Thursday, December 20, 2012

Goldberg Family: Top Five Songs of 2012

1. "Yeah! Hey! We are the Goldbergs!" by Kira and Elijah

What's not to love about a song where the title and the complete lyrics are identical? From the first time I heard Kira and Elijah singing this in the driveway, I knew it was a hit. And sure enough--it's topped charts in Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Andorra. Even the censored Saudi version, "Yeah! Hey! We are the ---!" has done quite well.

2. "Child of God" by Naomi W. Randall, adapted slightly by the Goldbergs

In addition to being Elijah's suggestion for Leif's name, "Child of God" has been Leif's favorite song for quite some time. Or at least: it's the one his brother and sister and father and mother sang to him regularly in the womb and through his hospital stay. This is also the #1 most requested Family Home Evening song in our house. The Goldberg family has made two changes to the standard text: Elijah has truncated the title from "I am a child of God" to "Child of God" for referencing ease, and James typically replaces the phrase "parents kind and dear" with the more fitting "parents kind of dear."

3. "Apple Cinnamon Cheerios" by James

This breakfast classic accidentally changed the eating habits of our children. It was the most requested song in the house through most of November, and was only recently supplanted by the somewhat more lyrically complex Apple Cinnamon Chex song ("When I wake up in the morning / hungry as an old T-Rex / what do I want to fill my belly? / Just my Apple Cinnamon Chex")

4. "Let Her Dance" by the Bobby Fuller Four

This song is so good, Wes Anderson let it into the greatest film of the new century--The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It doesn't matter whether Elijah is sitting on the couch, eating, or climbing up the side of a piece of furniture when this song comes on at the end of the movie: he will invariably get down and dance. And then ask where his bandit hat went.

5. "Red River Valley" as performed by Kira

Of all the songs Kira played on her guitar this year, this was the one most likely to get James to stop staring at a blank digital page on his computer to listen. If you have never heard an eight year old sing a wistful folk song while playing her three-quarters size guitar, you don't know what true brokenhearted beauty is. Just sayin'.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Monday Mood Quiz

Today I feel defeated:
a) in a thousand different tiny ways
b) utterly
c) by my own incompetence
d) by the universe

When I think of winter's return, I feel:
a) like crying
b) too tired to cry
c) like Kafka
d) cold to the bone, though I am sitting inside

My stomach feels like:
a) it has been run through a washing machine
b) it is currently being run through a washing machine
c) a badger is chewing on it
d) a cow is chewing on it with slow, grinding motions that will never end

 If I had a million dollars:
b) the very thought of spending it would exhaust me
a) someone would probably steal it
d) none of my problems would be solved anyway

If I were trying to finish something:

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lapses of Attention -- A Review of James Goldberg's The Five Books of Jesus

by James Goldberg

Not long ago, I gave you (my dear readers), some advice on how to review The Five Books of Jesus without even having to read it. If you have not put one of the recommended glowing reviews up on Amazon yet, please do so before you read my actual review of this book.

Done? OK. Let's proceed.

The Five Books of Jesus by James Goldberg is one of the most engaging and sloppy books I have read in a long time--and not just because I read very few books.

Take the title itself. It's pretty clearly a play on the five books of Moses--and sure enough, this book is split into five "books:" "In the Beginning," "The Gathering," "And He Called," "Sinai," and "Words." Since "In the Beginning" is the Hebrew title of the Book of Genesis, it seems like everything matches. But if you actually go to check, you'll notice that the author only gets the first, third, and fifth books right.  The second book should be "Names," not "The Gathering," and the fourth should be "In the Desert," not "Sinai." Sloppy! What is he thinking?

Focusing on a few naming mistakes may sound nit-picky, but they're part of a larger pattern. Take the story where an apostle cuts off someone's ear and Jesus says that "Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword." In the Gospel of John, that apostle is identified as Peter. But for some reason Goldberg identifies the chopper as James instead. Is this author just careless? Or actively crazy?

Take another example. After fleeing to the ten cities to avoid Herod, Jesus decides to send his twelve apostles back across the Jordan River into Galilee as missionaries--and miraculously, the waters of the river divide for them to cross. Miracles are common in stories about Jesus, of course, but Goldberg has the wrong miracle here--he seems to have confused Jesus with Joshua!

I could go on at some length, giving countless examples of the sloppiness in this book, from the 70 vs. 72 issue to the sudden absence of chapter numbers in Book Three. But I think you get the point.

This book has been called a "marred masterpiece," but it's mostly just a pile of mar. Whatever that means. Remember: just because an author is reasonably good-looking and has won a national award doesn't mean you should trust all his work.

(But, you know--buy the book anyway. The writer's kids are cute, and they deserve to have Christmas this year.)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Compound Aphorisms

...for your general enlightenment.

