The Way We Teach

(Written originally on Sept. 12, 2013 in response to a Michael J. Fox Facebook meme stating “If the child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”)

I disagree, Michael. Schools, at least public schools, were never designed to be private tutoring agencies. They were designed to be socializing agents, meaning the student was taught how to fit what society felt were the important things a person needed to know and also about being a member of that society. This was done using what was called a classical education…. which all began to change in the 1960s, as we abandoned the concept that there could be any absolute truths, and began to see the world as a mass of relativity. What has resulted is a world in which there are no truths any more, and that your truth is just as valid as my truth, even though yours (or mine) might be far, far away from anything remotely reasonable, let alone the Truth.*
Relativity has impacted the educational community by evolving to the conclusion that there can be no set standards by which to measure a child since each child is measurable only to him/herself, and thus must be taught individually. As a career teacher, now retired, I found myself asking the question, how can I possibly write 30 individual lesson plans for every student in my class (times 5 classes)? Nor is it possible for school districts to hire one-on-one teachers for every student (although by being forced to try, the Special Education budgets in many districts are sinking them, and the regular ed students are on the receiving end of the cuts). It would all be nice in theory, yes, but it’s not only physically impossible, it’s fundamentally a bad idea because it destroys the very essence of public education. Bottom line, we have devolved to a point where the school must fit the child, and abandoned the much-healthier concept of the child fitting the school (and therefore their society).

February, 2015 addendum
*Thus, Wisconsin Governor (and presidential candidate) Scott Walker’s recent attempt to strike “search for Truth” from the Wisconsin state universities’ mission statement of 19th century origin makes a certain amount of sense. It also exposes the schizophrenic nature of today’s Republican party philosophy, which constantly spouts Christianity, but when it comes down to it seems to want to deny the possibility of finding any Truth.

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Who Really Benefits?

I came up with this question while teaching Sociology a number of years back, and I think it’s a good one. It was an evolutionary process; I had for years been trying to get at the essence of what was wrong with what I saw as predatory capitalism. One day it hit me: Who Really Benefits?
Who really benefits from marketing to children? Who really benefits from casino gambling? Who really benefits from liquor sales? Who really benefits from televangelism? Who really benefits from the sale of violent video games? And on and on.
I challenged my students to ask this question prior to every purchase, or even every decision. But in order to ask the question, they had to understand who all the players in the game were: Who were the beneficiaries involved in every purchase they made? You’re buying a house? The bank is a beneficiary, the real estate agent is a beneficiary, the builder perhaps, the home inspector, the closing lawyers, and on and on. But hopefully, so are you, and so you purchase the house because you’re buying a home. You really benefit. The trade-off is worth it (unless you buy a money pit). You could say the same about the purchase of a car and many of other things.
But who really benefits from the increase in the sale of vices, like gambling? Who really benefits from the 50% sales at the discount malls? Who really benefits from an overflowing plate and unlimited refills for just a dollar more? Who really benefits from convincing people that the outdoors is a bad place to get fit for free?
It’s a good question to ask in our personal lives as well. Who really benefits from our having sex together at age 15? Who really benefits if I take this first marijuana hit? Who really benefits when I get drunk on Friday night?

This could probably go other places, but I’ll just throw it out there for starters.

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Report from Leadville 2013

Here’s my race report from the 2013 race, written in the days shortly after the race in August. My two Leadville experiences are a “tale of two cities”. My first LT100 was a dream day. My second one was much less so. I have two buckles. I earned them both, but boy, that second one wasn’t pretty.
At the end of this post is a list of post-race reflections on why the 2013 race was so much more difficult. Not on that list: every day is a different day – sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.

August 10, 2013 – Race Day 

I woke up before the alarm clock (set for 3:30), after a fitful four hours of “sleep”. I laid in bed for the ten or fifteen minutes until the alarm went off, then up to make the “traditional” double oatmeal with raisins breakfast – this after the daily glass of chocolate milk. Then suit up and run down the checklist. My son-in-law and daughter, Mike and Ruth, bless their hearts, were up by 4:00, and we all headed down the hill to pick up Alex in Twin Lakes at 5:00 and head for Leadville.
It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day – deep purple sky giving way to lighter shades as we drove in. NO CLOUDS!!
We got to town about 5:40, finding a parking place on Harrison less than a block from 6th. The bank time/temp read 39 degrees. I jumped on the bike and rode up the street back to where we had seen a Leadville cop had pulled over an SUV right at the curve coming into town? Really? Is that the way you want your race day to start? I thought I’d offer a word of encouragement. Got there and it was a non-racer pulled over, so I left it alone.
Back to the car, where we got shoes, gloves, etc. on and got our bikes over to our corral. Alex and I got a pretty good spot toward the front of what was going to be the single largest corral of riders. They really seemed serious about somebody being with the bikes at all times, so we took turns, one of us staying with the bikes, the other using the porta-potty. I was able to say my goodbyes to Ruth and Mike and then lost sight of them as they moved on down the street for a better view of the start.
I don’t remember much of the last few minutes before the gun went off. For some reason, the scene seemed surreal, and I had a feeling at one point like that dream we all have of being on stage at a packed Carnegie Hall, just sitting down at the Steinway in our tails, and realizing we have no idea how to play the piano. What was I doing here?
In fact, I didn’t feel sharp, in focus, and that feeling would be with me all day. Slightly fuzzy. The 2011 race day lives in much more vivid memory for me today than this race of just a few weeks ago.
After the national anthem, which was actually sung acapella, beautifully and non-country-musically, by a female soloist, the final countdown was inaudible to those of us in the cheap seats. As two years ago, I never heard the shotgun, just a distant shout that informed us the race had started, and then the now-customary wait to be able to move. Unlike two years ago, this year there was no joking around about this waiting to move, and this was my first inkling that the back corral contained more seasoned riders than 2011. Just a lot of serious faces, focused ahead of them on their start, very little group feeling. Okay then.
And then, off we went, creeping along for a block or so before the start line, having at one point to put feet on the ground, but finally able to get a little movement and sweep across the start and begin my chip time. I had the presence of mind this year to start my Garmin at the start line so I’d get accurate stats.
I remember at some point as we swept down 6th Avenue toward the first little hill thinking, “this just doesn’t feel the same as 2011”. My, how true that would prove to be.
The three miles down the hill toward the Arkansas were uneventful. I was better-equipped this year. I was wearing good fleece gloves over my fingerless gloves and my hands felt much warmer, even though the temp was colder. And of course, this year I was wearing my yellow rain jacket, zipped and velcroed to the max, as opposed to the “unique” green poncho of 2011. In addition, Alex had lent me a set of arm and leg warmers. I had never used these before and they would prove to be very valuable assets as the day wore on.
As we crossed the river and made the turn to go over the tracks, there was the customary logjam as not only is there a 90 degree turn onto the dirt, but the dirt road is significantly narrower than the blacktop. It was another point where I had to unclip and put my feet on the ground for a few seconds before traffic began moving again. I expected this, and more to come on the flats leading toward the St. Kevin’s climb (and let’s make sure we’re pronouncing this right – it’s Keevin’s- and no, I have no idea why).
But for whatever reason, there was nowhere near the tight traffic this year as 2011 on this 3-mile dirt road, and I was able to move at whatever speed I wanted. This may have led to my first feeling of the day that I was slower than the others in my corral. I felt like I was pushing to keep up, and I don’t like that feeling. And it’s not like I was racing their race; I was pushing to maintain the speed that I knew I had to maintain in order to make my cut-off to Carter Summit. This was not a good sign. In 2011 I had felt like I was master of my domain, riding better than most, or at least WITH, most others in my corral, helping out, advising a lot of newbie riders (even though I was a newbie myself, I had spent a month prior to the race training on the course, so I knew it well). Today, I felt like a stranger in a strange land, riding with a lot of people who were flat out faster and more fit than me. The month off in June began to weigh on my mind.
As I rode along, however, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment. I remember the moment the sun broke over the Mosquitos to our right and began flooding the valley. It brightened the color of the hundreds of jerseys and jackets in the long line of riders ahead of me, and brought a cheer to the day. And then it got better. Ahead of us I could see the most beautiful bank of mist laying across the valley, reaching its fingers across the road where it met the trees. I’ll never forget cresting one hill and seeing the unbroken line of jerseys, hundreds and hundreds of them, moving for a mile ahead of me into that mist through which the sun was now shining. A lifetime moment… which was unfortunately the highlight of the day.
At the turn to begin the St. Kevin’s climb, where I often stop to pee, I had no need to do so, and so began the slog up the hill that just keeps getting steeper and steeper. And now the traffic increased exponentially, just like on any highway at rush hour when you begin to climb even the slightest hill. I believe I was forced off the bike two separate times because I just couldn’t make it through the riders ahead of me. In both cases I was able to remount after just a few steps and keep going. Unlike two years ago, I suffered on St. Kevin’s, but never dismounted of my own volition, largely because my pride wouldn’t allow it, not because I didn’t want to.
Again, I realized that this wasn’t 2011. By the time I reached the hairpin, that short but amazingly-long 15 minutes later of grades up to 21%, my heart rate was in the 170s, a problem that would stay with me for the next 50 miles. Unlike 2011, traffic thinned out after the hairpin and I was able to ride my race all the way to Carter Summit. And again, unlike 2011, it was a much more difficult piece of the race. Those little climbs after the hairpin just weren’t fun this year.
I got to Carter Summit in 1 hour, 5 minutes. I’m pleased with anything under 1:10, but again, somehow it just seemed to be so much harder than 2011 and not nearly as fun. And I just didn’t feel “in” it. Why?
From Carter Summit it’s that wonderful 3-mile sprint downhill on the pavement behind Turquoise Lake. As in 2011 I achieved my fastest time of the day here: 41 mph in the full racer crouch most of the way. Unlike two years ago, I left my jacket on because it was still chilly with a bite to it. Down, down, down and then the grind two miles uphill to the Hagerman Pass Rd. and another two miles of light climb on the newly-graded, almost-pavement-like Hagerman road. No washboard! Good going up at 10 mph, but it would be even better news for the return at twice that speed.
I forced myself to pee at the turn onto the Sugarloaf climb, even though I didn’t really feel like I had to. This in itself was a bit alarming, as not peeing usually means improper hydration. But what’s this??? My urine was burning as it passed from my body. This is a heck of a time to be passing a gallstone. It was really painful. No time to worry about it – it would be what it would be. Although I had felt like I had been hydrating regularly, I began to wonder. (In hindsight of a month later, I’m thinking that my hydration was insufficient in the weeks before the race, not necessarily on race day itself. More on this later.)

