Saturday, January 30, 2016

Monomyth & the Meaning Behind Top Gun

On this 30th anniversary of the fighter-pilot fueled epic of American firepower and military bravado Top Gun, it's great to look back at this insightful and equally cool piece of pop culture criticism about "Maverick & the Mono-myth" by @theunpoet, Whitney Collins. Collins is a true Gen X pop culture scholar who writes for The Weeklings, as well other publications and Barnes & Noble.

I love pieces that seek to deconstruct literature and pop culture through the foundations of the mono-myth, as first explained by Joseph Campbell in the Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Hero's Journey, which is the foundation of all epics and quest stories, is a comprehensive way to explain and understand the hero narratives of all of humanity. While the connections in a piece like Beowulf, or even Star Wars, are often obvious to many, the adaptation of the monomyth ideals to popular works like Top Gun are so fun ... and also worthy of debate.

But valid theories, hot guys, and catchy music aside, I think this movie stands the test of time because it tells the oldest story there is. The epic one that history likes to tell again and again. The one told in The Wizard of Oz, in Star Wars, in The Odyssey, in The Hobbit, in religious texts the world over…that of The Hero’s Journey. The mythologist and professor Joseph Campbell spent much of his life teaching the concept of the “monomyth”—the idea that all mythical narratives of yore tell the tale of a hero’s quest for meaning, a single narrative of the human condition. Curious as to how Campbell’s seventeen stages of monomyth might sync up with Top Gun, I sat down recently to watch it for the eighty-second time. Almost instantly, the scenes fell into the stages Campbell describes as essential steps in the pilgrimage. The symbolism popped off the screen. Suddenly, the pilots’ call signs weren’t just studly nicknames, they were representative of lore and legend. It was a whole new way to see the film. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger Disaster - 30 Years Today - A Gen X Coming of Age

On January 28, 1986, I was a sixteen-year-old who was home sick and watching the NASA launch of the space shuttle Challenger. A friend of mine was also home and we were talking on the phone as we watched. And we shared a nation's moment of confusion, disbelief, and then a slow deepening horror. It was a pivotal moment, watching as a high school student and knowing America's first citizen astronaut - a teacher - was on board. Later, friends would share their feelings that day as classes rolled TV's into rooms to watch, and we all felt that agonizing sense of emptiness at the tragedy ... and a growing realization of American and scientific fallability.

As I reviewed posts of the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster, I ran across a thoughtful and beautifully crafted reflection of the tragedy through the lengs of Generation X. Chloe, a Gen X blogger at Lights from the Pixel, shared this perspective on The Challenger Disaster and Generation X:

In the mid '80s, while the members of Generation X were growing up, modern American public educations standards were at an all-time low.  The Reagan Administration saw the upcoming Challenger launch as a way to remind the nation of the important role of teachers and maybe to reboot hope in the American school system.  Out of thousands of applicants to the Teacher in Space Project, the charismatic Christa McAuliffe was chosen.  Those of us in elementary school closely followed these events from sources like NASA and Weekly Reader, so that these people would continually be on our minds, so that they could, in every sense, become our heroes, so that we could know their stories and their lives, so we would love them.  The pint sized propaganda was delivered to our desks every week, and we drank every drop of it.

If I allow my mind to fully go back into the moments of that day, it is hard to breathe.  I can still feel the chill of that morning on my skin from where I was two time zones away from Florida in the high altitude desert of New Mexico.  I saw it live on TV from a classroom, along with millions of other kids, and watched quietly as the twisting contrail imprinted itself as an image of horror onto the collective consciousness of my generation, like some coiled up snake that struck without warning. Palpable feelings of excitement degenerated into confusion and then anxiety; and then the teacher abruptly shut off the TV.  We were told that it was over and to get back to our desks.  In that moment that I was supposed to stoically return to school work, I found myself caught in some delicate place between life and death, somewhere between hope and hopelessness.  It took me the whole day to process what had happened, and as I did, an emptiness hovered above my head, above my school, above my country.

I remember in the late afternoon of that day that a local radio station came on the news with a request for a song that they feared would be misunderstood. Hundreds of people had called the station asking to hear David Bowie's classic "Space Oddity." They spoke at length before playing the song, not wanting to be misunderstood or considered dis-respectful. They played the song and, despite their explanation before and after, were still criticized for playing the song. But for many of us, it was a necessary and soothing form of mourning.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Froma Harrop is Wrong about Lowering the Drinking Age

In her recent column promoting the idea of lowering the drinking age to eighteen, columnist Froma Harrop starts with a logical fallacy and doesn't get any better than that in her arguments. Granted, any specific age limit or barrier is inherently arbitrary - PG movies, driving, smoking, drinking, car rental, hotel rental, voting, and other rights are all restricted by an invented age at which society deems the individual "mature enough" for the responsibility. And, we know that's a guess at best. There are incredibly mature and responsible sixteen-year-olds and ridiculously immature and irresponsible forty-five year olds. That said, Harrop's claim that we should "Let 18-year-olds Drink" is simply not a sound argument.

Of course, Harrop starts with the classically flawed and deceptive appeal that qualifiying for military service should entitle a young soldier to drink to his success or drink away his stresses. And, that's simply illogical. There is no correlation between being allowed to enlist, follow orders, and kill for the government and maturely and responsbily handle alcohol. One "right" and responsibility literally has nothing to do with the other. And, considering everything we know about trauma and post-traumatic stress and depression and anxiety associated with military service, it might seem logical that the last thing we want these "boys" doing at the age of 18 is drinking.

