Sunday, March 26, 2017

Never Trust the First Day of Spring

Cutting pussy willow branches from the bush in the back is the first sign of spring at our house. We wait until furry gray and white seeds (the pussy toes) split the watertight reddish-brown seed cover that has kept them safe and warm from unseasonable cold nights.

A couple of years ago, I may not have made that observation. I wouldn’t have had the time. Like most working couples, we squeezed our garden chores into after-work and weekend timeslots. Was the garden early or late this year? Was it raining outside? Was there still snow on the ground? Didn’t matter. We had only so much time to do what needed to be done. Mid-March we needed to push, push, push in order to complete our garden do-list by Memorial Day, the official start of the summer season. Pause, observe, and actually reflect on the buds and flowering of a plant? Are you kidding me?

We have a different mindset now. One of many advantages to retirement, I have found, is the time and patience to be mindful of things around me, including the small treasures showing a change of season. For the last couple of weeks, we watched these pussy willows from the kitchen window and gauged the progress of the seed pods every morning over coffee and orange juice. Did you know the pods spiral clockwise around the green branches and open from the top of the branch down? Cut too soon and the fuzzy toes do not come out. Wait too long and the seeds mature into yellowish seed pods, not at all attractive as an indoor decoration. It's the Goldilocks of the spring yard.

The act of cutting the pussy willow, not some date circled with a  green marker on the calendar, signals the start of spring garden work. You can never trust a calendar date. In some years, according to past garden journal entries, the ground was covered by half a foot of snow at this time. In other years, narcissus and crocus were in bloom. This year, we are somewhere in between. The snow is gone everywhere but the deep woods, but average temperatures are still in the 30s. This year, most of my garden prep has been restricted to looking at online sales from White Flower Farm and the Royal Horticultural Society. Outside, perennials are happily snug under leaf mulch weeks past the solstice, waiting for average temperatures to reach the 40s and 50s. Perennials have always had more patience than me at this time of the year.

Some may complain, of course you’re patient about the start of the growing season, you’re retired: you have seven days to do your work, not just two and some change like the rest of us. That’s true, though I also know of some retired friends who are no more efficient with garden work now than when they were punching a time clock. I don't think retirement or busyness is the issue here. I think it's more an acceptance of the pace of the seasons and the recognition that you can't push what won't be shoved.

This bloom of garden wisdom is not a direct result of hours behind a shovel, I think, but the accumulated experience of killing a variety of plants in a variety plots in a variety of yards. Seriously, there are only three things I know about gardening. First, there is always work to do. Starting in March or starting in May doesn't change this rule. Second, the work that needs to get done gets done. What you chose to do is up to you. Third, if the work doesn’t get done, Mother Nature is perfectly capable of carrying on alone. You still have her permission to touch the soft, fuzzy buds of the early season pussy willow.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

When Family Stories have a little Blarney in Them

St. Patrick’s Day to me has always been a day to watch from the sidelines as Irish neighbors celebrated shamrocks, Brigadoon, and green dye in the Chicago River. Other than drinking green beer in college, my biggest St. Patrick’s Day activity was in grade school. We upper grade boys would celebrate the day by taping Protestant orange shamrocks to the door of a very Catholic Irish teacher’s classroom and hear his oaths (always colorful but very PG) echo down the hallways. This stunt was more a coming of age test for sixth grade boys, than a true insult against the Irish people. You had to visit the Principal's Office at least once before graduating to middle school.

So, I never thought much about the day. Family wisdom said I was at least half-German on my Dad’s side (“Pure German,” he was proud to say) and French and German and a little bit of this and that on my mother’s side. The most romantic and historic tale of my mom’s family was of a great, great, great grandmother,  a Menominee princess who married an officer stationed at Fort Howard in the early 1800s. The officer’s name was Taylor, close relative of then fort commander, Zachary Taylor, the eventual 12th President of the United States.

