Saturday, December 31, 2016

Teach Literacy Skills & Content Knowledge

RE-PRINT: Mazenglish, 2012

A somewhat cold and undeclared war seems to be boiling in the English community, specifically, and the education world at large regarding the teaching of literacy.  Basically, the divide is happening between subject knowledge and the practice of basic literacy and the teaching of reading strategies.  While people like Cris Tovani have argued passionately for the teaching of reading strategies all the way through high school, core knowledge people like Dan Willingham have expressed concern that teaching strategies has no impact on actual learning.  The war isn't actually as serious as it has been hyped.  For Tovani's camp is certainly teaching the importance of core knowledge - as one of their foundational strategies is that "effective readers use existing knowledge to make sense of new information."  And from the Willingham/Hirsch side, there is no evidence that they are outright dismissing the teaching of literacy strategies.

Ultimately, the solution is found - not surprisingly - in a balanced approach.

Anthony Palumbo, a literacy professor, examines and explains this idea quite well in a recent piece of commentary published in Education Week.  The key concepts of reading strategies - such as basic phonemic awareness - are the foundation of accessing text.  But they do not automatically lead to comprehension.  A student can pronounce the words in his head, even as he fails to understand what he's seeing.  It's called "fake reading."  And, the data reveals that students' comprehension of complex information is declining, even as schools seem focused on ramping up literacy instruction.  Clearly, the gap is evident at the earliest level, but it becomes a foundational issue by grade four when "schools begin to emphasize the measurement of subject-matter knowledge and de-emphasize the measurement of basic literacy skills."  Schools find this most frustrating in the subject areas outside of English class where the science and social studies text simply baffle many average teenagers.  They shut down and fail to engage with the text.

The problem often can be traced to the overall lack of "knowledge-based literacy," meaning kids simply do not know enough to access texts on information they don't know.  And, worse, they lack the self-awareness and meta-cognitive abilities to even understand when and why they do or do not understand a text.

And, that is the nature of our burden.

Friday, December 30, 2016

So Much to Read and Do

I'm finally reading a lot of literature again. Truly, I am a bit of an enigma and a contradiction for an English teacher because I don't always read novels regularly, and I really have no desire to teach AP English Literature, as opposed to AP English Lang. Like many men, I am far more interested in non-fiction writing, and that emphasis in Lang is really where I find my calling. That said, I am often a "literature admirer" from afar - there are many books I would like to read or at least have read. For there is so much honesty about the human experience, and that knowledge and insight is truly a part of who I want to be.

So, I've been haunting the library and bookstores again like I used to, and I am pulling more books off the shelves than I could ever read in the time alloted. For example, I am currently working my way through Skios by Michael Frayan - it's a delightful satire of academia and the world of large foundations and their conferences.

And I recently grabbed Madam Picasso by Anne Girard off the shelf. Not sure if I will get around the reading it before it's due and I've finished other books on the desk, but the back page alone was compelling enough - "... the mesmerizing and untold story of Eva Gouel, the unforgettable woman who stole the heart of the greatest artist of our time."

I truly hope I have time to crack open the sci-fi-ish story The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfeld. It has a fantastical setting in a future dystopian world where people are known primarily by their credit score. What a fascinating and timely discourse on the dangers of an increasingly finance-driven world, and it reminds me a bit of another great dystopian satire Jennifer Government by Max Barry. 

There are more, of course. My desk and shelf are piled high, as an English teacher's should be. And, I believe I will be reading and writing more.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Loving Where I Live - Go, Colorado

Growing up in a small town in southern Illinois, I couldn't have been happier. Alton is a beautiful little historic town along the Mississippi River, and even as a young adult I referred to it as God's country. However, I couldn't be happier in my adopted home. I was "born in the summer of my [thirty-third] year, coming home to a place I'd never been before."

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Retiring Abroad & Paying for Health Care

"So, do you guys plan to be empty nesters in this house?"

That question was posed recently when we had some friends over for wine, food, and games. My teenage son and friends were over playing various board games, and I was showing a friend the newly renovated basement and the desperately-needing-renovation backyard. The response from my wife and me was immediate - "Oh, good god, no. We've got seven to nine years before we get out of here," but we definitely won't be living here when the thirty years of our newly refinanced mortagage expire. The conversation shifted from the when to the where, as our friend thought we might look for a condo in Denver, and was surprised when we talked of heading south. "The Springs?" he asked, surprised.

Colorado Springs? For retirement? Damn, that's worse than the thought of southeast Denver. No, when we talk south, we're thinking the Caribbean, and that's not surprising as "More Americans Choosing to Retire Outside the US." Having lived abroad before, we are certainly not averse to living somewhere other than the United States.

Just under 400,000 American retirees are now living abroad, according to the Social Security Administration. The countries they have chosen most often: Canada, Japan, Mexico, Germany and the United Kingdom. Retirees most often cite the cost of living as the reason for moving elsewhere said Olivia S. Mitchell, director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
For some people, the idea of living outside of United States and far away from family is a baffling idea. But for many others, there is no specific lure to living in suburban - or urban - America, and there is just too many inviting things about life abroad. Mexico has become a desired location for many based on the low cost of living, and it's clear that health care costs and spending are another key. Let's face it, the United States is a colossal embarrassment of financial mismanagement when we consider how "The US Spends More on Health Care than other countries," and we're not always sure how much benefit we're getting.

For me, the lure of the islands and the health care systems of places like Great Britain and the Netherlands are certainly reason to start scoping out plans for that bed and breakfast we just may enjoy owning in Aruba or the BVE.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side

Adapted from Mazenglish, 2012

While I am not generally a fan of "education-ese," I've reached the point in the year when I feel the need to step aside from the direct instruction and encourage my students to begin owning their own educational process. As we head into second semester, the classroom needs to be less a place where "kids come to watch adults work." To often the students are willing to be the "happy little troopers" and do exactly what they are told to get the grade they need. However, that's not always the best way to cultivate skill and knowledge - in fact, we've all been in classes where we simply want to be told what we need to know. For now in AP English Lang, I am feeling a more "workshop-like approach" will be the best avenue for them to cultivate writing skills.

When I was teaching freshman English, I always took this approach with one of the last literary works of the year. In my Honors English 9 class, I would tell them it is time they leave the nest.  After being the "Sage on the Stage" through numerous novels and units during the year in which I taught them "how to read literature" at the high school level, I turned the study of the last novel over to them. They were pretty much "on their own" (but actually encouraged to collaborate in pairs and small groups) to work their way through Hemingway's classic The Old Man and the Sea. After teaching them all year about heroes - tragic, epic, and existential code - as well as allusions, allegory, symbolism, motifs, and all the other components of a general survey lit course, I expected them to apply their knowledge to a scholarly analysis of the novel.  They worked in groups, they lead the discussion, they interpreted the text.  And, hopefully, I told them, all the information they gleaned from their study would coincidentally be all the information that I "put on the test."

It's always an exciting time - as they head off on this quest.  And it is always fruitful.  They never fail to disappoint me.  And by the end of the unit they are quite proud to be experts on this work of literature.  They are on their way to becoming "people on whom nothing is lost."

Monday, December 26, 2016

Beverly Clearly still rules YA fiction

RE-PRINT: Mazenglish, 2012

If you want to kick start a love of reading among young children, you can still do what parents, teachers, and librarians have been doing for sixty-two years now - hand the kids a copy of anything by Beverly Cleary.  The young adult/junior fiction raconteur has been weaving entertaining and readable stories for children for decades, and her stories still ring true with young people.  For narrative content to remain fresh and engaging for decades, it has to be something truly magical.  And magical - with deference to JK Rowling - is what Beverly Clearly has been for a long, long time.

