Inspiration Is Where You Find It

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It may be a time of unusually depressing news, or I may just be getting older, but there’s plenty to be down about these days. Examples: the wave of humanity from Syria meeting human indifference in Europe and North America; the ignorance and bigotry posing as ‘religious freedom’ in Kentucky and elsewhere; the clown-show going by the name of the campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency.

That said, three things have given me inspiration and hope today and I do so want to share them.

The first might seem rather random but life is that way sometimes. Later today, at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Grambling State University’s football team will play the Golden Bears of the University of California. No, that’s not it; this isn’t a sports story. Besides football, Grambling, an historically-black institution of higher education, is known for it’s high-octane, high-energy, up-to-date and hip marching band, called “The Best Band in the Land.” Yesterday, that band practiced at Richmond’s John F. Kennedy High School, to the delight and, yes, inspiration of the benighted school’s students.

Now, Kennedy is known as a tough school. It’s big and it’s urban. There have been violent incidents. Its students don’t tend to be among the state’s most accomplished. But yesterday, they got to see a high-performing unit of college kids who looked a lot like the high school kids and, by all reports, the results were glorious.

The message they brought to Kennedy, along with their music, was summed up by band member Jamie Taylor, who is from Oakland,  “You have the potential to do anything that you put your mind to,” he said . “I didn’t think that I would be able to do it, balancing classes and everything, but I’ve done it and I’m just so happy and I’m proud of myself, as well as my peers.”

Here’s hoping that message was absorbed by the Kennedy crowd.

The next source of inspiration came over the radio, on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s program Day 6. The program host, Brent Bambury, interviewed two Canadians who, a generation ago, were refugees from Vietnam, or boat-people as they were called back then. These people know well the feelings of today’s Syrians hoping for some measure of charity, if not hospitality from Europeans, from whom they’re hoping for refuge. Some years ago, they had been in the precise position, herded into camps, made to wait for sponsorship from some unknown someone in a position to help.

They knew the struggle. You could hear that in their voices. But they also knew the relief when, in their cases, good-hearted Canadians took them in. And the result? They have become hard-working members of their communities, good citizens and credits to their nation. Turns out their gratefulness extends pretty deep. They’re organizing other Vietnamese-Canadians, themselves mostly former refugees, to help today’s Syrian refugees by extending the promise they found, in Canada, by sponsoring as many of them as they can.

Canada had made all the difference in their lives, they reckoned in the interview, so they had an absolute obligation to humanity that necessitated their engagement in this latest human crisis. I listened to Bambury’s program in complete awe and gratitude.

Finally, with all the cheap drama about and purposefully wrong-headed reaction to Kentucky clerk Kim Davis and her denial of civil rights to gay and lesbian couples, I was completely delighted to read today the front page of my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

You see, routinely, every single day, day in and day out, without much, if any, particular difficulty, couples come into San Francisco’s gorgeous and historic City Hall to get marriage licenses and get married. The city clerk dispatches the job efficiently, without prejudice or judgment. Couples leave, tearfully, happily and then go to parties or lunch, then on about with their lives, as they themselves see fit, according to their own conceptions of divine direction, or whatever inspires them.

Seen any man-woman marriages crumble as a result? Are the end-times just around the corner as a consequence? Not that I’ve seen, and I’m around City Hall at least once a week. (But, you know, I’ll be keeping my eyes open.) Know what I do see? Couples in love. Supportive families and friends taking pictures and, every so often, crying too.

If these particular stories don’t give you inspiration, then go find some of your own. I bet you’ll find some if you’ll only look.

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Witness to a Slow Death

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Just this past Sunday, I drove through California’s Central Valley, likely as not the place that produces much of the food you eat. It’s a drive I’ve made often, so I recognize things are not good.

