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 Yet, areas around I-25 have outdated property that could be updated to feature open spaces, restaurants, offices and housing, including single-family homes, townhouses and condos.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?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Does The Athletic Want to Ruin Sports Journalism

Let's start here: I still subscribe to my local newspaper, The Denver Post, and I will for as long as it exists, knowing as I do the integral role that newspapers and print journalism play in maintaining our communities, society, and republic. My mother was a print journalist (reporter, editor, and features writer) for thirty years, and I grew up with a respect for the industry and a warmth in my heart for the sound of the newspaper landing on the driveway each morning. Thus, it was with profound disappointment and a genuine bit of queasiness that I read this morning (in the print version of the New York Times) about radical entrepreneur named Alex Mather and his plan to destroy local sports journalism and monopolize sports reporting.

“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Alex Mather, a co-founder of The Athletic, said in an interview in San Francisco. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

My first - and lingering - response was "Geez, what a tool."

Mather, who is 37, and his partner Adam Hansmann, a green 29, plan to gut local newspapers of their premier sportswriters by hiring them away to work at a subscription sports site, The Athletic, which they intend to ultimately be the Amazon or Neftlix or Spotify of sports journalism. The "vulture"-like strategy of luring away the talent from print sources that face a shrinking market amidst free online content and amateur-reporting on blogs and open sites like Bleacher Report is certainly a workable business model. Mather and Hansmann know they can poach the reporters and use venture capital to absorb losses until the original bundle-service news source, the newspaper, folds. At that point, they hope to have the monopoly on quality sports writing, and they are banking on millions of current sports writing fans being willing to pay yearly fees for sports news.

It could work. But it will more than likely ruin local news organizations' ability to continue providing content, and then fade on a naive and unsustainable model. Then it will leave consumers mostly willing to accept mediocre reporting from whatever source their social media friends post.

Sadly, both Alex and Adam are still too young and under-educated to understand that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Do Students Need Four Years of English .... or homework?

I once taught in a school where a single research paper in English class, including the creation of "fifty note cards," was an actual graduation requirement. It was a stupid idea at best, but it more likely bordered on educational malpractice.

As an English teacher with a passion for teaching reading and writing and roughly twenty-five years of experience in the classroom, I probably shouldn't be asking this, but do high school students really need four years of high school English class? It is a pretty standard mantra nationwide that high school graduation requirements include an indisputable "four years of English" and then variations of two to four years of math, science, social studies, foreign language, and the fine/practical arts. And, I'm thinking that this conventional wisdom is naive at best, but probably more ineffective and even detrimental to the K-12 education process in this country. It is, of course, colleges and universities that drive this requirement, or expectation, (which is really a mandate). But let's be honest:  if a student took five years of math, four years of  science, and two or three of English, social studies, and fine arts, would he be "less prepared" for college and university classes?

Of course not.

Granted, the general roles of reading  and writing in the success of college students cannot be disputed. Certainly, "Composition 101" remains the flunk out course for so many colleges nationwide, and if a student can't read and understand his textbooks or write decent essays and research papers, he will truly stuggle and probably not finish his degree, which is a very real problem in this country. That said, the expectation that four years of English class will solve the problem and equip students with all the study skills they need to be successful is a bit of an exaggeration, if not an actual absurd assumption. Merely taking four years of English in high school is not a guarantee of college readiness, and students may cultivate reading and writing skills just as effectively in a social studies or science class. It's undeniable that many high school classes nationwide simply aren't that challenging - and a high school creative writing class won't automatically included a quality and rigorous workload of college prep writing. And, over several decades I have been frustrated and disappointed by knowledge of students who "didn't graduate" because they had all their credits except one semester of English or a single research paper. It's simply ridiculous.

For far too long, I have worried about the expectation and understanding that the high school English class is the only place where students actually learn to read and write. They should be learning those skill in all the content areas. Few English teachers, I believe, would disagree with me. Yet, if the understanding is that students learn the skills of reading and writing and thinking in all classes, then we must let go of the misguided belief that all students need more English classes than any other curriculum, core or otherwise.

