What to Teach, when We're Wrong

I’ve mentioned before how discipline has the potential to draw in our struggling and most difficult students, but what about when we struggle? What about those moments when we lose our cool and don’t act with perfect love and patience? What happens then?

Our first response might be to defend ourselves, blame our students or just “chalk it up to a bad day,” because it’s easy and natural to want to mask our failures and imperfections with excuses and defensiveness because nobody likes to be perceived as weak or incapable. But when we do, when we choose to lift up and defend ourselves over another, we sacrifice the opportunity of teaching one of the greatest lessons life has to offer. Mainly, what it means to fail, to ask for forgiveness, and then to rest in the beauty of reconciliation. We miss out on teaching our students (and reminding ourselves) of what it means to be human.

 

After showing the provocative music video, “This Is America” by Childish Gambino to the class, we spent some time dissecting its many symbols and themes and discussing the perspectives and ideas of Mr. Gambino. We talked about race and guns and the art of expression. We talked about the Jim Crow era and related it to the recent Starbucks and Yale incidents. We wrestled with the concept of reality and the power of perspective. Then we watched my favorite scene from Men In Black.

Shortly after Will Smith’s character is confronted with the reality that aliens do in fact live on this planet, the movie cuts to him and Special Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) sitting on a bench, over looking the Hudson River and the iconic Twin Towers.

“1500 years ago,” Special Agent K says, concluding their conversation, “we knew the earth was the center of the universe, 500 years ago we knew the earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago you knew humans were the only species on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” We then talked about what we know and how we know it and how that relates to stereotypes and prejudices and the fallibility of reality.

            It was shaping up to be a fantastic lesson.

 “So,” I said, sitting on the table in front of the class, “With this in mind, is Childish Gambino wrong?” I asked.

            “No,” they responded.

            “Is he right?”

            “No,” they said again.

            “Then what is he?”

            “Both.”

            “Exactly.” And I privately gave myself a pat on the back, “You’re killing it B-Mill!”

Then all hell broke loose.

As a teacher who has gained the respect of most of my students, I’m pretty used to kids tracking with my lesson plans and accepting most of what I have to say – even if they don’t necessarily agree with it completely. However, every now and then, one student takes it upon him or herself to challenge me. And today, it was the confident kid in the far back corner, the one who doesn’t say much but always has an opinion.

“That’s bull,” he said, and the whole class turned.

“What?” I said, more shocked then anything.

“That’s bull,” he said again, “America isn’t like that.” He then went on to explain why he thought Gambino was unfair and his interpretation of America false, because “Racism isn’t that big a deal anymore.”  

“What are you talking about?” I yelled, “How can you say racism isn’t a big deal, it’s a HUGE deal!!!”

When he didn’t believe me, I went after him, because he was wrong and he needed to know it. He needed to take a lesson from Special Agent J and realize what he thinks he knows isn’t reality. When he argued again, I got louder and challenged his sources, his lack of experience, “You’re only a freshman,” I said, “How much of the world have you seen?” and then I picked apart his argument word by every friggen word until, eventually, I won. Or rather, until he sat back in his chair, arms crossed, and stopped talking. Then the bell rang.

On his way out I tried to make amends. “Hey,” I said, waiving him over.”

He came, reluctantly.

“I appreciated you speaking up today,” I said, “Please keep doing it.” I stuck my fist out for our usual fist bump because he wouldn’t look at me and I wanted to make sure everything was okay. It wasn’t.

“Brother,” I said as we walked towards the door, “you gotta be willing to see things from a different perspective. You’re reality isn’t complete.” He still wouldn’t look at me and I could tell he just wanted to go, but I kept at it. I kept talking and not listening. I kept arguing, even though he wasn’t saying anything.

Finally, he turned, “I respectfully disagree,” then picked up his pace and headed to his next class. The door clicked shut behind him and I knew I had failed, that my words no longer had merit, and that I had lost him. All because I knew I was right.

That night, with my kids finally tucked into bed and my wife working on the couch next to me, a sort of sickness swirled in my stomach. I tried to write, to lesson plan, to grade papers, to watch YouTube videos, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking about the day’s class and the example I had set.

