Friday, June 24, 2016

Fear And Sadness

I know a lot of folks who have sworn off talking about politics, but I'm not one of them. I understand that it's uncomfortable for some people, and I spent years walking on eggshells myself, but then I realized that if I don't talk about politics then I'm leaving the field for those who do, and I wasn't always happy with how that was going. Indeed, that's how our system of self-governance is designed to work: we the people discussing public matters amongst ourselves, every day, over back fences, in line at the grocery store, and at the dinner table. Sometimes we're trying to persuade one another, for sure, but ideally we're also listening, because these people are our friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. If we disagree it's probably because there is something fundamental about that person we don't understand and without understanding how can we ever hope to come to agreements, which is ultimately the lifeblood of any community that is of, by, and for the people.

I know I'm an idealist. I also realize that what makes so many people uncomfortable about discussing politics and policies today is there is simply so much attack-dog vitriol out there, especially on the internet where anonymity gives people cover to say things they wouldn't say to their friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. There's a burn-it-all-down tone to too much of the discourse, too much anger, too much focus on winning rather than understanding, and this is exactly why I'm so committed to staying in the fray. In the interest of "being the change" I hope that I can be an example of how to have these discussions without the name-calling, threats, and or a win-at-all-costs endgame, and I have a few friends from the other side of the political fence, people I've known a long time, who feel the same way.

Our primary discussion venue is Facebook and while I'm not going to say it doesn't sometimes get heated, and we rarely persuade one another, if we go on long enough, keeping our friendship at the center of the discussion, we often surprise ourselves by finding common ground. But more importantly, I think, even when all we do it disagree, is that I always walk away with a better understanding of why this or that friend sees the world the way he does.

For the past several days, a few of us have been engaged in a long and tangled debate over law enforcement's "profiling" of people of the Muslim faith. This particular friend is not a Donald Trump supporter and thinks his specific immigration policies are unworkable and dangerous, but he does agree that there is something intrinsic in the Islamic faith that makes its adherents more prone to violence than people of other faiths. I come from the opposite point of view, finding the practice of religious or racial profiling to be anti-democratic bigotry, often evoking Benjamin Franklin in my defense: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." It's a topic in which one can't avoid the hottest buttons of religion and guns, but we somehow found ourselves ending yesterday on the following exchange:

Me: No you shouldn't fear atheists, or Christians, or Muslims. You should fear mentally ill people getting their hands on guns.

Him: I fear drunk drivers more than gun owners . . . sane or insane.

Me: And apparently mentally ill people with guns, but only if you think they're Muslim.

Him: My attitude about the gun issue probably mirrors your apathy and sense of much ado about nothing towards Islamic jihadists.

Me: When I see a regular citizen carrying a gun, it does frighten me . . . I have no way of knowing if he's a good guy or a bad guy; if he's a responsible gun owner or an irresponsible one; if he's a savior or a terrorist. Are you telling me that's the way you feel when you see someone who might be a Muslim?

Him: Tom, I honestly don't recall the last time I saw some average Joe walking around with a gun on his hip but I remember the last hajib I saw or the last Middle Eastern guy I looked twice at the last time I was flying. I get where you are coming from but I don't share your fear as I am sure you don't share by belief that the odds of you being killed by a radical Islamist are improving . . .

Me: Thanks for that explanation. It's been confusing me.

Yes, I still consider his point-of-view to be one that is steeped in bigotry, but in it's way, my own fear of every armed man is a form of bigotry as well. And bigotry, I've found, is only grown in the soil of fear or sadness. When I read these sorts of debates amongst strangers, I tend to want to pick sides, as I'm sure many of you are after reading this exchange, but when it's between friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues, it's much easier to see that we're actually still on the same side, but just happen to disagree. Ultimately, what we were discussing in this exchange were our fears. We can never forget that this is what fuels our political disagreements: fear and sadness. The anger we're all trying to duck by avoiding political discussions is just the secondary emotion that we evoke to protect us from feeling afraid or sad. If we are going to get anywhere, however, these are the real things that need to be talked about.

Now let me share with you the greatest truth of all about fear and sadness. This is the reason that we have so much trouble finding common ground and it's why we must never lose sight of every individual's humanity as we engage in this project of self-governance:

The difference between my fear and sadness and yours is that mine make sense.

