Daytripping

I’ve been working as a more or less professional for nearly 20 years now, but Wednesday was the first time I did a one-day business trip by plane – to attend an meeting in Chicago.

O’Hare Selfie

The event itself was great, which was the main thing – an all-day workshop at which a colleague and I described how our colleges collaborate.

The travel was, really, fine: the meeting conveners paid for my plane ticket, the flights and El rides were on time, and it’s stupidly easy to get great coffee when you’re traveling by air. #good #better #best

Beyond that, though, the experience was interesting, in the Minnesota sense. This kind of travel is amazingly tiring, for one thing. After getting up at 3 a.m. to be ready for the airport shuttle at 4, I was at the airport at 4:45, one business-casual white guy in a horde of us. (Turns out, being up at that time gives me a splitting headache.) Flight, train, meeting, train, flight, shuttle, and I was back home by 9 p.m. – a solid 18-hour day.

For a second thing, the condensed nature of this trip revealed just how much of a noob I am at travel. On the way back home, my traveling companion pointed out that I had somehow, without any volition on my part, been granted TSA’s pre-check status. I’d never applied for it, to my knowledge, and certainly never paid the $85 for it. And yet there it was on my boarding pass, whisking me through security. I’d estimate that 80% of the other TSA Pre passengers were white guys of +/- 20 years of my age. Most of the rest were white women of similar ages (like my fellow traveler). The few non-white Pre passengers exuded wealth.

So I guess I have that going for me.

For a last thing, travel of this sort drains away a lot of the aspects of travel that I enjoy the most, like just looking around, or having foods that I usually don’t, or pausing to people watch. No time for that when you have to get to the plane/train/office! I’ll have to make up for this by going extra slow and eating extra much on my next trip.

One and One-Tenth Decades

Today – Monday, October 3 – is the eleventh anniversary of starting my job at Carleton. I somehow still think of it as my “new job,” even though no it isn’t. Perhaps I think of it that way because it’s endlessly fascinating, and most of the time in a positive way.

Beyond my awesome ten-year mug, I have many reasons to like this job, including, foremost, my coworkers – especially Mark, Dee, Charlotte, and Nina but also other staff and faculty (except that one guy).

Beyond the lovely people, I relish the opportunity to contribute to an institution that I respect and value (and that has never once missed a payday), and to have the chance to learn interesting new information literally every day, and to talk with experts about that information.

More crassly, but objectively, I enjoy being able to tally up my effort in dollars and cents. From 2005 to the present, I’ve helped submit 620 grant proposals that yielded 225 awards worth a total of $7.4 million – annual averages of 50-some proposals, about 20 grants, and about $800,000. By all indications, this year’s results are going to exceed all those averages! Maybe I’ll get a new mug!

Adventure by Bike Commute

Wednesday, Genevieve had a bad cold, so she had to miss school, so Shannon had to stay home with her, so I had to drive Julia to school, so I had to drive to work, so I broke my years-long streak of getting to work by bike.

I started biking to work soon after we moved to Northfield in December 2005 – ten years ago. We needed a few months to work out the kinks, but by the next summer I was biking every day. Shannon drove me sometimes during the following winter, but with two kids under three at home, we soon found it easier for me to ride than to get rides.

I’ve taken at least three distinct routes, including one that goes through Carleton’s Arboretum park (because nature) but not including the occasional route through downtown (because coffee). Since Northfield is a small place, each round-trip route is about four miles.

I’ve now commuted on six bikes of my own* and at least two loaners**, and I’ve loved all of them, even though I only ever owned two at most at once.

I’ve used my bike to run innumerable errands; to get to work meetings all over town; and to go to appointments with doctors, dentists, counselors, optometrists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and probably others whom I’ve forgotten.

I’ve crashed a half-dozen times, though I’ve never suffered worse injuries than ruined clothes and scraped arms. (Well, I might’ve broken each thumb at different times, but the X-rays were inconclusive.) I’ve never been hit by a car, and only yelled at once.

I’ve experienced just every possible Minnesota weather condition (never a tornado) in all four seasons, and appreciated them all too, though some are better respected than loved. I’ve only been completely soaked a few times, which made for pretty unpleasant workdays until I started keeping a complete spare outfit at work.

Counting pretty conservatively, I’ve commuted about 240 days a year, which means – with a minimum four-mile round trip each day – that I’ve ridden a total of about 9,000 commuting miles. One corner at a time.

