Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Road to Hell

In the 1940’s a couple of literary theorists coined the term “intentional fallacy” that has to do with misunderstanding the writer’s intent in a poem or story. Many approaches to literary criticism would propose that attempting to know what a writer intended to communicate in a poem or story is undesirable, since that sort of analysis tends to limit the total understanding of a work to one specific interpretation. To understand the writer’s intent is also unknowable, even if the writer is still alive, because not even the writer her/himself fully understands his or her own intent. What’s true for the writer’s intent is also true of our own. At the conscious level we believe that we know what we’re trying to accomplish or communicate, but that conscious intent is being strongly influenced, colored and steered by darker, more selfish motivations in the unconscious. The term “unconscious mind” was coined 18th century German philosopher Friedrich Schelling and later proposed in English by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Sigmund Freud later expanded the understanding of the unconscious mind in what he wrote about psychoanalytic theory. The unconscious mind is the home of buried sentiments, subliminal thoughts, habits and reactions as well as deeply guarded fears, phobias and desires.  By definition, we can never take stock of that inventory of unconscious thoughts and impulses because they are unconscious.

 Deep down beneath what we perceive as our positive motivations are unconscious deep-seated desires for power, dominance and self-satisfaction. But since we would be ashamed and maybe even horrified by confronting those negative desires we downplay, ignore or strongly deny them. And we plaster over the ugly impulses of what really drives us in an effort to make ourselves look and feel better, to absolve ourselves of guilt and to have our own way.   

So when we say, “All I wanted to do was . . . “ or “ I just told her that because I wanted to . . . “ or “I was just trying to . . . “ we present our intent as singular and unadulterated. But we’re mistaken. To be sure, parts of our intent may be positive. We’re not bad people, after all. We want to be helpful and nice and engage well with others. But if you closely and critically examine how we do it, you’ll realize that we often act and speak with malevolent or selfish hidden motives, every deed and phrase a Trojan horse of personal agenda.  
Just a couple of examples from my own extensive catalog of complex motives and self-delusion:
As a graduate student in my late 40’s I raced bicycles with the Texas A&M Cycling Team, which was a club sport in which any student could participate. At the time I thought it was really cool (and it was) that I had a chance to put on maroon and white gear and compete for the school I had also attended as an undergrad in the early ‘80’s, a school I had loved since I was a child. But, without being aware of it, I probably was also pushed by a less honorable agenda: a chance to race my bike with a built-in excuse for sucking (well, after all, he’s twice as old as the rest of us). It was probably also on some level, a pitiful attempt to re-live college that looked foolish to most observers.

When I coached 9 year old boys’ soccer I used to justify chiding the referee as “I need to defend our kids from the other team that has been coached to foul hard for tactical advantage.” Now, there was probably an element of truth to that statement. But also lumped into that motivation was anger and embarrassment at a team with my name on it getting their little narrow butts beat by a better team. So I’d get angry and yell at the referee and convince myself that I was doing the right thing.

Anger is the driving factor in many similar episodes: the adrenaline pumping factor that makes me (maybe all of us?) lose all sense of proportionality. As it boils up, though, I can usually only see noble, self-righteous reasons for doing what I’m doing and only in the aftermath can I see the damage done by my foolish rage-driven reactions.

I need the ability, especially in the moment of speech and action, to recognize that intent is never singular, uniform, pure and positive. I need that recognition to make me slow to speak and act impulsively. I need the ability to sense when anger is welling up inside me and to use that as a signal to disengage until I calm down.         
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I believe that saying is true because I don’t think there are any purely good intentions. But, just as intent is not all good, it’s not all bad, either. Was racing on the A&M Cycling Team a fabulous experience where I learned a great deal about myself and made some lifelong friends? Absolutely. Did I do a good thing volunteering to coach little kids’ soccer teams? Yes, I did many, many positive things as a coach and I have great memories and friendships through that experience. But did I do some foolish and hurtful things in the process? Yes.

Perhaps instead of examining the intent of ourselves or others (since it’s impossible to fully know), I need to focus on and weighthe positive and negative impacts and results of word and action. I need to view myself and my perceived intentions from the perspectives of others. We’re never as noble and kind as we think we are. But we’re not that bad either. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Real Cost of College Grade Inflation

There are some students who are so brilliant that they’ll make an A no matter what. It doesn’t matter what class or what section or which professor they take, they’ll wind up with an A. They are truly rare; really a small percentage of all college students. This post is not about those students.

There are other students (and I was one of these as an undergraduate back in the day) who are so disengaged from classroom learning that they do the minimum to get a good enough grade to stay in good standing with the university and get through. This post is not about them, either.

This post is about the very capable and diligent students who manage to get very high grades (if not straight A’s) through the early stages of college and then become totally risk averse in order to keep them.

