Saturday, January 4, 2014

I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm


Been listening to a lot of Django Reinhardt recently. I'm no jazz expert, but I love it when a musician takes a standard and is really inventive in the way s/he works through the melody (Miles Davis's "Someday my Prince Will Come" is another  example I love).

 And, when you listen to the double-time part at the end, realize he only played with two fingers due to injuries sustained nearly burning to death when he was eighteen.



Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Gifts

It wasn't until I saw the CT scan that I realized I'd gotten the units wrong. You see, though Andrea had told me she thought I was mistaken, I was convinced I'd heard them say "a 7mm tumor." But when white mass on the screen inflated to fill the center of my kidney, I realized it had been centimeters all along.

I felt my legs get rubbery, and I thought: "Okay, Jason. That's it then."

--

I don't like thinking back on that time, and I like less that--as much as I hate to admit it--there are times that cancer stubbornly fogs my outlook on life like some cataract.

But, as I've taken time off for Christmas, I do reflect on my diagnosis because it was, in a perverse way, a gift. 

I was sitting in the floor not long ago, listening to Scout's nails scratching against the hardwood as she raced to fetch a tennis ball I'd thrown. Andrea was on the couch, half watching television and half reading something on her phone.  From the living room, I looked out at the kitchen in our new home--finally a space wide open enough to hold my cooking and Andrea's baking.  It was just a normal weeknight.

And it was beautiful.

Years ago, just before I went to study in London, my wise friend (and now beloved Centre College professor) John Kinkade told me: "When you're there, don't take it for granted.  Plenty of people just sit in that campus pub and drink beer and play pool, which you could do anywhere.  You'll be in London.  See as many plays as you can. See as many museums as you can. You've got this amazing opportunity and it will come to an end.  Live in London.  Pay attention and appreciate that you're there."

I took John's words to heart, and that is good advice for any time you get a chance to travel.  But, after this summer, more clearly than I ever had before, I realized those were good words for more than just travel.

The sentiment is cliched, I fear, but it is also fundamentally true.  Today is what we have.  The day I was diagnosed, I put in a really solid 5K time, fixed my lawn mower, did landscaping, and was heading out to meet some good friends at West 6th.  Before a stop in the restroom told something was very wrong, I had everything else on my mind except the present.   After 11 hours in the ER, I left feeling like it was profoundly appropriate "present" means both the current moment in time and a gift.

--

The main reason I wanted to write wasn't to pen Hallmark morals for the holidays. There's plenty of mawkish sentimentality to go around this time of year.  I mainly wanted to thank so many of my friends and family for all your support and prayers this year.  From the moment the news got out, we had family and friends travel great distances to see us.  We had people sending books and magazines to read during my recovery. People made us meals and mowed the lawn and did whatever they could.  

Andrea's heard me tell her a million times I'll never be able to thank her enough for all she did, but I certainly also want to extend my deep gratitude to all my my friends and family for so many kind, prayerful, loving, funny, and thoughtful deeds. 

May God bless your families and give us the perspective to appreciate the day (Read Matthew 6).  I am very much looking forward to this Christmas, and I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season and a great new year. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

#WalMartFights vs Small Business Saturday

Source: http://www.sickchirpse.com/black-friday-walmart-fights/
While the relatively rare examples of Thanksgiving/Black Friday brutality will certainly be over-reported and sensationalized, they are real (the #WalMartFights hashtag on Twitter will crush your view of humanity). 

I would contend this inhumane/unhuman behavior is the logical end of (a) ruthlessly successful marketing campaigns that convince large groups of people (especially very susceptible children) that joy on Christmas morning can only be attained through possessing specific, mass-produced stuff, and (b) a big-box model that has found it is very profitable to use volume purchasing to marginally reduce prices and treat customers like cattle in a high-density feedlot.  
(Hyperbole? When you cram people into close quarters, snake them through lines to tag them with wristbands, then throw open gates and watch them trample and shove each other to get to the desired item? Still think so?) 

Let me be try to be clear about my concern here and what (I hope) it isn't:

  • I'm not casting stones without my own sins here. I very rarely do have to go to Wal-Mart because it is late and I'm out of dog food or something else I cannot get at the Euclid Kroger.  And clearly I'm not some local-only purist because I give a lot of my money to said Kroger, which is a gigantic grocery retail chain that has done its part to muscle out small, independent markets and grocers.

  • And my criticism is not--like much that I read--based on a classist dislike for people who do all of their shopping at Wal-Mart. It is easy for people with plenty of disposable income to mock "Wal-Martians" when they've never had their checkbooks in a place where Wal-Mart's 30 cents saving on something was meaningful. Mine has been in that shape before. 


My problem with Wal-Mart is that I believe the way they treat their customers is different in kind than even other national retailers.  My problem with them is that they are aware of their customers' desperate need, and, as a result, treat their patrons like garbage.  They don't only have three lanes open with sixty people in line because they are incompetent; they do so because they don't want to pay other cashiers, and they know their customers have no choice but to suffer through it.

It is their right to do so. The Waltons have brilliantly managed their business model and a humongous supply chain and simply crushed many rural retail markets with a value proposition of price and selection.  I'm a capitalist, so I'm not railing against them as evil.  But, I do advocate consumers--when they have the blessing of being able to choose--deciding what market behaviors they want to reward.

The very real antidote to Wal-Mart's approach is to support more humanist  retail experiences and ensure they survive.  Every time I buy something at Lowe's that I can get at Chevy Chase Hardware, I'm saying that having a place in my neighborhood, with people who can advise me from their experience, is just not a value to me. Since it is valuable to me, I have to be diligent.  I don't think it is compelling  when "buy local" advocates tell me the common refrain that "x more pennies per dollar stays in the community."  That is abstract and doesn't convey the real ramifications of the decision. The issue is whether you want to have options at all.

