It's surreal how different it was. [There were] hippies lounging in tea houses and women smoking in public and wearing short skirts and driving cars and working in the government as lawyers and doctors and so forth. It was a very different society. Kabul was a thriving city and by the standards of a conservative religious country, it was quite liberal.
Tuesday, August 31, 2021
It's surreal how different it was. [There were] hippies lounging in tea houses and women smoking in public and wearing short skirts and driving cars and working in the government as lawyers and doctors and so forth. It was a very different society. Kabul was a thriving city and by the standards of a conservative religious country, it was quite liberal.
Monday, August 30, 2021
Since 2001's passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, schools across the country have seen significant cuts in art class and fine arts education as districts pursued a myopic focus on standardized test scores in reading and math. The damage to the arts and to the cognitive development of the children that schools are supposed to serve has been noticeable. For, the connection between fine arts classes and higher levels of achievement, as well as student engagement, is extensive and supported with data.
However, for too long, the case for the arts has been promoted by only one political party and stance on the political spectrum -- the Democrats and progressive views. Now, with a recent study and article from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative case for the arts is being made. And that's a fortunate development. AEI recently released "Reclaiming arts and culture: the fundamental importance of the fine arts."Key Points
- Despite overwhelming support for arts education, an increasing share of children is growing up without any exposure to the arts.
- Empirical evidence demonstrates a causal effect associated with arts education on cognitive and noncognitive development for children, influencing their life outcomes well beyond their initial entry into the labor market.
- Investing in the arts generates a wide array of societal benefits, including the promotion of social capital, the decline in politicization, and the influence of culture.
Friday, August 27, 2021
I'm a bit of an art geek, though I am certainly in the novice stage of my art appreciation. So, I spend significant time visiting museums and galleries, always wishing I had an extra ten grand or so, just burning a hole in my pocket. Mostly I just gaze and envy and wish. But when I was in Aruba recently, and I strolled down the Renaissance Mall after a wonderful morning snack of perfertiges, I could not stop myself from purchasing this beautiful piece.
Thursday, August 26, 2021
“Life is managed; it is not cured.”
Each fall in the early weeks of school, I read to my class a list of "Life Strategies for Teens" from a book by Jay McGraw. The book is a collection of contemporary folk wisdom and pop psychology from the son of television therapist Dr. Phil. The list is an amusing little bell starter, and I talk up the book, warning my students that I might recommend it to their parents. I also jokingly tell them I'll encourage their parents to purchase two copies, "so you can read it together and discuss it over dinner."
Each strategy is a chapter in the book, and the aphoristic nature of the list includes insight such as “You create your own experience,” “Life rewards action,” and “There is power in forgiveness.” Many of these ideas are simple platitudes and cliches, the kind found on posters hanging in classrooms and board rooms and gyms and doctors’ offices. Yet, they also contain the sort of bumper-sticker logic which can provide brief moments of insight and even inspiration.
The one piece of McGraw’s guidance I like to emphasize is the statement that opens this column: Life is managed; it is not cured. I like the blunt honesty of that statement. As I explain McGraw’s point, I reveal, somewhat regretfully, to my students the most important lesson we can ever learn -- it will never be okay. It’s never done, never finished, never perfect. Life is a continual process of rises and falls with many lateral movements, and some time after early childhood we reluctantly realize it as we begin to experience the harsh realities of life's fickle, ephemeral nature. However, in a naive desire to return to that mythical time of innocence when everything was all right, we set arbitrary milestones and finish lines for ourselves. They are almost always fleeting and unrealistic.
It usually starts around early adolescence and middle school when most of us first begin to deal with the "stuff" of life that isn't so pleasant. In the face of each disappointment, we tell ourselves that if we can just get through this moment and on to high school, "it'll all be okay." Once in high school, when the messy frustrations of the teen years close in again, we tell ourselves, "I just need to get my license, and then it'll be better. It'll be fine when I have more freedom." But of course, the stuff closes in again, and we repeat the cycle. Once we graduate high school, everything will surely be much better.
We constantly have internal conversations where we make deals with ourselves and the universe. “I just need to get through this week of tests,” we say, “and then I can get organized and focused, and I promise I’ll stop procrastinating. I’ll never fall behind again.” And, then it becomes, “I just need to turn eighteen, just need to get into this one college, just need to turn twenty-one, just need to get my degree, just need to get this first entry-level job, just need to move out, just need to get my own place, just need to graduate, just need to get a new job, just need to get this one promotion, just need to get to that next level ... and then it will all be okay. Then I'll be satisfied. I swear. Then I can relax. Then I can calm down. Then I can stop worrying.”
But it will never be okay. It is never going to be all good, all right, all settled. And, the only disappointment in our life comes from believing we can get to a certain point, and one achievement, one job, one house, one thing will fix all that ails us. But that’s just a fairy tale we tell ourselves, often ironically to our own detriment. Life is managed. Everyday is a new task, a new situation, a new something. Life is constantly in flux, moving and changing. And, when things are going well, we can be fairly certain they will eventually go south, or at least sideways. And, when things are really beating us up and dragging us down, we can also be fairly certain the hard times won't last forever. It will get better, if even just marginally.
It'll never be okay. And when we finally realize that, it really is going to be fine.