I thought of how the entire year’s worth of building trust and arguing for the power of stories and the need for kindness had all come crashing down in less than ten minutes. I thought of all the times I prided myself as an open-minded guy who loves and embraces everyone. I thought of my “Dialogue not Monologue” speeches, of how we spent a week discussing Chimamanda Adichie’s perspective on single stories and stereotypes – “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” and how those words had become the anthem to our year, in everything we read or watched or discussed. And my stomach churned because, suddenly, all that was just words and ideas that didn’t really mean a thing. Because I had failed to make any of it come to life, to make it tangible and alive, in the classroom, where they could see it and hear it and experience it.

Because I cared more about what content then I did about the person.

 “Agh,” I moaned, shooting up from the couch and not really knowing where I was going or what I was doing.

My wife jumped, “What?” she asked, a bit startled, “What’s wrong?”

I told her about my student and how I responded. She listened, asked a few questions, then said, “Why don’t you just apologize?”

Because I’m the teacher was my first thought and because I’m not wrong was the second. But then, after a moment, it hit me, because you are the teacher, you are wrong.

I was wrong because I didn’t put into practice what I had so desperately wanted my students to learn: be willing to hear and see things from another’s perspective. And I was wrong because I had treated my student with less respect than he deserved, all because I disagreed with him, because I knew I was right. I was wrong because I chose to be right rather than to do what was right. My good friend, Erik Beard taught me that.

Erik and I have been friends for almost 20 years, and for the first ten or so, we were close. We traveled the country together, played music from Shel Silverstein books, battled in sports, and made thousands of campfires together. We even argued. But, like many of the discussions in my English classroom, we argued about things that were at a distance and outside of ourselves. They weren’t immensely personal, more philosophical. Until suddenly, they weren’t.

I don’t remember exactly what Erik said, I just know it was personal and, for whatever reason, offensive. I remember too that I didn’t say anything at first, I just fumed. For days. Until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then, I called him up “Brother,” I said, “We need to talk.”

“Sure,” he said, “When?”

We decided to meet the next morning at our usual diner. I got there early with my journal that was packed full of thoughts and arguments and as I waited, I read them over and over. When he finally walked in, I was ready.

How we started the awkward conversation isn’t clear, but judging from how I’ve handled similar situations in the past I can only assume we dove right in. I probably didn’t even let him order a coffee. What I do remember though is me laying into him and explaining, with acute detail, why he was wrong in what he said, how he said it, and when he said it.

At first, he argued a bit, defending his intentions and clarifying his position, but I wouldn’t hear it because I had my journal, my thoughts, and a clear defense. Eventually he just sat there, listening and occasionally clarifying.

When I was finished, he calmly said, “I’m sorry.” Then, “I hear you. I don’t fully agree with you, but I hear you.”

That was it. No argument, no defense, and no excuse. Just, “I’m sorry.” And it completely disarmed me.

I remember the short pause of silence, the waitress filling our coffee cups, and me closing my journal. I also remember that that was when we started to have a discussion, when we looked at each other and acknowledged, “We’re on the same side” and began working through the pain and frustration of what happened. That’s also when I learned I could trust Erik with anything, that he was safe, and that he wasn’t really concerned about being right, but rather, doing what was right. He chose me over what he knew. And over the years, that has made all the difference.

So the next day, after the students filed in and took their seats, I walked to the front of the class, sat on the table that sits below the whiteboard, and asked, “What was the point of the video from yesterday?

“To spark an argument,” someone whispered.

“To listen to and see things from another’s perspective,” another student said more confidently.

“Exactly,” I said, pointing at the latter, “That was what I had hoped for, but because of how I responded to my man,” and I pointed to the student, “I ended up sparking an argument and doing exactly what I was asking you guys not to do.” I looked around the class as my heart began to race. Everyone was looking straight at me. “And because I challenged him in front of you all,” I continued, “I need to also say, in front of you all,” and I waved my hand over the entire class, “that Student,” and I looked straight at him “I’m sorry. I took advantage of my position as a teacher and I was unfair to you as a person.”

He stared back at me. The class went silent.

“I disrespected you,” I said, “and I wasn’t kind or respectful to your perspectives. I apologize. Will you forgive me?”

“Yes,” he said, “Me too. I got angry too.”

“Are we good?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “We’re good.” Then class continued, and to be honest, I don’t really remember what we covered that day. And to be even more honest, I don’t really care because I don’t think it really mattered. There were greater things going on.

When class was over, I met the student by the door, “Thank you,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said, lifting his fist for a pound.

 

I think what’s most frustrating about being a teacher is that not every student will agree with what I have to say, with the lessons I’m trying to teach, or how I perceive the world to be and the changes that need to happen in order to make it better.

