Friday, April 27, 2007

Choose Your Illusion

I just finished an amazing, life-altering book.

Well, that's not exactly true. My wife, Summer, does all the reading in our family because I have to spend my free time in the wilderness foraging for nuts and berries.

But the book has changed my life anyway because Summer is suddenly less annoying.

Let me first state that my wife is the most beautiful, amazing human being imaginable and I am profoundly lucky to even live in the same town that she does. If women were gasoline, she would be 93-Octane Premium Unleaded with Patented Detergent Additive.

But this book, The Paradox of Choice, has made her even better. The author, Barry Schwartz, explains how having too many choices in everyday life actually makes us less happy.

Many Americans are what Schwartz calls “Maximizers,” people who want to examine all their options and make the best possible decision in every situation.

Summer is a Maximizer. Just the other night, we spent 25 minutes at the department store trying to decide which shower curtain to buy – the red one, the red one with wrinkly texture, the red one with gold embroidery, or the funky-colored striped one.

“It's a big decision,” she kept saying, as if the consequences of purchasing a Wal-Mart shower curtain could follow us into the afterlife.

Of course, I am the opposite of a Maximizer, what Schwartz refers to as a “Satisficer,” one who will, in any situation, pick the most convenient and readily available option.

Mortgage Broker: “So, do you want the 30-year fixed, or the 20-year Adjustable Financial Wedgie of Doom?”

Me: “Whatever's handy... we're going destitute either way.”

The Paradox of Choice is on my side. Schwartz says Maximizers end up regretting most of the choices they make, and the time it took to make them (whereas Satisficers live care-free, happy-go-lucky lives, at least until the hangover hits).

It's nice to have one area of conflict in my marriage about which I'm actually right. Of course, the real villain is not my wife, but a consumerist culture that markets excess to the point of absurdity.

In Chapter 1, Schwartz recounts a trip to the supermarket, where he found 85 varieties of crackers, including 20 different types of Goldfish, along with 95 options for chips, 80 different pain relievers, 40 kinds of toothpaste, and 175 different salad dressings, including 16 types of “Italian.”

By having to choose among all these items, many people experience subconscious anxiety (“What if I don't choose the right one?”), buyer's remorse (“Should I have gotten the other one?”), and an empty dissatisfaction with life in general (“Why can't I just try them all?”).

Call me crazy (you won't be the first), but this is a lot to go through for some crackers.

There's no changing what capitalism does to our supermarkets. But at least my wife is more aware of her habits. She has taken a month to decide what shade of green to paint the kitchen (Dill Pickle, Bright Pear, or Poplar Leaf?), but she managed to plant a shrub yesterday after only 10 minutes' deliberation on its exact location.

Any book that can do that ought to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Friday, April 20, 2007


The first thing you learn when you go to college to become a teacher is any test you give should cover the material you've been teaching. In other words, if your students just got done studying Shakespeare, do not give them a test that includes questions about the mating habits of the Asian cockroach (Blattella asahinai).

This may seem like a simple concept, but for some reason Gov. John Baldacci and his education sidekick, Susan Gendron, don't get it. By forcing all high school juniors to take the SAT once again this year, they're repeating widespread, coordinated educational malpractice.

Maine school systems have built their curricula off the Learning Results, a big purple book of standards in reading, writing, math, social studies, science, arts, basket-weaving, and gravel pit partying.

The SAT is not built off those standards. The SAT is built by an out-of-state company called The College Board, which is making a slew of cash off Maine taxpayers despite the fact that they've never heard of The Learning Results. (The College Board is mainly concerned with figuring out who is fit to attend - and pay for - college, which is why their reading questions derive from topics like ballet instead of topics like fly-tying or rap music.)

When Baldacci and Gendron pushed the SAT initiative through a partisan legislature, they assured everyone that the SAT, by pure coincidence, matched the Learning Results perfectly, even though it contains only English and math questions (I guess we no longer need the other subjects).

As it turns out, the federal government says, sorry, no match, and has fined Maine for non-compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Our leaders have decided the best way to measure student learning is to force them to sit under fluorescent lights for three hours in some of the least-comfortable chairs ever invented and plow through volley after volley of questions derived from 1950s pedagogy until their brains turn into cottage cheese.

I have a lot of students who work hard in school, but who will not go to college, either because learning disabilities have held them back or because their vocational interests lie elsewhere (i.e. truck driving, auto repair, video games, drug trafficking). Expose these kids to 20 minutes of SAT material and you get a lot of groans, fidgeting, sleeping, etc. Imagine putting them through three hours of it! The classroom would become either a zoo or a morgue.

Are there benefits to having all high school juniors take the SAT? Sure.

  • Many were going to take it anyway, now they don't have to pay for it.

  • Students can get in touch with their “inner artists” by making some neat designs while they fill in all those bubble sheet ovals.

  • Baldacci gets to manufacture sound bytes about getting all Maine kids ready for college.

The last one is probably the most important. Sound educational practice is not nearly as important as getting re-elected.

