The pithy, opinionated, and sometimes brutally frank Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke challenges average guys to live a life less ordinary and embrace classic style in the broadest sense. it's time to rise above the trite, the boring, the predictable, the mundane, the banal, and the commonplace. It's time to stop behaving like barnyard animals at the trough and leave behind the perpetually sloppy man-child aesthetic of the last two decades or so. It's time to learn once again how to present and conduct yourself like an adult with some grooming, finesse, and sophistication. And here is where you can learn how.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Little Late Summer Toad Style. . .

A lovely illustration from the children's story The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame.

A pleasant little diversion this lovely, cool, and sunny mid-August morning from the ugliness of the world at home and abroad.  

Thanks to my writer and toy soldier friend in Dublin, Ireland, Conrad Kinch, for the illustration.  My sister and I enjoyed The Wind in the Willows as children during the 1970s and were given, at different times, copies of the book from Great Aunt Marnie and Great Aunt Lillian (my maternal grandfather's sisters), as well as Great, Great Aunt Polly (my maternal grandfather's aunt).  All three ladies always remembered us at Christmastime and when birthdays rolled around each year until their deaths in the 1980s and '90s.  

Weather cool enough for waistcoats and tweeds is still at least two months off, unless we have a chilly spell in September, but Mr. Badger above has got me thinking about it already.  Until then, I've got seersucker, linen, and a new moss green cotton suit by Belvest (plus a recently acquired Panama hat) that need pressing before the start of the autumn semester in two weeks.  Chino shorts, madras shorts, and dock-siders are nice during the summer, and I certainly get a lot of mileage with them, but I'm looking forward to getting dressed again in the mornings before school.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Classes for the Fall Semester Commence in Four Weeks. . .


Yesterday, August 1st, I bit the bullet and logged into my university email account after a six-week self-imposed summer moratorium.  Courses begin in four weeks on August 30th, so it seemed like the right thing to do as I crank the rusty gears back into motion following a few months of relative peace and quiet.

Among the 190+ emails sent to everyone about traffic diversions, construction on campus, very general messages to the university community from the president, the provost, etc., etc. were four or five emails that actually required my attention.  Most were from former students -- solid students -- requesting letters of support for one thing or another.  Not a problem.

Then there was an email from my chair, asking me to reply to another student from last spring, who contacted my chair in mid-July inquiring about his final grade for the course he (the student) had with me.  The student in question could have finished with a 91%.  In the end, he received a final grade of 3.0, a full point lower than the expected 4.0.  And the reason?  Excessive absences, which chipped away at this guy's eventual course grade during the final few weeks of the course.  Several students each semester run into the same problem. 

Now, before people barrage me with snippy messages about how unfair all of this is to the poor student(s), keep in mind that my courses are discussion-based.  This method of teaching has ancient roots by the way going back to the Greek philosopher Socrates at least.  The Socratic Method.  Look it up.  In any case, 20% of the overall course grade is for attendance, preparation, and meaningful participation through discussion.  These are not online courses, or open-ended non-credit courses in which students can tune in or out at will. 

Neither are my classes in dark 500-seat auditoriums where I cannot see the back of the room, cannot ascertain how many semi-warm bodies are actually present beyond the first few rows, or, of those present,  tell how many seem to be engaged.    My courses are much smaller, by comparison, consisting of between 25-50 seats.  We are in classrooms.  I can see everyone.  They can see me.  And while I use modern technology to some extent in my teaching, students still must be mentally awake as well as physically present to participate in and contribute to our discussions about gender, sexuality, race, class, and all of those other good things we cover in my courses during the 15 weeks we are together.

All of this information is presented clearly in the 14-page syllabus (14 PAGES!!!), which students have from the get-go on Day#1 of any given semester, and considerable time is spent covering all of this verbally during the first week of classes each term with reminders during the next several weeks.   Students can access the syllabus to review course policies and expectation at their convenience 24/7 since it is online.  Paper syllabi are a thing of the past, by the way, so losing the syllabus is not an excuse.  