Wednesday, August 25, 2021
An executive producer on the show, Carol Greenwald, confirmed on Wednesday that the series would be ending. She said in a statement that episodes of the show would continue to be available on PBS Kids, but that no new ones would air after next year.
“‘Arthur’ is the longest-running kids animated series in history and is known for teaching kindness, empathy and inclusion through many groundbreaking moments to generations of viewers,” Ms. Greenwald said, noting that no other United States-produced series had a longer life on the air.
The statement did not offer a reason for the show’s cancellation. Ms. Greenwald said that the producer GBH and PBS Kids were “continuing to work together on additional Arthur content, sharing the lessons of Arthur and his friends in new ways.”
On the podcast, Ms. Waugh said she did not know whether the cancellation was driven by a ratings issue or PBS just felt that the show needed to be retired. She added that she felt PBS had made a mistake. “To me it just felt evergreen, like it was never going to end. But it did end,” she said.
Tuesday, August 24, 2021
Monday, August 23, 2021
As we head back to school, many teachers will be focusing on not just their content and academic skills, but also on working with their kids to develop those intangible ideas about how to be a successful person beyond just the coursework and the grade. Some might call these ideas "life strategies," and in fact a couple of authors have - Jay McGraw and his dad Dr. Phil McGraw.
When Jay McGraw was just a teenager, he was well-versed in the help that his father dispensed to people on Oprah, and later on his own television talk show. However, as much as Jay appreciated the value of the strategies his dad taught people, he knew the message was not well-adapted to or received by teens. So, he wrote his own version of the modern-age, pop-psychology self help from the talk shows, and he called it Life Strategies for Teens. I respect the book for its style and approach, and I have recommended it to students and their parents for years.
McGraw's message comes down to ten platitudes:
- You either get it, or you don't.
- You create your own experience.
- People do what works.
- You cannot change what you do not acknowledge.
- Life rewards action.
- There is no reality, only perception of it.
- Life is managed; it is not cured.
- We teach people how to treat us.
- There is power in forgiveness.
- You have to name it before you can claim it.
Sunday, August 22, 2021
The Midwest means a natural balance of a hopeful idealism in “the way things ought to be,” and in honest pragmatism about “the way things actually are.” This balanced view is born out of cultural values running back centuries, and it’s hardened by experience. It’s dealing with the weather that happens as opposed to that which is forecast or expected or promised. It’s a place with the moss on a tree or the amount of black fur on woolly worm is every bit as accurate and trusted as the national weather service or the weatherman on television. It can be a taciturn place of few wasted words as easily as it can be spinning long drawn out yarns on front porches that last so long no one remembers how the story started or where it was going. In the Midwest all politics is local. In Iowa, with its disproportionate significance in Presidential primaries, it’s rumored that when asked who they’re voting for or if they support a specific candidate, locals will say, “I don’t know, I haven’t met him yet.” In the flood of 1993 that decimated my hometown Alton, Illinois, I learned it is in those moments that Midwesterners remember there are no political parties during a flood, fire, or tornado. There are just neighbors and a sense of community. It’s a gateway, not a flyover. It’s company picnics and Rotary clubs. Small town homecomings that aren’t about a football game or high school dance, but about carnival games, fish fries, and funnel cakes. The Midwest is, or at least was, a neighborhood where a pediatrician, a journalist, an engineer, a lawyer, a police officer, a factory worker, a teacher, a phone company lineman, and a various small business owners all live in the same neighborhood, or subdivision, in roughly the same size houses.
Saturday, August 21, 2021
Most of the buyers had acquired their homes through online auctions. None had ever actually been to Peoria; nor did they have any plans to move there. And yet they bid by the dozens, if not hundreds, on homes throughout Peoria’s dying south end, drawn by the desire to own property, an essential piece of the American Dream that had eluded them in the places where they lived and seemed to grow more distant with each passing month. Somehow, they had found a version of that dream online — and in a place called Peoria — that seemed almost as good. “I felt like I had finally found a cheat code,” Culver said.
The story of West Lincoln Avenue’s bizarre summer land rush starts with the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt, which had hollowed out Peoria’s once-thriving south end. It spans decades of growing inequality, which had turned America into a place of winners and losers with less and less in between. The trigger, though, was the pandemic, the recession and the recovery.
In much of the country this spring, low interest rates, bidding wars and pent-up demand had sparked a real estate boom. In California, the median single-family home price hit a record $818,260, up nearly 40 percent since the start of the pandemic. Utah prices surged 30 percent during the same period. By June, economists were using words like “unprecedented” to describe the rise and speculating that in some markets the dream of homeownership might be forever out of reach for most middle-class Americans.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
A colleague of mine never liked the idea of rigor in schools.
Now that might seem like a shocking or disappointing view for a teacher. Education, as we know, should be challenging and even difficult, for learning valuable new skills is never supposed to be simple. There’s no free lunch, and nothing of value comes easy in life. Thus, whenever critics and reformers talk about public education and lament how American students are supposedly falling behind, they strongly endorse the idea of rigor in education. If it’s not hard, the logic goes, then they’re not really learning anything. However, it’s never that simple. And questioning the idea of rigor is not as passive as it might seem.
