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

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Conquering the College Essay

It's November, and that means anxiety is rising for the high achieving and aspirational high school seniors who are completing college applications and stressing about getting into their dream school. November 1 marks the early decision deadlines, while most schools will be accepting college apps through the winter. It's all such a game - and one that most students and parents have figured out that you just can't really play. Yet, they will continue to try, and there is a multi-million dollar business of prep classes and private college counselors who have convinced anxious parents there are shortcuts and insider info available to anyone who's willing to pay. Depending on the high school a kid attends, the assistance offered by these college planners may be of some to absolutely no value. The key support they generally provide is working with kids on the dreaded college essay. Now, any senior English teacher or high school counselor ought to be able to give all the necessary help, and the essay really should be written by the kid. But there are certainly tips any high schooler could benefit from.

One of the best - and most succinct - pieces I've seen recently on the college essay was featured in the Denver Post this morning by high school English teacher Emmet Rosenfeld. The piece was originally submitted to and published as a special submission to the Washington Post, and it leads by example. Rosenfeld simply discusses the parameters of the assignment, and then she reprints with commentary two drafts of a college essay submitted by one of her students. This piece is definitely worth reading - though it won't magically reveal how to write a winning college essay. The best advice in these examples is how the use of narrative and specific "telling details" enhance an adequate piece of writing into an engaging and memorable essay.

The essay that follows was written by a current senior at a Washington-area high school. She is a strong student in the top quarter of her class who is planning to apply to a range of schools, including George Mason University and Notre Dame. The first draft was her best attempt before any coaching. The second one was the product after about an hour of discussion with me, a high school English teacher and a writing consultant. My comments are in italics.
Science and religion have been battling it out for centuries, or so many seem to think. Between the notorious arrest of Galileo in 1633 and the frequently debated theory of evolution, many have come to the conclusion that religion in general, but specifically the Catholic Church, is opposed to the idea of science.
–First impressions: (A) The author can write pretty well, without errors in spelling or grammar. (B) Am I reading an introduction to a research paper about Galileo or a personal essay?
I am seated at a long hardwood table in the magnificent South Dining Hall of the University of Notre Dame. As a rising junior among other hungry high schoolers, I cannot help but think this looks like a scene out of Harry Potter. A scrawny, blond boy of fifteen sits across from me wearing a Star Trek tee shirt. Sam is one of the kids I recognize from the camp I am attending, “Physics of Atomic Nuclei.” Over burgers, light conversation about the decomposition of radioactive isotopes in bananas is made heavy by the mention of a certain characteristic of the institution: its Catholicism. Someone comments how interesting it is that a school like this would hold a space camp. I offer that it is not so strange, and Sam pipes up.
–Now that makes me want to keep reading. Why? It’s the beginning of a story! A few key mechanics help it work: first-person narration, present tense, both external details and internal thoughts are included. And, best of all, it has voice.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Anthony Bourdain, Houston, & America's Beautiful Diversity

Anthony Bourdain lives the life I have imagined, and it is wonderful to live vicariously through him. The chef, writer, traveler, and cultural critic, whose show Parts Unknown is a cosmopolitan treat featured weekly on the CNN Network, has been entertaining and educating readers and viewers for years with his travels to exotic and interesting locales. In the hangover of post-Election 2016, I couldn't imagine a better antidote to the natonal feelings of uncertainty and anxiety than Bourdain's recent trip to and spotlight of the vibrant, diverse, and eclectic city of Houston, Texas. Clips like this provide a comforting insight into the strength of American culture - a culture that is built on immigration and progressive acceptance and embrace of diversity.

It is certainly worth taking a virtual trip to Houston via Bourdain's weekly essay on life, food, and culture. Find this episode On-Demand, and wrap yourself up in the warmth of America's vibrant and growing multiculturalism.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Leonard Cohen has passed - and "Everybody Knows"

As a forty-seven year old Gen X-er, I came to know the brilliance of Leonard Cohen later in his career. As it happened though, it was early in my social and existential consciousness, and it came from an unlikely place - the early Gen X film Pump Up the Volume. I was captivated by the voice from the stark opening of the film as Christian Slater/Hard-Harry-Hard-On prepared to broadcast his pirate radio program. And amidst the haunting strings with the staccatto rythm, HHH grooms us for the show, "Down to business: I've got my Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi, and I've got my Blackjack gum.  I've got that feeling - that familiar feeling that something rank is going down out there."

