More 19th century young adult lit: the value of education…

Cover, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge (courtesy, Good reads)

At the same time that my wife Lea Booth picked up the copy of Nan which I reviewed earlier, I stumbled upon a copy of a book that had special memories for me.  I first read Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates during the summer after my high school graduation. Though it had long sat on the bookshelf in my room, I’d ignored it throughout a childhood spent voraciously reading in favor of stuff like those those highly fictionalized hagiographic biographies such as Ben Franklin: Boy Printer by the prolific and long-lived Augusta Stevenson; series such as those featuring the Bobbsey Twins (about which I will write someday having experienced the books in their original versions rather than in some of Bobbs-Merrill’s later updated forms), the Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift, Jr.; and, of course, classics such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom SawyerTreasure Island and Kidnapped20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Even Fenimore Cooper was not beyond my ambition – prodded by a literary grandmother, I got through The DeerslayerThe Pathfinder, and The Last of the Mohicans. Don’t ask me how. Youth is a powerful thing – and less judgmental about matters such as writing style.

So Hans Brinker languished until my 18th summer.

I remember picking up Hans Brinker a couple of times at around 11 or 12 but not being able to get started with it.  The previously mentioned books, baseball, and most importantly, an  obsession with playing the guitar and trying to become a Beatle had become too important to me.

The summer of my 18th year was a hot and miserable one for more than meteorological reasons.  My graduation from high school was, because of my refusal to consider a delayed appointment to West Point my father had arranged through a politician friend (hello, 1970 and Vietnam on the news in my den every evening), and my father’s near apoplectic fury at me over that decision, a  dreary prelude to forced enrollment at the local community college – a prospect I dreaded. A couple of lost summer jobs were punctuated by the worst blow of all – being booted from my band, the most popular band in my hometown. Goodbye Beatles, goodbye college of my choice, goodbye childhood. Hello adult world – you suck. Continue reading


WordsDay: Young Adult lit in the 19th century – how to be good…

Cover, Nan by Lucy C. Lillie (courtesy, Goodreads)

Attempting to explain young adult (called in earlier incarnations “youth”) literature is consuming work even for scholars. So when my wife Lea stumbled across a Harper & Brothers youth book, Nan by a rather mysterious author named Lucy C. Lillie, a first edition from the 1880′s, I approached it with both caution and curiosity. And, of course, I added it to my extended 2013 reading list.

Books for youth from the period after the Civil War through the beginning of WWI, follow a practice that scholars refer to as “acculturation.” These books are full of “wise saws and modern instances,” as The Bard would say. and are designed to teach moral lessons (learn one’s Bible lessons and obey the law whether parental or governmental) and inculcate the “proper” social values: one should work hard and hope for success; one should, if one enjoys success (through what Defoe might call “seizing the main chance” for boys and marrying or inheriting that main chance for girls) share that success with those less fortunate; and most especially, one should observe the niceties at all times and mind one’s manners.

The hard to find out about Lucy C. Lillie‘s Nan is just such a set of lessons.

The story is a straightforward one: Nan is the orphaned daughter (the proliferation of orphans in youth literature of this era must certainly have contributed to children’s neurotic concern for the well-being of parents, one suspects) of a wealthy family’s estranged son who, at the book’s beginning is living in “slatternly” conditions with a relative of her mother. Her whereabouts are discovered by a wealthy (and, naturally, childless) aunt who sends an emissary (a genteel but less wealthy – and somewhat envious – older cousin Priscilla) to fetch her from her humble surroundings and lay her in the lap of luxury (within the constraints of Victorian taste, of course).  She meets more cousins, including an even more envious younger sister of the aforementioned envious Priscilla who eventually causes her trouble and sorrow,  unveils her own kind heart (Nan is one whose prime interest in life is “doing for the less fortunate” – a character trait we are told that more than compensates for her lack of “brilliance” in studies and “accomplishments”), and, after misfortune, ends up heiress to a large fortune.

This may seem oversimplification, but books such as Nan, one realizes, are not so much about “what happens” as they are about “how what happens to a person makes them become good or bad.” For Nan Rolf this means learning that being loyal to a cousin who has both done wrong and done her wrong could cost her happiness (and a bunch of money).

That cousin mentioned above, Laura, Priscilla’s younger sister, literally suffers via illness for wronging our heroine by stealing and then begging Nan not to expose her deed (knowing that Nan will then be blamed) – her health only improves once she confesses her wrongdoing and begins a suitable penance. Nan suffers exile for her misguided promise not to tell what she knows (in a sort of riff against the schoolyard code) and then reclamation once her character flaw is shown to be only mistaken loyalty and not theft.

Once Nan is restored to her Aunt (and her inheritance) she helps Laura to forgive herself by generously forgiving her, reassuring young readers that, as Julian of Norwich reminds us, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

At the end of the novel, Nan’s cousin Priscilla tells her, “…Nan, dear, I think it is going to be your path in life to help other people’s sorrows.” Nan responds, “If I can be good enough – and wise enough.”

Here endeth the lesson.  No vampires, wizards, or post-apocalyptic nightmare scenarios are necessary for readers to learn that growing up is tough and that doing the right thing is harder than it might seem.

That might be terribly old fashioned – but it’s also pretty useful stuff for anyone to know at any age in any time period.

CATEGORY: Education

Should teachers be paid more? No.

Recently, I made same comment to my fellow Scrogues and got some, ummm, disagreement.

They then trotted out arguments about it being teachers that are entrusted with our most precious resource, our children, that the value they provide is incalculable, that it was kindly Miss McCutcheon in second grade that germinated my love of poetry with her passionate reading of Dr. Seuss. To quote Jimi Hendrix, “Blah blah, woof woof.”

The value argument is absurd on its face. First of all, relatively few professions are remunerated on value—perhaps professional athletes, some entertainers, commission-based salesmen, and arguably CEO’s whose pay package is tied to stock options. The reason is that to pay someone based on value creation, it’s first necessary that it be possible to calculate value. Sorry, but that’s how it works.

Calculating the value of instruction to hundreds of children that will pay off at some undetermined point in the future is simply impossible. It would require an ability to estimate what value each child will provide to society over his or her lifetime, what that value would have been without the contribution of each particular teacher absent the effects of parents, friends, and other teachers, and the ability to discount that back to the present. Even were it possible, I suspect most teachers would be wary about signing up for that pay program, because they wouldn’t want to see their annual bonus docked because Little Johnny will grow up to be meth dealer in twelve years.

Come on, folks, everybody thinks they’re paid under their true value, from CEO’s that make fifty mil a year (really, I know a couple) to garbage collectors.

Now that we’ve dismissed that silly value argument and made poor Miss McCutcheon cry, let’s talk about how most jobs are really remunerated, supply and demand. Teachers don’t like it that they are paid according to the laws of economics. Welcome to the club. People love economics when it comes out in their favor, and hate it when it doesn’t. The same folks who go to WalMart are the ones who see their jobs being outsourced. Wall Street tycoons who piously talk about the free market are the first to grovel and beg for government hand-outs when things go south.  People don’t like economics because the market is ruthlessly rational. It may not be fair, but it’s rational.

It’s a bit like global warming. It doesn’t matter if you believe in it or not, it’s still getting warmer. It doesn’t matter if you believe in supply and demand or not, that’s still the way most of the world, including labor markets, works.  Even centrally planned economies are subject to the laws of supply and demand—that’s why gray markets exist.

Now labor markets aren’t completely pure for a variety of reasons—unions, restrictions on immigration, Hay systems, licensing boards, racism, etc, etc.  but for all intents and purposes we can think of the job market facing an average person entering the job market as being subject to the laws of economics, specifically supply and demand.

The way that works is this.  The demand for how many of each profession is determined by the economy. For example, in the U.S., we have jobs for 8,374,910 educators, trainers and librarians. We have jobs for 641,020 lawyers, 3,456,000 computer scientists, and 61,140 tax preparers. These are the number of current people in those jobs at current wages. (The math gets very complicated very fast, and this simplified version is close enough.)

The wages for each profession is determined by how much the economy needs to pay to get  a supply of 641,020 qualified people to be lawyers. For example, 641,020 people are able and willing to be lawyers. For $130,880, they will undergo the years of training necessary, face the uncertainty of the profession, and do boring work.

People are willing to work as social workers for $44,200 per year and as teachers for $51,120. People will be sales reps for $68,580 and computer programmers for $80,200. If nobody is willing to be a social worker and the economy needs more, it will raise the wages until it gets the number it needs. If it needs fewer, it will lower the wages until some leave the profession and go do other jobs.

So why don’t teachers get paid more? Simply put, because 8,374,910 people, exactly what the economy needs, are willing to do it for $51,120 each. Could we as a society decide to pay them $60,000 each? Of  course we could, but why would we? It’s a bit like if a washing machine repairman fixed your dryer for $200, but because dry clothes are important to you, you insisted on giving him or her $500. And the same for the grocer, doctor, hair dresser, etc. Would any rational person do that? Of course not. Remember, at the end of the day, teacher salaries don’t come from some magical pot of money in the sky, but from people’s taxes, and most people don’t want to pay any more than they have to.

The real question is why so many people are willing to be teachers for $51,120. I admit, I don’t get it. I tried a little college teaching and hated it. Yes, it has low barriers to entry, the hours are good,  it has a certain shabby chic status and job security, but it’s tedious, you spend your time around unhappy peers who bitch all the time, and you don’t make any money.  I went into business, which had no job security, but paid well and was interesting. Still some people find teaching a desirable job, 8,374,910 to be exact, and as long as they do and are willing to do it for $51,120, then that’s what they’ll get paid.

They’re not alone. As a rule, jobs that people want to do (teacher, writer, pastry chef, antiques store owner, diving instructor) always pay less than jobs people don’t want to do (tax preparer, salesperson, etc.) It’s not necessary that teachers like their work (although I think they do. Two of the people who weighed in have told me they love teaching.) It means that as long as they like it better than their alternatives, they will be willing to work for less to do it.