To shoot for high grades is undoubtedly admirable, especially if it’s driven by a real desire to learn. But the mania to make A’s can drive some students to do some things that are paradoxically antithetical to learning like working the prof for leniency (“Well, I always used to get A’s on my compositions in Dr. X’s class” is one of my personal favorites) instead of using the opportunity with the prof to ask her/him a specific question about something you don't understand. Or even worse, zealously avoiding taking a difficult class. I see it every semester. A student shows up for the first class or two, sees that it’s going to be challenging, and, poof, they’re gone (although I admit they may just decide the crusty ol’ prof is boring). One even admitted to me that she’d like to stay in a class of mine she was about to drop but didn’t think she could take the GPA hit (this was before she had received a single grade). And there’s the root of the problem: the drive for higher grades produces less capable students, good grades become less meaningful, and university academics risks becoming little more than a commercial enterprise. 

When I did grad school in Hispanic Studies I solved this problem for myself by making a B my first semester. I didn’t do it on purpose, believe me. When it happened I was madder than a wet hen. A few years before, when I was in the Marine Corps I had done an M.A. in another field in my spare time and had made straight A’s and was real proud of that. I felt like the B ruined some kind of perfect record (looking back at it now, I was probably doing C-quality work and didn't even deserve a B). That was before I found out that, at least in my field of grad studies, grades didn’t amount to a hill of beans when you go out to try to get a job (maybe because everyone views grad student grades as ridiculously inflated). Your dissertation topic matters. Who your committee chair is matters. What you published matters. How many and what kind of conference presentations you’ve done matters. And ultimately, what you learned and what you can show that you know matters most of all.

My colleague Johnny Wink, one of the best professors and human beings I know, told me about a decision he had to make as a grad student to take a class with a notoriously difficult prof. Johnny was newly married at the time and totally dependent on the stipend he received for staying in good standing with the department. That good standing required the maintenance of a 3.5 GPA. The first class he took with the prof he made a grade that pulled him dangerously close to the no-go line. But he decided to take another class with him and risk another less-than-stellar grade because he learned so much. He ended up taking several classes with the notorious professor and today, forty years later, gives much of the credit for being a good professor to having studied with that difficult prof who challenged him, mentored him and provided him with incentive to work hard.  
I suspect that perfect (or even really high) undergraduate grades matter less than we think to prospective employers and graduate studies programs, but some students are still making decisions under flawed assumptions and damaging the quality of their own education in the process. 

So what can we professors do? I think we need to avoid the temptation to be grade sugar-daddies in exchange for easy popularity. We need to be good stewards of fairness by honoring what the A student has demonstrated that she or he has learned and not “giving” the B student an A (or the C student a B, etc.) just because they want it. And when it comes to end of the semester awards and recommendations, we should consider much more than GPA (I’m pleased to report that our department was good about this last year) and reward well-roundedness and demonstrated interest in learning.

Moms and dads and aunts and uncles may have an even bigger role to play in this issue. Sometimes all that has to happen for a student to have grade pressure heaped up on them is to hear, “Pat has straight A’s at college” at the Thanksgiving dinner table and bask in the ensuing adulation from all gathered there. From that point on the student feels like she/he is under the gun to maintain that perfect record no matter what.  

And I would entreat you students to not let grades get in the way of your education. Take a tough class and learn something. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

To Understand Suffering

I’m trying to better understand suffering. All of it; the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dark valleys we all pass through at one point or another. People suffer in different degrees and in different ways and even the same person can suffer in different ways in different stages of life. About the time I think, “Well, as soon as I get through _________, I’ll be home free. No more struggle.” But it never works out that way. 

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story that I never really tried to publish because I could never come up with a truly satisfactory ending. It was about a guy who experienced one tragic, undeserved episode and instead of working through it and recovering as much as he could, he fixated on revenge and eventually lost even more. I even took the story to a writer’s workshop in Iowa this summer and a group of other writers and an instructor “workshopped” it: they read it and made suggestions about what was working and not working. The leader of the workshop said that the story didn’t work as well as it should because the narrative trajectory was all downhill. He said, “I want all of this suffering to mean something.” I think that sentence fully captured what was wrong with the ending and it extends beyond the story. I came back with pages and pages of notes, but I still haven’t fixed the story. I’m almost afraid to work on it because I’m still trying to figure out the point of suffering.

I think bike racing is teaching me some lessons, though, about suffering. I know that statement will seem obscenely frivolous to someone who has lost a loved one or is managing a terminal illness. Not all suffering is the same, neither in degree nor type. Just hear me out. Bike racing is really about being willing to hurt. It’s not about mastering a fine motor skill like drilling a three-pointer with a hand in your face or hitting a long, straight tee shot. To race cyclocross is to subject oneself to a thirty, forty or fifty minute dose of intense suffering. The shortness of the events over variable terrain, along with the fact that you’re jumping on and off the bike and lugging it over obstacles, jacks your heart rate through the ceiling and keeps you right on the edge of going anaerobic. I’m convinced, too, that it’s the same pain for everyone. Tour de France champion Greg Lemond once said that racing never hurts any less, you just go faster. There’s no break and no coasting or drafting. To train for those events you can’t just go out and casually pedal, either. The training has to contain segments of race-level intensity, which means hours and hours of more suffering on the bike. 

