Day 24: And to all a good night!

Wednesday, 24. December 2014 22:29 | Author:

It's finally that time. Decorations are done. Things are wrapped. Baking and pre-cooking is finished. The only thing left is waiting to see if the promised Amazon delivery arrives on time. Later there will be Mass, a quiet dinner and trying to figure out where I put Baby Jesus when I set up the rest of the Nativity set.

I like to end this now yearly tradition with my own Christmas wish for anyone who reads this (heck, it's Chritsmas, I'll wish it for those who read it or not). Last year I wished that we might listen to the angel's word and not be afraid. This year I turn again to a hymn pray that all will sleep in heavenly peace. I hope that you, that we, will get significantly more and better sleep in the coming year ahead.

Never has there been a more sleep deprived people than modern human beings. Whether it is for work or pleasure, or some combination of both, we stay up very late and get up ungodly early. Even in casual banter, if one is to go a step further from “fine, how are you?” We usually jump to “tired.” This suggests that not only is this condition acceptable for all, it is more or less expected. Would anyone in casual conversation reveal that she or he had an embarrassing medical condition? What's more, a person who talks of regularly gets enough sleep, may be looked at with suspicion, “You get enough sleep? What are you lazy?”

This is also an area where technology has few, if any benefits, and contributes greatly to the problem. Our smart phones encourage an “always on” mentality, as often we read things well outside of the work day that disturb (or cancel) sleep. I sleep with my iPad close at hand so I can read if I wake up in the night, so I know I'm part of the problem. We still are learning how to disconnect in any meaningful way.

I suppose I chose the worst time of the year to encourage extra sleep. My wife and I were reminiscing about when we both worked as church musicians when our daughter was young, and Christmas meant Midnight mass at separate churches, followed by doing last minute details at home, followed by early rising to have a few family moments before tearing out for the daytime masses. Those with small children are absolved from this wish.

But let's hope that even they (and all of us) may find a few extra hours for uninterrupted and guilt-free sleep. If you are lucky enough to have Friday off, let's make it a national sleep in day. No matter, I will, and I hope you will too make it a resolution for the next year to treat yourself to more sleep. Sleep in heavenly peace.

Merry Christmas!




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Day 23: Penultimate Joy

Wednesday, 24. December 2014 8:12 | Author:

Tomorrow, I have a topic I've saved for last, so on this next to last day, I want to make some closing comments.

Among the main observations of this 2014 “24 Days of Blogging” (trademark applied), is how late most of the entries were written. This will be the second time that I've skidded in under the tag and right into the next day. While I wish this were a reflection on how much I was honing each entry late into the night, on most of these occasions I didn't sit down till right before bed. This was usually because I was still desperately searching for a topic, which is, of course, is the artificial challenge of an artificially imposed writing schedule, matching the writing requirement to a sometimes limited inspiration. Though this is a good discipline, I'm happy that it only comes once (or twenty-four times) a year.

I was under the impression that I wrote fewer “meaty” pieces this year, significant thoughts on education or life developed into a larger, more polished, essay. However, when I checked back to last year, the balance between solid and “filler” pieces was more or less the same. Happy (or sad) to realize that the Muse hits on a similar schedule. I have been surprised by the number of comments about some of the entries that I didn't like, which shows that I don't know anything.

One thing that I enjoyed in my review of previous years was re-reflecting (would that be flecting?) on some of the greatest hits from the past. Some of the predictions have come true, others less so. Some of the strongly held opinions are still at the forefront of my agenda, others less so. It would be a great post (which is only occurring to me now as I am finishing) to do a comparison of Greg '14 with Greg '13 or Greg '11 (didn't do this in '12)

I wrote only two entries in Starbucks this year. I don't know if this is a comment on my writing discipline or my coffee consumption.

I am profoundly aware of the limited audience that enjoys/endures these posts. I remain convinced that this practice would still have value if I were writing for an audience of self. However, to those of you out there who read or comment, please know of my humble gratitude and complete mystification that you go on this path with me.

Sometimes I've spun gold out if straw, sometimes straw out of gold, and sometimes I've suffered from hay fever.

Enough…can't wait to see what I'll talk about tomorrow!

As always, I welcome your comments.







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Day 22: A Mall and the Night Visitor.

Tuesday, 23. December 2014 6:37 | Author:

imageIn my efforts to complete Christmas shopping today, I went to the Main Place Mall, and I ran face to face into a changing reality. Through my college years I worked in Brentano’s bookstore in South Coast Plaza, the west coast Mecca of the shopping mall. I remember the utter chaos of shopping in the days before Christmas, a full parking lot, lines from one end of the store to the other, store workers besieged by customers.

