Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Endings and Goodbyes

Two endings are sometimes needed.

The end of a life, the actual biological ending, is not an experience to be longed for. Romantic ideas and movie images of the end are all wrong. Lies. The peaceful drift into eternity is shit. This woman you see here pictured is my mom. She will be remembered by everyone who knew her. I saw what I believe was the moment her life ended but was pushed on a bit longer by drugs and machines. There was no calm closing of the eyes followed by a final contented sigh.

As much as possible I think the hospital staff did well according to their responsibilities. I don't blame them for doing what they did. I just know that there was nothing about the end that she would have wanted as it happened other than the presence of her family. We got that part right. As long as I can recall Mom spoke of doctors and hospitals as things to avoid whenever possible. She would have avoided them longer if she could have found the strength to walk away. It was not to be. Her last days were spent among some of the people she loved most and people she desperately wanted to avoid. She could not have one group without the other.

I don't know what I wanted to write about this experience. Others more talented than I have explored the topic of mortality deeply and poetically. But when I was there, watching the light of life flicker and fade, none of the fine words of the great masters seemed to matter much. One of my children, Nora, during one of her visits to the hospital, left a message on the marker board in my mom's room. It was a quote she recalled from from the fictional Professor Dumbledore.

"Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."

This was written on a board used by the staff to make notes of their own purpose, but my brilliant girl used it to remind her grief-stricken father that there is still joy, even in that room.

My brother, dad, and I made the decision in the end to have Mom cremated. This was certainly not the only difficult decision made in that span of several days.  We made a choice. It was a choice, like all choices, which set us on a path we had no true way of knowing. I was able to do one more good thing to honor what Mom would have wanted. Because of the cremation, I was able to take her home.

Germany can sometimes be very far away. I don't think my mom enjoyed traveling much, but she did enjoy being home with her parents and family. I was able to take her remains with me to Germany. We went on this final trip together. She always felt like the delays and security processes were somehow a personal affront. She would recount each time a security guard or airport worker had anything to say to her, or how roughly they went through her luggage that time.

I couldn't stop from finding some humor, a light even, when as I passed through one of several security checks leaving Chicago, my mom's remains became the reason for a security delay. Even in death they had it out for her. No one quite knew what to do about a plastic back full of ashes. They had scanned it because it was in my bag. This was not quite right, though, even with my showing of some official papers I had from the mortuary. No, they called one guard, then another, all quite inexperienced in this type of procedure. They finally called over an older guard who had the proper arcane knowledge. He explained it to me.

"You see, we have to scan this separately," he politely began. "Since we don't want to open the bag...," thankfully not I said to myself, "we have to run it through again on its own." Right. "Now, it sounds strange, but I need to place this coin underneath it." The search for the coin took some time as well. "If we see the coin on the scan, then we're good." I could almost hear Mom's eyes rolling in disbelief. Modern technology at work.... The required scan was made, and the coin was visible, apparently, as the gathered crew breathed a relieved sigh, probably thankful that none of them would have to dig through the ashes of a dead woman. Maybe they were equally delighted to move forward the oddly smiling man who had brought them their unwanted scanning puzzle.

When I arrived in Germany, I took a train to get me closer to where our family lives. A cousin of mine was kind enough to pick me up from the station, and kinder still to make an extra stop at the church cemetery where Mom's parents are at rest. I know there are rules and laws and many other barriers to prevent people from doing what I did, but those are only the people who ask permission. I wanted to fulfill a wish for my mom to be with her parents. This I did. She was laid to rest between two of the greatest people I've known. It's a fine, lovely cemetery, the kind that in Germany are kept like public gardens. Her name isn't on a stone, but she never cared much for such things. She was private and never wished to bother others with her problems. This was finally the quiet and peaceful ending she wanted.

