Sunday, December 10, 2017

Mendelsohn: a father & son study The Odyssey

Man, I really dig smart people. And veteran scholar and critic Daniel Mendelsohn definitely qualifies as one of the smartest people in the contemporary humanities world. If you're a reader, and especially if you are a reader of reviews and essays on the classics and humanities, you've most likely read some DM before, as he has been publishing critical commentary for years. Now he's released perhaps his most personal work with his re-visiting of Homer's The Odyssey in a seminar class at Bard College with his 81-year-old father sitting in on the class. Wash Post writer Wendy Smith offers an engaging and inviting overview of the man and his project as "Daniel Mendelsohn learns that teaching his dad 'The Odyssey' is a classic trip."

Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the finest critics writing today and the most broadly erudite, as comfortable and astute assessing blockbuster movies as he is when writing about classical Greek and Roman literature. He’s also an elegant and moving memoirist, of his personal history in “The Elusive Embrace” and of his family’s entanglement with the Holocaust in “The Lost.”  His lovely new book, “An Odyssey,”draws on all Mendelsohn’s talents as he braids critical exegeses into intimate reminiscences to illuminate them both. His 2011 seminar at Bard College on the “Odyssey” becomes a voyage of discovery not just for his students but also for Mendelsohn, who gets more than he bargained for when his 81-year-old father, Jay, decides to sit in on the class.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Art, more art - in Denver

Some time around a year ago, I concluded that what I need more of in my life was art. Art, jazz, photography, food, culture, .... life. The reality was that while I am pretty well-established and successful in my personal and professional lives, I was reeling from a sense of ennui, and I needed to be reminded that music, art, literature, and culture are the "things we stay alive for." For that reason, I am glad that even as a school administrator, I have remained in the classroom with a connection to the humanities that give us meaning and understanding. And I am also thankful for writers and critics like Denver's Ray Rinaldi and the Denver Post for continuing to cover the art world as an indispensable part of news and society. Reading about those neighborhoods where art is thriving, I am inspired and fulfilled, not to mention reminded to see the world like an artist.

These days, the Golden Triangle is the serious contender. While other districts have been turned upside down by gentrification, the triangle has remained a reliable place to see good work, due mostly to the fact that four of the city’s most venerable and trusted dealers call it home, with William Havu, Sandra Phillips, Tina Goodwin and Bobbi Walker all running namesake businesses within a few blocks of each other. The neighborhood also happens to overlap geographically with the city’s well-hyped Museum District, which means it hones in on the arty aura of the Clyfford Still Museum, the Denver Art Museum, The Art hotel and, starting in March, the newly relocated Kirkland Museum.

The world is alive. Get out there and see it.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

George Will explains the Wedding Cake/Gay Marriage Issue

Making a cake is not practicing or "exercising" Christianity. For me, it's that simple. It's all in the words of the amendment:

Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Having been born and raised Catholic, and having practiced that religion for many years, I understand the perspective of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Philips, who believes that his religion and faith do not approve of homosexuality and subsequently the legality/legitimacy of same-sex marriage. That said, I cannot fathom how he extrapolates that belief into arguing that conducting business at his cake shop constitutes violating his religious beliefs. While I do know the origin of the opposition to homosexuality in Scripture, I also know that doing a job is not practicing the religion, and nowhere in Scripture does it expect, command, or encourage the faithful to deny doing business with anyone, including those believed to be in a state of sin.

Making a cake ain't going to church or receiving a sacrament, Jack, and thus you are wrong in your interpretation of your faith, the Constitution, and the law.

Conservative writer George Will expounds on the issue as well this week in his commentary, More Wrongs than Rights in Masterpiece Cake Shop Case anticipating the Supreme Court ruling on the cake issue and Colorado's anti-discrimination legislation.

The First Amendment speaks of speech; its presence in a political document establishes its core purpose as the protection of speech intended for public persuasion. The amendment has, however, been rightly construed broadly to protect many expressive activities. Many, but there must be limits.
Phillips was neither asked nor required to attend, let alone participate in, the wedding. Same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Colorado, so Craig and Mullins were to be married in Massachusetts. The cake was for a subsequent reception in Denver. But even if the cake were to have been consumed at a wedding, Phillips’ creation of the cake before the ceremony would not have constituted participation in any meaningful sense.
I do believe Will goes a bit off base when he criticizes the plaintiffs for filing the case. Sure they could have gone to other shops, George. But that's not the point. Other consumers in other towns might not have that luxury, so the case had to be resolved, and Philips had to be sued.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Stop Reporting Local Bad News

There was another traffic accident (break in, house fire, fight, robbery, hit-and-run, etc.) in Colorado today. I would know about this event, of course, if I happened to tune in for my local news, broadcasts which are seeing a noticeable decline according to recent sweeps.

