China, 2019

Back in the fall as Will was beginning his senior year at the University of Michigan, we told him that his big graduation gift was going to be a trip. He got to pick where we were going to go– and the way Annette and I figured it, this was a gift for us too. Our assumption was Will would pick some place in Europe. Then he said “How about China?”

“That’s too expensive,” I said, but it turned out that wasn’t true. So off we went. Here’s a link to a gallery of photos and videos I took, along with descriptions. These cover most of the grandeur and spectacle of our trip, and there was plenty of it. A few other highlights/thoughts:

  • We booked this trip through Gate 1 Travel; here’s a link to the specific trip we took. We’ve never taken an organized tour like this before– actually, we have actively avoided these kinds of things. But we decided to do it this time because Annette’s parents had had very good luck with Gate 1, because the price was impossible to beat, and most importantly, we figured China might be a whole lot more challenging to travel in than, say, France. More power to folks who do it themselves (I have a friend who recently did this), but we were not up to that.
  • I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Gate 1– great guides, great itinerary, and fantastic price. Without getting into all the details on that here, I think if we had tried to do this on our own it would have cost us at least twice as much– probably a lot more than that. They took care of all the hotel reservations (and they were all nice hotels), porting the luggage, driving us around, feeding us, trouble-shooting every single little thing– everything. Let me tell ya, this was an organized tour, and as far as I could tell from the guides who talked about their jobs, Gate 1 seems to be a good company to work for. Most of the people in our group had been on other Gate 1 tours before this one– one guy had been on eight trips with them. I am sure that we’ll use them again when/if we go to a place like India or Viet Nam. So two big thumbs up.
  • That said, there are some inherent limitations of a guided group tour like this. Obviously, we had to deal with a group of strangers for the duration of the tour and there are many ways in which that could have gone wrong. Luckily, our fellow travelers were all pleasant people and from surprisingly diverse backgrounds in terms of age, income levels, race, etc. The only other folks who were academic-y were a couple of community college instructors. We all naturally steered away from politics and religion and other potentially controversial issues, and we instead talked a lot about what we all had in common, which was an affinity for travel. There were only a couple of times where I had to bite my tongue a bit, though it is not at all difficult to imagine how “that guy” could have made the whole thing unpleasant for all of us.
  • The other problem was the tight schedule/itinerary of the group. As was made clear in the orientation session on the first day, this was a tour and not really a vacation, meaning there wasn’t any opportunities for sleeping in or lingering someplace longer than planned. This is not the way we usually travel. There were a few times where I would have preferred more time in a museum and spent less time shopping (and vice-versa), and Annette and Will (who both tend to sleep more than I do) were usually completely beat and ready for bed by 9 pm. The meals were all planned and arranged by the tour, and while all good not exactly haute cuisine, and beverages were limited mostly to either a can of a Coke or Sprite or a bottle of beer– and all the beer I had in China was extremely light, more like a Michelob Ultra than an actual “beer.” I would have preferred some more adventurous food and at least some decent wine, but I completely understand why that wasn’t an option. I mean, I would have been more than willing to take the Andrew Zimmerman/Anthony Bourdain route to trying anything and everything, but that wouldn’t be the case with most of the rest of the group. And from Gate 1’s perspective in terms of “tour management,” it made a lot of sense to limit the booze.
  • Speaking of dining: the food was good and surprisingly familiar. Almost all of our meals were served family style with a dozen people at a table sharing about as many different dishes, most of which were basically the same kinds of things you’d get in a good Chinese restaurant in the US. The guides picked the food, and I am certain they selected dishes that were both not too weird and not too spicy for the tourists, but all of these restaurants were local places and had plenty of Chinese folks were eating there too. The main difference in most of the food I had compared to what I could get here is there it was a lot more oily, less sweet, and more fried.
  • Besides weak and watery beer, they did occasionally serve some pretty bad red and white wine, a sweet and funky fermented rice wine, and a clear liquor called Baijiu which the wait staff called “fire water” and which tasted a lot like moonshine. They served in tiny glasses that were maybe about half a shot– seemed appropriate. Maybe it was because of the nature of the tour we took, but I didn’t sense a big drinking culture in China overall. I didn’t see a lot of bars.
  • I also was surprised to not see as much smoking as I was anticipating. All the things I had read before this trip said the Chinese smoke a lot and everywhere, but the laws have recently changed in China making smoking in most public places against the law, so I only smelled cigarette smoke a few times. That might not be the case in less touristy areas or smaller towns though.
