Young, Devout, Maligned

Adults routinely trivialize, and in some cases derogate, young people’s religious values, beliefs, and practices. It’s wrong and it should stop.

Exhibit A. Slate Magazine’s Tom Scocca’s recent anti-Joel Northrup screed. Northrup is the homeschooled Iowa wrestler who two weeks ago chose to forfeit his state tournament wrestling match because he didn’t want to compete against a female.

Here’s what Northrup said about his decision not to wrestle. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan and their accomplishments. However wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most high school sports in Iowa.”

And here’s Scocca’s unbelievable Slate Magazine response.

Iowa Wrestler Won’t Wrestle a Girl Because His Parents Are Raising Him to Be Self-ImportantPosted Thursday, February 17, 2011 10:08 PM | By Tom Scocca
Joel Northrup, a 112-pound high school wrestler in Iowa, decided to lose his first match in the state tournament by default rather than compete against a female opponent, Cassy Herkelman. Northrup wrestles, or sometimes chooses to refuse to wrestle, for the Linn-Mar High School Lions, although he does not attend Linn-Mar High School. He is home-schooled by his parents, but Iowa allows homeschoolers to participate in varsity athletics.Having been given the chance to take part in the Linn-Mar athletic program, Northrup and his parents decided to use the public school as a platform for their beliefs about the role of women. In a statement, Northrup wrote:”[W]restling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe that is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other High School sports in Iowa.”The passive voice—”I have been placed in a situation”—is appropriate, narrowly. Northrup’s father, Jamie Northrup, said the family helped the son make the decision. (The elder Northrup is reportedly a youth pastor at a nondenominational church whose main pastor has preached against “gender confusion”; he is also a “volunteer chaplain with the United States Army,” where presumably issues about women’s exposure to violence and combat never come up.)One easy way to have avoided the situation would have been for the Northrups to really stand by their beliefs and let high school sports be played by people who go to high school. Out of all the students who attend Linn-Mar, there might be a 112-pounder who would be willing to go to states and wrestle a girl, rather than sticking the team with a default loss.

But entitlement means never having to sacrifice anything. The Northrups were too good or too godly for high school, but they weren’t too good for high school sports, until high school sports turned out to include gender equality, at which point they wanted to drop out again. Once the high school athletic system gave him a suitably male consolation-round opponent, Joel Northrup went back to being a participant.

It’s like the ultra-Orthodox Jewish students who sued Yale in the ’90s because they wanted to go the university but be segregated from the opposite sex. Either turn your back on the sinful world and its rights for women, or don’t. Society isn’t an a la carte menu, and the whole human race is not there to be your waiter. If you want to be a wrestler, wrestle your draw.

Scocca pretends to know Joel Northrup’s family because he can’t wrap his head around the fact that he is a deeply religious adolescent. In Scocca’s mind I suspect, that’s only explainable as a result of indoctrination. Also, it’s important to Scocca that his readers know “The elder Northrup is reportedly a youth pastor at a nondenominational church whose main pastor has preached against ‘gender confusion’”. Guilty by association of politics unacceptable to Scocca in the same way the right ripped Obama for his former pastor’s extremist views.

And who does Northrup think he is opting out of public schooling? In the end, how dare he act on his religious convictions in a way that is antithetical to Scocca’s politics.

Scocca needs to take to heart his last two sentences and Stephen Bates’s brilliant book, Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, The Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of our Classrooms. Bates’s book makes it crystal clear that society isn’t an a la carte menu, and the whole human race isn’t there to be Scocca’s waiter.

Scocca, if you want to be a citizen in a pluralist democracy, learn to accept the byproducts of diversity including conservative religious and political behavior.

I’m sure my politics are more closely aligned to Scocca’s than Northrups, but I’m inspired by the fact that Northup had the courage of his conservative religious convictions. The wrap on teenage boys is that all they do is sit around and play video games while girls excel all around them. So forgive me if I find it refreshing that one of those maligned teenaged boys simply and courageously acted on his beliefs when he knew he’d be criticized for it. Scocca is afraid of conservative religious behavior. I’m find apathy far more threatening.

Granted, as the documentary Jesus Camp poignantly illustrated, some young people are indoctrinated by adults. Others simply conform to a strict religious family culture that they’re born into. I understand respectfully challenging those adolescents’ beliefs, but many young people seek spiritual meaning and choose religious practices relatively independently. In particular, journalists and other media continue to demonstrate an utter lack of sophistication by unfairly lumping all of these religious young people together.

