Breaking Point

How much can a guy take?

Today I watched my daughter beat my personal record in the 500 free. I know the book of parenting states very clearly that parents should celebrate whenever their offspring surpass them.

To which I say bullshit.

After I get this little run over with on Sunday, I will begin my quest to reclaim the family crown.  Just in case, please get Lance Armstrong’s pharmacist on the line (that was for you T!).

And yesterday, I watched years of personal economic progress erode in a few hours.  

So I guess yesterday I had my assets handed to me and today I had my ass handed to me.

At least a woman was nominated Vice-President.

Money Sense

Remember receiving partial credit for some wrong answers in math because of a silly calculation error on one of several steps? If you were to ask me to explain the financial crisis that boiled over two weeks ago, I’d probably receive partial credit.  

I’m well educated and I read the Economist and the Wall Street Journal regularly, so if my knowledge is incomplete, I wonder how well the “average” person on the street understands it. Admittedly, it can get fairly abstract with references to “hot money,” “packaged securities,” and “commercial paper markets.”  

I would not be surprised if you understand it better than me, but could you explain it to my 13 and 16 year olds well enough that they could in turn explain it to their friends? The clearer it is made, the better the chances of truly fixing it and holding the people responsible for it accountable. 

Seems to me that 98% of television commentators reporting on the crisis assume listeners are far more financially savvy than they most likely are. Paul Solman of the NewsHour is the exception to the rule and I propose an annual Paul Solman award for excellence in economic reporting.

As a result of this fiasco, we’ll probably hear even more calls for K-12 public schools to teach financial literacy.

I guess I’d support that with three conditions.

First, don’t try to squeeze it into the existing curriculum. Recognize the limits of time and explain what can be eliminated and why so that there’s adequate time for the new financial literacy content. Ted Sizer refers to this process as the “politics of subtraction” which is another way of saying some groups will inevitably be upset with whatever is eliminated.

Second, openly acknowledge the normative nature of financial literacy teaching and learning. Put differently, one’s values shape one’s financial decision making. More specifically, budgets are based on priorities and priorities are based on values. Different values, different priorities, different budgetary decisions. Some of the strongest advocates of financial literacy curricula are conservatives who often bristle at value-laden teaching whether it takes the form of character education, sex education, or social justice-related teaching and learning. 

Third, don’t expect increased knowledge to automatically lead to changed behavior. This is the most important point because this is the overarching premise of the financial literacy adherents. They assume if young people know more about personal finance, they’ll manage their money more responsibly.

I don’t believe that because children and adolescents learn far more about personal finance by watching the adults around them manage or mismanage their finances. 

You can’t design a school curriculum that instills the kind of discipline I developed watching my dad work extremely hard, spend cautiously, and save diligently. 

I could study a stack of finance texts closely enough to pass any broker exam, but absent my dad’s daily example during my formative years, I’d still be unprepared for adult financial responsibilities.

Two Types of Self Esteem

Interesting discussion in class today. My partner was innocently describing a new Seattle Public Schools policy that requires students to maintain a 2.0 or “C” average. Related to that policy, teachers are required to assign “N’s” (no credit) to low performing students rather than “F’s”. Students who earn an “N” have to repeat the course if it’s required for graduation, but their grade point average isn’t altered.

This set off a fair number of our middle and high school teachers in training who expressed genuine frustration that this was further evidence that today’s students are coddled unnecessarily.

I was intrigued because many of them are products of the helicopter parent, child-centered, CA Self Esteem Commission generation.  

In their view students need to be woken up and held far more accountable for their lack of effort. In arguing that point they referenced not only the students’ future unsympathetic employers, but the U.S.’s declining status in the world.  

As I listened, I thought about two types of self esteem, the superficial kind that is fleeting and the substantive kind that is lasting.  

I also thought about our recently held convocation, a traditional “first day of the academic year” celebration. There I stood in my academic gown with my colleagues clapping for the 700+ first year students as they paraded into the gym.