  • I don’t know if I I was surprised about this or not, but for the most part, the Chinese do not speak English even though it is a compulsory part of schooling. I’m no expert about this, but I suspect this is the case mostly for the same reasons why most Americans don’t speak a foreign language: China is huge and so the need to have a working familiarity with different languages is minimal. Besides that, English and Chinese are vastly different languages. I mean, I don’t speak or read French or Italian or Spanish, but the letters are familiar enough that I can sometimes make a guess as to what’s on a sign or a menu. Chinese characters are a complete mystery to me, as is the spoken language. The tonal differences of words is staggering. Our tour guide told us about how nearly identical the words were for “mother,” “horse,” and “curse.” And the language translator apps for Chinese to English are all pretty much garbage. So sure, I was fine the few times where I had to communicate by pointing and nodding and everyone I encountered was super friendly, but beyond that, I was completely helpless.
  • China is an authoritarian state– not so repressive as North Korea or communist Eastern Europe in the old days or what-have-you, and as far as I could tell, this wasn’t much of a problem for the Chinese. We saw lots of people enthusiastically lining up outside Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to his preserved body, and our guide told us that the typical Chinese tourist to Beijing sees this as a must visit, sort of like Americans visiting monuments or the Capitol in Washington, D.C. We spent some time in a public park in Xian where hundreds of Chinese gathered every day to sing patriotic songs about the Chinese Red Army and what-not, not unlike Americans’ affinity for songs like “The Star Spangled Banner” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Incidentally, when our tour group showed up to this musical group in the park, we were warmly welcomed and the band struck up a rousing rendition of what I am guessing was one of the few Western songs they knew, “Jingle Bells.”
  • But yeah, China is still an authoritarian state. Most of the internet sites I take for granted (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are blocked by the Chinese, though easily circumvented with VPN software. Before we got to Tiananmen Square, our guide told us there were some questions about politics he wouldn’t be able to answer there because there were many undercover security agents who might overhear him. All the hotels had versions of CNN International and BBC World Service that seemed heavily censored, though oddly, one hotel had HBO. Most of the hotel TV was made up of channels operated by the state, and most of that programming seemed to be extremely non-political– sports, musical performances, nature shows, that sort of thing. Our guide told us about one popular official news show that was on every morning for 30 minutes. The first 10 or so minutes were about the successes of President/Chairman Xi; the second ten or so minutes were about various improvements around the country; and the last third or so were focused on bad news in the rest of the world. There were surveillance cameras everywhere, and we all had to submit to facial scanning at the airports.
  • I think the most extreme example of how the authoritarian nature of things manifests itself in China happened to us at the airport in Xian. We were scheduled to fly from there to Shanghai at around noon and to then have most of a free afternoon in Shanghai. Instead, our flight was delayed about five hours– not because of weather or a mechanical or computer snafu, but because (at least according to our guide) the Chinese Air Force was conducting some kind of exercise and had closed the air space to passenger air travel. This delayed dozens of flights. I mean, if the U.S. military delayed a single flight here because of some kind of exercise, people would have gone nuts and it would have been the lead story on the news for a week. In China, it seemed like everyone at the airport just greeted it with a shrug.
  • There were a lot of times China kind of reminded me of scenes out of Blade Runner. Remember that scene where Decker is sitting at the counter of some kind of greasy bar or diner with grimy chaos all around him while he tries to eat a bowl of noodles? There’s a lot of that kind of thing in China. Remember the huge LED signs advertising Coke or whatever, and the constant smoggy haze? There’s a lot of that kind of thing in China. I was constantly seeing things completely familiar (after all, what in our day to day lives isn’t made in China?) and completely foreign all right next to each other. It’s a country extremely proud of its ancient history and traditions and superstitions and, simultaneously, it’s a country bent on modernization at light speed. I do not know how or for how long free market capitalism can flourish within the parameters of a dictatorial government intent on squashing the free exchange of ideas, but it seems to be working for the time-being.
  • Our Visas are good for 10 years, so maybe we’ll go back. I know a few folks who have had teaching gigs in China over the years, and if something like that came up for a month or so in the summer, I’d think about it. Gate 1 (and other companies) have other tours, and China is a big country. So who knows?