Celebrate Bastille Day, sure. Celebrate Octoberfest, for sure. Even celebrate at the local Pow Wow in July. But celebrate wearing of the green? Not so much.

Now, through the science of genetic testing, I’ve discovered that stories of my great grandparents have a little bit of blarney in them. At the urging of a sister and after watching too many episodes of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS show, “Finding Your Roots,” I decided to have my DNA tested to confirm my dominant German and French ancestry.

I sent the spit test to the organization, 23 and Me, and quickly received the results. First, of my Dad’s proud claim to be of “Pure German” stock? The DNA says not so fast. I test at about 45-percent French and German heritage. If I was half German from my Dad’s "pure" side, that number should have been well over 50-percent. At 45-percent, someone somewhere had been diluting the Fatherland's gene pool and not telling about it. So, where did the rest of the 65-percent of me come from?

The second largest marker, a little over 30-percent, was labeled “Broadly Northwestern European.” That could include Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the far northern edges of France and Germany. Norway, Sweden and Iceland are also included in that total indicated by a 2.8-percent trace of Scandinavia. And, to my surprise, my third largest marker (almost 10 percent) is from the United Kingdom and Ireland. That means someone on my great grandparents level had to have had dominant Irish or British ancestry. Blimey! Or should I say, "Happy Lá Fheile Padraig.” Is it hard to learn Gaelic? German has been beyond me.

And, the DNA marker of 1.2 percent Native American confirms my mother’s story about my Menominee multiple great grandmother. For some reason I feel more pride in that than in being a distant relative of US President.

I wonder why family lore about my other “greats” have not been not as accurate. It’s possible that back in the day, one was not sure which stories of grandparents were true and which were not. In some unconnected families, I imagine, the past is just a shadow of untold heresay. While my DNA revelation has not been as dramatic as those who appear on Mr. Gates’ show (though my naturally blonde sister now feels vindicated by light-haired Scandinavian and Irish markers after being teased in a family of dark-haired siblings), the tests make me think of a side of me that I have not known before. As a writer, I wish I knew more of the stories that have been lost along the way. Perhaps that’s the Irish in me peeping out.

Before the 23 and Me report, I could blame my dominant German heritage for my stubbornness, for my weight gains, and for my inability to go against traffic signs. Now, I guess I should let a little of my other ancestry out every once in a while.  What do you think? James Joyce rather than Herman Hess? Irish River Dance rather than Polka OmPaPa? Guiness rather than Dopplebock? Or maybe I should just close with a post-St. Patrick's Day traditional blessing from my new-found ancestors: “May you have warm words on a cold evening, 
A full moon on a dark night, 
And the road downhill all the way to your door.”

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Writing to Think: Scribo Ergo Sum

The tweet subject header read: “Power of the Pen: Five Scientific Reasons You Should Be Writing More.”

Normally, I pass by these sorts of self-help tweets that promise Nirvana and a thinner waistline by following three, five, twelve or 53 easy steps, reasons, observations, methods, days or … you get the idea. But, for some reason, this short piece by Steve Handel, repeated this past week but originally posted Jan. 24, 2011 on the psych/self-help website, The Emotion Machine, caught my attention. I believe the fair muse of the blogosphere was speaking to me through Mr. Handel.

First of all, I do believe in the Power of the Pen. The written word, fire, the wheel, and chocolate chip cookies are probably the most four important inventions of humankind if I were to make my own list.  “In the beginning was the Word,” the Good Book says, and most everything else flows from that. I don’t remember a time not being able to read and write, and am fortunate to have worked in careers in journalism, public relations, business, and education where those skills are prized.

