Sunday, September 25, 2016

Nirvana's Nevermind hits 25 Years

I still remember the moment I first heard those guitar chords. I can vividly see the grainy video on my TV in a dark college apartment sometime past midnight. I can still feel that inkling that the song, the album, the band represented some kind of special moment. Roughly a quarter-century ago, the world was introduced to a rock trio from the Seattle scene, and the alternative rock genre that became grunge took root. On September 24, 1991, Nirvana's album Nevermind was released.



I'd heard of this band from a cousin whose sister was living in Seattle at the time of the early rumblings of grunge, and I'd even managed a bootleg copy of some early Nirvana. At that time, we were hearing about bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden. The hard rock edge had more punk in it than the rock bands of the late 80s, and the lyrics contained that existential angst that had taken root in the early days of the twentieth century's last decade. 1991 represented the true birth of what became Generation X with the release of Coupland's novel in the early spring and the arrival of Nirvana with the beginning of fall.

Then suddenly “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on the radio and there were waiting lists (waiting lists!) of people at indie stores who had reserved the album. I wasn’t sure how to digest this, so I asked Mark Kates, the head of alternative promotion at Geffen, if this was normal for big cult bands, and he replied with his eyes popping out, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.” The next day, my partner told me that a friend of his had been at a Guns N’ Roses show in New York when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was played over the PA, and the huge macho crowd cheered. That was when we realized that it was going to be bigger than anything that anyone involved had dreamed of.

"Here we are now. Entertain us."

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Gen X Parenting - Raise 'em & Trust 'em

Interesting question posed by a friend on social media: "Would you let your ninth grader hang at a house with no parents home? Would you let that 9th grade male hang at a house with two girls?"

My answer was: "Sure. Raise them and then trust them."

That's the difference between a Generation X parent and a Baby Boomer. The Boomers created and refined the idea of the helicopter parent, and a few Gen Xers have become infected with that generational anxiety. But for those of us who grew up the 70s and 80s as latch-key kids, we have slightly different ideas about parenting and raising kids.

In reality, our parents probably trusted us too much and shouldn't have. They probably worried too little about safety and maturity. By contrast, contemporary parents should probably trust their kids more, but don't. I am always baffled by the parents who are aghast when my kids ride their bikes to a friend's house that is a couple of neighborhoods away. And, I am a bit critical of the parents who barely let their kids walk to school where we live, when it's within a half mile, or for many about 1000 feet.

Trusting our kids to be alone and travel by themselves raised a huge controversy in 2008, when a mom and blogger allowed her nine-year-old son to take the subway to Times Square by himself. It was a classic Gen X move, refusing to be controlled by conspiracy and hysteria. The reality was the kid was fine - but many questioned the "carelessness" of the mom. I will admit that nine is on the young side, and Times Square is not walking to school or to the store. Still, I'm on the side of trusting and not hovering over my kids.

So, back to the high school question. Yep, I'd trust my kid in that case.

Thirtysomething Returns to TV .... as This Is Us

*SPOILER Alert*

So, the big reveal at the end of NBC's new drama This Is Us is certainly the primary talking point after last night's premiere. But beyond our feelings about the twist that revealed two story lines thirty-six year's apart, I am more interested in exactly what this new series is going after. And I'm not quite sure at this point. The show - developed by Crazy, Stupid, Love writer Dan Fogelman - was adequately hyped with an intriguing premise and engaging enough soundtrack to draw us in with promises of the same feelings we had for The Big Chill or Thirtysomething or even Melrose Place. But who is the target "Us"?

Both in the title and in the target audience, Fogleman and NBC have shot for the middle of the Generation X - Millennial gap. That is either a great move with broad appeal, or it will completely miss the mark with both audiences. By focusing on three main characters who were born in 1980 and are turning thirty-six, the show is in a grey area of demographics. Most Gen Xers are between 35 - 55 while the oldest Millenials are just now 35, and they extend down to high school sophomores at the age of 16. As a 46-year Xer who has a fifteen year old son, I could be a test case for the range of this drama - especially if I can figure out what the message is. Because at this point, all we have is a quirky coincidence and a clever directorial conceit. Gimmicks, though, will only hold for a couple episodes.