When I made this point, my fellow Scrogues stopped hurling insults and picked up stones.  One comment was especially interesting. A teacher explained why she taught instead of other professions. She said

I REALLY hated the 2 months I worked in higher ed tech sales after the company I worked for shut the training department I led.  Cold-calling made me feel unclean.  I was lucky they didn’t cut my salary for those 2 months from what I had been making as head of training to commission only.

Exactly. That’s exactly my point. And as long as people like to teach, or at least like it more than they like selling, sales reps will always make $68,580 and teachers will always make $51,120.

Don’t get pissed at me. Go throw eggs at the home of an economics professor.

P.S. What could dedicated, competent, passionate teachers do to raise their wages? It’s simple really. De-unionize and embrace standardized testing. That would create a market between various school systems for the best teachers, and while average wages might stay the same, you’d see wages shoot up for the best. Indeed, top suburban school systems already pay more than their rural and inner city counterparts, but it’s still within a relatively narrow band. If teachers could prove their abilities, e.g., with their students test scores before and after they got them, then they’d get paid. But I haven’t heard any teachers arguing for this.

Next post: Message to Adjuncts: Administrators aren’t the enemy, tenured professors are.


PSA: “Communism” means something. Dictionary doesn’t say, “see also: Obama.”

Looks like someone wasn’t invited

Name calling–It’s all the rage. Unfortunately, people like to call other people names without first learning what the name means. If it were stupid names like spleendorper (which in some non-existent urban sense could mean “super awesome person,” but likely never will) and it were used incorrectly, nobody that matters would care. Nonsense word gets made into more nonsense. No biggie.

But if I call you something that’s an actual word and I’m just horribly mistaken in my word choice, not only am I wrong but, if it catches on, I damage the language. A word with meaning loses meaning. If that keeps happening, nothing means anything. Continue reading

CATEGORY: The New Constitution

The New Constitution: comprehensive statement of principles (draft)

CATEGORY: The New ConstitutionThe original plan when we began this project was to offer the amendments individually, invite discussion, then produce a final document. The course of the process, though, has made a couple things clear. First, there needs to be a period to discuss the entire document in context, and second, while the original “Bill of Rights” approach perhaps had a certain formatic elegance about it, the project is better served by a less formalized articulation of general principles.

As a result, what follows is a restructured draft that accounts for the discussions so far and that also adds some new elements that have arisen since the process launched.

We will compile a final statement of principles out of this discussion.


1)    Organization, Composition and Conduct of Government

a)     Proportional Representation

i)      No political party representing a significant minority of the electorate – and here we suggest five percent as a workable baseline – will be denied direct representation in the legislature.

ii)     All legislative bodies shall be comprised proportionally according to the populations represented and all elected officials should be selected by direct vote of the people.[1]

b)     Public Financing of Elections

i)      In order to eliminate the corrupting, anti-democratic influence of corporate and special interest money on the electoral process, all elections shall be publicly financed. No individual will be allowed to contribute more than a token sum to an official, candidate or political party (perhaps the cap could be in line with the current $2,000 limit for contributions to presidential candidates).

ii)     All corporate, commercial and other private or publicly held entities shall be forbidden from contributing directly to any official, candidate or political party.

iii)   All citizens and collective entities are free to designate a portion of their annual tax contributions to a general election fund.

iv)    No contributions to the electoral process shall be allowed by foreign interests, either individual or institutional.

v)     Election funds shall be administered on a non-partisan basis and no candidate or party demonstrating a reasonable expectation of electoral viability shall be denied access to funding.

c)     Secular Government

i)      The government of the people shall be expressly secular. No individual, religious or quasi-religious entity or collective engage or seek to influence the course of legislation or policy in accordance with theological creed.

ii)     No government edifice, document, collateral, communication, or other production, including currency, shall make reference to religious concepts, including “god.”

iii)   No one shall, in any legal context, including legal processes or oaths of office, swear upon a sacred text.

iv)    Oaths of office shall explicitly require officials to refrain from the use of religious language and dogma in the conduct of their duties.

v)     No government funds shall be spent to compensate employees who exist to serve religious functions. This includes, but is not limited to, the office of Chaplain in various military bodies.

vi)    No religious institution shall be eligible for tax exempt status.

d)     Oversight of Covert Activities

No governmental entity shall conduct secret or covert proceedings absent ongoing oversight by a multi-partisan body of popularly elected officials.[2]

e)     Federal Autonomy

No state or local government entity shall assert special privilege or exemption with respect to established rights granted by the Federal Constitution.

2)    Individual Freedoms

a)     Free Speech, Press and Religion

i)      No government, corporation, commercial or private entity shall abridge an individual’s legitimate exercise of free speech. This includes all political, social and civic speech activities, including those criticizing the government, corporations and business entities and other collective organizations.[3]

ii)     The right of the people peaceably to assemble, especially for purposes of protest, and to petition for a redress of grievances will not be infringed.

iii)   The health of the nation depends on a vital independent check against public and commercial power. As such, no government, corporation, commercial or private entity shall be allowed to abridge the rights of a free and unfettered press.

iv)    Congress will make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

b)     Equal Rights Under the Law

i)      No governmental, corporation or commercial interest, or other private organization shall deny to any enfranchised citizen the rights or privileges accorded to others.

ii)     The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

c)     Freedom from Surveillance

i)      All individuals shall enjoy the right to privacy and freedom from systemic surveillance by governmental entities in the absence of a legally obtained warrant articulating probable cause against the individual.

ii)     The right of the people to be secure in their persons, homes, papers, data, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

iii)   All individuals shall enjoy the right to privacy and freedom from systemic surveillance and data gathering by corporate, commercial or other private or public entities unless they have specifically opted into such programs.

d)     Basic Human Rights

All citizens shall enjoy the right to shelter, nourishment, healthcare and educational opportunity.

3)    Conduct of Business and Commercial Interests

a)     Legal Standing

No corporation, business interest or any other collective entity shall be accorded the rights and privileges attending citizenship, which are reserved expressly for individuals.[4]

b)     Public Interest Standard

No corporate, commercial or other private or governmental entity shall be licensed, accredited or incorporated absent a binding commitment to serve the public interest.[5]

c)     Lobbying Restrictions

i)      In order to further the public’s interest in a free and independent legislature, elected officials shall not be allowed petition the body in which they served, either on their own behalf or on behalf of the interests of a third party, for a significant period of time after the conclusion of their terms.[6]

ii)     No person shall be allowed to assume a position charged with regulatory oversight of an industry in which they have worked in the past five years.

iii)   No elected official shall be allowed to assume a position on any legislative committee charged with oversight or regulation of an industry in which they have worked or held financial interest for the past five years.

d)     Collective Bargaining

i)      All workers shall have the right to organize for purposes of collective representation and bargaining.

ii)     In any publicly held commercial interest where a significant percentage of the workforce is represented by a union, the workers shall be entitled to representation on the corporate board of directors.[7]

4)    Citizen Responsibilities and Service

a)     Mandatory Service

i)      All citizens will, upon attainment of their 18th birthdays, enroll in a two-year program of public service, which may be fulfilled with either civic programs or the armed forces.

ii)     Enfranchisement will be earned upon completion of the public service commitment and a demonstration of a basic understanding of principles informing the political and policy issues facing the nation and the world.

b)     Right to Arms

i)      The right of an individual who has completed a two-year military service commitment to keep and maintain firearms appropriate to the common defense should not be infringed. [8]

ii)     The Federal government will establish guidelines by which enfranchised citizens may obtain firearms for reasonable purposes of sport and self-defense.

5)    Justice System

a)     Due Process and Fair Trials

i)      No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against him or herself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

ii)     In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed five hundred dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

iii)   In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of professional, trained adjudicators sanctioned by the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; defendants shall have the right to be confronted with the witnesses against them; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in their favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for their defense.

b)     Punishment

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

[1] This disposes of the Electoral College.

[2] An alternative might be to entrust the public court system with the decision. Make all documents automatically become public in N years (and make destruction a federal felony) but the government can petition a federal court to hold them as secret. Court uses a strict scrutiny standard to continue secrecy, advocates for release present arguments and can appeal a secrecy decision (no appeal on orders to release). (Submitted by Evan Robinson.)

[3] This does not prevent said entities from policing explicitly illegal behavior, such as theft of proprietary information or sexual harassment. (Suggested by Carole McNall.)

[4] This item overturns the Citizens United case.

[5] This item eliminates the narrow “interest of the shareholders” doctrine emerging originally from Dodge vs. Ford.

[6] It is suggested by multiple commenters that “a significant period of time after the conclusion of their terms” might best be changed to “forever.” This is a perspective with some merit. In truth, though, we’re discussing a body of people who possess expertise that can, in the right circumstances, be of benefit to the people. A term of five years, for instance, might serve to rid the system of revolving-door corruption without permanently eliminating the possibility that a highly qualified individual may be able to contribute to the public good.

[7] This practice is common in Europe and promotes an environment of collaboration, instead of confrontation, between management and labor.

[8] Weapons systems are constantly evolving and we are now perhaps within a generation of the point where lasers, thermal lances and other currently experimental man-portable devices might be viable. The term “firearms” in this document should not be construed as limited to the sorts of projectile weapons we’re familiar with, but should instead be taken in a broader context. (Suggested by Rho Holden.)


The New Constitution has been a long time in the making, and it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that I reached this point on my own. In truth, I’m an intensely social, extroverted and associative thinker, which means that if I have an interesting idea, it probably emerged from interactions with one or more other people. This is why I work so hard to surround myself my folks who are as smart as possible. If they’re brighter than me, as is often the case, that’s all the better because that means there’s more opportunity to learn.