For twenty years or so, the idea of rigor has been all the rage in debates about student achievement, education reform, and “fixing our schools.” Rigor is paired with ideas such as grit, standards, basic skills, and achievement gaps in identifying the problems of education and the key factors in improving it. It was back in 2001 that President George W. Bush decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” as he teamed with Senator Ted Kennedy on the No Child Left Behind Act which, among other things, promoted high standards for all kids measured through yearly standardized testing. The law also promised all students would achieve at grade level by 2014. And it was in 2009 that President Obama declared “It’s time to expect more from our kids.” But what do people really mean when they say rigor?
It was, as we sat in a meeting discussing student achievement and being responsive to our students' needs, that David first questioned the idea of rigor. A veteran teacher who was a tireless advocate for all kids, he told us, “I just don’t feel good about this idea of rigor.” He’d been listening to discussions of maintaining or increasing rigor in our schools and how any innovation must not compromise our rigor. So, David actually looked up the definition of rigor and learned it is characterized as “demanding, difficult, and extreme conditions, also severity and strictness.” As an educator, he told us, “I find it difficult to feel good about those terms when teaching kids.” The idea of severity and strictness being the guiding principles of our educational practice just doesn’t feel right.
So, David told us he wants to replace the term rigor. Instead, he wants us to plan and teach with a focus on vigor. As an educator, I’m intrigued and excited about that idea. Vigor is characterized as effort, energy, enthusiasm, and robustness. That sounds like the kind of class I want to teach. I imagine a vigorous class would naturally have much higher levels of engagement. And if I know anything about education after nearly thirty years, it’s that an engaged student is much more likely to learn and achieve. As a parent, I know that a class taught with vigor is the type class I’d want for my own children.
Education writer Carol Jago in her book “With Rigor for All” argued for the importance of “teaching the classics to contemporary students.” Her point is that schools must not underestimate students' abilities or avoid certain material because it might be difficult. The key is engaging them in the challenge of learning complex information and skills. To a student, rigor often just means something is hard. And to parents and education critics rigor just means high expectations. In reality, true academic rigor means designing lessons that provide students with challenging but engaging material and activities which actually support them in achieving those high standards and encouraging them to persist even when the work is hard.
Far too often, teachers feel pressure to make sure their class is hard enough. This pressure may be internal, coming from a need to justify the time and effort kids put in to earn the grade. It can also be external, coming from people who associate school with lots of homework or perhaps the media who simply focus on test scores and international comparisons. In reality, the difficulty of a class is not the appropriate way to gauge its value. Ultimately, it’s all about the learning which comes from the students’ engagement with the class. And a class taught with vigor, not rigor, sounds like a pretty good place to start.
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
Lynch has been living what he calls a “farmer’s life” during the pandemic. “This morning, I woke up at around [long pause] 3:04 a.m.,” he told me. “Then I have my coffee and take a few smokes out on the deck” before meditating, shooting a daily weather report that he posts on YouTube, and moving on to whatever else the workday holds. Sometimes it’s painting or sculpture; other times it’s intentional daydreaming, when he allows his mind to cast about for ideas (“like fishing, I always say”). Occasionally, he designs contraptions, like a urinal that swings out from underneath the sink in his studio. Some of these activities are demonstrated in another, irregular video series he does called “What Is David Working On?” The only people he currently interacts with in person are his wife, Emily Stofle, their eight-year-old daughter, his personal assistant, and his three adult children. Though rumors persist of there being a Lynch television project in the works, he told me that—for now—production work of any kind for him is on indefinite hold. He’s open to the idea of getting back into directing when it makes sense: “I would never say no to anything if I fell in love with the material.”
Tuesday, August 17, 2021
Monday, August 16, 2021
While the term young adulthood has been around since the early nineteenth century, the term YA to designate a specific genre of literature is a relatively recent innovation. While many authors over the past two hundred years wrote about and even toward the age of adolescence, it was really the 1980s that the genre came into its own. Iconic writers such as Beverly Clearly, Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and Cris Crutcher played a key role in the market. And, granted, while some books such as Salinger's Catcher in the Rye or Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird weren't written with a teen audience in mind, they certainly grabbed the attention of young people by offering authentic narratives
And now, because we have an obsession with lists and rankings, Time Magazine has published a list of The Best 100 YA Novels of All Time. And like all lists, it's a bit problematic.
Obviously, any lists or claims about works being "the best of all time" will always generate disagreement and about what is on or not on the list. Such judgments are always subjective. However, my primary problem with Time's list is that nearly forty of the one hundred works were written in the past five years. That is, quite frankly, ridiculous, and it really casts doubt on the credibility and the agenda of the panelists who made the list, two of whom have their own books on the list. I mean, I'm sorry to counter, but there is simply not enough time to truly gauge these works. Sure, they are timely and significant in the zeitgeist. But to be the best of "all time," you really have to stand the test of time.
And, let's be clear: any best of list for YA literature that does not include a single work from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is egregiously remiss. Rowling's story of the young wizard with the lightening scar on his forehead is undoubtedly one of the largest and most significant publishing events in the history of written English. To exclude these works would seem to be not an oversight or simple preference but instead a political statement, and a rather disappointing one at that. And, truly, the work The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton is a YA novel that is almost as timeless and significant as Salinger's story of Holden Caufield or Golding's description of the battle between Ralph and Jack. In fact, many writers and critics believe that Hinton's first novel, published when she was just eighteen, can be considered the book which launched the contemporary age of YA fiction. To exclude this work from a "best of" list is aloof at best.
