2020: The Odyssey continues

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

Zora Neale Hurston

“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Poster art above by Cincinnati teenager Owen Gunderman, a.k.a. Tenzing. See more on his Instagram and YouTube channel.)

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

Desmond Tutu

“The more that we allow our hearts to expand to love, deeply appreciate, and feel inextricably tied to the places, things and people of this world, the more we are likely to take a stand on behalf of what we value.”

Kristi Nelson

College is a time for experimentation

Slowly but surely, more and more colleges are scheduling a return to campus for the Fall, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a predicted “second wave” when the weather turns colder.

The University of Notre Dame was one of the first to announce a return — they have 74,933 reasons to do so for each student:

Source: University of Notre Dame website

Most college kids (mine included) were sent home around mid-March this year. Shortly thereafter, a lot of parents probably started doing some math… “What are we paying for if Junior is just staring at a laptop screen in our living room?”

What’s that ivory tower in the background worth?

Sure, most universities pro-rated room and board charges and sent a refund check to parents, but tuition for virtual learning was still taking a big bite out of their actual wallet.

Without the trappings of college… the football and basketball games, dorm life, the frat and sorority parties, homecoming weekend… why should someone fork over 30, 40, 50, 60, even 70-grand a year so Junior can get his degree?

Heck, online schools like Southern New Hampshire U. offer a lot of the same programs at a fraction of the cost, and the kid would still be staring at the same laptop screen. Those schools have been doing online courses for a long time too, so the programming is more polished, and the student experience is probably better. Kids are getting used to learning stuff via videos anyway… maybe instead of dropping $70K at ND, you can just pay $50 a month for a good wi-fi connection, and send the kids to YouTube U.

I’m not saying kids will drop out of college in droves, but I am saying the pandemic is a wake-up call for higher education. They’re realizing they need to up their game, and show a better ROI than “prestige”… especially when they’re competing for a smaller pool of students:

U.S. demographics are also shifting. The number of high school graduates is flat — and in some cases declining — because of lower birth rates about 20 years ago. Those numbers are also projected to decline, so the trend of fewer students coming from high school isn’t going away anytime soon.

From this NPR article, December 2019 (pre-pandemic)

You can’t spell “pandemic” without “panic” and my hunch is a lot of college administrators are getting a bit worried about a serious outbreak of tuition attrition.

It’s no laughing matter now…

Maybe all these colleges have a thoroughly vetted plan for bringing kids back to campus in a couple of months and keeping them safe. But some of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks so far have been in prisons, and the dorms at most colleges have a pretty similar layout. (I know firsthand about the latter… not the former. Honest!) I have a hunch that a lot of schools are basing back-to-school on a wing and a prayer… and “business as usual” is more about the health of their business than it is about the health of their students.

Searching for answers

Like most Americans, I’ve spent the past several days searching for answers to the latest (but sadly probably not the last) senseless murder of an African American. I’ve been reading a lot. This CNN article lays out racial inequality pretty simply and starkly. It started with slavery, but it’s continued to fester. Reconstruction. Jim Crow laws. Segregation. Redlining. Building interstates through black neighborhoods. Basing school funding on property taxes. The list goes on and on.

I’ve also been listening to quite a few podcasts that cover not just the George Floyd case, but the underlying causes of these sad outcomes. The Fresh Air interview below is one of the best I’ve heard. Terry Gross interviews Wes Moore, the author of several books about racial disparities, including his new one Five Days about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015. (A similar situation to George Floyd… we haven’t really made much progress in the past five years.)

The entire interview is below, but here’s a five-minute snippet that really brought things home for me:

We have be able to address this level of inequitable policing that takes place in our societies and the lack of accountability that takes place when improper actions happen. We also have to deal with the underlying conditions that our citizens — and oftentimes our citizens of color — are repeatedly being allowed and being forced to endure. And if we don’t address both those two things together, we will continue just having to deal with the pain of the consequence of the one.”

Wes Moore

I couldn’t agree more. This is about much more than rogue cops… that’s just a symptom of a much larger disease. The systems are broken: poverty, systemic racism, housing inequalities, economic opportunities for minorities, health care.

We have to change the systems. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But watching the peaceful protests, I’m hopeful and optimistic that the tide is finally turning… and a change is gonna come real soon.

Funny Fred

Comedic actor Fred Willard passed away this weekend at the age of 86. I loved his Jerry Hubbard character on Fernwood 2-Night.

He was funny in every part he played, even if it was only a bit part like in This is Spinal Tap.

He was consistently amusing in his many appearances on Letterman.

His characters in the Christopher Guest improv movies (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) were outstanding.

