Friday, February 14, 2014

Maybe it's Time to Ask the Fish to Climb

The inability to avoid maddening soundbytes and oversimplified sentiments is one of the consequences of social media.  Our friends, our co-workers, people we don’t know pepper our screens with opinions, and, for the most part, we grow inured; we scroll by.  But there are always those few that creep under our self control and erupt in internal tsunami of sheer frustration.

For me, prime among those maddening memes are the ones promoting the utter uniqueness of the learner and condemning all education for not customizing teaching and evaluation tools to learners…each of whom is evidently a genius if only judged on her or his personal criteria.  When one of my friends posts one of those, I break out in hives and bite my tongue.  They drive me insane. 

It’s not the sentiment behind the quotes and statements that drives me so mad.  I’m a huge proponent of learning styles and multi-modal education; after almost 20 years in college classrooms, I’m a passionate advocate of encouraging people to learn in different ways.  It’s the implication in the posting – the suggestion that if information is not processed and presented in a way that is customized to each learner, keeping that individual within their set mode of accepting information, then they are being somehow violated.  I find that deeply, grotesquely offensive for a plethora of reasons, but for two in particular.

First of all the premise behind many of these casual assertions is the same premise that I believe cripples much of the American education system.  It is the creed that education is about conveying information.  In a world where Google’s algorithm can lead readers to more in-depth answers than many college courses and Harvard professors explain ideas on YouTube at the click of a button, merely presenting information to any learner, no matter the methodology, is a pitiful and impractical goal.  Not only that, that conveyance of information has always fallen short of the true goals of education.  Learning is not about information; it is about thinking.  If there is one thing that the American education system today cannot grasp, it is critical thinking.  You can post quotes and images that blame underfunding, lack of customization, or standards that do not take the fragile learning ecosystem of your child into consideration, but the real problem is that the education system is trying to present information instead of understanding. 

As a teacher, I encounter hundreds of students every semester who are incapable of pushing beyond repetition of information.  They have “learned” in that they can repeat what they have been told.  When they are asked to go beyond that, however, to put together the facts beneath an organizing set of ideas or principles, they often struggle.  They have never been taught to think about thinking. They know how to access information, but they have no framework of understanding on which to position that data.  From the inability to do word problems to the abysmal hatred of essay tests, American learners are lost when it comes to higher level thinking skills.  The education system has spent more money than most other educational systems in the world in an attempt to teach information in ways that learners will understand, but it has utterly failed to teach them how to understand.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

His Dreams Were All Behind Him

Sometimes it is not the complexity of prosody that carries the greatest power; it is the pure eloquence of an image, a moment, the perfect marriage of a few words that says more than whole books may convey.  Those simple things, the phrase, the moment, may touch upon something too deep to be easily explained.

I was driving home from work, listening, as is my custom, to the radio.  As I flipped the switch, letting unfamiliar voices flood the interior of my car, I found myself in the middle of an interview with an African American musician, explaining why he had chosen a particular piece of music to express his feelings about winter.  He spoke of an incident lost in the past that inspired him; the image of his father, a blue collar worker, struggling against brutal winter weather as he fought his way to work past the windows of the school where his son sat trying to gain access to the higher echelons of society through education.  The soft voice on the radio spoke of his father's bowed back, not even immediately recognizable as his parent, as he walked "as if all his dreams were behind him."

I paid little attention to the rest of the interview.  That simple phrase, those words, utterly chilled me.  There, in so few syllables, was one of the great fears of mankind laid bare, the horror of aging.  There lies truth.  It is not the fear of physical failing or of death that makes us avert our eyes from age. It is the fear that all our dreams will be behind us, that nothing will be pulling us forward to tomorrow.  Instead, the icy fear invades our gut, we will merely stumble toward the end of our earthly existence crushed by the weight of dreams scattered behind us on our path, a heavy past driving inexorably toward a vacuous future. 

As if all his dreams were behind him.

