Monday, November 17, 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Pete the Cat.

Is He American?

There are lots of issues to talk about on this Sunday morning.  There's the mid-terms.  There's the newest challenge to Obamacare.  There's the situation in the Middle East.  There's the economy.  But I don't want to talk about any of that.

I want to talk about Pete the Cat.  Pete the Cat is the main character in two books my granddaughter Willa insists on hearing before taking a nap.  That's a good thing because they are both short.  It is also a good thing because I love their messages.  The first book, "Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons" (James Dean and Eric Litwin, Harper), tells the story of Pete and his favorite shirt with the four groovy buttons.  Pete loves his shirt so much that whenever he wears it he sings, "My buttons, my buttons, my four groovy buttons."  But his buttons don't last.  After he does his first chorus, one of the buttons pops off, leaving him with three, but does Pete get mad?  Goodness no!  He just goes on singing "My buttons, my buttons, my three groovy buttons."  Of course, the next button pops off, then the next, and the next, leaving our hapless hero  with zero buttons.  Does Pete get mad?  Goodness no!  He looks down at his buttonless shirt and his exposed stomach and what does he see?  His belly button.  He sings, "My button, my button, still have my belly button."  Mercifully, the book ends there with the closing statement:  "I guess it simply goes to show that stuff will come and stuff will go, but do we cry?  Goodness, NO!  We keep on singing, because buttons come and buttons go."

The second book, "Pete the Cat:  I Love My White Shoes", is even more controversial.  It seems Pete has a brand new set of white shoes that compel him to sing, "I love my white shoes.  I love my white shoes, I love my white shoes."  But Pete, who obviously has attention span issues, steps into a huge mound of strawberries, turning his once white shoes red.  Does that make him sad?  You can guess the answer.  "I love my red shoes.  I love my red shoes.  I love my red shoes."  From there he steps into some blueberries and then a puddle of mud.  Except for the color of the shoes, his song never changes.  Finally, he steps into some water and everything gets washed away, leaving him once again with white shoes.  BUT he discovers they are wet.  You guessed it.  "I love my wet shoes.  I love my wet shoes.  I love my wet shoes."  Sometimes when reading these books to Willa, I feel an urge to slap Pete around a little, but Willa loves singing the songs.  It's the concluding moral that provides the controversy:  "The moral of Pete's story is no matter what you step in keep walking along and singing your song, because it's all good."

I love the books.  I love the message that "it's all good."'  We first heard it read aloud at Columbine Public Library during a packed toddler class on a Thursday morning and we immediately went out and bought all the Pete the Cat books we could find (two).  Is there any doubt, however, that there were some conservative parents and grandparents in the room who, if they had been paying  attention, would have been offended, even outraged, at Pete's collectivist message?  If one of those conservative parents gave Rush Limbaugh a call to fill him in on the latest liberal/socialist/communist program of indoctrination at public libraries, isn't it clear that Rush would devote the rest of his program, the rest of his week, to exposing the scandal.  It would give conservatives more reason to cut funding to liberal programs like libraries and the arts.  Julie Williams and the other conservatives on Jeffco's school board would call for an investigation into school libraries in order to expunge all the leftist texts that were surely imbedded there.

I looked around the Columbine library and found all kinds of books that would surely not pass Tea Party muster.  "The Lorax", "The Butter Battle Book", and the worst one of all, "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish."  Funny things are everywhere indeed!  All these subversive texts suggest to impressionable youngsters that we are all basically good, that we should be trusting, that we should accept everyone.

I heard a Rush Limbaugh show once while stuck in rush hour traffic.  A disgruntled caller was outraged at the latest art thingy his kid brought home from school.  It seems that the kid's subversive teacher (Is there any other kind?) instructed her class to imagine what a giraffe's head on a turtle's body would look like (or something along those lines) and make a drawing of it.  The kid showed his dad the surreal drawing and the father presumably ran to the phone to express his two grievances to Rush.  First, the lesson was suggesting that one could improve on God's (intelligent) design.  Second, what was the teacher doing wasting time on such pointless activities when there were multiplication tables and grammar rules to memorize?  Rush, of course, was even more outraged and the rest of the hour was devoted to a succession of calls from people who were actually angry at turtles with the heads of giraffes.