The chief reason for the decline is obvious: Digital devices continue to draw attention away from television as younger audiences desert the medium in droves. According to a September 2017 Pew Report, in a drastic change from a generation ago, “the internet substantially outpaces TV as a regular news source for adults younger than 50.” It’s also possible that KUSA was hurt by the loss of a viewer favorite, longtime anchor Adele Arakawa, who left in June after 24 years on top of the ratings.

Or perhaps it's because the stories they feature are not really news. Perhaps one reason viewership declines is that no one really needs to, or wants to, hear news about a traffic accident or criminal act that is not "newsworthy" to others in any relevant way. Henry David Thoreau in Walden: or, Life in the Woods noted that "to a philosopher all news is gossip," and he can't fathom ever getting much communication via mail or otherwise that was actually worth the paper it was printed on.

Daily life in contemporary America, especially in a large metropolitan area like Denver, is filled with fascinating and newsworthy stories with pertinent information and knowledge that can lead to a more erudite population. But single traffic accidents or singular instances of criminal activity like robberies and break-ins aren't such information. When I flip the news on and see a report on a local crime, followed by a traffic accident, followed by a house fire, followed by .... well, you know, then I am uninterested and turn off the news. I am not a more informed citizen, voter, father, teacher, or neighbor because I learned of a traffic accident in Thorton or a robbery in Aurora.

Give viewers more illuminating matter, and perhaps they will return.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

New Policy for Dept on Ed Civil Rights?

"So, can a teacher have a Christmas tree and a crucifix on his/her desk?"

As we approach the "holiday season," which of course includes Christmas, the annual questions about religious holiday displays on public property will once again flare up on news commentary and social media. There are clear guidelines for what can be deemed acceptable displays, but those are always going to be contextual based on the time, place, and people. And these questions are part of a larger socio-cultural question about civil rights in schools that spans a range from Christmas songs to reading lists.

At the federal level it appears there will be some changes in how the US Dept of Education handles such issues, with the emphasis moving to "individual complaints rather than systemic problems."

WASHINGTON — The Education Department wants to narrow the scope of civil rights investigations at schools, focusing on individual complaints rather than systemic problems, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press. Under the Obama administration, when a student complained of discrimination in a particular class or school, the education agency would examine the case but also look at whether the incident was part of a broader, systemic problem that needed to be fixed. Proposed revisions to the department's civil rights procedures, distributed last week among civil rights officials at the department, remove the word "systemic" from the guidelines.
It seems unimaginable to me that we still debate reading lists and are "banning" books like Fahrenheit 451, but apparently that's where we still are.

Monday, November 27, 2017

"The World is Too Much with Us ..."

In these times, these strangely complicated, yet oversimplified times, it's worth looking back to the 18th century for some insight from the masters. Is our progress really a regression? Do we "lay waste our powers" when we spend too much time "getting and spending"? Is there something we can learn from "heading out under the open skies and listening to Nature's teachings"?

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. --Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn

Ponder and get back to me.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Does Bill Gates Ignore the Family Connection?

In reading a bit of commentary from The Villager, a community newspaper in southeast Denver, I ran across an interesting bit of ed-reform criticism from writer Joneen Mackenzie, who publishes a regular relationship column for the paper. Mackenzie's piece about how "Families Play a Key Role in Child's Success" calls out Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation for ignoring and excluding the role of family relationships as they seek to reform and improve public education. Specifically, she references and summarizes an article by Ian Rowe of the Fordham Institute that criticizes Gates and all his "investments" in ed-reform because of his "Neglecting to mention family structure and stability—and, more importantly, omitting any strategy to use schools to strengthen those levers—undermines the very ability of all of us who have committed our lives to improve outcomes for children." 

This important factor in the academic success of children is a complicated bit of sociology, and it poses a challenging dilemma for anyone attempting to improve educational outcomes for students whose lives outside of school not only fail to support an academic focus but more than like subvert and compromises them. The tough conversation also wades into complicated socio-cultural arguments about the importance of two-parent homes and the ability of all parents to adequately contribute to their children's education. If we're being honest, we can't fix or solve the challenges kids face outside of their school time. Or can we?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