Today I faced some traffic getting in, but there were empty parking spaces on both sides of my car. The mall was crowded, but many stores were empty. When I went to ask a question of a store employee, I found three talking together. Perhaps most emblematic of the quieter atmosphere was Santa sitting quietly in his chair with no line of children waiting.

Even the mall was a very differnt place from what I remembered. Of course we no longer have the long gone anchor stores of Buffums, Bullocks, May Company, and Broadway, but even the structure is different, with more and more small stands in the middle of the aisles. These tiny boutiques give the entire mall a feeling of a swap meet.

Finally, there was me. As I marveled at how different everything looked, I realized that it had been over a year since I had visited this mall…or any mall. From someone who would go regularly to do regular shopping in malls, I’ve become as unfamiliar as the out of towner marvelling at the big city. There was I time I went to a mall just to go…now I virtually never have a reason to go.

To anyone who doubts that significant change is coming, I offer up the shopping mall. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, no one could ever picture that the mall wouldn’t be the center of the shopping universe. Today, however, most malls have long since lost this favored status as they struggle to remain relevant. Things can (and do) change.

Oh, and to quickly conclude my story, I couldn’t find what I wanted, so I took out my phone to order it on Amazon. 1 click and it should be at my house by Christmas Eve.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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Day 21: Winter

Monday, 22. December 2014 4:47 | Author:

I'm sorry about this one. It came out far more dark than I intended. You might want to skip.

Today is the first day of winter, or at least that's what the calendar says. It seems that we make mental changes of seasons long before the earth is suitably aligned. No matter, somehow we got here.

Where I live, the chief characteristic of winter obviously isn't snow, or (unfortunately) rain, or even significant cold (according to my phone, it will be 79 degrees tomorrow). The chief way to know its winter is darkness. No matter the weather, come 4:00 it's well toward dark outside. Although these short days are frustrating for biking, no time after work and just too cold in the morning, I love the early dark and couldn't celebrate the season any other way. Clearly I could never live in Austrailia.

Christmas is a season of darkness. So much of what defines the season are lights whether on my house, on the tree or the four candles on my Advent wreath (which I successfully lit for the first time in ages). Without darkness, these lights have no power or beauty. Even the pre-Christian roots of this celebration were about the day conquering the darkness of night.

But I think there is more than this, I think in many ways during this time of year we confront darknesses in our lives. Fears, loneliness, loss, all feel more intense at this time of year. Even more than New Year we feel the quick passage of time, where we are relative to where we were a year ago, who's no longer at the table. Along with comfort and joy, Christmas is a time that can reveal glimpses of the fundamental sadness of life (oh my goodness, clearly the season is not the only thing in a dark place tonight).

I've yet to write about A Christmas Carol this year. Last week I watched four different versions, focusing this time on the Christmas yet to come segment. This is always the darkest portion of the story with most scenes at night in low light. The takeaway is always that it is the darkness of Scrooge's life that caused this dark future. “Are these the shadows of things that will be, or may be,” he bargains with the spirit. As we all know the story, Scrooge does make the change and rewrite the future…somewhat.

The funny thing is that many things do not change. “Tell me I may sponge the writing from that stone,” he begs. Though the stone disappears, transforms into his pillow, the writing waits there for him just the same. We are happy to discover that Tiny Tim did not die…immediately, but unless the cure he received was that of immortality, even he will succumb with time. Though the universal joy at Scrooge's death might be transformed into fond sadness, eventually the world will go on nonetheless. The yet to come segment is truly facing the darkness that is at the heart of all of our lives.

The victory for Scrooge is his willingness to bring light into the darkness. Though not changing the fundamentals, with love and generosity, he lights a lamp.

In winter we look at the darkness, and if we are lucky we can see (or light) the lights.

As always, I welcome your comments.



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Day 20: A Good, Old-Fashioned Christmas Miracle

Sunday, 21. December 2014 8:45 | Author:

…and then there was the time that he got so engaged with other things that he forgot to post. And when he finally did remember, he looked at the clock to see that it was PAST MIDNIGHT.

At first he was very disturbed by this terrible break of the Christmas chronology, wondering if his lapse might throw off everything. Would there be turtle doves on day four or (more disturbing) would something displace the rings and destroy everyone's enjoyment of the song forever? Would Christmas Eve be the true celebration, and most people feel that Christmas was over at the stroke of twelve (wait, that already happens)? Would anyone ever bring him some figgy pudding?