The trees, that in their good times produce nuts and stone fruit in verdant abundance, look haggard and dark. Fields that would typically be full of lush green feed crops are brown and bare, giving birth not to the fuel of countless area ranches but only to dust devils at the slightest whoosh from a passing car or truck. Livestock – cattle and sheep around these parts, mostly – look gaunt and listless.

It reminded me of a summertime drive I took across Nebraska during the late 1980s, when that state was in the midst of its own crushing drought. The corn, which in good years would have been well over my head in height, was no more than waist-high. The ears were shriveled and dusty, leaves brown. I remember thinking about the farmers, who depended on this crop for their livelihoods, and being overwhelmed with the acres of sadness my drive-by view represented.

What keeps cities and towns like California’s Manteca and Oakdale and Escalon alive is agriculture. What keeps agriculture alive is water. And, after years of unprecedented drought, water is in very short supply. Coming on the heels of an historic economic downturn, as it does, this drought hits the people of the valley especially hard.

The effect on people is plain to see by the boarded up stores on Main Streets throughout the valley, the down-at-the-heels stores that do remain in the contracting downtowns that used to bustle on weekend afternoons, the going-out-of-business sales and bone-tired idle men, who’ve now given up even looking for work.

Like the drought-ridden crops, they and the life they represent, are slowly but visibly dying.

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This One Time

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We got back from a few family-only days at our little cabin in California’s Sierra earlier today. Time at the cabin is slow, quiet, restorative and purposefully unplugged. We don’t have TV, don’t play the radio, don’t read big-city newspapers.

Occasionally, we come home to discover significant things have happened in the world, like today, when I discovered, unhappily, that a friend and former colleague had lost his battle with cancer.

Anthony Turney packed several lives in his time on earth – soldier during the Suez Crisis, organizer of communities during periods of challenge and crisis, supporter of the arts, member of the clergy. He had a deep and affecting voice and he could tell a story like nobody’s business. He was gracious and generous.

When we worked together at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, cash-strapped as it was, Anthony found a way to host moving exhibitions of art that quite literally transformed the place, not to mention the people in it. He presided over prayers for California’s prisoners condemned to die and the annual war remembrance service that many of the other cathedral clergy found too schmaltzy for their tastes; as a combat veteran, I think Anthony found remembering wars an absolute necessity in a civil society.

Once, a young man came to the church, distraught and unbalanced. Anthony found some cake and the two sat together for tea and talked. As they parted, the young man promised to come back, then plunged to his death off a nearby roof that very afternoon. His parents expressed sincere gratitude their son had been given the human comfort and hospitality of the church in his final hours. Anthony was understandably upset but, typically, professional.

The last time I saw Anthony, he was walking his dog at the same preserve where I typically walked mine, at Fort Funston, on the bluffs overlooking the mighty Pacific. Anthony was characteristically warm and pleasant, although even then fighting against the cancer that would eventually kill him, happy as always to run into an old friend.

I am the better for having known him and we are the poorer for having lost him.

I hope he rests in the eternal peace he richly deserves.

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A lovely remembrance of Anthony is here.

 

No Need For Alarm

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There’s been a long-in-coming and pretty widespread panic about our nation’s demographics that looks something like this:

Our country’s is increasingly filling up with non-white, non-Christian, non-European, non-English-speaking, uneducated, differently-socialized, undereducated people. Soon, we won’t be able to keep our economy afloat, fund Social Security, maintain even a reasonable approximation of democratic institutions.

The effect is especially acute in places like Texas, New York and, of course, California, where I happen to live, but if you live anywhere with radio, TV, newspapers, online access, a barber shop or grocery store, I’m certain you’ve heard this point of view articulated too.

And, I guess, if you’re a part of the Christian, European, English-speaking part of America, it might not be a difficult thing to believe or, more correctly, be made to believe.

Now, I’ve read the studies and seen the data too, but I’ve recently seen evidence that leads me to a very different conclusion about our future.

Not long ago, I attended a dedication event for a new solar installation at Hartnell College, a community college in Salinas, the hub of a verdant agricultural valley in California. And I met the very kids who represent the bogeymen of the supposed demographic Armageddon posited, above.

