Book of the Week—Geezerball

I’m on a nice little reading roll, meaning a book a week. This week I cheated though when I subbed in a fun, short read, for a long, dryish, academic one that I was plodding through.

Geezerball: North Carolina Basketball at its Eldest (Sort of a Memoir) by Richie Zweigenhaft tells the story of the Guilford College noon pickup basketball game that I played in between 1993-1998 when I taught at the “small Quaker college”. The game is 44 years old and counting and some of the participants have been playing most or all of those years. One of the game’s mottos is “You don’t stop playing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop playing.”

Richie, also known as “The Commissioner” is an accomplished author of several books on diversity in the American power structure. Now 75 years young, he’s the glue that’s held the game together over the decades.

Geezerball prompted a lot of reminiscing about those years and reflection on what’s most important in life. I remember 11 of the 29 players on the current geezer email list which is pretty remarkable given how bad I am with names. It also speaks to the game’s stability and what demographers have been telling us for awhile—that Americans aren’t moving nearly as much as in the past.

The game combines two of the very few things upon which most medical doctors and social scientists respectively agree—the importance of exercise to our physical health and the importance of close interpersonal relationships to our mental health.

“My wife says she expects to get a call one day saying I’ve died on the basketball court,” one geezer writes in the book. “If that happens, she’ll know I died happy.” In actuality, the game is probably extending the life of the participants. Even more importantly, it’s adding tremendously to the quality of their lives. Their friendships, and the humor that marks their interactions, are testaments to the power of community.

Among other remarkable aspects of the game is the fact that nearly all the participants are men. As a runner, I can’t help but notice more women running together; like the geezers, strengthening their bodies, their hearts, and their minds simultaneously. Same with the Gal Pal and her girlfriends who go on long walks every Saturday morning while catching up on the week’s events. I don’t know if it’s true, but it seems like men are more prone than women to prioritize their work lives, often to their own detriment. Given that, I find it inspiring that a dozen men in Greensboro, NC have been defying that norm every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for 44 years.

The sort of memoir reminded me of exactly how cool of an addendum the game is to the participants’ lives. But now, upon further thought, I can’t help but wonder if when those men near the end of their lives, they’ll think of the game as one of the most essential parts of their lives, and their work as more of an addendum. Meaning, what if we all have it backwards? What if the GalPal’s Saturday morning walks, my Saturday morning group runs, my Tuesday and Thursday night group rides are the core and everything else is the periphery?

This line of thinking may be just one more example of my economic privilege at work, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we organized our lives around Geezerball-like communities, where we prioritized movement and friendship over material wealth and status? Put another way, how much is enough? When it comes to work hours and money, there’s always a point of diminishing returns. At a certain point, more work means more impoverished relationships with family and friends.

In contrast, when it comes to walking, running, cycling, swimming, surfing, or playing basketball or golf with friends, there is no point of diminishing returns. Our physical and mental health just keep improving. Our entire well-being. That’s the lesson of Geezerball.

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North Carolina’s Downward Public School Spiral

Deborah R. Gerhardt for “Citizen of the First Part of 2014” for detailing in this Slate magazine essay the downward spiral of public education in North Carolina and also for acting to reverse it. She writes:

North Carolina’s intentional assault on public education is working. It is pushing our best teachers out. In 1997 the state ranked 42nd in teacher pay. The year before, Gov. Jim Hunt had run on a platform to invest in public education. After he was elected, he worked with the Republican House Speaker to focus on excellence in teaching and raised teacher salaries up to the national average in just four years. That bipartisan investment paid off. In the 1990s our public student test scores rose more than any other state’s. North Carolina became known as “the education state.” As recently as 2008, North Carolina paid teachers better than half the nation.

Things can change quickly, especially if you’re not looking. Now, the brand that attracted us—“the education state”—sounds like a grim joke. After six years of no real raises, we have fallen to 46th in teacher pay. North Carolina teachers earn nearly $10,000 less than the national average. And if you look at trends over the past decade, we rank dead last: After adjusting for inflation, North Carolina lowered teacher salaries nearly 16 percent from 2002 to 2012, while other states had a median decline of 1 percent. A first-year teacher in North Carolina makes $30,800. Our school district lost a candidate to a district in Kentucky because its starting salary was close to $40,000. It takes North Carolina teachers more than 15 years to earn $40,000; in Virginia it may take only four. Gap store managers on average make about $56,000.

If you talk to a teacher in North Carolina, you will hear the bitter truth of how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Most teachers . . . work at least one extra job.  An elementary school teacher told me that his daughters do not have the chance to play soccer or cello like his students. He has no discretionary income left to spare.

