Friday, December 30, 2011

Entitlement Generation Killing America?

I vividly remember the first time I heard a college professor explain the facts of life to me. No, I'm not talking about the bird and the bees; rather the facts of life for a college student. Gone were the days of high school, where teachers could be talked into accepting late papers and the expected grade was an "A." Welcome to the playoffs of academia, where a "C" is the standard.

That was great for me, as I'm the kind of person who won't accept the standard. I earned an A in that class, and continued to pile up the A's as I made my way through college. But it was great for me to get that initial reality check and personal challenge. It made me push myself to work harder than I had in high school, where I could sleep myself to an A in any subject outside of math.

Thinking back, however, I can honestly say that I never felt entitled to an A. I earned A's because my parents closely monitored my grades and set A's as the only acceptable outcome, except in math, where I was never interested enough to be great. I knew that I had to work for me grades, and I did so.

Fast-forward some twenty years and the landscape has changed significantly. No Child Left Behind has created a Christmas-like atmosphere in the grade school ranks. Far too often grades have become gifts given at the end of each grading period, rather than a true indication of how much a student has learned and how hard they worked to learn it.

What has changed since I was in grade school to create this atmosphere of gifting, rather than grading? Let's look at a few indicators:

1) A group that has surveyed high school seniors for the past 50 years or so reported that in response to the question (paraphrasing)..."Do you see yourself as unique, special and important?"....only 12% of graduating respondents in the
1950's said YES. In 2005-06,  80% of the respondents answered in the affirmative.

2)  The NY Times recently had an article that pointed out that the public's belief in "personal willpower" has declined markedly over the last several decades. Americans, apparently, are more inclined to conclude (for instance)..."No sense studying harder...I'm just not a good student" rather than spend the necessary time and effort to improve.

3) Americans some 40 or 50 years ago tended to save 10-15% of their income. Currently, Americans spend about 115% of their income and put the overage on their credit card, gladly paying absurd interest rates to avoid having practice discipline or patience.

On the surface these factors may seem unrelated, but I believe there is actually a strong correlation.

As parents we absolutely want our kids to feel unique, special and important. No question about that. My daughter is just six months old, yet I tell her dozens of times a day how special I think she is. When it comes to academics, however, the specialness has to be based upon achievement, not existence. Just showing up for class isn't the basis for a grade. Showing up is a basic requirement, not something to be rewarded.

Combine the No Child Left Behind approach to education, where failure really isn't an option because grades are gift-wrapped, and combine that with a generation that feels they are special just because they exist. It's easy to see how students might start to feel like they can walk on water before they get to college. After all, they've been labeled special or unique without having to work for the label and then handed a grade report that backs up the belief.

Now we can move into our second point of interest. These "special" kids with the "amazing" grades have had no reason to develop a strong work ethic, or fight to overcome weaknesses in pursuit of a grade or significant personal goal. Success is almost a given, often with little or no work.

It's easy to see, then, why these specially-conditioned students would walk out of the hallowed halls of education and expect everything to come easily. There are certainly enough unscrupulous credit card companies who are happy to keep the illusion alive. Just keep on swiping that card and don't worry about the limit . . .they'll increase it for just a few more points of interest.

Not only is it not a surprise that we've created an entire culture of self-important credit junkies, it's actually difficult to see how that wouldn't be the inevitable outcome.

This is not to say, of course, that ALL students are simply looking for a handout, just as we can't say that ALL Americans are in debt up to their ears. There are always the exceptions, those who get the most out of their education experiences and then parlay that into successful careers and lives. It's just that the entitlement group is growing at a much faster rate, and they eventually begin to drag down society as a whole.

The Entitlement set is far more likely to collect unemployment, for example, or to default on a loan that then drives up rates for everyone. They declare bankduptcy, driving up the overall cost of living for everyone. They drive without insurance, they qualify for government programs that provide them with food, healthy care and other basic necessities that end up coming out of the pockets of the successful and the self-determined.

In other words, they sabotage the American economy, and have everything to do with why said economy is on life support.

The solution is incredibly simply, but also highly unlikely to be implemented. The answer is to return to an educational system that rewards true effort, that sets high expectations and only recognizes excellence. Self-worth must again be derived from actual accomplishments, not gift-wrapped gimmes. But in order for these standards to be reset, the very people the low standards benefit must admit there is a problem and insist on solutions.

If they could do that, we wouldn't have the problem in the first place.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Republicans' Best and Brightest??

Is this really all the modern Republican Party has to offer?

