Monday, May 17, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n9 -- joseph anton by salman rushdie


Spurred in part by my enduring curiosity about the man, but maybe mostly because the title was available in audio from my library, I jumped again into the ocean of Salman Rushdie. 

I guess the water was ok, because I've since secured copies of "Midnight's Children" and "The Satanic Versus" and they're on my summer reading list.

Anyway, Salman Rushie... 

I watched the news a lot as a teenager. Partly because it's what was on TV in the late afternoon after school, but mostly--I like to think--because I really enjoyed it. I remember when I came to the realization that national news was interesting and local news seemed contrived and gimmicky, and stopped watching the local news. (It's been years since I've been able to stomach either, so, you know, different layers of contrivance, I guess.)

Anyway, I remember hearing a lot about Salman Rushdie and "The Satanic Versus" when watching the news in high school. The book (which, for those of you don't know, is just a novel) was published in late 1988. In mid-1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's "Supreme Leader" (a title that suggests a deep lack of appreciation for irony; I can't even say it without using air quotes) issued a fatwa (as I understand it, a sort of religious legal edict) for Rushdie to be killed. Ostensively, he was put off by passages which he believed to demean The Prophet. More probably, he was looking for something to rally the masses and help consolidate power after experiencing some embarrassing political setbacks. The threat on Rushdie's life was considered viable and serious by the government of the UK (Rushdie was a British citizen), and Rushdie was then assigned protective detail and essentially went into hiding. For nine years.

"Joseph Anton" is the name Rushdie chose for himself while in hiding. It is also the name he gave to the memoir that he wrote about his life, with most of the emphasis put on the period of his life in hiding.

There is so much here. So much to think about. So much to talk about. So much to have opinions about. But these are supposed to be tiny book reviews...

So, I'm going to offer just one line of thought, something I posted on Facebook a couple weeks ago:

I've been reading Salman Rushdie's memoir "Joseph Anton" and it's left me with two related feelings of near panic-inducing anxiety:
(1) Holy. Cow. That man's career has been so incredibly prolific, both in the sheer volume of production of meaningful fiction and non-fiction AND in the tremendously admirable political work that he's taken on over the decades under the most excruciating of circumstances that I'm left exhausted by awe. While surely our talents are not comparable, I'm left feeling a deep pit of guilt for all I have NOT accomplished with my comparably paltry ones.
(2) Reading Rushdie's fiction is difficult for this white-bread American boy as I don't have anything approaching the cultural knowledge to understand, for instance, references to Indian or Islamic history and culture (at, frankly, any level of subtly or nuance). I mean, I don't know what it means to be Indian, and I certainly don't know what it means to be an Islamic Indian. I don't know what that means in the context of Islamic Pakistan and the conflict over Kashmir. Other than some facts and figures and basic geographic and economic information, I don't really know ANYTHING about that world...and that is a very. big. world.
(I know so little that it feels a bit stupid to try to catalog the extent of my ignorance.)
Relatedly, a year or so ago I read "One Hundred Years of Solitude," which is by all accounts one of Latin America's greatest pieces of 20th century art, and most of the time was just completely lost. Again, knowing nothing more than the most trivial details of Columbian history and culture, every meaningful analogy, parable, or allegory was just shooting right past me.
What bothers me about all this is knowing--having it made so plainly and painfully manifest--that there exists this whole wide, deep, textured world of culture, history, and politics that I am so completely divorced from that I can't even read a popular work of literature and have any idea of what it all should mean.
(When it comes right down to it, I've lived in south-central PA for about 15 years and I _still_ feel like I'm a stranger in a strange land.)
So, I know that I could never _really_ know what it is to be Kashmirian or Columbian or really any other -ian. Worlds upon worlds exist in all their textured beauty all around me and I simply cannot know or relate or understand. And I might try all the rest of my life and I still wouldn't _really_ be able to scratch the surface of knowing.
Sometimes, this realization fills me with terrifying bouts of anxiety.
Like, I can feel it right now. A knot. Right there. In the pit of my stomach.
In elementary school, I bought a poster with a picture of a sloth hanging from a tree branch and one of those sort of parody motivational quotes:
"Thinking of all I didn't do yesterday, haven't done today, and won't do tomorrow...completely exhausts me."
At the time I thought it was funny and clever. Now, like prophecy, the passage haunts me.

I'm very glad to have read this book. In a sentence, I believe it has helped me become a better global citizen. In a second sentence, the book has left me with more questions than answers--more realizations of things I don't know than confidence in what I do know. By both counts--or by having achieving these ends--the book is a good book.

4 of 5 stars.

Monday, April 26, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n8 -- the vanishing half by brit bennett

 


Of the New York Times list of five best works of fiction in 2020, this is the third I've reviewed. 

It's a popular book; it took some time for it to become available at my library.

