What Does Olympia Bear Girls Swimming Foretell About the Future?

The hard working, talented, quirky goofballs suggest the future is brighter than all the doomsdayers would lead you to believe.

We just completed our first five extra-long practices. Everyone put in the necessary work and got along well. Coach is seemingly trying to disprove my thesis from awhile back–that people don’t change. He’s more flexible than before, letting his hair down and deferring to the captains and his assistant coaches. Relaxing.

Because they applied themselves, the girls improved their technique and began to get in shape. Lots of impressive new ninth graders. I ran stairs with the team in four groups, the ninth graders, the sophs, the juniors, and the seniors. I told the ninths that I didn’t know what to call them. They didn’t really appear to be freshmen. Freshwomen might be a tad racy. The politically correct term on college campuses is “first years”. Then a brilliant suggestion, “Fresh”. Some of the Fresh are going to make life miserable for their elder teammates. In total, three girls had the audacity to run the stairs faster than me. I told them they may have to switch to x-country.

I told the team that Coach just celebrated his 47th wedding anniversary and was planning on swimming 1.75 miles in Lake Washington over the weekend. I pointed out that’s the amazing thing about swimming, you can do it a heck of a lot longer than football, soccer, probably any other sport. During this preseason, the girls are unplugged for four hours every morning, running stairs, talking, stretching, talking, planking, talking, practicing, talking, racing, talking.

At one point, Sixteen yelled over during a kick set, “Hey dad, tell me to ‘Pick it up!'” “Okay, ‘Byrnes, pick it up!'” She then hoisted her posterior 8 inches higher above the water. All of her lanemates laughed uncontrollably. Fool me once.

I ask one senior where she wants to go to school and she says Stanford. Backup, USC. Unacceptable I tell her. A Chinese-American fresh jumps out to stretch a sore shoulder and says “It’s probably violin practice.” I’m guessing there’s a Tiger Mother behind that tiger.

My hope is the coaches and parents can focus broadly on the process this season instead of narrowly on district and state time cuts. In the broad scope of things, high school is over in a flash. The most important questions aren’t how fast did you swim or how many points did you score, but did you learn to work hard, did you swim to the best of your abilities, did you gain confidence in your physical strength, did you get along with others, did you enjoy it enough that you want to continue doing it well into the future?

The Parent-Teacher Resolution

In many neighborhoods, the time of the year is fast approaching when parents completely freak over their children’s teacher assignments. Particularly Elementary Parent. At our local elementary school, parents, mostly moms, with cell phones ablaze, stampede toward the class lists taped to the front doors. It’s understandable because a good teacher can make a significant positive difference in one year just as a weak one can prove detrimental.

An educational truism—the quality of every teaching faculty at every school in todo el mundo is always uneven. Word that explicitly enough? Every faculty is a mix of really outstanding, good, and weak teachers. The best schools have more of the former and fewer of the later. And yes, I’m either experienced or arrogant (or both) enough to subdivide the teachers at your school after one site visit without (gasp) access to the students’ standardized test scores.

The inevitable unevenness creates a challenge for administrators who have to deal with parents who naturally want the very best teachers for their children. Consequently, they usually tell parents they can’t pick their children’s teachers. Those who get assigned their least favorite choice complain that the other parents manipulated the outcome by volunteering more, bribing or befriending the principal in some way, or both.

Before rushing the school door this year, take a deep breath and consider a couple of things. First, teachers’ reputations, typically based upon a flawed version of telephone tag, are often inaccurate. Consequently, the teacher who you’ve “heard” is a weak disciplinarian, may turn out to connect with your child in ways the “outstanding disciplinarian” never would have. Similarly, that rare male second grade teacher that everyone praises for being in total control may be so in control that students’ creativity is completely squelched. Often a disappointing assignment turns out more positively than expected.

Second, research suggests what we know intuitively, students are resilient. Case in point. I had lots of weak teachers and now I’m a famous blogger. Research indicates that students assigned to weak teachers two or three years in a row, not one, are at greater risk of falling behind their peers.