Of course, this won't end until colleges and universities ease their dictatorial control of the classes that they mandate high school students must take in order to be "college ready."

Let's start an honest conversation about "what students really need to know."

Oh, and to be true to my post title: we need to cut down on the homework at the high school level. School should be like Disneyland because the classroom is "where the magic happens."

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Who is trying to "Save Our Village" - and from What?

Who’s Trying to “Save Our Village,” and From What?

Last week many voters in Greenwood Village received a mass email endorsing a slate of candidates for City Council from the “Save Our Village” campaign. It expressed a desire but inability to “reach everyone … to talk about our issues and values” and asked for help in “urging your neighbors to vote for our candidates.” Yet, the one important piece of information it lacked is any explanation of “Why?” An online search for Save Our Village revealed a bare-bones website, which contained no members’ names, no platform, and no list of issues. In fact, the tab for the organization’s “Vision” contained no information at all. So what are those issues and values, and who exactly is Save Our Village?

As informed community members, we should question why an anonymous PAC is sending a mass email promoting candidates with no explanation of their experience, platform, views, or positions on pertinent community issues. In fact, there is no mention of any specific issue on the agendas – past or future – of Greenwood Village City Council. Most voters know the previous Save Our Village group was organized on one specific issue – the proposed re-zoning of the Orchard Area. Clearly, voters voiced their opinion on that issue, and it’s now time to move on and return to discussion of numerous issues facing the Village in coming years. Yet, if the websites of some candidates are used as a measure, Save Our Village seems to be reigniting the divisiveness of that vote and pursuing election based on a fear of property development.

The phrase Save Our Village also requires greater clarity from this group and candidates. Certainly, many residents know the original platform opposed changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan to allow mixed-use development, including space for residential units, small businesses like restaurants and shops, and community space. Yet, many residents believed the vote was about allowing one “high density housing” plan, and they rejected it based on that assumption. Voters expressed fears about subsequent traffic congestion, though traffic is far more impacted by the 70,000 commuters to DTC than it is by residents. Voters also expressed concerns about overcrowded schools, though no data supports that claim, especially west of I-25. In fact, no one seems to acknowledge that the Landmark Towers are “high density” housing, and no one connects them to school enrollment problems. All these concerns are valid, yet far too many are based on misinformation. And candidates or PACs who warn of “high density urbanism” and pledge to uphold “Village Values” should be careful with such hyperbole and loaded words.

Additionally, if candidates are directly involved in the organization, voters deserve transparency on those associations. Currently two SOV-promoted candidates seem to be directly connected. Specifically, the address on the email for the group appears to be Dave Kerber's house, and Jerry Presley had directly responded to emails to the group. Thus, it appears Kerber and Presley may have organized what seems to be a third-party PAC which they in turn use to anonymously endorse themselves. Now, that may not be illegal or unethical in some people’s views, but it certainly seems a bit suspect to an average voter. At the very least, it lacks the necessary transparency desired by voters and promoted by candidates.

Voters might also consider greater scrutiny of the candidacies of Dave Kerber, Jerry Presley, and Anne Ingebretsen over the precedent it would set. Each of these people is a long-standing community member who has served on City Council. Yet, as most voters know, Greenwood Village has term limits for the Council and Mayor’s office. While a loophole allows the law to be circumvented for candidates to serve non-consecutive terms, that is hardly the spirit of term limits. Granted, these three individuals have experience in public service. However, in a city of fifteen-thousand people, voters should be able to find new, qualified voices to help the Council stay fresh and avoid the downside of unchecked incumbency.

Voters should be curious about who SOV is. Are they connecting the election to the referendum? If so, how and why? What is their ultimate goal? What are those “issues and values?” What is this yet undisclosed “Vision?” Will they disclose who the organizing and leading members are? Will candidates and members make themselves available in public forums? Village voters deserve some transparency.

NOTE: A shorter version of this commentary appeared this week in The Villager 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

"When Am I Going to Use This?" - What Really Matters in Class

"When am I going to use this?"

