Funny Thing

A funny thing happened in writing these blogs. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. I wrote a blog about a couple who elected to rely on prayer to bring two of their children back to health only to watch them die, and the subsequent attempt by the state of Pennsylvania to take the remaining seven children away from the family and prosecute the parents as criminals. I argued for religious freedom and against paternalism and received one very thoughtful response and several expressions of disappointment: how could I ignore those poor children and take such an indefensible position? It seemed to several readers that I was out of character. (Heaven forbid that I become predictable!) So I wrote a follow-up attempting to spell out my position more carefully and, except for one good comment, the silence was deafening. The issue no longer seemed to interest many people. This raised a couple of thoughts in my mind.

To begin with, it does appear as though most people who read blogs really want to be diverted or entertained, not made to think. I suppose that’s to be expected. Perhaps they are too caught up in what Tom Lehrer once called their “drab, wretched lives” to want to put on the thinking cap. But, come on, the issue of the growing extent of state power and the subsequent loss of individual, liberty is a rather important issue, though even a couple of the folks who almost always comment on my blogs seemed not to be terribly interested in the issue. I found that worth pondering.

But I also found the expressions of disappointment interesting. A couple of my former students who commented on Facebook, where the blog appears, wondered how I could take such a strange position, seeming not to care about the sick kids whose parents choose prayer over hospitals. I do care about those kids, as I do about the kids who are summarily taken from their parents and sent to a foster homes — even though the evidence suggests that they were much-loved by their parents (who just happen to be fundamentalist Christians). But I saw the issue of paternalism as the larger issue, given our increasing tendency to simply sit by and watch the political state take away our liberties one by one. In any event, the blog was not about me, and whether or not I was “in character,” it was about a couple of issues I thought worth some serious thought. But aside from those few comments, what I read was a simple, “I don’t agree.” The important question is WHY don’t you agree? In fact, the important question is always “Why”?

After I retired from teaching I wrote a book that was essentially a collection of blogs before I ever thought about blogging. Like my blogs, it was not a big seller! But I did receive a very thoughtful and careful review on Amazon from a former student who read the book and at the end of his review he noted that he

. . .enjoyed this book. I was an advisee of Dr. Curtler during 1982-86 . . ., and his encouragement, advice, and philosophical principles influence me to this day. As a professor, Dr. Curtler was always trying to guide our thinking, asking us questions: ‘you can say anything you want, but I will always ask you WHY?’ As a result, what he himself thought was often withheld. I was quite interested, then, when I saw this book, to read his open views.

If I ever begin to wonder why I took the vow of poverty and chose to teach, comments like that remind me. From where I stood, the notion that my students had no idea what philosophical position I held on complex issues was the highest possible compliment. You can’t top honest praise from a former student who seems to have seen exactly what you were up to. And even though my blogs reveal my own thoughts again and again, it is important that I return to that neutral role from time to time, take up opposing points of view and defend them as best I can, and play the gadfly in an attempt to stir up some thought in the few readers who follow these blogs. It may not make for popularity, but it is why I started writing them in the first place.

Approaching 500

I am rapidly approaching my 500th blog (though the short one I ran yesterday afternoon shouldn’t count.) In any event, when I started writing this blog about a year and a half ago at the urging of a friend, I figured the novelty would quickly wear off — or I would run out of things to say. Neither has occurred (though some might say I repeat myself).  And I am especially astonished by the fact that I still feel there are things that need to be said. I knew the blog would not be popular and I named it “daily gadfly” on purpose.  Socrates likened himself to a gadfly whose job was to sting his fellow Athenians to keep them alert and on the ball. I don’t see myself in a league with Socrates and American citizens don’t compare favorably with the Athenians (though the latter did put Socrates to death … hmm). Anyhow, there are so many things going on all around us that we need to think about that finding words seems to be fairly easy most of the time.  In fact, I sometimes have several blogs drafted and waiting in line for posting. It has been fun.

My dashboard (which apparently is not altogether reliable) claims that I have had more than 13,500 visitors from more than 80 nations around the world, which amazes me. Most of those are visits from a small coterie of friends and fellow bloggers whose blogs I also read with great interest. And that is the best part of this blogging escapade: the community of which you become a member. There are some very bright and interesting people out there in the blog world who have fascinating and important things to say and reading blogs has become an important part of my daily life. One of those bloggers recently announced his 1000th blog, so my 500th isn’t such a big deal. And another has 500 followers while I have just over 180. It’s important to keep one’s perspective!