At this point Conscientious Parent is thinking, what the hell, I don’t care about the research. When it comes to my child’s future, why should I ever settle for a weak teacher? Because of the law of averages. When you roll the dice six times between Kindergarden and fifth grade, odds are you’re going to end up with teachers in all three categories.

At this point, I’d understand if you’re thinking, “Hey, you’re in teacher education. Why don’t you fix it so that every teacher is, like the Lake Wobegon children, above average.” Sadly, and long story short, I have concluded there are intractable problems in teacher education that are unlikely to be fixed in my lifetime.

While working to making the profession more desirable and to improve teacher education, parents should all make the following resolution: I am my child’s first most important teacher. Or in the case of a two-adult home: We are our child’s first most important teachers.

Set your cell phone down, slowly step back from the class list on the school door, and repeat: I am my child’s first most important teacher.

Too few parents fully grasp that. Simply put, they delegate too damn much.

This is what the homeschoolers don’t seem to understand. Students are in school 22% of the time they’re awake throughout the calendar year. You are in charge of the other 78%. Do teachers (and everyone in society) a favor and take the lead. To what degree do you partner with your children’s teachers? Do you make sure they get enough sleep, nutritious food, exercise? Do you limit their screen time? Do you know what they do on-line? Do you model a literate life? For instance, do you read or watch television more? Do you teach them fractions while baking in the kitchen, teach them about world geography while discussing current events at the dinner table, teach them how to apply math through word problems in the car? Are you a stable, committed, affectionate presence who models conflict resolution through peaceful problem solving?

Maybe that’s too many questions of too challenging a nature. Maybe your work is too tiring or you just have “too much on your plate”. Maybe you’d rather just keeping crossing your fingers that you win the teacher lottery.

Home Schooling Is Hip. . .and Selfish

Two recently recommended bloggers with ginormous audiences have written they are going to start home schooling their kids (Penelope Trunk) or wish they had the time to home school their kids (James Altucher).

If public schooling was a stock, everyone would be selling. I get it. Schools adapt to change far too slowly. Most are painfully out of date. Far too often, learning isn’t engaging or relevant enough. But the homeschoolers fail to realize that there has never been a Golden Age of riveting, transformative learning.

T&A (Trunk and Altucher) are the new home schoolers. The traditional home schoolers are religious stalwarts who can’t stomach subjecting their children to multiculturalism, gay rights, evolution, environmental ethics, and the sort.

The new home schoolers believe public schooling will make their largely secular children less curious, less distinctive, less intelligent, less likely to succeed in our 21st Century economy.

The problem though is home schooling is separatism on steriods. A vibrant democracy depends upon children learning to get along with other children different than them.

But who besides Penelope Trunk is more motivated to provide her children an excellent education than Penelope Trunk? I manage my own money because I learned very early on that the guy I paid to do it didn’t care if my assets grew nearly as much as me. No financial planner is as motivated as me. Is there an Adam Smith homeschooling parallel, that if each family pursues it’s best interests, society more generally will benefit in the end?

I suppose, but what percentage of children have a college educated parent or two that have the time and inclination to educate them better than the teachers at their local public school? An infinitesimal one. I want to applaud parents for taking responsibility for educating their own children, but I’m concerned it stems from a deep-seated selfishness. Do the new home schoolers care about other children? About the legions of children who didn’t fare as well as their own in the lottery of life?

There’s zero evidence of social consciousness in T’s and A’s anti-public schooling screeds. They’re not saying we want this society, this economy, and this democracy to thrive. I suspect what they want is for their five or six children to have an upperhand in the inevitable survival of the fittest competition that awaits them.

If people mindlessly congratulate Penelope Trunk and James Altucher for in essence thinking exclusively about their own children’s well-being, and the new home schooling movement grows, the achievement gap will widen, further weakening social relations, our economy, and our democracy.