A student's question about the usefulness of school content and curriculum is always a challenge for contemporary educators because many of us must face the reality and answer honestly - "Never," we might say. "You will never directly use this knowledge about The Great Gatsby or this skill for multiplying a polynomial or this diagram of cell's structure or this information about the Battle of Antietam." Education doesn't work that way - it's not all utilitarian. However, some of it can be, and for many of us, it's our hidden curriculum, or those little tidbits of information, insight, and life skills that we use to frame the rest of our lessons. For me, those tidbits might be healthy living choices or personal financial literacy. *

Just two weeks, as I shopped in Home Depot for light bulbs, a man walking past stopped and said, "Mr. Mazenko? Is that you?" He was a former student from nearly fifteen years ago, and as we talked about the class and what he remembered, he told me, "Save 10% and invest in a mutual fund. That's what I remember most. Every kid should do what you told us." Now, I taught him junior English, so much of our class was about appreciating The Great Gatsby and writing argumentative essays and sharpening grammar skills for the ACT/SAT.  But I also used to give regular book talks, and we'd often read short pieces from the newspaper that were challenging and relevant. So, when I brought in a Market Watch piece from the Wall Street Journal that advised people to "Save 10%" and I recommended kids read books like David Bach's Automatic Millionaire, it resonated with kids. In fact, many kids will tell me, it's this mini-lessons and supplements to the curriculum that make all the difference.

Anecdotes like this are why opportunities such as Digital Promise are so valuable in education today. The opportunity for competency-based learning opportunities on sites like Bloomboard-Digital Promise is part of the new innovations in education that allow learning and mastery of anything, anytime, anywhere. The digital age has the potential to be the great democratizing influence on education because no information is off limits. Anyone with digital access can learn as much as he or she wants by using online platforms. And, beyond simply accessing and learning the information, people have the opportunity to earn micro-credentials. At the Bloomboard-Digital Promise site, students and teachers have the chance to learn and earn up to twenty financial literacy micro-credentials. In many ways, the access to information and micro-credentials could be the key to expanding not only knowledge but certifications and access to careers.

Competency-based learning and digital access to content, curriculum, knowledge, and skills is the foundation of innovative education. I've noted before my criticism of concepts around seat-time and Carnegie units as the indisputable gatekeeper for education and certification. The work of groups like Digital promise is one step to increasing access and expanding knowledge.

* This is a sponsored post

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Matt Lewis takes a stand ... on nothing

Conservative blogger and critic Matt Lewis has made a name for himself in recent years with thoughtful pragmatic commentary on pertinent issues, and he's not afraid to challenge Republicans or concede to Democrats. Overall, his work for the Daily Beast, his regular tweets, and his appearance on talk television have been meaningful up to this point - but today he decided to weigh in on the NFL controversies, and he has brought nothing to the table. What makes it worse is that he has decided to tweet and comment on his ardent and firm stance .... on basically nothing.

Specifically, Lewis floated a column on the Daily Beast where he comes clean and makes a big deal about his decision that: It's Official: This is the Year I Stop Watching Football. Readers may think that as a conservative and reasonably reliable Republican that Lewis is upset over the protests by football players, such as Colin Kaepernick, who are "taking a knee" during the national anthem to protest racial inequity, especially in the area of policing. But that'd probably be wrong. Other readers may think that he is taking the moral position regarding the violent nature of the game, which leads to traumatic brain injuries and the prevalence of CTE in current and former NFL players. Some people feel they just can't condone the danger and risk, so they've quit watching. This position was well-articulated by writer Steve Almond who published Against Football: a Reluctant Fan's Manifesto back in 2015. And Lewis acknowledges that ethical discomfort as a reason to stop watching the NFL - but readers can't assume it's his.