At the Cedarglades Cyclocross race in Hot Springs, AR
For the big guns who are in the running for the win or a top three finish, the pain has some extrinsic reward. Guys like me who routinely finish near the back, though, have to do some soul-searching to come up with some intrinsic payoff as motivation to keep doing this. But just as there’s no crying in baseball, there can be no excuse making in cycling. Age? Some dudes older than I am are dusting almost everybody. Equipment? My wheel setup could be a little better, but my bike is perfectly adequate, even good. I have come to accept that most of the shortfalls that keep me from doing better are self-inflicted. I’m in excellent health and I look fine for a middle aged guy just walking around but for a bike racer I’m carrying around twenty pounds that don’t contribute to making the bike go faster. That’s nobody’s fault but mine. Is my training all that it should be for improving in this sport? I don’t think so. Not enough targeted intensity and not enough race-like efforts.
So what options are available to me? Fetishize back of the pack performance and try to act like I totally don’t care? Not my style. Completely turn my life inside out and resolve to live like a monk and maniacally train until I get on the podium? No, that’s not happening, either. I race bikes to enhance my life, not take over my life.

I think that I need to push through the end of this season, do my absolute best at the last race I’ll do this year on Dec. 13th, be smart and focused about my training, try to fix up some of my technique here, lose a pound or two there, and learn what I can from the guys with whom I race. I’ll also trust that the suffering of cyclocross in November and December will help me transition more strongly to mountain biking over the winter and spring.

Above all, I should be thankful for all of this: the fact that I’m healthy enough to go race as hard as I can, for the camaraderie and spectacle of the competition and the satisfaction from doing something hard. Maybe I should be thankful even for the small doses of suffering that I can manage, the suffering that makes me more able to find purpose and dignity in the suffering of being human, the struggle that is most common to all.     

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Chad Haga's Recipe for Greatness

The three biggest bike races in the world are the Giro de Italia, the Tour de France and Vuelta de España. Chad Haga, a dude I know from A&M cycling team days, is riding for the Giant-Shimano team in the Vuelta this month and is making a name for himself in the pro ranks.

The idea that he was just graduating and finishing his collegiate cycling career in 2010 and now he’s racing on cycling’s biggest stage is mind-boggling to me, even though I know he's slogged his way up through the domestic team ranks for the past four years.  

And even at this stage, the dues-paying for Chad continues. In pro cycling team terms, Chad is an all-rounder, too skinny to be a sprinter, too big to be a climber, but a strong time trialist, smart, tough and experienced. His role in his first grand tour is to help other guys on his team, keeping them out of the wind and protecting them for the critical moments for sprints and climbs. You might think a pro cyclist would bristle at the idea of working for others, but Chad knows his role (for now) and loves nothing more than setting up a teammate for success.

Check out this finish from Stage 4 of the Vuelta. Forward to about 5:15 into the video.

You´ll see Chad in white pulling his teammate John Degenkolb, for over a kilometer before Degenkolb wins the sprint finish. Normally, about four riders from one team would be lined up in front of their sprinter, expending themselves one by one and getting out of the way after short segments, but at that point in the race only Chad was left. You can see him absolutely blowing himself up to protect his sprinter for over 1,000 meters until the critical moment. It was a prodigious, unheard of effort, and it was all done to put someone else in a position to win. Chad finished in 66th place on that stage, but he called it his best day ever on a bike and if you know cycling team tactics at all you understand why.

I saw Chad’s unselfishness in person, far from the TV cameras, on a chilly MLK day in 2012 a long time before he was racing in Europe. The traditional start of road cycling season at A&M was always the Martin Luther King Day Monday holiday. We’d do a 100 mile ride at a fairly easy pace, trying to keep as many people with the big group as possible. An eclectic group of riders would show up: team members and prospective team members as well as old team guys and experienced riders from around town.  One of those old team guys with us was Chad, who was riding professionally with a team in Colorado but was in town visiting his brother Shane. So we’d have some of the fastest guys in the state riding in a group with some capable riders and some people who had never ridden over thirty miles before. 

The ride went fine until about the 70 mile point as we were leaving Somerville and heading back towards College Station. Someone in the group lost control in stretch of slight downhill with a fast tailwind and the peloton went down in a heap that resulted in a lot of lost skin and two guys with broken collarbones. Michael Kamps always drove a truck behind us to take care of stragglers and now he had to leave us to take two guys to the hospital. We got ourselves sorted out and got going again and within five miles one of the riders couldn’t turn the pedals. He had some kind of sharp hip pain and couldn’t make the bike go at any speed at all. There we were, 25 miles from home with no Sag vehicle. Chad could have very easily said, “Hey guys, I think I’m just going to get on home” and left us to sort out our disaster. He was a pro cyclist out there riding with a mish-mash of riders now crippling along at 16 mph. But he didn’t do that. He had the injured cyclist take his foot off the pedals. Chad got on one side of the guy and Andrés González, a friend of the team from Houston, got on the other side of the guy and they rode along with him and pushed him the rest of the way home. Chad got no training benefit out of that day and risked injury riding with us, but he stayed with us and helped us because he cared about the team more than himself.

