Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Generation X Hacks Marriage & Divorce

Generation X - those people born during the 1960s and 1970s - were the children of divorce at rates never before seen, and that reality was instrumental in defining the psychology of the group. Being the latch-key kids coming home to single-parent households, all the while watching after-school TV like Leave It to Beaver and the Brady Bunch, the notion of "the Big D" crafted Gen Xers views on marriage and family. Now adults in their mid-thirties to early fifties, Generation X may be re-defining the stigma and connotation of the Big D, as noted in a great bit of insight from writer Susanna Schrobsdorff who published The Rise of the "Good Divorce" for the View in Time Magazine this week.

After being a primary force in "hacking" the traditional concepts of marriage - with the incredibly quick social change that culminated in the Supreme Court's legalization of marriage rights for same-sex couples - Generation X also seems instrumental in redefining what "divorce" looks like. The idea of co-parenting despite a dissolving marital union gained a new term a couple years ago when Gen Xers Gwyneth Paltrow and husband Chris Martin of Coldplay announced a dissolution of their legal marriage by referring to it as "Conscious Uncoupling." It seemed so bizarrely innocuous, and with the manipulation of language that could certainly be appreciated by Gen X author and coiner of phrases Douglas Coupland, Paltrow had changed the nature of divorce.  The idea gained additional hold with the recent announcement from Hollywood super couple Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck who will co-habit, co-parent, and co-exist while living together but apart on their fabulous Pacific Palisades spread.

While not all Gen Xers have the vast financial resources to make such an arrangement work, the idea of co-parenting and peacefully parenting their children while not being legally married is a social innovation that could only have come from children of the divorce generation. It's well-summed up by another child of divorce, Everclear singer Art Alexis, who sang in Father of Mine - "Now I'm a grown man, with a child of my own, and I swear I'm not gonna let her know, all the pain I have known."

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Dom & Alex Are Not the next Food Network Star

In the competition for the next Food Network Star, the emphasis has to be on "Network." Being able to bring it in the food department is a no-brainer. Of course a Food Network Star has to be a culinary whiz. But this is Food TV, and that means that comfort and ease in front of the camera is a non-negotiable. And, that's why both Dom and Alex have been eliminated from the competition. This week Eddie had a great performance in the collaborative competition, and Jay is just as easy-going as always. Both these men can cook - though Jay is clearly the better chef - and they both have "It" when it comes to camera presence.

The inability to speak comfortably, tell stories, engage an audience, and "teach" an audience something is the primary reason that Chef Dom - Dominick Tessorio - could never be a Food Network Star, despite being the best chef by a wide margin. It's the same reason that some people who are content-area experts make terrible teachers. Teaching - especially in a public forum in front of an audience -is an indescribable skill, or really talent. You can't teach teaching - despite Bill Gates' naive and pretentious belief that such a talent can be quantified and bottled. On the Food Network Star competition, both Eddie and Jay have that certain je ne sais quoi. They can teach, and they could reasonably be expected to step in front of the camera for a Food Network show.

Monday, July 27, 2015

American Ninja Warriors are LIMITLESS

The NBC obstacle course, personal challenge, parkour reality show American Ninja Warrior has captured the attention of millions of Americans who are inspired by individuals who can push their physical limits in the pursuit of excellence. We've been watching in our house for several seasons now, and I believe there is something impressive and influential in the spirit of this show. All cultures seem to have some reverence for and place great value in the "pursuit of excellence." ANW has the ability to push many people off the couch with the belief that "I want to do that" and, even, "I can do that."

The show brought to mind the idea behind the hit movie thriller Limitless which was based on the (mistaken) belief that people "only use 7% of their brain." While the movie was premised on Bradley Cooper's character using an experimental - and potentially dangerous - drug to maximize his potential, I liked the idea of him supposedly "weaning himself" off the drug and learning how to truly be LIMITLESS. And, isn't that much of what being alive is about? Hasn't humanity progressed and grown by people pushing their limits to be their "best selves."

And, that's been on my mind lately - Being my own best self and reaching my potential ... and beyond.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Michelle Quits the Food Network Star

Can we just cut to the chase and name Jay Ducote as the next Food Network Star?