Most Gen Xers have kids ranging from kindergarten to college, while the few Millennials who are raising kids are changing diapers and suctioning snot from clogged noses. Do we have a lot in common? Is there a shared experience? What do we think of each other? These are some questions which will probably decide how popular this show is. TV is certainly more of an Xer activity than a Millennial one. And more Xers are in the family game. But, as I've noted in my title, there is certainly interest in this sort of drama for teens just like in the late 80s when many young Xers were watching the Boomer-focused show Thirtysomething or, of course, the iconic film The Big Chill. Is that the feeling that Fogelman is going for? The nostalgia-angle is certainly ripe for Xers at this point.






Sunday, September 18, 2016

Great Food Truck Race Reveals ... Americans are kinda gross

I once had an idea for a non-fiction book based on the title - Zagat Guides & Dollar Menus: America's Complicated Relationship with Food. I am a foodie, and my wife was once a pastry chef at a top bakery in Chicago. Now, living in Denver, CO, I am so happy to live in a town with a thriving and world class culinary scene. In the Mile High State, people know how to cook and people appreciate good food. That's a reason I once loved the Food Network, and it's a reason I was once so impressed with and entertained by The Great Food Truck Race, hosted by exemplary chef and restauranteur Tyler Florence. But as the latest season enters its finale, and a trio of mediocre cooks selling low quality grilled cheese are in the running to win it all, I am a bit put off by the show and most definitely by America's taste and (lack of) appreciation of food.

Granted, this season was a bunch of amateurs who had never run a restaurant or food truck before. Even so, I was hoping the show would feature some good cooks - and it did. But the trio of young men calling themselves the Grilled Cheese All Stars have been quite disappointing. According to their bios - and the introduction on episode one - the Cheese Twins Michael and Chalie Kalish had "trained with the best cheese makers in France, Switzerland, and Italy." I call BS on that claim, as should anyone who has watched the show. When have we seen these goofballs use, promote, or even discuss any high quality cheeses? If they had trained with some masters, then they should certainly have enough integrity to use high quality cheeses. I don't see that coming from Costco in bulk. And, watching them prepare their foods does not impress me as men with culinary chops. They appear to be serving crap food to people who don't know any better. When they were selling dishes for $15, I was hoping to hear some high quality ingredients and techniques. But no. And on tonight's episode, they made a bunch of cash selling Oreo milkshakes. Nuff said. I could get much tastier and higher quality food for half that price from the food trucks in Denver like the Denver Biscuit Co. 

As far as the other truck - Carretto Siciliano? Well, I have  no doubt that "mom" can cook. But a bunch of white pasta with marinara sauce is not what I think of when I consider food truck cuisine. I grew up working in an Italian restaurant, and I can appreciate a good meatball. But, I'd have to say the team is winning as much for the notorious personality of the Jersey Shore son, as they are for some high quality food and restaurant management. If any show ever revealed the low-brow side of America, it's the Jersey Shore. The family seems really nice, and Vinny Guanagdino seems like a genuine person. So, I have to be pulling for this team. But I still can't fathom how the Food Network and a great culinary man like Tyler Florence can promote this sort of ... fast food.

I have a feeling the Cheese Bros will manage to pull off a win next week. And, they seem like reasonably nice guys. So, if they do, I would implore them to work at elevating the game ... or stop claiming some phony European pedigree. The past year or so has revealed quite a bit about the true nature of too many Americans. And the McDonald's/Walmart influence of mediocre quality wrapped up in a deal is all too revealing. I just wish I could turn to the Food Network for a little more ... taste.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"It's the Wages, Stupid" - Minimum Wage Hike Helps Colorado

There is little denying that higher wages are better for communities and society in general. They are aligned with more stability, less crime, higher education, fewer social ills, etc. The reality is that where people earn a good living, they live a good life. Which takes us to the complicated issue of raising the minimum wage. This proposal is generally supported by liberals and Democrats and opposed by conservatives and Republicans. The left argues that if you want higher standards of living and more stable homes, you must pay people well enough to support those goals. And, the right argues that raising jobs will force small business - and even large ones - to lay people off.

