In Praise of Literary Tussles

The week that was. Ukraine v Russia. Israel v Palestine. Syria v the Islamic State group. Too many lives cut short, too many families torn asunder.

If only we could substitute bloodless literary tussles for the violent ones that dominate the headlines.

For that to happen, we need provocative essay writers willing to ruffle readers’ feathers. Enter Tom Junod of Esquire. I’m guessing he was caught off-guard by just how many feathers his essay “In Praise of 42 Year-Old Women” ruffled.

I really, really, really liked Julie Checkoway’s clever and perceptive response to Junod. Checkoway convincingly hypothesizes that Junod is struggling with his mortality.

She writes:

Men have a lot more trouble, I think, admitting their fear of aging and death than women do. In my experience, women are more openly verbal, at least, about our terror. Typically, men either joke about it or have affairs or splurge on a sports car (these are stereotypes, so fill in your own experience of men here). But they rarely write about the terror of aging honestly. . .

But men are just as terrified as women of aging and dying. . . . How could they not be? They’re human. It’s just that they talk about it in a different way than women do. They talk about it by talking about women’s . . . fading attractiveness. And most men’s magazines—-unlike most women’s magazines—-aren’t filled with articles that expressly address aging graciously, painfully, or at all.

Men’s magazines, like Esquire, are filled with articles like Junod’s, articles in which men talk about how it’s okay with them for women to age. Just a little. And then a little more. And then a little more. Men are writing about death and aging, but they’re just writing about it by writing about us.

Checkoway’s response to Junod is direct, caring, specific, and philosophically rich. And her analysis rings true.

When Monopolies Take Over

Businesses grow as a result of superior customer service. As a result, they sometimes come to completely dominate their market, then the quality of their customer service deteriorates. Often markedly.

A congressional committee—I don’t know which one would be most appropriate—should give this audio tape a listen. I’d title it something like “What our post-free-market consumer experience will be like”.

Give it a listen, then forward it to your political reps. I know, naive of me to think Congress might do something.

The caller’s preternatural calm is mind boggling. My favorite line, “Are you punking us?”

Thanks to Ryan Block and Veronica Belmont for lifting the curtain, I’m sorry to say, on my internet provider.

LeBron James > Michael Jordan

We kid ourselves when we think we know public figures—whether actors, politicians, or professional athletes. Hell, our next-door neighbors seem like the nicest people possible, but I have no idea what goes on in the privacy of their home. All of us have inner lives and see into the mirror dimly. Despite this, we can make tentative judgements about pro athletes in the media spotlight based upon what they say and do outside of competition.

For the life of me, I do not understand the American sport fan who makes judgements about athletes based entirely on statistics and championship titles. Forget whether an athlete treats people well, obeys the law, inspires fans, and uses their fame and fortune to help others also succeed. Character is irrelevant. Championship rings trump social consciousness.

This is odd. In real life we gravitate towards specific co-workers, friends, and family based upon holistic judgments about their personal attributes—are they kind, generous, positive, self-effacing, humorous, caring? But in sports, job competence trumps everything. That’s why, to the American sports fan, LeBron James isn’t even close to as good as Jordan—two NBA championships versus six.

In the game of life, LJ has MJ beat already. By miles. Many sports analysts are not taking LJ’s letter on face value*. Their cynicism makes them suspicious of his motives for taking his talents to Northeast Ohio. I’m prone to cynicism, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt—he likes living in NE Ohio, feels a sense of obligation to the people and place that cheered for him before he was famous, and wants to inspire Cleveland third graders to also defy the odds of what society expects from them**.

And Jordan? He quit basketball to “spend more time with his family.” Immediately afterwards he signed a contract to play minor league baseball in a different state. What does he stand for besides basketball excellence? Gambling. Hanes underwear. Unbridled ego. Tennis shoes. Cash money.