So, while I am a long time subscriber of Time Magazine, I have to say I am rather disappointed that this story and list ever made it past the editors.
Friday, August 13, 2021
Ted Lasso. Man—what an unlikely story. The character was initially dreamed up to serve a very different purpose. Sudeikis first played him in 2013, in a promo for NBC, which had recently acquired the television rights to the Premier League and was trying to inspire American interest in English football. The promo was the length and shape of an SNL sketch and featured a straightforward conceit: A hayseed football (our football) coach is hired as the football (their football) coach of a beloved English club, to teach a game he neither knows nor understands in a place he neither knows nor understands. The joke was simple and boiled down to the central fact that Ted Lasso was an amiable buffoon in short shorts.
But Sudeikis tries to listen to the universe, even in unlikely circumstances, and for whatever reason the character stuck around in his head. So, in time, Sudeikis developed and pitched a series with the same setup—Ted, in England, far from his family, a stranger in a strange land learning a strange game—that Apple eventually bought. But when we next saw Ted Lasso, he had changed. He wasn't loud or obnoxious anymore; he was simply…human. He was a man in the midst of a divorce who missed his son in America. The new version of Ted Lasso was still funny, but now in an earned kind of way, where the jokes he told and the jokes made at his expense spoke to the quality of the man. He had become an encourager, someone who thrills to the talents and dreams of others. He was still ignorant at times, but now he was curious too.
Thursday, August 12, 2021
I was recently asked to articulate my "teaching philosophy," something I have thought about often and had formally crafted years ago. Now, nearly thirty years into my career, I have continuously revised and updated my views, and as summer winds down, and we all prepare to return to the classroom, I thought it was worth writing about.
In my column I’ve shared this story before, but it’s worth repeating because it is the foundation of my beliefs about teaching. When my high school age daughter was very young, one of the first full sentences I recall her saying is “My dad teaches students how to read and how to write.” What I loved most, other than the sing-songy rhythm with which she recited it, was her use of the transitive verb, or more specifically the direct object: My dad teaches children. She didn’t say he teaches English or grammar or any curriculum-related words. She focused on the children. I teach children. I’ve always loved the directness of her description. In being a responsive educator, I don’t teach English or math or science or social studies – I teach students.
The essence of my instruction is an emphasis on cultivating the arts of reading, writing, and thinking. That singular focus on teaching the craft and the beauty of the English language has been my calling from my earliest days teaching language classes in Taiwan to my time in a middle school in Chicago where nearly half of my students spoke Spanish in their homes to my current position teaching AP English at one of the top high schools in the country.
If I aligned my teaching philosophy with two literary works, they would be Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “I Am Waiting” and Kenneth Burke’s passage “The Parlor Metaphor.” Each of these works are featured as introductory lessons in my various classes to set the tone for the year. The key reference in Ferlinghetti’s piece which informs my instruction is his hope for “a renaissance of wonder.” A sense of wonder and inquiry and curiosity is what I hope to evoke and engage in my students with each lesson in every class. From Burke I draw upon his reference to the unending conversation which exists in the relationship between writer, subject, and reader. The work on the page preceded us and will outlive us, but as students, we have a conversation with the text, hoping to glean understanding. Because the works we study can be so vast in scope, I guide my students to become what Henry James called “a person on whom nothing is lost.” Regardless of the subject, context, time period, or purpose, my students will hopefully learn to engage with the works as part of their education.
From the Sage on the Stage to the Guide on the Side, from the classical instructor to the learner facilitator, from direct instruction and rote memorization to child-centered learning and Socratic seminars, the education world has seen numerous models and philosophies in teaching, and over the past thirty years I have learned, practiced, and incorporated most of them in my teaching. Regardless of the lesson and my chosen approach, however, the goal of student engagement and growth remains the key and the non-negotiable factor. In my focus on teaching kids rather than content, my intent is always to be a responsive educator. In that regard, I aim to focus on the specific abilities, needs, and goals of the unique students in the classroom at the time and to be fully present for them. Obviously the content and curriculum also guide my approach to the lessons and the students, but the philosophy of responsiveness and engagement remains the same.
The point of education is to gain knowledge and understanding of content which is not already natural and familiar to the students. Thus, I must understand and respond to my students’ backgrounds, interests, and needs. The one thing I truly love to do is to teach students how to read and how to write. Additionally, one of my greatest gifts is that of editor, a talent I inherited from my mom, a newspaper editor and feature writer. So, whether I am introducing young writers to rhetorical analysis and argumentation or helping upperclassmen craft and develop college application essays, I am happiest and most successful in helping students develop their facility with the craft of language.
Wednesday, August 11, 2021
I'm excited to see Respect, the new film biography of the life of Aretha Franklin.
