Not Cease from Exploration

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Road Apples, #172

Courtright Gets It Wrong...The Scranton Times pretty much nails it in an editorial published today (you can read it HERE), rightfully criticizing the Mayor of Scranton for this steadfast defense of secrecy and his defaulting to the tried and true Scranton politician line of "trust me I know what's best".  I'm curious as to how anyone...really, seriously, ANYONE...can defend the lack of transparency related to lawyers fees associated with the Scranton Sewer Authority sale.  Yes, I understand the concept of attorney-client privilege, but this is the sale of a PUBLIC ASSET, so every aspect of the deal should be fully transparent.  

Truly bad phishing example...I do find it funny when phishing emails are actually written in broken English, of the sort that you'd hear spoken in some awful 30's era Charlie Chan movie.  Here's a recent example...
"...just sign in from a new device, we just make sure that you are doing this activity."

Popcorn...I have a love-hate relationship with popcorn.  In moderation, I am fine with it.  In excess?  Well, let's just say that the words "explosive abdominal decompression" come to mind.  Of course, when I go to the movies, as I did on last Saturday to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the word "moderation" isn't on my mind as I am chain-eating a bag full of the greasy stuff, courtesy of Movies 14 in downtown Wilkes-Boro.  I will never learn.

Mother's Day...Last Sunday was mother's day and for all the mothers out there, well, a belated here's to you!  There are few harder jobs in the known universe than being a (good) mother, and sadly it seems like the bad one's get all the press these days.  My mother passed away in 2013, and while in retrospect I had a very difficult upbringing, it's never the less fitting and proper that she be appropriately acknowledged.  Here's to you Mom, wherever you are...

(circa 1977, in Atlantic City NJ; Mom, Chris, Joe & Steve)

Rubberbanding...I'm finally starting to get out of my rubberband feelings (see HERE), although I suspect that I'm going to have odd feelings about free time for a while yet to come.  What helps is having a full slate of home projects to focus on; first up is some work on our kitchen, where wallpaper has been steamed off the walls and things are getting ready for some painting.  For the record, if you have wallpaper in your house BUY A STEAMER!  It dramatically reduces the time and effort required to remove old wallpaper and it doesn't smell like fermented urine either.  After the kitchen is done I have a project for my home office in the wings, which fortunately involves a road trip to IKEA.

What's I'm Currently Reading...I pulled a few quotes from David Foster Wallace to use in some work I'm doing, so it's only natural that I'd want to read another of his books.  I'm just starting to read Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.  My only negative feedback?  The type in the paperback edition is very, very small.  

President Snowflake...A good read by Tony Schwartz (who wrote Art of the Deal) for the President, can be found HERE.  Some of what Schwartz wrote mirrors comments by Howard Stern regarding how much the President must hate his job.  The truly ironic part?  It's Trump's ardent "Alt-Right" supporters that like to call liberals "Snowflakes", but yet is there a bigger, more delicate snowflake out there than Donald Trump? 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Scranton School Board Primary Election 2017

I still follow politics (more or less) in Scranton, and of all the races out there, the most interesting, by far, are those for open positions on the Scranton School Board.  With that in mind, here's a point of consideration for all you Scranton voters out there:  


Granted that the mental health professionals out there (including my daughter Stinky) probably take offense to my use of the word "crazy" so how about "incredibly foolish" instead?  

Here's my logic for the above:  When these folks take office and they have to vote for either...

a) The fiscal health of the District


b) The fiscal health of their family

...what do you think will win out in the end?  I can tell you who will lose...the taxpayers.  Yes, conflict of interest is a real thing, in spite of what many local politicians will have you believe.  Granted that the local school board in my neck of the woods isn't much better, although I'm reasonably sure that the president of our school board at least graduated from high school.  Now I know, the current Scranton School District board president Sheridan has a G.E.D., but just let that one sink in for a moment...the president of a school board failed to graduate from high school.  How is that not like nominating someone who dropped out of basic training to be head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?  