As we grow older, we accomplish goals, tick things off our "bucket lists."  But we often abandon dreams or push them off until later.  But somewhere, somewhen, there is an elusive moment where the future and the past switch places, and those dreams fall behind us.  For some, that moment conflates with the last breath; there are always dreams ahead of us, we never stop wanting, longing.  For others of us, it happens far earlier.  We give up on wanting and longing, or we give up because we believe those things are the purview of a younger generation, and we somehow have the notion that if we keep dreaming, there will be a shortage of dreams for them. 

There are no guarantees in life, but I do not want to trudge through my life with my dreams behind me.  Daily, I worry about my widower father who struggles to fill his empty days and his emptier nights.  I avert my eyes from aging, fleeing not from the fears of wrinkles or aches, but of a void without dreams drawing me forward.  Perhaps it is best to put that in words and to begin building, not a practical plan for the future, but a fortress of dreams, floating ever before me, unattainable, tempting, and full of hope. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Doctor and the Power of Love

It started with I find deep thoughts sometimes do.   I don't know what it is; perhaps it's the open ended visual cues or perhaps the studiedly casual interaction that allows free space for the mind to work.  Whatever it is, I found myself mentally returning over and over again to a Doctor Who image I had re-pinned along the way.  I had retained it because it touched me; its message was one of love, of River's love for the Doctor being great enough to set aside her own feelings to allow him to have his. And somewhere, right in the middle of thinking about that, I realized something.  I realized why I loved Matt Smith's iteration of the Doctor and why I judge the writing of the character so harshly. 

It's because I empathize.

The Doctor is a silly, weird soul.  We all know that. There's a childishness, a joyous naievete about him that makes us, as viewers, fall in love with him.  We love his joy in the small things, his vivacious confidence and willingness to find wonder and hope anywhere.  But that joy is balanced  by the knowledge that the Doctor is a madman with a box, the last of his kind, a being with darker secrets and moral ambiguities than most of us will ever dream.  That's the character, and that's the pull on us as viewers.  We know, every last fan, that the Doctor's unflinching optimism, his determination to win, to save the people and the race he loves, is a conscious, unrelenting choice flavored with more than a little desperation.

Back on Pinterest, staring at that picture of the Doctor weeping over the loss of his friends, falling apart as the woman who loved him held strong to allow that moment of weakness, my chest tightened up.  I understood.  The doctor was devastated because he couldn't save the people he loves. He knows what he is capable of, and knowing that, he holds himself to an impossible standard of perfection.  He has to win; he has to protect his friends because that is how he defines himself. That is who he is.  Every loss of someone he loves, someone he is sworn to protect, is a direct attack on who he is. It is a failure that echoes across his identity, an irreconcilable wrong.  The Doctor does not make mistakes; he has to believe with every fiber of his being that he can succeed. If he admits anything else, he admits it only in the dark shadows of solitude. He cannot's not who he is, who he needs to be. 

I understand that on a deep, visceral level.  For the entirety of my formative years, I was told that I was special, that I needed to adhere to a higher standard, that my parents' expectations of me were high because that was reasonable...for me.  At the same time, I failed over and over, the small failures that come with life and particularly with childhood.  Yet each one was a blow for me because I had failed the people I loved; I had fallen short of the expectations that had been instilled in me.  I had to be the one to be responsible because that's who I was; who I was expected to be.  It wasn't about doing things or accomplishing things for was about maintaining the expectations of the people I loved, the people I was responsible to and protecting them and their image of who I was. 

That standard of perfection and protection has served me well over the years.  People perceive me as capable and responsible. I worked my way into the job I wanted by being willing to defy the odds, take the risks, do the work, and handle everything without help.  People hand off their work and responsibility to me with the assumption that I will do what they want...and make it look easy.  And I usually do, without anyone but those nearest to me ever seeing the tears or the frustration or the late nights.  I have to make it look's who I have to be. 

I understand the Doctor's drive; his need to be "the Doctor."  I resonate with his determination to save the world...every time...his borderline desperation that drives him to take any risk to do what needs to be done, and the agony and self-loathing that overwhelm him when he fails. That's why the silly picture touched me so deeply.  River knew that too...and she loves the Doctor enough to let him collapse, to let him be overwhelmed and to defend him when he cannot defend himself.  And she doesn't condemn him.

