On Education and Its Discontents

The education system has been cobbled together over hundreds of years, the fundamentals of which we usually take for granted. The following is an email exchange I had over the last few weeks with my brother Danny, also a classroom teacher, about ways to improve on the status quo.

Billy: Hey Danny, let’s do an email exchange on education. I’ll start with a quick hit:

If you met an education genie, and this genie granted you the power to change one thing about school, and this change would go into effect immediately in all schools, what would it be?

Danny: I would eliminate the current grading system. Of all the perverse incentives that exist in education (and there are a lot of them), I think that grades are the most powerful. Getting rid of them would have many cascading positive effects.

I see my students make terrible decisions motivated by grades. I see their parents put an insane amount of pressure on their young kids to increase their grades. I see students suffer social consequences because of their grades.

My heart breaks when students come up to me and want to know how to increase their grades. The students that do that aren’t coming up to ask me about history. To those students at that moment, I’m not a history teacher. I’m a person that gives them a grade. Even if you tell them that mastery of the material will give them the grades they want, that still means that learning is only a means to an end. It’s a means to get points.

And then, students without a mastery of the material get a 70 percent in the class and move on to more difficult things. I remember this happening to me too, particularly in math. They develop gaps in their skills and knowledge. At a certain point it becomes difficult or impossible to catch up, and students get left scrambling to be barely adequate. And all they care about is the points. I see some students get so frustrated that they stop caring about the points. But the don’t start caring about the material. They just stop caring about anything.

Getting rid of grades would have a positive effect on the students’ relationship with the material. It would have a positive effect on the students’ relationship with the teacher. It would have a positive effect on students’ relationship with their parents. It would have a positive effect on students’ relationships with the administration. It would have a positive effect on students’ relationships with themselves.

Then of course you do have some problems to face. How do you assess students’ progress? How do prospective colleges assess who they let in? How do employers know what kind of student a potential employee was?

Thing is, grades are terrible for all of those things already. I think getting rid of grades would be a positive step even if you replaced them with nothing. Leave everything else the same, just stop recording grades. Colleges and employers would find ways to screen applicants, and I think just about any way of doing that would be better than grades.

I can assess students’ learning without writing down exactly how they performed on their first or second try on a multiple choice test and making it a permanent record. Then we can work on ways to improve their areas of weakness, without an air of judgement or stress.

Do you think grades have some value that I’m missing? Do you know of any alternative systems of assessment? Also what would your change be?

Billy: Let’s think about grades as a number-based evaluation tool. Grades are almost always based on a percentage possible for whatever you do in class. Like your 70% example. Total them up across your classes, then compute your Grade Point Average.

The main purpose for a numeric valuation system is to make comparisons. I think the main purpose of grades is not so much feedback on learning, as it is a way to compare students against each other. As your examples show, students know this very well.

This year, I had two students who were best friends. They sat next to each other and both did a great job in my class. One was very detail-oriented, took notes all the time, and aced all the assignments and tests. The other was more creative in writing and projects, and also took on a strong leadership role — motivating other students and coming up with new ideas for the class.

Leadership and creativity, both extremely valuable, do not show up as line items on my gradebook. Maybe that’s a fault of my grading system? Should teachers base their numeric grades more holistically, factoring in the intangibles as much as the “mastery of the material” on their final grades?

But that’s subjective, and I think another factor driving the grade system and the testing system is a desire for objective assessment. (I would argue any tool chosen for assessing learning is subjective anyway, but that’s a different tangent.)

Who benefits from this system? Colleges get a packet of numbers: GPA and standardized test scores, which makes their selection process much easier. Colleges accept the students who best play the game, hiring managers employ the “best and the brightest” from the top programs.

And so, school becomes not so much about learning, than about competition. A competition that rewards detail-orientated compliance at the cost of arguably more valuable, more subjective qualities.

If the genie granted me one power, I think I would also eliminate grades. Prioritize learning (and the love of learning) for the benefit of the students, let colleges work harder to find good fits for their programs.

But you already eliminated grades, so I’ve been thinking about two things: the existence of standardized tests (including state-mandated tests, AP tests, and the SAT/ACT), and the school schedule (summers off, cram all these requirements into nine months of stressed out teachers and students, and the public perception that teachers have it easy by having so much time off).

Maybe you could help me out with choosing. I’m indecisive. I guess both fall under this similar theme: reduce stress, prioritize learning. Stress and learning aren’t very compatible, are they?

Danny: This is something I’ve been thinking about since I wrote that first reply. Stress management is an incredibly important skill, one that I developed over the course of my schooling (most especially in college). In fact, I did learn a lot in stressful situations, usually writing big papers on a deadline.

There are a lot of arguments I’ve heard for keeping “the game” the same, or at the very least having some element of “the game.” Stress management is one element that frequently gets brought up. Knowing how and when to follow authority is another. The problem is: we don’t actually teach those things in school.

The best teachers can weave lessons on those things into their normal curriculum. But even in the rare cases where that is done well, it’s still a side-dish, and tends to reinforce the problematic relationship with academic learning that results from the grading system. The “detail-oriented compliance” you mentioned often gets taught as the only way to succeed. The only way to manage stress is to study more, comply more. But that usually just feeds the stress.

So we have a problem. We want to students to learn important academic subjects. We want students to learn life skills like stress management and playing the game. We have a system that teaches the former, but is set up for the latter.

I think standardized tests are definitely over-done. Reducing the emphasis on those and changing the school year would definitely lead to more balance.

Maybe balance is what it’s all about. I get a little reactive when it comes to this topic, wanting to go completely in the opposite direction towards a totally stress-free school environment. But maybe that’s not a good goal either.

I’ve toyed with the idea of unconventional classes. If we want school to teach life skills, why not explicitly teach those things? You could have Managing Your Emotions classes for young kids. As you start introducing a more high-stress environment in middle school, have Managing Stress classes along with support structures. In high-school have classes on How to Play the Game, and personal finance classes every year. In fact, these classes would probably be more valuable in the long-term than a lot of content that get taught and forgotten right after the test.

Billy: I’m glad you took it in that direction, because I was going to play devil’s advocate for why grades and standardized tests matter.

The most compelling argument can be captured in two words: Rigor and Accountability.

