Friendship, Age, and Gender

Scott, a blogger friend, recently wrote about friendship. In short, he suggests he doesn’t have as many close friends as he did in grad school because of modernization and the quickening pace of his and other’s professional lives.

To Scott’s credit, he’s actively thinking about how to strengthen his friendships. The post is noteworthy because Scott is a political scientist who typically writes about currency rates, U.S. and German politics, and the state of the world more generally. Also, in my experience, males aren’t as introspective about friendship as females.

Scott hypothesizes that his friendships aren’t stronger because of his and his friends’ stage of life. Demanding careers, ever expanding internet communication, shuttling children to after school activities, endless household tasks, etc.

I’m sure that analysis resonated with his readers, but I kept thinking of a missing piece.

My wife and her friends are as busy as my male friends and me. Most of them volunteer or work half to three-quarter time outside the home and do more shuttling of kids, grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, pet care, and school paperwork and volunteering. Yet, they’re much more intentional about getting together; as a result, they’re friendships are deeper.

Why is that? Genetic differences? I doubt it. I think it’s because they’re more comfortable acknowledging friendships matter. Is it because males are socialized to be more self-reliant?

I have to admit, sometimes I’m envious of how often my wife and her friends get together to swap stories and support one another. She is better than I am at initiating. She’s much more apt to pick up the phone and call a friend and say, “Can you talk?” And her friends are more apt to call her and ask the same thing. They get busy too and sometimes struggle to get together, but they’re more comfortable taking turns leaning on each other. 

My male friends work long hours, and unlike many of their fathers, they also help with child-rearing and household responsibilities. I wonder is it that we’re too busy to get together or is it just not a priority because of how we were socialized? 

Will things change when our middle and high schoolers leave home? As empty nesters will we make more time for another?

Postscript: When we returned home from the Seattle half marathon Sunday late afternoon, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Our house was decorated with Christmas lights. Turns out PC and the Malumute, two of my best friends, spent hours doing what I was unable to do many moons ago. A and J were thrilled, and after they thought about it for a minute, they said, “How come they could do it?” to which I said “That’s a darn good question.” I think it’s a two part answer—a better ladder and superior patience. They would probably add superior athleticism. They both said the other guy spent hours on it which completely contradicts what I’ve written above! There goes the greater good.

The Greater Good

In a few days the race to put up Christmas lights will begin in my hood. I’m anticipating a tight battle between PC and the Malamute for first place. In a month, the fam and I will drive slowly through our neighborhood and a few others rendering judgement on Christmas lights and decorations.  

“Wowa, nice lightage, I thought the deer was real, nine. Eight. Nine. Ten. Nah, can’t be a ten, Santa needs more air, he’s melting.”

Eventually we’ll pull up to our house and the grief will begin. “Zero! Zero! Dad, come on, it’s embarrassing.” And once again I’ll explain that by not putting lights up I’m contributing to the greater good because our dark house makes the others look so good by comparison.

No, its not just that I’m too darn frugal. Ten years ago, when we first moved to Olympia, I spent the first December silently staring at our roof. Day after day. At the end of the month, the family gathered around hoping I’d finally speak.  When I said, “Damn, that’s a steep roof line,” they couldn’t have been more disappointed. 

So the following year, I stared at the roof for a few days, recalled the double X’s disappointment, pulled lights out from under the house, and got the ladder out. Game on.

Fast forward thirty minutes. I’m spread eagle on the highest, steepest point of the roof, left arm and leg down one side, right arm and leg down the other, and I can’t move. PC finds it so funny he stops working on his lights to watch me try to figure out what to do. Instead of lending moral support he makes a few snide sexual jokes that I don’t find as funny as I might normally.

It was an unexpected place to take stock of my life and what I was most going to miss about it. I’m only half joking, I didn’t know if I could reverse my tracks without sliding off and I didn’t know if I’d survive the 15-20′ fall. I just hoped my family would appreciate the fact that I checked out trying to bring them a little Christmas joy.

When I got down and thanked PC for his wonderful support, I was shaking. Right then I swore off our roof for good. You want lights, find another house. 

Since then the X’s have made half-ass efforts at putting up lights above the garage and around the front door.

It’s sad they haven’t embraced my “greater good” argument, but what can I do?

As I write this, I’m staring out my home office window at the exact part of the roof where I almost met my maker. Over the years a light layer of moss has formed on the wood shake panels. And they’re moist this afternoon as a result of this morning’s fog.

Until they find another house, I will focus on living and the neighborhood’s greater good.

