Monday, May 30, 2016

When the Avatar Doesn't Fit

Harvey Mackay wrote in a recent column that "T-R-U-S-T is the most important word in business." At the top of his list for building trust is Tell the Truth.

An effective way to tell the truth is to be true to yourself, however great the pressure to compromise. An example of this in found in education.  Teachers are continually bombarded by "drive-by" programs that promise outstanding results.  However, many of these programs are little more than gimmicks designed to trick the students into learning.  Teachers are expected to inhabit an "avatar" - but the avatar might not fit.

Most students intuitively know when a teacher is working a program with them; if it is true to the teacher's character, then they will accept it.  But students can also recognize when a teacher is implementing a program that doesn't fit.  Once they see truth is compromised, trust in the teacher erodes.

Mary Woolstonecraft wrote:  "Complicated rules to adjust behavior are a weak substitute for simple principles."
Trust is built on principles, not complicated rules.  Sometimes the avatar does not fit.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Warning Labels for Books

I am a distracted reader.  For me, it is not enough to understand the words on a page; I want to know why they are there.  Sometimes what I read distracts me from reading.
For example, I recently read that the sky "was the color of wet cement" so I put down the book and tried to visualize a wet cement sky.  Not only that, I wondered why the author used that particular phrase to describe the sky.  Was it merely a reference to the weather or the time of day or was it a metaphor for an issue of life?  In what way was a wet cement sky central to the story?

I was leviathan with a hook in my jaw, pulled off course by an unseen angler.
"No," I protested.  "I don't want to think about wet cement; I want to get back to the story."
"Not yet," the other self responded.  "Right now you must think about wet cement."
So I gave up and thought my thoughts and felt my feelings about a wet cement sky.

I really wish authors would not do that - throw in distractions, I mean.  I think that books should come with warning labels, like cigarettes or medications.

WARNING:  This books contains an abundance of metaphors, similes, and descriptions.  If you are afflicted with curiosity, reading this book could result in sleeplessness and irritability as you try to figure them out.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hawk Hill

Joseph Strauss stood on top of a hill overlooking the bay.  In his mind’s eye he saw it – a golden catenary dipping and soaring above the waves.  It would be a feat of engineering fit to rival that of the Brooklyn Bridge.  But should it be attempted? 

The Southern Pacific Railroad already provided a reliable ferry service across the Golden Gate strait.  And the estimated cost of $100 million was astronomical to a country in the midst of a depression.

On the other hand, a bridge would connect the city of San Francisco with its northern neighbors.

That is what bridges are supposed to do, he thought.  They connect people and communities together.  Isolation is dangerous – it breeds fear and suspicion.  When people isolate themselves, they build walls instead of bridges.  Could it happen here?

 Joseph Strauss came to a decision.  He was going to build a Golden Gate bridge.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Jazz Eulogy

David Brooks recently gave an interview to Tim Sheehan (the Fresno Bee, May 10, 2016) in which he discussed his new book The Road to Character.   Mr. Sheehan writes, "the book explores America's obsession with personal traits that connote success - what Brooks refers to as 'resume' traits - as the seeming expense of the 'eulogy' traits, 'the things they say about you when you're dead.'

The interview reminded me of a funeral I attended a few weeks ago for the husband of a relative.  Because I am partially deaf, I could not actually discern what was said at the eulogy; nevertheless, I learned a great deal about his character from the service.  The mass was accompanied by a jazz trio.

Being raised Catholic, I am familiar with the format of a mass.  The funeral service had the usual components:  the processional, the offertory, the readings, the homily, the communion, and the recessional.  But they were accompanied by the upbeat music of the trio.  It transformed the service from an occasion of grief into a celebration of a man's life.  I heard later some of the things that were said during the eulogy - they fit right in with the jazz music.