Please note that students may, of course, miss a few days without any effect whatsoever on their course grade.  No explanations are necessary.  Exceeding that limit, though, alters the picture over time.  An example of possible consequences for one's grade is even provided in the syllabus to illustrate what can potentially happen to a student, who might otherwise finish the course with a solid grade.  This practice is neither unusual, nor cruel.  Many of my own professors when I was a student, as well as later colleagues, have had similar policies.  In sum, becoming MIA will eventually bite a student in the rear-end when absences exceed certain parameters stipulated by me, the big bad professor, one more permutation of "the man" who keeps everyone down, out, and disenfranchised.  Or so would some have you believe.

Most students each semester manage pretty well with these course policies.  They come ready to learn and eager to engage.  Or at least they attempt it and show some dilignece in the process.  The young man in question, not a freshman by the way, shot off his own two feet by missing more than the permitted number of days with no communication at the time of the absences during the semester.  What is  astounding to me is that classes ended in late April.  Final exam week concluded in early May.  This particular student waited until the middle of July to "inquire" about his final grade (to my chair no less).  Situations like this one are not unusual in the second decade of 21st century.  Another student dug a similar deep hole for herself, oddly in the same course, late last winter, missing almost half of the scheduled course meetings by Midterm in March and then denying everything when she came to ask about her attendance before Spring Break Week.  Sigh.

I don't know what it is like now in other countries, but my impression of fellow students when I studied at a large university in Norway 20+ years ago was very different.  Those young people, on the whole, were much more serious, a few years older in some instances, so more mature, more focused, more responsible generally speaking, and certainly much more independent.  Mom, Dad, and student support services of one kind or another did not interfere on their children's behalf as is the case here at home.  But maybe things have changed since I studied abroad?  

In any case, we have certainly done our utmost here in the United States, through a variety of ways, and thanks to a number of societal shifts over the last half century or so, to raise at least two generations of whiny, bed-wetting snowflakes (to borrow language from our more vehement talk radio personalities), who simply dissolve into puddles when faced with any form of opposition or unanticipated surprises.  They lack, among many other soft skills sought by employers who interview and evaluate entry-level job candidates from the so called millennial generation, emotional resilience.  I've actually read quite a bit about this issue recently if you are wondering, and it strikes me that far too many parents are crippling their children in a litany of ways by playing far too large a role in the lives of late adolescents and young adults.

Now, before anyone out there fires back with some passive-aggressive version of "It sounds like you must really hate your job!", nothing could be further from the truth.  I enjoy what I do by and large.  Most of my colleagues are pleasant individuals and do interesting work over and above their teaching commitments.  Moreover, I have many students each semester who are a joy to work with during and outside of class.  Interesting, focused, and driven young adults, who bring a great deal with them to each course.  About a third to possibly half of students at a stretch.  These personalities make the late nights, lengthy preparation for classes, and considerable time spent reading through papers and projects worth it.  

Then, there are the others, who seem to think that the world owes them something for nothing.  That because it is college, attending classes, for which they have paid and are enrolled, routinely and consistently is somehow optional and/or a grave inconvenience.  Why are students like this even clogging the system with their (sporadic) presence?  It is here that my own academic elitism and related indignation begins to seep out around the edges.  If young people are not even going to bother doing their best to learn and succeed, they ought to take their figurative ball and go home now.  Sooner rather than later.  Don't bother.  Drop out.  Live in Mom and Dad's basement until your mid-thirties.  Give your place at college or university to someone else.  There might be plenty of other young people out there who might be ready to jump at the chance for a college or university education and who might, just might hit the ground running and take every advantage that comes their way academically speaking to perform to a conscientiously high(-er) standard.  

The problem comes, I think, from the overwhelming sense of entitlement that so many people exhibit here in the U.S. now.  At some point, we became a throw-away society.  About everything.  People no longer value anything because they have never had to do without, work for, or struggle to achieve it.  The Great Depression generation, and its influence, is largely gone at this point.  Most things are accessible to most people in 2017, to the point that many take things, like a university education, completely for granted.  It has become almost as disposable as a cheaply made Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt.  Intellectual fast fashion.  After very limited use, or especially if we don't like something, we throw it away.  Or limp along half-heartedly and complain.  Vociferously.  In the mistaken belief that saying something often enough makes it true.  

We have done this to ourselves I suppose.  My own feeling is that college and university admissions ought to be more rigorous and competitive, with fewer attending in the first place.  That will never happen in the U.S. at this point for a variety of what I strongly suspect are financial "big business" reasons, among others, but I digress.   

