Behind the Closed Door

We’ve all seen it, we’ve all been there. That spot on the path leading up to an arched doorway. We tried the handle, turned the knob, pushed on the panel and found it locked to us.

I don’t mean the door to the bathroom at 7:30AM when you just woke up and your little sister is on the other side combing hair for her collection of dolls to get them ready for the day. I mean that big, mean, monster door that lies smack dab in the middle of the metaphorical path in life you have been traveling, and it put all your progress along that road to a halt. You’re not getting through.

You can bang on the door all you want. You can get clever and try to pick the lock, burn it down, knock it in. Beg, plead, and sit in a hump of tears. But you are not getting through. Maybe it is a timed lock like in the Maze Runner and it’ll open later if you wait around long enough. Maybe it is a sign of something else. Maybe a sign that you’ve reached the end of this road, even if you don’t think so or aren’t ready to take another path.

I only wish there were real doors we could come across as we undertake our life’s journey. Without one, it is sometimes so difficult to understand when we are banging our heads against a wall, or a closed door, and need to figure out a new way. There are so many messages available for us to tune into, if we choose, that tell us what we might want to hear instead of describing reality. The door will open soon if you just persevere. The door is a test. It’s the door’s fault for being closed in the first place. Or … there is no door, it’s just your imagination.

But sometimes, regardless of fault or perspiration or talent, there is a door and it is closed and it is not going to open for us and we won’t probably ever even know why. It is just the reality we need to deal with.

So how will you deal with your door being closed? Will you fall into a heap and sob? Will you bang tirelessly in a fury on the wooden plates? Will you shout at the sky in blame and accusation? Or will you inquire what it means to you that the path you thought was the only way is closed, consider the alternate routes, examine a new way to approach your goals?

In the end, we will all have a door closed to us in life, and yes, even in the morning when we expect to use the bathroom. the challenge to each of us is what do we do with our predicament so that we keep moving forward instead of losing our momentum. What will you do when you come across that closed door?

Huts and Micro/Tiny Houses in the 23rd Century

There was this earthquake on 25 April 2015, and disaster struck. 7,000 people were killed and 450,000 displaced.

A buddy of mine was showing me photographs from a tiny village that was leveled. He explained that the residents can rebuild their stone huts by hand, but need money to get the sheet metal roofs. Metal roofing materials have to be brought in from a large city nearby.

Another buddy of mine is running a program here in Pittsburgh, PA, USA, that trains ex cons in the building trade and gets them working alongside certified union craftsmen, paid, and busy. They are construct micro housing, sometimes called “tiny houses”. Huge demand — buyers are already lined up out the door.

It didn’t escape me that our descendants may look back on our era in Western culture as a time of indulgence. A time when we were so wealthy and idle that we could build trendy tiny homes as fashionable expressions of taste and preference (towards meaningful outcomes, certainly, but still these are self-elected). A time when we have the technology and labor force and industry to construct tiny modular homes that will be energy efficient and weatherized and comfortable.

A time when our fellow humans toil in the aftermath of a horrendous earthquake to rebuild by hand, stone by stone, their rock huts while awaiting on the generosity of strangers to help them buy the corrugated tin roofing from the next town over.

I know it would be a logistical nightmare to ship tiny houses to Nepal. I know their are geographic and political and cultural reasons why it just is not practical for the tiny houses we build in Pittsburgh to house earthquake victims in Nepal. And I know it is expensive, to boot.

But I also know how history reads —and I’ve spent my fair share of time being a Monday Morning Quarterback. Just as that phrase will lose meaning, so too will all of our excuses for why and how much and this and that. What our descendants will stand witness to as they read about our position in history is that there was a time when we had the technology, and we had the ability, and we had the leisure, and we had the money, and in Pittsburgh, we had the tiny houses.

But in Nepal, after a horrendous earthquake, they still had tiny stone huts that had to be rebuilt, brick by brick.

rock pile and tent

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University Education in the Near Future

I keep having this conversation. It’s on my mind because I have kids, surely. But a lot of people think about it. It’s university education. Specifically, paying for it.

My wife and I talk about whether we should pay for our kids to go to school or let them pay for it themselves. I am talking extremes – we both agree that we will help out with books or a couple bucks here and there, maybe even a used car. We are talking about is will we be writing the check to cover tuition term-to-term, or handing our darlings over to school-loan nirvana, to let them pay for it themselves.

Instead of entrenching my flag deeper and deeper, it occurred to me that it might not matter which side of the debate I come down on, or if we ever come to mutual consensus. Because it might be that the system itself is so flawed and damaged that it simply won’t be around in fifteen years, at least not in the same format it is today.