"Idleness makes the devil's heart grow fonder."

"An apple a day gets the worm."

"The early bird doesn't fall far from the tree."

"A bowl of cherries is like a box of chocolates."

"Cleanliness is next to a dog's new tricks."

"A sucker born is a penny earned."

"A penny saved is the devil's playground."

"Diamonds are a man's best castle."

"Absence is a girl's best friend."

"Like father, we fall."

"Life is like son."

"Slow and steady is a joy forever."

"A stitch in time wins the race."

"Birds of a feather bite the hand that feeds you."

"If at first you don't succeed, speak louder than words."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kinds of people I despise

There are two main kinds of people I despise: 

1) Lawbreaking anarchists who pass me when I'm trying to follow the speed limit.
2) Rule-bound legalists I get stuck behind when I'm not.

Monday, September 24, 2012

How to Review My Book

I recently published my very first full-length book, and I imagine that you are dying to review it so that it will look more popular and prestigious so someone will want to give me a full time job so I don't have to sell my children to the Roma (which is the PC term for Gypsies) in a few years if their appetites keep increasing at the current rate.

But what if you don't know what to write? And what if, possibly, you also don't want to buy the book?

Never fear! I have prepared five review statements which are guaranteed to work without making you feel one itsy-bitsy bit sleazy for posting them today. In the next five minutes. On the immortal surface of Amazon's customer reviews page.

My suggested reviews are as follows: 

Option A:
"Brilliant! Beautiful! Life-changing! I can't wait to read it!"

Option B:
"If you like books by James Goldberg, you will love The Five Books of Jesus."

Option C:
"I am a pathological liar and I hate this book."

Option D:
"If there's one thing Santa Claus will want for Christmas, this is it. I mean, he already has pretty much everything else...right?"

Option E:
"One of the best books released by a Caucajewmexdian author in 2012. For realsies."

See? It's not so difficult at all. So if you can buy the book, great! But if not, you should at least review it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

If I had a superpower, what would it be?

Let's face it: the world needs heroes.

And if it wants a good-looking hero, it should choose me.

But before I volunteer, I need to know: what do we want our heroes to save today?  And what courageous acts and supernatural powers are people going to expect from me?

I made some calls to take a survey:

Hollywood wants me to save a dark gritty world so that directors have somewhere good to shoot movies. They will require me to sacrifice all my meaningful personal relationships to do so--either by emotional withdrawal or violent death. And they want me to have Super-Angst as my power, unless I'm Robert Downey Junior, in which case they'll settle for Super-Ego (not to be confused with super-ego) instead.

The government wants me to save the economy. And they want me to do it by patriotically shopping until I collapse into a consumer coma. My superpower will be Confidence and my super equipment will be a combination of tax rebates, credit cards, and disguised Monopoly money. If I can just amp up all my desires and fulfill them with statistically recorded financial transactions, our future will be saved.

And my kids want me to save them from bedtime. My daughter is hoping that I have the power of Super-B.S. to keep one more story coming out of my mouth for ten to twelve hours, when she'll have to go back to school. My son is hoping I have Super-Lungs to sing verses of "Old McDonald" on demand until his vocabulary gets big enough to stave off sleep forever.

I told Hollywood I'm sorry, but loneliness makes me more pathetic than brooding. I told the government that driving through Vegas brings out my inner communist, and they decided to leave the hard work of saving America to someone else.

It's just as well, though. I'm kinda busy figuring out where to put the polar bear and mongoose who recently moved onto Old McDonald's farm.

And on that farm, he had a leopard seal. E-i-e-i-o.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

100,000 pageviews to my blogs

Noticed today that I just passed 100,000 pageviews to the three blogs that formed the basis of my Master's Thesis.

Imagine how many readers I might have had by now if I'd only listened to the professors who told me to do something lasting and important instead of frittering away my time on the internet!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Countries Where People Are Thinner than Me

The BBC currently has a calculator up that not only gives you your BMI, but also compares it to the average BMI of people in your gender and age group in other countries worldwide.

According to their calculations, I most resemble an average young man from Senegal in BMI. And I have a higher BMI than the average young man in Somalia, Burundi, Bhutan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Also according to their statistics, I would have to gain 69 pounds to be average in weight for the United States.

I haven't worried about my BMI before, but I'm thinking I should do something to narrow the gap a little bit. Maybe hit Singapore's 22.5 average young male BMI? All I'd have to do is lose six inches...

Monday, June 11, 2012

More Awards! For me!

It is true that I have won a National Award. And that I was unanimously voted "most likely to grow a beard" as early as third grade. But all those honors pale in comparison to my recent stunning victory in a poetry contest, where the lead must have changed at least a dozen times before my poem closed things out with a seven vote performance in the last hour of voting.