It's true for me and it's true for you. That's why it's so hard and it's also why it's so important: the only way to overcome our fear and sadness is through the other people. And for me, that's what must ultimately lie at the heart of our experiment in democracy. This is what we spend our time doing with the children at Woodland Park. And maybe it's what we should all spend our time doing if we really seek a better world.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sympathy, Empathy, Love, And God

Sympathy is when you pity a man carrying a heavy burden.

Empathy is when you feel his burden in your own back and legs.

Love is when you help him carry it.

And God is Love.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Bag Full Of Laughs

When we were kids, my brother had a cool toy called "A Bag Full of Laughs." It was indeed a bag and inside of it was a speaker the size of a fist. If you squeezed the bag in such a way that you depressed the button, the bag would issue several seconds of a man laughing uproariously. It was quite a popular toy in its day and was even considered "educational" by virtue of it being electronic. It was from this toy that I learned to change batteries.

One Christmas I received an electric football game. The idea was to arrange your teams of 11 little posed plastic players on the metal surface of the field, then when all was ready you flicked the switch and the game would vibrate, causing the players to move about in a random manner until the ball carrier was "tackled" by coming into contact with an opposing player. There was about a 50-50 chance that your team would move the proper direction on any given play, but then we figured out that if we carefully arranged the little plastic bits on the bottom of the players, we could have some influence on their direction, especially if we used our fingers to gently vibrate the field rather than rely on the motor.

Did you know that if you type the number 07734 into a pocket calculator, then flip it upside down, those little square numbers read "hELLO?" We learned to spell all kinds of words on our calculators, some of them naughty, like 8008." (Remember, the numbers were all made of straight lines.)

This was considered state-of-the-art technology at various points during the 1960's. Dad, who drove a blue car with fins that we called The Batmobile, used to bring home stacks of cards printed with numbers, some of which were punched out. He explained that this was how they told the computer at his office, the one that took up a whole room, what to do. We would use the discarded cards for making arts and crafts. By the 70's he bought our family the first commercially available video game system called Odyssey which essentially made little square lights show up on your television screen. If you wanted graphics, the system came with a collection of thin plastic sheets that adhered to the screen with static electricity and then you could move your little square lights around behind them. We grew quite skilled at the Odyssey version of Pong which had no "walls" off which your "ball" could bounce, but instead allowed players to control the ball's motion with a little dial. A couple years later, Dad brought home an Apple II, which took up an entire tabletop.

Sometimes we felt like we were living in the future, but we weren't. I'm not sure if my parents really bought into the "educational" angle for the electronic toys, but most of the specific skills we learned -- changing batteries, arranging little plastic bits, writing words on calculators, sticking plastic sheets to TV screens -- were either useless in the actual future or were skills we could have just as easily acquired in other ways.

Today, there are charlatans pushing the idea of more, more, more when it comes to classroom technology. School districts are spending billions on continuously upgrading their screen-based devices at a time when budgets are shrinking and teachers are fleeing the profession for greener pastures. I keep hearing that this or that "innovation" will revolutionize how we teach this or that, but no one has ever shown me a single thing worth learning, at least in the early years, that isn't already being taught as effectively (and usually far more effectively) using the methods that have been around since the days of Socrates. No, that rational doesn't hold water: the push for classroom technology is just a sales pitch from technology companies trying to sell their technology. It's a classic grift.

But still, they insist, even so, the kids are going to at least need those "technology skills" for their future. The argument in a nutshell, as one self-described "radical unschooler" puts it on a meme that has been circulating in my corner of the internet:

Technology is here to stay. So why would I choose to keep my kids illiterate in a language they may need in the future? A half an hour a day does not give kids time to explore the landscape.

Indeed, technology is here to stay. That's because it has been with us since we first started fashioning tools from stones. And I'm here to tell you that the technological gadgets we use to today are emphatically not the language of the future. They are not a language at all, but rather tools, and children already know how to use them without any special help from us. Yes, there is a technology gap between the middle class and the poor, something we should address in a targeted way perhaps, but for most children in our society, there is no need to make special allowances or to provide special instructions, any more than they need special instructions in walking or talking because one of the defining characteristics of human beings is that we are tool users. When tools are available, we learn to use them. If tools aren't available for what we need to do, we make them. Of course, some of it will translate into the future, but any adult who claims to know what the future holds, especially with regards to technology, is running a scam.

