Why I Won’t Be Reading Go Set a Watchman

Sue Travis Villines in the 1940's.

Sue Travis Villines in the 1940’s.

No book has influenced me more, or meant more to me, than To Kill a Mockingbird. The person of Atticus Finch significantly shaped my character, my parenting, and my sense of what it means to be a progressive, Southern man. He is my favorite fictional hero, above even Moses, Noah, and Job (all of whom I like a lot, for various reasons). I don’t say that lightly. I cherish the stories of our faith, and my call to proclaim them, but To Kill a Mockingbird is also scripture for me.

The “for me” is significant. I have read more sophisticated books, more eloquent books, and even more profound books. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is the only book I have ever encountered that completely captures the South and the Southerners I know and love. Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly, Anne Rivers Siddons’ Downtown, and anything by Lewis Grizzard or Celestine Sibley all have special places in my heart for the different ways in which they tell parts of the story of what it means to be a Southerner. To Kill A Mockingbird, though, is the ethnography of my tribe.

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. - 1920's

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., seated on his front porch – 1920’s

If you want to know me, you have to know my family, and if you want to know them, read To Kill a Mockingbird. My Great-Grandma Lizzie Dale Sanders Travis never left the house between Memorial and Labor Day without white gloves on. She also never had fewer than twenty people around her supper table on any given night during the Depression, because she made sure that no one she met went hungry just because times were lean. If you want to know Miss Lizzie, get to know Miss Maudie Atkinson. My Grandpa, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. earned a law degree while fighting in three wars over 26 years, and always scored expert with his rifle qualification. Having risen from Private to Lieutenant Colonel, Grandpa Al retired from the service and then traveled both the urban and the rural South working for five different Presidents. He wanted to make sure that those without means had access to Medicaid, because he remembered what it was like to grow up dirt poor in rural Tennessee. If you want to know Colonel Villines, get to know Atticus Finch. My Grandma, Sue Travis Villines could ride a horse, milk a cow, and shoot a marble (or a basketball) as well or better than any boy on the farm. She went on to be a corporate vice president in the sixties, and she stood up for her LGBT friends when the Southern Baptist Convention turned on them like a brood of vipers. Everyone was welcome at her table, and she created a home for everyone who needed one, even those whose own people had cast them out. If you want to know Grandma Sue, then get to know Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of my family.

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. - 1940's

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. – 1940’s

It is also the story of my greatest fictional hero – Atticus Finch. When I was a teenager, my greatest hero – my Dad – once said to me, “Son, there are very few people in this world who – no matter what they say – you know they are always speaking the truth. Try to become that kind of man.” When I opened the covers of To Kill a Mockingbird, I met a man just like that. In a scene perfectly captured in the movie, the courtroom gallery stands as Atticus passes, and Reverend Sykes solemnly intones “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” It was in that moment that I finally had an iconic image of the character and integrity that I hoped would define my life. Earlier in the book, Atticus explains to his brother Jack, “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake.  But don’t make a production of it.  Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” It was there that I finally found a literary model for how I had been raised, and how I planned to raise my own child. Years later, when I stood before the judgment of a rural Southern congregation and proclaimed the good news that the gospel included LGBT people, I pictured my grandfather and Atticus standing in the great cloud of witnesses whose wreath I sought to earn. When I found myself at 3 a.m. holding a sick child, answering his questions and telling him of our love, I knew that it was also my father’s arms, my grandmother’s arms, and even the arms of Atticus Finch that held him – because I had learned how to love my son from studying their love.

There is something fetid and rotten in our culture that cannot abide virtuous icons like Atticus or my grandmother. We turn our heroes into anti-heroes. We deny their nobility and valor, claiming that we are making them more “complex” or more “real.” What we actually mean is that we have given up on the possibility of true virtue and integrity, excusing them from high standards so that we may exculpate our own lack of extraordinary moral character. Dethroning our heroes is a way to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our willingness to settle for the petty, shallow venality of choosing comfort and expedience over anachronistic concepts like idealism and honor. If heroes cannot be real, then “reality” is a place for mediocrity.