Let’s not throw out all “merit” because of the “Admissions-Bribery Scandal”

My goodness, people have gotten very excited about the “Admissions-Bribery Scandal” that’s involved eight universities and 45 or so kids of very very rich (and frankly not very smart) parents. Frank Bruni finds it both galling and not surprising. John Warner says its a reason to eliminate all “competition” within higher education. Many many folks on Twitter and Social Media are using this story an example of how all college admissions is a crock and based entirely on how much money you have, it’s all corrupt, burn it all down, etc., etc.

As a thought experiment, I thought I’d contemplate some ways in which merit and admission to college in this country isn’t completely broken.

  • Access to education at any level has never been universally fair, and people who are wealthy have always had better access to education. I’m not just talking in the U.S. and I’m not just talking about the last 20 or 50 years. I mean it has never been fair anywhere, it has been that way for thousands of years, and it has been that way everywhere. Sure, there is better access to higher education in some other places in the world, notably European countries with a Democratic-Socialist tradition of funding education as a societal good. Though it is also worth pointing out that in most of these countries, students are “tracked” into a path that leads to either trade school or university in the American equivalent of high school. There isn’t much of a tradition in these places of community colleges or open admission universities.
  • I’m not saying this inequity is justified (it’s not) and I’m not saying we should do what we can to eliminate it (we should). I’m just saying it’s not at all new. The rich have always gotten richer. And as long as we’re talking about access and inequity issues relative to history: don’t forget that 100 years ago in this country, lots and lots of public universities in this country did not admit women or people of color.
  • The details of this particular scandal are pretty gross. The details about the daughter of Lori “Aunt Becky” Laughlin are particularly icky. Olivia Jade doesn’t seem particularly interested in being in college,  though she does seem to like to hang out on a yacht in the Bahamas with one of her friends who happens to be the child of a billionaire who happens to be chair of USC’s Board of Trustees.
  • But paradoxically, the fact that this small group of super rich people (about 50) felt compelled to break the law to get to get their kids (about 45 total) into some selective universities is evidence that the admissions systems mostly works. This is the exception that proves the rule.
  • Let’s also not forget that there are few “selective” institutions in this country. That’s what makes them “selective,” and thus not the way that most of higher education works. In his excellent book A Perfect Mess, David Labaree says of the 4700 or so institutions that count as “higher education” in this country, there are only 191 that are “selective” to the point where they accept less than half of the students that apply. So again, the eight universities involved in this scandal (and more specifically the rogue-operating people at these places and especially the University of Southern California) are outliers.
  • I cannot imagine any scenario where anyone would pay a bribe of any amount to get into EMU, but let’s think for a moment about the idea of rich people giving huge donations to get rich kids into the right college. Let’s take the example of Jared Kushner’s father paying Harvard $2.5 million to let him in. On the one hand, that’s unethical, slimy, and maybe not illegal but still wrong. Especially when we’re talking about a place like Harvard, this is just the rich getting richer. But at least that donation to the university does end up benefiting other students, at least indirectly. And I have to say: if someone offered to donate $1 million to EMU on the condition that all of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were automatically admitted to the university, I sure hope we’d take that deal.
  • But yes, people who have resources have a significant advantage in accessing higher education, and that problem is made all the more acute in this country with the dumb way we fund K-12 schooling, mostly with local property taxes. I do not think this is fair either, and it is also why real estate in communities that are known for its good schools costs more– and vice versa. It’s also probably the easiest and most common way for families with modest means to improve the chances for their children to get into a good college: move to a town with good public schools.
  • I live in Ypsilanti, a town with so-so public schools. For reasons too complicated to go into here, my wife and I sent our only child to an expensive private school in Ann Arbor. We did this because education (not surprisingly) is a high priority for us, and we were fortunate/lucky enough to be able to afford it (barely) because of our jobs, because of some help from our families, and because we only have one child. I do feel a tinge of guilt once in a while regarding this decision, but besides the fact that it has turned out well, I don’t think it is at all unreasonable for any parent to try to do the best they can for their children’s education– as long as it’s legal.
  • This kind of access to private schooling was new to me (I went to some Catholic grade schools but mostly public schools), and it revealed a lot about how even a modest amount of wealth can dramatically change the game. The private school we sent our child to had shockingly small classes, highly professional faculty, a progressive curriculum not bogged down by an overemphasis on testing, and extra-curricular experiences for all students regardless of abilities. This school carefully groomed students for elite higher education from sixth grade on, and by the time actually applying to college rolls around, the level of support in terms of writing entrance essays, taking exams, contemplating different schools, meeting with recruiters– it’s all a completely different world.
  • I also saw the extreme anxiety these affluent parents had about making sure their kids got into an elite college. I’ll never forget this event my wife and I went to for parents of kids who would be applying to college the following year. It was a “Q&A” session put on by the college admissions advisors. Among other things, they talked about the need for test prep, for working carefully through those essays, about strategies for taking the SAT multiple times, and about how it was important to apply to eight to twelve schools to get admitted to the right one. All of these rich and super-earnest parents were just so tense, and I just sat there thinking of my own experience of taking the ACT once and applying to exactly one state university which didn’t require anything beyond a simple application. Like I said, a different world.
  • Which, to circle back to this specific cheating scandal, makes this situation all the more bizarre and what I still do not understand. With all of the advantages these rich people have, why did they have to so brazenly break the law to get their kids into modestly elite colleges? I’ve heard the argument before that folks like Lori Laughlin didn’t know any better because she didn’t go to college herself. I don’t believe that at all, but besides that, most of the parents involved with this were business executives, and I presume most of those people had college degrees. Or maybe they cheated their way into college in a similar fashion?
  • Last but not least: if universities eliminated measures of merit as a way of deciding who to admit– that is get rid of all test scores, grades, application essays, whatever else– how would universities decide? We should continue to strive to make the process more fair of course, but shouldn’t the process be based at least in part on merit in the form of grades, test scores, extracurriculars, etc.?

Our 2017 Transatlantic Cruise Part 3: London & Reykjavik

Twenty-one days, which is as long as I’ve been away from home in as long as I can remember. A great trip– including parts one and two— and now I’m ready to be back home, at least for a couple of weeks. Once again, here are pictures on Flickr, the complete album (more or less– I haven’t added all of the pictures Annette took yet), and here are links to the parts one and two blog posts.

The last excursion we took from the ship was to Stonehenge in part because if you’re going to be in southern England (our last port of call was Southampton), you’ve got to go to Stonehenge, but also because the cruise excursion included a trip to the airport. Kind of crappy weather, but well worth it. It looks exactly like you think it looks, though there were a few surprises. First, it was a bit smaller than I thought it would be and there was a surprisingly busy road only a few hundred yards away from it. Second, Stonehenge is actually part of a much larger site that includes burial mounds and such. Third, the very nice visitor’s center has robust wifi and a cool little museum that even includes a Spinal Tap record.

From there, we went to the airport and where we were picked up by some old friends (mostly of Annette’s) who have lived in (well, near) London for at least 15 years, maybe more. We spent the night at their place, catching up on things, meeting their daughter and some friends, and learning some basic pub culture about how one buys drinks.

The next day, we made our way to our hotel via bus and tube, which was no easy task with four large suitcases and lots of stairs. (As a slight tangent: if I take a trip like this again, I think I’d like to seek a compromise in terms of packing to stay put on a cruise ship versus packing to be on the move). Our hotel was right on Leicester Square, which felt a lot like a small version of Times Square in New York: there was a “TKTS” discount musical/play ticket kiosk, an M&M store, throngs of people and street performers, etc. In fact, if I had to sum up my overall impressions of London in a sentence, I’d say it’s a lot like Manhattan, only not laid out in a grid pattern (making getting lost really easy to do) and a lot older. After getting to the hotel, we didn’t have much time to do tourist stuff, though the National Gallery was right there so we went to look at some fine art for a while.

Our first full day in London involved a lot of walking, like almost 10 miles according to my Fitbit app. Went to the British Museum, then wandered around a lot, went to the Tower Bridge, wandered around some more, and then (because it was included in the “London Pass” tickets thing we bought before the trip), we went to this thing called the “London Bridge Experience.” Essentially, it’s a haunted house. Annette thought it was great; me, not so much.