Sugarloaf

Near Sugarloaf summit, Mile 15 – (note photo-bomb guy taking leak in background)

And there it was again. I should have been cruising up the Hagerman road at 10-12 mph. Instead I was struggling at 8-9. The Sugarloaf climb, which I usually look forward to, was less enjoyable, and more of a struggle than any time in the past, including the 3 or 4 times I had done it in the previous three weeks. I was just expending too much energy, and my heart rate in the 160s on a relatively minor climb was proving it in numbers.

And I was still cold. The jacket stayed on.
And now… the Powerline. It was a highlight of the day. Unlike 2011, I was never obstructed from going as fast as I felt I could, and hopefully I didn’t hold anyone up. I knew by the top of Sugarloaf that this day was going to be a struggle, and that one advantage I had over a lot of racers around me was knowledge of the course. I also knew that I had descended Powerline without dismounting (somehow) three weeks before in what Art Fleming described as the worst condition he had ever seen it in his 10-plus years here. So I knew I was going to have to get my buckle on descending, contrary to what all the experts say.
So I let it fly on Powerline. No, not in Alban Lakata/Todd Wells fashion, but I’m guessing as fast as anybody in my age group, maybe faster. For whatever the reason, I’m a good descender, and feel confident in letting my bike take the lead. I just stay back as far as I can on the saddle and let ‘er buck. I had no incidents of any kind, not even a little “scare”, on the Powerline descent this year, and I felt very, very good at the bottom of the run, all fifteen thrilling minutes of it.
Powerline is very difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t ridden a mountain bike. And the YouTube helmet cams just don’t do it justice. There are certainly more technically-challenging descents in the mountain biking world, but there is something about the raw physicality of the Leadville Powerline that I think makes it unique. The wheel-eating ruts that run vertically along with you can be as much as two feet deep. One momentary lapse of concentration and your day is over. The bowling ball-sized rockpiles you have to navigate through at speed also present the challenge of knowing that one wrong decision two seconds ago will result in you going over the handlebars. Now put rockpile and ruts together. Now multiply that by a good five or six places like it. Think you can let up near the bottom? It’s like those Colorado highway signs on I-70 for truckers: “Don’t relax! Six more miles of danger!” The wrong move near the bottom on the 90 degree turn while you’re navigating down an 18% grade along a foot-wide strip of loose Rocky Mountain composite granite with a gully on your right and a 50-foot hillside on your left… well, you get the idea. And finally, you have to maintain an intense level of concentration for the entire descent. This is not like going down some 50-foot drop at your local singletrack park. This is a solid fifteen minutes of brow-furrowing, laser-stare, no-blink concentration. One micro-second lapse equals the end of your day. With 1500 racers, there are some who do end their day here. If you’re reading this and aren’t a rider, you’re thinking it’s crazy, but it’s not. It’s doable, but it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to look forward to it. If you’re afraid of it, it’s either going to eat you alive or you’re going to creep along at a rate so slow as to infuriate the hundred riders behind you.
At the bottom of Powerline, you head across the new “ABC” bridge (built by Art, and two other guys starting with a ‘B’ and a ‘C’) across the creek (the bridge is now widened to at least two feet – it’s like an interstate for cryin’ out loud), and then you climb up onto the pavement and head over to the fish hatchery and on toward the Pipeline.
For the record, I maintained my concentration this year and did NOT fall off my bike ten feet after crossing the bridge.
After rounding the curve on 300 by the fish hatchery, I caught up with a pace line that was frankly moving too fast for me. Looking back, it was probably a mistake. There was almost no wind, and I would have been smarter to go it on my own. But the common wisdom is that you “must find or create a pace line between the fish hatchery and the Pipeline.” And so I did.
The good news is that we averaged 23-25 mph for the approximately five mile distance. But by the time we broke off onto the dirt doubletrack that leads over to the Pipeline, I was pretty gassed. And I never took the lead once! Again, my heart rate was soaring – in the low 160s!! This is CRAZY high! Should be 130s, maybe low 140s at tops. What was going on? My legs were hurting too much, but more to the point I was feeling gassed. Just no “oomph”, no kick, no ability to take it up to the next notch. And I wasn’t to Mile 30 yet.
And now my mind began to enter the picture. I began doing what you never must do – I began looking ahead. “I’ve got 15 miles of the Pipeline, then the 10-mile Columbine climb, then I’m only at the half-way mark…”, and I began to settle to the realization that it wasn’t going to be my day.
I crossed the Pipeline chip mat at 2 hours, 39 minutes, almost dead on my interval of 2:40. But I was in trouble and I knew it. The rest of the Pipeline to Twin Lakes was a struggle. It’s pretty flat (as flat as it gets anyway – in fact, there are six climbs that the Sunday bike rider might well be walking), and then there’s a 2-mile steady ascent on good gravel over the moraine just before descending into Twin Lakes. Again, no ability to kick it up to the next level. Just plodding, plodding. Hurting.
Add to this, at some point on the Pipeline my left hamstring began acting up. The back story is that I had been struggling with this hamstring for months. It never got bad; just “there”. But now, here I was at Mile 35 and it’s starting to twinge. But wait, now my quads were beginning to ball up! What??? The only time that EVER happened to me was last year in the Iceman, at Mile 25 of 30 after I was just pushing so hard and was so unfit, that it felt like two tennis balls that were at some point going to force me off the bike and onto the ground. Fortunately, that course leveled out and I was able to finish the race. But here I was at Mile 35 with Columbine, not to mention the Powerline ascent ahead, miles ahead. But WAIT! now my stomach was beginning to feel queasy!!! This could NOT be good! Too many miles ahead of me. A bad stomach forces many, many riders to end their races (http://fuzzyblackdog.wordpress.com/). Between the ham, the quads and the stomach, I was really becoming even more convinced now that this was simply NOT my day today. I had NONE of these issues two years ago.