Ok, full disclosure: I am, essentially a Democrat. It's hard to really take ownership of  a political party these days, as I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. I don't agree with spending money just because we own the printing presses, but I also don't think government should be involved in our personal lives. Since there is not a fiscally responsible party in the offing, I will stand on the side of those who stand up for the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

All of that said, I think a healthy debate is a good thing, and I would love to see a strong visionary leader emerge from the right to challenge President Obama next year. Heck, I would love to see a strong visionary leader from the LEFT rise to the forefront and remind the President of the things he stood for when he was running for President. He has been too willing to cave on core principles and too willing to sell out the working class for his wealthy corporate donors. So while I will undoubtedly vote for Obama once again, I would still like to see something of a heated debate taking place about the looming economic collapse that's facing our country.

Apparently, I'm not going to get that. The Republicans don't seem to be up to the task.

Let's briefly review the list of presidential nominees set forth by the GOP:

Donald Trump - I don't believe that Trump was ever truly running for President. His reality show was being threatened with cancellation, and he did his pseudo-campaign simply as a way to drive up interest in that show. His only real platform was the long-dead and moronic Obama birth certificate issue. Despite the fact that President Obama's birth certificate has been available online for months, the President actually took a few minutes to present it live on TV.  Then, saying he had more important things to do, the President ordered the attack that killed Osama bin Laden. That was the end of Trump. I don't know if he saved his show or not. I couldn't care less.

Michele Bachmann - After the President trumped Trump, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann had her moment in the sun. She probably excited the voters who cast their ballots based on appearance, as she is not an unattractive woman, but the more she talked the more she marginalized herself. Whether it was trying to celebrate Elvis' birthday on the anniversary of his death or claiming that Paul Revere rode through New Hampshire, Bachmann showed herself to be a joke of a candidate, and that was before she said the HPV vaccine caused mental retardation . . .based on the word of some random person who approached her after a campaign speech. Oh, and by the way, her husband can "cure the gay." So long, Ms. Bachmann.

Newt Gingrich - In the realm of political commentary Newt Gingrich is the gift that keeps on giving. His campaign staff collectively resigned months ago because they felt he was more interested in selling his many books and DVDs than actually mounting a serious presidential campaign, and he has a long history of running for president as a means to raise money . . .apparently to pay off his Tiffany's charge account. Gingrich has rebounded of late, due largely to the lack of voter confidence in any of the other GOP candidates, but it won't last long. His infomercial campaign approach is bad enough, but due to his many personal indiscretions he has absolutely no chance of getting the conservative Christian vote . . .and no Republican can win without that vote.

Rick Perry - Texas governor (and I use that term loosely) Rick Perry emerged on the scene as the Great White Hope of the GOP. Here, finally, was the guy who looked presidential and could bring Obama to his knees. And that image lasted for almost an entire news cycle. A bizarre prayer rally seemed out of place, but his even more bizarre speeches on the campaign trail left many wondering if the man was even sane. We've been wondering that in Texas for years. All he's done for Texas, aside from nearly making us our own country by threatening to secede from the Union, he's spent his time in office gutting public education, funneling state revenue to his already-wealthy corporate donors, and de-fund things like the forest service, police and fire departments and infrastructure. Thankfully, his 15 minutes was over in 10.

Herman Cain - MSNBC's Rachel Maddow calls Herman Cain the "art project" candidate, suggesting he is not a serious candidate, but rather an elaborate prank on Republican voters. Frankly, it's hard to argue that. We're talking about a man who took his tax policy from a video game (Sim City's 999), quotes the Pokemon Movie theme song in a debate, and seems to have sexually harassed every woman he's come into contact with. He also doesn't have a campaign infrastructure, so clearly being President is not his agenda. Still, he was the frontrunner for a little more than a week.

Through it all the man who is destined to be the Republican nominee watches and waits. Mitt Romney may not be a Christian, he may flip-flop all over the place on every major issue, and he may not have much of a personality, but he's is not running an infomercial campaign, he has not been accused of sexual assault, he knows the difference between New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and he actually tows the party line on tax policy: take from the poor and give to the rich. That will be more than enough when it comes time for the GOP to select the next man to lose to Obama.

It's interesting to see just how hard the Republicans are working to gain power. Mitch McConnell has said repeatedly that his most important job is to make Obama a one-term president. His colleagues in Congress have taken the filibuster out a whole new door, using it a blistering record number of times since Obama took office. They gained control of the House of Representatives on a platform of creating jobs, but have done nothing but block every job creating bill to be proposed since, while spending the majority of their time trying to draft legislation that prevents poor people from voting and rolls women's rights back a half century.

If you can't beat them, gerrymander them, right Mitch?

Here's a better idea. Why don't you try adopting policies that the American people will go for without using Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to confuse the issues? Why not find your own visionary leader with a clear message and direction for America that doesn't stink of corruption and corporate welfare?

Every political leader needs a challenger, including President Obama. Unfortunately, it seems the GOP is simply not up to the task.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Mid-September Nightmare

"The thousand injuries of Fortunado I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." - Montresor - "The Cask Of Amontillado" - Edgar Allan Poe

I didn't have any idea what time it was, but I definitely knew something was wrong. I woke with a start, awakened by I didn't know what, and instinctively glanced at the glowing alarm clock next to my bed.

