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Friday, December 26, 2014

Last Christmas with my dad

WARNING: Contains Doctor Who spoilers through "Last Christmas."

As I write this, I am sitting in my niece’s old bedroom in my brother’s house, my temporary home for the week. I am Dad-sitting. Dad, who is now 86, has lived with my brother for the past six months, ever since his dementia progressed to the point where he could no longer live on his own. I can only imagine how hard this has been on my brother and his wife. They are away on a much-needed vacation, and I am staying with Dad to keep an eye on things and to fill in where there are gaps in the home health aide schedule.

It’s so difficult, seeing Dad like this. It’s gotten to the point where he either sleeps most of his day away, or he is visibly agitated about some imagined appointment he must keep, or he prattles on nonsensically, using words and phrases reminiscent of his old self – “…it is a well known phenomenon…,” “…in Europe before the war…,” “…I have had no communication…” – but trailing off into meaningless non-sequiturs. Simple activities like walking to the bathroom, getting dressed, and eating meals present great challenges, not because he is physically unable to do them, but because he becomes confused and lost mid-act, and no amount of explanation seems to help.

My father was a professor, a philosopher, a theologian. There’s the obvious irony of a strong intellect brought low by a disease of the mind. But for me, the worst part isn’t watching this scholar – this man not infrequently referred to as a great thinker [“perhaps the most original Jewish theologian of the past half century,” wrote one rabbi] -- struggling to remember how to put on his pants. It’s watching my father – my FATHER -- struggling to remember how to put on his pants.

My father. He and I have had our differences over the years, and as I grew older I learned to see his flaws, but that never changed the fact that he was the quintessential father: steady, reliable, hard-working, strong, devout. Both my parents were brilliant, but Dad was the one who took care of things, who managed all the practical details while making his expectations crystal clear: Get an education, live a life of the mind, be a good Jew. I was never sure I’d measured up to any of these; I know he was disappointed with my choices on the latter, though eventually his affection for me, and even more for my children, impelled him to treat us with unfailing kindness.

The man with whom I’ve spent the past week has shown flashes of his old self, but my father is being steadily erased by the chaotic malfunctioning of his broken brain. Dad is here and not here simultaneously. He is less here all the time.

Christmas day, yesterday, was especially challenging. For one thing, I was on my own with no aide during the day. And for another, he chose this day – or to be more precise, evening, as that seems to be when he is most wakeful – to become really agitated about a delusion that recurs from time to time: that someone from the IRS is coming to conduct some unnamed, urgent, unpleasant business. He repeatedly checked the front door to see if someone was coming [an alarming habit, as he has more than once wandered outside], and he paced fretfully in anticipation of the dreaded visit [also an alarming habit, as he is unsteady on his feet and was injured in a fall just this Thanksgiving].

Finally, he tired himself out and lay down for a nap. This was my opportunity to do the one thing I’d been looking forward to all day: watch the Doctor Who Christmas special, “Last Christmas.”

I love Doctor Who. I wasn’t a fan as a kid – it was always Star Trek for me – but ever since the 2005 relaunch, I’ve fallen in love with the British madman in a box, all the more so since Steven Moffat took over as show runner in 2010. His intricate stories and nuanced characters, wrapped in the fluffy fantasy of family-friendly sci fi, are my idea of perfect escapism – pop-culture myth-making at its best.

So with Dad safely tucked into bed, for the time being at least, I settled down to watch. I may not celebrate Christmas, but I felt like I could use a good dose of the kind of adventurous, wistful nostalgia Doctor Who could be relied upon to dish up at this time of year. Christmas specials are designed as treats for the kids, so you know that, after all the terror and dashing about, there will be a happy ending. I needed a happy ending.

And of course, I got one. But here’s what I didn’t expect: Along the way, I got a very adult-strength shot of reality -- very immediate, and not a little painful.

At one point, Clara, the Doctor’s companion, trapped in a dream state, finds herself at home on Christmas day with the love of her life, Danny – who died in last season’s finale. The dream is a kind of trap that keeps her helpless while an alien feasts on her brain. The Doctor finds a way to enter her dream and urges her to reject it,  wake up, return to reality, and save herself. The Danny of her dream, so real to her – and after all, don’t we tell ourselves that our memories keep our loved ones alive? -- urges her to miss him for only five minutes a day and then get on with her life, because he is dead.

“Do you know why people get together at Christmas?” he asks her. “Because every time they do, it might be the last time. Every Christmas is last Christmas.”

A lump swelled in my throat. Surely, this is my last Christmas with my father. It makes no difference that Christmas is just a date on the calendar for us. Whatever the coming year holds, I don’t think there will be even a glimmer of my dad left by next December 25.

Is there anyone my age who heard that line and didn’t react the same way? Anyone of any age who has felt the sting of loss, or who knows he or she soon will, who didn’t shed a tear? We mark the turnings of the seasons, the year’s end, the milestones, with gatherings of friends and family because, for each of us, there will be a last one. It’s not a truth we generally speak aloud, but we all know it.

“Last Christmas” is about the nightmare of dreams within dreams within dreams; about not knowing the dream from the reality. In the end, the characters are returned to their own realities – awakened -- by Santa Claus and a Time Lord, as absurd and unlikely a pair as any you could dream up. But of course, it doesn’t end there. There is one last awakening. I turn off the TV; Santa and the Time Lord disappear, and I am back in my niece’s old room in my brother’s house, with a father who is with me for one last Christmas.

It’s a funny thing about Doctor Who lately: It’s a family show that often seems to be speaking more to the adults in the room. But I guess that’s what happens when an old, old show about an old, old time traveler is taken over by a middle-aged fan. Steven Moffat grew up with Doctor Who; now Doctor Who is growing up with Steven Moffat.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Five things Americans are less pissed off about than Sony



So Sony pulled The Interview. Americans are pissed off about being deprived of their god-given right to watch a [probably bad, but I’ll never know] comedy that was intended to outrage the very people it outraged. It’s at least worth considering the possibility that canceling an event in reaction to threats of violence isn’t totally nuts. But let’s stop for a minute and think about what Americans aren’t much pissed off about:


  1. Our computer networks seem to be about as secure as a bag of money left in a taxi cab. It’s not just musicals about orphans [whoops, foster children] and comedies about vicious dictators. Our credit card information has been stolen repeatedly, but that doesn’t seem to bother people nearly as much. 
  2. While Americans are outraged when they are unjustly inconvenienced in their movie-viewing choices, in other parts of the world, people are frequently terrified to send their kids to school or to visit the market for fear of a deadly attack [remember the Peshawar school massacre? That happened TUESDAY?]. This doesn’t mean Sony did or didn’t do the right thing [though you must admit, schools have been closed on equally vague threats in America, because do you really want to be the one who made the wrong call?], but it reflects what might be called American privilege: obliviousness to the injustices and harsh realities faced by People Who Are Not Us, simply by virtue of the fact that they live in places where our military goes TO, not where it comes FROM.
  3. If by some chance the North Koreans did decide to mount an attack on an American movie theater, obtaining assault rifles with which to do it would be the LEAST of their problems. Because FREEDOM.
  4. In a world where a foreign power breaks scandalous Hollywood stories via cyber-espionage that dominate endless news cycles for weeks on end, our formerly respected news outlets can no longer be bothered to fact-check their own investigative reports. [See this and this.]  This is not to say that our news outlets should commit cyber-espionage. Just that they should make a serious effort to offer something better.
  5. North Korea. The actual North Korea. Do all the people tweeting their ire at Sony even know the truth about North Korea, let alone ever stop to think whether it’s the appropriate subject for light comedy? Did Seth Rogen and James Franco ask a human rights activist what he thought of their movie idea? If they had, this is the answer they might have gotten: “But it takes no valor and costs precious little to joke about these things safely oceans away from North Korea’s reach. When a North Korean inmate in a political prison camp or a closely monitored Pyongyang apparatchik pokes fun at Kim Jong Un and the system he represents—that is an act of audacity. It very literally can cost the person’s life, and those of his or her family members. To pretend that punchlines from afar, even in the face of hollow North Korean threats, are righteous acts is nonsense….North Korea is not funny.” [Adrian Hong]

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

At American universities, "privilege" is a Greek word

UPDATE: So Rolling Stone is backing off the story:
In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.
Really, Rolling Stone? Do you have no journalistic standards at all? You didn't think about the fact that this story would be a massive bombshell? That it would be taken as the poster child for a larger problem, and that by not getting it right, you'd be handing ammunition to those who deny the larger problem? That by having to now say you're not sure of the truth, you are putting the victim, if she is a victim, through a new hell? Or conversely, that you damaged reputations in irreparable ways, if in fact the accused were innocent or perhaps never existed? 

One thing is certain: By shilly-shallying, you've set the fight against rape culture on campus back years. Screw you.

___________________________________________________

Following up on my last post, From U of P, 1980, to UVA, 2014:

So the president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, made a speech in response to the Rolling Stone rape story.

Is UVA closing the frats?

“Sullivan said she is working with fraternal organizations — which have all been suspended until January — on new contracts, or fraternal organization agreements, that will help ensure safety for attendees at social events.”

How do you spell “privilege”? I’m pretty sure you spell it in GREEK.

When do the universities stop putting their institutional interest in pandering to rich frat alumni over the safety of their students?

When does the idea finally sink in that fraternities don’t just have a rape problem, they are built on a foundation of rape culture?

When do they take note of the fact that the kind of thing that came out in the Rolling Stone story has been going on in frats all over the country for DECADES, regardless of efforts to reform the system?

How many more chances do fraternities get?

When is enough enough?


Monday, November 24, 2014

From U of P, 1980, to UVA, 2014

Rolling Stone reports the story of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.  UVA, having essentially done nothing about the allegations before learning of the impending publicity storm, now reacts with crocodile tears, feigned outrage, and the suspension of fraternities.  

As my high school history teacher was fond of saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In September 1980, I arrived on campus at the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman after a gap year abroad. On my very first day, a high school friend who had started the previous year took me on a tour around campus.

We walked down Locust Walk, the heart of the university, lined with beautiful old buildings, many of them fraternity houses.

“Stay out of that one,” my friend said. “They rape women there. And that one. That one too. And definitely that one.”

I thought maybe she was exaggerating, but our shared history of burgeoning teenage feminism made me take mental notes of the houses she pointed out.  I wasn’t the frat party type anyway, but this seemed information worth filing away for future reference.

It wasn’t long before I realized my friend wasn’t crazy. There was something seriously wrong on Locust Walk.

Starting around 5:00 that first Friday -- the end of my very first week on campus -- and every Friday thereafter for as long as the nice weather lasted, the brothers of most of those Locust Walk frats rolled out a keg, sat on their porches and hung out of open windows, catcalling every woman who went by. Dozens and dozens of young men lined that walk right in the middle of campus, hooting and whistling and yelling some of the most offensive shit I’ve ever heard. Right there for everyone to see. It was the most appalling, threatening public display of misogyny I’ve ever experienced, before or since. I found it really depressing that many girls responded flirtatiously, stopping to engage in banter, accepting invitations to come on in. I couldn’t believe how many of my peers saw compliments where I saw attacks.

I went to only one frat party Freshman year. It was a loud, drunken, unappealing affair that confirmed what I already knew: I wasn’t the frat party type. My friends and I soon left. But as the year went on, I heard the stories – we all did – from young women who’d gone to frat parties, gotten “too drunk,” and “done things.” One evening, an African-American woman in my dorm [one of the very few who chose not to live in Du Bois House – if I remember correctly, there were all of two African-Americans living in the Quad that year] told me about all the white boys who’d picked her up at frat parties and slept with her, only to ignore her the next day; one boy actually came out and told her that he’d just wanted to be able to tell his friends he’d slept with a black girl. “You don’t think I’m a slut, do you?” she drunkenly asked me over and over. “Of course not,” I replied. And I didn’t. But I didn’t yet have the insight to understand just how badly she must have been hurting, or why she blamed herself. Another evening, a close friend who was the classic college binge drinker, and who frequented frat parties mostly for the free beer, confided that she had passed out the night before at a party and woken up with a guy on top of her. "I was too drunk," she said sadly.

We didn't think to report these things; we didn't think of it as rape.

Sophomore year brought some new twists. I moved off-campus and almost completely avoided the on-campus scene, and especially the frats. But there was more unpleasantness in store. I’d become friends with a woman who was overweight, and walking around campus with her opened up a whole new world of horrible. Instead of the whistles and sexual remarks that thin women heard regularly, she was routinely insulted. Over and over.  Once, while we waited on line for an on-campus midnight  movie, we were surrounded by a pack of drunk young men who called her names like “fat pig” and “ugly cow,” told her how offensive and disgusting she was, and that she should go home so they wouldn’t have to look at her.  No, we didn’t report these incidents, either. They happened in very public spaces, sometimes a stone’s throw from the university president’s and campus security offices. I guess we figured that everyone knew this went on; if someone was going to do something about it, they would have already.

I spent my Junior year in London. That’s where the news reached me of the gang rape at ATO [Alpha Tao Omega]. Someone – it turned out she was a friend of a friend – had been very high [on acid, I was told] at an ATO party, and she was raped by 5 or 6 frat boys. My friends back home were attending rallies demanding justice. The frat crowd [lots of them, not just at ATO] were blaming the victim for being too shitfaced. The story hit the national news. The university, embarrassed, booted ATO out. The rapists were sent to sensitivity training; not one was expelled. No criminal charges were brought. The victim wound up in a psych ward for a while, I heard from our mutual friend.  I don’t know if she ever returned to Penn.

By the time I returned to Penn for my Senior year, the campus seemed to have settled into multiple personalities: Feminist students staged protests and marched for women’s safety, while the frats partied on as if nothing had happened.

When I read the Rolling Stone story this week [and I confess, I only read part of it – I didn’t have the stomach for the whole thing], all I could think was, my daughter will go to college in two years, and nothing will have changed.

Nothing.