Second, the five reasons themselves make sense:

  1. Writing improves learning. When you have to decode information, then encode it in your own words and then decode it in an understandable form, you are creating learning pathways. That’s Ed Psych/Teaching Methods 101.
  2. Writing relieves anxiety. A study in Science magazine showed that students who wrote about their test anxiety did better than those who did not. Writing made the trauma real but in a non-threatening form.
  3. Writing helps us overcome traumatic events. A 1986 study, again using students (undergrads are a great resource for researchers), found that those who wrote about traumatic events in their lives were able to process and accept them better than those who did not. See Reason Two.
  4. Writing improves physical health. I had not heard of this one before, but some claim physical health benefits from daily journaling.
  5. Writing improves social and behavioral outcomes. If you buy reasons, one to four, I think number five naturally follows.

 As a writer, this all seems self-evident. That is because when you are a writer, you just have to write. There is no other option. I write in order to understand, to put the world into some sort of coherent pattern, and to marvel at the wonder of it all, and then to discover what I think about it. When I was a rookie journalist, working by the column inch for a Catholic weekly many lifetimes ago, I learned to not write for the job or (sad to say) for the reader as much as for myself. I found my best writing was when I could clearly, accurately and creatively describe a topic for myself. When I trusted my own voice, then others, I found, also found clarity, or at least renewed their subscription.

I started writing this blog in January 2012, coincidently the same month and year after this short article by Handel. At the time, a PR person at the college was looking for blogs from new instructors. I had just finished an intense three-year creative writing degree and missed the reason to write. I told the PR person I’d try to help out and wrote about my experiences in the Basic Education and GED classrooms. I guess that was a variation of Reason Two: Writing to Overcome the Anxiety and Lack of Confidence in Becoming a Full-Time Faculty Member and Gaining Some Credibility Among the Administration Class that Rules on Your Salary and Position Each Year.

I wrote about three weeks out of five until June 2015 when I formally announced my retirement from the school. I pulled back because I didn’t want to say anything that would cause problems for my students, my colleagues or the school. I didn’t think I’d do that, but one never knows what will be written when muse whispers in one’s ear. I also thought that words that I meant in one way might be taken in another against the context of being a “short timer.” I’d rather have my words stand for themselves.

After my January 2016 retirement, I took another full year off to see if I missed the weekly assignment. I found that I did, so I restarted this post in January 2017 and have been faithful every week since. This post has created a weekly deadline in a deadline-less time of life (see Reason Four). Obviously, my world and point of view have changed in retirement and I wondered if I would have enough to write about on a regular basis. So far, that has not been a problem and I find that I take on new and old experiences with a purpose and still enjoy working out my kinks in my thinking (see Reason One) through the power of words and sentences. When muse no longer visits and writing is no longer fun, this blog will end.

But until then, as Mr. Handel wrote six years ago, “Anyone who has the capacity to write should take advantage of this tool whenever they can. Both the mental and physical benefits from writing about your life, such as in a journal or a blog, are paramount to optimizing your health and well-being.” Cheers.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Stand and Deliver at National History Day

My wife and I spent Saturday morning in history heaven judging the regional National History Day competition at UWGB. More than 350 students (and tagalong parents and teachers) from 16 Northeast Wisconsin middle and high schools crowded the hallways, commons, and coffee shop of the Student Union. Their energy seemed to stun sleepy undergrads wandering in for a jolt of coffee and carried over into competition as they presented, discussed and defended their original history research to teams of volunteer judges, like us.

If you missed the handout from your school's social studies teacher, National History Day (coordinated for many years by the UWGB Archives and Area Research Center -- kudos to Deb and her team) is like a science fair with world, US and local history as the subject matter rather than biology, chemistry and physics. So, instead of creating a paper mache Mount St Helen diorama, think a scale model of the Capitol Mall in Washington, DC, or a replica of the first Catholic parish along the Fox River. These would have been entries in the Junior and Senior Exhibit competition, our assignment for the day.

We judged documentaries last year (Ken Burns-like videos with slow pans of old newspaper photos), but liked the additional time we had this year to review work that didn’t move quickly by us on a classroom screen. History research should be savored not timed. I guess I'm an old-fashioned three-panel, doubled-stacked six-foot display kind of guy. Joined by a friendly credentialed historian, we three reviewed and discussed the exhibits and then had a 15-minutes to interview each high school historian.