I know from my own experience that when you are the strong one, the responsible one, the one who always handles things, falling apart is unacceptable.  When you crumble, when you lash out, at yourself or someone else, people's feelings swing from love to loathing far too easily.  Instead of sympathy, instead of being willing to let that moment pass, that moment becomes another ghost, something that haunts you as a weakness, another unforgivable imperfection, something you'll never live down.  It takes a true friend, someone who loves you for who you really are, to get past that and to accept that the intensity of the cracks are an indication of the strength holding the vessel together. 

River was that person.  She loves the Doctor, not for what he does or how he does it.  She loves him for himself...failures, triumphs and all.  Even when he is overwhelmed, even when he lashes out unfairly, even when he falls, she loves him.  I have only one person in my life like that, and I am married to him.  Seeing that image of River strong enough to let the Doctor fall made me grateful.  It reminded me of something important about who I am, and it reminded me of the difference between a so called "friend" and someone who loves you.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

RIP Moral Responsibility & the US Government Shutdown

As the US government shutdown drags on, it has become utterly unavoidable.  Even as voices of partisan anger harden into internet memes, it seems the American people are split between smiling cynically and spewing vitriol over the ineptitude of the political system.  As understandable as that is, I admit to finding the situation both interesting and disturbing for another reason entirely – the manner in which it highlights our societal shift of responsibility to the government and our reliance upon the faceless bureaucracy rather than each other.

In War against the Weak, his history of eugenics, Edwin Black traces the view of the poor and indigent as a burden on society back to Henry VIII’s confiscation of church lands and the charitable services they provided.  The burden of caring for the needy, he suggests, fell upon the government, and rather than a moral obligation, a test of our divinely ordered compassion for our fellow man, the care of those in need became a societal burden relying upon taxes levied by a frequently inept bureaucracy.  That shift, Black suggests, planted the seeds for a “scientific” solution that would breed out the poor and indigent.

Our modern culture may not be quite as naïve about a simple genetic solution to poverty, but the continuation of government mandated care for the needy and the abandonment of any personal moral obligation for our fellow man remains painfully obvious, particularly in the harsh spotlight of government cutbacks.  The resentment of the dependent has been cast into stark relief with the debate over the cost of social safety net programs supported by tax dollars and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act with its government subsidies.  Right or wrong, the ideological structure remains the same – those who cannot care for themselves should be helped by the government. If they represent any kind of moral responsibility, it is a “societal” responsibility filtered through a bureaucracy that safely removes any individual from feeling a moral obligation to care for those in need, even those in need through no fault of their own, no consequence of their own actions.  

To me, that is the true tragedy highlighted by the government shutdown.  Yes, there are heart wrenching stories of suffering caused by the closure of government programs, but the thing that wrenches my heart the most is that no one is stepping back and looking at the larger picture.  Our society has become so dependent on the government, so accepting of the idea that a ponderous bureaucracy is responsible for the well being of our fellow man, that when it shuts down we see no option other than outcry against the closure.  

What about stepping up to moral responsibility as individuals?  Are we so steeped in the notion of those in need as the obligation of society that we refuse to see them as our obligation?  Listening to the radio, I heard a commentator recount the sad tale of an injured veteran in danger of losing the $100 a month in food stamps he relies upon. The tale was one of woe, but my question was whether there was a way for souls like me who could afford that $100 could share it with those in need. The destruction of community in our age has limited our knowledge of those in need around us, but does the internet not provide a medium for restoring the connection between need and gift? For restoring faith in the viability of charity and cutting out the bureaucratic potential for misspent generosity?  If the pinch continues, how many will give to local food banks or help working parents with day care?  Sadly, far too few.  Most will rely on sharing memes on their Facebook wall and wait for the government to resume operation because, after all, the problem is really the government’s responsibility, right?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Spirit

Christmas is a time of joy and giving. From our first Christmas to our last, we are bombarded with the message of joy and good cheer. Christmas is a time for family, a time for giving and getting, a time for laughter and celebration.

