Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

During the last week, America has been paying an inordinate amount of attention to world events. On Friday night, terrorist attacks in Paris killed over 100 people. After the attacks, Americans started to (finally) pay some attention to Syria, where a Civil War has ripped the nation apart, giving Syria_areas_of_control_March_2014opportunities to groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) to find a territorial foothold.  Unfortunately, most US citizens ignored Syria and the instability of the region until the day ISIS began targeting areas outside the immediate region. Hence, a bomb going off in a marketplace in Beirut on Thursday passed through the 24 hour news cycle with nary a whisper, while the attack in Paris was front-page news with fully invested in-depth reporting.

For the most part, Americans have no idea what ISIS is, or what they want. Their story is too complex for most Americans to follow, and, to be quite frank, most US citizens just don’t care to follow foreign affairs.  The majority of the nation concern themselves with sports, video games and the lives of celebrities, and don’t worry about the world outside their immediate selfie-bubble.  The one thing Americans do seem to know though, is that ISIS is made up of some pretty bad guys.  Whether it be beheading those identified as heathen apostates in Syria, or shooting civilians randomly with automatic weapons in Paris, ISIS fulfills the Hollywood villain role quite nicely.  Of course, for most Americans, when this is happening ‘over there’, we can simply shake our heads and declare such actions monstrous, evil or devilish, and turn the channel. ISIS is not sticking ‘over there’ though. As Americans feel it hitting closer to home, our rhetoric of fear and aggression has intensified .

Evil. I never like to use that term.  Strangely enough, it is too comforting of a word. Labeling something or someone evil simplifies complexities.  It glosses over reality. If our enemies are evil, then we are good.  If they are


Jim Acosta


evil, then they easily explained.  If they are evil, all we need to do is kill’em and the world will all go back to normal.  In President Obama’s press conference the other day, a CNN reporter spoke for all those who want to live in such a simplistic Manichean world. Jim Acosta stood up and asked the President, why can’t we  ‘just take out these bastards’?  It is a simple question, and it is begging for a simple answer. The problem is, the situation at hand is not simple. Hard problems often call for difficult, ugly, complex, time consuming and unpopular solutions.

With this in mind, I would hope Jim Acosta, and all those he speaks for would take 10 minutes and read an analysis of the problem by one of the world’s experts on the psychology of terrorists.   Anthropologist Scott


Scott Atran


Atran has written numerous books on how we should understand terrorists, and how we can hope to defeat the social challenges that give rise to terrorist movements. A couple days after the Paris attacks, he published an important article in the New York Review of Books that should be required reading for all American policymakers.   To me, this is the most clear explanation of what ISIS is, what they  want, and why they seem to be so popular with young people around the world.  I highly recommend you read it.  I will attach it below.

Paris: The War ISIS Wants by Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid.

If you are interested in more, here is Atran speaking to the United Nations earlier this year.
Atran at the UN


Posted: November 13, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty
I encountered an old Jewish myth that explains the origin of human suffering. Before life, each individual is taken to an enormous field of difficulties and instructed to select the bundle of troubles that he or she will take to earth. The most significant detail of the tale emerges when, after life, each person is brought back to the same field, only to select the same bag of troubles.


“Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate),” Van Gogh

To be sure, each life comes with its own share of miseries. How does the conversation about the difficulties we face differ if we are lead to believe that we select our own troubles, and, after a lifetime of suffering, would still make the same choice?

The tale asks us to recognize of our own fallibility, and our tendency to choose, again and again, the same sorrowful path. The brilliant film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind offers a heartbreakingly beautiful exploration of this territory. We long for heartwarming, romantic love, but frequently allow ourselves to become mired in hurtful relationships. Choosing the same pain, over and over, oblivious, or at least in denial.

By virtue of being earthly creatures, we are subject to injustices of every type. Larger troubles, far out of our control, are created by worldly powers that exact a human toll throughout all of history. Each of us must constantly contend with the agonies of life.

The logical mind in us wants a reason; the creative mind transforms pain into art.

Blues music embodies our poignant endurance, blending knowledge, acceptance, and regret. “Trouble Weighs a Ton,” by Dan Auerbach, mournful, sweet, tells the same sad stories, and in listening we share in the common grief of humankind.
We rely upon the healing force of companionship, connection through art, and a community bravely moving forward; we can and must allow pain to transform us into more compassionate people.