Garage Ethics

Check out how I’ve arranged things in the freezer in our garage. Nagging question. Is it ethical? I call the first act of subterfuge the “berry overlay,” the second, the “butter block”. Only way to keep the ice-cream goodness from evaporating in the course of a few days. If it does pass your ethical test and you’re inspired to do the same, be sure to credit me.

Upgraded the sticks recently. I’m so deadly with the luscious new putter, the PGA may declare it an “unfair advantage”. I was dropping bombs from all over the Capital City greens this morning. Think Jason Dufner, first 69 holes of the PGA Championship. Note how the manufacturer worked my name into the label. A legend in my own mind.

Ten Bookmark Worthy Blogs

Huge caveat first. I don’t assume our interests overlap. These are all thoughtfully crafted blogs, but some focus on topics you will not find interesting.

With that out of the way, category one—non-stop bloggers that post several short, smart, informative, sometimes provocative posts every day.

1) Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen. Tagline, Small steps toward a much better world. One of the most successful blogs in the sphere. TC is a one of a kind dude. Brilliant economist also born in 1962. I’ve used a book of his in one of my classes and have exchanged a few emails with him. He has Aspergers and is the most prolific person I know. An info-savant. Posts several times a day every day. Reads several books a week. Has a co-blogger whose posts account for maybe 5% of the total. Writes books. Writes for the New York Times. Recently taught grad courses in Germany. Speaks around the world. I frequently get lost when reading his pure econ stuff, but enjoy the challenge. MR is known for the excellent quality of comments. TC is also known for his encyclopedic Washington D.C. area ethnic cuisine guide.

2) Daring Fireball by John Gruber. If he had one, tagline might read, “All things Apple.” Also very widely read, but interestingly, no comments. Minimalist design. A personal tech digest of sorts with lots of short excerpts with links to larger tech stories. I skip his software developer stuff, because you guessed it, I get lost.

Category two—bloggers without boundaries who grab you by the collar and pull you into their daily lives through truly excellent, highly specific, deeply personal writing.

3) Penelope Trunk Blog by Peneleope Trunk. Tagline, advice at the intersection of work and life. Also has Aspergers. Posts 2-4x/week. Posts are longish with lots of links. Every post is carefully written with nice pics. Employs an editor. Posts are often deeply personal and provocative. Someday, I hope to have half of PT’s writing guts.

4) The Altucher Confidential by James Altucher. Tagline, Ideas for a world out of balance. A male Penelope Trunk, although I don’t think he has Aspergers. Writes long posts almost daily. Always personal and provocative. Some of his best stuff flows from a Tina-Fey-like sense of self deprecation. Someday, I hope to have half of JA’s writing guts.

Category three—photog bloggers that skillfully use pics to compliment their substantive, solid writing.

5) DC Rainmaker by Ray Maker. If he had one, tagline might read, “All things triathlon, personal fitness technology, and travel.” Tied for “most interesting dude in D.C.” with Tyler Cowen. Late 20’s, from Seattle, works all over the world in IT. Also extremely prolific, long, detailed posts nearly every day. Given his near constant globe trotting, my wild ass guess is he works for the State Department, helping embassy’s with their computer networks. Brilliant on several levels. Outstanding photog, serious IT chops, and a clear thinker and writer (my INTEL friend says their engineers only speak and write in ways they understand). His reviews of exercise watches and related fitness gadgets are laughably detailed. I usually scroll to his conclusions. Recently married “the Girl” which leads to the next recommendation.

6) Berties Bakery. Don’t know “the Girl’s” name. If she had one, tagline might read, “Drool-worthy cakes and things”. Careful, you’ll gain weight just by clicking that link. I don’t have this bookmarked, but check it out on occasion when Ray references it. SAT syllogism—as Ray is to personal fitness technology, the Girl is to cakes. Spectacular culinary art illustrated with magazine quality pics.

A few more, category-defying bookmark worthy blogs.

7) The Browser/Five Books. Maybe more of an on-line mag. Interviews with academic authors and novelists about their choices for the five most important books related to different topics. Recent topics included American Conservatism and China.

