Required Reading: “Forgotten Soldier”

I am currently reading “Forgotten Soldier,” by Guy Sajer, a half-German Alsatian who served as an infantryman in the German Army during the last three years of World War Two on the Eastern Front. I’m about halfway through, and let me tell you, I’ve seen enough. For those of you who do not know, the struggle between Germany and Russia in Eastern Europe was the largest and most devastating military conflict in history. For perspective, in its conflict with both Germany and Japan, The United States suffered a total of about 437,000 combat deaths. It’s a staggering number and should never be discounted, but the Soviet Union, in its struggle with Germany, suffered over ten million military deaths. That excludes wounded and the vast number of its civilians killed (also over ten million).

Ten. Million.

That is an insane number of soldiers KIA in a single war. The scope of the brutality in the Eastern Front is literally impossible to imagine. Sajer captures as much as he can through the eyes of a teenage enlisted man and it is some of the most unrelentingly grim stuff I have ever read: mud, filth, frostbite, dust, spattered guts, deafening noise, shellshock, devastated cities, crying, pants-pissing, putrefying corpses, and senseless, profitless slaughter. The Germans suffered a few million military casualties of their own and one can see how.

It is neither glorious, uplifting, regretful, redemptive, nor anything a lot of people would expect a war narrative to be.  Situated where I am in the story now, the winter of 1943-1944, I know the history of the events  and what Mr. Sajer is trying to do well enough that it will only get worse before it comes to a halt in 1945. So why continue to look into the abyss?

For one thing, I feel like I owe it to him. Sajer hints repeatedly at his bitterness over his (and his comrades) fighting for so long and so bravely on the losing side of such a conflict. They had to suffer not only defeat after all their heroism and sacrifice in standing by each other, but also oblivion: history has cast them indelibly as villains. There were no parades, no awards, no monuments, and no commendations to provide some measure of redress for everything they endured. This seems sad, because in “Forgotten Soldier,” Sajer and his companions were no Nazi ideologues, SS fanatics, or concentration camp guards. They were literally a bunch of kids who had no idea what they were getting into. He refers more than once to a sense of duty to tell the story and capture what it felt like, because he feared no one would remember the perspective of men like him (and his dead friends) otherwise. Who would remember? That resonates with me.

I have long felt it was my lot to remember the forgotten or misunderstood warriors: the thousands of slain Chechen nationalists, mislabeled ‘terrorists’ by the world, and their families blown to shreds by indiscriminate Russian carpet-bombing; the poorer Crusaders, driven half-mad by thirst, hunger and two years of deprivation, outside the walls of Jerusalem in 1099; the moldering bones of the Roman Nineteenth Legion in some deep German forest, victims of their own commander’s arrogance and the decadence of a civilization that took its own superiority for granted.

Because of course, they weren’t ALL ‘bad guys:’ not even the infantrymen of the troops Adolf Hitler sent to war. The ‘enemy’ never is. And this is why I think a lot of other people owe it to Sajer to read the story as well, even if they don’t feel my natural inclination to do so. People who would send their countrymen to war, any war,  for a cause they believe is just, would do well to remember what’s truly waiting for them. That isn’t a call for pacifism, which I think is unrealistic given some of the evils that show themselves in the world (Hitler’s menace being one of the greatest), but rather a call to remember what Sajer depicts: whatever the cause or its justification, war is most often fought by regular people, standing by their comrades, for whom combat has formed a unique bond. At a human level, the sacrifices made by these people are beyond the comprehension of most folks.

I remember when I picked this book up to see if I thought it might be worth a read, I opened to a random page and caught Sajer’s description, with full horror, of German Tiger tanks rolling over a trench full of Russian soldiers, and his realization that human remnants were ground into the tank treads. It seized me immediately. I think of those tank treads every time I hear some politician in a suit talk about bombing, or some person I know talk about ‘boots on the ground’ in some foreign country. Nietschze warned us about gazing too long into the abyss, for then it also gazes back into us– we become monsters when we look too long on monstrosity and are desensitized. Maybe some of our leaders and citizens over the years have failed to look long enough. Guy Sajer’s sixteen year old Alsatian grunt is worth following for every page, as a reminder of war’s true face, whatever side of history we might be on.