And he kept us laughing later in his career, with roles on Everybody Loves Raymond and Modern Family, as well as appearances on The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live. He really elevated the laugh factor on every project he did.

“He was absolutely, unconditionally original. He worked so spontaneously. He had such a closet that he could go to. It was just remarkable. You never where he was going to go. He didn’t tip it.”

Fred’s longtime acting pal Martin Mull in this Variety article

By all accounts, he was a very nice person as well.

“He was as kind and as gentle and as warm and generous a person as you could ever want to meet.”

Martin Mull

R.I.P. Fred… here’s your somber exit song

And here’s your will:

The (other) revolution will not be televised

For better or for worse (and it’s mostly for worse), most of our news is delivered visually. And the old axiom of “if it bleeds, it leads” is more apt than ever before. People with their faces pressed against the statehouse doors? That’s a great photo op. White guys with assault weapons holding up signs? That makes for a clickbait-ready 30-second video loop. A crowded bar in Wisconsin is a novelty in novel coronavirus times, a car wreck that our eyes are drawn to.

George Romero’s next zombie film “Day of the Soon-to-be-Dead of COVID-19”

But while these fringe folks are dominating the latest news cycle (along with the Oompa Loompa in Chief), let’s not forget that the vast majority of Americans are acting in ways that are healthy, courteous, civil. Staying home. Limiting their contact with non-family members. Social distancing. Wearing masks in public. Respecting the rules that are set up to save lives. But there’s not a “hot story” in millions of Americans working together (albeit apart) for the common good.

Last time I checked, “Life” came before “liberty” in the Declaration of Independence. If we have to sacrifice a bit of the latter over a short period of time, to preserve the former, that makes sense to me. Especially when someone’s idea of “liberty” means overburdening the health care system and causing tens of thousands of needless deaths.

Rickey Dobbs explains it much more eloquently and entertainingly than I ever could, in this brilliant and hilarious post from his always-brilliant-and-hilarious blog Hitting the Trifecta. The post compares the “transmission rate” of motorcycle accidents to the transmission rate of coronavirus. Here’s an excerpt:

Here’s the thing: no one gives a White House Rose Garden rat’s ass about your “freedom” if exercising it results in a chain reaction that kills untold thousands upon thousands of people. Your freedom must be restrained, for the survival of all of us.

My personal preference, with regard to freedoms and such, is living. Further, I value keeping my grandma and mom and dad alive. I enjoy keeping my nephews and niece alive, too.

I’m willing to accept some risk in daily life. That’s why I drive a car, walk on the sidewalk, and use elevators. There’s a chance I could die from any of these endeavors, but it’s a tiny chance that is mitigated by safety measures. The risks to myself, but more importantly, to you and your kids, are tiny compared to the efficiency brought about by doing those activities.

But if it’s an actuarial certainty that your “freedom” will kill lots of nieces and nephews and grandmas, it becomes society’s obligation to make your exercise of your freedom conform to our collective, legitimate preference to remain members of CHOTSOD. (Club for Humans on This Side of the Dirt.)

So true. We have an obligation to play by the rules, for the greater good of society.

I get it, after 9 weeks in lockdown, everyone is a bit “shack wacky” as my friend Howard calls it. And I know small businesses are hurting, but they’ll suffer even more unless we stick with the plan. The health experts are saying we’re in the second inning of a nine-inning contest. We did a great job with #flattenthecurve but it’s way too soon to bail out now. Thank you for doing your part to #Stopthespike.

Love in the Time of Cholera. Art in the Time of COVID.

(My work) is not an answer, it’s a question. I think the world is coming to a place that raises a lot of questions: technology that can dehumanize us, the constant stimulation of information, of news, of everything. We have never been exposed to so much. That brings us to a place where the pace of things is so fast we don’t have time to step back and slow down and see what’s happening. I try to make it a very personalized experience. It has a meaning for me and it’s the reason I do it. But for you or someone who sees it, it’s what the art is saying to you. That’s the real meaning of the artwork, which I don’t own. The viewer owns it.

Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, known as Vhils, in this Cincinnati Business Courier article.

Vhils first large-scale solo exhibition in the U.S. was supposed to be happening right now at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, but the center is closed due to the pandemic.

“You have to work on it every day or else you start to lose it pretty quickly.”

18-year-old Cincinnati artist Owen Gunderman, known as Tenzing.

Owen Gunderman (a.k.a. Tenzing) was supposed to have his first solo exhibition this weekend at a Cincinnati gallery. His upcoming high school graduation won’t be as festive either. And his dad (a friend of mine) has been working countless hours during the pandemic, as a senior director of emergency services (and interventional cardiac and radiologic services too!) at an area hospital.

Please check out the Cincinnati Magazine profile of Owen and his vlog below.

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