I'm not sure what it is about the musician bio-pics that so fascinates us, but over the past few years we've seen a great run with these dramatic portrayals of iconic musical acts. And every time a new trailer is released, and it uses those familiar songs to jog our memories and spark our interest, I'm all in. The last two that grabbed me were Rocketman, the life and times of Sir Elton John, and Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of Queen and its epic frontman Freddie Mercury. Granted, these films are not documentaries, and viewers should always be aware of how the dramatization will play with the facts and the timelines for effect. The films are, for sure, works of musical art unto themselves. And, perhaps for that reason, some of our singers and musicians want no part of this genre.
But for those who do consent to the story, there will always be an avid fan base.
Tuesday, August 10, 2021
I like Mike Rowe. I really do, and I have deep respect for his work.
That's why I am so disappointed and have a hard time with the ambivalent neutrality that he took on his show this week when asked about the COVID vaccine.
Mike Rowe is a television host, writer, and podcaster who rose to fame as the narrator and "weekly apprentice" on the Discovery Channel's show "Dirty Jobs," and later on the show "Deadliest Catch." While those shows were incredibly popular, engaging, and informative, they were ultimately cancelled, but not before Rowe had developed his schtick for being the advocate and voice for skilled labor and working class people, especially at a time when the country was on its ill-advised "everyone-go-to-college" kick. I was an occasional fan of his shows, but I really came to appreciate Rowe via his now legendary TED Talk about sheep ranching. Rowe has since gone on to develop a web platform and partnerships to promote skilled labor and importantly career and technical education.
Mike Rowe is doing a lot a great things. And that's why the harm of his neutrality is so problematic.
Basically, when asked on his show why he -- who is fully vaccinated against COVID -- won't encourage his listeners and fans to "get the shot," Rowe just copped out and said he's "not a doctor ... and not inclined to dispense medical advice to people on his platform." While that is an attempt to be diplomatic and non-controversial, Rowe is basically pandering to his audience when he knows better. There is nothing wrong with extolling the value and benefit of vaccines, especially at this time, and Mike is certainly smart enough, educated enough, and philosophical enough to know that.
Sad to hear this about you, Mike. I still really like you, and support the work your doing. But you know what they say about people who remain neutral in times of crisis.
Monday, August 9, 2021
Sunday, August 8, 2021
As the 2019 Emmy Awards approached, Marty Byrde and I were anxious. He was wondering just how powerful and cunningly cold his wife Wendy really is after she decides they’re not running and will stay in Missouri as Ozark heads into season three. And, I wondered if viewers and critics would wake up to the brilliance of Jason Bateman’s controlled, calculating portrayal of the anti-hero and the potential for Ozark to break new ground in the act of breaking bad. Batemen’s performance as Marty Byrde in the anti-hero archetype had the potential to move beyond the most memorable predecessors including Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and especially Walter White. Sadly, we only get one more season to learn just how far this unassuming Chicago accountant will go. Alas, back in the Emmy season of 2019 two things were certain: Ozark would be once again overlooked by too many viewers and the awards ceremonies, and the third season would be even more mind blowing than the second. So now that the producers have announced the fourth season as the last for the Byrde clan in southern Missouri, and now that the 2020 Emmy awards have come and gone with little recognition for Ozark, outside of the much deserved Best Actress nod for Julie Garner’s portrayal of Ruth, I want to share a few thoughts on what is so brilliant about this show.
The comparisons to Breaking Bad are inevitable and appropriate, and Granted, some critics argue Ozark is simply re-treading ground in an uninteresting way. Astute critics would note that Marty Byrde is a superior anti-hero if only because Walter White never really was one. When did Marty break bad? Or has he yet? The brilliance is that after three seasons, we still can’t be certain just who this guy is. Bateman plays the role of Marty Bird with such precision and control that viewers simply never know what he is thinking. It’s a complicated point. In psychological discussions of the banality of evil, the Columbine killers offer an important dichotomy: one was a true sociopath, the other a depressed and vulnerable kid who was manipulated into committing unspeakable evil. While the prison and the shock studies described in the article may have falsely implied that anyone can become evil, the difference is that the participants weren’t inclined toward evil until the situation presented itself … and afterwards they did not pursue the inflicting of pain. But the truly evil would keep doing it regardless. Eric Harris was always going to hurt people; Dylan Klebold may never have had he not met Harris. Thus, in comparing two recent portrayals of criminal anti-heroes, I will assert this: Walter White was always going to hurt people; Marty Bird could just have easily lived a milquetoast life of a suburban accountant. That’s what makes him an anti-hero. However, other viewers are attuned to just how deftly Bateman and the writers have reimagined the anti-hero trope, presenting Marty’s heroic qualities in a twist on the descent into evil. In fact, Marty Byrde is perhaps the purest of the anti-heroes for his actions always seem reactive yet prescient in an accidental way.
In Chuck Klosterman’s book of essays X: a Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the 21st Century, he makes an informed argument for the greatness of Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of the anti-hero in Walter White. The conceit of that show and the praise showered upon it was found in the title -- viewers were fascinated by how a seemingly good man, a teacher even, could so incredibly and viciously “break bad.” For Klosterman the brilliance was how the evil resulted from a choice, a point at which he decided to become bad, despite his partner and former student’s contemptuous assurances that “you can’t just break bad.” In reality, over the seasons, we realized Jessie was correct while Chuck Klosterman (and far too many other writers) is wrong. Walter White didn’t break bad because he was always evil, or at least a real ass. And unlike anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, there was simply nothing likeable about him. While Breaking Bad was undoubtedly a compelling show about a man giving in to the dark side that lived within him, Walter White was always more of a villain than an anti-hero. But Marty Byrde? Now, that is an incredibly intriguing and complex character for whom the distinction still isn’t clear. That’s the brilliance of Ozark that takes it far beyond anything Breaking Bad accomplished, other than being a popular and well-produced show.
