Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Dirty Jobs?

Welsh workmen. 
I really like Mike Rowe. I just about always agree with him. Most importantly, I respect his flawlessly logical perspectives on things. He's one hell of the thinker and he is not a tribe-joiner. He has played and still plays a huge role in promoting jobs that don't require college.

You'd think, as a teacher, that I would have a problem with this, but I never developed a bias against "the working class." And I know, full well, many of my students would be way more suited for job training than for college, after they leave my school.

Fact is: college is not for everyone, but we made it a matter of course. That's a problem. We've made it the natural next-step after high school. So, I agree with Mike Rowe: we should encourage kids to consider skilled and even unskilled jobs. These jobs are available and they are necessary and they are good, old fashioned, dignified work. There is no shame in not having a degree and there is plenty of money to be made without one.

If you are a long-term reader, though, you can probably guess what is coming next: It just seems that every good idea gets ruined by our society because, as a whole, it cannot see shades of gray; only black and white.

Instead of a nice, balanced outcome; instead of a world in which college people and non-college people live in the harmony of mutual respect and value, we have stepped into the trend of college-bashing. I'm already sick of seeing how much crane-operators make per hour and, consequently, how "dumb" it is to spend money on a college education when it will only result in student loans and high cost and not as much pay.

(If we are talking about stupidity when it comes to college, let's talk about the folly of choosing exhorbitantly expensive colleges just because little poopsie fell in love with the campus. A cozy, bricky dorm and a great coffee shop is not worth $50, 000 a year for the same full education you could get elsewhere for $10,000 -- or less, at least in the first few years.)

Here's the thing: Yeah, as a young man, the prospect of earning $35 an hour out of college would have been tempting to me. But if I had trained to become a crane operator, I would have subsequently launched myself from the crane arm after about six months of work. See, I have zero interest in being a crane operator, mechanic or truck driver or, etc... Does this mean these jobs and the people who do them are inferior? No. It just means they are not my thing.

See, I'd rather make less than a plumber and be an English teacher. And I couldn't have become an English teacher without a college education. See how that works? (I played my cards right and went to grad school for free, but even debt would have been worth it.)

God forbid we should promote one thing without denigrating the other. We seem unable, these days. (Work, good? Ugh. Then college, bad.)

Mike Rowe has a communications degree from Towson. Surely, that helped him get where he is; ironically, it helps him to promote the worthiness of non-college jobs. (And, to be clear, I think he has always been balanced in his views -- it's where the general public took the idea that is a problem; no blame falls on him, as far as I am concerned.)

In the much maligned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indy is talking to a young man named Mutt, who complains that his mom wants him to go to college but that he (the young man) wants to just work on motorcycles. Indy tells him to hold true to his path; if he loves motorcycles, that's what he should do ("...don't let anybody tell you different..."). Later, when Indy learns that young man is actually his son, with Marian, he chastises her: "Why the hell didn't make him go to school?" A funny moment, and a good indication of the problem with the old college bias.

My sons? One is a freshman in high school and the other will go into his senior year of high school next year. Neither one of them has shown any interest in the trades. They write; they act; they play instruments; they play video games; they love movies; they love animals. But they have never shown any remote interest in anything other than the intellectual or the artistic fields. Is college a "dumb" choice for them? No. It's the only choice for them -- unless they quickly develop a deep passion for carpentry over the next few months.

These pieces are always frustrating to write because I know the people who need to read them won't. Why would they waste their time reading something by a guy who was stupid enough to go to college when he could have made a fortune as an electrician?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Adventure of Snickers and...Lorna(?), Part One: "Predictions of Doom"

Our new pups, Snickers and...Lorna Doone?
Based on the Internet chatter, we (our family) has made a huge mistake. According to some, a grave mistake -- even potentially fatal. No, I am not exaggerating. But I am talking about dogs.