The Vuelta, Chad´s biggest stage race up to now, has scripted that Chad be a supporting guy for his team, but at some point, before he's done racing, Chad is going to get his chance. It´ll be an individual time trial or a breakaway where the peloton foolishly lets him go. At some point he´ll win a stage and get to stand on that top step. And when you see it you´ll know how that success was built. He will have gotten great through helping others.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Jürgen Klinsmann Was Right

No sour grapes here, really.  I thoroughly enjoyed our team’s performance in the World Cup. I’m proud of our boys.  I think they did the best they could.  I hollered and hashtagged, “I believe that we can win” with more hope than belief, though. Because Jürgen Klinsmann was right.   

In spite of the admirable success of Major League Soccer, increased exposure to European Soccer, and an increasingly well-informed and enthusiastic fan base, the performance we saw out of the U.S. National Men’s Team in the World Cup in Brazil is as good as we’re going to get for the next fifty years or so; maybe as good as we’ll ever get.

First, the good news.  We won the CONCACAF qualifying process over the other teams in North and Central America.  We survived the dreaded Group of Death, beat a Ghana team that was probably better than most people thought and tied a Portugal team what was not as good as everyone thought. And all that is great, really. 

But now the bad news. What we saw against Germany and Belgium was what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the U.S. teams when they face the best in the world. We pray that our keeper can make as many as sixteen saves, we pull most of the team back to defend, and we hope we can create a scoring chance out of a counterattack or a set-piece.  That’s it. We can’t maintain possession of the ball. We can’t create.  We can’t defend in space.  And we can’t win against the best in the world.  Please don’t tell me we were one Wondolowski shank from tying with Belgium and going to PK’s. We were totally outplayed except for Tim Howard. 
We hired an outstanding coach who understands, as a player and a coach, how World Cup winning soccer is played.  Our players understand how to play the same way you and I understand how the San Antonio Spurs’ ball movement offense functions.  We just can’t do it because it requires a high level of individual and collective skill. And this is the situation which led the U.S. coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, to say back in December that we can’t win the World Cup.

It’s not a matter of our players trying harder or believing harder or drinking some more Gatorade or putting Landon Donovan back on the team. Our problem is systematic. Soccer is a minor sport in the U.S.  Thank you, Captain Obvious.  We don´t have a culture where everyone plays and understands soccer and we do not have a youth development system on a level with the best soccer countries in the world.  One theoretical development system could be college soccer but that possibility has been blown apart by Title IX.  Even if Florida State and Auburn had soccer teams, though, do you think Jameis Winston and Cam Newton would be playing soccer?   

And that´s why Klinsmann is right and he´ll be right for the next fifty years.  Soccer is not a U.S. sport.  Football and basketball are.  I wish it were not so. I wish I had played soccer growing up instead of tackle football.  It’s a more sustainable, more humane game.  It just doesn’t fit with our culture. Soccer will be a minor sport until the best athletes in the country play it and the best athletes in the country won’t play it as long as it’s a minor sport. So we get what we get.  We qualify for the World Cup by beating teams like Belize and Canada.  We become a soccer country for one month every four years. We may get out of the group stage by the force of our keeper and the incredible will of players like our Texas homeboy Clint Dempsey. And then, when we face the best in the world, we’ll see what we’ve always seen.     

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Martian’s Saturday Report to Headquarters

The gods are the smaller creatures, their divinity evident in the short, dimpled thighs visible between where long shirts leave off and long socks begin. 

The little gods form into bands determined by numbered shirt color inside white lines drawn on the ground. The white lines demark the tabernacle where the little gods perform their ecstatic ritual.

The worshippers are larger, corrupted hairy versions of the gods.  The corporate, ceremonial worship service is immensely important to them, since they spend the precious little free time allotted to them by their masters preparing for and attending the ceremony. 

The faithful prepare for the service by arraying themselves outside the white lines in flimsy chairs, anointing their bodies with oils and ingesting hot brown liquids.

The small gods prepare for the ceremony by taking turns repeatedly mimicking the ceremonial climax, the kicking of a checkered sphere into the Holy of Holies; nets suspended at each end of the tabernacle. 

Once the ceremony starts, some of the worshippers remain in silent reflection, while others appeal loudly to their favorite god.  The chanted incantations crescendo when the sphere nears one of the nets, and die down when the sphere returns to the center.

