Saturday, October 22, 2016

Imagine a Sane Peggy Noonan ... and a Rational GOP Primary

As the GOP establishment approaches its day of reckoning on November 8, or November 28 for that matter, the Republican standard bearers have already begun the post-election, post-Trump autopsy of just what went wrong in 2016. Certain trusted voices such as George Will and David Brooks have resigned themselves to the potential damage down the ticket in the Senate and House in hopes of an honest reassessment of the party's appeal, while others are wistfully speculating on "what could have been." That's the approach taken in the Wall Street Journal when longtime conservative voice of reason Peggy Noonan penned a strangely naive and oddly optimistic piece in which she asked us to "Imagine a Sane Donald Trump."

Just to be clear, there is no possibility of a sane Donald Trump. For, without all the bombastic rhetoric about vague infeasible solutions to America's problems and the wildly inappropriate sound bites that reveled in the act of "speaking his mind" and "telling it like it is," the candidate would simply be a political neo-phyte running a pretty pedestrian campaign of an political outsider who would use business experience to "shake things up." It's not much different than what Carly Fiorina and Herman Cain tried.  A "sane Donald Trump" wouldn't be Donald Trump - he'd be Mitt Romney without the gubernatorial experience. It's a tired myth that strangely plays well around the Republican voter water cooler, but not so much at the voting booth. Granted, Noonan does concede that Trump "is a nut," and she admits that a sane Trump doesn't exist. But sadly, the entire scope of her column implies that if Donald Trump had simply run his campaign of haphazardly contructed half-baked policies that question much of GOP orthodoxy, but had done so with a nicer tone, he would have "won in a landslide." And, that sort of thinking is perhaps a bigger problem for the GOP than Trump's many embarrassing mis-steps have been.

Noonan tries to scold the GOP establishment for being aloof to the policies desired by their electorate, but that's a groundless approach in regards to the realities of the primary voters, especially the less-than-informed Tea Party voters who simply want change but will often vote for the very candidates whose platform opposes the policies that would help them. Voters didn't choose Trump because he pledged to preserve entitlement spending to support "people have been battered since the crash." It wasn't because of the American worker's nuanced understanding of "complicated trade agreements" that they blame for a lost manufacturing sector. And it wasn't because he had reasonable immigration proposals that could have been "explained ... with a kind loving logic." All of these claims expose Noonan as even more aloof to the electorate than Jeb Bush. The groundswell of support for Trump came from Tea Party extremes desiring him to "build that wall" and "lock her up" while he withdraws support from NATO, bans Muslim immigration, and somehow forces American corporations to build factories in Ohio and Michigan with much higher wages.

Noonan seems to believe that a "sane Donald Trump" would have been the second coming of the Reagan Democrats. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, GOP primary voters ignored numerous variations of candidates who weren't so aloof to the concerns of the American worker and who when joining forces on a ticket could have provided exactly the nuanced and fair "big tent" conservatism that Noonan mistakenly assigns to Trump. The most obvious choice was a true Reagan Republican - John Kasich. The extremely popular Republican governor of a fairly Democratic working class state should have been the GOP's dream. Pair him with a young energetic Marco Rubio, and the GOP would have won in a landslide. Chris Christie should have had similar appeal to working class voters, and Rand Paul certainly should have appealed to Republicans who were dissatisfied and suspcious of a foreign policy that focused on re-building other countries at the expense of American infrastructure.

Instead the voters chose Trump precisely because he is not sane. And that's the biggest challenge for Republican leadership. And for the country at large.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

I'm Back - Sorry about the Silence

The month of October has been brutal for my blogging, and it made me consider this question: Am I a writer?

In "the life I have imagined" (per the advice of Henry David Thoreau), I would be transitioning from the blogger/teacher/administrator of the past twenty years to the writer, speaker, and cultural critic that I want to be for the next twenty or so. But what is a writer if he doesn't write. When my dailiness gets in the way, and I head home in the evening to some time on the couch watching nonsense and surfing social media, I wonder if that will ever happen.

Today, I am pondering several ideas, but the one that I have become focused on is the idea of "gifted and talented," or GT. At a school of incredibly high performing students, there are numerous kids who are signficantly beyond the norm - they are GT. And that's not something you can be with a lot of hard work. It's not a matter of Malcolm Gladwell's mis-interpretation of the "10,000 hour of practice to mastery" idea. There are people who are simply exceptional to the highest levels of achievement. And Colorado has recently expanded GT identification beyond the basic four - math, langauge arts, both, and other. Now there are twelve identifications of gifted and exceptional, and that includes as it should physical gifts and athletics.

Cam Newton is a GT football player, Yo Yo Ma is a GT cellist, Michael Phelps is a GT swimmer, Picasso is a GT painter, Banksy is a GT "artist." There are people who are simply so far beyond the norm that no amount of practice will enable non-GT people to reach their levels of mastery and virtuousity. I mean, just take a look at this and tell me that anyone could do it with enough practice.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Read Imbolo Mbue's "Behold the Dreamers"

Last year a friend recommended a book - Americana by Nigerian author Chimimanda Adiche - and I was captivated by a fascinating account of an immigrant's view of America and race. A key element of Adiche's book is the observation from her protagonist that "before I came to America, I wasn't black." That insight about race and identity set the novel on a higher level of social criticism that has intrigued me for quite some time - especially in the era of "the Trump candidacy."

Since I read Adiche and took a second look at her TED Talk - the "Danger of the Single Story" - I have been intrigued by more works from African immigrants turning a lens on America. And using book reviews and Amazon recommendation as so many of us do to find comparable works, I happened across an inspired work from Cameroonian author Imbolo Mbue called Behold the Dreamers. A third person narrative set in 2007-08 in New York City amidst the implosion of Leyman Bros and the crash of the US economy, "Behold" is exactly the book that we wish Donald Trump and his supporters could read ... and understand.

Telling the story of a Cameroonian immigrant Jende Jonga who wants so desperately to embrace the  American Dream, "Behold" juxtaposes two complicated American lives on either side of the wealth and citizenship divide in contemporary America. Jende is facing eventual deportation if he cannot earn a green card, but he is given hope when he earns the job of chauffer to a Leyman Bros exec. It is a beautifully whimsical and painfully poignant portrait of the antithetical struggles of two families to survive in New York in early part of the twenty-first century. In that way, it reminds me of another great work about the immigrant experience juxtaposed with middle/upper class sensibility, The Tortilla Curtain by TC Boyle.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Debate 2016 - Trump's Uncomfortable Agitated Evening

Well, that was awkward and uncomfortable, but not all that unexpected. In fact, the debate this evening with Donald Trump blustering, interupting, and occasionally babbling against a clear spoken (mostly) calm and policy oriented Hilary Clinton was exactly what we should have all expected. And it did not disappoint. The whole thing made me a little uncomfortable simply because a US Presidential Debate should not looks so ... un-Presidential.

Certainly, the pro-Trump crowd - including and especially the "Deplorables" - will be very pleased with her performance. But I don't think this reality TV act will play well or win with swing voters, moderate-independents, or especially women and minorities. At least I hope it won't - and I would be quite disturbed by my country if it did.

As far as the value of what they said, well, as each said, "check the facts."

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


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.