I really have no words for how sad and afraid this makes me. I feel just as helpless as I did 34 years ago, walking down Locust Walk while a bunch of privileged brats hurled filthy insults at me within sight of College Hall.

American universities, I am begging you: Close the frats down NOW. The Greek system is a breeding ground for abusers. Do NOT give us some shit about how it wouldn’t be fair to punish them all for the offenses of a few. When a system promotes a problem, the system must be changed. Just as we all knew what went on in those houses when I was an undergraduate, we also know the universities protect the frats because they are centers of power and privilege, and the institutions are loathe to piss off rich frat alumni. But as long as you protect them, you, the universities, share their guilt. You are still sweeping the problem under the rug, sacrificing students for money.

And yes, I know that plenty of campus sexual abuse goes on outside the frat system. By all means, deal with that too. Educate boys not to be rapists. Bring criminal charges where they’re warranted. Educate girls to recognize threats [no, it is not blaming the victim to tell young women the truth about rape culture]. Beef up resources and support on campus. Crack down on any behavior that makes the campus a hostile environment for young women.

But CLOSE DOWN THE FRATS. If you don’t, we will know that universities still put the almighty dollar above the safety of their female students. We’ll know that anything else you say or do is utter bullshit.

In the meantime, if you’re an upperclasswoman, take a freshwoman on a campus tour. Show her the places she should avoid, whether they be frats, dorms or off-campus houses. Don’t beat around the bush. Tell her, “They rape women there.” You know the places I’m talking about. We all do. It won’t prevent every rape, or even most. But forewarned is forearmed and knowledge is power. Basically, the least we can do is tell each other the truth: The university does NOT have your best interest at heart, and that’s why we’re still talking about frat rape.

ETA: Some info and opinions from around the Internet:

  U.Va. not the only university with a Greek problem - USA Today 
"...But Virginia isn't the only university dealing with Greek life dilemmas surrounding both sexual violence and student safety more generally.... 
"For years, [Douglas Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in representing victims of school violence] says, universities 'have decided to buy, hook line and sinker, the premise that fraternities can effectively self-manage,' putting students at risk. When violence or injuries happen at frat houses, neither the fraternity nor the university 'tells the public in any significant way,' he says. '`You don't call it an 'incident' if it's murder. You don't call it a 'risk' if it's rape.'... 
"'Fraternities have presented unique risks to women across the country for decades and neither they nor universities have been honest about the problem or properly managed the risks so that women would be safe,' Fierberg says. 'Neither tells the truth.'
He noted one risk-management association's observation that, as far back as the mid-1980s, fraternities were ranked as the sixth worst risk in the insurance industry — the seventh was the hazardous waste disposal industry."
End Fraternities - Gawker
"The right time to bring back the fraternities is never... 
"The events reported in that story are an especially gruesome version of an act that is far too common at America's fraternities—according to a 2007 study, men who enter fraternities are three times as likely to commit rape as their fellow students who do not. It is past time for the country's colleges and universities to shut down their fraternity systems, entirely and forever.... 
"Phi Kappa Psi, like all fraternities, exists to teach bad values to developing young men. Sent off to campus to educate themselves as individuals, fraternity members instead learn to subordinate their values and plans to a collective. After a torturous and dehumanizing selection process, fraternity members are able to write a check and purchase 30 new friends; it's not surprising that they would see sex—pour a drink, girl is yours—as similarly transactional."
Why the University of Virginia Should Ban Fraternities Permanently - Bustle
"And then, beyond my fury, there was guilt. I know that these crimes come as a surprise to a lot of the university’s alumni, to those who were not personally affected by sexual assault during their time at UVA, and had no reason to look into the statistics. But I knew. Everyone in my Gender and Violence class knew. It is heartening to see the people at the university rallying for change now, but what about last year, or the year before that, or the year before that? 
"We’d all been silent. And in our discomfort, in our silence, we had all let this happen for far too long."
Horrific Gang Rape At UVA Reopens The Debate About Whether We Should Ban Frats - ThinkProgress
"Indeed, frats across the country have become infamous for fostering a culture that allows sexual violence and misogyny to thrive. Just last month, the Texas Tech chapter of the international fraternity Phi Delta Theta was stripped of its charter after displaying a banner reading 'No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal' at one of its parties. There are countless other examples of colleges making national headlines for the bad behavior of their Greek members — everything from circulating emails about “how to lure your rapebait,” to printing T-shirts about 'roasting' fat girls, to being accused of so many sexual assaults that their frat house gets nicknamed the 'Rape Factory.'"

Friday, November 7, 2014

No gift, please. And screw Emily Post.

How about this: Next time you’re throwing a party for your kid – birthday, bar or bat mitzvah, sweet 16, graduation, whatever -- put these words on every invitation going to your kid’s friends: “No gift, please.”

 Just for their friends. Not for the adults, whose circumstances you probably know better. You might have to print up two different invitations – or you could hand write it on some – or you could add an insert in the envelope. “No gift, please.”

 I know Emily Post says it’s rude to mention gifts on the invitation, even if it’s to ask that people refrain from bringing them. Screw Emily Post.

 I’ve been meaning to write about this for the last couple of years, ever since my twins’ bar mitzvah. But what reminded me today was this article titled, "How I Realized Child Hunger Hits Everyone Close To Home”:

 “Child hunger in America is often something you don't ‘see’ or suspect is close to you, but there we were in an affluent area I knew quite well, interviewing hungry kids who live just blocks away from million dollar homes. I realized for the first time, 'If child hunger can exist here, it can exist anywhere.'” 

 Those words brought me right back to the bar mitzvah – or rather, one particular incident.

 We were lucky enough to be able to throw a big shindig for our twins – not big by some standards, but still big: buffet luncheon after the service Saturday, and a kids-only all-day trip to an indoor water park on Sunday. As one does in preparation for these things, I asked the kids to give me a list of the friends they wanted to invite. After much prodding, they did; the list included kids from their public school, summer camp, and Hebrew school. I had invitations printed and sent them out to everyone on my list and theirs. Simple.

 A couple of weeks before the event, one of my kids came home from school and told me that a girl he’d invited, M., had asked him what kind of gift she was “supposed” to give. I gave him the standard easy answer: Any gift is fine, but many people give money in multiples of $18 [the value of the word “chai,” or “life,” in Hebrew numerology]. I just figured the kid wasn’t Jewish, so neither she nor her parents had any idea how this whole bar mitzvah thing worked.

Sure enough, when the time came, this sweet kid showed up with an $18 gift and seemed to have a blast with her friends.

 And that would have been that…except it wasn’t.

 Just a couple of weeks after the bar mitzvah, my kids came home from school breathless with excitement.

 “M. won a house!”

 “What? A house?”

 “And the TV news came to school!”

 “Wait…what do you mean she won a house?”

 The whole story soon came out. It was everywhere, including news reports. M. and her family had been living in homeless shelters and provisional housing for four years, ever since their home went into foreclosure. She was the oldest of four. Her mother was a single parent; two of the kids had health problems. Twelve-year-old M. had taken it upon herself to enter a TV "Dream Home Giveaway" contest, writing a letter explaining her family’s circumstances. “Our only dream is to have a house of our own where we can live together as a family,” M. wrote. Out of 10,000 entrants – she won.