How did this happen? Both political parties share responsibility. When the recession began, the Democrats in power froze teacher pay. After years of salary stagnation, in 2013, Republicans made the following changes: Job security in the form of tenure was abolished. Extra pay for graduate degrees was eliminated. A new law created vouchers so that private academies could dip into the shrinking pool of money that the public schools have left. While requiring schools to adopt the Common Core standards, the legislature slashed materials budgets. According to the National Education Association, we fell to 48th in per-pupil expenditures. State funds for books were cut by about 80 percent, to allocate only $14.26 a year per student. Because you can’t buy even one textbook on that budget, teachers are creating their own materials at night after a long day of work.

As if that weren’t enough, the legislature eliminated funding for 5,200 teachers and 3,850 teacher assistants even though the student population grew.  North Carolina public schools would have to hire 29,300 people to get back up to the employee-per-student ratio the schools had in 2008. The result?  Teachers have more students, no current books, and fewer professionals trained to address special needs, and their planning hours are gone now that they must cover lunch and recess.

For public school teachers in North Carolina, the signals sent by this legislation are unambiguous: North Carolina does not value its teachers.

Free-market loving Americans argue that workers are motivated by pay, but by remaining ignorant of what it’s like to be a public school teacher, many convince themselves teachers are paid more than adequately. They argue that teachers only teach for nine months meaning $30,800 is more like $41,000. What they fail to realize is that to sustain their energy over the course of decades, hard working teachers need to decompress for awhile afterwards. Also, the best teachers use portions of their summers to refine their curriculum and craft.

Also, as their pay lags their peers in the rest of the country, teacher quality in North Carolina will steadily decline. This will give those whose default is to denigrate teachers even more fodder. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Pay teachers less. Get weaker candidates. Criticize them more.

Somehow people who think of “x” and “y” supply and demand curves as biblical, don’t think improving teacher pay matters.

It takes 15 years to make $40,000. That statistic is depressing enough to turn the most ascetic of talented college graduates from the profession. Every other state legislature in the country should be studying North Carolina as a lesson in what not to do to attract and retain excellent teachers and families that value public education.

Most institutions of higher education understand the importance of investing in faculty excellence*. Consequently, they’re intentional about it, thus sabbatical programs, teaching loads that are about one half of public school teachers, and financial support for professional development. In contrast, it’s nonsensical that public school teachers are supposed to help the U.S. retain it’s precarious lead in the global economy, under much greater scrutiny than ever before, for $30,800 a year.

* Granted, I’m part of a dying breed, a tenured professor, if I was an adjunct, piecing together a living by driving to two, three, or four different universities every week (thus the moniker “freeway flyers”), without benefits, my perspective would obviously be less generous.

Alienation of Affection

Try to keep up. North Carolina is one of seven states that allows a married person whose marriage has ended to sue another person for what’s referred to as “destroyed affection”. I learned this when a friend in NC informed me through a newspaper link that a woman I used to work with was recently sued for allegedly breaking up another woman’s marriage. Then I heard the story on the BBC via NPR.

The woman who brought the suit was separated from her attorney husband who apparently had an affair with my acquaintance. He was one of the college’s attorneys and was co-writing a book with my acquaintance who was the Dean of Student Life. Makes me wonder if Tiger has a bunch of books coming out shortly, but I digress. The victim of “destroyed affection” argued she had a “good long marriage” until younger co-author hussy “came along and maliciously destroyed it”.

An interesting twist, in bringing a suit like this, you don’t have to show that anyone had sex with anyone else, just that he or she (joke alert—I’m betting it’s almost always “she” because we know men are much more respectful of the marital covenant, I mean no one was hitting on Elin Woods) destroyed the affection in the marriage.

Apparently, people bring about 200 cases a year of “alienated affection” and the most anyone has won is something like $1.9m. The woman in this case won $9m, thus the media spotlight. I’m guessing my acquaintance, who is now Dean of Student Life at another college in another state, makes $80-90k/a year, so good luck collecting.

A couple of implications of this bizarre legal drama spring to mind. Penelope Cruz, if you’re reading this, you should know my wife isn’t a particularly litigious person, but hey you never know. Just to play it safe, maybe you should stop making movies for awhile. And to the older guy at church, yeah you know who you are buddy, who keeps bugging the gal pal to go on a “bike ride”, don’t think I don’t know what that’s code for. In fact, to the gaggle of guys at the “Y” who constantly tweak their swim schedules to overlap with the person I’ve enjoyed a “good long marriage” with, consider yourself forewarned. Alienate her affection and I WILL go legal shock and awe on all of yous.