(The U.S. Joint Chief's of Staff; all completed basic training)

For the record, having a G.E.D. doesn't speak to president Sheridan's intelligence...or the intelligence of anyone else with a G.E.D. for that matter.  What it does speak to though is his (specific) commitment to life-long learning and fitness to lead an organization that is designed to deliver formal education to children.  Call me crazy, but I somehow think that the folks running an educational system should have a vested interest in...and committment

Speaking of the President of the Scranton School Board, he too has a conflict of interest (in my opinion), namely that he is also President of the Scranton City Democratic Committee.  Given the choice between doing what's right for taxpayers OR bolstering his political party, what will Mr. Sheridan do?  I don't believe that these kinds of conflicts arise all the time, but consider this scenario:  A less-qualified by highly loyal party operative is looking for employment in the district and finds an open position.  The competition for that position is someone who lacks local political connections but is better qualified for the job.  Who wins?  Come on now, we all know that answer, and the Scranton School District is saddled with yet another life-long, politically connected employee.  It's a perverse "Circle of Life" kind of thing, but this time featuring weasels instead of lions.

The Scranton School District is headed for a state takeover, and while painful, I also think it's necessary.  Simply put, the Scranton School Board is incapable, mostly by virtue of competence (as in the lack of), of managing its way out of the current and long-simmering financial crisis that stands at more than $33.6 million.  The current board did not create this crisis, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania contributed to it in a significant way*, but in the end, this same current board has continued a long history of mismanagement and nepotism that goes back decades in Scranton.  They choose not to make tough choices so tough choices will be made for the next board.

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(*) There has been much written about Pennsylvania's public sector pension crisis, and I'll not add to that here, other than to say it's my opinion that the whole mess is a classic example of entrenched politics at it's very worst.  Legislators wanted richer pensions, and to get them they basically bought off the politically powerful teacher unions.  I don't blame teachers for getting better pensions; heck, who wouldn't want that?  Instead, this is a textbook example of why there shouldn't be career politicians in the first place.  Again, when personal interests of the elected compete with the public good, who usually loses?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Message from Penn State President Barron (and a comment from me)

I am a proud alumnus of Penn State and a life member of the Penn State Alumni Association.  In addition, I've financial contributed (in a very meaningful way) to the University for many years and I was a member of the Penn State Harrisburg Alumni Society Board.  Having established my connection to the University, I'm not speaking out of turn by noting that it's been a troubling few years for Penn State.  While Penn State changed my life for the better...and for that, I will always be in debt to the University...I've found myself disagreeing with many of decisions made by the school's administration over the years.

The death of Timothy Piazza shines an important light on one element of Univesity life that needs to change:  The Greek Fraternity/Sorority system.  A University should be a place for opened doors, for exploration, for the expanding of horizons, for opportunities to meet and interact with all manner of people.  It shouldn't be a place where you go to hang out with people that are just like you.  It shouldn't also be a place where bad behavior is institutionalized and, sadly, rationalized as being somehow "good", somehow offset by some volunteer work.  A university shouldn't be a place for exclusive social clubs.

It's time to end "frats" as they currently exist.  They are relic from a long ago age that needs to be buried once and for all.  Simply tinkering around with their governance will not create meaningful change, as that's been tried before in many other venues.  Just as you can't expect a squirrel to avoid your birdfeeder, you can't expect frat houses to be anything other than exclusive drinking clubs.  It's simply what they's what they do.

Will my alma mater take the lead on this issue?  Likely no.  Like football, the Greek system at Penn State enjoys a special kind of protected status that shields them from even the most reasonable of criticisms.  As a result, I'm simply left shaking my head in disgust at Penn State one more time.

You can read the official University statement on this issue below.

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Dear Penn Staters,

The recent tragic death of student Timothy Piazza has shaken and impacted all of us in the Penn State community. Our hearts go out to the Piazza family and friends during this tremendously difficult time.

We are reaching out to you today as you may observe Penn State being more vocal on this serious matter. Due to the complexity of this issue, the University believes it is important to offer perspective and background to those reporting.

Further, as the May 5 grand jury findings in the investigation of former members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity have now been released, you may have questions, or others may come to you with inquiries. We wanted to:
  • Share a link to the statement distributed late last week from my office on the grand jury findings;
  • Reiterate the commitment Penn State has had for more than a decade to focus on the Greek-letter community and issues that have impacted these groups nationwide, including the introduction of educational, enforcement and other programs, as well as policies that clearly spell out consequences;
  • Highlight the unprecedented steps Penn State has taken over the last few months. We have developed a resource with critical context - Penn State Update, which:
    • Underscores and contextualizes the national issue with extreme alcohol abuse, that also impacts our community
    • References actions taken earlier this year by the University
    • Indicates resources available
There are no easy solutions, but the commitment remains strong. As mentioned in previous communications, Greek-letter organizations are self-governing private groups on private property, and thus instituting change is quite challenging and complex. The University welcomes and needs the partnership of alumni, parents, national organizations, and all other partners involved. Support and engagement are necessary in order to ensure immediate, vital and sustainable change.