Aufwiedersehen, Mutti.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Twenty-one Lessons Learned From Chess

  1. Those who know the rules of the game and play by them best usually win. Every organization has its culture. Every potential deal has its players and personalities. In addition to simply wanting something, you have to learn about the rules which dictate the play of your particular problem. 
  2. The outcome is often determined by your opening moves. First impressions matter. You will be remembered by others from those early first meetings. If you fail to impress early, you risk falling behind permanently.
  3. Every action creates new circumstances which must be considered. You will not know how you have changed the people around you with your words and actions, but know that change happens because of you. Try to make that change positive.
  4. You can only accomplish one objective at a time. Focus on your main goal with every move you make. Eliminate wasteful and non-productive actions and thoughts whenever possible. 
  5. Understand that there are countless ways to achieve your goals. If one path leads to an unfortunate end, then try another way.
  6. You'll face many setbacks and challenges, but learning to expect them helps to keep a healthy perspective. Challenges show us our weaknesses and help us to become stronger.
  7. Nothing is entirely new. Life has been happening in much the same way for a very long time. Learn about what to expect from the others who have gone before you. There are masters in every discipline who can teach you how to navigate throughout your journey.
  8. Approach your challenges with a calm spirit. There is no wisdom in indulging fear. The calm and focused spirit will not fail.
  9. Know your assets and strengths, then use them. 
  10. Understand that games occur in stages. Don't give up. The end will be clear enough when it comes. Don't quit early.
  11. You can't rest on an individual good play or count on one successful step to make the rest easy. Be consistent and push on until the game has been won.
  12. Never underestimate anyone. You can't know what they know, and only fools think they have nothing to learn from others. Everyone has something to offer.
  13. Your most challenging opponent will likely be yourself. Your own carelessness or lack of attention will bring you more harm than anything brought on by others.
  14. Being gracious and respectful is as important as anything else you do. You will almost always encounter people more than once. As you build experiences with others you are also building your reputation. 
  15. There is no gain to be had from greed and gloating. 
  16. Shake hands.
  17. Being distracted is a success killer. Stay focused.
  18. You can probably fake it for a while, but someone will eventually call you out. Never stop learning. Never stop trying to get better at your game.
  19. There will always be someone better than you. Don't fear them, find them. They are the ones who can teach you.
  20. When you fail, try to identify the weaknesses of your own actions rather than on what others did. 
  21. Look around for the ones who are watching you for guidance. They are counting on you to teach them well. Don't pass up a chance to give back what others gave you.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Importance of Skepticism in Education

James "the Amazing" Randi

Teaching is a profession with heavy responsibility. Students, especially younger ones, are all too eager to believe or accept what you say as fact. They want to know that what you say is true. They want to know that what they see is true. Most of us are generally willing to join in that mode of thought.  The only problem with thinking this way is that it gets to be too easy. Without an attitude of skepticism we risk believing in mistakes or outright lies. In our eagerness to accept the truths that are being given, we lose our responsibility to be demanding of the information being presented to us. 

Consider in your own circle of influence how many well-meaning people have shared information in social media without checking in any way for verification. Is this a problem? It should be. In addition to wasting time and energy, you announce to your friends, coworkers, and associates that you're lazy at best, and a gullible chump at worst. In the same time it takes to share the article, you could easily run the topic through a fact-checking site such as snopes, and then you'd at least know that you're possibly about to perpetuate and carry on a hoax. 

In the classroom I can always count on getting everyone's attention by showing them a video clip of something interesting and seemingly impossible. The reaction is predictable. There is a lot of noise from the camp of disbelievers, and an equal amount of talk from those who express their disbelief yet clearly have accepted what they just saw. When David Blaine had produced his first big tv special, he included an illusion that he was levitating. In those first shows he had taken on this tv persona of the authentic mystic. He later, thankfully, abandoned that role for the more honest and effective fully exposed illusionist and street magician. But back to levitation. 

I remember talking with my students at that time about their reactions to the claim of levitation and then to the apparent visual proof of it. Some students were angry with me that I made the suggestion that it was anything other than what it seemed to be. They wanted to believe it. So I asked them why. Why do you believe that this man, a man who is promoting and selling his own tv show, actually has the impossible ability to defy gravity? You don't know him. He is not even claiming to have these abilities via any supernatural means. He just arrives and performs the trick. What happened to questioning or investigation? I talked with them about the dubious camera work and the overproduced quality of something that was supposed to be a live recording. We learned about post production editing tricks. Still, there were some who struggled with the idea that they had been duped. 

The Amazing Randi has had a standing offer for many years that offers a million dollars to anyone who claims to have paranormal or supernatural abilities and is willing to undergo scientific testing to have them verified and proven.  No one has collected on that offer. James Randi is a magician himself as well as a skeptic. It is because of his skeptical nature that have often used him as an example in teaching. I try to teach about what it is to be a skeptic. It does not mean you believe nothing, trust nothing, or accept nothing. It does mean that you should learn to question and investigate rather than blindly accepting everything. You should  especially investigate or question things that seem to be untrue, unlikely, or impossible. 