And what happened next? Well in Whoville they say…. Christmas is a time of miracles, and after being visited by ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, he wrote a brief entry, nothing too deep, more a gimmick actually. Sometimes when you have no gift to bring, you just have to pound your drum (pa-pum-pum). As he pushed the send button at 12:45, something truly amazing happened!

During the next day, and on all days after that, anyone who read that particular post, never noticed the date and time of the posting! Now, whether this was because virtually no one ever looks at posting times, or because they were overwhelmed with visions of sugar plums, no one ever knew.

And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, “as always, I welcome your comments).





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Day 19: It’s the Most Wonderful Day of the Year

Saturday, 20. December 2014 0:33 | Author:

Today is the last formal work day of 2014. Though no one is really off any more with email, cell phones, and texts, after today I won't be coming in to the office or keeping a regular routine until January 5.

I've worked in education all of my adult life, so with the exception of a couple years when I had jobs outside of school, I've never worked in an environment that didn't have Christmas vacation. I am very aware of the fact that many don't have this privilege. I was talking to someone at a party and asked whether they had time off for Christmas. “Yes,” she said, “I get Christmas Day and I'm taking Christmas Eve and Friday as vacation days.” I had no response to that, as I quietly hope she would not ask about my two full weeks.

I'm not saying that I deserve this or that education is somehow so much more difficult than other professions that additional time is merited. In reality, it's just the way things work out. I do know that it is wonderful having this time, that it enhances the celebration and makes everything easier. Even before my wife began teaching and she worked at a secular job with no Christmas vacation, I was able to get things done on the days she was at work. So our life has been blessed by this schedule.

And for today, as I leave work, I'm just going to be happy for that.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Image: Self on the Shelf



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Day 18: Zeno’s Paradox

Friday, 19. December 2014 0:21 | Author:

Technology (when used properly) can and should make life easier and tasks faster. However, getting to this point can take forever.

We are currently trying to create a master calendar for the entire campus. For years departments have made individual calendars, but there has been little to no way to compare information, communicate to others, and to detect conflicts. When I used to do this at the high school, everything was paper based. I sent out a paper form for people to fill out with their events, and I sorted through these to enter information. As I sat down today to start working on a new procedure, I figured with the power of technological tools available to me now, this antique process should be a piece of digital cake.

Until I started to work on the form. I used Google Forms as tool, and almost immediately I started to hit roadblocks. How do I ask the questions, so they are understandable to anyone? How do I use the limited response formats to collect the differnt types of data that I need. Will the resulting form be so difficult that people won't use it? Will the collected data be in a useable form in the end?

I worked on this (ultimately) 10 question form for over two hours. Once I was satisfied, I picked a few knowledgeable people to try it and give me feedback. Only one of three very intelligent people filled out the form in the way that I expected, and all three had questions. The clarity that I saw was based on the entire thought process that brought me to the question…not necessarily the question itself. I could not rid myself of ultimately knowing what I wanted.

So back to the drawing board, and I've made some progress. The second pass had far fewer confusions and errors, but it still wasn't there yet. I keep saying to myself, “This will be so simple once it's done that everyone will appreciate it.” However, I suspect that there will still be some who find it confusing and many who would much rather just put the information on a piece of paper. Such is the reality of living in changing times.

As I was working, I remembered one of the paradoxes of Zeno, the Greek philosopher. He stated that in order to get across a room, one would first have to get half way across, and to get halfway across, one would first have to cross half of that, and half of that, and so on. Since units can be divided infinitely, and a person cannot cross an infinite number of units, movement is essentially impossible.

Everything that is easy today was made possible by someone who worked and worked to figure out how to make it easy. My hat is off to those people today. OK, here comes the next feedback…let's see where we go from here.

As always, I welcome your comments.




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Day 17: Nested

Thursday, 18. December 2014 4:38 | Author:

Last night my limping thermostat finally gave up the ghost. Unfortunately it chose to do so in the middle of the night, so there was not heat for us this morning. Luckily, there was quite a bit of cloud cover after a storm, so it wasn't as cold as it could have been.

My old thermostat was ancient, and though it lasted us for twelve years in this house (and goodness knows how many before that) it has never been very accurate or very dependable. Heat and cool went on and off at unpredictable times, and there was never any good way to program temperatures for our changing lives.

So today I decided to bite the bullet and buy a Nest Thermostat. Though about five times as much as a conventional one, this device has amazing ability to learn and anticipate changes, and best of all, it can better control temps when we aren't in the house.

After an installation that was far easier than I anticipated, I turned the device on. The first thing the program did was allow me to attach the device to the home wifi network. Through this connection the device is able to collect weather reports and to adjust to the outside temperature. Most exciting, I have an app on my iPhone that shows me the current temperature in the house and allows me to change the current temperature and the overall program. The device has built in energy saving settings, so I am hopeful that some of the additional cost will be defrayed by better energy use.