You know all those problems I listed in the first paragraph?  They all seem kind of urgent to me.  They all need to be addressed by a national discussion.  Do you think it is possible to have a discussion when even Pete the Cat or surreal turtles piss us off?

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands
One nation
Under God
With liberty and justice for all.

Right!  Just make sure you keep your buttons and avoid huge piles of strawberries.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Run For Cover

When I taught Freshmen at the end of my career, I decided to try a little experiment in order to assess exactly what I was dealing with.  I wrote a list of ten words on the board, all normal, some proper nouns, some culturally literate references.  Then I said I will give you an A+ if you simply copy those words on your own paper without making any mistakes.  Not a single member of my class on that first day got an A+ on that quiz.  I gave the quiz daily until everyone got an A+.  After a week or two of wasting everyone's time with my little quiz, I gave up.  The whole group never managed to pass that quiz.  As you might imagine, it was a fun year.

I remember joking with my colleagues that some day those kids who couldn't copy a word like "Colorado" correctly would be voters.

That day has come.  Those freshmen--most of them--were simply incapable of listening, taking notes, doing homework, making any but the most elemental decision.  Well, both parties are doing a nice job of taking advantage of that group mentality that currently pervades the country.  THIS CANDIDATE WANTS YOU TO BE UNSAFE!  THIS CANDIDATE VOTED TO RAISE YOUR TAXES.  THIS CANDIDATE WANTS TO TAKE AWAY ALL OF YOUR RIGHTS AND LIBERTY, etc., etc.

Francis Fukuyama (not sure of spelling) has written a new treatise on the history of democracy and republics and has come to the conclusion that, although the world is inevitable trending toward democracy, those differing versions of democracy  are troublesome, not the least in the United States.  The founding fathers made the foolish assumption when they built the framework of our republic that people would trust each other enough to govern, to compromise, to represent the electorate.  That is clearly no longer the case in this country and therefore, the republic we all live under is in the beginning stages of death throes.

Here is my prediction for the election tomorrow.  The Republicans will destroy the Democrats and take both houses of congress and most state houses, including Colorado.  In the two years that will follow nothing will happen, not because of partisan gridlock necessarily, but because nothing ever happens when Republicans control both halves of the legislature.  You could look it up.  Then in the next election, Clinton will win the presidency and Democrats will enjoy a slight resurgence.  Then in the election after that the Republicans will take over again.  And in all that time NOTHING will happen.  That's the country we live in and I find it incredibly depressing.  My ninth graders are taking over the world and I want to run for cover.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Christian Piety, Abortion, and Hypocrisy in Texas

I posted an article on Facebook yesterday that generated a relatively long stream of arguments back and forth.  The title of the article focused on abortion and the lurid specter of back alley abortions with filthy instruments and "doctors" with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths with dumpsters nearby to hold all the dead fetuses.  Obviously, the reactions on both sides were strong, but the article wasn't really about abortion.  It had three points as far as I could determine.  First, it focused on the problem Republicans are having wooing female votes and at the same time treating those female voters as if they were second class citizens who can't be trusted to make choices.  Next, it focused on the hypocrisy of Republicans in Texas (at least) who want to deregulate everything unless they don't. Finally, it brought up the hardships being brought upon the women of Texas who will now (some of them) have to drive up to 300 miles to get the kind of services provided by Planned Parenthood clinics.  Yes, a goodly portion of those services are centered around abortion, but those services also include screening for cervical cancer, screenings for breast cancer, family counseling, etc.

But the streamers, especially those conservatives who are Pro-Life, didn't talk about any of that.  Instead, they went on and on about the morality of abortion, about questions like "when does life start?", about how women use abortion as birth control and our tax dollars should not support that, and of course they talked about women throwing their aborted fetuses away.  It was a lot like the anti-abortion types who haunt sidewalks around high schools holding up graphic photos of aborted fetuses as if to say that abortion is wrong because it is so gross looking.  I understand the concerns of these folks, but I think their methods are tone-deaf, self aggrandizing, pompous, and completely divorced from reality.