Pain can also reveal our inner strength and determination. “We Shall Overcome,” has ultimately and astonishingly fulfilled its own prophesy.

break through from your mold

“Break Through Your Mold,” Zenos Frudakis

Suffering also builds empathy. Understanding the infinite difficulties in life allows us to connect with others, to share their suffering and ease their pain.

We must withstand tragedy after tragedy, but at least we do not have to do so alone.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty
I regularly ask my students to devote their time and attention to the crucial habit of reflection. In autumn, Nature herself asks us to reflect on death, and consider the ways that we allow death to coexist with life.

I am fortunate: most of the people I have ever loved are still on the earth. That will not always be so. Still, those that die are always present in our thoughts. And the many cultural traditions attached to the remembrance of the dead, The Day of the Dead among them, are necessary.

It seems appropriate to reflect upon the physical places and spaces reserved for death. The living must make these choices, since the dead cannot. Cemeteries tend to be lush and green, replete with old growth trees and acres of quiet elegance, and the habit of visiting and enjoying cemeteries as parklands is one of many ways humans have endeavored to practice philosophy. In “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries” Rebecca Greenfield writes, “It gives you a sense of the finiteness of your life, the preciousness of your life. Cemeteries are places that make us reflect upon not just the mortality of those who are buried there, but on our own mortality.” Recently, I drove past Rosehill Cemetery in North Chicago, twenty acres of which had been re-purposed to include a nature preserve including biking and walking trails. The permeable border between life and death made manifest in this place confronts our need to understand and connect with the dead.


Moreover, cemeteries are a lasting testament to the life of a people and a place. I was inspired by the tangible persistence evidenced in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Like others, I visited Arlington national cemetery (when staying with my brother) and was moved by the solemn changing of the guards at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The devotion and dedication paid to the loss of one who represents countless others: a somber and poignant experience. And nearly every tourist in New Orleans considers visiting the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, home to Marie Laveau’s tomb, to entertain the notion that the dead might be able to intervene on our behalf.

Human must grapple with loss and death. The recent discovery of an early burial cave was a tremendously exciting archaeological and anthropological find because it evidenced a shift toward the ritualization of death. More recently, an idea to replace coffins with seed pods in order to create lush “memorial forests” appeals to the human desire to see new life spring forth, perhaps abating our grief in some small way.

Cemeteries remain among the few silent spaces, solemn and lovely, inviting us to remember those loved and lost, and to consider life’s inherent brevity, and attendant beauty.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Like so many others, I am absolutely psyched for December 18th, 2015.  If you need to ask why, then you probably are not going to understand my excitement. On that day, the new Star Wars is released, and like many within my generation, I will be star-wars-episode-7-the-force-awakens-trailers-poster-640x330lined up at a local theater with bated breath waiting to experience the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie. However, I will NOT be dressing up. I’m not that crazy.

I’ll tell you who is crazy though…

Last week after the third and final trailer for Episode VII was released, a strange Twitter trend began.  Evidently, a small group of fools have decided that they should boycott this new Star Wars film because it is ‘promoting a multi-cultural agenda’ and, hence is evidently ‘anti-white.’  A few extremist internet trolls have even argued that the film supports ‘white genocide’.  White genocide…….white genocide.  Lord.

When I first read this my immediate thought was, ‘what is wrong with people?’  Perhaps it was simply a ridiculous hoax? Nope. No such luck. There are obviously people out there who truly believe this garbage.

But, when I started to look into this ridiculous story, I grasped a larger more worrying trend.  As movies begin to slowly get more diverse (far too slowly for the most part), racist responses to film casting are becoming more common.  Star Wars is just the latest, and most extreme example.  In 2012, the first Hunger Games film faced a similar racially charged response.

Amandla Stenberg is 'Rue' in THE HUNGER GAMES.

Amandla Stenberg is ‘Rue’ in THE HUNGER GAMES.

The futuristic, dystopian film had many white fans upset that a character who they assumed was white was played by an African-American actress.  Similar online anger was spewed in 2014 because of the remake of Annie.