An atmosphere needs to be established that protects and promotes the well-being and safety of all students in the Penn State community. Our efforts are focused on curbing dangerous drinking and other high-risk behaviors, and to bringing out the best of Greek-letter organizations and the communities they create.

Please feel free to use this information resource and share with others as appropriate.

Eric J. Barron
President, Penn State

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Defunding Planned Parenthood

A few thoughts about the abortion issue and Planned Parenthood* specifically.

I think that, based on years of my experiences, most people who support Planned Parenthood are not "pro-abortion"; rather I suspect that they just wish that somehow every pregnancy was planned and that the reasons driving women to consider having an abortion, including rape and incest, never occur.  Count me in on that list.  But these things do happen in the real world.  All of this noted I am disturbed by the notion that a government...any government mind you...can reach inside a woman's body and make a reproductive decision for her; how is this not government intrusion at its very worst?  How is that not the antithesis of a conservative philosophy of small government?  Now I'm equally if not more so disturbed by the idea that, for example, an abortion can occur simply out of a gender preference, but my personal objection shouldn't equate to governmental policy, especially a policy that can reach into someone else's body. 

I'll take this one step further.  It's my opinion that, while abortion is the stated and primary reason for many who want to de-fund Planned Parenthood, a strong secondary (and in fact, maybe primary) reason among politicians and others is in the area of contraception.  You see, some (mainly religious) groups also want to limit or even end access to the contraception services that Planned Parenthood provides.  Serial presidential candidate Rick Santorum has said that individual states should be able to ban contraception, advocating for the overturning of the Griswold v. Connecticut decision.  Ponder that one for a moment:  It's not simply enough to reach into a woman's body, the government also wants a role in the intimate life you share with your husband/wife/partner.  Why?  Well, it's because some have a personal, religious belief that the only purpose for intimacy is procreation. Again, we come back to the idea that another person's personal, religious convictions shouldn't automatically equate to a policy that impacts everyone else.  It comes down to the very notion that some want a very big and very intrusive government to have an awful lot of control over you.  

By the way, the argument that "I know my tax dollars don't directly fund abortions, but giving tax dollars to Planned Parenthood allows them to free up other money that can then go to funding abortions"  is a red herring.  Why?  Here's an analogy:  I believe that it is wrong for the government to collect cell phone data on innocent American citizens, but I also know that my tax dollars don't directly go to funding NSA operations that engage in this very activity.  Should I though, as a matter of principle, be able to withhold part of my federal income taxes because that money goes somewhere else that in turn allows other money to be used for NSA spying?  Of course not.  The "replacement money" argument is just a smokescreen (in my opinion) to punish Planned Parenthood for providing contraception services.  

Respecting Differences
One of the biggest problems with the whole abortion debate in this country is that we've allowed the fringe elements to consume most of the air time.  In fact, just where the fringe elements begin isn't really all that clear anymore.  Think about it:  A rally with people yelling while carrying plastic fetuses on poles makes for a better television story than rational folks having a civil conversation about the abortion issue.  That's life in a 24/7 media universe.  Anyway, I really do believe that reasonable people can respect each other while having differing and even nuanced views on the topic of abortion.  I also genuinely do understand the zeal that some approach this issue, and I do have problems with supporters on both extreme ends of the abortion spectrum.  However, this has to come down to a matter of personal choice for one simple reason:  No government should have the right to tell anyone what to do with what's inside of their body.  What's more, banning abortion will not end abortion, it will simply drive the practice underground as well as making it a choice that only the wealthy (and their political supporters) can afford, while the poor suffer through botched and life-threatening self-induced abortions.

In the final analysis, if your religious views tell you that abortion is morally wrong, that life truly begins at the very moment of conception, well then I respect your views and I know why you shouldn't have an abortion.  You can also tell others that abortion is morally wrong with all the personal conviction you can muster and with all the means at your disposal.  That's your right, and I hope that you acknowledge others have a similar right to express differing views.  Conversely, if you consider yourself pro-choice, then I hope you can respect the passion and heartfelt convictions of those who disagree with you.  However, and this is a big "however", we all have a right to live in a society where there is a difference between religious and secular laws, in spite of what you may hear coming from the Franklin Graham's of this world.  Sometimes these things intersect, but when they do it has to be a matter of almost universal consensus in order for society to function.  The contrary, where there is no line between religious and secular laws, is well on display for us in such garden spots of personal freedom as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

(*) By way of disclosure, I have financially supported Planned Parenthood for a number of years.  I do this for my three daughters because I don't want them living in a world where mainly older white men get to decide what happens to their bodies.