The stream was fun to read and I could tell that most of the combatants were really enjoying the debate.  Just like we all kind of enjoyed the debate over health care six years ago.  Meanwhile, as we were debating health care, there were real flesh and blood people in the streets who were hoping the debate would stop and someone would actually do something.  Same thing was true in yesterday's discourse.  There were sophistic, some would say solipsistic, philosophical arguments.  There were impassioned pleas about infant rights.  There were clever, somewhat mean-spirited rejoinders, and I'm sure we were all  quite pleased with ourselves.  Meanwhile, there are a whole bunch of flesh and blood women out there who couldn't care less about categorical imperatives, or legal niceties, or tax law.  All they care about is how are they gonna make it through their unwanted pregnancy, the pregnancy they have because they couldn't afford, or were too overwhelmed to even think about, birth control, birth control that Republicans are busily trying to get rid of, along with their fiscally prudent and morally bankrupt cutting of food stamps.

I can't get my head around the picture of a club of white, male, millionaires making life decisions for (mostly) poor and indigent women.  Does anyone other than Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Hannity and the rest actually believe that the choice they want to disallow is a cavalier one?  When that flesh and blood pregnant lady above weighs her options, does the officially recognized point when life supposedly begins make a difference to her.  Does she actually think that since life doesn't start until the second trimester, if I just hurry up and abort my unborn child in the next week it will be okay.  The whole idea of some white rich guy deciding when life begins and moralizing about it is the most obscene and immoral thing I can think of.

There were also a lot of personal anecdotes that were used to shed light on the whole issue.  Excuse me, but anecdotes on either side of the issue are interesting but have no value.  Okay, you were able to hear a fetal heart beat, or see the outlines of the neonate on an ultra sound and you were moved.  Of course you were!  What kind of monster wouldn't be moved, but that doesn't make the choice to abort or not abort any easier.  It makes it infinitely more difficult.  That pregnant lady above doesn't give a shit, nor should she, about your experience.  And your experience gives you no right to legislate for others.

You don't want your tax dollars to go toward abortion.  Okay, I don't want my tax dollars to subsidize war, or corporate breaks to McDonalds, or tax free status to churches, or to the NFL (same thing).  Besides, once you sit down with your accountant, or hunker down with Turbo Tax, or just got out pencil and paper and calculator and pare down your taxes as far as possible, the check you end up sending to the IRS is no longer your money.  IT IS OUR MONEY.  What do you want to spend our money on if not to insure the health and happiness of as many of our fellow community members as possible.

Look, I still am unable to get rid of the shackles of my Catholic boyhood.  If my wife and I were ever in a position where an abortion might be an option, I can't imagine I could go through with it (of course, I'm not the one who has to go through it.)  For me, as a good, but lapsed, Catholic, abortion would be a mortal sin( Do Catholics still use that term?).  But for you or anybody else?  It is none of my business and it is certainly not the business of a bunch of clueless white guys (Read: Corey Gardner) in Washington.

If you think abortion is immoral, by all means don't have one.  Just keep your Christian piety to yourself when it comes to others.

Friday, September 12, 2014

It Is What It Is

The Asshole's Retort

I think there should be a psychological syndrome right up there with Tourette's officially recognized and defined by the AMA calling attention to that smug comeback:  "It is what it is?"

I don't want to get all schmaltzy here, but I'm going to have to use a quote:

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? - Bobby Kennedy

If you're my age and not a nutcase, far-right Republican, that quote gives you the shivers.  Depending on your point of view, it either signals the beginning a great movement, or the first warning sign of the emerging welfare state.  In Kennedy's time, the sad complacency of The Asshole's Retort, wasn't even a consideration.  Notice Kennedy did not say "There are those that look at things the way they are and say 'it is what it is.'"

I think the quote and my addition pretty much sum up a basic difference between the liberal and conservative world view.  In the (many) arguments I've had with my right wing friends, the issue has almost always come down to Federalism vs. Anti-federalism, Hamilton vs. Jefferson.  You know, the whole idea that the federal government has no right trying to make blanket decisions that effect everyone.  The State vs. the Individual.  Communism vs. Individualism.