Pipeline

On the Pipeline outbound – Mile 35 or so

Hamstring, quads, stomach issues…

Even crossing the dam was a struggle. And what’s this!? The leaders, three of them, came tearing across the dam, nose to tail. There was such a long line of us heading outbound on the “good” packed-down gravel that they were just ripping toward us through the loose stuff on our left. It didn’t seem to be slowing them down. Holy crap! Two years ago I didn’t see the leaders until I was over the Stooges and on my way across the flats to Columbine (another 2 miles ahead). I was on my splits, so it was clear that these guys were on their way to a course record… but that was their world. I had a long way to go and I was hurting.
Again this year, thanks to Frank Gepfrich, (http://www.herbalife24basecamp.com/2012/08/herbalife24-frank-gepfrich-rider-spotlight/), the friend I made and trained with back in 2011, my crew was under the HerbaLife “umbrella”. I assumed the big black and green HerbaLife tent would be highly visible right near the dam; they’re a major sponsor, after all. But I had never seen the dam so chaotic and so crowded- a sea of tents and flags… and I simply couldn’t find HerbaLife. About halfway down the road there was a big ambulance blocking the entire road. I couldn’t see around it, but surely HerbaLife wasn’t THAT far from the dam – they’re a prime race sponsor! I must have missed it. I circled back toward the dam, somewhat frantic and frustrated, asking at the main LRS feeder tent, “Where’s HerbaLife, where’s HerbaLife????” Thank goodness someone understood me, and said they were way down on the right. I headed back down, but volunteers were blocking the right side of the ambulance, and the left side was being kept open for outbound leaders. As I approached it looked like I was going to have to actually stop for this traffic issue. It’s an indicator of my increasingly frustrating state of mind that this was bothering me as much as it did – that I was already beginning to realize that every second might count.
Just as I approached the ambulance, it began moving, then stopped abruptly. The guy in front of me actually hit the rear bumper and came off his bike. But I saw an opening to the left; the volunteer waved me through and I tore around the ambulance and quickly saw the HerbaLife tent on the right. (I later discovered that that ambulance was there for a spectator who had had a seizure. By coincidence, she was the girlfriend of one of my Chicago friends, Carlos Sintes, who I had trained with back in the spring. She ended up okay, but it finished Carlos’ race. Even though he eventually went on, he lost 45 minutes and didn’t make the 9-hour cut at Pipeline.)
I pulled in, skidding to a halt and there were Ruth and Mike! And Roger and Sandy! And Frank’s friend, Dave, who I hadn’t seen since 2011. Can’t begin to explain how GOOD it is to see people you know at the aid stations. One of my goals was to make my aid stops much faster than 2011 by staying on my bike, not getting off and sitting down under the tent like I did before. And I really felt I was doing that. Bryan has this entire stop on video. Comparing this stop with the aid stop in 2011, there’s just a completely different feel. In 2011 I gushed about how much FUN this was – and I was bleeding in three places then!! This year I stated quite early in the stop that I was worried about my heart rate, that I was having problems with my legs, and there’s somewhat of a haunted, detached look on my face pretty much the whole time. I was panting; couldn’t catch my breath. I thought the stop was fast; in fact the video shows that I pulled away from Twin Lakes aid after – are you ready – 4 minutes, 26 seconds!!! Granted, the camelbak had to be adjusted a couple of times, and there was some fumbling about my rain jacket (Sandy was semi-insisting that I wouldn’t need it any more. I had to insist that I did – it was going to get cold on that mountain. I had only taken the jacket off about fifteen minutes earlier – at the base of the singletrack, I think – and I was still wearing the arm and leg warmers up). (I also got a bit upset at Sandy because she said I was behind my time of two years ago. I corrected her sharply; that in fact I was ahead of my time of two years ago. I was into Twin Lakes at 3 hours, 38 minutes, just a little ahead of where I was in 2011. But I think the real reason I was cross with Sandy is because I was just cross: I knew how much trouble I was in.)
And now…Columbine. I left the comfort of family and friends and headed up the hill toward the Stooges. Unlike 2011, I was able this year to climb right up and over them without a struggler in front of me forcing me off the bike. And then it was across the broad valley ranchlands to the base of the Columbine climb. I kept looking for Rebecca (Rusch), but never did see her. Saw what I thought was a woman pass by, but again, that was their world.
Passed through a mini-Twin Lakes dam scene where the road comes in from Granite. Amazing the number of tents now set up at this alternate/impromptu/unofficial aid station. Must have been 100 yards of tents lining the road here. Lots of cowbells and waving and cheering. I wasn’t in the mood. I knew what was waiting. And I figured Columbine was going to be where either my hamstring and/or quads and/or stomach and/or dead legs were going to do me in… or not.
Somehow that first steep incline right at the start of lower Columbine was okay, but then I fell into my “new” pattern: simply no get-up-and-go. I plugged away up the hill at speeds mostly in the 3-4 mph range, significantly slower than my 5-6 mph training average. Importantly, I never got off the bike, but part of the reason for that is that it’s more painful for me to walk than ride: so, lesser of two evils.
And now something ELSE: a headache began to form itself around my temples. Oh great. I’m just above 9000. What’s this going to be like in two hours at 12,000? What *else* could go wrong? I had NONE of this in 2011.
After what seemed hours (because it was) I finally felt the tripod (it’s what I call that metal mining structure just before the first steep climb that signals the beginning of “upper Columbine”) nearing, but not before a frustrating experience. There was a guy ahead of me, walking… and I simply couldn’t catch him. I’ll say in my defense that I have never seen a guy walk this fast, but still, I mean, come ON! This was so demoralizing. I must have followed him for two miles before finally passing. Sheesh.
I got to the tripod and stopped to pee (more pain!!) and put my jacket back on. The quad issue had dissipated to nothing. The hamstring hadn’t sprung. My stomach issue was gone. The headache was minimal. Even my heart rate had dropped into the 140s now, where it should have been tens of miles ago. I should have felt more thankful than I did. It was sunny, but cold. Decision time. Jacket or no? Decided no – I’d use the leg and arm warmers. What to ride and what to hike-a-bike now. I decided, again against most advice (you’ll waste energy that you need to have later), to try to ride the first steep section. So I did, and made it probably ¾ of the way up before getting off the bike. This is when I found out that, true to the day, my feet were going to be problematic. I have been having some issues with the toes on my right foot, and I now found that I simply couldn’t place full weight on that foot in a “straight-ahead” gait. I had to turn the right foot almost 90 degrees to the left and just use it as a “place-holder” while I pushed off with my left. One-legged hike-a-biker.
I got back on the bike whenever I could, but there’s probably a good mile (?) of hike-a-bike, along with everybody else, and it was, in fact, painful. I thought briefly about what got me through two years ago – comparing my self-imposed “misery” with the real misery of 18th and 19th century American slaves. I tried that this year and just didn’t have the mind for it. Fuck that, just walk and get it over with. I do remember at one point glancing up and seeing the line stretching up and up what seemed like Jacob’s Ladder to the heavens. It was discouraging. I was cold. Everybody else raved about what a perfect day it was. I was cold.
Finally, I reached that point where I could get back on the bike and grind away to the summit. I was not enjoying the “beauty” above treeline this year. My feet were appreciating being back on the bike again. And again, the remaining climb to 12,600 feet was a slow grind. So discouraging to be so much slower than any training ride. What was going on???

columbine

Ascending Columbine, about 12,500 ft., Mile 49. Lost 20 minutes on this climb. Disaster.

I reached the summit and coasted down the hill to the turn-around, which I barely noticed. I felt like I was in a mental fog. I knew I had taken too much time getting to the summit, but I was unclear on just how much time I had lost. I just knew it was time I didn’t have to lose. (In fact, my time from Twin Lakes to Columbine turn-around was 2 hours, 35 minutes. This was the first split time I missed, and I missed it by a LOT. My target was somewhere between 2:05-2:15, so I lost somewhere between 20 or 30 minutes here… and I was shooting for splits that would give me an 11:30 finish. This is where I knew I was done for the day. Again that little voice began taking control: “If I just lost a half hour on Columbine at Miles 40-50, how much more am I going to lose on Powerline at Mile 80, or on the climb to Carter Summit at Mile 90? I’m done.”) I gave no thought to stopping at the Columbine summit aid station. Seemed senseless in light of the 45-minute “rest” I was about to get on the way back downhill to Twin Lakes.

Powerline inbound

Trying to put the best face on for the camera, just past the Columbine turn-around at Mile 50. Homeward bound. (I beat that guy to the finish line by seven minutes.)

Now the word “rest” is a very relative term, because descending Columbine is a test. It’s not anything as technical as Powerline, with the exception of a few short steep spots on the upper reaches. The test comes in its length. I descend pretty well, so I knew I could cut it loose here. But it’s a test of physical strength, especially the arms and hands. Forty-five straight minutes of high-speed (for me, that’s 20-25 mph) descending. The road is quite rough at the top and you feel like the eyeballs are going to get jarred loose from their sockets. Everything’s a blur, literally, on the upper section (2 miles), but again you have to trust the bike and your instincts. Once “lower” Columbine is reached (8 miles), the road “smooths” into decent fire road, but you’re always braking. There are about six hairpins you don’t want to over-shoot or lose your traction on. So it’s alternatively letting the bike run out, but then knowing you’ve got to get it under control for the next hairpin, then letting the bike run, etc. etc. etc. For 45 minutes. By the time you get back down to the ranchland, the forearms, wrists and neck are pretty sore from maintaining the same position for so long.
Also, I knew that my time up Columbine was poor, so I felt I had to get what I could on the descent. So I was probably a shade more reckless than I should have been. What did it get me? Two minutes. I made it down in 43 minutes, two minutes faster than my desired split time. Whoopee.
I was in trouble.
And I REALLY knew I was in trouble when I pulled into Twin Lakes again. The HerbaLife tent was down. This meant that ALL their riders had come and gone and they were packing up to go home! THAT was depressing.
The demeanor of my crew was subdued. Though they tried not to show it, I knew they had been expecting me a lot earlier. Heck, I had been expecting me a lot earlier. I don’t remember anything from this aid station stop other than a feeling of impending doom. We changed out the camelbak and I hit the road. There was a little less enthusiasm in Ruth’s “You got this, Dad”. I’m pretty sure they, like me, were thinking I didn’t.
As I rode away, I created a new, “realistic” goal. “Ok, I’m not going to buckle. There, I’ve said it. So just give it everything you’ve got until you either give out or cross the finish line. You should be able to get a finisher medal (for an under-13-hour finish) if your legs don’t give out on you before then. In any event, just keep going until you can’t go any more.” In fact, although I felt bad for disappointing Mike and Ruth, who came all the way from New Hampshire, this re-adjusted goal set my mind at ease for the first time in many, many miles of worry.
Things didn’t get any easier physically, but I at least now had a new approach: keep going until you physically can’t go any more. I was not going to allow myself to be defeated mentally.
So across the dam and up the moraine and over to the single track. Okay.