We have acquired two puppies -- two girls from the same litter. They are "Goldendoodles," (golden retriever/standard poodle mixes) just like our recently deceased -- and sorely-missed -- fur-daughter, Krimpet. In keeping with the family traditions of naming our dogs after cakey and candy-ish snack foods even we don't eat, their names are Snickers and...possibly...Lorna Doone. (Still not settled on a for the light colored one.)

At the breeder's, we had it narrowed down to two dogs out of a litter of six. Each of my sons was attached to a different dog. We talked for a while about it, but I had already floated the idea to my wife of having two dogs some months before Krimpet died. On top of this, with an offered discount and my sons' willingness to contribute from their savings, for my wife and me, it was like getting two for the price of one.

If I hadn't already considered it, I'm sure the idea of getting two would have been an hard-line "no." But everything seemed to align. We made the deal and signed the papers. (We'd go back to pick them up in two weeks.)

When I got home, I started reading (as I am wont to do). My wife and I are experienced dog-people; we know how to train pups and we commit ourselves to the inconveniences and deprivations that come along with training, both for the good of the dogs and for the overall happiness of the family. We know how much work pups are, if one does things right. We also know that two dogs are going to be even more work. We know the bills will be doubled. What we didn't know is what I found out after a quick Internet search: apparently, adopting two dogs from the same litter is strongly recommended against by lots of people.

We had no idea. In fact, on the drive home, I basked in the idea that our dogs would be happier having a sister in the house, for life.

The dangers presented by the Internet gurus? First, that the dogs might hyper-bond with each other and not be driven to please their masters, possibly rendering them exceedingly difficult (if not, according to some, "impossible") to train. One even mentioned that there have been cases of squabbling siblings who have fought to the death.

Well, isn't that comforting? Isn't that helpful?

But welcome to the Internet age, where getting everyone's attention (not unlike the prostitute on the corner) and not quality of service (much, I would guess, also like the prostitute on the corner) is the goal. I'm sure it has happened. But often enough to put in an article? Probably not.

As for the hyper-bonding, I have already started to read-up on remedies. They need to eat separately, sleep separately, get individual training (both in classes and at home) and they need to learn that being apart, overall, is okay. (Most of which, by the way, we were already aware we would need to do.)

In fairness, some commenters were more balanced in their evaluation of the problem. Many said, "Well, not the best idea, but you can do this if you commit."(One outlier recommends completely blowing off the concerns. Nothing to worry about at all, says he. So one has them killing each other in mortal combat and one says "littermates, schmittermates..." Again, I give you: the Internet. )

At the time I that am writing this, we still need to wait two weeks for the pups to be ready to leave their mother. At the time you are reading this, the two little devils will be in our house in three days...

For me, now, it's prep time.

We now have two little lives in our hands and it is a responsibility from which we will not back down. If it was a mistake to adopt sibling dogs, so be it. But I happen to believe that with love and consistent training, "Nurture" can control or, at least, dramatically mitigate "Nature."

As with raising children (and the similarities are plentiful) we need to start sacrificing our freedom a bit -- even a lot -- to ensure two happy, well-adjusted dogs. Whether it will be "hard" or not is irrelevant, now that we have committed. Whether we are doubting our decision or not is also irrelevant at this point. Those two little creatures need us to guide them to contentment. (And since there are those who have, I'm sure, already wrinkled their brows at us for not getting a shelter dog [which we have also done in the past] I want also say that a lack of committment is one reason why dogs end up in shelters in the first place. We refuse to give up on our committment.)

I have called this "part one," because I want to document this experience for anyone who finds him or herself bombarded by claims of doom in the future. I'm confident the saga will have a happy ending, but I will be honest in telling the tail...uh, tale.

Stay tuned for part two...

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Galactic Anglo Saxons?

Seahorse -- from the "Stafforshire Hoard"
I decided I am a little tired of the underestimation of the abilities of humankind. (Gosh-darnit.)