I liked this book. It's sort of about being the thing you choose to be rather than the thing everyone around you would have you be, and about the hard consequences of those choices. But it is this on a profoundly deep level, centered around those elements of identity that are probably the most core--race, gender, sexuality, daughter, sister--and around which we experience the heaviest cultural inertia. It's about passing.

I liked the premise. I liked the characters. I liked how the story developed. 

I'm not sure I liked how the book ended. 

There seemed to be more in the story than what we got. Or there could have been more. I guess I felt, from the beginning, that I was going to be led through a John Irving-type saga of a narrative, only to have the back 3/4 of the story condensed into a few dozen pages. Like good food at a good restaurant that, in the end, doesn't really really fill you up. Characters that I wanted to know more about, that I wanted to see go on adventures to make their mark on the world (or have the world leave their mark on them), just sort of...didn't do that.

Tasty. Meaningful. Unsatisfying (which is to say, in my opinion, bordering on incomplete).

4 of 5 stars.

tiny book reviews.2021.n7 -- a spool of blue thread by anne tyler

 

Valerie's been trying to get me to read Anne Tyler for ages. I'm not sure why I haven't.

I needed something to read. I asked Valerie for an Anne Tyler book. This is what she gave me.

I don't really know what this book is about--a house, a family, a woman, a man, a child, ambition, class, migration, belonging... It's sort of about all of those things and not really any of those things. I'm not sure it's really about anything. But it's a lovely story. Anne Tyler--if this one book is anything to go by--is a stupendous storyteller. 

It's a light book. It's fun. There are laugh-out-loud moments. 

And, I guess, there are bits that one might consider moments of profundity--about the inevitable indignity of growing old, I think. About life cycles. But this is a light book. Which is to say not heavy. Tyler lays her profundity down like goose feathers rather than a lead blanket.

4 of 5 stars.

Monday, April 5, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n6 -- undaunted by john brennan


If you don't know, John Brennan was CIA Director during Obama's second term. He also worked in the White House during Obama's first term as Assistant to the President for Homeland Security. All of that after a full 25-year career with the CIA. 

This tiny book review comes in the form of four brief takeaways.

(1) The CIA is interesting, and reading about the experiences of a career CIA man was interesting. John Brennan's career in particular is interesting, but I imagine the memoir of any "company man" (or woman) would be similarly interesting.

(2) I enjoyed the insights Brennan's memoir provided regarding a host of geopolitical conflicts. He certainly prioritizes contemporary issues over historical ones, but, as it is a memoir, his career provides some historical context. Terrorism. Russia. Cyber security. China. North Korea. Middle East conflicts of many flavors. 

I love this stuff. More than once in reading the memoir I felt the familiar pangs of regret that I did not pursue a career with the State Department or similar.

(3) The country simply did not know how good it had it with President Barak Obama. The more I learn of Obama's presidency, the more I'm struck by the sense that he is, in every way, exactly the sort of person we should want as the country's chief executive. Smart. Thoughtful. Hard-working. Kind. Even ("no drama Obama"). Moral. Empathetic.

It's absolutely fine to hold differences of opinion regarding policy priorities and a vision for the country, but the personal attacks and questioning of his intentions during and after his presidency is just so dumb. He is a better person and was a better president than our country deserves.

(4) On the other hand, it might not be possible to find a person less qualified for the position than his successor, Donald Trump. I'm not sure there's much point to writing more. I guess I'll just say that Brennan's interactions with Trump once again highlight how pathetically ill-prepared and ill-suited he and his circle were for the presidency. 

I'm so glad that chapter has closed.

4 of 5 stars.

Friday, March 26, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n5 -- less by andrew sean greer

I think I've been awed by every Pulitzer Prize winning book I've ever read. Except this one.

There are books that at first don't impress, books that you kind of have to trudge through, do the work, put in the investment, only for everything to unfold wonderfully toward the end, making every page worth it. This is one such book, only the payoff wasn't quite worth the effort.

That's not to say that this was a hard book to read, because it wasn't. It went down easy, like a Fresca. But, also like a Fresca, I just didn't finish it feeling like there was much nourishment there, just a fleeting, momentary reprieve from thirst--it was good, I wanted more, but there was no more to be had. 

It just seemed sort of...empty. 

3 of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n4 -- uncanny valley by anna wiener


 In the spring of 2001, I was finishing a two-year, full-time MBA at the University of Utah, interviewing for jobs, and applying to doctoral programs--which is to say that I was managing my chronic indecision regarding big, life-defining decisions by attempting to keep as many doors open as possible for as long as possible. Analysis paralysis masked with the respectability of productivity.

I never really liked choose-your-own-adventure books. I'd build up too much anxiety over the choices not made, running out of fingers attempting to follow all of the paths forward. It felt a bit like that.