Granted, I was a third grader in Northeast Ohio, so I might be biased, but LJ’s letter was so beautifully written I might ask my writing students to analyze it this fall. Then, for extra credit, he stuck it to Ann Coulter by acknowledging the World Cup final was a much more important athletic competition than any NBA championship series.

Call me naive if you must, but I’m down with LJ. And it’s important to note he’s not the only basketball superstar whose excellence is even more evident off the court. In sports, as in life, we should make holistic judgments. Magic and Durant (zero titles) also have Jordan beat by miles. There are lots of others.

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* I find this economist’s perspective interesting.

** I suspect there’s one other reason, that I haven’t heard a single person mention, why LeBron chose Cleveland. His wife wanted to return home.

Confessional Writing Is Not Self Indulgent

Leslie Jamison has a message for my sister—confessional writing is not self indulgent. That thinking flies in the face of everyone who equates confessional writing with self-centeredness.

Jamison is the author of a new book of personal essays. Her brand of confessional writing has inspired many of her readers to share their personal stories, fostering community.

It’s counter-intuitive, but Jamison’s experience suggests it’s not only okay to bare one’s soul on the printed page, it’s a potent way to build deeper connections with people.

 

What Chester Finn’s Fordham Institute Gets Wrong about School Principals

Jacoba Urist in The Atlantic asks, “Should Principals Be Treated Like CEOs?”

Urist references a new report just released by Finn’s Fordham Institute. Chester Finn’s answer is “Yes, principals should be treated like CEOs.” As usual, he’s clueless. And offensive.

According to Finn’s Fordham Institute, inadequate salaries and limited power over key hiring decisions make the job an increasingly tougher sell. Consequently, good principals come and go. Their solution? “Stop viewing principals as ‘glorified teachers’ and more as “executives with expertise in instruction, operations, and finance.” “To that end,” Finn believes, “principals should earn considerably more than other school staff who have less responsibility.”  As in $100k more.

Hey Chester, the term “glorified teachers” is revealing. Now we know how you feel about the lifeblood of schools. Most teachers have at least as much expertise in instruction as their principals most of whom haven’t taught on a daily basis for decades.

And your suggested pay “bump” reveals how little you know about school culture, administrator-teacher relations, and faculty morale more generally. A typical teacher makes $50k, a principal, $120k*. Both work extremely hard and have lots of responsibility if you count shaping 30 children’s or 150 adolescents’s lives. The current pay gap often breeds animosity and contributes to adversarial relations. You’re proposing doubling the gap again, so that school CEO’s make four times more than teachers. The predictable result? Twice the current animosity.

In fairness, Finn deserves credit for acknowledging that an additional $100k by itself won’t solve the problem of attracting and retaining a new generation of excellent principals if they’re not given greater professional respect and autonomy. But Checker fails to connect the dots. Those are the exact same things teachers want and deserve.

Far more insightful than Finn is Todd Whitaker, professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University and author of the book What GreatPrincipals Do Differently. Whitaker says, “. . . most principals would rather have a full-time assistant than a hefty raise. It’s not necessarily even the hours. It’s the intensity. The truth is, if we gave principals an assistant or a lot more money, we probably end up giving them increased responsibilities and we’re right back where we started.”

Urist adds:

In other words,  one way to fix the leadership shortage may be not increased salary, but additional funding for assistant principals, school counselors, and other administrative support staff. Principals are like all people with high responsibility, according to Kate Rousmaniere, professor of educational leadership at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio and author of The Principal’s Office: A Social History of the American School Principal. They work better in teams, where they can share the workload.

Urist honors the complexity of the topic by concluding with questions:

The task, then, is to strike the right balance. How much should we pay principals to attract new talent, and how much additional support do they need to meet the demands of the modern job? How do we make the role more appealing to promising candidates without pouring more money into retaining ineffective people already in place?

Given the ratio of administrators to teachers, even paying principals a lot more would be considerably less expensive for districts. However, doing so will result in unintended consequences, most of which will be negative.