Returning to the point at hand, it is also worth mentioning that I teach on a fairly large university campus.  If students find my specific courses less than interesting, there are plenty of other courses from which they might choose, and there is something called the Add-Drop period at the start of each new semester.  Different strokes for different folks as they say, and students are certainly free to drop my courses during the first 7-10 days or so of the term and re-register for others more in keeping with their interests and academic goals.  No problems.  No questions asked.  Not a biggie.  Few take the opportunity to do so however.

Keep in mind, where attendance and assignment deadlines are concerned, that if I am contacted by certain offices on campus about any medical or mental health issues that might arise for a student, or a sudden death in that person's family, then of course I will make reasonable accommodations.  Things like this happen, but rarely.  Most students who accrue excessive absences do so simply because they either cannot get their asses out of bed in time (although none of my classes are scheduled before 10am), or they lose track of how many course meetings they skip.  That is not, and should not be, the problem of professors, lecturers, or graduate teaching assistants on college and university campuses.  

On a related note, there has been much talk, and then some, in recent years about so called "student success," making everyone college-ready, student retention, graduation rates, and time to degree completion.  The figures are pretty depressing.  Lots of young people in the United States spend some time on a college or university campus somewhere, but only about a third to one half, depending on the study, actually graduate with a degree in hand.  The people screaming about this seem, though, in their righteous indignation, their mad dash to reform educational policy every few years, and their attempts to circumvent academic freedom and interfere with what teachers and professors do in their classrooms seem to forget something.  Ready?  Here it comes.  

The vast bulk of time and effort still must come from the students' side of the desk.  They need to pick up the ball, figuratively speaking, run with it, and simply do the work to an acceptable standard.  They must make full use of the amazing opportunity they have been given in many instances instead of throwing it away and treating a college or university education like a four- or five-year, all expenses paid (for the time being) party.  

Improving pedagogy and creating additional student support networks on two- and four-year campuses is a fine ideal, but that removes any responsibility from the students, who are, let's not forget, young adults.  They have credit cards, expendable income, cars, sex (for many), the right to vote, and the right to enlist in the armed services to kill others (legally) if necessary, as well as the right to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their actions.  If young adults enrolled in college or university make only very weak, occasional attempts, at best, to engage, how can they expect to perform any better than fair to middling in their studies or, indeed, their later lives? 

Here is the inconvenient truth that so many seem to ignore in 2017 although it stares them in the face.  Not everyone is going to earn a trophy.  Special recognition, as well as high grades, come from exceptional work that goes over and above the basic requirements.  Although being physically and mentally present in the room can help somewhat, not everyone is willing to make the necessary changes and prioritize things in their lives, nor is everyone, frankly, always able to achieve a high rate of academic success.  The theory of multiple intelligences is fine, and while many if not most of us can be taught to do many different things, assuming we buy into that thinking, you've got to come to the figurative table.  As television and newspaper advertisements for the Pennsylvania State Lottery used to intone when yours truly was a young sprat, "You've got to play to win!"  That slogan is apt when if comes to college and university students earning above average to high grades.

In any case, half-assed, careless attempts at something, causing one's own problems through inactivity, refusal to accept consequences when they occur, whining about it, and then blaming those problems on someone else ain't the way forward, ladies and gentlemen.  That kind of thing might be the current fashion, but it's certainly not classic style by any means. 

-- Heinz-Ulrich



Friday, July 28, 2017

It's High Summer at Totleigh-in-the-Wold. . .

The results of our joint efforts once we finished late this afternoon.

The Young Master and I spent the afternoon today brushing up our driveway and front walk by weeding, picking up twigs, raking, sweeping, transplanting some newly purchased plants, and finally putting up our flag and flagpole.  Almost a month after July Fourth!  Never mind.  The Grand Duchess was at work 15 minutes away on campus, so it was a good excuse for father and son to spend time together taking care of some external upkeep and getting things accomplished.  Our seven-and-a-half-year-old was extremely helpful all day. He pushed the cart at the supermarket and DIY bigbox store, and even offered to share his highly coveted Star Wars light sabre popsicles with ol' Dad once we finished, cleaned up, and stood back to admire our work before heading inside for dinner.

-- Heinz-Ulrich



Wednesday, July 12, 2017

It's Not Rocket Science. . .

A stretch of the former Berlin Wall, somewhere in Berlin during the 1960s from the look of the children.