While no one should have been surprised by the events of last week - when Michelle quit right before she was going to be sent home - it was, as Bobby Flay said, something "we've never seen on this show." Certainly the editing of Giada talking to the bottom four made it appear that Alex was on his way out - and he should definitely be next to fall short of his Food Network Star aspirations. But I think it was as likely Michelle was going to go home anyway. So, she made the decision that "family is more important," which is an easy decision to make when you are clearly outmatched.

Time and again, Jay is the one truly consistent finalist who can both wow judges and the general public with his food and be able to talk comfortably about it in front of the camera. He is in many ways similar to the Sandwich King Jeff Mauro who was always a clear frontrunner on the show. Though Jeff had his share of stumbles and shortcomings in front of the camera. And Jay is just as smooth and consistent as we've seen. So, I know we have a few more episodes - and unfortunately we have to suffer through surprise winner Demaris Phillips from two years ago who will return to host the show this week.

As far as the others?  Well, Arnold still has a shot, I guess. And Dom has shown he can still cook up a storm - and is inching toward some degree of comfort with the camera. Eddie? Well, he's a lot of fun and can cook ... but he's too inconsistent.

So ... Jay Ducote is the next Food Network Star. Anything less would be a bit of a fiasco.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Why Not a "Well-Regulated" Gun Culture?

With every shooting - from the Aurora theater shooting where the jury just convicted the shooter to the Tennessee military office shooting by a potential ISIS-inspired shooting - the "gun control/gun rights" debate charges back into our national consciousness. And, no progress is made. We're not decreasing gun violence, we're not controlling the shooters, and we're not moving any closer to an agreement. And, yet, the answer seems to be in the original Constitutional language that both sides cite as evidence.

“A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

There is no doubt that regulation of firearms has been deemed Constitutional. No citizen can own a flamethrower or grenade launcher or M-60. Thus, the "right" of the people to keep and bear arms is infringed only in the sense that firearm possession can be regulated for the safety of society. Of course, any understanding of contemporary society and the current debate reveals just how effectively the NRA has been able to manipulate discussion of the 2nd Amendment.

It truly baffles me that in a society where every automobile must be registered and every driver must be licensed that we can't place the same expectation on gun ownership. It seems so simple. Anyone who wants to own a gun should have to pass a test and maintain a license that should be regularly renewed. And, every firearm should require a registration number assigned to a specific person. That same sort of tracking should be implemented for ammunition purchases. Otherwise, it seems unconscionable that a man - mass shooters like Holmes for example - can amass an arsenal of thousands of rounds of semi-automic bullets, and no one knows.

And, I hate to say it, but I am wondering if the ISIS-inspired shooting in Tennessee may finally convince some gun freedom advocates that the potential for terrorism is a justifiable reason to regulate sales and possession. Seriously, at what point do terrorist organizations and individuals seeking to inflict mass carnage realize that America's weakness rests with the reality that individuals can amass un-regulated arsenals with tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of rounds of death. What happens when a terrorist organization hatches the plan to unleash massive gunfire on open crowds ... and we realize they bought these weapons and bullets with no one's knowledge.

What happens then? Will that be enough?

Let's just agree that "well regulated" is the key to both freedom and safety.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Clueless Turns 20 - "As if ..."

It was twenty years ago that a clever, but Clueless, Beverly Hills teenager named Cher hit the big screen and revived the teen movie genre that had faded in the post-John Hughes era. The movie was the second teen movie from director Amy Heckerling who helped define the genre in the early 80s with Fast Times at Ridgemont High. While both movies are a significant part of the canon, Clueless has definitely maintained a hold on youth culture, as it contines to garner new fans while still delighting old ones.

As Heckerling, Silverstone, Rudd, and company look back, writers are reflecting on the film that helped define an age with its lexicon and fashion. Pop culture journalist Jen Chaney has captured the definitive oral history of the movie, and the title "As If: The Oral History of Clueless ..."