We Need Electricians more than Business Majors

About a month ago I helped coordinate and host a career fair at our high school, and the information students can glean about careers is incredibly important these days. Nearly two dozen trade schools, contractors, and career association reps provided information to our students about working in culinary arts, cosmetology, plumbing, landscape design, auto-body repair, and electrical trades. In chatting with a representative from the electricians apprenticeships, I was surprised (well, not really) to learn that a journeyman electrician with several years experience and working forty hours a week can pull in as much as $80,000 annually. And there is no drought for work in Colorado - in fact, there is a shortage for this sort of skilled labor, and job vacancies with impressive salaries abound. Some electricians who are willing to travel and stay at job sites for 2-6 months or longer can expect to pull down high six figures (even reaching $200K) because contractors are so desperate for skilled electricians that in some places they pay time-and-a-half for the first forty hours a week. At a time with the average family income in the United States hovering around $54K, and a time when the average college student is carrying loan debt of $30K or more, the news on opportunities for electricians needs more prominence. And, rather shockingly, one of the primary reasons for such a shortage of laborers is the inability of people to reliably show up for work five days a week and be able to pass a drug test. Yes, thanks to marijuana legalization, it seems everyone who could or would work in the trades can't be trusted to actually do the job. Now, that's truly sad.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Edward Luce & the "Time to Start Thinking" about the "Retreat of Western Liberalism" and making "America Great Again"

It's hard to believe that Edward Luce first warned of the risks to American greatness and the "retreat of Western Liberalism" way back in 2011 with his first book Time to Start Thinking. That was back when Mitt Romney was squaring off against Barack Obama in a smart, well-argued presidential campaign between two clear-thinking and respectable leaders who simply had different ideas about the challenges facing American society in the twenty-first century. What happened to that? Oh, to go back to a time when we argued about whether Russia was a friend or enemy. It seems so quaint.

The challenges facing American society on the multiple fronts of economics, finance, politics, culture, and world vision are not beyond us if we're willing to think long and hard about them as we debate who we are and how we got here. And that quest for clarity and truth can certainly be helped by the erudite views of a (somewhat) objective observer without the baggage of American identity politics. Enter Edward Luce, columnist for the Financial Times and writer of several books on geo-politics and finance. Luce has the education and insight to offer critical analysis of our economic sector and the misplaced emphasis on corporate spreadsheets rather than wages and spending power. He also has some pretty powerful revelations about our misunderstanding of what our own military leaders think in regards to their mission and their budget.

In Time to Start Thinking, Luce covers in-depth "The Lonely Middle Class" and its struggles to survive amidst growing automation, innovation, and re-direction. Sadly, Americans continually look to Washington and politics as the source of our troubles, but the reality is that our society has frayed throughout a decreased sense of community, a misguided understanding of economics, an outdated approach to education, and a refusal to align downturns in finances and employment with the true deciders in those areas.  Perhaps the best part of Luce's books is found in his opposition to including a checklist of policy suggestions which will repair our present and improve our future. Those have become all too cliche. Instead his book simply offers important history and perspective to consider.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Greenwood Village Zones Out the Middle Class

Well, in light of last night's election, I will lamentably post my recent piece of commentary published in The Villager about life in the Village.

When my family moved to Greenwood Village, we joked that “the Village zones against tornadoes.”
It seemed like every storm headed south or north of the Tech Center.

Zoning in GV is no small matter, as anyone who has remodeled knows, but it used to be about property, not people. Voters should scrutinize plans which zone against small businesses and middle-class earners, as the opposition to mixed-use development near the Landmark did.

While some residents seem to prefer high-rise offices or empty lots over small shops, restaurants and homes, others prefer pragmatic review of individual projects, rather than rigid rejection of any new buildings or residents.

To be clear, no City Council candidates or residents are actually “pro-density,” and it’s disingenuous to argue they are. No one seeks “high-density urbanization” that brings crime to neighborhoods, traffic to the streets and undesirables to our community and schools. Such exaggerated fear mongering should be viewed cautiously by voters.

In reality, we need rational discussion about community development. Greenwood Village is a city of 15,000 people with a small-town feel and ample parks amidst a thriving corporate sector in the Denver Tech Center. Yet, areas around I-25 have outdated property that could be updated to feature open spaces, restaurants, offices and housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and condos. In fact, that was the vision behind the Landmark, a mixed-use area quite popular with residents, despite those unsightly residential towers.

Last year at a local charity event, a councilmember told me, “I want single-family homes, not condos.” Perhaps unintentionally, he revealed an inclination to exclude people like me from his city. As an educator earning a middle-class income, I probably can’t afford a house in Greenwood Village, but I value living in the neighborhood where I teach, and I can afford my townhouse near school.
Middle-class Americans earn between $50-100,000 a year, making it tough to buy houses. By opposing any multi-family housing, some residents seem intent on excluding teachers, police officers, firefighters, healthcare workers and city employees from living in the very neighborhoods they serve.

The Village has rarely seen such controversy over our sense of community. There was no outcry over new houses on One Cherry Lane and no opposition to the subdivision built just west of Peoria. No candidates fought the new development just south of Belleview.