My two children are ages seven and ten, and both are avid readers who are as entertained with the stories of Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona, Ellen Tebbits, and more as I was thirty-five years ago.  In fact, I am still amazed and amused by the staying power of these stories of children who lived in a truly different era.  How can such simple stories of growing up in an era before pop culture and technological explosion still resonate?  It's because they are stories of the "human condition" which makes them nearly timeless.  Cleary has said she sought to write the types of stories that she would want to read if she were scanning the library shelves.  And in her words, they were simply "funny stories about her neighborhood and the sort of children she knew."

If you are an educator - or a parent with an educational interest - Beverly Cleary's website is a great resource for ideas about how to use her books in the classroom.  Beyond that, the entire site can be a fun and safe source of online information for kids who are fans of the books.  Beverly Cleary's books represent childhood in all its splendor - from the struggle and uncertainty of coming of age to the magic and joy in simply being a child.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016 Christmukkah Holiday Gift Highlights

The winter holidays of 2016 have coincided in a wonderful synergy of holiday spirit, and thus we have the gift of celebrating Christmukkah this weekend. Christmas Eve consisted of lighting the menorrah for the first night and following our tradition of honoring some person, group, or idea for each night. This year we began by honoring the good "people of non-profits," who do so much heroic and often un-sung work of altruism. The world can certainly use some Goodwill about now, and we wanted to remind ourselves of that.

This year in the Mazenko home, we had a nice simple round of gift-giving. Here are some of the highlights:

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Looking for Something about Life

I think I've always been a searcher, albeit a lazy one at that. A devout - or at least a devoutly aspiring - Catholic in my early days to a lapsed and recoving Catholic in my (gasp!) middle age, I guess I have a pretty sound foundation on the reflective life. Could've seen myself as a Jesuit priest at one time, and certainly investigated Eastern ideas with a silly Keroacian earnestness. Thought at one time I'd be a tai chi master and zen writer hiding out in Southeast Asia, though the depth of my true taoist understanding is more familiar with Benjamin Huff's The Tao of Pooh than it is the actual ways of Lao Tzu. So, yeah, a searcher of "The Way."

Amusingly, I just ran across a new philosopher, guru-type that I'd never heard of before. And I didn't really think that was possible. What do you know about this early 20th century Armenian mystic by the name of G.I. Gurdjieff? Gurdjieff was a proponent of seeking a "unified mind body consciousness," and he believed that man's primary problem is that he exists in a sort of "waking sleep." Amusingly, I learned of this teacher while reading pop culture critic Robert Schnankenberg's wonderfully entertaining book The Big Bad Book of Bill Murrary. Murray, the wildly entertaining trickster prince of contempary Hollywood comedy is apparently a follower of Gurdjeiff-ism, or whatever the idea may be.

There seems to be a lot in this discipline, which has been called "The Work," about the Thoreau-ian idea of "living deliberately." And I've long been in search of the way I can finally start "living the life I have imagined." Of course, this is just one more way of approaching the necessary task of becoming ourselves and creating meaning through daily actions of existence. And, this post hasn't really ended up the way I envisioned it. I just thought it was amusing to run across this new philosophical source, especially because of the place I learned about it.

So, for whatever it's worth, I offer the idea of "Bill Murray-ism."

Friday, December 23, 2016

Where there's a will, there's George Will

In the topsy-turvey nonsensical political reality of 2016, I am looking back on some of the thinking and writing that makes the most sense to me when I consider the role of government, the value of politics, and the all important question of how men should live. Granted, it was with a profound bit of dismay at Election2016 that I begin this reflective quest to make some sense of political realities. And, truly, I do get it. I understand why what happened did in fact happen. It's really not so surprising the more I think about it, and I am more than a little miffed that HRC seems to be hanging her hat on the idea that the election was stolen from her by Russian hacking of DNC emails. If that's the position of Democratic leadership, they're going to be wandering in the muck for quite a while.

Instead, let's look back to some sound political reasoning about the way things ought to be. I have been reading two important socio-political critiques from fifteen and thirty years ago: Building a Bridge to the 18th Century by Neil Postman and Statecraft as Soul Craft by George Will. These two men might be a couple of the most astute thinkers of the modern era, and their ideas are sadly ignored and obscure to society's peril.

In perusing George Will's 1983 explanation and defense of true conservatism, I am reminded of why I call myself a conservative yet often "caucus with the Democrats" and find so few heroes in the contemporary Republican Party. In fact, the book reminds me of the article I've been meaning to write for a while entitled "Conservative but not Republican." The basic idea is that I believe in government as the foundation of a stable society, which is why I have so much trouble taking the contemporary Libertarian Party seriously - and that was before Gary Johnson embarrassed himself nationally in a haze of marijuana-influenced policy gaffes. Truly, as Thoreau noted in the 1830s, "the government is best that governs least," and we certainly don't need a continued expansion of government offices or programs. Interestingly, I argued with a liberal friend recently why anything more than a 35% tax rate is ridiculous, regardless of total income. But I digress. George Will has spent decades defending why a conservative can believe in "a strong government" and the "essentials of the welfare state." And he's right. It's just common sense.

In the new era of populism - which is a bit mystifying when truly considered - George Will reminds us that "Andrew Jackson said any American could fill any office." Those thoughts were also expressed by Vladimir Lenin, and in a strange way, Mao Ze Dong. Yet, it's pretty clear we are long past the days of the "citizen legislator," as Will points out how unsuccessful the last one - Jimmy Carter - was in the Presidency. Truly, "A great state cannot be run by citizen legislators and amateur administrators ... Government is increasingly and necessarily conducted by specialists. Progress requires specialization."

Yet, that is not where we're headed, which is disconcerting.  So, consider taking a look back at Will's analysis and prescription for what the country needs in terms of leadership.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

For the true holiday spirit, watch "The Year without a Santa Claus"

I believe in Santa Claus, like I believe in love ...

It gets me every year, and it's been doing that for more than forty years. As the holiday season rolls around, and everyone makes it a point to watch and talk about their favorite Christmas movies, there is only one answer for me: "The Year without a Santa Claus" is the best one of all.

The 1974 claymation classic features the voices of Shirley Booth and Mickey Rooney, and it's based on the wonderfully sweet and sentimental book by Phyliss McGinley who captures in a story all the mystery of the Christmas spirit. "The Year without..." is not the traditional take on the holiday themes of family and gift giving, and it is a truly original look at the values of love and generosity that remarkably get a re-charge every December, even amidst the crass commercialism that's been growing in strength since McGinley first penned her tale.

The story presents a unique challenge for the traditional Christmas characters, as Santa begins to doubt the necessity or relevance of his yearly ride to bring joy and goodwill wrapped up in toys for children. Nursing a bad cold and feeling a little old, Santa ponders the possibility of taking a holiday. It's up to Mrs. Claus and a couple of lovably loyal elves to go out into the world and find a just a hint of that "Christmas spirit" to convince Santa that it's all worthwhile. Of course, Santa eventually needs to head out after the crew after they run into trouble in an uncaring world, and it's in those moments that the writers and producers of the show revive the wholesome and simple beauty of the season.

