany still loves Jorah, that Daario is a wise ass, that Tyrion can hold his own, that the Unsullied are apparently less daunting that we were led to believe. But we knew at least one of the dragons had to show up some time, so that was as good a time as any because we know that Dany has to demonstrate her leadership, especially now that she has Tyrion to advice her.

People were upset with the sacrifice scene. Why? We knew that was coming a few episodes ago. The whole Stubborn Stannis plot line has worn thin. I no longer care. I think he's a dolt. I'm not sure what I was supposed to think he was feeling during the burning of his only child, but he didn't seem to be feeling much of anything. He bores me. I find nothing compelling about him. He seems more an annoyance and diversion to any meaningful action that anything important.

Jon Snow. He is a nice guy and I'm intrigued to see what might happen with the Ghost Walkers now that we've seen the rather terrifying results of losing a lot of one's army to them.

What I like about Game of Thrones is there are no clear-cut "good" guys. There are very flawed people who are trying to do the right thing most of the time, but who still have their own agendas.

What I don't like about Game of Thrones is the multiple plot lines because none of them can be treated with any degree of depth or focus. But because I haven't read the books, I don't know how well Martin interleaved or handled the multiple plot lines.

I agree with Jen Trolio (http://www.vox.com/2015/6/8/8748255/game-of-thrones-shocking-moments) that it just seems as though Benioff and Weiss are checking off plot points to get to the finale. My fear is that the finale is going to be chock full of all sorts that it will be underwhelmingly mediocre. But I'll watch it, and then I'll decide if I'm going to stick with the show which may have already jumped its ghost walker shark.

Monday, May 11

A Mother's Day reflection

My mother has dementia.

I know I'm not alone on this particular journey and that many of us whose mothers are in this darkened corridor battle guilt, frustration, impatience, and more. For some of us the journey is complicated because of the woman our mothers once were and the nature of our relationships. The person they seem to be now is often a dramatic change or a magnified version of what may be the worst or best qualities.

When I talked with my parents' neurologist some time ago, I was told that people manage their dementia differently. That some "go ugly." My mother is one of those. We were not close and our relationship was always marked (marred?) by tensions. Today I am annoyed that I feel guilty for doing what seems to be the best thing for my folks and that I am so impatient with their demanding natures without any apparent sense of the toll of their expectations. Today I feel pained that I see her less than she was, for seeing her stripped of certain filters that show what kind of individual she might really be. It could be a crippling confluence of emotions, and sometimes it is.

I spent a few hours with my folks on Friday and several hours with them on Saturday. It took me a day or so to recover. We went out on Saturday and I had to remind myself how rarely they have this sort of outing, how they must relish, in their own ways, being able to be out and to move around and to see and hear different things. I had to remind myself that their comments and their truculence is not personal. I had to remind myself to be patient about repeating things over and over and over again. I had to remind myself not to be frustrated that some things stick, though sometimes a little crookedly in their memories, while others do not. I had to remind myself not to be annoyed that some moments in time morph over the hours to a completely new story and that it's not really worth trying to correct that for anyone.

It would be so easy not to visit ever again. Not to make the effort, which seems to be appreciated by my stepfather but also seems never enough for my mother, which is the story of our lives. Not to call periodically so she has another connection to the outside world, which is getting increasingly cloudier for her.

I do not like my mother, and I certainly do not like the person she is today. But I do what I do out of a sense of responsibility because she is my mother and because I honor that in spite of and because of the nature of our relationship, I am who I am. And that in spite of and because of the nature of our relationship, I will strive to be a better version of myself. And for that I must and do thank my mother.

Tuesday, April 28

The Good Wife and democracy in America

In Episode 19 of The Good Wife, Alicia Florrick thought she had won the election for State's Attorney. Whatever. I didn't like that plot line and wondered about the trajectory of the show if she actually was in the SA's office, but I was not expecting Season 6, Episode 19 to cause me such ojida, such nausea.

In my opinion, Alicia has tried to be the good soldier. While she is not St. Alicia, she mostly strives to err on the side of ethics and integrity. What I witnessed in Season 6, Episode 19 left me wondering how we can call ourselves a democracy. And why, with SuperPacs and lobbyists, any of us bother to vote.