* In order of acquisition:
Kona Lava Dome
Surly Cross Check
Salsa Mukluk (the Beast)
Salsa Vaya (Giddyup)
Salsa Mukluk ti (the Buffalo)
Salsa El Mariachi (the Elk)

**
Salsa Blackborow
Surly Ice Cream Truck

School’s Out Forever

Tonight I filed my final grades for the online history course I taught this fall at Metropolitan State University, a public commuter school based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Owing to their administrative chaos and budget cuts and to my own lack of time (energy, interest…), this is probably the last course I’ll teach for them, and thus probably the last course I’ll ever teach.

I can’t say that I’ll miss teaching, really, but it’s been a good run. I started my history-teaching career in 1999 by serving as a teaching assistant while in grad school at Northwestern. Altogether, I served as a TA in three courses and taught one of my own in 1999 and 2000. No “teaching” I’ve ever done was more terrifying than that first lecture delivered as a TA to a giant auditorium full of undergrads.

After Shannon and I moved back to Minnesota for her first post-grad school job, I taught at least four classes (or was it six?) at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 2001-2002, while simultaneously working on my dissertation. The first meeting of my first class at St. Thomas was postponed because of 9/11. I commuted to that job from our apartment in the western suburbs – my only real experience with hard-core car commuting. (#hatedit)

When my one-year contract at St. Thomas ended, I signed on to teach history courses with Metro State – always only one per term, and always one of two or three U.S. history survey courses. I was by then working full-time in an academic support job at a different university in Minneapolis while finishing my dissertation. At first I taught “bricks and mortar” courses in the evening at Metro State’s branch campus in Minneapolis – four courses from fall 2003 to summer 2005. I remember waiting amidst the bar-hoppers on Hennepin for my bus back home – first a late express (or was it a ride from Shannon?) out to the ‘burbs, then, after we moved into the city, a local to our new house.

When I took my new job at Carleton in 2005, we saw that we (Shannon and baby Julia and I) would need to move to Northfield, so I volunteered to help launch the department’s online courses. I developed online versions of two of my courses: a global history of World War II and U.S. history since 1865 through the lens of science and technology.

These, I’ve been teaching in rotation ever since – spring, summer, and fall, year in and year out, with the occasional term off. All together, I’ve taught them 25 times: 12 editions of the World War II course (which I really liked) and 13 editions of the U.S. survey (which no). Though I never learned to love the online format, and never had the time to master it, I think I did some good teaching – as good as I could while also adjusting to and getting good at a new full-time job, starting and adding to a family, moving to and getting settled in a new community, and getting hooked on bikes.

My Metro State students were fascinating. About half of each course’s enrollees were “traditional age” undergrads – say, 18 to 25. The other half were adults who were “finishing their degrees,” often years after starting them. Once, I taught someone who had served in the Korean War, and I had numerous Baby Boomers who offered their first-hand perspectives on the historical events, people, and trends we were studying.

Though most of my students lived in the Twin Cities or at least in Minnesota, a few every term were doing the course from elsewhere in the country or the world, including a few soldiers in some very remote locations. True to Minnesota, I had a lot of Andersons, Olson, Carlsons, and Larsons as well as many Hmong and Somali students – though, interestingly, very few Latino/a students. In one course, I had three Hmong women with exactly the same names – first and last (They were unrelated.) Regardless of background, virtually all of my students were working full-time while engaged with the courses, so we had that in common.

Figuring 30 students per course, I’d estimate I’ve taught about a thousand undergrads since my first course at St. Thomas in fall 2001. Yeah, it’s been a good run. I’m not sad to be at the finish line.

 

Tour de Hamilton

I traveled this week to Hamilton College in upstate New York for an annual conference of grant writers who work at liberal arts colleges like Carleton. This meeting rotates each year from one college to another, but it’s always both informative and fun, with good speakers and panels as well as tons of well-spent time with friends and colleagues.

Since the host is different each year, the program usually includes a campus tour, which I always enjoy. Colleges are almost by definition beautiful places, and I have a professional curiosity into what particular institutions emphasize in their infrastructure – and how they pay for their buildings and grounds.

Of all the tours I’ve taken, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed one more than Hamilton’s. The guide – a senior economics major – was knowledgeable, funny, and extremely adept at walking backwards, and the campus was stunningly beautiful, both on its own and thanks to the gorgeous autumn weather.

A beautiful footbridge over a beautiful ravine that separates one beautiful side of campus from the other.
Footbridge

The "Rock Swing," a weird but interesting contraption that supposedly can be manipulated in such a way that it carries people standing on the yellow ring up from this basement spot to the second floor of its building. Seems dangerous, which is probably why it’s bolted down now.

