Long Live the Memory of Erwin Byrnes

I am Don and Carol Byrnes’s son. Don’s, Karen’s, and David’s brother. Erwin Byrnes’s nephew.

Long live the memory of Erwin Byrnes, 1928-2014. Read his obituary here. And an article about how he planned his death here.

“It took a lot of nerve on his part,” Tom Byrnes said. “He was like, it’s 10 o’clock, let’s go.” “We just know this is the way we want to get treated,” Erwin said a few days before. “People may not agree with us, but that’s our choice, not anyone else’s choice. We have to be kind of the driver of our own bus.”

imgresAnd on writing women’s obituaries.

Too Busy To Be Bothered

imgresThis book is getting lots of positive press. I heard Schulte, a Washington Post reporter, interviewed on National Public Radio (her husband is Tom Bowman, NPR’s Pentagon reporter). She’s likable and insightful, but most people will say they don’t have time to read Overwhelmed because they’re so. . . overwhelmed.

I’m not overwhelmed. Haven’t been for a few months. I hesitate to admit that because our culture values being busy, overextended, overwhelmed, pick your synonym. In fact, the busier one is, the more status they enjoy. For anyone under age 65, being busy is the only socially acceptable choice. If you intentionally step off the treadmill of long work hours and hectic family life, you threaten not just the status quo, but many of your neighbors’ and friends’ lifestyles.

Busyness provides more subtle benefits too. One friend of mine routinely rips me for working half-time, meaning full time some parts of the year and none at others. He doesn’t have to worry about me asking him for any type of meaningful help because he makes it clear he doesn’t have the time. Busyness provides a buffer. His life is more predictable and less messy as a result.

When was the last time someone asked you for more than some sugar or a few eggs? For genuine help? That’s a litmus test of sorts on where you fall on the “perceived busyness” continuum.

Social scientific research repeatedly points to close personal friendships and a strong sense of community as key ingredients to fulfilling lives. Extreme work habits often conspire against those things. But let’s dig a little deeper into why my lack of busyness upsets my friend so much.

With a nice suburban house to maintain; three cars; two teenagers with college on the horizon; and insufficient retirement savings; he’d say he can’t afford to slow down. In fact, he needs to work a little bit harder each year since his company keeps raising his team’s sales targets. Except when he complains incessantly about his job, I don’t begrudge him his choices or his lifestyle, I know they’re deeply personal, but what I resent is his unwillingness to show me the same respect. His choice is the only choice. Something is wrong with anyone who chooses differently.

Slowing down has taught me that time is the greatest luxury of all. Working part-time gives me ample opportunity to think about these types of things. One insight I’ve come to is that when I was newly married at 26 years old; living in a small, one bedroom apartment; riding my mountain bike to work; I was just as happy as I am now with our much larger home and garage filled with cars. Why? We were healthy, the apartment was clean, it had lots of natural light, and we had friends—who weren’t overwhelmed yet—in neighboring apartments who we depended upon and socialized with on occasion.

My friend is like many people today who think their lives will be better if they just buy a larger house, a fancier car, a lighter road bike*. So they work longer, borrow more, willfully take on more and more stress and look askance at anyone who deviates from those norms.

* that was just to see if you were paying attention, a lighter road bike will make your life better, especially if you find yourself pedaling uphill

Calling Bullshit on the “Ban Bossy” Campaign

Here’s their website and starting point.

When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.

Sheryl Sandberg and company report that “Between elementary and high school, girls’ self–esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’.” I need Sheryl or Beyonce or Jane Lynch to explain to me how they measure self-esteem. Until I understand their methodology, I’m calling bullshit on their statistic and their campaign.

I’m committed to gender equality, but fired up about the “Ban Bossy” campaign because the young women I teach are flat out running circles around their male classmates. I’ve written about it before. Others have documented the same thing. Sixty percent of bachelors degrees go to women. Not only are there more female college students than male, they also tend to be more purposeful in their studies, they’re studying abroad at greater rates, and they’re enrolling in graduate schools in greater numbers.