If you've never seen it, or you just don't remember how special it is, take time to remember the spirit of Christmas. Watch TYWASC, and you will "believe in Santa Claus."

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Whiskey, Wine, & Beer in Colorado

RE-PRINT - Views on the Village, 2012

Having just returned from a glorious trip to the Napa Valley, I'm in the mood to appreciate some local quality spirits.  Coloradans are probably learning that the Denver-Ft. Collins area is developing a reputation as the Napa Valley of Beer.  Of course, there's more to the area than ales and pilsners, but Denver is really putting itself on the map for high quality craft beers.  For those in the area who have never sampled the local flavors - from our microbrew industry to the Western Slope wines to spirits such as Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey - the Denver Post has offered a great guide.

In a special feature to the Post, local writer Erin Barnes has put together an excellent breakdown of the 11 Best Tasting Rooms in Colorado.  This moves beyond the wines of Palisade and New Belgium in Ft. Collins - though those are still worth the time.  Additionally, you might want to consider such spots as Silver Vines Winery in Arvada, Breckenridge Brewery in Breck or Denver, Stranahans Colorado Whiskey, or Equinox in Ft. Collins.  These all sound like they are worth the trip - though probably not all at the same time.

And, definitely, bring a designated driver or take a cab.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Make the "Electoral College" a simple point system

I'll admit it created a bit of excitement and curiosity for me - the idea that we could have a true crisis where the Presidential electors would revolt and send the 2016 Presidential election to the House of Representatives. It was the last-ditch effort and final sliver of hope for the #NeverTrump movement. Many dismayed liberals and Democrats pinned their hopes and dreams on the idea of the "Hamilton Electors" voting against the majority of the people in their state and choosing someone other than Donald Trump (or HRC for that matter as the case turned out to be). But, alas, it was not to be. And that got me thinking about the whole charade of the Electoral College - really, what's the point of the actual voters showing up to the capitol to "cast a ballot" if the action is purely ceremonial.

The Electoral College appears to exist for two reasons:
  1. It provides equal representation to voters in low-population states and "guarantees" that the candidates must consider and try to win their votes. It over-rides a straight popular vote election.
  2. It was a safety-valve put in by the Founding Fathers, who truly did not trust the common man to elect an appropriately qualified leader to the office of the Presidency.
Yet, we now know the rather shakey ground for both those arguments. The population center claim may still be somewhat relevant, though critics have reasonably argued that low-population states now carry significantly more weight than they should. And, the idea that electors could over-ride the popular vote if they didn't trust the selection of the masses has been all but nullified by the laws in many states that legally bind and mandate electors follow their state's popular vote.

So, it's purely ceremonial ... and a complete waste of time and debate. By whatever legal means necessary, the US Election Commission and the Congress should simply shift the idea of "electoral votes" to a point system. If a candidate gets 270+ "electoral votes," or points, that person is automatically declared the winner.

Enough with the drama of actual voters who don't do anything but "rubber stamp" what the country already knows.

Monday, December 19, 2016

La La Land is a Holiday Treat

By now you've heard the news - Hollywood is bringing back the musical - and so far the hype has been nothing but positive. Young writer and director Damien Chazelle's fun and fantastic new musical feature La La Land has been exciting audiences and making the obligatory holiday season film-going a true pleasure. La La Land is quite simply a lot of fun, and the challenge of engaging contemporary audiences with a good old-fashioned musical has been accomplished. From the opening number, you can tell it's going to be a fun ride, and if that opening scene doesn't pull you in, then you are no fan of musicals.

The story is a classic romance set against the age-old quest of seeking fame and success in the City of Angels. Emma Stone's "Mia" is the aspiring actress whose chance encounter with Ryan Gosling's "Sebastian," a jazz piano player who has dreams of opening a jazz club, sets up the central conflict and give-and-take relationship. While neither actor is a trained singer, dancer, or musician, their authentic portrayals are part of the charm of the film. Stone's voice is just strong enough to carry the tunes with a hint of amateur raspiness, and while Gosling's is clearly not a singing voice, he brings the necessary soul to his numbers. The same can be said for their dance scenes which are nothing short of adorable. I went in to the film only knowing the most basic elements, and I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed getting to know the characters.


Obviously the film is going to depend on some pretty standard boy-meets/gets/loses-girl conceits, and I wasn't surprised by any of the somewhat cliched beats to the film. Setting various acts and transitions against the (never-changing) seasons in LA was amusing as it should have been. And the wonderful interplay of music and drama more than made up for the obviousness. Hollywood and Broadway have been down the meta-path of staging musicals so many times that a re-tread of aspiring and artists trying to make it in a cold, heartless LA was not too disappointing. And the film put some nice touches on the genre. The cinematography alone could be worthy on an Oscar statue, and the music - along with Sebastian's passionate defense of the art form - was just a lot of fun.

That said, I don't like the ending. The mix-and-mash of possiblities at the end was amusing, no doubt. And the filmmaking was poetic. But I just don't buy the timeline or the supposed "success" of Mia. Had it been ten years down the road, I would have been more inclined to accept her success and marriage and child. Even then, she seems to be with exactly the type of man she left Seb for in the first place. And when she ends with "I will always love you," the sentiment is robbed by her quick exit into another relationship. So, Chazelle (or someone) certainly went the wrong way with that ending for obvious reasons. But it is the obvious lacking element of an otherwise beautiful film.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Learning to play the piano

I started playing piano today.

It wasn't very impressive, and I was just alone in a room trying to find my finger positions and playing some notes up and down. But it was a lot of fun, and it's exactly what I've been wanting to do for a while. Both my sisters play piano beautifully, and we had a baby grand in the house growing up. They were "forced" to take lessons, as many kids have been, but I never was. I'm sure it had to do with it being the 70s and me being a boy who played sports, but my parents never forced me to play, and I really regret that.

I love music in general and piano jazz in specific. And, as I've reached my late forties, I am realizing that there are many talents and hobbies and activities that make life more beautiful, and I need more of those in my life. So, I'm going to learn to play the piano. I chatted briefly with one of our choir teachers who also teaches in our piano lab, and he was thrilled that I wanted to learn. Rather than taking lessons, he loaned me a copy of the school's introductory piano book, and gave me some tips and a lot of encouragement. So, today after grades were filed and paperwork was completed and the school emptied, I ventured into the piano lab. And it was really nice.

I've also been watching more than a few You Tube videos for different tips on playing piano. And I realized what a wonderful world that we can access so many tutorials. The one listed below is about playing "cocktail music," and it's from a guy named Bill Hilton who has a channel with many great piano tutorials.

So, I'm off on my next great adventure - learning to play piano. Some day, probably years down the road, I hope to post a You Tube video of me playing some great piano jazz.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

I'm Donating to Wikipedia

Each year about this time, Wikipedia asks for donations to support the service and keep the world's largest internet encyclopedia "free of advertising." Supporters of Wikipedia can give money to Wikimedia, which is the non-profit organization that oversees the operation of the site. I have given money to the open-source brainchild of Jimmy Wales in the past, and I plan to do so again this year. I do so for one simple reason:  I use Wikipedia regularly, and I firmly believe in the value it provides. In fact, I know of few people who don't use Wikipedia reguarly - for you can hardly avoid it in any given Google search, nor should you. Wikipedia is an excellent resource and starting point for wanting to learn about anything.

