Bridge Over Troubled Water

(Editor’s note: myevette is on holiday this week, so Brian has graciously offered this post to fill her slot.)

Brian picPromises, promises, we make so many promises—like the ones in the famous Simon and Garfunkel song “Bridge over Troubled Water” (1970). The song is sweetness and melancholy in wrenching combination.

Speaking of bridge, I got hooked on the game of bridge in college. It is analytical and psychological, so much so that it would make an excellent college course. Love for the game and its accompanying books of famous hands took a lot of time—way more than helpful for a college student.

041224-N-4757S-194   Persian Gulf Onboard USS Monterey. Sailors enjoy a Christmas Eve Ice Cream Social on the mess decks of the cruiser, USS Monterey (CG 61).  USS Monterey is currently attached to USS Harry S. Truman's Carrier Strike Group TEN (CSG 10) and is on a regularly scheduled deployment in support of the Global War on Terrorism. (United States Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Third Class Craig Spiering.) (RELEASED)

When I got married, Tandy had no interest in bridge, and yet it remained my consuming pastime as a new groom and new ensign in the navy. It is hard to be in the navy, be married, and play bridge. Something would have to go.

A fellow shipmate was my bridge partner for local duplicate matches. On top of that, other friends played rubber bridge daily and kept the pressure on to play, and that took hours most evenings.

Meanwhile, Tandy would read magazines, and read books, and read—well anything, while hanging out as we played. She never threatened me. It was just obvious that there was a bridge, and there was troubled water, and that signaled needing to put the clues together and do something.

spadesBridge had to go. I would like to say that I could play an occasional game of bridge in those days, but not so, and there was no point in trying. It is a good thing to recognize when an activity is such a bothersome trigger that it is not worth engaging.

It’s not that bridge is wrong; it is a beautiful thing, just not for me. Now and then, almost 45 years later, my grandsons and our oldest son need me to be a 4th for a game of spades. It is very competitive, and grandparents and parents need to be good at playing for real, but not being real vested in winning or losing.

The human race has likely always loved games. Why not. The sane person learns, however, when it is time to put down a game and keep other bridges from closing down and fading away. For me, to enjoy my “silvergirl” and see her “shine” meant getting off of my own bridge and walking more on hers.





Brian picA bright student and exceptional writer came through one of my classes, but she had no idea at first where she was on the map. She said that none of her high school teachers ever engaged her about her aptitude and performance. This means that grades did not tell the story since a student can make an A in a string of English classes but still have unanswered questions.

This does not imply blame toward high school teachers, not at all. Classes can be large, with student behavior a constant challenge. Teachers may have to put out fires continually while trying to maintain an orderly classroom. Then too, some students are shy, non-assertive, or show no signs of blooming.grades

This is not to bash grades; they are a necessary evil. Considered as a measurement in the moment, grades might be seen in a purely objective light; but students, families, and institutions often put various kinds of spin on grades.

When I was young, the first pressures about grades were parental. After my father took off never to return, when I was in the fifth grade, slippage concerning grades might have occurred except that friendly competition formed in the classroom. It is hard to resist a fellow student’s question, “What did you get on the test?” This was a good thing since my mother had refreshed her elementary school teaching certificate, and with four kids was weary of body at the end of a day. She could only cheer us on so much.

armwrestleIn high school, a competitive friend came along. We played chess, pool, guitars, and sports. All of this was very competitive—heads on with one thing after another, including the classroom. His parents were very particular about education, so the atmosphere of education hovered over everyone who came over. Fortunately, competition was friendly, likely with a tad of goading now and then, though all I remember is that my friend constantly pressed me to do my best.

For a season in college, studies got bumped down in priority. Living in a dorm 600 miles from home, it took time for the craziness to settle down. Early on, it was just not cool to study too much.

In later years, grades have communicated two perspectives. Grades are grades, and the world runs on competition and comparison. However, it is a fine thing to arrive at comparing one’s self more with personal possibilities and not so much with others. Many intangibles come into play like effort, energy, persistence, and strategy.

Life is lived mostly without grades. Yes, grades are on those transcripts—as they should be. Of more importance, however, are the choices about what to learn that one makes over the years. Out the vast sea of knowledge come the particular magnets that draw me the individual and you the individual.Mikhail-Baryshnikov-Quote-Lg

Early in life, it feels normal to gravitate toward what represents a certain earning power. Later on, learning evolves toward what draws us. Attraction woos a person to pick up that certain book or magazine, to watch that particular documentary, and to visit that kind of museum.