School needs to be rigorous, push kids to work hard, hold them to high standards. Only grades can properly account for their performance, keep them on track. If they fall behind they can be pushed to work harder, do more, raise their grades.

Likewise, standardized tests hold schools and students accountable. Are schools teaching kids effectively? How does your school stack up to other schools taking the same tests? How much are students progressing from year to year?

High expectations prepare students for expectations at work, the obligations of family and society. Discipline to pay your taxes on time, balance your checkbook, etc. Prepare kids for the responsibilities of adult life.

And this gets at the heart of my own feelings about the arrogance of school. As if nothing important has ever been, or will be, learned outside the confines of these four-walled rooms where adults coerce young people into following orders for thirteen years.

Think about a time when you really wanted to learn something. For me personally, I wanted to be a great basketball player. (And I know you taught yourself guitar.) It wasn’t easy. I remember slamming the ball on the ground, getting pissed off, refusing to leave the court for hours until I got a skill just right. I’m sure you did the same thing with chords on the guitar, or with learning lines for a theatre production.

When I got interested in psychology (long after I was forced to learn anything), I would struggle through the writings of B.F. Skinner and read critiques by other psychologists, wanting to figure out the best theories on human behavior.

The most celebrated teachers in our schools have the entire year planned out, month-to-month, week-to-week, day-to-day, minute-to-minute. Under a barrage of arbitrary curriculum and deadlines, homework, threats, and high pressure multiple-choice tests, when do kids get to explore their own interests?

Maybe the question is not “stress” vs. “no stress,” but about “prescribed forced instruction” vs. “self-initiated learning.”

Danny: I think that’s a great dichotomy to think about. And those seem to be the roots of stressful or non-stressful learning. I guess a better balance of those two educational styles is what we’re really grasping at. How do you balanced prescribed instruction and self-initiated learning?

I’m not sure you can get balance with the existence of grades. I think grades lock you into the prescribed instruction style of education, and virtually eliminate the possibility of self-initiated learning (or at least make it an uphill battle).

You said “only grades can properly account for their performance,” and I’m not sure that’s true. Sometimes the real world might have something analogous to grades, but it frequently promotes perverse incentives, just like grades. One of the first things that came to mind when considering real-world examples of strict quantitative evaluation was sales goals. Look at the example of Wells Fargo. What happened when they established harsh sales goals for their employees? Those employees looked for any possible way to reach those goals with the least amount of effort. They didn’t get better at selling things, they got better at cheating or gaming the system. The same thing happens in schools.

I don’t know that we should be training students that such a system is acceptable or normal. In some of the jobs I have had, they used quantitative metrics without establishing hard and fast goals. They use those metrics for feedback, not for incentives or promotion. Any improvement I did was self-initiated, but the feedback helped direct my efforts. It was actually a similar story in the really late stages of college. I think you could apply this idea to teach kids self-initiation at younger ages.

I teach 6th grade. I see no reason why my students should be given their grades. It isn’t for colleges — they won’t look at them. The only argument I could see is that it gives me, them, their parents, and the administration an idea of how well the students are performing. But I can get an idea of that without giving them paper 5 times a year distilling a very complex process into a single letter. I could just use those metrics so that I have an idea of who needs the most help, or who isn’t ready to move on in the curriculum. I can relay that information to parents and the administration, if it is a problem. I can recommend when I don’t think it would be wise for a student to proceed, or when I think they just need help with organization, etc. But the students don’t need it.

In this world I would still have deadlines, still have assignments, still have tests. There would still be that element of learning to deal with stress and work within a system. They would still get feedback from me. But instead of being given with numbers, it would ONLY be actionable information regarding their performance. As it is right now, any of that good feedback I give is largely ignored because they are focused on the single number (despite the fact that the feedback would help them improve that!) I think this actually would better simulate real-world scenarios than grades. Students might then learn a bit more how to self-motivate, and how to really improve. This might actually promote self-initiated learning. Something that also might help is having more elective-style classes for younger students. This really comes down to a combination of freedom and more realistic feedback mechanisms.

Once they get good at that you could up the stress factor. Grades could potentially be introduced in High School, once they have actually developed the academic skill of self-initiated learning, and when it would be useful for colleges to get an idea of how students perform in an academic setting. Sophomore and Junior year could essentially be considered part of their application process, and it would be then when their GPA would be recorded.

The problem then is accountability. If I give a student a writing assignment, but they don’t have a grade riding on it, what is motivating that student to actually complete the assignment? Part of this problem might solve itself. As it is, an average student gets back an assignment with a big number telling them they are average or below average. At that point they don’t necessarily care about my feedback. The grade is in the books, and they now have a dismal view of the writing process. If I only give them feedback on what they did well and what they did wrong, there is nothing else to focus on but the comments. That student might be more inclined to complete the next assignment happily with the knowledge that their past performance doesn’t matter, and that they only have to focus on my feedback. In that sense I think students would probably develop more self-accountability.

But there will of course be students who won’t meet deadlines and won’t develop that accountability. How could you promote accountability in a system with more freedom and less quantitative feedback mechanisms? Do you think the sort of system I’m describing is even workable?

One problem I see is institutional inertia. It would be a massive coordination problem to eliminate grades, even just for middle school. I’m trying to see a way to re-work the incentives with minimal institutional change, and this is what I came up with. It still might be too drastic to be realistically implemented.

Billy: No doubt, these tweaks would increase the overall well-being of students, lead to more engagement and self-motivation. A balanced, incremental approach is definitely realistic — it would only take one administrator at one middle school to give it a shot.

I’m more of a radical. I think the problem is the institution itself. Not just grades and testing but age-based class progression, the “standards” dictated by the state, and the power dynamics in the classroom. I’m glad you brought up cheating, because cheating is rampant in all schools, from the elite-of-the-elite to those struggling to get by. Bullying is rampant, too, and I think bullying is partly a side-effect of the completely authoritarian situation we call school.

If you revolutionize the grading system, too many perverse incentives still exist. The players are too invested in the game. You’ve got state laws with required curriculum, state rating systems that rank schools by their performance on standardized tests. You’ve got testing companies making boatloads of money. You’ve got the college board. You’ve got colleges and universities making boatloads of money. You’ve got jobs that require a college degree.