In many of my classes, the gap is glaring. In a class of 30 students, 17 or 18 will be female and 12 or 13 male. Typically, six of the top eight students who are most engaged, most hard working, and most successful, are female. Class after class, semester after semester, year after year. There are purposeful, hard working, outstanding male students; they’re just outnumbered by their female counterparts. Despite young women’s alleged lack of self esteem, some universities are relaxing admission criteria for men.

Arne Duncan no doubt enjoyed making the vid with Beyonce and company. His line, “We have to convince them that it’s okay to be ambitious”. Arne, put down the basketball and spend some time on a college campus. Then you’ll understand why we have to convince young men it’s okay to be as ambitious as young women.

Ultimately, I don’t believe Sheryl Sandberg. If she proves me wrong, self esteem isn’t as integral to academic achievement as commonly thought.

Apart from the higher education realities the campaign strangely ignores, there’s something perverse about “if only girls were treated more like boys” thinking. In the last decade or so, “leadership” has been redefined to include “soft skills” like questioning, listening, and team building. Many boys struggle with those things because, to put it most simply, they’re bossy. It makes no sense to emulate a flawed male ideal. Instead parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth group leaders, anyone that works with children should be cultivating 21st Century leadership skills. That just happen to be gender neutral.

I should start a campaign to ban thinking about gender attributes as a zero-sum game. Ban “boys versus girls thinking” or something like that. A movement to help all young people fulfill their potential for the betterment of society. I should gather some of my celeb friends to make a YouTube vid. And leverage social media. And call in some favors with my friends in the national media.

If only I had more ambition.

* some of the above is adapted from the previous post I linked to, this self plagiarizing is also known as Rick Reillying one’s self

You STILL Have a Wired Doorbell?!

A wonderfully quiet, calm, early morning. Just me and the iPad Air, on a stool, at the kitchen island. I’m George Foreman and my green tea latte, banana with peanut butter, and bowl of oatmeal are Frazier. I open ZITE and select one of my “Top Stories”, an article titled “Interior Design Tips & Furniture To Consider When Moving Into a New Home”. I want to be prepared in case I buy a new home today.

Scrolling, scrolling, some cool ideas like a pallet coffee table or a “murphy bed for the kids’ room”. Then the game changer. “Connect With Your Home Via Your Smartphone.” Here’s the paragraph. Savor. Every. Word.

These days our smartphones can do almost anything. There’s an app for everything so why not take advantage of this? In your home, you can have things like a wireless doorbell. Whenever someone’s at the door your phone will ring so, even if you’re in the garden, you’ll hear the doorbell.

Our smartphones. Never be lonely again. We’re a club and you’re in it.

There’s an app for everything. I have read there are a whole lot of apps, but I never knew there’s one for everything. Had I known about the one that heals calf muscles, I would’ve been running all January and February. And had I known about the app that enables you to peer into the near future, I would’ve avoided last weeks argument with the GalPal. And had I known about the ones that rake leaves, mow, and pick up doggie do, I would’ve spent all weekend inside learning more about interior design.

A wireless doorbell. Hot damn. Whenever someone’s at the door your phone will ring so, even if you’re in the garden, you’ll hear the doorbell. Until now, I thought my most pressing hardships in life were health related—persistent skin cancer, an enlarged prostate, worsening vision. Now that I think about it, I have long been tormented by a litany of missed house guests as a result of my feeble, wired door bell, and my gardening. Because thanks to technology, we have way more time on our hands than ever before and we’re spending a lot of that freed up time dropping in on one another.

Just the other day, three young women stopped by to give me a birthday present, an advanced copy of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. They emailed me later to say they rang the doorbell and waited as long as they could. I guess that’s why Marley was barking so excitedly. At the time I was knee deep in compost.