And, then she goes straight to the tired and inconclusive European mis-direction as well. Harrop argues that a German sixteen-year-old can "ask for beer or wine." But that doesn't mean he should. Simply because European countries allow it doesn't mean it is appropriate. German and French teens are not "more responsible" with alcohol use simply because they can drink legally earlier. And American teens and college students are not "binge drinking" simply because it is illegal. Younger people worldwide are more irresponsible with drinking, and people become more responsible with age. And, it's important to read this extensive analysis from German Lopez of, where he curates all the most recent and relevant data about Europe's teen drinking problem.

The answer, it seems, is that Europe is not doing fine. If you look at the data, there's no evidence to support the idea that Europe, in general, has a safer drinking culture than the US. According to international data from the World Health Organization, European teens ages 15 to 19 tend to report greater levels of binge drinking than American teens. This continues into adulthood. Total alcohol consumption per person is much higher in most of Europe. Drinkers in several European countries — including the UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland — are also more likely to report binge drinking than their US counterparts. Younger teens in Europe appear to drink more, as well. David Jernigan, an alcohol policy expert at Johns Hopkins University, studied survey data, finding that 15- and 16-year-old Americans are less likely to report drinking and getting drunk in the past month than their counterparts in most European countries.

Simply put, there is no conclusive logical reason we should lower the drinking age. Raising it to twenty-one dramatically decreased drunk-driving accidents among the youth. Prohibition does delay drinking for a considerable number of people. And, as medical science advances, and we learn more about the deleterious effects of drugs and alcohol on brains before the age of twenty-one, it seems irresponsible to lower the age and send the message that drinking earlier is OK and even a good idea.

Because it's not.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The X-Files Returns Tonight - More Gen X Nostalgia

"The truth is still out there."

If there were ever a show that connected with Generation X through its distrust of institutions, then Chris Carter's super-natural detective show The X-Files would definitely be it. The investigations of FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully into the paranormal were designed for a generation raised on stories of Watergate & Kennedy conspiracies with a healthy dose of Area 51 intrigue. This is the generation that grew up with Star Wars and Close Encounters and was always willing to consider the possibility of the supernatural. Thus, the serious mistrust and skepticism Gen Xers were inclined to have toward institutions like government made it easy to trust in a rebellious FBI agent like Mulder. So, now, at a time of increased skepticism and an all-time low of faith in government, FoxTV is going to capitalize on Gen X nostalgia churned up by the return of Star Wars, and viewers will get a short 6-episode mini-series of The X-Files.

There will be plenty to like, and probably much to complain about. But it will all be worth it for Gen X viewers who will argue and debate the past and future of Mulder's investigations. And, just for fun, David Marcus of The Federalist magazine crafted a great reminder of why The X-Files is the perfect show for Generation X.  Can't wait to see the commentary. Also, it's worth mentioning again that 2016 represents the quarter-century mark for the most pivotal year in the defining of a generation.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Craft Beer & Yoga - the Ultimate Gen-X Workout

Yoga and craft beer - it was only a matter of time until two of our best ways to embrace "lifestyle over career" would come together. These days across the country, craft breweries are creating the ultimate reflective experience by opening their doors to yoga classes followed by a nice beverage. Noting that yoga is traditionally an inwardly reflective experience, the tendency of Generation X to emphasize community in their practices has led to a merge of two perfectly artisan expeiences.

Call it detox and retox: Around the country, yogis are jumping up from savasana and hopping onto a barstool as yoga classes are making their way into breweries. While the teaching is traditional, the classes tend to attract newbies, especially men, says Beth Cosi, found of Bendy Brewski in Charleston, South Carolina and Memphis. "We get the men in the door mostly because it's in a brewery and they get a beer afterward. That's the carrot. A lot of them come with girlfriends, wives, sisters," Cosi said. Her $15 classes are 45 minutes, compared to a typical 90-minute class. The room isn't heated to near 100-degree temperature and the partnering breweries typically offer a tour of the facility after or the chance to drink a flight of several beers.

As part of a larger after-workout beer trend, brewhouse yoga is hopping at Colorado's craft breweries, said Andy Sparhawk of the Brewers Association. For some breweries, it could also make good marketing sense, he said via email. "Both here and around the country, breweries are looking for unique ways to invite new customers into their breweries; brewhouse yoga specifically caters to a niche group that may not have considered a tap room as a great place to practice." Like a craft brewery's seasonal menu, Colorado's brewery yoga options are always in flux — one ends, but another's brewing somewhere. Here's a sampling of what's available this winter on the Front Range: 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Competition Improves Math Skills

I'm not a fan of spelling bees. And, that's a bit surprising considering my background in English and my own son's prowess in that area. But I'm more of the Brian Regen school of spelling bees, which means I think they're a collossal waste of time and nothing but trivial challenges with no correlation to valuable skills or learning. That said, I am not opposed to the value of competition as a motivator for academic success. And, that's not surprising considering my son's prowess in the world of Math Counts. In fact, his success and passion for math was initially fueled by a teacher promoting competitions like Math Counts, Math Madness, Math Challenge, etc. And, "video games" for him are often simply competing on "For the Win." Truly, competitions like Math Counts, the National Science Fair, and others have significant ability to engage students - especially boys - in academics. In fact, if Bill Gates really wanted to improve math skills and academics in school, he would start funding big prizes for competitors in contests like Math Madness or Math Counts.

And, as EducationNext reports today, there is sound validity to the role of competition in increasing academic achievement. The Game Plan for Learning is about the history and reseach on the value of competition in learning.

So Coleman challenged educators to rethink how they viewed competition.