Since they hadn’t really done anything to warrant our adulation, my students would probably argue that was a fitting act of closure to their previous eighteen years of being coddled.  (Truth be told, it was their parents or financial benefactors who deserved our applause.)  

Superficial, fleeting self esteem is the result of being acknowledged, affirmed, adored, over and over.  No one is cut from the team, everyone gets the award, smile stickers all around. Positive encouragement is important, but substantive, lasting self esteem is the result of an evolving sense of efficacy. It’s the growing recognition that “I can do things that matter.”

I can read fluently, I can make music, I can speak a second language, I can write clearly, I can lead a small group, I can resolve problems peacefully, I can swim long distances, I can design a website, I can cook a meal, I can hit a backhand, I can rebuild an engine, I can make a positive difference in my community.

As one becomes increasingly competent in those types of activities, they become less dependent on public praise. Genuine self esteem is liking oneself not because idle praise is constantly ringing in one’s ears, but because there’s a quiet self confidence. No need to tell me I’m so wonderful all the time because I know I’m good at several things that matter.  

Young people with this quiet confidence aren’t nearly as desperate for peer approval and they’re more comfortable spending time by themselves.

Substantive, lasting self esteem results from a team effort—supportive family members, hardworking teachers, caring coaches, and other adults helping young people develop and refine meaningful skills.

And it’s an incredibly valuable gift that lasts a lifetime.

Gutter Politics

I agreed with the analyst who suggested that the presidential nominee’s vice presidential decisions were their first acts of governance. In the same spirit, I think the way each presidential nominee conducts his campaign over the next six weeks is their second act of governance.  

Because he’s a tad behind, because he runs hot, and because history proves it works, McCain is going to campaign even more negatively over the coming weeks. That presents a real dilemma for Obama. How can he lay claim to the change mantle if he gets down in the gutter with McCain? Conventional wisdom is that politics is blood sport, the best defense is a good offense, and the end justifies the means.  

To borrow from Malcolm X, get elected by any means necessary.  Or to put it differently, save your moralizing until after the inauguration.  

But I’m more of a process, patterns and themes guy, than a “throw the switch” guy; as a result, I’ll be disappointed if Obama campaigns according to conventional wisdom. 

Of course it’s a gamble.  He should quickly and vigorously defend himself against the scurrilous charges that will come with increasing frequency and intensity, but he should avoid retaliating in kind, and instead focus like a laser on why his ideas for avoiding further economic problems, improving strained foreign relations, and expanding health care are superior to the Republican’s.

People don’t vote based upon policy differences exclusively which is why he needs to rise above the fray and conduct himself in a way that inspires hope rather than cynicism.  

I still remember a jubilant and charismatic Obama aiming incredibly high in his Iowa victory speech.  In addition to winning the nomination, I thought he might inspire people throughout the country to reengage with the political process and participate with renewed purpose in civic affairs.  

If he still wants to be a transformational leader, he has to embody change, not just talk about it.

You and I are the determining factors.  I’m not sure why negative campaigning works (or why adolescents run towards fights when they break out or why people slowdown to stare at traffic accidents), maybe it’s something deep in our human nature, something biological.

I don’t want to think that it’s inevitable though because the longer candidates spend attacking one another, the greater the challenges associated with economic globalization, environmental degradation, and the rising income gap will become.

And the more campaigns become shoving matches, the more cynical people will become that government can help solve those challenges and make a positive difference in their lives.

McCain and Palin are going to repeatedly shove Obama in the chest over the next six weeks.

Despite the similar complexion and body type, I’m not expecting Obama to channel Ghandi. He should dig his heels in and defend himself, but if he shoves back, win or lose, most people will conclude he’s just another politician.

Work Life Imbalance

I was feeling a little down the other day until I heard my friend John say, “American workers are the best in the world.”  There’s 200 plus countries, most people would be thrilled to live in a top twenty country, but to you losers I say, talk to the hand, I’m number one.  

