Two Roads Diverge

The first in a week-long, three-part series.

I’m doing some reorienting. Prioritizing my non-work identities and relationships. Mid-life crisis? Don’t think so, but time will tell. Check back in a year or two from now. Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I’m taking the first steps of a journey whose outcome is unknown.

So what follows, like my identity more generally, is a work in progress. I don’t expect anyone to agree with everything. Or anything.

U.S. citizens are at a fork in the woods. A fork formed by a decline in manufacturing, technology-based automation, slower economic growth, and heightened economic scarcity.

More details here, although you don’t need Tyler Cowen or me to tell you about what you’re experiencing day-to-day.

We talk at length about the trees in the woods—fast rising gas prices, exorbitant health insurance premiums and college costs, and declining home values —but hardly at all about what lifestyles are most sustainable and meaningful.

The fork has prompted a radical shift in thinking. In the U.S., throughout the 20th century, parents thought, “I expect my children to live a better, more comfortable life than me.” Today the default is “I worry and wonder whether my children will be able to live as well and comfortably as me.”

Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I worried and wondered.

Economic security seems outside of our control. The economy is in constant flux and no job is secure. We can’t get politicians to think beyond their re-election and balance our state or national budgets. We can’t get them to stop fighting distant wars. We can’t slow China’s and India’s growth. We can’t reduce our dependence on oil. We can’t get consumers to stop shopping at Wal-Mart and other big boxes. We can’t stop companies from outsourcing jobs. And there’s seemingly no way to improve parenting, fix schools, or reduce inequality.

The fork is doubly tough for adults responsible for young people. They worry, what does their future hold? “I’m worried for myself and I’m worried for you.”

If we stop or even slow down, we may be overcome with fear for the future and overwhelmed with anxiety; therefore, we fill our days with work, shopping, entertainment, new apps, Facebook.

I wouldn’t be able to write this sentence if I weren’t extremely privileged, but I wonder if these tough economic times are an opportunity to slow down and think through more carefully how we want to live, to find ways to live more sustainable, meaningful lives. Or maybe, since lifestyle choices are intensely personal, I should say, how I want to live, to find ways for me to live a more sustainable, meaningful life.

Before fleshing out those concepts, consider the perspectives of the political left and right who have distinct opinions about the causes and consequences of the fork. Competing voices in the woods if you will. And yes, I’m conscious I’m overgeneralizing. Sometimes when you’re painting, you just grab the broad brush.

The right interprets economic history and life more generally through the lens of American exceptionalism. They’re more anxious about accelerating ethnic diversity than they are global economic restructuring. They refuse to acknowledge our relative decline and are nostalgic for the second half of the 20th century when the U.S.’s economic, military, and political advantages were much more obvious. They’re in serious denial, but if you tell them that they’ll label you anti-American, because in their worldview, American exceptionalism is self-evident.

Stagnant wages and high unemployment aren’t a result of technology-based automation, economic globalization, or our consumer choices. They’re temporary anomalies. Small bumps in the road. If the Kenyan-born, Muslim president (okay, that was uncalled for) would just embrace American exceptionalism, reduce the government to a fourth of its current size and lower taxes by half, we’d quickly reclaim our rightful role as the world’s unquestioned economic superpower. Then we could pick up living large again.

Wednesday—Part 2 of 3—The left, the President, and my evolving thoughts on the fork.

College Tuition Inflation

“Dear Parents” started the letter that arrived today from Eighteen’s college president. “To assist you in your planning, I am writing to provide you with information about fees for the coming year.”

Thanks.

A few short paragraphs in the prez pats himself on the back. “The comprehensive fee increase for the coming year (3.97%) is the second-lowest in a decade.” That makes me feel a lot better, except inflation, in 2010 in the U.S., was 2.3%. Why not just write, “We’ve hosed families worse than this in eight of the previous ten years.”

“In the months ahead,” he added, “we will continue to explore routes to reduce operational expenses while preserving the academic excellence for which Exorbitantly Priced College is justly known.” A promising sentence that deserves another like this, “I will write again during the summer to update you on the outcome of those discussions and exactly how we are going to reduce operational expenses while preserving academic excellence.”

Continue to explore. Classic higher ed speak.

One wonders, when it comes to comprehensive fees at private liberal arts colleges, is there a tipping point?

March Madness and the Miami Heat

“Heat Lose 5 in a Row” reads the ESPN link. The reason? Their starters’ positive point differential is less than their bench player’s negative point differential. Turns out two superstars, one good player, and a bunch of below average players is not an equation for dominating.

Contrast the 2011 Heat with the 2001 Seattle Mariners who went 116-46 based on the GM’s philosophy of being above average at every position.