Give me a whole generation of Joel Northrups and Ronnie Hasties and I’ll be even more bullish about our future. Hastie was the Tumwater High School junior running back who was penalized for extending his right arm and pointing his index finger upward after scoring a touchdown in a Washington State playoff game last fall (thus delaying the game a few seconds).

“It’s my way of giving glory to God, not to myself,” he explained. “I want to give God the credit.” Someone hold Scocca back.

What was lost in the Hastie story was what happened in the subsequent week. Hastie’s coach explained that Hastie didn’t want to jeopardize the team so he decided to kneel on the sidelines afterwards. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this,” Hastie said.

And yet, rest assured, many adults will continue to make a big negative deal out of youthful piety.

Suburban Life(r)?

Weekend edition.

I was fortunate to grow up in Midwestern and a Southern Californian suburb. Nice, comfortable homes in safe, well maintained “subdivisions”. Roomy yards with minimal fencing in the Midwest and a small fenced-in pool in SoCal.

As an adult, I’ve chosen a similar path, living in nice, comfortable suburban homes that are logical extensions of the ones I grew up in. Apart from short stints in flats abroad, I’ve spent my whole life in the suburbs.

Makes sense then that I’m growing increasingly ambivalent about life in the burbs. A part of me longs for a radical break and a distinctly different living experience, one either much more urban or one more natural, on water. At times life in the burbs feels like a dissatisfying compromise, monocultural porridge that’s too hot (too far from urban civilization) or too cold (cut off from nature).

I’m really tired of having to drive everywhere all the time. I want to walk and ride my bike to the store, to restaurants, to friends’ places, to theaters.

I want to simplify my life a lot more and I want a smaller home, but save the downsizing medal because ideally, I also want to be able to disappear into a small carriage house or separate apartment. Also, I want a home that takes advantage of as many of the environmental advances builders have made in the last decade as makes sense.

There’s a nice, new condominium building being built downtown, but the GalPal is loathe to give up gardening.

Don’t mistake my longing for a radical break and all of my “I wants” with a lack of appreciation for our home, neighborhood, and neighbors. I’m keenly aware of my privilege and this is not a problem. We’ve grown to like our home and neighbors a lot even if we’re not all that enamored with our hood.

I’m just wondering if the grass might be greener in town or on the water’s edge.

What do you think?

Wisconsin and the Great Ideological Stalemate

Read a provocative anti-union blog post Monday about the Wisconsin state government/public employee tinderbox. And over 100+ of the first comments. I was struck by three things.

First, there’s almost no middle-ground. The vast majority of commenters are attacking the blogger and one other. Is this a uniquely polarizing issue or is the intense debate symbolic of an increasingly divided polity? I’m not sure.

Second, I’m intrigued by the sporadic pro-union commenters who irately announce they’re unsubscribing from the blog. They’re saying to the author I’m so dismayed with your position on this political issue I will no longer be associated with you or read you—nevermind the body of work that prompted them to subscribe in the first place. Some sins are unforgivable. Was there anything worth reflecting on in the anti-union diatribe? Unless you’re insecure in your beliefs, why be threatened by thinking that’s antithetical to your own? At times, all of us “unsubscribe” from the people around us by tuning them out? What does it accomplish besides increased polarization?

Third, far too many high school teachers and college professors teach discrete factual information that’s readily available on smart phones, netbooks, laptops, and desktop computers. Instead, they should use rich content as a means towards an end, the end being a greater appreciation of ambiguity. Given the widening chasm between right and left in this country, young people who learn to value contending viewpoints, think conceptually, and grow comfortable with subtlety, nuance, and ambiguity, will have a distinct competitive advantage in tomorrow’s knowledge economy whether union members or not.

Rethinking National Holidays

Happy President’s day. I resolve to act more presidential than normal today (which means a tiny bit).

Most Euros take a solid three weeks off mid-to-late summer.

Could we benefit from a more European approach to national holidays? What if we give back six of the second through eighth holidays listed below and then add the Friday after Thanksgiving since it’s my favorite holiday and also insert a week-long national holiday where most everything shuts down.

In exchange for sporadic three day weekends, everyone truly goes on some sort of vacation, reconnects with loved ones, and recharges.

