Sunday, February 28, 2016

A First Lady President

There is something wrong with the United States. Now, please don't get me wrong. I like this country. I have lived here for a while and I have to say, super to you, U.S.A. You have done right by me in general. But that doesn't mean that I can ignore some harsh truths about this place. And, no, this doesn't mean that I need to up and leave. I can point out problems and still think that this is a pretty awesome country.

The problem I have noted recently has to do with politics. I am NOT speaking about Donald Trump. While I might, at some point, develop some sort of opinion worthy of hinting to, that's not what I am getting at here. In fact, I am not even talking specifically about Hillary Clinton. Ms. Clinton, no doubt an avid reader of this blog, will be disappointed when she realizes that my screed does not speak to her particular candidacy. However, it does relate to an element of the upcoming election.

A bunch of years ago, a politician ran for the president and when he was elected, everyone pointed out that he was the "first African American president of the U.S.A." This, apparently, was a good thing. I shan't comment on that other than to segue into Ms. Clinton's potential nomination. Were she to win the general election, she would be "the first female president of the U.S.A." and we will all be able to pat ourselves on the back at our progressive nature. The year will be 2016. America will be about 240 years old.

A side note -- I have voted my personal conscience in every election in which I have voted. I (try to) ignore race, color, gender, religion etc, and vote based on the position a candidate takes on issues near and dear to my heart. What I am getting at, therefore, should not be construed as an advocating for any candidate. I am simply looking to point something out.

So, 240 years and maybe we will have a woman president. We've come a long way, baby. But then I look at the world. I am reminded that we, as a nation, would be catching up to slightly younger countries like India and Israel which came into being in 1948 and have both had female leaders. OK, maybe we are too set into a traditional mode and, while younger countries can have female leaders, we can't because of our heritage. You know, like England. The country with the queen. And the female prime minister. Maybe we are more like Germany, whence much of our language developed. Angela Merkel. I did a little checking and found a couple of lists:

The fact is, while we would like to blame some western European patriarchal system, there is no good explanation as to why there hasn't been a woman head of the U.S.A., other than our own, home grown bias! We didn't inherit it as a birthright tied to our religious past, or our political genesis.

Note -- I am NOT saying that we should now have a woman president. I am saying that our political machine has perpetuated a skewed system so thoroughly that we still see it as amazing that we COULD have a female president. We aren't in a post-bias world if when we elect someone who happens to be a woman, we see it as amazing that the leader of our country happens to be from a group which represents 50% of our population. Gender shouldn't be a thing to speak of, let alone a reason to (or not to) vote for a candidate. Stephen Colbert had it right when he (under the guise of his character, similarly named) claimed that he "does not see race." If we are still seeing race and gender, and pointing out how we are electing candidates despite gender or race issues, then we are being driven by the same antiquated thought process.

We are just now barely catching up to the rest of the world (well, there are places where a woman will never get elected but do we really want to ally ourselves with systems which thrive on that repression?). We should stop congratulating ourselves on our forward thinking, refuse to bemoan our sordid history, and start focusing on the things a candidate says and does, and that's it. Then we will have presidents with all sorts of characteristics attached, but we will finally understand that we shouldn't care.

America has a problem. We are so focused on the ways in which we are "getting better" that we refuse to admit that reveling in improvement is part of what makes us sick.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

It is real, and OK to be bad at math

One of the joys of parenthood is spending time with the child. Unfortunately, sometimes that time is tainted with math. Tonight was a night like that.

I just spent an hour trying to work through 10th grade algebra with my younger daughter. The wife also sat in and tried to make heads or tails of it. It seems, that despite our combined degrees and years in school, we cannot figure out how old Bart was 7 years ago, or what size rectangle we will be left with if we subtract 11 from the longer side.

If this was an isolated event then I might be able to walk away from it. But as it stands, I had enough trouble sleeping last night, knowing I was going to bed without resolving the mystery of which race was longer based on time and rate if something or other was equal to some fraction of the first race on a Friday in July. I tossed and turned because somewhere, someone went on two hikes and can't turn to me to figure out how fast he walked if he completed his 17th lap in France.