Some of the people in the list below are known to readers of S&R and others aren’t. Some have played a very direct and active role in my political thinking in recent years, and others contributed less obviously in conversations, in grad school classes, in arguments and debates over beers, and so on. In fact, there are undoubtedly some on the list who will be surprised to see their names, but trust me, each and every one of them helped me arrive at the present intellectual moment. This doesn’t necessarily mean they all endorse the project or want their names attached to it, so if there are things that aggravate you, please direct those comments at me and me alone.

All that said, many thanks to:

Brian Angliss

Frank Balsinger

Dr. Jim Booth

Dr. Will Bower

Dr. Robert Burr

Gavin Chait

Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark

Dr. Erika Doss

Dr. Andrea Frantz

John Hanchette

Sam Hill

Rho Holden

Dr. Stuart Hoover

Dr. Douglas Kellner

Alexi Koltowicz

Dr. John Lawrence

Dr. Polly McLean

Carole McNall

Stuart O’Steen

Alex Palombo

Dr. Michael Pecaut

Dr. Wendy Worrall Redal

Evan Robinson

Sara Robinson

Kristina Ross

Dr. Willard Rowland

Dr. Geoffrey Rubinstein

Mike Sheehan

Dr. Greg Stene

Jeff Tiedrich

Dr. Michael Tracey

Dr. Robert Trager

Dr. Petr Vassiliev

Sue Vanstone

Angela Venturo

Dr. Frank Venturo

Pat Venturo

Russ Wellen

Cat White

Dr. Denny Wilkins

Lisa Wright

Scattered thoughts on the death of a fraternity brother: RIP, Jose

Earlier this week I received the distressing news that one of my fraternity brothers, Jose Fernandez, was dead.

Jose – aka Joe - was in my pledge class, a small group that somehow earned a reputation for … underachievement? To be sure, we had our share of fuck-ups. But we also proved, when all was said and done, that were a pretty tight group. And now, even though I hadn’t seen Jose in decades, I find myself feeling his loss more deeply than you might expect.

Part of me thinks I should tell you about Jose, describe him somehow. His intensity, for instance – not only would he be the first to tell you to fuck off if you needed it, he’d do it even if you didn’t need it. The son of Cuban immigrants, he managed to be fluent in neither English or Spanish – I told him he was alingual, and he told me to fuck off. We elected him treasurer – not sure what the hell we were thinking – and his financial management style boiled down to “left pocket fraterny money, right pocket Joe money.” No, I’m not making that up. And yes, we made merciless fun of him because we were college-aged boys and that’s just how it is. He took our best shots and gave it right back. That’s what friends do.

All of us who knew Jose had stories – wonderful, marvelous, hysterical stories. The stuff that lends the texture to the golden-hued memories we all make of our glorious youth.

But honestly, I’m not a good-enough writer to convey even the barest sense of the guy, and if any of my fellow Theta Chis are reading this they can testify to it. He was fun, funny, intense, in every way an original.

At that age I don’t think most of us realized the toll that regular living can take on a person, but by now we’ve probably all had more up close and personal exposure to mortality than we like to think about. I know this is true for me, at least. I’ve had people close to me die. I’ve known people whose bodies stopped working. Heck, I am somebody whose body has let him down (or perhaps I have that backward).

When I saw the news on our Facebook group the other day my first reaction was that it had to be his heart. I had no idea that there was a history of heart disease in his family, but I recall telling some of my brothers even back then that I had never seen Jose with a relaxed muscle in his body. I think he was probably wound tight as a banjo string even when he was passed out. Even when he was happy, he seemed to radiate stress. Over time, few things are as fatal as stress.

Honestly, I’m not sure I have a huge point here, other than to say that Joe was one of the great things about my years at Wake Forest. Something about the college experience forges bonds that never quite go away, and this is especially true in a fraternity environment. You live together, you eat together, you party together. I know a lot of folks are cynical about “frats,” and I won’t lie – I have seen chapters that seem to exist for no reason other than to perpetuate the stereotype and give the rest of us a bad name.

And yet, I can see one of my brothers after not talking for years and it’s like we never missed a day.

Whether you were a Greek or not, whether you went to college or not, I hope you have these kinds of memories of your youth to reflect on.

RIP Jose. Our lives were immensely richer for having known you.

And the rest of you, take care of yourselves.

Θηρόποσα Χείρ

Jose Fernandez, front row, second from right.

Denny macro

HobbyWeek: a little world rarely seen …

We are often told to “think big.” (It’s a formula for success, apparently.)

I choose to think small. As small as possible. That’s my hobby: Bringing to larger life the world of the small. I’ve been doing that for a very long time. In the past year, I have rededicated myself to finding the beautiful and the bizarre in a tiny universe.

My hobby is macro photography. Using a lens designed for the purpose — magnifying the small — I photograph not merely flowers but the interiors of flowers, their styles, stigmas, anthers, filaments, and stamens. (Yes, I suppose the petals of the flowers manage to get into the image, too.)

I photograph water in liquid and solid states. I particularly like to shoot in winter. I’ve captured frost in numerous incarnations. I’ve found round water — dew or rain drops held in spherical shape by surface tension. Often, the background of the photograph is lensed through the drops of water. Or the sun is a starry pinprick in a reflection on the drop’s surface.

Frost is a demanding shoot. Hoar frost forms during very cold, absolutely windless nights next to the stream downhill from my house. I have to time it well: Late enough for the just-risen sun to backlight the frost; early enough so the sun’s rays do not wither and disintegrate the crystals.

It’s always fun shooting fire. And odd things, too: One image accompanying this post is something you eat for breakfast.

Often, after I download the images from my Canon into Photoshop, I’m surprised at what I find. I wear trifocals; my eyes have a collection of floaters. Combine those with staring through a tiny viewfinder to focus and, well, you don’t see every little thing the lens does.

I discovered the world of insects. Now, mind you, I do not like insects. Ick. Bugs. Spiders. Bees, hornets, and wasp, those stinging little bastards. But I bought a guide to insects to try to identify them. (I’m failing miserably; I’m not very good at it.) I still don’t like bugs, but I’m less … frightened … by them. (I have a spider who lives in my office. I now tolerate it.)

And trees! Who knew trees — bark, leaves, stems, seeds, insect inhabitants — could be so wonderfully interesting and beautiful? Last fall, I photographed leaves (often, just fragments of leaves) as they withered and fell. This spring, I choose one leaf bud on a red maple in my yard to photograph from birth to death.

As a macro photographer, I don’t have to travel to dramatic scenic vistas to find landscapes to shoot. Most of images I’ve shot in the past year were in my back yard, at a fishing hole next to a stream in the valley downhill from my house, and on trails in a patch of woods behind a residence hall at my university. I often spend an hour or two inside no more than a hundred square feet of forest or field. Such seemingly limited space is alive with life waiting to be captured.

Such photographic efforts have lent me needed creative and artistic satisfaction. I have longed to create beauty but failed in other media. But the skills and equipment I have now have allowed me to capture beauty in places most people rarely look — in a small world well beyond their daily consciousness.

I discovered grass (no, no, not that kind) this spring. I’ve photographed blades of grass — and found a world of really small insects and seeds through which grass propagates. Grass, it turns out, isn’t actually green (well, I cheated a few times, and over-saturated the color; sue me).

I am a university professor. I teach (or try to) undergraduates how to write and otherwise mature into good, kind, decent, gentle human beings. The kiddies often frustrate me, and I occasionally chafe at their less-than-their best attitudes toward their studies. They require my patience be Job-like. (Well, my patience is usually tested to the point of failure.)

But macro photography reminds me of the need for patience and rewards me when I achieve it. In nature, nothing stands still. Wind moves leaves, flowers, and grass. Clouds obscure sunlight needed for better exposure. Rain defeats all efforts to keep equipment dry. The sun needs an hour to move so a shadow is removed or introduced.

Patience and solace are the rewards of macro photography as much as the satisfaction of the finished images. So, too, is the change of focus from large-scale usual to the small-scale unusual.

It is a wonderful hobby, learning how to see anew even as my vision ages and becomes less acute. Even now, I see more and better than I have in decades.

Try it. You might see better, too.

(Below is more of my work. View my archive at 5280 Lens Mafia.)


ArtSunday: What color is your music?

Cover, Wednesday is Indigo Blue (courtesy, Wikimedia)

On the wall in my studio (which serves me for both music making and writing) I have a huge dry mount poster of The Beatles. This is no surprise for those who know me – but why I love that particular poster might be. The colors (it’s from a fairly early time – perhaps even from the photo shoot that gave us the iconic cover for their masterwork Rubber Soul) are all yellow-to-gold tinted – the blacks of their outfits, the brown-to auburn-of their hair, even their skin is gold-toned.

That picture looks like what The Beatles sound like to me.

See, there’s this thing called synesthesia and apparently I have it.

So this next book from the 2013 reading listWednesday is Indigo Blue, intrigued me because it explains the history of synesthesia studies and how new technologies related to neuroscience and genetics are helping scientists both create and prove testable hypotheses about the synesthetic phenomenon and find explanations for why it occurs in (roughly 1 in 23 according to the latest data) people. Authors Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman, distinguished researchers themselves, write for lay readers as much as for colleagues (a refreshing and, sadly, all too uncommon practice among scholars) and the book is quite readable, if a bit challenging, because of both the quality and quantity of the charts, graphs, tables and other explanatory material that enrich the text even as they make it read at times a bit too much like a chapter from your old psychology textbook.

There’s a lot of science in this text, much of which I will gloss over, primarily because I don’t want you to glaze over trying to follow me. So let’s get to the gist: synesthesia is a psychological phenomenon caused by what the authors call “cross talk” between areas of the brain (speech/color identification, letter-word-number symbols/color, musical tones/color are some of the more common forms) that normally act (to the conscious mind) discretely from one another.  All of us, it’s possible (actually, probable) are born as synesthetes: the acts of acquiring language, mathematical fluency, and  other cognitive skills causes, somehow, cause our synesthesia to decline as we reach adulthood. We probably still have it; it is simply not easily accessed by our conscious minds.

