Monday, September 27, 2021

AOC's Met Gala dress & poetic irony

$30,000 ticket, check. $275,000 table, check. $3000 dress, check. Attending one of the most lavish celebrations of the wealthiest global elites and wearing a dress that says "Tax the Rich" — priceless.

By now you've probably heard the buzz and seen the pics of Representative Alexandra Ortiz-Cortez (NY) at the Met Gala. While AOC, as she is commonly known, impressed and entertained some people with her dress and political statement, others saw the move as glib and crass. In my view, both sides are taking the image and the action too seriously and probably missing the point. 

The "Tax the Rich" dress at the Met Gala was nothing short of hilarious, ironic, and amusing. It was a perfectly crisp and apt moment in a world that has become all too absurd in its one-sided seriousness. The great satirists from Mark Twain to H.L. Mencken are, in my opinion, looking down and nodding in sardonic approval. And, while I don't often agree with Rep. Ortiz-Cortez, and while I often find myself rolling my eyes at her public statements, I really enjoyed this moment.

Wear that dress, girl. Flaunt it. And to quote the inimitable Robin Williams, "Joke 'em if they can't take a ____."

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Whimsical Vicissitudes of Writing Poetry

The cursor is winking at me,
daring me to start.
So, this is it,
and here I go.
Poems will come,
or they will go.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Bigger Isn’t Better for School Districts

This week's column for The Villager:

In Illinois where I grew up, single high school districts are the norm rather than the exception. While Chicago Public Schools is a massive organization with thousands of schools, areas outside the nation’s third largest city are organized into smaller, more manageable units. Generally several elementary schools feed into a few middle schools which transition to one high school. That model is common practice throughout the Midwest, and it’s standard for much of rural Colorado. In urban and suburban areas, however, school districts often contain numerous high schools with dozens of feeders, and that can negatively impact student achievement.

The Denver metro area contains several huge school districts, both in neighborhoods and numbers of students. The Cherry Creek School District educates nearly fifty-five thousand students. Douglas County serves a student population of sixty-three thousand. Both JeffCo and Denver Public schools handle roughly eighty thousand kids apiece. These large districts also cover massive areas over hundreds of square miles. Large systems are rarely the most efficient ones, and it’s not unreasonable to believe a school district of two high schools with no more than fifteen elementary schools feeding into three or four middle schools is as large as any centralized education system should be.

Granted, large schools are not necessarily problems unto themselves. Some of the best schools in the country, from Cherry Creek in Greenwood Village to Lane Tech in Chicago, provide high level comprehensive education to student bodies as large as four thousand students. And while at one time, education advocacy groups like the Gates Foundation tried to break up large schools, few people promote that idea anymore. In fact, Bill Gates once pushed for smaller schools only to later concede he was wrong to pursue that goal. In schools, however, the personnel are directly connected to the students. By contrast at the district level, the larger the system, the more removed the decision-making is from the clientele.

Thus, the issue of large districts being less than adequately responsive to all their students remains a problem. Most teachers and parents acknowledge the problems of centralization in which pivotal educational decisions are made by people far removed from the classrooms and the children they serve. That is certainly the problem with state education departments. Colorado witnessed that challenge first hand in the past decade with initiatives like Common Core and mandates like state standardized testing. The powers that be in central offices often have little personal knowledge of or connection to the children in the classrooms. In a field where nothing is more important than relationships, the distance can be a significant problem. That disconnect affects students on all issues ranging from curriculum and instruction to simple transportation.

In Colorado where weather patterns can vary widely from region to region, town to town, even neighborhood to neighborhood, the existence of huge school districts creates disparity in making the best decision for all kids. For example, in determining whether to call a snow day or delayed start, superintendents must gauge weather and road conditions. In large Front Range districts, neighborhoods on one side may have deep snow, unplowed roads, and blizzard-like winds while neighborhoods on the other side see calm conditions with a simple dusting. Because of centralized transportation systems, districts must make an all-or-nothing call, and that inadequately serves half the students and families. Cancelling school for no clear reason or sending families and buses onto roads in dangerous conditions is a lose-lose decision for school leaders. And district offices receive plenty of complaints from both sides.