Presently, I am beginning to agree with this notion. It does not make sense to me anymore to have a student pay $1,000-$3,000 per class, especially for the exploratory “100-level” classes. I don’t mean only the “fun” elective classes (looking at you, beer-making and volleyball). I also mean those classes that provide a window into careers that only provide a professional track if the student continues on through the Ph.D. level – these are your Psychology 101 and early Sociology courses. Yes, they are mighty valuable. But maybe not valuable in the way we are treating a university education these days.

There was a time when higher learning was undertaken for the sake of learning itself. There was discipline, rigor, and study. At some point, college became a place where an individual could go to “find themselves”. Lots of study, experimenting, testing the waters. Next, it was about getting an entrance into the white collar job market, strictly. This was business coursework and fraternities, which was dubbed “building your network”. Then it was all about extending adolescence. Enter the dorm-room TV with the requisite PS3 or XBox. Classes were actually getting in the way by this point.

And now it is a mixed up value proposition of trying to balance all of the above fads with the real-world weight of the titanic price tag that comes with the package. Why is school so expensive? Well, for my money, I’d answer that schools spent too much listening to what students and parents wanted (building more and bigger and wider) instead of administrators giving them what they should have known was what was best for education. And that is investing in the ranks of your educators and their equipment. It is not building a newer, bigger gymnasium fitness-wellness-climbing-wall palace. But that isn’t what I am writing about.

In that context, why would I ever want my kid (or would I want me) to pay $3,000 (plus 3-12% interest?) for Sociology 101, plus another $250 for a textbook? (Note: seriously, I love sociology. I think it is a worthy pursuit). What sort of self-feeding system have we created here? If my kid wants to learn sociology, well, for $3,000 there sure should be a better way to give them a 100-level introduction to it than two hours of “boring” weekly lectures with 600 other students and a few hundred pages of isolated reading and writing over a sixteen week span. That isn’t an education; that is a hoop.

If President Obama gets his way, community colleges will be free to qualified students. Think about the damage that would do to the hundreds of regional colleges with less than 3,000-student enrollments. These tend to be pricey options for the students while the administration is operating on razor thin margins.

What if, suddenly, some of those students could get their core requirements out of the way somewhere else for free? Would enrollment drop? Or would it actually make room for more students – widening the overall enrollment pool? I think enrollment will drop, and that small regional schools will have to scramble to rethink who they are, what service they offer, and in the end, radically hack away at pieces of their identity. In the end, they will become specialized, two-year schools that identify with a trade (engineering, pre-med, education, etc). This may happen over the next 25-30 years.

Yes, I am leaping. But I need to – the alternative option of looking at at $40,000 — or $200,000 tuition bill for my kids, well, it isn’t really an option. I need to believe that some major change will at least begin in the coming decade to radically alter how our kids pay for school, and also why they go.

The Pioneer Plaque

I can’t help but wonder why we have sent only four space probes into deep space with information about our existence. And they were all launched in the early 1970s!

Have we not come up with anything more interesting to say to the universe in the ensuing 40 years?

It might be that an evil scientist has been launching satellites into space weekly from his secret island launchpad. All the data on those indicates that he (or she!) is the supreme ruler of Earth. And why shouldn’t it? No one else seems to be concerned with sending anything up but orbital devices (super useful) and weather balloons.

Or it might be that the governments of the world have been sending batches of our phone calls and intercepted text messages into the heliopause for decades. Where else would they store it? LOL OMG 2EZ #NoConspiracy (got that, aliens?).

Instead of sending concerted messages from a global base of scientists and world leaders outlining our respective and rich religious, civic, and industrial histories, instead we have been beaming endless episodes of Benson (yes, it’s out there), Two and a Half Men, and Entertainment Tonight. Thinking about that sublime body of artistic work we’ve de facto been using to represent humanity, an alien observer might assume we’ve been sending out collective gasps asking for someone to euthanize us.

So hey folks, start building again. Let’s put some aluminum foil-covered boxes together with a few more gold albums on them, and ship them out. We, as a race, need to do a better job with the marketing message we’ve got happening here.

Samuel L. Jackson Has a Message for Ice Bucket Celebs

“All you celebrities out there who poured ice water on your heads, here’s a chance to do something else.”

Samuel L. Jackson makes a great point. I don’t even know what charity the Ice Bucket Challenge was supposed to support, all I know is that people everywhere were suddenly pouring water on themselves and haughtily laughing (albeit soaked) about their good, charitable souls.

And here we have a dire situation in the US where, according to a December 13th, 2014 piece in The Economist, “the police shot and killed at least 458 people last year.” That’s over one and a quarter persons killed by police per day in the US – and those numbers are a very conservative estimate. According to the same article, police departments in the US do not always report deaths to any sort of Federal accountability structure (because there isn’t a process requiring it). It is likely that the number is higher.