On numerous occasions researchers have analyzed and studied Wikipedia entries for accuracy and reliability, and the site has been confirmed to be overwhelmingly accurate. In fact, because Wikipedia is an open-source document with regular peer review, it can in many ways be more accurate than print sources. Rarely does inaccurate information stay on the site for long because the community of users will correct errors. For that reason, I have no problem with my students using Wikipedia, and I always encourage them to use it as a starting point for more extensive research. It is a valuable tool, and because we all use it so regularly, we should be willing to fund and support it, just as we may do for NPR or PBS or any number of non-profits and foundations.

Granted, there are many critics of Wikipedia and especially Wikimedia's fundraising efforts. Yet, I don't really understand the aversion to the fundraising drive. Even if the foundation has ample funds, there are still obvious costs associated with maintaining the site. If you use it, you should pay for it. And I plan to do so.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

News, "Fake News," & All the News that's fit to Print

In the post-truth world, and the rising era of "fake news," it's worth looking back at these prescient words from social critic Neil Postman in the essay "News" from his 1988 collection of essays Conscientious Objections:

The whole problem with news on television comes down to this: all the words uttered in an hour of television news coverage could be printed on one page of a newspaper. And the world cannot be understood in one page. Of course, there is compensation: television offers pictures, and the pictures move. It is often said that moving pictures are a kind of language in themselves, and there is a good deal of truth in this. But the language of pictures differs radically from oral and written language, and the differences are crucial for understanding television news. 

Imagine what he thought of the internet and social media.

Contemporary American society is in a somewhat precarious and certainly transitional phase in regards to what we "know" to be true. Or really just what we know. Period. The foundation of successful representative democracy is the presence of an active and educated electorate. Yet, the rising division of Americans in relation to what people "know to be true" has merged with an increasingly distracted society that is less than thoughtful about pertinent issues of economics, legislation, rights and responsibilities, and more. Basically, the massive overflow of information and the ever-expanding world of entertainment has begun to cloud out the collective ability to make sense of the world.

And, that puts American society at risk of cultural malaise, decline, and decay.

Monday, December 12, 2016

AP Lang, Annie Dillard, & a Starling Murmuration

Each year around this time, my students read and write about an Annie Dillard passage on the experience of witnessing a large flock of birds. Most teachers of AP English Language are familiar with the Audubon-Dillard prompt, in which students are asked to read two passages by John James Audubon and Annie Dillard and then compare how each author's use of language reflects the experience and the effect on the observer. The descriptive passage by Dillard has a transcendental approach, reflecting a spiritual connection between Dillard and the natural world. After writing the essay, I often share this video of a starling murmuration to help the students appreciate the awesome spectacle which Dillard beheld and was inspired to write about.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Challenge Students w/ blind-topic timed writing

My students never cease to amaze me. As a teacher of AP English Lang & Comp, I will give my students nearly thirty in-class timed writings with released AP prompts each year, and these dedicated and bright seventeen-year-olds will respond with some truly brilliant essays, crafted in 45-minutes or less. The prompts are nearly always "blind-reads," which means they will not have seen the passage or question before, and they need to simply be able to "sit down and play." That approach is part of my goal of making them, in the words of the inimicable Henry James, "People on whom nothing is lost," which is an apt description of the class expectation as explained by AP chief grader David Joliffe in his book Everday Use. Jolliffe draws from the well-known parlor metaphor first mentioned by rhetorican Kenneth Burke in his book The Philosophy of the Literary Form in 1941. My students will always be able to write well on the spur of the moment as a result of the regular challenge of being able to craft an essay off the top of their head. It is a valuable skill, and I believe that sort of challenge is - or should be - an integral part of any academic environment. Challenge students to be able to read, write, and think with little or no preparation. It will help them in all their classes, it will benefit them at the time of college and job interviews, it will assist them in becoming truly educated people. And, I am always disappointed in hearing of classes and schools where students write few essays and no in-class writing. Students need to write regularly. And being able to write on demand will mean there is probably little else they won't be able to do well. Have them write - a lot.

Sugar - Society's Biggest Health Danger

If you follow the news about contemporary American life and health risks, you have probably noticed a growing number of stories about the looming danger of opioid abuse - a drug addiction/health scare that is crossing all demographics and inflicting billions of dollars of damage on communities. Prescription drug abuse joins heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and car accidents as the health problems that put America at risk and threaten to bust the ability of most people to pay their health care bills. Those are the health problems that most people fear and worry about. But there is a far more insidious toxin which is inflicting daily damage on the lives of nearly everyone - sugar.

At least that's the warning from long-time health advocate Gary Taubes.

Just in time for the holidays - with all the sugary goodness of Christmas cookies and Whole Foods' chocolate truffles - Taubes is back on the health news front with a new book, as well as several articles asking the all important question: "Is Sugar Killing Us?"  The answer, while I hate to be alarmist and am currently revelling in all the culinary magic of my pastry chef wife, is probably ... yes. Sugar is the most addictive drug that we consume, and researchers have known for years that the addictive power of sugar - and all its subtle but nefarious variations - is more addictive than nicotine or cocaine. Additionally, it inflicts much more long-term damage to health because people so readily and regularly consume so much of it, often without even knowing.

Many argue that sugar in moderation is benign, but that assumption has been up for debate for as long as we have added sugar to our diets. Anti-sugar forces (myself included) continue to warn that sugar—both the crystalline variety that we put in our coffee and high-fructose corn syrup—may be a fundamental cause of disease, particularly a condition known as insulin resistance. If we are right, sugar has a uniquely powerful role in causing obesity and diabetes—and thus increases our risk of developing the major chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, associated with these conditions. This debate is not new. Western sugar consumption surged in the mid-19th century with the growth of the candy, chocolate and ice-cream industries. Soft drinks were added to the mix in the 1880s—first root beer, then Dr Pepper, then Coca-Cola and Pepsi. By the 1920s, as Prohibition spurred the nation to turn from alcohol to sugar, yearly sugar sales in the U.S. passed 100 pounds per capita for the first time.
So, it's probably worth considering the down-sides of sugar, even as we celebrate the sugariest time of the year. Perhaps, a few lucky ones will find a copy of Taubes' The Case Against Sugar (out December 27 from Knopf) under the tree or in their stocking, just in time for New Year's Resolutions.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Larkburger Turns 10 - the era of the "Better Burger"

In the era of the "Better Burger," with the rise of fast-casual restaurants like Smashburger, Five Guys, Bad-Daddy's, and, of course, Larkburger, I can't fathom why anyone would ever lower themselves to visiting the old fast food standbys like McDonalds or Carl's Jr. Today, the Colorado chain of Larkburger celebrates its tenth birthday in style, and business writer Emilie Rusch of the Denver Post has composed a fitting profile of the burger joint that typifies the "Better Burger" culture. Fortunately for people outside of Colorado, the Larkburger franchise is looking to expand its reach out of state.