The cavernous and gorgeous concert hall.
Concert Hall

A memorial (and former gate?) to Kirkland College, a short-lived women’s college that Hamilton spun off in 1968 and absorbed in 1978.
Kirkland College Memorial

The street-facing side of the amazing new Kennedy Center for the arts.
Kennedy Center Facade

A dam! Better than Carleton’s dams.
Dam

Everywhere you looked on campus, you saw amazing trees like these:
Autumn Trees

A cool dining hall styled, I think, to look like an Adirondack lodge.
Soper dining hall

An arresting mobile in a corner of the science building.
Science Mobile

The college’s science building was updated recently with a gorgeous new facade, which houses a functional atrium and looked damn good at dusk.
Science Building Facade

Even the old buildings like this residence hall looked amazing.
Dorm

A well-situated statue of the college’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, a real bastard who would’ve visited the campus if not for that whole deal with Aaron Burr.

The bell tower of the college chapel.
Belltower

A neat sculptural map of campus (as of the 1990s) that by tradition Hamilton students should not walk over, lest they curse themselves to never graduating.
Do not cross this map!

That footbridge again…
The Footbrdge Again

What a great way to walk a couple miles.

Fall Wednesday

Today was a perfectly ordinary day full of perfect ordinariness.
Afternoon Trees

It was a Wednesday with nice fall weather – sunny, warm, and mild. The workday included three different meetings: one in the morning on a community project, one at dinnertime on an academic project, and one in the evening for our townhouse association. Being out late at those meetings, I didn’t get to see the girls till nearly bedtime.
I did plenty of miscellaneous work in between the meetings, some of which I did at the office, some of which I did at home or the coffee shop. Some of the work entailed finally finishing lingering projects, some nudged along current projects, some started new endeavors, and some was just answering emails. I ate a sandwich for each meal (though not the same sandwich). During my dinner at the downtown sandwich shop, a kid in the next booth started to melt down because he had onions in his sandwich. He stopped when his mom pointed out that the “onions” were actually peppers, and then had an actual meltdown when he didn’t get an “ice cream fudge” for dessert. I went to the gym and did poorly in a hard workout but bantered enjoyably with the other people in the session and our coach. I didn’t get to ride my bike much, though back and forth to work counts for something, and I was pleasantly cold in the way to work. I made some plans for winter racing. I heard the same REO Speedwagon song twice. I remembered to watch my favorite TV show at 9. And to have the last beer in the fridge.

Misbehaving Thinking

A year or two ago, I read and loved Thinking, Fast and Slow, the huge but ceaselessly fascinating book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in which he explains how and why humans think – and mis-think – the way we do. Though thoroughly theoretical and empirical, Kahneman’s book is also a deep fund of ideas for thinking better – for instance, how to make better decisions by defying the natural (or seemingly natural) human penchant toward loss aversion.

Having really enjoyed the survey of behavioral sciences in Thinking, I have been eager to read Robert Thaler’s Misbehaving, a much less formal but no less interesting book in which Thaler applies behavioral-science ideas to his home discipline, economics.
Misbehaving

Structured chronologically as a sort of history of behavioral economics, the field invented by Thaler and others like Kahneman and their mutual collaborator, the late Amos Tversky, the book explores the failings of standard economic theory to explain how actual people make actual economic decisions, from buying blankets to saving for retirement.

Far from being dry, the book is often hilarious, with Thaler telling funny stories from his (and his innumerable collaborators’) experiments, from history and current events, and especially from academic battles with traditional economists, especially in and around the University of Chicago, who adhere to the idea that people are (or can be) fully and inerrantly rational economic actors. Thaler calls these mythical figures "Econs," to distinguish them from the "Humans" who are intermittently rational but who are also subject to all kinds of cognitive and behavioral errors, flaws that are seemingly grounded in "human nature" – though Thaler thankfully doesn’t delve into that notion.

What sets this book apart from Thinking, and from the few other behavioral-econ books I’ve read, is the breadth and depth of the examples that Thaler uses to substantiate his arguments that humans ("Humans") are flawed thinkers and that standard economic theory often does a poor job of explaining what really happens in the economy and in society. Thaler predictably includes many examples of experimental contrivances like the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Ultimatum Game, but he also illustrates his theorizing with analyses of game shows, ski-hill season ticketing, and the Uber car service; critiques of the NFL draft, car-manufacturers’ rebate programs, and American retirement-saving policies; explanations of financial crises like Long Term Capital Management and the 2008-2009 housing bubble; and – most amusingly – a look at how the hard-core rationalists of the U of Chicago’s business school ignored economic theory in choosing offices in their new building. As an observer of (much tamer) faculty politics at Carleton College, I thought this chapter was worth the price of admission by itself.