We learn about the careful crafting of the language, inspired by slang dictionaries, rap lyrics and teen lexicon; the special effects used to create the movie’s golden lighting despite record rainfalls during filming; and the many actors who were passed over for key parts (Angelina Jolie as Cher Horowitz? Hard to imagine, but her name was in the mix). We’re reminded that many of Heckerling’s laugh-worthy moments have become part of life as we know it today. For instance, three family members at the same dinner table, talking on cellphones? Once hilarious, now business as usual. Chaney weaves a glittery web, one that’s hard to walk away from once you’re drawn in. But by far the most compelling sections of “As If!” are the ones in Chaney’s own voice. You can understand why she relies so heavily on the perspectives of the creators of the film — they’re the experts, after all — but her take is so fresh and entertaining that it would have been nice to hear more from her directly. (Jennifer Egan - Washington Post)

The movie was definitely of the zeitgeist with the way it captured a teen culture's shift away from grunge and set a tone in fashion. Vanity Fair's Julie Miller recently took a look at how director Amy Heckerling and costume designer Mona May created the iconic styles that defined the film and influenced teens for years to come.

Heckerling and May visited Los Angeles schools in the mid-1990s to get a sense of what high-school students were actually wearing—flannel and loose-fitting jeans, none of which fit Heckerling’s ideal aesthetic. “It was just dreadful,” May said of grunge fashion. “The plaid shirts and baggy pants, and girls looked so masculine. There was really none of the girliness.” Knowing that Clueless’s central shopaholic would not be caught dead in flannel, Heckerling and May took wardrobe liberties, creating whimsical costumes that were both smart, feminine, and flattering. “I wanted that feel of a fantasy that you would like to live in,” Heckerling explained. Since there was no Internet or Net-a-Porter, May reasoned that Cher and Dionne would look to runway styles to inform their closets, especially since they had the money to fly overseas to European fashion shows. In addition to drawing on designer wear, the two also incorporated their own style preferences into Cher’s and Dionne’s costumes.

Additionally, it's worth noting, as Grantland's Molly Lambert has, how the landscape of LA is perfectly captured by the film.

Clueless is still a perfect movie, and it’s disheartening that in the 20 years since it came out, Hollywood has gotten no more progressive when it comes to female auteurs. Its ’90s progressive optimism is even more admirable now. Clueless is the rare comedy that really cares, not only for its characters but also its audience. It never condescends to anyone. It’s kind-hearted, with an acid bite. And it makes some bold, Californian claims true to its Jane Austen origins: that vanity and kindness are not incompatible. That just because a girl is really, really pretty and privileged doesn’t mean she is automatically a bad person or your enemy. That beauty is only skin-deep until you make over your soul. That stories about girls and women are not stupid and unimportant, but vital — and the more specific, the better. And that Los Angeles is not by its nature a superficial or stupid place, that it has its own sort of emotional intelligence that has to be understood on its own terms. One of those major terms is its geography, and Clueless is a sprawling portrait of L.A.’s unique beauty.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dining out in Breckenridge, CO

The following post is a re-print of a post I did for another blog. It was posted in 2014, but having just spent another glorious Independence Day in Breckenridge, CO, I thought it was worth posting again. I'm loving life in the High Country. And, for your next vacation, you might too.

There is no better place in Colorado to spend the 4th of July than in Breckenridge, the perfect mountain town.  In fact, in my perfect world, I may never leave Summit County. From the historic to the shopping to the cultural to the recreational, Breck has something for everyone, and it has been my family's Independence Day destination for the better part of a decade.  Breck hosts one of the best parades in Colorado, followed by a fun concert on the plaza and a water fight hosted by the fire department.  And, of course, we always follow the festivities with a happy hour trip and some fine dining.  This year we tried a few new places - well, new to us, but standard Breck - and we were not disappointed.  We enjoyed excellent meals at Modis and The Warming Hut.

After a trip down from Peak 7, I left the gondola lot and took Main Street, noticing The Warming Hut for the umpteenth time.  But this time we decided to stop in.  It was a pleasant surprise.  Noticing the website information on "Wine Wednesdays," I was hooked.  The theme was Chilean wines, and even though the promotion wasn't supposed to start for a week, the owner was happy to oblige me with four pours of some excellent South American wines.  For the first round, I sampled the Bodini chardonnay which is their house wine.  It was truly buttery with a great oak and a richness of citrus.  And, then I was in for a treat - the Crios malbec rose literally blew my mind.  Fearing the sweetness of anything called rose, I was impressed with the dry, crisp flavor that was a real twist on malbec.  The carmeniere from Chile was one of the oaky-est wines I've had, and the Chilean cab was rich as well.