In any event, I thank those who read the blog regularly, and especially those who have referred their readers to my blogs — which gives the visits a very nifty spike every now and again. (I say “spike” because those visitors don’t usually stay around. Not everyone wants to get stung by a gadfly!) It’s comforting to know that there are others of like mind and that even a few of those who are not of like mind will still read and comment. Some of the comments — and there have been nearly 3,000 of them — have been most interesting and have even generated other comments. The dialogue is sometimes fascinating to follow. But those people don’t need a gadfly. It’s the people who don’t bother to read these blogs at all — or who don’t read much of anything I would guess — who need to be stung by a gadfly every now and again. There’s a conundrum for you!

So in the end, this gadfly will continue to buzz until either his mind turns to mush (further to mush?) or the hamster that keeps his computer running dies from exhaustion. It has been fun and I do thank my friend Dana Yost who lives in Iowa and who is one helluva writer and poet and who urged me to start down this path that has proven so rich and full of new friends.

The Booker Award

My favorite blogger (MFB) newsofthetimes has awarded a number of her favorite bloggers the “Booker Award” for people who love books and spend much of their time with their noses buried in them. That’s me and I am especially touched by this award because “news” included me on her list. We have a mutual admiration thing going on here. The award requires that I list my five favorite books, mention at least five other bloggers who also deserve the award, and post the award itself.
I shall take these in reverse order:

My favorite blogger has already been mentioned and several others whom I would pass this award to are on the list “news” posted on her blog, including musingsofanoldfart and carrpartyoffive. And I thought immediately of EmilyJ, but “news” had already listed her. But there are a number of other exceptional bloggers and I will pass this award along to them:

1.Circles Under Streetlights. A woman who loves to read and also writes beautifully.

2. Seapunk2. A blogger who is alert and aware of whatever if going on around her in her home in the Pacific Northwest.

3. Salty Political Musings. The title says it all.

4. Jennifer Worrell. A very funny lady and her blogs are always worth reading.

5. Zebra Designs. A creative artist whose pictures along with her words always charm and delight.

6. Mindful Stew. A remarkable teacher who works hard at his craft and shares his insights and successes.

7. jotsfromasmallapartment has stacks of well-deserved awards. But I am sending this one along because she loves books and writes so well.

(I am stopping at 7 because folks in the middle ages regarded that number as lucky.)

The last requirement is the hardest because I have so many favorite books — books that I read again and again because, as I told “news” they reward me every time. But here goes:

1. Middlemarch. by George Eliot — the best book, perhaps, by one of the wisest writers I have ever read.

2. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Freud called it the greatest novel ever written, and he may be right.

3. Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad’s amazing novella that cannot be read too many times.

4. Don Quixote. Cervantes knew how to make humor take us closer to the human experience.

5. Age of Innocence. Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel — for a reason.

So there are my favorites — or many of them. It boggles the mind to try to come up with favorites and you always fear you have left someone or something out. If I were concentrating on American authors I would certainly include Melville and Steinbeck along with Wharton. But the requirements were for the top five.  in any case, I do thank newsofthetimes again for the delightful award.

Waste and Abuse

I read with interest a recent post by Mindful Stew in which the author made the outrageous suggestion that teachers be paid what they are worth. Well, actually he suggested they be paid $100,000 to start, but that was to get our attention. And he did get readers’ attention! The comments were numerous and many of them insightful, though others a bit spiteful. The most frequent objection to the notion that we should pay more taxes to support public education is that there is waste and lack of accountability in the public sector. This is true.

I worked for nearly four decades in the public sector, teaching at a small Midwestern public university where I saw countless examples of waste and downright stupidity. As coach of the women’s tennis team, for example, I was expected to order supplies from approved vendors whose names were on a list provided to all coaches when I could buy a gross of tennis balls from Wal-Mart for 35% less than I would have to pay the “approved” vendor — which I did. The women’s basketball team would climb on a bus and travel five hours to Duluth to play a game on the same night the Duluth men’s team came to our campus! Eventually this stopped, but the objection at the time was that if the men and women played in the same place on the same night the men would get a larger audience. So for that reason the practice went on for years. Needless to say, the athletic teams — even at this small university  — stayed in expensive motels. And then there was the time-honored budgetary practice of punishing frugal employees. If the budget was not spent at the end of the fiscal year next year’s budget would be cut by that amount. And there are countless other examples of waste and stupidity. I dare say my readers who work or have worked in the public sector could add many of their own.

