Sentence of the Sentury

In my early twenties, while attending a workshop on “Teaching About Africa”, I was introduced to African literature which has enriched my life unmeasurably. My current exercise in seeing the world through African lenses is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. Highly recommended. Before digging in though, read a bit about recent Zimbabwean history. For example, this backgrounder compliments of the Daily Mail.

There are so many passages I’d like to highlight, but I’ll limit myself to one which requires a brief intro. Here the central character, Darling, is describing her Kalamazoo, Michigan, adolescent self:

The last book I read was that Jane Eyre one, where the long meandering sentences and everything just bored me and that Jane just kept irritating me with her stupid decisions and the whole lame story made me want to throw the book away. I had to force myself to keep reading because I had to write a report for English class.

Then Bulawayo goes all Jane Eyre on her readers. Dig this sentence of the sentury:

It’s early in the morning so the mall is a little dead. If this was at home, the place would be throbbing with life already: little kids riding that escalator over there like it would take them to heaven, their screams rising like skyscrapers—you would hear them all the way at Victoria’s Secret on the third floor; the mothers gossiping and laughing on the first floor, taking turns to look up and shouting warnings at their children, bodies constantly shuffling about because women never stand still since there is always something to do, always something; the men doing their thing maybe around those benches outside Payless, maybe passing around a Kingsgate cigarette or huddled around a newspaper and maybe talking about football scores in the European League, or the war in Iraq; their voices deep but never rising about those of the women and children because a man’s voice needs to stay low always; and then, in the open space where that Indian girl does threading, the older kids would be dancing to house musice, to DJ Sbu, and DJ Zinhle and Bojo Mujo, being reckless with their contorting bodies like they know they don’t own them and therefore they don’t care if they break; and in the massage chairs near the elevator, toothless old people sprawled out like lizards basking in the sun, making groaning noises as the massage thingies worked their wilted bodies; and at the telephone near the candle shop, an impatient line queuing to make calls to relatives in places like Chicago and Cape Town and Paris and Amsterdam and Lilongwe and Jamaica and Tunis; in the air, the dizzying aromas of morning foods cutting those perfumed smells from Macy’s to shreds; and maybe on that little square outside Foot Locker, under the fake tree, someone preaching from a Bible, a small crowd gathered around him, maybe wondering whether to believe or not, litter at their feet and around the mall to show there are people living there.

Most Read Posts This Year

  1. The Problem With The Simple Living Movement
  2. Two Types of Self Esteem
  3. School Mission Statements
  4. When Parents Are Too Child-Centered
  5. What Engineers Get Wrong

Each was written prior to 2015. Meaning it’s time to step up my game this year. Thank you as always for stopping by. Most readers were from the United States, with Canada and the United Kingdom close behind. Most groovy of all, readers were from 139 different countries.

My two favorite Christmas gifts this year.


The Cold, Hard Reality of Teaching’s Artificiality

Yesterday a colleague said she thought about “just canceling everything” this week, the last of the semester before final exams. “I thought I’d just tell them we’re through. That’s it. That’s all there is.”

That brought “I feel you” laughter from others. So when I told another colleague that today was the last class session of the semester, she said, “I bet you’re happy about that.” “No,” I explained, “I’m going to miss this group.”

My thirteen first year writers this semester were amazing. They were from Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon, and different parts of Washington State. They were funny and kind and they listened to whomever was speaking. They thoughtfully embraced the questions inspired by the course theme, “The Art of Living”. They shared their differing perspectives on the need for a philosophy of life; on gratitude and empathy; on money’s relative importance; on friendship, family, and romantic love; and on spirituality’s relative importance. They liked one another, they liked the course content, they tolerated their teacher.

Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve had a group of randomly assigned students gel with one another and me in unexpected ways so I have a feel for what our future holds. I’ll see them in a few months or years somewhere on campus, probably walking across Red Square. And a fair number will pretend they don’t see me. I have a sophisticated phrase for this phenomenon, “That was then, this is now.”

I remember the Good Wife experiencing this her second or third September of teaching. Much to her dismay, her third graders whom she had poured her soul into, quickly bonded with their fourth grade teacher. She was lucky to get sheepish hand waves when she wanted hugs of continuous gratitude. Their subtle head nods conveyed “That was then, this is now”.