For my "fifth" pour, I was offered a full glass of my favorite - which was a tough choice, but I went with the Bodini.  In addition to the wines, I was also treated to the boar's sausage appetizer, and the entire deal was a simple $15.  I can't imagine a better deal in wine in the high country.  For happy hour, my family also enjoyed the trio of sliders, the bison-chorizo chile, another boar's sausage, and two orders of ridiculously tasty sweet potato fries.  The Warming Hut establishment is truly adorable - or elegant if you will - and we enjoyed great Peak 7 views from the patio.

Let's hope The Warming Hut - which just passed its one-year anniversary - garners a following, because it is a great compliment to the town of Breckenridge.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist & our Personal Legends

Each year in my AP Language class, as the exam approaches - and passes - I shift gears with my highly motivated students, and I ask them to look inside themselves as they look toward their future.  It's a challenging time for young people, and many face anxiety, not over their tests or their grades, but over their identity.  As they hurtle forward toward adulthood, they pause. They struggle because, for many, they do not know who they are. These kids are in search of their personal legend.  And Paulo Cohelo's classic parable about a shepherd in search of treasure - The Alchemist - may be just the guidebook they need.

I have a variety of activities designed to help the kids along the way - not the least of which is a series of study questions about the book.  They can learn much from the stories of the Englishman, the parable of the oil and the spoon, Santiago's time with the Crystal Merchant, the idea of maktub, the lessons of the camel driver, and more.  The story is simple and accessible, no doubt.  And many teachers of an AP or honors class might worry this book is dumbing things down.  But it's not always about college-level diction and syntax.  Sometimes it's about self-reflection and living deliberately.  The kids need this book, and they need to find their Personal Legend.  Each person has a Raison d'etre - a purpose in life, but there is no guarantee we will live the life we were meant to live and fulfill the role we were meant to complete.  So, some soul searching is in order.

I couple the study of Coehlo's The Alchemist with a variety of worksheets, journals, and activities designed to get them pondering their place in the universe.  For example, I begin with a story from Robert Fulghum's It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It about the census.  Fulghum's essay on how every single life matters in serious and significant ways is thoughtful - I ask the kids "What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious and, oh so, meaningful life?"  I also have a handout asking them questions about what they are afraid of, what they would never give up, what they would gladly give up, what their perfect day is like, etc.  I share with them the story of Sarah Marshall - a misguided teen from Barb Schneider's book The Ambitious Generation.  It's a reminder of the wrong way to approach college and adulthood.

These activities culminate in a great multi-genre paper called "The Alchemist Project."  For some kids, it's exactly what they are looking for.  Because they end up finding themselves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Brilliance of Dyslexia

I have known many bright, insightful, inspired and successful people who suffer from dyslexia, and that information is important for teachers - especially English and literacy instructors - to remember.  Interestingly a study by Charlotte Gill called Dyslexics Bank of Disability found that "self-made millionaires are four times more likely than the rest of the population to be dyslexic."  The reason, of course, is that dyslexics struggle with basic linear sequential reasoning that is the foundation of standard literacy.  Instead - and perhaps because of their "disability" - dyslexics are big picture thinkers who thrive in the challenge of creation and innovation and synthesis.  In other words, because they can't read, they have adapted in other ways to simply "figure it out on their own."

When I was very young, I heard stories of a family friend who struggled in school because of his dyslexia, yet went on to develop a software and technology company and is one of those "self-made millionaires" - by the age of thirty nonetheless.  From what I understand most of our neighbors believed his father - a businessman and inventor - was also dyslexic.  In the early days of the tech revolution with VCRs and cable and home computers, my family noticed that he "never read the manual" for any new device.  He just figured them out.  In fact, when he would come to help "install something," people might hand him the manual, which he would casually toss aside.  The ability to simply "see" the way things work is, in many ways, superior to being able to read "how things are supposed to work."

