Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Quote of the Day -- David Brooks

The social media maven spends his or her time creating a self-caricature, a much happier and more photogenic version of real life. People subtly start comparing themselves to other people’s highlight reels.
-- David Brooks, The Road to Character

The Ups and Downs of Speaking English

English usage and the role of English on the world stage have changed dramatically in my lifetime. In the 70's, when I was studying literature, educated people often sprinkled their writing with "big words" and the occasional French or Latin phrase. Just plain English was exactly that -- too plain.

At the same time, French was widely studied and spoken by educated people around the world, and many of the educated French were fighting hard to keep it "pure." If they had their way, they would eradicate "le parking" and "le weekend" from the French lexicon. Meanwhile, German was widely considered the language of science.

Colleges and universities provided crash courses in language study to fill the gaping hole in our elementary and secondary education. While Europeans typically spoke at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue, Americans were lucky to be fluent in English. Many of us lobbied hard to introduce language study in elementary schools (when it is the most effective) and sought ways to provide our children with language education outside schools.

For better or for worse, in the last 40 years, English has rapidly become the universal language. Multinational corporations typically require their professional employees to speak and read English competently. Shop clerks and waiters all over the world speak at least enough English to get by, making it less and less necessary for Americans to acquire a foreign language. See "The World's Languages, in 7 Maps and Charts."

The naysayers who argued against investing in language education gleefully say "I told you so" and yet... 

Language education seems on the rise. More and more school districts (at least where I live) are offering an immersion option for K - 6, usually in either Chinese or Spanish. And they are introducing language education (typically Spanish) for all elementary students. People are realizing that despite the prevalence of English, there is tremendous value in learning another language and culture. Much is lost if we always rely on the least-common-denominator passable English to express our thoughts.

In our increasingly diverse country, many children will be truly multilingual -- speaking fluent English with their friends and at school while speaking their mother tongue equally fluently at home with their immigrant parents. Science now tells us that multilingual children develop parts of their brain that will lie dormant in children with only one language. (See, for example, "The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual.") And the global economy will value language ability. So native speakers of American English need to step up and learn a second language or be left behind. And thankfully, our schools seem to be rising to the challenge. I look forward to the day when we in the US have widespread acceptance of the value of multilingualism instead of insistence that "we are exclusively an English-speaking country."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Quote of the Day -- Mark Twain

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
-- Mark Twain

And that was long before the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter!

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Art of Understanding -- the Guthrie's Disgraced

We recently had the opportunity to see the Guthrie's production of the relatively new play Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. It received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Here's the intro from the playbill: 

"A rapid-fire, award-winning social drama

Amir Kapoor, a successful Pakistani-American lawyer, is happy, in love and about to land the biggest promotion of his life. But ethnicity collides with ambition when Amir and his wife, Emily, host a dinner party at their Upper East Side apartment. Friendly conversation turns confrontational, and Amir makes a costly decision."

In a few short, well-crafted scenes, Akhtar provides important insight into ethnicity, ambition, love, loyalty, cultural misunderstanding, and the pain of loss. The audiences cringes in anticipation of the consequences of inescapable actions and literally gasps when long-buried cultural biases and problem-resolution "techniques" rear their ugly heads. 

In an era when we are subjected to so many sound bites, stereotypes, and catch phrases, Disgraced demonstrates the tremendous value of the arts to explore deeper meaning and provide greater understanding. Each of the four participants in the conversation made unforgivable mistakes in the course of the story, but we the audience can understand if not forgive.

This is an important play that is being produced at regional theaters around the country. If you have the opportunity to see it, by all means, go!

Quote of the Day -- Bill Gates

Most people overestimate what they can do in a day and underestimate what they can do in a lifetime.
-- Bill Gates

(Note: it's a bit ironic that I'm quoting Bill Gates. When he was at Microsoft, I despised him. But now I greatly admire what he is doing as a "retiree.")

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Quote of the Day -- Elizabeth Hardwick

The greatest gift is the passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind.
-- Elizabeth Hardwick, Paris Review interview

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Monday, August 8, 2016

Understanding Islam

On my morning walk at "the Lake," I breathed in the fresh air, exercised my lower body with hill work, exercised my upper body trying to swat away the hungry new crop of mosquitoes, and exercised my brain with this excellent Brookings Cafeteria podcast. I've nearly completed Hamid's new book -- Islamist Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.

We can go only so far in our understanding of a culture or religion when we have no firsthand experience or solid point of reference. After all, I can't even really understand the mindset of a fundamentalist who asked me whether I believe evolution or creationism. How can that even be a choice in this day and age?  And yet...  We have to try. We have to try to appreciate what is both important and obvious to others, even if it's neither obvious nor important to us.

Hamid's book and the podcast interview provide many valuable insights, and I encourage everyone to experience both of them first hand. I can't begin to do justice to his wealth of knowledge, but a couple things stick out.

Hamid goes back to the root of Christianity and the fact that Jesus was a "revolutionary" who had no hope or desire of nation-building. The New Testament is all about individuals, what we believe, and how we conduct ourselves. Anything resembling politics or government is conspicuously absent.Therefore, it's not surprising that eventually a Reformation occurred and we find ourselves in a secular society where the role of religion (for most of us) is fairly circumscribed.