We were a little bit more organized on our second full day in London (though just a bit more organized). Part of this London Pass thing was a “hop on/hop off” tourist bus, which is kind of goofy but also a good way to at least drive by more stuff (and not surprisingly, we really didn’t see enough of London in the time we were there because we just weren’t there long enough). Highlights included a visit to the reconstruction of the Globe theater, the Tate Modern right next door, the Tower of London, more walking around, and then we ended out tourism with a very long ride on the bus where we drove by lots of stuff to see if we ever go back.

Then to Reykjavik, Iceland. Why you ask? First off, Icelandair has pretty cheap transatlantic flights, though their flights usually stop in Iceland. But one of their features is you can take a several day layover (I think up to seven?) at no additional cost, which means that if you are flying Icelandair, stopping for a day or two in Iceland is pretty easy. Second, we stopped their for a few hours on our honeymoon many many years ago and we always thought it’d be a cool place to visit again. And it was cool (both in the sense of it being “groovy” and also kind of cold, like in the 40s and windy), but (not surprisingly) a lot has changed in 23 years.

When we stopped there back in 1994, what we were assuming was we were going to have four or so hours to sit around the airport (which is about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik). Instead, we were given– for free, mind you– a bus tour of the area around the lava fields near the airport that included a stop at an indoor salmon farm and also a stop at this place called “The Blue Lagoon,” which, Wikipedia tells me, is essentially the water run-off from an electric power generator fueled by geothermal heat. Locals started bathing in the waters back in the early 1980s, and in 1992, they built a facility to open up the waters to anyone who wanted to go. When we went way back when, we could have rented swimsuits and tried the waters ourselves, but that seemed kind of weird. So we just kind of hung out for a while, got back on the bus, and flew home.

Now the Blue Lagoon is a posh spa/resort you have to book weeks in advance. The cheapest entry is over $55 a person– and that’s just basic entry to the place. There are no free bus rides out to there anymore, and now it looks like it’s a pretty big complex with all sorts of fancy restaurants, spa treatments, a fancy hotel, and so forth. Like I said, it seems like a lot has changed.

Anyway, after the frenetic pace of London (and really just the whole trip), we were both ready for just a day of chilling out/hanging out in Reykjavik. The day we got there, CNBC posted this advice on “How to vacation in one of the most expensive countries on earth for only $50 a day” (spoiler alert: the advice is don’t eat or drink out and do things that are free like walk around), advice we of course didn’t follow. Reykjavik (at least the downtown/touristy part) is easily the most expensive place I’ve ever been in terms of eating and drinking. There was a stand next to our hotel selling hot dogs for $12; a burger was going for about $20; cocktails were over $20 each; and so forth. On the plus-side of it all, tips and taxes are included in the price and it was all excellent, so….

Three highlights (besides just walking around, shopping, gawking at stuff): The first night there, we stumbled across Lebowski Bar, which is a The Big Lebowski-themed bar complete with a drink menu that included over 20 variations on a White Russian. First thing the second day, we went to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja church (an elevator ride, happily) and had some tremendous views; and we also visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is small museum of various animal penises in jars (several variety of whales, for example) and various phallic objects, including the Ypsilanti Water Tower. A little piece (or big piece?) of home right here in Iceland– so proud.

So quite the adventure. Would I do it again? Probably, now that I know a lot more about what I’m getting myself into. And probably not again this summer.

Our Transatlantic Cruise Part 2: Ports of Call

The cruise part of this trip is almost over and still a mixed bag for me. Sometimes it’s smooth, sometimes it’s not; sometimes the food is good, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the weather has been good, other times not so much.

Anyway, we just finished our next to last port of call for this trip. Our last stop is tomorrow in Southampton, England, and from there, we’ll head into “part 3” of the transatlantic trip, the way back through London and then Iceland.

I’m uploading photo highlights to this Flickr album as we go and I’ll keep uploading pictures there, too. But a brief run-down of the stops:

The Azores: specifically, around Ponta Delgada (which is the main city of the islands, which are a part of Portugal) on the island of São Miguel. Cruise ships always offer multiple options for port tours and excursions, and they can sometimes get pretty pricy for something that’s easy to do yourself. We decided to take one of these tours for the Azores, we took one of these tours and it was totally worth it. We got on to a bus, stopped first at a small pineapple growing operation (apparently, they grow a lot of pineapple here, mostly for the European market, but this place looked way too small to be anything other than a stop for the tourists), then drove out to see the stunningly beautiful Caldeira do Alferes or “crater lakes.” Then more beautiful vistas and views, a lovely park, and then lunch which included an order of some shellfish favored by the locals, Limpets. The other big thing about the Azores is dairy: there were cows kind of wandering around everywhere, and apparently, most of Portugal’s dairy comes from these islands. Great cheese, too.

Basically, as our tour guide put it, the Azores is kind of like what would happen if Hawaii and Ireland had a baby: you have a lot of lush green and steep hills/mountains, but the weather seems more misty and cool. It would be a fantastic place to go for at least a few days to hike and take in more of the views, and as far as I can tell, the place hasn’t really been “discovered” by tourists yet. And it was cheap, too.

Lisbon, Portugal: Stunningly beautiful old town area. And hilly— I think we walked up the equivalent of about 500 flights of stairs. Did some shopping (though I made the mistake of not buying something that I liked when I saw it because I never did see something like it again), saw lots and lots of cool street art/graffiti, had a nice lunch, walked up to São Jorge Castle, walked around some more. Two little memories for me at least: first, I took what I think is at least so far the best picture of my trip, this shot of a guy taking pictures of a young woman posing in front of a cool tile art/mosaic on the street. Second, while in a square overlooking something beautiful, a dude from Senegal tried to force me into buying a selfie stick. I wouldn’t have it with that, but the guy was charming and persistent. So I ended up with a picture of him and we bought a couple of cheap elephant bracelets.