You see, the future does not belong to us. It belongs to the kids who will create it. Sure, they'll learn some transferable skills from monkeying around with today's technology, just as I learned to change batteries on my brother's "A Bag Full of Laughs," but when it comes to the future, it's always our children who lead us. Technology is part of the landscape of the present, just as are rocks and sticks and fire and hills and balls and cardboard boxes. Technology is the tool of today, but if it doesn't allow us to better perform the work of mankind, which is to figure out how to get along with one another, then it will rapidly become a tool of the past. 

There is no special place in our world for tools that no longer serve us, except as collectors items or as prompts for nostalgia. Screen-based technology (which is what most people are talking about when they're talking about technology) is a tool that may or may not be here to stay. It's a tool of today. Our children will invent the tools of tomorrow, but if the only current tools they've been allowed to explore are screens, then they will be the ones who struggle to adapt to what's next. 

It's important to learn how to use all of our tools. Every tool we learn to use opens up the world a little more, making it bigger, giving us more agency, allowing us to glimpse a little more of the great truths about life. But when someone tries to raise one tool over another in the name of the mythological things we call "the future," it's a grift worthy of a bag full of laughs.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

I See Heartbreak In Their Future

Your own happiness doesn't necessarily teach you what you want to know.  ~The Who

Some time ago, I pissed off one of our parents at the school when I wasn't particularly fast in responding to some unsavory behavior by a group of kids. They weren't actually hurting anyone, but the optics, and the fact that the behavior is certain to emotionally hurt someone in the future if allowed to continue, made it troublesome. Her own child, although currently unaware of it, was the "victim" in this game and I wasn't immediately acting to stop it, which, understandably, made her mad. 

This is a hard part about being a cooperative preschool. I wasn't thinking about the fact that this was her child, but rather standing back until I was sure I understood what was going on. I would have been mad at me too, I reckon, but I needed a few minutes to process what I was observing, to make sure my response was appropriate. I do it wrong more often when I don't take a moment to think.

She asked me, urgently, "Why don't you teach them how to act?" by which I think she meant for me to step in and make it stop, then to, perhaps find a way to explain to the kids what was so wrong about what they were doing. The problem is that none of the kids thought anything was wrong -- they were all just having fun, including her child. I know what to do when someone is upset, when someone wants the game to stop, but this . . .

It reminded me of a time when I was a cooperative parent. Another father and I were watching some kids play when one of our fellow parent-teachers stepped in and "fixed" the problem. It was like a sitcom moment when she then left the scene, leaving us momentarily speechless as we looked from the kids to one another, before bursting out in laughter, "What just happened?"

I now understand that this other parent saw, or thought she saw, something coming; a conflict or rudeness or whatever that would, if allowed to continue, have emotionally hurt someone, and stepped in to prevent it.

If a child is about to run into traffic, we step in to prevent it. If a child is going to jump off the roof of the garage, we step in to prevent it. If a child raises a long stick with the apparent intention of bringing it down on someone else's head, we step in to prevent it. But what about when we believe we see hurt feelings in the future, do we automatically step in to prevent it? Or do we let the feelings get hurt before stepping in, the way we might with a minor physical injuries, as a way for children to learn through natural consequences?

I know how the pissed off mother felt about it: this was her child, currently distracted by other things, and totally unaware of the potential heartbreak in his future. Of course she wanted me to help her protect him. I get that. At the same time, there were all these other kids, who were completely unaware that they were on verge of breaking someone's heart. Indeed, they thought they were having a ton of fun pretending to menace a "victim" who did not know he was a victim. If I stepped in to "fix" the problem, wouldn't they be left like the two of us cooperative fathers: "What just happened?"

This was an outdoor "game" that involved lots of running. I wanted to be physically close so that I was in position to act the moment someone showed any sign of being upset. Then I would know what to do: interrupt them by saying, "You look scared," or "He said 'stop'," or "He's crying" or whatever informative statement I could make that would cause all the children to pause and think. I tracked the game like this for several minutes, waiting for my opening, my heart sick from seeing a "victim" who did not know he was a victim, his mother, justifiably worried, following me. This was hard for me and harder for her.

