Friday, October 31, 2008

Road to the White House or Trail of Tears

As of Friday October 31, 2008 there are 80 days left in the presidency of George W. Bush. Judging from his approval ratings there will not be many tears shed as he totes his last box of personal effects out of the Oval Office. Do you think ex-presidents swipe towels? I would at least make off with some office supplies.
We are less than a week away from the official Election Day deciding who goes into that office after him. Do you think a new president sits at the desk and spins around in the chair laughing maniacally only stopping long enough to pick up the phone and pretend to authorize an air strike on the home of the sixth grade teacher who told him he would never amount to anything as long as he had that attitude?
These candidates have been running longer than Frank Shorter ever dreamed possible. Think about it. Sen. Obama officially announced 633 days before Election Day and Sen. McCain officially announced 558 days ahead. In that time frame a woman could have conceived, carried to full term and given birth to a child, twice.
Here’s a fun story problem. Usain Bolt takes a magic potion (not steroids) which makes it possible for him to run as fast as he does in the 100m dash continuously. If you figure he can run a mile in about two and half minutes and he started running when Sen. Obama announced his candidacy how many times could he have run the entire equatorial circumference of the Earth? This is even better than the train questions in those college entrance exams.
The question which truly comes to my mind is “Why?” Why would anyone want to put themselves through running for president? I would almost rather run the circumference of the equator, in ill-fitting army boots. At least when you run around the planet the likelihood of being interviewed by Sean Hannity is not very great.
The press has to be the worst aspect of the whole thing. Originally the word “press” was used in regards to the media because of the printing press. Now “press” must refer to a different definition of the word: to use a steady and significant force to put weight on something. No matter which guy you are voting for you have to feel sorry for them both as they are asked question after question by everyone from Larry King to the Live at Five reporter who has the same knowledge of international affairs and current tax laws as does your average sock puppet.
I could never run for president. The first time some hatchet man from the opposing party started saying I did something I never did I would give a news conference which would make Peter Finch’s character from the movie Network look like Mahatma Gandhi.
For years I have said the people who really ought to be president will never run because they are too smart to put up with all the (place your own word to describe animal solid waste here) which surrounds the process. One of the reasons I say this is because of a different George W. I knew.
George W. Pyle was a city manager for over 30 years. A city manager is a non-elected person whose task it is to serve the public. There are probably a few readers out there who remember him in Hutchinson. I knew him pretty well. He was my dad.
He took the public trust very seriously and he worked tirelessly to do what was right for the people in his community. He came from a background which included the sacrifices made during The Depression and World War II, and the call to arms of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”
I know who he would vote for. He would vote for the candidate who was most likely to ask the country to work together for the good of everybody, most particularly the least of us. He would vote for someone who wasn’t afraid of asking for sacrifice even if it meant a little hardship now in order to ensure prosperity later. He would vote for someone who possessed intellectual curiosity, valued ideas and was looking for the opinion of others. Most importantly, he would vote and then he would do his best to make his part of the world a better place no matter who won.

I believe the answer to the Usain Bolt story problem is 46.