It was stand and deliver time for them as they explained how their exhibit fit the year’s theme “Taking A Stand in History”. I'm sure students were nervous -- I would be -- but I hope each one left the interview proud of the work. The three of us were not shy about asking questions, but knew our role was to discuss and help, not frighten. Each student put in a fair amount of time creating and producing the exhibits, and was justifiably proud of his or her work. They all did good.

And, in other rooms buzzing around us, other students were being evaluated in four other categories: video documentary, short dramatic presentations, research papers and history websites. All five categories required an extensive bibliography, a process paper that explained why the student picked the subject, and strict guidelines in size (exhibits), time length and word count. Word count was especially tough to hit. How does one summarize three months of research into 500-words? I go over that limit each week in this posting.

Every year, the National History Day attracts more than half a million students to this competition -- that's a lot of rubber cement. The students that we saw were competing for Northeast Wisconsin Regional spots against winners from seven other state regions in Madison in April. In order to help them compete at the next level, our goal as judges was not only to engage the students about their topics but also to give them constructive comments that would help them improve their work if they moved on.

Most of the corrections we suggested were no different than corrections an instructor might make in any other high school or even four-year college research work: citation errors, the difference between direct quotes and paraphrasing, and using photos to drive your argument rather than just sit there idle as decorations.

I think all three of us we were especially impressed when each of our students extended their research beyond the first ten hits on the Internet. That gives credit back to their history/social studies teachers. In addition to web sources, they sought out inter-library loan documents, Wisconsin and other state historical society archives, old newspaper front pages, books and family memoirs, and even cold-called witnesses of historic events. I wish my Freshman Composition students had half this gumption when conducting their research. I was more likely to get a Wikipedia "The Top-Ten Conspiracies of All-Time" as a major reference than the work I saw on Saturday. After one student was even able to easily answer my question about the difference between primary, secondary and tertiary sources, I would have given her a Masters Degree hood then and there

Regional winners from all five categories were announced in the University Theater at the end of the day. We didn't stay for that. Our job was to select two semifinalists who would advance to finalist judging by another panel in the afternoon. I think our two top students had a good shot of making it to Madison. I’ll look the award winners up later on. Next step for them will be Madison and then on to the Nationals at the end of the school year. Who says history can’t be fun?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Political Radar: the Front Wave of Citizen Press

I witnessed a remarkable event this past Wednesday. I saw John Henry journalism beaten down by the new-fangled steam-powered hammer of a social media podcast.

At hand was the first live taping before an audience of a year-old local news podcast called “Political Radar.” About 75-supporters, and people who just wandered into the lower level of the Broadway coffee shop, Kavarna, heard an exchange of opinion between two alder persons on opposing sides of the Green Bay mayor’s campaign finance misdemeanors. Just two days before, our City Council met in an extraordinary hearing to consider removing three-term mayor from office. Mayor Jim Schmidt prevailed and remains in office by one vote.

Now, Political Radar hosts, Rhonda Sitnikau and Elliot Christenson, sort of fell into this topic for their first live broadcast by luck. The event had been promoted before the mayor’s hearing was scheduled. After the hearing was concluded and votes tallied, Rhonda and Elliot were able to get intelligent, articulate alders from opposite sides of the vote to publicly speak about the hearing and about other issues facing the city. Fortune favors the prepared: Political Radar was prepared and the mainstream media, a luckless John Henry, was not.

Some time ago, these alders on two sides of such a contentious hearing would have been fought over by editors from Green Bay’s two competing daily newspapers. And, in larger markets where the broadcast stations actually have news staffs and carry live daily interview shows, the alders would have been sitting in front of microphones in a Michigan Ave. studio, not the lower level of the Broadway coffee shop.