* * * * * *

Post Script:  Please save the commentary about "...but Margaret Sanger supported eugenics..." for someone else who is not quite so gullible.  I am well versed on Ms. Sanger's biography, as I am that of conservative icon Ayn Rand (see below).  If you are a conservative and dismiss Sanger for her early views on eugenics, should you not also dismiss conservative icon Rand for her views of any number of other topics, including abortion?

In fact, there are no "perfect" people, and all of us can disagree with the some of the views of people like Sanger and Rand without demonizing all of their work in the process.  It's that painting with broad brush strokes that I think is half the problem in this country, and one of the reasons why, I suspect, so few decent people actually want to run for public office.

For the record, here's what Ayn Rand has written about abortion:
An embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn).
Abortion is a moral right—which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?
Source HERE.

Friday, May 5, 2017

5 Facilitation Tips

I don't normally write about what I do for a living here, but I'll make this exception.  

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What's the difference between "training", "teaching" and "facilitating"?  Well for me, the first two are more or less subsets of the third (facilitating).  Specifically, much of the professional work that I've done with other adults, be it in a classroom, conference room or webinar, is for the most part actually facilitation, although there may be a teaching (or training) element to that facilitation.  That’s an important distinction, by the way, one that separates the amateurs from the professionals in the business of learning.  

Anyway, for your enjoyment, here are my “Top 5 Facilitation Tips”.

1.     Have Fun.  One of your first and primary objectives should be to entertain and engage yourself.  If you do that…if you have fun…then it’s far more likely that the people in the audience will be engaged and have fun as well.  “Fun”, by the way, is serious business, as it helps to create natural connections in the human brain*.  Just remember to always avoid anything that might be perceived as insensitive or (even worse) offensive.  Also, be exceptionally careful with sarcasm (to the point of, well, not using it), as it is very easily misunderstood by others in attendance.
2.     Be Conversational.  As learners, adults want to be acknowledged for their knowledge, experience, and expertise.  Talking “at” them effectively shuts that out; talking “with” them, in a way that encourage dialogue between you and with other attendees, provides that acknowledgment (and much more).
3.     Look for Non-Verbal Cues.  Your audience is always communicating with you, even when they aren’t actually speaking.  What’s the level of eye contact in the room?  What are the facial expressions when you are speaking?  How are people sitting in their chairs...leaning forward or falling back?  All of these things, and more, provide you with a stream of real-time feedback on your effectiveness as a facilitator.  Use that feedback data to adjust your delivery on the fly.
4.     Move Around.  This is the physicality associated with #2.  It’s easy to hide behind objects like podiums, especially if you are self-conscious (as I am), but such things create a very real physical distance and barrier between you and the audience.  Instead, and at a minimum, make it a point to move around the room during the event.  Sometimes “moving around” will just be within the confines of the front of the room.  Sometimes you may actually want to speak from the back of the room, especially if there is something being projected that requires the undivided attention of the audience.  Mostly, though, be intentional in how you are physically present in the room.  There's a fine line between engagement movement and, well, flitting around aimlessly.  In point of fact, nothing you do as a facilitator should be aimless.
5.     Always, Always, Always (and Always) Arrive Early.  Become intimately familiar with the space you are working in, well before the event starts.  Find out how your voice will sound in the room.  Re-arrange desks, chairs, etc. to create an optimal environment for the audience.  Sit in a couple of's the view?  Remove anything that might distract from your event.  Make sure that there's nothing to trip you up (physically...see #4).  Test all of the equipment beforehand.  What does any of this have to do with facilitation?  A ton actually:  Your focus and presence is essential, which is something you will lose if logistical problems unexpectedly arise. 

(*“Brain research suggests that fun is not just beneficial to learning but, by many reports, required for authentic learning and long-term memory”.  Citations HERE and HERE.