Considered as a whole, Thaler’s book finally offers a subtle but powerful indictment of the idea that markets are the best way to organize economies and societies. Leaving aside the question of whether any market is really "free" (given the reciprocal habits of governments to encourage certain kinds of economic activities and of economic actors to seek governmental aid), Thaler shows that even the economy in which Americans live is riddled with flaws that impede everything from the "correct" pricing of stocks and effective saving for retirement to the structure of mass-merchandiser’ sales. Don’t trust the market, he seems to be saying, and don’t even trust others’ or your own thinking – at least not until you learn more about why and how you think the way you do, and try to misbehave better.

Area Man Leaves Committee

Today – July 1, 2015 – was my first day since starting at Carleton (in October 2005) that I was not a member of the College’s Institutional Review Board, the federally-mandated committee that oversees all of the research on “human subjects” (i.e., any living person) conducted by Carleton faculty, staff, and students or at Carleton by others.

I’ve enjoyed serving on Carleton’s IRB. As a member of the board and then, over the past nine months, the chair of the board, I’ve found the work thoroughly educational, pleasingly challenging, and, I hope, institutionally valuable. If nothing else, I got to see virtually all of the human-subjects research happening on campus, which has been an amazing boon to my work raising money for research by Carleton faculty.

My service on the IRB actually predates being a grantwriter at the College. Even before my first day on the job, I came down to campus to meet the professor who was then chair of the IRB and participate in a seminar led by a visiting expert on human-subjects research.

When I formally started my job a few weeks later, I joined the IRB, learned the review process, and started reviewing cases. Over the nearly ten years I was on the Board, I saw its caseload increase from about 70 a year (an average of 1.3 cases a week) to – just this last year – more than 130 (2.5 cases a week). As a member of the committee, I helped to reconfigure the IRB’s membership, to update our application and review systems, to do “outreach” with students, and to stay current on the sloooowly changing federal regulations concerning human subjects. I also reviewed a crapload of cases – about 200 of them over those ten years, just under 20% of all the cases that came through.

It’ll be nice to have a break!

Carleton College Senior Art Show

I lost myself in the Carleton College senior art show, Composite, last week. I’ve visited a couple times now, and have only gotten more impressed by the quality of the work. Every piece is worth savoring, and the pieces in the gallery fit wonderfully together. Here are a few of the more easily-photographed pieces.

Paintings by Soren Hope
Paintings by Soren Hope

 

Graphite Drawings by Avery Johnson
Graphite drawings by Avery Johnson

The artist says these pieces, “are a reflection on a human’s physical relationship with technology, especially the mobile phone. By creating huge drawings of human hands grasping for and poking at the viewer as though they were a phone, I hope to evoke a the sense of greed and desire that we feel when interacting with something designed as a multipurpose, interactive tool.”

Metal Body Ornaments by Zoe Abdel-Moneim
Metal body ornaments by Zoe Abdel-Moneim
Hanging sculptures by Ellen Louise Kwan
Hanging sculptures by Ellen Louise Kwan

And then there were Chloe Mark‘s amazing oil on Plexiglas paintings. She sliced them up and hung them in such a way that you could walk through them and watch some of them move almost like a video.

Chloe Mark
Paintings by Chloe Mark

Listen, Don’t Fix

I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, but I’m more and more susceptible to being inspired or at least informed by quotes on the internet.

This week’s example comes through my wonderful coworker Dee from the thinker and speaker Parker Palmer, which she shared with me in the course of a conversation about raising kids – a topic on which Dee has a deep well of wisdom.

In the face of our deepest questions… our habit of advising each other reveals its shadow side. If the shadow could speak its logic, I think it would say something like this: “If you take my advice, you will surely solve your problem, If you take my advice but fail to solve your problem, you did not try hard enough. If you fail to take my advice I did the best I could so I am covered. No matter how things come out, I no longer need to worry about you or your vexing problem.”

The shadow behind the “fixes” we offer for issues that we cannot fix is, ironically, the desire to hold each other at bay. It is a strategy for abandoning each other while appearing to be concerned. Perhaps this explains why one of the most common laments of our time is that no one really sees me, hears me, or understands me. How can we understand another when instead of listening deeply, we rush to repair that person in order to escape further involvement? The sense of isolation and invisibility that marks so many lives is not least the lives of young people, whom we constantly try to fix. It is due in part to a mode of “helping” that allows us to dismiss each other.

When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you do not want to be fixed or saved; you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored…so the best service I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.