Writing two years later in his 1961 book The Adolescent Society, he noted that educators had long been suspicious of academic competition, but that they unwittingly used it every day when handing out letter grades. The problem, he said, was that the competition in most classrooms was interpersonal. Shift the emphasis—make it interscholastic, that is, school versus school—and the suspicion gives way to celebration. “When a boy or girl is competing, not merely for himself, but as a representative of others who surround him, then they support his efforts, acclaim his successes, console his failures,” Coleman wrote. “His psychological environment is supportive rather than antagonistic, is at one with his efforts rather than opposed to them. It matters little that there are others, members of other social communities, who oppose him and would discourage his efforts, for those who are important to him give support to his efforts.”

Coleman proposed that schools should replace the competition for grades with interscholastic academic games, “systematically organized competitions, tournaments and meets in all activities,” from math and English to home economics and industrial arts. These competitions, he predicted, would get both students and the general public more focused on academics and ensure all students a better education. It wouldn’t be easy, he predicted: schools would need “considerable inventiveness” to come up with the right vehicles for competition. But they already had a few good models, including math and debate competitions, as well as drama and music contests. He noted that the RAND Corporation and MIT had already established “political gaming” contests with great success.

In the early 1960s, Coleman developed six games and tested them in Baltimore schools. Teachers, he would later write, “came to share our enthusiasm for this reconstruction of the learning environment.” But he admitted that his vision was “not realized,” even though a handful of fellow researchers at Hopkins and elsewhere piloted academic games with great success.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Big Beer" is Moving in on Craft Beer Scene

I can't blame them really - those craft brewers who hit the lottery. Think about it: you start a small brewpub in a little mountain town, and after a decade or so, you have a few locations and a thriving bottle business. And then someone offers you $50 million or so for the whole operation. That's tough to walk away from. That's tough to say, "No, I want to keep going to work each day and earning a nice, but not extravagant living." And, that's the way it was last month when the soul of craft brewing was rattled to its core by news of In-Bev's purchase of local favorite, Breckenridge Brewery. But it wasn't just about Breck Brew - the international beer behemoth bought up five other craft breweries. And the wrinkles in the spirit of the industry continue, as Jeremy Meyer of the Denver Post notes in his examination of In-Bev moving into the up-and-coming River North  neighborhood of Denver:

Big Beer has discovered the market and desperately wants in. Whether corporate beer will be accepted and whether its incursion will spoil the good thing we have going are good questions.
Anheuser-Busch InBev recently acquired Breckenridge Brewing, which even Gov. John Hickenlooper said left him with a feeling of loss. In another development, 10 Barrel Brewing, an Oregon-based brewery that was bought by AB InBev, just announced it was opening a pub in the River North district. Upon this news, many craft beer lovers took to social media to say they would stay far away from 10 Barrel out of allegiance to independent brewers.

"I'm neither interested in drinking InBev beer or giving them my money on a regular basis ... or at all," said Annie Sugar, a beer lover and research associate at the University of Colorado. "InBev's business ethics and practices will not allow me to support their products." Beer lover Luc Sauer had the same response. "I will be unlikely to visit the pub, especially given its ownership," he said. "The craft beer business movement has historically been one of remarkable cooperation. ... AB InBev seems to be afraid because they are losing share in their fizzy yellow beer sales and so are trying to drive out any competition to anything that isn't theirs."

I don't know if the news of these aquisitions is catastophic to the craft industry. But it sure feels a lot like the Wal-mart-ization of the craft beer industry. And losing that artisan spirit is a loss for us all.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Is Trump Kidding? Could This Be Satire

Until a student mentioned it a few months ago, I hadn't thought that Donald Trump may be satirizing the entire GOP primary ... but now I'm not so sure. A couple weeks ago, when many columnists were making predictions for 2016, I was struck by the possibility of mockery and satire again when Denver writer and radio host Ross Kaminsky made this prediction:

Donald Trump drops out of the presidential race and says that his whole campaign was a bet with fellow Manhattan billionaire liberal Michael Bloomberg about whether Trump could really fool gullible Republicans into thinking he had suddenly become a conservative and that a man who traffics in exaggerations and insults, and learns about national security issues from "the shows," could be a good standard-bearer for the GOP. Former Trump supporters show remarkably little embarrassment.”

And, now I'm giving the idea just a tad more credibility. For, it reaches a point when sane, clear thinking, rational people have to consider the idea that there is no way that Trump could be this much of an ass. So, I've given it some thought, and I've done a bit of research, and I'm not the only one who is speculating - and definitely hoping - that Trump is just playing the GOP primary voters like a fiddle. The best I've seen yet comes from HuffPost blogger Andy Ostroy who posed the idea, "What if Trumps campaign is really about this ..."

I'm leaving the race. I don't want to be president. I never wanted to be president. I just wanted to hold a mirror up to the ignorance and bigotry that lurks dangerously beneath the surface. And you shocked me. The more vile and racist I became, the more you loved me! No matter what I did, I'd go up in the polls! I'd say to Melania, what do I have to do turn these people against me, kill someone?! I pulled off the greatest social experiment in American history. In the end, it wasn't Donald Trump whose behavior was shameful, it was yours. I was merely pretending, but you weren't. You've got a lot to work on, America. And you can thank Trump for exposing it."

Monday, January 18, 2016

New SAT Essay Is Obscure & Sets Kids up for Failure

As ACT and SAT battle for control of state testing, a disconcerting issue has arisen among English teachers regarding the new essay portion of the tests. Specifically, ACT's new writing assessment, while more challenging in the expectations, is still relevant and accessible for all high schools students. However, SAT's essay is a rather obscure and less relevant form of writing that is going to improperly portray writing deficiences and set many kids up for failure in their bid to attend colleges and universities. As you can imagine, I’ve been pretty critical of Colorado’s decision to switch to SAT in the future. I don’t know if you have looked at the new SAT yet, but I am bothered by the new format and its lack of relevance and accessibility for many students.

