The Parable of the Clueless Professor

Tacoma, Washington, Thursday morn, Administration Room 213. A few minutes before the first year writing seminar begins.

McKall, who started the semester with a ton of extra credit because she has a great name and personality; and she’s from Boise, Idaho, my birthplace; asks whether I like my new phone.

That’s right, last week an iPhone 6+ bounced from China; to Louisville, Kentucky; to my front door. And sure enough, the box had my name on it. That means I have to find some other way to distinguish myself from the masses.

Students smiled when I told them my daughter made fun of me for texting with one finger. “You can use both thumbs,” she said. I tell my students I like it. Too big? Be serious. I can palm a basketball and my frame of reference is my iPad. I love how compact my new pocket computer is. They also got a kick out of my temporary case, a wool sock.

Alex is to the left of me. “And you have a Garmin watch too.”

Alex started the semester with even more extra credit than McKall because she’s from California, she’s on the cross country team, and she’s a first generation college student who came to office hours last week. Her parents are from Mexico and have sacrificed mightily to provide her a better life. She hit her head on something while lifting weights right before classes began. She refuses to use her serious concussion “as an excuse” and may be too tough for her own good since she’s pushing harder than her doctors probably realize.

“Yeah, but it’s the cheapest Garmin they make, they go from $150-$450,” said the clueless professor. Alex’s audible exhale conveyed disgust. Understandably. To her that might be textbooks for a year. Statistics tell us most first generation college students drop out at some point because they can’t afford to continue. Out of touch professors can’t help.

Inadvertently losing touch with low income people is one inevitable consequence of wealth that’s rarely talked about. When I was Alex’s age, one of my college roommates and I became friends. That is until he learned my parents were paying my tuition. He was busting his hump to pay his way and he resented my privilege. Our friendship was never the same.

Should I have declined my parents’ generosity for the sake of my roommate’s friendship? Should I not wear my Garmin watch to class? Of course not, but I should be sensitive to other people’s circumstances. Thursday, a few minutes before class began, I wasn’t.

Lola the Doodle Has More Twitter Followers Than Me

Granted, she’s much more of a looker, but I have a better sense of humor, and I link to more interesting content. For the love of all things internet, she hasn’t even tweeted since late August. If you have a mean streak and want to extend Lola’s lead over me, you can follow her here.

As if that wasn’t enough humble pie for the week, on Friday I was sitting in a Portland, Oregon Honda dealership when a cute as a button 2 year old with light red hair smiled at me from afar and then marched right up to me as if I was a 6’2″ magnet. She stuck her hand out, I stuck mine out, and we shook. Unnecessarily embarrassed, her mom ran up behind her. “She sure is friendly,” I said, to which she replied, “Oh yes!” And then to her Button, “He looks a lot like grandpa doesn’t he?!” Shee-it.

I was 30 when Alibaba was born and she’s 22, so yes technically, I could easily be a grandpa, but I don’t need total strangers reminding me of that. If you listen carefully you can hear my sissy in Florida saying, “Deal with it.” I’ll try.

The blog is getting old too. . . it turns eight in January. By then there will have been 90k page views, which sounds like a lot, but really isn’t. That’s a decent day for some of the bloggers I regularly read. It truly is the “humble blog”. One result of it’s longevity is I have to think longer and harder about whether I’m repeating myself because nothing says “grandpa” like mindlessly repeating yourself.

Another result of having written 887 posts, is it’s harder to come up with original ideas. Take today for example. God said he’d understand if I ditched church to ride my bicycle on what’s likely one of the last beautiful days of 2014. It was good to see teammates I haven’t been able to ride with for awhile now that I’m a working stiff.

I dig riding in cool spring and fall weather. This ride was shaping up to be damn near idyllic until someone flatted. That always prompts the question, “Should we wait?” It’s a sliding scale, mid-day in the summer probably not, early evening in the fall/winter, yes. Someone said, “Jeff said not to wait.” At the time, I was second wheel. I told the guy in front of me, “Let’s go then.” At a stop sign, three miles later, the Doctor said, “Gordon said to wait, and to pass it up.” To which I said, “A little late wouldn’t you say.” So Gordon was HOT when our routes crossed an hour later.

Then I got a little ornery on a climb and four or five of us gapped another four or five. One of those riders pulled up a few miles later at an intersection and bitched about being dropped. Which caused BDub to snap. “You fuckin’ little sissy girl! No one waited for me for three months last spring when I was riding myself back into shape!”

As the ride spiraled downward I started blogging in my head. Thought one. . . group riding has it’s advantages and disadvantages, but I already wrote about the pros and cons of group living here. Thought two. . . cooperation and fitness should trump athletic competition, but I wrote about that here and here and here. Repetition rears it’s ugly head. Good thing even the most loyal readers (Hey Mother Dear!) can’t remember more than a fraction of the 887 posts.

This corner of the blogosphere has plateaued. Year seven is almost a wrap. Maybe a sabbatical is in order.

Writer’s Block

I’ve been leading lots of discussions lately. Sunday was adult Sunday School. Today was the “Wild Hope” faculty seminar. This served as our springboard. I’m available for hire if you have a discussion that needs leading.