One of the jobs I was interviewing for was with Accenture. They were hiring for their offices in San Francisco (mostly private-sector clients and lots of travel) and Sacramento (mostly public-sector clients and less travel). Eventually, I was offered a job in the Sacramento office. I also, eventually, turned it down, taking, it seemed to me at the time, the more noble road by delaying employment and continuing with school.

Since then (and it only now occurs to me that I'm writing this almost exactly 20 years later), I've often entertained flights of fancy imagining an alternative universe where I take that job.

Uncanny Valley is fuel to those flights.

The Silicon Valley that Anna Wiener writes about is half a generation removed from what I might have found, had I moved to California, completed a stint at Accenture, and then (as seems probable) moved on to some tech-oriented company in northern California...somewhere. So I looked for myself in her story, a decade, or a decade and a half into my career. Well, I looked not so much for myself as for the alternate universe self had I made a different decision in 2001. 

So, who would have I been? 

I imagine myself as one of those anonymous mid-career tech guys with a resume of diverse experience (all good jobs, but nothing amazing) that is hired by startup firms in a hire-anyone-that-breathes mode, and given a mid-management supervisory role with the assumption that my age and the diversity of my experience qualify me for that role. Once hired, I would maneuver and jockey for options and buyout deals that, should our company win the IPO or acquisition lottery, I'd make out well enough to retire away from "real" work or (more likely) survive long enough to get another, similar job with another, similar company.

But who would I be

Would I be kind? Would I ride bikes? Would I have embraced the sometimes ugly, hyper-masculine, bro-ethic culture of tech? Would I believe in the products of the companies I worked for? Would I believe in the companies? Would I feel like the tech innovations I worked on inched the world toward something more just and egalitarian? Or would I wallow in self-loathing and contempt for being part of a machine that existed only for itself--growing, innovating, multiplying, and perpetuating itself for no other reason than the creation of (or the illusion of the creation of) wealth? Would I care about such things?

Well, that's where Uncanny Valley took me.

Also, a lot of thinking about how much the house my parents bought in Palo Alto around 1967 would be worth now had they kept it. Or, if they hadn't been scared off by the cosmopolitan pulse of progress and retreated to Colorado a year later as they did. 

The decisions around which lives pivot... 

As I said, I never really liked choose-your-own-adventure books. Too much anxiety.

3.5 of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

tiny book reviews.2021.n3 -- deacon king kong by james mcbride

Review: 'Deacon King Kong,' By James McBride : NPR

The second work of fiction on the NYTimes list of 2020's top ten that I took on, Deacon King Kong was a delightfully fun read.

It wasn't what I thought it would be. It wasn't what I thought it would be a chapter in, and it wasn't what I thought it would be halfway through. It just sort of got more and more fun the further I read. 

And now I find myself thinking of what more to say about the book and I'm just not sure... Partly because I wouldn't want to give it away--I think the book will be all the more fun a read for someone who doesn't have any idea what's coming. Partly because the deeper stuff, the sort of deep stuff that any meaningful work of fiction has to offer about some shady corner of the human experience, is transmitted in the best way fiction can do it, accidentally--that is to say that the book covers some fairly heavy territory, but you maybe don't realize you've been there until you stop to reflect. There's no bashing us over the head with thick morality tales or long-winded speeches in this one. So, if I were to go on now, giving label and definition to that deeper stuff, it seems I'd be doing the fine art of the story a disservice. 

Anyway, if you like fiction, and you like fun, give this one a read. Strongly recommend.

4.5 of 5 stars.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

tiny book reviews (2021): two years eight months and twenty-eight nights, by salman rushdie

 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Rushdie novel).png

Sometimes you're in the middle of a book and it's just so good that you don't really want to pick it up again because you know the more you read the less of it you'll have. 

Sometimes you're in the middle of a book and it's just good enough that you can't wait to get done doing whatever you're doing that's keeping you from the book so you can get back to it.

Sometimes you're in the middle of a book and it's interesting enough, but maybe not quite the right thing for right now so you pick something else up instead. You know you'll finish it, just not right now.

And sometimes you're in the middle of the book and you hate it. And you hate that you hate it, but you still hate it. And you're fully committed to finishing the book, because that's who you are--you're a person who finishes books--but holy. cow. this. book. is. just. so. bad.

For me, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was that book. 

...

Honestly, I'm sure Salman Rushdie has written good stuff. He's a super well-respected author. One doesn't just _become_ that for nothing. But this particular book, for this particular reader, had nothing.

I read this book because Rushdie got a lot of mentions in Homeland Elegies. And I've never read any Rushdie. And I'm old enough to remember the controversy over The Satanic Verses (though I didn't really know any more about it or him than that). So I figured I'd read some Rushdie.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was what was available at my library. 