Even in Arizona, in their hey-day of school choice, most charter schools simply try to become better at the game. Better test scores. More rigor. Better and more college acceptances.

That accountability piece is HUGE. How are we going to get little Jimmy to write these essays, or do these math problems, without a bunch of consequences riding on his head?

To which I would reply, little Jimmy would probably be interested in a whole bunch of meaningful things, if he weren’t systematically neutered of his own passions. No, he might not care about Algebra. So what? I was really good at Algebra, haven’t used it or thought about it in 15 years. Someone else is going to be stoked on Algebra, but not as much about reading novels. Who cares? As long as you are aren’t prevented from finding what’s out there, you should be free to chart your own path.

Right now we’ve got hundreds of pages of standards, things kids are required to learn, most of which working adults have long forgotten, or never really learned in the first place, because they didn’t care.

Take your idea of adding emotional coping skills to the school curriculum. Great idea, but what is it going to replace from the required curriculum? It’s like entitlement spending in government. These requirements are never going away.

I believe two mindsets are to blame for the rationalization of the status quo. The first I already mentioned, the arrogance of the school system. Educators who think nothing can be, or will be, learned without our sophisticated teaching strategies. It’s a myth. Everyone can think of important things they learned outside of school. Some of the most brilliant people today and across history were either self-taught, did poorly in school, or dropped out.

The second mindset is the “little kid” mindset. Underestimating the competence of young people, and so treating them like babies. Teenagers have a lot of angst. Can you blame them? Almost every aspect of their lives is dictated by the external pressures of a soul-sucking institution. I know teenagers working jobs to support their families, but in school they have to ask permission to use the bathroom.

Earlier you said if we took away grades and replaced them with nothing, school would be better. What if we took away school and replaced it with nothing? Are kids not going to learn how to read and write? Are they not going to learn how to work with numbers? Will they not know the scientific method? Could they not function in society?

Maybe not. Too radical. Of course young people should be encouraged and mentored in some way. I would like to think students would voluntary study history or government with me as their instructor. I’m not sure how much prescribed learning is necessary, only that I think blowing up the system, or doing something outside the typical structure, is the only way to enact the most authentic changes to benefit the most people.

Ok, deep breath. I can dream of radical change, you can dream of incremental change. Neither is happening on the ground level any time soon.

So let’s finish with this. What’s one thing you are going to do differently in your classes this year, within the system, to mediate a better learning experience for your students?

Danny: I think that the best thing I can do is to emphasize real feedback and improvement over grades. I also want to encourage student freedom and choice. I think it will take a lot of experimentation.

Right now I have two main ideas.

One — making grades on some assignments be malleable. For example, if a student turns in a short answer assignment with recommended changes implemented, their grade will reflect the new draft, not the old one. Also maybe letting cumulative test results override lower results on previous tests. I don’t want a student’s performance in the past to continue punishing them in the future if the make progress.

Two — as much as possible, offering choices when it comes to writing prompts and other assignments. This would be relatively low-effort for me, and I think would go a long ways towards motivation.

What about you? What changes will you make?

Billy: I’m going to steal your “malleable grade” idea for writing assignments.

Also, I want to continue something I did sporadically last year, which I found to be a difference maker.

That is to design meaningful, real world things for student to do with the information we work with in class. Rather than learning stuff to regurgitate back to me on a test, or again with the five-paragraph essay, let’s do something real.

For example, write a newspaper article, or pretend you’ve been hired by your town to create a memorial for this thing in history. Or make a campaign advertisement for one of these politicians. Or let’s conduct a mock-trial for this controversial person or event.

I want to tie the relevant skills of my subjects into real stuff people do in those fields. This will enable me to sell my students on the big picture, encourage creativity, while making sure to hit the standards required by the state.

Thanks for taking the time with these emails! Appreciated the dialogue. It challenged me to think differently and more critically about my views on education, and hopefully others will similarly benefit from reading this exercise.

Libraries are Underrated

burton barr
Burton Barr Reading Room

Burton Barr, the downtown Phoenix library, recently suffered extensive damage after a monsoon storm broke through the roof, drenching books and equipment. It has now been closed for over a week.

Upon hearing the news, I’m sure most people got sentimental. Poor library. Too bad. The news probably served as a reminder, for many, that libraries still exist.

With the world at our fingertips, who needs a physically-housed information center? These archaic institutions where people talk in whispered conversations.

But what more sacred a space exists today than a library, where people of all ages and backgrounds voluntarily show up to work and learn and socialize?

There are 225 public libraries in Arizona.

There’s even a library in Wickenburg. The Wickenburg Public Library has a livelier atmosphere — people talking on the phone, setting up job interviews, pouring over bills on the table. People clicking and tapping on desktop computers. There’s a youth section, where over the summer I saw one room of teenagers playing video games, another room of younger kids quietly studying books.

The Phoenix library system has coding classes, summer reading programs, discussion groups, and genealogy classes to help adults trace their family histories.   

Each library holds local characteristics. Burton Barr houses unique documents of Arizona’s history. I browsed the Flagstaff Public Library earlier this summer and saw several collections of Native American history specific to Northern Arizona.

Benjamin Franklin invented the community library in America. He was always wanting for books, and it was an occasion to stumble upon a new collection. In his autobiography he describes meeting people who were “lovers of books.” He would make conversation with these folks, hoping to glean something new from the books they had read. In Philadelphia, he had made acquaintances with fellow lovers of books, each holding a small collection. Franklin thought it in their best interest to rent a room to store the books, allowing individuals to borrow from others as desired.

To expand the concept, he created a subscription library, collecting money to purchase more books. Eventually, the American library system expanded, turned into a public service, where now anyone can get a library subscription for free, with access to computers and the internet, daily newspapers, magazines on any subject, the ability to check out and take home movies, music, TV shows, and, of course, books.

When we think of “public education” we almost always think about “public schooling,” yet as education writer Heather McDonald points out, these two terms are not interchangeable. She argues that we mistakenly invest too much energy into public schooling, to the detriment of public education.

Community libraries serve a vital role for an educated public. Let’s not take them for granted.