I've had other friends who are great critical thinkers and leaders despite their dyslexia because they excel in figuring things out mechanically, or perhaps because they have strengths in the sort of people skills - or EQ - emotional intelligence - that is integral to much success and achievement.  Thus, as educators, we must figure out ways to expand our classroom instruction to honor and develop these right-brain thinkers who work beyond the obvious and sequential.  One key strategy I've used and expanded over the years is the "multi-genre" research project.  There are many avenues by which students can display their knowledge.  And we need to teach children how they are, not how we expect them to be.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Food Network Star - Emilia Goes Crazy ... Then Goes Home

Well, that was just weird.

When I saw the commercial last week with Bob Tushmann calling Emilia "mean spirited," I thought "What?" It just seemed so out of character, and I could't imagine how Emilia could be on the bottom in judging. She was the one who seemed to have solid command of cooking and talking to the camera. But reality TV will surprise you sometimes. Emilia Cirker  went home tonight after going off the rails in the live audience segment where she basically decided to "Go big or go home" by resorting to middle school mockery of her fellow contestants. It made everyone who saw it uncomfortable, and the strangest thing is that it seems so uncharacteristic. That is not the same woman who had been on the top for week after week and seemed so in control. But then again, maybe that is really who Emilia is. And, the sad thing for her is that by all other measures Dom or Alex should have gone home this week.

Actually, hold up a moment. A second hopeful — despite his boss-level cooking skills and general adorableness during confessionals — sweats like he’s midway through a triathlon, freezes up after only 60 seconds, then flees the scene like his face is on an FBI Most Wanted poster and his audience consists completely of law-enforcement agents. Perfect pick for the guillotine, yeah?
Think again. Lucky for Alex (aka Doomed Chef Walking) and Dom (The Little Staten Island Engine That Hasn’t Quite), icy-but-interesting Emilia decided the midway point of Season 11 was the perfect time to fling caca as indiscriminately as a caged zoo monkey — leaving poor Giada De Laurentiis covering her ears in an attempt to block out the meltdown that nobody wanted to see/hear/get within 50 feet of.
Maybe Emilia — whose Andouille sausage onion-rings looked pretty tasty — could’ve survived her misguided decision to spend half her demo mocking her rival chefs (though her mincing imitation of drag queen Albert was especially brutal, no?), but when she subsequently slipped on a sweater emblazoned with the words “Break the Rules” and declared that she was “really proud” of her performance as an “Alpha female,” the outcome was as pre-determined as a stick of butter in a Barefoot Contessa dessert. Don’t these contestants ever learn that likability/relatability is just as important as, say, one’s ability to julienne a carrot?
And, I will add that if Emilia had simply apologized to the judges and pleaded that she made a huge mistake, they would have kept her. Let's face it - Dom is never going to be able to bring it in front of the camera. And, that is where Bobby Flay is just flat out and uncharacteristically wrong. As Bob T. has noted, Dom seems to be "running from the camera." He just can't do it. And that's not a terrible thing. When Bob said, "My food was still a hit," he's right. Bobby thought it was one of "the best things he's tasted." And this means Dom should be a chef. He should run his food truck. He should open a restaurant. He should publish a cookbook. But he should develop a little self awareness and realize he is not a Food Network Star. Why does he think he should do this? I mean, seriously, who leaves three whole minutes on the clock during a camera test. That's just pathetic. And he should have gone home - except for Emilia's manic meltdown.

If we want to be honest, the two finalists - and the only two who will ever have a legitimate shot of starring in a watchable show on the Food Network - are Eddie and Jay. They can cook, and they have a schtick. Granted, Eddie got a heck of a boost from David Allen Grier this week - but that was fun. Who knew he was such a foodie. As for Arnold, Alex, and Michelle - they are all basically forgettable, though seemingly nice people. No star quality there. And Arnold should have gone home a week ago when, following the Alton Brown rule about being a food expert, Arnold knew nothing about "his favorite spice." Yet, Alton isn't around to diss, and dismiss, Arnold, so he survives another week.

Let's just get on with the Jay and Eddie show.

"Distortion" as a Literary Technique

Flannery O'Connor once said, "I am interested in making a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe that it is the only way to make people see."