As several people have noted on social media like Twitter, dying in 2016 shortly after the election of you know who was such a Leonard Cohen thing to do. The rankness that "Everybody Knows" could not be more apparent on a day like November 10, 2016, and the opening lyrics from the soulful Cohen are eerily prescient of the dark epiphany many woke up to this week. We didn't want to believe it was true .... but everybody knows. Rest in peace, solemn prince. It's a mournful time so apropos for you to go. And now he "will speak no more."

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody know

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election 2016 & the Twilight of American Culture

I'm listening to cool jazz and drinking a warm cup of tea on the afternoon of November 9, 2016. My thoughts are wandering aimlessly along with the piano keys, and I know only one thing for sure - I need to listen to more jazz. I need to savor more teas and bourbons and wines and craft beers, and I need to learn how to play the piano. I should immerse myself in poetry and literature and art and culture, and I should cherish every possible moment with my wife and children. In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, in which the people of the United States elected as President a man I cannot fathom in the role, I seek to embrace life amidst the whirlwind.

The first inkling I had of the looming dismay and disappointment so many are feeling about ... that guy ... was in my kitchen late Monday evening as I prepared coffee for the morning. It was almost like the moment Aunt Alexandra felt before sending Scout and Jem off to the play that nearly tragic night - it was "a pinprick of apprehension ... as if somebody walked across my grave." He might win. He's going to win. It seemed all too surreal to accept, yet it was worth anticipating the possibility to avoid the unexpected shock and disbelief. Then, in the aftermath of the election when it appeared the result was inevitable, my thoughts immediately turned to an insightful work of non-fiction and social commentary published in 2000. I thought of Morris Berman's Twilight of American Culture. 

A prophetic examination of Western decline, The Twilight of American Culture provides one of the most caustic and surprising portraits of American society to date. Whether examining the corruption at the heart of modern politics, the "Rambification" of popular entertainment, or the collapse of our school systems, Morris Berman suspects that there is little we can do as a society to arrest the onset of corporate Mass Mind culture. Citing writers as diverse as de Toqueville and DeLillo, he cogently argues that cultural preservation is a matter of individual conscience, and discusses how classical learning might triumph over political correctness with the rise of a "a new monastic individual"―a person who, much like the medieval monk, is willing to retreat from conventional society in order to preserve its literary and historical treasures. "Brilliantly observant, deeply thoughtful ....lucidly argued."―Christian Science Monitor

Regarding pivotal events like elections, I am generally of even-minded pragmatism. The sky is not falling. It's never the end of the world, and the republic will survive. No single man is larger than the government and institutions of the United States of America. In many ways, it doesn't really matter who wins because all politics is local, and the next day we will get up and turn on the lights and go to work and settle in to normalcy. And, I do believe that still. The lights still work in Greenwood Village, and my children are still receiving an incredible education at wonderful schools located in a safe and prosperous community. However, something has changed, and the reality is that I don't really recognize the larger society in which I live. There are certain behaviors that are truly beyond the pale. They should be disqualifying factors for public service. But they're apparently not. And here we are. In a rather thoughtful, though somewhat characteristically edgy piece in the Washington Post today, our contemporary bard Garrison Keillor reflected on the apparent twilight or sundown of "culture" exemplified by the recent election.

So he won. The nation takes a deep breath. Raw ego and proud illiteracy have won out, and a severely learning-disabled man with a real character problem will be president. We are so exhausted from thinking about this election, millions of people will take up leaf-raking and garage cleaning with intense pleasure. We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long , brisk walk and smell the roses. 