(The emphases are mine.)

Spring Thursday

Today was just one of those days that went right. Perfect weather. Lots, but not too much, to do at work – including doing off a few to-dos that had been to for too long. A hard workout at noon. Some Carleton silliness: free root-beer floats at the library.

Root Beer Float Line
Root Beer Float Line

A task at the end of the day that turned out to be easier than I thought. Wonderful floral smells in the humid spring air. A great bike ride home, seeing a half-dozen friends and acquaintances and met a new fatbike. A gorgeous sunset. A pleasant few minutes with the girls when they got home, jazzed up, from tae kwon do. Now, a good new book to read and a delicious beer…

Trapped in D.C.

My conference trip to Washington went well until this morning. I made it to D.C. without any problems, found the conference itself very useful and interesting, and enjoyed hanging out with friends and colleagues. With a forecast of snow for Saturday, though, I expected delays in getting home, even though the snow wasn’t really very heavy:
Morning Snow

And that’s exactly what’s happened. My early-afternoon flight home was canceled, and the airline rebooked me for Sunday morning. (Though I was assured that the airports are shut down, I heard airplanes taking off just a few hours ago…)

Sigh.

So I went for a little trip over to DuPont Circle, one of the places in D.C. that I know slightly. I took the Metro, which is always fun:
DuPont Circle Metro Stop

I stopped in a burger joint to get lunch when I arrived at DuPont Circle. I was the last customer of the day: the girl behind the counter told me that the shop was closing "due to the bad weather." I ate a delicious cheeseburger and fries while watching one person after another ignore the sign on the door announcing the closure, walk in and up to the counter, and then be told that the place was closed.

Sated, I went down the street to Kramerbooks, an excellent indie bookstore. I couldn’t find the book that our waiter had recommended the night before, but I browsed for a while, then decided to find a coffeeshop to check email. Though I wanted something local and cool (Kramerbooks qualified on both counts, but I didn’t want to wait for a table!), I settled for a Starbucks, partly because the sidewalks were so awful that I didn’t want to walk very far. I saw people shoveling their sidewalks, but they were putting the snow in front of the next businesses over, not in the street!

Just after I got my order, the very crabby manager announced that he "had" to close the shop – due to bad weather. Why a coffeeshop has to close because of snow, I have no idea: he was doing a booming business. When I tried to take a picture of the scribbled sign in the window, he flipped it over so I couldn’t!
Closing Starbucks

With two strikes against me, I decided to just head back to the hotel. On the way, I took a picture of the DuPont Circle fountain, since everyone else was, too:

DuPont Circle in the Snow

Standing in the park, I noticed that it’s apparently part of the national park system, which means I’ve set a new personal record for national park properties visited in one year, at three – Yellowstone and Grand Teton last month, and now this one.

Then I took the train back to my hotel. The cars were packed with hockey fans and discomfited tourists, so it took a long time. And even though the sidewalks in Potomac Yard were awful, too, I enjoyed the walk through the snow – one of my few outings this winter in actual snowfall. The streets were even worse than the sidewalks:

Jeff Davis Highway

I totally understand now why snow is such a disaster for cities any further south than, say, Philadelphia. They’re not ready for it and can’t handle it.

Apparently, neither can the airlines. When I got back to my room, I had a voicemail informing me that my Sunday-morning flight, too, had been canceled. Now I’m supposed to leave Washington on Sunday evening, getting back to Minnesota around midnight.

Sigh. Oh well. Like Chesterton said, an adventure is just an inconvenience rightly considered.

Oakland C-A

One of the high points of most summers at work is a conference for other grantwriters at liberal arts colleges. The conference moves around the country each year, and this year was held at Mills College, a beautiful little institution in Oakland, California.
Mills College Views

Mills is crowded with amazing eucalyptus trees
Eucalyptus Trees

and gorgeous buildings
Mills Views II

with wonderful art.
Lion Sculpture

I enjoyed and benefited from the meetings themselves, which were held in this great room:
Mills Views III

I also enjoyed staying at an amazing old hotel in Oakland, the Claremont – to which I took my first-ever Uber ride, making me feel very urban, and which afforded incredible views of San Francisco:

San Franscisco from the Claremont

We also took a nice trip to the Wente Vineyards, an old vineyard southeast of the city. I’m not much for wine, but vineyards are apparently always spectacularly gorgeous.
Vineyard Magic Hour

Plus I got to see my cool cousin Sara, though we didn’t remember to document our meetup with photos. All in all, it was a pretty wonderful trip. I’m lucky to have such great trips to make for my job!