unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

Fourteen Weeks

Loyola University clock kiosk

wallyg (flickr.com) / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every spring semester, I teach a course in interviewing at Loyola University Chicago; the class meets once a week for 14 weeks. The class begins at 10a.m. and ends at 12:45p.m. You might think that’s a long time for a class to meet, but from the professor’s standpoint, the class time flies by. (You’d have to ask my students if the same holds true for them.)

I try to mix it up by having the students do in-class interviewing exercises, listening to outstanding interviewers like NPR’s Terry Gross and Dick Gordon, analyzing the interviews they themselves do outside of class, and lecturing. This semester I had 14 students (the symmetry of it just occurred to me).

This week we had our final class and one of the final points I made was this. Think about the 6 billion or so people who live on the planet. How many of them will you ever encounter? (One student guessed less than 1%.) Then think about all the people who have ever lived and the short time we all have. Combine those two elements and it’s kind of a minor miracle to spend any length of time with anyone. That is, the group that is currently on the planet is a unique and short-lived collection and we get to meet only some of them. To quote the old expression, “Oh, only for so short a time have You loaned us to each other.”

Given that, I said it’s almost kind of sacred to spend time with a group of people as we had done in class. I found my 14 students to be interesting, smart, and engaged. Each class I’ve taught has a personality and this one was marked by independent thinking. Markedly so. Time spent with them was time well spent. I hope they feel the same.

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No Time for The Times

Another Sunday has come and gone with one major piece of business still unfinished: the Sunday New York Times is sitting largely unread, stacked up neatly on a kitchen chair.

Every Sunday, I get the Sun-Times, Tribune, and New York Times delivered to our house. And on some Sundays, the same thing happens: I neatly arrange the papers on the kitchen table, read both Chicago papers first, and promise myself I will get to the Times later. And later. And later.

Then Thursday or Friday rolls around and I still haven’t gotten to it and at that point I often put the neat stack in recycling (if my wife hasn’t already beaten me to it). This doesn’t happen often and really, I have the best of intentions.

But the reality is, reading the Sunday Times can sometimes seem like such a commitment that I save it for last. And you know what can happen when something is last in line. In the meantime, the paper is sitting on that kitchen chair right now–a reminder of good intentions unrealized. Fortunately, though, it’s only Tuesday–still time to do right by it!

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Fitness Envy

I am someone whose fitness regimen can be sporadic and who–over the winter–can put on some extra lbs. (or “el-bees” as one of my sons puts it). I’m usually fine about it and keep slugging away at the ongoing task of not going completely to seed. But every now and then I’m reminded that some people are in such great physical shape that they can make the rest of us feel like like Jabba the Hutt.

It happened yesterday morning when at least 1,000 runners took part in a 5K run that went down our street and right in front of our house. Our block was near the beginning of the race so all the runners were fresh and full of bounce.

The ones at the very front, of course, looked like the pride of the pack with well-defined muscles and they ran like jack rabbits. If I had to guess, most were in their 20s and 30s. They’re the ones who can make the rest of us feel like a depository for the world’s donuts.

Normally, I don’t have to personally confront people who are in such good condition and see them dressed in a way that shows off their physiques. But there was no avoiding a herd of them stampeding just a few steps from the front porch.

Fortunately, the run had a happy ending for the rest of us who will never grace the cover of Fitness magazine: as the stream of runners continued, more and more started to look like ordinary folks with ordinary bodies–people just trying to keep from going to seed. They’re the ones I really cheered on. It was enough to make me want to put on my running shoes.

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A Surprising Book

fil (flickr.com) / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

To prepare for an interview with her, I just read Anna Quindlen’s new novel, “Every Last One.” It’s about a family that seems to have everything going for it–smart, engaged parents and three adolescent children who are appealing but not perfect (just like most real teenagers). But some fissures develop in the family that lead to a jolting event. (I won’t spoil it for you by saying too much.)

But I have to admit that for the first 100 pages I was a little put off by the emphasis on the family’s domestic life and relationships. The protagonist is the mother; she’s involved in the emotional lives of her children and runs a landscaping business. The father is an eye doctor who seems like someone you’d like to have as a neighbor. As I was reading this portion of the book, the term “chick lit” did enter my mind (and not in a good way). Boy, was I wrong.

I plead guilty to the male stereotype of preferring action in novels. Thus, the “chick lit” thought. But when the key event unfolds in this book, it’s off to the races–it’s a page-turner, stunningly so.

Lesson learned: not only can you not judge a book by its cover, don’t judge it by how it begins. Another lesson? The fewer reviews you read, the better. Why deprive yourself of a nice literary surprise?

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A Rat’s Tale II

“You should have hit the rat over the head with your shovel to kill it and tossed it in your garbage. What if a cat ate the rat in the night? It is possible that you could have killed the cat, also. Take some responsibility for the wildlife in your area!”

An anonymous reader left this comment in response to my posting yesterday about my encounter with a (now-deceased) Chicago rat. The comment raises an interesting point.

Actually, it did occur to me to give the rat a whack on the head with my shovel. But frankly, the incident happened at the beginning of what was shaping up to be a glorious spring weekend. And when I thought of whacking the rat, I remember asking myself, “Do I really want to start a nice weekend with a dose of violence?” I just didn’t have it in me and simply wanted the rat to go away.

I will say that the very first thing I did the next morning was to check on the rat. And when I found it (intact), I promptly gave it a decent Chicago burial in my garbage can–so no cats had an unfortunate meal. (Wilson and Macy, that’s why we keep you indoors.)