Singletrack

The start of the single-track, inbound, Mile 65

Up the single track, through the woods, over to Lil’ Stinker, the short but super steep hike-a-bike, and wheeled onto the Pipeline. Okay. Not fun, but okay.
Up and down the swales and across the Pipeline. Barely conscious of riders around me or the environment, or the circumstances. Somewhere I stopped to take off the jacket again. I don’t know where. (2014 note: Where did I put it on? I’m not wearing it in picture on Singletrack.)
I barreled through Pipeline aid station, wondering not so much if, but how and when Powerline was going to do me in. I knew I didn’t have much left in the tank, so it would probably be Powerline where I went down.
I crossed the Pipeline chip mat 1 hour, 19 minutes after leaving Twin Lakes. This was a good fifteen minutes behind my planned split time. In 2011 I did this split in 1 hour, 5 minutes. And that was the FLAT part of the course! Now I was a MINIMUM 35 minutes off my splits for an 11 hour, 30 minute finish. If you’re doing the math, that’s a 12 hour, 5 minute finish. No buckle.
But for some strange and absolutely irrational reason, I felt for the first time since very early in the race, that I might have a chance to buckle. After all, I was close. But I was also keenly aware that I was on the bubble, and so did every rider around me from that point on. Two years ago, I was riding from Pipeline to the finish line (last 28 miles) with a certain degree of comfort, knowing I had a pretty good time cushion. This year, I was exactly where I had hoped I never would be at that point: riding desperately on the border of Buckle Land. On the other hand, having any chance was a lot better than my feeling 15 miles earlier of having no chance.
Of course, the headwind had started back at the dam, but Pipeline is rather sheltered in the trees so you don’t get it too bad. But after Pipeline aid, you head out to the blacktop and there’s not a tree in sight. It was approaching mid-afternoon now and the wind really picked up. Serious headwind. Of course. I scrounged a pace line: all two of us. And then we found Dave, another “old guy” I had trained with on several of Art’s rides. Very nice man. He was hurting, like me, so we joined up and encouraged each other. Our third rider soon dropped us two old, tired guys, so for most of the blacktop all the way to the hatchery, it was Dave and me, trading leads about every 30 seconds. I felt like the stronger of the two, and that gave me strength: I had to lead – Dave was counting on me. At one point, Dave told me he couldn’t take his turn, and it was alright. I pulled another turn. I knew we were going to make the shelter of the trees pretty soon. And we did. At that point, I moved on ahead, and my gut feeling was that Dave just might not make it. (So it was one of the great pleasures of the day to see him cross the finish line just a few minutes after me and get his buckle. He told me he couldn’t have done it without me, but I think it’s just as much the reverse.)
And now… Powerline. There simply wasn’t anything to do but do it, right? I mean, you don’t train for a year to quit at the base of the Powerline. I made a point of riding at least a few feet farther up the steep base than I rode in 2011 (maybe 2/3 of the way to the 90 degree left turn). Then off the bike, again the feet really hurting. So much that I actually got back on the bike for what is probably a 20-yard rideable section on that first steep hill. I remember getting to the top of that first false summit, the steepest behind me now, stopping to rest, and thinking, “Thank Goodness! I will NOT have to walk again until the finish line.”
Or will I? I still had forty-five minutes of Powerline ascent ahead of me. Tricky, rock-strewn, gullied, and still steep enough. In other words, not just climbing, but pulling the front wheel over rocks and across gullies for another three miles. Two years ago I rode the entire rest of the Powerline without stopping. But two years ago I had energy. Today, I didn’t know how I’d even gotten this far. I peed, then stepped over the center bar, clipped in, took a deep breath and went after it.
I remember a few things. I know I was forced off the bike several times by technical mistakes compounded by the fact that I was going so slow that my front wheel could have hit a pebble and it would have grounded me. How slow? My Garmin kept ‘beeping’ off because it was reading 0 mph, that’s how slow. It irritated me, because I knew I was moving, but I bet it happened more than thirty times in the next hour. And then… NOOO!!! There was that walking guy again!!!! Ahead of me again!!! Same guy!!!!! And I couldn’t catch him…. Again!!!!! This was a revoltin’ development (that’s an age-appropriate joke). After what seemed ages, I finally did catch up with him and remarked on his amazing walking pace. He told me he hadn’t really trained for the race, but he was a big hiker, so his race plan was to walk every hill and then descend like crazy. He didn’t say this in a friendly way; almost like I was bothering him by asking. He took off on me again, and in moments was a good ten yards ahead of me. Grrrrrr.
Finally I passed him just as we summited. When? Just about an hour after starting the ascent. Like the descent of Powerline, there’s a mystique on the ascent. It becomes timeless. You want to keep track of the false summits, but by this point in the race your oxygen-deprived brain isn’t able to remember the number. Was that the third one, or the fourth one? Oh, forget it, just keep climbing. You know it’s going to end, but it’s like a form of hell – there simply is no time attached to the pain. You just keep going, knowing only that it’s going to end SOME time. (I guess that’s not like hell, then.)
I don’t remember any particular stab of joy upon summiting. There was no time for emotion. I had to get my ass down Sugarloaf, and I tore it up. I don’t have a specific Sugarloaf split, but I know I descended that hill faster than I had ever done before. It was a blur. It was desperation time and I knew this was my last real chance to go real fast for any amount of time. Every minute counted now, and I had minutes to make up if I was going to buckle.
Sugarloaf isn’t technical, but it’s also not smooth. That same eyeballs jarring out of sockets feeling (I don’t ride one of them new-fangled 29” full-suspension bikes that just roll over everything like your grandpa’s Caddy. Mine is a 13-year-old 26er hardtail, emphasis on the HARD, feeling every little rock, like your great-great grandpa’s covered wagon. And I was feeling every jolt on my 63-year-old spine on this descent.)
But it was a thrill, I have to say. And I knew that the newly-graded Hagerman road was going to work in my favor. Two years ago I coasted down Hagerman road, resting. Today, I put the hammer down and hit the mid-20s for most of the two miles. Same thing on the 2-mile descent behind Turquoise Lake.
And then… the big 3 miles of steady pavement climb to Carter Summit. It’s Mile 87. What’s in the tank?
Turns out, enough. One of the main things that pulled me up that hill is that I knew Mike and Ruth were waiting at the top. I had had the foresight to anticipate that Mile 90 might be a good time to see family again. I remember wishing two years ago that I had seen Lois again somewhere between Twin Lakes and the finish line. So I asked Mike and Ruth to make the effort. And they did. And knowing they were going to be up there at Carter Summit is exactly what I needed.
I’ll be honest, it was a long, grind up that hill, but I seemed to be making my training speed of 5-7 mph. In any case, I couldn’t have gone any faster, so it was going to be what it was going to be. As I neared Carter Summit, my watch read 5:15 p.m. Once in training I had specifically timed myself from Carter to the Finish Line. I had heard you should make it in an hour. I did it on relatively fresh legs as fast as I could: 1 hour, 3 minutes. But that was after only twenty miles, not ninety. I now had 1 hour 15 minutes. This was going to be close.
Mike saw me approaching the summit and ran to the turn-off with me. I saw Ruth there. My heart felt good. I had been planning on stopping at the aid station. I was needing to pee. Badly. I was low on hydration. But I simply couldn’t afford to stop. I yelled something to the effect, “I’ve got to keep moving. Can’t stop!” and I never slowed down as I turned off the pavement for the haul across to St. Kevin’s. I hoped they knew how much their being there meant.
I’m not going to say it was easy, but I was motivated now. There are three “grunts” on the way to the Kevin’s descent, and they were no fun, especially the 100-yard one after the sharp left turn at Ken’s Corner. But I stayed on the bike the whole way. No more walking.
When I passed the old mine tailings I knew it was a long downhill ahead of me. Again, I had to throw caution to the wind and let it rip down St. Kevin’s. You don’t want to crash your race at Mile 95, but I had to take chances.
I hit the flats at the bottom of Kevin’s, that place where a half a day ago (or was it months) I had ridden in the other direction through the magical morning mist. And now it began to rain. As far as I can tell, I’m the only rider it rained on all day. But it was after 6:00 now and it was a cold rain. My jacket was in my camelbak and I simply was not going to take the chance of losing a buckle because I stopped to put it on.
I was flying now. Unconscious. Can’t say I was feeling no pain, but the finish line was within reach and maybe, just maybe…
I crossed the river and headed over to the Boulevard, that last little kick in the teeth they throw at you just so you know it’s not going to be easy. I remember very little of the Boulevard except checking my watch. A lot. I did not like being on the bubble, but now, for the first time, it was becoming increasingly clear that barring sudden collapse I was going to get a buckle. I remember not being quite able to digest the fact. For the better part of eleven hours I was resigned to the fact that I wasn’t. Now, in what seemed the space of a relatively few minutes, I was having to deal with the fact that I was. I couldn’t wrap my fuzzy-headed mind around it. It wasn’t really registering as anything other than a “fact”. I’m glad I’d ridden the Boulevard a number of times before race day; otherwise it can get to you mentally, as in “Will this *&#@&-ing thing ever end??” In fact, that slow, smooth climb on good gravel was painful, but at Mile 101 of 104, what is pain?
I made the last climb up 6th Avenue, looking for my marker pick-up truck in the driveway on the right that told me I had summited my last hill. On training rides I always looked for it – even saw the owner once who assured me it would be there on race day. I figured at Mile At the top, you get your first view of the finish line. I picked up speed and pedaled as fast as I could down the hill toward it.
And now, because I was one of those riders on the bubble, there was an amazing sight as I neared the finish line. There was a gauntlet of people for about a half-block before the red carpet, cheering on any of us who were trying to beat the 12-hour deadline. There was a “center aisle” through the crowd maybe five feet wide and I headed for it, the cheering, clapping, cowbells growing louder by the second. I smiled for I think the first time all day as people reached out and clapped my shoulders and arms. Maybe it was a kind of teeth-clenched, grim kind of “damn-it-I-DID-it” smile, but it was the best I could muster. And then the crowd dissipated and the last twenty feet before the red carpet it was just me, alone, smiling.

Mile 104 – The Red Carpet
I took a quick look around – nobody right behind me. Did I have the energy to do it?
I found the last reserve of energy and picked up the necessary speed to hit the red carpet with both hands in the air. The clock read 11:48 as I crossed the finish line. I had ridden from Carter Summit to the finish line in 1 hour, 3 minutes. Same as my training time.

finish

The Finish Line (that’s Mike running up from behind)

Merilee put the finisher medal around my neck and I collapsed over my handlebars.
Mike came up from behind me and Ruth got there moments later. Hugs all around. Frank and Tim showed up, and then Rebecca Rusch, who gave me a big hug and high five.
Done. Somewhere, somehow, I’m still not sure, I had made up my lost time. My official chip time was 11:48:37. I got the buckle.