 Had she not won, I probably never would have discovered my error: M. probably wasn’t clueless about bar mitzvahs. She was probably worried about the cost of the gift. I was the clueless one.

I had made a stupid, thoughtless assumption about my kids’ friends, and I had learned some really unpleasant things about my own subconscious prejudices, liberal pride be damned. [A question that has plagued me ever since: Had M. not been white, would I have stopped to think of her financial circumstances?]

 In the three years since all this occurred, I’ve kicked myself countless times. I’d thought I was being considerate, mentioning a paltry sum like $18. Paltry for us, maybe. I should have told my kid to tell M., “No gift needed. Just come and celebrate with us.” But I just didn’t think.

 How may times have other kids been placed in this awkward position? Countless, no doubt. How simple it would have been: “No gift required.”

 Next time.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

NJ waves its magic data wand and makes poverty disappear



When New Jersey Monthly magazine releases its biennial high school rankings, everyone from school administrators to real estate agents eagerly scan the list to see how it can help [or hurt] them. But quite possibly, what's most important here is not what's on the chart, but what isn't.

The 2012 chart included a category called DFG, which stands for District Factor Grouping, a letter ranking assigned by the state to each school district indicating the socioeconomic status of district residents, from poorest [A] to wealthiest [J]. You could easily skim down the list and see that nearly all the top high schools were in the wealthiest districts. [Other than McNair Academic, a Jersey City magnet school in the number 2 slot in a B district, you have to go down to number 50 just to get to an F district; there are a very few Cs and Ds in the whole top 100.]

But the 2014 chart? DFG disappears. Why? Because in 2013, the state stopped reporting DFG in its “school reports cards,” replacing it with something called peer group rankings , which are not at all the same thing [more on that stupidity from Jersey Jazzman here].

Now, why would the Christie administration, which is heavily invested in blaming teachers and their unions for low test scores and poor outcomes, make such a change? Could it possibly be an attempt to obscure the otherwise obvious fact that low test scores and poor academic outcomes are closely correlated to high poverty? Could they be trying to bury the truth about this lockstep relationship in order to advance their stupid reformy idea that charters, high-stakes testing and accountability will fix what ails school districts located in pockets of deep poverty?

Worse yet, why are we allowing a change in data reporting to distort the conversation, instead of focusing on the devastating effects of economic inequality on public education?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Eliminate tenure and it gets a little chilly at school

Without tenure, every teacher is the pawn and puppet of whoever happens to be the most powerful person in the building today. Without tenure, anybody can shoulder his way into the classroom and declare, ‘You're going to do things my way, or else.’

That’s from the wonderful blog Curmudgucation, written by Peter Greene [if you’re appalled by the attacks on public education that pass for reform these days, you really should follow his blog].  His point is that tenure gives teachers the freedom to do their jobs right, without the threat of dismissal hanging over their heads.

This reminded me of an incident related to me by a math teacher I know. I’m sharing it because I think it illustrates perfectly how tenure’s guarantee of due process empowers good teachers to do the right thing.

The state of New Jersey had recently introduced a required algebra test, and the administration in our district hadn’t been very pleased with the results. So they decided to bring a consultant into the high school to make recommendations on boosting the test scores. The thing is, many students don’t take algebra in high school, where it’s a ninth-grade course. Some take it in middle school. In fact, in our district, many students take algebra in eighth grade, and a smaller number in seventh.

So the consultant came in, did his thing, and presented his recommendations to the high school. But the district, presumably in an effort to get its money’s worth out of this consultant, decided that his recommendations should be adopted in the middle school as well. So the fellow was duly trotted out at a meeting of the middle school math faculty, where  he proceeded to repeat his dog and pony show.

The thing is, there’s one obvious difference between teaching algebra in high school and teaching it in middle school. Generally, kids taking algebra in ninth grade are not the strongest math students; kids taking it in middle school are. This math teacher, who’d been teaching the middle school’s top math students for years, was appalled by the recommendations being offered. It was obvious to a teacher with a wealth of experience that the methods being proposed would be a real turn-off to strong math students who learn the subject more quickly and easily.

So the teacher spoke up and forcefully challenged the recommendations – persuasively enough so that they were not adopted in the middle school.

“Good thing I have tenure,” the teacher added as the story drew to a close. “I would never have spoken up otherwise.”

This little tale is the perfect illustration of tenure’s role in the delicate public school ecosystem. On one side, you have an administration that’s understandably concerned with the results on a state-mandated test. They decide to throw some money at the problem in the form of a paid outside consultant, who may or may not have some great ideas on improving algebra performance in high school. But once the decision has been made to spend money, the administrators seek to maximize the return on their dollar, as administrators are wont to do. They assume that they’ve purchased a one-size-fits-all solution, and the more widely it’s implemented, the greater their test-points-per-dollar return on investment. After all, algebra is algebra, right?

Enter the classroom teacher, who has taught algebra to enough different groups of students to realize that, while algebra is algebra, not every student learns algebra the same way. The solution being imposed from on high is not one-size-fits-all and will be a disaster in the honors and accelerated math classrooms at the middle school, into which kids have been placed precisely because they are adept math learners.

With tenure, that teacher can take a chance. Pushing back on administrators is risky business, after all. It’s not easy to tell the boss he’s wrong. But with the knowledge that respectful dissent cannot be a firing offense – because of tenure – the teacher can go out on a limb, challenge the powers that be, and make the case against adopting a pedagogical strategy doomed to fail.

But without tenure, the teacher sitting in the back of the room at that meeting has to wonder: “Is it worth risking my job to fight this? Clearly, the principal and superintendent are already convinced that this is the way to go. If they wanted the teachers’ opinions, they would have asked us. Maybe I can change their minds. But what if I can’t? What if my opposition is taken as insubordination? Do I really want to take that chance?”

That’s the chilling effect of job insecurity. Without tenure, the voice of the experienced teacher is muffled; kids lose out.

The obvious objection is going to be, “But that’s how it works everywhere else. In most workplaces, people don’t have a guarantee of a high level of due process. Why should schools be any different?”

The answer, of course, is that not all jobs are created equal. If your business makes widgets, and some consultant recommends a stupid change to the process, the chilling effect will at worst result in the business’s diminished profitability. So what? If the company chooses to keep in management someone who takes bad advice and creates a climate where employees are afraid to speak up, so be it. If they eventually go out of business because of their unresponsive management style, someone else will make widgets.

But – let’s say it all together, now – children are not widgets. We can't just flush this batch and hope to do better with the next one. For their sake, the bar must be set higher. Tenure is part of the checks-and-balances system that allows teachers in the classrooms to be assertive advocates for good pedagogical practices. It’s no guarantee – and yes, tenure might sometimes serve as an obstacle [though not an insurmountable one] to dismissing a bad teacher. But tenure can be modified to streamline the dismissal process for the small percentage of bad teachers. Abolishing tenure outright, on the other hand, would silence all teachers.