In a critical scene [spoiler alert!], Alicia is told by the Chair of the Democratic National Committee to stand down, that "the party" will find her a role and will take care of her. She was told her sacrifice was for the good of The Party, that they could not afford to lose the majority or call attention to other elections. Then she was betrayed by a party lawyer who previously had claimed to be for ethics and integrity but who, in front of the election board, claimed Alicia had been lying to him. Why? "Two-thirds majority." In other words, her individual role, integrity, worth, etc. was sacrificed to and for The Party.

I wanted to throw up.

Today I read this article about our stunted democracy. It echoes some of what I was thinking the other night as I wondered how our elections and electoral machinations really look to the rest of the world, and I wondered why anyone would want to replicate the US-style of democracy.

Every year Americans complain about robo-calls, emails, direct mail, and incessant radio and TV ads. Every year Americans complain about candidates who campaign dirty and that, because of SuperPacs and lobbyists and what we think we learn by watching The West Wing and The Good Wife, we are all being manipulated by half-truths and spinning so it's a wonder the candidates can remember what they think they stand for. . . today. . .this ten minutes.

Meanwhile the professional media people and amateurs are eager to find something that gives them the opportunity to point a finger and shout "Aha!" and chortle that they "found out" something suspicious or whatever about a candidate.

Our democratic system is seriously messed up. State and federal not-really civil servants are too busy protecting their legacies, their potential libraries, and their re-elections to do anything that might be meaningful. They don't want to make the hard decisions because they might not be re-elected. That's like saying you won't buy a new car or computer because you want the latest and greatest features. Ain't gonna happen. So failing to make hard decisions to get re-elected means failing to do the job for which you were elected. The irony is appalling.

What isn't messed up is that I have the freedom to say this. I also have the freedom to try to change things, but, like many others, I'm perplexed how to go about that. The laws favor the people who are running for election not those who want to vote. Lobbyists will also be closer to my representatives and better able to "leverage" their interests and inclinations. All I have is a vote. And we've shown that voting the current bums out of office seems to mean we only get different bums.

And yet, the power of the American system is that we can keep voting and we have more than one choice and as long as The Party allows people to practice democracy, we can exercise our right to vote. On the other hand, if The Party spends much of its time making sure its preferred candidate gets and stays in power, well then, we're a complete failure at democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, Volume II (1835):
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described, might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom; and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people. Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite; they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain. By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.
So much has changed; so little has changed.

Sunday, April 26

Be so good

It's been making the Facebook rounds. Yes, I shared it, but with stated mixed emotions. I like the concept that when someone is really good at something it's hard to ignore that skill or talent or ability.

I don't like the idea of striving to be really good at something just to garner attention. I get that. I get wanted to be recognized and wondering what else I can do so others can't or won't ignore. I get feeling defeated because I am being ignored or I'm not being recognized. Believe me, I've lived this and live it.

But here's the thing: it's really dangerous for me to attach my self-worth to what others think about me. And maybe I like working in the shadows, which, interestingly, is often true. I like being the power behind the scene. Sure, I get annoyed when people take all of the glory for something they didn't do, when they don't acknowledge my work and that of others. But you know, that's going to catch up with them sooner or later.

Most days I am confident in my knowledge and my abilities. Most days.

Some days I am not. Some days I pound myself to an emotional pulp. Some days I wonder why I bother trying because there is someone better than I am at whatever it is. Heads up! Someone is always going to be better at something than I am. While there are still many unbroken records and streaks in athletics, most have been surpassed by another generation of athletes. Will some remain unbroken? Sure, but that won't stop people from trying to break them.

Even so, I don't think it's always about breaking the record or being so good you can't be ignored. I think the everyday reality for most of us is just doing our best. For most of us, our goal might be learning something new or learning how to do something better. Most of us are grateful for the opportunity to stretch a little, to find a better or more creative ways of doing what we do, to hone our crafts and refine our skills, and to help others get their footing and find their way should they be in the same line of work or the same profession.

In his autobiography, Ben Franklin stated he asked himself these two questions every day. In the morning he asked, "What good shall I do this day?" and in the evening he asked, "What good have I done this day?"

