The Most Popular Posts of 2011

Dear Readers,

I enjoyed sharing a lot of what I learned in 2011 with you. Here were the most popular posts from the year:

1) School Principal Shortage

2) Is On-line Learning a Good or Bad Thing?

3) The Public School Budget Crisis and the Dilemma of Professional Development

4) 2011 RAMROP—Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Piece

5) The Life Changing iPhone 4S

6) Young, Devout, Maligned

7) Home Schooling is Hip. . . and Selfish

I appreciate your reading, subscribing, and forwarding posts to others. A special thanks to those who took the time to comment during the year. Recent new subscribers, a kind comment from a former student, a thoughtful email from my mom, and support from a friend at a holiday party have me ready to roll in the new year. Seemingly small gestures add up.

I’ll continue trying to provide meaningful content. I could use your help in two ways—by jumping in the water sometime this year and agreeing or disagreeing with me about something and by sending questions and/or links of things you’d like me to write about.

In appreciation,


Our Passive Acceptance of Evil

I’ve been subjecting my unlucky, long-suffering wife to a string of intense foreign flicks. Most recently, In a Better World, which won the Oscar for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film. One reviewer explains that “the film examines the different ways people react to injustice, and looks at how what counts as ‘revenge’, as opposed to ‘justice’, is a matter of perception.” Watch it and let me know what you think.

How do you react to injustice? What, if anything, do you do when you see an adult hit a child in public? What, if anything, do you do when you learn someone is a victim of domestic abuse? What, if anything do you when your tax dollars make it possible for drones to kill bad guys and innocent civilians anonymously from the sky?

I know what you do when an evil person, family, or cadre in Zimbabwe or North Korea hits, impoverishes, and imprisons on a national scale. Nothing. Most people cope with the atrocities of those regimes by not paying attention to them. If we don’t even know where Zimbabwe and North Korea are, who Kim Jong-un and Robert Mugabe are, or what Zimbabweans’ and North Koreans’ lives are like, it’s so much easier to just make fun of how backward the countries are.

On the other hand, if we’re better than our popular culture, and press pause long enough to learn what life is like for fellow humans who were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s impossible to watch the North Korean succession without getting sick to your stomach.

The North Korean tragedy is nearly impossible to grasp, but here’s an imperfect analogy. If your politics are anything like mine, after John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, you had a few “Oh shit, there’s a possibility of an ill-informed, right wing dilettante becoming president” moments. Forget President Sarah Palin. Instead imagine if the vote was canceled and Jenna Bush was appointed President. Jenna, not Barbara because she revealed a greater capacity for cruelty. One of Jong-un’s alleged childhood pastimes was torturing small animals.

I miss Christopher Hitchens’ writing. This incredibly vacuous New Yorker essay on North Korea’s Kim Jong-il’s funeral ceremony/performance begs a question—who will fill his shoes? Without Hitchens’ passionate, populist voice the Kim Jong-un succession has even more of a feel of inevitability.

I get it, the immediacy of the evil in North Korea pales in comparison to the violence in our own neighborhoods and communities, but the scale of human suffering deserves more of our attention. We can and should be committed to a more peaceful and just 2012 both in our own communities and on the Korean Peninsula.

Brief Insanity, Compliments of Alaska Airlines

Previously I’ve written about one of my favorite reads of 2011—William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Irvine has a sub-section titled, “Anger—on overcoming anti-joy”. Here are my notes from that sub-section, mostly excerpts I wanted to remember:

Anger is another negative emotion that can destroy our tranquility. Seneca referred to it as “brief insanity” and said, “No plague has cost the human race more. A waste of precious time.” Punishment should be “an expression not of anger but of caution.” Calm correction; not retribution, but instruction (160). Need to fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and to overreact to little things. The more we eschew comfort and harden ourselves, the more likely we are to not get angry (161-2). Best counter is humor, choosing to think of the bad things that happen to us as being funny rather than outrageous (162).

We should contemplate the impermanence of the world around us.  When angered by something we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance. Also, remember our behavior also angers others. Seneca, “We must agree to go easy on one another. We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking, then our anger will have dissipated.” (163). When unsuccessful at controlling our anger we should apologize, which has a calming effect on us and lessens the chance we’ll make the same mistake in the future (164). Seneca, “make yourself a person to be loved by all while you live and missed when you have made your departure.” (165).