The Perfection of Saturday Morning

I rise early. It may be Saturday, but I still enjoy being up before the sun. On these cooler mornings, I can open the windows and enjoy the quiet: no buzzing air conditioners or rolling tires at this hour. There’s a puff of refreshing breeze, the faint sound of moving air, and the low twittering and chirping of birds. I take a minute to stand by the open window and enjoy that sound, reminding myself again that I want to get to know all of the local birds by their call, the way I’m getting to know my neighborhood trees by bark and leaf.

Time for coffee. I always take a moment just to open the bag and smell the beans. Fresh coffee beans have a potent vibrancy that I would swear is already making me more alert before they are even ground. The lively rattle of beans dropping into the hopper, and then there’s thirty or so seconds of the only jarring and unpleasant part of my little ritual: the grinder shattering the stillness with its obnoxiously loud motor. I’ve thought about a hand grinder just to circumvent these thirty seconds on Saturday morning. Absurd, I tell myself. They’re expensive and they don’t grind as evenly. I won’t do it. All the same, there’s something about the electric grinder in that moment that feels like turning on a leafblower during a church service.

Church: as I set up my little Hario V60 pot with the funnel top for the beans, filter, and water, I recall once more how “chalice-like” the shape is, and imagine the old priests in places like medieval France, quietly raising theirs in prayer on a similar morning. Moldering stone, stained glass shot through with early sun, bell-rope waiting to be pulled– all pure fancy, of course, but it’s what my brain has done in quiet moments since I was a little kid. Connect with the past, or some kind of story, or both at once.

I wait for my kettle water to boil and sniff the ground beans. That’s where you can really get a feel for the kind of bean and the skill of the roaster. It puts a smile on my face every time I get a new bag. Amazing, I think, that simple coffee beans can have so many different scents when they are fresh from the grinder, depending on where they came from and who roasted them. In an instant, I am aware: of the vast, incredible variety of the climate and soils in even the small subset of places where it is possible to grow good coffee in the world, of the limitless nuances in human skill that prepare them for me and so many other people, and of the little red lines going all over the global map in different directions to bring me this handful of ground coffee beans.

Every sound is magnified. While this is unfortunate in the case of the grinder, it’s a pleasant part of waiting for the water. The gradual rise in the intensity of the roil as the kettle slowly gets to temprature, then the drop-off telling me to look for the steam escaping the holes in the lid: I’m getting to the apex of my little ritual, and it’s time for full concentration and precision. I wet the filter, drop the ground coffee in, and begin pouring in a thin, deliberate spiral, evenly over the coffee. Wait for the first “bloom” to die down, pour again, wait about ten seconds, pour again. Steady on the wrist movement: if you tilt back too much as you spiral, you’ll miss grinds, tilt forward a hair too much and the pour is too aggressive, gushing all over one section of beans.

I get asked sometimes: does any of this REALLY matter? Does it taste THAT much better than coffee from a simple drip pot? Unspoken: do you have to get THIS fucking precious about morning coffee? The short answer: no. I can sit down and enjoy much simpler drip coffee. I choose not to, in part because it does taste better, but there’s more. The journey, the ritual, the total absorption in the effort to make something that’s truly yours: these things impart something extra and genuinely spiritual.

Up until the last drips of coffee are pouring through the funnel into the pot, kettle set down, silence has once again stolen over my clean little kitchen. At this moment, bacon has already been set to cast iron and is beginning to lightly sizzle. However bacon turns out once its done, I can always be assured of two joys in the making of it: the blaze of savory smell and the buildup in sound to the full-blown, merry crackling that tells you its nearly finished. Even the leftover grease is a gift, destined as a base for future chili pots and braises.

It’s around this time that I inwardly smile and listen for the first sounds of my lady: the ruffle of sheets from two rooms away, and the familiar pattern of her footfalls as my soon-to-be hug gets better from the anticipation. Or maybe it’s different: she’s heard the grinder or smells the bacon, knows I’m up, knows she’s too tired to rise yet, but it’s still time for ‘good morning.’ In that case, as soon as my kitchen noise dies down, I’ll faintly hear my favorite word in the background: “Honey.” It’s neither a question nor command, but I go to give that hug myself.

Excitement: what will we talk about today? What will we do? Inevitably, hours will pass by without a minute’s realization, to the muted, happy sounds of conversation, gossip, jokes, classical music, scrambled eggs, the pop of the toaster, and dreaming about the future out loud. We’ve got the whole weekend to spend together as we like, and the whole morning to figure it out. In a way, however the day, the weekend, or the rest of life unfolds, it’s going to have a tough time matching the vibrant potential we can both feel in this long, slow morning, free from the pressure or demands of day-to-day stuff.