It occurs to me that being so good others can't ignore me is profoundly selfish. Yes, I want to be recognized for my abilities and talents. But I also want to use my knowledge and skills to help others in whatever ways make sense. And, at the end of the day, I want to know that I did what I could to make my world, my small spheres of influence a better place. At some point in my day, someone will acknowledge, even if only to themselves, something I did that mattered. In that way, perhaps, I won't really be ignored even though I won't be publicly recognized either. I can live with that.

Thursday, April 23

The power of the shush

I'm being facetious. I've been sitting in an office area adjacent to a school library for most of the morning and, for most of the morning, I've heard people "ssshhh" others.

What's funny to me is that the ssshhh-ing is often louder than the murmuring of the students. It's not like the kids are taking a test, but they are supposed to be working on something. And, apparently, in absolute silence. High school students. Absolutely quiet. Okay, well, I'm all for wishful thinking and optimism.

I've been at other schools in which teachers have sought to master the power of "ssshhh," or the power of the shush. With little success. Mostly with no success, to be honest.

In one situation, I was able to witness the escalation of the "ssshhh." The teacher began with the short, quick exhaled "ssshhh." Fine. That worked with the group of elementary students for about, mmmm, 30 seconds.

Then the murmuring began again and the volume increased ever so slightly. The teacher exhaled a slightly longer and slightly louder "ssshhh" accompanied by the raised eyebrow. Near silence for several heartbeats.

The student noise moved quickly to chatter. The "ssshhh" came sooner and louder followed by the teacher getting up and walking purposefully around the room, stopping to whisper to select students, generally the provocateurs of the disruption.

The teacher returned to the table to work again with the small group of students and had barely begun when the chatter erupted and a bit louder. The teacher stood up and executed a "ssshhh" accompanied by spittle and a general classroom-scanning stinkeye. Most students quieted, a few giggled.

The room remained quiet for a few minutes except for the flipping of pages and scratch of pencils. Then a student asked another a question and it was like the top popped off shaken bottle of pop (or soda, if you prefer). Whoosh! Chatter, though, mostly about the work at hand. Even so, the teacher really, really, REALLY wanted quiet so the teacher stood up and practically screamed "You need to be quiet!!"

Stunned silence. The minute hand on the wall clock clicked. Students put their heads down to work and finished their work in relative silence but that's because they started passing notes. I did not giggle but I did struggle not to smile because, in my wanderings around the room, the kids were asking each other clarifying questions or to borrow something. In other words, they were mostly on task.

I still wonder if they would have stayed on task had the teacher allowed them to talk quietly or if the teacher knew even quiet talking would lead to the students going off task.

I've been in meetings and movie theaters when others have tried to shush offending talkers around them. I think the talkers do what they do for a couple of reasons. First, they believe that whatever they have to say is Vitally Important and Cannot Wait. Second, if what they have to say could wait, they don't realize how loudly they whisper or that speaking softly often is louder than they realize. Third, as they try to have their quiet conversations, regardless of the situation, they don't realize that they start to speak louder to talk over what's background noise to them.

Recently I was in a workshop and the people at the back table were talking about a point made by the presenter. The presenter was still presenting, of course, and she was speaking loudly so the back table started talking a little more loudly to hear themselves so the presenter started talking a bit more loudly, and so on. The back table was shushed by another table caught between the speaker and the back table. I've been in situations in which the loud talkers looked embarrassed or mortified and others in which the loud talkers looked annoyed they'd been shushed. This group seemed a bit embarrassed and got quiet so the speaker was able to modulate her own volume.

All in all, I know there is some power in the shush, even if fleeting, depending on the situation and those who are being reprimanded for being noisy--and their belief in their right to be noisy.

Sunday, March 15

Writing for one's self, and the world

Back in the day, writing teachers spent time talking about rhetorical patterns. Confused but well-meaning teachers addressed often confused or lazy students who believed that only one form of writing could exist in, for example, a cause and effect paper. That there was little or no room for description or persuasion or definition. Then teachers abandoned rhetorical patterns and, in my opinion, rightly so. I thought they were limiting and misleading.

English and writing teachers also talked about literary criticism. Literary theory became a big thing and graduate students sweated over theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, Bahktin, Bloom, and Chomsky. Students stepped boldly into schools of literary theory, advocating for structuralism or poststructuralism or new historicism or deconstruction or new criticism or something else. Some of us threw up our hands in disgust or boredom with a "Fie on elitist, narrow, and reductionist thinking" and retreated to thinking about the work in context and yes, authorial intent. Reading as they might want to be read. Or maybe that was just me.