If this idea catches on and is ultimately adopted, I expect a national holiday in my honor.

Friday, December 31, 2010* New Year’s Day
Monday, January 17 Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Monday, February 21** Washington’s Birthday
Monday, May 30 Memorial Day
Monday, July 4 Independence Day
Monday, September 5 Labor Day
Monday, October 10 Columbus Day
Friday, November 11 Veterans Day
Thursday, November 24 Thanksgiving Day
Monday, December 26*** Christmas Day

Modern Family

Modern Family is my family’s favorite television show. Only twenty-two minutes in length, it always garners guffaws. When we watch it separately and come back together we ritualistically recite our favorite lines from memory. Even though I’m older than Phil, I want to be him when I grow up.

A recent New York Times columnist’s deconstruction of it wasn’t too terribly illuminating.

I would have expected some slippage by now, but each episode is as tightly written and produced as the previous one. Wonder how many hilarious, heartwarming episodes they have queued up?

Like every hit show I suspect, MF’s success starts with the writing. But its success is also explained by three myths we happily embrace.

Myth one. Interpersonal family conflicts are resolved quickly and simply, mostly within twenty-two minutes. Pilot episode—gay son and his partner don’t feel accepted by the gay son’s dad. Throw in an international adoption, jab him a bit about his old-fashioned homophobia, and acceptance follows. MF provides a fantastical break from the complex, intractable conflicts that shape our lives.

Myth two. The three families live close to one another, enjoy one another’s company, and make time for one another. For most people, the phrase “extended family” is quite literal. Take me for example, my three siblings live in three different states, my mother in a fourth. Their closeness is endearing.

Myth three. Work is unrelated to wealth. This is great news for American viewers for whom fiscal responsibility doesn’t require sacrifice. MF is nearly as work-free an environment as Seinfeld’s apartment. Phil recently showed a house, but the housing correction hasn’t impacted his family’s lifestyle. All three families drive nice cars, live in very nice homes, and very rarely work. Magically, mortgages, car payments, and vacations all get paid for.

And of course for Pacific Northwest viewers like my family and me, the warm and sunny SoCal setting doesn’t hurt either.

School Principal Shortage

The Obama administration wants to improve public education by removing principals from poorly performing schools. Far fewer principals than planned have been replaced because most states are suffering from a shortage of credentialed, able principals.

As a result, Washington State is proposing an alternative routes principal certification plan for non-educators. Yes, for non-educators. One of the first things I learned at the different schools I worked at as a beginning teacher was few of my colleagues respected my principals even though they had taught previously. The majority sentiment was they had lost touch with teaching’s challenges. Adversarial teacher-admin relations were the norm.

How on earth will non-educators earn the respect of teachers? Legions of teachers will exit faculty meetings saying, “What the hell does he/she know about child or adolescent development, about curriculum and assessment, about teaching excellence?”

One wonders, what are the sponsoring state legislators thinking?

A friend of mine is a well respected high school principal. We run together. He tells stories. I listen. Often in amazement. It’s an incredibly demanding job. Impossible if faculty don’t respect you. There are lots of ways for leaders to earn respect, but the main one is to identify closely enough with the people you lead that they conclude, “He/she gets me and gets my work. They understand.” No certification program will compensate for non-educators’ lack of classroom teaching experience; consequently, they will struggle endlessly to earn the respect of their faculty.

But the news isn’t entirely bad. In the interest of fairness, I’m sure teachers will soon have the opportunity to run businesses, work as military officers, head up police departments, pastor churches, or practice law.

The Old Young Teach Is Awakened

Back in the day, when I was a first year teacher in South Central Los Angeles, I was at war with a few class periods. Wet behind the ears, my insecurities translated into a no-nonsense approach to classroom management. Like Bruce Lee at the end of a fight scene, I was hoping I’d outlast them. One day, in the midst of this battle royale, a challenging, outspoken female student piped up in the middle of class, “You’re just a tough young buck from UCLA!”

Two decades of teaching adults later, not so much. My classroom management skills have atrophied and my philosophy evolved. My beard is gray, I’ve mellowed, crossed over to the other side, gone all soft and mushy.

At times though, the old young teach is awakened. Fast forward to an email message I recently received from a student.

Can’t make class next week due to a “family cruise vacation”. This after a stirring start of semester talk on the importance of attendance.