And I’ve returned to full-time teaching. My writing students are dissecting Stoicism; my graduate teachers’-to-be, Annette’s Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods.

As a result of these activities, lots of ideas are swirling around in my pea-brain. The problem is I’m struggling to carve out enough time to organize, and clearly and convincingly communicate them.

Thus I’ve mistitled this post. It’s not really writer’s block. More accurately, my “To Do” list is kicking my ass. But fear not, that’s a temporary condition. I shall overcome.

 

The Thing About Spelling

Some people equate spelling with morality. Good spellers, good people. The sheeps and goats in the New Testament? Good and bad spellers. Spelling’s importance is a topic capable of producing more heat than Adrian Peterson’s parenting, Scottish independence, and Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Parents worry incessantly that their children are destined to always be poor spellers. What kind of lives will they live? Will people whisper about us? Heaven help children with dyslexia.

This week the New York Times ran this lead front and center on their website, “A geneticist wins a prestigious Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation award and uses the spotlight to all for much wider genetic screening for breast and ovarian cancer.” Technically that’s a typo, but the Spelling Police don’t distinguish. The Spelling Police LOVE reading things like that. It gives them a purpose for being. And makes them feel superior. “Know that I am among those that can spell.” They despise any variance from what they deem to be “writing conventions”. Like when people start sentences with “And”.

Before determining if spelling is a life or death matter, we have to distinguish between drafts and final copies. Most of what we write and read, like electronic messages, are drafts. In fact, where does the constantly updating front page of the New York Times fall on that continuum? Irregardless, many would read that lead and think less of The Grey Lady. I would too if it happened with any regularity, but it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter, short of perfection, the Spelling Police pounce. If only they’d save their righteous indignation for final drafts.

Like teachers’ letters to parents. Nothing gets the Spelling Police more fired up than teachers’ letters to parents. Full. Riot. Gear. Misspell a word, lose your life right to teach my child ever again.

I’m not advocating for laissez faire (damn, got that right on the first try) creative spelling. Instead of seeing every spelling error as an opportunity to assert their spelling prowess, maybe the Spelling Police could take a second or two to consider whether the error is part of a larger pattern or not. If not, maybe you could try the impossible. Letting that one error on the third grade paper go, or the one in the newspaper, or heaven help us, the one in the parent letter.

Sometimes, okay, a lot of the times, I amaze myself—fore hundred and six words and not a single mispelling.

 

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

Last week I failed a friend who asked for a book recommendation. Another friend came to our aid by suggesting The Boys in the Boat. A few other friends have really enjoyed that this summer too. I’ve been reading medium-long form journalism of late. Here are three recommendations with related thoughts:

• Good. Putting Eternal Salvation in the Hands of Nineteen Year Old Missionaries. Imagine being 19 (boys) or 21 (girls) and being sent to some distant corner of the globe (or Indiana) to convert people to your family’s faith. Mormon missions are extremely challenging. Once they complete their two-year long missions, 40% percent of young mormon missionaries (elders) disengage from the church. Readers, Mormon ones I’m sure, wanted evidence of that stat. Others felt it would’ve been a more balanced story had the authors talked to elders who had more positive missionary experiences. They’re probably right. 

• Better. You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey. Imagine losing your marriage and your career because you can’t control your appetite. Sad story. There’s lots I don’t understand about extreme overeating. I understand that some people really, really like some foods, but what I don’t get is if someone were to say, “Go ahead and eat the other half of the cake, but if you do, you’re going to lose your really excellent job.” Or “go ahead and eat another pizza, but you’re going to lose your wife.” I also completely understand that thanks to inertia, not moving is far easier than moving. The author of this story is also very large. He says people like him, a 50 year old, don’t make it to 65. I don’t understand why early death isn’t sufficient motivation to begin making healthy changes. The root causes of overeating must be psychologically much deeper than this story lets on.  

• Best. The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit. Imagine living alone in the Maine woods for 27 years. And only saying “hi” one time to one person. The fact that Chris Knight survived 27 Maine winters in a tent is mind boggling. As is the fact that some Maineiacs want to lock him up and throw away the key. Count me among the “provide some support and leave him alone in the woods” contingent. The author’s process left me uneasy. I couldn’t help but think he befriended Knight just for the sake of advancing his writing career. What is an author’s responsibility to their subjects? There should be some sort of reciprocity. By allowing the author to tell his story, Knight lost much more of the one thing he most cherished, his anonymity.

I’ve also seen two movies I highly recommend:

• Boyhood. Imagine being a boy age 6-18 in Houston, Texas. And having a succession of dads, two are alcoholics, one is extremely violent. Took 12 years to make. Excellent sociology. I was impressed with the central family’s resilience, but was dismayed by the negative portrayal of the vast majority of males.

• Ida. Imagine preparing to be a Catholic nun and then finding out your family was Jewish. Black and white with subtitles. Set in Poland in the early 60s. Not for everyone. I anticipate this being my favorite film of 2014. I’ve cast my vote for Best Foreign Film. Mesmerizing. 

Postscript—One article I couldn’t bring myself to read. Too depressing a headline. A disproportionate percentage of school shootings happen in rural and suburban districts. 

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.

 

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