Friday, September 23, 2016

Almost Halfway (in sha'allah)

I am on my way to Seattle, where I will rent a car and drive to Bellingham, WA to run the Bellingham Bay Half Marathon. The registration was a Christmas gift from Erica. This is the third race she has gotten me for Christmas. The others were in two of the most beautiful places in the American West. One was Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and the other was Bryce Canyon, Utah. Both were stunning.

I am a bit superstitious about some things, so I am almost afraid to start writing about this weekend’s race before I have run it.  I have always been superstitious in this particular way—I fear that assuming a particular thing will happen--and then stating that assumption out loud--somehow calls the Universe’s attention to my stupid human hubris and makes it far more likely that the Universe will take pains to prove me wrong.

When I was 21 and moved to Yemen I found an entire nation that had my same superstition. Only, theirs was part of their religion and came out in the phrase in sha’allah.  I was teaching English in Yemen and if I said to my students “You will have a test next Tuesday” they would quietly append the words “in sha’allah.”
If I said to my landlord Mohammed “I will live here in your apartment next year, too” he would say “in sha’allah.”

It means “if Allah wills” and it is meant as a reminder that everything is in the hands of someone or something else. To state something with certainty is seen as sacrilege.

Given all of this, I feel compelled to qualify the things I will write here about this weekend’s race. Indulge me?

So, IF my plane makes it to Seattle on time and IF my rental car gets me safely to Bellingham, and IF I actually complete the race Sunday morning, that will make 25 states I will have run a half marathon in. It will mean I am halfway to my goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states.

You know what?  This already feels like I am tempting fate. I was about to write a whole bunch more about some of my favorite memories from some of the past races and about some of the things running has taught me. But I just can’t do it.

IF all goes well, I will write more on Sunday as I take the red-eye home, in sha’allah.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Electoral Fraud

Donald Trump has recently brought up the threat of electoral fraud leading to his defeat in November’s election. His repeated comments are interpreted by many in the fact-based world in several ways:
  •     He is trying to scare his supporters into turning out on Election Day to cast their votes for him.
  •     He knows he will lose and he is making excuses in advance.
  •   He is sending a signal to his followers that they should refuse to accept the results of November’s vote and instead participate in some sort of revolt.

I think there is a likelier true fourth explanation: he believes what he is saying.

Donald Trump is not a person who has spent much time studying the deeper currents of electoral politics in the United States. He has a notoriously short attention span and shockingly thin skin. If the current polls are an accurate reflection of voter preference, it is an existential threat to Donald Trump’s dreadfully under-developed self. To keep his hyper-exaggerated ego inflated, Trump must dismiss the polls as wrong or crooked.

The same is true for the vote totals in November. If he losses in November, it can only mean one thing---the totals are fraudulent and the Presidency has been stolen.

To people out here in Factland, the idea of massive electoral fraud at a national scale is unsupported by ANY evidence.

But to Donald Trump the idea that he might not be liked by voters is equally unsupported by ANY evidence.

Three or four or five times a week he is the star attraction at rallies with thousands of enraptured supporters who cheer his every word. It is clear to him that The People love him. What he does not get is that people love him, but The People do not. He believes only what he sees and feels rather than what is happening away from his tiny, tightly controlled universe.

He is just like Kim Jong-un in that over time he has surrounded himself only with people who tell him how beloved he is, how great, how amazing, how revolutionary, how huge! Other voices with other opinions have a hard time making their way in. When an occasional alternative view makes it to Mr. Trump’s ears, he immediately and reflexively dismisses the source as somehow hateful or biased.

He believes his own good press and dismisses everything else as wrong. Of course he would say that electoral fraud would be the only way he could lose in November. At his center, Donald Trump is a small person who has never learned to think or feel outside of his own under-developed intellect and over-indulged id. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Timed Tests are Stupid

I have a friend who thinks that one of the main criteria of intelligence is knowing lots of facts. This same friend believes that another defining characteristic of intelligence is speed. This friend thinks that I am somewhat smart. I read a lot (and widely) so there are a lot of facts stored away in my head. I also have fairly fast recall, though not as fast as it was when I was younger.

On the surface, my friend’s picture of intelligence makes sense. It is certainly one that correlates highly with good grades in school. If possessed in sufficient quantities, factual knowledge and ready access to those facts make standardized tests relatively easy.

I like taking tests. Especially standardized tests. I always have. I find them pretty easy and I LOVE the added element of a severe time limit. I do well under pressure and usually score pretty high. As a 50-year old, I have very few opportunities in my life to take standardized tests any more. So instead I get my ego stroked by playing trivia games and doing timed crossword puzzles on the New York Times’ website. I am not proud to admit that I do these things, because I know that deep down they really do serve just one purpose—to make me feel good about myself.