Summer Reading List 2017

Powell’s Books, Portland.

On last year’s summer reading list, I admitted to not having read every book cover-to-cover (yet). I ended up regretting that strategy because I never finished the book Thinking Fast and Slow. Still haven’t. It got boring and repetitive after a while. Felt like I shouldn’t be writing quips about books I hadn’t finished.

So turning a new leaf, a new summer, another celebration of reading, each of the following books I read in full:

Teacher Man: An intimate look into the life of a teacher. This book was written by Frank McCourt, an Irish immigrant who spent 30 years in the public school system of New York City starting in the 1950’s. I super recommend this book to any teacher or anyone interested in education. McCourt captures the thoughts and feelings of a teacher’s daily grind with a sharp, tender sense of humor. I found myself laughing out loud at times during the book.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: A collection of graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut, the author of many novels including one of my favorites, Cat’s Cradle. He calls himself a humanist. Time magazine has called Vonnegut “a zany but moral mad scientist.” The speeches take on basically the same themes, so the collection is a bit repetitive, but the message was worth hammering home: The world is totally screwed up, but nothing’s stopping you from being kind to each other. The title comes from an anecdote Vonnegut repeats in every speech, about his uncle who insisted on appreciating random pleasant moments with verbal recognition. For example, right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the early morning, comfy chair, still cool outside with the sun starting to stream across the floor. If this isn’t nice, what is?

How to Write Short: This book is about writing. The subtitle is Word Craft for Fast Times. As the title indicates, it’s about writing in the digital age. I enjoyed reading this book, not only for the writing tips but for the examples of good short writing. Most of all, this book caused me to become a more critical reader of short writing. It’s everywhere. Advertisement jingles. Bumper stickers. Tweets. Food label descriptions. Word craft is all around us, and it’s kind of fun to pay attention to it.

Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four: I picked up this book at Goodwill for $3. It’s by John Feinstein, an acclaimed sports author. The book slowed down for me at times, but overall Feinstein provides a solid, in-depth look into the college basketball championship tournament. The Last Dance describes the tournament from multiple perspectives — from coaches and players, to the referees and team selection committee. It also dives into the history of the tournament, which, as always in American sports, is tied to the growth of television contracts. This book was part of my basketball summer study, which included watching several hoops related 30 for 30 documentaries on ESPN, and researching the careers of Jordan and LeBron for a blog post.

1776: By David McCullough, 1776 is a historical dive into a decisive year in American history, the opening of the Revolutionary War. I don’t generally seek out war history, but this book was fascinating. American patriots in an underdog struggle. Commander George Washington being indecisive and making crucial errors of judgement, getting second guessed by his right-hand man, but eventually delivering courageous position victories. American soldiers marching dozens of miles in the frigid Boston winter, no shoes, in the middle of the night. British parliament debating the merits of fighting the Americans. Letters written back and forth, revealing the disruption of normal life in the 18th century. A change in weather possibly making the difference between defeat and victory. Human nature put to the test under fire, both sides well-aware of the historical ramifications. Fascinating.

What have you been reading lately? Drop me a line if you have any recommendations.

Long Live Books!

Hot off the Presses

Dear Readers,

It is with great enthusiasm that I announce the publication of an e-book. This humble publication, a compilation of previously blogged material, will hopefully be the first of some longer work available for purchase.

Before pitching the e-book, I thank you for reading this blog. These days, time and attention are expensive social resources. I appreciate your time. I appreciate your attention.

The publication of an e-book was a coffee-shop accomplishment over the summer. A little backstory. Two years ago I blogged about my Achilles tendon, which had snapped during a basketball game. I wasn’t writing much at the time, so the injury kickstarted the habit — figured since I would be laid up with nothing to do, might as well reflect on recovering from what’s considered among the worst of sports injuries.

Not many people read the entirety of those Achilles posts, because I didn’t put them all on social media or anything. The blog is still online, but posts are listed chronologically starting with the most recent. So for someone reading the blog for the first time, they would have to read it backwards, or go through the annoyance of clicking from the archives.

Hence, the idea to edit and compile the blogposts into a short e-book. Now available for purchase on Amazon for $1.99. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can read on your internet browser, or download a free Kindle-reader app on your phone. After you read it, you can share it for free with someone else.

Here’s the link and the description I wrote up for Amazon:

heel fast

Heel Fast: A Journal of Recovery

One minute he’s playing basketball, the next minute he’s going to the emergency room with a torn Achilles tendon. Say goodbye to hiking, biking and basketball; say hello to surgery, crutches and a long road ahead. This is the story of a high school teacher’s eight month recovery from a debilitating sports injury. Told in a compilation of blog posts written during the recovery, this short read is full of memorable reflections on healing, community, and resilience.

Thanks again for staying tuned. Any feedback I receive on my writings, critical or complimentary, is extremely valuable to me, so always feel free to comment on a post or write me an email. If you do read the e-book, please consider writing a review on Amazon.

Next week we return to regularly scheduled programming, as I will post my second annual “Summer Reading List.”

Yours truly,


Happy Fourth of July

July 4th is my favorite holiday. Independence Day. The birth of the greatest nation on Earth. Yes, I am proud to be an American, “where at least I know I’m free.”

I can still hear that song playing in my memory, watching the fireworks explode over my head as a kid. We always watched the fireworks with my grandparents. But my grandfather stayed home because the fireworks brought back war memories.

As much as I hate war, I am proud of my grandfather’s service. I can’t image the horrors he experienced on the beaches in the Pacific during World War Two. I’ve read books about it, watched movies about it, but I still can’t fathom it. My grandpa is now resting in peace.

Another reason I like July 4th is that it’s the least commercialized holiday. I don’t feel obligated to do anything or buy anything. You barbecue, drink beer, wear red-white-and-blue, and blow things up.

The last reason I like July 4th is that we are celebrating the most profound political Declaration ever made:

We are all created equal. This is self-evident. Our dignity does not need to be conferred by a King or any government. In fact, the only purpose of a government is to protect our natural rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. If any government tries to deny these God-given rights, or starts to value its own power more than the inherent dignity of the people, that government needs to go.