In Colorado, a proposition on the ballot this fall sets the stage for raising the state's minimum wage to $12 by 2020. Now, knowing what I know about wages and the cost of living, that doesn't seem at all unreasonable to me. Hell, from what I understand you can make $11 an hour working the line at Arbys or Good Times Burgers. I can't fathom how this is undoable by businesses if fast food can do it. And now the voters of Colorado have some evidence. A new study by DU indicates that hiking the minimum wage will help, not hurt, the state's economy:

Lifting Colorado’s minimum wage from $8.31 an hour to $12 an hour would pump $400 million into the state economy and raise living standards for one in five households — all with minimal impacts on inflation or total employment, according to a study released Tuesday from the University of Denver. “It doesn’t get people to self-sufficiency, but it is an important step in that direction,” said Jennifer Greenfield, an assistant professor at the DU Graduate School of Social Work and co-author of the study, which was a collaboration between the Colorado Women’s College at DU and the Women’s Foundation of Colorado.

America "Mistrusts" the Media - and that's dangerous

Liberal media. Mainstream media. Media bias. Drive-by media.

As the son of a newspaper editor and feature writer, I am so bothered by the negative perception that Americans have of "the media." For the most part this is a predominantly right-leaning bias fueled by media personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. Strangely, these media icons have used television, radio, the internet, and print news to criticize "the media" and turn large numbers of Americans against the vast array of news sources available to them. Over the years, research shows that Americans get their "news" and information from a smaller and more narrow base. And, that's not good. The most recent and troubling example comes from a report in the Washington Times of a Gallup poll finding that American "trust" of the media is at historic lows.

A major pollster has some stark news: “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year,” writes Art Swift, an analyst for the Gallup poll, which first asked the nation to weigh in on the press in 1972.

What has happned to us? Journalism is the life's blood of democracy, and since the days of Jefferson we have known that an educated and informed electorate is the foundation of our republic. Yet, fewer people are reading newspapers, and those who do seek to stay informed are getting their information from a widening range of informal news sources. Now, as a blogger and tweeter, I certainly don't oppose those forums. But I am not a member of the media. And I am not a trusted and credible source for news. I'm not a journalist. However, I do read and watch numerous news gathering organizations. Sadly, I realize that people don't actually "mistrust" the media. They just mistrust any news source that disagrees with or challenges their biases.

And that's not good.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Read Aloud - Great for All Students

There is little doubt among educators, education researchers, school leaders, politicians, business people, and parents that reading is fundamental to the development of children.  Almost without fail, successful students tend to be readers, and the importance of reading to children at an early age is indisputable.  Even as a high school teacher, I know that reading aloud to kids is important.  And, the idea of read-alouds is significant to the adoption of the Common Core standards, as speaking and listening skills are a primary goal.  Children of all ages love to be read to, and I have made a habit of reading to my students regularly for as long as I have been a teacher.

One of my favorite activities to begin class is to read short pieces at the bell.  These pieces - helped by my strong voice - quickly engage kids in listening and often kick off some wonderful discussions to start the class.  One of my favorite sources is the work of Robert Fulghum whose classic work All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten kicked off a read-aloud habit among people and an interest in short essays nearly twenty-five years ago.  Fulghum's work begs to be read out loud, and his "uncommon thoughts on common things" are great discussion fodder.

One of the best resources for information on read-alouds is Jim Trelease whose Read Aloud Handbook has been positively contributing to parenting and education in this country for nearly twenty years.  Trelease offers a treasure trove of reasoning behind the read-aloud practice, and the book contains countless titles and recommendations.

Everyone loves to be read to - and there is no reason that it can't be part of any classroom.  In fact, it may be an imperative.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

It's Never Going to be "OK"

"Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."