As a product of schools that graded based on timed recall of facts, I used to believe that intelligence was a thing you could measure in just exactly that way—gauge how many facts a person knew and how quickly they could recall them. But once I became a teacher, I saw how utterly wrong, and even destructive, this view of intelligence is for so many kids.

If I develop a pain in my abdomen that won’t go away, that seems to move around a bit, that doesn’t respond to antacids, that wakes me up in the night, and seems worse after I eat dairy products, eventually I will go to a doctor. And once I describe my symptoms to the doctor, if she is flummoxed and no obvious diagnosis comes to her right away the LAST thing I want her to do is to take a guess.

If my car starts to run a little rough, (especially in the rain), and it makes a knocking sound when it idles below 1500 RPMs, and it has a bit of trouble accelerating up hills, I will take it to a mechanic. If, after hearing the list of symptoms, the mechanic cannot say exactly what is wrong I do not want her to just replace the fuel injectors.

In both cases I want the expert to do some digging. I want them to research my symptoms and ask follow up questions and to take it out for a test drive—(the car, not my abdomen). I want them to slowly and methodically isolate the problem and then help me fix it.

The factors that make a doctor or an auto mechanic good are careful listening, a deep pool of basic knowledge and experience with bodies and cars, a network of colleagues to consult with, excellent research skills, an ability to focus, an ability to think critically, and a reservoir of patience.

These are the very same skills we should be developing in students. Notice that high among these skills is a deep pool of basic knowledge. We should absolutely be teaching facts. Memorizing multiplication tables, state capitals, planets, the periodic table, countries of the world, and all sorts of other facts is a good thing and should not be tossed aside in favor of teaching critical thinking.  But this sort of list-based learning should be seen for what it is—a necessary preliminary step and NOT the true measure of intelligence.

I have been thinking a lot about timed tests recently. My daughter is a sophomore in high school and she has tests all the time. Most of the tests are given in a 45-minute class period with no time later to finish what you did not get to or to check over your work. Is this really a good way to test what people know? If you really want to find out what students know, wouldn’t you give them enough time to let them show you what they know rather than increasing their anxiety and making it more likely they will make mistakes?

Seems pretty basic, doesn’t it? Yet timed tests are still the most common way teachers and states evaluate what students have learned. As someone with many years of classroom teaching experience, I get it. Schools are organizations built on structure and predictability.

Put bluntly, schools need to move hundreds or even thousands of kids through their day with maximum predictability and minimum friction. In most high schools, the master schedule is driven by the size of the cafeteria—how many kids can eat lunch 4th period? 5th period? 6th period? If school systems really valued student learning as the top priority, class schedules would look very different, as would tests.

When I go to the doctor or the mechanic I do not give them a 43 minute time limit to correctly diagnose the problem. Then why do we add the unnecessary element of time to our evaluations of what kids have learned?

If I am in a car crash and trapped behind the wheel with a collapsed lung, I want the rescue crew to get me out of there as fast as possible. But reading a passage and answering comprehension questions is not a life and death situation. Why do we treat it like it is? Working through a complex geometry problem involving the quadratic equation quickly will never save someone’s life—so why do teachers and schools continue to use timed tests to find out what kids know?

It is a well-known truism among teachers that what you test on should reflect what you value. In a twisted way, our utter over-reliance on timed tests bears this out. As a society we value speed and busy-ness. We do not seem to value quiet reflection or the student who says “let me think my way through this.”

I understand that all of this is really just a reflection of the deeper problem of education in America. We still don’t agree on what schools are for. Are they a great democratizing place where our kids go and all of them learn facts, but also learn how to find, process, consolidate, evaluate, and synthesize information in order to be citizens who can participate fully in our democracy? Or are they the place we send kids to train them for whatever entry-level jobs will demand of them? Do we want our schools to help our kids come to their own well-founded, well-considered conclusions or do we want them to be able to produce a lot of factual information quickly?

You value what you test.

Monday, June 6, 2016

GOP Primary Voters---You're Fired!

There are some Republicans who believe that John McCain and Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama because they were not conservative enough. This group of GOP voters pinned all of their hopes on Ted Cruz this time around. Without harping on Cruz or his fans, let me just say that we all saw how that turned out.

I disagree strongly with the above-mentioned conservatives’ analysis of the elections of 2008 and 2012. McCain and Romney did not lose because they were not conservative enough. McCain lost because he showed godawful judgment in wanting to place Sarah Palin one old-man-heartbeat away from the nuclear launch codes. He also lost because Americans were sick and tired of George Bush and wanted a change. Mitt Romney lost because he was simply not likable, though he could never get himself to this conclusion.