So what can we do about this? Is it enough to get out another bucket of ice water? Or .. how about offering our solidarity with the families of those grieved by the loss of a loved on at the hands of the police? Or … do we just assume that all police shootings are justified and go on about our business?

Speaking of justified police shootings, let me be plain: sometimes the police do have to shoot and kill bad guys. What, I think, folks in the US and around the world are wondering is, “are there so many bad guys in the US that opportunity exists for more than one to be shot everyday?”

Whatever you may think about the state of morality with regards to how many people you assume need to be shot by police here in the US each day, what is happening is that the police are shooting people who do not need to be shot.

John Crawford, for instance, who was standing the toy aisle of a WalMart holding a toy guy sold by WalMart in the toy aisle, when police appeared (bullets first) and shot him dead. (Both officers involved were acquitted).

Which gets back to the core question: where’s the accountability? The black community in the US is more and more seeing the police as a an “occupying” force rather than a civic institution meant to protect and serve (a phrase now spoken more tongue-in-cheek than in seriousness).

The police are not the bad guys, but they are, as individuals, placed in a situation that increasingly looks incalculable for them. Because, let’s face it, with 300 million guns out there on the US streets, if a cop makes one mistake, he could die. Is that a fair trade-off for his $65k a year salary? And do you know what they are trained to do in force escalation (i.e., mortal danger)? They are trained to shoot to kill. Not mace, not hit the legs or shoot the wrist. But to counter perceived force with stronger force, and at times that means lethal force.

Some people in the dialogue remind me that there are bad apples in every bunch, which means we should remember that there are some bad cops. As Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins says, “Unfortunately, my mom also taught me just as there are good police officers, there are some not-so-good police officers that would assume the worst of me without knowing anything about me for reasons I can’t control. She taught me to be careful and be on the lookout for those not-so-good police officers because they could potentially do me harm and most times without consequences.”

So I counter the question of “where” is the accountability with one of how, in this environment, can there be accountability? There can’t. It’s the system that must change. It must change to allow for more police training to de-escalate instead of countering force with force, except as a last measure. It must allow superintendents to fire the bad apples. And they know who they are. But my guess is that their hands are tied due to union clauses and protections of some sort or another.

And, finally, I regret to say, some officer somewhere is going to have to go to prison, for a long time. I know they are mostly doing their job according to their training. And the US government has geared them up to be pseudo combat militia teams. And they are scared (and brave). But at some point, if the people continue to see officer after officer shooting citizens dead in the street day after day with zero accountability, things will get a whole lot worse for a whole lot more people, and maybe faster than we expect.

We can’t “arrest” the system they are in. So some judge somewhere is going to have to offer up a sacrificial lamb in the name of national justice. If that doesn’t happen, change will come to the system but it won’t be pretty, clean, or safe.

Edit: The pressure valve appears to have broken with the cold-blooded murder of two New York City Police officers. I sincerely believe that the shooter was mentally disturbed and not purely driven by hatred of police, but the damage has been done. This is a terrible tragedy.

Chipotle Ad for an App is More Than Just an Ad for an App

I watched this ad from Chipotle the other day and couldn’t get it out of my head. It is such a striking message to come from a mass-production food company, especially one owned by McDonald’s (they are not owned by McDonald’s). I am not sure how to let the competing interests balance in my head, especially since I love going to Chipotle!  It could be, of course, that they are truly paving a new road in balancing the consumer demand for reasonably-priced, high quality convenience foods with a responsible approach to the living animals that are that food and the lands and resources and people that produce them.

I understand that, as our population continues to explode, mass consumption of beef is simply not sustainable.  As a Westerner, I am understandably hesitant about the potential future of an insect buffet instead of pulled pork or marinated beef.  And I hope you understand that I really, really, love burritos.  But canI I avoid Smithfield pork while I conveniently consume?  Can I expect more convenience dining to include tofu or simple black bean substitutes?

Well don’t feel bad, baby …

The fact is that people are violent. Sometimes that violence unimaginably spills into the world of our children’s schools. That is horrible, and makes my eyes well up with sorrow. But this story didn’t turn out as badly as it might have, mostly because of the incredible heroism of a bookkeeper named Antoinette Tuff. She kept communications going with the gunman de jour, until, mercifully, he gave up without harming anyone.

Ms. Tuff’s collected demeanor and cool head is remarkable in its own right. But she reaches further into herself to meet the gunman where he is, in a scared, lonely place. In a stark moment of commiseration about the trials of life (minute 14:46), Ms. Tuff tells him:

Well don’t feel bad, baby, my husband just left me after 33 years

There are long, drawn out periods of silence in the video. Stunning, really. Each time the line goes down, I was afraid of what was happening there in the school office. But each time, Ms. Tuff’s reassuring voice returns, letting the gunman and us, know that it’s going to be OK.