In fact, Matt Lewis spends an entire article explaining all the reasons someone might boycott or simply stop watching the NFL, but never explains what he believes. He points out that there could be legitimate health reasons that he, and maybe we, should stop watching the NFL. Heart attacks go up among fans when their team loses. But Lewis doesn't concede to a concern about his own cardiac situation. Then, to make it all the more vacuous, Lewis explains that he will stop watching the NFL today .... but that he probably won't maintain this conviction. If a game is on at a friend's house and he's there, he will probably watch. If his team - The Redskins ("with the politically incorrect name") - go on a run to the playoffs, he will watch. And, of course, he will probably watch the Super Bowl. So, he composed an entire column and tweeted several times about it just to concede that he might not watch NFL games on September 24, and that is, for some reason, a really big deal.

After Lewis published his article, and then tweeted about how he's "not watching football" today, it became apparent that he wanted everyone to know about his big decision to take a stance against absolutely nothing. Lewis' work in last year's Too Dumb to Fail was some of the best political writing of the past few years. He should probably stick to topics where he actually stands for something.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

America Ninja Warrior Letdown - Joe Moravsky got robbed (by Pom Wonderful & NBC)

Why do we keep watching? Why do they keep competing? Why won't NBC, Pom Wonderful, and Ninja Warrior do right by these extraordinary athletes? Why are multi-billion dollar companies and brands such tightasses with their earnings? Why am I so annoyed by this?

Once again, for the eighth time out of nine years, the iconic and thrilling endurance competition American Ninja Warrior has ended without a champion, without a victor, without a climb of Mt. Midoryama, without an award of a million dollars, without a satisfying and appropriate conclusion to a season's worth of glorious physical achievements. It all ended in a surprising, anti-climactic, disappointing splash, followed by a dis-spirited shrug from the hosts and a "see ya next year" sign-off from the network. On Monday night, three finalists made it to the coveted Stage III of the American Ninja Warrior course, and long-time competitor Joe "The Weatherman" Moravsky went the fathest on a truly grueling and (obviously) impossible course, only to fall just a few feet and a couple more obstacles from the end.

That last string of challenges on Stage III bordered on the absurd, specifically because it contained one more challenge than it should have with literally no chance for the competitor to even take a breather. And, let's face it, since the course had no winner last year, it really wasn't necessary to change the final challenges, unless the corporate shills wanted to guarantee that they wouldn't have to write a check. You know, Pom (not so) Wonderful and NBC, the producers of the Amazing Race and Survivor give away a million dollar prize every ... damn ... year. It is so satisfying to watch the winner celebrate. That makes those shows a superior production, and they have a lot more integrity.

Let's be clear: POM and NBC are making copious amounts of cash off these athletes who are basically performing for free. They are donating their talents and pushing themselves for the simple pursuit of excellence. It's not about the money, it's not about the fame, it's all about the challenge. And, the producers should honor them for that. POM and NBC are worse than the NCAA in their manipulation and abuse of their athletes. These top tier athletes and stars should be compensated for their efforts. Joe and Drew and Lance and Jessie and so many more are top draws for the network. While someone like Joe may not "deserve" or even want the million dollars for coming up short, the network should cut checks to the finalists to make it financially worth the while. Since Joe went the farthest this year, since he was the last ninja standing (or dry), he should earn some sort of reward. I don't think a $100K is an unreasonable expectation.

Come on NBC. Come on POM. Adapt. Grow. Change. Progress. Be excellent to these athletes who pursue excellence. Leave the course the same until it's conquered, and compensate those athletes who are making you even richer.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Some Ways Lenora Chu is Wrong

Anytime someone bases a criticism of the American public education system on a comparison to the supposed "superiority" of Asian students based on their standardized test scores from the PISA test, I am immediately suspicious, and I have to force myself to listen in an objective way. The latest entry in this discussion comes from journalist and writer Lenora Chu, who has recently published a memoir and education commentary called Little Soldiers: an American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve. The problems of such international comparisons are well-documented, and I don't intend to recount that issue here, other than to note a few things: when corrected for poverty, American schools actually rank number one in the world; the state of Massachusetts regularly outperforms the rest of the world including places like Shanghai; American students have won the International Math Olympiad for two of the past three years; the Chinese don't educate huge numbers of their kids (so the scores aren't really nationally representative); and the performance on standardized tests have not translated to superiority in the real world of innovation and professional achievement. In the past thirty-fifty years, have Shanghai doctors, engineers, scientists (physicists/chemists/biologists), computer programmers, economists, technicians, etc. outperformed their counterparts in America? Uh ... no.