I could sit here all night and complain about math but that's not what I am here to do -- mostly because I want to get to sleep by about 2AM, but partially because I think that complaining isn't the way to go here. So I shift modes from parent-who-cannot-solve-for-x straight through parent-who-has-never-had-to-solve-for-x-and-thinks-learning-how-is-useless and on to professional-educator-who-is-developing-complex-schema-to-explain-difficulty-with-any-subject.

I find writing clearly to be pretty easy (my blog posts notwithstanding). I also find reading poetry and understanding it to be a fun activity. I can also do crossword puzzles, unscramble words and memorize useless trivia. I can't remember people's names but I have an eye for detail. I have noted in the past that what makes teaching so hard is that the experts in a particular field are often those to whom the skills come easily, even naturally. So those people find it hardest to break the processes down and explain them -- the skills seem so intuitive that the teacher can't understand what or how anyone else could find them difficult, and therefore can't teach them effectively. There is, it seems, something hard-wired in some people that makes the grasping of math and the ability to assimilate new mathematical concepts easier (or in my case, impossible). "Math people" and "not math people" really do exist as discrete and definable groups.

All I have heard growing up has been "you can do this -- you just need to be taught the right way." Honestly, I (as a professional educator) think this is simply not true. I really believe that some skills are beyond the ken of a particular student. No matter how often and in what way you try to explain to me "selling short" or "derivatives markets", I will not ever get it. Some things, things I can picture myself doing, need almost no formal teaching. I recall the first time I got behind the wheel of a car and started driving. My instructor asked if I had ever driven before. I told him I hadn't but that it all seemed natural. Same with playing squash. From the first moment I played in college, I felt that I knew what to do. Some people would say that I can train myself through repetition, but I think that there is a limit -- an amount one can gain and hold on to.

In college, I took a music composition class. I recall struggling at the piano to figure out what notes I was playing. By the time I did that and wrote them down, I had to try and decipher the notes I had just written. I couldn't remember what to to play -- everything looked alien to me, like I had to start all over again. When I looked at the math, the same thing kept happening. Every time I wrote out a step, by the time I looked back on it, it was as if someone else had written it -- it made no sense to me and I had to start deciphering all over again. Imagine trying to do this on a timed assessment; it isn't a matter of not understanding, but of not being able to do the steps and keep track of the thought process. That just isn't my skill set, nor that of my child.

My second is very bright. She can remember things I can't, understand things I can't, do things I can't. But she, as I, has limitations, and I think it is OK to admit that. Is a compulsory class in algebra really useful if it demands a thought process which is alien? Would it make sense to demand that every "math person" take an art class because with the "right teacher" anyone can draw well? Should I be telling every "chemistry person" to write a sonnet because "anyone can do it under timed conditions with enough practice"? I think that that is a waste.

It is time we reduced high school curriculum to address the particular skills and levels which are truly essential. My child can solve a simple equation for X. She can decode straightforward word problems. She has a handle on the basic mathematical operations. Maybe, algebra and beyond are simply not essential and should be left for those who, when they see a problem, can envision what to do and do it well. And, no, I do not say this as buttressed by the "we have computers" argument. I am not advocating that we stop teaching subjects because there are devices that can solve our problems for us, but because, on a deeper level, there are differences in our brains and some skills are not relevant -- the reward of gaining them, if that is even possible, is outweighed by the energy expended trying to get there.

Being no good at a particular subject is a real thing. It can and should be said that someone is "not a math person." We can't lay this off at the feet of "didn't try hard enough" or "bad teacher." Sure, those variables can affect success at some level, but there is a significant truth which goes beyond. Part of growing is a self-realization, a coming to terms with those things that click and those that don't.

I am in my mid to late forties. I know how to read and can look at an algebra problem with a critical eye. I know a whole bunch of mathematical techniques. But when I try them and start to hyperventilate because, try as I might, nothing seems to be working, nothing quite makes sense, and nothing falls into place no matter what I do, I should take the hint and say "I will leave this to someone who cries when he has to explain what a preposition is."

So to my daughter, I apologize. I am sorry I gave you whatever genetic marker is tagged for "math deficiency." You got lovely hair, a killer sense of humor, dance moves, and a love of biology. But this inability is real and we should stop assuming that everyone is the same and can succeed in a standardized set of ways. Math deficiency is as problematic and as valid as a language learning disability, or a student's difficulty with spelling -- both of which have paperwork and accommodations mandated for them by law.