            Some kids leave my class still insensitive, still ignorant of the plight and difficulty of the many lives that surround there own, and still completely absorbed in satisfying their own self-interests, and that frustrates the hell out of me. If I can’t get kids to think, if I can’t get them to be better people and contributors to society, what am I doing? Why am I wasting my time?

            It’s easy to get discouraged when, at the end of the day, the week, and sometimes even the year, it seems like not enough change actually happened.

But then I remember Mr. Furman.

During my senior year, while scraping by with a 1.75ish GPA, my English teacher, Mr. Furman, read my short story journal entry to the class and said, “Brian, you are a good writer.” It didn’t matter much then, but almost five years later, while in California and sitting on a blanket in a sea of freshly cut grass with my new fiancé by my side, his words suddenly floated to the surface and challenged everything I’d known about my direction in life. That next semester, I transferred into the English Ed. Program.

My students may never remember the essay questions surrounding the life and death of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. They probably won’t recall the songs we annotated or the videos we unpacked, and I can almost guarantee that none of them will miss filling out the infamous PDP notes

But they might remember the days we wrestled through failure, forgiveness, and all that other human being stuff.

They might remember, even if it’s many years from now, how they had a teacher who wasn’t afraid to be wrong, to admit their fault, and who consistently chose them – the students – over himself.

They might remember a classroom of freedom and safety and authenticity, where they could wrestle with ideas and failure and grow and learn without fear of ridicule, and when they do, hopefully, they will pull their heals out from the ground, care less about speaking than they do about listening, and do what is right.

But even if many of them don’t, even if I never hear from them or see how much they’ve changed and grown, I choose to believe that at least a small percentage of them will and are because, as a teacher, I choose to believe in hope, in the example of Mr. Furman, and the reality that education isn’t simply about what they score on the test today, but rather, what they will know tomorrow.

You know, the good stuff. The life stuff. The human being stuff. The reason we chose to be teachers stuff.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  If school was like rock climbing  :  Metric Fixation : how standardized data impedes classroom innovation

Revisionist History : Season 3

Malcolm Gladwell's fantastic podcast is back for season 3!  The first episode, Divide and Conquer: The Complete, Unabridged History of the World's Most Dangerous Semicolon

New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

You can also listen to a special live taping of Malcolm and WorkLife’s Adam Grant (who wrote one of my favorite books of 2017) discussing "how to avoid doing highly undesirable tasks, what makes an idea interesting, and why Malcolm thinks we shouldn't root for the underdog." It's a great listen. I laughed aloud, thought a ton, and got supper geeked about this coming season.  

Gladwell is a genius. 

Happy listening!!!

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Podcasts  :  Malcolm Gladwell

Also, if you haven't signed up for the monthly news letter, please scroll on down and do so! 

Anyone signing up this month will get a handwritten "Thank You!" card. 

Happiest Person in the World?

 Image by Lance Oppenheim

Image by Lance Oppenheim

For nearly two decades, Mario had been living out of his suitcase, traveling extensively for his corporate job as the director of international finance at a multinational corporation. He spent more time in and out of hotel rooms scattered across Latin America than he did at his home in Miami. After working nonstop for nearly 21 years, Mario — burned out — decided it was time to pursue a lifelong goal: to travel around the world, without leaving home. In 1997, he quit his job, packed an even bigger suitcase and quietly disappeared from the lives of his friends and family to pursue a new life on the open water (via).

Lance Oppenheim had heard of Mario Salcedo, or “Super Mario” for years, so he decide to make a video about him, to explore "the transformation of nontraditional places and spaces into homes." What he found was not what he expected. 

"The Mario we followed," Oppenheim writes, "was not living the fantastical dream life of a 'cruising king,' as I’d seen him described. The Mario we found lives a life full of paradoxes: while he proclaims his independence from others, he surrounds himself with throngs of anonymous tourists, shaking hands and selling his lifestyle" (emphasis mine).

Even in the short film, you see it, a constant need and desire to tell everyone, "I'm the happiest man on earth." Like he's trying to convince himself that he is happy, and that he's proud of what he's become.

Even in this short six-minute snap shot, it all seems like a facade, a mask, or at best, a distraction. With over 7,300 nights at sea, Mario's home is a revolving door of new faces, occasional friends who stay for a short while, and simple stories. There is no depth, no purpose, and very little thought to anything outside of himself, his life, and what makes him happy. Which also seems completely shallow.