Well, your conscious minds. Synesthetes, for some reason, retain the ability to “cross talk” among various brain centers. And experience the world rather differently as a result.

What this means is that some people “see,” for example, textual symbols in colors: 7 might be green, C might be orange, etc. This, called grapheme/color synesthesia, is probably the most common sort. As mentioned above, other sorts of synesthetic response are triggered (as in my case) by musical tones (bass is dark brown; guitars are golden or silvery variations always mixed with other colors, usually in the red family; drums are steel gray – but can add black or dark blues; voices always start from cream but flow with swirls of color – John is coffee, maybe milk chocolate swirled – Paul is raspberry).

In my own band, as recently as last Tuesday night, I said to my co-composer Steve as we worked on a new song, “This needs to sound more autumnal – you know, like early November, more towards brown but still with flecks of orange and yellow and maybe a hint of red if we can figure out how to get that in.”

You may be wondering about this by now, so let me ease your curiosity: yes, a much higher percentage of artists are synesthetic than the general population. This includes not just visual artists but musicians and writers, too.  Famous examples? Vladimir Nabokov, Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney, Franz Liszt, Olivier Messiaen even, possibly (though now somewhat doubtful) Baudelaire and Rimbaud…and others.

The other thing you may be wondering about is whether synesthesia can be artificially stimulated. Yes, it can – both by the use of drugs (hallucinogenics, primarily) but also by deep meditation such as that practiced by Zen Buddhist monks, Hindu Yogis, or Native American shamen.  Cytowic and Eagleman are quick to note that they recommend trying the meditation method rather than the pharmacological one.

I could not possibly do justice to such a thorough discussion of both the characteristics of the many forms synesthesia takes and its vagaries in manifesting itself. If this subject interests you at all, and especially if you think you might be a synesthete,  I suggest you find this book and explore it for yourself – you’ll find it enlightening – possibly revelatory.

Meanwhile, as I write this, The Rolling Stones are playing “Mixed Emotions.” The rusty red from Keith’s guitar blends awesomely with the faded magenta from Ron’s. And no one’s bass is that exact light walnut color of Bill Wyman’s.  And Charlie -steel wheels, indeed.

The colors, man, the colors….

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

CATEGORY: Education

Congress punts on student loan reform: we’ve made it a hassle to get a tassel

We hear constantly from politicians and candidates for office that young people are our future, and that we need to invest in our future if we want to grow our economy, and if we provide more training and education we can boost people out of poverty. So on, and so forth.

I agree with all this – being a young person and recent college graduate, I can attest to the earning power of a college degree. And education should be more accessible and affordable. But it never ceases to amaze me how a candidate will appear so concerned with courting the youth vote, but won’t actually do anything to earn their votes.

Never has that been more clear than today: because of Congress’s inaction on student loan reform, the interest rates on federal student loans will double, jumping from 3.4% to a staggering 6.8%.

Part of the problem is that government (and most voters) don’t see a student loan hike as a far-reaching economic problem. They see it as affecting a small percentage of the population, a population with lower voter turnout than most and a percentage of the population expected to either suck it up and borrow from the bank or their parents (if they’re able) or to forego college altogether.

We cannot afford to keep thinking that way.

Clearly, the first group of people affected by this rate jump is college kids. On average, college students take out loans and graduate from four-year universities with around $27,000 worth of debt). So before day one their careers students are already digging out of a hole instead of laying the foundations for a productive and successful future. Since wages have remained stagnant over the past few years, these graduates are not making enough to put away any savings and they’re not making enough to save for retirement. Because college is so expensive, a new subset of the lower middle class is emerging – hard working Americans who will never catch up to their parents in earnings or benefits, a class of workers that will take longer to pay back their loans at higher rates, leaving them less money to contribute to growing the economy.

The next group of people affected: the parents of college kids. When students can’t take out a loan because of bad or nonexistent credit, what often happens is that parents take out loans on the students’ behalf. The parents, though, are also dealing with stagnant wages (if not straight-up unemployment or underemployment). The result: either they cannot help their children get the educations they need to succeed, or they must make huge sacrifices to do so. In the end, both students and families are forced to mortgage their futures for a shot at a better career.

We’re hurting schools as well – by making education less affordable, fewer students will be able to attend college. This can drive a university’s costs up, beyond the obscene tuition prices they already charge, and anyone who has been paying attention understands the implications for professors, administrators and staff, who can suddenly find their own jobs in jepoardy.

The final group hurt by this jump? All of us, really. By raising the interest rates on loans and failing to “invest in our future,” we’re setting ourselves back in terms of productivity, buying power and global competitive edge. If our students cannot afford to go to college, they stand to earn 84% less than their friends who do attend. They will not be qualified for the higher paying jobs in health care, engineering, research, math, and education. They will not make enough to afford even the basics without taking on a second or even third job. And they will not make enough to save, retire on, or spend on homes, cars, clothing and other services that keep our economy on track. More will need assistance and benefits from the government because their jobs will not pay enough or provide those benefits.

By making it so expensive to attend college, we’re hurting students and we’re hurting our economic recovery. To grow our economy and keep the recovery on track, we need to grow our middle class, to pay good wages to working and middle class Americans, and to train more workers for future careers rather than leaving them out in the cold to fend for themselves. By investing in our students, we do our entire country a favor by training the workforce of tomorrow and growing from the middle out.

By failing to act, Congress has made it that much harder for students to get a college education – and by extension, Congress has made it that much harder for students and families to earn more money, get the training and education that they need for a good paying job, and made it that much more difficult for us to keep recovering.


ArtSunday: If you can read this – thank a historical linguist…

Cover, Readings in Early English Language History (courtesy, Library Thing)

One of the most interesting things about my 2013 reading list is the variety of material I chose. This next book review will cause you to ask, perhaps, as I asked myself, why? Why, Jim, why?

Well, because, as our parents used to say.

Professor Leonard Frey’s classic “reader/work book” for college courses in the history of the English language is called, appropriately enough, Readings in Early English Language History. The text is divided into three parts: so difficult it makes English PhDs who are not historical linguists sweat; rather less difficult than that first part for English PhDs but still damned difficult for everyone else; and finally, still difficult but seems pretty damned easy after parts 1 and 2 for anyone who took the fall term Brit Lit survey and actually read the material and went to class.

The actual section titles, of course, are not so wittily expressed: “Examples from Old English Sources”; “Examples from Middle English Sources”; and finally, (to no one’s surprise who’s still reading this review at this point) “Examples from Early Modern English Sources.” These sections contain examples such as “The Lord’s Prayer” in Old English, Old High German, and Gothic; several of Christ’s parables; and, of course, brief excerpts from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Beowulf. Just so one won’t be bored, besides “standard” Old English examples, Professor Frey is kind enough to offer us Mercian, Northumbrian, and West Saxon dialect samples, too.

Here are a few opening lines from Beowulf so you can brush up your Old English reading skills:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena/ þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð/
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease/
lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,
wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;
Beowulf wæs breme blæd wide sprang/,
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.

Wasn’t that fun? For those of you who might wonder how Beowulf sounds, click the link. To professor Frey’s credit (I’m sure many a student has blessed his name over the years for this), he offers Modern English translations of many if not most of the Old English selections. And, yes, I used them – my motivation was to brush up on my Old English, not torture myself. The pleasure in reading this work more than 30 years after my last “History of the English Language” course in grad school is discovering that after some  flummoxed moments I could still dig in (with the help of modern translations and my text book from many moons ago) and fumble my way through this most challenging area of English language study. No, this is not a typical reading – if you’ve been following these reviews, you understand that “typical reading” is not what my reading list and these pieces are about. Stretching oneself is the surest way to deter atrophy or entropy or any of the myriad mental dystrophies our culture seeks to inflict upon us relentlessly.

The sections on Middle and Early Modern English are considerably easier for any educated reader to decipher, and it’s quite a bit of fun to read some of the same material that was so difficult in Old English (like those previously mentioned parables) and realize one can do so without supplemental texts. And there’s a pleasure in experiencing Chaucer or Shakespeare on his own ground that never disappoints, as here from “The General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Or the marvelous “Sonnet 130″ in Shakespeare’s own written language:

My Mistress eyes are nothing like the Sunne,
Currall is farre more red, than her lips red,
If snow be white, why then her brests are dunne:
If haires be wiers, black wiers grow on her head:

I haue seene Roses damaskt, red and white,
But no such Roses see I in her cheekes,
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Then in the breath that from  my Mistres reekes.

I loue to hear her speake, yet well I know,
That Musicke hath a farre more pleasing sound:
I graunt I never saw a goddesse goe,
My Mistres when she walkes treads on the ground.

And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare,
As any she beli’d with false compare.

English, as we all know (or should), is a rich and diverse tongue with a long history and is, as we also know, ever evolving and highly mutable. It’s a vitally alive language full of youth and vigor. Still, it’s nice occasionally to spend some time with the grandparents. A book like Readings in Early English Language History gives one that opportunity.

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman


America has too many geniuses

BusinessToday, I was sent this link. It’s an article by Dave Logan about why geniuses don’t have jobs, specifically jobs in large corporations. His argument is basically that it’s either because geniuses can’t keep their mouths shut when they see the stupidity around them or else they are socially impaired geeks who can’t get through the interview process. It’s an engaging argument, but it’s crap.

Logan is a clever writer. He defines genuis in such a nebulous and all-inclusive way that it’s impossible for the reader not to quickly realize that he or she is one of the geniuses Logan is talking about. It’s just like reading Jungian archetypes or horoscopes–bright, impatient with others, witty, fiercely loyal to friends, sometimes works too hard for his or her own good….yes, yes, yes, that’s me!  Logan does the same for geniuses. Yes, yes, yes, that’s me. That’s why I never became CEO of IBM, because I was blackballed by those genius-hating morons in HR. That’s me!