So, what to take from this? Why does this bother so many people? I believe the Twitter reactions in these cases point to the heart of modern racism, and why it is still a huge problem within our society.

On an individual level, racism is a system of thought that breeds dehumanization of whatever group is identified as the Other.  Of course, we can look at innumerable examples of racism in American history for illustrations of such beliefs and practices. But perhaps the most obvious example, and most extreme example of dehumanization of the racial Other took place in Nazi Germany.  Nazi Germany was a totalitarian state based upon the ideology of ‘Aryan’ supremacy.  For the Nazi state, this supremacy was constantly attacked by the supposed racial degeneracy of the Aryan’s immortal enemy,

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

the Jew.  Ad nauseum, Nazi propaganda portrayed the Jew not only as dirty, slovenly and treacherous, but also as a dangerous, even deadly, non-human.  Jews were vermin, they were bugs, they were bacterium. The ‘bacillus of Judaism’ was to be destroyed.

Such dehumanization attempts to destroy humanity’s natural desire to empathize.  All humans empathize with others. We can literally feel the physical and emotional pain of others by putting ourselves in their situation,  It doesn’t even need to be a loved one. Humans can empathize with any random stranger.  It comes absolutely naturally.

Empathy helps explain why we love film as much as we do.  Most people want films with action, adventure and a great story.  Those things are great, but without the human element, without characters we can empathize with, action and adventure falls on it’s face. If you want proof, just think about how people responded to the prequel trilogy of Star Wars (Episodes I, II, III). George Lucas’ telling of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side, and eventually, into Darth Vadar. These unbelievably anticipated films should have been classics. Instead, they were critical and popular flops. Why?  Many felt that Lucas depended upon ‘cool’ computer graphics too much, ruining the magic feel of the original trilogy. That had something to do with it. But, what ruined those films was the fact that the human beings in the

We should care, but we don't.

We should care, but we don’t.

audience were not able to care about any of the characters.  We couldn’t empathize with them.  Bad acting, bad story development and bad scripts ruined the films.  When Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala dies in childbirth, most of the audience yawned. When Anakin/Vadar finds out about the death of his wife (Portman), and reacts with a guttural bellow of pain, the audience laughed. There was absolutely no empathy, and it was understandable.

The twit tweeters who want to boycott the new Star Wars, or who were angry at the Hunger Games or disturbed by the new Annie illustrate their lack of empathy.  However, this lack of empathy does not come from bad acting, or a trite script. This lack of empathy is a sign of the pernicious horror of racism. For those who complain when a character is ‘not white’, or not the correct race, they are truly illustrating that they can’t, or they consciously don’t want to see these characters as human.  For the twitter trolls, the actor and the character he or she plays can only ever be a racial category: An Other.   Finn, Poe Dameron, Rue or Annie become only ‘black’ or ‘Hispanic’.

This is the heart of racism, and why we should take such Twitter trolls seriously.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

A few weeks ago, my friends and I had planned to venture away from the big city out into the rolling country for an autumnal outing and the corresponding wholesome goodness.

We were going to pick apples, a regular “Urban Family” Fall Fun event, set in rotation with the Cheese Days festival in Monroe, Wisconsin. On even years, we celebrate all things cheese. On odd years—sometimes very odd—we pick apples. Though always memorable, these outings are also reliably surreal.


Urban Family in Wisconsin, with beer and a cheese necklace.

I’m a well-known proponent of tradition, and both agrarian activities embody much of what makes life good. Honestly, what we do is irrelevant; the fun we attempt to have and the time spent together is what I value.

Despite our best efforts to enjoy a picturesque autumn afternoon, we ultimately endure a bizarre experience sure to be anecdotal fodder for years to come.

I think the first outing to pick apples in 2009 went rather well. I cannot recall the name of the farm, though I am certain it had hydraulic cannons for shooting apples at targets, which we all agreed was a good sign. We learned later that sort of thing, though vastly entertaining, is quite illegal in Illinois. City folk dodged an apple bullet there.

In 2010, we discovered the cheese festival and decided it was worth a visit. We enjoyed a pleasant day, though many oddities did ensue. Here, we encountered a two-hour cheese parade, with cheese-inspired floats and dancers and bands enough to make anyone smile.