The checkered sphere is symbolic of their planet, and its rolling across the ground represents the continued rotation and existence of their current world.  The trapping of the sphere in the net stops the sphere’s spinning, reflecting the end of this phase of life and the beginning of a new and higher plane of existence for the worshippers who beat their hands together and scream, possessed by the spirit which prepares them for death.    

Except for one high priest for each band, the worshippers are not allowed inside the tabernacle itself during the ceremony.  But when one of the small gods falls over, the high priests foray into holy ground to return one or more of the toppled gods to a standing position.  The priests occasionally collect a precious liquid that the little deities express from their eyes. 

The high priest in this religion attends no schul or seminary, but is chosen from among the loudest and most passionate worshippers.  He or she wears a necklace of religious authority and must also wear an ephod the same color as the group of gods he serves.  

The small gods require constant feeding.  They fortify themselves on offerings brought to the ceremony by the worshippers who dare not eat the special foods and drinks themselves.  The moment to consume the offerings is determined by a single, uniquely clothed creature that seems to be a hybrid between the small gods and the deformed congregants. 

In addition to blowing a Whistle of Righteousness to signal when the small gods must be fed, the hybrid creature sometimes arbitrarily declares with the pointing of an arm that the direction of the sphere’s movement must be changed. These signals enrage one group or other of the worshippers and provoke the high priests to direct passionate imprecations at him.  

At the time of this report, it is unclear whether the hybrid, possessing characteristics of both the divine and profane beings, serves as a mediator between the heavenly and earthly worlds or as a kind of scapegoat or devil. This question will require further research.   
The hybrid being’s whistle also signals the ceremony’s end.  The worshippers give thanks to the small gods by touching hands held high, forming a fleshy tunnel through which the gods pass and touch each other’s hands while insincerely mouthing the shibboleth, “Good game.”

More foods are offered to the deities and the worshippers select the gods that they will take home to clean, store and maintain until the next ceremony.  The worshippers select the gods that most look like themselves.  On the way to their homes, incredibly, they stop and eat again.    

Friday, May 30, 2014

Triathlon's Fourth Event - Excuse-Making

The discussions I overhear (and sometimes participate in) between competing frenemies before triathlons go something like this:

Triathlete 1 - Hey, man, good to see you! You’re looking great! You ready to race? Gonna win this thing?

Triathlete 2- Oh, I don’t know, I haven’t been able to train much, you know, because of the (pick one)
a. new baby
b. tax season
c. doctoral dissertation
How about you? Been training?

Tr1- Me? No, man, I haven’t been able to run at all since I pulled a hammy
a. at a duathlon the company softball game
c. doing the Dougie at a wedding reception

Tr2 - Oh, listen, you think you’re out of run shape? I
a. tore my meniscus
b. fractured my tibia
c. contracted spinal meningitis
 six months ago and haven’t run a step since.  I’m planning to walk it today if I can complete the swim and somehow get through the bike.

Tr1 - Swim? Dude, my head hasn’t been submerged since you saw me at this race last year. I
a. tore my rotator cuff
b. blew out my eardrum
c. developed an unreasonable seaweed phobia
and haven’t swum since. I hope I still remember how. You might see me getting towed in behind a kayak.

Tr2 - Oh, don’t worry, bro. I’m sure you’ll smoke me. I’m just treating this as a training day, you know, trying to get back into it.

Tr1 - Ah, OK, good luck.

Translation? Both guys are pre-making excuses for a possible poor performance, pre-constructing admiration for a possible strong performance, and robbing the other guy of any satisfaction derived from having a better race. I hereby resolve to no longer proffer or accept any lame race excuses. Mm hmm.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ode to the Dogs in Friendship, Arkansas

Now, Texas dogs will cut down a 20 mph cyclist like an antelope.

Lusting for the hyper-oxygenated blood from an engorged calf
those Texas dogs calculate the angle like a blue-chip defensive back under the Friday Night Lights and they’ll come after you.

And if they can catch you, they’ll eat you down to your teeth, hair and eyeballs and floss their teeth with the sweaty lycra you were wearing.

But the dogs in Friendship, Arkansas, free from the cultural baggage of being Texas dogs,
run even faster

but they’ll just lope alongside you
backs bowed, fur flying, tongues lolling, paws burning on gravelly shoulder semi-pavement.

“Fear not!” they want to say. “Just let us obey some instinct for the chase. We’re not hurting anything. Just let us run with you for no doggone good reason.”

Just let us run just because. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dream of April 29th

Blue like when your kindergarten teacher said, “Blue like the sky.” Diaphanous blue, Caribbean blue was the sky as I swam from a beach I couldn’t remember toward the horizon without measure. 