But it all started with just one burger, a steak au poivre-inspired take on the American classic first featured at chef Thomas Salamunovich’s high-end Larkspur restaurant in Vail in 1999. “When we opened Larkspur, I wanted to have a hamburger in the menu that was truly memorable in a straightforward manner,” Salamunovich said. It was so memorable, in fact, that a version of that very same Larkburger — made with all-natural Black Angus beef and topped with tomato, lettuce, onion, pickle and house-made lemon-Dijon sauce — got a restaurant all its own in 2006, with a fast-casual spin.
Of course, the celebration of a great business model in the burger business is tempered by today's news of the President-elect's pick for the head of the Labor Department, CKE Restaurant CEO Andrew Pudzer. Pudzer, like other corporate shills in the new administration, is emblematic of the low-cost, low-brow, low-quality burger culture of McD's and Carl's Jr. It's that system of mass production of mediocrity that places like Larkburger and Chipotle saved us from. Thus, it's no surprise that a man who champions "dollar-menu" mentality would be an opponent of minimun wage measures and support for overtime pay - ideas that could save the fast food industry from itself. Higher quality products/service and higher wages are intrinsically linked to higher quality of life. I know I'm "worth more than a dollar menu," and the country would be "great again" if more people felt the same. How apropos that Pudzer is named Labor Secretary just as we await the release of The Founder, a bio-pic of the "processed burger king" Ray Kroc - the man who unleashed mass marketing of mediocrity many years ago.

President-elect Donald Trump is expected to name fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, a vocal critic of substantially increasing the minimum wage and an opponent of rules that would make more workers eligible for overtime pay, as head of the Labor Department, according to a Republican briefed on the decision. Puzder, who runs CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., has been a harsh critic of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, arguing that it would increase costs for consumers and lead to fewer jobs. He also opposes the recently-delayed Labor Department rule that aimed to make millions more workers eligible for overtime pay.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Teaching classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird in 2016

Is classic literature still relevant in the contemporary age? It certainly is if you're talking about works of social criticism around race and the American consciousness like To Kill a Mockingbird. One of my colleagues, Alisa Wills-Keely of Smoky Hill High School, was recently profiled in the Denver Post for her work with the novel in the era of Election-2016. The class and the article focuses on how the Classic Novel helps students develop perspective, empathy. 

A novel, set in a sleepy southern town in the 1930s and written by a young white woman in the late 1950s, is remarkably relevant to students at Smoky Hill High School in 2016. The themes explored in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” – racial and social stereotypes, discrimination, inequity and injustice – seem just as common in the world today as they were when Scout Finch was growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb nearly 90 years ago

Glenn Beck talk about the next four years of Trump

Glenn Beck has certainly been a candid and interesting political commentator over the past decade or so, and I haven't always had a positive view of him. However, I have appreciated the perspective he has brought to many political conversations, and when I first encountered him through his book Real America: Messages from the Heart and Heartland, I found a lot of common ground with his common sense approach and libertarian views. I also appreciated the recent re-evaluation he offered regarding the Obama administration. Thus, I was appreciative of his #NeverTrump position during Election 2016, which focused primarily on the hypocrisy of the GOP for nominating and supporting a man who is not conservative or Republican, but simply a egotistical demagogue who is using the office of the Presidency for personal gain. In the follow-up to the election, as Trump fills his cabinet with some "interesting" people, Beck offered some perspective on his disappointment and his concerns for the next four years.

On Thursday, Dec. 8, Yahoo News and Finance Anchor Bianna Golodryga speaks to TV and radio talk show host Glenn Beck about his thoughts on the incoming Trump administration and its Cabinet picks. The once staunch conservative was a vocal supporter of the “Never Trump” movement.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Lapham Quarterly - Get your intellect and culture on

Nearly a month after Election 2016 and the moment of Wednesday Morning, my reliable sources of information are still filled with news, comment, and commentary on the President-elect - and all that entails. I don't want to even turn on CNN or Fox or MSNBC, and my reading of the Denver Post and Wall Street Journal are hastened by my skimming for culture. Needless to say, it's worse on my social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook, no matter how I try to screen out the endless back-and-forth on the upcoming transition. Granted, I could just turn off and tune out. Because as I noted in the past month, I want to spend more time on culture and growth and less time on "info-tainment."

I've been reading more - recent titles include the brilliantly beautiful The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the existentially intriguing Meursalt Investigation - and trying to work on the Gen X writing and reflection that I've been planning. Beyond that, I am listening to more music and working out with a renewed interest in dropping the Election-Ten before the onslaught of holiday cookies and Winter Break eating/drinking. In terms of news sources, I am really interested in returning to academics, intellectual pursuits, and culture. And, that has led me back to a great source of thoughtful composition:

The Lapham Quarterly

Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Is Trump dragging the USA into war with China?

So, the Donald Trump phone call to President Tsai of Taiwan ... this could be the beginning of something altogether unexpected - a diplomatic, trade, and military conflict between the United States and China.

Having lived in Taiwan during the 90s, I am attuned to the delicate nature of relations across the Taiwan Strait. So, I understand the history of the Taiwan Relations Act and the Three Communiques regarding the United States' position on the One-China policy. And, I was living in Taiwan at the time of the first direct presidential election in Taiwan during which the Chinese military launched missile exercises and lobbed missiles over Taiwan, effectively shutting down air traffic and seeking to intimidate the Taiwanese people. This tense standoff included the United States putting aircraft carriers on both ends of the Strait. And, when President-elect Lee Tung Wei gave his acceptance speech in Taiwanese, rather than Mandarin Chinese, there were reports that very high level military officials in China mobilized forces for an invasion.

So the Taiwan Question is no small matter.

As a result, I am deeply concerned and troubled by the recent actions of the President-elect and the apparent behind-the-scenes work of his transition team to set up the phone call without informing the State Department. In all honesty, this is how wars start - though I don't want to sound hysterical, and I don't subscribe to a sky-is-falling mentality around the recent election. And, I must admit that as a former resident of Taiwan, I somewhat appreciate the more aggressive, or at least assertive, approach toward clarifying the United States' unwavering support for the autonomy of the Republic of China on Taiwan. In fact, there's a chance the phone call wasn't a blunder, but brilliant.

I'm just not sure whether this was an unnecessarily bold and risky move. I hope not.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

My Favorite Christmas Songs

Christmas has a wonderfully simple feeling of good will. It's a pathos-filled time of year that makes us all look for the goodness in everything and everyone. The Hallmark commercials of "coming home for the holidays" make us tear up, even if our own family gatherings are considerably more dysfunctional. The warmth of a fire, the malty sweetness of eggnog, the smell of pine trees, the good cheer of Happy Holidays - these all evoke a genuine degree of hope and mirth. For me and many others, there are certain Christmas songs that evoke that mythical time of good will, even as some of them reflect a poignant sense of loss or nostalgia. Amusingly, many of the songs that matter to me are more contemporary, and they were on the standard mix tape at the restaurant where I worked many holiday seasons. Listening to these songs takes me back to those times when I had the added comfort of my Pasta House family. Here are a few good memories:

Friday, December 2, 2016

Breckenridge Brewery - A Great Place for Drinks

RE-PRINT: Views, 2012

As a huge fan and regular visitor to Breckenridge, Colorado, I am not always satisfied with my options when it comes to grabbing lunch or dinner - especially with young kids.  Breck is a great resort and mountain town with much to offer, though the restaurant choices can sometimes be mediocre food for resort prices.  And, I just have a hard time with restaurants who can't be just a little better, a little more high quality for the price.  However, a recent trip to Breckenridge Brewery on Main Street did not disappoint.