And yet, the truth is that we each bring to any text our own experiences, perceptions, biases, and other untagged baggage.

In his opening paragraphs of "The Death of the Author," Barthes wrote a series of questions related to the meaning and intent of a single sentence:
It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes (p. 2).
Towards the end of this piece Barthes wrote
. . . a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: . .  (p. 6).
Should an author's intentions matter? It is a good and reasonable question, but we know that some readers will attempt to respect the author's intentions and others will choose to read the book as they want, or as they need.

Quite recently an author reflected on the "ownership" of one's text, which could serve as a warning to any writer who believes he has the full and total control over what happens to a manuscript he thinks he wants published. Yes, any writer has full and total control over her manuscript. . .until she hands it over to the publisher and its editorial and marketing teams. In his reflection, Dikkon Eberhart shares a story of his poet father, Richard Eberhart, who listened while a professor explicated one of Eberhart's poems, and then dismissed Eberhart's observations about the genesis of the work.

It reminded me of an occasion when I was a freshman in college and helped write the analysis of a poem for a friend; okay, when I wrote the analysis of a poem for a friend. I had a field day. My friend got a C on the paper; she failed to tell me her professor had written the poem.

Robert Frost is a better example of what can happen not only with a writer's works but a writer's life. In "Extracting the Woodchuck," (Harvard Magazine, Jan-Feb 2014), we are told of a biography that influenced a short story by Joyce Carol Oates and how those works tipped at the legend that is Robert Frost. Frost's letters, his critics and his friends, and his poems shine a textured light on the man who was the artist, and we are reminded that the artist and his works are greater than the sum of their collective parts.

In "Robert Frost, The Art of Poetry No. 2" (Paris Review, Summer-Fall 1960), the writer tells us
Frost did not like the idea of being stuck, as he necessarily would be, with attitudes expressed in two hours of conversation. As an aggravation of this, he knew that no transcript taken from the tape could catch the subtleties of voice which give life and point to many of his statements.
Frost was also well aware how people interpreted his work, and, based on other interviews and some of his personal writings, many read what they wanted to read into those works even if it had nothing to do with what prompted Frost to write the poem in the first place.

And that is, of course, the truth of the matter. No matter what we do, no matter how carefully we try to craft our words, people will read what they want--perhaps what they need.

As Dikkon Eberhart observes, much as Barthes noted, what happens with and to a text is out of the control of the author once it has left the safety of the author's control. As soon as it out in the world, it belongs to the world and the world will do with it as it sees fit. To me, that is the one of gorgeously powerful beauties of story and language.

Thursday, February 26

Rahm Emanuel and what the mayoral race means

Actually, I don't know what the mayoral race means. Not really. But I do find some of the implications interesting and it's fun to watch the pundits pile on as though they really know what's going on.

What we do know is this: Mayor Emanuel did not get the margin of votes he needed to escape a run-off. So now he and former Senator and current Cook County commissioner "Chuy" Garcia go head-to-head. Did the other three candidates siphon off enough votes to make sure Emanuel didn't get the votes he needed? Maybe. Or those votes could have tipped more in Garcia's favor. Meh. We'll never know. Move on.

First, Mr. Garcia needs some help with his on-TV and on-stage presence. He has yet to look comfortable there. In my uninformed opinion, Mr. Garcia got as many votes he did because people were voting against Mr. Emanuel.

As for Mr. Garcia, well, no one seems to be sure what he stands for or how he would make Chicago work more efficiently or effectively if elected mayor. He has the endorsement of Karen Lewis, CTU president. Anyone who knows anything about Chicagoland politics knows that Ms. Lewis was planning to run for mayor but was sidelined with a brain tumor. Even so, she remains a force to be reckoned with and clearly has the ear of Mr. Garcia. Just sayin'.

On the other hand, Garcia is well-known among the Latino population and is viewed with admiration and respect. Cook County commissioners have not always been known for their honesty and integrity, so that he is an exception to that rule is good. However, he has to be realistic about the deep financial problems of Chicago and he has to be realistic about solutions, none of which will be popular and all of which will be hard.