Like I could swim forever through glassy clear pre-diluvial salt water in spite of the old-school camouflage utility uniform I wore. My sleeve made a slapping noise as my hand would knife into the water and when my topside eye and mouth surfaced to breathe I looked around for shark fins

until I bumped headfirst into a concrete wall and I hauled myself over it and swam across a pool to an astroturfed beach where two new college graduates were being married in front of a host of young witnesses

 and I crawled out of the water like an amphibian, ignored by the crowd.  I asked them who was getting married. And they told me names which I immediately forgot and they said that her major didn’t matter but that he was getting degrees in Information Technology and Mass Communications and that they would move to a gated community in Bentonville where he would be trained as a Jedi of Just-In-Time-Logistics.

I wanted to tell them that he would be 60-hour-week cubicle-bound retail fodder and that she would convince herself that loneliness was solitude with the help of shopping and Pinot Grigio.

and I wanted to tell them about real love and disaster and war, failure and missed promotions and first home satisfaction and how to pack dishes in a cardboard box and yardwork and cooking together.

that they will see God’s own face in that of a child who will fill their hearts to overflowing and that those full hearts will be smashed flat when they have to leave her at college. 

I wanted to tell them about how hard another person can grip your hand in a hospital room and about grey hair and no hair and the Slowing Metabolism and the Simple Vasectomy and the Full Hysterectomy and the Bad Back

 and about Term Life Insurance and the Deductible and the Co-Pay, the Limited Liability and Death and Dismemberment.

But I didn’t say anything.

And they all walked away and left me ridiculous with water dripping from green sleeves and pantlegs and I stood there watching them walking in their certainty    

and so I waded back and swam to the wall, this time diving down under the space between the wall and ocean floor where a fully inflated black and white soccer ball rested on the floor alongside a leashed black and white cockapoo puppy that looked expectantly at me as I dolphined my way underwater to the ocean side. 

And I surfaced and started my swim back toward the beach I never saw.  And I was tired now, bonetired as I alternated lifting each arm out of the water.  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Strong House


The Strong House - April 2014

Today we held a long-awaited open house for our remodeled home in Arkadelphia, Arkansas: a "finish line" of sorts to a race we started a year ago when we made the decision to take jobs at Ouachita Baptist University and move to Arkadelpha.  Even when we arrived here in August we didn't have a real clear picture of where we would permanently live.  We knew where we wanted to live: in the historical district between downtown and the campus.  We were able to rent a duplex for 6 months from fellow faculty members right next to campus while we looked for a place.  In October Margaret found this home for sale by owner.  We worked with Jack Coy, a builder from Hot Springs, to study the feasibility of remodeling the house and decided to buy and fully remodel it.

By January we were able to move into the home and finalize the renovations. People sometimes ask us if we renovated it ourselves and I'm quick to answer, "no." Jack Coy, with input and guidance from Margaret about what she wanted, remodeled the house with a host of subcontractors in an amazing period of 3 months that included Arkansas Holy Week (1st week of deer season) and the predictably unpredictable setbacks of winter weather.

Now for a little history on the home along with some details of how it's currently finished and decorated:

This home, known as the Strong House in the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, was built in 1875 and was initially owned by A.A. Pennington.  In 1886 James Wilson bought the home, deeded as “Lot four in Block six in Duncan’s Addition to the City of Arkadelphia,” from Mr. Pennington’s executor for $711.00. 

In the late 1800’s the home served as the manse for the Old School Presbyterian Church (located on the corner of 6th St. and Caddo - where Laster’s Furniture sits today).  At that time 6th Street was named Maddox Street.  In 1901 Mary Elizabeth Amy Strong purchased the house from the deacons of the church for $1,450.00.  Mary E.A. Strong was the wife of James Strong, the youngest son of Nathan and Nancy Strong who settled near Dalark, Arkansas in 1837. James and Mary E.A. Strong’s grandson, Dr. James E. Strong, lived in this home for nearly all of his 94 years.  Don and Elaine Collins maintained the vacant house after Dr. Strong’s death in 2011.     

The home was purchased in 2013 by Mark and Margaret Spence McGraw and remodeled from October 2013 to January 2014 by Jack Coy from Hot Springs.
Some notes about the construction, furnishings and decorations:

-Additions were made to the original home in the 1910’s or 1920’s and in the 1950’s. The dates of the additions are estimated by the type and apparent age of the wainscoting paneling found behind the drywall of the second addition and the wood paneling still present in the back two rooms. 

Home office in the back of the house

-The wood floors, including those of the front part of the house that dates from 1875, are original.  The front room floors are heart pine.  The orientation of the planks in the living room floor lends credence to the idea that the space was originally two rooms.
Original 1875 floors with G.Rollie White coliseum seats

-The large mirrors located above the fireplaces in the dining and living rooms came from the Caddo Hotel in downtown Arkadelphia where Dr. Strong’s dental practice was located.  Dr. Strong purchased the mirrors after the Caddo Hotel burned. 

- The chandelier in the dining room was purchased in Murano, Italy by Dr. Strong and his wife, Helen. Pam Westberg conducted a detailed cleaning and reconstruction of the chandelier.
Dining Room

-The original fourteen-foot ceilings were lowered to allow for the introduction of central heat and air conditioning ductwork.    