In short, be present, be intentional, look for the feedback you will receive (in real time), and have fun.   That sounds far simpler than it actually is, and in fact, you can spend a lifetime practicing these skills.  Daunting?  Absolutely not, as most professional skills are far less about achievement and more about continuous development anyway.  Like life itself, this is less about a destination and more about a journey.  

Sunday, April 30, 2017

These Are Days

Friday, April 28th
By the numbers:

160 hours of classroom instruction
About 3500 textbook pages read
About 560 hours spent studying & researching
About 175 hours spent writing papers
About 20 hours spent on group projects

Yes, the education part of my graduate degree is finished.  My only remaining requirement for graduation is to pass an industry examination, which I'll do in the Fall.  

Relieved?  Not sure, mostly at the moment I am rather numb.  My final act as a graduate student was a final exam for an HR Metrics and Statistical Research class.  It was probably the most difficult exam I've taken in the program, and I think I probably did a bit better than average.  Heck, basically I would take just about any grade at this point, as I'm pretty darn spent.

Looking back, well, it's been a long road.  See above.  I'm not sure I would do it all over again, and I know for a fact that my formal college education is now over with, as I simply don't have this kind of effort left in me.  It feels rather like I've taken a turn, and now I need to focus on some other things.

If there is one regret in all of this, well, it would be that I wish my Mom would have been alive to see this day come.  As I've noted in prior postings, my mother was a tough human being, and while expressing (positive) emotions was not her forte, I knew for a fact that she was proud when two of her sons graduated from college.  She was, without a doubt, the best-educated person I've ever met who didn't have a college degree.  When she was alive I had talked to her about going back to school, and her comment was always "well, what's stopping you?", usually though including a foul word or two in the mix, just for emphasis.

(1986:  My Penn State undergraduate degree graduation)

I Did It Mom!

Very few things in life are achieved without the help of others, and that's especially true of this particular milestone.  

First and foremost on my list of people to thank is my wife, who has been just incredibly supportive of my continuing education, going back to when I first started seriously thinking about it in 2012.  She has also been my fearless editor, literally reading hundreds of pages of academic stuff I've produced over the years.  

Secondly, thank you to all those who have offered words of encouragement and support, including co-workers (at two different employers), many of my managers who took an interest in my professional development, and my daughters who were always encouraging me, even when I felt like a complete looser as I struggled to master APA. formatting.  All have given me mental booster shots that always seemed to come at precisely the right time.

Finally, thank you to my classmates and instructors in the Villanova University Graduate HRD program.  Formal learning aside, just the experience of meeting and working with so many talented and diverse fellow Human Resources professionals has enriched me significantly.  The degree itself is just an added bonus.

* * * * * *

Sunday, April 30th
Rubber band.

Yesterday and today have been what I'll call the "rubber band" days, namely that time when, after you achieve something important, you have this kind of spent, empty, vacant feeling.  I have had these from time to time in my life.  This is, by the way, a great testimony to how my mind was programmed to work for so many years.  I'm using the past tense in that last sentence, more so out of hope that I'm slowly but surely evolving to a better state, likely reaching a point where I can genuinely celebrate a success, probably a year or so before I leave this life (which hopefully won't be for a very long time to come).

Anyway, part of the rubber band feeling, I'm sure, stems from a kind in incessant wanderlust to aways be doing something important.  That's all the more remarkable given the fact that I have a mental list many rows long of the things I promised myself I'd do once I was finished with school.  You would think I would feel some sense of satisfaction knowing that I can begin to tackle that list, but alas, the feeling escapes me.

Speaking of motivation, in my rubber band state, I was thinking about why I did this...why I decided to go back to school at age the first place.  The unscientific results of that pondering are noted below.

Yes, guilt is something of a major driver in many things I do.  Catholic guilt (and the very closely related Jewish guilt) is one of the most powerful forces in the universe, right up there with gravity and overly caffeinated beverages.  In this case, it would be the guilt over not completing the degree, as it would let down one or two people who really encouraged me to pursue it in the first place (along with a few other choice-but-rotten chestnuts).  At the end of the day, I suspect that guilt, like caffeinated beverages, can be a force for good or bad, depending on the frequency and amounts in question.

So there you have it, an academic milestone achieved, and a special kind of empty feeling, all in the span of two and a half days.