Finally, I broke, and asked her son a question, "Are you having fun playing this game?"

Everyone stopped for a moment. He answered, "Yes, I'm hunting for diamonds," a response that let me know for sure that he had no idea what the other kids were doing. He thought they were all running with him, following him, when in fact they were chasing him.

I turned to the other children and said, "Is that the game you're playing?"

"Oh, he's not on any team. He's playing the diamond hunting game. You could play diamond hunting with him."

One child stayed to hunt for diamonds while the rest ran off and it was over, at least for that day, no one really having learned anything, probably asking themselves, "What just happened?" Still, I think I did the right thing, asking questions that provided everyone involved with more complete information. But still, I see heartbreak for all of those kids in the future and I'm helpless to prevent it. Please don't be mad at me.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

As They Learn To Fly

When our daughter Josephine was a 14-year-old freshman in high school, she asked me if she could go to a party being hosted by some seniors, none of whom I knew. It was taking place in a relatively secluded part of a local public park not far from our home and there would be a keg.

It was the sort of party I would have moved heaven and earth to attend when I was that age. The key difference, and it's one I recognized right away, was that I would have never bothered to ask my parents for permission because I know that their answer would have been a firm "No," followed by a lecture on the dangers of drinking. Instead, I would have lied about what I was doing and met my friends there. 

Josephine already knew that teens drinking in a park was all kinds of illegal, but felt comfortable with the risk because these sorts of parties were a "tradition" that went back years. I asked, "Are any other freshmen going?"

"I'm sure some of them are."

The good news for me was that it was still a couple weeks away, so I had some time to think. "I'd feel more comfortable knowing that you will have friends there."

"I'll find out."

Over the following days she named a few kids who were planning to attend although she was surprised and disappointed that most of her friends' parents had given them that same firm "No" and one-sided lecture I had learned to avoid by lying.

I said, "I figured that would happen. And I'll bet the kids who are going haven't even asked their parents. Listen, I was a teenager and I know you're responsible. I want to be able to say "Yes," but I still have some questions." Over the next couple days, I worked my way to "Yes" by asking about the older kids, how many, what times, transportation plans, and other details. We learned that several of her friends were scheming to sneak out despite their parents' refusals. I told her that I expected the cops would bust it up. I also told her that I would be ready to come pick her up no questions asked. We agreed to stay in touch via text. We had conversations about drinking, older boys, driving in cars, and ultimately we got to "Yes." I was nervous, of course, but also certain that she would be the best prepared 14-year-old in the history of illegal public park keggers. 

And as I'd expected there were other 14-year-olds there, lots of them, all of whom, with the exception of Josephine, without parental permission, knowledge or specific advice. And I was right, the cops did break it up. She had known what to do: be polite, don't lie, and do what she was told, which was, as I'd expected, "Dump out your beer and go home."

I'm not the first to point out that being a parent can be a high wire act. You want to allow them increasingly more autonomy, while at the same time you want them to be safe. You want them to have a robust and satisfying social life (and a social life is the air most teens breath), while at the same time you want them to be safe. You want them to gain the life experience that only comes from making mistakes, while at the same time you want them to be safe. You want to say "Yes," while at the same time you want them to be safe.

She arrived home relatively early, but after we were already in bed. The following morning, we got a full, enthusiastic debriefing while the rest of the parents remained, probably to this day, in the dark.

That freshman year party was a watershed moment for our family. My child had gone to the same sort of party to which I had gone, but with her parents' knowledge and best advice. She had had the fun, the experience, and she had been safe. From that moment forward, my approach was, "I want to be able to say "Yes," and the more time and information you give me, the easier it will be for me to get there." She didn't always make the best choices, but she was never sneaky, always gave us a heads up the moment she knew something was coming up, and talked with us about it both before and after. And we always knew where she was, something that can't be said for the parents of most of her classmates, and especially those who would occasionally phone me in the wee hours, an edge of panic in their voices, to ask if I could help them find their child, which I usually could with a quick text to Josephine who would pass along the message that mom was worried about them.