I do not want to succumb to that pessimism. Nor will I surrender my own need for real heroes because an increasingly crass and vulgar culture does not want to see their own reflection in the mirror that saints and stalwarts hold to our failed choices. To let go of those exemplars would be to tell a lie, because even if Atticus Finch never walked the Earth, I knew his touch in the hands of those who raised me. Atticus Finch is not just an archetype to me, he’s the literary incarnation of the strong, courageous, wise, honest, loving Southern men and women who have made me who I am, and who continue to challenge me to be more. I understand why amoral publishers, eager to make a quick buck off a fickle public’s need for salacious gossip, would want Atticus Finch to be less, but I want no part in it. I don’t need to know the adolescent, first-draft sketch of man who reinforces my worst fears about my own hypocrisy. I want to know the man who reminds us of what humanity can be when we are at our best. That is the “reality” whose “complexity” is worth exploring.

Sue Travis Villines and RC Burt - 1931

Sue Travis Villines and RC Burt – 1931

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Let Students Use Their Laptops

Students and teacher using Microsoft Surface Pro

Surface Pro in the Classroom Source: Surface Blog

Dear Colleagues, Friends, and Fellow Teachers:

Please do not take arguments like this one too seriously.  They remind me of the classical Greek arguments against the dangers of literacy, that teaching people to read and write would impair their ability to memorize things.

Forcing students to take notes in a way that does not work for them does no one any favors. A better practice is to encourage students to be aware of the benefits of different methods for different learning styles, and try to accommodate as many different learning styles as possible. I let students record me if they are auditory, and I write bullet points on the whiteboard for students who are taking bulleted notes. I draw diagrams for the very visual.  I also talk about note-taking strategies with all of my lecture-heavy, survey-level classes, and recognize that part of my role is to teach them how to use the various tools that are available to them.  If I’m concerned that the presence of technology will inhibit discussion, I talk with students about strategies for using their preferred tech in ways that will aid rather than limit their ability to participate.

Just because studies show that on average people retain more by handwriting their notes, that does not mean that the technology of typing is flawed. It just means that the way some people use it may be ineffective.  A computer (or, even better, a tablet with keyboard and stylus) is vastly superior to pen and paper as a tool for organizing written information.  Students can quickly group ideas, correct content errors, flesh out earlier points, and correct for errors in their own (or the professor’s) organization and taxonomy.  They can bold things or color code them, and they can also hyperlink key points to web content.  They can easily back their notes up to the cloud, and review them on multiple devices.  Simply put, notes on a laptop are better-organized, cleaner, and more versatile.

Yes, some students will blindly transcribe your lecture without critically analyzing or organizing it, just as some students with pen and paper will write down random points without understanding the structure of your lecture.  Similarly, some students will instead surf Facebook, just as some students will doodle on a piece of paper instead of taking notes.  None of this is the fault of the tool.  The laptop (or full-featured tablet) is, plain-and-simple, as much of an improvement over paper as paper was over clay tablets.

Good students spend their whole academic careers learning the study and note-taking techniques that work best for them.  Do not handicap them because you don’t trust them to be able to make these kinds of decisions for themselves.

If someone asked me to handwrite notes for an hour, I doubt I could do it. I’m not sure the last time I hand-wrote a complete sentence.  Also, since I keep all my notes typed up and on a tablet, I think it would be a bit hypocritical to then deny my students access to technology because I don’t trust them to function as members of the twenty-first century.

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Congratulations John-Francis!

John-Francis - Senior Photo

Photo Courtesy of Patricia O’Driscoll

John-Francis graduates from High School tomorrow.  Even though I’ve been reminded of this reality every day for weeks, it still seems highly unlikely since, only yesterday, I was dropping him off at The Galloway School for his first day of kindergarten.  I remember how he matter-of-factly climbed out of his carseat and introduced himself to the teacher working carpool that early morning.  Another kindergartner overheard that John-Francis was a new student.  She firmly grabbed his hand, and the two of them headed off to begin the adventure of learning – hand-in-hand.  That’s how we do things at Galloway, eyes forward and hand-in-hand.