-Mark’s mother, Margaret H. McGraw from Woodworth, LA, custom made the draperies covering the 10-foot windows in the living and dining rooms.  She also painted much of the artwork and tole painted furniture in the home. 
Living Room


-Margaret Spence McGraw’s father, David Spence from Clear Lake, TX, built the kitchen table and the Morris chair in the living room.

-Some of the artwork and much of the décor comes from the McGraw family’s time living abroad, primarily in Chile. 

-The stadium seats in the living room are from G. Rollie White Coliseum at Texas A&M University, where Margaret played volleyball from 1983-1987.  

-Mr. Wes Reeder provided expertise towards the arrangement of the artwork and furniture.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why Else? Because it's Fun!

"The Rooster most Rooster"
I was recently interviewed by a student about reasons to learn another language.  

Q1.First of all, what do you think is the biggest reason/benefit to learning a foreign language? (My emphasis is on Spanish)

Because it's fun!  The most common reasons for learning a second language that you'll hear is that it will give you the opportunity to get a better job and make more money.  Those are true. I made extra money in the Marine Corps because I was multi-lingual.  I got a job with an international steel company because I spoke Spanish and we did business with Mexico.  I worked for a state agency in Texas that continued to employ me as an adjunct instructor for $60/hour to do workshops in Puerto Rico in Spanish, even after I had left that agency as a full-time employee.  But for me, the main reason I'm thankful that I've been able to learn Spanish is because it's been a tremendous amount of fun. I've been able to go places off the beaten path - far from the tourist traps - and meet and make friends with a great many people and see and experience some fabulous things because I can speak Spanish and some Portuguese (my Portuguese is very rusty right now). I sometimes feel like I've been handed the keys to a secret door that gives me access to a much bigger world.  There are about a half-billion people right in our hemisphere who speak Spanish and Portuguese. Those people and places are open to me now and that's a lot of fun.   

Q2. How can learning a language increase your cultural awareness of a region where it is used?

To learn another language is much more complex than just learning what words mean what from one language to another. There are significant logical differences between English and a Romance language (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French).  So to learn another language well is to learn another logic.  One cannot fully understand a place without being able to engage with people on their terms. It's very difficult to get real with anyone through an interpreter.  One cannot understand a region without also becoming familiar with the cultural artifacts of literature, history and art.  Those things are written and expressed in language.

Q3. Do you have any particular experiences or anecdotes that I could use as support?

When I was in the Marine Corps I worked for the senior officer in charge of all military deployments to Latin America.  We worked out of Miami and would often travel to watch troops training with other countries' police and armed forces.  A lot of our deployments were Medical/Dental in nature. The last year I worked in that unit we brokered the provision of medical care to nearly 500,000 people in Latin American and the Caribbean.  Anyway, we visited one of those exercises in a poor part of a Central American country.  The U.S. medical unit set up offices in an elementary school and the classrooms became exam rooms.  I was watching all this thinking, "Ok, this is cool." Then I walked around and talked to people.  Some of them told me they had walked for 2 days to arrive at the clinic. Some people told me they have never received medical care from a qualified doctor before. Many of the people told me they didn't have potable water to drink where they live.  One lady was wearing eyeglasses that she had just been given. She was at least 60 years old and had never worn glasses and she told me she had never been able to see well until that day.  That was a powerful thing. I still get emotional thinking about it.  None of those people spoke a lick of English.  I talked to them and got that perspective because I spoke Spanish. 

Q4.what is the main difficulty of learning a language and how can it be overcome (my purpose is to persuade the audience the benefits of learning a language)

There are many difficulties: First - just having the opportunity to immerse yourself in the language for enough time for the lessons to actually become ingrained in your mind in a way that is still accessible.  A 3-times-per-week 1 hour class is not enough to learn the language well (even if you have a good teacher) unless you make a personal decision to spend a lot of time in contact with the language.  That's tough if we don't get to spend a huge amount of time with someone who speaks another language or live in an area where another language is spoken.  That's why Study Abroad or an immersion experience is so valuable.  You learn some Spanish in class - some basic vocab and phrases and grammatical concepts and then you go to Study Abroad and get a chance to ingrain that information in a way that is sticky, that is accessible, that is long-lasting, that is fun and meaningful.
Second - you must be willing to suffer some humiliation, make some mistakes, look silly. That's difficult for us. It's like getting down on the floor and crawling again after you've learned to run. 
Third - You must stick with the study and practice long enough to get good enough for it to be a practical skill. Then it becomes fun. It's like making the decision to get in shape. You feel fat, weak and uncomfortable in the gym or out running or biking on the roads. You get sore. It hurts. You get out of breath easily and you're conscious of how bad you are at it.  If you can eventually see some progress, though, you may start to enjoy the activity itself and do it for the enjoyment, not the obligation.