My mother serves as a case in point.  Like everyone my age (I guess--I hope it's not just me), I have Mother-Issues.  She was beautiful, witty, twinkly-eyed, courageous, and certainly destined for sainthood.  She was an autodidact and like most autodidacts I've known, had a hard time admitting she was wrong.  As a teacher, I am ashamed to remember the number of times she blamed school for my laziness.

The main thing about my mom was that she was an Illinois Catholic Liberal born and bred.  She wore her heart on her sleeve and could always be counted on to shed a tear or two over anyone in need.  Just like she was witty and happy and warm, she was just as frequently outraged.  I'm just sad she didn't remain cogent long enough to watch THE DAILY SHOW.

Her liberal side was most on display when in the company of my first wife's parents, rich, genuinely thoughtful and friendly people, and CONSERVATIVE.  Mom actually told them she thought it wrong for people to have as much as they when there were folks who had nothing!  She couldn't understand how we could all sit by while people were starving in Africa, etc., etc.  My first set of in-laws basically rolled their eyes, shook their heads, and marveled at her naiveté.  I, nineteen at the time, rolled my eyes and shook my head right along with them.

The same thing happened with Katherine's parents, also lovely people, fun to be with, and CONSERVATIVE.  She would explain how Reagan (her first cousin once removed) was a terrible president because he put his mother, Nellie, in a nursing home and never went to see her.  Sometimes after a particularly nice get together with plenty of liquor and food, her eyes would tear up over the thought of all those people who had nothing.  I'm telling you, it got old after awhile.

She used to embarrass me when she got like that.  But here's the thing.  She was right.  The rest of us were as wrong as we could be.  We live in a world that produces enough food to overfeed everyone in the world, but we somehow still allow starvation.  It is what it is.

We live in a country in possession of enough wealth and wisdom to insure universal health care, free day care, free pre-schools, improved roads, etc., etc.  Instead, we elect people who are more protective of their ideology than their constituency.  It is what it is.

And in order to make sure that what it is stays exactly the same, we act tough.  We dig in our heels.  We go bomb somebody.  And we worship the NFL.  The three holiest days of the week are Monday, Thursday, and Sunday.  In the football supplement to The Post at the beginning of the season, there was a slick magazine insert focusing in on the toughness of the Broncos.  It seems it was lack of toughness (we all know it couldn't have been talent) that made us lose the Superbowl.  The magazine was sickening.  It just showed photos of the starting Broncos acting tough.  There was Payton Manning, muscles tense, strained fingers on the ball, looking dangerous and ready to beat the shit out of someone.

Wasn't it amazing when the whole city rejoiced (at least the football nuts) when Manning ran down to the end zone and got in that DB's face and told him to "fuck himself."?  Wow!  What a guy.  It makes you proud just to have witnessed the whole thing.  And the awful thing was that I was right there with them.  I would have given Manning a fist bump if I had been on the field.  It is what it is.

Of course, when something like Ray Rice pummeling his soon-to-be wife splashes all over the crawls at the bottom of the TV screen, we become outraged and spend the next weeks (at least it seems that long) analyzing it, agreeing or disagreeing with the outcome, subjecting that poor, battered woman to the leering comments  of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or the blonde bimbos on Fox.  This will dominate the news until the next inevitable school shooting and the ensuing debate.

But, hey.  It is what it is.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is Mike Rosen Writing The Post's Editorials Nowadays?

Whenever we subject schools to more than our usual scrutiny, which is to say whenever an election is impending or contract negotiations are underway, we are shocked--shocked!--to discover them filled mostly with flawed people, you know, people like you and me and the clerk at the 7-11 and the ill-tempered nurse last time you went to the doctor and the guy in the cubicle down the aisle who spends entirely too much time on Facebook.  The Jeffco school board has just decided not to award pay raises to those teachers who have been rated partially effective or worse.  Gasp!  You mean to tell me that there are partially effective teachers in schools?  I guess I run around with the wrong crowd, but I don't know anyone who isn't partially effective.