Hula Hooping it up

Sure that more fall fun could be had, we went apple picking, too, except there were no apples. We’d come too late in the season, and they were fresh out. We decided to enjoy every other bit of down-home goodness on that farm, including the corn maze, and hula hoops, put out, no doubt, in a desperate attempt to distract from the “no apples” sign.

In 2011, we became convinced that harvest time in the orchards and harvest time in the hallmark stores are quite different. By the time we got to the orchards in late October, when everything feels like autumn, there weren’t many apples left, but at least there were some.

The next year’s Cheese festival was meant to be great fun. However, we missed the parade by going a day early because I misread the schedule. We did our best to see what else the Cheese Festival had to offer, including a “cow milking contest.” I’m really glad we didn’t miss that, though the crowds were rowdy for such a natural diversion.

Over the succeeding years, when attempting fall family fun, we’ve encountered a variety of implausible, if not completely unavoidable difficulties.

Naturally, the unexpected activities we engage in when everything else has gone awry have become central to our shared good times. If there is any fun to be had, we find it together.


Cows on parade

2009: It begins—all went well, leading us to believe that a delightful day in the country was well within our grasp.

2010: Our First Cheese Fest: Unclear who discovered this gem—we loved it, and vowed to return. There was the occasional oddity, like cows in the parade and a woman handing me her child, but it was largely a win.

2010: All Seasons Orchard—no apples! We might have expected too much fun from one autumn.

2011: Kuiper’s farm, a bad year for apples, but at least there were a few. Sadly, cider was also in short supply: only small cups of cider, no gallons for sale.

2012: Cheese Fest: We went a day early (my fault) and missed the parade. A stunning blow.

kristam (2)

The ultimate photo “shoot,” as there’s a pumpkin gun down field aiming at their heads.

2013: Jonamac Orchard, a good outing, despite the fact that during the “piano in a field” photo, Kris & Tammy narrowly escaped being killed by a flying pumpkin.

2014: Cheese Fest, the Centennial. The Boy Scout grilled cheese is sadly absent, and we were forced to make some bad dairy choices, see “Jumbo Chocolate and Ice Cream Plate”


Postcard happy

That brings us up to date.

This year’s attempt at fall fun was marred, once again, by a surreal obstacle.

When I arrived to pick up the rental car, I was quite dumbfounded to discover that though my reservation existed, the car did not. There were no cars, nor would be, for the next several hours.

No apples in the orchard. No cars at the car rental agency.

This year’s autumnal outing has been rescheduled for Saturday, October 17th

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.


Back in the Winter of 2011/12, my wife and a number of our Oak Park neighborhood friends got together for a night of wine and sewing. During that now mythical evening, my wife Jenny, and her good friend Cheryl Munoz starting having a serious discussion about local foods, healthy eating and co-ops.  One of them said something to the effect of, ‘why don’t we have a

The mythical start

The mythical start

co-op in Oak Park?’, and the other one said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t know’? After a couple more glasses of Dionysian bliss, the two decided to rectify the situation. They were going to open a co-op in our town. It would be known as The Sugar Beet.

But, there was one big problem.  How do you open a co-op?  Well, the answer turned out to be multi-faceted.

The first step was to let the community know their plans, and try to get others on board.  Cheryl and Jenny, and many other volunteers did this by showing up each week at our local Farmers’ Market, meeting neighbors, handing out info, talking shop and just as importantly, getting to know the farmers.  The Sugar Beet was a dream of locavores, and local farmers and local businesses would be key to the co-op’s success.

Luckily, the second step was easy. We are lucky enough to have a lot of smart, and influential friends who have expertise in a variety of areas central to starting a business.  Cheryl herself had a background in food service, and event-planning;  Jenny is an English Professor, with great people skills and an infectious optimistic outlook.  But, the Sugar Beet was obviously going to be a project that needed the assistance of many others.  With Cheryl and Jenny at the head, meeting images (1)people and getting others involved, it did not take long for the co-op to go from dream, to possible reality. Cheryl’s husband Anthony is a graphic designer, and right off the bat, he dedicated his prodigious talents to giving the Sugar Beet a stylized image. T-Shirts with his designs began to be sold, and they started to pop-up all over town.  Other friends worked in real estate (helping to find where the co-op may be located), architecture (what it would eventually look like) and city government (assisting in the rocky shoals of licenses, taxes, etc.)  It quickly became obvious that the Sugar Beet was not just a handful of local moms and dads wanting healthy food for their kids.  Thousands of local friends, neighbors and colleagues were pushing for the Sugar Beet to take off.  And, take off it did.