Our little house and the life we’ve built together offers me plenty for which I’m grateful on any given day, but Saturday morning has a special purity about it that’s tough to beat. Cheers, folks.

Metal Monday: Heavy Metal “Fans” are Garbage

In these crazy days, when so much calamity can be live-streamed directly from anywhere in the world, it’s unlikely anybody will make the time to read about the state of ‘metal’ music. Fortunately, I don’t give two shits and I’m going to write about it anyway. One of my favorite bands is recording an album and the bulk of their genre’s supporters is banding together to let them know how displeased they are– and it’s a big part of why that genre is a dying art.

The genre is ‘heavy metal'(as coined by some radio dude trying to describe the sound of it a long time ago- like heavy metal falling from the sky) and the band is Sepultura. Sepultura made a name for themselves over 25 years ago as a band that pushed the boundaries of aggressive music. Hailing from Brazil, they evolved from a founding powerhouse in the death metal genre into something unique, incorporating tribal elements, groove drumming, unique guitar riffs, and a sense for pressing social and ‘rebel’ issues in their lyrics. Their charismatic front man, Max Cavalera, seemed to embody what they were about, with his emotional but accessible delivery, his mastery of several languages, and even his heavily-accented, guttural English.

Then, in 1996, he had a falling out with the rest of the band, including his brother. He made it a very public, messy divorce, and left the band permanently. Lots of people (including myself) were pretty bummed out. What would come next?

The band continued with a new front man (who moved to Brazil to learn Portuguese and totally commit), and surprisingly, continued to evolve. They pushed boundaries with each new album, experimenting with different elements musically and lyrically. They made a stripped-down, powerful protest record. They wrote a concept album inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and another one inspired by “A Clockwork Orange,” which fully explored the issues of choice and its inseparability from true morality. Not all of it worked, but one thing was for sure: Sepultura never grew canned or stale in their sound.

Naturally, their resurgence was celebrated, right? Wrong! Many of their former fans refused to accept that the band could exist without its former front man. Many of them refused to even listen to the new material: “No Max= no Sepultura” was a common thread. And it still is. Their guitarist gets asked all the time about the possibility of a reunion. Dude, it’s been TWENTY YEARS since they split up. TWENTY. YEARS. Get over it! Get a life! Listen to something new! Are you the same person you were twenty years ago? It’s pathetic.

Max Cavalera has long-since become a washed-up has-been. He founded a new band called “Soulfly,” in which guest appearances from other artists and riffs from other guitarists have been the center of attention. His band members are in constant flux because he is apparently extremely difficult to work with. Even his supporters admit that his live performances are not anything close to what they were. Yet if Sepultura’s guitarist and main songwriter, Andreas Kisser, ever wants a big paycheck again, he’s probably going to have to screw his awesome and dedicated front man, Derrick Green, and reunite to play a bunch of songs that haven’t had real chemistry to them for 25 years. It’s sad, man.

‘Metal’ fans are garbage. Every genre has their reactionaries, of course, but as metal becomes less and less relevant, its reactionaries cling to nostalgia harder than ever. You see it on “news” sites, where absolutely nobody ‘up-and-coming’ is getting any press, and you see it when you go to shows, where puffy, aging 40 year olds in denim jackets and long hair (interrupted with bald spots) stand around chanting for thirty year old songs we’ve all heard thirty million times. Fear Factory just did a tour in which they played their seminal “Demanufacture” album from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong, I love that album, and it really grabbed a hold of me…in 1994. The concept of a whole album set is really cool, but when asked why the band did it, their front man Burton C. Bell explained (in quite passive-aggressive fashion) that “fans aren’t really interested in anything new.” Bitch move, but amen, dude.

Metal music began and was supposed to continue as music on the edge and the outlet for extreme thoughts and exhilaration. In times like now, when so much is changing so rapidly, it should be an expanding art form. Kids should be attracted to its rock roots and its simple, garage elements. Instead, screamo and other image-obsessed garbage stole that audience. There’s a metal influence to what my students hear, but at its roots, a lot of it is lifeless and conformist. Cold production, screaming vocals alternated with pop choruses, polished, studio-heavy sound, and loads of triggered percussion– it’s loud, but it doesn’t have identity or soul.