There is more cyncisim, and even arrogance, in that piece than perhaps I mean to promote. But the sentiment remains relevant. Something has gone wrong with basic human decency and the valuing of education and culture, not to mention manners and decorum, in contemporary American society, and I don't like how it feels ... how I feel. Now, Berman and Keillor may be "the liberal elitists" of which he speaks, but I don't quite align with those politics. That said, I do align with education over ignorance and culture over consumerism. And, thus, I feel an inclination toward Berman's vision and recommendation for those who can to continue to be purveyors of culture even if that means a reluctant withdrawal from the society from which it should be emanating. That doesn't mean that I plan to "fiddle while Rome burns" or take a "walk" through the roses while ignoring those in need. But it does mean I'm re-evaluating where I focus my energy - and it will be more on culture and personal growth than it will be on news and politics.

Granted, some will view my reaction and response as that of a snob. And I don't fully reject that characterization, though I'd argue it's an oversimplication of the message I'm trying to articulate. Others will claim my elitism and arrogance is no better than the behavior of the candidate at issue, and I soundly reject that conclusion. For, I am talking about standards of adult behavior and a well-informed world view that are so clearly lacking in the person who was elected. That's perhaps the most disappointing issue - the harsh reality of the mis-guided endorsement. Truly, four years from now, we can be pretty certain that there won't be unprecedented "winning" for the most disenfranchised. There will not be a large, impenetrable wall along the country's southern border. Mythical jobs and prosperity will not have returned to Rust Belt communities. The threat of terrorism from groups like ISIS will not have vanished. But there will be residual side effects of the campaign's negative tenor. And I simply cannot condone that. For I have deep concern and empathy for people who will be threatened by the policies and actions that may come. I'm sincerely worried about people.

Thus, with that in mind, I have realized that I cannot spend the days and weeks and months to come focused on the news and politics of this turn of events. While I've looked at a few pieces of journalism on social media seeking to "make some sense" out of it or explain "what comes next," I don't have much faith in the ability of any of it to make things better. Nothing will clarify and explain this in any satisfying way - for I'm realizing that a significant segment of society reflects and pursues a set of beliefs and values to which I simply cannot relate. And, reading an endless string of commentary about it will do me no good; in fact, it will consume me to no benefit. So, I will not be focusing on those things, but instead focusing on life. There are middle school plays and dance recitals to attend. There are Speech & Debate tournaments and math competitions to experience and celebrate. There are choir, orchestra, and band concerts to see, and there so many opportunities to create and celebrate the positive culture of where I live.

So, for what it's worth, I want to listen to more jazz and immerse myself in culture. And, that's how I am going forward on November 9, 2016.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Buffy - "One More Time with Feeling" at 15 Years

It might be one of the best episodes of television ever - it was the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And, yesterday on November 6 was the fifteenth anniversary of a truly original and groundbreaking bit of television history. I recently learned of this milestone when it was posted and retweeted countless times by the Twitter handle Whedonesque. And, immediately upon learning of that, I had to check out YouTube for a few clips from the episode. Not surprisingly, they captivated me as the episode always does, for it is great drama with layers of meaning and some kick-ass music to boot. I simply can't believe Joss wrote it all - the man's talent knows no bounds.

"Once More, with Feeling" explores changes in the relationships of the main characters, using the plot device that a demon—credited as "Sweet" but unnamed in the episode—compels the people of Sunnydale to break into song at random moments to express hidden truths. The title of the episode comes from a line sung by Sweet; once the characters have revealed their truths and face the consequences of hearing each other's secrets, he challenges them to "say you're happy now, once more, with feeling". All of the regular cast performed their own vocals, although two actors were given minimal singing at their request. "Once More, with Feeling" is the most technically complex episode in the series, as extra voice and dance training for the cast was interspersed with the production of four other Buffy episodes. It was Joss Whedon's first attempt at writing music, and different styles—from 1950s sitcom theme music to rock opera—express the characters' secrets in specific ways. The episode was well received critically upon airing, specifically for containing the humor and wit to which fans had become accustomed. The musical format allowed characters to stay true to their natures while they struggled to overcome deceit and miscommunication, fitting with the sixth season's themes of growing up and facing adult responsibilities.[2][3] It is considered one of the most effective and popular episodes of the series, and—prior to a financial dispute in 2007—was shown in theaters with the audience invited to sing along.