And then a few weeks ago, Jimmy Fallon stopped by to ask if I would be his first guest on the Tonight Show. He emailed me later to say he rang the doorbell and waited as long as he could. At the time I was planting seeds.

And then a few months ago, President Obama stopped by to see if I wanted to play golf and help troubleshoot the Affordable Care rollout. He emailed me later to say he rang the bell and waited as long as the Secret Service would let him. At the time I was stringing up some snap peas.

And then a year ago, Kate Middleton stopped by to ask for some parenting advice. She emailed me later to say she rang the bell and waited as long as MI6 would let her. At the time I was installing a drip water system into a raised garden bed.

And then two years ago, Pope Benedict XVI stopped by for some personal counseling. He emailed me later to say he rang the bell and waited as long as the Gendarmie Corps of Vatican City State would let him. At the time I was weeding.

Someday, I will gather my children’s children around and tell them exactly what it was like to live through the wired doorbell era. I won’t spare their feelings and I’ll use big words like “distressing”, “harrowing”, and “horrifying” because they’ll be sups smart.

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What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Diane Ravitch is the author of Reign of Error, a critically important book about all that’s wrong with the education reform movement.

Ravitch is a wonderfully independent thinker in an era of unprecedented educational groupthink. Her purpose is to convince readers that conventional wisdom about how to improve public schooling is all wrong. She’s especially critical of “corporate reformers”—the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein among many, many others—that want to apply free-market business principles to education.

The corporate reformers see student testing as a panacea for not just improved student learning, but better teaching. They insist that we evaluate teachers and principals based upon how their students score on standardized tests. Ravitch explains that K-12 educators want to be held accountable for their students’ learning, but details why emphasizing standardized test scores is so problematic.

There are two overarching purposes of public schooling in the U.S.—to prepare students for democratic citizenship and to prepare students for the world of work. Never mind that it’s nearly impossible to know what the job market will look like in ten years, the corporate reformers emphasize preparation for work almost exclusively. That’s because they’re anxious that our country’s economic lead over other nations is steadily shrinking, and that as a result, our quality of life will gradually decline.

The Reign of Error is essential reading because Ravitch details the importance of citizenship education, and by doing so, restores much needed balance to the rationale for public schooling. In doing so, she explains how the quality of our democracy hinges in part on the quality of young people’s history education, humanities coursework, and critical thinking skills.

Corporate reformers, a distinct majority in education policy debates today, argue that our economic predicament is so dour we have to focus on strengthening our economic competitiveness above all else. In essence, we can’t afford to worry about the health of our democracy.

But what the corporate reformers fail to grasp is that when it comes to global competition, the relative health of our democracy is quite possibly our greatest competitive advantage. Nearly every government in the world is in some form of crisis. In the U.S. money dominates politics and the U.S. Congress is obviously flawed, but everything is relative. Our government is less corrupt and more responsive than most others; our press is freer than most; our judiciary more independent; and our rule of law, more robust.

We shouldn’t frame school improvement as a zero-sum global competition. It’s okay if students in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are smart. At the same time, competition is so engrained in our national consciousness, if we have to compete, we should take the less obvious path, and strive to create the world’s most vibrant democracy. One that’s increasingly responsive to its citizens. We need to strengthen history education, embrace the humanities, and cultivate critical thinking in public K-12 schools and trust that our economy will be fine.

With apologies to Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, one economic and one political,

And sorry we could not travel both

And be one traveler, long we stood

And looked down one as far as we could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the political path, as just as fair,

And perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear.

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My Daughters are Funny

J is in her first year of college, A in her last. Most college students exchange texts with their parents daily, but not us. We stay in touch via email and every week or two throw in a video phone call to remember what they look like.

Here’s my daughters’ email response timeframe:

• Months. Any message having to do with Ukraine, textbook receipts, tuition details, or federal taxes.

• Weeks. Any message having to do with family birthday reminders, travel planning, or the future more generally.

• Days. Any message having to do with popular culture generally.