And it is.

But Christmas is also a time that brings out sorrow and old wounds. For many people, it is a time where the gaps in their lives fail to shine with Christmas cheer. Empty chairs echo tears not Christmas carols, and bank ledger red ink fails to flow into ribbons and gift tags.

In my world, this Christmas has not been an easy one. My mother loved Christmas; she put up decorations, went to theme parks, and cooked Christmas dinner even when she didn’t feel well enough to do so because she loved the wonder and joy of the holiday. I miss her. It is hard to relax and enjoy the wonder of the season when I am so painfully aware of my father’s empty home and my responsibility as his only surviving child to be his family.

And it is not just me. As I listen to the other people in my world, it seems that the elusive mystery of “Christmas spirit” is increasingly difficult to find. The problems of life seem to overshadow the joy of the holidays for far too many people this year, and even those who are celebrating seem to be making a conscious choice rather than enjoying a spirit induced by the season.

Is this a consequence of the world, a sign of the times, an inevitable slide into trouble, or a loss of the “meaning of the season”? Hardly. Hardship and trouble is hardly anything new at Christmas.

Take, for example the “first Christmas” – the birth of Christ commemorated during our winter holiday. The occasion was hardly a warm, joyous celebration of home and wonder. It was an ordinary birth, with pain and blood, taking place in a location not intended for human habitation, much less childbirth, under the shadow of bureaucratic law.

Really, if one wanted to find the spirit we so commonly associate with Christmas, we should celebrate the annunciation and Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth. There is wonder and joy. The fulfillment of a millennia old promise of a savior, the wonder of being special, chosen from among millions of Jewish women to have an honor that her culture had taught about her entire life – those things echo through Mary’s song. In meeting with Elizabeth, Mary is celebrating family. She is celebrating God’s love. She is celebrating goodness and joy.

But that’s not the Christmas story. The Christmas story is the story of a carpenter and his pregnant fiancé, required to leave their home and the business that brought them income, and make a trip which, for a very pregnant young woman could not have been an easy one. It is not a story of wonder, human kindness, and the affirmation of Mary’s earlier cry that she is “the most fortunate woman on earth.” Instead, there is no room for them in the inn and no family to ease her through her delivery. The first Christmas is not a time of family, gifts, and wonder; it is a time of hardship, difficulty, and rejection.

But the Christmas story remains far more familiar than the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. Children fingering the family nativity scene know about the manger rather than the magnificat because the story is not just a tale of hope and wonder. It is the story of a light in the darkness, a birth that promises a home to all who believe yet that nativity takes place in homelessness. It is the contrast that brings focus to the story and imbeds it into hearts and minds.

Christmas is a winter holiday, a conglomeration of celebrations paired with the Christian honoring of Christ’s birth. It seems odd, thinking of the great celebration of messiah’s birth being paired with the long darkness of winter nights. And yet there is a deep logic to the choice. Christ’s birth did not come in warmth and comfort. It was not celebrated in the warmth of home and family. Its wonder arises because, like the bright stars in the long nights of winter, it was the darkness and difficulty around it that made the gift at its heart so precious.

This Christmas is difficult; it’s hard to find the spirit of family, merriment, and joy in the midst of the long winter darkness. I don’t know if I’m going to find the Christmas Spirit this year, at least not the Christmas spirit espoused by media and culture. But I do know that I have a different Christmas spirit, a deep appreciation of the important of the gift that lies at the heart of the season – the gift of hope that gives joy, a promise that goes beyond happiness and promises shorter nights and longer days and, ultimately, promises home. Perhaps it is the darkness that makes the light seem brighter and lets us focus on what beauty and promise truly mean in this season.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Creating and consuming

In the past few weeks, we, the public, have been told that the personal computer and all its iterations are dead – we just don’t know it yet. A bright new era looms on the horizon – the era of the tablet computer.  At this juncture in the grand scheme of things that is, to say the least, a matter of minor import.  Technology prognosticators have accuracy rates in the same range as weathermen and psychic advisors.  Overall, it doesn’t really seem to matter – except for one minor detail. 