Metal needs a true resurgence, both as a return to garage rock and as an art with which musicians can experiment, and we can’t keep mistaking history for relevance. I read Slayer moved over 50,000 copies of their latest (and definitely NOT greatest) in the first week– massive numbers for a metal album, and the best of their career! The interest is there. Why are we waiting around? Metallica is recording a new album? Who gives a shit?! Metallica has released one album in the last thirteen years! Is there anything less relevant to extreme music than James Hetfield’s leathery, alcoholic old face? Than Lars Ulrich tracking shitty, fragmented drum takes in between rounds on his private golf course? It drives me nuts that Torture Division, a really great death metal band that kept pushing the envelope, had to throw in the towel for lack of funds, while people are basically standing around waiting to give Metallica their money.

Metal fans should have been supporting the evolution of the art over a decade ago, so the new kids had something awesome to grab onto and carry. When the art evolved beyond Black Sabbath, that’s exactly what happened. Instead, starting in the late 90s, they put their fingers in their ears, cried over their Max Cavalera posters, and let rap rock, nu metal, and screamo happen. Now, the kids are buying Skillet albums. Ugh.

Project Legion Update #1: Smoking Meat

Last month, I undertook a multi-pronged project to master some basic skills I had been looking to learn, and set a physical base from which to expand a few of my other goals. As a schoolteacher with a few weeks of break time in front of me, I thought it would be a good way to get started on some stuff before my two greatest projects: fatherhood and the process of continuing to improve as a teacher, got fully underway next month. My intention was to write about this process, reflecting on how much progress I made and how sustainable it was.

I have five main goals as a part of this project:

#1: Produce an authentic, ‘better-than-backyard-bullshit’ piece of Texas-style smoked brisket, equivalent to brisket at a quality BBQ establishment.DEADLINE: October 12th

#2: Produce a “thumbs-up, I’d definitely eat that again” loaf of home-made bread. DEADLINE: November 27th

#3: Produce a good-looking piece of wall art for the garage gym. DEADLINE: August 10th

#4:Produce a full ‘Scope and Sequence’ for a year long 8th Grade History Course, with the first two units complete. DEADLINE: August 10th

#5: Be able to complete 40 straight, four-count flutter kick repetitions, 25 straight pull-ups, 100 straight pushups, a 120 pound “Rolling Thunder” deadlift, a 50 pound “Blockbuster Pinch Grip Block”  lift, and a 10 mile run in 80 minutes under a 40 pound backpack load. DEADLINE: December 18th

On the whole, I am making progress, although I’ve experienced some slow-down and inertia on a few of my items. I’d like to focus today on goal #1.

Not long after I wrote my piece, one of my principal difficulties in meeting my goal here was the acquisition of a real smoker. With a baby on the way and my awesome wife already on board with funding several of my other interests this year (such as my garage gym!), I couldn’t simply go out and buy a good smoker. I resolved to learn the basics on a shitty one, and lo and behold: one appeared for free! My neighbor was about to put his (a basic cheap offset smoker) at the curb, in favor of a new Weber grill.

When he offered it to me, I enthusiastically agreed. After I wheeled the thing into my backyard, however, a few challenges became apparent, above and beyond the cheapness and poor heat retention of the smoker itself. It was covered in rust and filled with old grease and ash, and needed some modification to how it pulled smoke and told temperature. I made a visit to Home Depot after consulting Aaron Franklin’s excellent BBQ book for the material to modify the smoker and I felt reasonably confident that elbow grease would take care of the grease, ash and rust.

I was mostly correct, but a large problem soon presented itself: when I cleaned out the ash and old grease, I found that the part of the cook chamber bottom nearest to the firebox had rusted out to the length and width of about 14 by 2 inches. Ugh. This is bad. Franklin warns not to let ash sit in your cooker, nor to rinse it out with water when you decide to clean it, because it rapidly accelerates the rusting process. My neighbor had done both and left the smoker uncovered, so even though it was not “old” in years, plenty of damage had already been done.