It's fantasy, I guess. Maybe you'd call it magical realism. Or someone might. A bit more magical than real, I think.

I got the sense that it was a parable of sorts. Or a retelling of some real history through myth. I think that's the point of magical realism. I didn't much care for One Hundred Years of Solitude because I didn't understand enough real Columbian social history to get it. I felt the same way reading this, except I didn't even know what continent I was on. 

And so I finished thinking that the book wasn't really written for me. It might be a great book...for a different reader. 

Then again, it may just be a crappy book.

It'll be a while before I can give Rushdie another try, but I will (probably with Midnight's Children). 

I feel like there's something here I need to know, like a dirt road you see meandering up that one particular draw--you trust there must be something up there and it's probably pretty awesome, but for whatever reason you've just never gone. 

Though, that might be the wrong metaphor--it might be that there's a whole other forest that I know next to nothing about, and that I've got to learn quite a bit more about that particular ecosystem before I can come to appreciate Rushdie trees.

I don't know. But I'll find out.

1 of 5 stars.

tiny book reviews (2021): homeland elegies, by ayad akhtar

With 'Homeland Elegies,' Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar cements himself as one  of America's most vital writers | The Seattle Times

At the end of last year, The New York Times published a list of its ten best books of 2020--five non-fiction and five fiction. This was the first of the ten I picked up. 

(Also, I may have actually finished it in 2020, but library records show that it wasn't returned until Jan 2, so I'm counting it for 2021.)

I really enjoyed this book. 

I'm not sure how much more I want to say about it than that. Still, I'll try.

It's a novel, but written as a memoir. I don't know enough about Akhtar to distinguish between what is autobiographical and what is not. I'm not sure that matters. What matters is that it reads true, as a memoir, so that you believe that you are reading stories about real people and true events. 

It's also about the relationships between fathers and sons. It's about politics. And it's about "making it."

It's also about what I would call a uniquely American life, in that the author is almost definitionally American, yet so much of the book is a narrative of the struggle of figuring out what that means, for him, as his identity bumps into his parents', who are immigrants, and his people, to the extent that his genealogy and national background define what "his people" means, and others' notions of an American is or should be.

Anyway, I loved it. And recommend it strongly. 

5 out of 5 stars.




Wednesday, October 14, 2020

on SASD's scuttling the plan to go hybrid

On Monday, October 12, the Shippensburg Area School District Board of Directors made the difficult decision to reverse plans to transition to hybrid schooling for grades 6-12 on November 10th.  Instead, the district will continue to offer an all-online delivery model through the second marking period, with exceptions for some students in special education.

I know this news comes as a considerable disappointment to many parents and students.

On the other hand, I know a large number are relieved by the decision, as the move to open schools has been viewed with skepticism and apprehension by many others.

I’ve received numerous communications from parents and other community members expressing both viewpoints.

As for me, I'm heartbroken over not being in school. I want to send my own kid back to school. And, frankly, telling him that he won't be going back--even for two days a week at the beginning of November as we had planned--was really hard. He wants to go back. Still, I believe it was the right decision.

While I certainly cannot speak for the entire board, I want to try to explain at least this one board member’s reasoning.

First, if we were to transition to a hybrid system in the beginning of November for the upper grades as planned, we would be doing so AGAINST the recommendations of our superintendent, the principals of the middle and high schools, and what appears to be a plurality of our teachers. This is not a small matter. If we were to direct our administrators to move to a hybrid system, I’m confident that they would do it as well as they could. I’m also confident that our teachers would do their very best. However, with a decision of this consequence, to go against the recommendations of the professionals that live and breathe the ramifications of these decisions daily is a heavy ask.

It should be noted that this recommendation did not come all-of-a-sudden. Planning for a hybrid-schooling model of some kind began even before the end of the last school year. I’m confident that the administrators, teachers, and staff involved in that planning have turned the matter around every which way. I know they’ve wanted to make it work. And I know they are disappointed they could not find a solution they felt comfortable recommending, as am I.

So, why has administration recommended against transitioning to a hybrid system for the upper grades? For a more detailed explanation, I strongly recommend listening to the presentations of the principals of the middle and high schools from Monday’s meeting. You can find a link to the meeting from the district website; click “School Board” —>  “Recorded Meetings" (or just click here).

For me, the reasoning for maintaining an online-only delivery model for the upper grades can be summarized into two categories of concern: logistic hurdles and educational outcomes.

To understand the logistical issues, please watch the principals’ presentations in Monday’s board meeting. For me, it was eye opening. Some notable examples: scheduling complexity resulting in class sizes that would exceed CDC social distancing requirements, position vacancies that we have been unable to fill, a substitute shortage that the COVID moment has only exacerbated, the reverberating consequences of a teacher needing to quarantine or isolate, and complicating teacher job duties to the point of absurdity.

