Saturday, March 25, 2017

Spring Cleaning for the Soul

Spring has sprung. The spring equinox has passed, the days are getting longer, and the winter chill is starting to thaw. Many schools are off for a week of Spring Break, and that's providing kids and families with the chance to re-charge and rejuvenate, whether they hang around for a stay-cation with long lazy mornings and cleaning out the basement or they head off for a week in Aruba. It's also the time for a little re-charging of our personal and professional lives and choices. To that end, around this time of year each spring, my AP English Lang class does a brief, non-AP unit about life and how to live it. The foundational text is a wonderful little fable by Paulo Coehlo called The Alchemist, and the unit draws in a variety of supplemental pieces designed to generate reflection from the kids on how they feel about the life they are choosing to live.

One question I ask them is whether they are "sitting on their ticket." By that I mean are they procrastinating and putting off the things they really want to do. The metaphor is a reference to beautiful anecdote from the twentieth-century American sage, Robert Fulghum, who many of us know as the author of the book/essay All I Need to Know about Life I Learned in Kindergarten. In one of Fulghum's many essays from another book, he tells a humorous story about a young woman he encountered years ago who was stuck at the airport because she was sitting on her ticket. That moment and phrase became a metaphor and guiding principle for Fulghum to always remind himself to get on with what he really wants to do with his life. 

Another bit of sagely advice that I share with my students comes from a guest spot on Oprah. It's been a few years now, but many of you may recall the story of a man named Randy Pausch who became known for his Last Lecture. The lecture from the Carnegie Mellon professor who was dying of pancreatic cancer became a viral hit on YouTube.com as well as a best-selling book. It was a bit of advice and a few principles for how to life your life and achieve your childhood dreams, and it was based on the simple idea that if "you live your life correctly, the dreams will come to you." Here's the clip from Pausch's appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show:




Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Norway has the happiest people - And the key is the bureaucracy

So, the other day I met with a family from Denmark because they are relocating to the United States, and they were in the country looking at schools. When I mentioned that story at the dinner table later that night my daughter said, "Why?! No, tell them to go back. They already live in the happy place." Her reaction was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it reflected a genuine sentiment in contemporary America that things are better elsewhere. And everyone knows that the Danes are the happiest people on earth. That is until this year when they were edged out by the country of Norway. According to the recent "World Happiness Report," the country of Norway beats Denmark for the happiest people. What I found really interesting was the reasoning - it may be the bureaucracy that is the key to happiness. Of course, it's not the bureacracy in the negative American sense with all the implications of incompetence at the DMV and the cushy government salaries drawn from the tax dollars of the hardworking common man. It's instead a trust in the standard institutions of society that provide stability and "a sense of the common good." In reality, it's the stressors of daily life around safety, health, and well-being that cause the most anxiety among people. If those are removed by a basic trust and understanding that the police serve and protect, that the schools provide a respectable education, and that the family won't be bankrupted by medical bills, then it's easy to understand why Norgwegian countries with a strong sense of community and a stable social welfare system produces happiness among their people. As Norway resident and comedian Harald Eia explains,

“The answer to why Norwegians are happy — it’s a bit boring — it’s well functioning institutions,” explained Norwegian comedian Harald Eia. “The schools, health care, police, all the bureaucracy treat people with respect and that trickles down and makes us happy, makes us trust each other, makes us feel a part of the whole community. So it’s very boring: bureaucrats are the secret to our happiness.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CO's Conservatives need to stand up to Libertarians on Roads