This cool illustration comes from here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Five reasons my kid's still in Israel

I am one of those parents they’ve been talking about on the news who has a teenager on a trip in Israel as the Gaza violence drags on and on. Well, that’s life. We often get what we didn’t ask for, and we get handed difficult decisions we’d rather not make.

So here are five reasons a Ramaz-graduate-turned-lefty-Reform Jewish mother from New Jersey kept her kid in Israel when the rockets started falling. (Spoiler alert: It’s complicated.)

1. I didn’t drink the blue Kool Aid. I know that Israel isn’t some goldene medina where Jews till the land all day and dance the hora all night, or whatever the 21st century equivalent of that myth might be (program smartphone apps all day and go clubbing in Tel Aviv all night?). The blue Kool Aid of good old-fashioned Zionist propaganda makes Israel seem too easy. But I don’t  believe that everything will be easy because some divine destiny gives us ultimate right to the land, or because the Jews are the good guys and the Arabs are the bad guys, or because the IDF is a cross between the Avengers and the Transformers. I know that if I want my kid to learn about Israel, understand Israel, even love Israel, he had better be prepared to deal with one big goddamn unholy mess. There will be no easy answers, no idyllic safe haven. I sent my kid to a place perched on a razor’s edge among hostile neighbors, angry refugees, arrogant theocrats, intransigent ideologues, hopeless bigots, and deluded religious extremists. But it’s also a diamond in the rough, a place that makes one giddy with the heady mixture of history, art, culture, natural beauty, spirituality, and more Jews than he’s ever imagined existed. And that matters.

2. I didn’t drink the red Kool Aid, either. I  want my kid to know that Israel isn’t South Africa, some artifact of Eurocentric colonialism created by people whose main goal was to build empire and wealth. It wasn’t established by racists who saw the locals as animals whose existence could be ignored, or better yet, exploited for profit. Those who’ve drunk the red Kool Aid are quick to dismiss the whole project of Israel as a banal evil. But I want my kid to know that the modern state of Israel exists because the bloody, broken survivors of Europe’s greatest man-made catastrophe limped across the world to a place that called to them and spoke to their hearts; they were drawn to a hope they desperately wanted to believe in. Then they opened the door wide for their extended family the world over, and they simply counted on the idea that somehow it would all work out in the end, despite the inevitable displacement of people who were there first, because how could the world shit on the Jews any more than Hitler already had? So was the whole thing a winning proposition? Well, no, but it was what it was. History happens. I hope my kid comes to believe that the Jews who flocked to Israel had much more compelling, humane reasons than the Boers or the Puritans. I want my kid to understand that the fruit of that desperate 20th-century Jewish migration is bittersweet, not evil or murderous. And I hope he does not shy away from confronting the bitter irony in starting a trip in the vanished Jewish centers and preserved death camps of Eastern Europe, and finishing it in a war-torn land created as a Jewish refuge from unspeakable violence.

3. Like so many other experiences we give our kids, travel requires us to find the courage to accept some risk so that they can grow. Hell, everything in life requires us to accept some risk so that our kids can grow. If I wanted my kid to learn about the Middle East from a completely safe vantage point, I would have taken him to the library instead of the airport. When I was young, my parents took me to Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Budapest, Berlin, then Israel – and this was in the 1970s, when few Westerners dared set foot behind the Iron Curtain. I learned then that travel, when it is not easy, opens the eyes and the mind.

4. With that said, it’s all about risk assessment. Look, I have ideals, sure, but I’m not looking to sacrifice my kid’s life just to make a point. But I can read a map and a newspaper. Much of Israel is out of range of Gaza rockets. The nice folks at NFTY aren’t looking to create martyrs, and they’re going to do their damnedest to keep the kids in their care far from where the rockets fall. There was a point in this conflict when I was worried about a northern front, but that didn’t materialize. I have no doubt if it had, NFTY would have pulled the plug.

5. I look forward to the day when my kid comes home with stories, ideas and opinions about Israel that were formed by reality, not by the dumbed down utopian version on display in American Hebrew schools and Yeshivas, or by the shrill anti-Semitism that seems to be proliferating everywhere else. Yes, I know that a NFTY trip has a pro-Israel agenda. And contrary to what my more right-wing Orthodox friends might think, I don't actually mind, within limits. I have a pro-Israel agenda, too -- just not one that relies on myth, propaganda, or wishful thinking. More importantly, my kid has a good yiddishe kopf. He thinks for himself. I had hoped that the progressive penchant of liberal Reform Judaism would bring some balance to a NFTY trip; I have no doubt that the bloody conflict in Gaza forced difficult issues to the fore. How could I bring my kid home because the difficult, nuanced, complex reality I’m always going on about was getting a little too difficult and real?

As I write this, I’ve just learned that flights from Israel have been suspended and NFTY is working on alternatives. I don’t know when my kid will get home. The saga continues, and my nerves fray more with each passing day…

FRIDAY UPDATE: There's good news, and other less good news.

The good news is that, after some back and forth (flight cancelled, new flight arranged, original flight uncancelled), it looks like my kid is coming home on schedule.

The other news is that, during the 24 hours during which it looked like the group would be spending a few extra days in Israel, a program was put together for them that included an opportunity to discuss the current situation in Gaza with someone described in the email from NFTY as "an expert on the Middle East conflict." I was really happy to see that. I thought it was a brilliant use of the time, and a great opportunity for the kids. Until I looked up the "expert," Neil Lazarus. It turns out that what he's an expert at is hasbara, i.e. pro-Israel PR, i.e. propaganda. In other words, he serves blue Kool Aid. I was really disappointed in NFTY, though by now, I really shouldn't be surprised. See for yourself.



SATURDAY UPDATE: Just spoke at length with my kid on his last day in Israel (probably). As I expected, he said the Gaza conflict pretty much undermined NFTY's blue Kool Aid agenda, and there's been a lot of discussion of the situation among the kids and counselors. In particular, he said, they've had the opportunity to hear a wide range of opinions, left, right, and center, from the Israeli teens who joined the group for part of the trip. And, like much of Israel, events in Gaza have not affected his day-to-day experience very much. In fact, he's had a blast. I'm sure he realizes how much more fortunate he is than those who don't have an Iron Dome, or who fill the boots on the ground. Maybe someday, when the jet lag is gone, he'll write his own update, which I'll post here.

Friday, May 9, 2014

I’m not making this up

The New York Times informs me that not wearing makeup is in. I would like to jump on this opportunity to declare myself the progenitor of this trend, as I have been way out ahead of it pretty much since birth (with a few lapses here and there, which I chalk up to the wild experimentation of youth and the occasional flare-up of middle-aged insecurity. Also weddings and bar mitzvahs. And hypocrisy.).

Anyway, you’re welcome.

Ten thoughts on not wearing makeup in America:

1. Since I seem to be so good at predicting fashion, having spotted the no-makeup trend so very early, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict its speedy demise. Little-known fact: I’m also incredibly business savvy. I know that, if they can’t make money off of something, the fashion industry is not likely to stand by it for more than…oh, a nanosecond, maybe?