Of course, I was having trouble watching this beautiful moment of camaraderie.  I was too busy sobbing – something I continued to do for the hour-long drive back to our house.  John-Francis and I had stayed home together for almost six years.  Nearly every minute of every day of his life I had answered his questions, laughed at his jokes, cleaned his cuts, and held him when he needed a hug.  Suddenly someone else, an institution was going to take on that role for part of each day.  I was terrified of the possibility that he might become conventional, that the convenient norms of a children’s academic setting would somehow stifle the uniquely thoughtful and creative spark that I had watched come to life in him.

When he scheduled a protest on the playground – complete with rally signs and a rhyming chant – for the return of peanut butter to the classroom, I realized I had nothing to worry about.  (He informed me that, after a rather contentious circle time, “The man won.”)  John-Francis was at a school that valued four pillars:  fearlessness, community, mastery, individuality.  These were the very things I wanted him to learn to privilege in his life, and, rather than undermining them as I feared any institution might, Galloway nurtured them and allowed them to take deep root in every aspect of his education.

I watched John-Francis’ journey in awe, as he moved down the long hall of the Early Learning building, through the floors of the Middle Learning building, and then to the old, brick classrooms of Upper Learning.  It was like having a front-row seat for an epic performance where the lead character is exceptional in every way.  Looking back on the individual scenes, they form a consistent pattern – a biography of integrity, courage, and genuine wisdom that may be hard for him to see as he lives it out, but that is abundantly clear to those of us who have been watching, dumbstruck, since the curtain rose.

I saw him fight back (verbally and, sometimes, even physically) against bullies of all kinds, including a (no longer at Galloway) middle school principal who battled him tooth and nail on the LGBTQ Day of Silence observance.  When the day came, the involved grades had 85% participation, under the leadership of a ten-year-old John-Francis.

I listened, with genuine admiration, as John-Francis refused to tell even the tiniest lie, even the smallest mis-characterization of the facts, for his own benefit.  If an assignment was late, he took responsibility.  If the rules said no looking at your textbook, he wouldn’t even glance at it.  And if he was being irrational in an argument he would stop, look down for a moment, and then concede, “You’re right.  I’m being irrational about this.”  Even as a teenager, he wouldn’t lie to himself.

Nor would he let me lie to myself, which can be terribly inconvenient as an adult.  Self-deception can make life easier, albeit much less worthwhile, in all sorts of ways.  Nevertheless, John-Francis – even at a young age – has demonstrated the confidence and the insight to hold me accountable to my own principles in everything that I do.  I am certain I am a better person, because of the extraordinary person he is.

The conventional wisdom is that a child can’t be that person, my friend, someone to whom I am accountable, and also be my son.  My experience as his father has been just the opposite.  From the moment he was born, when I warmed him up with a blanket, put his first diaper on him, and told him, “You and I are going to have great fun together,” I have been his Dad with a capital “D.”  I am responsible for him, and growing into that responsibility has had a larger impact on me than all of the other things I have done in my life, combined.  But – as my own Dad has taught me every day for forty years – fathers and sons can be best friends and still understand that Dad is in charge.  Friendship is not about an equal dynamic of authority, it is about an equal dynamic of loyalty, trust, and respect.  I trust and respect John-Francis as much as I do my own Dad, which is to say completely, and my loyalty to him knows no limits.

John-Francis has earned that loyalty.  As he was growing up, we rarely talked about what he had to do, we talked about what his goals were, what kind of person he wanted to be, what kind of impact he wanted to have on the world.  Together, we mapped out ways to work toward those goals, and then he took it upon himself to do the hard, challenging, everyday work to reach them.  When, at the age of 12, he wanted to start taking classes in the high school at Galloway, he went – by himself – to meet with the Principal and request the opportunity.  From that point on, if he needed an advocate with the administration, he took the role upon himself.

Fearlessness:  a young man who stands up to bullies, even when they have all the power, and who advocates for himself rather than relying on others to do so.