Vigo, Spain: There are two problems with the cruise ship port stops. Some– like in the Azores and in Lisbon– are too short. We could have easily spent a two or three days in both of these places. Some stops, like the one in Vigo, were quite long enough– even though it was only about seven hours. We did do a little shopping and went to a place that had typical Galician-styled sea food (I had the octopus) off of a square where there was a trio playing.

A Courña, Spain: Not a whole lot here either. Apparently, the big destination is kind of near there, the end point of a famous pilgrimage across Spain. But we did have a nice time getting a bit out of the typical “old city” center and over to The Tower of Hercules. It’s a lighthouse that is around 2,000 years old– at least the original site is around 2,000 years old. I’m reminded of a joke I heard a comedian juggler told one time when he held up a hatchet: “This is the hatchet George Washington used to cut down that cherry tree. Only I’ve replaced the handle and the head of the hatchet. But it still takes up the same amount of room as the original hatchet.” Nonetheless, it was a very impressive tower and really lovely park around it with crashing waves and such. Then we had lunch at what turned out to be a sort of “fusion cuisine” place that would have fit right in to some place like New York– though this place had excellent wifi and it was something like 15 euros for a three course prix fixe meal. Service took forever, but we weren’t in a big hurry.

Le Havre, France: Our final port of call (well, before we get off the ship entirely tomorrow) was the port town of Le Havre. It’s the kind of non-tourist towns where I saw local cruise ship terminal workers wearing jackets that said “Le Havre: Gateway to Paris.” That’s because a lot of people– maybe most of the people who got off of the ship on this stop?–take one of the many tours to Paris. Given that Annette and I had been to Paris a few years ago and the trip involved a two or three hour bus ride there, not that much time in Paris itself, and then a two or three hour bus ride back, we passed on that and hung around Le Havre, which was not without its charms. The city was pretty much destroyed in World War II and the downtown part was redesigned and rebuilt by Auguste Perret (and his firm) in the late 1940s and 1950s, and it’s considered to be a particularly good example of post-war modern architecture. We went to a nice (albeit small) art museum, and then visited the very striking St. Joseph’s Church, which looks like a sky scraper or a lighthouse on the outside and sort of like a science fiction set on the inside. We had a nice (albeit large) lunch, walked around some more, got back to the ship.

There you have it.

Tomorrow, we start “part 3,” which is the post-cruise ship part, though it begins with a cruise ship sponsored tour to Stonehenge and then on to the London and then Iceland part of the trip.

Our 2017 Transatlantic Cruise, Part 1: At Sea

Loyal stevendkrause readers and/or just friends of mine might recall I went on a cruise back in 2014 where my reaction at the end of it was basically “that was mostly okay, I guess.” So why am I on a Transatlantic cruise now?

Here’s what happened: Annette’s parents regularly take a cruise back from Europe home to Florida in the fall (they go to Germany for a while every year in the late summer) in part because it is cheaper than buying an airplane ticket (though see below on that).  This is because the cruise ship companies do what are known as “respositioning cruises” where they move their ships from one part of the world to another– in this case, from the Caribbean to Europe. How much cheaper are these cruises? Well, back in late October 2016, Annette looked it up and the most inexpensive room on the ship we’re on (double-occupancy in a small, interior [e.g., windowless] room) was about $500 a person for a 15 day cruise. The stateroom we got– which has a big window, a king-sized bed, and room to move around– was more than that, but still not that expensive.

Looking toward door from windowSo Annette asked me then what I thought. “I say we go ahead and book it,” I said, which I think surprised both of us. “Here’s why. If we like this, then it’s something we can do once in a while for the next 20 or 3o years. If we don’t like this, then we’ll have 20 or 30 years to tell the story of that awful trip.”

It’s too early to say which way this story will turn out– maybe a bit of both– but for “part 1,” just the at sea part, I’d say take the plane.

There’s not a lot to say about being at sea. It was kind of boring. We ate, drank, gambled, read, watched stuff on my laptop, took in some cheesy shows, repeat.

Very quickly, we figured out that the average age of passengers on this cruise is at least 65. That makes sense– who has time to take a cruise across the Atlantic in May?– but it is a bit jarring. At this point in my life, I am used to being one of the older people in the room, especially in a classroom. While there are a fair number of people about our age and younger, it often feels a bit like visiting an assisted living facility. Many of my fellow cruisers shuffle by slowly or have canes or walkers or wheelchairs or little scooters.

Speaking of which: I’m not really a fan of the genre, but this could be a great setting for a zombie story. It would start out seemingly normal, but very soon, once people started falling ill, it would be clear that many of the passengers were turning into the undead. A number of ways to twist the plot: first, is that shuffling old man a zombie or just an old man? How to tell? Second, since there are no firearms on board and not a lot of other handy weapons, how would you stop the zombies? Clobber them with a deck chair? Push them overboard?

Yep, the OceanMost of the other passengers– both American and not (a lot of British on this ship, which is not surprising since that’s where we end up)– seem like the kind of people who voted for Trump or Brexit. So other than small-talk, we tend to keep to ourselves. Chatting with the waiters and bartenders is more interesting. Most of them are in their 20s or so and from all over the place– Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, a lot from India and Indonesia. They’re all charming and polite and either have excellent English or are trying to get a better command of English by chatting it up with the guests. I don’t think these folks make a lot of money by American standards (or Western European standards, for that matter), but, as this article argues, it’s kind of relative– plus they get free room and board, which means this is the kind of job where you can bank much of what you earn.

StevewithpineappleSpeaking of what the service crew earns: everything has a large “service fee” or an 18% tip associated with it. So, an $8 glass of wine and a $10 cocktail (and crazy drinks like one put in a pineapple are more than that) really ends up costing a bit over $21. On the one hand, it’s the main source of income for the waiters and what-not, so there’s no reason to be cheap about it. On the other hand, these fees and taxes and tips mean that ridiculously low price for the cheap rooms is a bit of a myth, especially since a week at sea tends to make drinking seem like a good idea.