3:15 AM

The room was dark, but I soon knew what it was that had awakened me. My wife Jennifer was crossing the room holding our screaming three-month-old boy. I didn't know which of them was yelling louder, but it was clear that something wasn't right.

"He's been throwing up, he's screaming and nothing I do will comfort him or quiet him. It's been three hours!!" Jennifer exclaimed, clearly at her wit's end. Not that it takes much to find the end of one's wits at three AM.

I obviously didn't know what was wrong, but I immediately determined that the first step was to separate screaming mother from screaming child. Kids feed off of the emotions of their parents, and the calmer, if groggier, parent needed to break that cycle. Even at that indecent hour I remembered that from our parenting classes.

Amid the screaming I took little Luke from my wife's arms and headed for the door. In an effort to put some space between the upset parties I headed for the stairs, though as I made my way downstairs my wife continued to follow me, and also continued to yell at our son. Now she was yelling at me, as well.

Meanwhile I started softly talking to Luke, telling him everything was OK, even singing little songs very softly in his ear. He began to relax, the crying coming in fits and starts now instead of a constant stream. As I felt his body relax I continued to try to put distance between him and his seemingly-delirious mother.

To no avail.

"Where are you going?" she demanded as I walked through the kitchen. "You can't just give him a bottle!"

I knew that. She told me he'd been throwing up, and while I didn't know for sure if that was true, I didn't think adding milk to his tummy was the best thing in the middle of all this chaos. I kept talking to Luke and kept walking away from his mother.

"What are you doing?? Where are you going??"

She kept screaming questions at me, and I kept quietly talking to Luke, who amazingly was continuing to calm down and relax even as his mother yelled mere feet away from him.

After taking a loop through the kitchen and laundry room and back into the loving room, I sat down on the couch. Cradling Luke in my arms I did what I had begun to do any time he got fussy - I wrapped him up in his favorite blanket, gave him his binkie, and cuddled him into my chest, trying to shield him from his ranting mother as much as anything else.

"You can't just cuddle him and expect that to work," she raged on, now standing over me. "You can't just give him his binkie and expect everything to be OK."

At this point, I was starting to get annoyed.

"Could you please just give us 10 minutes?" I asked, in a voice barely above a whisper. "Go up stairs and leave us alone for 10 minutes. If he's still upset you can tell me my method doesn't work and try something else. You woke me up because whatever you were doing wasn't working, so why don't you let me try this?"

"Don't tell me I'm a bad mother!" she screamed. "Don't tell me how to be a parent. You don't know what you're doing and you should give him to me right now!"

She reached for Luke, but I put my entire upper body between the two, making sure she couldn't access him in any way.

"Please just give us 10 minutes," I repeated, still speaking very softly.

"Don't tell me what to do!!!" she raged. "I'll do whatever I want with my baby. You better give him to me right now. What you're doing isn't working . . ."

I motioned, and it stopped her cold. While she went on and on I had looked down to notice that Luke was asleep. Sound asleep.

"He's asleep, Jennifer," I said gently. "Maybe I'm onto something here."

Instead of being relieved that our poor, screaming infant was finally at ease, Luke's falling asleep seemed to make her even madder.

"You better get that binkie out of his mouth," she demanded, still almost screaming. "Take it out right now. And move him upstairs. He can't sleep on the couch!"

I looked her square in the eye and said quietly but firmly: "I'm not taking the binkie out of his mouth and I'm not moving him one inch. You said he's been screaming for three hours (which I knew to be an exaggeration), now he's finally quiet and you want me to wake him back up? That's not fair to Luke, and I don't mind sitting up with him to make sure he doesn't choke on the binkie or anything else."

"well, I have to get ready for work pretty soon and I have to turn lights on. He's going to wake up if you don't move him."

In my mind I did the math. It was now something like 3:30AM and she would normally have gotten up some time around 6 or 6:30 to get ready for work.

Before my sleep-muddled brain could come up with a calm, rational response to that little bit of irrationality she was off, turning on lights all over the place and making as much noise as possible. She turned on the light in the bathroom near the couch, then turned on all the kitchen lights on the other side of the room. She turned the water in the kitchen sink on full blast, started opening and closing cabinet doors . .

And through it all Luke was still asleep on my lap. He was sleeping like . . .well . . .a baby!

With my attention now fully on my baby I didn't see my wife come up behind us and reach down to snatch the binkie from his mouth. Amazing, even THAT didn't wake him up. He slept on as she dug through the diaper bag and grabbed his travel binkie. She then stormed upstairs, and I didn't have to be clairvoyant to know she was adding the nursery binkie to her collection. She had all three and was most likely hiding them.