Community:  a young man who creates a space for LGBTQ students’ voices to be heard, and who earns the trust of his friends through his loyalty and kindness.

Mastery:  a young man who seeks out every opportunity for learning, and who passionately, relentlessly engages his peers, his teachers, and his parents out of a desire to understand.

Individuality:  a young man whose integrity is such that he speaks the truth as he knows it, regardless of the consequences or the expectations of those around him.

That is the kind of man Elliott Galloway was.  That is the young man I hoped John-Francis would be when he left home to find his path.

In every way, by every measure, John-Francis has exceeded my wildest hopes in every single one of these categories, and in countless more.  Tomorrow he will get a diploma that is meant to represent over a decade of accomplishment, but there is no single piece of paper that could sum up all he has done – and all that Galloway has done for him – in that time.

For me, the words of his achievement are not writ on the parchment, they are carved deep into my memory by the sound of his voice saying, “I love you, Dad” and by the knowledge that this son whose love I have earned is a person who has earned my respect and my admiration a thousand times over.

Pictured with my Grandma Sue, in the kitchen where she taught me a master class in how to love someone.

John-Francis with my Grandma Sue, in the kitchen where she taught me a master class in how to love someone.

 

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An Open Letter To My Smug Northern Friends

Traffic during Snowjam 2014

Source: Georgia Department of Transportation

Dear People Who Do Not Live In The Deep South:

Dealing with roads covered in ICE, in a city where there are almost no trucks for salting/sanding/de-icing and where almost no one has AWD, snow tires, chains, or vehicles equipped for sub-freezing temperatures is NOT the same as what you think of when you think of “driving in the snow.” In addition, unless you live in Los Angeles or Washington, DC, you likely have no concept of how long our commutes are in Atlanta or how heavy our traffic is – even on a day when the weather is perfect.

I understand how you might find some consolation from your decision to live in the Yankee Wasteland by mocking us rubes down here in Dixie, but you really have no idea what you’re talking about. Also, in a few days we will thaw out and return to wearing short-sleeves while sipping Coca Cola on our front porches, while you are still making your daily shovel to the sidewalk in the hopes of finding your mailbox, and possibly that spaniel you let outside in December.

 

For Further Reading:

The Day We Lost Atlanta (from Politico)

How 2 Inches of Snow Created a Traffic Nightmare in Atlanta (from The Atlantic)

Why the South Fell Apart in the Snow (from Gizmodo)

 

 

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Finding a Good Field Watch

I think, perhaps, I tend to over-think the purchasing process.  I generally research something compulsively (a hat, a messenger bag, a bicycle) until I find something that is sufficiently over-engineered that it not only exceeds my needs but will last me a very long time.  I then continue to use it until it wears out.

Here’s an example of what my process is like.

I need a decent field watch.  It needs to be durable enough that I can use it in training environments, but nice enough that I don’t have to swap it out when I am dressed up.  (I am, ultimately, utilitarian both in my aesthetics and my purchases.  I don’t see the need to own more than one watch.  I want one watch that will do everything I need.)

Initially, I thought I wanted a watch with tritium tubes for the hours and the hands, but I couldn’t find anything that didn’t look like it might also be on the wrist of a Vegas Three-card Monte hustler, so I let that go.

I then decided that I wanted either a purely mechanical, automatic watch (I like the elegance of something that keeps time without electricity), or a solar watch (I like the idea of a watch that keeps incredibly precise time but doesn’t need a battery replacement).

My other main choice is between a olive watch face or a black one.  All of the watches I looked at have day/date, water resistance to 100m, and a mineral crystal.

After checking reviews and reliability ratings, I narrowed it down to six.