Friday, October 24, 2008

To Uni-Hemisphere Sleep, Perchance to Dream

For thousands of years various cultures have done many different things to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. Some are simple ceremonies and others cause many different parts of my body to tighten and my stomach to get queasy just having them described. I am very grateful the culture in Hutchinson, Kansas circa 1975, as I entered adolescence, did not require ritualistic scarification to be considered an adult; otherwise I would be a bearded, pot-bellied, gray-haired eighth grader still today.
As is often the case with the human race it seems to me this “now you are a man” stuff has been made more complicated than it needs to be. As a father of three and a former child myself I can easily point to the moment when children cross the line into maturity. It is when they start to sleep, voluntarily.
I fully realize toddlers cannot spell but they seem to think “nap” is a four letter word. The energy expended every day in this country by parents trying to cajole, beg, trick, force, and coax kids to just lie down and go to sleep far surpasses anything T. Boone Pickens ever dreamed of. If we could harness that domestic renewable resource the chant would go from “drill, baby, drill” to “naptime, baby, naptime”.
Recently I learned a bunch about sleep, a subject very dear to my heart. Every animal does it, but there are big differences in how. The reason for the various methods used by different animals in order to get sleep is simple, death. One scientist stated it is dangerous to sleep and if natural selection could have gotten rid of it it would have.
Think about it. You are a happy little mallard blithely napping on the shore of a happy little pond. When a happy (and hungry) little fox, who is very much awake, comes strolling by. Suddenly the happy duck is a happy meal without the toy.
Well, I learned mallards can sleep with one eye open. They actually rest one half of their brain at a time. Each eye is connected to the opposite hemisphere in the brain so the duck places itself in a group with other sleepy ducks. Some ducks watch one direction and different ducks watch the other way. This gives one half of the brain a right good snooze. Then they switch sides and the other half sleeps.
Another one of the many animals who does this “uni-hemisphere” sleeping is the dolphin. These animals live under water a good deal of the time. They also need to breathe air. They also need to sleep. Because of all of these factors a dolphin cannot go into complete sleep. They have to keep one half of their brain going at all times or they would drown.
Truthfully, I had never considered the fact that dolphins are conscious breathers. Unlike us they have to make a distinct decision to breathe. It requires thought. The obvious joke would be to say it is a good thing there aren’t any blonde dolphins, but luckily I would never make the obvious joke.
Smarter than me scientist guys explained that man can sleep with both eyes shut and truly go unconscious to the world around them because we do not have the predation risk most animals have. This started a long time ago when we would go into caves and hide from saber toothed tigers and continues today when we go into condos and hide from predacious sub-prime mortgage lenders.
This uni-hemisphere sleeping intrigues me. I love sleeping. I never get as much as I would like to get. Yet everything I do does not require my full attention. If I could sleep like a dolphin I would love to. There are meetings I have attended that I could easily grasp the content with one cranial hemisphere tied behind my back.
One last tidbit about sleep. It appears sleep is integral to learning. No, I am not suggesting kids sleep in class, even though I had a couple of social studies teachers who seemed to be trying to induce unconsciousness. As we sleep the brain gets “washed”. All the clutter from the day’s activities, important and trivial, is eroded. This leaves the ones which were most prominent still standing and the others all but unnoticeable.
Therefore the special maneuver you learned while playing Mortal Combat XXIX: The Revenge of the Torn Spleen for five hours remains fully remembered and the thirty minute discussion in school about Gandhi is washed away like crumbs off a plate. Wait a minute, that can’t be good.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

It's Not What You Know It's When You Know

I may have mentioned this before, but I am surrounded by people who do not understand me. The previous statement was not made due to angst ridden self-absorption like a morose teenager. I truly mean they do not understand me.
My place of work houses over 500 people who were born fifteen years after I graduated from high school. Age has caught up to me in many ways. The waist measurement will never be 32 inches again. My hair is getting lighter in color and in weight. My knee twinges when the barometric pressure fluctuates. But, the times I feel the oldest are when I make references to things I think everybody will understand and they look at me like I just spoke in the language of the aboriginal inhabitants of Outer Mongolia.
Years ago I was teaching a sixth grade class. A kid in the back row was tapping his pencil on his desk, incessantly. I was able to ignore it for a while, but it finally got to me. Instead of racing to his desk taking the pencil from his hand and breaking it into tiny pieces, which is what I wanted to do, I stayed professional. I calmly put my hand on his shoulder and asked him to stop doing his Ringo Starr impression. I received that speaking Mongolian stare. Neither he nor anyone else in the class knew who Ringo Starr was so my statement made as much sense as asking him to carefully insert a lobster into each nostril.
I recently learned there is a phrase other than the over used “generation gap” to point out the different worlds in which different age groups live. It is called a “mindset”. This makes sense because the mindset people have is dictated by the world they know. There is a website published by Beloit College in Wisconsin which makes lists of things pertaining to students who would be graduating in the years 2002 to 2012. It makes for interesting reading.
Technology is the starkest difference between the generations. This is discussed at the website, but I am reminded of another instance I came across as a teacher. This was many years ago. We were doing a fire safety lesson with fourth graders and in order to make it more physical we had the students do actions for the different things one should do in case of a fire. They would actually stop, drop and roll. They would crawl a short distance to show them how they should move in a smoky house. Then we had them run a short distance (as in getting to a neighbor’s house). The last thing was to pretend to call 9-1-1.
This was downright funny. The kids would be in a lather as they did all the physical activities and then they would come sprinting up to the phone we had sitting on a chair for them to make their emergency phone call. They would grasp the receiver and their pointer finger would be poised over the dial. The dial?! They had no idea how to “dial” a phone. They had only seen buttons. There was that Mongolian look again.
Stop and think about the most memorable things in your lifetime, the cultural things, not just your first date with that hot girl from algebra class. Kids going into college this past fall do not have the same collective unconscious we had. They can’t discuss where they were when Kennedy was shot, when Reagan was shot, or even when J.R. was shot. For them the argument has always been Mac versus PC, not Ford versus Chevy. A text is a group of letters on a tiny screen not the book you have to read for history class. These people have no idea why whenever there is a controversy in the world we tack on the suffix “-gate”.
Personally, I look to one very particular aspect of my life that my children will not experience. It is not earth-shattering, deeply philosophical or something that will be discussed by historians in the 22nd century, but I think it is representative of how the world has changed. They do not get to watch Johnny Carson each night.
The persona of Carson showed kindness, intelligence and humor. These traits are not played up nearly enough in the mass media of today. There is more interest in Simon Cowell, political knife fights (still only figurative and verbal, but it could turn literal very easily), and jokes about human effluvia. The mindset has changed.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Being Articulate and Stuff