But the educational outcomes piece is also critical. I have long assumed—and I know I’m not alone in this—that for most students any time in school would be better than no time in school. That while a “normal,” five-day, face-to-face model is preferred, a two-day hybrid model would be better than all online. For the lower grades, I still believe this to be the case. However, for the upper grades, this no longer seems at all clear. And as our public health professionals have strongly advised against going back to a "normal," five-day-a-week, in-person model until we dip below the 10 active COVID cases per 100,000 residents threshold, that really leaves us with only one choice.

(Cumberland and Franklin Counties have bounced around between 20 and 50 cases per 100,000 residents for the past three months. How other districts can make decisions that stare CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health recommendations in the face is beyond me. I wish them luck, but I can't help but believe such decisions border on malfeasance.)

We could, of course, change our expectations as to what school is. In our present online model, kids get four days of live instruction from each teacher and one day of unsupervised, self-paced activities. In a hybrid system, I think the best we can expect is two days of live instruction, and three days of self-paced activities, but those two days of live instruction would be in-person rather than online. (I realize there are other hybrid models, but from what I understand, what I’ve described here is the least likely to break the backs of our teachers and therefore the most realistic—without teachers, we will have no school.)

Maybe, eventually, we will need to change our expectations. But, for me, the extra days of live instruction of an online delivery strategy coupled with the logistical entanglements of maintaining CDC guidelines with a hybrid system, are enough to convince me that at this point it would be inappropriate to transition our upper grades to a hybrid model.

Some will say that what the district needs to do is provide choice—hybrid for those that want it, an online option for those that prefer that strategy. By necessity, going hybrid requires both, because if a student needs to quarantine or isolate for whatever reason, they’ll need to move from hybrid to online and back again. However, in offering both delivery methods, we’re putting an expectation on teachers that they manage both. That is, both, simultaneously. In essence, we’d be requiring that each teacher now do two jobs. In the lower grades, we’ve been able to deal with this problem by assigning some teachers all-online duties. In the middle and high schools, because of schedule complexities, this just isn’t possible for a district our size.

A reasonable person would certainly be excused if they were to ask why, if the hybrid system is so problematic, had the board recently approved a hybrid start for grades 6-12 at the beginning of the second marking period?

Well, why did the board move toward a hybrid opening? Strong demand from the public, for sure. Wishful thinking on the part of the board, too. But also the assumption that a hybrid model would be educationally superior to a fully online model, and a misunderstanding of logistical issues at play.

So, to me, Monday night we corrected an error of judgment that we had earlier made--an error of judgment that went against the recommendations of the professionals we have employed to manage our community's schools. Furthermore, in the time that has passed, we’ve learned more about the challenges and shortcomings of hybrid schooling from those doing it.

For this flip-flopping, I am very apologetic. I deeply regret the confusion and frustration in the community that is an understandable result of this reversal of plans.

Finally, I absolutely recognize that reasonable people will disagree on the right way forward. I certainly do not have all the answers. I wish I did. In the end, as always, I vote in a manner that I believe is in the best interest of the children of our community. I have no other incentive.

I welcome your comments.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

some (incomplete and unordered) thoughts on school reopening

(1) I’m frustrated by so many public comments in defense of face-to-face learning. No one is arguing that face-to-face isn’t preferable to virtual learning. That just isn’t the conversation.

(2) The decision as to how schools should reopen in the fall is bigger than the students and faculty and parents directly impacted. It’s a decision with very real public health ramifications, and (unfortunately) must be considered in that light.

(3) The fact that these decisions are being made by local school boards represents a massive failure of state and federal leadership. I support local governance, but a pandemic is not a local issue, and your local school officials do not have access to the same tools and expertise that state and national governments do.

It’s a pandemic… It should be self-evident that local action should be coordinated at the broadest level possible.

(4) I’m again and again struck by how terrible we (humans) are at evaluating risk, and, by extension, terrible at evaluating the efficacy of any risk mitigation strategies or protocols. We are terrible naive statisticians. I know this, and yet it still does not help me in making decisions, it just makes me more wary of anything that I think I know.

(5) While I believe that public schooling is an entitlement program that every American should embrace and even express pride in, there is a kind of ugly selfishness in the way some talk about their entitlement.

An illustration: When faced with the possibility that schools may reopen something close to virtual only, many respond, “WTF. Is the district going to compensate me for my childcare?!” Whereas a person embracing a paradigm of responsibility might say, “Shoot, this stinks. I do not like this, I do not agree with it, but I’ve gotta figure out a way to make this work.”

(6) Where is the teachers’ association in this discussion? I have not heard anything, neither directly nor indirectly, from our local teachers’ association.

I understand that teachers are divided in their positions and preferences, but helpful guidance might look something like this:

“If you go face-to-face, here are some concerns we’d like addressed.