2. Not wearing makeup as a feminist statement and not wearing makeup as a matter of comfort and convenience are not mutually exclusive. In fact, being more concerned about comfort and convenience than about conformity and appearance IS a feminist statement.

3. A person who insists that not wearing makeup isn't a feminist statement either doesn’t know what feminism is or can't admit to it because she's afraid of the word. Okay, okay. I'm willing to entertain other possibilities as well. But I've cleverly confused the issue by putting so many negatives into one sentence that no one even knows exactly what I meant. We feminists fight dirty.

4. Women who always wear makeup are not necessarily unenlightened or anti-feminist. Unless, deep down, they really, really feel they have to wear it because they look terrible without it and people will think they’re ugly. Which, I suspect, is probably most women who always wear it. Anyway, you know who you are. I may be confusing insecurity with the internalization of conventional sexist values. Or I may be pointing out the that the former is the inevitable result of the latter. Yup. That’s it.

5. Even as I type, hundreds of new cosmetics ad campaigns that use words like “fresh,” “bare,” “natural,” and “nude” are undoubtedly being prepared in agencies up and down Madison Avenue. Their message: Now, you too can look like you have the confidence not to wear makeup without having the confidence not to wear makeup.

6. Think about this: Somewhere out there, some woman is kicking herself because she actually had makeup tattooed onto her face. (Yes, that’s a thing.) Not that she’d be the only one ever to regret a tattoo, but at least the woman who got a rose on her butt when she was 16 and drunk can say she was 16 and drunk, not middle-aged and deeply insecure.

7. Is anyone who has always worn makeup on a daily basis really going to stop because the New York Times says so? I guess, probably, for a little while, if they’re young enough. At least until the next zit.

8. Next thing you know, the fashion pages will be telling us it’s okay to wear sweats and sneakers. OUTSIDE. But don’t worry, that won’t last either. Pretty soon, fashionistas will once again be admonishing us that we must not “let ourselves go.” (Go where, one wonders? I guess, if it’s where one goes when one wears sweats, sneakers and no makeup, I already live there. I’d better clean out the guest room for when the rest of the degenerates arrive.)

9. Do I sound just a little sarcastic? Maybe even scornful? Bitter, even? Why, yes. Yes I do. No punchline here. Just, yes.

10. So what will be the next big thing after the no-makeup look becomes history? I’m going with full latex face masks. After all, we burned our bras, and now we have Spanx.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

SAID NO DOCTOR EVER

So apparently, uber-reformy, Christie-appointed Newark schools superintendent Cami Anderson likes to compare herself to a surgeon. Her sister is a surgeon, so apparently that’s why Cami knows all about it. Surgeons, she says, get to do Big Lifesaving Things all on their own, without the hoi polloi breathing down their necks and telling them what to do. Just like school superintendents should. Makes perfect sense, right?

That’s the argument she made during a recent public appearance caught on tape (scroll to the end to see for yourself). Peter Greene does a mighty good job of skewering Anderson’s fine bit o’ reasoning in his Curmudgucation blog. He points out, among other things, that before a surgeon does her thing, she has to gain the consent of the patient: “Before she could set foot in that operating room, she had to convince people that she had a plan, that the plan was good, and that they should agree to it.” Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan, quite obviously, has convinced no one. (Other than Star-Ledger editor Tom Moran, that is. He is mystifyingly easy.)

See, the thing is, Cami Anderson is an administrator. If she were an actual teacher, then maybe her analogy might have at least made a little sense. Of course, if she were an actual teacher, she wouldn’t be doing what she’s doing to Newark schools. And that’s the whole point, really. She’s not like the doctors on the front lines, saving patients’ lives. She’s more like the hospital administrator piling on the paperwork, imposing senseless bureaucratic requirements that prevent doctors from getting their jobs done, implementing cost-cutting measures that harm patients, and doing everything she can to please her bottom-line-oriented masters rather than the patient population her institution is meant to serve.

But since Ms. Anderson seems to like to imagine herself as a godlike physician with the power of life and death, and seems to believe her One Newark plan for Newark schools is just like heart surgery, let’s just see how what she’s actually done, and what she proposes to do, compare with what doctors would want for themselves and their patients. I call this little game, SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.



“Let’s help patients by closing down the medical facilities that serve vulnerable populations!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“Unveiled in December, the plan calls for the relocation, consolidation and closing of one-quarter of the schools in the state-run district.” nj.com



“After we’ve closed all the neighborhood medical facilities, let’s make people travel clear across town for their care!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“School spokeswoman Chanelle Figueroa said the district “has no details yet to share” about the transportation options referenced in the letter. There is no busing in Newark, and many parents said distance to schools is a major flaw in the reorganization plan.” nj.com



“As long as we’re closing hospitals and moving patients around, let’s do it in a way that violates patients’ rights!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“The choice, based on arbitrary and capricious classification, to subject disproportionate shares of low income and minority children to substantial disruption to their schooling, shifting many to schools under private governance, may substantially alter the rights of these children, their parents and local taxpayers.” New Jersey Education Policy Forum



“Let’s evaluate doctors by patient outcome with no regard to factors completely outside the doctor’s control and no transparency in the process!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“According to Baker, his and others' research has found that the methods used to determine one of New Jersey's primary measures of student progress, student growth percentiles, ‘are particularly bad - that they merely reflect the demography of the students served because they don't try to control for anything but prior scores.’ He added, ‘As a result, in New Jersey, the schools with more low-income kids, more nonproficient special education kids and so on have significantly lower growth percentiles,’ before clarifying that it was unclear what weight the student growth percentiles played in Newark's teacher evaluations. Documentation provided by the district did not state how teachers' annual evaluations were determined beyond including observations ‘from an outside, independent, experienced organization’ based on a ‘Framework for Effective Teaching.’ When asked, the district did not provide the name of the independent evaluators.” TruthOut



“Let’s punish people who speak out against plans to close hospitals in underserved communities!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“Five Newark public school principals were suspended indefinitely on Friday, including four who spoke at a community meeting opposing proposed changes to the state-run school district.” nj.com



“Let’s fire hundreds of experienced physicians and replace them with recent college graduates with some first aid training!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“Superintendent Cami Anderson, Governor Chris Christie‘s appointee, proposed a systematic overhaul of the school district in 2013 titled “One Newark.” The reform plan includes school closures, teacher layoffs, Teach for America hirings and changes to the district’s enrollment system for both traditional and charter schools.” Ballot News



“Let’s pay some doctors more than others for doing the same job, based on arbitrary, meaningless measures!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“To achieve fairness in the merit-pay system, policymakers will attempt to adopt objective measures of student learning, usually a test. But this approach leads to major pitfalls, such as narrowing the curriculum, gaming the system through teaching to the test, and victimizing struggling students and their families through blame or worse. In addition, the literature is full of challenges to the validity of even the most highly regarded tests (Popham, 2008; Wiliam, 2010). Besides, tests are typically designed to measure student learning—not instruction or teacher effectiveness.” ASCD



“Let’s use hundreds of thousands of dollars in donated funding to pay politically connected consultants instead of helping patients!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“One of every three dollars of private money spent so far in Newark’s bid to reform its schools has gone to consultants and contractors, many with ties to Mayor Cory Booker and acting state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, records show.” nj.com



“Let’s transfer all the very sickest patients out of the nicest hospitals and into the most run-down ones, then punish the doctors there when their patient outcomes are worse!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“I’ve explained that Newark charter schools in particular, persist in having an overall cream-skimming effect in Newark, creating demographic advantage for themselves and ultimately to the detriment of the district.” School Finance 101



“Let’s work for a boss appointed by a guy who thinks we’re lazy, good-for-nothing deadbeats protecting sweet, cushy jobs doing absolutely nothing all day!” SAID NO DOCTOR EVER.