This semester I instituted a social psychology experiment of sorts. Mid-semester, after bonding with my thirteen writers, I explained the “That was then, this is now” phenomenon. Of course they didn’t need it explained, but my figuring them out brought smiles of appreciation.

Then, occasionally, I would begin class by reporting on brief interactions with former students elsewhere on campus. “Saw three students on my way to and from the pool at lunch yesterday, two made eye contact and said ‘hello’.” They enjoyed my scorekeeping.

So today, my parting words were a request, “When you see me on campus, don’t look past me, say ‘hello’.” They said they would, but I’ll settle for subtle head nods.





A New Philanthropy

My university’s decision to sell its public radio station (KPLU) to Seattle’s (KUOW), has upset lots of KPLU listeners both on and off campus. You can read the PLU president’s rationale here and decide for yourself how persuasive it is.

The sale is being reported as $8m, but it’s really $7m since $1m is $100k worth of radio advertising for ten consecutive years. At a recent faculty meeting the president said young adult radio listening is down 41% which prompted me to ask him why then the $1m in advertising.

Tacoma’s newspaper puts the sale in a larger context:

What’s happening to KPLU’s news team has been happening across the United States for the last decade. Battered by the Great Recession and the migration of audiences to the Internet, America’s traditional news operations . . . have collectively been forced to shed many thousands of professional journalism jobs.

That would merely be tough luck for those companies if new digital media were picking up the slack. Many traditional media companies . . . have successfully migrated to the Internet themselves. But online news rarely attracts the kind of advertising revenue that the old media once enjoyed.

It’s not just lost advertising revenue, it’s Craigslist and other on-line publications which have siphoned off classified revenue, another critical stream.

The Tacoma paper predicts what will happen next:

Shrunken newsrooms and fewer reporters and news editors. With fewer reporters, there’s less news. Pardon the sarcasm, but it’s remarkable how much less scandal there is in government and the corporate world now that fewer journalists are on the lookout for it.

The Web creates an illusion of abundant news. There is in fact an abundance of commentary about the news; political websites and blogs are saturated with punditry and ideological spin. There’s also a lot of news that’s been recycled, aggregated, tweeted, repurposed and attached to ads on the Web. But there’s less real bedrock information out there than it appears.

The Good Wife and I went a little cray cray last weekend and went to two movies. One of those, Spotlight, is the story of the Boston Globe’s 2000-2002 reporting on the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.

Even though the story happened only 14-15 years ago, it felt like much longer. Almost like entering a time capsule. It’s a last gasp salvo against the march of the internet, an engaging case study of important investigative reporting. Unbelievably, the editors kept slowing down the journalists, telling them to take more time, meaning using more resources.

Since power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, a vibrant democracy depends in large part on a free and tenacious press that repeatedly asks challenging questions of people in power. Legions of journalists are sounding a warning, saying few media entities have the financial wherewithal to do original, excellent investigative reporting.

But I’m unaware of journalists thinking creatively about alternative revenue streams. So I will offer an idea. What if super wealthy philanthropists gave less to the (normally) already super wealthy universities they attended, and instead, made seven and eight figure gifts to our once great newspapers, or their newer online competitors, to create endowments for them, just like colleges and universities have, so that they can count on the revenue those endowments would generate.

And what about endowing journalists more specifically, like an endowed chair at a college or university? The Daniel Pearl Chair of Southeast Asian Reporting. The David Carr Chair of Media Studies. Seems to me this idea might appeal to super wealthy lefties and right wing nutters since the resulting investigative light would shine on scoundrels of every conceivable ideological bent.


• Thanks to Adele for filling in for me last week.

• I just don’t get the Kobe worship (Rest in Peace moms). He’s shooting 31%! If he cared about the Laker’s future half as much as he does himself, he’d retire right now.

• Happy to report that I ran the Seattle Half Marathon Sunday without either calf rebelling. My time suggests what I’ve suspected, I’m getting older. My brother informs me my time was five minutes slower than his personal record. Forgets to mention Grease was the top grossing movie when he ran that race.




Do You Mind If I’m Totally Frank?

Last week, that’s what one of my students asked me in the middle of a discussion led by a classmate. The topic was what stoicism teaches about getting along with others. At the beginning of the discussion, I skimmed the student leader’s questions. The last one was about stoicism and sex which was addressed within the related reading.