Personal responsibility is one of the central tenets of conservatism, and it has been foundational thinking for conservatives since the days of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. The problem for American conservatives in the twenty-first century is that the GOP and its brand of "Republicanism" has an agenda and ideology, but it's not really what could be called conservative. Nowhere is this disconnect between party and philosophy more apparent than in Colorado, where the state legislature is trying to fill its potholes by filling a serious gap in revenue and budgetary responsibility. As the Denver Post recently opined, Republican "Sen. Kevin Grantham is a statesman standing up for transportation." His bipartisan bill to raise transportation funds by simply asking taxpayers to approve a one-cent/dollar increase in state sales tax for twenty years is the epitome of personal responsibility and legislative leadership. Yet, among the loud and rigidly unproductive Libertarian voices in Colorado, the very idea of even asking taxpayers for the money is being squashed. No one typifies this lack of personal responsibility more than the head think-tanker at the Independence Institute, Jon Caldera. While Caldera recently used a rather absurd analogy about taxes and date rape to assert that the important part of Colorado's constitution is that the government must simply "ask" for the tax revenue rather than just take it, he contradicts his own position by opposing the simple opportunity for Grantham and the legislature to ask taxpayers. It's as if he is violating his standard tenet that only liberals don't trust voters to choose for themselves. Now, Caldera and other "free market libertarians" are crying foul at the very idea that the government ask for money. Instead, Caldera and his echo chamber have floated their own idea of fiscal irresponsibility with a bill that seeks to find transportation funding in an already stripped down state budget. These not-even-conservative thinkers have crafted a bill with the (in their mind clever but actually crass) title "Fix Our Damn Roads. When people like Caldera craft legislative ideas around the idea of revenue and government budgets, you can be certain that the idea of personal responsibility will be tossed aside in exchange for their standard position that no new tax revenue could possibly be necessary or amenable to the people of Colorado. It was conservative thinker Edmund Burke who articulated the most important principal of the government's fiscal responsibility in that "The revenue of the state is the state." Failure to have simply pragmatic discussion of that idea is the reason that Coloradans so rarely find conservative principles in the decisions of their Republican leaders. However, there is hope if people like Sen. Grantham can stave off the Tea Party attacks of his bill and his leadership.

Oh, and for a great tongue-in-cheek response to the silly FODR bill, look no further than the recent editorial from Aurora-Sentinel editor Dave Perry who asks Caldera and people who naively endorse his ideas to "Pay your damn share if you want your damn Colorado roads fixed."

New to Jazz? Just follow Bret Saunders

I've been getting my jazz on lately, and my world is infinitely better for it. However, it's tough to come into the jazz world later in life because the vocabulary and the players and the rules are just off-center from what so many of us know. So, it can be helpful to have a guide if you want to immerse yourself in the world of jazz beyond the classics that we all know and love. Certainly, I can listen to my Pandora.com "Cool Jazz" station every day and continually go back to classics like "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck or "My Favorite Things" by John Coletraneor even a sublime but less well-known jazz re-telling of a contemporary song like "Dear Prudence" from the Brad Meldhau Trio. But if you want to stay up on who's doing what in the present jazz circuit, then look no further than Denver's own KBCO host Bret Saunders. Saunders regularly writes for the Denver Post as well, and last weekend he offered a great write-up on "the best of jazz so far this year."

The trio Harriet Tubman has collaborated with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith on a bracing set of tracks titled “Araminta” (Sunnyside Records). These smoldering, brief pieces of state-of-the-art funk and rock are the ideal showcase for Smith’s ageless post-Miles horn, Brandon Ross’ massive guitar sound, Melvin Gibbs’ more-thunderous-than-Thundercat bass, and the exhilarating drum fills of JT Lewis. The chemistry of these artists, brought on by decades of collective wisdom, is ideal, and the level of communication is at a very high level. The effect of “Araminta” is that of a splash of cold water to the face of current jazz music, and in the first three months of 2017, I haven’t enjoyed any new recording as much.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Jack Kerouac Turns 95 Today

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, the ones who are desirous of everything at the same time, who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop, and everybody goes "Awww."

With that beautiful, rambling, labrynthine piece of poetic syntax, the Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac won my heart and blew my mind, just as he did for millions of others longing for a little something more and a little something different in their art and in their lives. The darling, the godfather, the voice of the Beats and the Hippies and even the punks would have turned 95 today, and sixty years after the publication of On the Road, the world is celebrating the man who turned us all on to a new way of thinking as we went in search of old Dean Moriarty.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Buffy Turns 20

I don't know if it is "the greatest show in the history of television," but among pop culture fans and critics there should be little doubt that Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Joss Whedon's brilliant piece of 90s post-feminist storytelling - is an iconic bit of film-making with archetypes, unique dialogue, and narrative arcs that changed and defined television and pop culture for a generation. Few shows are so influential that they literally spawn a portmanteau word to describe their impact - as in The Buffyverse - and become a topic of such sholarly commentary that they are worthy of collegiate investigation and review. Today is the twentieth anniversary of the premiere Buffy on the independent WB Network, and the celebration has led to a treasure trove of writing that should satiate Buffy fans for weeks ... or at least the weekend.