No wonder we chose a test that doesn't have any social studies questions.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Nauseating News

Stomach flu. As soon as I finish writing this, I can go back to bed. Please forgive the choppy sentences. No energy for long ones.

Don Imus. What a jerk. Needs psychotherapy. Hate his guts.

It's too bad he's gone. We need him.

He represents attitudes in our society that we'd like to pretend are not there. We must confront the ugliness (both literally and figuratively, in this case).

Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon, writing about Imus being fired, said it best: “I'd rather see him have to confront anger, scorn and ridicule every single day... I'd rather the criticism come at Imus from every angle, indefinitely, rather than have him slink away to private life.”

If the enemy hides, we become complacent, we forget he's there, and we can't defeat him. (See also: Osama bin Laden.)

In 2004, Imus referred to some publishers as “thieving Jews.” Then he apologized for using a term that was “redundant.” Referring to black journalist Gwen Ifill, he said, “Isn't the New York Times wonderful... they let the cleaning lady cover the White House.”

Ha ha. Excuse me for a moment while I go puke.

Okay, I'm back. As I was saying, Imus tries to be funny. He's not. Humor derives from truth. The audience needs to see some element of reality in order for the joke to have its impact.

For example, it would be easy for me to make fun of the Bush White House for illegally deleting a bunch of emails so that they became unavailable for congressional subpoena or historical record.

When faced with potential scandal, public servants must choose whether they want to appear incompetent or appear untrustworthy. Most of the time, they choose incompetence. The public is more likely to forgive a silly mistake (Clinton) than an act of premeditated evil (Nixon).

In this case, incompetence is the clear choice. Can you imagine Bush using email? He would probably send a lot of cheesy forwarded chain messages and write in all capital letters.

So Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel this week admitted the White House had not been clear enough with its employees (like Karl Rove) about the email policy. The policy states, in essence, “Don't delete email, you morons.”

Either the White House staffers are such simple-minded Luddites that a clearly-worded email policy strikes them as complete gibberish, or certain people decided to delete certain messages intentionally. While you decide for yourself which is the case, I'm going to run back to the toilet for a moment.

Ugh, that was no fun. Anyway, did you see how the joke about Bush using email connects to reality? Bush has adopted the persona of an unsophisticated country boy who may not be a computer whiz, goshdarn it, but he sure knows how to administer some down-home, Texas-style, cowboy hat justice, even if he is just a disguised Yale trust-fund baby who couldn't find a real terrorist unless he was hiding at the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.

Whew. Even though it was a cheap shot, that one took a lot out of me. Time to go lie down for a while. Wake me up when the news gets less nauseating.

Friday, April 6, 2007

When Mite Makes Fright

“Do you realize you’re breathing this in?” The salesman showed me a picture of a dust mite blown up to 10,000 times its normal size. It turns out dust mites look like evil alien spiders.

“Dust mites feed off dead skin cells,” he explained. “And because they eat, I don’t have to tell you what they leave behind.”

At this exact moment I almost caved and bought the $1700 vacuum cleaner, unable to bear the thought of my family breathing in millions of tiny insects and particles of insect poop and insect toilet paper.

We had invited this man, named Chuck (why do all the sleazy people have to be named Chuck?), into our home to clean our carpet for free. Once we went over it with our plain-old $80 Eureka, he lifted about 71 pounds of dirt out of the floor with his NASA-type industrial monster sucking machine.

Then he used it on the bed. Eeeew. It made me want to start sleeping upright.

Fortunately, I realized that both my wife and I had grown up breathing insect poop, as did our parents and grandparents, with no ill impact on our health. Breathing insect poop is, and always has been, the American Way. If a cheap, $80 vacuum was good enough for Abe Lincoln, it’s good enough for us.

Besides, the main source of filth in our house is not dead skin cells, it’s dog hair. Our dogs shed pounds of fur at random moments throughout the year, as if their bodies anticipate spring every time the furnace kicks on.

Our current vacuum does a marvelous job picking up dog hair, even when we don’t use it directly on the dogs. It also does fine with the other primary sources of filth in our house: glitter, bits of food, chewed-up diapers, and the television (ba-dum-CHING).

When I pointed all this out to Chuck, and told him that I would be happy continuing to pretend that dust mites do not exist, he knew I had beaten him. He needed a way to link bug excrement with AIDS or syphilis or giant cancerous goiters, and he did not have one.

I said, thanks for stopping by to remove dirt from our carpet and from the earth under our house, but no sale. We just want our floors to look clean, and we can achieve that with our current vacuum.

How silly of me to think I could get rid of a salesman that easily. Over the next 90 minutes I tried a myriad of other lines, including:

- We need the money to pay for my emergency armpit gland surgery.

- Oh my God, the house is on fire!

- My new anti-gravity invention will soon make floors obsolete.

- We don’t have the money.

We eventually got him to leave by pointing out the house across the street, which is about four times the size of ours. Their SUV has more carpeting than our entire living room.

We waved goodbye to Chuck. Except for the mornings when I wake up with that icky taste in my mouth, I haven’t thought about dust mites since.