Oppenheim concludes his article with, "as I floated dreamily across a sea of professional smiles with Mario, I realized that his facade had taken on a reality of its own, that his ongoing voyages to nowhere — and everywhere — provided an overwhelming sense of freedom perhaps not found on land. It is in that freedom that Mario has finally found his home."

But I don't buy it. I don't think Oppenheim does either. I think he's just being polite. 

Consider the scene at the 3:45 mark, where Mario attempts to convince us that he is "the happiest person in the world. Being alone." Oppenheim chose that scene, of Mario sitting at the long table, sipping his wine, with nothing but the quiet. It's a powerful scene of dichotomy because he isn't alone - ever - because he lives on a cruise ship that is constantly filled with people. And yet, he is completely alone.

Even in death.

"I have already planned my death," Mario says, "If I really get sick, I may decide to do one final scuba dive and just go down four-hundred feet, instead of having to live my last years on land, in a land hospital. To me, that would be pure hell."

There may not be a more appropriate yet depressing ending for Mario. Alone, in the dark, with nothing but memories of heading nowhere, arriving nowhere, with no one by his side and nothing to show for life but false luxury, simple stories, and shallow reminders. 

Everyone can easily fantasize of having a fews days and even weeks where very little is expected of them, no cleaning is required, and at any give time they can escape into isolated silence. But for twenty-plus years? How many sunsets can you watch alone before wanting to wrap your arms around a loved one? How many meals can you eat before wanting to hear of someone's day or the sweet giggles of simple conversation? How many faces can you greet or hands can you shake before wanting someone to know you by name, understand your joys and struggles, or challenge you thoughts and dreams? 

How many days can you wake up and think and live only for yourself?

Because to me, discovering much too late that life is more than fancy cruises and daily room service, would be pure hell. While I kick and pull and scream towards the depths of the deep and cold ocean floor.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Living  :  Big ME : little me  :  The best that ever was . . . a waste

 

Also, if you haven't signed up for the monthly news letter, please scroll on down and do so! 

Anyone signing up this month will get a handwritten "Thank You!" card. 

Metric Fixation : how standardized data impedes classroom innovation

 From Jacques Tati’s  Playtime  (1967).  Image courtesy Les Films de Mon Oncle – Specta Films CEPEC

From Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). Image courtesy Les Films de Mon Oncle – Specta Films CEPEC

I really appreciated this article, "Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires", by Jerry Z Muller, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D C..

"The key components of metric fixation," Muller writes, "are the belief that it is possible - and desirable - to replace professional judgement (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performances based upon standardized data (metrics)."

Ever since venturing into the world of education, this dichotomy has been my passion, and my nemesis - how do I reconcile data driven assessment with the non-measurable goals? At what point do grades and GPA's begin to drive education in the wrong direction?

Muller seems to be asking similar questions.

He goes on to say that "the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivize gaming" - an if/then reward system - that encourages professionals to "maximize the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organization." Like grades over curiosity, resume virtues instead of eulogy virtues, and content over humanity.

Daniel Pink, the NYT and WSJ Bestselling Author of Drive, says, "When the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen," ethically sometimes but also in lame service and crappy products (via). In education, we call that teaching to the test which is also a lame service that ends with a crappy product. 

I think my favorite part of the article, though, was when Muller writes,

The source of trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics (high stakes testing) they are incentivized to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation , which means doing something no yet established, indeed that hasn't even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. 

How many classrooms have you been in that celebrate and embrace failure? That allow for innovation rather than memorization? 

I'll end with Muller's final words, "The more that work becomes a matter of filling in the boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who think outside the box." 

You can see Daniel Pink's TED talk here or read his bestseller here (to date, it is one of my Mount Rushmore books for education). Or, you can watch a brief animated version of his thoughts below. It sums up most of his ideas, in a skiing across the water sort of way. 

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Education  :  If school was like rock climbing  :  Prince EA's, "I just sued the school system!!!"

Also, if you haven't signed up for the monthly news letter, please scroll on down and do so! 

Anyone signing up this month will get a handwritten "Thank You!" card. 

Heretics : What if there is no hell?

 Illustration: Adam Maida; Photograph: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

Illustration: Adam Maida; Photograph: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

For the past week or so Reverend Carlton Pearson has been on my mind. I first heard his story on the podcast Heretics by This American Life, and ever since, several people have reached out asking if I'd listened to it and what I think of it. Clearly, it has his a nerve. 