That’s deep. Those words inspired a collection of diverse peoples to come together to fight against a powerful nation.

join or die

In my U.S. history class, we try to go deeper with the concept of Independence. What does it mean to declare independence? When is enough enough?

What would it mean to declare psychological independence in a relationship?

Would it be patriotic for students to declare en masse, independence from a paternalistic education system?

Is it an act of patriotism when a rich NFL quarterback kneels during the National Anthem to express his concern that too many unarmed black men are getting shot to death by the police?

Does his kneeling dishonor my grandfather’s service?

Does it matter that the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slave-owner?

How do you square the Declaration of Independence with the fact that, in 2017, blacks are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than whites?

How do you square “at least we know we’re free” with the fact that the U.S. has a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world?

What are we celebrating, anyway?


The beauty of a text is the ability for interpretation. The spirit of a text matters beyond the original context for which it was written.

The Declaration was used in its original context to fight against British subjugation, and it can be applied hundreds of years later, by people who live under the American flag, to hold power accountable to its tenants.

Frederick Douglass, 1852, giving a Fourth of July speech, railed against the hypocrisy of slavery in a “free” country, the evils of the slave trade, and the travesty of the Fugitive Slave Law. But he ended his fiery speech with an affirmation:

“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.

“‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

Martin Luther King Jr., 1963, speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in his famous “Dream” speech, started by affirming the spirit of the Declaration:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note …

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

dream speech

American society today is very divided.

President Trump spent the weekend brutally insulting TV show hosts, complaining about “Fake News!” and accusing 23 states of disloyalty for refusing to turn over voter information to the federal government. A Republican secretary of state from Mississippi said that Trump’s commission making the request could “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

In 2017, our national birthday causes division. There is an article published today by the Associated Press about blacks, Latinos, and immigrant right’s activists having mixed feelings about the Fourth of July.

“‘There’s a lot not to be proud about when celebrating the Fourth of July,’ said Janelle Astorga Ramos, a University of New Mexico student and daughter of a Mexican immigrant. ‘Even though it’s a time to celebrate as a country and (for) our unity, it’s definitely going to be on the back of our minds.'”

Blind patriotism is foolish. The Fourth of July is not about blind patriotism. The Declaration of Independence does not endorse blind patriotism.

No, the United States is not perfect or nearing perfect when it comes to honoring the Declaration. Maybe we’re taking a step backward before we take another step forward.

If Douglass can be hopeful in 1853, and if Dr. King can be hopeful in 1963, we can certainly be hopeful in 2017.

I think Ramos has it mostly right. I would say there is a lot to be proud about when celebrating the Fourth of July. Yes, injustice should be in the back of our minds. Some have the luxury of having it less in mind than others. There’s still work to be done. But it’s time to celebrate as a country and for our unity.

Cheers to the United States of America.

A Deep Dive into Jordan vs. LeBron

One time, an upstart player for the Washington Bullets named LaBradford Smith scored 37 points in a losing effort against the Chicago Bulls. After the game he told Michael Jordan, “Nice game.”

Jordan was pissed. He stewed about this comment, took it as a slight, vowed to get even. Next game against the Bullets, Jordan scored 37 points in the first half, and held Smith to 15 points overall.

That right there would demonstrate the ruthlessness of Michael Jordan.

But it’s worse. Jordan admitted years later that Smith never actually said “Nice game.” Jordan had made it up.

He used an imaginary diss, a comment most players would have just considered a sportsmanlike platitude, to fuel his revenge against a player and team they had beaten.

If anything distinguished Jordan, caused his separation from the rest of basketball’s all-time pack, it was his competitive rage.



Whenever we debate relative greatness across generations, it can devolve into a battle of numbers. You can find this on the web right now: writers defending LeBron’s losing Finals record by analyzing the statistical strength of his opponents compared to Jordan’s Finals opponents. I have a feeling that, in the data-obsessed world we occupy, the sports gurus will look back at LeBron’s gaudy numbers, his longevity, and conclude he deserves a spot on the highest mantle next to Jordan.

When it comes to assessing performance in sports, numbers can be deceiving. Like they can be in assessing anything. Poll numbers in politics. Test scores in education. There’s more to the story.

We love discussing which athlete is the GOAT — the Greatest of All-Time. But statistical arguments don’t capture the transcendent. We need a clearer picture of what constitutes “greatness.”

I am going to compare two iconic players: Jordan and LeBron. I’ll stay away from the numbers and focus on qualitative analysis: accomplishments, social context, narratives, and public impressions of these athletes during three distinct stages of their careers. Finally, I will reflect on their legacies beyond the game of basketball.

I. Coming of Age

Jordan had to prove himself from the get-go. He had to prove himself as a high schooler. After not making his varsity team as a sophomore, he was driven to prove his coach wrong. He did. By the time he graduated high school, Jordan had distinguished himself as a top prospect, wowing crowds during games and wowing college coaches during workouts.

Recruiting was different back then. The University of North Carolina had heard about Jordan, so invited him to a summer camp. An opportunity to compete against other prospects. He stood out, and UNC expressed early interest. Later on, Jordan played in a “5-Star” camp, where his outstanding performance garnered national attention. But it was too late. North Carolina landed the hometown star.

Back in the 80’s, even the best players usually stayed three or four years in college. Teams were stacked with juniors and seniors who had been coached up and played together for a few seasons. So Jordan had to work for his minutes, prove himself to his coaches. He did. And in an NCAA championship game full of future NBA greats, it was freshman Michael Jordan hitting the game-winning shot.

He would play two more years in college, becoming a two-time All American and the Player of the Year in 1984, before declaring for the NBA draft.

Before the draft, Jordan played in the summer Olympics, was the top scorer for a gold medal American squad. After the Olympics, Indiana legend Bobby Knight, who coached the team, talked with “an NBA executive who had a very high pick.” Knight said Jordan is the best player I’ve ever seen, you should pick him. The NBA executive replied, but we need a center. Knight said, well, then play him at center.

Michael Jordan was picked third, after two centers, by the Chicago Bulls.

Jordan erupted as a superstar in his first NBA seasons. Rookie of the Year in ’85. Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in ’88.