Seiko SNZG09

Seiko SNZG09

Seiko SNZG09 – Olive Face – Big Hours, No Minutes, Small 24hr – Automatic/Mechanical

 

Seiko SNK805

Seiko SNK805

Seiko SNK805 – Olive Face – Small Hours, Big Minutes, No 24hr – Automatic/Mechanical

Seiko SNZG15

Seiko SNZG15

Seiko SNZG15 – Black Face – Big Hours, No Minutes, Small 24hr – Automatic/Mechanical

Seiko SNK809

Seiko SNK809

Seiko SNK809 – Black Face – Small Hours, Big Minutes, No 24hr – Automatic/Mechanical

Seiko SNE095P2

Seiko SNE095P2

Seiko SNE095P2 – Black Face – Big Hours, No Minutes, Small 24hr – Solar

Citizen BM8180

Citizen BM8180

Citizen BM8180-03E – Black Face – Big Hours, Small Minutes, No 24hr – Solar

So, three decisions:

  • Solar or Mechanical?
  • If Mechanical: Olive or Black watchface?
  • If Mechanical: Large Hours or Large Minutes?

The watchface decision is the easiest.  Olive watchfaces look odd with a black band, but black ones look fine with an olive or a black band – so black.  It also has more of a classic look, in my opinion.

Between the two mechanical Seiko watches, it’s a tough call.  The larger “minute” numbers make for easier timing of seconds or minutes, but I think I prefer the aesthetic of the larger hour numbers.  I also prefer a “12” at the noon position, rather than an arrow.  Here they are side-by-side:

Seikio SNK809 and SNZG815

Seikio SNK809 and SNZG815

This is a really tough call for me.  I can see the benefits to the SNK809 dial, and – if someone were to give me one for a month to carry around – I’d be willing to give it a try.  With that said, if I’m going to be spending my hard-earned money, I’d rather risk it on a watch I can read at a glance – that’s the SNZG815.

The two solar watches also offer a very tough choice.  Here they are side-by-side:

Citizen BM8180 and Seiko SNE095P2

Citizen BM8180 and Seiko SNE095P2

Wow!  I like the look of both of these watches!  The Seiko really captures the vintage Army feel that reminds me of the watch I (and I suspect everyone) bought at the PX in Basic Training.  The bezel looks a little too shiny, but that is hopefully just the angle of the flash in the photo.  I love the classic watchface on the Seiko.

The Citizen has a more contemporary look to it, and I am not a fan of the more exposed stem.  On the other hand, it’s the only watch with large numbers for the hours and small numbers for the minutes/seconds, making it easier to use the watch as a timer/stopwatch.  The Seiko almost looks too busy by comparison.

I would say that both watches are beautiful, elegant examples of what they set out to be.  The Citizen looks like the ideal contemporary solar field watch, and the Seiko looks like the ideal vintage-style one.  Again, a very tough call, but – by a narrow margin – I prefer the aesthetic of the Seiko.

So now…mechanical or solar.  Here they are side-by-side:

Seiko SNZG15 and SNE095P2

Seiko SNZG15 and SNE095P2

Seen side-by side (and ignoring the bands – I can always swap those at my leisure) it’s a no-brainer.  I really like the aesthetic of the SNE095P2.  In fact, the SNE095P2 has everything I like about the SNZG, only better.  Seeing them side-by-side makes me like the SNE even more, and it also gives me more appreciation for the SNK809 I previously rejected.

Ultimately, the winner based purely on online  aesthetics was – for me – the SNE095P2.  The vintage military styling sold me.  I’d love to have it as a purely mechanical watch (or to have any of the mechanical Seikos because I think they’re beautiful machines), but – if I’m only going to buy one watch – this one made the most sense.

Then it arrived…and I was greatly disappointed.  The clock face looked great, but the bezel looked cheap and far too shiny.  I sent it back, and went with the ultimate winner, the Citizen BM8180:

Citizen BM8180

Citizen BM8180

UPDATE:  I swapped out the band for a synthetic, olive band and have now had the watch for over a year.  It looks great, holds up very well, and keeps great time.  I highly recommend it!

____________________________________

Now, if only I could find an Astron for 95% off…

Also, a couple of honorable mentions that are out of my price range:

The Cabot Watch Company Automatic (available here)

The Hamilton Field Watch (needs a canvas band)

Here’s the vast majority of the watches I considered.

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