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A Rat’s Tale

kenyee (flickr.com) / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This weekend I was watering some new grass in the yard when I spotted something small and furry out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was a rabbit. But then I looked closer–a rat foraging right next to our wood fence! Gross.

Before I could think, I instinctively squirted him (?) with the hose, hoping he would take off. He didn’t. Instead, he meandered like a drunk along the fence, half-heartedly looking for a way out of the yard. I went to a different part of the yard, assuming the rat would find his way out. (Not having invited him in the first place, I felt no obligation to personally escort him.)

About a half-hour later, I looked to see if he was still there. Yup. At this point, I had a shovel in my hand from moving some dirt. My first thought was to scoop the rat over the wooden stockade fence into the neighbor’s yard. But I instantly realized how wrong, terrifying, and absurd it would be if I were the neighbor and a rat suddenly came flying over the fence from next door.

By now I had figured out that something was not quite right with this rat. It was lethargic and I concluded it must have eaten some poison somewhere. So I gingerly scooped him up with a shovel and rake and walked to the alley. The rat didn’t really resist. I plopped him in a grassy spot under the el tracks behind the house.

That’s where I found him the next morning. He must have gone to the big rat hole in the sky with the sound of the el tracks as background noise. A true Chicago death.

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Would You Make This Trade-Off?

chanc (flickr.com) / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I had a fascinating on-air encounter with the Prime Minister of Singapore last night. I found the interview fascinating for many reasons, but mainly because of the tradeoffs the island nation has made–tradeoffs which have clearly been effective in giving the tiny country a prominent role in the world.

First, some background: Singapore is a former British colony and one of the world’s three sovereign city-states (Monaco and the Vatican are the others). It has a population of only 5 million and a land area just slightly larger than Chicago’s.

Yet it is a major world player in business, finance and shipping. It is rated one of the most corruption-free nations in the world and ranked the world’s best place to do business. It is famous for its corporate and banking transparency. Beyond that, it is known for being spotless and almost completely free of crime.

Some downsides from a Western perspective? A criminal justice system perceived by many as unyieldingly harsh (including death penalties for drug smugglers and the use of “caning” for other offenses.) Also, one political party is in charge and freedom of speech does not exist as it is known in the United States. Say something bad about a politician and you’re apt to be taken to court for libel; you most certainly will lose and have to pay damages. (Ask the New York Times.)

This summary just begins to scratch the surface. But think about it: would you sacrifice some political freedoms–and rights–for a safe and corruption-free place to live? Would you give up your right to criticize what is considered an honest government in exchange for personal safety and prosperity? Tantalizing questions.

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Does This Tree Look Dead To You?

One of the great things about spring is discovering which things you planted last fall are coming back. I planted a slew of perennials, including sedum, “hens and chicks,” iris, coneflowers, ferns, day lilies, and various bushes and hostas. The plants I chose are fairly idiot-proof; their return is pretty much automatic.

I also planted a couple of trees–both serviceberries. Now, my understanding is that serviceberries are typically hardy, resilient survivors. One of my trees is a big one and it is blooming like gangbusters. But the smaller one I put in is looking–well, a little skeletal.

I went to the nice people at the local nursery who did the actual planting to ask whether the tree needed to be replaced. They asked that I give it a stay of execution of a week or so before having it yanked out and putting in a new one. I was told that sometimes there’s a delay in new growth because of light conditions, etc., so naturally I said yes. I took this picture over the weekend. But today the tree looks no different.

Planting something is–above all else–an exercise in hope. But at some point it’s time to admit that a tree has gone on to tree heaven. Does this tree look dead to you?

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What’s Wrong With This Phone?

Recently I answered a phone call on my cell phone in the presence of a friend; that’s the phone in the picture to the right. My friend looked at my phone and said, “The 90s called–they want their phone back.” Very funny.

The fact is, it is a pretty basic phone. His point was that it’s not an iPhone–or something like it that has lots of bells and whistles and can log onto the internet, play back the complete canon of classical music, and store every picture ever taken of every single one of your relatives.

But even a fairly basic phone like mine has games, camera, a voice recorder, organizer, alarm, calendar, calculator, tip calculator, timer, stopwatch, etc., etc., etc. In other words, one “bare bones” cellphone probably has as much computing technology as the early Apollo missions.

But my friend’s right. The fancy-schmancy iPhones and their ilk probably have enough attached gadgetry to provide the computing needs of a small corporation. But frankly, to upgrade phones would complicate my life because I would feel the stress of learning how to use all the features.

I wish I could blame my aversion to the higher-end phones to generational differences. But I was chastened last night when two people I was with who must be nearing 80 took out their iPhones and navigated them with the agility of 8th graders. Humbling.

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TM Back Then

tomgazpacho (flickr.com) / CC BY 2.0

Yesterday I wrote about how time really does speed up as you get older and that the antidote is to slow time down. Conventional wisdom has it that one way to slow time down is to be in the moment and mindful of what you’re doing so that time isn’t a commodity that you just burn through.

Last night I watched a documentary on Channel 11 called “The Buddha” and there was a segment about meditation, a practice that’s supposed to encourage mindfulness.

That got me to thinking about a four-month period years ago when I practiced transcendental mediation myself and would sit in silence in 20-minute segments mentally repeating my mantra. There was even a “meditation room” in a school I attended briefly in–where else–San Francisco! And I’ve got to admit “TM” actually helped me be more mindful, in the moment, and feeling less rushed.

But I stopped due to a combination of laziness, a new job, and having kids. Toddlers and TM didn’t go together very well. Those toddlers are long since grown. One day I may dig out my collection of macrame owls, burn some incense, put on some sitar music, and try it again!

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