Like all such things, there’s just enough truth in it that it resonates. We all know some very smart people who say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and some very smart people who are socially awkward, and the people in HR are morons.

However, that has nothing to do with why corporations don’t hire geniuses, or at least many of them. It was H.L. Mencken that said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clean, simple and wrong.” Logan’s is just such an argument.

The truth is corporations don’t hire geniuses because they don’t need them, or at least don’t need many of them. Corporations are the most economically efficient mechanism yet devised by man. They’re so efficient that many are now larger than countries, much larger. 200 multinationals now control over a quarter of the world’s economic activity. 51 of the largest 100 economic entitities on the planet are companies. One third of the world’s trade is now intra-company. In a comparison of GDP and revenues, General Motors is larger than Norway. Ford is larger than Saudi Arabia. Believe me, I’ve spent my entire career working and consulting to big corporations–GM, Ford, Pepsi, Coke, Kraft, J & J, Monsanto, Exxon, P & G, Harley Davidson, Gap, Kellogg’s, Cemex. If it was economically rational to hire geniuses, the places would be full of them. To understate the case, they’re not.

Why not? To put it simply, big corporations don’t need genius, or much of it. Big corporations are not big and successful because they come up with the best ideas, but rather because they get the most out of the good ideas they do have. Big corporations are all about execution. A big company is like a beehive–a small number of elite and huge numbers of worker bees. For everyone at the officer level in a typical Fortune 100 corporation, there are at least a hundred non-officers. It’s called leverage. As my colleague Sam Smith recently posted, there’s real scientific research that says too many smart people hurt a company’s performance. Just think how much damage surplus geniuses could do.

Let’s do the math. The official definition of genius is the top 2% of the population. That means there are three million adult geniuses in the U.S. Let’s say every Fortune 1000 company should have 100 geniuses wandering the halls. (I picked that number because it is absurdly high.) That means corporate America needs 100,000 geniuses. But of course the Fortune 1000 doesn’t include privately held and smaller companies, so let’s multiply that by three to pick up geniuses-needed-by-business-in-addition-to-the-Fortune-1000.  So in all, that means there’s room for 300,000 geniuses in business, roughly 10% of the total genius pool.

It would make no sense for businesses to hire more geniuses than they need. Geniuses will grow frustrated with menial tasks more quickly and become problem employees.

So the problem is not a shortage of jobs, but a glut of geniuses. We could dump them into medicine or academia. What do you know? That’s exactly what our economy (and all developed economies) do. There are 1.7 million academics and 1 million physicians in the U.S.

Also, I’ve heard they’re hiring at the Apple Store.

CATEGORY: Education

Graduation Day 2013: remember when graduating meant something?

Back when I was growing up “graduation” meant one thing: high school. Well, it could mean college, in theory, but in my old neighborhood college was generally something that happened to other people. Mainly, though, it meant that a kid had somehow stuck it out, avoiding pregnancy and resisting the intoxicating allure of a lucrative career bagging groceries or helping Dad repair HVAC systems, and completed all 12 grades.

This was a big deal for many families. And, while I hate to sound like a geezer yelling at you to get the hell out of my yard, the simple fact is that when I was a kid, graduation meant something.

CATEGORY: EducationThese days, not so much. As I was walking the dog yesterday morning they were setting up the grad ceremonies for the academy in the neighborhood. From the looks of things, this must have been an event for third graders. And why not. These days they have graduation ceremonies for middle school. And kindergarten. And sixth grade. Awesome. You know who else graduated from sixth grade? Jethro Bodine. And nearly everybody else in America.

I’m all for rewarding success, but I’m also painfully aware of what happens when everybody gets a gold star for showing up. Over-reward devalues real accomplishment, and it breeds cynicism. It makes it hard to tell the difference between actual praise and self-esteem boosting. You think the Millennial generation doesn’t know that it was patronized throughout its childhood years?

So here we are. Kids graduate from something every five minutes. Hey – you made it through SEPTEMBER! WOW! We should have a ceremony.

Or maybe we shouldn’t. Unless we’re talking about a child with a legitimate developmental disability, making it through third grade alive isn’t a big deal and shouldn’t be treated like one. We’ll have a ceremony when you actually accomplish something. I’m not going to tell you that completing all the requirements at Ledford High School in the ’70s was on a par with getting your doctorate from Oxford, but it was a valid rite of passage, a moment where one phase of life gave way to the next. It was more than a celebration for the student, it was a reaffirmation for the community, and was therefore a fitting and proper event to mark.

Sixth grade? Shut the fuck up, Jethro. We’ll see you in the fall.

So, for the graduating class senior class of 2013, we at S&R say congratulations and we wish you all the best in the next stage of your life.


The student loan interest rates are too damn high

Like many other twentysomethings, I was watching the Daily Show the other night to see what news Jon Stewart and his crew were mocking/making sense of, and the middle segment hit a little close to home.

Obviously, this is meant to be a goof. Education is a wonderful thing, and encouraging people not to go to college because of high costs is an exaggeration for comedy. But behind the humor (and the wisdom that illustration may have been a bad degree program to pursue), The Daily Show nailed it – education is too expensive, and the costs are only going to go up.

Last year, Congress decided to keep interest rates on Stafford Loans and other student loans locked in around 3.4% – but like everything else Congress seems to do these days, this was only a temporary fix. The fight is going to start again in July, when the student loan rates are set to double to 6.8%. College is already far too pricey for many to attend, and this double in interest rates will put a higher education even farther out of reach for thousands of students and their families.

Thankfully, a progressive former professor got elected to the Senate this year, and wants to do something about this. For her first standalone bill in the Senate, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the Bank on Student Loans Fairness Act – a law designed to lower interest rates on student loans and make it easier for working class families and students to attend college. Check out this segment:

She makes a great point when she says that “We the taxpayers make an investment in our financial institutions. Can’t we make the same investment in students who are trying to get an education?”

I’ve talked before about how expensive it is to go to college, and the ramifications of student loans going forward – the consequences of a poor rising working class. And this bill would make a huge step towards making college more affordable for thousands more students, and make a significant investment in the middle class. We just need to get it passed.

Senator Warren is right on the money when she says “If the federal reserve can float trillions of dollars to large financial institutions for low interest rates to grow the economy, surely they can float the Department of Education the money to fund our students, keep us competitive, and grow our middle class.”

I encourage you to sign on to the Campaign for America’s Future and Daily Kos’s petition to support Elizabeth Warren’s bill here. Investing in our students, rather than our banks, and helping ambitious students – the scientists, teachers, writers, doctors, engineers and workers of tomorrow – get the training they need to compete, is a step towards a stronger middle class and a stronger economy.


American business: powered by Stupid®

Part one of a series.

Phil Rizzuto: “Hey Yogi I think we’re lost.”

Yogi Berra: “Yeah, but we’re making great time!”

BusinessYou know how certain segments of society think that governments and universities and public school systems ought to be “run like businesses”? And how those same people bitch at length about how messed up their companies are and by the way, their bosses are complete morons. Yeah. Me, too.

Truth is, hardly anything should be run more like a business. Including, you know, businesses. There can be appalling levels of stupidity at work in even the best of companies: counterproductive decision making, breathtaking short-sightedness, a robust commitment to keeping smart people as far away from meaningful authority as possible – these are all too often the hallmarks of real businesses.

But we have to be careful when talking about business and teh stupid, because one often finds oases of pure genius in the midst of the intellectual wasteland. In larger companies, for instance, it’s almost impossible to talk about how things run in the aggregate – you usually need to take the conversation business unit by business unit, work group by work group. I once worked in a Fortune 500 telecom that was, collectively speaking, steeped in every kind of 19th century legacy idiocy you could think of. But Corporate Communications was a model organization. Truly, to this day it’s the best PR group I have ever seen. And within it sat the Employee Communication group. When I arrived, it was (for a variety of reasons, many of them owing to the senior manager in charge), a complete joke, the target of barely concealed snickering on the part of the talented folks around the corner in Media Relations. By the time I left two years later, though, it had earned a great deal of respect from everyone it touched.

So within one narrow silo in the org chart as of the moment I arrived, you had a bad group that was part of a world-class department that was part of a company captive to old, dying ways of thinking. All of which means that yes, there’s lots of stupid, but it’s important to think in nuanced ways about it.

The problem is that I have been writing in such a way as to suggest that stupid is a bad thing. Not so, says a recent analysis.

A recent article in the Journal of Management Studies examines the value of stupidity in successful companies. Yes, I said “value.” For starters, says lead author Mats Alvesson, professor of organization studies at Lund University in Sweden, stupidity can increase efficiency.

In…”A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organisations” Alvesson and colleague André Spicer explain how what they call “functional stupidity” generally helped get things done. “Critical reflection and shrewdness” were net positives, but when too many clever individuals in an organization raised their hands to suggest alternative courses of action or to ask “disquieting questions about decisions and structures,” work slowed.

I think what we have here is a corporate application of the old adage that “ignorance is bliss.”

The study’s authors found that stupidity, on the other hand, seemed to have a unifying effect. It boosted productivity. People content in an atmosphere of functional stupidity came to consensus more easily, and with that consensus came greater roll-up-our-sleeves enthusiasm for concentrating on the job.

To sum up, stupid people reach consensus quickly and then set about enthusiastically acting on it. I can’t lie, that does have the ring of truth about it. The authors are describing what is known, in management-speak, as a “bias for action.” No word on how stupidity and consensus relate to doing the right things, but one presumes this goes back to the whole “too many clever individuals” problem from that first quote.