Though I've been a fan of Breckenridge Brewery's Vanilla Porter, Avalanche Ale, and Agave Wheat for years, I have never visited the Brewery.  And, I'd been wanting to sample the Oatmeal Stout and Summer Ale for a while now.  So, on our annual summer trip to Summit County, I made sure one of our days in Breck would include a day at the Brewery.  We spent the day biking and hiking and playing in the Blue River before heading up Main Street to the home location of Breckenridge Brewery.  We arrived in the four o'clock hour, so we could catch the end of the lunch menu, but still hit Happy Hour for some three dollar drafts.  Alas, we were a bit disappointed that the online menu is different in the mountains than the locations in Denver.  That meant my wife couldn't have the tuna sandwich she'd been planning.  But we found many other options.

We ordered an Avalanche Ale and the Oatmeal Stout and were not disappointed.  The Avalanche has a refreshingly full flavor with just a bit of tang in the finish.  A great beer to relax on the patio with after a day of biking.  The Oatmeal Stout was malty richness, evoking a great cup of coffee.  The "oatmeal" isn't as present as the vanilla in the porter, but it's smooth and surprisingly refreshing stout.  Though I enjoyed it for a July afternoon, it's much better as a fall or winter beer, sitting around the fire pit or just relaxing on the couch.  The Summer Ale wasn't available - a strange reality for the middle of July - but I'm sure to check it out later.

For an early dinner, we were pleasantly surprised at just how well this pub does food.  The kids absolutely devoured the wings with an Asian sauce, as well as a healthy order of edamame.  They also ordered the pulled pork sandwiches - though we brought one home, as a single sandwich cut in half was good for both.  The fries looked to be fresh cut, and were excellent.  My wife had the black bean soup - which was really more of a vegetarian, black bean chili - and it was outstanding.  Rich and full of flavor, the soup is meal unto itself, though the soup and salad is a great option.  I was drooling over the portabella mushroom sandwich with a basil pesto and grilled red peppers, and I was rewarded with one of the best pesto sauces I have ever had on a sandwich - rich and full of basil and pine nut flavor, this pesto is not to be missed.  The sandwich was also not a single portabella, but one cut in pieces and grilled with the peppers.  It worked very well.  And the sweet potato fries - Oh, goodness. They were thin cut and prepared to perfection.

The visit to the Breckenridge Brewery was a resounding success with the family, and I am glad to have another dining option in Breck that will not disappoint.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Wisdom of Literacy Advocate Cris Tovani

RE-PRINT - Mazenglish, 2012

Nearly ten years ago, Cris Tovani changed my life as an English teacher.  She didn't know this at the time - and probably still doesn't - because while I teach in her district, I've never met her.  But I have read her work on improving literacy for all students, and it made me re-evaluate the way I taught.  Taking a staff development class on "Managing the Reading Classroom," I was looking for ways to promote more reading by my students.  I'd always given book talks, and talked about the act of  reading, but I was probably somewhat guilty of the worst sin for English teachers - assigning reading, rather than teaching it.  After taking the class and discovering Cris Tovani's first book I Read It, but I Don't Get It from Stenhouse Publishers, I was re-born.  Since then, I've kept an eye out for Tovani's work, and I was always pleased.

Now, Tovani is back with new insights, and she is taking on the challenging topic of assessment.  It's one of the most  important tasks of teachers, it's doubly challenging in the English classroom because of the ambiguity of assessing subjective skills such as  writing, and it is perhaps the most ignored and underdeveloped aspect of teacher education programs.  Colleges simply don't do a good job of teaching new teachers how to assess student work.  In fact, I've never met a young teacher  who felt  ready for the challenge.  And, of course, there are always staff development classes for this, and many veteran teachers are willing to share and mentor.  Many districts even practice peer grading and common assessment.  But, that doesn't reach the masses, and many teachers are still feeling alone, in their classrooms, after school, with a stack of student work, and a sense of anxiety.

Tovani's latest work from Stenhouse So What Do They Really Know: Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning - seeks to explain the options - and all the nuances - of assessment.  And Tovani's voice is always accessible and comforting.  In fact, it's quite inspiring because through the use of  narrative, she shares experiences from the classrooms.  And Tovani has always been comfortable talking about her successes and her struggles, her accomplishments in the classroom, and her approaches that taught her something valuable even when they didn't gel with the kids.  The nice thing about this book - and many offerings from Stenhouse - is that  you can preview the work on their site.  That is why I feel comfortable promoting this book even though I haven't bought it - yet.  In looking through the text, I am again pleased by Tovani's extensive use of  examples. She offers visual images of the very assignments she uses successfully in class. And she narrates her thought process from inception to practice. For this reason, Tovani's books are real assets, especially for beginning teachers.

Cris Tovani is an excellent teacher - both of students and of teachers.  I highly recommend taking a look at her work.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Two Gen X writers look back on John Hughes' 80s films

2016 has definitely been a year of nostalgia and reflection for the members of Generation X. As Xers hit middle age respectibility - not that they were ever looking for it - the demographic is seeing major milestones for many of its influences. The term "Generation X" in relation to Coupland's novel and a group of institutional outsiders hit the 25-year mark, along with quarter-century anniversaries for pop culture icons like Nirvana's Nevermind. And, of course, many of the 80s films that defined Gen   adolescence passed the thirty-year mark. John Hughes' films - notably the Gen-X "trilogy" of Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink. To coincide with those milestones, a couple of well-known Generation X writers and critics have released books about Hughes, his films, and the Gen X/80s ethos. Kevin Smokler and Jason Diamond recently chatted on the site about their reflections - When You Grow Up, Your Heart Doesn't Have to Die:

Two books from two authors about ’80s movies came into the world within a month of one another this fall. We asked Kevin Smokler, author of “Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies” and Jason Diamond, author of “Searching for John Hughes: A Memoir” to speak to one another about childhood, growing up at the movies, and a strangely real town called Shermer, Illinois.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Best Sandwiches - Denver

RE-PRINT - Views on Village, 2012

Joey's favorite food?  Sandwiches!

Anyone who watched Friends remembers that classic line from the trivia game played for possession of Monica and Rachel's apartment.  Sandwiches.  They are the perfect food in so many ways.  As Jeff the Sandwich King on the Food Network says, "Any meal is a sandwich and any sandwich can be a great meal."  Regardless of the culture or the place or the time or the food, it can be a sandwich.  Meat or vegetable.  Beef or seafood.  Savory or sweet.  Sandwiches are great food.

If you don't receive the Denver Post - and per my last entry, I wish you would - you may have missed the Lifestyle feature today on the best sandwiches in Denver.  From the Parisian sandwich at Marczyk Fine Foods to the brisket sandwich at the Masterpiece Deli to the Banh mi at Ba Le, there are many fine sandwiches on the Denver food scene.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Kids can text - teach them to write

RE-PRINT - Mazenglish, 2012

Walt Gardner opines in EdWeek that in a world obsessed with STEM skills, schools are neglecting to teach kids the important skills of reading and writing.  Making insightful observations about the gap between "grammar skills" and fluent writing, Gardner notes - and laments - the receding writing skills associated with kids immersed in a world of text messages. 

A new study by Drew P. Cingel and S. Shyam Sundar, "Texting, techspeak, and tweens: The relationship between text messaging and English grammar skills," concludes that the more time students spend sending and receiving texts, the worse their grammar skills become ("YSK, teens 2 fluent in TXT," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 4). That's because it's difficult to switch between standard grammar and the abbreviations used in text messages. It's not that mastery of grammar alone makes for effective writing. Far from it. It's altogether possible to score high on a grammar test and still be unable to develop a written argument. For example, I remember when diagramming sentences was thought to be indispensable. Yet the transfer to expository writing was minimal, if non-existent. More importantly, however, when students spend so much time texting, they're not reading. And that's the point. I've long believed that the best way to learn how to write is to read. I'm not talking about reading anything. Instead, I'm talking about reading literature that is appropriate to what a student wants to write.