This was an easy point to lament my lack of a lot of basic hand skills. If I knew the first thing about metals and metalworking, I’ll bet I could have had this problem solved in a heartbeat. The internet was not terribly helpful either. There was a lot of advice, most of it irrelevant to my specific problem, or offering a solution that required skills I don’t have. I resolved to ask folks at Home Depot for help. Hold the laughter, folks. Let’s just say I made three more separate trips to Home Depot, got two well-meaning contradictory suggestions, both of which only proved the ignorance of the suggestors, and am now holding a useless piece of galvanized sheet metal (when exposed to heat, galvanized metal produces poisonous fumes).

What I need now is essentially a piece of non-galvanized sheet metal that will bend to the contours of my cook chamber. The chief problem here is one of airflow– I don’t want a hole in my cook chamber because that will pull cooler air into it and ruin the meat temperature and smoking environment. So basically I just need to cover the hole with something that won’t melt when exposed to high heat. I have a metal-working store (hopefully helpfully) suggested to me by one gal at Home Depot that I will explore on Monday.

CHANCES OF MAKING DEADLINE ON GOAL #1: At this point, not sure. I’m at least a week or two behind where I wanted to be, and this one is deceptive. It’s one of the most far-off goal times, so if I’m not careful, it can be all-too-easy to get complacent and not hit the ‘waypoints’ I need to hit to achieve it.


I was watching a really great fight last night, but the way it ended made me reflect a little on fighting and on struggle in general: relentlessness is underrated. You should never lose because you are out of gas.

There are so many things in any struggle that are outside of your control: sometimes you don’t have the talent or the skill to overcome your opponent, and that can be forgiven. Maybe you got sick or got hit in the right place at an unlucky moment (it’s why they call it a puncher’s chance, after all).

But to lose because you were tired? Or because your will broke? To me, that would be much more devastating. Endurance (and the will to endure) does not require skill, talent, or luck. It is absolutely within our control in how we prepare for (and deal with) struggle. Winston Churchill once wrote admiringly of the medieval Scots in their wars with the English; their equipment and training were inferior, they were inherently undisciplined, but the remained very formidable because of their tirelessness and utter refusal to surrender.”Once set in place, they had to be killed.”

I started wrestling late in high school, and was a shitty wrestler down to my last day. I still look back with pride, however, on my experience. I knew I wasn’t any good, but while I tried to refine my techniques, I resolved that at the very least, nobody was going to be stronger or better-conditioned than I was. Those were simply matters of putting in the time and driving myself further over the line, workout by grueling workout. We had holes in my ramshackle team, so I routinely had to wrestle guys 20-40 pounds heavier than I was. I got beat in every imaginable way, often painfully.

No one ever outlasted me, though. Nobody intimidated me. And you know what? That led to more than a few victories. I can remember one match in particular: at a natural 175 pounds, my logical weight class was 171, or even 160 if I were to have done the crazy weight-cutting. I had to fill the gap at 215 for us to have a shot at overall victory. This dude had clearly had to cut to make the 215 weight, and he tossed me around for almost two periods. In the “down” position, I kept standing up, bursting off the ground, but I couldn’t break free, and gradually, he’d rip me right back down onto the floor. Early in the third, however, I burst up again, and this time I got out. As I faced him, looking already to grab his head, something dawned on me: he was gasping for breath, he could barely keep his arms up, and when I looked into his eyes, I could see palpable disbelief.

“How does this guy keep standing up?” “How is he not tired?” “How does he not understand that he’s beat?”

When the buzzer rang, I had him out-pointed. I didn’t pin him, I didn’t “major” him, and dang, it was ugly, but I had taken care of the things under my control, and I got my arm raised.

Only recently have I realized how much I should have applied that to many more things in my life in the years afterward. Training oneself for unlimited relentlessness may not make you the best at whatever you do, and it’s sure as hell not guaranteed to bring home the win in a struggle, but as the English and so many opponents in time (including last night’s loser) found out, it makes you indisputably formidable. If, once set in place, you need to be killed, victory may yet be earned, despite inferior talent, skill, experience, etc. If not victory, then at least respect, from your opponents and (most importantly) from the person you see in the mirror.

Project: Legion

Charter school teaching has been more rewarding than I could ever have asked from a job. The trade-offs, however, are significant: to truly prepare and execute with success requires an enormous amount of hours, and more importantly, a lot of head space for reflection and planning. As a guy who loves to do lots of things and wants to learn even more, this can make it difficult to truly embrace new skills and new hobbies.