I'm not sure when the trend of considering the involvement of aliens in ancient Earth started, but it sure was in full swing when I was a kid, in the seventies and eighties. There were tons of documentaries on TV and in the theaters about aliens helping with, say, the pyramids, whether they were the ones in Egypt of Peru. Each of these shows asked the question: how could humans have done this with their limited technology?

It's a cool idea, and all, that aliens might have visited and hooked us up with knowledge and technology and then left. (Makes for fun movies, like Stargate.) But it really is an insult to our own DNA to always think that our past generations were oafish, dirt-digging grunts with square fingers and closets full of mystical baubles.

I get it: we know a lot of stuff. We have come a long way. But it is not because we are smarter than our forbears; it's because we have stood on the shoulders of our forebears. We added what we can do and what we know to what they could do and what they knew. In some cases, we have forgotten the things that they knew, by the way. Let's not forget that. I think Les Stroud, in his short-lived show, Beyond Survival, proves well that cultures with inferior technology to ours are able to survive in situations that would kill an MIT physicist, a computer programmer or a virtuoso violinist within days.

I started thinking about his a few days ago while listening to The British History Podcast  in my car.  Some of the details about the lives of the Anglo Saxons that I learned really drove this home. For instance, it turns out that Anglo Saxon healers actually had the skill to fix harelip. Yes, you heard me right: Anglo Saxons (you know, those guys who drank mead and chopped each other up with swords so that they could get gold rings from a warlord...) actually did plastic surgery. (Or, you know, it could have been the aliens...)

The Sutton Hoo helmet. 
But it was also from this podcast that I learned (ten years late, by the way) about the Staffordshire Hoard -- an archaeological find of Anglo Saxon treasure that rivals the Sutton Hoo find. The most famous piece in this hoard (their version of the Sutton Hoo helmet) is the "Seahorse."

"The Seahorse" is an incredible example of gold-working and filigree. It's an impressive piece to look at (see the picture at the beginning of this post) on the surface. Beautiful work; wonderfully stylized; impressive detail. Sure, that's all really nifty. But it becomes nigh on impossible when you learn that the piece is only one-and-half inches long by three quarters of an inch wide. On grain of rice is longer than three of those little filigree loops.

Someone did this -- spun gold threads thinner than human hair and scrolled them into minute little loops -- without the use of modern tools; without artificial light sources; without magnifying glasses; without a microscope. he (or she, but, probably "he" back then) did it in a "barbaric" and non-scientific age. None of our insufferably up-to-date, modernly-equipped scholars really know how.

Was it the aliens?

No, it was little-old us. Just us fur-clad, sword-swinging barbarians. How'd we do it? By being inexhaustibly and overwhelmingly cool. That's how.

Just like with the daily news and in every online feed, all of the attention goes to the wars and atrocities and mistakes of the past. But in the real world of the past, there were farmers figuring out unrecorded ways to keep foxes away form the chickens; there were healers picking just the right roots to quell menstrual cramps; there were bards who could remember more poetry than the modern person can even stay awake through.

And there was a craftsman, bent over a bench in the all-too-rare British sunlight, who was so smart (smarter than us, so far) and so deft, that he makes us think about galactic travelers in spaceships.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Lock and Key; Fate and Humanity

Oedipus, the Blind. (Photo credit: By Albert Greiner
I lock and unlock my classroom door approximately five times per day.

On my school key chain, I have five keys that are irrelevant to this post, but the two remaining keys appear identical (at least to a non-locksmith).

Often, when I am unlocking my door and my students are waiting behind me, I will joke that that laws of probability say that I have a 50% chance of picking the right key first but that, 100% of the time (and this is, as far as I can remember, completely true), I pick the wrong key first.

Ah, Man and Fate. The eternal struggle. Plague of Oedipus; power higher than Gods and Titans...

Today, however, before I could pick the wrong key, yet again, I dropped the whole bundle. I picked them up and chose one. It was the right key. (The door opened; a beam of light shone down from above...)