Local control is the essence of public education in the United States. That philosophy is the foundation of school boards and the reason the country at large opposes a national curriculum or federalized education system. Thus, large complex bureaucratic systems that are far removed from the neighborhoods and people they serve runs contradictory to the very nature of education, local control, and responsiveness. It may take a village to raise a child, but sixty thousand people hardly seems like a village.

Following the completion of the 2020 Census, the state of Colorado is redrawing the lines of congressional districts. For Colorado and others states that gained representation, that means smaller districts which are hopefully more responsive to the people. Perhaps the next step is to scrutinize the size and boundary lines of school districts and break them up into smaller, more authentic, and more responsive units which can more effectively understand and serve the needs of their students and families.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

What Now?

Anne Patchett, writer and bookstore owner, used her commencement speaker gig at Sara Lawrence College in 2006 to ask the important question for college grads, and really, for everyone at a moment of transition:  What now?

The speech was so well received that Patchett eventually released a book-length version of her ideas about what comes next when we stand at those conclusions, those transitions, those crossroads. The reflective nature of Patchett's work is readable and relevant for most anyone, and I found myself nodding in understanding as she shared her realization that ... I didn't become a writer until I worked at TGIFridays.  

Holding a bachelor's of English and an MFA, Patchett speaks honestly and candidly about how, of all her journeys and classes and courses of study, ... none of them taught me the most important thing: how to be alone, how to stare ... I learned as much from waitressing as I did from teaching. I really appreciated Patchett's thoughtful reflection and insight, having long felt that the best education I ever received was the years I spent waiting tables in an Italian restaurant.

If you're interested in a few more details of the speech and book, Maria Popova at Brainpickings also has a post with some selections from Patchett's book-length version of her speech.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Way We Were before September changed it all

This week's column for The Villager"

"Turn on your television ... a plane just hit the World Trade Center in New York."

I can't even imagine how many times those words were uttered twenty years ago, but like nearly everyone of age at the time, I can tell you exactly where I was the moment I learned. And I know almost every moment of that day and the mournful, hollow, existential days that followed. The approach and passing of September 11, 2021 brought much discussion and contemplation of that fateful day two decades past. But what about the "carefree" summer months leading up to that horrific moment? Who were we before the towers fell?

This past weekend in the Washington Post, Dan Zak and Ellen McCarthy put together a powerful piece of reflection that is both beautifully written and hauntingly thoughtful in its look back twenty years plus to the Summer of 2001, “The Summer Before 9/11.” Zak and McCarthy remind us how those summer days were “Freewheeling. Foreboding. Then came the Fall.” And as I read their retrospective piece, I thought deeply about the way we were, how it was, what it’s like now, and where we go next.

During the summer of 2001, Shrek and the Fast and the Furious premiered at the box office, and both films would go on to become huge film franchises. Many of us probably spent a fair amount of time in cool movie theaters because June and July were real scorchers across much of the country. Songs like Train’s "Drops of Jupiter" and “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child were playing on the radio because at that time there was no Pandora, no Spotify, and no YouTube to stream the music. However, music lovers would soon be able to listen to those songs and others on their new iPods, which premiered just a few weeks after the world fell apart.

If you were at the beach that summer, you might have been reading Jonathan Franzen’s huge bestseller, The Corrections. Later in the year, you’d spend time talking about the Oprah controversy when Franzen dissed her book club. Other popular reads were Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and David McCullough's John Adams, though you might not have taken them to the beach after Time Magazine declared 2001 “The summer of the Shark.” In the news we read about the tech bubble bursting and how, despite a trillion dollar tax cut, the economy was mostly treading water that summer.

In the summer of 2001, I was teaching high school English in southern Illinois, just outside St. Louis, while finishing up my master’s degree in English Language and Literature. I was beginning to think about Ph.D programs, as I spent a fair amount of time researching and writing in the air conditioned graduate library of Washington University, St. Louis. My wife, also a teacher, was pregnant with our first child; our son would be born six months after the planes hit the towers. I know now how we wondered what kind of world our children would inherit.