So, what has happened to our Village and what caused such harsh reactions to community development? Why have we seen such vitriolic comments about our public servants and our neighbors? Village residents should ask themselves, who are we as a community? Is Greenwood Village closed? Or can we reach a civil compromise that promotes responsible growth while preserving the Village?

If the free market prices consumers out of a neighborhood, that’s a natural effect of capitalism. But if government zones to ensure that exclusivity, well, that’s just sad.

Perhaps some residents would prefer to just build a wall around Greenwood Village

Monday, November 6, 2017

No, We Don't Need a Class Called "Life 101"

If you are on Facebook, you have probably seen a meme about schools needing a "mandatory class called Life 101" that teaches basic skills everyone should know. It looks something like this:

Often these pics get plenty of likes, and the post asks if you agree. Well, I don't. Not at all. And I'm a bit annoyed by the ridiculous implications of this idea.

No, we don't need a "mandatory class" for arbitrary skills that should be taught at home by parents, if they even need to be taught at all. First of all, who "balances a checkbook anymore"? Online banking and statements pretty much handle that. And if someone feels kids need to know that, then teach it yourself. It takes about five minutes, and I learned from my dad when I was about twelve years old. And, changing a tire or changing your oil? No. Not many people need to know that, and practically no one does that themselves anymore. I would bet 90% of the people who "like" this meme have never done either of those tasks. And, they don't balance checkbooks, sew buttons, or grow their own food either.

The primary issue I have with these posts is the complete abdication of parenting skills and the absolving parents of any responsibility for teaching their children any life skills. If the parents don't know it or can't teach it, it's probably not that important anyway. The arbitrary premium that people are placing on these skills and tasks is completely out of whack with reality. I'll bet right now there are thousands of men and woman in their local ER saving lives, and they probably can't change their own oil. But they don't need to because they spent their time developing an expertise in something a little more significant - like how to jump-start the heart of someone in cardiac arrest.

Geez! The kind of "internet wisdom" that goes around these days baffles me.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

What Happened to Middle Class Stability?

America news and media is certainly not at a loss for discussions of economic insecurity - from declining upward mobility to ballooning health insurance costs to tax reform and/or "tax cuts for the rich" - the issue of class warfare has been running heavy through the American psyche lately. And, I'm not entirely sure what is getting better, what is getting worse, and what the true extent of the narrative is. But for those interested in exploring, a couple recent headlines caught my attention.

More than a decade and a half ago, investigative journalist and writer Barbara Erhrenreich spotlighted the struggles of America's working poor to make ends meet. The seminal and thought-provoking Nickled and Dimed explored the challenge of getting by on minimum wage, and Erhrenreich provided real world insight with her immersion in the struggle, working numerous entry-level jobs while living (barely) in hotels and low-rent apartments. That issue has been given an update with a somewhat surprising focus on similar and growing struggles among middle class American workers who are often college-educated with experience in careers, rather than just jobs.

Writer Jessica Bruder brings attention to "casualties of the Great Recession" in her new book-length investigation of the new breed of homeless people living in the cars or RVs while they criss-cross the country doing seasonal work for companies like during the holiday season. Bruder's work, Nomadland: Surving America in the Twenty-First Century, offers stories of a struggling segment of the population who are facing the prospect of never retiring as they simply hope to get by until their bodies simply wear out.

As far as human inventions go, retirement is shockingly recent, and proving fragile. A fringe idea until the 20th century — and one that outraged many — it took tenuous hold in the United States in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Today, only 17 percent of Americans imagine they will be able to afford to stop working someday.“Nomadland,” by Jessica Bruder, an important if frustrating new work influenced by such classics of immersion journalism as Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” looks at one strategy older workers have devised for “surviving America.” Tens of thousands have traded in their homes for “wheel estate.” They are “the Okies of the Great Recession”: grandparents living in school buses and vans seeking seasonal work cleaning toilets at campgrounds, picking blueberries in Kentucky, sometimes for wages, sometimes for just a parking spot — “not necessarily paved but hopefully level.”

Books about the rising "gig economy" have coincided with interesting discussions about the middle class and what that even means in America anymore. In my own town of Greenwood Village, CO, there is a debate about the prospect of "high density housing" and "urbanization" that is fueling an intense City Council election. In a place like GV, where the "average" home price is north of $1 million, the challenge for middle class earners to find housing is becoming truly strained. Of course, in a neighborhood where homes can reach $10+ million, the idea of middle class seems almost absurd. The Denver Post recently reported on the concept when it asked "Is $100,000 a middle class income in America?" Growing up in small town Illinois in the 1970s, I have a hard time talking about $100K as middle class and "middle class suburban" homes going for $1.5 million.

Who knows where this goes next?