In the end, it will get better.  It always does.  The screed above is really part of my tried and true method for getting out of mental funks, namely proclaiming my weaknesses to the entirely of the Internet, mostly in the hope that I will then feel guilted into getting over myself.  It is all so wonderfully circular.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Birthday, Flowers, a Tooth, and Water

I truly miss Beavis and Butthead.  Anyway, one more complete revolution around the sun for me.  With a bit of luck, I'll be revolving (and evolving) for many more times to come.  If not, well, thanks for all the fish.

* * * * * *

Today was only the 3rd time in 29 years when I've worked on my birthday.  I've probably told the story here before about why I usually take my birthday off, but suffice to say it's a nice tradition when you can pull it off, which I couldn't this year.  Usually, by the way, when I would take my birthday off, my tradition was to plant flowers in front of my house, wherever that house happened to be.  This year, well, the flowers will have to wait for another day, but that's okay.  There's always next year to start a new tradition.  I did get a truck-shaped planter though as a birthday gift from my biggest cheerleader, best friend, and editor:

A notable event today, outside if it...a) being my birthday and b) being a working birthday...was the fact that I managed to crack a tooth while at work.  Luckily there is no pain, and in fact, it's not even sensitive to hot or cold.  I hope that's a good omen.  Tomorrow it will be a call to the dentist to see what's up.

* * * * * *

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?”
- David Foster Wallace

The above is from the book This Is Water:  Some Deep Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life.  You can find it HERE on Amazon.  I haven't recommended too many things over the years (almost 9 of them) on the blog, but I recommend this book.  It's well worth your time to read, so much so that I keep a copy at my desk at work.  It's also an incredibly quick read as well, making it all the more attractive.

I think that one of the advantages of getting older is that, like the older fish, you begin to have a far greater sense as to just what it is you are swimming in.  At least that's the case for me.  It's also one of the reasons why I think I'm more content now  than I've ever been:  I finally have some sense as to the water.

* * * * * *

There's another reason, why I used to take my birthday off:  I simply didn't like the attention.  I'm like that, by the way, in the sense that I can be the center of attention in an executive meeting or while facilitating some classroom event, but make me the center of attention to hand me a birthday card?  I become very uncomfortable.  Maybe, as I grow up/older, I'll get better at handling that sort of thing. Regardless, I am deeply touched by all the birthday wishes, be they on-line, at work, or at home today.  It means an awful lot to me, even if I have trouble expressing myself.

I am, in a word, blessed.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter (thinking about my brother)

(Chris & Rich, post some big holiday meal)

My late brother Chris loved to cook, so today being Easter made me think of all those times when he would be proudly planning some big holiday meal...and I would find excuses to mostly not actually have to eat it.  Now, in all fairness, my brother was a pretty good cook; it's just that I am not a very good consumer of food.  Chris did like to sometimes experiment with food, mostly in later years Hispanic dishes, which I, having the eating habits of petulant 7 year old, would not eat.  My mother would also complain that the food Chris would cook was "bland", but that was mostly her just finding a reason to be critical.  My late mother and my late brother both secretly relished arguing with each other, even when it was over the silliest of things.

Another part of not wanting to go to Chris' house for big family meals was the fact that, for so many years, I was always running from one family to another around the holidays.  It was maddening and not fun.  Instead of a holiday being something to look forward to and an opportunity to relax, it instead was this exercise in stress.  That constantly running around the holidays is something that I try to not impose on my own daughters, in that while I do want to see them as much as I can, I don't want to be the source of what I hated so much in years past.  I hope they understand that point.

Now while I wouldn't necessarily eat at my brother Chris' house over the holidays, I always did stop by to say hello.  In the early years, well, a hallmark of those visits would be the inevitable series of political debates.  In hindsight, I've found a word to describe those events:  Stupid.  Yes, they were stupid.  Arguing politics is about like arguing ice-cream flavors.  Subjectivity actually was the word of the day back then, but I just didn't realize it at the time.  As the years went by the political debates with Chris became less and less ardent, mostly because, in hindsight, my brother's interests in outside things was becoming slowly diminished.  Of course, in later years there was also the advent of having the drug dealer over for dinner, which at the time I found annoying, but then again my brother did have something of a bent towards the ironic.  Hindsight being what it is, I should have been far more than just annoyed.  Part of me wants to type "I should have carved the dealer instead of the ham", but I'm not a violent kind of guy.

So now I'm sitting here, stalling from having to change cat litter and then get ready to go to church (something I don't do all that often).  I am having my two (remaining) brothers over for Easter dinner today, which actually is something I'm mostly looking forward to, truth be told.  Part of what makes it enjoyable is the fact that I know they won't be running from place to place.  My sole NEPA-residing daughter will be stopping by later today as well...I just hope this doesn't require running around on her part.