And kid, you should not feel bad about yourself for this difference.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Just a Random Rant. Move Along.

Adulthood is not what I expected. I guess I should have known this, based on this incredible song, but I didn't want to believe it.

When I was a boy, I watched with envy as my parents started every morning off with a cup of coffee and a slice of Entenmann's cake. I often asked if I could do the same and I was told, you can eat what you want when you are a grown up.

No. No I can't. Forget allergies, I have to watch everything I eat because if it doesn't simply make me fat(ter) and sluggish(er) it makes me feel horrible, or is going to kill me in some insidious way. And now I find that as I age, my taste buds have become dulled -- sure this is great because I can now eat spicy food, but it means that reg'lar ol' food just doesn't have the same impact. Strike one against adulthood.

As a youngster I resisted naps. In college, I ran towards them because they made it possible to stay up all night. Now, I wish I had them, just because they help me make it through the day. Strike 2 against adulthood.

And speaking of sleep, as a boy, I constantly wanted to stay up late. I was convinced that there was some incredible event which took place after 9:30 and I wanted in, dangblastit. Then I had kids. Yay, kids. I guess I hadn't remembered that all 6 month old children DO get to stay up late, and that the only exciting thing that happens at 1AM is that someone has to change a baby's diaper. And for the last 5 or so years, heck, maybe more...I can't tell, I have been going to sleep well before my kids. I remember when my dad started doing this and I'm not saying word one against the practice, or my dad, but I'm finally at the point when no one can tell me my bed time and by 9PM I am thinking, "well, I could just get into bed right now..." Adulthood, that's 1 out.

Driving a car. How glamorous. "I can't wait to be an adult, so I can drive." What a fool I was. Sure, driving represents freedom, if by freedom you mean traffic, insurance, gas, maintenance, the DMV, running errands and chauffeuring children around. I'm not complaining, except that I'm complaining.

R-Rated movies? At around the same age that I started celebrating being able to go to R-Rated movies, I began to realize that most of them are simply not interesting to me, or even very good. The stuff that made the movie rated R was not generally what I wanted to watch or hear.

Going out in general in the evenings was a real goal. I wanted to grow up so I could go anywhere I wanted, whenever. The fantasy of simply driving to the airport, presenting a credit card and saying "1 ticket on the next train out" and having them say "this is an airport...there are no trains here" so I can respond "ok then, a bottle of your finest champagne." We would go back and forth until I finally drove home -- but the idea that I COULD go anywhere whenever I wanted was very enticing. Reality? No. Obligations to the world preclude spur of the moment social life, and those of you who know me understand that, given the choice, I would never leave my home. I'm cheap, boring and usually cold. Hurray adulthood.

I should have been, by now, able to buy whatever car I wanted, but that's a lie. Forget affordability, there is value in the sensible. So being an adult has become an exercise in weighing pros and cons, and considering budget and other implications. I mean, thanks mom and dad of teaching me that stuff, but why didn't you warn me that using it was going to be so incessant, and depressing?

Don't get me wrong: I love being an adult in whatever sense I am an adult (I didn't know adults still sit cross-legged on the floor in front of the television watching dumb reruns, or that adults still laugh at the word "poop") but I was expecting something a lot different. Sure, I knew there would be bills, but I figured that adults just "pay" them and they go away. THEY KEEP COMING BACK! I could do nothing but sit in my house for 30 days, eating delicious, cold (non-existent) low-carb cereal and almond milk, and the bills would still come. And work? What is that all about? Adults on television have jobs but they don't seem to struggle or feel tired all the time. Isn't that what I was supposed to be growing up into? All the television teachers have 6 minute classes and no accountability. That's what I signed up for.

Promises were made.

I wanted to run free and I'm too achy to run. I wanted to vote and there is no one I want to vote for. I wanted to par-tay. But I hate par-tays. I wanted to think Andy Rooney was wrong and that may be the most depressing part. He's not. We aren't old curmudgeons, we are aging realists.

I have said before and I will say it again.