Skepticism is really about having a profound concern for truth. This search for truth extends into daily life. Advertising of products is a constant game of truth and lies. Teaching people to question is not the same as teaching them not to trust. What we should teach is that trust is something that should be earned.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Banging Coconuts Together Again

"You've got two empty halves of coconut, and you're bangin' 'em together." - Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I have spent some time recently trying to compose something on the topic of standardized testing in our public schools.  The time to begin these tests is nearly here again in Indiana.  It has been a divisive topic in the media thanks in large part to our state's political machinations in regard to public education. There simply doesn't seem to be anything fresh to report.  Oddly this strange condition has not burdened many others who are writing daily on the topic.

I investigated the political opinions being aired and decided they needed to keep hanging on the line.  I dug into the past of educational testing, found the research that others freely and selectively borrow from without citing their sources, and gradually came to a surprising conclusion of my own.  The debate is always the same.

There are a few points I can be sure of after my recent efforts.  No one is changing the dialogue of the debate.  No one is making significant progress toward meaningful change.  And no one who tries to introduce enlightened dialogue into the debate will go unpunished.  With that theme in mind, and in honor of standardized testing throughout our great land, please consider what might need to be done if you discover you are riding a dead horse. 

The Official and Expertly Researched Public Education Response

  1. Upgrade the whip. This is a best practice, and is, therefore, non-negotiable. Upgrade may include reclassification as riding crop.
  2. Change the rider.  This can be achieved easily by revising the by-laws regulating riders.
  3. Remind everyone that this is the data-driven technique.  We always ride dead horses.
  4. Form a committee to analyze the horse.
  5. Investigate how other school districts manage their dead horses.
  6. Rewrite the protocols for proclaiming horses dead.
  7. Pilot programs, spearhead taskforces, form committees, and poll stakeholders for the purpose of reviving the dead horse.
  8. Design workshops, schedule trainings, and lead professional development meetings to instruct in the riding of dead horses.
  9. Analyze the data available on dead horses in order to create a benchmark.
  10. Hire experts to determine how best to ride a dead horse.
  11. Increase the length of the track the horse is on to gain more comprehensive data.
  12. Reduce the length of the track the horse is on to be compassionate and reasonable.
  13. Declare that progress is being made in the science of dead horse management.
  14. Overhaul the service requirements for horses.
  15. Publicize the gains made since last year's ride.
  16. If no improvements are evident, refer back to response one.
Outstanding educators everywhere, do what you do.  That hollow thumping sound you keep hearing should stop in about a month. Until then, carry on.

*Adapted from "Business Wit" ,These Strange German Ways; Susan Stern, Atlantik-Bruecke, 2000

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Dr. Who, Hero For All Times

As I write this entry about Dr. Who, I should mention first that I just went to my first Who Convention.  This took place in Chicago, or at least the vicinity of Chicago called Lombard.  The whole event was known as ChicagoTardis.  I went into the convention without many preconceptions.  I was doing it mainly for my daughters, newly minted Whovians themselves, thanks to my influence.  I enjoyed congregating with fellow whovians immensely, and was reminded of exactly how influential this odd man and his blue box truly are.

Like many people of a certain age I started my time travels with the good Doctor thanks to PBS and syndicated broadcasts aired in the 1970s and 80s.  At that time the series episodes being shown were heavily drawn from the Tom Baker era since he was then the man piloting the tardis.  Later on came quite competent and entertaining incarnations of the character, but, as some clever t-shirt designer noted, you never forget your first Doctor.

For this writing I will not journey across the series remarking on the qualities of various actors, companions, monsters, etc.  The character of The Doctor, regardless of actors portraying him, this is what I wanted to explore with this blog as I sat in the 2.5 hour line at that convention.  I was dressed as the fourth doctor, quite well, I should say, with beautiful detail accents courtesy of my artist friend, Gretchen.  She was able to make a lapel pin for me to match one Tom Baker's fourth Doctor wore a few times in the series.  It is a unique piece I can safely say none of the other 4ths at the convention had bothered with.  An outfit becomes a costume when one pays attention to the details.