No, I am actually much more interested in exploring how Chu's story and claims are actually a reflection of poor parenting skills and a social dynamic that is not really fixable in contemporary American society. I have not read Chu's book yet, though I will; and I am basing my criticisms on her recent piece of commentary in the Wall Street Journal, Why American Students Need Chinese Schools. It is certainly written as a promotional piece for her book, but I was more intrigued by the underlying issue which is basically an unintentional confessional piece about Chu's lack of faith in her own ability to parent and her desire for schools to raise her children for her. Chu opens her WSJ piece with a disturbing anecdote about Chinese teachers force-feeding egg to her kindergartener, and her apparent acquiesence to this absurd action because "the teacher knows best." Why she - not to mention the entire Chinese school system - believes that people have to eat eggs or that it is a necessary protein is beyond my comprehension. In reality, it's not about eggs at all - it's about absolute and indisputable compliance, complacency, and subserviance to authority.

Granted, Chu is correct in her assertion that "Western teachers spend lots of time managing student behavior and crushing mini-revolts by students and parents alike," and it can be subsequently argued that part of America's education problem is the result of poorly-raised children with negative attitudes toward school, teachers, and learning. That said, America has never been a society of somewhat mindless automatons who are afraid to challenge their government, and I'd argue we don't want it to be. I'd go one step further and argue that students thinking for themselves, having preferences and choices, and not blindly obeying a teacher just because of a degree and certificate are contributors to America's century-long dominance in innovation and social progress, and they are not necessarily correlated to poor educational performance and bad behavior. There is a reason that so many international students - especially from countries like China - come to the United States for college, graduate school, and jobs. It is the freedom from being "force-fed eggs" (and propoganda from an internet-restricted media) that allows people to thrive and grow.

Note: I lived and taught in Taiwan - the Republic of China - for five years. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Updike's "Rabbit" Angstrom is Back - and his name is Rich

The mildly depressing ennui of the middle class suburban man is as dependable as the June swoon for most major league ball clubs, and it's a time honored tradition of American literature and popular culture that seems to never become as boring and uninteresting as the un-loveable losers it portrays. What is it about American guys? Is the species really that lost and pathetic? Probably.

From that mythical and sappy time of the 1950s "Happy Days," when literary lion John Updike first shared the story of the "Rabbit" who desperately wanted to run, the dark pathetic side of Ward Cleaver has been a stock character of American fiction. Rabbit, Run was more than just the story of Harry Angstrom's disillusioned and disaffected minor rebellion - it was a chronicle of a decade with all the mundane details that no one talked about at parties.

I enjoyed Updike's Rabbit novels for all the sociological voyeurism they provided, and I've been pondering them and recognizing them as I make my way through Mathew Klam's 2017 novel Who is Rich?  Klam has a sharp eye for social satire as he relates the story of Rich Fischer, a forty-something old illustrator and once-mildly-successful cartoonist who ekes out a life of quiet desperation working for magazines and freelance gigs like court room artist. His only escape from the monotony is a visit to a summer writing clinic filled with similar misfits.

While the story is one told before, Klam's skill with description and storytelling hearkens back to Updike in language as much as plot. As the New Times opined:

There’s no doubt that “Who Is Rich?” is difficult to read, and that’s by design. It’s an experience akin to listening to a semi-charming casual acquaintance reveal way too much information about his relationship woes — it’s horrifying, but you find yourself unable to turn away. It’s a challenging novel, but Klam’s prose is so clean, so self-assured, that it feels a little like a miracle. Klam forces his readers to think about things many of us would rather ignore, and somehow makes us feel a reluctant sympathy toward a man who hasn’t earned it. Maybe it’s a love story; maybe it’s just a lust story, but either way, it’s a fine accomplishment. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Students: Be Extraordinary, Indispensable, & Good

This week I was asked to give a speech at the induction ceremony for my high school's newest National Honor Society members. It was a nice honor, and I was happy to share some thoughts with the kids and their families. Here is the text from my speech:

Our youth today love luxury.  They have bad manners and contempt for authority.  They disrespect their elders and love gossip and socializing instead of exercise.  They no longer rise when adults enter the room.  They challenge their parents, gobble up their food, and tyrannize their teachers.