They were nonwhite, mostly Latino. Families from Mexico and Central America. From households in which English is not the primary language. Parents are agricultural laborers or other non-skilled or semi-skilled workers without much formal education. The students I met were the first in their families to attend college.

And these kids talked with me about their experiences at Hartnell. They participate in hands-on research. One young lady is working with a team to find more efficient ways to water crops. A young man I met is working on developing robotic arms to clean and cool solar panels because, as he explained, they’re less efficient when they’re dirty or too hot. Several of the students were finishing their time at Hartnell and were transferring to schools in the high-powered University of California (UC) system, world-renowned Berkeley among them.  I met a Hartnell alumnus who finished his B.S. in physics at UC and will start a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the fall.

They were well-spoken and whip-smart, eager, informed. And they talked about their conscious work to grow and move into realms their parents couldn’t even have dreamed of for them, just a generation before.

If those students, and people like them, represent the future of California and, by extension, our country, then I can’t wait. Our future is bright. We’re in tremendous hands.

A link to an article in the Salinas Californian (including a nice video featuring some students) about Hartnell College is here.

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Free Market? Sure, I’m Game.

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Finding a national consensus on matters like drug use, abortion and gun control is clearly a fool’s errand. Because we are, as a nation, so diverse and divided on matters of religious beliefs, ethical foundations and personal priorities, we will never – NEVER – come to a stable, lasting, nationwide accord on these issues.

Let’s start with drugs. Several states have decriminalized or even legalized marijuana use. Marijuana use was recently made legal in Washington and Colorado. Its use is not a criminal offense in more than a dozen other states. Others haven’t changed the legal status of marijuana and aren’t likely to.

The government of North Dakota recently passed anti-abortion laws that are considered to be the most restrictive of personal choice in the nation. New Jersey, along with states like Oregon and Nevada, has no active ban on the right of the mother to terminate pregnancy.  There are a number of workplaces (including hospitals) and schools affiliated with, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, which objects to contraception as sinful. Therefore, some of these church-affiliated institutions object to offering contraception as a part of employee or student health insurance. There are plenty of other employers and schools that have no issue whatsoever with offering contraception as a part of employee or student health coverage.

Guns control is an extremely emotional and divisive issue in the United States. This was demonstrated clearly last week when the Senate considered unsuccessfully a moderate proposal to nationally standardize required pre-sale background checks for firearms. Unrestricted private firearm ownership is considered nearly sacred by some of my fellow citizens but considered purely evil by others. In Alaska and Arizona, for example, gun ownership, and even carrying guns in public, is virtually unchecked. It is much more difficult to obtain a firearm in, say Connecticut or California, and nearly impossible to get permission to carry a firearm in public.

Now, we could all spend, like, forever trying to align on the ‘right’ approach to these policies but, in truth, we never will. Even if we rely on the courts to settle the ‘right’ approaches, they will not be settled permanently.

So, instead, let me propose something completely different – a solution driven entirely by free market principles. And it might look something like this.

The federal government tracks and posts accurate conditions reports on each state, listing up-to-date laws governing behavior on these ‘values’ issues. We, as consumers, decide where to live, go to school buy products, etc. based on those particular issues that matter to us.

If we want to smoke marijuana legally, we move to Washington or Colorado.

If we want to own the choices regarding our reproductive health, we don’t live in North Dakota or go to Notre Dame or St. Mary’s Hospital.

If we want to legally carry a firearm to the shopping mall, there’s always Arizona.

Now, the other side of market solutions is, states and employers and schools must be required to fully disclose their positions on these ‘values’ issues. Notre Dame University, for example, must have a statement in its marketing materials (alongside the intensely-focused cello player and the touchdown-scoring halfback) that says:

Dear Prospective Student:

This university is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which considers contraception a sin. Therefore, our student health service does not and will not offer contraceptive services.