This is the story of my recent epic failure at applying these insights. We were flying from Seattle to Santa Barbara to visit the in-laws for five days. My father-in-law was nice enough to drive an hour and a half to pick us up. Right before our Alaska Airlines plane was supposed to board we learned the gate had been changed. By the time we got to the new gate, discussed whether we needed to check in, and learned the “plane had been downsized,” we were what the airlines refer to as “shit-out-of-luck”. Our seats no longer existed and the flight was way overbooked. In years past airlines would offer more and more coin until enough people agreed to give up their seats. In the new economy, Alaska stops at 3 bills, and then says to their shit-out-of-luck flyers, “Sorry.”

Doesn’t matter that your father-in-law has already left to pick you up or that you paid Pujols-type money for the tickets. Agent, “We’ll fly you to L.A. and bus you to Santa Barbara.” To which Seneca would have said, “Wonderful, I love Los Angeles and the bus ride promises to be scenic.” But in a major setback to my pratice of Stoicism, I succumbed to “brief insanity” and said, “You’re kidding right?!!! You have to get more people off the plane!” “Sir, I can’t physically remove people.” “I’m not asking you to physically remove anyone, you have to offer them more incentives.” “We don’t do that.”

That initial exchange was first base in what turned into an inside-the-park anti-joy homerun. I didn’t swear, but got progressively more heated as I rounded second and was waved into third by the agent’s total lack of empathy. I told her I knew she wasn’t to blame for the last minute plane change, but her employer was and it was their policies that were so aggravating. Agent, “Sir, you’re not the only one ‘shit-out-of-luck’ (paraphrasing).” Turning to the twenty somethings behind me who were probably texting friends, “At Alaska gate. Out of a seat. Old dude has totally snapped, quite entertaining. LOL,” I said, “I can’t help it if I’m not as passive as everyone else.”

Finally, completely fed up with me, she said I should go to the Alaska customer service desk. Three hours later, four travel vouchers safely tucked away in the iPad case, we were on our way to Burbank. A high-speed “life flashing before your eyes” Supper Shuttle trip later, we were in Santa Barbara a mere five hours behind schedule.

In hindsight, given Alaska Airline’s short-sighted, bottom-line, customer-be-damned business practices, I don’t regret acting a fool. I do though regret two things. I regret my fellow customers rolled over probably assuring that Alaska will disrupt more travelers plans, and I regret I didn’t seek out the agent after returning from the customer service center. I would have apologized for taking my anger out on her instead of the spreadsheet reading Alaska Airlines execs who probably make ten to a hundred times more than her.

I Recommend

Hope you had a nice Christmas and have a nice New Years.

Best piece about Christopher Hitchens following his recent death—Christopher Hitchens’ Unforgivable Mistake by John Cook. Truly outstanding and more evidence of karma. Some may find it impolite. Wrong. It’s an insightful, unflinching, hard hitting piece, and the perfect tribute to Hitchens’ work.

Best three hour long Bollywood film about the detrimental effect of mindless competition on schooling and society—The Three Idiots. Prepare a ginormous bowl of popcorn, pour some extra-large ones, and enjoy the largest grossing Bollywood film of all time.

Best hour-long television series about a physically and emotionally close extended familyParenthood. Maybe the best television show ever about what it’s like to parent a child with Aspergers? Frequently moving and really well acted, but the four sibs don’t look enough like one another.

Best track to get your 2012 groove on—Electric Feel by MGMT. “You shock me like an electric eel. Baby girl, turn me on with your electric feel.” That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Best part of Juliet Schor’s—True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High Satisfaction Economy—Chapter Four—Living Rich on a Troubled Planet, pages 99-144.

Best athletic sock for running, cycling, just plain kickin’ it—Road Runner Sports Dry as a Bone Medium Quarter.

Best newly discovered app—Zite Personalized Magazine.

Best non-PressingPause blog post of the recent past—Love is Beautiful.

Best “news junkie” website/portal en todo el mundo—Newseum (thanks to the Golden Girl).

Best actress/actor of our time—Peggy Noonan who has already seen “The Iron Lady” which opens December 30th writes: Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Mrs. Thatcher is not so much a portrayal as an inhabitation. It doesn’t do justice to say Ms. Streep talks like her, looks like her, catches some of her spirit, though those things are true. It’s something deeper than that, something better and more important. Look for the Byrnes family at “The Iron Lady” before the clock strikes 2012.

And from the offspringers—Best book to pass time with on an airplane—

Still Watching

A follow up to my brilliant “In Defense of Eavesdropping” post from yesteryear. Well, if not brilliant, clever?

I am still watching you.

In particular on airplanes. Think the proliferation of e-readers makes eavesdropping more difficult? Wrong. I’m spying your e-book between the gap between the seats. Steinbeck huh, nice choice.

Too much curiosity to stop.