• Hours. Any message that includes a picture of their dog or a video clip of laughing babies.

• Minutes. Any message having to do with television comedy, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, or the movie Bridesmaids.

Case in point, this morning I sent A this message:

I admit, yesterday’s episode of New Girls (viewed while spinning this morning) was pretty good. And amazingly, one reference to crack, but none to alcohol. Brooklyn 99 was good too. Spoiler alert—Cwaazy Cupcakes.

She must have been swimming or stuck in a small class with a kick ass professor, because it took her one hour and twelve minutes to send this reply:

Fact check: She (Zoey Deschanel) was actually crying while drinking from the minibar bottles because they’re so tiny. And YAY glad you’re watching B99 (that’s what insiders call it).

Electronic quirks and all, I love them.

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You Don’t Need a Financial Planner, You Need Financial Teachers

The things I don’t know how to do dwarf the things I do. It’s sad really. Altogether, my incompetence is pretty staggering. I can’t speak any foreign languages. I can’t play any instruments or sing. I can’t listen patiently. I’m hopeless when it comes to plumbing, electrical work, bicycle and car repair. I don’t know how to sew and I can’t do my own taxes. I don’t know how to garden, bake bread, make beer, or fix the ice maker in our fridge. I can’t keep pocket gophers from tunneling all over our backyard. I don’t know how to backstroke underwater and html baffles me. I could go on and on, but you get the drift.

Despite this pathetic reality, I went against type recently and taught myself two things, how to create excel documents and how to prepare a Starbucks-like green tea latte. Life is especially good now that I don’t have to spend my weekends adding numbers or pay $4 for my daily kickstarter of choice.

Few people know how to manage money well so they turn to financial planners for help. Gail MarksJarvis ask whether there’s any value in financial advisors who get it wrong.* She points out that:

. . . the recently released 2008 Federal Reserve transcripts showed that even economists of the world’s most powerful economy didn’t have a clue. Even as Lehman Brothers collapsed, they expected the economy to grow, not go into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

That, she adds, should. . .

pierce an illusion many individuals embrace as they pour trillions of dollars into the hands of financial advisers they think can read the future and thereby deliver riches and safety.

Individuals, she says, entrusted about $13 trillion to advisers, ranging from financial planners to brokers and insurance salespeople, through the end of 2012.

Ed Gjertsen II, president of the Financial Planning Association admits, “We do not have a crystal ball. We make guesses.”

Gjersten laments:

Clients demand: Give me a hot tip so I can spend whatever I want. But the truth is, the individuals have more control over the outcome based on what they spend than the adviser has with investments.

MarksJarvis adds:

Even economists are more fallible than people might believe. The transcripts of the Federal Reserve in 2008 showed it relying on faulty models that didn’t take into account unique circumstances of the banking crisis. Based on little knowledge, they give very firm opinions.

In my early 30′s I taught myself how to manage money when it became apparent that the financial planner I hired didn’t really give a damn about my family’s future. Over time, I realized that he recommended investments that paid him generous commissions. Investments that not only took time and money to undue, but ones that performed worse than bond and stock index funds.

There are two types of financial planners—commission based and fee based. Fee based planners who charge by the hour are far better than commission based ones who are prone to recommend investments that enrich them more than their clients. What people really need are skilled financial teachers who can help people learn to manage their money themselves because of the lesson I learned the hard way two decades ago, no one cares about you or your family’s future nearly as much as you. But where are the financial teachers?

13 trillion dollars! Much of that spent on investment strategies that underperform market averages. What a travesty.

If the world’s most incompetent person learned to manage money, odds are you can too. Start with The Elements of Investing by Burton Malkiel. But don’t succumb to the widely held view that technical knowledge is the key to personal financial success. The key is defining “success” yourself and developing a complimentary mix of technical knowledge; self discipline; and dare I say, spiritual depth; to create the future you want for your loved ones and you.

* Thanks to the best ex-mill hunky for this reference.