And, in looking at portrayals of evil and ideas of the anti-hero, I haven’t even begun to unpack the incredibly complex and superbly acted female roles. How easy it is, still, for society to overlook the women. At least for Ozark Julie Garner’s role is valued and acknowledged. And as a character, Ruth is another anti-hero in the way Jesse was on Breaking Bad. Different circumstances create a different situation, and the willingness of Ozark’s writers and producers to try anything is another layer of the show’s brilliance. The hillbillies are a more complex trope than we might imagine or give credit for. It’s worth noting the portrayals of violence and their intentions. Jacob Snell was not truly evil, though he’d do horrible things to survive. His wife Darlene, by contrast, is not only truly evil but also down right batshit crazy.
And, of course, if we’re going to look into female characters as anti-heroes and villains, then we must note how Wendy is a far more compelling character than Skyler, Carmela, or Betty could ever have been in their respective shows. As Ozark seems intent on flipping the narrative in a twisted moment of gender equity, Wendy may be the most sinister of characters, especially now that we know how far she might go to protect the family. Her background as a potential political operative in Chicago indicates a moral vacuousness that an accountant like Marty could never have. The power, cunning, and will of Helen, Wendy, Ruth, and even Darlene are additional layers of complexity that go far beyond so many other shows. Laura Linney’s performance is, like Bateman, sadly under-appreciated, and the writing has given her great vehicle as she has risen to Lady Macbeth status in the role of powerful women -- the question becomes will she fall into madness. Or is she already there? Marty is truly an anti-hero, whereas Wendy may be just downright ruthless. If that’s the case, then future seasons of Ozark may find Marty with an even more serious threat than the FBI, the Snells, or the Cartell. It may be his own wife.
Sadly, we only have one more season to find out. And even after I appreciate the brilliant and sure to be stunning conclusion of the series, I will look forward to the Emmys in 2021 with hope that the show will finally garner the full appreciation it deserves.
Saturday, August 7, 2021
I posted recently about soccer and some potential changes to the games, at least for Americans. That piece was a much longer article originally crafted around the time of the 2014 World Cup. I've recently revised and edited the piece for my column in The Villager. Here's the new version:America will probably never love soccer the way the rest of the world does. Now that the Euro Cup is over, and once the Olympics begin to fade in our memories, most Americans will go back to basically ignoring futbol until the 2022 World Cup sparks interest again. Americans develop regular crushes on the “Beautiful Game” during events like the Euro Cup, the World Cup, and the Olympics. However, while thousands of American fans watch the early games, interest tends to wane once the national team is eliminated. In a country with so many different forms of entertainment, soccer will simply never be the favorite sport.
That said, soccer has made incredible strides in popularity since I first laced up my cleats in the mid-1970s. The early days of American soccer held great promise when international phenom Pele played in the now defunct North American Soccer League. Many young soccer players and fans of the show “Soccer Made in Germany” waited for soccer’s popularity to spread. Yet, after Pele’s career, national interest cratered. In the past twenty years, however, the sport has finally come into its own, and Major League Soccer is by some metrics as popular as the NHL. Of course, more American kids play soccer than any other sport. The problem is that only a small percentage of those youth soccer players stick with the game or become soccer fans into adulthood.
Of the many reasons Americans have never taken to the game en masse, some aspects of soccer simply inhibit widespread spectator interest in the United States. It’s not simply, as many non-fans argue, that soccer is boring or low scoring. There is arguably more continuous action in a soccer game than either football or baseball, and many Americans enjoy watching slow-paced games like golf. Baseball fans are as excited about a pitchers’ duel leading to a shutout, no-hitter, or perfect game as they are in a game that resembles the Home Run Derby. Thus, as a former futbol player and long-time fan, I’ve considered some ways the sport might appeal to a broader audience. Here are a few simple changes that could alter America's feelings about soccer:
No off-sides penalty: Off-sides is the most useless penalty in soccer, and it’s a primary reason games are low scoring and boring to non-aficionados of soccer. Watching goals waved off because of this frivolous rule is truly disheartening. Ending off-sides would lead to many more goals, not to mention exciting breakaways and one-on-one match-ups with the goalkeeper. Removing the off-sides threat would also require much more strategy on the part of defenses and coaches.
Injury Box: There is nothing more annoying to soccer fans than “flopping” as players writhe on the ground after supposedly being injured from phantom fouls. It’s become such a part of the culture that players will even give up an opportunity to advance the ball simply to “take a dive” in hopes of a penalty shot. Thus, if a player goes down with an injury and stays down long enough for a stoppage in play, he should be forced to leave the field – and be subbed for – for a period of five minutes. The “injury box” would allow for better evaluation of players with potential concussions and serious injuries. In fact, it would mandate prudent medical practice. Players would never risk five minutes off the field just to “flop” in hopes of a penalty kick. Referees could also stop play and send a player to the box to avoid injured players from worsening a true injury.