Argumentative writing, as in taking a position, has been the foundation of both ACT/SAT for years. ACT recently expanded the prompt, and it’s certainly a bit more challenging in its wording. But it’s still an argument. That type of position-based writing has widespread application across content areas, and it is relevant and helpful for all kids, regardless of future college major. SAT’s new essay prompt is an argumentative deconstruction – basically, a style analysis of an argument. Style analysis is not a widely relevant and applicable skill, and it will present considerable difficulties for teachers and kids – all to little benefit. And, as English teachers we need to seriously consider how much we alter what we regularly do in the classroom in response to our kids being asked to take this new – and unpiloted – test.

"Read and carefully consider the three perspectives related to the passage. Each suggests a particular way of thinking about the issue  (ie., this is a defend, challenge, qualify position approach) Write a unified essay in which you evaluate multiple perspectives. In your essay, be sure to:
  • analyze and evaluate multiple perspectives
  • state and develop your own perspective
  • explain the relationship between the various views

As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses
  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience.

Basically, College Board is setting up more kids for failure based on the simple fact that College Board President David Coleman has no experience teaching high school, knows very little about how to teach English, and has some pretty misguided ideas about how to effectively assess writing proficiency.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Top Gun turns 30 this year

Was it really thirty years ago that Maverick and Goose flew "into the danger zone"?

That's right. I may be jumping the gun a bit because the official release date for the Tony Scott/Jerry Bruckheimer military classic Top Gun is actually in May. But I've been thinking about the movies of my youth, and I've been slowly introducing my teenage son to the movies that mattered when I was his age. Nothing made a splash like this one in 1986.

So, as Generation X looks back at 25 five years, I've been thinking a lot about the media that entertained us and formed our views. A lot of engaging movies with strong political or sociological undertones came out in the years 1986 and 1991, which would be roughly twenty-five and thirty-years for those of us in the heart of Gen X. I plan to write a lot more about these in the coming months. But here are a few from the list:

1986:  Alien, Platoon, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Stand by Me, The Mission, The Fly, Highlander, Crocodile Dundee, About Last Night, Big Trouble in Little China, Hoosiers. and The Name of the Rose.

1991:  Terminator 2, JFK, Point Break, Boyz in the Hood, Bugsy, The Fisher King, The Doors, My Own Private Idaho, Jungle Fever, and, New Jack City.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Complicating the School Lunch Issue - We aren't France

School lunches are definitely a problem in terms of their overall impact on student health. And, the federal guidelines that made them less appealing to many - but in some ways healthier - haven't done much turn them into the brilliant culinary masterpieces that other countries' students seem to enjoy. However, the problem with school lunches in American cafeterias is much more an issue with our country's entire food industry, as opposed to simply the failure of schools to put appetizing meals on the ... tray.

And, that's the issue that Bettinas Elias Siegel seeks to expose and expand our understanding of in her insightful and informative piece in today's New York Times titled "The Real Problem with School Lunch."

Let’s start with money. The federal government provides a little over $3 per student per lunch, and school districts receive a smaller contribution from their state. But districts generally require their food departments to pay their own overhead, including electricity, accounting and trash collection. Most are left with a dollar and change for food — and no matter what Mr. Moore says, no one is buying scallops and lamb on that meager budget. Contrast this with France, where meal prices are tied to family income and wealthy parents can pay around $7 per meal. Give that sum to an American school food services director and you may want to have tissues handy as he’s likely to break down in incredulous tears.

And what about the students on the other side of the serving line? Nothing in our nation’s food environment primes them to embrace fresh, healthful school meals. The top four sources of calories in the average American child’s diet are grain-based desserts, pizza, soda and sports drinks, and bread. One-third eat fast food every single day. More than 90 percent don’t eat enough vegetables. And each year, our children are bombarded by around $2 billion in child-directed food and beverage advertising, much of which promotes the least healthy products.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in the past two years developing a plan to re-organize our cafeterias, I can attest to Siegel's claims. We have problems getting healthy food consumed by our young people. But that's a problem with our culture and food production system, and that's not readily going to change. As natural food icon Alice Waters says,

"I don't want to force kids to eat healthier foods. I want to win them over to making healthy choices."

Friday, January 15, 2016

Two Months from today Coupland's "Generation X" Turns 25

In just two months, Douglas Coupland's zeitgeist novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture will turn twenty-five. That's right, a quarter century ago on March 15, 1991, Generation X was named as the book was published. This year is the year for a generation, which had been deemed the Slackers, to look back on 25 years. In that time, slacking is really the last thing we've been doing. But what we have been doing is worthy of reflection - growing up, getting jobs, raising kids, creating the internet, hacking society, creating artisan crafts, seeking authenticity in a world severely lacking. These ideas are the focus of the retrospective book I've been working on and hope to put out soon. In the meantime, here's the foreward to the book version of my Master's thesis on Coupland's early works. It's title -  McJob: Consumer Culture in Douglas Coupland's Early Works.