He electrified crowds and dazzled even the game’s greatest players. After scoring 63 points in a double-overtime loss in the playoffs against the Boston Celtics, Larry Bird famously said, “He’s the most exiting, awesome player in the league today. I think it’s God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

Despite his dazzling performances and a few game-winning shots, Jordan couldn’t quite get to the Finals. His teams were gradually improving, especially after drafting Scotty Pippen and Horace Grant. But he got bullied by strong Eastern teams like the Bad Boy Pistons. Good as he was, Michael Jordan would need to trust his teammates more to win an NBA title.


2002-0218-LeBron-James-001247453At 17 years old, LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine with the heading: “The Chosen One.” The media was always clamoring for the next Jordan, and thus LeBron was crowned.

By 2000, high school prospects competed in club basketball summer tournaments. Club coaches recruit high school players; their teams travel around the country showcasing their talent.

On the club circuit, LeBron was the man. I personally played in the same tournament as him in Vegas (not the same division), and even before social media, there was hype and chatter, everyone asking if you were going to watch LeBron play.

There was never more of a sure thing than LeBron James in the 2003 NBA draft. At 19, straight out of high school, he was drafted #1 by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.

He was immediately scrutinized, and immediately very good. Rookie of the Year in 2004. The team improved 18 games over the previous year,  and had a winning record by his second year.

The 2004 Olympic team was a disaster. The Americans embarrassingly took home the bronze medal. Coach Larry Brown and his players, to put it mildly, did not get along. LeBron James barely played, and almost wasn’t invited back for the Olympics in 2008, due to his “immaturity and downright disrespectfulness.”

In his fourth season, a 22 year-old LeBron James led his team to the 2007 NBA Finals. He put up monster performances in the conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. In the championship round, though, the Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

Back again playing for a re-tooled American Olympic team in 2008, James blossomed under Coach Krzyzewski, and was praised by Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo for his personal growth. LeBron played very well in the games, but to clinch the gold medal game against Spain, he deferred to the alpha-dogs: Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade.

Behind the scenes of those games, LeBron was plotting to join forces with Wade and fellow Olympic teammate Chris Bosh. An engineered take-over of the NBA.

Like Jordan in the early years, LeBron kept coming up short in the playoffs. He was league MVP in 2009 and performed strongly in the playoffs. But he put up his least inspired performance in a game 6 loss to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. After the game, King James walked off the court and left the arena without shaking anyone’s hand or talking to any reporters. He told reporters days later, “It’s hard for me to congratulate someone after losing to them. I’m a winner.”

II. Battle Tested

Michael Jordan lost, again, to the Detroit Pistons in 1990. After the game he was asked by a reporter what he was saying to the other players. Jordan replied “All you can do is wish them good luck, you know. We fought hard. They were the better team … We want to be where they are, but we still have to wait our turn. We’re still trying to improve our team.”

That was the last time Jordan would lose to the Pistons in the playoffs. The following year he walked off the court victorious, sweeping the defending champs, punching his ticket to the Finals.

In his first Finals appearance at 28, Michael Jordan’s Bulls took down Magic Johnson’s Lakers in five games. A book written about the season was revealing. Sam Smith’s Jordan Rules depicts a manic competitor who bullied and intimidated weaker teammates, and made demands on management. Not satisfied with the rush of basketball competition, Jordan would stay up all night playing cards or walk 36 holes of golf before a game, even into the playoffs. Slowly, throughout the season, Jordan was corralled by zen-master coach Phil Jackson, who had been trying to put in an offensive system with more ball movement and shots for other players. Jordan pushed back fiercely against the “equal opportunity” system, but was ultimately convinced that more balance was the only way to win a championship.

Michael Jordan did not relinquish the title. In 1992 he beat Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in the East before taking down Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trailblazers for another title.

The summer of ’92 was the year of the Olympic “Dream Team” who absolutely crushed everyone in their path. What it really shows is how much talent there was in the league. And if you notice a few of those players: Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing. They have some things in common. Each of them is in the Hall of Fame. None of them ever won an NBA championship. Each of them lost at least once in the playoffs to Michael Jordan.


To be in your prime along with Jordan was to lose to Jordan in your prime. So it went for my Phoenix Suns in 1993. After watching the final game, eight years old, I cried and then went outside to shoot hoops, vowing to avenge the loss someday.

On the podium, crowned champion again, asked to compare himself to the greats of all-time, Michael Jordan said he was proud to have accomplished what Magic and Bird never did: three straight championships. He said if you look at sustained success, you have to put his name up there with the all-time greats, although, “I’m not up here campaigning for best player in the world or in history — I’m not saying that, because everyone plays differently in different eras. But to say that we won three in a row, and I was part of that team, that means a lot to me. ”


“Not one…not two…not three…not four…”

This was LeBron James, sitting on a stage with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, summer of 2010, gloating about how many championships they were about to win together. He went up to “not seven…” on the stage. They would eventually win two.

It wasn’t simply that LeBron James left Cleveland that had Cleveland fans burning his jersey. It was the way it happened.

After losing to the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs, LeBron walked off the court, removing his jersey in the tunnel. Was it symbolic?

During that series, ESPN writer Brian Windhorst used the following descriptions of LeBron’s performance: “nonchalant attitude” … “lack of focus” … “standing quietly on the weak side during offense” … “staring into space during huddles.”

Did LeBron already know an easier path awaited him in Miami?

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert accused him later of quitting on his team, not only in the elimination series of 2010 but also in 2009. “Go back and look at the tape, ” Gilbert said. “He quit.”

Maybe Gilbert was just bitter. Some of the blame must lie with ownership and management for not surrounding James with better tools to win.

In any case, after the season, unrestricted free-agent LeBron held a one-hour TV show to announce where he would play the following season. The show was hyped for weeks, promoted on LeBron’s website. Sportswriter Bill Simmons wrote before the show: “Picking anyone other than Cleveland on this show would be the meanest thing any athlete has ever done to a city.”

That’s how a tortured sports city lost it’s home-grown basketball savior. With a spit to the face.

In reflecting on LeBron’s decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in such immature fashion, journalists picked apart the causes. Perhaps too much too soon. Maybe it was lack of a father figure growing up. No sense of grounding. Too many people blowing smoke. Who ever tells him no?