I suppose some will point out (hearing my father's voice here) that now that my thermostat is online, I am vulnerable to hackers who will attempt to burn or freeze us…only time will tell.

The connected home is an interesting new concept. I'm not going in whole hog with cameras, motion detectors, and light controls, but I'm interested to see how the nest will change the climate of our lives.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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Day 16: With Only Two Reindeer

Wednesday, 17. December 2014 1:25 | Author:

This week I heard a Christmas song for the first time, and it is quickly climbing the charts in my mind for best secular Christmas song (no, it won't beat out “Christmas, Baby, Please Come Home” but it's a contender).

The song is “Donna and Blitzen,” (I love the title!) it isn't a particularly new song. Apparently it was released in 2001 and was part of the Sountrack for the movie About a Boy in 2002, but I had never heard it before sitting in a Starbucks last week. Luckily I had Shazam on my phone so I could find the title and artist (Badly Drawn Boy) and add it to my Rdio Christmas playlist. Since that time I've been playing (or humming) it regularly.

At the risk of readers losing what little respect they still have for me, you can find it on YouTube here. I don't like the video, so you can turn that off and just listen to the music (someone in my office looked pityingly at me after seeing the sappy video).

Why do I like it? Well, it's not the lyrics, I can't really understand them, and when I looked them up, I still didn't really understand them. I won't argue with anyone that it's a great piece of music.

But every time I listen to it, I feel happy. The swooping repetitive phrases make me feel good.

Maybe that's enough





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Day 15: It Worked for Me

Tuesday, 16. December 2014 5:22 | Author:

One of the voices I often hear (no, not in my head, these are real voices…this time) when I speculate about changes to the educational process is the “good enough for me” preservationist. This voice reasons that what has been done for generations has worked well, and therefore changes risk every good thing that has ever happened. This voice is often associated with the curmudgeon (“kids these days”), but it is actually in all parts of the education establishment and it is a voice that is alive in each of us. There is something inherent in human nature to perceive the next generation as inferior to the last. The briefest scan of quotations through the years show the human race on a long journey to hell in a hand basket.

For today I'm going to leave the part of the argument that a changing world requires changing skills (and maybe doing 50 algebra problems for homework isn't the best preparation for this…or any…world). I believe this, but I want to examine this complaint from another angle.

It seems that this argument is similar to the spanking argument (now, I know there are readers who feel different things about this, so please take this not as criticism, but examination). Often when we hear about high-profile child abuse cases, the voices come forward, “I don't know, my dad used the belt, and I turned out just fine.” Now, I am not suggesting that there are not sometimes outrageous claims about things that in no way resemble physical abuse, but let's stick to the argument. It seems to me that the “I turned out just fine,” argument is based on two huge assumptions.

The first assumption is that the speaker did turn out just fine. What does “just fine” look like? I agree that most of these speakers live relatively conventional lives and have not committed any detectable crimes. However, the majority of people from all backgrounds do this, and to connect the dots to show direct causality seems tenuous. Most times this means, I don't carry any scars from the experience, and I don't know about this either. This is based on the assumption that we can know what we would be like without this (or any) experience in our lives. Perhaps there is a different (or perhaps even) better self that would have developed in a differnt set of circumstances. In either case, the line is blurry at best.

The second, and I think more dangerous, assumption is that if this were OK for me, it worked the same for everyone. Let's change our speaker to an inmate of prison, held for a violent crime (frankly, I'm certain that statistics would show a greater incident of corporal punishment among prison populations than the general). I'm not suggesting that the spanking caused this behavior any more than the proper behavior, but it does show that there are many incidents that turned out differently. It didn't work for some.

Similarly with education, clinging to past techniques often makes the same two assumptions. We were taught that way, and we turned out fine. This both assumes that we are the best, most educated we could be, and that it was this model that made us this way. The reality may well be that we would have benefitted from some non-traditional techniques, or that it would not really have mattered.

Second, this statement also implies that if it worked for me, it must be right. Plenty of children didn't learn through these methods. Many of those who did became teachers, thus perpetuating the cycle and the echo chamber of knowing and working around those who learned best with the techniques of their childhood. By drawing primarily from those best adapted to the system, the educational establishment protects and perpetuates itself.

It is dangerous (and lazy) thinking to cling too tightly to “what has always worked.” Techniques, skills, and content must stand on their own merit, not be a mere reiteration of what came before.

As always, I welcome your comments.




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