I think John meant American workers work as hard or harder than any other nation’s workers.  Probably because we’re among the most materialistic people on the planet.

Note what he didn’t say, “American workers are the healthiest in the world.”

When it comes to our commitment to work, don’t you and I, and therefore don’t we collectively, reach a point of diminishing returns?  People short change their families and health for the sake of work all the time, but it’s taboo to talk about. Instead we think of the hardest working among us as the most noble.  Our culture doesn’t encourage us to say “What’s wrong with you man? Go home and reconnect with the family.” Instead, we say “Damn, that person is a go-getter, a total gamer.”

Our attitudes towards work are culturally determined.  Other people in other places think differently than us about work.  Recently Sarkozy made waves about extending the French work week from 32 hours to 40.  A lot of hardworking Americans bristled at the news and took it as further evidence that the French are hopeless.  How dare they try to strike a different balance.  The gaul.

Norwegians also strike a different work balance.  Typically, they go home at 3:30p.m., their economy somehow hums along, and they spend more time exercising and connecting with family and friends.

And it’s not just the total number of hours we work that matters, it’s the nonstop, intense nature of our worklives.

Picture this.  Faculty conference room at Hedmark College University in Hamar, Norway.  Monthly social gathering.  Candle lit room with beautiful tablecloths. The entire faculty is there, enjoying one another’s company.  Stories are told about a few of the faculty.  We eat birthday cake and a few bottles of wine are raffled off.  Then there’s music, a beautiful instrumental piece performed by two music faculty, one on acoustic guitar and one on flute.  Afterwards, people linger into the afternoon.

In fairness, PLU faculty socialize monthly too, on the second Friday of the month, but I’m always anxious to fight the freeway, get home, decompress, and enjoy the evening with my family.  In Norway, the pace was much slower.  People took time to eat lunch together.  Two hour classes had two fifteen minute breaks built into them. People left work earlier.  

Could the joke be on us?  What if other workers in other countries, whether France, or Norway, or elsewhere are saying, “You’re right, you work the longest hours.  Congrats, you win.  Guess we’ll have to settle for better health and closer social relations.”

John McCain Needs My Help

Forget his appearance on The View, his asking me for money may be the strongest indication yet of how desperate he is.

Recall one of my “friends” gave the GOP my name and address awhile back (see June 16th post).  Now I’m thinking they may have even made a gift in my name because I just received an aggressive appeal for money from John.

The “Emergency Campaign Reply” form has my name and address at the top, then a Dear John salutation, then two boxes, both which I think I’m supposed to check off.  

Box one. “I am proud to stand with you as the Obama Democrats and their wealthy liberal backers focus their attacks squarely on defeating you and all our Republican candidates.  I want to do all I can to help stop the Democrats from seizing control of the White House and the entire federal government and implementing their radically liberal policies for our nation.”

Box two. “I am sending the following contribution to ensure we meet our goal of raising $10 million in the next 10 days to ensure we get our message and win a resounding victory for America on November 4th.”

Oh wait, more boxes.  Box three, $5,000.  Box four, $2,500.  Box five, $1,000. Please make your checks payable to McCain Leadership Committee.

Considerate to a fault, John even provided a filled out FedEx US Airbill and a FedEx express envelope.  If I had an iPhone, I would add his contact info since he provided his digits and seven addresses, I mean an Arlington, VA address.

The writing instructor in me can’t help but offer some feedback on the letter. One strength was the decidely personal tone.  Not only does the letter begin, Dear Ronald, but Ronald appears two more times.  Only my mom and wife ever call me Ronald, and that’s when I’m big in trouble, but setting that aside, it’s obvious John and I are connecting.

One suggestion is to consider dialing back the partisan invective just a bit.  And I quote. “Americans do not want higher taxes—the Obama Democrats do.  Americans don’t want to hand a victory to al Qaeda—the Obama Democrats do.”  John, I know a few Obama Democrats, and I’ve never heard them promote “Victory to al Qaeda” nor did I see any “Victory to al Qaeda” signs at the Democratic convention.  