The problem, of course, is determining what exactly it means to be partially effective and how an evaluator might spot partial effectiveness when it comes up to bite him/her on the ass.  Is there any institution in society that will look better when subjected to the kind of scrutiny that teachers and schools regularly see.  Haven't we all grown up scrutinizing our teachers?  And with a few notable exceptions, weren't our teachers easy prey?  Is there anyone who hasn't mimicked a teacher or been outraged by a teacher or been disappointed by one?  When Franny was in first grade and she learned the truth that there was no Malcolm in the lake close to Mrs. Spayd's house, she was furious.  I'm sure she still hasn't forgiven her.

We grow up familiar and therefore contemptuous of schools and teachers.  That's just how it works.  It is very difficult not to be contemptuous of anything we know that intimately.  We certainly can all find things about our parents, our friends, to be contemptuous about.  But just because we are familiar with something doesn't mean we know anything about it.  Look at today's editorial in the increasingly irritating Denver Post:  "Jeffco gets it right on pay increases."

The major thesis of the article is if Jeffco can't trust its principals to know a partially effective teacher when they see one, who can?  Therefore withholding incremental raises based on Jeffco's evaluation process is the right thing to do.  At first blush that sounds reasonable, but if the argument is subjected to the same scrutiny it is asking teachers to face, it doesn't hold water.

The first sentence says a fact-finder "allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good" when he recommended that raises not be tied to evaluations.  It sounds like Mike Rosen is writing the staff editorial.  The only loaded word missing is "liberal," as in "liberal fact-finder." I am ready to agree with the "goodness" of Jeffco's evaluation process when the rest of this article proves it to me, not because it was stuck inside a cleverly spun lead.

A few paragraphs later the essay casually dismisses the fact-finders recommendation as "bad advice." How so?  It's bad because even though the evaluation system is not perfect ("Perhaps not" the Post sneeringly says in response), it must be good.  That word "must" is my editorial comment because the tone of this article isn't focused enough to say that anything IS the case.  Mostly, the article just keeps ratifying its undying faith in the wisdom of Jeffco's school board.

There are evidently three reasons why the system MUST be good.  First of all, "either the district trusts its principals or it doesn't."  Secondly, ". . .they are, after all, trained to supervise and evaluate teachers."  Finally, "if they don't know who is effective within their buildings, it's hard to imagine who would."  This is beginning to sound like a DAILY SHOW routine.

I taught for 35 years.  I had somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 principals and maybe 20 assistant principals.  There were only a couple of that group who were not genuinely nice people.  Only two of them did I think were completely incompetent.  Many of them were smart and fun to be with.  But I can only think of two who really understood what it took to be a COMPLETELY effective teacher.

Just to illustrate the incoherence of the Post's and by extension the school board's argument, let us consider the bottom two paragraphs of the first column.  In the first paragraph the essay says that Snyder (the fact-finder) "admits" (does that sound like a loaded word to you?) no evaluative process can be perfect because some subjectivity is always present.  In the second paragraph the essay says Snyder contradicts himself by saying that "a teacher should receive the same rating no matter who performs the evaluation."  That doesn't sound like a contradiction to me.  Isn't it clear that Snyder's argument is that since all such systems will smack of subjectivity and since, for the system to be fair, the evaluations should be the same no matter who the evaluator, it follows that raises should not be tied to systems that are inherently unfair.

The Post goes on to conclude that even though it is obvious that Jeffco's evaluative process is fundamentally inconsistent it is still a "good one" and "will have to suffice."  Wow, that certainly makes me feel better.

Finally, the Post looks down its editorial nose at the whole situation when it claims that less than two percent of the teachers would be denied raises.  Not only that, the Post continues, but fully 45 percent of Jeffco's schools had no one (well, at least no teachers) who were rated partially effective or below. The Post's editorial staff is, to put it mildly, skeptical that there are so few partially effective teachers out there.  "Is it really possible, for example, that 45 percent of schools have no teachers who are partially effective or ineffective?"