She'd show me. If I was able to comfort our baby using a binkie she would hide them all.

Makes sense, right?

And I would have to drive a whole 5 minutes to the store where there were hundreds more of them waiting to be purchased.

Finally alone, though with water running and every downstairs light turned on, I had a moment to just relax and breathe. I looked down at my sleeping baby and knew that the two of us were in this together, for better or for worse. He needed me to protect me from episodes like this, and it was my clear responsibility to do so.

How many more would there be?

This was an unusual, but not unheard of episode. I don't know all of the background behind Jennifer's upbringing, but I know enough to understand that it wasn't ideal. Her mother is bi-polar, her brother is bi-polar, and Jennifer most certainly is, as well. She still carries many of the monsters from her youth around with her.

Normally these manifest in ways that are, taken individually, fairly innocuous. She murmurs profanity under her breath, though loud enough for me to hear, and almost always directed at me. She decides (randomly, it seems) that I don't think she's good enough at something, then tears into me for daring to think such a thing . . .though I never thought it to begin with. She turns conversations into arguments that certainly didn't need to be. She evokes other "experts" and openly lies in her own defense when she perceives that she might be wrong about something. She can't be wrong, and she has to have the last word. If it turns out that she IS wrong, she just argues all the louder and gets even angrier.

These are the "thousand injuries" I imagine when I read the words of one of my favorite authors. I don't know what Edgar Allen Poe was going through when he was inspired to write "The Cask of Amontillado," but I can certainly imagine it must have been something miserable. Someone was really being a monster (hence, "Montresor"), or being so bad as to bring a monster out of Poe himself.

How many injuries does one bear before they become insults? How long before one starts to think about learning masonry and leading the monster to a nitre-laced underground catacomb?

These are the questions that often preoccupy me . . .especially in the middle of a mid-September manic nightmare.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The War On Halloween?

Every year right about the end of the Thanksgiving holidays we start to hear the rhetoric heat up surrounding what language we use to talk about that next all-important retail event on the December calendar. If someone says "Happy Holidays," they are said to be anti-religion, and if someone says "Merry Christmas" the argument is that they aren't being politically correct.

Welcome to the front lines of what church-going folk often call the "War On Christmas."

But what about Halloween? Don't we have a similar battle going on over the language of this writer's favorite holiday?

When I was a kid it was perfectly safe for me and my friends to wander the streets of our suburban Houston subdivision to our hearts' content, collecting candy until our bags were full and we just couldn't carry any more. The biggest threat was that we might get some of that weird home-made candy from the oriental homes, but the idea that someone might kidnap one of us was just not part of that era's reality.

Nowadays families often choose to take their kids to a safer environment, often that of their church. More and more churches across the country are beginning to have their own Halloween parties and trick-or-treat activities, but for some reason they're often afraid to call it a "Halloween" party. They want to call it a "Fall Festival," as they feel that the word "Halloween" is in some way anti-religious.


I realize that much of religious dogma is based squarely on superstition, but aren't we taking this Halloween thing a bit too far? Are we really worried that witches and ghosts will make off with our children if we call the holiday by it's rightful name. Do we really BELIEVE in goblins and ghouls???

Again, turning the clock back some 30 years to my youth, October 31st was always called "Halloween." My parents went crazy, decorating the whole house, buying costumes, taking me to haunted houses . . .the whole nine yards. For my part, I absolutely LOVED it . . .and it is still by far my favorite holiday to this day. I mean, I love Christmas (or whatever we're calling it this year), but there's nothing like that chilly night spooky delights to really get my motor running. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Orlando is just about my favorite event in the universe. As a kid I probably fantasized that the obligatory Halloween haunts were real, but I always knew - in the back of my mind - that it was all make-believe.

You know, like Santa Claus and the reindeer?

How paranoid and downright boring has our society become that we have to try and change the name of holidays to preserve some person's idea of what's politically correct? Who wants to be politically correct, anyway? Who's STUPID idea was THAT??

And so I wish everyone a Happy Halloween . . .and hope to god you're taking your kids trick-or-treating, even if it's at some church that's afraid of the name of the holiday. I promise - your kids will never know anything about Halloween except that it's a fun time to dress up in costumes and get free candy unless you decide to pull out the Encyclopedia Brittanica - oops - I guess that's Wikipedia now - and have them research the old customs of "All Hallows Eve."

But why spoil a good holiday and great parties with old, out of date dogma?

Like so many things, the only evil that comes with Halloween is the evil in our minds. There is absolutely nothing inherently bad about Halloween, and pretending there is will only perpetuate old myths and superstitions that are best left in the distant past.

It will also deprive your children of a wonderfully fun and frightful good time!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 24 Hour News Fallacy

Once upon a time TV actually went off the air at night. I'm barely old enough to remember the nightly playing of the National Anthem and the pattern  and annoying buzz that would follow and remain the only thing on TV until the next day's broadcasts began at some early hour the next morning.