Now I realize I am different from the typical news consumer. I’m a trained journalist. I worked in the business (the Catholic press) for twelve years and could not imagine starting the day without the adrenalin jolt of a daily newspaper or two. It would be like skipping coffee. Having said that though, I noticed this morning I did pull most of my news from Facebook, Twitter and other social media sources, including podcasts. In Green Bay, as in other markets, local news and commentary had been the reliable, steady, dependable John Henry raison d’etre for a newspaper. Now, not so much.

I think Political Radar represents the front wave of a new kind of citizen journalism. It’s sort of like the young Benjamin Franklin and his brother starting their first newspaper in the colonies. The 30-minute podcast describes itself as “engaging political topics from multiple points of view while also looking for common ground.” Sitnikau, the earth mother of the show, is a self-employed production stylist, former City Council candidate and a passionate believer and advocate for the local political process. Christenson, also an entrepreneur and a “Bill of Rights loving libertarian who is social conservative and fiscally conservative (read that he HATES taxes),” plays the cynical foil to Sitnikau’s steady and prepared questioning.

Political Radar topics and guests tend to come in from the left edges of the playing board rather than the right. Obviously in 2016, city, state and national primary and general elections dominated the recordings. To their credit, the hosts did invite both major political parties, as well as many of the parties in-between. As Wednesday night’s audience demonstrated, the podcast has developed quite a following.

In addition to politics and elections, Rhonda and Elliot publicize and opine about goings-on at City Hall, City Council, County Board, School Board and other major relevant committees. Back in the day, beat reporters of the newspaper covered these and all the major local news centers. Back in the day, alternative media like Political Radar would have been over-matched by the overwhelming resources of a daily paper. But no longer. The playing board is evenly balanced. It may even be tilted a little in favor of the upstarts.

As a paper’s circulation drops for various reasons (social media is just one of them), advertisers spend less money on display and classified advertising. Without circulation and advertising revenue, local papers can’t support a strong news department. Without a strong news department and local community voice,  a once important newspaper is just a shopper with a high school sports insert.

It is like a once mighty John Henry with a weak back reminiscing about the good old days of a wild and free, steel-driving press. As he hears a new sound, he winces as he turns to watch Political Radar and other innovative, energetic social media roll by on hand cars. There's nothing he can do about it.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Teacher Lounges with the Least and the Lightest

Last week we learned in an biannual budget address that Governor Scott Walker proposes saving money by creating a life-time teaching license rather than continue the five-year license that is currently in effect.

You’d expect most teachers to stand and huzzah the Governor this one time, wouldn’t you? Most of us dramatically roll our eyes and sigh heavily at the beginning of the school year when we see the suggested/required Professional Development courses needed to build up CEUs to renew the five-year license every, well, five years. A life-long pass from taking those courses should give us more time to prep and teach, which is what we say we want to do anyway. Right?

But I’m not sure that this is such a good idea.

Governor Walker’s proposal cuts 10 full-time equivalent positions from the Department of Public Instruction that manages licensure, according to a story from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Now, I’m sure that the fact that this one lone state department is run by a Democrat, Tony Evers, has nothing to do with the downsizing proposal. After all, we are talking about teaching our kids and adult students, not making political points. Right? And, one might point out that Wisconsin did function well with lifetime licenses until 1983, when the incoming Democratic administration of Governor Anthony Earl thought it was a good idea to for teachers to record and be rewarded for their professional growth. Gov. Walker argues that his proposal saves money by paring an evil bureaucracy as well as making it easier to attract teachers.

This is where I have a problem. Do we really want to make easier to attract and keep teachers? Rather than staff the Best and Brightest, would we rather fill our empty teacher lounges with the Least and Lightest? I'm not sure. Is any warm body at the front of the classroom better than no body at all? Some cynics would say this is what we deserve. They would say the shortage of teachers in Wisconsin is the direct and logical result of the denigration and devaluing of the profession by an anti-union Republican administration, but I’d rather not comment on that.