In the 1990's, Reverend Carlton Pearson was a rising star in the evangelical movement, but in the early 2000's, after he cast aside the idea of hell, "everything he'd worked for over his entire life" suddenly crumbled (via). Except his faith. 

Which is why he became a heretic.

There's also a movie, produced by James D. Stern under his Endgame Entertainment banner, along with Ira Glass and This American Life banner, distributed by Netflix.

"One of the moments I’m happiest with in our new film," Ira Glass writes, "is the scene where Jason Segel’s character Henry basically breaks up with his friend. Because his friend has come to believe some things Jason does not" (via). 

Everything Henry say comes down, basically to: “This is breaking my heart because I think maybe you’re going to hell and I love you and it feels like there’s nothing I can do or say to stop you.” 

It’s moments like that which made me want to make this film. Years ago, I became aware that there was a huge gap between the way evangelicals are portrayed on TV and in films and in the news, and the evangelicals I know in my personal life. Who are not like the smiling, intolerant hardasses I see in the media, but complicated, sensitive, funny people who take seriously Jesus’s admonition to love one another (via).

And I was reminded of Originals and the idea of "horizontal hostility."

According to Adam Grant, horizontal hostility is the "minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them" (pg 117). Like vegans and vegetarians. Compared to much of the world, these two groups are very similar, which is the problem. Because they are so alike, they can often find horizontal hostility because the other isn’t doing it right and therefore, “making us look bad.”

I would venture to say that the existence of hell is no "minor difference," but, shouldn't it be? At least in terms of the greater commission, to love one another? 

If there was no hell, if everyone was heading to heaven because God's love was indeed big and great enough, should that change anything? They we live and speak and think? Shouldn't we be rejoicing that people everywhere get to experience eternity with a loving God? 

If not, why not? 

And if the idea of hell is why we serve and minister and "love our neighbors," aren't we missing the whole point of the gospel? 

But also, and perhaps to the deepest point, why is someone not aloud to question and struggle? To look at what we've been doing for hundreds of years and say, "I don't know. We may be wrong - because we're human."

 Why are those who question considered heretics and kicked out of the church?

When did being curious and wondering outside of tradition become the unpardonable sin? 

What I find most interesting with all this is, in the end, Reverend Carlton Pearson is ministering and loving the outcasts, the "sinners" and those whom Jesus would have been drawn to. Not the righteous pharisees. 

Which, in the end, is why I tend to side with Reverend Carlton Pearson. Not because I'm convinced he's right, but because I'm convinced in his process, in questioning and wrestling and the willingness to be wrong. Even if it means losing everything. 

Except his faith.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On playing Devil's Advocate  :  Bacon and God's Wrath :  On Empathy

How Millennials Became the Selfie Generation

"The idea that there is this perfect golden you is simply not true."

I really appreciated this short documentary on selfies and the self esteem generation that preceded it.  

Sort of a common theme for people to be setting overly high expectations for themselves and then failing to meet them. And when they fail to meet them over and over again they enter into despair, which can manifest in all kinds of self destructive behaviors. 

This quote resonated with me quite a bit. Not because I'm a selfie kind of guy or anything like that, but because I am definitely an overly high expectations kind of guy. In relationships, personal goals and standards, and family. Most definitely family. Then, when these expectations aren't met, over and over again, the destructive behaviors manifest themselves in a variety of ways, but mostly through isolation. Emotionally, physically, or relationally, it doesn't matter. I just withdrawal and brew. Because it's all about me. And often, you're not allowed in.

What's most interesting though - especially when it comes to my wife - is that I rarely find the solution or peace from within, as we are so often asked to do. Instead, it's when people push in, when my wife pursues and doesn't let me off the hook or when a friend says, "I'm coming over" and we talk and talk until finally the facade is down and the bullshit called for what it is. Then, and only then, do I find peace, when I finally get outside myself, when the world doesn't revolve around me, and when the picture includes so much more than my limited understanding of life. 

This short documentary is based on the book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing To Us by Will Storr. Here's a brief intro:

We live in the age of the individual. Every day, we’re bombarded with depictions of the beautiful, successful, slim, socially conscious, and extroverted individual that our culture has decided is the perfect self, and we berate ourselves when we don’t measure up. This model of the perfect self and the impossibly high standards it sets can be extremely dangerous. People are suffering under the torture of this impossible fantasy, and unprecedented social pressure is leading to increases in depression and suicide (via).