I'm concerned there are any points of reference about personality in the mayoral race. This isn't or shouldn't be a popularity contest, and no one should be surprised by Mr. Emanuel's personality. We saw him in action in the White House and we've seen him in action as mayor.

I've read a lot of the articles analyzing the differences between Mr. Emanuel and Mr. Garcia. Nothing new there. The question is who can get the job done? Who can step up to all of the hard problems; make the hard and unpopular decisions; address or ignore the sniping from all sides, especially the special interest groups; and still keep focus on the job that needs to be done?

We know that last year's school closings are still a big issue in Chicago. We also know that plenty of the current schools are still struggling. We know that solving the problems of education is not an easy one even if we don't talk about pensions and union contracts.

No one wants to experience cuts. No one likes austerity; just ask the Greeks. But we cannot expect "the government"--city, state, or federal--to pay when "the government" has no money. Why? Because "the government" is us: the taxpayers. If we can't afford it, we can't have it. It doesn't matter if we think we deserve whatever "it" is.

I have to wonder if some of the folks who voted against Mr. Emanuel did so because he is not Mayor Daley because they are remembering the Mayor Daley who did so much good for the city and the county. That same Mayor Daley who did not address some of the hard problems and added a few new ones to the mix.

Somehow, I think, Mayor Emanuel has to convince voters that he is the guy who can step up to the hard problems, who can weather all the criticism any mayor is going to get, but who is going to focus on the tasks at hand. . .and that he is and can be a nice guy who is more than his reputation with the 1-percenters and his friendship with Governor Rauner.

I think Mayor Emanuel and Governor Rauner are uniquely suited to these troubled times in the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago. I think they have to be coaches, though. They have to help Chicago and Illinois realize that we are well below .500 in our conference and that we don't have a chance at a winning season unless we make some hard choices.

Maybe I do know what this race means. I don't know much about Mr. Garcia except what I've seen and heard in his campaign ads and read about it. In my opinion, not a lot of substance. I'm not sure Mr. Garcia can help move Chicago out of its malaise. I think Mr. Garcia could be a useful buffer for Mr. Emanuel to try to repair or moderate Mr. Emanuel's relationship with Ms. Lewis who seems mostly pissed off that Mr. Emanuel did not approach her for her counsel on school-related issues.

In the long run, I think this race is an indicator of whether or not Chicago can and will survive and thrive. We'll see what the people of Chicago believe, but actions after April 7th will be far more important than the words between now and then.

Monday, February 23

Performance Reviews: Useful or Useless?

Samuel A. Culbert, professor of management and organizations at UCLA Anderson, believes performance reviews serve no useful purpose. Actually, they don't serve any purpose other than to waste time and increase anxiety.

His editorial in Thursday's edition of Chicago Tribune is bluntly titled "Get rid of the performance review." The tag line on his web site reads "It's time to put the performance review out of its misery."

I remember doing and getting performance reviews. I remember the HR team sending out reminders about how to do performance reviews, explaining that no one should get a 5 (exceptional) on anything unless they have really been, well, exceptional, and also explaining that performance review notes from the manager had to be reviewed by HR before they could be shared with the employee. To avoid lawsuits. Well, they didn't say that last part but it was clear that liability was a concern.

I hated doing and getting performance reviews. We had to stretch too hard to figure out goals and objectives that really made sense, that could be achieved, and that were measurable. And yet, as Dr. Culbert points out, we have to hold employees accountable.

At some of my employers, there was talk of 360 reviews, but those never happened. I don't know if it was lack of time, lack of a protocol to do the 360 reviews, or if no one really wanted to know what the results might be. I fear the latter.

Dr. Culbert prescribes replacing the performance review with the performance preview. Slippery that. But this isn't Dr. Culbert's first dance at this particular party. He first published an article in 2008 and in the Wall Street Journal on the same topic. It was in the WSJ article he first mentioned his concept of the preview.

Now before I talk about that, take a moment, please, to consider the words "review" and "preview." A review is done after the fact. It's like taking a test and getting a grade. Depending on one's interaction with one's manager, the manager may have no idea there are any real problems until the review. By then, it's too late. The preview, on the other hand, takes place before. And it's at that point we can see how there could be a discernible and interesting difference between "review" and "preview."