Moreover, we need to remember that there are wonderful gifts that do not have 30 second commercials on national television. In fact, I can get my loved ones some unique, locally made item and, in doing so, tacitly dispute the notion that owning the selfsame things as other people somehow validates us.  

It is easy to come across as sanctimonious in supporting shopping local, and I certainly have no grounds on which to feel superior to anyone. I just really intend on refocusing my gift shopping to try to support the locally owned businesses near me and I hope anyone reading this will too.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tips for college-bound juniors and seniors

My mobility, consciousness, and overall energy sorely limited as I recover from surgery, I have been thinking: how can I make myself useful?  Is there anything I can do to help other people while in this state?

 (As an illustration, it has taken me scattered, lucid periods over four days to write this brief post.)

But given that school is starting soon, I thought I could maybe help my friends with high schoolers by passing along the advice I used to share with my upperclassmen when I was a teacher.  I'm no admissions counselor, but I helped many kids get admission and scholarships, so I think it is sound information:

Pay attention to your schedule and adjust if necessary. 

Colleges want to invest their openings and certainly their scholarship money on students who present themselves as worth the effort. They like students with a diverse set of interests and those who are clearly up for an academic challenge.

If your senior year consists of general-education English, math, and science courses and then four sections of gym (I've seen this specific schedule from an ostensibly "college-bound" senior), then you don't seem like a safe bet.

Make sure your schedule shows you want to take the toughest classes possible.  To have AP next to a class on the transcript, the course syllabus has to at least go through a perfunctory review by the College Board to prove it appears rigorous.  That AP designation shows you are ready and willing to do college-level work, even if the grades you receive in that course aren't straight A's.

Nothing substitutes for challenging core courses. If you want to go to nursing school, for example, it doesn't impress an admissions counselor if you are taking "Medical Terminology" while taking bare-minimum science and math requirements.

Once you have a challenging schedule, choose electives that look good and provide valuable skills. For example, in my experience, Journalism and Public Speaking courses are often considered "fun" classes by students, but they also can markedly improve your written and spoken communication.

Get FAFSA done quickly.

Financial aid is given out first-come, first-serve based on your eligibility.  I always suggested putting the FAFSA form in the place where your parents sit most of the time (kitchen table, bar in the kitchen, coffee table, whatever), and asking them to check it every day to make sure you have filled out everything possible.  The moment you have all the necessary information to fill it out completely, mail it in.

Be methodical in college acceptance test prep


Don't just keep aimlessly studying and re-taking the test.  With practice tests available online, at school, in your library, etc. look at the questions you are missing and start figuring out if there are patterns.  A tutor or teacher at your school can easily help you with this analysis.

For some sub-tests, this process can be hard.  The ACT Reading, for instance, essentially tests your ability to quickly process different types of profoundly boring passages; raising your score through mere test prep is not likely to do much if you aren't a strong reader.

However, for the ACT English test, another English teacher and I tutored one girl using this sort of error analysis and she raised her score 9 points between her 3rd and 4th attempts at taking the test.   This was only the most dramatic example, but I've seen plenty of students raise English and Math sub scores 3-4 points with just focused error analysis guided by a teacher.

There are other things I can share when I feel better, but  hopefully this will be a few valuable notes for those of you with upperclassmen thinking of college admissions. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Nicholas Schmidle's Remarkable Article about Chris Kyle and PTSD

(c) 2013 Condé Nast. All rights reserved
I came across this incredible article via a story on (the now almost unbearably umbrage-laden and sanctimonious) Slate.com, but don't read their analysis--just read this story.

It is an investment if you don't often read long-form journalism, but it is an insightful narrative. We are so used to "journalism" that tries to force subjects into easy partisan narratives, it is striking when this writer characterizes Chris Kyle--a potentially polarizing figure--with an attention to detail that demonstrates real complexity.

It seems to me the author has some clear axes to grind about guns and militarism. But the presence of some level of bias doesn't worry me. As I vaguely remember from reading Hayden White in my grad school days, even taking on the conventions of the narrative form in telling the history of something, your decisions impart some bias. But Schmidle's willingness to primarily focus on the subject and the story is incredibly refreshing.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

X Speaks

I am very happy the great Frank X. Walker was named the Kentucky Poet Laureate today. I met Frank during my time working for the Governor's School for the Arts and while I have always loved his writing (my high school students always deeply connected with "Why I Ring the Bell"), I also found him to be simply a profoundly thoughtful and passionate human being.

For Mr. Walker, I share this meager piece I published in Kudzu a few years ago, inspired by seeing him at a reading at Third Street Stuff:


X Speaks
On attending the Affrilachian Poets reading on April 17, 2009 in Lexington, Kentucky.

"Let us pray"
Mother patted my knee and bowed.
My flaking, bony joints rubbed one another
as my tiny fingers intertwined.

Reverend Staggs's voice swirled around the burnished pews,
pressed against the drywall and nails in the old Nazarene church ceiling.
The Word burrowed into my pores—
swelling behind my temples,
within each bone, each tendon of my tangled hands.
While unfamiliar voices shrieked supplication all around,
discordant, syncopated,
I clutched my pulse, throbbing in my neck.
Felt the Word, heard the words, shaped by his mouth.

Tonight, no altar, collection plate,
disciples hushed as they anticipate
and swirl the last spit of coffee in their cups,
watch another pastor rise.

My lids close upon his face
as his voice feels out the corners of the room.
The Word spoken aloud –
over the clinking silverware,
the murmuring laity,
the amens rising in my throat.