IMG_7156And then there is the “at sea” part of things. First it was smooth; then it was six foot waves; then nine; then, about halfway across fifteen to twenty foot swells. Everyone was wobbling around and grabbing on to whatever, and there were barf bags posted on the stairwells. The wind on deck made it difficult to walk. I didn’t feel sick or nauseous, though I take some of the seasickness pills they were passing out. Mostly, the rough seas irritated me.

One big thing that definitely turned out to be a good idea was the wifi package. It was $12 or $13 extra a day for each of us, but worth every penny. We’ve been able to keep in touch with Will, follow the news and social media and the like, and we were able to stream stuff on Hulu and Netflix– so we’re all caught up on The Handmaids Tale.

But “part 2,” ports of call, will get a bit more interesting I suspect. We’ve already been to one, the Azores, which was quite beautiful. More on that later.

In which I recall a less serious time when a small child wandered off

The case of the child wandering into the enclosure for Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo brought back the memory of the time when Annette and I lost Will at the mall.

He was somewhere around two and a half or three years old. For some reason (I cannot remember why now), we thought it was a good idea to get a proper little kid portrait of him done at JC Penney. I believe we were there in the morning on a slow day in the summer, and I recall we were early for our appointment. So we had to keep Will entertained for the fifteen/twenty minutes, and we did this by chasing him around the mostly empty store. Will ducked into/underneath a circular rack of shirts or something on hangers, Annette and I ran around opposite sides of the clothing rack, and he popped out the other side, laughing hysterically. Simple, goofy fun. We repeated this routine at least three or four times.

Then he vanished. I mean completely, like that Vegas-styled magic trick where they drop the curtain and there’s nothing there. Nothing.

As I recall it now, I felt a mix of panic and disbelief– panic for the obvious reasons, disbelief because he literally vanished. Annette and I frantically searched the nearby clothing racks yelling WILL! WILL! WILL!, and generally freaked out. We got a hold of some kind of manager and told her what was going on, and as I think about it now, her reaction was reasonable to the point where this had almost certainly happened before. There was some kind of announcement about a lost child and we continued to look for him.

Then we found him– I think it was actually Annette who found him– outside the mall entrance of JC Penney’s. He was standing and carefully examining a kiosk that was selling mini aquariums that contained very small and colorful frogs. As I believe Annette recalls it, she said something to him like “OH MY GOD, WILL, YOU RAN OFF! DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!” and Will’s reaction was something like “What’s the big deal? I wanted to look at the frogs.”

And after we all collected ourselves, we had Will’s portrait photo made:

TinyWill

(At least that’s my memory of this– maybe Annette and Will will have slightly different takes on this).

In any event, filtering this back to the current story about killing a gorilla/”bad” parenting/bad kids:

  • It’s sad, but it kind of sounds like they had to shoot the gorilla. I’ve also heard that these kinds of incidents of people getting inside enclosures or animals getting out are obviously rare but not as uncommon as I for one would hope.
  • There was an interesting little piece in the New York Times, “Who Is to Blame When a Child Wanders at the Zoo?” which, among other things, points out that some kids are a lot more “wily” than others. (Not that Will was really like that– this is the one and only time he did something this wily). And this article also makes me wonder about some discussion about blaming this child– I mean, isn’t this the kind of action that suggests a certain level of intent and agency on his part?
  • I don’t blame the mother in this story, but it probably would help her case a bit if she had said something about how she messed up and she felt bad about what happened.

“Up North” Vacation Haikus

We went to Glen Arbor
Stayed in a Homestead condo,
on Sleeping Bear Bay.

The condo (view from the lake)

Empty Beach With Annette

Off-season, we had
the complex and the beach to
ourselves. It was odd.

Cool, mostly sunny,
but so buggy with midges.
That is off-season.

Work station in Glen Arbor
Working outside meant
buggy gnatty midge bugs all
over my laptop.

Midges live two days
mating in grey swarms alight,
flying up my nose.

Sunset

View of Sleeping Bear Bay

Spooky view

Still, it is lovely,
the bay view always shifting,
shining, orange, blue, grey.

Empire Bluff Trail Selfie

We hiked the Bay View
Trail, Empire Bluffs, Cotton-
wood, Leelanau State Park Trails

How long were these hikes?
We don’t know, but none of the
markers were correct.

For example:

The sign said two miles
Three miles in, we discovered
It was more like five.

Amical and Chicken Pot Pie

blu Duck Confit No. 6534

Excellent eating:
Art’s, Amical, La Bécasse,
and, as always, Blu.

But with the condo
kitchen, we ate mostly at
home. Keeping it real.

It was beautiful
just hanging around the house,
watching Netflix, etc.

Annette Puzzles 1
An OCD dream
An Edward Gorey puzzle
with a thousand frogs.

Annette and I worked,
lots of writing and school stuff.
Class planning and more.

Will didn’t have work.
School was over, he was bored,
Played lots of video games.

Piles of work await
Naptime lures like siren song,
Behind but rested.

(Links to the Flickr set, and thanks to Annette for her haiku contributions).

Actually, universities have always been a little like daycare

I can’t remember the last time I went this long without posting anything to my blog. It’s not as if I have been that crazy-busy with other projects– though I have been pretty crazy-busy. And oddly, with EMUTalk.org closed up and the Facebook group for EMUTalk moving right along, you would think I’d have more time and energy here. Maybe I just haven’t had the time (or I haven’t made the time) to sit down and write something worthy of a post. Or maybe a better way of saying it is every time I would have thought about writing something, I end up needing to or wanting to work on something else.