In many ways September 11, 2001, is a pivotal event. However, in the aftermath of twenty years, it’s clear the date also became an entire era, the post-9/11 world. And if that is accurate, then it’s worth considering what the previous era was. Was it just one day or is it an entire mindset? Did the moment change the world? If so, then what was it like before? What did we lose and also what did we gain? And what has changed that doesn’t fit smoothly into the gain-loss columns. While the country did not feel quite as divisive then as it does now, we were in the early days of the most contested presidency in a hundred years. And to be perfectly honest, the partisan bickery had been stewing since at least 1994. So, all was not necessarily well and good in the days before the fall of the towers. But then again, it never really is.

In a beautiful remembrance at the Flight 93 memorial last weekend, former President George W Bush noted, as so many have, that the fateful September morning twenty years ago changed everyone forever. That is undoubtedly true, and with that in mind, it’s important to note specifically who we were and how we changed.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Even the terrible things

Mary Schmich was, until her retirement this year, the metro columnist for the Chicago Tribune,

Last year she released a collection of her columns, and the title piece is one of her most well-known, as well as a poignant and timely reflection for the times in which we live. She wrote "Even the terrible things seem beautiful to me now" in 2011 around Thanksgiving after her mother shared that observation one fall.

What she was saying that day, I think, was that it's all life. The things that hurt your heart, wound your pride, drain your hope, leave you lost, confuse you to the point of madness. That's life, life with its endless, shifting sensations and its appalling urgency and its relentless drive toward mystery.

What could be better than that? What could you be more thankful for than that?

Maybe we can't see the beauty in the terrible things until we're approaching the final beauty and terror. In other words, death: the ultimate proportion gauge.

Maybe only when you take your last step back from the canvas can you see how gorgeous all those wrong strokes and smudges look when viewed together.

All of the best times in my life have grown directly out of the worst times. What feels like manure often turns out to be fertilizer.

But what I took from my mother's remark wasn't just that good may grow out of bad. It's that the bad is its own beauty.

Monday, September 13, 2021

George W Bush and the country he knows

On the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, former President George W Bush spoke at the memorial site for Flight 93 at its crash site in Pennsylvania. His words were succinct, direct, and heartfelt, and his message said so much in a rather brief reflection, the whole speech lasting just over nine minutes. Few people will ever know the incredible burden President Bush must carry for being the Commander in Chief during the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Knowing that, he used this time of reflection to share with us all, not just his honor for the people who died as heroes, but also his thoughts about "the America I know."

On America's day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor's hand and rally to the cause of one another. That is the America I know.

At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know.

At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know.

At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.

This is not mere nostalgia; it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been -- and what we can be again.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

A La Carte Journalism

Though I've written about this issue before, this week's column in The Villager is about the financial struggles of print journalism, notably daily newspapers, and my ideas on how the industry could better serve its customers while improving its service model.

In an age of struggle for print journalism, newspapers have tried to survive by implementing paywalls for access to their digital content -- and they’re doing it all wrong. That’s not surprising for an industry that is responsible for covering the news yet somehow missed realizing how drastically the rise of online advertising was going to subvert their revenue streams. It’s no doubt the print journalism world should have seen the changes coming and should have been better able to adapt.

That said, the power and influence of these news organizations was clearly subverted by the freedom given to tech companies like Google and Facebook to exploit digital advertising revenue while dispensing other companies’ news content for free. The paywall seemed to be the only counter-move for newspapers. The problem with paywalls is the all-or-nothing approach. As a resident of Denver, I subscribe to the Denver Post, The Villager, and occasionally local magazines such as 5280. These print sources are where I receive the bulk of my news, both local and national. However, I’m also a regular reader of national and international news sources like the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and the Guardian.

