Suburban Decline

I sent this article — “On Borrowed Time,” by Michael Gecan (from Boston Review) — to the rest of the folks on the Public Arts Advisory Board, but other civic-minded folks would probably be interested in it as well.

It discusses urban decline, suburban growth, urban renewal, and suburban decline in the Chicago area; specifically, DuPage County. Given the growth issue here in Cary, NC, this passage caught my attention:

By the date of the meeting, however, the developers who had helped double DuPage’s population in just 30 years had run out of land. The income generated by their construction efforts had dwindled to a trickle. Education and public safety costs continued to climb.

His run-down of ways municipalities avoid reality — denial, gimmicks, blaming “others,” and withdrawal — was especially interesting. Good food for thought for anyone involved in city or county government … even those of us on advisory boards.

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Underperforming … the Story of My Life

Best of the Web Today pointed us to this article from The Boston Globe, which reported that administrators, principals, and teachers in Massachusetts are agonizing over the impact to morale of labeling schools “underperforming” or “chronically underperforming” that generate poor test results.

We can only hope that those administrators, principals, and teachers agonize half as much over why their schools turn out so many graduates (and non-graduates) who read poorly, figure poorly, and reason poorly compared to the numbers of graduates they turn out who read, figure, and reason well. Inasmuch as (to give them the benefit of the doubt) they presumably are doing their best, they have a point: hanging a label promotes more shame than improvement, because the label itself doesn’t explain how to improve.

Who among us hasn’t experienced the difficulty of doing one’s best without knowing exactly what to do or how to do it? We might label ourselves as “underperforming” or worse, but if we’re serious about what we’re trying to do we will find someone to teach us what to do and how to do it well. If we’re not serious, we should look for something else to do.

My writing career is like that. Some things I do pretty well, others not so well at all. So I seek out people who, hopefully, will help me overcome my weaknesses; which is why, in six weeks, I’ll be in Utah at Dave Wolverton’s writing workshop.

I hope those educators can do the same: admit their weaknesses, and find real experts who can help them overcome those weaknesses. But as long as these things have been going on (far longer than the decade-and-a-half since my book came out), I don’t have a lot of hope.

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The Season of My Discontent

Karina Fabian posted an interesting item on her blog about teaching children to appreciate what they have. She wrote, “It seems to me that the more people have, the easier it is to feel dissatisfied.”

I think she’s on to something: it sure seems that the more we have, the more we want. We find it hard to emulate St. Paul’s “I have learned to be content” attitude.

Then again, if everyone were completely content, not much would get done. A lot of ambition and achievement comes from wanting more and being willing to work for it. (It’s that last item that’s the sticking point for most of us; the wanting is easy, the working is not.)

So perhaps, following the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes, under the sun there is a time for discontent. It might even be included in the “time to break down, and a time to build up.”

And does anyone besides me hear “Turn, Turn, Turn” in their head when they read that chapter of Ecclesiastes?

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Public Arts Report

Today I attended my first meeting of Cary’s Public Arts Advisory Board, and was very impressed.

The artists responsible for conceptualizing the downtown area “streetscape” presented their 90% design review, and they’ve done a fantastic job. The project will be done in stages over the next few years, and its exciting that I’ll get to see it develop “from the inside” — or at least a lot further inside than I would’ve been otherwise.

I’m very pleased to have been selected to serve on the board, and look forward to the next meeting.

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News You Won't See on TV

Read a fantastic article earlier this week on the state of journalism, and how what we see on television (and, so far as I can tell, what we hear on the radio and read in the paper) is often “trivia framed as Truth.”

The article is Journalist-Bites-Reality! by Steve Salerno, and it includes these encouraging facts — indisputable facts — that no television, radio, or newspaper report will tell you outright:

– The current employment rate is 95.3 percent.
– Out of 300 million Americans, roughly 299.999954 million were not murdered today.
– Day after day, some 35,000 commercial flights traverse our skies without incident.
– The vast majority of college students who got drunk last weekend did not rape anyone, or kill themselves or anyone else in a DUI or hazing incident. On Monday, they got up and went to class, bleary-eyed but otherwise okay.

In news, however, everything is a crisis. (I wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago in my Ornery American essay, “The Redemption of the Vietnam War?”) And, thinking along those lines, this excerpt particularly speaks to the phenomenon of concentrating on relatively rare negative incidents to cast aspersions on large, difficult, complex endeavors:

For all its cinema-verité panache, embedded reporting, as exemplified in Iraq and in Nightline’s recent series on “the forgotten war” in Afghanistan, shows only what’s going on in the immediate vicinity of the embedded journalist. It’s not all that useful for yielding an overarching sense of the progress of a war, and might easily be counterproductive: To interpret such field reporting as a valid microcosm is the equivalent of standing in a spot where it’s raining and assuming it’s raining everywhere.

I think, for the sake of my sense of well-being, I will start inverting all the statistics — and maybe some of the stories — I encounter in news reports.