Based on a quick glance at his iPhone, Skater Dude next to me on the plane was listening to NPR podcasts. Disappointed I couldn’t make out any titles. And come on dude, update your apps already. A fiftyish woman one row up and in the aisle seat is in almost full view. Classy dresser, designer glasses, reading the New York Times Magazine during take-off. A young Diane Keaton maybe? Not even close. Diane Keaton would be reading a script right? Fiftyish Woman played Angry Birds and other stupid games on her iPhone the entire flight. Same with Tatted Up Guy sitting next to Steinbeck Reader.

All this while watching Bridesmaids on Nineteen’s laptop from across the aisle. Add mad multitasking skills to my list of amazing attributes. Eldest was even nice enough to offer up an earpiece for the funniest scenes. And all this people and movie watching while finally finishing up True Wealth by Juilet Schor.

Reading about environmental degradation, economics, and sustainability is a great deterrent to eavesdropping, but our privacy is sacrificed the second we step outdoors (and of course, connect to the internet). Near the end of lunch at the San Luis Obispo California Pizza Kitchen (vegetarian with japanese eggplant) I asked about directions to Art’s Cyclery. On the way out a woman at the adjacent table said, “I heard you asking where Art’s Cyclery is located. They’ve moved. My daughter looked it up on her phone. Here you go.”

Once outside, Sixteen and I spontaneoulsy did a little jig titled “Completely Weirded Out.” Karma is real. What goes around, comes around.

The Most Difficult Three and a Half Words

A close friend has been experiencing extreme leg pain for over a year. She’s seen a medical conference worth of docs, had tons of tests, and is still lacking the thing she wants most—a diagnosis.

A month ago I went with her to an appointment with a rheumatologist who said the root problem was not rheumatological. Unable to string together the most difficult three and half words, he offered up a boilerplate myofascial something or other hypothesis.

Today we travelled long distance to see The Man at the Pain Center at the hospital in the Big City. I am always in awe of ace doctors. Dr. Ace studied her file for a long time, asked clarifying questions, and then continued with more questions during a physical exam.

In the end, he said, “I’m not clever enough to know what’s wrong.” I dig the way Brits use “clever” instead of “smart”. It’s clever. “There’s still a lot we don’t know about the brain,” he explained. Deeply disappointed, my long-suffering friend pleaded with him for a diagnosis. “I just want to know what’s wrong with me.” At which point he said the three and a half words, “I don’t know.”

Imagine if we lived in a world where one political candidate attacked another about flip-flopping and asked, “How can we be sure you’re not going to change your mind again?” And the candidate responded, “I don’t know.”

Or one in which every financial analyst asked to make predictions about the market in 2012 said, “I don’t know.”

Or one in which a Westpoint political science prof when asked about the lessons of the Iraq War said, “I don’t know.”

Or one in which Christopher Hitchens, when pressed to explain why he was so sure there’s no God had said, “I don’t know.”

Or one in which a man driving aimlessly in a car, when asked by a woman whether he’s going in the right direction said, “I don’t know.”

Or one in which Billy Graham, when asked to explain why he’s so sure there’s life after death said, “I don’t know.”

Or one in which Hilary Clinton, when asked what will be required to bring genuine Middle East peace said, “I don’t know.”

Or one in which Tom Friedman, when asked what the United States must do to reclaim it’s greatness said, “I don’t know.”

Or one in which Bill Gates, when asked why he thinks his teacher evaluation plan is going to improve schooling said, “I don’t know.”

Or one in which a blogger, when asked why he thinks everyone would be well served by greater humility and honesty said, “I don’t know.”

My “Forever 21” Test

I passed. In the same way I probably passed that economics class at UCLA that I changed to “pass/no pass” after bombing the first test. In a “C+” kind of way.

Last weekend was the annual Byrnes family downtown Seattle pre-Xmas overnight. Sixteen, Nineteen, their mother, and yours truly, playing the token male.

Historically this trip has been the Thanksgiving/Seattle Marathon weekend, but this year we had to wait for Nineteen to return home from college. Normally I use tapering as an excuse to spend the night frozen on the hotel bed watching football and basketball while the three of them do American Eagle, Forever 21, and [insert the name of a female shopping goddess here] only knows what other stores.

This year, with no race to run Sunday morning, I couldn’t use my normal tapering “get out of shopping” card. So I talked myself into going along in the interest of “family time”. I’d rather get a root canal without anesthesia or be the guy in the Tour de France that got flipped over the barbed wire by the reckless driver than watch two young women shop, even my favorite two young women. I decided to approach it as an endurance test, a gender test, a mental toughness test, a selflessness test.