Where’s the bottom?

In a late January post titled “Market Downturn” I wrote, “Our mutual fund company provides an unusually helpful service that helps me keep historical perspective. When I log on to its website there’s a “Portfolio Watch” that shows our asset allocation. Currently, it’s short-term reserves, 3.5%; bonds, 38%; stocks, 58.5%. Then there’s a link to “Historic Risk/Return, 1926-2006.” Average return, 8.8%. Best year, 35.7% (1933). Worst year, -25.9 (1931).

Then I added, “This won’t sell many papers or fill much time on cable television, but after an unusually strong six year run, the market is returning to the mean.”

What I meant to write was, “The market is mean, very, very mean.”

I was thinking the market might end down 10-15%. -25.9% was from so long ago, it seemed fictional. I doubt I was alone in not taking the previous worst case scenario seriously. If I had seriously considered it, my aforementioned asset allocation would have been more conservative. With five/six weeks left in the year, I’d be thrilled with the previous worst year of -25.9%.

Can’t believe I just wrote that.

Here are the first few sentences from Jason Zweig’s commentary in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal titled, “1931 and 2008: Will Market History Repeat Itself?”

“Over the two weeks ended Nov. 20, 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 16%. Over the two weeks ended Nov. 20, 1931, the Dow fell 16%.  If you think that is scary, consider this: In the final five weeks of 1931, the Dow fell 20% further. Then it went on to lose yet another 47% before it finally hit rock-bottom on July 8, 1932.” Later he adds, “When the Dow finally stopped going down, in July 1932, it had lost 88% in 36 months.”

How does anyone learn to invest? My hunch is for better or worse most of us learn from our parents’ modeling and then trial and error. Sure some study it in school, but I suspect that’s a small number of people in higher education. Few K-12 schools do anything to promote financial literacy. 

I am self-taught. In my 20’s and then 30’s I inherited a little money, and although I wasn’t very materialistic, I wanted to be a good steward of it. I understood it represented a unique opportunity to establish more savings than I normally would be able to as an educator. So I parked most of it in CD’s.

In the meantime, I asked a wealthy friend in his 60’s for advice and he recommended his financial planner to me. I was a naive numbskull and followed the planner’s advice too passively. As a result, I ended up in poor investments that paid him nice commissions. It took some time and money to start over.

In the end, that setback was a blessing, because at a relatively young age, I realized no planner anywhere cares half as much about my family’s future as I do and so I resolved to educate myself. I began reading. The seminal book was Bogle on Mutual Funds. His writing was accessible enough for me to understand and embrace his recommendations regarding asset allocation and passive index fund investing. I knew I wasn’t smart enough to pick individual stocks and was relieved to learn I didn’t need to be.

Starting over, I invested in low-cost index mutual funds right as the bull market was beginning. Long story short, by the end of the 90’s I felt like making money in the markets was a piece of cake. 

Fast forward to this week when my brother asked me the conventional question a lot of people are wondering, “Where’s the bottom?”

Of course the only people who really care about that question are those with cash reserves. I’m not among them so I’m not obsessing about perfectly timing the bottom. Each Friday I think if this isn’t the bottom it’s darn close and if I had cash reserves, I’d go in now. Then, after this morning’s run, I read Zweig’s commentary over a mountain of cereal, and felt like hurling.

Maybe I’m wrong again and there’s still along ways to go.

I suggest asking two different questions. First, what’s your time horizon? If you invest in stock index funds now with money you don’t need for five to ten or ten to twenty years, I’d invest now despite Zweig’s horrific historical data. Many index funds are on sale at 35-60% off their December 31, 2007 prices.

Second, what’s your “sleep at night” asset allocation? If you’re distracted on a daily and nightly basis by your portfolios declining values, adjust it. The downturn has adjusted mine all by itself. My former 3.5% cash-38% bonds-58.5 stocks split is now 3-47-50.

The litmus test of whether I’ve learned a valuable lesson from this historic downturn is whether I adhere to Bogle’s suggestion that your bond holdings should always equal your age. I turn 47 in February so right now I’m spot on.

What will happen when the market eventually picks up steam again though? Will I get greedy and “forget” to rebalance like many of my higher education colleagues did seven/eight years ago before the correction mucked up their retirement plans?

Please do me a favor. Every few years from now until I expire, stop me and ask, “Byrnes, what percentage of your portfolio is in bonds?” If I fail to answer quickly and clearly, and if my answer is not within 3% of my age, you hereby have my permission to rough me up.

