Afterwards – Forward to the collection from The Cogitator

Afterwards – Forward to the collection from The Cogitator

I’m increasingly aware that the 2008 hijacking of trillions of pension dollars, the stonewalling tea party Congress, the election of 2016, the abandonment of the Paris Accords, Charlottesville, mass shootings, police shootings, imminent environmental chaos, protection of sexual predators, and the steady erosion of the rule of law, decency, and compassion had pretty much knocked the whimsy out of me.

I went back to pieces I had written before the Trump ascendency and quite liked the voice I found there.  I’d written the sorts of bouncy, occasionally silly short essays that had amused me throughout my reading life.  On the off-chance that they might amuse a small cohort of like-minded readers looking for something to pick up on the way to the bathroom, I decided to snare what I saw as the best, or most palatable, of the bunch and pop them into a collection entitled Afterwards.  The title is cryptic enough to fool attract the unwary while acknowledging this later, post-retirement, chapter as the cauldron in which this bouillabaisse was steeped.   I’ll be proofing and reconfiguring then dropping text on my pals at Kindle Direct Publishing.

Here’s the actual foreword –

Afterwards.  After Words.

I wanted to call this collection Bertha and the Blueberry Country Club for Cats, a reference to one of the essays in this collection, a whimsical description of a fragment of conversation overheard, a silly piece, one that amused me in the writing of it, and an excellent example of the frivol I chose not to escape.  I suspect a cat themed book would be far more successful than the obscure musings of an obscure writer, but as I have been untroubled by success thus far, why mess around with it now?

The Impractical Cogitator pays tribute to the extraordinary compendium of short essays by the world’s most cogent thinkers and writer, The Practical Cogitator, edited by Davis and Greenslet.  Any scattered shards of wisdom that show up in my work land with little authority and even less consistency.

“Entertaining ideas without the slightest concern for their efficacy.”

The plan was that I would entertain the ideas, turn them loose, and let them land as they might.  As are all aspiring writers, I had been told to write about what I know, which turned out to be a very limited horizon of opportunity, so I decided to write what I like, and I like self-deprecating, rambling, slightly goofy armchair observation of the universe’s merry march toward whatever comes next.

I am aware that the audience for that sort of reflection is small at best and that my brand may not suit every (any) taste, but what the heck; what’s at risk beyond the shards of remaining dignity in self-publishing this collection?  I can give copies away as gifts, scatter them around waiting rooms in doctor’s offices, leave them on the bookcases of various bed and breakfast inns, and keep a supply in the car in case I get caught in a snowstorm and need both reading matter and insulation.

So, without further chatter, you are invited to see what happened afterwards.


Red State, Blue State, Who Shot Who State?

Red State, Blue State, Who Shot Who State?

The United States of America is more violent than three-quarters of established nation states.  If we still had a functioning Department of State, we would be cautioned against visiting … us.

This is insane.

I started to write about gun violence, mass shootings, the hideous parade of innocents slaughtered by madmen, but what is there left to say?

Are we crazier than other nations?  It’s hard to tell because so many guns, and by guns I mean weapons of mass extinction, are so widely literally at hand that the same number of chaotically disordered people, and by people I mean men, might be ravaging yoga studios and school yards in Canada.

But I don’t think so.

The culture itself is deranged, spinning out clinically psychotic fringe-dwellers so frequently that we have nothing left to say about rage filled murder on the grand scale.

And when we do have something to say about the insanity around us, the pushback is immediate and unrelenting. The NRA has rebuked the American College of Physicians for calling for gun control measures in response to what they see as a public health crisis.

The NRA tweeted,“Someone should tell self-important anti gun doctors to stay in their lane.”  The someone in this case is the NRA, passively but entirely aggressively, telling doctors to shut up about guns.

The physicians went way over the line, apparently, in suggesting that those carrying out domestic violence might not be permitted to own guns, that background checks be extended to all sales of guns, and that we might consider legislation banning 3-D printed guns.  Dr. Esther Choo puts it simply, “We are not anti-gun; we are anti-bullet holes in our patients.”  Doctors who described themselves as “gut punched” by the NRA have responded with #ThisIsMyLane, and are increasingly frustrated by the NRA’s relentless opposition to research on gun violence.

I am particularly struck by the tone of the NRA tweet; it’s snarky, mean-spirited, and dismissive, and it’s not from a single disgruntled passive aggressive knowledge phobic yahoo; the message comes from a non-profit organization which presents itself as, “Freedom’s Safest Place” and which holds gun safety as a cardinal virtue.