This all leads to some disoriented thinking, I fear. Many of us look at top businesses and fancy that their success is a function of intelligence. And we want government bureaucracies and schools, which are less “efficient” and hence less intelligent, to be more like businesses, which we now know owe their accomplishments in large part not to intelligence, but to stupidity.

Which may mean that those organizations we hate aren’t how they are because their people are idiots, but just the opposite. They’re too smart for their own good. They’re so worried about doing the right things the right way that they never get off their butts and do anything.

Now I’m thinking about the old management catchphrase from some years back – don’t work harder, work smarter. Which is precisely the wrong advice. By all means work harder, and if possible, work dumber.

My head hurts. I’m going to go have a couple of stiff drinks before I get back to work….

CATEGORY: Education

Why bad school rankings hurt our children (or, are you listening, US News Best High Schools Rankings?)

by J. Stephen O’Brien

The annual US News rankings of US high schools is out today. Here are the assessments of two high schools in two states.

High School #1

  • Reading proficiency score: 3.4
  • Math proficiency score: 3.1
  • Students proficient in reading: 92%
  • Students proficient in math: 92%

High School #2

  • Reading proficiency score: 2.9
  • Math proficiency score: 2.7
  • Students proficient in reading: 80%
  • Students proficient in math: 64%

Which high school would you want to send your children to? High school #1, right? Now, here’s some more information.

High School #1

Average SAT score: 39th percentile

High School #2

Average ACT score: 84th percentile

Now what do you think? But wait, it gets better. High school #1 sends fewer than the national average percentage of kids on to college, while high school #2 sends well above the national average to college. At high school #1, only the college-bound take the SAT. At high school #2, by state law, all students take the ACT, but only the college bound take the SAT. So, let’s look at that comparison, again using something closer to apples and apples.

High School #1

Average SAT score for college bound: 39th percentile

High School #2

Average SAT score for college bound: 90th percentile

Now where would you want your children to matriculate?  And what if I told you that high school #1 is in an area that has lost 20% of its non-agricultural, private-sector jobs in the past 10 years, primarily because employers cannot find labor well enough educated to train for today’s jobs? And what if I told you that high school #2 is in an area with very low unemployment, plenty of entrepreneurial start ups that locate here because of its skilled labor force, and typically has from 15-20 National Merit Scholars in a given year?

So what, you say? What does it matter if US News gets it so wrong? I’m glad you asked. You see, the county where high school #1 is located has the lowest mill levy (property tax rate) in its state, and though the schools beg residents to raise more money for education to replace, say, the antiquated wooden lab hoods (total of two) in the chemistry classes that make it impossible to safely conduct labs on certain chemical reactions, the answer is always, “We’re doing great! US News gave us an award!”

So, US News, keep hurting our children with your insipid high school rankings. It’s profitable, right? So why should you care?


If Chip Kelly was a student-athlete, he’d be out of a job

Sigh, if there’s a greater hypocrisy in America than the college sports megapoly, it’s hard to know what it is. Whether it’s the fiction that great athletic ability means you have the ability to succeed in college or that tuition is fair payment for starring in a multi-billion dollar enterprise and risking a career ending injury, it’s a rotten system from top to bottom.

Nowhere, though, is the hypocrisy greater than with coaching. Kids get paid nothing (unless they go to USC or Auburn) while coaches earn millions. Kids are thrown off the team for failing a test for pot, while a coach who wrecks his motorcyle drunk with his mistress on the back gets another million dollar gig as quick as you can say “alumni.” And of course, the ultimate hypocrisy: When kids are caught cheating they have to serve their sentence, while coaches are allowed to flee to the pros, which is to cheating coaches what Brazil is British bank robbers.

Terrelle Pryor, former Ohio State quarterback, was suspended by the NCAA, but still had to serve his five game suspension once he got to the pros. Think about that for a moment. What if you graduated and got a job, but found out that your new employer was taking your unpaid student parking fines out of your paycheck? Doesn’t seem fair, does it? It’s not. It’s probably not even legal, although Pryor decided not to bring suit. Unfortunately, if you’re a professional football player, there’s basically one real employer and it does no good to piss him off. Better to shut up and sit down.

Of course, the NFL does the same for coaches that cheat, right? Surely they have to sit out the penalties they brought on their schools.

Uh-uh. From ESPN, the University of Oregon is getting sanctioned for recruiting violations under former coach Chip Kelly.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The University of Oregon proposed a self-imposed two-year probation and the loss of a scholarship for three years because of possible recruiting violations involving the Ducks’ football program.

The university released documents late Monday that included a proposed summary disposition from September which discusses the violations and characterizes at least one as “major.” The contents of the documents were first reported by KATU television in Portland.

Of course, Kelly is manning up and sticking with the Oregon program during this time of duress, right? Surely, he’s going to stand by those kids whose eyes he looked into and promised he’d be just like a second father.

Uh uh. Kelly has taken a job with the Philadelphia Eagles. Just like Pete Carroll, he got out of college football one step ahead of the posse and made his way to the safety of the pros.
Not that the posse, in the form of the NCAA, was chasing very hard.

A few years from now both Carroll and Kelly will be fired. After all, the old joke is that NFL stands for “not for long” if you’re a coach. When they do, college football will welcome them back with smiles and hugs, just like it did Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino.

If you’re a kid and you’re caught cheating, your college career is over and penalties can follow you into your next job. If you’re a coach, maybe you just need to leave town for a while until all the kerfluffle dies down. Wink. Wink.

CATEGORY: BusinessFinance

Teaching underclass kids which fork to use

CATEGORY: BusinessFinanceI recently came across a useful article over at Ragan’s PR Daily entitled “What to wear to work in the PR and marketing industry.” After reading through it, my first reaction was that it was mistitled – what it offers is good advice for what to wear to work in just about any industry. From where I sit now, there’s nothing terribly innovative about author Elissa Freeman’s advice, but it’s also true that there’s sometimes significant value in being reminded of the basics and having them presented in a tight, coherent fashion. We have so much noise in our society, so many messages screaming for our attention every waking minute, that it’s easy to lose focus on something as simple as dressing appropriately for a work culture.

The main points?

  • Feel comfortable in your clothes.
  • Dress to impress on the job hunt.
  • Accessorize carefully.
  • Fit the culture.
  • Follow the leader.
  • Dress your age.

My second reaction was (predictably enough, if you know me) a bit deeper. I have been keenly aware, for more than 30 years now, how a concept as seemingly fundamental as “dress appropriately” can be an unfathomable web of arcana for vast swaths of our society. The reason is that fashion and grooming – clothes, shoes, accessories, hair styles, facial hair (for the guys), even scents – are powerful cultural markers embedded in class codes that are virtually invisible to those of us born and raised into the underclasses.

It has always been so. If you study your history back far enough, you’ll discover that once upon a time it was actually illegal, in the great monarchies of Europe, for commoners to wear certain styles (even if they could afford them). The high fashions were reserved, at pike point, for the noble born.

These days anybody can walk into any store in town and march out with a bag full of whatever they can afford, meaning that I can dress like Bill Gates or Prince Harry if I have sufficient credit. But the financial means for a simple country boy like me to look like a Rockefeller and the cultural know-how to do so effectively – those are different things.

I grew up working class. In the South. The rural South. I was raised by grandparents who came from meager means and grew up through the Great Depression. I never went hungry, but we never had much in the way of luxury, either.

The real poverty that I endured growing up was cultural. Class is very real in America, and this is especially true in the South, which can be hateful and mannered in ways subtle enough to baffle a courtier in Louis XIV’s Versailles. There were rules. Rules having to do with style, with behavior, with clothes and cars and interior decorating and… really, with just about everything.

And I didn’t know the rules. Worse, I was in college – an elite, moneyed, conservative private Southern university – before I began to figure out that there even were rules. Looking back, I was sort of like Jethro Bodine walking around the big city, blissfully unaware that everybody was laughing at him, not with him.

The rules. I had figured out in high school, thanks to my competitive debate experience, that if you have a Southern accent – especially one as hillbilly as mine was – people think you’re stupid. And everybody thinking you’re stupid, that comes with a wicked price tag. So I taught myself to speak with a perfectly flat Midwestern accent. For years nobody guessed I was Southern. People I’d meet would guess Ohio or Pennsylvania, but never the South.

But… how to dress. I thought polyester was a perfectly acceptable fabric for a suit. I didn’t understand that certain kinds of patterns in your sport coat scream “used car salesman.” I had no understanding of color (other than I liked bright ones in garish combinations). What shoes do you wear with those pants? Huh? And… what’s an “accessory”? What’s wrong with wearing my Casio sports watch to an interview? Oh, I need to get a nice watch. I see. You mean like a Timex?

Looking back, I imagine people thought that I was being dressed each morning by a chimp. A not terribly stylish, even by ape standards, chimp.

I remember my father telling a story. He was somewhere on business and got ushered into a formal dinner that was at least a couple class steps above his station (not that he cared – Dad was incredibly self-composed and at ease in any social situation; whatever faults he had, they did not revolve around low self-esteem or high self-awareness). He sat down and was confronted with a veritable armory of – and here it is, the redneck’s nightmare – forks. Forks of all shapes and sizes. Dozens of them, it seemed. I know my father. Up until that moment his dining experiences had never involved anything as exotic even as a salad fork or a special spoon for soup.

“What did you do, Daddy?”

“I just started with the one on the left and worked my way in.” Which, remarkably, was precisely the right thing to do. Had it been me, everybody else at the table would have been navigating the phalanx of forks like Vanderbilts and I’d have been trying to eat the foie gras with my feet. (And I’d have had no idea what the hell it was, either.)

Dad had some kind of instinct about how to behave that I didn’t. Worse, nobody explained the rules to me because in my culture, nobody else knew them, either. They might know that your socks ought to match your shoes, but that was about it.