TV news used to be something that happened a few times a day, with much of America getting their news right before dinner or perhaps right before bed. I can recall there being the 6 O'clock News and the 11 O'clock news, and that was just about it.

And then, on June 1st 1980, a guy named Ted Turner launched something he call the Cable News Network . . .CNN . . .and changed the news forever. Not, I would argue, for the better.

It sounds like a great idea, right? Why not have entire TV and radio networks devoted to round-the-clock news coverage? That's a holy cow, can't-miss concept, right?

I'm sure it seemed so at the beginning, but now we're more than three decades into the era of 24-hour news channels and it's harder than ever to actually find any news amongst the infotainment that now passes for an information exchange.

Essentially, there is probably about an hour's worth of news that even the most broadminded person would find interesting on a given day. So what do the networks do for the other 23 hours? Some of that is taken up with repetition, of course, but repetition alone does not a viable network make.

During a political season . . .and all seasons seem like political seasons now . . .these news shows spend a lot of time parsing words. It must be a real nightmare to be a political figure, as every time you speak you know there are teams of news analysts looking for some little thing to pull out of whatever you said and make a story out of it. Get one nuance of an issue wrong or misspeak in the slightest and you're the laughing stock of the country. It's even easier when we see candidates like the ones being fielded by the Republican party for the 2012 presidential campaign. A duller bunch of candidates have rarely been assembled as often as these drones, and the news cycle is just waiting for the latest round of stupidity and buffoonery to flow.

Another popular method of making a 5-minute news day last hours is by having viewers "Tweet" their comments about a particular story and then showing those "Tweets" on the air. This is a new pet peeve of mine. I don't turn on the news to find out what some country bumpkin in Montana thinks about a key issue. If I want to know what a non-journalist thinks about an issue I'll log in to Facebook. If I'm going to watch news, can I please see highly-trained journalists uncover facts about whatever story they're telling?

Oh . . .wait . . .we don't seem to have highly-trained journalists any more. What we have (especially on FIXed News is pseudo-celebrities, chosen for their looks and their willingness to tote the party line.

Whatever happened to the follow-up question? You know, Michele Bachmann turns away the results of thousands of cases to tell her viewing audience that "some lady" approached her after a rally and told her that the HPV vaccine gave her kid mental retardation. The reporter never asked the obvious follow-up question: "Are you prepared to take the word of some random person who approached you after a rally (and then could never be found) over the word of scientists, doctors, and patients who have successfully used the vaccine to no ill effect?"

Of course not. There was no follow-up question because it was more fun for the 24-hour news shows to spend the next few news cycles making fun of Bachmann for being an idiot . . .or in the case of FOX, spreading false information about a vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer.

Bachmann was called out eventually, once her statement had run its course and there was another news cycle to fill. Asked why she would say something so obviously not true, Bachmann stated:

"I have no idea. I am not a doctor, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a physician. All I was doing is reporting what this woman told me at the debate."

Yeah, and a student once told me an alien beamed his homework up to a spaceship. I didn't call CNN and report that aliens were taking over public schools . . .I dismissed the comment as nonsense.

Welcome to the world of 24 hours news channels. Nothing is too stupid to become a story, and no source is too accessible to actually be utilized in an attempt to fact-check a crazy story before running with it. Besides, why fact-check a story immediately when you can run the inaccurate story today and then run the correction after that cycle has runs its course?

Journalistic integrity has long since been sacrificed at the altar of the 24-hour news cycle.

What's the solution?

I think many of you have probably already chosen the method I prefer, which is simply turning those 24-hour channels off. I don't watch CNN, I certainly don't watch FAUX news (which misleads very intentionally) and I watch only one show on MSNBC - Rachel Maddow. I tend to look to NPR and the BBC for actual news . . .the kind that doesn't come so laced with opinion that it's hard to even find the nugget of a story that was there to begin with.

Ultimately, though, if we want the channels that use the word "news" in their names to actually report something close to factual news, we have to get their attention and demand a higher standard.

Perhaps a massive Twitter campaign would work, since they seem to love those Twitter feeds.

Then again, turning them off works pretty well, too.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Music Industry's Biggest Threat?

Perhaps I'm showing my age, or perhaps I'm displaying a certain unwillingness to adapt to new technologies, but I am one who still likes to have a physical copy of music albums I purchase. I like to look at the insert, read the acknowledgments and have a copy of the lyrics. I also like to see who wrote the songs, since so many artists today don't write their own. You can learn a lot about the artist if you know which songs they wrote themselves.

That's not to say I don't digitize the music once I buy it; the first thing I do is put the CD into my computer and upload it into iTunes and then upload it to my iPod. Still, I like to know that if my hard drive crashes, as they so often do, that I still have all of my music in a physical library which I can access at my whim.