Sometimes a friend posts or emails an article I would like to read, such as a column from Peggy Noonan or Jason Gay in the Wall Street Journal, or a feature story from James Hamblin of The Atlantic. And while I really want to read the article and might be willing to pay for it, that doesn’t mean I want or need a $200 yearly subscription to a publication I don’t read daily. It seems odd that I could walk across the street and purchase a paper copy of the entire newspaper for $2.00, but can’t have the same convenience digitally. I can buy a print magazine for $5.00, but I can’t access a couple digital articles for the same price. That said, I’d be happy to pay $.50 - $2.00 for single articles, or a package of ten.

Some newspapers offer voluntary payment options as a way to offset production costs. For example, The Guardian has a model I like for its flexibility and concept of individual contributions. Once or twice a year, I send ten or twenty dollars to The Guardian because I value the content I read there. I don’t read that paper daily or even weekly, but I do so regularly enough that I want to support the company. Similarly, many bloggers, open source sites, and independent freelance writers offer voluntary payment models. Wikipedia and Maria Popova’s Brainpickings are a couple of good examples of the patronage concept that readers should support. In fact, nearly everyone I know uses Wikipedia at some point, and considering we appreciate and consume the product, we should all be willing to pony up a little cash to support it.

In order to better serve consumers, print journalism organizations should offer a la carte options for readers to access single articles or small blocks of content for the price of a daily paper, rather than a yearly subscription fee. Additionally, news magazines and newspapers should develop apps and web delivery software that inhibits search engines like Google and social media sites like Facebook from connecting with their content without a guarantee of some sort of ad revenue. Producers should be able to profit from and protect their content. Thus, if customers use Google to access news sites and also produce revenue from ads while doing so, Google has a market-based responsibility to pay for the content it uses, promotes, and links to. The same goes for any article posted to Facebook that in turn creates ad-based profit for the social media company.

To that end, legislation may be necessary to protect the market system for producers to make money from their content. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, sponsored by Colorado Representative Ken Buck, is an important step in preserving the freedom and viability of the press. Newspaper writers from local beat reporters to national investigative journalists work incredibly hard to provide the public with the information it needs and desires. They deserve to be compensated for their work. Thus, the industry and consumers need to work together on a better system because the Fourth Estate is an essential part of a democratic society, and it must be preserved and supported.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

No Better Time

Stadium seating in movie theaters, wheeled luggage with extendable handles, and UV-protection swim shirts -- where was this genius when I was growing up?

Seriously. Sometimes I ponder some of the modern conveniences we have, like a smartphone, and I think it's a pretty marvelous invention and certainly one that required a lot of technological development, much of which had to grow from previous achievements. Sort of the "standing on the shoulders of giants" idea. However, something as simple and obvious as stadium seating in a theater seems like such a no-brainer. And, having memories from being a child in the 1970s and literally having to view a movie through the gap between the shoulders of two adults sitting in front of me, I just wonder why it took so long to figure that out. Same thing goes for wheeled suitcases. Do you have memories of lugging awkward heavy luggage prior to the wheeled cart? Who was the genius who finally said, "Enough! I'm putting wheels and and a handle on this." Regardless, simple conveniences like that certainly make life just a bit more pleasant than even just a decade ago.

Stephen Pinker might agree with me.

The esteemed psychology professor has long noted what a wonderful time it is to be alive, despite all our grumbling and complaining. While we can certainly look nostalgically back to a time before Covid and before the War on Terror and before a 24-7 hyper-connected world and before franchising and before advanced weaponry and before ... oh, so many things, the hard data about life in the twenty-first century is that it's a mighty good time to be alive.

For a bit more insight and information on this, and for certainly a much more erudite, informed, insightful, and inspiring read, check out Pinker's book Enlightenment Now. the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, & Progress.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Wanna open a motel?

Ok, so I will admit that, like many Gen Xers who are nearing that time of life when we think about Act III, when we find a new career to help us slide into retirement, many of us consider making our vacations also our lives. So, for a generation that definitely embraced travel and the expat life, the idea of running a B&B sounds intriguing. Shows like Newhart and Gilmour Girls may have something to do with it as well. I know my wife and I have wondered whether we could host guests as a way of financing our retirement, and more specifically our next home.