So I marched off into the world, a bumpkin with no clue how to act, how to dress, which fork to use. And since I didn’t know these things, it was clear to all the more cultured folks I met that I wasn’t one of them. They might be nice to me. They might have a beer with me. The girls might even date me if they wanted to get back at their parents. But… opportunities didn’t present themselves. They didn’t call when their fathers were hiring. When they graduated, the girls never considered, for a second, that I might be appropriate for them long term. (Yes, L-J, I’m looking at you.)

No matter how qualified I was for a job, it usually went to the kid from the right family, with the right connections, wearing the right clothes. These people can smell the thread count on your button down before you even walk in the room.

The “what to wear to work” article linked above is really helpful, but it has me thinking that we need more. Millions of poor and working class kids who have the brains to thrive in middle and upper class contexts lack the cultural skills, the basic awareness, even, of the rules, of the ways in which how they act and present themselves work to keep them down. That hair style might be the absolute pinnacle of fashion in your working class ‘hood, but it signals, as clearly as a blinking neon sign around your neck, that you’re not one of us. Yes, I have a job for you as an admin in the warehouse, but management? Bitch, please.

I wish there were community programs designed to teach high school kids the cultural skills they’ll need to climb America’s class ladder. The programs I have in mind would address areas like:

Diction: You can’t speak ghetto. You can’t speak cornfield. If you’re going to sound Southern, you need to sound coastal and not upland/hillbilly (that is, Scarlett O’Hara instead of Gomer Pyle). You can’t sound like you were an extra in Fargo. And you can’t sound Jersey Shore under any circumstances. Here in Denver we have a huge Mexican-American population, and there’s a distinct Latino accent. It’s nowhere near as tragic as how I grew up speaking, but it nonetheless is a class marker. Hiring managers hear that accent and instinctively situate the speaker in a particular context – the non-commissioned context – with all the limitations that attend it.

You can learn how to flatten and “normalize” your accent, and you can also learn how to avoid going ethnic, head side-to-side “oh no you didn’t” sister or “I’m a-fixin’ to whoop your ass” redneck in ways that make those raised in polite society want to run away from you. (I still have to fight down the urge to get my back up Nor’ Cackalackey style when somebody pisses me off, but it’s doable, and you get particularly motivated once you come to understand how those up the food chain view that sort of behavior.)

Dress: You don’t have to spend a fortune to look respectable, but you do need to know how to maximize what money you have. When do you wear black shoes vs. when do you wear brown? When do you wear blue patent leather? (Trick question. Never.) What socks go with what pants and shoes? Is this belt okay? Can I wear a black sport coat with khakis?

Getting just one of these questions wrong can cost you a job. No, seriously.

Grooming: 25 year-old male with a 1970s porn ‘stache applying for a managerial job. Next. Young woman with Camaro hair. Next. Your cologne, bought on sale at Walmart, arrives for the interview two minutes before you do. Next. Is that a mullet?! A gold tooth?! Somebody call security.

Professional/Career Counseling: I work in marketing. When I was a teenager if you’d asked me would I like to work in marketing, I’d have thought you were offering me a job as a bag boy. Worse, that might have seemed not bad.

If you’re an underclass kid, you know there are doctors and lawyers and accountants, but your understanding of what goes into becoming one is nonexistent because there are none in your family or among your circle of friends. The people in your cultural sphere are manual laborers. They work in stores and shops and maybe they do bookkeeping. If they’re in the medical world, they’re on the underside of the glass ceiling – lab techs, dental assistants, etc. Given what they know of the world, they often have no clue as to how they’d even aspire to being a real physician. A marketing researcher? They might be fabulous at math and stats, but they have never heard of the job title.

Meanwhile, across town, middle class and upper class kids know all these things. They have role models in their lives and that means a) they have ready access to knowledge about these professions, b) there is a cultural assumption that it’s doable, because people they know do it all the time, and c) they have the connections to shepherd them in the right direction.

What else? You know, I can’t prove it with hard research, but I suspect that names get in the way, too. This is most evident with African-American naming conventions, which frankly mystify the hell out of white people. I now understand that there are rules that dictate some of these odd-sounding names, and that once you know how those conventions work the names make a lot more sense.

But I’m imagining a job application process. Submit the same résumé to 100 hiring managers, only you change the names. On 50 of them the applicant is “Michelle Harris” and on the other 50 it’s “KaTrinka Harris.” What do you think happens?

And it isn’t just about black working class cultures. I grew up in a place where you run across a lot of guys named Wayne, Randy and Earl. These are very Southern working class names, and no matter how smart the guy is (I have good, intelligent friends with each of these names), an upper-class interviewer can’t help hearing the hillbilly.

So if your name is Randy Morgan Smith and you go by Randy, what if I suggest you think about changing over and going by Morgan?

I hate seeing people underperform their potential, and I especially hate it when the underperformance is a result of external social and economic forces that artificially limit opportunity. I want excellent education for everyone, I want a level playing field in hiring and promotion, and I understand that all too often, the factors keeping us from fully realizing our potential (as individuals and as a society) are buried in class considerations that we not only don’t address, we don’t even acknowledge. After all, here in America we’re all equal, right? Anybody can grow up to be president and if you got six dollars and mule you can be a billionaire and any suggestion whatsoever that any of this isn’t true makes you a socialist.

I’d like to see programs that help poor and working class kids with ambition bridge the class chasm. Not everyone wants to climb the ladder, of course, and that’s fine. Do what makes you happy. But if you settle further down the socio-economic scale, it needs to be the result of an informed decision and conscious choice, not because of external factors working to keep the rabble in their place.


Guns, knives, pit bulls and the new Gallup poll

CATEGORY: GunsThis morning I walked past a man about my age, sixty, who was wearing camouflage and a fatigue-style cap. He had two Bowie knives on his belt and was walking a ferocious-looking pit bull that had to weigh eighty pounds.

My immediate thought was, “Who’s this guy and what’s he afraid of?”

Who knows? Maybe he’s got good reason to be afraid. Maybe he’s in witness protection and the Mafia just put his home address up on their Facebook page. Or he just started a Salman Rushdie fan club. Or he’s a disguised federal prosecutor from Texas.

But I doubt it. I suspect he’s an extreme example of a surprisingly large group of people who are paranoid, perhaps not in clinical psychological terms, but in a not-quite-right sort of way. He’s obviously afraid of something, and whatever it is might show up at any minute on a quiet residential street in a nice small town like Bloomington, Indiana.

I’ve spent much of my life around poor and poorly educated white people and have met many folks who remind me of this guy. I’ve had them proudly pull handguns out from under their car seats and when I asked why they needed guns in their cars, the generic answer is they want to be ready in case somebody “messes with them.”

Who are the somebodies that’re going to mess with them, I always wonder?

I’ve asked that, too.

Sometimes the answer is enemies of the U.S. It’s hard to see how Muslims, or Russians, or Mexican cartels are going to mount an attack in the U.S., especially in central Indiana, but it’s always possible I suppose. No doubt those Bowie knives will scare a Spetsnaz or mujahedeen with an AK-47 right back to whatever unpronounceable place they came from.

Sometimes the answer is the government. However, most of the paranoid people I know are right-wingers. If the government helicopters ever do come, it’s far more likely they will have Christian crosses on the side and be coming not for righties, but rather for lefties like me. The great victory of the Nixon Youth has proven not to be a successful ideology that won most Americans over to their way of thinking, but rather a concerted and successful plan to infiltrate and take over the U.S. military. Motto: If we can’t convince ‘em, we can still kill ‘em.

Sometimes it’s their neighbors who might mess with them. This isn’t so silly a fear. According to the FBI, there are over a million violent crimes per year in the U.S. That means on average, a citizen has a one in 300 chance of being assaulted, raped or murdered each year, which says that one in four people will be assaulted, raped or murdered in their lifetimes. Now, of course, most of the people being assaulted tend to be young minority men in urban areas, not college-educated white people who live in the suburbs. But the man with the pit bull didn’t look well-to-do, and it’s entirely possible he lives in one of those neighborhoods.

Sometimes it’s people of color who will invade their homes in the night. According to hot-off-the-shelf Gallup data, 43% of Americans own and keep a gun in the home (I’m one of them.) Of these, 67% own one for self-protection (I’m not one of them.) Obviously, there’s a real fear here. Perhaps In Cold Blood scared the shit out an entire generation. It’s hard to say how real the perceived home invasion threat is. There are no reliable statistics on how many occur each year. Violent home invasions are probably relatively rare. But they happen and they are horrible. When they do happen, it’s usually to the poor and vulnerable. My mother was the victim of a violent home invasion by a man of color.

So the guy with the knives could be afraid of lots of things. Mujahedeen. The government. Neighbors. Strangers that come in the night.

Or not. I suspect President Obama had it right back in 2008. What people like the man I saw walking his dog really have to fear is that the world is leaving them behind. They lack the skills and education to catch up. The world economy is messing with them, it ain’t gonna stop, and they should be afraid. They can’t easily buy cheap protection against economic trends, so they arm themselves in the ways they can. They cling to defenses they know against threats they don’t.

I once worked on a dredge in Louisiana, a mammoth crane on a barge that dug canals through the delta. The digging was done by what’s known as a clam bucket which hangs by thick wire ropes from a boom. The bucket had two inch thick steel walls and was eight feet tall and big enough to put a half-dozen men in.

One day the bucket took a big mouthful of dirt and water and snagged a muskrat. The small animal was caught by one leg, and it hung there suspended fifty feet in the air, frantically trying to push open the bucket with its other foot. Kenneth, the operator, opened the bucket and let it go. He laughed about it for weeks, the idea of a muskrat trying to outmuscle a giant machine. He’d mimic the muskrat, contorting his face and imitating the animal’s frantic efforts.

Of course, if you’re a muskrat, and some giant force from the sky suddenly grabs you in massive steel jaws, you have to bite and push, because that’s all you know to do.