What I DON'T like is the way CD's are packaged. The plastic wrap is easy enough to remove, but once you get the wrap off there is an evil entity that must still be conquered.

You know what I'm talking about - I'm sure you've all had your bouts with this most pernicious of enemies, as well. The plastic sticker that holds over the top of every new CD is the one thing that makes me consider never buying a physical copy of an album ever again. I spend more time trying to get it off than I do listening to the album the first time through.

In once asked a clerk in a music store why in the heck music companies had to add this extra layer of frustration, and I was told that the reason is because people in the warehouse have been known to use razor blades to slice through the plastic wrap and remove the CD's before they ship. The sticker was added as a means to dissuade such activity.


A razor blade will slice right through the plastic wrap, but the plastic sticker . . .it's a real razor stopper, huh?

That explanation sounded completely idiotic to me, the answer I might expect from a minimum wage worker in today's world of useless customer service.

Then again, what other reason makes sense?

The sticker has the name of the artist and the name of the album, information which is also available on the spine and on the cover of the CD. It doesn't have a bar code, either, as that's on the back of the CD. There really is absolutely no conceivable reason for there to be a sticker with redundant information on the top of a CD, especially since the sticker is all but unremovable.

Maybe the entire purpose putting an impenetrable sticker on the tops of CD's is precisely to inspire people to give up the practice of buying them? I'm sure the day is coming when CD's will not be produced, and every album that comes out will only be available via electronic download. But maybe these stickers are a way of trying to expedite the process? Music companies would much prefer we all buy electronic music so they don't have to encode, mass produce and ship physical CD's. Perhaps the stickers are a means to an end. If we get frustrated enough we'll just give up.

I am not so easily assuaged, but I will say this: if any record company execs run across this blog I would like to point out that the razor blade I use to open the plastic wrap around my new CD's also cuts right through the "super-security" sticker. You could save a lot of money by not printing them in the first place.

And you would stop feeding the anal side of my nature that has to go to the trouble of removing the entire sticker, right down to the ever-present adhesive . . .even if I am mentally cussing the whole time.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Failure SHOULD BE An Option

Any given motivational speaker, military commander, coach or public school teacher is likely to utter the words "failure is not an option," but No Child Left Behind took the meaning of the statement to new extremes.

Literally . . .failure is NOT an option.

While I was building my basketball brand I spent more than a decade working in and around public schools, specifically as a special education teacher. I had the "bad" kids, which really just means I had the kids everyone had given up on. They were the ones carrying labels like ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or even the dreaded ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), and essentially it was my job to just keep them out of sight and out of the office.

Ironically, it wasn't my kids who were having the real problems . . .it was the "normal" kids.

A big part of my job was to help the behaviorally-challenged students try to integrate into mainstream classes, and as such I spent a great deal of time in regular high school classrooms with the regular high school kids. I saw the way teachers were being forced to teach to the end-of-the-year test, and I heard stories about how they weren't allowed to fail students except under extreme circumstances.

That's right - no matter how poorly a student performed (or how seldom they showed up to class), failure was simply not allowed. I even had one friend, a very good Algebra teacher, who was ultimately fired because she refused to pass a group of students who didn't deserve to pass. And trust me, they didn't deserve to pass.

Something has happened to public school kids since the time I was in school. Back in my day - which really wasn't THAT long ago - the very idea of calling a teacher a name or even threatening a teacher was absolutely unheard of. What's more, if I had ever dared to do such a thing my parents would have put me so far under ground I would never have been heard from again. Disrespecting teachers simply was not something I could have ever gotten away with.

Now it's practically commonplace. And don't bother send the offending student to the office because they'll be right back in your classroom 10 minutes later with a satisfied smirk on his/her face, ready to repeat the offense because there really was no consequence for doing it the first time.

But attitude problems are really only the beginning of the issue. Many of today's students simply won't do the work, to an extent that the principal of the school where I worked actually made a rule that teachers were not allowed to count homework for a grade. You see, so few kids were doing their homework that it was bringing down the school's collective GPA.

One might think that the solution was a stricter homework policy, but no, in today's public schools we take the path of least resistance. All homework should be considered optional, and never taken for a grade.

Truancy is also a growing problem, with kids often missing so many days of class that they couldn't even be gifted a passing grade. Still, failure is not an option. No, to deal with that little issue our school district came up with a little thing called Credit Recovery, where students can pay $10 per class at the end of the semester and sit in the cafeteria after school for three hours and have their missing credits magically restored. What's really great is that they are not allowed to talk, interact with anyone, or even work on the classwork they missed during that time. It was a great money-maker for the school, but had absolutely no redemptive quality as far as recovering the information that was lost.