In the hue and cry over the advent of the “tablet PC,” I kept hearing one phrase repeated over and over in reviews and media outlets, and it is that phrase that keeps echoing back to me in the wake of the foretelling of the PC’s demise, sending shivers down my virtual spine.  The tablet, pundits and reviewers declared over and over, is a media consumption device.

A media consumption device.

The modern world, and America in particular has been chastised in recent years for being addicted to consumption.  We are born and raised to be consumers, and, to some degree, I think consumption can be argued as a part of our nature.  But we are not only consumers; we are also creators.  From the dawn of time, humans have felt a need to communicate, to share their experience and leave a record of their thoughts, their feelings, their passions, and their dreams.  We long for connection, the sense that someone else understands us; we feel intuitively that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, and we ache to be assured that our small grasp of what it means to live will pass on and will not be extinguished with our own deaths.

If anything, the information age has only amplified that need to create.  And, interestingly , the advent of the internet has broken down the barriers of status and acceptance that historically limited creation.  As the great equalizer, the internet accepts creation with a voracious appetite, offering equal opportunities to be heard and seen to all comers. It has, in some measure, completed the cycle of creation and consumption.  A million users create; a million users consume. We form new ecosystems, create new trends, throw words into a digital void having faith that someone “out there” will hear that virtual voice, see our creation, and be drawn to it by a link of commonality.  Like our stone age ancestors, we create to commune; we just do it in zeros and ones rather than stone and soil.

But now we are being told that the age of creation is falling out of favor.  No one, it seems, wants to do that anymore.  We are instead being moved toward consumption devices.  Keyboards for interactions longer than 140 characters are unneeded.  Creation is out of vogue; consumption is in.  Everything we need is controlled by a finger swipe or a click. The information age is overloaded as it is, why add to the noise? Why put forth the effort to learn the skills required for creation? The pendulum is swinging back again.

When I hear the pundit’s prophecy of a tablet for every table and a smartphone in the spot where a computer used to be, I am unsettled.  I am not ready for the return to a world where content is provided only by the powerful, the wealthy, and the popular.  I do not believe that the madcap democratization of media is ready to be extinct; the exotic safari of strangely bred content that is the internet is still an adventure; it still contains wonders waiting to be found.  I am not ready to relinquish my keyboard, my mouse, and my virtual voice. 
Perhaps the confidence in consumption is correct. Perhaps fueled by the social networking frenzy, the ability to have visible lists of friends purportedly hanging on status updates and waiting with bated breath for Farmville gifts is enough connection for society.  But to me it seems disturbingly hollow.  It is, to bastardize one of my favorite terms, automononarcissistic.  The connections so generated are spurious at the least; they are based on casual acquaintance or past memory.  Certainly, they have value, but they are not capable of generating the connection nurtured by the shared cycle of individual creation and consumption.  Certainly, creation will occur, but the shading offered by the creations of a media giant is far different than the discovery of a lone voice singing a familiar, beautiful song.

If the pundits are right, I fear that I will feel out of place in that brave new world in which the stream of information flows downward rather than outward and connections are limited by the size of our virtual keyboards.  Perhaps that new limitation will push us back into creation in physical space and human creativity will triumph again.  Perhaps we will simply be content to consume videos and produced media, abandoning the realm of the written word to the “experts” and restoring the  balance of creative control to a system with greater gatekeepers.  I don’t pretend to know what tomorrow holds, but I do know that I will cling to my keyboard and to the voice it gives me, typing into the void in the cause of creation and the undying hope that perhaps that voice will echo back again.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The flight of the dragons

Butterflies are such beautiful creatures, bits of dancing color against the green of foliage. From childhood to old age, we are attracted to them, snapping pictures of their brightly colored wings and gasping with delight if one lands on a hand, arm, or head. Entire concessions have opened – “butterfly gardens” or “butterfly encounters” – that rely in the draw of these tiny insects with their brilliant wings.