Post-Mortem

So why was this race so much more difficult than 2011? Race day conditions were perfect. After three weeks of rainy, cold, crappy weather, race day was perfect, if not a tad chilly. Sunny, the course was that perfect, tacky, slightly damp granulated granite, many of the rough spots either graded by machine, like Hagerman, or beaten down by all the bike traffic in the two weeks prior to race day. Powerline being a perfect example: it was SO much better than it was in mid-July. Here’s some variables, any one of which could have made the difference, but probably more like the combination of them all:
1. Family vacation in June. I knew I might be sacrificing my race by essentially taking the month of June off from training. I was on my bike a total of three times in three-plus weeks, and those three rides combined totaled less than six hours. This had to be a factor. In 2011 I remember riding much of the course, especially the flats and the smaller hills “effortlessly”, meaning no leg discomfort. FUN. This year my legs hurt all day.
2. Pre-race hydration. I had been noticing for a couple of weeks that when I urinated it was a darker yellow than usual. In fact, I usually run almost clear. In hindsight, I think perhaps I wasn’t drinking enough good liquid (too much diet Coke) in the weeks prior to race day, and perhaps that had a cumulative effect. It could explain almost all the race-day symptoms I experienced: quad cramps, hamstring, stomach, headache, stinging urination – am I forgetting something?
3. Race day hydration. I THINK I was drinking regularly, but unlike 2011 I don’t think I completely drained any of my three 70-oz. camelbak bladders. The cooler weather may have had something to do with this, but fact is, you’ve GOT to drain those things even if it IS cold. An indicator that I may not have been hydrating properly would be the fact that I peed significantly fewer times this year than in 2011. And this also may have had something to do with the pain – don’t know. (The painful urination ended after the first discharge the next morning. Never returned.)
4. Age? I just felt mentally fuzzy all day; not the laser sharp focus of 2011. On the other hand I was sharp “in the moment” this year: no falls, accidents, mental errors. I ran a really clean race, so I’m not as sure about this one. Overall, fuzzy, but sharp “per second”.
5. Lack of excitement. I never was quite AS excited about this race as I was the first one. Then again, I’ve never had a more sustained excitement about any athletic event in my life as that first race. There could be several reasons: 1. “Second race” syndrome. I don’t even know if this exists, but I know I thought often along the lines of “how could this race possibly top my “perfect day” in 2011?” How do you get better than perfect? 2. Lois not on board. It’s hard to say this, but it’s difficult to mentally gear up for a race your spouse doesn’t want you to be gearing up for, especially when you love that spouse as much as I love Lois. Hand in hand with this is 3. The feeling that by going to Colorado for a month I was abandoning not only Lois, but also Anna.
6. Bad taper. Not in riding as much as in fatigue-inducing activity. Volunteering to course mark and do registration so early on the two days prior to race day at 7:00 a.m. – just too much for my ankles. I was in real pain leading into this race, and I think that may have had something to do with the pain I experience on the hike-a-bike sections.
7. Serious lack of sleep not just on Friday night, but for most of the week prior. Somewhat hand-in-hand with #6. I slept poorly for several nights prior to the race, and then got a maximum of four hours of definitely-not-deep sleep the night before. I remember seeing the clock say “11:30”, with a 3:30 alarm set. Way different than 2011 when I slept like a baby the night before, a good 6-plus hours.
8. Lack of cross-training. Because of the ankles, I can’t run or do most gym machines, so I’m limited to bike riding. But unlike two years ago where I alternated road and mountain bike training, this year I trained exclusively on my mountain bike. I wonder if I so overused those specific muscle groups (and gave no other muscle groups a chance to work) that by race day I was worn out before the race started. My journal indicates all spring and summer long how much my quads and hams were hurting on training rides.
9. Hosting – From Wednesday night through race day I was host, first to Tim, Frank, and Alex, then on Thursday to Roger and Sandy, then Friday evening Ruth and Mike came in at about the time I should have been in bed. Just a lot going on mentally in terms of having the right amount of food, cooking, and determining where everyone was going to sleep. Would have been much better to be isolated those last few days. Lois would have been a big help here.

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The Dark Power of Harold Ramis

1000px-Harold_Ramis

(I wrote most of this in March, 2014, but it needed polishing, and then life intervened. I’m publishing now because the topic is important to me.)

Like almost everybody else, I was saddened to hear of the death of Harold Ramis on February 24, 2014. Too young. Too soon. Too talented. Too nice. Of all his roles, my favorite was his relatively small one as the kindly doctor in As Good As It Gets. He seemed perfect for the part; blushing, beaming, gentle, self-effacing. No one, it seems, had a negative word to say about him. How could you? The man was an American comedic film legend.
But his death has led me to think about his other side – maybe his dark side? – namely his influence on our culture as a director and writer. The March, 2014 Atlantic, which went to print before his death, features what has become a widely-circulated story titled “The Dark Power of Fraternities” . Author Caitlin Flanagan makes a strong case for the moment in time when fraternities went from being seen as fuddy-duddy preservers of the old order to the hip, alcohol-crazed, off-campus sanctuaries of bacchanalia they are today. Maybe you’ve already guessed: “Animal House, released in 1978, at once predicted and to no small extent occasioned (my emphasis) the roaring return of fraternity life that began in the early ‘80s and that gave birth to today’s vital Greek scene.” The article is replete with horror story after horror story describing alcohol-induced deaths on campuses across America.
Ramis wrote and directed Animal House. Judging by obituaries like this one in the New York Times, it ranks as one of his crowning achievements: “His breakthrough came in 1978 when he joined Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller to write ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House’, which starred Mr. Belushi and broke the box-office record for comedies at the time.’ The obit continues: ‘More than anyone else,’ Paul Weingarten wrote in The Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1983, ‘Harold Ramis has shaped this generation’s ideas of what is funny.'”

I would like to make the case that Harold Ramis shaped much more than a generation’s idea of what was funny. We could engage here in the argument of whether art reflects or directs culture, but in citing the importance of this one movie on the rebirth of a dying fraternity system, and to the general party atmosphere on college campuses today, Flanagan seems to believe the latter.
And so do I, more or less. Like everyone else, I laughed at the outlandish behavior of John Belushi as John Blutarski (how could you not love it when he took that dweeb’s guitar and smashed it to bits against the stairwell wall?), but deep down I remember an overall sense of discomfort with the idea that I and so many people around me in the theater, and in my generation, were laughing at the unstated premise of the film: that virtually all aspects of the Ancien Regime are ridiculous and by (hilarious) inference, are not worth saving. I distinctly remember thinking that I would not want my children (to be born just a few years later) to be anything like John Blutarski.
Does that make me a prude and a killjoy? Maybe by today’s standards, but call me what you want, we’re talking something deeply important here. If you step back and look at other Ramis films, Caddyshack (1980) or Stripes (1981), you’ll understand the real purpose behind Animal House. All three films mock moribund American institutions – the old-line military in the case of Stripes, old-line conservative education in Animal House, and the old-line greed and hypocrisy of the country club set in Caddyshack. Granted, there was plenty to mock.

And they’re all hilarious. All three were extremely effective at ripping the shrouds off of and exposing the bloated corpses of these institutions. But when you take them together you see the real message: there’s NO institution worth saving.

But then what? What solutions were offered? None, except “Let’s dance on the rubble of what we destroyed.” Caddyshack, in fact, ends with Rodney Dangerfield joyfully exclaiming to a cheering crowd (in a line that seems out of place until you understand its larger context)  “Hey everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!”. As in Animal House, the future being offered by Ramis to America’s next generation? Let’s get drunk, let’s get high, let’s get laid. Why these solutions? Because everybody knew that by 1980 American liberal Christianity was in crisis mode (Read retired Notre Dame professor George Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief)It had offered no viable solutions to the Baby Boomers, who as children were taken by their parents to Norman Rockwell-looking churches which by the 1950s had been emptied of any real content. The children were not fooled and by the 1960s they had either abandoned religion altogether or were experimenting with other more exciting and exotic religions, like Taoism or Buddhism, to fill the void.

So, I would argue that what happened as a result of Ramis’s films was the “second generation” of an already-tattered ’60s New Left movement. Some history. In 1962 a group of intelligent and motivated college students at the University of Michigan issued their Port Huron Statement, listing concerns for a world they saw being ruined by their elders and offering clear, intelligent and humane alternatives. Go ahead, back up two lines and read it. It doesn’t take long. Does it not offer a reasoned response to what could be called, without much argument, the real problems of their day, most of which were being ignored by The Establishment? It put some big ideas out there.

But what happened to this movement within a few short years? By 1969 it had been dragged down by a tidal wave of youth’s lowest common denominator, who took its call for fundamental change as license to open the floodgates of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll”, and a helpless adult American culture, now awash in teen Baby Boomers, sat by and watched the revolution envelope them, their only responses as the waters closed over them being knee-jerk demands for “law and order” and Richard Nixon. At the same time, the very real concerns of the Port Huron Statement (ie., nuclear annihilation, civil rights, poverty) actually were beginning to be addressed, but… its real message was lost on most Baby Boomers, who just wanted to get drunk, get high and screw in the mud at Woodstock: the ideals of the New Left were lost in a fog of purple haze.

Enter the next (or “second”) generation of cultural gate-keepers, led at least in part by Ramis and his National Lampoon cohort, who jumped on a bandwagon that by the late ’70s seemed unstoppable (and we now begin to see art not only reflect the culture of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, but target its direction).
We began to see more and more movies that tore apart the hypocrisies of the “old school” (literally, in the case of Animal House) but offered no solution other than sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. (To make my point, Ramis didn’t write Stripes; he co-starred with Bill Murray. But the screenwriter’s first acting choices were  … wait for it … Cheech and Chong.) It was the New Left/Port Huron crowd stripped of its moral base, much like Poor Richard’s aphorisms in the early 18th century were 17th century Puritanism reduced to one-liners and stripped of its moral base. As happened in the ’60s, the lowest common denominator saw this movie in its most simplistic terms, and off they went to college with the expectation of (or at least the hope of in the case of Animal House’s “EveryMan”, Larry Kroger) getting drunk, getting high and screwing on the grass in the Quad. After all, it was their turn, wasn’t it?

By the turn of the century, as Flanagan points out, the entire culture of “higher education” had been changed, and not to the benefit of either education or the nation. Many prospective students now make the Princeton Review party school listing their first college research. Local and national media, like Chicago’s Fox affiliate in 2013, highlight these Princeton results before any other: “The University of Iowa may top the list of the nation’s top party schools but the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign isn’t far behind.”

Side Story (This could be a separate blog entry, but it belongs here. Sorry.)

Back in 2002, Lois and I hatched a book idea. It was a culmination of three things: 1. our concern for the degree of alcohol abuse by our athletic teams at Downers North High School (I had two consecutive varsity soccer seasons ruined by drinking incidents in the early 1990s) combined with what was our perception of a lack of parental concern for the problem in our school community; 2. our reading of Indiana University Professor Murray Sperber’s amazing 2001 expose of college athletics and alcohol (Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education); and 3. attendance at our daughter’s freshman orientation at University of Colorado-Boulder in 2000 where we heard that it’s not the college’s job to police student drinking; it was our as parents job to instill non-drinking values in our children before they got to college. (Please picture the university wiping its hands here.)