“If you go virtual, here are some concerns we’d like addressed.”

(7) Related to the previous comment, any discussion of reopening MUST consider the health and safety of our teachers. As their employer, that is the district’s responsibility.

If even a minority (but significant number) of teachers do not feel safe in returning to face-to-face instruction, that poses a serious structural problem for the district. If, say, 10 teachers decide at the last minute that they can’t risk coming back to school and choose not to return, that puts the district in a serious pickle.

Furthermore, for those teachers who would return, but still do not feel safe doing so, one has to ask what impact that feeling of insecurity has on their ability to effectively do their job.

(8) Administration and faculty committees have been working on plans since before school let out. We’ve been discussing school reopening plans (not a complete plan, but bits and pieces) at board meetings for over two months.

Prior to last night's board meeting, grand total of public participants in those meetings? Maybe 25.

Prior to last night's board meeting, grand total of public comments during this planning period? 0.

(9) In public comments last night, one person suggested that the members of the board have already made up their minds so they might as well just vote. I’m not at all sure that’s true. I certainly don’t have things all figured out. My thoughts go all over the place on this. And I am very much swayed by new information or analysis (though hopefully not disproportionately).

(10) Personally, I am super frustrated that it’s taking us (as a board, as a district) so long to make a decision for the fall. It’s not only just really irritating, I also think it’s a pretty significant administrative failure. And I’m sorry.

Monday, July 27, 2020

reopening schools

Tonight, at 6:00 pm, the Shippensburg Area School District directors will meet to (hopefully) decide on a plan for school reopening. While the past months have been full of work and planning and a lot of hand-wringing, the board has yet to approve a course of action.

In the build-up to this decision, I've received quite a few letters and calls from concerned citizens. I appreciate their input and feedback.

Yesterday, I received one such email from a Shippensburg Area High School student. While this student sent their comments to the superintendent and all board members, I was not given permission to make their comments public, so I won't reproduce the letter here. However, I do want to share my response. It's not perfect, but it's not bad, and it gives a sense of where my head is in making this decision.

Also, it will be interesting for me to return to these thoughts in a month, six months, next year, five years from now, and so on. Likely, I will think differently about many of these things.

...

Hi _____,

I really appreciate you taking the time to write this letter and for sending it. It is very much appreciated.

The district has yet to make a final decision on our re-opening strategy. There is a public board meeting tonight, at 6:00 pm, and I encourage you to attend (it will be broadcast publicly--you can find the link on the district website).

However, I wanted to respond quickly to a few of your points.

First, I know EVERYONE would like to be able to go back to school as we're used to doing school. I would like that. Your school administration would like that. So would your teachers. However, that's just not possible. So we have to find a way to do the best we can under the circumstances.

A few thoughts on some of the points you've made.

I'm afraid you're very much mistaken on the negative health effects of wearing masks. I suggest you check your sources, and research this a little more completely. Your blood oxygen levels absolutely do NOT drop by 5-20% when wearing a mask. It's just not true. But imagine if it were...imagine if a surgery team of 6-10 people, all wearing surgical masks, for sometimes well over eight hours straight, were experiencing blood oxygen levels 80-95% of normal. Would you want that surgical team operating on you? Of course not. Because there is no such disability. Sure, masks are uncomfortable, but so are pants, and we've all got fairly accustomed to wearing them.

You are right that children get sick from COVID19 much less often and experience milder symptoms than do adults. However, older children (think 10-19) can still carry and transmit the virus. So, while the district must be concerned for the health of children, we also must be concerned about how the virus can be transmitted within the school, and then carried from it to more vulnerable demographics. School children do not live in a bubble. They interact with each other, then go home to mothers and fathers and grandparents, etc. Children can become the vectors for disease which can debilitate a community.

Furthermore, kids aren't the only ones in our schools. There are teachers, administrators, and all manner of support staff. These people matter too. Their health matters too. And, as you're already aware, these individuals are at much higher risk of suffering serious negative health consequences should they contract COVID19. Any decision the district makes regarding reopening schools must also consider their health and well-being.

The herd immunity argument you offer is compelling, but unfortunately it just doesn't seem to work quite that way with COVID19. In March, when we first realized--as a country, and beyond--that there was a global pandemic at play, we thought herd immunity would be the eventual answer. But what we're learning about how COVID19 is contracted and how our bodies build antibodies to it suggests that it may not be that simple. You're thinking (as I used to think) that once you get C19 and get over it, you're good. But we're learning that's probably the wrong way to think about it.

