Friday, October 25, 2013

Weekday Dinner Conversations

     Dinner at our house usually begins with grace with whoever's turn it is doing the honors.  The kids each have their own set prayers that they recite by rote—even though they can say anything they like, as Deanne and I do.
     Then, as we partake, after thanking Deanne for the wonderful meal and complimenting her on the food's deliciousness and awaiting her thank you acknowledgment, I ask each child in turn from oldest to youngest, about his or her day at school.
     I used to ask, “How was your day?” but always got the same noncommittal, “Fine,” answer.  So then I started asking, “What did you study today?” to which they'd respond with a list of subjects—not the type of information I was really seeking.  Follow-up questions, such as, “What did you study in Math?”  “What did you do in P.E.?” followed.  I might then quiz them what is two squared  What did Columbus discover?  Did you get to throw the ball?
     More recently, I've had some luck with, “Anything interesting happen?” but all-too-often get only a mumbled, “No,” response.
     The best question—at least for the older ones—now seems to be, “What did you learn in school today?”  They usually come up with thought-provoking responses that lead to open-ended discussions that involve everyone—one of the best types of dinner conversations.
     But the process does have its risks.  My oldest son recently summarized his science project:  Describe the solar system in cartoons.  I asked, “What's your story line?”  He said there really isn't one.  I asked, then why did you print out a satellite?  (I had asked him earlier that day what he was printing and he showed it to me.)  He said that it discovered rings around Uranus.  I asked what's the satellite's name?  He said I can't remember.  I asked when was it launched?  A long pause followed.  “I think,” he said, “in the late nineteen hundreds.”
     My mind swirled through the calculations.  “Technically accurate, though oddly expressed,” I thought and felt very old.  But I laughed and said, “That's correct.  But you don't have to say it like that.  You can say the nineteen seventies or whatever.  The way you say it makes it sound sooo ancient.  It wasn't that long ago.”  I told Deanne, “Jeez, we're from the nineteen hundreds...”
     She, still young, laughed it off and said she guesses that's how kids born in the two thousands view us, just as she viewed Laura Engels and those born in the eighteen hundreds.
     The kids had a fun time seeing our exaggerated chagrin and unexpected hilarity at our own expenses.  Jaren laughed the loudest with theatrical hand gestures, thrown back head, and wide open mouth, though he's far too young to catch the humor behind it all.  It's fun enough for him to just laugh along loud.  Which made Deanne and I laugh even more (until it started to get a little annoying.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


     My University of Washington MBA economics professor (the best lecturer I ever heard) said something interesting: “I believe people who don't vote, choose not to because it's not fun anymore.” At the time (mid 1980's) ballots had tiny perforated nubs that voters poked out using a pointy instrument (a pen or pencil would do) beside the selected candidate's name. “I believe if we went back to the old voting machines, more people would vote.” The machines were of the punch-card variety with the pull down lever that left a rectangular hole beside the selected candidate's name.
     I confess, I saw his point. The process of pushing out the perforated nubs felt far less satisfying (dare I admit it?, manly) than thumping down the arm of the punch card machine with authority. The ballots themselves looked cheap—like some no-brain elementary school assignment.
     Our professor expanded on his theory and said nearly everyone realizes that his or her vote doesn't matter. “Has there ever been a single election where your one vote cast decided the outcome?” he asked rhetorically. “Knowing this is unlikely to happen, individuals decide whether or not to vote based on how well they enjoy the act of voting—whether the positive feelings (or lessened negative feelings) associated with it exceed their costs.” The economic principle of marginal costs and marginal benefits applied to more than just business decisions, he explained.
     A fellow student stridently argued the importance of everyone voting, because in the aggregate such actions had major implications for everyone's lives. The professor conceded that voting is a good thing and everyone ought to do it, but insisted that voting machines would bring more people back to the polls.
     I suggest that the reason many, if not most people bypass voting (or have little fun voting) has little to do with the voting mechanics and much more to do with the choices presented. When a buffet table offers slim pickin's and you know you're going to feel nauseated afterward, does it really matter what type of dinnerware the food is served on or the quality of glassware and table cloth? As Simon and Garfunkle put it, “Laugh about it, cry about it, then you've got to choose, anyway you look at it you lose...” or Ralph Nader, “Pick your poison.” When was the last time a candidate for national office spoke words that moved you to the core with complete and total conviction that he or she “got it” exactly the way you believe? For me, these have come few and far between, and have never won. I voted for them anyway as I like to encourage third party and alternative candidates to run. Two choices are seldom enough. On occasion, I find a major party candidate that I can support with some hopefulness. But the most fun I get voting is for the all-important state constitutional amendments and other such initiatives.
     Friends and family used to tell me I waste my vote on nonviable candidates. I tell them if I ever believe my vote will be the deciding vote, I may then vote for the lesser of two evils. This has never happened, and I doubt it ever will.
     Following my professor's line of reasoning, I come to the inescapable conclusion that either every person's individual vote doesn't matter, or every person's vote does matter (in the rare instance that an election is decided by one vote). However, collectively, everyone's vote always matters and decides the outcome of every single race. So, fun or not, please do vote every election (as do I, passionately).
     A fanciful notion to make voting funner occurred to me: develop optional electronic voting in a video game-style format. Selecting a candidate will result in a short show—perhaps a cartoon of the candidate getting beknighted with a sword or bedecked with a crown, all smiles and jumping about, while the upset challenger looks on and boos. It would probably increase voting—at least among the apathetic youth—until the novelty wore off, at which point the video shows would have to be updated.
     By the way, I haven't voted in person in decades; I vote absentee ballots all the way—so much more convenient.