Thinking as an ancient Greek, I might surmise that some favorable God, some agent of Fate's dominion (I like to think, perhaps, Athena is on my side, what with me obviously being the idea man of my age as was my predecessor, Odysseus) jangled the keys into the right position before I picked them up...but...that's just it, isn't it?

Is Fate stopping me from picking the right key, or is it a result of the repetition of the position in which they hang and the fact that I am right-handed that causes the "wrong" key to come to my fingers first? Dropping the keys broke the pattern of physical events that leads, daily, to my failure.

See, it's not Fate. It's Physics.

With how many other things to we do this? How often to we blame forces beyond our control for our rough-patches? I know a guy who is always complaining about his poor health. He has actually uttered the phrase, "Why does all this s$%t happen to me?" Well, we could blame God or Fate or we could blame the fact hat he weighs about three-hundred pounds.

But what if it is Fate? What if the forces of the cosmos really do tend to conspire against us? Well, even so, if I took five minutes to put a little rubber key identifier on the proper key to my classroom, I could smite Fate and become the master of my own door-opening destiny. Even old Teiresias would have to admit I was able to pull of what Oedipus could not.

And, so, I become the first character in a long line of victims of fate whose hubris become his salvation. I shall outwit Fate! scrape up the 75 cents for one of those key thingies...

Friday, May 24, 2019

Picnic Shaming: Return of the Memorial Day Preachers

John Adams
Every year, it grinds my gears. I am okay with the people who correctly point out that one is not supposed to thank living soldiers, Marines and sailors on Memorial Day. (The veterans I know find it embarrassing, in fact.) The ones who annoy me are those who shame people for having a good time, either with their words or with their tone. When did blatant condescension become okay?

Oh, sure, you can argue that they are only indicating that we should stop for a minute during our celebrations to remember the fallen. But that's not the way it is presented. It's presented with a self-righteous snottiness that used to be reserved for people in, high, gilded pulpits: "While you are cooking burgers and swimming and enjoying your extra days off, don't forget blah blah blah [I'm more patriotic than you] blah blah blah [note my depth] blah blah..."

I don't use profanity on this blog but I just almost recommended a particular kind of simultaneously giving and receiving intimate act to these people. But I shan't.

I guess their intentions are good, but I'll bet they would be mad at me if I hit them with Tweeted and Instagrammed rhetoric that shamed them for not saying grace before meals. I wonder, too, if the Memorial Day Preachers "keep Christ in Christmas;" or, if they, themselves, are annoyed by those who remind them to. Shouldn't everyone stop to give thought of thanks for the struggling farmers of America before each cob of corn consumed? I think so, but I don't blather about it.

It's all preaching, right?

But here's the crux of it, for me. I think it is all a symptom of our slow (but, now, almost complete) transition into the acceptance of unabashed praise-seeking: teachers posting memes about how wonderful teachers are; nurses doing the same; parents glorifying their life-long sacrifices by linking to articles about the trials of raising kids... Blech.

I wonder how my great uncles, who fought (and, some of whom, died) in WWII, feel when they look down on the toddlers eating hot dogs and freeze pops; at the families splashing, carefree, in their pools; teenagers on the beach throwing Nerf footballs... I wonder if my great uncles are outraged.

Or, I wonder, having come from a culture that emphasized duty, dignity and humility, if they smile down on the freedom they won for us; the freedom that they can see in full bloom. I wonder if they rest in peace knowing they helped secure a world in which people could wind up being so happy that they sometimes forget to credit the source of that happiness.

John Adams once said:

"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

In short, we, of the present, suffer trials so that we can bring our descendants closer to lives of joy and art and intellectuality. I don't think the fallen warriors of the past begrudge us our picnics. And maybe their reward is simply seeing that life they earned for their future sons and daughters. Maybe they wouldn't demand praise as much as we do today. (I'd bet my left thumb on it.) 

I once heard a mom say that her job was to be the kind of mother her kids took for granted. Does anyone think like that anymore? Does anyone do the right thing without an aim at recognition or praise?