In the middle of summer in 1991, as I was about to enter my final year of college, a good friend who had just graduated but was still on campus waiting tables casually mentioned to me “this new book about people our age …” The focus, he said, was on twenty-somethings who had graduated into a lethargic economy with a sense of career ennui and were working hourly service industry jobs rather than pursuing careers. The key, or intriguing element, was that they were “choosing lifestyle over career.” Sure, they were working “McJobs” that had nothing to do with their college majors, and they were earning far under their potential or promise … but they were choosing to do that while they focused on finding some meaning in their lives. They had unintentionally, and rather subconsciously, embraced the mantra laid out for them years before by the Everyman teen hero Lloyd Dobbler who in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything calmly and rationally explained to Diane Court’s father how “I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that.”  For my friend and other recent graduates in our spehere, Lloyd's idea resonated with validation of our unexpected post-graduate experience. The book was, of course, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture (1991), and it would be the work of fiction that captured a moment in time and incidentally named a generation.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

7-Day Punk Rock Challenge

Punk is ...

As I have noted before, punk and punk rock is the spirit of America and every bit as representative of the American identity as early icons of individuality and self-reliance like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. In fact, for years I've told my students that Henry David Thoreau is America's original punk. And, as I intro Civil Disobedience and Walden, I also share with them the foundational tenets of punk, as wonderfully articulated by Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin.

Henry David Thoreau & the Punk Rock American Ethos

PUNK IS: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions.

PUNK IS: a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through willful ignorance of human nature.

PUNK IS: a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and by extrapolation, could lead to social progress.

PUNK IS: a belief that this world is what we make of it, truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be.

PUNK IS: the constant struggle against fear of social repercussions.

*Credit to Greg Graffin

If you're on Facebook, and you've been on in the past few days, and you are of Generation X, then you have probably seen, or maybe even been nominated to participate in the 7-Day Punk Rock Challenge in which, once a day, for seven days you post a video of an (allegedly) punk rock song, and then nominate a friend to do the same. I've been having great fun with this, both searching for songs to share and waiting for someone to surprise me with something cool I hadn't heard, or hadn't heard in a while. Here's a taste of a few songs I've been enjoying.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Ziggy Stardust is in Heaven Now - RIP David Bowie

"Ziggy played guitar, jammin' good with Weird and Gilly ..."

A man of impeccable style and presence. He was always the coolest man in the room ... in any room.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

David Foster Wallace, voice of Generation X, or something else entirely

As we prepare to wade into the monstrous genius of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest as part of the Infinite Winter, I am wading around the fringes of the book, and nibbling at little pieces of criticism and commentary on Wallace and IJ.  Because this year - 2016 - is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the coining of "Generation X," via Coupland's seminal novel, I am also connecting my writing and work back to that concept. Wallace and Coupland are, interestingly, on the very fringe of the generation, being born in 1961, and that makes them some of the earliest icons. And, icon, as much as they might bristle, is the correct word because of the impact they had. And, in doing my nibbling, I've run across a few fun pieces of commentary regarding DFW and Generation X.

There is, of course, this:

And, then there was a really nice bit of criticism from Adam Kirsch in Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas, excerpted on, which explores the connections deeply. I love the perimeter exploration of irony and the examination of language. It reflects the spirit that Dave Eggers recalls in his most excellent introducation to my edition of IJ. And the idea of lineage and allusion and literary bloodlines is great fun to extrapolate. As far as Generation X and Wallace go, here's some fun to batter around:

When Wallace wrote about how difficult it was to be an American, he specifically meant an American of his own generation—the post-sixties cohort known as “Generation X.” “Like most North Americans of his generation,” Wallace writes about the teenage hero of “Infinite Jest,” “Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves.” Likewise, in “Westward,” he writes, “Like many Americans of his generation in this awkwardest of post-Imperial decades . . . Sternberg is deeply ambivalent about being embodied.” It is no wonder that readers born between 1965 and 1980 responded to this kind of solicitude, with its implication that they were unique, and uniquely burdened.

What is actually most American and most Generation X about these laments, of course, is their provincialism. For Wallace to find it plausible that “being embodied” or “objective insignificance” were new American problems is as sharp an indictment of American ignorance, in its way, as those polls which are always showing that half of us can’t find the U.S. on a map. Except that if any young novelist knew the ancient history of such problems, it should have been Wallace. He was very widely read, and he studied philosophy in college and graduate school; his first novel plays knowingly with Wittgenstein and Derrida. In the introduction to “Fate, Time, and Language,” the posthumous edition of Wallace’s senior thesis, his father James remembers reading the “Phaedo” with the fourteen-year-old David: “This was the first time I realized what a phenomenal mind David had.”

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Build a Better Colorado can fix CO's TABOR problem

Colorado is a uniquely "purple state," with a blend of liberal/conservative/independent Democrats & Republicans. In a perfect world that would mean a degree of moderation that leads to very effective government. And, the Rocky Mountain state does pretty well managing services and expenses with limited revenue and legislation. But the libertarian spirit that runs through all groups - and which was behind voters approval of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) in 1992 - created one heck of a "Gordian knot" in terms of voters rights and responsible governance. Nowhere is that more true than with TABOR, which has required several voter-approved "time outs" because of the necessity of maintaining a strong infrastructure and productive society. And, in 2016 the state is in need of a serious, practical, and permanent fix to TABOR.

Having moved to Colorado in 2003 from fiscally-messy Illinois, I can appreciate and support the desires of Colorado voters to have the final authority for approving all tax increases. And, I can firmly assert that the tax-approval right was the primary - and really only - reason voters passed TABOR. Everything else in the amendment is a hinderance to effective government and needs to change. The "everything else" refers to the revenue cap based on an obscure, arbitrary, and ultimately indefensible formula that mandates Colorado's government budget can only grow by inflation + population growth. Any revenue collected beyond that must be refunded to voters. Applying formulas to societies is simply ... irresponsible. We live in complex emergent systems which are far too malleable and intricate to reduce to a formula. Thus, I firmly believe that a majority of Coloradans would and should support an amending of the TABOR amendment to simply maintain voter-approval of taxes ... and that's it.