What does this have to do with March Madness? Well, when you’re filling out your brackets you have to distinguish between 2011 Miami Heat teams and 2001 Seattle Mariners teams.

For example, Arizona—2011 Miami Heat. Belmont—2001 Seattle Mariners.

Heard a great radio interview this week with Rick Byrd, the Belmont coach who has won 500 games in 25 years at Belmont. Imminently likeable dude whose 2008 team, despite their 15 seed, had the lead and the ball against Duke with 45 seconds left. Eleven of his players play at least 10 minutes and none play more than 25. Another coach says, “You could argue their second team is as talented as their first team.”

Another excerpt from a longer tribute to the Belmont Bruins. “Belmont’s bench averaged 40 points per game, the highest average in the country.”

I’m not saying they’re Final Four-bound, but look for a Belmont upset, or two, or three. I’ll be rooting for them. Just hope they don’t leave my Miami Heatish UCLA Bruins in ruins.

[postscript—Pressing Pause is especially big in the “O” states. Duck and Buckeye boosters, really sorry to hear the NCAA has come knocking. I’m sure it’s much ado about nothing. Why can’t they just leave all your student-athletes alone? Hang in there. Penalties expire.]

Suburban Life(r) Postscript

Since waxing philosophic on the downsides of suburbia, I’ve been beating myself up for a lack of contentment. Guess I need to learn the art of self compassion.

Home shopping on the Northwest Multiple Listing Service helps me appreciate three things about our home including:

1) High ceilings. We’re a tall people and so it’s really nice to have extra headroom. And you never know when you’ll be overcome with the urge to work on your golf swing. Still not sure how I once managed to get smoothie remnants on the kitchen ceiling. Note to self, don’t stick the wooden spoon in too far when at full throttle.

2) Considerably more natural light than most homes. After the last five months, all I can say is, damn this weather. Sorry bro.

3) Best of all, the woods behind our house that were supposed to be developed before the 2008 economic meltdown. Everyday, and usually stark naked, I stare into the woods and think, what a beautiful, positive consequence of the terrible recession. Just the trees and me naturally. Somewhere the people who almost ended up living where our woods are located are thinking, “Not having to see Ron in the buff, what a beautiful, positive consequence.”

Looking ahead. Friday’s post—March Madness and the Miami Heat.

How to Improve Your Vocabulary

Some of my writing students want to improve their vocabulary this semester. That’s admirable, but they probably won’t like my suggestions:

1) Read more.

2) Not just Junie B. Jones and Archie comics (for Fifteen). Read progressively more challenging material. Or at least rotate in challenging stuff between the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Harry Potter (for Eighteen).

3) When reading challenging material, take time to look up some of the words you don’t know. (A favorite i-Pad e-book feature, touch the word, touch the definition tab, five-ten seconds, genius. The plus side of an admitted trade-off).

4) Integrate newly learned words into your conversations and writing even if you don’t use them perfectly initially. I called Fifteen a sycophant the other day. She asked what that meant. I told her it was the first word on the aced vocab quiz adorning the frig. That brought a smile. Use em’ or lose em’.

5) The power of osmosis can’t be exaggerated. This is the “try to play tennis with people better than you” concept. Hang with people whose vocabularies are further along than yours. In addition to Modern Family, talk about ideas, what you’re reading, North African and Middle Eastern political unrest, and the Wisconsin state legislature. You become the company you keep.

The problem with my suggestions is most young people prefer multimedia to reading, spending hundreds of hours Facebooking and watching legions of movies for every substantive book they read. Apparently blog posts are even too long. Fifteen rarely chooses to read in her free time, gravitating to Facebook and SuperNanny instead. Interestingly though, whenever she’s required to read quality literature in her English class, she always enjoys it.

In the end, there are no shortcuts. Absent immersing oneself in vocab-rich reading material, dictionary work, time spent in literate small groups, and more vocab-rich reading, don’t expect to light the vocabulary world on fire.

What I’m Listening To

Mumford & Sons—The Cave and Little Lion Man. Abigail Washburn—Nobody’s Fault But Mine and City of Refuge.

I can’t stop playing these tracks.

Know how couples in love pick a song that has special meaning during their early days and years and dance to it at their wedding? I think couples should add a second song to capture the ethos of things five, ten, thirty, fifty years down the road.

I’ve approached the GalPal with the perfect “second song” and I’m happy to report she’s accepted.

Mumford & Sons—Little Lion Man. The chorus:

But it was not your fault but mine
And it was your heart on the line
I really fucked it up this time
Didn’t I, my dear?
Didn’t I?