Just as we have waffled our way to the brink of irreversible climate disaster, we’re teetering on the edge of even greater violence as hate crimes increase exponentially and the wide-spread availability of terrifyingly powerful weaponry is more common.

We have a crisis right now.  The reaction to the call for open discussion from the Trump wing of the Republican Party , however, is extreme and divisive.  There is a reactionary scoreboard somewhere that counts every barbed insult, every dismissive act of graceless bullying, as a kind of triumph.  Fake news wins by calling honest reporting fake news.  We are living in a schoolyard dominated by bullies whose mode of expression is often, “…is not!” or “that’s stupid”.

In the course of the last eighteen months, topics calling for measured, moderate, inclusive discussion on virtually all difficult issues facing a polarized nation have been “weaponized”.  Fires in California have been weaponized, health care has been weaponized, climate change weaponized, vetting of Supreme Court Justices has been weaponized, reporting of the news has been weaponized, the MeToo movement weaponized, Black Lives Matter weaponized, school shootings weaponized, opposition to Nazis has been weaponized, immigration weaponized, global cooperation weaponized, Participation in NATO has been weaponized, the Women’s March, NAFTA, the media, Facebook, Google, CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Justice Department, the State Department, Amazon, the cast of Hamilton, the NFL, Huffington Post, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, James Comey, and, of course, anything having to do with Barack Obama has been weaponized.

Points on the scoreboard.

Meanwhile, there are millions of guns out there, some of which will be used in domestic violence, some by children, some by madmen.  We can’t get them back, and the slightest intimation that more stringent gun laws might be in the offing is guaranteed to boost the sales of guns and ammo.

We have a problem.

Other nations know violence, of course; the cartels kill, maniacal dictators kill, contending armies in war zones kill.  The United States is not the most dangerous nation in the world.  Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan are the three most dangerous, followed by the usual constellation of beleaguered states – Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Colombia, Venezuela..  There are forty-one nations that experience violent death more frequently than the United States.  The U.S. is nestled between Myanmar and Armenia, these three followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, China, Brazil, Rwanda, Uganda, and Jordan and the other one hundred and twenty nations less likely to present its citizens a violent death.

Let’s just consider that fact.

The United States of America is more violent than three-quarters of established nation states.  If we still had a functioning Department of State, we would be cautioned against visiting … us.















Blue Ribbon for Coldest Nose and other lessons in teaching

Blue Ribbon for Coldest Nose and other lessons in teaching

I’d been teaching for about five years, knew it all, and had generally buffaloed my way through my first three jobs, blissfully unaware of my self-satisfied hubris.  I’d left the doctoral program in Education at the University of Massachusetts – what did they have to teach me about teaching? – and had finished grading exams and brilliantly describing the deficiencies of my students in the end-of-year comments.  The summer was mine to do with as I pleased, so I had nowhere to hide when my son’s preschool asked me to be a judge at the annual pet fair.

The pet fair was a very big deal.  The school was in the northwest corner of Connecticut, leafy farmland and forest in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains, an enclave rife with artists, musicians, and actors; activities such as this felt improvised, but the energy and talent that fueled the enterprise reminded me that we were only an hour-and-a-half from New York City.

I was ready to start studying breed standards when the school’s director called us together and reminded us that every entry would be given a blue ribbon; it was up to us to find the attribute that distinguished each entrant.  On the day of the fair, the other judges phoned in their excuses.  One had a call back for a Broadway show, the other was filming in Athens.  I had a pressing engagement at the Bradley’s in Winsted, so …

I stood next to a table piled high with blue ribbons, each with a white square left blank within which I was to write the appropriate categorical victory.  I had a black marking pen and no plan of action.  Kids arrived with rabbits, ducks, two ponies, hamsters, cats, a goat, parrots, dolls, goldfish, stuffed animals, and a very wide assortment of dogs.

The idea had been that they’d circle before the panel of judges, giving us time to confer and establish the critical parameters of our judgment.  No other judges on duty,  virtually none of the pets were interested in circling, and fully two-thirds were not capable of organized movement of any kind.  Now,  left to my own devices, I had to come up with Plans B through Z and start dishing out ribbons before kids and pets mutinied in the heat of an uncommonly sweaty afternoon in June.