* I call bullshit on the “in many districts some aspiring teachers take a pay cut on the way to the principal’s office” assertion. There may be an isolated case or two of that, the technical term being “outlier”, but the average teacher doubles his/her pay when they become administrators.

 

What I’m Reading and Watching

Some readers are enjoying a previous recommendation, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking. I recently read this which I recommend and now I’m reading this, also excellent. Contemporary Christians are more interested in [fill in the blank] than they are the Early Christian Movement. Christian clergy contribute to the church’s ahistorical orientation by choosing not to talk about exactly what Erhman’s exploring and explaining. His writing is clear, challenging, and provocative, and I recommend the book to anyone interested in the historical Jesus.

I just finished season two of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. This male reviewer watched it differently than me. I often think sociologically, but this guy, who seems to think of it as a Frontline documentary, runs absolute circles around me. His thesis? Males are portrayed irresponsibly. I’ve never thought that while watching OitNB. All I thought was, “Man, this show is well written and acted.” I agree with this female reviewer, season two was even better than season one. So good it was hard not to binge watch. Only eleven more months until season three.

But Mother Dear, the content is definitely R-17, so no watching for you.

The historical Jesus and Orange is the New Black. Not sure what that pairing says about me. If you figure it out, let me know. I’ll be down at the lake.

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Frugality’s Point of Diminishing Returns

Frugal people like me sometimes take bargain hunting too far. We need to be smarter about frugality’s point of diminishing returns.

Writing in the New York Times, Henry Petroski states the obvious—U.S. airports, harbors and highway systems are often poorly designed, built, maintained, and funded.

He adds:

. . . infrastructure can also refer to things on a much smaller scale, like private homes . . . . Thinking about the construction, aging and care of this domestic infrastructure can provide insight into how we as a nation might better respond to our mounting public works problems.

Our 60-year-old home is an example of how infrastructure can be built to stand strong, age gracefully and be almost maintenance-free. The foundation sits firmly on solid granite. From the full basement you can see how the exposed beams, joists and underside of the flooring were made of good wood, built to last.

When I see a commercial building under construction today, I see nothing like this in the materials and workmanship, perhaps because it is simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.

I can see the same decline in quality when I try to do work on our house. When it was built, two-by-fours were actually only an eighth of an inch short of those nominal dimensions. Today, a two-by-four is a full half-inch shy. This sort of thing frustrates carpenters and do-it-yourselfers alike, making old construction more difficult to fix and encouraging tearing down and starting over with inferior newer materials and less skilled labor. What a waste of time, effort and money — and, more important, superior infrastructure.

Why the marked decline in the quality of home building? Petroski argues it’s because “expert craftsmen—carpenters, roofers, painters—who work with precision and pride, are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills.”

And then adds:

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

One commenter vehemently disagreed:

“‘This is not the fault of homeowners’. Wrong wrong wrong! I work for homeowners remodeling their homes in San Francisco and environs, and their relentless pursuit of the lowest cost is costing them dearly in the long run. Many do not want to hear that I am licensed, insured & bonded; that I have only full-time long-term employees on whom I pay all required taxes and insurances, and who are respected with medical & retirement benefits; that I pay to have my hazardous waste disposed of legally (rather than pouring it down the toilet); that their toddlers will be in college before they will need my services again; in fact that their toddlers will not be intellectually impaired by improper disturbance of lead-based paint. No, many prefer the fantasy that Yelp is wise, that the China price is obtainable, that my price is merely my opening bid. We here have just built a multi-billion dollar bridge that took a quarter-century, went to the lowest bidder who subbed out major components to China, which is already showing alarming signs of premature senility, and which may not even meet it most elementary function of surviving the next Big One. Some bargain! No, we homeowners, we taxpayers, you & I, us cheapskates, we are at fault.”

In this blame game debate I side with San Francisco. My relentless pursuit of the lowest costs helps create the razor thin profit margins that give rise to all kinds of corner cutting. Us cheapskates are at fault.