I've already added it to my Amazon cart.

 

Thanks for reading!

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Life Stories :  Humanity

 

How a Disney animator deals with losing his wife : A doodle diary

16-5ae7017fe4908__700.jpg

Former Disney illustrator Gary Andrews started to "doodle diary" on his 54th birthday. He was happily married and a father-of-two and wanted to remember the joy and beauty of family. Within 3 years he was a widower. Joy, his wife, had passed away from sepsis.

Struggling with ways to cope Gary "opened up his notebook and let his emotions pour out onto the pages" (via).

I was crying so hard it was difficult to focus on the page. I was drawing through tears. Joy had been my soulmate for 19 years. She was beautiful, kind, generous and funny. We did everything together. When I lost her, I felt half of me had gone (via).

Gary has published his work in hopes of raising "awareness for an illness that is often regarded as an afterthought for many doctors. Its symptoms, including fever, sickness, blotchy skin and dizziness, are often mistaken for other illnesses and not recognized until too late. If captured early on, it can be treated with simple antibiotics" (via).

After spending a weekend celebrating my 35th birthday and considering the many (hopeful) boxes I have to fill in, this story and these drawings had me all sorts of choked up. 

May we treasure the time that we've been given.

990006994475024385-png__700.jpg
958835654632378369-png__700.jpg
987458750020767745-png__700.jpg

 

This one is my favorite because, as I've heard it said before, "Laughter is the manifestation of hope." I can imagine how often Gary felt heavy and depressed and just so alone - especially when his girls crawled into his lap and cried for Mom. But then, moments like these, and perhaps, seeing a bit of his wife's humor and hope shine through his little girls, his spirit was lifted. 

933120429262286848-png__700.jpg

Brilliant.

 

You can go here for more of Gary's story and to see a few extra sketches. 

Thanks for reading!

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Life Stories Humanity

On the eve of turning 35 . . . What's next?

IMG_2926.JPG

There's a scene in one of my favorite movies, Liberal Arts, where a retiring professor is lamenting with an old student (Josh Radnor) about transition and getting old. At one point he tells Josh, "Ask me how old I am." When he does, the professor (played by Richard Jenkins), responds with, "None of your god damned business," and they both smirk. "Now," the professor continues, "ask me how old I feel." 

"How old do you feel," Radnor asks.

"Nineteen. And I've never not felt like I'm nineteen."

I don't think 35 is all that old, but it does seem to be a sort of wrapping up and moving on. For the past thirty-four years, I've been able to get away with many mistakes and shortcomings because I was either young and dumb, a newly-wed man, a young father, or new to my profession. I was allowed to make immature mistakes. But thirty-five, with four kids, and a recently hired principal? That man is no longer young, no longer new, and no longer has an excuse. He's also half way done with life and should know better by now. He is now fully and completely an adult. 

That is, if he doesn't keep putting it off.

In his TED talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator, Tim Urban brilliantly and comically describes the mind of anyone struggling with, or fully embracing, a life of procrastination. And for most of his talk, he's cute and funny, because his content is light and simple, and because what he has to say is relatively harmless. It's just the funny quirks of life. 

Then, in his concluding thoughts, Urban reaches beyond the college essays and weekly schedules and simple deadlines that direct so much of our daily lives - the contained kind of procrastinations - and talks about the second kind, the deeper kind. The kind that don't have deadlines, the kind that matter most. These are the ones that, at the end of our lives, we're most proud of, most excited about, and the ones people talk about when we've past on.

They're the entrepreneur kind, the outside the career kind, the working on relationships or growing as a person kind. And because they have no weekly or monthly deadlines there's never a sense of urgency to get them done. We can always put them off until tomorrow, until life is a bit less busy, or until this current contained deadline is finished (which they never are because there is always another one right behind). So they are continually placed on the shelf, waiting for future days, and hardly ever getting the attention they deserve. 

So in order to create a sense of urgency, in order for these goals and ideas and ambitions to be brought down and polished off, Urban shows this graph. And it really got to me.

 Waitbutwhy.com

Waitbutwhy.com

At first, it looks like a LOT of squares with plenty of time to do many things like traveling, writing that great American novel, and getting to know my kids and wife and extended family. 