Bottom line: we felt that outside of a Wheaton College or Bob Jones University, there was an entirely new level of bacchanalia of which today’s parents were simply not aware. The reigning opinion seemed to be, “Oh, I drank when I went to college, too,” and when we would try to tell them that what was going on now was at a completely different level from what they were doing in college, they simply didn’t believe us. Besides, and maybe the root of the problem, how could they tell their kids not to do what they had done when they attended Faber?

Our idea: take a year’s leave of absence from our teaching jobs and travel from coast to coast, visiting one college or university campus each week, from major “big-name” universities to the smallest of small colleges. On each campus we would interview students, deans, janitors, campus security, campus health center personnel, frat and sorority presidents, college presidents when possible, but most importantly we would observe the party scene, a new one each week. During the week we would write it all up, and then move on to the next campus. The idea was that by documenting the horrors of collegiate alcohol abuse on campus after campus after campus, that American parents would no longer be able to slough the epidemic off as something either exaggerated or infrequent. (A decade later, Flanagan’s Atlantic article was heartening to us.)

We thought the book was a good idea, and decided to do a test run.
On a weekend in January, 2003 we made arrangements to visit the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana, staying two nights. Our first stop was a pizza joint with more than a dozen of our former students. For over two hours they told stories that confirmed – no, exceeded our worst fears. They wanted us to write this book.
Over the course of the next two days and nights we: met with the Dean of the University, the president of the campus Greek system, the head of Health Services, the head of dormitory maintenance, rode the infamous “night bus” from midnight to 2:00 a.m .  (from a U of I nightlight website: “Transportation is always open for students through safe rides. The weekends is very hard to find someone that can actually walk in a straight line. The parties here do get out of hand sometimes.” You can read many more entries for yourself, but we can affirm the truth of that statement.)

If it wasn’t an exhaustive study, it was exhausting. We returned home Sunday afternoon, sobered (no pun intended) and convinced that this was a subject in need of a book, but we soon realized we weren’t the ones to write it, a decision that had as much to do with our not being able to afford taking a year off from our teaching jobs as anything else. The need is still there: View this 4-minute Youtube video put together by U of I students. It’s part of a series of “I’m Schmacked” videos on campuses all across the country. It appears to confirm that nothing has changed for the better since we visited over ten years ago.

Our short weekend at the University of Illinois showed us that everyone benefited from the current alcohol policies; everyone except the students, of course, who naturally thought they benefited (remember, they’d all seen that American classic, Animal House). And the parents, who were ignorant either by absence or choice. And our nation.

Here’s the way it worked.
The university banned drinking in the dorms, and the fraternities (over 55 of them at U of I) were now all dry (most of them own separate “party houses”, so yes, there’s no drinking allowed at the frat house itself [get it?]. This looks really good in the college alumni and fraternity magazines.). That made the bars on Green St. the prime focus of legal alcohol consumption. The university felt, as the Dean of Students said, “with regret” that this was the best the university could hope for in at least controlling the problem. It’s remindful of the red light districts in 19th century American cities.
So the university and the frats are absolved of responsibility, right? Okay, next step.

Kam's

At Kam’s on graduation day: remembering the best part of their college experience?

The City of Urbana has a law that allows 18-year-olds into the bars, but they’re not allowed to drink. Did you get that? “Sure, go ahead and sit with your friends at Kams (“Home of the Drinking Illini”), but whatever you do, don’t drink!” Right. What happens, of course, is that the underage drinkers, identified with a special bracelet, sit at the tables while the 21-year-olds buy the pitchers at the bar, bring them to the table, and you know the rest of the story.

Conclusion

I’d like to stop here to talk about Animal House again. Because I’m curious how we got from the 1950s and early 60s to the present. In the 50s yes, there was certainly drinking and pre-marital sex and who knows what other behaviors on college campuses, but at nowhere near the levels we see now. The drinking culture is perhaps now the primary culture on campus, to the extent that it has begun to exert powerful influences over the academic culture. And as Sperber surmised, any university that doesn’t offer a competitive mens’ football or basketball team is simply out of the race. (My theory is that as true liberal arts education is now all but dead on university campuses anyway, replaced by technology-driven job training, the traditional feel of a college education is gone. A college diploma is now the equivalent of what a high school diploma used to be. It’s nothing special… and students, I mean, customers, may not feel any more special at U of I than they do at Costco.)  Sperber points out that the older tenured professors, of which he was one, have first dibs on the class calendar. As such, they place their classes between Tuesdays and Thursdays. Why? Because the partying starts on Thursday nights and they know from experience that there’s a significant “hangover effect” on class attendance on Mondays. That leaves Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as the remaining productive days of the week. If this rings a bell, by the way, it’s because it’s almost identical to what was happening in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s before the fall of the Wall: alcohol abuse so rampant that factory production on Friday’s and Mondays showed seriously deteriorated production quality.
Alcohol abuse affecting factory production in a dying Soviet Union is one thing: Russians had every reason to be depressed. But rampant alcohol abuse affecting virtually every institution of higher learning in the United States is, in my opinion, quite another, and more serious thing. Way more serious, partly because the college years are the peak years for expanding one’s mind and examining one’s soul, partly because college students represent the future of American society, and partly because college should be a “high-brow” affair (as in, you know, “institutions of higher learning”).

The real concern in all of this? If in twenty years campus life has deteriorated to this level of moral depravity, what will we see by 2040, and what will the ramifications for the nation be? It should be noted here that while other nations also have campus drinking, the United States stands virtually alone in its degree of moral depravity in its institutions of higher learning.

Now, of course, the issue of campus rape is on everyone’s lips. We have but one question. How much campus rape is alcohol-fueled? In our opinion, the problem isn’t rape; it’s the alcohol that fuels the rape.

Back to Urbana. On both our nights riding along with the Urbana police, the night ended just before 2:00 a.m. as we pulled up across the street from Kams. It soon became obvious why. As the students trickle onto the sidewalk at closing time, the police don’t have to wait long. On my night, it was a girl who fell down within a few feet of leaving the bar. My policeman got out of his car to “assist” this young lady. Bringing her to the squad car, she got into the back seat. He obtained her ID and discovered she was 18 years of age. She pleaded with the officer not to write her a ticket. He was sympathetic, but firm. He wrote the ticket. She was crying now. How much? $400. That’s $400 into the city coffers from just this one student. Start doing the math.
So let’s review. The university is absolved of responsibility, the frats are absolved of responsibility, and now we have the City of Urbana raking in how many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars each year, simply by waiting for girls to fall down on the sidewalk. That’s easy pickin’s, man. And let’s not forget the immense profits for Kam’s and the dozens of other bars in both Urbana and Champaign which, like the Urbana police, have zero interest in making any attempt to curb binge drinking.

I asked the officer if I could talk to this girl. She was still crying, drunkenly distraught over her situation. Her parents would be notified, so it wasn’t just a matter of the money; she had to face her parents. I felt sorry for her. She had gone to Fremd HS in Palatine, a northwest Chicago suburb. I asked her how often she drank like this. She said just about every weekend. I asked her what her gpa was. She said it was a 3.2. I remember wondering about the level of academic rigor that allows a U of I student to maintain a ‘B’ average while drunk every weekend. (although as we know, you pretty much have to be a corpse to get a grade lower than a ‘B’ in college these days – otherwise, the “customer” gets upset and takes his business elsewhere, be that a different professor, a different major, or a different university.)
I don’t remember now how it came up, but she volunteered that she had been sexually abused at a party while drunk. Maybe at more than one party; she wasn’t sure.
She was a freshman.

While I was parked at Kam’s, Lois was in another squad car responding to an alcohol-caused 1-car intersection accident, but raced away from it to answer a more urgent call: a group of male students was seen dragging a female up the stairs of an off-campus apartment building, apparently against her will. When they arrived, there was no sign of anyone.

Just another weekend at Faber.

Postscript May 27, 2014: There was another mass shooting the other day, this one is Isla Vista, California, near the campus of UCSB. The killer released a 140-page manifesto plus a YouTube video that displayed his rage at the fact that he was still a virgin. He’d show those girls. The shooter, like most these days, took his own life. The media is awash with the usual questions. I mention this here because this article caught my eye. Apparently movie star Seth Rogen is highly offended because a Washington Post movie critic, Ann Hornaday posed the theory that his recently-released movie, Neighbors, might have had an influence on the shooter. The movie apparently (haven’t seen it) is at least in part about a college guy who gets a lot of sex (I know – shocking, right?). Among other things, Hornaday says, “Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it.” 

Addenda:

1. Thomas Frank critiques the negative impact of Ramis from a different, and also valuable, perspective in  Salon. Worth reading.

2. Our Book Proposal…that was never proposed (2003)

            There are now numerous scientific studies dealing with binge drinking on American university campuses. We are drunk with statistics. They are comprehensive… and stunning.

To those who read them.

But most Americans do not read scientific journals and so do not realize how significantly the culture of alcohol on campus has changed since their own college years. It is the anecdotal version of the scientific studies, then, that remains to be written. We believe if it were, America would read.

The academic and administrative communities, the college towns, the student body and the providers of alcohol have no interest in changing this new alcohol culture; they all benefit from it in their own way. In his recently-published book, Beer and Circus – How Big-time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education”, Dr. Murray Sperber calls this type of symbiotic relationship a “non-aggression pact”: all parties appear to benefit (although the student certainly does not).

And America does not. There are obvious short and long-term health issues for our nation costing billions now and hundreds of billions in the future. There is the precipitous decline in academic standards and performance. Finally, and perhaps most serious for a democracy, there is the astonishing disappearance of intellectual, moral and political discussion on our university campuses.