Two great pieces for new members to the "Scooby Gang" to start on come from a great pop culture news gatherer The Guardian - writer Lucy Managan explains how Buffy represents "the thrilling birth of TV as art" and none other than the man Giles himself shares insight and a nostalgic explanation of how Buffy became "a feminist parable for everyone." At a time when the rise of women's issues are facing some of the greatest challenges in decades, it's worth re-visiting and reviewing how a young and reluctant female warrior set a tone of empowerment and inspired both passion and empathy.

Everywhere was thickly strewn but lightly handled metaphor. While the vampires stood for all they have ever stood for – rebellion, subversion, predation and sexuality – Buffy, by virtue of her slayer status, was the perennial outsider, a walking (“in stylish yet affordable boots”) embodiment of teenage alienation. Individual episodes dramatised particular adolescent fears. In Witch, a domineering mother literally takes over her daughter’s life via a bodyswitch. In Family, timid Tara is nearly taken out of college by her father and brothers who aver that their demonic heritage means all the women in their family become evil when they reach adulthood – it turns out to be a myth perpetrated by the men of the family down the generations to keep the women passive. And when Buffy sleeps with her ensouled-vampire boyfriend, he turns into a different person overnight and rejects her the next morning. In his case it was because of a gypsy curse that de-souls him, but teenage girls everywhere nodded sagely, sighed, and wished they too could simply stake their first loves through the heart. At the end of season two, Buffy “comes out” as a slayer to her mother, who asks her if there is any way she could stop being one and throws her out when she says she can’t. In later series, the gay subtext is made text via a relationship between Willow and Tara, still one of the most positive, remarkable-in-its-unremarkability and, alas, rare depictions of young lesbian love around.



My daughter will turn twelve soon, and she already knows that her Buffy education begins this summer when we break into Season One. Being a theater girl, she has already seen the legendary musical episode, and she is familiar with many of the characters. But as she heads deep into middle school, it's time she comes to understand the role of The Slayer.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Adult School - Raising 35-year-olds

What do you need to know to be an adult? Is the quadratic equation necessary info, or is it more important to understand how to cook, budget, and get car insurance? These questions are time-honored standards for society and the older generations to ask of young people as they enter the earning years. As the Millennial generation starts getting into its late 20s and early 30s, the word on the street is that this much fawned over and over-parented group lacks the basic life skills to make it on their own. Of course, as I've noted, this sort of criticism is generally made of all younger generations. However, now it appears as if an industry is developing to teach these emerging adults the basics of life. It's amusingly becoming known as "Adulting School."

They tend to be millennials and women. Lindsay Rowe Scala, 32, said she is trying to figure out how to save for the future and pay off school debt. "In job interviews, they're always asking 'Where do you want to see yourself in five years?' " she said. "And I never know how to answer that because I'm always thinking on how to survive today and next week and what's coming up." Holly Swyers, an associate professor of anthropology at Lake Forest College who has researched adulthood, said this stress goes back generations. She said part of the problem is that classes that teach life skills, like home economics, aren't emphasized and there is no dedicated place to learn adult skills.
When I first read of this, I was reminded of a phrase I heard recently in a professional development presentation around the idea of supporting students' affective needs, or "social emotional growth." While schools are - and should be - predominantly focused on curricular areas of academic and/or career-oriented content and skills, the educators should also work on cultivating life skills such as interpersonal relationships, executive functioning, learning culture, and self-awareness. In talking about these skills and understanding that are beyond concepts such as US history and algebra, a presenter noted that we are in the job of "creating 35-year-olds." In other words, we are preparing kids to become productive adults. And doing so includes more than simple academics.