Pardon the cliche, but after suffering through one more article online in the New York Times about the difficulties of, and barriers to, class mobility -- specifically access to the upper middle class -- it's hard to keep silent any longer.

First of all, let's be clear about one thing.  Lots of people manage to move up the socioeconomic ladder.  While not always easy, it remains entirely possible and within reach although many, it seems, prefer to think otherwise.  The following will, no doubt draw the righteous indignation of many readers, who will choose to interpret it as dismissive, elitist, and arrogant.  That is not the intent.  Instead, what I suggest below is meant as hard advice without any rosy sugarcoating or kid glove treatment whatsoever.  Ready?  Here we go.

Changes to one's social standing might actually have to start with (Surprise!) the individual.  It might require a change in the way one perceives and approaches the world.  It might require a shift in values and habits.  It might require that one quit whinging about how awful the 1%, the 20%, or the whatever are.  It might require minding one's own business and getting one's own house in order.  It might mean that one stop looking for handouts, free rides, quick fixes, and the easy way out.  It might necessitate learning to handle one's own problems, difficulties, and challenges through normal, socially accepted, and legal channels. 

 Moving up the socioeconomic ladder might also require a hard, difficult look at oneself.   Some deep soul-searching and reflection might be in order.  Who knows?  It might be time to lose the attitude.  It might mean changing yourself in some ways and adapting to that part of society into which you wish to move rather than expecting that same segment of society, or indeed the rest of the world, to change and adapt to you.  It might mean adopting an upwardly mobile, aspirational mindset, dirty words to many these days, who choose to see this trait as being, somehow, inauthentic or failing to keep it "real."  It might also mean, if you'll permit, leaving the metaphoric village behind, together with its own set of entrenched allegiances and prejudices.  

It might be time to bust your ass, even more than you have up to this point, take control of your life and situations, and do without certain luxuries, whatever those might be, for a while.  It might mean that you delay that insatiable need for instant gratification that consumes so many of us in the 21st century.

Instead, make tough choices and change your mode of thought if necessary.  Quit operating on the fringes of society and come to the party.  Value and embrace learning and take the necessary steps to get an education.  Make it a priority.  Develop healthy self-respect and realize that respect from others is earned.  Keep your nose clean.  Get control of your life and stop self-destructive habits.  Distance yourself from those who have them.  Is it easy?  No, but sometimes it is necessary to advance and achieve the sort of life you want for yourself.  

Lack of consistency is the enemy here.  Be  dependable and predictable instead.  Develop a routine.  Hold down steady employment.  We all have to keep jobs that are less than thrilling sometimes to pay the bills and put food on the table.   Manual, unskilled labor?  Punching a timeclock?  Calloused hands?  Sore back and feet for days on end?  Low wages and long days?  Yeah.  Been there, one that.  We all have to take occasional crap from above in these sorts of situations and keep our thoughts to ourselves.  That's life as my grandmother used to say.  Is it fair?  Not necessarily.  Is it real life?  Damn straight.

The important thing to remember is to keep one's eyes and ears open and learn from those around you.  Assuming they have personal and work habits worth emulating.   Never leave a job without something better (and legal) lined up.  Likewise, stabilize your relationship habits, in whatever form that might take, and limit your reproduction.  This doesn't originate with me.  There have been actual studies conducted, and I've read some of the resulting journal articles, which suggest that habits like those I mention in the preceding paragraphs enable people to turn their lives around.  Sometimes dramatically.  If not right away, then in a generation or two.  Stability, in its various forms, seems to have a direct correlation to earning potential and class mobility.

I would also add that it is vital to network constantly within your work and social circles.  Get involved in directing your own life.  Inform yourself.  Become part of a community and serve others in some way.  Meet people, make connections.  Contribute ideas.  Ask questions.  Listen to what others say in response.  Look for opportunity.  Be a team player, but also look for possibilities to emerge as a leader in some way.  Offer to take on more responsibility once in a while and make sure you do a good job executing the tasks at hand.  Work long hours occasionally.  Realize that you are a walking advertisement for yourself by how you come across to others through your skills and abilities, your performance, your appearance, your speech, and your behavior.  Develop your hard and soft skills if necessary.  In a nutshell, increased awareness and self-improvement are vital in turning things around and moving onward and upward in life.