Store one, Forever 21. I asked where Forever 51 was which elicited smiles. Men, the most important thing to know about Forever 21 is it’s inexpensive. If you want to get back at a lady friend that did you wrong, pick her up something there. The ten minutes of watching blonde one and two round up clothes to try on was tougher than expected, but then they disappeared into the changing room and time came to a complete stop. European finance ministers would solve the Euro crisis for good if they committed an equivalent amount of time.

I had prepared for a warm 10k, but was instead running a marathon in Tampa Florida in the middle of a summer afternoon. Totally out of my league. The wife with the bad wheel found a chair to spend the rest of her 51st year in. Losing my mind, I decided to entertain her by dancing to the incessant techno Christmas music. The more she smiled and laughed, the bolder I got, the bolder I got the more she smiled and laughed. In the end, it was probably twice as bad as you’re imagining.

Finally, I sent the wife in after them wondering if they had been abducted. She reported that they’d be ready in “five minutes” which turned into what felt like five hours. Finally, ready to go, but wait, turns out there’s this strange tradition of putting at least one article of clothing on hold. Kind of like throwing a coin in a fountain. This is so you don’t actually have to decide. Turns out you never go back for it, it’s just a game that everyone, shopper and store employee both enjoy playing.

On the way out, the following mind numbing “straw that broke my back” dialogue took place: One xx, “What’s with ponchos, seems like they’re making a comeback?” Another xx, “Oh no, they’re all the way back.” Still another, “Correction, they’re trying to make it back.”

Please make it stop hurting.

Once on 6th Avenue I breathed in the cold fresh air and slowly recovered. Like anyone who had to fight a young Mike Tyson, I knew I was whupped. One round was all I lasted.

As I collapsed on the bed in the gloriously silent unoccupied room I couldn’t help but think how this family tradition would differ if we had two sons. This is all I know for sure. We wouldn’t speak of ponchos, we’d race go-carts, we’d wrestle, and we’d fall asleep watching Hoosiers.

Pujols Trade Take-Away

Everyone wants to feel needed, appreciated, like a valuable member of the team. Even dudes who get nine figures for being good at baseball.

Jose Reyes is a very good baseball player who recently signed a six-year $106 million deal with the Florida Marlins. “The Marlins,” Reyes said, “showed me a lot of love.” Asked about the team that signed him when he was 16, he said, “The Mets didn’t make a real offer, so that means they don’t want me there. I need to move on.”

Albert Pujols is a decent player too. He just inked a ten-year $254 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Next to Disneyland Between Katella and Orangewood. Gregg Doyel’s disappointment, “Pujols could have had it all, but instead he chose $254 million,” makes perfect sense on the surface—Pujols would have always been beloved in St. Louis if had he settled for their $220 million.

One problem though. The handful of superstars at the top of each sport always want to be paid more than their peers. Their salaries are their measuring sticks, not fleeting fan appreciation. No coincidence he signed for $2m more than ARod’s old contract.

Unreal isn’t that even guys who make $100-200k per baseball game don’t feel appreciated by their teams when another dude somewhere else makes a little more? Even more than unappreciated, they feel “disrespected”.

As I wrote previously about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, everyone wants to feel needed, appreciated, like a valued member of the team. How can those of us who supervise, manage, or coach others create environments where each person feels like an integral part of the whole, like their contributions are important?

A friend of mine, a high school principal, interviewed a grad student of mine for a math position which she got. During the interview process he learned she had a thing for Diet Coke. He told me he got a small fridge, filled it with Diet Coke, and put it in her classroom for her.

An admittedly subtle example, but maybe small, but thoughtful gestures like that are what make the difference in the end. Even when there’s a pay scale in place, like in public school districts, people want to feel like others care that they’re at work, are aware of and appreciate their effort, and genuinely miss them when their gone. My principal friend gets that. What other examples are there of supes, managers, bosses, or coaches getting it?

Everything Free Day

Two weeks ago Megan McArdle reviewed a few books on consumption. Early in the review she reveals she recently bought a $1,500 food processor. Who knew one could drop 1.5 large on a food processor?

The Saturday morning after Black Friday my betrothed filled me in on the L.A. shopper who pepper-sprayed several other X-box shopper-competitors before fleeing the scene. The good news is I don’t think anyone was trampled to death in Toys R’ Us this year. On Black Friday I subscribed to in the a.m. and then spent a chunk of the p.m. shopping for new kitchen appliances at home in my pepper spray-free environment.

I spent part of Thanksgiving Day shopping too. Well, kind of. While watching Ndamukong Suh stomp on a Packer o-lineman, I blew through 90% of the 90 lbs. of newspaper ad inserts. Took everything the labradude had to drag that bad boy to the front door. Who knew Wal-Mart sells decent looking jeans for $10? And a decent Timex Ironman-brand watch for $10? Maybe they won’t stop stomping their suppliers until they can sell everything for $10 or less.