8) World in Motion by Scott Erb. Tagline reads “Reflections on culture, politics, philosophy, and world events during an era of crisis and transformation. Poli Sci teacher at a public liberal arts college in the Northeast. Interdisciplinary thinker and writer. Smart, prolific, a lefty at core, but often writes in a refreshingly non-ideological manner. Better political analysis than you’ll find on the networks or most major newspapers. Superb recent post on Styk that he told me led to a spike in readership.

9) On Performance by Justin Baeder. Tagline, “Examining issues of performance, improvement, and the changing nature of the education profession.” Hosted by Education Week. The blog I might be writing if I wasn’t suffering from advanced education cynicism and fatigue.

10) Miss Minimalist by Francine Jay. Tagline, “Living a beautiful life with less stuff.” Clear, inspiring, thoughtful, focused writing about exactly what’s advertised, living a beautiful life with less stuff.

Redefining the Good Life

Wednesday, August 17th, 8a.m. Looking out my home office window at blue sky and the Black Hills. One of the best starts to a day imaginable.

5:45a trail run with the boys. 49 degrees. Semi-dark on the first loop, then dawn for reals, and a second foot-loose and fancy-free one. Can’t remember much of what we talked about–Danos b-day, the Seattle tunnel vote, Black Swan, Rick Perry wanting to use drones on the border, the eleventh grade 6’5″, 270 lb defensive tackle at Tumwater HS.

Near the end, I decided to treat the labradude to a pre-breakfast trip to the lake. He LOVES fetching in the water, but in the late afternoon he has to contend with fishing lines and swimmers. His walking partner has been at camp so he’s under-exercised. Off we went, ring tucked in the back of my shorts, three-quarters of a mile downhill to the lake.

Perfect. No-one in sight. Unleash him, pop the ring in his mouth, and he Usain Bolts it to the lake’s edge. A razor thin layer of wispy fog rests listlessly three-four feet above the water. Seventh or eighth throw goes a little farther than normal and he can’t pick it out, so he just kind of paces the shoreline, perplexed. Gradually, it drifts farther offshore. Now it’s in the low 50’s and my sweat has dried, but what can I do but strip down to the running shorts and retrieve it myself. We swim after it side-by-side, my head down, his up (note to self: become world famous by teaching Mdawg to swim with his head in the water, breathing to the side).

Shirt, sweatshirt, socks, shoes back on, I prep for the final throw, the one where once he’s got it I book up the gravel road, knowing he’ll close the gap in a blink of the eye. He’s paying such good attention, he gets to run home without the leash. Buries me on the last hill, ring still in his mouth. I pry it loose and he fetches the paper. Towel him off and he charges in the house to find his momma.

Even though I’m probably less materialistic than average, I’m still susceptible to the fallacy that our consumer culture is based upon: If I just owned x and y and z, I’d be tons happier. My x, y, and z shift over time, but are often a nice car, a house on the lake or sound, and/or a new bicycle.

Lots of research shows a positive correlation between individuals’ and countries’ economic security and happiness or what is sometimes referred to as “subjective well-being”. But there’s a tipping point, a point of diminishing returns where more economic security doesn’t lead to any more happiness. Maybe the simplest way to put it is members of the (shrinking) middle class evaluate their life situations more positively than members of the lower, but upper classers don’t report much if any more satisfaction than middle classers.

Found a nice house with amazing views of the sound a few months ago and got real close to making an offer. It’s about eight miles out of town, eleven from the start and end of our regular weekday morning runs. We still may end up moving into that hood, but that will mean a twenty-two mile roundtrip every Saturday to reconnect with the boys. That will also mean a different kind of start to the weekdays. Running with just my thoughts. Yikes.

Sure I could make new running friends, but the boys and I run at the exact same pace, their conservative politics are a constant source of entertainment, no one can bust balls as well, and now we have a history that can’t be replicated.

This morning I was reminded that it’s friendships, community, and nature that bring the greatest joy. And good health. No question about it, take my friends, my doggie, and my lake away and replace them with a nice new car, house, and bike and I won’t be nearly as happy. The only question is how long will this insight stick?