The ideal is for occupation and learning interests to be one and the same. That does not always happen, but it can, either early or late in the land of the free.

Keeping the Big View

Brian picWith any venture of importance comes an initial dream or vision. A big picture forms like wanting to be a teacher. Then comes getting an education in the dreamed of discipline.

That’s just the beginning. Once in the classroom, other contexts require attention as well. For example, there is the institution that a teacher becomes part of. It’s very different from being the lone tropical fish in a bowl on someone’s living room table. Our grandchildren once had a small exotic Betta fish named Nixon, and Nixon enjoyed a modest sized, glass tank, colorfully decked out. Nixon was it. However, in education, it’s a bigger world, with all of the politics, fundraising, and paperwork that go with an institution.Nixon 1

Then there are the difficult students. Some don’t show up, turn in assignments, or make themselves an active part of a course. They might entertain unrealistic hopes of salvaging success. My least favorite questions are, “Do you think I can catch up?” and “Can I still pass?” I generally only say that I can only go by what students turn in, adding a recommendation for withdrawal where that appears best.

Nixon 2As institutional, political, and classroom problems mount, being a teacher can make a teacher wish for a simpler life like Nixon’s. Such, however, is merely fantasy. What is important is keeping the big view. This is the rescue when particular irritations and vexations need to be shrunk, while the big view is enlarged even more. Then, the good times go on, and the not-so-good times—well, they take on a less consuming perspective.

The Mysterious Love of Procrastination

Brian picProcrastination usually doesn’t show up with things we love but with things we don’t. An image comes to mind of a task that is too boring, too long, too difficult, too confusing, or too bothersome—at least that’s the perception.

If the task can be bumped off the to-do list, great. With assignments, that’s not likely. If anything, instructors would like to pack more into a course. They are in the field of their pleasure, and they would like to pass on to students the joy of the subject at hand.  procrastination1

How well I remember the mathematical truth, “The sense of foreboding increases proportionally to the delay of a task, until its exponential spike before an imminent due date.” Foreboding requires a lot of energy. Dread doesn’t come cheap.

procrastinationThen there is the scientific principle, “A task procrastinated upon increases in mass until it becomes unexplainably bigger than it really is.”

This all calls for a state of mind that has weighed up foreboding and increased mass and decided that pleasure is often defined by misery avoided. The amount of displeasure in getting started and knocking out the task is far less than the cumulative displeasure in procrastination.

It is even possible to stop thinking, “I am not enjoying this” and to just do a task, with the mind freed up for the task without having to click the like button or the dislike button. Suppose neither is particularly useful to consider.WWS-Procrastinate1

Of course we like or dislike lots of things. That will not change. However, the like-dislike paradigm does not have to receive so much attention. It can be starved. A person won’t die by not majoring on liking or disliking certain tasks.

The mysterious love of procrastination turns out to be more easily resolved that had been supposed. Life does have its unsolved mysteries, but procrastination need not remain one of them.procrastination-flowchart-2

From Spectator to Player on the Field

Brian picOne of my professors made a comment one day in class about football, saying, “At a football game you see 22 players on the field desperately in need of rest and 55,000 people in the stands desperately in need of exercise.” Our class had signed up to hear the famous lectures of this salty professor, but he let us know that we would not be spectators only, and his assignments proved that.SpectatorsImage

Though his lectures were stimulating, full of pith, and insightful, his assignments were designed to make students concentrate on all levels. They brought out the global picture of a text but also required noticing tiny details. The assignments were like an elaborate quilt; it gives up immediately what the main picture is, while at the same time including rich, small details without which the quilt would fail as a work of art.

1218_boston-marathon-2I notice passivity in some students who come to college. They got by previously by being “good listeners” and taking tests or doing worksheets. The premium for them has been intake of information and the ability to replicate it from memory. Intake and replication are vital to any profession, but eventually the practitioner learns to discover how to use information in difficult situations where the human component is present.

That is the sticky part—the human part. Humans defy neat categories, and so applying knowledge to them goes beyond our spectator days. We have to put our knowledge into play on the field and not in the stands.knowledgepic

It is true that every endeavor has its virtuosos whom we love to observe. Certainly it is a wonderful thing to study and celebrate the works of a master in any field. However, virtuosos are not a separate category of human. All humans live by giving their all to play at something and serve others. Everyone has a game to play, and to play well means a move from spectator to doer, which reminds me of a scripture, “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22).