“Nov 2, 2013 - Teacher Melissa Tomlinson calls Christie out on the failure factories comment during a campaign stop in Somers Point. The two have a brief exchange, during which Tomlinson said he told her "I'm tired of you people." According to the governor, what he actually said 'It's never enough for you people. No matter how much money I give, it's never enough for you people.'" nj.com



So if Cami Anderson WERE a doctor – would you want her to be YOUR doctor?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Turns out tznius is just what it says on the tin

I remember being a self-styled feminist grappling with the whole issue of tznius, or modesty, when I was in high school in Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school. The dress code required us to wear tops that were not low-cut, with sleeves at least halfway to the elbow, and skirts to the knee. (For some mysterious reason, they allowed miniskirts in the 1960s, when I was in elementary school. I think during that period the emphasis was more on “modern,” less on “Orthodox.” But I digress. Sorta.)

When I wasn’t busy hating the dress code for keeping me out of jeans, I told myself that it was kind of cool, because it was more of an attack on the shallow vanity and materialism at the core of the Western feminine ideal than a means of oppressing women and making them culpable for male sexual appetites. We were not going to fall prey to the hypersexualized, Madison Avenue-promoted image of the perfect teenage girl. Nope. Our Jewish culture was above all that. We were too busy contemplating the nature of good and evil, or something. In fact, tznius was the most feminist thing ever.

Of course, in order to stick with that interpretation, I really had to close one eye and squint the other one. For one thing, tznius was only applied to girls. There was no equivalent concept for boys. The male dress code – button-down shirt and tie – had more to do with looking like other Upper East Side prep schools than with anything inherently Jewish, including tznius. Apparently, Judaism did not see fit to build in protections against fashion marketing for boys. And that extra eye-squint? That was to avoid noticing that plenty of Ramaz girls were serious clothes horses, which they managed quite comfortably without violating the dress code.

Which brings me to today, and this article from the desperate-to-be-relevant online Jewish publication, Tablet. It reminds me that, as one former Ramaz history teacher used to tell us, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The title really says it all: “This Fashion Week, Dress Modestly While Staying Stylish.” So much for resisting fashion hype. It turns out shallow vanity and materialism are actually okay, and we have the word of Hadar Magazine fashion editor Jessica Gugenheim on that.

But that’s not all. She also tells us: “I think modest dressing lends any woman an air of sophistication. I think modestly dressed women command more respect; they use their minds rather than sexuality to get things done.”

Yup. That’s your choice: cover up and be respected, or play the slut card.

If I hadn’t ditched the whole thing years ago, at this point I’d be shutting both eyes tight and sticking my fingers in my ears to make a go of it. That would make driving really hard.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Orwellian Irony of Common Core

How many decades will it be before we can have a productive, reasonable conversation about national standards in education? I think many, and here’s why: The biggest, most successful push to date for national standards was co-opted by the data junkies of the current education reform movement, who married the idea of national standards to the misbegotten notion that data from standardized tests should be used to reward and punish teachers, kids and schools.

That’s incredibly unfortunate. National standards, done well, could solve certain problems that plague public education, like the influence of local and regional extremists on what happens in the classroom, or the elimination of important subjects to make room for the pedagogical flavor of the day, or the sacrifice of valuable traditional skills on the altar of new technology. When you read about a state school board modifying the social studies curriculum to include American exceptionalism, the insertion of intelligent design into the science curriculum, sex education programs that teach only abstinence, books banned from classrooms for content relating to sexual orientation or atheism, the replacement of foreign language instruction with computer programming, or the elimination of civics classes from public schools, you wonder why there isn’t a mechanism to protect kids from the stupidity of their elders. As with civil rights and the environment, national standards for education would be less easily manipulated and could be a powerful tool for progress.

I hear the objection now: What if the forces of stupid take control of the national discourse, and all those terrible things become part of the national standard to be imposed on every kid throughout the land?

Which is exactly why national standards are not a no-brainer and need to be discussed in a reasonable way. Personally, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue, though I tend to think that, as with civil rights, the tendency of the nation as a whole is more trustworthy than certain regional proclivities.

But as things stand now, we can’t even hope to have that discussion, because the education-industrial complex has gotten its mitts on the whole idea and hijacked it as a way to sell tests, testing technology and test-prep materials; to beat up the unions by predicating decisions on teacher tenure and merit pay on the results of those tests; and to privatize public education by touting magic silver-bullet charter schools that churn out better test scores through drill-and-kill practices. The name of their strategy? Common Core.

Meanwhile, parents are waking up to the data-driven nightmare their schools have become after years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, federal programs that encouraged the ballooning of high-stakes standardized testing. They're waking up, and they are not happy. They've been watching their kids become nervous wrecks over tests; seen schools scrap art, music and other subjects that don't appear on the tests; heard from teachers who are being directed to teach to the tests; and seen good schools labeled as failures because of scores on the tests. Their ire is being directed at the Common Core and the new tests being introduced under it, even though the testing problem has been upon us for quite some time.

Also contributing to the growing public animosity is the fact that, in some part of the country, knee-jerk opposition to national standards in anything has become the norm, whether it has to do with education, public health, guns, or voters' rights. That's why the Tea Party mob is breaking out the pitchforks on Common Core. Note that, despite what Tea Partiers might think, Common Core is not a federal program, but a set of standards created in the hope that all states would adopt them, making them a de facto national standard. Also note the irony of Tea Party opposition; many of the same education-industry players who stand to make a mint out of Common Core, and therefore promoted the hell out of it, are also the people who fomented the Tea Party mentality. It's a wonder the Kochs and Waltons of America didn't see this coming.

So now, for a wide variety of often contradictory reasons, the people are starting to rise up against the Common Core. In the short term, that’s a good thing, because the whole project has become more about testing and related data-driven reform than about actual standards. The pushback from parents could slow the onrushing Common Core train, stanch the hemorrhaging of teachers from a system that imposes unreasonable demands on them, and generally throw a monkey wrench into the plans of those who would use data-driven reform to dismantle government-run public education. But the unfortunate collateral damage is that the underlying notion of national standards in education is now poison. A sensible endeavor by actual educators to formulate a workable standard that could promote academic excellence uniformly throughout the nation won’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell for quite some time.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shaking Hands With Erma Bombeck

You know how in a nice restaurant, they serve you these beautifully arranged dishes of food that look like works of art? No misplaced glops of sauce near the edge of the plate, burnt bits scraped off the bottom of the pan, or stray bay leaves forgotten in the stew? Everything is absurdly neat and pretty – unlike anything you would dream of serving at home. Because these guys are professionals, right? Undoubtedly, a beautiful presentation makes dining out more fun, but what home cook is going to spend time and energy to create composed plates? We’re just happy when we manage to present delicious home-cooked meals served, as the restaurant critics like to call it, “family style.”