She's now a grown woman, thriving as a student in the heart of New York City, flying on her own, making her own decisions. She still knows she can speak with us without judgement or scolding. These days she tends to turn to her mom for advice whereas she needed me more when she was younger, but it's still there, the idea that we're figuring this out together rather than fighting through it in opposition the way so many teens do it with their parents. I'm proud of all of us.

This is always our job as parents from the moment they are born: to keep them as safe as we can as they learn to fly, always knowing that the only way to learn to fly is to actually practice flying.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Our Ice Cream Social

Our summer program tradition is to make vanilla ice cream in plastic bags on the final day of each of our two-week sessions. You can find more precise recipes around the internet, but you essentially mix half-n-half, sugar and vanilla in a small plastic bag, zip it shut, then put it in a larger plastic bag full of ice and rock salt, zip that shut, then squish the whole thing around vigorously for 10 minutes or so.

Sometimes the kids really get into it, sometimes they rely on the adults to shake it up.

It doesn't matter because it's an ice cream social, a perfect way to end our time together. There are always other things to do around the playground while we make ice cream. For instance, we were erupting the paper mache volcano we made last week right there a few feet away, but 25 of the 30 kids chose to instead focus on the making of that ice cream. This is something of which they wanted to be a part. They didn't all shake or squish or punch at it, but they sure wanted to be there as ice cream was created.

This session, a few parent-teachers finished the project, creating actual ice cream, as opposed to the "milk shake" we usually wind up making.

It feels like a celebration, all of us coming together around a common project, a big one, one that results in ice cream. I wrote last week about how one is almost always in "first week" mode during these summer sessions with their ever-changing rosters, but you know, that's how life often is: people coming together for a day or a week or for the duration of a project, making things happen, then dispersing back into the rest of their lives. Our summer sessions are exactly that. We spend a few days feeling things out, figuring out the other kids and the things we can do with them. It took the two full weeks, but by the time we were making ice cream we had accomplished what we had set out to do. For me it was forming a community while for the children it was about finding their place in this community of their own creation.

We celebrated even as some of the children were leaving Woodland Park for the last time. We celebrated because we did what humans are meant to do.

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Barriers To Actual Education

I was at my doctor's office yesterday for a routine visit. He's a good man, busy, but always takes time during our appointments to chat about life. At one point, while discussing his role in prescribing medicine, he said, "It's frustrating. I don't like the box they try to put me in," referring the what I've always considered a bizarre intersection between doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance carriers.

This lead to a general discussion about how indefensible it is that so much of America's health care system is based upon the for-profit model where we are forced to rely on people who are in it for the money. The goal of health care after all is good health, but the goal of the for-profit model is profit: two objectives that are often in direct opposition to one another. For instance, for pharmaceutical companies it is often far more profitable to manufacture drugs that are designed to be taken on a daily schedule to control symptoms over a patient's lifetime than it is to actually cure an illness which would then lose the company a customer. For a health insurance company it is logically more profitable to deny coverage for treatments than it is to actually pay for them. Their profit motive stands as a barrier to actual health.

I find myself making the same arguments about education, a process that is increasingly being taken over by companies primarily concerned with turning a buck. The goal of education is education, but the corporate entities that have the ears of our policy makers, those companies that manufacture text books and tests and curricula and tablets and computers and other classroom supplies are in it for the money. Their primary goal is not to educate children, but rather to persuade those who control the purse strings to purchase their product, which they do through lobbying, strong arming, marketing, and straight-out lying, not to mention the snake oil of charter schools. These "education" corporations have been the darlings of Wall Street for most of my daughter's lifetime. And just like with health care, their profit motive stands as a barrier to actual education.

The sickest part is that even if these corporations somehow decided that they wanted to first and foremost provide good health or education, their stockholders would have legal standing to sue them because, by law, their management must place profit above everything else.

I have no problem with the so-called free market when it comes to selling television sets and washing machines, non-essential tools of entertainment or convenience that I can choose to do without, but when it comes to essentials like health and education (and food and water for that matter) the profit-motive leaves doctors and teachers in the position of having to do our jobs "inside the cracks" because the system itself is not necessarily set up to provide health or education.

The wonder is that health and education happen at all.

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