With that information fully disclosed, high school seniors can intelligently choose colleges that best align with their personal beliefs and priorities. Anticipate needing or wanting contraceptive services as part of student health? Notre Dame isn’t for you; go somewhere else.

I can imagine signs at state borders as well:

Welcome to Arizona.

We allow pretty much anyone to buy and carry a gun here.

Enjoy your stay.

If you don’t like being around a lot of people with firearms, you can always vacation in Massachusetts.

This is, of course, not a realistic proposal, for two major reasons.

First, when push comes to shove, institutions (states, businesses, colleges) are loathe to disclose their positions openly if it costs them money, tourists, students, or employees. Notre Dame is unlikely to tell promising high school seniors with non-Catholic values they should just look elsewhere. North Dakota doesn’t want to lose new businesses because of its position on abortion. And Arizona would literally starve to death if tourists stopped going to the Grand Canyon or baseball’s Spring Training because of its gun laws.

And second, so-called ‘values’ conservatives say they like the unfettered free market and personal liberty and all that, but what they really want is to force their agenda down the throats of everyone else. They don’t want Colorado to become a stoner’s paradise, not because they themselves don’t want to live in such a place, but because, according to their own personal values, marijuana is evil and no American should be allowed to partake.

So, for now, we’ll live with this endlessly boring political and judicial wrestle over ‘values’ issues, when what we really should do is just start erecting the new state border signs:

Welcome to Washington.

Flame on!

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Big-Time College Sports: Time to Kill or Be Killed

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It was a running joke my uncle the priest came to tell his parishioners every Super Bowl Sunday, especially during those years the hometown 49ers were so often represented in the NFL’s championship game. “I will work quickly and end early today,” he’d quip, “so you can get to the worship of America’s real national religion, football.”

And, as is the case for all good humor, his foundation wasn’t that far from the truth. Professional sport has become a well-loved and financially well-supported industry in this country. But even as big money can, God knows, create good entertainment, it also has the potential to twist and corrupt. If you’ve been paying attention to either news or sports recently, that can’t be any kind of surprise at all.

Potential corruption of pros by professional-scale money is one thing – we’d almost expect there to be some toxic spillover in for-profit entertainment enterprises – but the effects of big-time sports money on amateur sport is something else again. The money that’s come to American colleges and universities from running sports entertainment businesses has had seriously pernicious effects on what are still (nominally, at least) institutions of higher learning.

Here’s a table showing the top 20 sports revenue-producing institutions of higher learning, as of 2008. [Note how many of the top 20 are public and, therefore, publicly-funded institutions.] This is serious dough. Just to get some sense of this scale, the top performers on this list make about as much in revenue as tech-sector stand-outs like Pandora and LinkedIn.

Rank Team Total Revenue
1 Alabama

123,769,841

2 Texas

120,288,370

3 Ohio State

115,737,022

4 Florida

106,607,895

5 Tennessee

101,806,196

6 Michigan

99,027,105

7 Oklahoma State

98,874,092

8 Wisconsin

95,118,124

9 Texas A&M

92,476,146

10 Penn State

91,570,233

11 Auburn

89,311,824

12 Georgia

85,554,395

13 LSU

85,018,205

14 Notre Dame

83,352,439

15 Kansas

82,976,047

16 Iowa

81,515,865

17 Michigan

81,390,686

18 Oklahoma

77,098,008

19 Stanford

76,661,466

20 USC

76,409,919

[Source: ESPN, 2008]

This kind of money drives distorting behaviors. And to protect this revenue stream, significant measures are often taken. As just one example, the University of Maryland recently paid $2 million to buy out the contract of its football coach (then carrying a losing win-loss record), then hire a new coach for an annual salary of an additional $2 million. In outlining his rationale for making these moves, the university’s president, Wallace Loh, asserted his belief that, “intercollegiate athletics is an integral part of the college educational experience and not only commercialized mass entertainment.” [Source: Forbes]

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In 2010, the 44 public universities with teams in the 5 most established athletic conferences (e.g., PAC-12, Big Ten) paid their head football coaches an average salary of over $2 million, well above the average salary of anyone else on campus [Source: Wall Street Journal], much less those who actually deliver on schools’ educational mission, the faculty.