Upton Sinclair exposed the ills of the meat-packing industry in the first decade of the 20th century in his muck-raking expose, The Jungle. His book was visceral. We learned that there are two productions the average American never wants to witness; the making of laws and the making of sausage.

In the first decade of the 21st century, we hope to expose a third “production” Americans don’t want to witness; the making of a campus weekend. We hope to shine a spotlight on these weekends because we feel that only the “outside world”, the off-campus world, can bring change where change is desperately needed.

We propose taking America with us on a one-year tour of university campuses, one campus per week, between September, 2001 and May, 2002.

Each stop will include visits to campus and off-campus parties, interviews with students, college administrators, campus health officials, campus and local police departments, maintenance workers, rape counselors, bar owners, residence hall supervisors, local ministers, local residents, fraternity and sorority officers and members, and any others who can provide local information.

We believe the results will be shocking… and sobering.

We will present the events that have led to this catastrophe in American higher education, illustrate its rapid growth, and the extent of its cover-up. We will show who benefits in the short run. And we will attempt to demonstrate that, in fact, the nation as a whole is the biggest loser, and stands to lose much more if current trends go unchecked.

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The Acts of the Apostles

In light of the recent kerfuffle on the Right by the Pope Francis’ “radical” statements on the distribution of wealth, I thought I’d post something I wrote this past summer (without the help of the Pope, so pardon my lack of proper theological/teleological/and/or exegetical terminology).

July 19, 2013
The Acts of the Apostles

The Early Church

The Early Church

One thing I’ve struggled with over the years is what I see as the contradiction of Conservative Christians between their theology and their economics, or maybe more to the point, their absolute hatred and revulsion for any practice they see as socialistic, or even leaning slightly toward socialism, or even sounding like it might begin to lean toward it. In the minds of many Americans, it seems socialism has become the number one threat to both Christianity and the nation. Obama’s election has brought an even sharper focus to the hated S-word. I’ve pretty much let it be because 1. I figured it to be an election ploy to rile up the ignorant, and 2. I didn’t think I had much Biblical ammunition on my side of the argument.

While it’s true I haven’t been much of a Bible reader in my adult years, for the past couple of nights before bed I have been reading my King James version of the Acts of the Apostles, and have found some pretty interesting passages.

In what must have been the utterly amazing, confusing, exhilarating time after the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the Disciples found themselves reaching a population first of Jews, then Gentiles, who were very open to the idea that the Jesus they (the Jews) had killed, might in fact have been The Messiah. At first in Jewish circles, the Christian Church began to grow, and grow so fast that the original 12 disciples found they could no longer manage the day-to-day operations. They asked the newly-formed congregations of Christians to nominate the equivalent of a group of middle management types so that they could continue in their roles as CEOs (Chapter 6:2-6). Upon doing so, “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples (that’s small ‘d’ disciples) multiplied in Jerusalem greatly….” (verse 7)

And what does Acts tell us of how these churches organized themselves? Chapter 2: 44-47: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”

Whoa! I don’t think there’s any other way to interpret this passage than to infer that the earliest Christians (living, lest we forget, in the epicenter of the, if not capitalistic by name at that time, at least materialistic world of the Roman Empire) chose – gasp! – a type of socialism as the best way to exemplify how God wanted them to live together on earth.

In Chapter 3, Peter and John enter the Temple and encounter the lame man asking for alms. Peter’s reply (verse 6), “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” Apparently Peter just wasn’t managing his mutual funds well. (What would T.D. Jakes say?)

Chapter 4 reaffirms the lifestyle (verse 32): “And the multitude of them (the early Church members) that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common…. (verses 34 and 35) Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

Verses 36 and 37, the last two verses of Chapter 4, appear to be laying a foundation for the first verses of the next chapter: “And Joses, … Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” It seems clear that the selling of all private possessions and the pooling of the resulting collective funds is the clear expectation in the Christian community.

Now a big moment. In Chapter 5, the communistic lifestyle of the early Church seems to be confirmed from on High. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, in the manner expected, sold off “a possession” BUT (verses 2-6) “kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and bought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? Why has thou conceived this thing in thine heart? Thou has not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.”

And of course, just a few verses later, wife Sapphira gets the same treatment. Holy Crap!

Now when I was little, the story of Ananias and Sapphira was told to me as a lesson in lying, the less-than-subtle message being that you’ll be struck down just like they were if, for instance, you were to say you weren’t in fact swimming in Swatara Creek when your soaked jeans and Keds told a different story.

And that may in fact be the main message. But look what they were lying about. Would God (through His instrument Peter) have struck them down if they had lied about swimming in the creek? We’ll never know (although I can confirm that I was not struck down*), but I’ll hazard a guess that what they were lying about was something of vital importance to the early Church community in the eyes of God. And that something was the fact that they had tried to hold out some money on the side for themselves, apart from the body of believers. This was apparently a big enough no-no to deserve the death penalty.

Okay. So there seems to be Biblical evidence in support of socialism. I believe there is also Biblical evidence in support of capitalism (the parable of the ten talents? and maybe others? I’m sketchy here). My point being, not that, AHA! See? God was a Communist!! I’m just trying to blunt the Christian Right in their blind hatred of all things Socialist, as they wave the Book they themselves hold as the only source of all Truth. It doesn’t appear to me that God takes real sides on the issue, or if He/She does, if anything the scales might tip in favor of socialism.

With the evidence of early Church socialism so apparent, this leads to another problem of today’s Christian Right: they either have to 1. ignore these passages completely, 2. write them off as being representative only of their times, or 3. find some way to re-interpret them. The first two of these responses fly directly in the face of their own stated philosophy of the importance, inerrancy and unchanging nature of every word of the Scriptures, and as for Option 3, the clarity of the passage (even in the stilted language of the KJV) rules it out. Option 1, then, is their most viable… and I’m guessing you won’t hear T.D. Jakes preaching on these passages in Acts**.

Which leads me to conclude that either 1. In most cases the loudest screamers against the evils of socialism are ignorant of the very Bible they tout as God’s Word, or 2. they lie, by either omission or commission, in which case, they need to re-read the story of Ananias and Sapphira.

*yet

**Google search turned up nothing

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“Phone Calls From White House To Jack Ruby”

“Phone Calls From White House to Jack Ruby”

Jack Ruby

It’s November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Like the majority of Americans, for a variety of reasons I feel there was more than one gunman, thus a conspiracy, thus a President was overthrown and the American people fifty years later don’t know who did it or why they did it. Important questions in a democracy. Am I positive of conspiracy? No.
The past fifty years have shown us a large number of conspiracy theories that are simply ridiculous: John Connally was the actual killer, the limo driver was the killer, umbrella man’s umbrella was actually a gun that shot a poison dart, etc. etc. Keeping legitimate and rational questions from turning to the irrational is a difficult thing in a nation of hundreds of millions.

Here’s my brush with irrational conspiracy theory.
In November, 1994 I was the faculty chaperone to a group of Downers Grove North High School students attending the CloseUp program in Washington, D.C. As the students were involved with the program almost every day all day, I had a significant amount of free time to roam the city. It was great. I toted my video camera along and did a running documentary of my visit. I visited the Vietnam Wall, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, Union Station, Arlington Cemetery, rode the little train underneath the Capitol, Ford’s Theater, snuck the camera into the Library of Congress (it was a different age)… and visited the Assassination Archives and Research Center (AARC).
My department chair recommended the AARC. He said it was a must-see, and it sounded quirky, so I added it to my list. I called the center a day or two before I went and asked if it would be okay if I brought my video camera. I spoke with the director, Jim Lesar, who assured me that that would be fine. On the spur of the moment I asked him if I could interview him on camera and he agreed. This could be interesting.