But then I saw this one, and I got a bit more anxious. 

Weeks-block-LIFE1.png

This morning, while waiting in the hallway between classes, several teachers passed by on their way to wherever they were going. "Morning," I would say, or, "How are you?" and their responses were fairly common. "Happy Friday" and "TGIF!" I would nod my head in agreement because, even though I love being a teacher, I too love the weekends. And when Monday comes along, I look forward to the next one. 

Then the next one.

Then the next.

And the next.

Until I saw them all, neatly piled in rows and lines, advertising the entirety of my (possible) life, and it terrified me a bit. So I printed off a sheet and started filling in the boxes. 

The first grouping was nothing all that extraordinary, just my days growing up in Indiana, making friends, playing sports, graduating high school, and generally wasting a whole lot of time. A lot of time. And a lot of boxes. So instead of going line by line, box by box, I started making little patterns, dividing up the space into little chunks, and finding a sort of rhythm in the process, which made the time go by faster and with a little more flair - with a little more excitement.

 Days in Indiana

Days in Indiana

Then, suddenly, I found the whole process a bit discomforting. I was filling in boxes, weeks of my life, with such simplicity and absentmindedness that I even forgot what I was doing: shading in the days and months and years of life that I will never get back.

I started considering how fast I filled in those boxes, how quickly they turned into years, and how many I might have left.

When I was finished, I added in a few key dates: the day I finally graduated from University, when Josey and I married on a small mountain top in Montana, the day I turned thirty. 

I placed my kids on the chart (not when they were born, but how many squares they have lived).

Then I found the day (roughly) Judah will graduate high school and the square my grandfather last filled before he died. Suddenly, the time allotted seemed a little bit smaller.

 Indiana Out of house, before marriage Marriage but before China China Still married, post China

Indiana
Out of house, before marriage
Marriage but before China
China
Still married, post China

I may feel like I'm nineteen, and hopefully always will, but my squares are quickly filling. Sometimes with great fanfare, other times not, but always they are. And on the eve of my 35th birthday, I'm feeling that reality more then I ever have before. 

If I live to be as old as Grandpa was, I'm already halfway there. The empty boxes until my first-born son leaves are fading. And with each passing year, I get further and further away from the immortal age of nineteen.

I don't think working through all this means I'm in a midlife crises. In fact, I think this could and should be a good place to be (at least I hope it is) because this might be exactly what prevents the crises, some years from now, when the panic of a deadline is realized and there isn't enough time to cram in the good and important stuff, leaving a large and empty space of regret. 

I know I'm not the first, the only, or the last person to turn 35, to wrestle with mortality, or to look back on life and gasp at how quickly it has past. Nor am I the first to look at the future and hope and dream of what could be yet cringe at all of the things that actually could be.

IMG_1970.JPG

"Everyone," Urban says at the end of his talk, "is procrastinating on something in life . . . and because there's not that many boxes up there . . . we need to start working on it today."

Here are few things I've been procrastinating on:

1. Pursuing my family
2. Writing an actual book, not just blogs
3. Teaching my son how to cook
4. Taking my wife on a vacation . . . without kids
5. Saving for colleges
6. Writing more letters
7. Getting back into shape
8. Forgiving family
9. Giving
10. Shaving.

And I don't want to procrastinate another day, I will tackle two right off the bat: writing more letters and giving.

If you've read this far, write a short favorite memory (either here or on Facebook) of you and me and on the evening of Sunday, April 30th, Judah will pull a name from a hat.

That lucky person will get a FREE BOOK and handwritten note!!!

As always, thanks for reading.

Enjoy the weekend!

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

51IKFS3yH3L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Cannot recommend this book enough, even though for us slow readers, it's quite the undertaking. However, for all the pains and troubles and time, it's fully worth it. 

Not only does Harari somehow manage to capture the entire scope of human history in an engaging and challenging sort of way, he also aptly and continually finds ways to challenge our current mindset and norms of life and living and understanding. He's brilliant! 

Sapiens is one of those must-read books that will linger in its readers mind long after it has been placed on the shelf, only to be passed around or reached for time and time again. If only just to refresh our memory. 

Here are a few highlights:

Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump (pg 12).

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into e better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud (pg 79).

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally, they reach a point where they can’t live without it (pg 87).