As a matter of fact, yes, it is quite possible that our schools are filled with good, well-intentioned, hard working, partially effective human beings who still manage to kill in the classroom.  Too bad the same thing can't be said about the editorial staff at the Post.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Feeding at Texas Roadkill

Have you ever noticed those restaurants that are always packed to the gills--Hacienda Colorado, The Claim Jumper, Texas Roadhouse, et. al.--always serve up portions that no normal human being could eat in one sitting?  The food itself is just passable and, allowing for the different "cuisines" being featured, tastes the same, has the same texture, the same shiny plastic sheen on the salad dressings, the same apps, the same house special margaritas, the same sad low end wines from California.

The people, both customers and waitstaff, look the same as well.  There will be lots of overweight families out celebrating a birthday, or a graduation from junior high, or the purchase of a new pick-up.  The men will be sporting guts that strain their "Nobama" tee-shirts and chances are they'll be wearing ill-fitting baseball caps with mesh panels built in and a brim that advertises bull semen or something along that order.  The women, except for the lack of a baseball cap, are pretty much indistinguishable from the men and the little children are all clinically obese.  Everybody at the big table set for eight (the grandparents are tagging along) has a great time talking about the day and the special event.  But when the young and depressingly happy servers bring out the groaning plates of artery clogging meats and potatoes, the conversation stops and the family gets down to the serious business of feeding.  These places are not dining rooms; they're feeding troughs.

We went to a Texas Roadhouse a couple nights ago.  I would have written this yesterday, but it took me longer than normal to digest (ahem) the whole experience.  The place was packed.  There were people beginning to line up by the front door waiting to get a table just as we were getting seated.  We were led through this maze of cedar planking to a two-top booth in a back cubby hole next to two tables celebrating birthdays and both looking remarkably like my description above.  They seemed nice enough and the fact that there was just barely enough room for our happy waiter and his even happier busboys to squeeze through between our two tables didn't bother me at all until it was time to bring out the cake, or the cupcakes in this case.

From the back of joint, somewhere by the glass case displaying different cuts of withered looking beef came an incessant pounding and then a parade of all the staff led by a waiter carrying a full sized leather saddle.  I can only assume it was imported from the lone star state.  They wedged the saddle in the aisle between our tables and got everyone in the restaurant--everyone except Kathe and I--to yell a big Texas "Hee-Haw" in celebration of this chubby little kid's special day.  He had a hard time climbing up on the saddle and his leg was a little too chubby to fit between our tables, but hey, who noticed?  After the little celebration the folks in the restaurant all took a few minutes to settle back down to the serious business of stuffing chunks of, in most cases, well-done beef in their mouths.  The folks at the birthday table immediately quieted down after the saddle had been removed and dug into their chocolate sundaes, the ones they ordered to supplement the cupcakes.

The birthday celebration may have been annoying, but our food, with the exception of some pretty good fried pickles, wasn't even mediocre.  But mostly it is the service at such places that sets them apart.  The folks at Texas Roadhouse are evidently bound and determined to turn their (at least) 75 tables four times a night.  We got our cokes right away.  The pickles took a little longer and we were just starting to appreciate how thin and crispy they were when we had to push the plates aside to accommodate our salads.  I had just sprinkled my blue cheese crumbles when Kathie's prime rib and my rib eye came.  They must order their meat from the same company that supplies King Soopers.  That's exactly how indigestible it was.  I ate half of mine and took the rest home.  K did the same.  She likes masking the taste and texture of sub-prime beef in tomato soup the next day.  I would do the same, but I don't like tomato soup.  We decided to forego dessert and beat a fast retreat, determined never to return.  When we walked through the throngs of silent feeders, everyone on the wait staff smiled broadly and wished us a pleasant evening.  They smiled so much because they probably felt guilty about feeding us such swill.

Some people eat to live.  Those are the folks who get excited when they see a Cracker Barrel up ahead on the interstate.  I ate at a Cracker Barrel in Nebraska once.  The breakfast buffet was bountiful, crowded, and nightmarish.

Next time I go out to eat, I'm going to Mizuna.  If Mizuna offered blue cheese crumbles with their salads I'm pretty sure the wait staff would sprinkle them on for me.