Friday, October 18, 2013

NCLB Politics—Part II

     Local primary school educators who deny teaching to the test crack me up.  Reminds me of Bart Simpson, who—spray paint can in raised hand and over-spray on limbs and clothes—when confronted by Principal Skinner and a cohort of witnesses before a graffiti painting says, “I didn't do it.”
     If they had any guts, they'd say, “Of course we do it.  What do you expect?  We need the federal funds.  Who wants the added scrutiny of restructuring status?  If you don't like it, vote out the politicians that enacted NCLB!”
     Wordly Wise is blatant teaching to the test.  It requires youngsters to memorize asinine word lists--definitions, spellings, word forms, usage, synonyms, antonyms, etc.  I remember when I was a kid that the SAT company claimed its tests were impossible to study for because they encompassed a body of knowledge that could only be mastered through years of accumulated learning and that was what made them fair—rich kids had no advantage by taking cram classes because they didn't help.
     Well, I guess that myth got debunked, but instead of eliminating or de-emphasizing the socially and economically biased standardized tests, politicians and educators instead decided to attempt to level the playing field by having virtually all public school students drilled for these tests year-round.
     Now, I'm all for versatile vocabularies as word mastery expands comprehension and facilitates communication.  But memorizing word lists is not the way to go.  Enhanced vocabularies should be a useful byproduct of engaged learning, not the boring object of learning.  Or, once a child can read, dictionaries should be the primary vocabulary building tool, not standardized word lists.  Children that habitualize dictionary use while studying real subjects such as science, social studies, English, history, or health as early as possible tend to have the best vocabularies anyway, since they know best how to interpret and apply words in real-life contexts.
     Vocabularies, because they are so easy to test, are over-weighted in standardized tests.  Even spelling bees have such a narrow scope, they have only limited applicability to contestants’ future academic endeavors (especially if they don't even know the definitions of the words they so masterfully spell).  And for many, poor vocabularies don't even seem to impede their professional careers.
     An audit manager (who was about to be promoted to partner) in a CPA firm I worked for helped “correct” me in a small gathering stating that he believed the word I sought was “pronunciation,” though the word I was looking for and wasn’t sure how to pronounce was “enunciate.”  I didn't dare correct him.
     An HR director in a large state of Hawaii office misspelled a painfully obvious word (I can't remember what—he used a phonetic spelling) in a training session, that elicited a few chuckles.  It didn't hurt his career in the least.
     A former U.S. Vice President famously prompted a spelling bee student to change his spelling of the word “potato” to “potatoe.”
     Sure, public faux pas in others are easy to ridicule, yet we all slip now and then, whether through typos, hurry, distraction, or temporary mental block.  The important things are understanding; reasoning ability and agility; and perspective, compassion, and integrity—not persnickety perfection.  It is more important that we raise a nation of good, cooperative people and citizens, rather than robotic test-taking academes.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Making A