By summer 2013, the process was getting so complex that Jen started to back away. Of course she still supported and helped in whatever way she could, but she began to realize things were getting too specialized from the business side of things; sometimes getting out of the way is the best move to make. Cheryl, on the other hand was still the tireless leader and true heart of the Sugar Beet. She carried on with a million small and large projects to reach co-op completion.

By 2014 the Sugar Beet had a physical space.  It was going to be located in a beautiful store front in the heart of Oak Park. Things were really moving now. During the last twelve months a wonderful staff was hired, and the Sugar Beet team started to set the place up. Every day the co-op was becoming more and more real.

On July 30th, 2015, the Sugar Beet opened it’s doors. To describe it as beautiful doesn’t do it justice. I am not just referring to the physical environment of the shop (though it really is physically stunning: see video).  No, I mean it is beautiful because of the fulfillment of so many dreams. The Sugar Beet was the shared goal of my community members, of my friends and of my family.  As I walked through the sliding doors that opening day, and saw so many friends, so many shoppers buying good, healthy, often local food, I had a huge foolish smile on my face. It was satisfaction mixed with pure joy.

So, come on down to the Sugar Beet Co-op! Buy some great local beer, or some delicious local sausage, or some hilariously named local soap.  My community, my friends and my family will thank you!


Posted: September 18, 2015 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty
All cultures possess fascinating moon lore, revealing as much about human nature as any tales can.

Perceiving the moon as feminine, Greek Artemis or Roman Diana, seems perfectly appropriate. Compared to the steady, often overwhelming sun, the moon is elegant, mutable, complex: sometimes nearer, sometimes farther. If the sun rides in a chariot across the sky, surely the moon dances through her spheres.

Songs celebrating and lamenting the power of the moon might make a perfect melancholy play list, (oh, look: NASA beat me to it). The moon appears set apart in the night sky, solemn in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or wistful as in Neko Case’s I Wish I Was the Moon.

936full-a-trip-to-the-moon-posterAmong the first films is 1902’s A Trip to the Moon (French: Le Voyage dans la Lune), Georges Méliès’ 1902 gem of cinematic innovation and storytelling genius. Meanwhile, the 1987 film Moonstruck offered the revelation that “Love don’t make things nice, it ruins everything, it breaks your heart, it makes things a mess,” a truth which, for me, persists.

We look, every morning, to see the state of the sky, the sun, constant—quite fortunately so. But in the enveloping night, the moon, over the course of her phases, wears a variety of faces. The moods of the moon enhance its appeal.

The moon appears to mirror the vagaries of romantic fates. Love changes, too, over days and weeks and months, sometimes, like the moon, love seems so wonderfully full, other times, only a delicate crescent of silver, and love can seem to fade completely, only to renew itself once more.

At the end of the month, September 27, 2015, there will be a supermoon and a lunar eclipse on the same night—encompassing two opposite manifestations of the moon. In hours, we can observe the movement from the brightest the moon can appear to the darkest. Talk about changeable!

moon phases
The moon is no longer unknowable. Space exploration has solved the problem of what the moon is made of (sadly, not cheese). NASA certainly knows everything there can be known about the moon.

Still, art and culture navigate the wide expanse between knowing and understanding; traversing the distance between what we can discern and what we can feel. Thus, in myths and poems, dances and songs, painting and films, the moon remains as mysterious and otherworldly as love.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I was so sad to hear that Comedy Central’s wonderful skit show Key & Peele will be ending this year.  The two comedians have done some amazing work over the last five years. I really can’t pinpoint their funniest sketch as there are so many good ones, but, as a teacher, I must say the ‘Teachingcenter’ skit from a couple weeks ago needs to be in contention for that honor. Have a look:

Key & Peele’s message is clear. Our society is obsessed with overgrown boys and girls who play games.  We follow their every victory, every defeat and every scandal from the edge of our seats.  So many of these men and women are living a life of decadence, paid millions upon millions of dollars, and we don’t bat an eye. In fact, we cheer them on and defend them if they are part of our ‘team’.  At the same time, large segments of our nation complain incessantly about teachers if they make more than 40,000 dollars a year since they ‘get the summer off’.  Key & Peele are critiquing such social absurdity. They are doing what good comedians do; critiquing societal norms with some dead-on, feel-good humor.