That's how you overcome the difficulty - do it until it becomes fun. You'll need a strong desire to learn, though, to get you through the hard early parts of the process. 

Q5. What are some of the long lasting benefits, and some immediate benefits if any?

The only other benefit I can think of in addition to what I've already mentioned (fun, access to the world, expanded view) is the opportunity to view your own culture more fully because you've had a chance to learn about another one.  Being immersed in and gaining an understanding of another culture forces you to examine your own. And that's valuable.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Arkansas McGraws

When I was younger I wasn’t very interested in my genealogy.  For a lot of my life I was much more interested in where I was at that moment than where I came from.  Moving to Arkansas and teaching at the school where my grandfather graduated in 1931 started to change that.  When we recently had a chance to visit some of the little towns in Franklin County, Arkansas, where some of my McGraw ancestors settled after the Civil War, my desire to find out about that part of my family was heightened. 

This photo makes a nice focal point for some fascinating (to me) stories.[1]  The stately couple in the foreground of the photo are Daniel Murdock McGraw and Catherine Babb McGraw, my great great grandparents with all ten of their children on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1922.  My great grandfather, Fred, is standing directly behind his dad. 

Dan McGraw, who everybody called “Buddy,” fed up with the limited opportunities available in post-Civil War Mississippi, heard about homesteads available in northwest Arkansas and decided to start fresh.  He was only eleven when the Civil War started and his attempt to enlist with his buddy, Harvey McRaven when they were fifteen was annulled by Dan’s mother the next day.  His father and two older half-brothers had fought in the 3rd Mississippi Cavalry in Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Corps and Dan may have felt like he never had a chance to strike out on his own. 

In 1878 he traveled alone to Ozark, Arkansas via a series of buggies and trains with sixty dollars in his pocket.  He purchased a plot of land near Cass, Arkansas on Mulberry Mountain and built a cabin with a dirt floor and a door covered with a deerskin.  Then he sent for his wife and three small children.  He farmed his land and worked for neighbors to earn money to buy what he couldn’t grow.  His wife Catherine (he called her Katie) taught school in their home for a dollar a month per child.  Dan McGraw didn’t stay on the homestead long, though.  His search for better circumstances forced him to move to nearby Ozark and Altus.  He kept his eye out for better jobs and educational opportunities for his children.  In the ensuing years he would work as a farmer, Deputy County Sherriff, house parent for the Central Collegiate Institute (later moved to Conway and renamed Hendrix College), County Surveyor and coal company superintendent.  He had no formal education.  When he was elected county surveyor he bought the equipment he needed and learned on the job.  For years after he left the surveying job, surveys in Franklin County were considered to be most accurate if they had “McGraw lines.”  He was shot in the throat while on the job as a deputy and was knocked unconscious by striking coal miners, leaving him with a large scar on his forehead for his remaining years. 

Several strong women populate the McGraw family history in Arkansas.  Catherine Babb McGraw was an educator, a civic leader and writer.  She insisted that a church be built in Altus and personally oversaw its construction.  She was a Temperance Union activist and eventually became principal of the school in Altus.  One of the daughters in the photo, Ophelia, graduated from Radcliffe College when it was the all-girls institute paired up with Harvard. 

Florence (tiny lady on the left of the photo), the writer of the book where I found most of these stories, married John McRaven, the son of Dan McGraw’s childhood friend who tried to join the Confederate Army with him.  Florence McGraw McRaven was an exceptionally forward-thinking woman in many ways (racial tolerance was not one of those ways).  She was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1926 and served until 1930.  When she decided to sponsor legislation limiting the number of hours women could work over dangerous machinery, she ran afoul of the large cotton mills.  The bill failed, but not without her putting up a fight.  The “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred around that timeframe in a neighboring state.  One of the Arkansas legislators, in an effort to ingratiate himself with his fundamentalist constituency, introduced legislation which would make it illegal to teach the theory of evolution in schools.  Florence took the floor and argued against the legislation saying, “any theory is but an indication of a search for truth; that truth is of God, and why should we fear to explore any avenue in the search.”  She served two terms in the House and then set her sights on the state Senate intent on working to abolish capital punishment in the state.  Her stance on key issues when she was a representative cost her the backing of several key people and she lost. 

Florence’s brother, Fred, was my great grandfather.  He worked for the coal company at Denning, near Altus.  Eventually when my grandfather was off to college at Ouachita, Fred McGraw moved his family to Ft. Smith where he found work as an accountant, a move necessitated by the closure of the coal mines near Altus.  When he was younger, Fred went off to training in preparation to be shipped off to the Spanish-American War and also lit out to present day Oklahoma west of Ft. Smith, the wild country depicted in the movie True Grit.  Something he saw or experienced in “the territories” convinced him being a bookkeeper back in Arkansas was the best way to go.  I’d love to know what he saw out there.  Or maybe I wouldn’t. 

[1] Most of this info comes from a book written in 1953 by Florence McGraw McRaven entitled Swift Current