Similarly, when I go to a hotel, I expect everything to be immaculate: beds perfectly made, towels neatly folded, floors freshly vacuumed – basically, no sign anyone has ever lived in the room before me. But at home? Not so much. And then there’s hotel d├ęcor. Everything matches. The furniture is all from the same set. The rug matches the bedspread. The paintings even match the environment -- or suggest some other, more pleasant environment. (Beach hotel? Seashells! City hotel? Skyline! Ski chalet? Mountains! Middle-of-nowhere hotel by the side of the road? Paris!) But at home, I am content with a much smaller set of necessities: everything in basic working order, nothing so filthy or gross that I can’t look at it, comfortable places for my family to plunk our weary bones at the end of the day, and the stuff we’ve accumulated over the years that makes the house ours.

But unlike food presentation, the world seems to be full of people who value hotel-level perfection so much that they manage it at home, too. This is a complete mystery to me. Sure, it would be nice to live in that Good Housekeeping environment. But the amount of effort it would take? That, I can’t manage. In fact, I tried to come up with a fitting analogy – you know, something that would hold some appeal but would take way more effort that it’s worth. “Sure, a perfect home would be nice. So would ____________.” Trouble is, everything I came up with to fill in the blank seemed to beat perfect housekeeping hands down. Having a pony? Flying a hot-air balloon? Speaking Swahili? Becoming a champion watermelon seed spitter? Climbing Mount Everest? Growing wings and flying? All things I’d be way more willing to sink some serious time into.

So, without further ado, my list of ten things other people manage to have at home that I just…don’t.

1. Matching towels. I know, it wouldn’t be that hard to just go out and buy a stack of towels that are all the same. But then I’d have to figure out what to do with the closet full of towels I already have. Clear out more closet space? Too much effort. Throw away perfectly good towels? What a waste. Donate them to charity? I guess I could do that. But I could also just keep the towels I have and write a check so the charity can buy whatever they really need more than a stack of used towels.

2. Made beds. All of them, all at the same time, every single day. We all know the nightly problem with this one. The ultimate act of futility. What’s the point?

3. Empty kitchen counters. All that stuff people use multiple times a day, hidden away somewhere out of sight. No sign of salt, cooking oil or soy sauce, let alone balsamic vinegar or Sriracha. And then there are the appliances. Where do they put them all? If I wanted to put away my stand mixer, rice cooker, soda maker, blender, coffee grinder, etc., I’d have to build a new kitchen. Either that, or get rid of all the stuff that’s already in the cabinets. And how would I do that? I guess I could donate them…(see number 1 above).

4. Window treatments. I don’t mean shades or blinds that are useful for keeping out the sun or your neighbor’s curious gaze. We have those. (And we only lived in the house about a decade before getting them.) I mean those entirely decorative things. Big hunks of fabric that hang across the tops and sides of windows for the purpose of “tying a room together.” It’s a miracle my rooms don’t fly apart into a million pieces.

5. Closets that close completely. Y’know – without piles of crap getting in the way? Again, this is probably doable. All I’d have to do would be to clear out space in the basement and move some of the stuff down there. But to do that, I’d have to clear out space in the garage for the stuff that’s in the basement. And to do that, I’d have to…donate stuff from the garage? Hmmm.

6. Laundry that’s all done. I mean, at the same time. And folded. And put away. Days when the only dirty clothing in the house is what’s on my family’s backs. Nope, we don’t have those. Around here, laundry is one ongoing, never-ending process, with piles of stuff at every stage—dirty, washed but not folded, washed and folded but not put away, washed and folded and put away – coexisting peacefully. The U.N. could learn from us.

7. Filed papers. Like the laundry, filing is an ongoing process. The last time every piece of paper was in its appropriately labeled folder inside a filing cabinet was probably the day we got our very first apartment. So…late ‘80s sometime?

8. Stuff that makes the air smell good. Sure, we have that from time to time, in the form of good smells coming from the kitchen. But I mean all those little tricks people use to make their houses smell good all the time. Sprays, plug-ins, candles, potpourri. Once every blue moon I decide maybe we could have at least that much. How hard could it be? You just buy something and plug it in or shpritz it or light it. A year later, we have empty, discolored plastic things sticking out of the outlets, or empty cans sitting on the backs of all the toilets, or lumps of melted, cinnamon-scented paraffin on the end tables. And speaking of things that smell good…

9. Cut flowers. This is one I would love to get the hang of. I may not give a damn about window treatments, but I do love flowers. This, too, I have tried. And I have the vases full of withered stems and slimy water to prove it.

10. A bowl of candy that actually has candy in it. For more than ten minutes.

Of course, I could probably have made a good start on any one of the above in the time it took me to write this…

Come to think of it, there is one thing I could get rid of that would make me feel really good about my home. Guilt.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Warlord Christie

Can we take a minute to stop and think about what a terrible thing Christie’s top staffers (and possibly the governor himself) did to Fort Lee? Because there are some people still saying it wasn’t such a big deal. It was a lane closure. It was a traffic jam in a spot where everyone who lives in the tristate area has sat in miserable traffic at some point in their lives. A Tea Party darling, hard-right Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, dismissed it as a prank gone wrong.

What these people are missing (or willfully ignoring, most likely) is the much deeper implication of Bridgegate. Yes, the people stuck in traffic were the direct victims, as were the people waiting for emergency responders who were late in coming. But the truth is, every New Jerseyan became a victim that day -- a victim of a direct assault on their democratic rights.

A functional democracy depends on one fundamental idea: that every citizen is free to vote for the candidate of his or her choice, and that once elected, every official must act for the benefit of all, no matter whom they voted for. It’s as simple as that.

There was a time – there still is, in many parts of the world – when citizens declared their allegiance to one king or another, one warlord or another, and then stuck by him, right or wrong, because if they didn’t, he wouldn’t protect them from the attacks of rival monarchs, bands of thieves, or any rampaging hoard that came along. Or worse, he’d send his own army to beat the crap out of them. He’d let them starve when their crops failed, levy impossible taxes, forcibly conscript their sons. But we’ve moved past all that. We are civilized now. We can vote our consciences and still expect equal protection under the law, equal access to services, fair treatment by our government.

Except in Chris Christie’s New Jersey. This is a place where the refusal of a local leader, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, to endorse the governor -- or perhaps a conflict with a legislator, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, over judicial appointments -- can and did lead to direct retribution against the citizens themselves. And that is a direct assault on the fundamental principle of democracy.

Just a traffic jam? Hardly.

PS: Is anyone buying Christie's sad clown act?