Each year at the start of school, I share a shocking revelation to my new class of high school juniors: "It's never going to be OK," I tell them. This discussion begins when I "book talk" a nice little bit of self-help from Dr. Phil's son Jay McGraw called Life Strategies For Teens. One of McGraw's best little tips is the revelation that "Life is managed: it is not cured." The message in that is an authentic bit of wisdom - there is never going to be that moment when all is well and there's nothing to worry about. It just doesn't work that way. As writer and speaker Andy Andrews has so aptly put it: "Everyone is either in a crisis, coming out of a crisis, or headed for a crisis."

I advise my students to stop setting benchmarks and expectations for when they will have it all figured out. As kids, we start doing this about middle school age. When the pressure and drama and disappointment start to get to us, we say, "Everything will be better when I just get to high school." And, of course it's not. Some things are better - others are not. And there are new challenges we never wanted. Soon we tell ourselves, "It will be better once I can drive. When I have some freedom and control, then I'll be happy." But it doesn't work out that way. Eventually, we tell ourselves, "If I can just get out on my own, get to college, get out of the house or out of this town, then it will be better." But it's not better - or at least not for long. It's just different.

It won't be better "once we get a job" or "once we get that promotion" or once "we get our own place" or once we get some more freedom or responsibility or money or space or .... anything. It's never just "gonna be OK," because in reality it has always been OK. Ups will become downs, and downs will become ups, and the best year of your life is always the current one. Because you're living it. And living it is certainly prefereable to not. And if some time in the past or some time in the future is the best time of your life, then you're doing it wrong.

Don't wait for it to be OK. Revel in the OK-ness of now.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Knowledge Matters - especially in the Age of Google

"We can always look it up."

That sense of complaceny about acquiring knowledge is at the root of our most serious educational challenges, and it poses risks far beyond what most people would expect. From literacy to institutional knowledge to "knowing history" so you don't repeat it, having a sense of core knowledge is essential to being a well-educated person - a person on whom nothing is lost.

I've given more thought to this idea of core knowledge recently after reading Scott Newstock's great piece for The Chronicle, How to Think Like Shakespeare. Newstock and other educational and cultural leaders like Dan Willingham know that "the more you know" the more you can know. The brain makes sense of new information by connecting it to old knowledge. The brain likes patterns and departments of information from which it can compare and connect and extrapolate. This is the foundation of ED Hirsch's ideas of "cultural literacy" and the role that knowledge and allusions play in our ability to learn. And, along those lines, it is worth promoting the Knowledge Matters Movement, developed and promoted by Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute.

There is much to said for simply "knowing stuff" and not always believing it's enough to be able to "look it up."

Monday, September 5, 2016

September is the real New Year

Labor Day is a great way to bid farewell to summer - and it's a starting point for getting down to the business at hand. I always think about this weekend the same way I do spring cleaning - it's a fresh start before I head into the busy time of fall and the start of the school year. Writer Andres Martinez had the same idea, which he wrote about last September noting how "The Real New Year Starts in September." I really liked that sentiment, especially because it reminds me of all those things I want to do but haven't got around to doing yet. There is much to read and write, and there are many plans to be made for next summer. Here's some of Martinez's ideas about the real "New Year."

In college, I used to love picking up the books for each course (well, except for having to pay for them) and I’d make the most of our initial “shopping period,” when you could wander in and out of any class, as if sampling a grand buffet, before finalizing your semester schedule. The possibilities were endless. But fall isn’t only about going back to school. Every workplace I have ever worked at has treated the fall as the true beginning of the year, when new projects are launched. Fall marks the start of a new football season (both of the American and English varieties), a new TV season, and a new budgetary year for the federal government. It marks the arrival of new fashions (check out how fat those magazines are!), new car models, and of more purposeful movies and weather. In certain latitudes, the fall brings a crisp air that chides you into reaching out for your long-neglected sweater or jacket — but without the malevolence of winter.
I have every intention of going into next June with plans to avoid "the Summer of George."