I appreciate your thoughts on a culture of fear, and I am sympathetic. Still, I don't let my children cross the street on their own until I know they are capable of making smart street-crossing decisions. I can't just say, "Don't live in fear; just send it!" when I know there's a high probability that "sending it" will result in serious injury or death to my child. There are limits and lines. I wish I knew what those limits and lines are in the present case, but I do not. I do not think anyone does. But I do know that doing nothing--pretending that COVID19 is just another flu--is dangerously irresponsible behavior for making either personal life decisions or decisions for the public good.

As to your comments on freedom, I'm afraid that argument falls on deaf ears here. Going back to my pants analogy, do you also feel that we should be "free" to go to school not wearing pants? Would you feel comfortable sitting next to someone not wearing pants? Or how about sharing a chair with another student who was not wearing pants? No? Well, what of that person's freedom to dress (or not dress) how they like? Should they not be free to not wear pants as you are to wear them? 

Freedom isn't getting to do whatever you want. Our freedom is curtailed everyday in myriad ways by powerful (and usually quite functional) cultural norms. That is a good thing. Personally, I'm quite glad that my freedom to drive is moderated by traffic signals and right-of-way laws. It's makes things work. It keeps us safer on the roads than we would be if we were "free" to use them however we like. 

Like it or not, you live in a community. You share space with thousands of other people. They also have rights. And your ability to exercise your freedom cannot infringe on their ability to exercise theirs. In civics, we call this idea "the social contract." I encourage you to look it up, and perhaps rethink your paradigm of what it means to be free.

Thank you again for taking the time to write and express your concerns. Again, it is very much appreciated. I hope this letter helps clarify some of the issues the district must consider in deciding to reopen schools for "normal" operation. 

Again, I encourage you to attend the virtual school board meeting this evening. 6:00 pm. Link on district website.

If you have any further questions or comments, I welcome them.

Take care,

ng

Friday, March 27, 2020

"That’s all of ’em, Uncle George!"

A story about George Goates, little brother to my great-great-grandfather. It's a story I grew up with. A story that's had an outsized impact on my world view.

This version is a retelling of something Les Goates' wrote. Les Goates was a career sportswriter for the Desert News, and George's son.

It's 1918, in the midst of the Spanish Flu Epidemic. George would have been 55 at the time. Francis was 20, Charles 35.

...

“Winter came early that year and froze much of the sugar beet crop in the ground,” writes [Les] Goates. “My dad and brother Francis were desperately trying to get out of the frosty ground one load of beets each day.” One day they received a telephone call that George’s nine-year-old grandson Kenneth “had been stricken with the dread ‘flu,’ and after only a few hours of violent sickness, had died.” George was asked to go to Ogden and take the boy to Lehi for burial.

When George arrived at the home he found his son Charles was also sick. Charles asked his father to take the boy and return for him the next day. “Father brought Kenneth home, made a coffin in his carpenter shop, and … with [my brother] Franz and two kind neighbors [dug] the grave...

“The folks had scarcely returned from the cemetery when the telephone rang again.” They learned that Charles had died and four of his young children were also sick. Charles’s body was sent to Lehi by train, but the next day George had to return to Ogden to get one of the grandchildren, seven-year-old Vesta, who had since died. Before he returned to Lehi with Vesta, a call came again that one of her sick sisters, five-year-old Elaine, had also died. So George made yet “another heartbreaking journey to bring home and lay away a fourth member of his family, all within the week.”

The next day George told his son Francis, “‘Well, son, we had better get down to the field and see if we can get another load of beets out of the ground before they get frozen in any tighter.’ …

“As they drove along the Saratoga Road, they passed wagon after wagon-load of beets being hauled to the factory and driven by neighborhood farmers...

“On the last wagon was...Jasper Rolfe. He waved a cheery greeting and called out: ‘That’s all of ’em, Uncle George.’ “My dad turned to Francis and said: ‘I wish it was all of ours.’“

When they arrived at the farm gate...there wasn’t a sugar beet on the whole field. Then it dawned upon him what Jasper Rolfe meant when he called out: ‘That’s all of ’em, Uncle George!’

“Father sat down on a pile of beet tops--this man who brought four of his loved ones home for burial in the course of only six days; made caskets, dug graves, and even helped with the burial clothing—and sobbed like a little child."

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

#thelobsterroll, day 5

I read a line in a novel the other day that struck a cord. The cord is still resonating.

“People feel pain, and it shrinks their souls.”

Context: There are parents. Their baby dies. Unexpectedly. They just find him, cold and lying unnatural in his crib. Nearly two decades on and these parents still hurt. The author offers this observation, that pain is a given, and that we are the worse for it.

It is a melancholy truth. Life is full of melancholy truth.