Thanksgiving DayS

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, hands down. Especially when I can avoid congested freeways and flying.

In part because it’s among the least commercial.

We don’t have any elaborate traditions really, we tend to slow down, kick on the gas fireplace, catch up with one another, eat too much, and reflect on how much we have to be thankful for. On the weekend we’ll cap it off with 24 hours in Seattle where I’ll burn off some of the extra calories in the Seattle Half Marathon. 

Interesting context for Thanksgiving this year. People are losing their jobs while their homes and retirement accounts rapidly decline in value. And despite the excitement generated by profound political change, there’s deep-seated foreboding about our economy and the world’s economy. Recently, my international stock index fund crossed the “minus 50% year to date” threshold.  

On a personal level, this academic year is shaping up to be considerably more stressful than normal. And yet, I have so much to be thankful for. . . a secure job, inspiring students, wonderful friends, a healthy and loving family, a warm home, ample food, a beautiful place to live, a peaceful political transition, and I could go on and on.

What I wonder though is how can we infuse a Thanksgiving-like appreciation for all we have to be thankful for throughout the year? 

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about our impending trip to Norway in this way, “My hope is we’ll be changed as a result of our Northern retreat, both individually and collectively.  When school and full-time work begins again in September, and we return to our regular routines, I hope there’s a legacy of intimacy that helps us better manage the pace of modern life and relate to one another and others with even more patience, kindness, and love.”

I don’t feel as if I’ve succeeded in managing the pace of modern life, therefore, I doubt that I’m relating to my family and others with increased patience, kindness, and love.

Managing the pace of modern life and incorporating a Thanksgiving-like appreciation throughout the year are closely related. Slowing down is a prerequisite for taking stock of one’s personal “for this I give thanks” list. 

More specifically, a commitment to daily meditation or prayer helps, as well as, associating with people who have a year-round thanksgiving-orientation.

How do you combat cynicism and negativity? What suggestions do you have for me as I try to be even more thankful throughout the year?

General Education Curriculum Redesign

My “Choosing a College 1” post caught the attention of some higher ed faculty so I thought a follow up was in order. That post could have been titled better since it dealt with differing perspectives on higher education and general education more than how to choose a college. 

Some background. I have studied curriculum development and assessment since beginning my doctoral coursework in “Curriculum Leadership” at the University of Denver in 1990.  In the mid-1990’s, at Guilford College, I was one of four Curriculum Committee members charged with redesigning Guilford’s general education program.  I refer to that challenging work as my “second doctorate” in curriculum.  At PLU, I have continued learning about curriculum and assessment through my work with the Wang Center, my facilitating a Wild Hope seminar, my service on the Chinese Studies Program Committee, the International Core Committee, the 2010 Academic Distinction sub group, the Rank & Tenure Committee, and the Faculty Affairs Committee.

I’ve reflected on each of those experiences and could write in great detail about what I’ve learned from them.  I would summarize some of the insights this way:

• Each faculty member has had their life enriched by their discipline; consequently, there is a tendency to view one’s discipline as especially important relative to others.

• When revising general education programs, faculty tend to think about what is in their department’s or unit’s best interest rather than what’s in the best interest of the university more generally. 

• When revising a general education program in the midst of an economic downturn and declining resources, point two is doubly true.

• When soliciting feedback on possible general education program improvements, some faculty will inevitably submit comprehensive proposals that they believe to be the only way forward. In actuality, progress is always slow and the result of continuous collaboration.

• For the sum of students’ educational experiences to equal more than the parts faculty have to do more than periodically exchange syllabi; at minimum, they have to talk, listen, and revise syllabi and engage in programmatic assessment together.

• When faculty are not provided opportunities to get to know their colleagues from across campus, they often fall victim to negative preconceived notions about other departments and units and don’t fully appreciate what they contribute to the general education program. Put differently, opportunities for substantive cross campus conversation fosters mutual respect which is integral to redesigning general education programs and successfully implementing them.

• General education excellence takes many forms. Successful implementation requires faculty to pay considerably more attention than normal to teaching methodologies. Faculty need to come to grips with the limits of 20th century “transmission of knowledge” pedagogies and ask “How should we adapt our teaching in light of the information revolution?” 

Why Go To College?

The people have voted and they are far more interested in the Obama/Palin dancing pic than the inner workings of higher ed faculty. I’m shocked and dismayed. 

Let me try a different tack on the choosing college front. Why go to college at all when there are options? Get a job, enlist in the military, go to Vegas and win at Texas Hold Em’.