Why did hundreds of adults and many children come together to celebrate this clever character?  We dressed up, acted silly, listened raptly, hurried about, and, of course queued up, over and over to immerse ourselves in a make-believe world hatched fifty years ago.

The Doctor is an alien.  He has two hearts.  He is from the planet Gallifrey, but looks quite human.  He would point out, though, that we look Gallifreyan.  He pilots a ship that can travel throughout space and time, which is partly why he is also known as a Time Lord.  So with his ship, which looks like a 1960s British police box, but it's bigger on the inside, and seemingly not much of a plan, he ventures on, always managing to save the world and the greater universe from a host of malevolent races and beings.  So far he doesn't sound like someone with the makings of star appeal.

The Doctor also travels with those whom he calls his companions.  These are regular humans from various eras and locales, though never terribly far from London.  The companions keep the Doctor more in touch with his humanity, alien though he is.  And even though the Doctor has a lifespan greater than anyone, thanks to the clever writer's trick called regeneration, he never sinks too far into the depression brought on by centuries of life.  He gets close, but this is one of the reasons for the companions.  They stand in for the viewer and allow us to enter the sphere of the Doctor's influence for a while.  They help answer the endless questions the show generates.

The Doctor is a pacifist.  He is a pacifist with a past filled with violence and destruction.  He has seen and caused the deaths of countless beings, and yet he goes on.  He knows the end of the story, possibly the end of all stories, but he continues to influence the details.  Doctor Who never directly kills.  He doesn't carry a weapon of death.  He carries a scientific instrument called a sonic screwdriver.  He battles with his mind, his wits, his wisdom.  And he is terribly clever.  I think this is the essence of why the Doctor has the massive appeal he has.  Like Odysseus, he is admired as a hero because he uses his mind.  He leaves others to the tasks involving violence and destruction, although he does take responsibility for those times when the actions of others leave no other choice but to end their lives to protect his chosen few.  Whenever possible, and there's always a choice, the Doctor avoids the violent path.

The Doctor, the man whose name has never been revealed, is a vanquisher, conqueror, and hero without ever firing a weapon.  He doesn't have to enter the boxing ring to beat the bully.  He doesn't have to raise an army to defeat the enemy forces.  No matter how impossibly the enemy threatens and overwhelms him, he never fails to think.  And it is in thinking that he outwits and outplays the enemy, every time.  The Doctor uses knowledge, the knowledge of a man centuries old and universally aware, to save the weak and powerless.

The viewer has the impression that the Doctor is capable of far more than he ever shows.  This is manifested in the reactions of his enemies to him.   They fear him.  Some even respect him.  The Doctor allows most of us to believe in our own powers and our own possibilities.  Very few of us could actually be Batman, Bruce Lee, Wonder Woman, or the Hulk.  Nor are we likely to live for 900 years, but if we did....  We who love the Doctor love the power of the mind.  We love the idea that anyone might be clever, and so could outwit the enemy.  We can imagine saving someone if we are only clever enough.

And if we are clever enough we may be able to rescue ourselves in the process.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What Zombies Have Taught Me

From one of the most original and dramatic graphic novels in recent memory to one of the best television programs on any network, there are lessons to be learned.

  1. Focus on your goal.  When something is important to you, such as eating the brains of the living, or maybe getting a promotion at work, let nothing else distract you from the task.
  2. Don't be discouraged.  Even when others around you have failed, keep going.  No matter how many before you have had their heads skewered by the naysayers of life, you still must persevere.  
  3. Communication is best when succinct.  Too much time is often wasted on flowery messages.  Let others know what you're after with short, memorable key ideas.
  4. Never be complacent.  You've made it.  You're resting on your achievements, but then, shambling out from the woods, there's more of the competition waiting to bite you.
  5. Accuracy is essential. Never waste your efforts.  Be precise. You can't afford to miss.
  6. Trust in yourself; respect the rest.  You never know what the other guy might do, even within your own team.  Know your abilities, and and rely on others, but don't ever take trust for granted.
  7. Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.  When your situation changes, don't be overwhelmed.  Use what you can all around you.  Even a broken chair might be more useful than you ever thought.  
  8. Teamwork is effective under strong leadership.  Once you take on the role of a leader, others will look to you for leadership.  Simple, but true.  Leaders must be willing and able to lead through every crisis.  This means having the ability to delegate responsibilities to those whose strengths you have recognized.  Doing it all alone leads to high stress and can create mental exhaustion.
  9. Take advice from the team.  Sometimes the wisdom to lead has to be supported by wisdom from the team.  Even the most brilliant leaders surround themselves with trusted advisers.  
  10. Know what you're fighting for.  The struggle doesn't matter unless you know why you're engaged in it.  More than anything else, your knowledge of why you fight will keep you aware, sharp, and successful for another day.
Life gives us lessons from unexpected sources, even from the undead.