Heading into this year’s long primary season I was a bit concerned. You see, I am a latte-drinking, quinoa eating, NPR listening, NY Times reading, climate change believing liberal and I know how rarely a two-term president is followed by someone from the same party. I figured the Democrats would nominate Hillary Clinton and I knew she had very high negatives.

I saw the Republicans had a few candidates who were somewhat likeable. They had Jeb Bush. They had Marco Rubio. They had John Kasich. It seemed like even odds to me that the Republicans would win the White House. It was certainly within their grasp.

GOP primary voters had just one job to do and the Presidency of the United States of America could be theirs. All they had to do was nominate someone less unlikeable than Hillary Clinton. That's it. That is all they had to do. One thing. One job…and they chose Donald Trump.

Republican voters---you’re fired.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

All That You Have is Your Soul

I heard an old Tracy Chapman song a few days ago. It’s a song I have always loved for its simple message and heartfelt delivery. It could have been cheesy, but instead its simple beauty hits me like a slap to the face every time I hear it. Line after line of truth, followed by the repeated deeper truth of “all that you have is your soul.”

Just before I heard the song, I had heard a report on the local public radio station about a bill in New York that, if passed, would make New York the sixth state in the nation to allow terminally ill patients to end their own lives by taking a prescribed dose of lethal medicine. The reporter interviewed supporters and opponents of the bill and allowed each a few sentences to explain their positions.

If that reporter were to have asked me my opinion of the bill, I would have said New York State should adopt the bill immediately. For my reason I would simply sing the refrain from Tracy Chapman’s song: All that you have is your soul.

It is easy to go long stretches without considering the fact that you yourself will one day die. As a child the idea is so remote and unlikely as to be almost impossible to truly consider. At some point, someone close dies and if we are old enough when that happens for the first time, we can’t help but come around to the thought that one day we will also be dead. But then, if you are like most people, you shove that thought aside and get on with life.

Which is the right thing to do. Living in fear of death as a young person is unnatural.

But then you hit middle age. Maybe a friend dies young and you go to the funeral. Your own inevitable death looms a bit larger, but still you put those thoughts aside. You have work to do, a life to lead. Your own death might become something you start to plan for a bit—you write a will, you look into insurance—but still it is more hypothetical than immediate.

Maybe while lying in bed one night you broach the subject with your spouse. You talk a bit about your wishes—burial or cremation? Big memorial service or small gathering of close friends and family? Heroic measures or pull the plug? But again, you quickly make a light joke of it by calling dibs on getting to go first.  Then you change the subject before turning out the light.

And then a parent dies. It knocks you flat. One, because your mother or father is gone forever. And two, (if you are honest) because your own unavoidable end rises up in front of you in a way you cannot deny. There will come a day when you will no longer be. And your children, if you have any, will feel as lost as you do in the aftermath. As far as we can tell, humans are the only species whose members carry with them an awareness of their own impending death.

Which means we also have the opportunity to plan ahead for our own death.  Of course, many of us die in a way that does not allow for much planning. We have a heart attack; we have an accident; we have a stroke. But a fair number of people die of diseases that kill slowly and painfully over time.  It is precisely circumstances like these that allow for us to have conversations with people we love about our exact wishes. People lie in bed in the dark side by side and say things like “If I ever get to the point where I am being kept alive by machines, I want you to pull the plug.”

And states throughout the country have recognized the power of these spoken wishes time and again.  If we are beyond the help of modern medicine with no signs of conscious mental function and no likelihood of ever coming back to consciousness, our loved ones can ask that our wishes be honored and we be allowed to die.

But what if we are not that far gone? What if, instead, we have a fatal disease and we are taking inevitable steps toward our own death, but we are still conscious and able to feel pain? In five states you would have the option of asking a physician to help you die. In 45 states, you would be told the choice to live or die is not yours—it is the state’s.

And this is where I come back to Tracy Chapman and “All That You Have is Your Soul.” I believe that when you are born there is one thing you own and that is your own self. It can be easy to believe we own many other things as we grow up, fall in love, get jobs, have children, and accumulate people and things. The house we live in, the car we drive, the partner we marry, the children we have----all of these can come to feel like they are ours. But really, they are not. These things come and they go and in the end there is nothing you can do to stop them.

In the end, the only thing that is yours is your own soul. And if you are at the point where medical science is useless and you are tired of constant pain and the indignity of being unable to feed yourself or wash yourself or even get yourself to the toilet and you decide you are ready to die, you should be able to ask a doctor to prescribe you a lethal dose of medicine so you can have one least measure of control over your own life.

The Medical Aid in Dying Act was introduced in the New York State Legislature this week to provide for this very control.  I will write to my state legislators right away to let them know I support this bill. In the end, whose life is it? Mine? Or New York States?