Continuous Subbing: Soccer’s limit on substitution – a total of three in a full professional game – is another useless rule that doesn’t enhance the game. It’s not conducive with the game so many kids grow up playing where substitutions are quite regular. Intentionally tiring players out is boring and does nothing to elevate the quality of the game being played. Soccer needs regularly fresh players like hockey to keep the action at a higher level. Frequent subbing would lead to greater emphasis on strategy from coaches, and it would increase the energy “on the pitch.”
Of course, soccer doesn’t really need to change, and I tend to be a traditionalist and opposed to most changes in sports. Yet, sports and organizations tend to evolve with the times, and if a few rules tweaks could bring more excitement and fans, I could be convinced.
Friday, August 6, 2021
When I was growing up and playing little league baseball, my dad used to say, "The only difference between a major league ballplayer and a triple-A player is right here," pointing to his gut, "and all in here," tapping his temple on the side of his head. The mental game is a huge aspect of sport, and that is nowhere more true than at the highest levels where the competition and the pressure is beyond intense.
At this year's Olympics, sports fans have been introduced to a new bit jargon in reference to Simone Biles' withdrawal from the team competition. She was suffering from "the twistees." Basically, she is experiencing an inability to find herself in the air while doing the twists and flips integral to gymnastics routines. While this seems sort of abstract, it's easier to understand for anyone who has ever done a flip, a gainer, or a one-and-a-half from a diving board. Now imagine multiplying that weird displaced feeling by about a hundred.
The twistees are also not hard to understand for baseball fans, for the stories about "the yips" are legendary on the diamond, as are the sad stories of careers derailed by psychological struggles on the field. Of course, while a pitcher facing the yips is a heartbreaking situation, it's nothing like a gymnast with the twistees. One is sad and frustrating, the other could be incredibly dangerous. Losing your sense of spatial orientation while flipping eight feet in the air risks serious injury or even paralysis and death. And, it's simply not something an athlete can just "tough it out" or "get over it." We are long past the days where we shrug off the mental health burdens that come with athletics.
Thursday, August 5, 2021
My dad was a walker and a talker. For decades, he and his friend Tom walked our subdivision each morning. They kept an active pace in both their steps and their conversations, and they’d often wake the neighborhood as they chatted and argued about everything on their minds from family stuff and local news to international business and politics. A conservative Roman Catholic Republican sparring with a liberal Protestant Democrat, they never resolved much of anything, but both men knew they were better off for the walk and the talk.
I’ve thought of them often over the years as I’ve picked up the habit of walking various routes near my home. Beginning last February, the pandemic and quarantine led many people to begin strolling their neighborhoods and seeing their communities in new ways for the first time. The numerous paseos and pathways throughout neighborhoods in southeast Denver allow great views, not only of open space and the natural world, but also cozy front porches and comfortable back patios. Yet, many of the walkers also notice something else. The porches and patios are all empty. Where are all the people?
In 2000, political science professor Robert Puntman published a book called Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. His research exposed the changing nature of American communities at the turn of the millennium that were, sadly, no longer communities. They were just a collection of houses. Over the past fifty years, America has seen a noticeable and documented reduction in nearly all forms of in-person social interaction and discourse. Putnam believes that the loss of the human connection -- the kind which comes from neighbors walking together and meeting on front porches -- undermines and weakens the necessary personal engagement that is fundamental to a democratic republic. The current political climate in the United States seems to validate his concerns.
When I was growing up in southern Illinois just outside of St. Louis, my subdivision was a cross-section of our community. In the houses on the street where I lived with my journalist mother and personnel director father, we had two doctors, two engineers, a police officer, a university administrator, some teachers, a phone company worker, small business owners, contractors, carpenters, and numerous skilled laborers including factory workers. All lived in the same subdivision of roughly two-thousand square foot houses. Their kids all swam in the same community pool, attended the same local schools, and played numerous sports in the same rec leagues. Their parents were in community organizations like Rotary together, and they participated in the same PTCO.
I grew up attending regular, sometimes weekly, porch parties at my grandmother’s house, where the adults sat and chatted while listening to Cardinals games on the radio, as the kids ran around the neighborhood, catching lightning bugs as the evening settled in. I recall hours of sitting on our front porch in the summer, looking to the southwest as Mississippi River Valley thunderstorms moved in. Watching the lightning, listening to thunder, we’d occasionally have some neighbors join us on the porch if they were on our street when the skies unleashed a gully washer. The front porch offered refuge from the storm in more ways than simple shelter.
Granted, these memories are viewed through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. Clearly that type of living arrangement is long gone and never coming back. Yet the loss of interconnectedness is unhealthy for any society. The social fabric that connected people to each other for so many centuries is fading in contemporary America. While critics and pundits talk about the spectre of socialism or facism, the real crisis in America slips by unnoticed as few people know their neighbors anymore.
When Alexis de Tocqueville explored the magic of America, he coined a phrase social capital to describe the civic engagement that was the essence of community. When we don’t know our neighbors, and when our neighbors are only people who have the same lived experience, something important is lost. In 2020 Robert Putnam and Shaylen Romney Garrett published a second book called The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago, and How We Can Do it Again. Perhaps one way we could come together is to be out on our front porches again, connecting with neighbors and building communities.