This is true with respect to home building and our national infrastructure. Petroski returns to our faltering infrastructure:

We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

. . . we do not have to be homeowners or highway engineers to know that good materials are better than poor and a job done well from the outset will outlast one done shabbily.

As we debate how to pay for infrastructure, we should also have a discussion about raising expectations for what we’re buying. Homeowners, project managers and legislatures alike must call to account suppliers and contractors who do not produce the quality of materials and work they promise.

Again, Petroski places the blame on “suppliers and contractors” and is silent about my tendency to do everything possible to reduce my tax liability.

Meanwhile, some fellow citizens shout that they are “Taxed enough already!” and mindlessly argue that “the government is so wasteful and incompetent, it must be starved.” Any notion of public goods is lost on them. As is the quality of life of our children’s children.

My politics are different than theirs, but I’m susceptible to the same mindless, short-sighted frugality. Until I adopt a more nuanced, enlightened form of frugality, I’m partly to blame for our deteriorating homes, airports, highways, and harbors.

The Mathematics of Happiness

Recent research in psychology suggests that 50% of happiness is determined by genetics. What positive psychologists refer to as a “happiness set point”. That’s why some people are almost always happier than others. You can thank or blame your parents and their parents for your particular happiness set point.

The same research suggests that 10% of our happiness is the result of life circumstances like marital status, occupation, and income. Most of the time, good or bad events, like getting a dream job or losing a pet affect our well-being, but only temporarily. Eventually, we adapt to the good and bad and our level of happiness returns to where it was before.

The remaining 40% results from “intentional activity” or our daily decision making. The conventional wisdom here is to 1) engage in positive self reflection; 2) avoid social comparison; 3) be optimistic; 4) pursue meaningful goals; and 5) practice gratitude.

Social scientists routinely privilege the mind over the body; consequently, three things are almost always missing from the conventional wisdom—physical activity, fruits and vegetables, and adequate sleep. I’m no Dr. Oz, but my hunch is those are every bit as important as the previous five. In fact, I suspect they account for half of my “non-genetically-determined” happiness, or half of half of my total well-being.

And I’m not unique in this regard. The more people make exercise, nutritious food, and sleep building blocks of their daily lives, the happier they will be.

Life (Right) After College

Hurray, the eldest is a college graduate. And I’m happy to report that apart from wearing shorts to the commencement ceremony*, and getting caught mostly naked (I had my watch on) in a co-ed dormitory bathroom**, I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I’m proud of her. A religion major, she wrote an excellent senior thesis on how Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community changed after the Watt’s riots. After reading it, her grandfather crowned her the “best writer in the family”***. Also, her college experience started out pretty rough, but she persevered, and in the end, flourished. She swam, co-hosted a groovy radio show, learned to write, and gained lots of confidence, meaning dinner conversations are more contentious now. Which is good. And she made lots of close friends.

That last point seems to be the all important one. Her friends and her seemed way more focused on close interpersonal relationships than my college classmates and I ever were. Maybe that’s explained by gender or because I went to a large public university, but I suspect there’s a lot more to it. Psychologists who study happiness recommend all of us do more to build community in our lives, but one significant trade-off may be less certainty about what to do after graduating.

Most of my daughter’s classmates’ plans were nebulous, meaning going home to work for the summer while trying to figure out the medium-long term. The Good Wife, my older sister, and my brother in-law and I and thought and talked about this throughout the weekend. My sister insisted that her friends and her all had permanent full-time jobs lined up right after crossing the stage. She said there was a stigma attached to returning home.

Here’s the problem, my sissy and I, like all fifty and sixty-somethings, fall into predictable traps when trying to make sense of our Millenial offspring.

Predictable trap one, our memory fails us; consequently, we accentuate our successes and downplay our challenges. Simply put, we forget about our parents’ continuing help, our struggles, and classmates who didn’t have jobs, who did return home, whose paths to independent adulthood were circuitous at best. When comparing ourselves with others, we almost always cut ourselves more slack. That’s why we routinely get angry at other drivers, but forget our own sudden lane changes or thoughtless maneuvers.