The main reason you hear high school counselors tell high school students to go to college is because college grads earn something like $1m more over the course of their working lives. But that’s an average. What if, like me, you’re really good at Texas Hold Em’? Besides, even if you lose, it’s bright, warm, and sunny in Vegas, while right now in the Pacific Northwest at least, it’s dark, cold, and cloudy. 

There are other good reasons to go to college. If you’re a male heterosexual, the ratio of young single women to men has never been better. If you’re not male or heterosexual, there’s still a better chance of meeting that special someone playing intramural sports or hanging out in the student center than there is bagging groceries, going through basic training, or hitting full houses on the final card in Vegas.

Also, if you go to a sports power like say UCLA, you can watch world class athletes for next to nothing. If you go to the University of Washington or Washington State, well, you can watch UCLA on television.

I was a lackluster high schooler so when I was an 18 year old senior dad went reverse psychology on me. Told me he didn’t think I was ready for college. Offered me a job sweeping the floors of his company’s inner city LA factory. 

College. . .sweep floors. . . college. . . sweep floors?

When it comes to high school, my daughter is anything but lackluster. No need for reverse psychology, instead I find myself saying, “Put that book down and go to bed for Pete’s sake!” Then I wonder, did I just say that?

There’s at least one more excellent reason to go to college. Keep me employed.

Choosing a College 1

My daughter, known as A or 16, is beginning her college search. This is the first of several posts on how to choose a college. I do not want to make A’s decision for her, I simply want to share one insider’s perspective and stimulate her thinking.

Suggestion one: compare and contrast general education programs and choose a school with a thematic, interdisciplinary oriented general education program. Ask yourself, “Is the logic of the general education program self apparent and engaging?” And ask people at the college, “Does the sum of the general education sequence equal more than the individual parts?”

Five, six winters ago, two friends and I headed to a telemarking ski clinic. Free the heel, free the mind.

Friend one is a doc, a general practitioner. Friend two is a scientist who leads Washington State’s response team whenever there’s an oil spill or other type of accident that has serious ecological consequences. His team works with the groups responsible for the accident to restore the damaged area to it’s original state.

On the way home, One reflected on the limits of his medical education. Specifically, he wish he had learned how to run a business since that had proven to be the most difficult aspect of creating a thriving clinic. Two regretted being dependent upon an anthropologist who helped his team interact more thoughtfully with native groups every time their land was threatened by oil spills and other accidents. He wished there had been a little anthropology somewhere within his doctoral science program.

Now I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret. Some of my colleagues, let’s call them the “militant liberal artists” believe strongly that academics must reject any and all references to business model thinking. If you were to ask them, doesn’t a faculty that charges $100 to $200k for four years have some responsibility to equip graduates with skills that will enable them to earn a livable wage, they’d say, not really.  They’d point out that the economy is in constant flux and the purpose of a liberal education is to think deeply about the human condition, to question the status quo, to develop self understanding, to self actualize. Let the job market take care of itself and let technical colleges focus on marketable skills.

Economics department and business school faculty tend to think very differently about the purposes of higher education which can make for depressing faculty meetings. The business model folks, let’s call them “the utilitarians”, tend to think about higher education as an investment that should pay tangible dividends including a good job, health care, and material well being.

One philosopher of ed captures the different orientations of the “militant liberal artists” and the “utilitarians” by distinguishing between “education for being” and “education for having.” Getting faculty with wildly contrasting orientations to agree on general education requirements is exceedingly difficult because the MLA’s (pun intended) believe literature, art, music, religion, history, philosophy, and languages are most important while the U’s emphasize math, the sciences, economics, and business.

In large part, that philosophical divide explains why so many general education programs lack coherence and fail to inspire. Most people don’t understand that they are compromises. Keep some modicum of faculty peace, take one of these, two of those, and one of these. Students mindlessly check off each requirement as they go and the sum rarely equals more than the parts.

When it comes to undergraduate education, I’m more MLA in orientation; when it comes to graduate education, I’m more sympathetic to the U’s.  

A higher education is not a mutual fund; consequently, I’m not terribly concerned with whether undergraduate students and their families feel they receive an adequate monetary return for their investment. In my view, the more important question is whether graduates have sufficient interdisciplinary knowledge, skills, and sensibilities to make a positive difference in their communities. 

What would happen if the MLA’s and the U’s made nice and designed a general education program in response to One’s and Two’s questions: How does one provide quality medical care in an economically viable way? And how does one protect ecologically sensitive environments in culturally sensitive ways? The answer to one is by melding science and business, and to two, by melding science, humanities, and social science content.