So Joe Truant skips boring old Algebra I for a semester, shows up at the end and pays his $10, and now he has credit for first semester Algebra I. He is now assigned second semester Algebra II . . .and you can see where we're going. Math builds on itself, so a student who didn't bother to show up for Algebra I has no prayer of passing Algebra II, but don't worry - the teacher will either be required to pass the student anyway or, if enough classes are missed, he can always show up and pay for credit recovery again in the Spring.

And the cycle repeats.

So my question is this: At what point did failure become a bad thing?

When I was in second grade there was a girl in my class who was supposed to be in third grade, but she had failed and was sentenced to repeat. That made an impression on me, I can tell you. I was never allowed to get a failing grade, mind you, or even a C, really, but if my parents weren't motivation enough seeing that girl get held back was more than enough for me to get the picture. I didn't want to see all my friends move on while I sat back in the dunce chair.

That failure taught my friend a lesson, but it also taught everyone around her a lesson. She never failed again, and wound up graduating the same year I did. Lesson learned.

No one wants to see a child fail a grade. It's embarrassing, as much as anything else. But it's a far worse offense to pass a child who hasn't earned the passing grades, as doing so creates a permanent welfare case for the public schools. Why work when you have figured out that it's not necessary?

Where's the logic behind this change in public education? What is the end result? At no time in Joe Truant's life is he going to get something for nothing. If he is late for work, he gets fired. If he goes to college, no professor is going to give a passing grade to a student who never does the work. In short, we're handicapping kids . . .possibly for life.

Failure should never be encouraged, and everyone involved - students, teachers, parents and even administrators - should work hard to try and avoid that outcome. Still, if, at the end of the day, despite everyone's best efforts, a student simply earns a failing grade . . .the only outcome that's in the best interest of the student is to receive the grade they have earned.

Failure should be an option once again.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Don't Ask, Don't Care!

America had one of its prouder moments this week as it cast aside the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that prevented openly gay men and women from serving in the military. The demise of the policy, which was a bald-faced example of discrimination in its purist form, is a victory for equality and a breath of fresh air from a government that has grown stuffy in its defense of the indefensible.

This issue brings up a larger question, though, one that I've had in the back of my mind for years:

Why are Americans so consumed by what goes on in the privacy of someone else's home?

This is a consistent theme in America, one that seems to grow with each passing day. We seem to be dying to not only know what others are doing, but also to judge them and, if possible, persecute them.

Our politicians are all too happy to perpetuate the problem, making issues like gay marriage, gays in the military and gays adopting children part of the national discourse. This is not because mainstream America drives the discussion - mainstream America, I firmly believe, could really care less.

No rational person believes that allowing two people who are in love to get married and share off the rights and privileges that come from that union is any way harmful to marriage. But that doesn't stop a small segment of America, often identified as the Tea Party from spending lots of money getting weak-minded politicians to do what they call "defending marriage."

Defense of marriage is really nothing of the kind. Who really believes that a man marries a woman for no other reason than because it's illegal to marry another man. That's insane. If Texas suddenly made gay marriage legal the first thing I would do - after I picked myself up off the floor - would be to divorce my wife to marry a man? That's ludicrous. The real intent behind the Defense Of Marriage propaganda is a way that right-wing politicians pander to Christian extremists, thus garnering the millions of dollars those folks have to spend on politicians who will at least say they are willing to advance the extreme-right agenda.

They don't even to seem to notice the hypocrisy in play when they evoke the name of Jesus Christ - the world's most progressive Progresssive - to hate, judge, and even, in some cases, murder.

Here's what Jesus had to say about homosexuality:


Not one word. It was a non-issue to Christ, as it has been a non-issue to civilized society for the vast majority of the existence of civilization. Sure, the Old Testament book of Leviticus makes one vague reference to man not lying down with man, but that book also lists wearing clothes made of more than one type of material as an unpardonable sin, and lays out the guidelines through which a father can sell his daughter into slavery. Is this really the moral compass for Christianity today?

Finally, we're overlooking the trump card of all religious arguments against gays. If God is the creator of all and God is infallible, why would he create people who are flawed? I mean, is God flawless, or isn't she?

If we need a religious context, it's easy enough to say that a perfect god is incapable of creating something by accident, so gay people are just as "good" in God's sight as the birds, the bees, and everything else. If we take it a step further and involve Jesus of Nazareth in the discussion, he didn't say a word about it. If you want to extend something else he said to cover homosexuality, it can be done. Jesus spoke very clearly about when it's OK to just others . . .he said DON'T. Love your neighbor as yourself. That was it. Love your neighbor whether he's gay, straight, or whatever else she might be.

I'm not one who needs a religious context for everything. To me, it's a bit of a cop out. Let's defer to someone who was writing thousands of years ago instead of exercising our own modern wisdom and common sense when talking about modern issues. No, thanks. Not necessary.