Desperation breeds invention.  I picked up the marker and went from “pet” to “pet”, tossing superlatives like confetti.  Drool soaked Raggedy Ann doll – Most Loved Cloth Doll,  timid bunny – Wriggliest Nose, massive and massively clunky Great Dane – Most Impressive Ears, panting cat with matted fur – Most Expressive Breather, Hamster hiding inside a paper cup – Most Successfully Reclusive.

By the end of the afternoon, I’d handed out a boxload of ribbons and exhausted my powers of invention, but I’d also discovered something about myself that I had been too glibly sure of myself to recognize.  I was the teacher I had been because I had been taught by the teachers I had known, all of whom were really good at identifying what I couldn’t do well.

Maybe their language was different in responding to better, more motivated students; my academic reports pretty much sounded the same from fifth grade on, regardless of subject.  I was never surprised by their assessments;  I knew I wasn’t good at the skills I was expected to master.  I wasn’t good at them in fifth grade, and I wasn’t any more proficient by the end of the twelfth grade.  On one hand, points for consistency.  On the other, years without improvement spoke volumes about all of us, assuming that this enterprise had been a shared adventure.

But it had not been, and in recognizing that there had not been mutuality at any point along the way, I resolved to become at least as inventive and responsive a teacher as I had been a pet fair judge.  If I’d been able to see something distinctive in every pet.  If I’d been able to identify what they offered rather than what they lacked, it seemed I should be able to begin my work with each student by actually seeing them, without rushing to judgment.  I was lucky in that I also coached a sport every afternoon, and in coaching figured out how to design practices that aimed at the development of particular skills, development that began with an understanding of each player/student’s strengths.  It doesn’t do a player much good to hear a coach say, “Hey, you didn’t hit that ball.”  Pretty much understood without the comment and not much new information available should a player hope to improve.

I started actually teaching that fall, when the challenge for me in the work we did together was not about my acuity in describing deficiency but in my willingness to try everything from Plan B and beyond in order to connect each individual’s gifts to the appropriate next set of skills to be mastered.  A few years later I got involved with teaching the 4MAT method to teachers, explaining when I could that it might be helpful to imagine that there are at least four significant and significantly different ways in which students approach learning.  I won’t go into the 4MAT idea in detail, but I’ll pass on two of the examples I used to attempt to convince teachers that not all students learn the way we were taught by teachers who pretty much learned the way their teachers taught them, recognizing that, with some exceptions (me), most teachers are people who liked school and did well there.

I’d ask what sort of person they’d like to have running their school.  The choices?

An attentive, friendly Principal who clearly cares about you as a teacher and as a person and who connects with you on  a personal level.  Or … a highly competent professional whose education and previously held positions clearly indicate a superior level of preparation and whose first objective is the presentation of well-organized information about the teaching of your subject.  Or … a problem solving, practical and well organized hands-on expert on the financial and technical support of schools and teachers who makes sure that you have an effective place in which to teach.  Or … a creative, energetic, charismatic innovator, eager to embrace change and  supportive of new ideas, willing to shake things up just to get rid of the cobwebs.

Each of the options is good; some are better than others for some people.

Similarly, let’s imagine that history had coughed up four presidential options that roughly parallel our hypothetical Principals.

Taking a short detour to Mt. Rushmore, for example, we find Abe Lincoln, eminently human and humane, gifted in crafting personal connection, empathic, compassionate, an extraordinarily good listener, accessible despite his stature and elevated position in society.  Thomas Jefferson has his place as well, a scientist, architect, man of letters, founder of the University of Virginia, author of the Declaration of Independence, pretty much the ultimate brainiac.  There’s practical George Washington, an engineer, surveyor, military tactician, man of action and successful businessman, competent, steady, responsible, not given to flights of fancy.  Finally, we find the surprising fourth, Teddy Roosevelt, sometime biologist, occasional cowboy, pugnacious pugilist, conservationist, crusading politician, unpredictable, charismatic, energetic, and unapologetic.

Once again, very different, each very right for the job in a very different way.

It’s pretty much the same for each of us as learners.  Some of us need connection, need to know how the skill we’re attempting to learn connects with what we see as important – why we are learning.  Some of us need as much information as we can grab from the most authoritative source and need to know what we’re likely to be tested on – what we need to know.  Some of us need to get our hands dirty and work things out for ourselves, taking the darned computer apart – how things actually work in the real world. Some of us need stimulation, variety, change, and the opportunity to get creative – what if we looked at the entire subject differently.

Coldest nose.  Fuzziest tail.  Most artistically arranged spots.