This idea reminds me of a popular book that circulated my community in the past year or so - How to Raise an Adult by Julie Hythcott-Haims.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

30 Years Ago "That Kiss" happened with the release of Some Kind of Wonderful

John Hughes is undoubtedly the sage of teen films, and his short spectacular run of teen movies in the mid-1980s set the standard for teen cinema and "dramadies" for decades to come. Everyone knows the classics like Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club. But an equally endearing film that wasn't huge at the box office but developed an appropriate cult following in re-runs is Hughes' last film, Some Kind of Wonderful. The bittersweet comedy of Keith, Watts, and Ms. Amanda Jones turns 30 this week. And this classic story of romance and friendship endures decades later.

This month marks the 30th anniversaries of both the release of “Some Kind of Wonderful,” the last teen movie written by the genres’ 1980s svengali John Hughes, and the relationship between the film’s director Howard Deutch and star Lea Thompson, who met on set and began dating around the time of the “Wonderful” premiere. Unfairly branded as a gender-reversal retread of “Pretty in Pink,” a Hughes/Deutch collaboration from the year before, “Some Kind of Wonderful” was not a box office hit upon its release at the end of February 1987. Yet it endures as a late-arrival classic that holds its own among its better known Hughes siblings from the era, like “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Recent fair-minded portraits of young people and the uncertain boundaries of friendship and love — “Juno,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Edge of Seventeen” — can legitimately be called its nieces and nephews.
And, who could forget "that kiss":



Monday, February 27, 2017

Colorado must fix TABOR law on revenue/spending

The state budgets of both Illinois and Colorado - my two homes in the past 15 years - are rather screwed up, albeit in very different ways and for very different reasons. Basically, revenue doesn't match spending obligations and basic government responsibilities, and the laws and legislators of both states are so hamstrung as to be an almost Gordian knot of ideological absurdity. In Colorado, the issue has come to a head, as state transportation and education budgets are strained to the limit even as the state's economy is roaring and population is booming. Residents of the Rocky Mountain state can blame this inconsistency on a 25-year-old constitutional amendment known as TABOR, or the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. It was a law pushed through by a small group of anti-government zealots and sold to somewhat naive voters who simply wanted the right to vote on any tax increases. That "right" in itself is understandable. It's the correlary garbage of the law (that most voters never read or understood) that has caused such problems in a state that should be in much better shape. Now, as the law turns a quarter century, and the current crop of "yeoman legislators" seek to fill potholes and classrooms, the state is reflecting on the mess. This weekend the Denver Post pulled together some great pieces of commentary and analysis as food for thought, and tomorrow they will host a public forum on the issue. The most concise and accurate analysis of the problems comes from writer Tim Hoover who is asking legislators and voters to "Break antiquated tax policy of TABOR." Here's the problem in a nutshell:

Worse, though, TABOR has imposed a formula on state government that guarantees it will never be able to keep up with rising costs. TABOR says state revenue may only grow by the rate of inflation plus population every year. So if inflation is 2 percent and population grows by 2 percent, revenue can grow 4 percent. Any revenue collected above that limit must be rebated to taxpayers. This sounds like something based on economic policy. It isn’t. TABOR uses the Consumer Price Index as the guide to inflation, meaning that it measures increases in prices for clothing, food, plane tickets, toasters and so on. These are all consumer goods, not goods purchased by government. The state buys road construction, school teachers, college classrooms, public safety and other goods and services consumers don’t. The way government buys things is really not much different from how businesses buy things. Someone who owns a construction company might look at the price of lumber, bricks and construction workers. They wouldn’t try to gauge their costs based on the prices of shoes, cottage cheese and basketballs. Just as government does, businesses look at costs in their sector of the economy.
In effect, the people of Colorado could fix this problem quite easily. Re-write TABOR so that voters still have to approve any tax increases .... and scrap every other part of the law and its nonsense formulas. The tax approval is the one thing CO voters agree on, and many concede that they voted for it based on only that idea. In fact, many I've talked to admit they thought that was the only thing the law did. That limited knowledge is, in effect, the problem with democracy. But that's OK - the beauty of our republic is that our government and our laws can always be changed. It's just a question of whether people have the will to do so.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Edge of Seventeen - a smart, poignant teen film