Ted Kaczynski actually said something very similar in his Manifesto:

Another reason why technology is such a powerful social force is that, within the context of a given society, technological progress marches in only one direction; it can never be reversed. Once a technical innovation has been introduced, people usually become dependent on it, so that they can never again do without it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation. Not only do people become dependent as individuals on a new item of technology, but, even more, the system as a whole becomes dependent on it . . .Thus the system can move in only one direction, toward greater technologization. Technology repeatedly forces freedom to take a step back, but technology can never take a step back—short of the overthrow of the whole technological system.

Interesting. Might have to consider that a bit longer.

Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated (pg 88).

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy, or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature (pg 113).

In order to establish such complex organizations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another . . . There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run toward freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison (pg 118).

This next quote might be the most disturbing. Growing up in a Christian home and attending church most of my life, I've always heard of the persecution of Christians from the non-believing world. Not how much we've killed ourselves.

In the 300 years from the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries, the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion . . . On 23 August 1572, French Catholics who stressed the importance of good deeds attached communities of French Protestants who highlighted God’s love for humankind. In this attack, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in less than twenty-four hours. When the pope in Rome heard the news from France, he was so overcome by joy that he organized festive prayers to celebrate the occasion and commissioned Giorgio Vasari to decorate one of the Vatican’s room with a fresco of the massacre (the room is currently off-limits to visitors). More Christians were killed by fellow Christians in those twenty-four hours than by the polytheistic Roman Empire throughout its entire existence (pg 216).

There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-unknown Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, “We don’t know” (pg 288).

Strange. That there might be a downside to curiosity. What are the ramifications/consequences of pursing understanding or insight? What (or who) are we killing off? What are we losing?

Just as the Atlantic slave trade did not stem from hatred towards Africans, so the modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity. Again, it is fueled by indifference. Most people who produce and consume eggs, milk and meat rarely stop to think about the fate of the chickens, cows or pigs whose flesh and emissions they are eating. Those who do think often argue that such animals are really little different from machines, devoid of sensations and emotions, incapable of suffering. Ironically, the same scientific disciplines which shape our milk machines and egg machines have lately demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that mammals and birds have a complex sensory and emotional make-up. The not only feel physical pain, but can also suffer from emotional distress (pg 343).

Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over (pg 349).

As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction . . . commercials urge us to “Just Dot It!” Action films, stage dramas, soap operas, novels, and catchy pop songs indoctrinate us constantly,: “be true to yourself”, “Listen to yourself”, “Follow your heart”. Jean-Jacquess Rousseau states this view most classically: “What I feel to be good – is good. What I feel to be bad – is bad.”

People who have been raised from infancy on a diet of such slogans are prone to believe that happiness is a subjective feeling and that each individual best knows whether she is happy or miserable. Yet this view is unique to liberalism. Most religions and ideologies throughout history stated that there are objective yardsticks for goodness and beauty, and for how things ought to be. They were suspicious of the feelings and preferences of the ordinary person. At the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, pilgrims were greeted by the inscription: “Know thyself!” The implication was that the average person is ignorant of his true self, and is therefore likely to be ignorant of true happiness. Freud would probably (392, 393).

So much to chew on. So much to consider. Just as a good book should be. 

 

For more on . . .

Reading Log 2017  :  Reading Log 2018

Cracked : by Kristen Meyer

47.cracker_8.jpg

I cannot stop staring at this saltine art piece by Kristen Meyer, "a multimedia artist currently residing in New Haven CT with her husband and two daughters." And when I discovered that she had two daughters, it made a bit more sense. It may not be true (and probably isn't), but I'd like to think that her daughters are young, maybe one is three and the other just over a year, and that they both love saltine crackers and milk, constantly asking for more but never really eating all of them or finishing their drink. So every day, after every snack, she's left with a saltine cracker mess to clean and sweep and toss into the garbage. 

But not this day. No. Today (or whatever day it was she made this), she put the girls down for their afternoon nap, grabbed the broom, then paused. A few of the crackers were already in place, it just needed to be completed. And she had time.

When it was finished, she stepped back, admired her work, and called it "Cracked." 

Then the kids woke up and ate it. 

I doubt it happened that way, but no matter. I love the piece. You can see more of her work on her website or on instagram.

42.eggshells+in+a+circle.jpg
psrt.jpg

I think my daughter would really like hanging out with Kristen Meyer. 

 

Also check out:

Smallest Sushi on Earth  :  Smallest Cup of Coffee  :  Inspiring Art

Enjoy the day!