I never wrote student comments the same way again.  Sometimes all a confused teacher needs is an incredibly muggy June afternoon and a five-year old holding a shoe box containing a whistling guinea pig completely hidden in wood shavings.  No problem – Best Original Song Composed in Wood Chips.















students are my age; we’re all in the same happy boat.

Tired of the Mean Girl White House

Tired of the Mean Girl White House

The midterm elections are a few days away, and the President of the United States’ rhetoric is once again irresponsible, self-serving, incendiary, and dangerous.  The stakes are high this time around, presenting those who oppose the President and the party apparatus that he has dragooned into his sycophantic cult of personality with the now familiar dilemma – liberals don’t, can’t, use the methods of manipulation, disparagement, falsity, and fear that have been weaponized in order to satisfy what we now call Trump’s base.  The President lies, fact checkers expose the lies, but the only ones following the fact checkers are those who already knew he lied.  The President encourages a nation to believe that the true enemy of freedom is a wicked Press, determined to bring the nation into chaos and ruin.  Those of us who read the journals attempting to report the actual news have a perspective that those who hear only the President’s voice do not.

It struck me this morning that what we have here is the familiar mean girl/queen bee drama writ large.  The mean girl bullies, backbites, spreads rumors, ostracizes, calls names, and spreads shame.  The mean girl rules by intimidation; she understands that others can feel insignificant, insecure, in danger of humiliation and abandonment, and she knows that their distress is the source of her power. The queen bee may not be the most attractive, or athletic, or intelligent, but she is canny, reading people quickly, spotting their weakness, and exploiting their fears to her purposes.  Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t hurt to have obvious advantages that others might covet.  The rich girl has an easier time controlling the hive; she has resources others cannot mobilize, and who doesn’t want to have a little star power rub off by association?

The mean girl’s greatest advantage, however, is the capacity to exercise unspeakable cruelty when needed, even when not needed.  It is the capacity for meanness that is the ultimate source of power.  The mean girl will do what others will not, and that capacity is the source of mixed fear and admiration among the quasi-mean who harbor nasty thoughts about those who seem more advantaged than they but who have been held back in expressing their contempt and anger.  With each perfectly placed unforgivable act of cruelty, however, hangers-on become empowered to imitate bad behavior.

After all, they have the most powerful agent in their setting to protect them.

Furthermore, it quickly becomes clear that for the mean girl, those who are not with the queen are against the queen; there are no bystanders in the mean girl universe.  Small shows of kindness threaten the mean girl’s reign; mere demonstration of nastiness appeases the queen until large bouts of unpleasantness is required.

The mean girl withers when out of the limelight; she has to be the center of attention, and in creating endless drama creates a virtual entertainment vortex swallowing helpless hangers-on.  Their predominant and welcome emotion is outrage, rage that has to find an outlet, a victim.  Mean girls demand loyalty and give none; they poison every setting in which they operate.  Finally the mean girl will do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Nothing is out-of-bounds.

In the movies, the good kid, the outsider, the brave kid is willing to stand up to the mean girl, calling her bluff.  It’s not enough in the fictional sphere to simply oppose meanness; the heroine has to possess some quality, attribute, or talent that is so socially powerful that it dispels the mean girl’s allure.

In other words, that rarely happens in the real world.

It did happen in  1954 as Senator Joseph McCarthy, that decade’s demagogue and slanderer, used smear tactics to destroy the lives and careers of those who stood in his way, implying that members of Congress, the Army, and the entertainment industry were in the pay of  the Communist Party.  The Dean of Harvard Law School described McCarthy as “judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one”.  As the heated Army McCarthy hearings devolved into yet another barrage of unsubstantiated charges of treason, McCarthy attached the Army’s lead attorney Joseph Welsh’s staff, accusing them of ties to the Communist Party.

McCarthy sat in silence for a moment, then replied, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Have you no sense of decency?”

And the spell was broken.

That was then.

It takes nothing to see that the mean girl in the White House is both cruel and reckless.  Decency?  Seems like a long shot.  I’d like to believe that boorish misogyny, bigotry, and lack of integrity would serve to arouse the same outrage now.  It seems a long shot.

There is another movie version of this story, however.  High School reunion twenty years out.  Blowsy cheerleader mean girl, her best years very much behind her, stands in shock as former weird girl has blossomed into a mature beauty, now adored by all.

Mean girls can generate drama, but are unlikely to generate much of anything else.  It comes down now to jobs, health care, and national security.  The only hope may be that self-interest is compelling enough to put this mean girl in his place.