But what about an old motel, the kind of which dotted the highways we travelled in the sixties and early seventies?

The New York Times has an intriguing piece today about how "Upstate Motels Make a Comeback, with an Aim to Captivate." And if I could run the spot with the beautiful pool in the article, I might just go for it. Ahh, nostalgia.

“Then there’s the whole nostalgic factor,” Ms. Berger said. There’s also influence from pop culture movies and TV shows, like “Schitt’s Creek,” the award-winning sitcom with the cult following, which featured a modest motel as its signature architectural style. “Motel Makeover,” a new reality show about revamping a rundown property, is also now streaming on Netflix.

At the end of June, the Terrace Motel in Ellenville sold for $550,000 to two couples — Victoria and Anthony Nelson, ages 32 and 38, and Jemma and Mitch Allen, both 34 — who intend to revive the dated complex with a budget of $1 million to $2 million.

The motel originally had 44 rooms. It had undergone a few renovations over the decades, including a major update in 1971, but in its formative years, the mid-century-styled compound had an Olympic-size swimming pool, an on-site restaurant, and a cocktail bar called the Terrace Room, where many locals toasted their first legal tipples.

If all goes according to plan, the motel, which sits on eight acres in Ulster County, is expected to open next summer with 20 rooms, a pool club, outdoor events and possibly a spa and sauna. By 2023, they plan to add an indoor event space and restaurant.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Way We Were ... before the September that changed it all

"Turn on your television ... a plane just hit the World Trade Center in New York."

I can't even imagine how many times those words were uttered twenty years ago, but like nearly everyone of age at the time, I can tell you exactly where I was the moment I learned. And I know almost every moment of that day and the mournful, hollow, existential days that followed. But what about the "carefree" summer months leading up to that horrific moment? 

Dan Zak and Ellen McCarthy of the Washington Post have put together a powerful piece of reflection that is beautifully written and thoughtful in its look back twenty years plus to the Summer of 2001, The Summer Before 9/11: 

The country woke up with Triple Sec and cranberry juice on its breath. Just out of reach: the scuffed brick of a Nokia phone, a bottle of pills to stoke the serotonin, two and a half pounds of more than you needed to know about President John Adams. The phone on the nightstand couldn’t read the news, so on went the television. Something about a woman in the Houston suburbs who drowned her five children in the bathtub. And that D.C. intern — another intern scandal — was still missing, and her parents were suspicious of a congressman with whom she allegedly had an affair. In Las Vegas that week, Whitney Houston accepted a BET lifetime achievement award at the ripe old age of 37.

“I’m a survivor!” she exclaimed, echoing a Destiny’s Child hook from the spring, and made a prediction: “The best is yet to come.”

Friday, September 3, 2021

A Renaissance of Wonder

"I am waiting ...

I am waiting for my case to come up

and I am waiting

for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone

to really discover America

and wail

and I am waiting

for the discovery

of a new symbolic western frontier

and I am waiting

for the American Eagle

to really spread its wings

and straighten up and fly right

and I am waiting

for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead

and I am waiting

for the war to be fought

which will make the world safe

for anarchy

and I am waiting

for the final withering away

of all governments

and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

Each fall I begin my classes with this poem from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Beat poet and owner of the iconic City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, who passed away last year at the spry age of 101. The poem is meaningful for me in the classroom because of the idea of wonder, and I love the concept of a rebirth of wonder. Our classrooms, and the process of education, should be filled with a sense of wonder and curiosity, and far too often the "grammar of schooling" inhibits and stunts that sense of wonder. I read the poem so my students and I don't forget to wonder.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Art, more Art!

Last weekend I went to an art festival and bought some art. And it made me really happy. And then I wrote about it for my latest column in The Villager:

Art, More Art!