It’s a small writing seminar, and therefore, impossible to replicate our discussions and my life-changing “skill sessions”.

Wrote her back and said I was disappointed and confused about why her family scheduled a family cruise vacation when she’s in school. This is a four-day weekend and spring break is in early April.

In hindsight, my response, because it assigns responsibility to her family, sucks doesn’t it? She could and should have said to her family, “Wish I could join you, but I’m not missing school.”

Forego College?

Consider the recent higher ed news. Absent remediation, most high school graduates are unlikely to succeed in college. Too many college students aren’t learning much. Tuition inflation continues at a faster pace than even healthcare insurance and total student debt now exceeds credit card debt.

At the risk of simplifying things, there are two types of eighteen year olds (and people more generally): risk-averse single hitters who plan on working for someone else and entrepreneurial power hitters not afraid of starting a biz and possibly whiffing.

Neither group is inherently better than the other, but a college degree makes more sense for the first group since most livable wage paying organizations and businesses require at least one. One hopes the single hitters understand a college degree doesn’t guarantee nearly as much as it did a few decades ago. Like a miler standing stationary at the firing of a starter’s gun, they’re paying considerable money up front to increase their odds of future employment success as illustrated by this dramatic graphic.

Of course there are many intangible benefits to a good college education—such as greater independence and self understanding—but those things aren’t necessarily exclusive to those populating leafy college campuses.

Given the escalating costs of higher education and the unprecedented internet-based accessibility to knowledge and people around the world, why aren’t more ambitious, talented, smart, hardworking, risk-oriented, entrepreneurial eighteen year olds using the time right after high school to refine their knowledge and skills on their own in order to create new niches within the economy? Why isn’t there more of an Abraham Lincoln or Mark Cuban-like autodidacticism at work today?

Is it because everyone is afraid to go college-less first, or because parents fear their childrens’ short-term business failures and long-term economic vulnerability, or is something else at work?

Fitness Flameout

Weekend edition.

If you’re like most people, by now your fitness-related New Year’s resolutions have fizzled out. Why? Because they were too ambitious.

There’s two types of fitness—general fitness for the masses and specialized fitness for the competitive athlete. Everything that follows pertains to the former. This post is for the lethargic person who is fed up with health problems, lower back pain, a compromised quality of life.

Ask someone how they got so out of shape and they’ll probably say, “It started years ago.” Despite that reality, most people want to get in shape in a few weeks or months. And so they set overly ambitious goals. Sedentary in December, they set themselves up for failure by resolving to “run five days a week” starting on January 1st. Or swim three days a week. Or ride a stationary bike four times a week.

They go from zero to sixty and back all before the month is over because they don’t see any benefits from their first few workouts. Even worse, they’re mentally turned off to exercise as a result of overexerting themselves on the track, in the pool, or in the weightroom. They go too hard, too often, too quickly. It’s counterintuitive, but the answer is to go slower, less often.

Here’s a personal example of how less is often more when it comes to developing positive fitness routines. Despite swimming, cycling, and running weekly, I sometimes suffer from lower back pain because I lack core strength. To improve my core strength, I’ve been doing pushups and planking. My baseline was 60 pushups interspersed with three sets of planking, each set consisting of  30 seconds in three separate positions, for a grand total of four and a half minutes of planking. Ten pushups, stretch lower back, ten more, plank, repeat two more times. I could do it quickly and easily after a run or bike workout. As a result, I’d typically do it five times a week for a grand total 300 pushups and 22.5 minutes of planking. A solid start to improved core strength and lower back health.

Eventually, that routine got fairly easy so I upped it to 90+ push ups interspersed with 35 seconds and then 40 of planking (times three positions and three sets). But an interesting thing happened on the way to core strength nirvana. The greater time commitment and degree of difficulty weighed on me just enough for me to skip the whole work out a few times to the point where I only got in two core sessions in a week. So that meant 180 pushups and 10:30-12:00 minutes of planking. More, in the end, resulted in less.

If this paradox resonates with you, have a Stuart Smalley-like talk with yourself, and start over. But this time think about how long it took to fall out of shape and give yourself all of 2011 to get in better shape. Create positive momentum by setting achievable goals that you can repeat week after week. After exercising easily and consistently for a month, you can turn the knob up ever so slightly if you so choose.

Here are related suggestions from a fitness post from an earlier incarnation of the blog.