For those of us in Generation X who were raised by the wisdom and insight of Mr. John Hughes and his often funny but always poignant 80s teen films, there is hope for the genre. If you grew up commiserating with Andy, Claire, John, Andrew, and Allison in The Breakfast Club, and you haven't had a chance to see writer/director Kelly Freemon Craig's film The Edge of Seventeen with Hailee Steinfeld, then you owe it to yourself to reserve an evening soon for this film. Our family recently sat down togther to spend time with the endearing yet neurotic Nadine as she struggles to make sense of her life and come to grips with things beyond her control ... like when your best and only friend starts dating your brother.

K Freemon Craig has crafted a raw and authentic story that is funny, poignant, innocent, and upifting all at the same time. In doing so, she has captured the same magic of authenticity to the teen experience that endeared Hughes' characters to us thirty years ago. That's some pretty high praise to be sure, and one film does not make a career, but I am impressed with the film's honesty in a portrayal of teen drama that engages without pandering, and informs without exaggerating. Like so many of us, Nadine is faced with emotional challenges that we can't fathom other people even beginning to understand. And Craig has embedded some sharp, honest, and direct lessons about the teen experience. The teen dramedy is a time-honored genre that too often falls short in deliving entertainment and a message in a balanced way. That's not the case with #Edgeof17 which may be "the best teen film in years."

The formats for expressing it may have changed—diary to Facebook post, notes passed in class to anxious text messages—but teen angst remains mostly the same. That’s a fact evidenced beautifully in the entirely winning new teen dramedy The Edge of Seventeen, a funny, perceptive, and deceptively deep look at a high-school junior’s very bad couple of weeks. (Opening November 18.) The film, from promising writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, traverses familiar teen territory: an impossible crush, a prickly-lovable teacher-mentor, a mom who just doesn’t understand. But Craig’s script, and her subtly artful direction, favor the minor chords of these old melodies, digging under the obvious jokes to examine what animates them. The Edge of Seventeen, for all its sprightly verve and wit, may be the best map of teen depression I’ve seen in a long time.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Matt Lewis and the Burkean, Kirk-ean story of Conservatism

"I'm a man without a party." 

That revelation was shared with me this weekend by an acquaintance, as we waxed philosophic about the political events of recent weeks. The President-elect's mystifying war with the media had left that former free-market Republican feeling as if he didn't recognize the political party of his youth. "I voted for Evan McMullen" he explained. It's not an uncommon feeling for many conservatives, though the reality is that many in the party no longer even understand what it means to be conservative. While that in and of itself is not necessarily a problem, it can be for those who are feeling "conservative, but not Republican."

I've been thinking a lot about political ideology in recent weeks, especially as the Republican Party continues to deal with the rift in its identity. For moderates like me, the GOP has been an unwelcome place for at least a few decades, and the Reagan Democrats have been left with little choice but to become independents. In realilty, the definitions of liberal/progressive and conservative have blurred in relation to political party, and as a student of political history, I am bothered by the appropriation of the terms. Maybe I shouldn't be. But language matters to me, and I challenge the current herd of Republicans who tout conservatism as their belief system when they don't really know or represent what that means. 

For that reason, I am really enjoying Matt Lewis' timely and thoughtful examination of politics and party, Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections ... Lewis is definitely one of the rising stars in conservative commentary, and his well-researched history and analysis of conservatism and its relationship to the GOP is insightful to say the least. It's quite a sad development that "a majority of registered GOP voters don't even know what the acronym stands for," and most have never heard of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk. Perhaps they don't care, and maybe that knowledge doesn't matter. Still, knowledge and education matter for those who think critically about their world. And, like the work of George Will and David Frum before him, Lewis has some important conclusions about the state of conservatism and the Republican Party.




Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Compulsory National Service

Went to a debate tournament this week - and had the most ridiculous argument about the idea of "compulsive national service." Is it a good idea? Uh .... no. Not even close to a good idea.