In any event: a couple of weeks ago, there was a blog post/commentary/whatever that got passed around the social medias a bit, “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” by Everett Piper, who is the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Ostensibly, Piper was responding to a student at OkWU who “felt ‘victimized’ by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13” (don’t ask me what that means– I looked that passage up and it seems to be about the power of God and don’t kill or commit adultery), but he’s clearly responding to all kinds of college students proclaiming their “victim-hood,” from various injustices like yoga classes and costume controversies, to the ways in which race and the #blacklivesmatter movement has played out on campuses, particularly at the University of Missouri.  Piper’s post concludes:

Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up.

This is not a day care. This is a university.

Piper’s post went viral and he had his moment in the mainstream media, even getting this not unsympathetic response from the New York Times, though most of the news favoring Piper’s approach was from places like Glen Beck’s TheBlaze.com and Fox News.

It’s easy for Piper to talk about OkWU as being “not a day care” because OkWU is a theocracy. This is not a university that moved away from its primarily religious mission long ago nor is it a church-sponsored institution that emphases a specific faith but welcomes a variety of different religious beliefs. No, as the OkWU student handbook makes abundantly clear, this is a university where everyone is expected to be a specific version of Christian, where the Bible is taken literally, where all drugs are strictly prohibited, as is all pornography. And, of course, no sex:

Oklahoma Wesleyan University affirms the exemplar and standard of heterosexual monogamy within the context of marriage as the singular, healthy, and holy expression of human sexuality. Behavior that promotes, celebrates, or advertises sexual deviancy or a sexual identity outside of the scriptural expectation of sexuality is prohibited.

By virtue of their voluntary enrollment, all students, regardless of age, residency, or status agree to engage in sexual behavior exclusively within the context of marital heterosexual monogamy. All students also agree to not engage in any behavior that promotes, celebrates, or advertises sexual deviancy or a sexual identity outside of the scriptural expectation of sexuality.

This place teaches students “about life” the same way as a Taliban Madrassas, just different religions and focusing on the Bible rather than the Qur’an.

(Though interestingly enough, there is a “daycare” element too since OkWU’s “Residential Parent Connect” provides several updates every semester to parents about “what your student is up to while away at college.”)

It’s also easy to point out that Piper’s concern about the “coddling” of college students isn’t remotely new. One of the many research holes I’ve leaped/fallen into with my ongoing MOOC project is about the rise and fall of teaching by correspondence in the early 20th century, and this has included some poking around Abraham Flexner’s 1930 book Universities: American, English, German. Flexner was a well known education reformer and his book is a purple-prosed and scathing attack on many different aspects of higher education just shy of 100 years ago. Here’s a rather fitting paragraph about “the kids today” back then:

Every jerk and shock must be eliminated; the students must be “oriented”; they must be “advised” as to what to “take”; they must be vocationally guided. How is it possible to educate persons who will never be permitted to burn their fingers, who must be dexterously and expensively housed, first as freshmen, then as upperclassmen, so as to make the right sort of social connections and to establish the right sort of social relationships, who are protected against risk as they should be protected against plague, and who, even though “they work their way through,” have no conception of the effort required to develop intellectual sinew?

Framed in the current debate, Flexner appears to be complaining both about coddling and “trigger warnings.”

And there have also been several very good and reasonable columns that I think anyone who is prone to complain about these “damn college kids today” needs to read first. For example, there’s “How Talking to Undergraduates Changed My Mind” by Steven Petrow in The Atlantic and “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience'” by Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. Both pieces point out in different ways that there has been an alarming rise in racism that crosses over to hate crimes on college campuses, and thus there are good reasons why students are asking that their campuses be made “safe spaces.”

But here’s the thing: universities are kind of like daycare, and that’s a good thing.

Both daycare and universities are institutions which are potentially liable if something bad happens: that is, a serious toddler fall at the play-dough table caused by daycare negligence and a serious freshmen fall from a dorm window caused by university negligence are both going to lead to various kinds of charges and lawsuits. There were several notorious daycare sex abuse scandals years ago (though most of that was hysteria rather than reality); the most certain way a tenured faculty member will be fired from most universities nowadays is to get caught up in a sex scandal with a student, even if that student is 18 or older. And so on.

in loco parentis isn’t a new idea, though it does seem to me to be a responsibility that universities are taking a lot more seriously now than when they did when I was an undergraduate in the mid 1980s.  I’m no expert, but I think one big motivator for this is the change in drinking age, from a system that varied from state to state (in Iowa, it was 19) to a national age of 21. Before that change, it was legal for the majority of kids in the dorm to drink (or at least close enough to legal); after that change, it wasn’t and I think universities felt the pressure to crack down.

The other big change I think has to do with an emphasis on retention and increasing graduation rates, and one way to keep students in school is to pay more attention to their lives in way that is “parental.”  I actually know more about how this works at the University of Michigan rather than at EMU because my son Will is wrapping up his first semester at U of M right now. He lives in a dorm on a floor where a resident assistant “looks over” a group of about a 20 or so, a building that is clean, secure, and comfortable. He jokes that the dining hall is like eating on a cruise ship with its variety and availability (though perhaps not quite as much in terms of quality). He has an advisor assigned to him to guide him through his courses and registration. Annette and I receive regular email updates from U of M directed to parents, and we’re encouraged by some outside company (it looks like U of M sold a mailing list) to pay to have “care packages” delivered to our child, expensive boxes of cookies and candy Will tells me are a complete rip-off. The point is U of M works hard at reassuring parents like me that they’re taking care of and paying attention to my child/their student. It’s not as invasive as OkWU’s program that seems to me to be a mechanism for parents to spy on their kids away at college, but U of M’s day-to-day “care” for its students– particularly first year students and those living in the dorms– is evident.