Predictable trap two, our selective perception contributes to an unhelpful, collective impatience with new graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do. We want our twenty-two year olds to be independent tomorrow morning even though, in all likelihood, the transition to complete independent adulthood will still be running it’s course during the next World Cup. Our impatience results in strained relations and dissension.

Predictable trap three, we routinely resist change. It’s difficult to understate the effect of social media on this generation of college grads, the pace of economic change, and the consequences of our more liberal parenting. Baby boomers label Millenials slackers for lacking gumption. That knee-jerk criticism is a predictable result of these mental traps. If social scientists ever quantify a generational gumption deficit, Boomers like me will have to take responsibility for it.

Predictable trap four, we overgeneralize from our lived experience and project our accomplishments onto others. Because we overcame “x” and accomplished “y”, others should be able to as well. As a result, we lack empathy for others, including recent college grads. For example, a close friend always struggled in school because of dyslexia. He overcame it with tremendous grit and now he’s often angry at others for “making excuses” for their relative lack of success. He writes off others without factoring in extenuating circumstances such as poverty, institutional racism, or neighborhood violence, because he didn’t experience those things.

I wish that by describing these traps, I was immune from them. In actuality, I can describe them because I’m so susceptible to them. As just one example, I’m as impatient as they come. Can I make it to the next World Cup? Truth be told, I’ve written this to myself. If you find something that helps you on your journey, all the better.

Postscript: Do NOT read this.

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* Someone has to establish the sartorial floor. And I probably should come clean that I did do one thing that greatly embarrassed, or at least “weirded out” both daughters. Cycling season = shaved legs. Way better for sunscreen and massage, way worser for father-daughter relationships.

** Fortunately, while getting into the shower, I was caught by my roommate, the Good Wife. “What was I supposed to do,” I protested, “undress standing in the tiny shower behind the curtain?!” To which she emphatically said, “YES!” New rule co-ed college dormitories, if you want me to undress in private, provide a door and a small bench before the shower curtain, like in Watson Hall, otherwise, be on guard for the Full Monty. Also, why the urinal RIGHT NEXT TO the door?

*** first signs of cognitive slippage

Got Religion–Where are the Young Adults?

In her new book, Got Religion: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back, Naomi Schaefer Riley has advice for religious leaders who want to connect with people born after 1980. Here’s her conclusion*:

“Religious leaders who are successfully connecting with young adults realize that sleek advertising is not going to bring people into the pews. The barriers to entry are not matters for public relations firms to tackle. Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions, too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of the country reflected in their religious community. They want a message (in English) that resonates and helps them tackle the practical challenges they face, of which there are many. They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married. And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility, they are often inclined to take it.”

Yesterday’s on-line version of the New York Times included a prominently placed article that makes me think Schaefer Riley’s conclusion needs tweaking. Here’s the lead of the article titled, “Mormon Church Warns 2 Activists of Excommunication“:

Kate Kelly and John P. Dehlin, who have gained national attention for pushing the church to ordain women to the priesthood and to accept openly gay members, have been notified this week that they face expulsion for apostasy.

This is how I would amend NSR’s concluding insight, “They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married; male, female, or transgendered; straight or gay.” Maybe Schaefer Riley sidestepped sexual politics because the heaviest religious hitters—the Catholic Church and Mormon religion among them—seem to be doing fine despite their heterosexual, patriarchal dictums.

But I can’t help but wonder, given the pace of cultural change, whether over the next 50-100 years, the Catholic Church’s and Mormon religion’s growth will slow and/or reverse if women and sexual minorities are not embraced as full-fledged members of those communities.**

* thanks to Amazon reviewer George P. Wood for this reference

** some recent studies already show a decline within Catholicism, granted some would argue that a liberalizing of church policy would only hasten it’s decline, a point upon which reasonable people can and do differ