Happy Easter one and all.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Existential Terror & Graduate School

I'm more than halfway through my final graduate school class, which when completed leaves me with just an industry exam waiting to be completed before I could add letters after my name (which I won't).  The better time to write about this might be when I am actually done with things, but by then I'm probably going to be so full of relief that actually writing about it will be #127 on my list of things to do.  While "counting my chickens before they hatch" is a valid argument against this post, recent events have shown that I'm likely going to, in fact, pass this final class (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I've passed all of the others too).

Why did I even do this?  That's a good question.  I think part of it was my late Mom.  While I've noted many times in the past that my mother could be a difficult human being, she did truly value education.  While not a college graduate herself, she was never the less encouraging of her kids getting an education, and I know that she was secretly very proud when two of us earned college degrees.  Over the years I had mentioned to my mother that I thought about going back to school, and her response was always "well then just do it" (or something similar, all be it coupled with a taking of the Lord's name in vain, as an added form of punctuation).  While she passed away before I started school, I know she would be proud of my having gone back.

Another reason to do it was simply that I enjoy a challenge, even when I know it will be a royal pain in the posterior.  It's almost as if I can see the "suck" coming at me, and I never the less have to stand there and meet it head on.  It's far less about an actual and formal education and far more about validating to myself that I'm actually capable of doing it.  Call that one vanity, or maybe even better so, a kind of searching for simply being worthy ("Well I must be pretty okay if I can get through this"), but mostly call it the truth.

A final reason?  Well, at the risk of sounding hokey, I just enjoy learning.  Of all the things that I am, one thing that I absolutely know to be true is the fact that I simply enjoy learning new things.  Not just things that make me a better person, father, employee, etc., but things simply for the fun joy of learning something new.  That's as true a statement about Steve Albert as any could ever be made.

What made it an easier decision was the fact that my (former) employer offered a generous educational benefit, although it's worth noting that, when all is said and done, I will have paid for about 40% of the degree on my own.  That's an easy one to get down about, but hey, they paid for more than half of it, and while I'm not there anymore (I'm a "retiree"), I get to keep the graduate credits they paid for never the less.  Good deal if you ask me.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Scranton is the 7th Saddest City in the United States (and here's why)

According to a list compiled by the website, Scranton Pennsylvania is the 7th saddest city in the United States.  You can find the whole list HERE, with the Scranton entry HERE.

I don't disagree with the placement.  Heck, it possibly should be ranked even higher.  I note this as someone who was born and raised in Scranton.  The city will always be my home, no matter where I live, for the rest of my life.  I realize though that Scranton is broken, badly.  Here's why I think "The Electric City" earned its placement.

1) Nepotism
I'll list this separately from corruption in general because it (nepotism) isn't about immediate financial gain, as opposed to, say, pay-to-play governance (also known as "Cordaro").

Everyone who has lived in Scranton for any length of time knows that, when it comes to the public sector, Scranton is a "who you know" kind of town.  If you're not from a politically connected family, by and large, it's far more difficult to gain employment in local or county government.  An effect of the nepotism is that many folks* who end up becoming public servants aren't the best qualified for their jobs.  What's more, because nepotism is so rampant, many who would be a good fit for public sector employment, folks who could add real value to how the city and county are governed, don't even bother trying to find employment precisely because they know the game is rigged against them.

What makes this far, far worse?  The simple fact that you won't hear the Mayor of Scranton, for example, ever talk about nepotism as being a significant problem.  Nor will you hear members of the school board.  Or City council.  It is the "silent epidemic" of Scranton that everyone knows about yet few admit.

Nepotism creates a kind of vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that drives down performance and drives up a propensity towards entitlement (especially among politicians), stagnation, and corruption.  This is why it's #1 with a bullet on my list.  Deal with nepotism and you can begin to deal with some of the other items on this list.

(*) But not all...I know some very dedicated Scranton public servants.  It's just that they are the exception, not the rule.

2) Corruption
Just one of many examples can be found HERE.  Scranton and the surrounding communities breed corruption like puppy mills breed genetic defects.  What's more, corrupt practices are practically embedded in the collective psyche of the area.  Like its cousin nepotism, everyone knows that Scranton is a corrupt town, but yet few viable candidates for mayor, for example, make fighting corruption even a campaign issue.  Why is that?  Simply put, most mainstream candidates for office in Scranton want to perpetuate bad practices simply because they view it as a kind of job perk, akin to getting an extra few vacation days per year.