And besides all that, it seems to me that universities (at least for traditional students) and daycare are similar in that both are spaces where children begin to transition away from parents, at least a bit. Well-run daycares and well-run universities both give our children access to a new level of self-confidence and independence. There’s an obvious degree of difference in the kind of independent moves our kids make, but don’t discount how that happens in daycare settings. I vividly remember a specific time in seeing this with Will. He was about one, maybe 18 months. I came into the daycare baby room to take him home and he (along with the other kids) was in a high chair wearing a bib with a bowl of some kind of baby food in front of him, and– and this is the kicker– he was feeding himself, sloppily, incompletely, but independently. “Wow, I didn’t realize he could do that!” I said to the daycare worker. “We always feed him at home.” She smiled and said “Yeah, we can’t do that with all of the kids here. So we hand them a spoon and they go at it.”

It was a little thing, sure, but it was moment where I realized that my son, even as a baby, had things in his life outside of what I knew and controlled as a parent. That independence grew throughout daycare and then school and now at college. All of these spaces protect and nurture children/students, but they also allow them to explore independence. In that sense, it’s better that universities are a little like daycare than not.

When it comes to Education and Technology, “Efficiency” is not the point

One of my goals (one of many, far too many, goals) during the sabbatical is to post more here– probably still mostly about higher ed and MOOCs, but hopefully other stuff too. I think it would be a good idea to shift back away from Facebook and Twitter. Don’t ask me why I think that’s a good idea right now; it just seems like it is.

This seems a good place to start: from U.S. News and World Report (which I think is just a web site nowadays) comes “Professors Grow Weary of Idea That Technology Can Save Higher Ed,” with the subheadline “Some say bringing high technology to higher ed makes it less, not more, efficient.”  As a slight tangent: the author of this article is something called “The Hechinger Report,” which “is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based at Teachers CollegeColumbia University” that apparently generates a lot of articles about education that get poured right into a lot of mainstream publications.

Anyway, a quote:

Universities and colleges are marketing themselves to tech-savvy teenagers while promising higher productivity and financial savings. They will pour $10.4 billion into education technology this year, according to the Center for Digital Education, from computers to in-class gadgets such as digital projectors and wireless “clickers” that let students answer questions electronically.

But professors say they don’t have enough help to use this technology effectively, haven’t seen results from it, and fear that the cost savings administrators keep insisting that technology will bring could mean their own careers are on the line.

The assumed purpose of technology (e.g., computer stuff, basically) in this article is efficiency, and some version of that word/theme appears at least a dozen times in this 1,000 or word so piece. And– surprise, surprise!– it turns out that computer stuff doesn’t make education more efficient.

First off, duh.

Second, (to expand a bit on that first point), one of the main problems I always have with these kinds of articles is the assumed definition of technology. Instead of defining technology as any sort of tool like pens or paper or chalkboards or even literacy itself (Ong), technology is “anything that doesn’t seem normal to us, particularly computers stuff:” that is, “clickers,” “gadgets,” “digital projectors,” etc. Things that were recently “technology” often become quickly naturalized so they no longer qualify as “gadget” or “new-fangled”– email and cell phones, for example. Maybe it’s unfair of me to expect any definition of technology to be any more nuanced than that, but it’s still frustrating.

Third, (also expanding on my “duh”), efficiency is not the point. Modern computer technologies allow teachers and students to do things differently now than they did things five or ten or twenty or however many years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) make things more efficient. Take online courses in the broadest sense. Anyone who has taught or taken an online class knows that the advantage of the technology is it alters the time and space of a traditional “classroom:” you can be in class from wherever you can get a decent internet connection and you can engage in the class on your own schedule (more or less, and assuming the class is asynchronous). But online courses are a fairly inefficient way to convey information and to interact with each other. In a face to face class, we can all discuss a reading or an assignment in one time and place; in an online class, not so much. Often, this inefficiency shifts to the instructor– that is, it takes a lot more time to teach an online class than it does to teach a face to face one– and that’s one of the reasons why a lot of faculty have no interest in teaching online.

This ongoing quest for efficiency and cost savings (generally by employing fewer teachers and/or by having bigger classes) drives MOOCs and other online experiments, just as it was the motivation behind correspondence schools in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the first wave of online courses a decade or so ago. For students (and parents of students), seeking efficiency makes sense. Over Christmas at my parents in Iowa, the conversation with the brothers-in-laws turned to the cost of higher education (one of them is preparing to send a kid to college next year), and this desire for efficiency came up. It wasn’t the right place or time to explain what I see as the actual reasons for the costs of higher ed (administrative costs, assessment, athletics, student amenities, and a sharp decline in state subsidies), but I did try to point out that education is an inherently inefficient enterprise, sort of like a string quartet (e.g., Baumol’s cost disease).  Education generally– teaching in particular– doesn’t scale the same way that content does. Efficiency is not the point.

I’m not sure I was very persuasive, and as a parent who is also looking down the barrel of paying tuition for our son next year, I share a lot of my brother-my-law’s feelings on this.

Thoughts On Cruising

And by cruising, I do not mean an illicit sexual activity, nor do I mean the sort of thing that high school kids used to do in their cars up and down University Avenue in Cedar Falls when I was a teenager. Rather, I mean cruising as in aboard a ship at sea– specifically, a cruise aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line Getaway.

Here is a link to a set of pictures on Flickr.

This cruise was a gift to Annette and me (and Will, too) from Annette’s parents, Bill and Irmgard, to celebrate our 20th anniversary and their 50th. It was a generous and thoughtful gift, though I have to say that taking a cruise wasn’t exactly on my list of things I needed to do before I died. I’m glad I had the experience; it just never occurred to me as something I would ever do.

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