I know you’re hoping to scare people into sending you money and voting for you, but  John, I’m not scared.  

You probably should be though.  You’re hoping for $1m a day, but Obama raised $9m last night in Hollywood. I guess there are some advantages to being a celebrity, like having celebrity friends who still have money left over even after the hemorrhaging on Wall Street.

Near the end of the letter John writes, “Ronald, please respond by September 15th.”  Dang, I’ve missed the deadline, but I have a feeling this won’t be the last time I hear from him.

Marathon Game Plan

Nearly three-quarters of the way into this year-long experiment.  

A couple of months ago a friend asked how I was feeling about it.  He wanted to know if I planned on continuing next year.  My readership fluctuates a bit from week to week and he caught me on an especially strong week.  Consequently, I told him I was planning on continuing, but now, in all honesty, I’m unsure.

I wanted to see if I could build a readership and spark conversations without taking away from my off-line writing.  Even though it’s trending slightly up over time, my readership is still small.  

Based on the paucity of comments, I don’t feel as if I’ve sparked conversations.  

And while I think it’s possible, so far I haven’t managed to capitalize on my blogging to publish more off-line essays and commentaries.

I’ll keep you posted.  We now return to regular programming.

S and I were out the door at 5:35a Saturday to pound out our final 20 mile marathon training run.  D was in Australia on business.  Very suspicious timing.

Twenty two days to the Portland Marathon.  The early morning running conditions in Olympia, Washington right now are idyllic, high 40’s, clear, dry, still.  The only bummer is starting out in the dark again.  

I think of each long training run as a brick in a wall.  The longer, the higher, the stronger the wall, the better the eventual race.  

I felt good today.  Usually, I stagger in at the end and wonder how on earth I’d ever tack on another 10k. Today, I could visualize maintaining the pace and gutting out the remainder.

Now the challenge is assembling a game plan.  My marathon metaphor is a crystal carafe of water that contains 26.2 ounces.  The goal is to pour yourself out as evenly as possible with the last drop landing on the finish line.  

I’ve always left everything out on the course, sometimes though, I’ve poured myself out too fast and blown up like a car with a steaming radiator.  Sorry for mixing metaphors.

At what rate should I pour myself out, 7:30, 7:45, or 8:00 a mile?  Should I stay well within myself for the first half and strive to run a negative split or should I try to run 26 7:45’s or should I run 7:30’s for the first half so that a personal record is a possibility?

Two opposite factors make this a tougher than normal call.  First, my training has gone well.  My splits haven’t been especially fast, but I’ve been injury free, I have a solid base, and I felt good near the end today.  I don’t expect to ever lower my personal 10k record, but I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel on a marathon personal record.  Second, I’ve run poorly in my previous Portland marathons, and I admit, those performances still nag at me.

One of my cycling friends was a professional marathoner in the 80’s and I’ve enjoyed picking his brains a bit the last few years.  He emphasizes the mental aspect of performance and specifically, “Ignoring that whimp ass voice in your head that says you can’t do it.”  The voice in my head is saying, “What makes you think you can run well in Portland?  Go ahead, run 7:30’s and blow up again.” 

Then again, I feel like if I go through the half at 1:45 (8:00/miles), I won’t be taking full advantage of my solid training.

My sissy thinks I’m crazy for voluntarily running 26.2 miles.  She may be right.  

I’m not a talented runner, so I don’t race to win, but I do enjoy the challenge of fulfilling my potential on race day.  My goal is to be able to say, “I couldn’t have run any faster.”  To do that, I need to assemble a game plan, a plan that may need race day tinkering depending on the conditions.  

Given my uncertain state of mind, it’s a good thing I still have three weeks to piece together a plan.

[I wrote this while listening to Erin Rose's Stay on acousticalternative.com, what a great track.]