There are plenty of opportunities out there for climbing the socioeconomic ladder.  Contrary to what seems to be a prevailing and entitled attitude these days, life ain't easy, and it ain't always a rose garden boys and girls.  There are no guarantees.  Nevertheless, it remains possible to pull oneself out from under whatever life has dropped in your lap.  And before anyone throws out the "privileged" label, I too have experienced my own setbacks and stumbling blocks, many due to my own uninformed, poor decisions at the time plus just damn bad luck at different points during my adult life so far.

The point is, quit talking endlessly about how bad you have it.  No more harping on all of the obstacles placed in your way by "the man" solely for the express purpose of keeping you down, out, and disenfranchised.  If you are not happy with the hand you have been dealt, do something (legal) about it.  Get up off your duff, dust off your hands, pull up your pants, tighten your belt, broaden your horizons, elevate yourself, and get on with things.  Develop some personal agency.  Take some responsibility.  Don't give up after one or two attempts.  Seize the day, take charge of your own destiny, and embrace the challenges and opportunities life throws your way.  Or, to use yet another cliche, if life gives you a bunch of lemons, figure out how to make lemonade.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

If You Make an Appointment, Keep It. . .


Here's another classic style tip that will cost nothing, and does not necessarily require that you are "dressed up" although you might be if it has anything remotely to do with your job (or getting a job).  When you make an appointment, keep it!

One more time, I have made sure that I am up early, showered, and dressed, so that I would be ready for an appointment with a service person who was to come by the house this morning to discuss a possible big ticket purchase and installation.  There are a number of things that need replacing here at Totleigh-in-the-Wold to keep things looking nice and relatively up to date in and around our vintage (tongue firmly in cheek, you understand) house built in 1985.  And once more, we have been stood up.  No call.  No voice mail.  No email.  Nothing.  Just like the old Ricky Nelson tune.

If this were a isolated incident, I would not be so annoyed, but this has happened repeatedly with various service people over the last nine years since we purchased our first house in Illinois and here in Mid-Michigan.  What is it with so called service providers who make an appointment and never turn up?  As my late maternal grandfather might have said, "Well son, I guess they just didn't want the business badly enough to bother calling or showing up."  Looks like we must contact another company now.

And the moral of today's story?  Whether it involves your job, interviewing for a job, performing well in your job, keeping your job, a money-making opportunity for you or the company you represent. . .  or you are simply lining up a social occasion in your private life, you move mountains to keep appointments.  Or just call and leave a message if you are detained.  Apologize for the delay and ask to reschedule.  It's the polite and considerate thing to do, guys.

-- Heinz-Ulrich

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Eyebrows Etc. . . .

Not me, or my barber's hand, but the photograph illustrates the point behind today's post.

Facial grooming -- and I don't mean shaving, mustache, or beard timming -- is something that a lot of guys seem to forget in the quest to kick up their style several notches.  And while I do not advocate the current trend for  "manscaping" and the bizarre, almost pathological need that many people these days seem to have to remove any and all body hair (like tattoos and piercings, I simply don't get it), it is important, however, not to forget smaller things like the ears, nose, and eyebrows.  

Have you ever tried to talk to someone with visible tufts of hair sticking out of his nostrils or ears?  Then you'll know what I mean.  It's like some bizarre hobbit version of The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells!

Anyway, where the ears and nose are concerned, it's easy  and fairly inexpensive to take care of yourself in the privacy of your own bathroom.  Pick up a trimmer at your local drugstore, pharmacy, or big box retailer like Target or Wal-Mart.  While it is possible to take care of one's own eyebrows every few weeks, that is a bit more tricky.  It's best to avoid ending up with Spock brows by mistake, or looking like Bob Geldof's character in the cinematic version of The Wall, who, if memory serves, shaved off his eyebrows with an old-fashioned safety razor at one point in the midst of a breakdown by asking your barber for assistance here.

If you're like me, your eyebrows might have started doing weird curly tricks not too long after the ol' 30th birthday.  It was somewhere around then that my barber at the time suggested a quick eyebrow trim during a haircut.  "Yes, please!" said I, and in a matter of 60 seconds both brows were neatened up, and I haven't looked back.

Asking your barber to trim your eyebrows is an easy, quick, and cheap way to improve your daily style without even the need to tuck in your shirt, put on a necktie or belt, or wear quality leather dress shoes.  Perish the thought!

-- Heinz-Ulrich