Rather than taking away or dumbing down the five-year license, I would like to see teaching requirements increased, rather than decreased. I think it should be harder to get and maintain a teaching license in Wisconsin, not easier. Our students deserve this. Certification activities should be expanded to include not only academic course work, but also professional development activities that include, but are not limited to, curriculum development, conference presentations, leadership positions among colleagues, professional papers issued to peer-reviewed journals, structured networking opportunities, and community activities. And, I sure hope, somewhere, somehow teachers would be given structured time to sit down on a regular basis with cross-departmental colleagues to talk about the art and craft of teaching.

If the Governor really wants to make nice with teachers in the state, he could direct some dollars or political capital toward enhanced certification that demands and supports mastery of the teaching craft in all our classrooms, not just mouth a mamby-pamby philosophy of just getting by.

If the problem is within the five-year certification itself, like it’s outdated, or courses are not longer offered, or its reporting mechanism is tied to an archaic computer system, then, Mr. Governor, work with Mr. Evers to fix the problem. That's what you are paid to do. Don’t throw up your hands in defeat, peck away at union personnel in the department and hope problems in our state’s classroom miraculously solve themselves. The problem with relying on miracles to accomplish the job, as I tell students, is that they are so damned unreliable.

Monday, February 13, 2017

No Big $$$ Surprises in Retirement

“The Biggest Surprises in Retirement” read an all-caps headline in today’s Wall Street Journal’s“Wealth Management” section. Photos of happily retired people chasing their dreams filled the page above the fold along with comments about life changes, self-worth, and the financial freedom to do what you want to do.

I am one year, one month, twenty-two days, and five and a quarter hours since the school turned off my email, mid-sentence, and my retirement began. Note to self: don’t work on an email system as your password is deleted. It raises hell with the home computer operating system. So, what have I been surprised by during the past 12-months? Well, not a lot to be honest. Part of the reason is that we carefully planned and saved for this part of our life. Things have gone well for us, life has been kind, and we remain prudent, a life-long habit.

Financial planning is key, of course. When you no longer have money coming in from a paying job, the money you have saved at the moment your job screen goes black, has to last this year, next and, with God’s good grace, for the next forty-plus years. Those interviewed for today’s WSJ article agree,

“Financial surprises, not surprisingly, popped up in many of the responses (to the retirement question) we received. Frequently, a sigh of relief was audible. Nest eggs are working as planned. A number of readers noted that a healthy amount of self-discipline before retiring has a bigger impact afterward than most people realize.”

I have two words of advice here. First, start saving for retirement with the first paycheck of your first job. We still have records of our first year of work ($7500 salary – good wages those days) that records a new retirement account saved and put away. How much you put away is not nearly as important as making a habit of it every single paycheck and then letting your investments work for you. We have a cash base for our retirement, but have always put a portion of the pot into stocks: individual stocks at first (Microsoft was one of my early gambles) and later in mutual funds that followed the popular and diverse stock indexes. If you believe in the value and industry of the people in this country, stocks are a good bet.

Second word of advice: interview, select, and work with a local money manager you trust. Don’t get sucked into get-rich-quick money managers who conduct their business behind 1-800 golden curtains. And, please ignore the talking heads who shout each other down on the financial channels. Trust is key. I remember talking with one well-known retirement manager early on, who was recommended by family. He was visibly insulted when the two of us wanted to know how and where he made his investments. He thought his decisions were proprietary and that we were too young and naïve to understand his methods. It was a short meeting.

Once you select people you trust, question them and watch your investments. On an annual basis, have them run scenarios for all sorts of life circumstances and how decisions will affect your retirement. When you get close to retirement (I’m talking five to ten years here), good advisors can point out problems and deficiencies in your planning, like the revealing the mind-numbing cost of pre-Medicare health insurance. But that’s another post.

Once you are assured of and confident in a regular stream of income for however many retirement years you plan to torment your nieces and nephews, the rest comes much easier. Retirement isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is for those who plan their finances wisely, live within their means, and have the wherewithal to push off into new adventures.