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We All Believe in Magic … Or We Should

The article Magical Thinking by Matthew Hutson (Psychology Today, Mar/Apr 2008) brought to mind my short story, “The Rocket Seamstress.” This passage from the article especially reminded me of Jelena Olenek, the Russian grandmother who is the main character of my story:

People who truly trust in their rituals exhibit a phenomenon known as “illusion of control,” the belief that they have more influence over the world than they actually do. And it’s not a bad delusion to have—a sense of control encourages people to work harder than they might otherwise. In fact, a fully accurate assessment of your powers, a state known as “depressive realism,” haunts people with clinical depression, who in general show less magical thinking.

Jelena’s magic makes the mighty Russian rockets fly, but there is every possibility that her magic is only a personal delusion. From this magazine article, however, we may get the idea that Jelena is mentally healthier than her relatives who don’t believe in her magic or any magic.

“To be totally ‘unmagical’ is very unhealthy,” says Peter Brugger, head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich.

“The Rocket Seamstress” was originally published in Zahir. It’s now available from Anthology Builder.

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Boredom Sets in and We Die

Which of my high school friends came up with that phrase, which we repeated at some point in almost every class? I think it was either Joe or Shawn, but it was so long ago I’ve forgotten the source. How long ago? In those days, many of us carried pocket knives — from Barlow, Boy Scout, and Swiss Army knives to more exotic blades like butterfly knives — to school without fear of reprisal; and not too many years before, an afternoon hunter could keep his shotgun in his locker during the school day.

But enough reminiscing.

What brought to mind that mantra of frustration? I thought of how sharply it contrasts with a Boston Globe article I read yesterday: “The joy of boredom,” by Carolyn Y. Johnson.

As [Richard Ralley, a lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in England] studied boredom, it came to make a kind of sense: If people are slogging away at an activity with little reward, they get annoyed and find themselves feeling bored. If something more engaging comes along, they move on. If nothing does, they may be motivated enough to think of something new themselves. The most creative people, he said, are known to have the greatest toleration for long periods of uncertainty and boredom.

The usefulness of boredom, in spurring us to explore new possibilities, makes sense. It seems that a key factor is what we find rewarding. I slogged away for years at writing THE ELEMENTS OF WAR, “with little reward” except my own satisfaction; frankly, it’s brought more than its share of disappointment (q.v. my entry yesterday). But the same is true for most of my writing. The internal reward keeps me going, even if the pursuit becomes difficult (and yes, boring).

Sometimes that internal reward is barely enough; I hope for more. I keep writing and sending out stories, etc., in my arrogant belief that they have worth beyond the confines of my own mind. So far the world mostly disagrees, so I labor — I slog away through the boredom and doubt — to prove the world wrong.

Boredom sets in … and I write.

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Beware the Surgeonsoldiers

If I weren’t ill, I would’ve found something else to do than reading so deeply into the classified ads today; but then I wouldn’t have found this gem on p. 14F of today’s News & Observer:

Evolving out of the evolutions (integral to each other) of Democracy (where every voice counts), Philosophy (where every action counts) & Love (where every love counts) .. is the word ‘surgeonsoldier.’

I haven’t quoted the whole thing, and I won’t, for the simple reason that it’s too confusing and convoluted to carry much meaning … which leads me to suspect it may be a code of some sort, intended only for those who know what it means.

This may be paranoia. Or it may be prudence. As my dad says, “Pay your money and take your choice.” I’ll take the latter.

It just seemed odd, so I dug around a little online: I found a similar item from last Sunday in the Google cache of the N&O, and one from 2004 in the classifieds of the East Carolinian. Last week’s N&O item quoted the East Carolinian item, including reference to “The Day … we ‘n 10 milyun [sic] surgeonsoldiers … proceeded to Bagdad [sic].” Today’s is even more cryptic, with its inclusion of a postscript to a mysterious “Report #389 (News Argus 11/05/00).”

What does it mean that “He returned to the mosque accompanied by 10,000 doctors … to begin the warming of the Cold Peace”? I have no idea. I just hope it isn’t what I’m afraid it might be.

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Saving Daylight

As I type this, it’s not even 9 p.m., and I feel the need to go around the house and change all the clocks already.

Partly this stems from many years ago, when we showed up at church an hour late because we forgot the time change. Partly it stems from my own creeping forgetfulness.

What makes this annoying is that the change isn’t happening when it used to, but we have a nifty alarm clock that knows when it’s supposed to change and make the switch automatically. So, since Congress decided that it’s better to change the clocks earlier in the calendar, we’ll change that clock tonight only to have to change it again whenever the clock thinks the time has come.

Oh, the wonders of technology.

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On Having Eclectic Interests: Specialization is for Insects

One of my favorite quotes, among all the quotes I keep handy, is a Robert A. Heinlein passage from his “Notebooks of Lazarus Long,”

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I often think of that quote with respect to my somewhat schizophrenic approach to life; that is, my tendency to move from topic to topic, the way a bee moves from flower to flower, stopping only long enough to collect what I want and then moving on. I might examine something in depth for a little while, but eventually I will leave it for another interest or another project. And if I have a mental honeycomb to which I return, in which I try to produce something of worth out of the bits I’ve collected, I must admit that its output has been poor and its product too often unpalatable.

At times I think it might be better to have specialized, to have developed some level of expertise, to know a lot about a little instead of a little about a lot. Then I think that perhaps the world has enough experts, enough specialists, and being a generalist is not so bad.

Or maybe I’m just rationalizing my lack of focus and resolve.

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