It made me think about what kind of music represents my life.  If music were the only eulogy at my funeral, what would it be?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

KIng Bramble

There is a parable that tells how the trees once went forth to anoint a king over them.  They asked the olive tree but the olive tree refused.  "Should I cease giving my oil with which they honor God and men to rule over the trees?"  Then they asked the fig tree but the fig tree refused.  "Should I cease my sweetness and my good fruit?"  When they approached the vine with their offer, the vine also refused.  "Should I cease my new wine which cheers both God and men?"

 However, the bramble accepted, saying, "If in truth you anoint me as king over you, then come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebannon."

And so the trees were stuck with the bramble.

Now the bramble is not without its attractions.  It is covered with blossoms and sometimes its fruit is edible.  But it branches are prickly and offer very little shade; and in a dry season, they can kindle a great consuming fire.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Leonard's Legs Leave Home

Plop.  Plop.  Plop.  Plop.

The sound of running feet echoed across the desert.

Plop.  Plop.  Plop.  Plop.

After years of threatening to do so, Leonard’s legs finally ran away with him.  And he was suffering for it.  His bones ached, his lungs burned, and his blood beat a steady tattoo in his ears.  He glanced down at the road and groaned.  He had crossed another state line.

 Why?  He thought.  Why?  Didn’t I make all the sacrifices?  Didn’t I offer the appropriate oblations at the appointed times?  What more did the gods want?

A few days ago, Leonard’s arms got wind of what was happening and now they wanted a piece of the action.  They demanded that the legs stop every hour so that they could do push-ups.
Oh, Lord, no, pleaded Leonard.  Not that – I  just couldn’t.

Plop.  Plop. Plop. Plop.

Next town – Albuquerque.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Got Polya?

During the twenty years I taught mathematics, I observed a variety of strategies that students used to solve problems.  One of the most widely used and least successful methods was to immediately try to solve the problem.  Time and again I watched as students would dive into a math problem, wrestle with it for a while, and then declare "I can't do it."  Of course, I was confident that my students could triumph over any math problem they faced; a great deal of my teaching was helping them realize it.

The key to solving a math problem - or most any other problem - was elegantly stated by George Polya:  "Understand the problem."  I used to tell my students that everything they needed to solve the problem was right there in front of them.  But they had to allow the problem to "speak" to them and gradually reveal its solution.

"Get to know the problem," I would say.  "Find out about it.  What does it look like?  Where does it live?  Who is it friends with?  Where does it like to go for lunch?"
My students would laugh and say that the problem likes tacos and pizza; but they would also get the point and approach the problem from a fresh perspective.

Mathematics is built into the fabric of the universe; we all have natural math instincts if we get in touch with them.  "Understand the problem."  The problem knows what it needs and will help you find a solution.  Especially if you buy it tacos for lunch.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Age of Solaris

Are we becoming Solarians?  Solarians were the people in Isaac Asimov's book The Naked Sun that lived in total isolation from one another.  Their only interactions were through the safety of a viewing screen.  In this way they protected themselves from human contact.  In the last decade, our social connections have multiplied electronically through the Internet but have our personal interactions kept pace?  If not, what are the consequences and what is taking their place?

Some advertisements imply that our physical ailments are our new companions.  Depression, opioids, bladders, and intestines are depicted as animated creatures who interact with their humans - even texting them. (Talk about your out-of-body experience!)

Recently Jessica Pierce wrote an article for The New York Times titled "Is Your Pet Lonely and Bored?"
It is about the rise of the pet population in the United States and its consequences.  As the title of the piece suggests, humans can infect their pets with the same emotional problems they suffer.  It is ironic that in an effort to ease one's own loneliness or boredom, a pet owner may unwittingly inflict it on his or her pet.

Finally, consider the names we assign people or groups:  "immigrant" "teenager" "conservative" "pro-choice" "Solarian".  Sometimes names are useful.  They provide an opening for engagement.  "Stranger in a park" can be the context from which to explore a human connection. However, our names can become protections against involvement, commitment, and interaction.  They can be a safeguard against the "I - Thou" relationship - an excuse for disengagement and isolation.  They can transform us into Solarians.