     A father will do anything for his kids. Give a kidney? No problem. Work an extra decade to send 'em through school? To be expected. Make A? Sure, why not?
     My brother-in-law did it when he dressed as Santa for my niece's second Christmas. She cried over the tall, skinny stranger that walked in through the front door, but everyone else appreciated his Ho Ho Ho Merry gesture.
     It was my turn at last year's Hawaii County Fair. A Maltese Family Circus clown (that looked and dressed like a gym rat) sought a volunteer for his knife-throwing act. He should've picked one of the cute teens jumping up and down two rows in front of us shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!” Instead, he walked past them, oblivious to their antics, and just as I was sensing a distinct possibility of his untoward intentions and turned to my wife and said, “Maybe we should have sat somewhere else,” he stopped beside me and cried through the loudspeaker, “How about you, Sir? Come on up,” getting the crowd involved—you know the routine. Once, twice, thrice they cheered encouragement to my demurrals until only a scum could further refuse. As I rose, I asked in an aside, “How much will I get paid?” to which he replied you'll have fun. I was off to be mounted upon the man-sized chopping board.
     The first throw was the worst. Head covered in a black bag, handcuffed, and leaned back on the board (inclined, I guess, in case I fainted), I must have flinched. It was a long throw of at least thirty feet—way longer than acts I had seen in the past—and that thunk beside my left ear boomed throughout the almost filled auditorium. The assistant beside me removed the blind and there stood the erect, shiny blade two inches away from my unbelieving eyes. I shook my head. “No more, please,” I said with a giddy smile.
     The assistant said in an aside, “Relax. I do it. It's safe.” His words reassured me and from then on instead of fretting for my health, I calmed and even tried to ham it up as a performer. I examined the knives beside my chest, removed one, and dropped it to the floor. I resisted the balloon in my mouth, then spat it out (as instructed) as soon as the assistant put it in. And I bent my knees when the balloon between my legs popped. (They'd placed a bucket below the balloon in case I peed, which I didn't.) Total time on stage was five-plus minutes, though it felt much longer, I just wanted the darn thing to hurry up and get over with. As we exited the auditorium and the throng slowed to get through the bottleneck exit, a lady beside me said you did well.
     Years ago, I'd've cringed if a performer even glanced my way during a volunteer-from-the-audience search. I never would have done it, and thus, never got selected. Now, they see me and sense: “He's the one. He doesn't want to, but he will.” Why? Because of my three kids beside me. For them, I'll do anything. Even make A.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Best Parenting Advice Ever

     For awhile after my wife and I became first-time parents, we got bombarded with well-intentioned unsolicited advice—from relatives, friends (even single ones without children), and strangers (at super markets, or passing by us on the sidewalk). I hated their advice. I was already so confused, unsure, and hesitant that everything I did felt inept, faulty, and/or harmful/dangerous. Their advice stressed me out and made me second guess myself even more.
       First-time parents: you can spot them even from afar. The solicitousness for their precious treasure is so touching. And their frazzled nerves from sleep deprivation and over-excitability show in their every gesture. And they stick to their charges like flies to, well, honey. I noticed this only a decade later in others and then realized that we, too, were once like that.
   The problem with the advice proffered is it all sounds so credible. Take it? Disregard it? What's one to do? What will happen as a result? Parents think they know best, but how can they, inexperienced as they are, stand confident? Maybe those others who sound so certain know better?
      When I was in the midst of it all, I shared my aggravations with my long-time friend Norm, who already had two young children. He told me, “Tim, you're getting way too worked up about this. Don't take any advice from anyone. Let me rephrase that. The only advice you should take is this: Disregard all other advice you receive from anyone else—whether from relatives, friends, or well-meaning strangers. Even doctors' advice, you should take with only a grain of salt because as parents, by definition, you know what's best for your child. When someone offers you advice, you should say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' Correction, say, 'Thanks,' smile, appreciate it, then disregard it. That's the only parenting advice you should ever take. And enjoy it. Enjoy being a parent. That's the only other advice you might want to consider taking. Easier said than done, though, at times, aehhh?
      I thought about it and decided I'd take Norm's advice. It's sound and makes sense. For suppose we take someone else's advice against our better judgments as parents and things don't turn out so well, then we'll always regret, “We should have done things our own way. We knew it and should have just done it. It would have been so much better that way.” Or, things might turn out OK, but inside we'll still wonder, “Maybe it would have been alright or even better had we done it our own way.” And, indeed, attentive parents do know their children far better than anyone else, and since every child is different, and no one loves a child more than his or her parents, the parents are in the best positions to decide what's best for him or her.
      Even as our children age, I see the soundness of Norm's advice. Children are resilient and adaptable. No parent is perfect. And no child is perfect, either. We each have our own needs, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. We do our best as parents and hope for the best. The rest is up to them (and God). The main thing is to stick together as a family, support one another, and give them happy childhoods—something they can always look back on for comfort, strength, and grounding, which I've done countless times myself through the years. It doesn't cost much, just a whole lot of love, time, support, talk, care, respect, and discipline—among the best things in life, besides.