I read something the other day—someone posted a link on FB—and unfortunately I don’t remember the title or the author so I can’t look it up and cite, but, in it, the author made a point about relative social closeness to someone suffering from some sort of illness, like cancer. It had to do with license to complain. The point, I think, was that the person who is ill gets to complain about whatever they want, to whomever they want. Then there are those who are super close to them—say a spouse, or children, or parents—they get to complain, but only to others, outward, but not to the person who is ill. Then you go out a bit more—close friends, say—and they can complain to folks that are still further removed, but not inward. They don’t get to complain to the person who is ill, or their spouse, etc.

Anyway, imagining these people grouped in concentric circles by relative social distance was a helpful mental image for me. Not so much in thinking about who gets to complain to whom (which I didn’t really find that interesting), but rather in who feels the thing. A diagram of the relative domains of sorrow, maybe. Or something like that.

I don’t know what it’s like to be suffering from a life-threatening illness, but I can imagine. And the thing that I imagine is the emotional toll such a thing would have on those close to me. I’m sure I would complain and whine, such is my nature. There would be good days and bad. I might curse my luck and genes and the stars—“Is it even so? then I defy you, stars!” But I think (I think) that I would worry most about how my being sick hurt those I have been lucky enough to have loved me.

It seems, to me, that the lion’s share of the emotional pain associated with serious illness lies with those who love those who are ill. And this, I think, falls into the category of what I would call a beautiful tragedy—tragic, for obvious reasons, but beautiful, because if we could not love we would not feel pain, but to love is to suffer. But love is also beautiful, maybe the most beautiful thing. Thus, a beautiful tragedy.

What a terrible irony, no? Born of a terrible paradox…

Well, here’s another paradox (sort of): Riding bicycles to promote a cancer-hating charity.

But it works for me. Doing hard physical things, pushing bodies to new limits…there is beauty in this. A celebration of life. Or, as Eric Liddell put it, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His presence.” (God didn’t make me that fast, but I still feel my most human—like I am most fulfilling the measure of my creation, when I am at my most fit, and doing a thing at my very capacity.)

The effects of cancer, or any serious illness, are the opposite—it is our bodies betraying us.

So it makes sense to me to promote a cancer-hating charity by pushing personal physical boundaries and celebrating what it means to be alive. It makes all the sense in the world.

If you haven’t yet, please consider tossing a couple dimes to the Flatwater Foundation, which works with therapists to provide mental health services to folks impacted by a cancer diagnosis at a fraction of the market rate.

Mmm… Smell the salt in the air. We’re in Maine now, and tomorrow, our last day, we’ve 96 miles of coastal riding and then we’re done. It will be a celebration of life.

...

Maine! We made it! So we can stop now, right?
Another front-ended day...these small, fairly steep climbs took a toll.
Full ride details here.

This cool little store came at mile 33 today. It's apparently famous for being a regular campaigner's stop. The backroom is full of old political campaign posters. Some Thompson guy with the catchy slogan "No Drugs" (I failed in my picture taking). If only we had elected that guy, I'm sure all our drug problems would not be problems.

Below, a number of unfinished shots from our professional photog, Tyler Northrup. You can follow him on the 'gram: @tylernorthrup (no shots from this week yet, but hopefully we make the cut).







(CJ photo cred for the shot of this tall drink of water.)

Oh, and don't miss my second guest appearance on Pie Guys!

Monday, June 24, 2019

#thelobsterroll, day 4

Woke in the middle of the night with this distinct thought: God is numbers.

Also the realization that CJ (our support driver) won’t be able to drive if there’s pulled pork involved. (Involved with what? I'm not sure.)

And somehow this shed light on the problem of getting the small girl and her cute pink bicycle--complete with handlebar streamers--over the curb and onto the sidewalk. This, apparently, was a problem too difficult to deal with without knowing that, indeed, God is numbers.

Is it weird that I slept very well after day one, but rather poorly the last two nights? Perhaps having worked out what God is I'll be more settled this evening.

...

Today was new kit day. Which is always a joy.


New kit day means photo ops. Lots, and lots of photos.


We stopped at this lovely outlook for photos...and drone filming fun (no picture of drone included, unfortunately.)


A lot of the photography (and videography) was done from this white van, either with side door open or back hatch. We were, I'm sure, very handsome.

And there were a few segments of gravel travel, which is also joyful. (As it watching Brian descend the gravel roads with reckless abandon.)


But then Tim destroyed a rim. This was not joyful.


Pictured above is the offending hole, which really seemed a nothing. All of us were left scratching our heads over that one. (We had a spare set of wheels in the van, so it wasn't long before we were rolling again.)


You'll all be quite happy to know that I have now finished my grading, summer class grades have been submitted (at 10:30 pm), but the threat of rain tomorrow has prompted plans for a 6:00 am departure, which means bed. Now.

For tomorrow, we ride.

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A reminder of what we're doing this for--please support The Flatwater Foundation, which provides mental health services to folks impacted by a cancer diagnosis, by supporting us. Click here to donate now.

Thank you.