While the ideologues in the Republican party and unaffiliated libertarians will cry foul and rant conspiratorially about reckless and uncontrolled government, the rational people may have a chance for productive change by supporting the work of a bi-partisan, or non-partisan, lobbying group known as Building a Better Colorado. As the group prepares to float as many as three or four ballot initiatives this election year, the fix of TABOR is the most important one. Here's hoping the group - backed by many prominent Coloradan leaders can actually overhaul TABOR and truly Build a Better Colorado.

The one idea the group did not entertain from the start is the complete repeal of TABOR, in particular the constitutional requirement that voters approve all tax hikes. However, the project's leader said he was surprised at the level of support for removing the revenue caps, which restrict state budget spending and provide taxpayer refunds in boom years. "There's an increasing percentage of the electorate (for which) TABOR is not as sacrosanct as it was to some," Brown said. Brown said the idea has more support among likely voters when coupled with "a prescription on how it would be spent." The state's current budget situation, in which it is issuing taxpayer refunds but facing spending cuts, is a motivating factor, he said. Chris Watney, the president at the nonprofit Colorado Children's Campaign, applauded the move. "Having more ability to invest and more flexibility in how we do so, I do think would have a positive impact on things like education and health care," she said.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Infinite Winter is Coming

Yep, it's here. My copy of David Foster Wallace's magnum opus, Infinte Jest arrived today. I will be reading the 3 pound, 1079-page, extensively-footnoted novel as part of an online Book Club called The Infinite Winter, which is being organized in honor of the twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest's publication in 1996. The online book club community reading of the IJ will begin on January 31, and it will run through May with a weekly reading schedule of roughly 75 pages.

For those of you who know little to nothing about Wallace or IJ, let's just say this is one of the more challenging works of post-modern fiction you're going to run across. And, though I have an MA in English - and twenty-three years of teaching experience - I am fairly certain I would not be able to fully understand and appreciate this literary masterpiece without the  help of a reading community.

Like many, I've had IJ on my to-do-list for a while now, and the Infinte Winter is the perfect opportunity to jump in.  Infinite Jest evokes the same excited, but daunting, feeling I had before reading Pynchon's V. in graduate school.  While I knew I would appreciate the novel regardless of how I read it, I greatly benefited from the community of readers sharing thoughts, ideas, questions, and, of course, explanations of allusions that I might have missed. So far, I think I've encouraged a few others to at least buy the book and consider the challenge.

Can't wait to get started.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Is Colorado Dept of Ed Subverting State Board & Parents to Serve David Coleman's Interests?

The Colorado Dept of Education's careless and unprofessional announcement of a switch for the state mandated test for juniors was ill-timed and rather shocking. When the state began to backpedal, it was obvious they'd been caught, admittedly not doing "what's best for kids." So whose interest is CDE - or the mysterious "selection committee - serving with this decision.

The shift is not simply a matter of choosing between equal tests. The SAT is implementing an entirely new format and style for which there has been no piloting, meaning the data from this assessment will be completely raw. There is no context for these scores and no legitimate comparability for cut scores. Asking high school juniors to take this test and allow it to become part of their permanent record is truly an egregious disregard for the best interests of kids. And, I am shocked at the wanton disregard with which CDE has acted in this case. Just as CDE did with PARCC, the state is asking our students to serve as guinea pigs for an "un-proven test."

Additionally, I am too well informed to not be suspicious of ulterior motives regarding the decision. It is no secret that there is strong sentiment in Colorado for withdrawal from PARCC. In fact, not two weeks before this decision, both Elliott Asp and Steve Durham were quoted in Chalkbeat as implying that this spring would be the last year for PARCC. Had the state chosen to remain with ACT for juniors, it would have been a very easy shift to ACT-Aspire for grades 3-9. And, it's no secret that many districts are strongly in favor of ACT-Aspire.

Now, with a shift to PSAT and SAT, the State Board faces a much more difficult decision in withdrawing from PARCC because it makes little sense to switch to Aspire for 3-8 or another test and then use PSAT/SAT at the high school. And, those of us who are paying attention have not forgotten that one of the strongest and most persistent proponents of PARCC is College Board President David Coleman. Obviously, College Board and some at CDE seek to establish a link between PARCC tests at grades 3-9 and PSAT/SAT at high school. Losing Colorado would have been a serious blow to PARCC, but with the recent decisions in Colorado and Illinois to leave ACT and sign with SAT, PARCC's status is strengthened. This seems to be an intentional move by CDE to force the State Board's hand regarding PARCC. Clearly, CDE appears to be acquiescing to the will of DavidColeman and College Board, as opposed to the desires of the people of Colorado.

The entire issue is suspicious and deserves great scrutiny by the parents and educators in Colorado. The news of the "selection committee" was a surprise to many who have followed this discussion for years, and the ambiguity of the identity of committee members is questionable as well. Like all the previous work done with HB1323, any committee tasked with making this monumental decision should have been conducted with great transparency. CDE has failed the people of Colorado on all accounts regarding this decision.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Colorado Dept of Education Shocks State with Un-Wise Shift from ACT to SAT

The battle of the testing companies rages on, and testing/Common Core behemoth David Coleman of the College Board has landed a serious blow in the state of Colorado. If you missed the news - which was easy to do because of the subversive way it was delivered - the Colorado Department of Education announced at 1:00 on December 23 (just as everyone ran out the back door for vacation) that the state was severing a 14-year relationship with the ACT test and switching to the College Board's newly designed (and completely unfamiliar) SAT test for its junior college entrance exam. This decision shocked many in the education world, primarily because of ACT's long-standing history with Colorado and its status as the national benchmark for college readiness.