Investment in big-time athletics might pay off for their host institutions financially, but data show the academic returns are mixed. At one time, student-athletes (the very name sounds anachronistic today) participated in revenue-producing and spirit-building athletics in exchange for the promise of a college degree. As big-time sports programs rake in the cash, and many athletes have come to focus almost exclusively on athletics and bail out of college early to join their sports’ professional ranks, that notion is being re-examined.

In fact, there is a large gap between the academic achievement levels of student-athletes and their non-athletic counterparts at many schools. So, in reality, where is the benefit promised players? This calls into question whether schools running big-time sports programs are unfairly and handsomely benefitting from labor that is essentially free, and many have called for student-athletes to be paid. The schools with the largest difference in graduation rates between athletes (football players, in this case) and non-athletes, including, in the top position, to my shame, one of my beloved alma maters, are listed in the table, below.

Difference in Graduation Rates Between Football Players and All Students
Major Programs

 

Football Players

All Students

Difference

California

54%

90%

-36%

UCLA

59%

90%

-31%

USC

61%

87%

-26%

Virginia

68%

93%

-25%

Georgia Tech

55%

79%

-24%

Texas

57%

79%

-22%

Maryland

59%

81%

-22%

BYU

57%

78%

-21%

Texas A&M

59%

79%

-20%

Michigan

71%

89%

-18%

Clemson

62%

78%

-16%

Oklahoma

48%

63%

-15%

Florida St.

56%

71%

-15%

North Carolina St.

56%

71%

-15%

Wisconsin

66%

81%

-15%

Duke University economist (and a former teacher of mine) Charles Clotfelter, wrote a book about the conundrum this kind of imbalance presents to America’s colleges. Unsurprisingly, he finds deep unease. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, thinks sports an expensive side-show for schools: “Educational institutions have absolutely no business operating farm systems for the benefit of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.” James Duderstadt, the University of Michigan’s former president agrees: “Big-time college athletics has little to do with the nature or objectives of the contemporary university. Instead, it is a commercial venture, aimed primarily at providing public entertainment.”

Educational institutions running big-time sports programs bear great risks. They reap potentially huge revenues from their programs that reward activities not part of their core educational purpose. Priorities are skewed. While academic programs starve, state-of-the-art athletic facilities are built and coaches wallow in cash. Other than coaches, the main beneficiaries of these sports programs are professional football and basketball leagues, who harvest generation after generation of athletes trained and polished at mostly public expense. Furthermore, these schools benefit from the free labor of their students, who are not allowed to accept income and, increasingly, do not even benefit academically from their work.

A well-known and successful college basketball coach talked about his program’s essential independence from his host institution (not to mention his own obvious disdain for academic authority): “We’re not even really part of the school anymore, anyway…you think the chancellor is going to tell me what to do?” [Source: New York Times]

In the long run, this is an unsustainable situation. Colleges must get out of the big-time sports entertainment business if they are to keep alive any hope of fulfilling their educational missions. In the end, these enterprises are not worthy of the institutions these programs still (nominally) represent.

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Summer Dreaming

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This chair’s metal frame is frozen, as it is now in the depth of a Sierra winter. Little icicles hang down from it toward the icy deck it sits on. Winter’s white blanket of snow piles high around, covering the nearby picnic tables.

Later in the year, we will sit at those tables with our guests and eat from the barbecued meats and sweet corn we will lovingly cook.

In the matter of a very few months, this chair will have its colorfully striped cushion and its laughing occupants restored. This very chair.

But not today. Today, the weather keeps us inside by the fire, warm and happy.

The chair waits patiently for its time.