This point was aptly addressed in a recent LA Times commentary.  The loss of writing skills is negatively impacting the business world and the ability to being to access the jobs and lives they desire.  Importantly, Gardner reminds us that being an effective writer is intrinsically linked to being an effective reader.  It's not enough to assign kids reading and writing.  English teachers at all levels - including college - need to teach kids "how to read" and "how to write."

"Techspeak," as Sundar and his research partner Drew P. Cingel call it, has become so routine and prevalent among young users that it's eroding their foundation of basic grammar. "Routine use of textual adaptations by current and future generations of 13–17-year-olds may serve to create the impression that this is normal and accepted use of the language and rob this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar," they said in their published findings. Basically, kids aren't able to "code switch" -- shift between standard grammar and the abbreviations used in text messages, Sundar said. Those abbreviations have essentially become the words for them. Adults not raised on text-friendly abbreviations in their formative years are able to shift between formal and informal language, Sundar said. Kids consuming a steady diet of "textual adaptations" aren't.  "Results show broad support for a general negative relationship between the use of techspeak in text messages and scores on a grammar assessment," the study results read.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Alice's Restaurant - a Thanksgving classic

"You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant."

Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy this timeless holiday classic from the inimical Arlo Guthrie:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Speech & Debate Season Has Begun

If I had to name one class that offers students the best preparation for college, careers, and life, it would probably have to be Speech & Debate. It is a world of intellectual and academic competition where kids get the opportunity to simply "geek out" on being smart. Each year, I try to attend some competitions either to judge or to profile the community. Here is a my first feature of the year from "The 5280" tournament at George Washington High School in Denver - "Colorado Speech & Debate Season is Off and Running."

Cleary, the young people of debate are grappling with heavy political topics in a time of high anxiety following Election 2016. Yet no place could be more collaborative and collegial than a high school Speech & Debate tournament. The intellectual camaraderie in the halls and cafeteria of GW is evidence of that community.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What We Talk About When We Talk About Race

Race and ethnicity are problematic "social constructs" in contemporary American society, and the recent events of post-Election2016 have not made discussing them any easier. As I've processed the state of the nation and pondered the equity work I do in my job, I've struggled to clarify and understand just how we go forward. In doing so, I looked back to a short You Tube clip from DJ and social critic Jay Smooth entitled "How to tell someone they sound racist." When I viewed it recently, I ran across a TEDx talk Jay gave as a follow-up in 2011, and it has the amusing and engaging title "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Talking about Race."

Thanks, Jay. I know you too are hurting and conflicted these days, and I appreciate the words you put out there.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Wednesday Morning - "Bad taste my mouth"

Wednesday Morning. It left millions reeling, and a week later half of the nation is still processing the results. So much frustration and uncertainty is in the air, and a hopelessness can easily consume people. So, we look to our poets for clarity.

Well said, Mack. And thank you.

"Got my daughter in my arms, and he is not gonna raise her."

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

McLife: Generation X Looks Back At Twenty-Five Years

The amusing irony of Generation X is, in many ways, it’s a generation that never knew it was one. Coming of age in the stagnant decade of the 1970s, the demographic uncomfortably situated between the aging Baby Boomers and the attention-grabbing Millennials is about as far removed from ego-centric generational identity as one group of people could be. As far as its namesake is concerned, many Gen Xers have never even heard of, much less read, the zeitgeist-like novel by Douglas Coupland that with its publication in 1991 became directly responsible for the moniker of a group known only to that point as slackers and twenty-somethings.  Even fewer Gen Xers have probably seen Richard Linklater’s first movie Slacker, released the same year, though many aging Xers have certainly watched Linklater’s Boyhood, which is the culmination of a career grounded in X-ish consciousness. Thus, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Douglas Coupland’s seminal Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, it’s worth looking back at a 1990’s pop culture artifact and the moment in time it captured. I can still recall the first mention of “Generation X” when a classmate – who had graduated early and was waiting tables – told me about “this new book about people our age.” How appropriate that we were discussing a book about the very lives we were living. It was a work that captured a generation’s resigned sense of detachment from the expectations and institutions of a society it casually dismissed as it sought lives of meaning and authenticity by choosing lifestyle over career.

For a group of people who lived their early adult years working at McJobs and wondering how it came to be that they were destined to do worse than their parents, the traditional and institutional ideas of work, careers, and professional fulfillment have often been a punch line. From the classic Generation X film Reality Bites in 1994 to last year’s While We Were Young, two movies bookending the early adulthood and middle age of archetypal film Xer Ben Stiller, life has been about a struggle for authenticity in world that seems devoid of it. And, there has never been a sound reason for Xers to buy into the standard American Dream that seems destined to be forever out of reach. As Gen X essayist Claire Dederer noted in a 2014 article for PS Magazine “Reality, Still Bites” for many Gen Xers firmly grounded in middle age. Countless financial articles have documented how Generation X has been hit harder than either the Boomers or their Millennial offspring in the last two economic downturns, often losing the majority of their personal wealth. And, the timing of Generation X couldn’t have been more unfortunate, as the two hard-hitting recessions hit in 2001 and 2008 just as they entered adulthood and career age. It didn’t help that X’s economic and career misfortune kicked off with Wall Street Crash of ’87 followed by the downturn and shrinking job market of the early 90s, an atmosphere that influenced the writing of Generation X, the filming of Slacker, and the recording of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Currently Xers are in their late thirties to early fifties, and financial experts note these as the prime earning years, though not for a group like X which is continually trying to recover from financial blows.

Yet, domestic, financial, and institutional stability, which was promoted to the latch-key kids watching The Brady Bunch and Leave It to Beaver while home alone after school as their families disintegrated in an epidemic of divorce, was never going to be their raison d’etre anyway. Generation X had experienced the failure of that promise, and they were destined to approach life differently. Growing up with a deep-seeded mistrust of institutions rooted in dissolving marriages and a resigning President, the slackers were the classic middle children who quietly went about their lives, detached from the drama that they couldn’t understand anyway. They found solace in a burgeoning consumer and pop culture movement that they viewed skeptically even as they embraced it. Even their heroes looked different, and no one typified that more than actor Matthew Broderick who inspired young Xers to rebel differently, whether it was as a Cold War savior and computer hacker in War Games or a snarky suburban anti-hero in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Truly, roles like that typified how in the late 80s and early 90s the slackers became the hackers, as Generation X is the first group to have truly “hacked” society, beginning with the supposed slacker mindset that led Generation X’s protagonists Dag, Andy, and Claire to flee to the desert. They simply refused to play by the rules, and became a new Lost Generation, expats in their own country. 