As an eduator and a parent I am extemely disappointed in this decision, and I have registered my complaints with the state and local legislators. I have also recorded my concerns and criticisms in a blog post that Diane Ravitch was kind enough feature on her blog. Of particular interest to parents and educators is this paragraph:

This decision is a problematic game-changer, and the most troubling part is the “newly designed” nature of the SAT. The SAT given this spring will be a new style and format with no piloting for test score comparison and data. Just like CDE did with PARCC, they are using Colorado’s students as guinea pigs for a new test. I know juniors who took the SAT this fall – which is early – because the test was familiar, and they wanted a score for a test style they knew and for which the scores were already established. They are wary of this new test because there is no data or experience with it, and we don’t really know what the scores will mean or what the cut points would be. Taking this new test for the state is risky. Obviously, many students will take this new SAT, but why would they take it as a school/state test, for which it will become their public record? As an educator, I must administer this test. But if my child were a junior, I would have serious reservations about taking this new test for the state. While I would encourage my child to take the ACT and SAT on a Saturday for which he can choose if he sends the scores, I would be wary of allowing the state to put scores for a brand new and unfamiliar test on his transcript. Colorado parents should be made aware of this concern.

Clearly, CDE's decision to shift testing programs in the middle of the year with little notice was an egregious display of irresponsibility and short-sighted politics. And, this can be infered from the immediate backpedalling that came from CDE after students and educators returned to school this week. In a befuddling manner the state released a statement indicating that - after further consideration - the state may stick with ACT for one more year. Interim head of CDE Eliot Asp said:

“I know that this is a high-stakes assessment for students, with college entrance, placement and scholarships on the line,” Asp wrote. “To require this year’s 11th graders to take the SAT exam this spring – after they have already invested time, money and energy in preparing to take a different assessment – would not be in their best interest.”

Obviously, this shift is "not in the best interest" of kids. The only question is how CDE could have been so clueless to that reality. In fact, it seems in this case that the people at CDE are "not in the best interest" of kids, and it should cause all educators and parents to ask just whose interests CDE is looking out for at this point.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The "something-free" Diet

Last summer I was training for an important 5K and hoping to post my best time ever. But my weight and my running times were stagnant. I was up probably 5-7 pounds from optimum, and no matter what I did, I couldn't budge. Cutting back on snacking and calories, watching the sugar and junk foods, ramping up my workouts - nothing worked. That's when my wife - a former professional pastry chef and certified natural foods chef told me, "You have to make significant change to your diet. Start eliminating things." So I went gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, alcohol-free, and caffeine-free for 30 days.

Bam!  I dropped almost 12 pounds and shaved more than a minute and a half off my 5K. I slept better, worked better, felt calmer, stronger, and more focused. 

Now, it's time to do something again. The holidays have been fun, but I know I've put on weight, and I'm not as productive and healthy as I can be. So, I'm going gluten-free, dairy-free, and alcohol-free for at least a few weeks. In terms of gluten, I know I am not a celiac sufferer and probably not even "intolerant." But I know that grains put weight on me. It's that simple. So, I am changing my diet to get back where I want to be, which is "cut, with no gut."

It's all about diet, people. So, if you're looking to improve, you have to change your diet.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Boulder, Bourbon, and the Infinite Winter

The hike was fantastic.

Yesterday, I celebrated year 46 with a hike in the Boulder foothills, and a truly memorable bourbon experience. After a nice, but somewhat slick and snowy hike up Boulder's Mesa Trail, my wife and daughter and I piddled around Boulder while my middle-school math wizard son attended a session of the Colorado Math Circle. It turned out to be a rather fortuitous day.

The original plan was to have lunch at the reknowned Dushanbe Tea House followed by a stroll along the Boulder Creek Trail and the Pearl Street Mall. But, alas, we arrived at Dushanbe too late for a table because on Saturdays they are generally pretty booked for afternoon tea. On Pearl Street we debated lunch or happy hour at a few favorites: Brasserie Ten Ten, L'Atelier, The Med. But a random chance browsing the window at Japango on Pearl Street caught our whimsy ... and I am ever so thankful for the fortuitous diversion.

Japango is a sleek, modern, inviting sushi restaurant on Pearl Street with an engaging happy hour. We enjoyed calamari and rolls, a bento box for my daughter, and some truly delicious grilled brussel sprouts. For drinks we enjoyed their house-made sangria - which was fun for a Japanese-themed placed. But everything changed when I browsed the extensive drink menu and ran across three words - Pappy Van Winkle. For the bourbon lovers out there, you'll understand. If not, let me just say this is one of the more coveted bourbons, and I've never been able to lay my hands on a bottle. A single pour ranged from $20 - $65, and I had to take a chance.

It was all that.

This morning I woke to all sorts of interesting tidbits in the Sunday Denver Post - but this is the one that caught my eye, and I will write more about soon:  "Infinite Jest book club tackles the big tome on its 20th anniversary."