Cleveland fans no doubt reveled in LeBron’s early struggles in Miami. The Heat lacked chemistry. Dwyane Wade had been the Finals MVP in 2006. Who was Pippen and who was Jordan in this scenario?

The Heat lost the Finals in 2011 to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.

Bill Simmons again, writing midway through the series:

“You can’t call it a meltdown or a breakdown; that would belittle what happened. Call it a LeBrondown.”

“In pressure moments, he comes and goes … and when it goes, it’s gone. He starts throwing hot-potato passes, stops driving to the basket, shies away from open 3s, stands in the corner, hides as much as someone that gifted can hide on a basketball court.”

“There was a jaw-dropping moment in crunch time when Wade, frustrated by a LeBron brain fart, decided to chew him out like a drill sergeant. The tirade lasted for eight solid seconds before Wade stomped away. No teammate ever would have done this to Bird, Magic, Jordan, Russell, Duncan, Hakeem … name a great player other than Wilt, it just wouldn’t have happened.”

In 2012, LeBron redeemed himself. He played brilliantly in the Finals as first-fiddle, defeating a talented Thunder team (starring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden). LeBron took home the NBA Finals MVP. He figured out how to win. Shit, maybe this would be the next dynasty.

In 2013, the Finals came down to game 7 against San Antonio. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich decided to make LeBron beat them with the outside shot. Perhaps his only weakness? LeBron made him pay, hitting mid-range and long-range shots all night to win a second straight championship, redemption against the team who handed him a sweep in his first Finals, which now seemed like ancient history. Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan conceded, “LeBron was unbelievable. We just couldn’t find a way to stop him.”

At 28 years old, LeBron James was reining two-time champion, one of a select few in NBA history to have won consecutive Finals MVP’s.

III. The Second Culmination 

“I’m back.”

The words reverberated across the sports world.

After his third straight title in ’93, at the height of his powers, at 30 years old, Michael Jordan surprised everyone by retiring. The absence of Jordan in ’94 and ’95 created a vacuum in the NBA.

Why did he retire?

Maybe he felt spurned when the NBA opened an investigation into his gambling issues. Maybe he felt spurned by the media, who turned on him in the midst of a potential scandal. Or maybe it was that, in the summer of ’93,  his father was murdered.

For a year and half Jordan mourned, reflected on life, and played minor league baseball.

In 1996, his first full season back, the Bulls put together the best regular season record in NBA history (surpassed by the Warriors in 2016.) In the Finals that year, the Bulls faced the Seattle Sonics with Gary “the glove” Payton and Shawn Kemp, beating them in six games. Jordan’s fourth NBA championship. After the last game, back in the locker room, he collapsed on the ground and wept. For the first time in his life, Jordan was celebrating a championship without his dad. It was Father’s Day.

The conclusion of the next two Finals seemed inevitable. The Bulls twice faced Stockton and Malone’s Utah Jazz, beating them twice. Watching the playoffs in ’97 and ’98, you just knew the Bulls were going to win. They had MJ.

Even when the Jazz would win a game, or even when they took a lead late in game 6 in ’98, you knew Jordan would deliver. With 30 seconds left in that game, down by one, Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone on defense, dribbled down the clock on offense before swishing the game-winning jumper.

His championship rings could no longer fit on one hand. He retired again after the season, age 36.

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Though he came back later to play for the Wizards, the legend lives in a Chicago Bulls uniform. Undefeated in the Finals. Took home the Finals MVP six times. The snapshot of MJ hitting the game-winning shot for a second three-peat cemented his reputation as eminent champion.

And clinched the ultimate crown: Greatest Player of All-Time.


Going for a three-peat, the Miami Heat lost to the Spurs in the 2014 Finals. In what was predicted to be a close series, they got crushed. It was the largest margin of defeat in Finals history. Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard hoisted the Finals MVP trophy. Bill Simmons (who literally wrote The Book of Basketball) said that Leonard “can always brag about going toe-to-toe with LeBron — in his prime, in the Finals — and being better than him for three straight games.”

The excuses poured in. Dwayne Wade was gimpy. LeBron was tired from logging so many minutes over the years.

The LeBron James era in Miami was over.

All was forgiven in “the Land” when LeBron announced he was returning to his hometown. In his absence, the atrocious Cavaliers drafted a point guard named Kyrie Irving, and had the salary cap flexibility to built a contender. Outside shooters James Jones and Mike Miller followed LeBron like the pied piper from Miami to Cleveland. The Cavs traded another young prospect, Andrew Wiggins, for all-star Kevin Love.

For the fifth straight season, LeBron was back in the Finals in 2015. Facing elimination against the Golden State Warriors, much was made about the banged up Cavaliers team. Kyrie Irving was hurt. Kevin Love was hurt. Was LeBron worried?


“I’m confident because I’m the best player in the world,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

LeBron was confident in his status as the best player in the world, and maybe even as the best coach in the world. Upon his arrival back home, James brushed aside the strategy of head coach David Blatt, who had been hired as the reining Coach of the Year from Europe. In training camp that summer, Mike Miller called Blatt’s offense “borderline genius.” Teammate and a former champion Shawn Marion called it “free-flowing.” But it never got the chance to manifest. Two months into the year, LeBron abruptly changed the offense, putting himself as point-guard and moving Irving to the wing. Asked if he had consulted with his coach on this change, LeBron answered, “No, I can do it on my own. I’m past those days where I have to ask.”

The Warriors eliminated the Cavs in six games. The Finals MVP went to Andre Idoudala, whose main responsibility was guarding LeBron James.

LeBron faced the Warriors again in 2016, this time with a healthy Kyrie and Love. (Maybe it goes without saying that David Blatt was fired midway through the season.) The Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 hole to win the championship, and the Jordan comparisons heated up. LeBron had been to seven straight Finals. Yes, he lost more than he won, but his  losses were to really great teams. Could he eventually be the GOAT?

This past year, 2017, saw the whole repertoire from LeBron. Equal parts dominant and petulant during the season. One minute the Cavaliers are on a roll, the next minute they’re on a losing streak and LeBron is publicly criticizing the general manager. Just recently this summer, Dan Gilbert fired general manager David Griffin. LeBron, perhaps forgetting about his midyear criticism, tweeted, “If no one appreciated you Griff I did!”