Distorting something to make people truly "see" it seems to be counter-intuitive, though one could argue that all literature distorts information in order to make the point clear.  From exaggeration to understatement to stock characters, metaphors, and cliched endings, literature must make the truth plain to see.  Often that can only come from - in Flannery O'Connor's word - distortion.  How often have we encountered characters who only truly exemplify a trait or an idea because the trait is so glaringly obvious?  How often have we told "some stretchers," as Huck claims Mr. Mark Twain did, in order to  impact an audience and help them "see" what we mean?  Distortion - or hyperbole - is a natural part of our language and our thinking.

This concept of distortion is particularly interesting because the word has a negative connotation.  Certainly, to exaggerate a detail is in some ways deceptive.  It might even be dishonest.  But if we shift from the concept of "distorting" and instead focus on simply emphasizing, then the act seems almost necessary.  Artist John Kascht, whose caricatures of many iconic figures have become iconic themselves, explains that he is not distorting the figures he draws but instead magnifying their traits.  Kascht's works have been featured in the Smithsonian, and his video explanation of his craft as he draws Conan O'Brien is fascinating in its analysis of the concept of artistic distortion - or magnification, emphasis, exaggeration, etc.

This concept of somehow emphasizing beyond the reality is integral to our understanding of art.  And whether it's the writing of Flannery O'Connor or the art of John Kascht or the entire genre of Romanticism, discussion of "distortion" is a necessary tool in the English classroom.

Friday, July 10, 2015

According to Jane Austen ...

Let's face it - readers in the twenty-first century have some fascination with the novels of Jane Austen that goes beyond a common sense (and sensibility) understanding.

There's just something about Jane that resonates with readers and consumers in an age markedly different than the world of Elizabeth, Emma, and the like.  Then again, perhaps we're not so different.  For, at their heart the stories of the Bennet sisters and Emma are really the stories of what it means to be human.   That is the essence of a great new critical look from writer Adelle Waldmen in her piece "I Read Everything Jane Austen Wrote, Several Times" for Slate Magazine.  
Admirers make much of Austen’s deadpan tone, her wit, and her irony, and rightly so. But hers isn’t irony for irony’s sake: Austen’s portraits of people and their milieus are animated not by satirical malice or mere eagerness to entertain but by a sense of moral urgency. With a philosophical eye, she sees through fuss and finery and self-justification. She gives us a cast of characters and then zeroes in, showing us who and what is admirable, who is flawed but forgivable, who is risible and who is truly vile. Delivered economically, her judgments are not only clever but perspicacious, humane, and, for the most part, convincing. Her real subject is not the love lives of barely post-adolescent girls, but human nature and society. Austen wrote stories that show us how we think. Take Emma, in which Austen is at the height of her powers as both an artist and analyst of human beings. The novel has very few obvious signifiers of “seriousness.” It’s the story of a young woman blessed with good looks, wealth, intelligence, and an adoring father; the plot revolves around Emma’s attempts to make matches among her friends and her own mild flirtation with a good-looking charmer. It ends with her marriage. Yet for all its apparent frothiness, Emma is a book about a maturing mind, and it is as devoid of melodrama as a postmodern experiment. At one point, the book even dabbles in stream-of-consciousness, with a wonderful monologue that carries the reader through the arc of a morning’s strawberry-picking expedition while deftly sending up the affectations of its speaker.
Waldmen has actually written several interesting commentaries about the works of Austen, and her insight may be of use to the contemporary English teacher who seeks to connect the students of today with the lives and loves of those past. Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen novels remain a cottage industry unto themselves. And there may be no author who is more targeted for re-invention and re-imagination and re-packaging, than the young British woman who wrote six novels which bridged the neo-Classical and the Romantic ages. The latest, and perhaps most "Austen-tacious" of ideas in its scope is The Austen Project, a new series which presents the stories of Jane Austen in contemporary settings, written by six well-known contemporary novelists.  An interesting take on this idea comes from Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, who offers insight about the challenges of adaption - "For Pride and Prejudice to Make Sense Today, Jane Has to be 40." It's a clever bit of scholarship that brings necessary understanding of why the novels of Jane Austen remain so popular and relevant.