In the WSJ article, Dr. Culbert describes the performance preview.
The alternative to one-side-accountable, boss-administered/subordinate-received performance reviews is two-side, reciprocally accountable, performance previews. . . .
The boss's assignment is to guide, coach, tutor, provide oversight and generally do whatever is required to assist a subordinate to perform successfully. That's why I claim that the boss-direct report team should be held jointly accountable for the quality of work the subordinate performs. . .
. . . Previews are problem-solving, not problem-creating, discussions about how we, as teammates, are going to work together even more effectively and efficiently than we've done in the past. They feature descriptive conversations about how each person is inclined to operate, using past events for illustrative purposes, and how we worked well or did not work well individually and together. . . .
Realistic assessment of someone's positive qualities requires replacing scores on standardized checklists with inquiry. As a result, step No. 1 in giving effective feedback almost always involves "active questioning" inquiry. Inquiry contrasts with most performance reviews, which begin with how the evaluator sees the individual and what that boss has already decided most needs enhancing. Both participants need an answer to the most significant issue at hand: "Given who I am and what I'm learning about this other individual, what's the best way for us to complement one another in getting work accomplished with excellence?". . . 
Bosses should be asking all the questions that occur to them in inquiring about how a subordinate thinks he or she can best perform the job. Then, after they have exhausted their questions, they should ask the subordinate for what else they need to know. At a minimum, they should be asking "How will you be going about it?" and "Specifically, what help do you need from me?"
When I was responsible for doing performance reviews, I tried to spend time during my 1:1 meetings to review the performance review documents to measure and monitor progress. We also talked about whether or not we needed adjust any of the objectives, so, when needed, we'd document that. The performance review wasn't really a review, but we used that document as a resource to determine if and how the employee was going to be successful in completing his or her tasks and how well I was doing to ensure that employee's success.

Maybe I was ahead of my time on that.

In the long run, I don't think we should eradicate performance reviews. I think we need to refine the structure and structure of the performance review. But I also think managers need to be better trained in helping their employees write their goals and objectives, in managing their employees' expectations about those performance reviews, and in monitoring that performance. There are too many managers who don't bother to think about the performance review until it's time to complete them and, again, that's too late. The manager who meets regularly with his or her employees should schedule time, maybe only once a month, to do a review of the review. That helps everyone stay on track and, I think, means the review and the process of review might actually be useful. . .for the employee, the manager, and the company.

Sunday, February 8

Harper Lee and her not new novel

Go Set a Watchman is the soon-to-be published not-new novel. The press has been having a field day speculating about the manuscript, positing conspiracy theories, suggesting that Lee's lawyer is claiming to have uncovered a manuscript that was not really written by Harper Lee, and offering up theories that there are many who are trying to take advantage of Harper Lee.

We could ask why. Why go after Harper Lee? Sure, To Kill a Mockingbird is and has been a hugely popular book. Sure, people have long wondered why Lee never wrote another novel. Sure, people have often talked about Lee's unwillingness to be a celebrity and public figure, calling her reclusive. So it stands to reason the controversy would get a bit out of hand, with some asserting that Lee isn't capable of knowing and acknowledging the history of Go Set a Watchman while others state she remains "sharp as a tack."

Several, including The New York Times, have reported that Go Set a Watchman was actually Harper Lee's first novel, but her editor rejected it and that Lee was told to write a "version from Scout's perspective as a young girl."

Harper Lee is not alone in being a hugely successful writer who chose to publish no other novels. Others include Margaret Mitchell, Ralph Ellison, Boris Pasternak, Syliva Plath, and Emily Bronte. While J.D. Salinger wrote several short stories, his only novel was Catcher in the Rye.

I appreciated Mary Schmich's column stating that this may be a mystery that doesn't need solving.

Let's assume she is well enough and being taken care of, that she has enough of her sensibilities to respond the way her caretakers, family, and lawyer suggest. And let's assume that it's really up to her, then, and them to make the decision about whether or not to publish the thing. And let's assume it really is a manuscript believed lost. Which makes the find that much more exciting.

I'm content to leave the conspiracy speculation to others. I'm not sure I'm going to add my name to the pre-order list as I'm not sure I want to read about Scout as a grown-up though it might be interesting to read the story that might have been intended to be first, and think about what Lee needed to do to construct the story that preceded and informed Go Set a Watchman.