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Professor Scott Newstok Urges Students to "Think Like Shakespeare"

OK, this is brilliant. And so necessary.

Professor Scott Newstok of Rhodes College urges students to "build a bridge to the sixteenth century" and learn to "think like Shakespeare." This reminds me of a recent Facebook meme that encourages men to "Ditch the man cave and bring back the study."  I can't explain this better than Newstok, so it's worth taking a look at his entire piece which is beautifully written and so important. The basic idea is about the idea of becoming a better human being by cultivating culture and knowledge and wisdom.

So how can you think like Shakespeare?


His mind was shaped by rhetoric, a term that you probably associate with empty promises — things politicians say but don’t really mean. But in the Renaissance, rhetoric was nothing less than the fabric of thought itself. Because thinking and speaking well form the basis of existence in a community, rhetoric prepares you for every occasion that requires words. That’s why Tudor students devoted countless hours to examining vivid models, figuring out ways to turn a phrase, exercising elaborate verbal patterning. Antonio Gramsci described education in this way: "One has to inculcate certain habits of diligence, precision, poise (even physical poise), ability to concentrate on specific subjects, which cannot be acquired without the mechanical repetition of disciplined and methodical acts." You take it for granted that Olympic athletes and professional musicians must practice relentlessly to perfect their craft. Why should you expect the craft of thought to require anything less disciplined? Fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool for you to foster independent judgment. That is rhetoric. Renaissance rhetoric achieved precision through a practice that might surprise you: imitation. Like "rhetoric," "imitation" sounds pejorative today: a fake, a knockoff, a mere copy. But Renaissance thinkers — aptly, looking back to the Roman Seneca, who himself looked back to the Greeks — compared the process of imitation to a bee’s gathering nectar from many flowers and then transforming it into honey. As Michel de Montaigne put it: "The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterward turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own. … So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows from others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgment. His education, his labor, and his study have no other aim but to form this." The honey metaphor corrects our na├»ve notion that being creative entails making something from nothing. Instead, you become a creator by wrestling with the legacy of your authoritative predecessors, standing on the shoulders of giants. In the words of the saxophone genius John Coltrane: "You’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light." Listen to Coltrane fuse experimental jazz, South Asian melodic modes, and the Elizabethan ballad "Greensleeves," and you’ll hear how engaging with the past generates rather than limits. The most fascinating concept that Shakespeare’s period revived from classical rhetoric was inventio, which gives us both the word "invention" and the word "inventory." Cartoon images of inventors usually involve a light bulb flashing above the head of a solitary genius. But nothing can come of nothing. And when rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: an inventory of your mind’s treasury of knowledge — your database of reading, which you can accumulate only through slow, deliberate study.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Broncos Should Keep Mark Sanchez

Now that the Broncos have declared Trevor Simian the game-day starter, and they have made it clear that Paxton Lynch is the Broncos QB of the future, and they've made it clear that they don't value Mark Sanchez and might cut him, the organization has no choice but to keep Sanchez and either pay him what he's owed at $4.5 million a year, or try to convince him to take a pay cut to stay with a potential Super Bowl team. At one point, with the big losses of starting quarterbacks in Dallas and Minnesota, the Broncos could have dealt Sanchez and not lost a draft pick or any cash. But now that they've played their cards, both Dallas and Minnesota know they can pick up Sanchez cheaper if they just wait for the Broncos to cut him. And the Broncos should only cut him if they have a solid lead on a veteran journeyman QB whom they can trust and not pay too much. Mark Sanchez is that guy - for the money he's owed is below or at what most adequate back-up QBs are making anyway. Not to mention, the Broncos are already saving huge money at the position, and they just cleared out a $3 million hit with the release of punter Colquitt. So, just suck it up, John. You and Kubs screwed up by naming Simian before knowing if you could deal Sanchez. And, the financial hit is minimal for what Sanchez can provide in peace of mind with two rookies on the bench.