From the early 90s onward, Generation X has “hacked” society in such myriad ways that the term “life-hack” has become mainstream, and websites are devoted to innovative manipulations of the norm. Entire business models have sprung up around unique and innovative ways to improve life and change the way things are done. While much of the praise for technological innovation has long gone to Boomers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs or Millennials like Mark Zuckerberg – and justifiably so – the media has often overlooked the technical significance of Xers like Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin or YouTube’s Chad Hurley and Steven Chen. Perhaps no other people have altered how the world collects and disseminates information than the founders of those sites. Unless, of course, that person is Jimmy Wales who democratized access to information and authority with the creation of Wikipedia.  The same could be said of innovative Xer and business hacker Elon Musk who has almost singlehandedly revolutionized the automobile and space industries with Tesla and Space X. Raised in the spirit of punk rock and opposition to institutional control, Generation X also hacked the entertainment world with the rise of independent films in the work of Ed Burns, Kevin Smith, Stephen Soderbergh, and of course Quentin Tarantino. And the list of societal hacks goes on, as Generation X has been continually forced to innovate and subvert just to get by. Knowing the cynical view that most have of the childhoods of Gen Xers, it’s amazing that they not only survived, but have begun to thrive, albeit on their own terms with new definitions.

For a group of people that Time Magazine labeled hopeless and lazy, Generation X has responded in kind with a sardonically whimsical shrug as they went about re-creating the world in a manner of existential whatever-ness. The latch-key kids who were the victims of the first and unprecedented divorce boom have now become parents of cautious optimism and confident faith in their kids’ ability to thrive in a world gone mad. Gen Xers have been referred to as the “stealth-fighter parents,” which is a welcome relief from the “helicopter parent” syndrome of the Baby Boomers. The zen of Gen X parenting is nowhere better exemplified than the mother who let her nine-year-old go to Times Square alone and then wrote a column about it, opening herself to national scorn and ridicule. For the last generation to ride bikes without helmets, to sit on our grandparents’ laps unbuckled in the front seat, to ride carefree and open in the back of a pickup, to run with scissors, Generation X is a population that has grown up unflappable against the doubts and suspicions of the world. Historically, people view Generation X in terms of the years from 1961 to 1981, but that decades-wide span doesn’t offer much in terms of identity. Identity crystallizes when we come of age, and, truly, the defining moments of Generation X can be bookended by memories of two falls – the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001. One fall came as we were stutter-stepping into adulthood, and the other as we settled into careers and parenting. Each event rattled the collective consciousness of the world, and each demanded reflection and recalculation of institutions and belief systems. Throughout it all, Gen Xers have carried on, oblivious and dismissive of being a generation at all.

Defined by the quest for authenticity, Generation X has been noted for its suspicion of institutions and authority, as well as its reluctant reliance on itself. No doubt this would be true of the kids who came into consciousness amidst the Watergate scandal and the rise of punk rock. Generation X has always been the classic middle child. Yet, rather than take on the whiny voice of Jan Brady lamenting her victimhood, Gen Xers have been much more likely to simply withdraw into their rooms and not give a shit what anybody else thought while they went about developing and refining an increasingly interconnected world. In response to the disruptive nature of the late twentieth century, the innovative rebellion of Gen X has led to changes that simply result from individuals doing it their way and dismissing the way things have been or, perhaps, ought to be. From the rise of artisan crafts and organic food in the traditional business world to their firm support for gay rights and gay marriage, as well as the homeschooling and even unschooling movements, the members of Generation X have led a stealth revolution for a more authentic life in defiance of tradition and institution. And in the process of living a McLife funded by working a McJob, Gen Xers have created new definitions of normal, and they haven’t really cared much about what anyone else thinks.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Troubles for Trump Transition - Who Would Want to Serve?

The idea of transitioning into the role of leader of the free world surely must be a daunting one, and I'd imagine it takes a skilled political mind to coordinate the task. Clearly, that is proving problematic for a man who disdained politics and bucked the very system he claimed he wanted to lead. One interesting note - the man apparently seemed shocked that he needed to staff the entire White House, including the cook. Now, the arduous and monumentally important task of staffing a Presidential cabinet is proving daunting - not a great sign for a country that relies on peaceful transition of power.

I guess I'm wondering who would actually want to serve in this administration. Clearly, some respected Republican leaders in the world of National Security want no part of this process. The most significant departure from the transition team is the exiting of respected leader Mike Rogers. Not feeling good about this.

After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming “you LOST!” Will be ugly,’’ tweeted Cohen, who served from 2007 to 2009 as counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He was a driving force behind an open letter last spring — eventually signed by 122 Republican national security leaders — who opposed Trump’s candidacy.

Cohen, who last week had urged career officials to serve in Trump’s administration, said in an interview that a longtime friend and senior transition team official had asked him to submit names of possible national security appointees. After he suggested several people, Cohen said, his friend emailed him back in terms he described as “very weird, very disturbing.”

“It was accusations that ‘you guys are trying to insinuate yourselves into the administration…all of YOU LOST.’…it became clear to me that they view jobs as lollipops, things you give out to good boys and girls,” said Cohen, who would not identify his friend. Cohen also said the transition official was “completely dismissive” of concerns raised about Trump’s appointment of Bannon, who Trump’s advisors have strongly defended.

His friend’s email conveyed the feeling that ‘we’re so glad to see the bicoastal elites get theirs,’” added Cohen, who described the response as “unhinged.’’ Trump transition officials had no immediate comment Tuesday, but Jason Miller, a senior transition communication adviser, told reporters Monday night that Trump and Pence know the urgency of filling key positions.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Denver's Highlands Neighborhood still a Hot Spot

RE-PRINT:  Views on the Village, 2013

Six years ago, I managed to re-connect with an old friend from Illinois, and when we made plans to have dinner he told me he was near 34th Avenue and Lowell - a neighborhood I was just learning about as "the Highlands." North of North High School and near downtown over the I-25 and Speer overpass, Highland Denver was attracting a lot of young Denver-ites, as well as people with young kids and even retirees looking to downsize.  Restaurants started generating a buzz, townhomes started heading in to the 300-500K range, and a new development in the Denver urban corridor was on the move.  A few years later, I connected with another old friend, and it turned out he and his wife and kids were also living in Highland, owning both sides of a duplex.

Now, Highland has clearly arrived.

With numerous great restaurants, coffee shops, speciality shops, and art galleries, Highland and its sister known as Lo-Hi are appealing to many Denver residents looking for renovated old houses, lofts, town homes, and more in an urban residential area that is friendly, walkable, and hip.  The buzz on the Highlands - or Highland (I'm still not sure) - is kicking up with a great profile in the Denver Post focusing on the history of the renovation and building boom.  Denver's lifestyle magazine 5280 was on the story with the rise of the Highlands a couple years ago in this profile, and these days a quick Google search will turn up many great tidbits and recommendations.  With two of Denver's best new restaurants - Justin Cucci's Root Down and Linger - the Highlands has great eats in a fine location.  Linger, located in the building of the old Olinger Morturary is literally just across from pedestrian bridge into LoDo, and it sits almost poetically above Little Man Ice Cream, which is quite seriously the best ice cream in Denver.

Other great points of interest in the Highlands are Bang and the Common Grounds coffee  shop,  * which are right next to each other and worth an afternoon coffee and some board games followed by a quick stroll over for dinner.  And while you're in the neighborhood, stroll over to Mondo Vino which is a fantastic liquor store with unique choices and an informed and helpful staff.  In fact, my first time in I was just browsing and interested in a nice chardonnay but not planning on buying.  They insisted I just "take the bottle" and remember to come back and "buy two later."  It was a great touch.  I'm also appreciative to Mondo Vino who, I found out later, donates the wine for a charity tasting I attend every year.

There is so much going on the Highlands, and if you haven't been, it's worth the visit.  Check out Happy Hour at Linger, and then grab some desert at Little Man.  You won't be disappointed ... and you may just look to move there.

* Common Grounds closed due to the greed of its landlord