Now, I don’t want this to become too political.  I don’t want to make the argument here that teachers should get paid more (they should), or that athletes should get paid less (they should.) I also don’t want to touch on teacher unions, violence in sports, our nation’s cult of celebrity, or anything else that may lead to some red-faced readers….

No, I just want to copy Key & Peele. I want to give a shout out to teachers. This may seem self-serving since I am a university teacher, but I am not trying to blow my own horn. I really want this post to focus upon a much more difficult position: the K-12 teacher.

I have the utmost respect for these folks. This respect stems from having two elementary aged girls. Of course I love my girls, but I would be lying if I said they were perfect angels. Having them home all day, fighting with elementaryteacher_12529100-655x280each other over the most mundane things can get on my last nerve.  So, I simply can’t imagine how difficult it must be having 20 to 25 such children in an often cramped classroom. How do teachers control such an environment for 8 hours a day, five days a week? I really don’t know. But in happens every day all over this nation. And what is more, teachers so often do this magic trick with a smile. I know my girls’ teachers do. Not surprisingly then, the kids constantly let me and my wife know that they LOVE school. Why do they love school? That one is easy; they LOVE their teachers.  And, their teachers love them.  You can see that at the end of each tiring, trying day when the teachers greet the parents with a laugh and a nod. As a parent, and as a teacher, this 3pm send off repeatedly leaves me in reverential awe.

So, raise your glasses to the K-12 teachers! Key & Peele are right; they are the true superstars!


Posted: September 1, 2015 in Uncategorized

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

On the first day teaching any course, I begin with this hand-drawn schematictpp

I approach all learning this way. The rest of life is rather messy, but classroom learning moves at the pace I want it to, in the direction I want it to, for at least the first ten minutes. Thus, in those first ten minutes, I essentially describe the only thing I believe to be absolutely true about learning.

Theory-Process-Product embodies all.

Theory—all we know about a thing, which may not be much: the combination of experience, however flawed, and abstract understanding, the concepts, the ephemeral (and consequently perfect) ideas associated with any discipline or action. Theory remains intangible, and misleadingly simplistic.

albert-einstein-balanceBegin with something easy, like riding a bike: how hard can it be?

No problem, in theory. The complexities do not arise until you have to do it.

Cue Process (practice, if you like). The doing. Entering into the thing itself: excruciating. Freakishly difficult considering that in theory this (whatever it is) shouldn’t be that tough. In actuality, when practice happens, where process occurs, chaotic. We muddle through practice. The process of doing something becomes complicated by a thousand unknown factors, and we just have to do our best. I recently told my sister I was just pretending to get by, something adults feel alarmingly often. In response, she said something truly smart, “Pretending is good because you are practicing something good.” Herein lays reassurance, and a lovely echo of Kurt Vonnegut’s reminder that “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” It might all be a convincing forgery.

Nevertheless, we should endeavor to enjoy the process itself. The joy of doing transforms practice into something else entirely. People in the midst of something they do well, musicians, athletes, thinkers, are marvelous to watch; they are in a state that has been described as “flow.” However, it takes years of practice, totaling 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, before the gates to flow open. A child pounding away at a piano cannot imagine hours in the future when a beautiful escape will be available through 88 keys. See the historical example of Henry Adams “at past 50 solemnly and painfully learned to ride a bicycle.” In “Plug in to Your Hard-wired Happiness,” speaker Srikumar Rao wisely reminds us to invest in the process. Pursuits we approach with confidence are naturally more enjoyable, but bravely trying something for the first time—rousing ourselves, surprising ourselves with what we can achieve—extraordinary.