Remember the crazy shopping spree marketing prizes in the 70’s or 80’s? Some lucky winner would get an hour in a grocery store and they’d sprint up and down the aisle frantically loading a few baskets with a little of everything? And we’d watch imagining how much faster we’d go or how we’d be more strategic and target the most expensive goods that take up the least space.

What if Black Friday was “National Reduce Inventory” day and everything was free? Nothing sold out, no servers crashed, perfect availability. What would you have brought home? What about those you live with? Where/how would you have stored everything? How would those new possessions have changed your life? Would you be much happier?

At minimum, I would have ordered a few new kitchen appliances and brought home some of Costco’s most expensive vino, a new bicycle computer, and a McArdle food processor in a new Seal Gray 2012 Porsche 911. Initially at least, I would have been much happier. Among other ripple effects though, I’d have to work more hours to pay for more expensive car insurance and maintenance costs and over the course of a few weeks, months, and years, I probably wouldn’t be any happier at all.

I don’t assume what’s true for me is true for you, but I’m learning the things that make me happiest—friendship, good health, film, literature, exercising in natural settings, writing this blog, helping others—can’t be purchased in a store or ordered on-line. I could spend tons of time and energy shopping in stores and on-line at this time of year, brag about my good bargains, but not improve the quality of my life.

If there’s ever a time of the year for reflecting on this dynamic it’s now. The thrill of even great purchases quickly fades so invest time and energy in the people and things that bring lasting joy.

Related Graham Hill TED Talk titled “Less Stuff, More Happiness”.

Connecting With Teens

As a teacher, coach, father, person, I’ve always been pretty good at connecting with teens. Maybe for the following reasons:

1) I enjoy them, quirks and all. Well, the vast majority. I like their energy, goofiness, earnestness, naïveté. I don’t think of them as a separate specie that is up to no good. Sometimes I even abandon my peers, “cross over,” and sit with them at multi-family get togethers. Most teens rise to the level of adult expectations.

2) I look past outward appearances. I know they’re not going to look the same at 30. I don’t read much into funky haircuts, baggy pants, wild hair coloring, and piercings. Those things don’t reflect a lack of values, they’re just trying out different personas and learning to blend in with peers. One evening eighteen years ago, after a day spent exploring the Washington D.C. mall, my squeeze and I, with our one-year old daughter in tow, collapsed into chairs at a table at the Pentagon City Mall food court in Alexandria, VA. One minute later a group of about seven teens in black trench coats, with the requisite black hair, nail polish, and piercings started to settle into the table next to us. When they lit up, I walked over and calmly and respectfully said, “I don’t know if you guys saw the sign, but this is a no smoking area.” They apologized, got up and left. Exactly what I envisioned would happen.

3) I like some of the same aspects of pop culture as many of them. Which helps bridge the generation divide. Turns out many of Nineteen’s friends at the Midwest liberal arts college know the contents of my iPad. What a claim to fame, the geezer who likes pop music, hip-hop, and rap. Please understand though, I don’t listen to Eminem or watch Glee in order to bridge the generation divide. The “fake it until you make it” cliché does not apply to consuming pop culture in order to connect with teens. When it comes to teens and pop culture, fake it and forget it. The interest has to be genuine. It probably helps that my adolescent self is still alive and well. Just ask my family sometime, I’ve never completely outgrown my immature, stupid younger self. My arrested development helps me connect with teens.

4) I make fun of myself and joke around more generally. I haven’t met a teen yet that doesn’t appreciate self-deprecating humor. They live in perpetual fear of others laughing at them, so when I’m making fun of myself, it’s a much appreciated respite from their normal “people are about to laugh at me” anxiety. Ten weeks into my first year of teaching in inner-city L.A. I was at war with third period U.S. History. The class could have tipped either way when one day I yanked down the large U.S. map attached to the front board and it flew off the hooks landing across my upper back. Without thinking I went full Dick Van Dyke, grabbing said map, throwing it to the ground, and stomping on it. They thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Since I was human they decided to give me a break. Over the remaining thirty weeks I built a nice rapport with those students.

5) I anticipate bad decisions and am careful not to overreact when they stumble. More commonly, adults are surprised and disappointed by teens’ mistakes. Then they assert their authority and hand out strict punishments. From this teens learn more about adult power than what they might do differently the next time they have to make a difficult decision. Error prone teens always appreciate it when adults take the time to listen, talk, teach, and individualize necessary punishments.