The prophet Mohammed, on the other hand, was in a leadership position and was very interested in "nation-building."  The Koran is filled with "laws" about how to conduct ourselves in groups, how to form a law-abiding Islamist society. This is an overly simplistic summary, but Hamid's basic premise is that separating religion and politics for Muslims is very difficult and unnatural. If we're waiting for a Reformation that will somehow make it easier for us to understand each other and share the planet, we shouldn't hold our collective breath.

Another important point. When Muslims think about history, they think about the vast, highly successful and advanced Ottoman Empire. That was their heyday and it has vanished. So they question why it happened, why did God let it happen, and what can they do to get back into God's favor and ascend to their former greatness. Obviously, for many of them, a return to a more observant, pious society is an important step.

And one last story. When visiting Egypt, Hamid encountered a man who was smoking hashish while bemoaning secularism and wishing for the implementation of sharia law. When Hamid pointed out the irony (that the man was wishing for sharia law that would prohibit him from smoking hash), he said he felt bad about smoking hashish and wanted the state to stop him. We've seen this throughout history. For many people, authoritarianism (or fundamentalism) is easier. It provides something to believe in and rules to live by.

I'll never really understand such a vastly different value system, but at least I'm trying.

Quote of the Day -- E.O. Wilson

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.
-- E. O. Wilson

Sunday, August 7, 2016

On Being Articulate

Recently, while walking around one of the Minneapolis lakes, I listened to a Brookings Institute podcast about the likely impact of the Brexit vote (Brexit = Britain's referendum to exit the European Union). The content was thoughtful, objective, and helpful. But what really struck me was how articulate the speaker Fiona Hill was. She didn't um and ah and speak in partial sentences. But more impressive to me was her vocabulary. She used words that I understood and have possibly used when writing, but words that would be unlikely to cross my lips when speaking. 

Fiona is a Brit. And I notice that the Brit's with posh accents (revealing their education at elite schools) tend to have a speaking vocabulary that matches my written vocabulary. The gap between how they speak and how they write seems smaller than it is for most Americans. I wonder what it is about their education that produces that result? And how much of the gap is caused by the strong anti-intellectual sentiment on our side of the pond. Have we been so discouraged beginning at a young age of appearing too intelligent that we are loathe to introduce "big words" into our spoken repertoire?

Of all the disciplines where anti-intellectualism rears its ugly head, politics has moved to the forefront. In my own lifetime, I remember my reaction to the release of the Nixon White House tapes in the early 1970's. The redacted transcripts were filled with strings of profanity. I found it more intellectually offensive than morally offensive. Couldn't these men in leadership positions in our country find more articulate ways to make their point? It showed such a lack of creativity...

And now we have a "homegrown demagogue" who has reduced his rhetoric to the least common denominator. His speeches are laced with profanity, and he often seems incapable of constructing coherent sentences. It would be funny if it weren't so disturbing. Have we stooped so low that we admire someone who would make even a 5th grade English teacher cringe? (Check out this incredible example.) I worry for my country if we've reached a point where we have so little respect for the thoughtful, articulate, and educated. 

Quote of the Day -- John Paul Lederach

Don't ask the mountain
To move, just take a pebble
Each time you visit.

-- John Paul Lederach via 
On Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Quote of the Day -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. 
-- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Sweating the Small Stuff

One of my mantras of life has always been "don't sweat the small stuff." It might be a bit of rationalization and self-justification, because I'm much more of a concepts person than a details person. So I often tell myself that the details aren't worth losing sleep over. And mostly this works, plus it's a good counter-balance to my Type A, always planning, side.

"Don't sweat the small stuff" was also a refrain of our parenting style. And an important corollary was "pick your battles." I really believe that children from a very young age do far better with guidelines than lots of specific rules. And they are more likely to adhere to a few key rules ("don't run in the street," "don't ever get in the car with a driver who has been drinking") because those rules stand out as crucially important.

But I have always suspected that the hidden secret of this parenting style is laziness. It's often easier to do a chore yourself than to make your children do it. It's quicker to just give kids money when they need it than to figure out the equitable way to dispense allowance to kids of diverse ages. And who really knows or cares if the beds are made every morning?

Nevertheless, for our particular children, our parenting style produced spectacular results. Through some combination of luck (lots of luck) and skill, we raised three very responsible, respectful, financially stable, wise, and compassionate adults. They don't necessarily make their beds every day, but none of them are slovenly, nor do they run in the street or drink and drive. 

So why, at this stage of my life, am I so enamored with Rubin's podcast Happier and with Gretchen Rubin's writing in general? Rubin is by no means a shallow person, and yet her focus in much of her writing and her podcast is definitely about the small stuff. And I lap it up. I've come to believe that you can be happier and you can make your life better by focusing on your daily habits. The small stuff can make a difference.

I'm still a believer in my mantra-- don't sweat the small stuff -- when it comes to the big stories of life. But I've reached a stage of life when I've checked off the big boxes and now the question becomes how to compose a further life (an interesting book by Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead). And if I don't plan to join the peace corps or some similar noble commitment at this late stage, then doing what I can to make each day better increases in importance. Occasionally, their tips make me feel a little bit like I'm reading Better Home and Gardens or Good Housekeeping (perish the thought!). But usually their ideas are a bit more cerebral and personal... and it makes me happy to participate with them in thinking about the small stuff.