If you’re poor, you buy knives and pit bulls.


ArtSunday: a poet says goodbye to poetry

CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSundayI wrote my first poem when I was a senior at Ledford High School in Wallburg, NC. It was called “Octoberfaust,” and while it wasn’t a terribly good poem, it wasn’t bad for a 17 year-old having his first crack at something brand new. My English teacher, a guy named Jim Booth, whom S&R readers may have heard of, was very encouraging, and a poet was born.

That was in the fall of 1978, which means I have been a poet for nearly 35 years – my entire adult life and then some. During that time I have written four books (none of which are published) containing roughly 119 poems, depending on how you count certain multi-parters. Some have been very short, some have been quite long. A few are fairly conventional, while some are radical in how they challenge our assumptions about form, purpose and content. They cover some predictable subject matter – love and loss, family, life and death, politics, art, literature, poetry – and some less expected topics, like the suite in my most recent book that plays with the hypothetical intersection between trickster tales, Zen spiritualism and quantum physics. They lionize those I revere and savage those I feel have done me wrong. (You know who you are.) Some look hard at the world around me, while many cast a frank eye on the fucked up emotional terrain inside my head.

I think I’m pretty good (although, as you’ll see shortly, this opinion is not unanimously held). The Butterfly Machine, completed last summer, is my masterpiece, such as it is, and the other three books all have something to commend them. A number of the poems have been published: some have appeared in traditional places that are highly regarded (like Cream City Review) or were before they closed their doors (New Virginia ReviewAmaranth Review, High Plains Literary ReviewPoet & Critic). Others have been pubbed (or are forthcoming) in the small, innovative new journals and anthologies (print and online) that I believe represent the future of poetry (like Dead MuleAmethyst ArsenicPemmicanPoetry PacificManifest West, and Uncanny Valley).

I have also been rejected. Boy howdy, have I been rejected. I’ve been blown off by the biggest journals in all of literature, and I’ve also been sent on my way by small, obscure outlets (and everything in between). I couldn’t really tell you what the ratio of rejections to acceptances has been, but a whole lot to not many. In sum, while I think I’m a great writer and have found a few editors who agree, we are a minority. And not an especially large one.

I’m incredibly proud of my publication credits and am grateful to the editors who saw the value in my writing. To each of them, and to all the friends and colleagues who have supported me along the way, I’d like to say a huge thanks. You have no idea what you have meant to me.

With that said, I’m here today to announce my retirement from poetry. I know, I know – about as many people care that I’m quitting as cared that I was writing to start with, which is to say not many. These are fantastic folks, but if you got them all together they wouldn’t fill up the banquet room at the Sizzler (although, granted, it might be a little crowded if you seated them in the corner booth at Denny’s).

Wait…I’m quitting poetry because I expected to be doing arena tours? No, no. You don’t get into poetry if you’re after a large readership. It’s a quality-over-quantity decision, and if you’re going to be good you have to answer to the call of a muse, not the demands of the audience. Poetry is art, not product, and while we all want as many people to read what we write and to grasp whatever wisdom and beauty is contained therein, as you start worrying about anything but the purest essence of the the whispered insight you will lose the edge that makes you worth reading. Put another way, you have to do what you do and hope people like it. You can’t do what you think people will like.

So no, this isn’t about mass fame, and it certainly isn’t about money. Nobody makes money as a poet. There aren’t any galleries where people walk in, sample your craft and buy a poem to hang on the wall over the fireplace. There aren’t any touring poetry companies that pack the house everywhere they go. Cirque du Poetry won’t be setting up a tent in your town, nor can you go see their tribute to Mary Oliver at the Venetian in Vegas. And while there are recordings of poets reading their work, I don’t think I’ve heard of one going platinum. If you hope to make a living at poetry, the best you can hope for is that you’re good enough to land a professorship in Creative Writing. If it’s tenure track at a major research university, publications will figure into your promotion. But your job is professor, not poet.

I became a poet fully understanding the rules, fully understanding that there would never come a day when I had a large audience or got rich. But I did do so with the hope, and perhaps even the expectation, that I could and would attain a measure of renown within the world of poetry itself. I might not become America’s most famous poet, I thought, but when those who knew and loved the genre talked about who they thought was really good, my name might come up. I would be accepted, if not routinely, then at least occasionally, by our most prestigious literary journals. I would be invited to read at literary festivals. My work would be taught in English surveys and seminars, and if you went to an academic conference – perhaps one like MLA – you might hear professors or doctoral candidates giving papers on my writing. And hopefully, the critical consensus would be that I changed the landscape a little, that I innovated, that I busted up the corrosive banality that has plagued poetry for the last 50 years or so.

This was my dream. This was the plan.

Of course, it never happened. I have bitched plenty about the entrenched poetry establishment (trust me, there is one) and about the prevailing stylistic tendencies that make reading the average elite journal about as compelling as watching mold creep across a slab of white bread. There are external targets galore if I want to blame others. But even if it’s all true, the inescapable fact is that most of the fault is mine. On a couple of occasions – including the moment when I was completing my MA in English/CW and should have been launching out after my first university teaching position – I let my frustration with the aforementioned establishment get the better of me. When I see stupidity – especially broad institutional stupidity – I sometimes have this tendency to say fuck it and walk away. There are other things I can do with my life.

Which is true, but said institutions don’t lament your leaving, even if they notice it, and they damned sure don’t wait for you to come crawling home like some dearly missed prodigal genius. When you decide later that you’re ready to give it another run, you realize that you’ve fallen behind another generation of people. Some are talented, and some are possessed of a near-pathological stick-to-it-iveness, which means that your chances of landing a job are even less than they were before.

Had I gotten past my frustrations, I would certainly have faced rejections and competition and an ongoing battle with the dominant aesthetics of the day, to say nothing of the routine pissant politics that come with working in academia. But these fights…I might well have won a few. Even at my current rejection rate I’d have several more pages of publications, and if it were something other than a hobby, I might have ten books instead of four, 1000 poems instead of 119, a prize or three, and even tenure. I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d be solvent and I’d have good benefits. Would I be happy? I don’t know. Hopefully. I might have met and fallen in love with someone who shared my passion for art and literature. I’d exist in an atmosphere of professional validation. I’d go to work every day in an environment where my art was appreciated, at least theoretically.

All of which is to say that I’m blaming no one but myself. My life and career have been the result of my decisions for the most part, and the hand I’m playing today is one I dealt.

I have been thinking for the last few months, ever since I finished The Butterfly Machine, that I may be done. Not only have I been having this conscious, rational debate with myself, but the book itself ended in a way that seemed to be trying to tell me something. It closed in a watershed, sort of, in a sense that a chapter was over and it was time for something new. Maybe that meant a new phase in my life was beginning, and that it would bring something new to write about. But over time, I have had less and less interest in writing poetry. And less and less conviction that I was ever going to feel differently.

Last summer I bought my first camera. I have long enjoyed the photography of others, and have also wished that I had some faculty for the visual arts. Sadly, I can’t draw a decent stick man. But you don’t have to be able to draw to shoot.

As it turns out, I have some great friends who are also photographers – very, very good ones – and they all encouraged me. They shared tips, answered questions, told me what I was doing right and wrong, and the result is that in less than ten months I have gotten to the point where … well, I’m not great by any stretch, but I’m better than most people who have been at it less than a year.

So far I’ve had one shot featured by Visit Colorado and several more by Visit Denver. The Visit Colorado shot (“Ed,” the horse pic that was also my first sale) got over 2,500 likes and almost 450 shares. I’m not sure that all of the poems I ever wrote have been read by 2,500 people combined, and I’d bet the farm that those who have read them haven’t shared them with their friends 450 times.

Earlier this month I actually sold three of my photos at First Friday. Three people paid money for my photography. That’s a mind-shattering thing to happen to a poet. Somebody walks in off the street and likes your art enough to fork over actual cash so they can take it home and hang it on their wall. I’ll be back in that same gallery for First Friday in May, and the other day a couple of my shots went up in a restaurant here in Denver (with several more going up in a different venue shortly).

The more I have learned about photography, the more I have shot, the more I have honed my technical skills, the less I have cared about poetry. The artist is still alive and kicking in me, but he’s moved on and taken up new tools of expression. He likes being recognized, being validated for his vision. He sees, maybe, an opportunity to have a measure of the personal and artistic reward in this new genre that he dreamed of, but never attained, in the other one.

And he’s keenly aware that every second he spends trying to make words behave in a way that moves a hypothetical reader is a second he can’t spend taking and processing an image that moves an actual viewer.

So this is it: goodbye, poetry. I have loved you deeply and faithfully for most of my life. At some point, though, I have to accept that you simply don’t love me back. Perhaps that’s mostly my fault, but in the end, we have grown apart and I see no path to reconciliation.

I wish you well. I hope you thrive and find others to take my place, people who will love you more even than I do. You deserve it.

I leave you with a poem, the one my last book ends with…

To Be Continued (Ars Poetica)

I expected more from the end of the world. But the
sun came up the following morning. A herd of
pronghorn loiters near Gunnison.
Castle Rock weathers timelessly.
Cars accelerate. Ghost towns
wither in the rearview.

Coyote says: the world ends
more than you realize.
Last Wednesday makes twice
I know of.

The apes we once were
shivered at the howling moon, wove
gods of war from their dread.
The apes we still are
spin plots from mud and iron,
vapor and deadwood,
swatches of tattooed skin.

Raven says: harbingers are shiny things,
strung with hair,
flecked with blood.

Fox says: narratives are either
rationalization or conspiracy.
Something happened. Then
something else happened.

The world ends
not with a bang,
not even a whimper, but
with ellipses…

… and a picture. I call it “The Persistence of Time.”


“To Be Continued (Ars Poetica)” originally appeared in Pemmican in June, 2011 and this past fall was anthologized in Manifest West: Eccentricities of Geography.