While you might think those comments were part of a recent NBC news special or an article in the New York Times, or perhaps posted by your parents' friends on Facebook, they were actually delivered by Socrates in the Fifth Century, B.C.  We hear a lot of criticism of young people these days, and of public education.  Some would argue that both are in a state of ruin.  I would argue, however, that people who feel that way don’t know anything about Cherry Creek High School.

I want to thank Ms. Benham for the opportunity to speak tonight – and I want to thank the students here for giving me a reason to sing your praises.  Despite the negative talk about education – and the country in general these days – you are the people we don’t really worry about.  In fact, on the contrary, we look to you, filled with pride and hope.  You truly are the best and brightest, and the future belongs to you.  The question is what are you going to do with it?  The twenty-first century is a time that is constantly in flux – undergoing perpetual change – and the technologies and professions that will be in demand may not have even been invented yet.  Thus, your future truly is wide open.  The challenge is to find your path.

Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society urged students to “Make your lives extraordinary.”  And I think you are doing that.  You are extra ordinary – you stand out.  Beyond that I would tell you to make yourselves useful through self improvement and service. In fact, I will go one step further, and borrow the advice of a good friend of mine. He credits his success to always being the one who says yes, always being the one who says, "I'll try," always being the one who says, "I can do that." So beyond beyond being skilled and helpful, “make yourself indispensable.”  In an episode of the HBO show Girls, one of the characters is fired from her unpaid internship.  And then she finds out her replacement is actually being paid for the job.  She adamantly asks her boss how this can true, and he says, “Well, she knows PhotoShop.”  When she responds, “I can learn PhotoShop,” he tells her, “Maybe, but you didn’t.”  My point is you are the kind of people who learn PhotoShop.  You are the ones who work hard and do what needs to be done.  That is uncommon in these times, and it will serve you well.

Steve Martin is one of the most prominent entertainers and pop culture figures of our time.  From his early days as a stand-up comedian and original cast member of SNL, he has become a film icon as an actor, director, writer, and producer.  He has written numerous best-selling books and an award winning play.  He is considered one premier art collectors and critics in American society.  And he is a renowned musician whose prowess with the banjo rivals the best in the business.  Steve Martin is just so … good.  So, when Steve Martin was asked for the secret to success, he responded, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”  Be … so … good … they … can’t … ignore … you.  That’s the kind of advice you can do something with.  Dedicate yourselves to your craft – whatever it is, and commit to excellence. 

Regardless of which path you choose, do whatever you do with commitment and determination to succeed.  I mean, you’re honors students at Cherry Creek High School.  You are going to get into a good college.  It will be the right college for you.  When you get there, you’re going to do well, and unlike far too many kids, you’re going to earn a degree that will qualify you for a good job.  And you will be well prepared for your job, and you will be well prepared for life. You will be valued, and you will be indispensable. You will be so good they can't ignore you.

You have worked very hard to get here  tonight, and we celebrate your membership in a highly respected institution and a tradition. As a baseline, you must have achieved highly in the academic field. But NHS is about more than just grades - it's about character and service. Over the years I have appreciated the tutoring and academic support that NHS members provide to our student body. And, believe me, when I am in Beyond the Bell after school, and some kid is asking for help in Pre-Calc, this English teacher is looking around for you. Your service matters a great deal, and it's easy to dismiss it as "no big deal," as so many of you say to me. But for a kid who's struggling, the time you give can mean the world. 

If you continue to develop your skills and put in the time and cultivate your character, you will make a difference in the world, and you will, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "meet with a success unexpected in common hours." Congratulations on your nomination and acceptance to the National Honor Society.

*Note:  I joked that night that I am somewhat plagiarizing myself because the speech was pulled together from a variety of essays, articles, and speeches I've given in the past.