So let’s agree that there is waste and abuse of the money we send the state or the federal government to help provide services. There should be accountability, clearly. And employees should be rewarded when they save the taxpayers money, not punished — as should departments and agencies. But none of this really addresses the central issue which is that our teachers are horribly underpaid — barely above poverty levels in many states. For many teachers there needs to be another wage-earner in the family and it is a rare example of a teacher who can even think of buying a home, especially in the first years.

As a consequence of these low salaries, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people in this country who steer away from teaching because they know they will struggle. It shouldn’t be about money, but money is essential. Anyone who denies that is purblind or downright stupid. Many of the comments on “Stew’s” blog were from people who went another direction because of the low salaries in teaching. As a consequence, numerous studies suggest that nationwide we are now drawing from the bottom third or in some cases the bottom fourth of the college pool: our teachers were not among the highest achievers in our colleges — as a rule. I have heard from and read blogs by teachers who are sharp and very committed (including “mindful stew”), and while teaching at the college level for forty years I had a number of advisees who became outstanding teachers. But these people are the exception, sad to say.  In most cases around the country our kids are not getting the best teachers and it is not a huge leap to conclude that much of this is due to low salaries which bring with them low self-esteem and low-expectations. I have even read a couple of comments that pointed out that the kids themselves have a low opinion of their teachers because they know they are poorly paid. I dare say they hear this at home. In our culture, like it or not, money speaks volumes.

In any case, while I might blanch at starting teachers at $100,000 a year, a salary of $50,000 does seem reasonable. We can all certainly afford to pay a few hundred dollars more a year to support education. But in the meantime, if the school districts have a problem finding the money to pay the teachers they could save a considerable amount of money by reducing the number of administrators and support staff by 50-60% There’s a bunch of money going to waste there! A couple of well-organized administrators and two or three efficient secretaries could run a school of several thousand easily. It is done in business all the time, though I hate to suggest that we borrow from the business model. Or (and I hesitate to say this) we could reduce the inordinate number of athletic teams at the high school and college levels and concentrate on the few that truly benefit the students and contribute to the goal of educating young minds. But this borders on heresy.

The Joys of Blogging

When I started blogging a few months ago, prompted by a close friend, I never expected to get caught up in it. But it has been a most pleasant surprise. My object was to try to articulate some of the things I have been thinking and keep on top of some of what is going on around me. I wasn’t going for popularity, but simply trying to raise questions and keep the little gray cells active. As a rule my blogs tend to be rather dark and (some would say) pessimistic. I would call them realistic; let’s not quibble. But they are certainly not designed to garner a wide readership.

What I have discovered is that there is a remarkable group of people who blog regularly and many of them not only have something important to say but say it with humor, insight, and at times even with remarkable photos and even drawings. The array of blogs (and admittedly I have seen only a couple of dozen) is remarkable and the quality of those I have read is exceptionally high. The humor of published writers such as Carr, Party of Five and Jennifer Worrell, for example, is truly exceptional. Their blogs are downright fun to read, and heaven knows we could all use more fun in our lives!  There are others too numerous to mention that I ought to mention. But I type with three fingers and they are growing tired.

Contrary to my original motive, I must admit that I have gotten caught up in watching to see how many “followers” I have and love to watch their numbers grow. . . slowly. Though there are blogs that positively dwarf these numbers, I have had nearly 4600 hits and even 200 “likes” which amazes me, given the nature of my blogs and the sometimes heavy material I attempt to put out there! I tend to worry aloud sometimes and find it helps me to articulate that worry and translate it into a post. But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and I am astonished to see that there are others who are just as concerned as I and a few who have much better things to say and say it much better than I do.

Of special interest in this regard are two of the best I have come across: “newsofthetimes” and “musingsofanoldfart.” Both put out quality blogs consistently, well worth reading and thinking about. I am especially impressed with “news” who has the patience of Job and comments on each of my blogs (and everyone else’s on her blog list, apparently) — even when they don’t deserve her time. If she keeps it up with her expanding readership she will have to give up her day job! Thanks to “news” I have expanded my readership and discovered a host of other bloggers who do outstanding work. It is a remarkable community of thinkers and writers and one I am delighted to be a small part of.

It has been a gas and I expect I will keep it up until I have run out of things to say — if that ship hasn’t already sailed! But I also want to thank those who visit the blog site from time to time and especially those few who visit regularly and comment. I have learned a great deal and my mind has been expanded by the world other bloggers have opened up to me. Many thanks!