With about ten minutes left in class, I said to the student leader that he should probably pick one of the remaining two questions. Without hesitating he jumped to the last much to his classmates’ delight. Apart from a little antiseptic sex ed talk, I’m guessing this was the first time they’d ever truly discussed sex in a classroom.

It’s ironic that the more interpersonally consequential the subject—take sex as one example and marriage as another—the less likely we are to talk about them with adolescents and young adults in any detail. I guess we think of such topics as too personal, private, and value-laden. As a result, pastors rarely if ever talk about sex and marriage from the pulpit, parents rarely if ever talk about their relationships with their children, and educators routinely sidestep topics like that. That means adolescents and young adults are left to themselves to resolve all of the challenges posed by human intimacy through trial and error.

The sex question immediately piqued everyone’s interest. One especially animated student turned from the student leader to me and asked, “Do you mind if I’m totally frank?” Me, “Sure, of course.” Her, “There’s a big difference between fucking and making love.” As they repeatedly say on the television series Fargo, “Okay, then.”

Couple that ice breaker with the fact that it’s a small class, the students are friends, and they think I’m way cooler than I am, the conversation was more candid than I had anticipated. It’s kind of a blur. At some point, I pointed out that they hadn’t yet dealt with the stoic’s primary insight on sex, that in middle or old age few people reflect on their younger selves and wish they had been more promiscuous. Stoics point out that the opposite is much more common, that sexually active people often regret the damage done by being so promiscuous. To which one student bravely said, “I’m 19 and I regret being as promiscuous as I was in high school.”

From there the discussion turned to the confusing and controversial stoic suggestion that sex, even inside of marriage, should only be for the purpose of procreating, which strikes me as an overreaction to the dangers of promiscuity.

Rewind the tape to earlier in the week when, with two colleagues, I was involved in a protracted discussion with a student teacher who is struggling in her internship. I was asking questions designed to get her to admit a regret or two in the hope we could turn to what could be done to remedy the situation. “What would you have done differently if anything?” “Okay,” she finally said without asking if she could be perfectly frank, “I fucked up.”

After the meeting that utterance was what one of my colleagues wanted to talk about first. He was right, she does have to be smarter about professional contexts, meaning more tactful and diplomatic, but these two incidents point to a huge generation gap when it comes to attitudes towards profanity.

Swearing, using “fuck” more specifically and not just as a verb, but as any part of speech, is so common among adolescents and young adults that some adults’ resistance to it, like my colleagues, hardly makes any sense to them.

Just as it’s unrealistic to expect married people to abstain from sex except when procreating, it’s unrealistic to expect young people to stop swearing altogether. The best hopelessly square people like myself can hope for, is that they learn to use profanity freely around their peers when in informal settings and then “code-switch” and refrain from it when around mixed aged people in other settings.

If you don’t agree, you can go forget yourself.

On Blogging—Eight Years and 978 Posts In

By conventional measures, meaning numbers of daily eyeballs, I have not succeeded as a blogger. Here’s why:

• An uninspiring template or graphic interface. I lack the technical chops to improve it and don’t know who might help.

• People seek out blogs that help them with something rather specific—improving their finances, buying personal sports technology, understanding economics and finding other people interested in it. In contrast, I shift topics too much and only occasionally offer any real help. My sporadic helpful posts are my most widely read, which brings me to the crucial third point.

• Pre-PressingPause, I remember talking to a writer friend who has written two very well received books. I told him I’d really enjoy writing a newspaper column. Smiling, he said careful what you ask for, that producing solid content twice a week is way more difficult than people realize. Now I get it. When I look at my most widely read 20+ posts, I realize most of the time I was agitated about something. Typically, the more irritated I am by something, the better. And therein lies the challenge, the older I get, and the more comfortable my life becomes as a result of mounting privilege, the less fired up I am about things. Case in point. Yesterday. Sunday. What irritated me? The people at church who over pass the peace. You know who you are. You’re the person who has to leave the pew and greet damn near everyone in the building with an affectionate hug. That’s not how God intended the peace to be passed. A few handshakes with the peeps to the right and left, front and back. There’s no biblical justification for the irrationally exuberant wandering. That has the makings of a great post doesn’t it? Not.

I will continue because it’s a way for me to connect with other people I know and like, but I’m feeling a need to mix it up. Not sure how yet. You can help by irritating me.