Pablo Picasso once said every child is an artist. The challenge is to remain one once the child becomes an adult. As an educator I know all too well that fading loss of faith in our creative muse as we grow older. Ask any kindergarten class which kids are artists, and every hand will go up. Ask the same question of a high school class and chances are no one will move, even the kids who do draw, paint, sing, dance, and create regularly.

What happens to the artist in us all? Why do we stop seeing the world like an artist?

This weekend I joined thousands of people at the Affordable Arts Festival in Littleton, and it filled my soul to see so many people turning out to support, not to mention get great deals on, original art. I picked up a unique and engaging multimedia collage from Palm Springs artist Richard Curtner. Last time, I came home with two pieces from Aurora artist Stanislav Sidorov. One, an impressionist urban landscape of figures walking in the rain, and the other an abstract-expressionist piece with a color scheme I couldn’t resist. Sidorov noticed me shifting between the two, unable to decide, so he gave me a discount for both.

This weekend the Cherry Creek Arts Festival returns to Denver for the first time in two years. Front Range fans and aficionados of the arts are fortunate because Denver hosts a truly vibrant art scene. From a thriving, well-supported museum system with world class exhibits to the dozens of galleries downtown and out into the suburbs to First Fridays on the Sante Fe Art District to a seemingly endless string of art festivals and events, it is easy to get your art on in the metro area.

It’s also quite simple to immerse ourselves in the fine arts, and that extends to opportunities for rediscovering that confident kindergarten artist in us all. A couple years ago, shortly after I turned fifty, I signed up for an abstract drawing class at the Curtis Art Center. It was my first art class since elementary school. The talented, inspiring teacher Christian Dore helped me rediscover the artist’s instinct buried deep inside, and I had so much fun I immediately signed up for his abstract acrylic painting class. His teaching approach was built upon encouragement and discovery, and it seemed everything I tried was “brilliant.” Perhaps more importantly, he always talked about improving. “And this is just your first painting,” he said. “Imagine what number one hundred will look like.” Christian also introduced me to Mirada Art Gallery, where he is currently exhibited.

Sadly, while Denver-area residents have an art-rich world which seems to expand weekly, there is a distinct, intentional restricting of art experiences and opportunities in the education system. Beginning in 2001 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind act, the myopic focus on standardized test scores in reading and math has led to widespread cuts in art classes and fine arts programming. A recent study and article from the American Enterprise Institute noted that despite broad support for arts education, an increasing percentage of children are growing up in America with no exposure to the arts. This is despite broad consensus and definitive evidence that the arts positively impact the emotional and intellectual development of children and have a causal effect on higher achievement across all academic areas and student engagement.

In 2002 mathematician and math professor Paul Lockhart published an essay entitled “A Mathematician's Lament” in which he criticized our current model of math education and called for viewing and teaching mathematics in a more aesthetic and intuitive manner. In making his case for the inherent beauty and art of math, Lockhart asserts "The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such."

In the beloved movie Dead Poets Society, the humanities teacher John Keating strives to inspire a passion for the arts in the young men he teaches at a rigid boarding school. In teaching them to appreciate and even love poetry he tells them, “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

We can, of course, include art on that list.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Broken Window World

Being the "world's policemen" has been a controversial and often confusing role for the United States for nearly a century. And the idea of "broken window's policing," while seemingly logical and supported by evidence, is also a difficult conversation because of disparity and biases. Bret Stephens of the New York Times takes an interesting look at both ideas in "Broken Window's World": 

We now live in a broken-windows world. I would argue that it began a decade ago, when Barack Obama called on Americans to turn a chapter on a decade of war and “focus on nation-building here at home,” which became a theme of his re-election campaign.

It looked like a good bet at the time. Osama bin Laden had just been killed. The surge in Iraq had stabilized the country and decimated Al Qaeda there. The Taliban were on the defensive. Relations with Russia had been “reset.” China was still under the technocratic leadership of Hu Jintao. The Arab Spring, eagerly embraced by Obama as “a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” seemed to many to portend a more hopeful future for the Middle East (though some of us were less sanguine).