The gen ed status quo requires students to take eight separate requirements in five, six different areas, but in those programs faculty typically don’t even read one another’s syllabi so students are left to themselves to connect dots between courses.

So A, if your goal is to graduate with the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities to improve the actual quality of life of people, seek a school with a thoughtfully designed, engaging, thematic, interdisciplinary general education program.

President-elect Obama

F, a former student of mine just wrote the following. F is a real cosmopolitan. She’s Nigerian, she was in my class when I taught in Ethiopia, and she’s currently honing her ground strokes in Canada.

Hey Ron…
What happened yesterday in America? A British newspaper proclaimed it a giant leap for mankind. From Obama Japan to Antarctica to Kenya to Western Europe and of course Canada, people seem to have recognized that something truly profound and seismic just took place. It goes beyond Barack’s inspirational vision of unity and change I suspect and his clear grasp of current tall issues facing the US economy and by extension the world at large, his delineation from the platitudes of the Republican party and the sense that with tectonic plates shifting constantly around the globe he may be the leader the free world needs at this time. Perhaps the real reason people wept openly was the acknowledgment of emotional inclusiveness more than anything else, the feeling that everyone was indeed equal, and that this wasn’t illusory. Is this then the dawn of a new Golden Age? Are we all going to be happy now for ever and ever? I daresay, I think not—Darwinism and everything else that makes sure human beings will ultimately see separation in all things could still win out as it has every time for millions of years; after all prosperous homogeneous societies haven’t necessarily been the end of terrible ills. I can only hope I guess that Obama will carry these great expectations the same way he weathered the rigors of the campaign trail—pretty damn well, in my opinion—but who can see the future?

F’s thoughts inspire a few of my own. First, it’s strange that I’ve been by the phone all day and I haven’t received a call from Obama’s transition team.

I kicked on CNN this morning at 5:40a before meeting up with M, my neighbor, friend, and McCainiac training partner at 5:55a to get our morning run on. CNN had a split screen that showed people celebrating Obama’s victory in Georgia (the republic), Kenya, Western Europe, and one other foreign location. I felt an affinity with those people who were celebrating Obama’s improbable victory. Of course it’s a special unexpected accomplishment for African Americans, but I believe it’s also a watershed for anyone who is not white or male. And it’s even a watershed for white males like me who believe we may now begin to maximize all of the talent that’s available in this incredibly diverse country. 

At the same time, I couldn’t help but think how M would interpret the same footage. I deeply appreciate my American citizenship, but ultimately, I think of myself as a global citizen. In contrast, M thinks of himself exclusively as an American. As a result, he thinks we’ve made substantial progress on the war on terrorism under 43 because we haven’t been attacked in seven years. He isn’t even aware of how many attacks there have been in other places. I count those deaths, he seemingly doesn’t.

I believe we need to rely more on diplomacy and less on our military strength. M believes diplomacy is pointless and military strength is the key to our security. So if he were watching the CNN split screen, he’d probably say, “There you have it, another reason people should have voted McCain-Palin.” Why? Because he’s suspicious of the “other” and prefers having adversarial relations with foreign countries. His perspective is a “guy on the street” version of real politic. Every country’s every decision is based upon their perceived self interests and military power trumps diplomacy. Ultimately, we have no true friends, we’re a lone shining light on the hill.  

F raises the prospect that this momentous occasion doesn’t mean everything will inevitably turn out well. I always get nervous whenever someone younger than me is more cynical than me, but I have to agree with her. I thought his speech last night was excellent and chuckled at Mark Shield’s when he criticized it for being too long. I think he spoke for 17-20 minutes, at the end of a campaign that lasted 21 months! I’m going to give Mark a pass on that one because he was up way past his bedtime. One of several aspects of the speech that I liked was how he began lowering expectations. “The road will be steep, there will be setbacks.” Then he said progress will take more than a year and maybe more than a term. How will it turn out? As F implied, only time will tell.

And like F, I was tremendously impressed with his campaign, especially his communication skills and poise. So I’m going suppress my normal cynicism and be cautiously optimistic that he can leverage his incredible momentum to as Tavis Smiley said, “Make sure progressive policies trump personality.” He’ll put an excellent team together and Congress will work with him at least early on.

Can we grow the economy while preserving the environment, rebuild foreign alliances, and begin making progress on a long list of global challenges? If we patiently and persistently work together inside and outside of government, yes we can.