Product—the outcome of process. The thing created: the artifact, the result, whether temporary or permanent. This, combined with the extent to which our process succeeded or failed is what we have as tangible evidence of our efforts. I warn my students that quite often product is distressingly bad. I ask them how often they have been “armchair quarterbacks” yelling at the TV screen because of a missed play. Even with advanced theory and rigorous practice, sometimes things just don’t turn as planned, professional quarterbacks are frequently intercepted (ah-hem, Cutler). Just as the earliest definition of essay came from the French “to try,” after having written something imperfect (always), I have at least created something where once there was nothing, and I have learned something new; knowledge I pack up and take back to theory. Knowing only a fraction more than I did before, I return to the start and begin again.

Many things, much more complicated than riding a bicycle still elude me.  It is always helpful to imagine that having done anything at all is a success, as it reveals a new path to follow, according to James Joyce’s definition, “mistakes are our portals of discovery.” We make our feeble attempts. We enter into the fray, we make our way.

Such is the cyclical, unending, reassuring, infuriating nature of how little we can know, and the importance of practice, and the necessity of accepting even our meager results.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Every night before bed I read at least two books to my girls. I have been doing this since they were born.  As such, I have become a bit of connoisseur of children’s books.  Like every other area of literature, some books are good and some are 51Ny20bi-eLnot so good (I’m looking at you Rainbow Magic Series!). I have my favorites, and sometimes, but not always, these favorites are the same as my daughters.

As they have grown their tastes have changed and so have mine.  At this point of fatherhood, I think I can safely say the worst genre are the books intended for the smallest of babies. These books can be cute, but there are only so many times you can read ‘Goodnight Moon’ by Margaret Wise Brown, or ‘The Going to Bed Book’, by Sandra Boynton before you want to scream.  Luckily the toddler books are a bit better.  The ‘Olivia’ books by Ian Falconer, ‘Madeline’ by Ludwig Behelmans, and Jon Muth’s ‘Zen Shorts’ were some of our favorites.

Finally, in the last couple years we have started with chapter books.  We’ve completed some classics, such as Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’, and E.B. White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’. But most commonly these days we read more recently published series. Usually these series have female protagonists, such as ‘Judy Moody’ by Megan McDonald, ‘Nancy Clancy’ by Jane O’Connor and Annie Burrows’ ‘Ivy and Bean’. All three of these sets are pretty enjoyable, but I highly doubt the ‘Ivy and Bean’ or ‘Judy Moody’ books will have the same classic cache as the works of E.B. White. Most are just a bit too formulaic to live on beyond one generation of kids.

imagesStill, there is something incredible about children’s books nowadays. In one way at least, modern books have a leg up on the works of Dahl and White. Though perhaps not as strong in the area of story-telling, the newer books seem to be more pedagogical.  I have noticed that many books written during the last decade deliberately, though not obviously or annoyingly, attempt to assist children in growing a large vocabulary.

Let me give you just the latest example from our nightly readings:

During the last week, the girls and I have been reading a book called ‘Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible.’  Yes, it is not exactly Dickens or Hemingway, but it is a pretty fun read. Plowing through it, I have been awed by the number of college-level words sprinkled within an elementary school level book.  Here are just a couple of examples of words that forced my girls to ask, ‘what does that word mean’ as we were reading:

  • Ethereal.
  • Melancholy
  • Deportment
  • Praetor
  • Cower
  • Thwarted
  • Crone
  • Blighted
  • Snit
  • Haughtily
  • Dubiously

And this list is just from a quick glance through the book as I sit at my keyboard. I think it is realistic to say that there is a ‘vocab’ word each page or 618dqurp5PL._SX386_BO1,204,203,200_so.

So why the change from those old classics?  Well, I think authors of children’s books have an understanding of how important reading and hearing words are to developing the minds of children.  As I mentioned in a post a couple years ago, ‘it has been estimated that children who have parents that read books to them  will have heard 30 million more words in their lives by the time they start school than those that have non-reading parents.’  If this is the case, why not use as many words as possible?  Instead of ‘witch’, why not use ‘crone’; instead of ‘run-down’, why not use ‘blighted’; instead of ‘sad’, why not use ‘melancholy’?

At the very least, it keeps us parents on our word-definition toes.