The bottom line is, it's just none of my business. Most heterosexual marriages end in divorce, so who are we to inflict that particular value on those who prefer same-sex marriage? Are we jealous of their success rate?

The end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a victory for freedom, independence, and all those other values our forefathers fought the British to gain. It's another step away from bigotry and discrimination and towards that dream we dare to dream - that we all might be judged based on the content of our character rather than the color of our skin, our sexual preferences, or any other random, hateful basis.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Obama's Andrew Shepherd Moment

In the movie The American President, Michael Douglas' President Andrew Shepherd wants to be the adult in the room. His Republican opponent Bob Rumson (played by Richard Dreyfuss) and, by extension, the media are harassing him because he has a girlfriend, and Shepherd chooses not to engage.

"Nobody wins these fights; they go away," Shepherd told his best friend and chief of staff, played by Martin Sheen.

And so Shepherd turns a deaf ear as Dreyfuss' character drills him day after day leading up to the next election. Finally, with his polls numbers at an all-time low and a resulting inability to pass any legislation, Sheen's character gets Shepherd's attention.

"You fight the fights you can win? You fight the fights THAT NEED FIGHTING!"

That message sinks in, and Shepherd later interrupts a press conference to go on the offensive and call out his unworthy Republican opponent.

It's time for President Barack Obama to have such a moment.

Barack Obama is a  brilliant progressive thinker. If you don't believe it, just read his book, The Audacity of Hope.  After reading that book I bought a case and sent them to everyone I knew for Christmas. I also emailed his offices in Chicago to suggest that he had a higher calling . . .to run for President. He did so, of course, and rode a wave of popularity into office, popularity stemming from his message of hope and change in Washington.

Unfortunately, his arrival in Washington seems to have brought with it a certain amount of amnesia regarding the mandate that made him the first African-American to ever serve in that position.

Don't get me wrong, Obama has done some amazing things that helped America begin the recovery from eight years of disastrous George W. Bush policies. He's provided substantially better funding to care for veterans returning home, he helped provide health insurance for millions of previously uncovered children, restored federal funding for stem cell research, signed a treaty with Russia that eliminates a portion of stockpiled nuclear weapons, created a number of consumer protection policies, and the list goes on. For an exhaustive list, link here.

Of course, much of that was before the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Since then, governing has come to a standstill as Republicans have made it their stated goal to prevent Obama from accomplishing anything and therefore - they hope - to cost him his job in 2012.
After 2010 we did, indeed, see change from Obama - he changed into the same kind of political puppet that we were tired of in the first place. His economic policies are derived from Republican ideals and set in motion by former Wall Street and banking industry lobbyists who now make up Obama's cabinet. You'd think it would be a tip-off to the President when even the Republicans try to block their own ideas, but Obama keeps going back to the bargaining table to put more and more of the Progressive agenda in the trash.

Mr. President, you can't compromise with those who refuse to compromise, and when you try you can't afford to start on their side and then work even further right. You have to come in with a strong set of Progressive ideas and then find common ground. You're starting on the common ground and moving ever more to the right, only to be stabbed in the back at every turn by the very Republicans who set your current agenda.

The question is: when will Barack Obama have his tipping point? When will he finally realize it's time to stop pandering and start fighting for the people who put him in office?When will that Andrew Shepherd moment come?

As I write this, the billionaires who control the Republican party and their corporate-friendly media are preparing to spend millions upon millions of dollars to get an extremist elected President in 2012. Rick Perry is a money-hoarding, power-hungry Texan who has run his own state into the ground at the expense of infrastructure and public servants like teachers, police officers, fire fighters and forest rangers, and he is the current front runner. If ever there was a Bob Rumson - the devious, hateful character from The American President - this is the guy.

America can't afford another right-wing extremist from Texas, and if we're not careful that's exactly what we'll get.

It's time to take the gloves off, Mr. President. It's time to get back to your Progressive roots, to fight for the middle class and the poor, to stop pandering to those who only care about giving tax breaks to the extremely wealthy. It's time to reclaim the language of politics - let Americans know that when Republicans talk about the corporate billionaires as job creators that they're talking about creating jobs in India, China, Vietnam, and Korea at the expense of American jobs.

You fight the fights that need fighting, Sir, and this one definitely needs to be fought. Americans voted you their President in a landslide election, so what does it tell you that your approval rating is now hovering in the upper 20's?

The time is now. You can do it. All of us who are actually paying attention want to be behind you, we want to believe in you like we did when we saw you speak at the 2006 Democratic Convention, like we did when you inspired in us the audacity to hope for a better country. We're here, Sir, waiting for the change, hanging on to our last ounces of hope.

"We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson [John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Rick Perry] is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. ... This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President."

Mr. President? Are you out there? The time for your Andrew Shepherd moment, if you have one in you, is now.


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