The firing has created an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the future of the Cavaliers and LeBron. Pundits speculate LeBron may be heading to Los Angeles in 2018.

In the 2017 Finals, the Warriors beat the Cavs handily. LeBron’s Finals record is now 3-5. Another name added to the list of players to have won Finals MVP against LeBron.

For some, the “best player in the world” torch has just been passed from LeBron to Kevin Durant.

Others are awaiting a resurgence of King James.

He’s 32 years old and still playing strong.

Different type of player, same number “23”
Conclusion: Beyond the Game 

Competitive fire may have enabled Jordan’s greatness on the basketball court, but it doesn’t age well. He’s restless. At 50 years old, MJ admitted, “It’s an addiction. You ask for this special power to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can’t. If I could, then I could breathe.”

The cultural explosion of Air Jordan was a synthesis of basketball prowess and marketability. Above all, MJ was freaking cool. He became a symbol of victory, whose endorsement would catapult Gatorade, Nike, Hanes, Wheaties, and McDonald’s into market domination. He single handedly shaped the mega-contract, mega-endorsement, super-duper-star sports world that LeBron inherited at 17.

On the floor as a player, Michael Jordan should be considered the greatest of all-time. It’s impossible to foresee anyone ever overshadowing him, even if LeBron wins two or three more championships. There’s no opponent Jordan didn’t mercilessly vanquish. He came, he saw, he conquered.

Off the court, LeBron seems willing to harness his cultural power for a different contribution.

James won the NBA Citizenship Award in 2017. His foundation gives tens of millions of dollars to target academically struggling students in Ohio for support, and to provide college education for kids who can’t afford it.

Some criticize LeBron for vocalizing support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Stay out of politics. But when your house is vandalized with a racial slur on the eve of the Finals, in 2017, speaking about race is not “playing politics” but a moral imperative. Yes, racism still exists. No, being rich and famous doesn’t put you above the fray. Following more in the footsteps of the vintage “GOAT” Bill Russell, who was a voice for civil rights in the 60’s, LeBron recognizes that his microphone can be used to advance social equality.

LeBron James isn’t the competitor who would rip out your eyeballs before he would let you win. His conceitedness and petulance often shine brighter than his talent.

But his spirit of camaraderie and identification with real world community hints at a deeper vocation.

LeBron has a chance to inspire a new and different kind of greatness. I hope he does.

Ode to Portland

I hesitate to write about Portland. It might not be cool to write about Portland. It might be more Portland to not write about Portland, and then read what other people write about Portland and say to myself — that’s not Portland.

I’m only a tourist after all. But whatever — I want to write about Portland.

At first I felt too normal for Portland. Not radical enough in my style. I got self-conscious in my cargo shorts and tennis shoes. White socks. What statement am I making?

Then I realized…radical is not about tattoos and ear gauges and wild beards and vintage clothes.

To be radical is to be yourself, whatever that is.

And that’s the vibe I get now when I walk around Portland in my tennis shoes and white socks.


The last time I was in Portland it was raining hard. We saw cars going through the car wash, undeterred. Another guy was outside, pouring rain, mowing his lawn.


The Portland Trailblazers are a perennially cool NBA franchise. Clyde the Glide. Arvyds Sabonis. Damian Lillard. They won the championship in 1977 with a very Portland superstar hippie Bill Walton, a transcendent big man. They could have won more championships, but injuries plagued Walton’s career. Then they drafted Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984. Then they drafted Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007.

Why did the Blazers pass on Durant and Jordan, choosing two injury prone big men instead? I think they were always chasing the magical potential of Bill Walton.

Portlanders celebrate in ’77.


Walking around Portland today, you see signs on lawns and in the windows of restaurants. The signs say things like: Refugees welcome here. We welcome all religions, all races, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all genders.

It says something about society today that these are radical statements. In a time of increasing hostility, Portland lays out a Welcome mat.

The Welcome mat can be dangerous. Last week two people were killed on a metro for defending Muslim girls from the verbal abuse of a white nationalist.

Micah Fletcher, who survived the stabbing, said, “There’s nothing heroic about defending children.”

Over this past weekend, competing protests converged on downtown Portland. Tensions flared, but luckily the day ended peacefully. Lots of weapons were confiscated, none were used.

Portland is an ideological, and sometimes literal, battlefield in a brewing civil war.


In Portland you see different kinds of shops. Like this bike store, where my brother got his bike repaired:


It is worker owned and collectively run. That makes sense to people in Portland, but maybe not elsewhere. Instead of a top-down structure, boss in charge, decisions at this bike shop are made democratically. Each worker is a co-boss, co-owner. Vote on decisions. Share the profits.

Freaking communists, right?

But it’s all voluntary. It’s not like the government is forcing this structure on the people of Portland, preventing free enterprise. The shop is cooperative because they prefer it. They compete against traditional companies in the free market. Consumers can empower whatever business structure they believe in.

Agree or disagree with collectivist philosophy, the bike shop is an example of one my favorite qualities of Portland. You can feel it in the air. You pick it up in casual conversation. I wouldn’t call it “idealistic,” because there is a hint of cynicism. It’s an attitude of lived values. Put your money where your mouth is. Be authentic.

Sure, the quest for authenticity can morph into hipsterism. It still represents the fundamental quest.


Of course there’s the micro-brews. Food trucks. All kinds of delicious foods and neat coffee shops.

I love Powell’s bookstore. Walking around in a labyrinth of books, looking at all the titles, millions of books, reading the staff recommendations on the shelves. When you walk out of there, your mind is full of grand ideas before you even start reading whatever you bought.

I love that everything is green. After spring the flowers bloom into whites and pinks and reds. People are walking and biking everywhere. In a short drive you can be in the wilderness, hiking a mountain or walking through a forest.

Then there’s quirky stuff like the naked bike ride. Festivals of all stripes. The dude riding his bike, jimmied with surround speakers, blasting “Raspberry Beret.” Random stuff like that.

For me, Portland is a vacation. A respite from suburbia. I come from a land where all my trash goes into one container, where the cars don’t stop for pedestrians.

Portland is a breath of fresh air. A kaleidoscope of humanity. A reminder that diverse peoples might happily co-exist someday.

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