By the way, is "fighting corruption" a campaign plank of Mayor Courtright?  See for yourself HERE.  The short answer is "no".   In fact, his campaign website is a single page that proclaims that Scranton is "on track".  How's that for educating the Electric City electorate?

3)  Low Expectations
Scranton's residents have chronically suffered from low expectations.  When I was younger, an area resident was considered to have "made it" if they got a job working for the Post Office or Tobyhanna Army Depot.  Let that one sink in for a few minutes.  It hasn' gotten much better.

A part of low expectations, at least in my experience, is a habit of being overly deferential to authority figures.  This shows up in a population that readily fails to question the actions and motives of those in power, be they Bishops or Mayors.  It's a kind of genetic imprint from back in the coal mining days when one was happy to get ripped off at the company store. 

4)  Class Stratification
Growing up, my Mom would tell me that, in Scranton, there were two kinds of Irish:  The Shanty Irish and the Lace Curtain Irish.  That's something of a microcosm for the city as a whole.  There are a number of well-off families in the area, of the sort that sends their children to Scranton Prep, who end up being the parents of doctors and lawyers who end up living in the nice sections of Green Ridge and Minooka.  At the other end of the spectrum are those with far less in terms of economic resources or even a template for economic success.  Yes, this isn't a wholly Scranton problem, but the city is something of a Petrie dish for the worst that class stratification brings to an area.

5)  Voter Apathy
The coal miner mentality is alive and well in Scranton, decades after the last mine closed.  Scranton's population routinely vote into office individuals who won't even utter the words "nepotism" and "corruption", let alone actually make structural changes to address past problems.  Well, the 30% or so that actually vote in municipal elections.  This isn't a party line voting issues either, as the city and county have voted in plenty of shysters from both ends of the political spectrum.

Ask a city resident about nepotism or corruption and you're likely to get a "well, that's just the way things are around here" kind of answer.  See above:  It's the same answer that those miners probably gave after having been ripped off at that company store.

6)  Public Sector Incompetence
Think of this as being an output of #1 & #5.  Scranton has been functionally bankrupt for decades, yet city leaders continue to plug budget holes with one-time revenue sources, proudly proclaiming that the city is "on the road to recovery".  As I've noted on the blog before, even the recent multi-million dollar windfall from the sale of the Scranton Sewer Authority will not solve the city's fiscal problems; all it does is bide time until bankruptcy.  Why?  Consider this:  Pumping tens of millions of dollars into the city's municipal pensions will not make them even close to fully funded (meaning that there aren't enough assets to cover future pension liabilities).  Yet the politicians running the city want voters to believe that fiscal recovery is just "right down the tracks".  It's not.  As I said a few sentences ago, Scranton is functionally bankrupt; all that's missing is the legal designation and the opportunities that such a declaration would bring.  

More proof:  According to data on the city's own web page, despite the dire fiscal situation facing Scranton, the cost of municipal government is continuing to grow.

(from THIS page)

The first rule of getting yourself out of a hole?  Stop digging.  Yet Scranton's leaders seem intent on increasing the costs of a government that city taxpayers can't actually afford.  Why?  Because they benefit from it.

Another example of public sector incompetence in action:  The former president of the Scranton School Board was a public transportation bus driver with a G.E.D. and the vast majority of Scranton voters found that perfectly acceptable.  At the risk of sounding elitist, I'll note that I have no personal qualms with the man (who still serves on the board), by the way, but shouldn't the residents of Scranton want someone running the school board who has a background in education?  Or finance?  Or legal matters?  For a well-written piece on the dire situation facing the Scranton School District read THIS blog posting by Tom Borthwick.  

* * * * * *

In the end, Scranton is sad mostly because it's voters are comfortable living in that sadness, as evidenced by their continuing habit of electing people to public office who, at best, routinely deliver mediocrity.  They shrug their collective shoulders, sigh, and move on.  As I noted previously, I love Scranton, and it will always be my home.  Yet I have no desire to live there, at least not anytime soon.  It's a town frozen in a kind of 1940's time warp, full of back-room dealings and coal barons who actively teach miners to be grateful for the crumbs thrown their way.  The worst part?  It could change, but it likely won't.