But for anyone who made a resolution to read ambitiously in 2016, this might be the Year of Glad — glad you will finally read this brick of a book that tackles themes from entertainment to tennis to drug addiction and the Quebec separatist movement. At the end of January, a local bibliophile will launch an online book club dedicated to tackling the tome over 13 weeks, together, called Infinite WinterIt's a reboot of an online book club for "Infinite Jest" that drew people into the 1,000-plus page book during the summer of 2009, Infinite Summer. Mark Flanagan of Lafayette joined that book club. "It was a huge phenomenon, and I don't think I would have gotten through 'Infinite Jest' without Infinite Summer."  For Infinite Winter, Flanagan also looked to artists when he sought out guides for the book club. (One of the six guides will write a post a day every week at "We really have an all-star cast, plus me," Flanagan said. He'll also have guest bloggers.) Nathan Seppelt sketches scenes from the book and posts one a day at his Instagram, Drawing Infinite JestRyan Blanck crafts scenes from LegosCorrie Baldauf's project explores color in "Infinite Jest." Jenni Baker's Erasing Infinite project pulls poems out of each page of the book by erasing most, but not all, of the page's words. And Dave Laird runs a podcast about the David Foster Wallace, The Great Concavity.

And, I am all in on this one. I've wanted to dig into David Foster Wallace's magnum opus for years. But, like I learned with the works of Thomas Pynchon, we can all use some help with these brilliant pieces. So, I bought my copy of Infinite Jest today, and I am ready to dive into a wonderful intricate challenge, and a really cool idea, brought to us by writer Mark Flanagan.

Thanks, Mark. Looking foward to the read.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A Gen Xer hits the age of 46 - refined just like Makers Mark's best

Being born in 1970, I landed smack in the middle of the "Baby Bust" that became known, decades later as Generation X, thanks to a seminal novel by a new writer named Douglas Coupland. Growing up through the 70s and 80s, and entering adulthood by graduating college in the fun-filled recession of the early 1990s, I've lived a pretty genuine and text book Gen X life. All in all, it's been a pretty good ride. From a middle-class suburban existence as a latch-key kid - thankfully one that was pretty stable and free from the divorce-plagued times - to a somewhat left-of-center early adulthood living abroad and casually winding my way toward a career and a middle-class suburban life. And, now at the age of 46, I have a sound career and pretty solid sense of self.

Taking a break to go hiking in Boulder ... might finish this later.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Still Planning to "Live the Life You Have Imagined"

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. - Henry David Thoreau

One year ago today, I posted those words as a motivation to myself to get started with "what I really want to do with my life." The plan was to get focused on developing the next level of a writing and speaking career, which is something I've always envisioned, even as I've managed a very successful career in public education, both as a teacher and now as an administrator. And, as I've noted in my recent post, I am not unhappy or disgruntled with my current personal or professional life. However, I have notebooks filled with ideas for articles I'd like to research and publish, papers I'd like to write, non-fiction works I'd like to develop and promote, and general ideas for work as an independent scholar and critic. Here are some thoughts from twelve months ago:

For many years, I've told people that when I grow up "I want to be David Brooks of the New York Times." That, or perhaps, Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker and "Outliers" fame. Basically, being a writer and speaker and cultural critic is my dream job. I've always enjoyed researching and writing and, basically, passing on information to others. That's why I am a teacher ... and I am fairly confident that I am quite good at what I do. But, for as long as I've been teaching, I've always been waiting for that moment when the writing/speaking career develops out of something I've written. For many years, I mistakenly thought myself a novelist. It took a friend who really is a novelist (though shockingly unpublished as of yet) to point out that I should be focusing on the non-fiction success that I've had and pursue that option. Really, duh. It was a surprising lack of self awareness on my part.

And, I am not there yet. Act III still looks a lot like Act II. But that's about to change.

2016 is somewhat of a significant year for this Gen Xer, for it was twenty-five years ago in 1991 that Douglas Coupland published Generation X: Tales for An Accelerated Culture, Richard Linklater premiered and released the pivotal piece of Gen X cinema Slacker, and a small band out of Seattle named Nirvana released an album called Nevermind and forever changed music, kicking off an era that became known as Grunge. All these moments in history impacted me to the point that I wrote my thesis for my MA on the works of Douglas Coupland. And, the idea of Generation X has always resonated with me as significant - even though acknowledging status as a member of Generation X is often considered a very "un-Generation X" thing to do. In fact, I find it to be one of the great ironies but appropriate quirks of Gen X that the average Gen Xer probably never read the book, and many have no idea who Douglas Coupland is. Most probably never saw Slacker, and probably wouldn't have really liked it if they had. And while most know Nirvana, the band and genre aren't necessarily a favorite. That said, it's worth noting that Coupland had always asserted "Generation X" is much more of a mindset than an age group. Nevertheless, those of us born between roughly 1961 and 1981 are a unique breed of society, and that is often lost amidst the media hype around Baby Boomers and Milennials.

So, if all goes according to plan this year, I intened to release several pieces of writing about Generation X and the popular culture surrounding the book, the people, and the era. For the past year, I have been working on a retrospective of the time since that pivotal year of 1991, and I hope to publish that sometime this spring. I am also planning on releasing a version of my thesis to coincide with my other work. After trying for many years - and falling painfully short - of publishing books, I have not sought a publisher for my Generation X writing, and I instead plan to release it via Create Space. These pieces will, I hope and believe, establish a baseline for the sort of pop culture criticism and scholarly writing I hope to do. Perhaps there will be a website to host and promote the book. There could be some speeches and book talks developed. A consistent string of articles is hopefully on the horizon, and I might even tinker around with things like a YouTube channel. While these ideas are certainly ambitious, and may not make the slightest ripple of an impact in the world of criticism, I hope that I don't reach New Year's Eve of 2016 without something to show for my efforts.

So, look for some articles, hope for some books, and wish me luck on another stab at Act III.

Here we go:  The Force Awakens.