Overcoming Inertia

Brian picI do the grocery shopping in our house. It’s been that way for years—a combination of two things: my wife hates it, and I like going, once I get going.

However, a second inertia occurred several years back when I regularly went to Aldi and to Kroger, with a list for each. Aldi offers great savings on a short but significant list of food items consumed at our house.  However, that meant two stores in one outing—an extra stop, parking twice, and checking out twice. It became easier to buy everything at Kroger, rationalizing that paying for convenience can be worth cart full

My officemate, Anne Stahl, loves Aldi, and praises the bargains there. I would agree but had settled into my Kroger-only ways. Never underestimate, however, the slow and steady influence of what friends are enthusiastic about. Anne wasn’t trying to recruit me to Aldi; it’s just that she enjoyed mentioning items on sale and the dishes that she cooked with them, and I have enjoyed many of those leftovers that she has brought to the office for Karen and me.

A couple of weeks ago, I unexpectedly found the idea of a trip to Aldi appealing for savings on a few items. Once in there, things escalated, and since then, the cart has gotten fuller and the list longer on bargains for familiar foods around our house. Aldi and Kroger are both back to where they were a few years ago.

aldi-discount-grocersAldi keeps its prices down in two ways. A customer puts a quarter into a cart to separate it from its row, and then gets the quarter back by attaching the cart back to its row after loading the car. Then too, the customer can buy bags, but mostly, customers use discard boxes from the store to pack their own groceries.

An unexpected pleasantry also occurred at Aldi. A female employee with a huge pallet of items to stock was in the middle of the store when I asked where the canned nuts were. She could have said, “You walked right by them when you came into the store.” Instead, she enthusiastically took me over to them. I felt like an idiot, but she never implied that.

Later, I was hunting salsa, and she walked me over to it. Not only that, she on her own explained about the different salsas, to which I said, “You should be in sales.” It is inspiring when people go beyond expectations in small duties.Motivationl-quotes

This return of Aldi all began with thinking about habits. Life is full of habits, getting started with one or trying to break one. Often, success hinges on overcoming inertia. It is useful to weigh time expended and the value of that extra time when deciding on whether to shop at only one store or two. In this case, a revived memory of some really good savings led to the return to Aldi, plus my wife compliments me when I tell her the savings on this or that item, and what husband doesn’t like that?


More Organic Carrots in the Classroom, Please

Brian picThe debate about organic foods is always interesting. Articles can range from minimizing the benefits, to maximizing them, to remaining indecisive. Ten years ago, the English department derived its 102 exit exam from three articles—one from each opinion on the spectrum, and students wrote their own argument using the articles as sources. Many students were willing to try organic foods except for the price. Would it be worth it? Generally, they thought not.

Organic_Food2I’m interested because our son’s family in Boone, NC buys organic milk, meat, and certain fruits and vegetables. Their favorite store is Earth Fare, and the store is marvelous. I love going there, and even if the foods are not boosting my life span or vigor, the store is a work of art and an immensely pleasurable outing, so I count part of the cost under the entertainment budget.

The reason for this blog today, however, is not to encourage organic eating but to share an insight that comes from organic carrots and how instructors would like more of their students to be like an organic carrot and less like a carrot sprayed with pesticide.

earth-fare-on-hendersonville-rd-asheville-nc-cheese-005While looking at news stories on line at NPR, I noticed an article by Allison Aubrey on organic food. Click—I opened it. Therein was one of the most interesting study strategies for college students. But first, let’s think about carrots.

Aubrey cites the work of Professor Chris Seal, who explains that certain nutrients come about by stress on a plant. Aubrey goes on to say, “if a carrot fly lands on a carrot and starts to chew on it, what options does the plant have? If it’s a conventionally grown carrot, a pesticide can be applied to repel the pest. But in organic agriculture, that carrot has to fend for itself a bit more. So, Seal explains, the carrot produces compounds … which taste bitter to the carrot fly. These polyacetylene compounds may help drive the fly away — and, serendipitously, this compound may benefit us as well.”

carrotsHow great it is when a student turns into an organic carrot of a student. Adversity begins to work in the student’s favor by producing resistance to predators and by developing healthy internal nutrients, beneficial both for the student and for the quality of the carrot offered to the instructor. Definitely, instructors can taste the difference and feel the vibrancy of the organic student.

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