I can also still remember the first few moments of the show when I first saw it - I was initially disappointed, thinking it was going to be a let down. I just wasn't in the mood for Joss playing with the standard format of the show - though I was always blown away when he did. I mean the "silent episode"? Wow, that was a piece of work. So, I watched the musical unfold, becoming more amazed with every song and twist in the plot. Who can forget Anya's hard rock rant against "Bunnies!" And that was balanced by the incredible poignance of the workout scene with Giles worried that he's "Standing in Your Way."

It's hard to believe that it's been fifteen years since the heyday of Buffy. I can't wait till this summer when my daughter turns twelve and we start her Buffy education. She hasn't watched the show other than the pilot and One More Time with Feeling. She is a dancer and theater girl, and the show was too amazing to hold back. So, we'll start with season one, but we'll both be looking forward to the musical.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Does School Choice Matter?

Does it matter where you go to school? A recent study out of Chicago and reported on in The Atlantic seems to challenge the notion that attending "the best high school" matters to a student's long term success. The idea that attending the "best school," and perhaps more importantly, having the "best teacher" is necessary for student success has been a foundational argument for the school choice movement - namely, the idea of charters, school choice, and vouchers. That becomes a problem when school enrollment has been traditionally neighborhood focused. And, I've often worried that measurements of student success on standardized tests or college enrollment equate to a school being the best and having the best teachers. For, bright and motivated students can mask rather mediocre teaching, and some of the most talented educators out there may face criticism for mediocre student performance against the norms despite making great strides with struggling populations. Here's an interesting bit of insight on "selective schools" and student achievement.

Selective schools did, however, produce a variety of non-academic gains: Students had higher attendance and lower suspension rates, and they trusted their teachers more. Students also reported that their peers’ behavior was much better and that they felt safer in school—this suggests that insofar as selective schools are beneficial, it may be because of higher-achieving peers rather than better-quality instruction.

Shouldn't All Public Restrooms be Gender Neutral

When I was young I used to go to University of Illinois football games with my dad and his co-workers, and everyone would tailgate for hours before the game. With all that drinking, the Port-o-Potties were always heavily used, and I vividly remember the long lines for the ladies and no lines at the mens. This is no surprise to anyone, but I can recall wondering just what was so unique about an outdoor toilet that it had to be gender specific. Well, these days, if I go to large outdoor events like the Bolder-Boulder or a college football game, I know there is just a row of port-o-potties and they are not gender specific. That's as it should be. Which poses the question: why are public restrooms gender specific?

That may change in Denver in the future - a new building code amendment would contain a gender-neutral requirement for all single stall restrooms. Of course, it should be that way. In buildings where there are single stall/room restrooms, it makes no sense for one to be male and the other female, especially if there is no urinal for male use. That is the reality at many restaurants these days, especially those with just one or two bathrooms. Obviously, if there is a single stall and it has a traditional toilet, either sex should be able to use it.

“You have people standing in these old houses, basically, and there’s a line for the ladies room when across the hall it’s the exact same, with a door and a lock, and it’s empty,” he said. The proposal is part of a package of amendments to the Denver building and fire codes, which the council updated earlier this yearThe new bathroom rule would apply to both new and existing single-stall restrooms, with signage changes required by May 1, 2018. Restrooms designated for family or assisted use also would need signs making clear they are gender-neutral.
However, I would go one step further and argue that even in a large multi-stall restroom, there is no real reason for the rooms to be separated by gender. If the urinals are removed and each toilet is in a singel stall, then it really should make no difference. For people watching TV in the late 90s, you might have seen this concept as a particularly prominent - and progressive - feature of the workplace for Ally McBeal. It was even refered to as "the unisex," as opposed to the bathroom. I always thought that was a particularly innovative idea, and I occasionally wondered why the idea didn't catch on.

I would argue that a decade from now, the presence of gender-neutral bathrooms will be the new normal.