I always loved butterflies too – heck, a butterfly was one of the primary things to blame for that back flip off the swingset that broke my wrist when I was about four. But recently, in my decade here in Florida, I have found myself less in love with the butterfly than with its insect neighbor the dragonfly.

When I first arrived here in Florida, I failed to grasp one of the cardinal facts of the state. Things are bigger here. With the primal heritage of the young state and the lack of harsh winters to push things back to what Northerners would consider their normal size, things are bigger here. The first time I spotted one of those fake rubber flies dispensed from K-mart vending machines on the sidewalk…and it flew away, I began to get some idea of the difference in Florida fauna, but it wasn’t until my first real summer here that I fully understood.

The air of a Florida summer is like nothing else I’ve encountered. It is a tangible force, a part of the landscape. It lies thick, hot, a weight pressing the heat of the sun against your skin, resisting your efforts to draw it in to steal its oxygen. It blankets the landscape, magnifying the brightness, a shimmering blanket beneath the pale blue of a sky already faded by the merciless sun. I remember standing out under the awning of my workplace in that heat, unsure which was more desirable to escape – the air-conditioned drudgery of the workplace behind me or the suffocating heat of the outdoors – when I saw them.

Back in Pennsylvania, we had had dragonflies – snakefeeders my dad always called them. They were delicate bodied little creatures, wisps of metallic color and iridescent wings that lit on fishing rods and blades of grass. Here, in Florida, I discovered that those weren’t dragonflies. They may have been damselflies or something else, but dragonflies…no. I can still remember the stillness of that hot afternoon, standing outside my job when I heard a deep thrumming. Looking down over the second story balcony, I saw them, dark bodies hanging in the air, round barreled extensions on both sides of their bodies, assumedly to support the muscles controlling the massive, flickering wings that moved faster than the eye could see. The dragonflies hovered in the air, dozens strong. They moved through the weight of the heat with strange, slow dignity, dancing a gravity-defying ritual with aeons old dignity. I forgot the heat as I watched them, fascinated as they spiraled through the heat, moving past each other only to turn and change places.

I never fell out of love with those dragonflies. I stop to watch them whenever I glimpse their slow dance or hear the impossible thrum of their wings. But I could never quite put my finger on what it was about them that drew me to them, more so even than to the bright splash of butterfly wings. And then, one day, watching the magical dance of dragonfly on the still Florida air, I realized why they fascinate me.

It’s the way they move.

Watch a butterfly. It flutters, flits, its path a wavering field of color and movement. Even in landing, the butterfly is not still; it fans its lovely wings; it is uncertain, delicate. It calls out the wonder within the human heart, reminding us to treasure beauty, for it Is a delicate commodity.

Watch a dragonfly. It hovers. It darts. It makes smooth, impossible arcs in the air, dancing in some mysterious pattern which, although I may not see it, seems to have purpose. It is smooth. It is sure, the impossible drums of its wing muscles buoying it up with seemingly effortless power in the still air. A dragonfly does not have the beauty of a butterfly – it is awkward, narrow with massive barrels of muscle, impossibly insectoid. Yet it moves so beautifully. Dragonflies do not flutter; they do not reveal their delicacy. They are impossible, gravity defying messengers of a lost world, reminders of nature’s mystery and the inadequacy of our understanding.

I know butterflies are beautiful. Their color and variety is breathtaking, but I would rather skip the butterfly garden to watch the humble dragonflies circle free against the pale shimmer of the Florida air. The butterfly charms me, thrills me when it lights on me as though I have been granted a privilege. The dragonfly blesses me with the wonderful impossibility of its movement and the certainty of its flight.

It is not its appearance, its physical beauty that calls me – it is its freedom to move with impossible grace through the unseen. It speaks to something primal within me, something that wants to leave gravity behind and move with ancient confidence on the unseen air, dancing beauty that transcends my awkwardness.