I know it is a bit of a paradox. I do feel the need to be thankful for the sacrifices of the fallen. And, being a real-live grown-up, I'll be thankful in my own way, thanks very much. (In fact, I have written about that gratitude. Have all of the Picnic-Shamers put real time into their memorial activities, I wonder -- beyond retweets and shared links and memes?)

In the end, I refuse to be judged for laughing and playing on a day dedicated to the dead, because that's exactly what they died for. What happens in my prayers and thoughts is up to me, not to some condescending re-imagination of an Anglican preacher standing outside a theater and denouncing the "sins of the stage" to people who just want to see a good play and forget their troubles for awhile.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Smogging-up the Abortion Argument

I'm "pro-life." I would like to think every human is. How could anyone be anything other than for life? I also think (in fact hope) that every human is anti-abortion. (More on this in a bit.)

I know, I know: I'm being cute. We know that "pro-choice" means what it says and that "pro-life" means anti-abortion, in context of the debates. Personally, I am truly "pro-life." By this, I mean that I believe that we humans do not have a right to take life. For this reason, I do not believe in the death penalty and I would not willingly participate in killing, even in war. To me, if life is sacred (or, in non-religious terms, it is an inalienable right of the one who exists) and there is no carte blanche for the taking of life. (I do believe that taking a life can be necessary, but that it is never moral. For example, I am sure I'd kill to protect my family, but I would still consider it [there simply is no better word] a sin that I would suffer from for the rest of my life.)

Of course, when it comes to abortion, the big debate is whether or when the biological stuff in the womb is a life. But I am not sure that is relevant to my own reasoning about the subject. (Maybe I'll address this in another piece.) But my purpose here is not to argue the particulars of abortion, but more to criticize how we currently argue about abortion.

But, first off, I categorically dismiss those who label men as invalid commentators on the subject of abortion. Abortion is a human question and not just a women's question. It is primarily a women's question, for sure.

Having said this, I watched my wife carry and give birth to two children; I also watched her miscarry three times (the first time, heartbreakingly late in the pregnancy). And while I "watched" this happen, I also, on a very deep level, experienced these things. As deeply as her? Of course not; but, I think these experiences more than justify my having opinions on reproductive rights.

I actually think my being a member of the human race is justification enough, and I am surprised everyone does not feel that way. For instance:

I am ready for you, too, you, O quoters of tribal arguments. I see you checking the script for the right line, you who are ready to question (or lambaste) men who see women's issues "in terms of how they affect the men, themselves." I always see men who comment on abortion being chopped down for saying "if my daughter..." or "if my wife..." But let's put a check on our cynical natures, shall we? Many (though, admittedly, not all) of us men love our wives and daughters deeply and mean this sort of thing in an empathetic way.

When my wife suffers, I suffer. When we need to make decisions, either about her body or mine, we make them together. We're married; we are, in terms of our belief, one. So, I simply won't entertain that argument. I will not see real empathy perverted, through "canned" argument, into selfishness. (Can it be selfishness? Sure, depending on the sincerity or insincerity of the source. but it is not a man thing, it's a good vs. bad man thing.) Argumentation contains pathos, ethos and logos. Always has. How can we argue something as profound as life itself without emotion? -- without discussing how it affects us all?

That said, my real purpose here is this:

I think we do a lot of arguing around the issue of abortion these days. Current trends are to use things like barbaric legislation ("death penalty for women who have abortions" and "99 years in prison for doctors who perform abortions") as either implied or explicit arguments that being anti-abortion is barbaric. If, for instance, a school principal puts a rule on the books that children who cheat on quizzes will be punished by the removal of a finger, that just means the principal is an animal; not that cheating is any more wrong or right than it was before the rule.

It's like some weird version of ad hominum. It's as if people who use this technique would argue that cheating is okay because chopping off fingers is the act of barbarians.