At first, I thought this was purely an issue of time, but as I thought about it more, I realized the head space problem is the far more important one. As somebody who watches almost zero television and plays almost zero video games, I have free chunks of time even with an expanded work schedule, lots of fun with my wife, and blocks set aside to read and physically train. It’s not much: an hour here and there, but I still frequently find myself pointlessly scrolling through Facebook  and thinking “damn, this is a waste of time.”

I’ve talked about learning to bake, learning to smoke meat, going back to art, writing more, training for a really badass sporting event, and on and on. I want to squeeze everything I can out of this one life I’ve been given, after all. A bunch of dough for bread could be gotten together in a few minutes. A true bbq cook could be done simultaneously with lots of other things. Writing can be done in a few minutes. Why don’t I just do these things?

When I really thought about this, I realized the answer: I don’t just “do” these things for the same reason I don’t just walk into my classroom every day and wing it in front of my kids. The joy, reason, and power in a pursuit is not in just doing it, but in doing it well.

I don’t want to churn out a shitty, dense loaf of brick bread every month or so, or to make a tough, chewy brisket that my friends have to endure at a cookout, or to puke up the occasional self-centered, ‘look at me’ blog post. I want an outcome that was truly worth the doing, and to contribute in a very real way to my own development or to somebody else’s enjoyment. If that’s going to happen, then just like in my classroom instruction, I need a plan.

Ah: headspace.

Good teaching requires constant reflection over the year and planning for what comes next, not to mention managing rooms full of other people’s kids all day. Very often, when that’s done and I’ve hit the weights and showered, I don’t want to form a totally different plan for some other skill or hobby. What I want is a beer, conversation, and some time with a book. These are worthy pursuits, for sure, but if I already had the plan and the basic skills mastered, I could indulge in two of these things while simultaneously enjoying that other skill or hobby!

It is partly for that reason that I had my glorious six weeks off for this summer especially circled on the calendar. Summer break has always been a marvelous blessing for my teaching life. My beautiful lady and I have used it for road trips, adventures, family visits, and more. Sooner or later, however, large chunks of time are given over to what the old philosophers would have called “idle dissipation.” We vowed this summer to cut short on the traveling and driving, which can be a special drain in and of themselves, and to enjoy our break from our lovely house. As the school year came to a close, I became more and more excited: for the first time in quite awhile, I’d have a shitload of headspace to plan, and the time to get started on basics.

After about ten days of pure rest and relaxation, I’m ready!

Like I try to do with my students (and in the great tradition of what Teach for America tried to instill in me), I backwards-plan: that is, I decide what kind of concrete, measurable outcome I want, and long-term plan accordingly from that. What needs to happen on a month-month, week-to-week, and even day-to-day basis to eventually reach that outcome? I incorporate elements of how I’ve been planning my strength training routines as well, as per the great strength athlete, coach, and writer, Jim Wendler: slow and steady wins the race. Make small, attainable goals that progress on a daily or weekly basis towards the final outcome, and experience the ‘victory’ of meeting those smaller goals and you gather momentum and develop a true routine, rather than just random spurts of activity.

My “project,” as I like to call it, is really several different, smaller projects, so I  have named the whole pursuit “Project: Legion.” Legion refers to the old Roman Army, and their many-pronged approach to excellence and to problem-solving. My handle is “Centurion,” after all. There’s also a literary reference in there for anybody who wants to catch it: I ain’t going to wax too poetically on my own metaphors. Project: Legion has five aspects, and I’ve begun with the concrete, measurable outcome for all five, for which I can set attainable, step-by-step goals ala Big Jim.

#1: Produce an authentic, ‘better-than-backyard-bullshit’ piece of Texas-style smoked brisket, equivalent to brisket at a quality BBQ establishment.DEADLINE: October 12th

#2: Produce a “thumbs-up, I’d definitely eat that again” loaf of home-made bread. DEADLINE: November 27th

#3: Produce a good-looking piece of wall art for the garage gym. DEADLINE: August 10th

#4:Produce a full ‘Scope and Sequence’ for a year long 8th Grade History Course, with the first two units complete. DEADLINE: August 10th

#5: Be able to complete 40 straight, four-count flutter kick repetitions, 25 straight pull-ups, 100 straight pushups, a 120 pound “Rolling Thunder” deadlift, a 50 pound “Blockbuster Pinch Grip Block”  lift, and a 10 mile run in 80 minutes under a 40 pound backpack load. DEADLINE: December 18th

I could have added another goal: to write more, but since my intention is to write about my journey with this project, with a final reflection over Christmas Break, I hope that will naturally overcome the primary obstacle I’ve always had in writing: to have something worthwhile to say. My hope is to continuously update on the slow process and hopefully, amidst all of the making going on, to discover and illuminate how I’ve made a but of myself as well.