My porch is small, but my wife and I are out there often, and all are always welcome to stop and sit for a chat.
Wednesday, August 4, 2021
The problem with paywalls is the all or nothing access points. As a resident of Denver, I subscribe yearly to the Denver Post, The Villager, and occasionally 5280 Magazine where I receive the bulk of my news. However, I am a regular reader of numerous national and international news sources like the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian.
Sometimes a friends posts or emails an article I would like to read, such as a column from Jason Gay of the WSJ. And while I really want to read the article and might even be willing to pay for it, that doesn’t mean I want or need a $200 yearly subscription to a publication that I don’t read daily. That said, I’d be happy to pay $.50 - $2.00 for articles, or for a package of 10. The Guardian has a model that I like and respect for its flexibility and concept of individual contributions. Once or twice a year, I will send ten or twenty dollars to The Guardian because I value the content I read there.
Many bloggers and freelance sites offer that voluntary payment as a way of offsetting the costs of production -- Wikipedia and Maria Popova’s Brainpickings are a couple of good examples of the patronage concept. Additionally, currently news magazines and newspapers should be developing apps and web delivery software that inhibits media sites like Facebook from connecting with their content without delivery some sort of ad revenue sharing agreement
Tuesday, August 3, 2021
As a novice art fan and beginning artist, I can't believe I had never heard of Corita Kent and her book with Jan Steward Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit. But until I ran across a tweet and blog post from writer and ideas curator Austin Kleon, I just didn't know a thing about this incredible woman, art teacher, and artist. As an educator, I am constantly thinking about my practice and how I engage students in learning, and I like to incorporate ideas of art and views of artists in lessons when I can. So, I am currently reading Learning By Heart in preparation for the new year. And it's making me want to both teach English and create art with a renewed passion.
For both educators and artists, Sister Mary Corita is a subject worth learning more about. Corita was an innovative teacher and artist at the historic Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, where she taught art and pushed students to challenge themselves personally and artistically. In the stories I've heard, her true gift is her legacy in creating a new generation of art teachers through her unique approach to art and education. We could all benefit from the wisdom and guidance of Sister Mary.
Monday, August 2, 2021
When the summer heat arrives in Denver, it's time to head to the High Country, and the Resort at Keystone is the perfect way to ride out July. Located right along the Snake River and offering easy access to all the best that Summit County has to offer, Keystone Resort has provided our family with a nearly perfect, relaxing summer holiday for years. It is our happy place, and the year would not be complete without our time spent there. For lodging we prefer to stay in a beautiful condo near Keystone Lake at the Keystone Lodge and Spa. This location provides us all the access and amenities we need. The Lodge and Spa provides a huge outdoor, heated pool and two hot tubs that provide endless hours of relaxing fun. Whether we're swimming laps or playing beach ball baseball or simply lounging around with the pool noodles, the spa is a perfectly relaxing scene surrounded by great mountain views. We go back and forth between the pool, the two hot tubs, the scented steam, and the dry sauna, and we always finish the day showering in the large locker room before heading out for a walk around town, if not out to dinner.
The Keystone Lodge and Spa is directly along the Snake River which provides immediate and easy access to fishing or simply sitting in the shallows watching the water roll by on its way to Lake Dillon. There is plenty of action for fly fishers up and down the river - and even a novice like me can pull out the occasional rainbow trout with a rod and reel. The river is bordered by a beautiful biking and walking trail that heads up to River Run or all the way down to Dillion. You could even head up and over Swan Mountain Road and into Breckenridge or Frisco. A great way to spend the evening - after a day on the river or at the pool - is to stroll over to Keystone Lake for dinner at Pizza on the Plaza. The kids will enjoy feeding the plentiful fish and ducks at the lake, or even taking a quick spin on the paddleboats. It's only bested by the calzones - which are certainly worth staying for dinner. - make sure to ask for a slice of orange. Basking on the plaza and watching the sun go down over the beautiful Keystone Valley is the perfect end to a perfect mountain day.
For other great recreational opportunities, consider scheduling some hikes such as the easy and accessible climbs on the Tenderfoot Trail or up to Lily Pad Lake. These hikes are doable for even families with young kids, and the views are truly breathtaking. On Fridays, it's worth taking a free gondola ride up to Keystone Summit - though prepare to stay a while if the summer monsoon storms move in. Nothing like enjoying a beverage while watching the fire on the mountain. Fridays offer live music and plenty of lawn games, and it's always fun watching the hard-core mountain bikers take off down through Keystone's bike park adventure. One of these days I will challenge myself on one of the green runs - and anyone can ride down on the dirt roads that wind around the mountain. Of course, simply strolling around the resort on the trails is great fun as well. The views of the valley are worth the time - and my time in Keystone is literally my most relaxing week of the year.
The Keystone Lodge and Spa is also a popular place for conferences, and we see plenty of people on working vacations each year. I know if I had to attend a conference in the middle of the summer, Keystone Conference Center is one place I'd like to do it.
Sunday, August 1, 2021
All my life I’ve been a novice of many things -- at this point, I’m kind of like a master novice.