Get off my lawn.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Of Uncle Jeff

There are many ways in which we are defined as a people. The choice of how we present ourselves to the outside world is an important factor in our own self conception. Historically, we have suffered -- of this there is no question. In fact, one of the famous jokes about Judaism is that many of our holidays can be reduced to "they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat." We could paint ourselves through the lens of such challenges. We could be the people of exile and extermination. We could say that our identity rests on oppression and sadness. We could see the entire world as a series of tests and struggles. We wouldn't be wrong, but we also wouldn't be bringing anything to our experience. In a similar way, we could see ourselves as simple celebrants. God, in his majesty, has saved us and we, merely his pawns, rejoice at our good fortune. Our holidays are markers of victories and the world exists for us to dominate.

But we don't do that. We don't see our world as resting on our past, for good or for bad. We don't view the entirety of existence, ourselves and all around us as the collective ups and downs which brought us to where we are now. In fact, in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of The Fathers, two visions are presented for how the world stands:

Shimon the Righteous in statement 2 says that the world depends on
1. Torah
2. The Service of God
3. Kind deeds

In statement 18, Shimon the son of Gamliel lists three things through which the world endures
1. Justice
2. Truth
3. Peace

The world exists not through our collective memories of all we have endured -- not through the virtue of our suffering, or even by dint of our miraculous survival. The world exists because of the positive actions and traits which we aspire to every day.

My Uncle Jeff Cooper passed away recently. He was a Shimon (Shimon ben Moshe) of great wisdom and he gave me a new list of three things through which his world continued to exist:
1. Joy
2. Caring
3. Learning

Dr. Cooper was a man of uncommon joy and happiness. He had had his share of sadness in his life. He endured loss and pain and used it as a catalyst to celebrate existence. He danced with abandon, he celebrated every waking moment. His smile lit up more than a room -- it pierced the hearts of everyone in the room. When he was there, you wanted to be happy and somehow you tapped into the river of pure celebration. Even when he was serious, he made the case that being somber and intense was just one way of ensuring future opportunities for joy. A lecture now will allow you to be more successful and happy later.

Uncle Jeff was a man who belonged to everyone. I married into the family -- but not even really his family. He was my wife's uncle, related to me only by the slimmest of margins and loosest of definitions. But he was my Uncle Jeff anyway and my tears for him are not for someone I knew in passing, but for a great man who worked hard to be a part of my life. After hearing from others, I know that he became more than a doctor, a friend or a resource for everyone. He was a father to the world, shared by his family so that everyone else could benefit. He shared his joy with me, but he also expressed a concern or me and for my world that set him apart. When I had medical questions, I became his priority. When he visited and asked after my kids, my parents, my brother, my sister and their kids -- he did so with a sincerity of interest. He wasn't simply making rote small talk or going through the motions; he truly wanted to know how people were and stay updated and involved in their exploits. An endlessly empathetic listener, he cared about how other people were doing and when he spoke to you, you were the only person in the room because he invested all his boundless energy into understanding you.

And Uncle Jeff loved to learn. He had questions and opinions and he shared them. He investigated and studied (people, places and things). He wanted to grasp not just life, but knowledge, and shake from it all he could. And once he learned, he wanted to give it back to everyone. My lifestyle was not his but he never put up a wall. He saw our time together and our conversations as a chance to broaden his own horizons and understand what was important to me. Holiday dinners and family get togethers were full of Uncle Jeff's curiosity -- everything from the meaning of ritual to the recipes for the evening's dishes. He spoke with my children as if they were his own grandchildren, keeping track of their lives, asking about their schools and hobbies and making them feel like he was hanging on every word as he listened with rapt attention to each detail.

So I will not define Jeff's life by either the sadness he endured or the wonderful milestones he celebrated. I will carry his lessons inside myself and try to live up to what he established as the pillars upon which the world exists. I will try to keep that flame of joy as part of who I am every day. I will work to be involved in my world and make every person's experience as important to me as my own. And I will ask in the spirit in which he asked, driven by a fascination with the world and inspired by a need to know more. If I can follow this new Ethic of this Father, this Shimon, then I do more than honor a memory; I bring him back and share him with everyone I encounter, keeping him alive so another generation can benefit from what he taught.

Tehei Nishmato Tzrura Bitzror Hachaim, “May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.”