I like to learn things. Let me put a qualifier on that. I like to learn some things. Learning how to properly eviscerate a large woodland creature for the sake of crawling into the fresh cavity in order to avoid freezing to death on the frozen tundra of an area of the world from which one can see Russia, is of no interest. Learning how to use such phrases as “properly eviscerate” and “frozen tundra” in the same sentence is. Now, if I could only learn how to add the phrase “a touch of whimsy” to the same sentence I would feel truly fulfilled.
Education was highly valued in my family. This did not mean my folks fussed about grades or cracked a whip as we did homework. My mother did try to help me. The difficulty for my mother was not the work. It was the attention level of her pupil, who could often be found playing with the honey filled bear left on the kitchen table while she slaved over quadratic equations. She learned algebra. I learned if you squeeze the bear just right the little plastic stopper can reach gravitational escape velocity.
Since the job which allows me to pay my mortgage is in education I probably shouldn’t say this, but maybe I can get some of that bailout money if I get fired. My father used to say school was ancillary to education. The very fact that he used the word “ancillary”, properly, in a sentence reinforces the fact that smart was important to him. I think he meant school is important for getting a good education, but if you only actively try to learn within the confines of those ubiquitous blond brick buildings you will not be a fully educated person.
Learning new words has always been a pursuit of mine, in and out of school. I like finding words which really express something in a very precise way. The French have term for this. I think it is “c’est la guerre”. Nope, that’s wrong. Maybe, “pate de foie gras”? That’s not it. I need just the proper word, the perfect fit, le mot juste. Oh, well, I guess I’m not going to remember.
People who try to throw words around in order to put lipstick on a pig (sorry couldn’t resist) bug me. The other day I was at a meeting and there was a whole set of things we were to do. One of them was to write down our thoughts on a “tuning protocol”. I found out that was a piece of paper divided into categories. After that we were to spend some time on “silent reflection”. Back in my day we simply called it “thinking”.
I learned a new word earlier this week reading the New York Times online. This electronic newspaper has the coolest feature. If you’re reading an article and you come across a word you do not know (which is to be expected while reading the big city left-wing elitest press) you can simply double click on the word and a screen pops up with a dictionary entry giving the pronunciation and definition of the word. If only those Green Lantern comics I read in my youth did that. The word I learned was “lacuna”.
Lacuna means an empty space or a missing part. The word was used to describe a certain politician’s gap in knowledge. Now you may ask of what use is it to know this word? Well, it was immediately obvious to me how I could use it. I could write the William F. Buckley version of a song from a Disney movie. It would be all about the voluminous empty spaces where intelligence should lie in the world of politics. A song telling the story of no WMDs, a missing Osama Bin Laden, and politicians who seem surprised that CEOs of big corporations could be greedy. I would call the song “Lacuna Matata”. No smarts, no worries.
It just doesn’t seem the general population values intellect. The word intellectual is used as an epithet. The dictionary in my computer says the word means: having a highly developed ability to think, reason, and understand. Call me crazy, but that sounds like something to aspire towards. But, no, intellectuals are thought of as pocket protector geeks only good for programming your TiVo, working on particle colliders in Switzerland, and being an expert witness in the trial of the cool guy in class who embezzled millions of dollars to maintain his trophy wife and jet setting lifestyle.