Thanks for reading!

The Price of Higher Education

College debt is at the forefront of so many conversations in our time, particularly recently, with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and his (often misrepresented) idea that a university education should be “free” (i.e., taxpayer funded). As a squarely middle class American who has been carrying a small mountain of college debt for the last 14 years running, I believe I’ve got some perspective on this issue. My view is also colored by my experience as a teacher of high-poverty immigrant children, for whom the word “college” represents the dream of a better life, and not a de facto social club in which you spend fifty percent of your time fall-down drunk.

My alma mater (Cornell University) and my choice of degree (history) made my college investment a very risky one to many people. As a white male lacking financial support from my family, an undistinguished transfer applicant from a state school, and someone who did not live below the poverty line, my scholarship and grant opportunities were limited. In the end, despite working summers and living a frugal life, I had to borrow over ninety thousand dollars to complete my degree. I had no plans to use that history degree as a springboard to a “money” advanced education like law or business school. It was liberal arts grad school or bust. I was hearing the classic “What are you going to do with it?” question about my degree before I even undertook any classes, and those questions didn’t stop for the remainder of my time as a student.

If I had truly understood what the next fifteen years would be like (and who does at the age of 18?), I might have made a different decision. As I struggled to define and find my way (grad school went bust after I finished my MA), I lived often in material poverty, sometimes severely. When you are working two jobs to total thirty five thousand dollars (pre-taxes) in one year, and thirteen thousand of those (post-tax) dollars are earmarked for college loan repayment, the future can look pretty bleak.

Headstrong naivete carried me forward, and I’m very thankful that it did. My time at Cornell and in grad school hugely expanded my mind. It connected me with deep and incredible stories from many cultures and their histories, and it gave me expert guides to help me develop my appreciation and understanding in a way I never could have managed on my own. It connected me with deeply intelligent, thoughtful people I would never have met, across campus and across time. It trained me not in “what” to think anywhere near as much as  “how” to think: about civilization, history, art, and even just being human. When people ask me what it cost, I always hesitate, because it immeasurably enriched my life. In a very real sense, my education was therefore priceless.

There was a ‘hard dollars’ price, of course, and it has only increased since my graduation. At the time (2001), a year’s education at Cornell was about thirty two thousand dollars. From what I’ve read, in the span of the last 15 years it has grown to the staggering amount of about fifty thousand dollars. There is something wrong in that, certainly; there is no way the real cost of delivering a college education has gone up 60% in that time frame. When I reflect on my own experience, that total would certainly have scared me off. Even my 18-year-old naive self would have been too intimidated to sign on: and that would have been a sad thing, I think.

My education has made me a better man and a better citizen. It enriched my understanding of world, national, and community affairs, but it also enriched very simple things, like a walk alone in the woods during winter time (when I had very few earthly comforts indeed), when I could recall my Thoreau, take a deep breath, and get the fire of my mind going. What if I had been “priced” out of all that? What if my students are decisively priced out of it? Yes, there are scholarships, but not for everyone. Is it truly “radical” to suggest that for the ambitious young mind, for whom “a better life” for themselves and their families is the highest goal, the only worry about higher education in a great country like ours should be the academic standard of admission? Washington politicians spend most of the election year talking about how a thriving middle class is the foundation of any sound economy: what then of the legions of aspiring middle class citizens who are exiting college with the equivalent of a full-blown mortgage obligation?

I am a firm believer in hard work and join my grandfathers in my suspicion of ‘handouts.’ I like the old saying “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Government subsidies cause a lot of heat for that very reason. Why should the anonymous taxpayer be expected to hand out fish left and right? But I feel differently about higher education. My college experience was an irreplaceable kind of training.

When I think of the little good I have managed to do in the world and the mindset that enabled me to imagine how to do it, my education is inextricably bound up with it. I was taught to fish in the richest and deepest waters of all. When I look around my classroom at so many of my students (who are scared already at age 12-14 of college tuition prices), I wonder if it isn’t crazy to suggest that the price of that teaching is a price worth all of us chipping in to pay.