Jim Lesar

Jim Lesar

There was no internet to speak of in 1994, but if there had been, here is the AARC self-description (from their “About” page today): “As a result of two FOIA lawsuits pending at the time this law was enacted, the member of the AARC Board of Directors who brought the suits was able to force the CIA and the FBI to reprocess under the terms of the JFK Act approximately 750,000 pages of JFK assassination records that these two agencies had made available to the House Select Committee on Assassinations….The AARC’s holdings comprise the most extensive collection of records on the JFK assassination in private hands. It has approximately 1,500 books on assassinations, organized crime, covert activities, and a wide variety of other subjects relevant to the study of assassinations and related topics. Its “main files” consist of newspaper and magazine articles, unpublished manuscripts, trial transcripts, photographs, tapes, notes, letters and other materials which fill some 36 four-drawer file cabinets.”
While just a few blocks from Ford’s Theater, the AARC was in quite a seedy part of town. I found myself standing in front of a rather run-down looking ten story-ish office building, rather narrow, and entered, walking toward the back of the building down a narrow, dirty hallway. My expectations were dwindling. There was a very old elevator, the kind with the accordion gate, still manned by an actual elevator operator. I stepped in and said “Sixth Floor” (yes, I see the connection). With a lurch and a hum, we were on our way.
Stepping out into an even narrower hallway I turned to my right and was facing a door, sign reading “Assassination Archives and Research Center”. Somehow I couldn’t picture scholars trooping to find this place. I rang the bell, and Jim Lesar answered it. He was a rumpled, gray man wearing a droopy sweater. He looked like he didn’t get out much. He looked very tired, but he was pleasant.
Immediately upon entering one couldn’t help but notice the floor to ceiling stacks of cardboard file boxes lining the left side of what was a fairly long hallway – at least ten high and twice that long. Jim explained that these were over a half million pages of documents just received as a result of a Freedom of Information suit.
He took me out of the hallway and into what was a suite of connected rooms, perhaps at one time an old high-ceilinged apartment. The first room was his office. I think there must have been a desk, but you couldn’t see it for the papers and books stacked everywhere. I had an immediate sense of disorganization, if not chaos. This is an archive??
I had my video camera running as Jim began the tour. The next room was the library, a relatively small room with library-style floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Jim said they have every book they knew of on the topic of assassination, not limited to Kennedy or the Kennedy brothers.
Jim continued the interview as we went into the next room. It was larger and its walls were lined with filing cabinets. There was an additional cluster of filing cabinets backed up to one another in the center of the room.
Just as he was beginning to continue the interview, the phone rang in the office and Jim excused himself, telling me to feel free to look around. I could hear his voice coming from the office, two rooms away as I began to nose around. I found a large Styrofoam-backed chart propped against one of the filing cabinets. It was a matrix chart, maybe 4’x3′ containing the names of every conceivable person who had anything to do with November 22 and there were lines drawn wherever any person was connected to another person in any way. It was amazingly complex and I spent several minutes looking at it before continuing to wander. I remember pulling open a few filing cabinets and staring in wonder at not only the number of but the detailed titles of the folders, none of which I can remember today.
But then I found something I’ll never forget. For some reason (and in the maze of random papers lying around this place, I have no idea why) my eye was drawn to a sheaf of loose papers lying just above my eyeline on top of one of the filing cabinets (yes, I’m short). They were hanging over the edge a bit. As a random act I pulled the sheaf down, making certain to keep the papers in order, and here is what I read as the title to the top paper:
“Phone Calls From White House to Jack Ruby – September 15-November 22, 1963”
As my mind was wrapping itself around this title, my eye moved down the paper. It was a typed list of over twenty telephone calls from the White House to Jack Ruby. Each call was dated, with the phone number of the White House, the length of the call and another number I assume to have been Ruby’s in Dallas.
Very quickly, the importance of what I was seeing hit me and I remember my first thought being, “Whoa! Now WHO is calling Jack Ruby twenty times from the White House before November 22?!!!” That’s one call on average every three days. From the White House. To Jack Ruby. (This would be the time for me to iterate that while I was in fact a believer that there had been a conspiracy to kill the president, I could just as easily have been a lone-assassin convert, given good reason to believe so.)
Suddenly I got the creeps as thoughts began racing through my mind. Holy Crap! What WAS this document? Could it be real? If it was, the import was huge. How could it not have become public? I quickly turned on my video camera and held the papers at arms’ length, hoping the camera would focus in on the paper. I did a very quick video “review” of the thoughts that were racing through my mind, and as I was taping I heard Jim hang up in the other room.
I was spooked. Of course I shouldn’t have been, but I was. I quickly shut the camera off. I didn’t want Jim to catch me with this document. My instant reaction was that I was holding in my hand the single hottest piece of evidence of the entire assassination conspiracy and if anybody knew I’d found it I was going to be killed. Yes, I know in hindsight that’s ridiculous. Yes, I’m sure the document couldn’t have been real. (Could it??) I quickly put the papers back on top of the filing cabinet and turned to meet Jim as he came back in the room.
Of course the thing to do was to ask Jim about it, right? And I will kick myself forever for not doing that, but I was so spooked at the moment that my brain wasn’t working right, and Jim and I continued our little video interview where we had left off, an interview I now had absolutely no interest in. We finished, I said my thanks, and left.
I offer no rational explanation for my actions. I was excited by the knowledge that I had a really cool piece of video to show my students back at DGN. I of course told Lois about it and showed the video to my students, but it wasn’t until two months later, when the thing kept nagging at me, that I finally called the AARC and spoke to Jim. I was quite certain that the fact that time had passed would be insignificant – nothing in that place seemed to have moved in years, so all I had to do was tell him where the document was and he would retrieve it, explain what it was (or be amazed at what it was), and that would be that.
So I explained to him who I was – did he remember the teacher who interviewed him back in November, etc. etc. Yes, he did.
“Well, I found this document when I was there that I simply can’t find an explanation for and I’m wondering if you’d help me.”
“Of course, if I can.”
And here’s the frustrating ending to this story. Jim had no knowledge of the document. When I told him I could tell him exactly which file cabinet to find it on, he said, “I’m sorry, but last month they came in and painted the entire interior of the complex and everything has been moved. I wouldn’t know where to begin to look.”

I’ve arrived at a couple of theories as to what this document, if real, could have been. I’d be very interested in hearing yours.

I have the video tape. It moves in and out of focus at my arm’s length, but you can read the title and some of the dates and perhaps even make out the telephone numbers. I really need to get it transferred over to dvd, and if I had the money, I’d get it digitally enhanced. Until then…

anybody for a trip to Washington, D.C.?

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Anger Management

July, 2013

Last month, Lois, Anna and I took a 6000-mile car-camping trip through the western U.S. It was terrific. We drove across the Rockies, the Great American Desert, the Sierras, the Pacific Coast Highway, saw San Francisco and L.A., visited Dinosaur National Monument, Yosemite, Muir Woods, and saw a lifetime worth of small things that make lasting memories.
It was in the Visitor’s Center at Yosemite Village, and again on a boat tour of San Francisco Bay that I was reminded of something that used to bother me as a teacher. At Yosemite, it was a written history of the Indians who used to live in the valley, displayed nicely with pictures in a walk-through gallery. Think about it. These Indians lived for hundreds of years in the closest place possible to the Garden of Eden, and then they were suddenly expelled from the valley by a vigilante brute squad. Most died.
Yet somehow the National Parks version of this story managed to be so saccharin, so matter-of-fact, that you could stand there in the gallery and watch visitors file past, read (maybe) this horror story without understanding any of the horror, nod and move on to the next panel to read about the redwoods’ root structure. All the same.
On the San Francisco Bay tour, we were given headphones and a little transmitter which you tune to the language of your choice. The tour is so down-to-the-minute that the headphone tapes were on perfect cue at every part of the trip. This time it was the headphone narrator’s voice that was saccharin. Female, young, perky. As we glided past Angel Island, the hundred or so passengers on the boat listened to another horror story: the internment, sometimes for up to a year, of Chinese immigrants on Angel Island, for no other reason than their race. It was selective and random, like Jews being herded off the box cars, some to the left, some to the right. And yet, the voice telling the story in our ears was so non-committal, so “unbiased”, a story told in the same tone we heard describing the vast array of sea life in the bay and the number of bolts in the Golden Gate Bridge, that as I looked around the deck at all the people hearing the same thing I was hearing, I saw not a single expression of anger or dismay. It was just an inevitable fact, you see. What could have been done? Shit happens and it happened a long time ago (that would be before yesterday), so… whaddya gonna do?
I used to have my students read a short passage from their textbook (booorring!) about slavery or Native Americans. I hated that textbook as much as they did, but they would dutifully pull these 20-pound behemoths out of their book bags, drag them up onto the desk, and begin reading obediently.
I’d give them a few minutes and then ask for volunteers to answer this question: “How did reading about the treatment of these people make you feel?” Silence, of course, because in fact, it hadn’t made them feel anything. It was a history textbook – how could you possibly feel anything? Eventually I’d be able to coax something like this from a semi-reluctant sophomore: “I guess it makes me feel kind of sad.” Which might have been true, but was more likely the answer they thought I was looking for, and SOMEbody had to take a leadership role so we can get Mr. Graham off this stupid and vaguely uncomfortable topic.
Except that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. Not once in the years I asked that question did one student EVER say, “It makes me mad!”
But it’s the answer I always hoped for. What happened to slaves/Native Americans/union organizers/Jim Crow blacks/etc. in my country makes me MAD! What happened to Rosa Parks makes me MAD! What happened to Chief Blackhawk makes me MAD!! The use of chains and whips on millions of unnamed Americans makes me MAD!!! Not just “kind of sad”.
“Sad” is easy. It doesn’t require action. It’s retroactive. There’s nothing that can be done about what happened. “How… sad.” This is indicative of exactly what is wrong with U.S. History textbooks. They exude that formal “historical” sense that history happened exactly according to one script and that there could not have possibly been any other outcome. Same as that Yosemite placard. Same as that perky voice in San Francisco harbor. No action taken by anyone could possibly have changed the course of history. (This is especially comforting when your race or nation comes out on top every time.) And so we check our souls out from under any responsibility with a, “Gee, it’s sad, but I guess nothing could have been done. Awwwwww. (Now how soon can I check my texts to see what my friends are doing after school?)”
But “MAD” is an entirely different thing. It requires us to do something. It means we understand that things COULD maybe have been different. It makes us wonder what it would have taken for those things TO be different. It makes us understand that maybe WE have some kind of civic and moral obligation to face up to and take action on yesterday’s issues, when perhaps our forebears didn’t.
The Civil Rights Movement is a glorious exception to the rule. It’s a sterling example of a people rising up in moral indignation – righteous anger if you will –  to right a massive wrong. But sixty years after the fact, even it is now succumbing to the same kind of bland, “unbiased” treatment in the history books. After all, what Rosa Parks did was inevitable, wasn’t it? It had to happen – otherwise the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t have started, right? And the further away in time we get from these events, the more they become just another dull chapter in the history textbook. So a chapter of our history that should excite us down to the heart of our hearts, instead evokes the response, “I guess it makes me kind of glad.”
All the passion is removed. All the humanity. J.K. Rowling’s brilliant character, Mrs. Umbrage, the head of the Ministry of Education in the Harry Potter series, is the embodiment of this movement. Mrs. Umbrage would love “It makes me feel kind of sad.” Rowling’s point, I believe, in creating this character was to show that there are great forces of evil masquerading as human, in very high places, and what they want more than anything is the extinction of all emotion outside of a very narrow range, because passion is the essence of humanity, and human, truly human, is the last thing the forces of evil want people to be. I think Rowling and C.S. Lewis were very much on the same page on this, as are intellectuals who oppose the “politically correct” movement.

There’s a lot to be “mad” about in history. Let’s not be afraid to let ourselves be human in the fullest meaning of the word.

“Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.”

– J.K. Rowling

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