All good things...

Monday, August 6, 2012

Nora's Crocodile Rockers, 2012, JDRF Walk To Cure Diabetes

Dear Family, Friends, Loved Ones, and Colleagues,

I am asking for your help. I ain't askin nobody for nothin, if I can't get it on my own.  So goes the song, but I can't get this on my own. I hope you can offer some kind of financial support to bolster the great research happening today which is bringing a cure for diabetes a bit closer. For those who are interested to know more, please read on. I have tried to help someone on the outside of the problem appreciate a bit of the reality of life with diabetes.

Nine years ago our family experienced a profound transformation. We became a family with a type 1 diabetic child. Our first child, Eleanor, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes while she was still only two. Each day since then, each hour, has included some chore, task, reference, thought, or responsibility demanded of us by diabetes. Please do not think of this as an exaggeration, because if I err, it will be in making the demands less pressing than what they are.

And so we live. We focus on life with as much positive energy as we can. Nora does an excellent job of accepting her circumstances on most days. The rest of us do as well. Blood sugar checks number into the multi-thousands that have been endured so far. Daily shots have given way to the self enclosed delivery device called an OmniPod. This device still has to be monitored, though, and changed no less than every three days. This involves having a spring loaded needle inject the delivery line under the skin. It hurts. The insulin that we have put into the pod then gets gradually delivered into the blood as programming suggests. Who programs it? We do. The programming is based on experience and ever-changing needs of the user. Nothing is automatic; not really.

And so we plan. After nine years we are getting pretty proficient with our knowledge of food and its various carbohydrate counts. Nora gives herself more insulin, called a bolus, whenever she eats. This is based on the carbohydrates in the food. Again, formulas are used, but life is inexact. We still practice a refined form of guess work when needed. When the birthday parties, sleepovers, field trips, celebration dinners, etc. arise, we try our best to plan for it, or at least react well to what is being offered. Nora is growing and changing, and her insulin demands continue to change accordingly. She has completed a kids’ triathlon, and she wants to do more, proving that her limits are still far on the horizon.She has chosen to play cello now in the school orchestra, so her fingers, the parts she uses for checking BG, will endure more stress.

And we educate. Nora is another year older, and we all are slightly wiser. Still we find ourselves dealing frequently with misconceptions and ignorance about diabetes. Since Nora’s pod is sometimes visible she gets asked about it. She explains the situation quite well, but I wonder when she might get sick of saying it all. Well meaning people, both family and friends alike, still make comments that amaze me. Recently we were asked again if it is OK for Nora to have chocolate. I have heard someone telling another that she is not allowed to eat sugar. Others persist in these outdated assumptions that come from times when diabetes was not understood well, and its management tools were severely limited. I was happy to help my friend, Lizmari Collazo, again this year in promoting the Diabetes Ice Cream Social, just to combat some of those outdated ideas.

And we hope. Our lives are woven with the demands of type 1 diabetes. But the reason we ask for help and support is because we hope for a day when we can let go of that part of life. We hope to leave behind our diabetic lifestyle one day soon. Please help us to reach that important goal.

We are walking again this year on October 6th at Military Park, Indianapolis. The Walk for a Cure is a great day to bring together hundreds of people in one place to support JDRF and its efforts fund research. If you wish to donate, you can do so online by following the links I have listed below. You may also write a check payable to JDRF. Any size of donation is useful and appreciated, and all are tax deductible.

Please visit my walk fundraising page at the following link. This will allow you to make an online donation if you should choose to do so. Of course, it would be very exciting and helpful if you would want to join our walk team. Information is also at this link:

We are hoping to do well for Nora’s team this year.  Thanks for your time in reading this. You are part of the cure.

Andy Blythe,
Nora’s Crocodile Rockers, 2012