Further, I have seen the pro-life stance, itself, referred to as cruel. Can laws against women who have abortions be cruel? Can a pro-lifer's very perspective on women be cruel? Of course. Can thinking one should not -- on a fundamentally ethical level -- have an abortion be cruel? I certainly don't think so. It's a concept; it's a moral belief. Cruel or not cruel is determined what one does with one's beliefs.

I would argue, further, that no one thinks abortion is a desired outcome. No one is "pro-abortion," because anyone, given the chance, would choose not to be in a position to have to consider having one. "Pro-choice" and "pro-abortion" are not the same.

But if we are arguing whether abortion is moral or not, we should really stick to the act, itself, independent of the urge to make teams out of the sexes. There is just too much fog around the issue now and people are not trying to burn it away; they are trying to take advantage of the poor visibility -- even willingly producing smog -- to make their arguments.

Once again, we see tribalism raising its head. Us against them; liberals vs. conservatives. Foolish. And, in terms of argumentation, distracting at best and crippling at worst. We attack each other and not the issue at hand. We have forgotten that argumentation's highest purpose is to find the truth and adopted the sports (team) mentality: it's all about winning.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Killing Desire?

Scene from Assassin's Creed, Unity
On Christmas Eve, I was wrapping presents (probably my least favorite activity in a life full of far too many unpleasant activities) and I was watching the classic film It's a Wonderful Life. In one scene, George, as a boy, is talking to Mary (his future wife) across the counter in Mr. Gower's drug store. George is telling Mary about all of the places he is going to see when he gets old enough, and he pulls out a copy of National Geographic Magazine so he can show her some pictures. I know how he felt. Do my kids feel the same?

I remember (I grew up in the 70s and 80s) seeing a picture that fired my imagination. I remember watching nature programs on old, grainy and square TVs and wishing I could visit jungles and deserts. I remember seeing places in movies -- whether shot on-location or whether they were studio recreations -- and feeling a pull of curiosity.

Once, I worked with a principal who told the faculty: "You have to remember. This is no longer the one-room schoolhouse. We, as teachers, are no-longer able to dazzle our students with stories of far-away lands. Teachers are no-longer 'the sages on the stage'."

Her point was that, with modern technology, the kids have seen more in their early years than we could have have dreamt of seeing. They live in a world that offers so much virtual experience that, I fear, it might really be blunting their cravings for reality. We don't impress them by pulling back the curtains on the wonders of the world. (Well...we literature teachers kind of do... We just have to make kids understand that we are.)

Both of my sons have walked through very realistic depictions of medieval villages; both of them have fought in historical wars. They have wandered the streets of Paris and London and New York City while wearing their pajamas. They have sailed pirate ships and flown planes.

Of course, none of this is as good as the real thing. [Or, is it? Consider the idea that the people who created the Notre Dame cathedral for Assassin's Creed might be consulted in the reconstruction of the cathedral.] But, it is pretty darned good. I've seen depictions of water in video games that make me swear I can smell salt. And, now, we have VR gaming with 360 degree headsets...

Still, VR is not as good, let's face it. But is it blunting our kids' desire to get to the places they no longer have to dream about? -- the places they can now see while wide-awake?

A year ago, I discovered that a large system of wooded trails exists in the town I grew up in. (It is quite well-hidden.) All my life, I had no idea it was there. I found it online, believe it or not, listed as the best trail walk in New Jersey. I think that a video of my face as I walked into it the first time might have been embarrassing. I think I was doing what they call "beaming." Every corner turned; every trail found made me a little goofy with the joy of discovery. With every step, I cannot help thinking that it must have been a meeting place for the Lenni Lenape Indians -- it's a huge hill from which one can see Philadelphia in the distance, almost twenty miles away.

I think it may be the result of a young life of wishing I could really experience things I saw in pictures and films. Unlike my boys, I never got to walk through haunted medieval forests until later in life... With our desire to make better and better experiences in education and gaming, are we extinguishing dreams?

Consider this: teen pregnancy is down. One possible cause, according to some, is "sexting." If the next-best-thing can quell that desire, what can it do to the urge to explore our world?