As the winner of the what may have been most thrilling poetry contest to take place in America in several decades, I won a copy of Steven Peck's The Scholar of Moab (which I planned to have gilded as a trophy as soon as I finish reading it). But I also the praise of Jonathon Penny, Patricia Karamesines, and Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, which is worth its weight, for a narcissist like me, in gold. 

Check out the accolades, people:

Jonathon: What’s not to like in James’ “Since he was weaned”? Spring may be delayed here, and when it comes the fever breaks quietly, cumulatively. It is never much more than implied in bones needing rest, and in the sullen, housebound winterwork the father does. But he is, from the start, infected with love and wonder, and the son for his part with that urgency to Go! we all have carried in our bones, carry still if we are blessed to: an impulse caught in winter worries (where there’s Winter) and released, uncoiled, where there is Spring.
Patricia: Relationships. The world needs more relationship poems as convincing as this one, and, of course, more poems advocating kindness toward snakes. And as a reader, thus a participant in James’ word-world, I felt the language welcome me to its story.  Jonathon speaks of the father becoming “infected” with love and wonder; “Since he was weaned” emanates simple, native magnetism that likewise draws in the reader affectionately. I have a powerful, sympathetic response to the boy’s whole-body hunger to launch himself (with Papa’s company and aid) into that wider world.  An authentic poem, fully approachable yet artistically savvy.
Ghalib: My motto has always been, "If it doesn't make you cry blood out of your eyes, it isn't a real poem." But for a piece of prose which attempts to pawn itself off as poetic, I actually kinda liked it. There's some genuine longing and anguish here, even if there's a distinct paucity of despair and knife-in-the-heart-twisting humor.  Hardly worth translation into Urdu, mind you, but not half-bad for English.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

National Award Winning Writer James Goldberg Writes Blog Post

That's right: as of today, I am a National Award Winning writer!

The national award is not, sadly, for any of my writing: but I am a writer, and I do have an award from a national competition now, so I'm going to start going by "national award winning writer James Goldberg."

I mean yes, "Best-looking James Goldberg in America" is a rather small competition, but it is a national one. And yes, I placed sixth. But they give me a certificate. Which is a kind of award.

Besides, sixth is actually quite good if you remember that the runner-up, James Franco, should technically have been disqualified. Also: I'm pretty sure the guy who placed fifth was sleeping with the judge (she was, after all, his wife).

So if you adjust for fraud and conflicts of interest, I'm actually the fourth best-looking James Goldberg in America. Which means that, in addition to a certificate, I should have won that $10 gift card to Applebee's.

Just sayin'.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Marriage: Primal Magic or Facebook Relationship Status?

Since Pres. Obama's announcement yesterday of his position on gay marriage, it's occurred to me that the issue is so politically charged--somewhat ironically--precisely because neither side really believes it's an issue the people should have a right to decide in the first place. Consider the following hypothetical debate:

Proponent: "I'm not asking for a favor: this is a right. You can't tell me who to love."
Opponent: "You can love whoever you want to, but you can't just change the definition of marriage."
Bill Clinton: "That depends on what the definition of 'definition' is. But you're missing the point: let's talk about how it will affect the economy, and then decide based on that." 
Proponent and Opponent: "What?!? Who are you?"

I provide this illustration less to suggest that Bill Clinton should probably not be weighing in on any debate involving marriage than to demonstrate that gay marriage debates are driven by "you can't" arguments rather than "we ought to" arguments. They're not arguing about policy, they're arguing about the nature of inalienable truths.  Which is a sure sign that some people are going to feel seriously alienated by any outcome.

Since I teach rhetoric, though, any sense of impending doom I may feel about the deep divisions in our country is delayed by curiosity about how people ended up with mutually exclusive "you can't" attitudes in the first place. It seems obvious that the people with the strongest feelings on each side of the issue have different views of marriage--but what exactly are those views?

The Facebook View of Marriage
There are some legal advantages--such as recognition in the state of Israel--which distinguish the word "marriage" from "civil union" or "domestic partnership." But those don't seem to be the things that keep activists up at night.

If you think of marriage as a Facebook relationship status rather than a legal term, though, it may be easier to see why the word matters so much to gay marriage advocates. If the purpose of marriage is to communicate a personal commitment to the community, how is it possibly fair to have a glass ceiling for some couples? I mean, if someone as incapable of lasting personal commitment as Newt Gingrich can climb the marriage-ladder three times (and counting?), why would we make anyone wait in a separate status off to the side?

In a view of marriage as public expression of private commitment, withholding the word marriage means denying a personal liberty and devaluing two people's care and concern for each other. I mean, how would you feel if Facebook left everyone else the option to put "married" on their relationship status, but took it off the menu for you?

Whether gay marriage becomes the legal standard across the country or not, it is discriminatory, in this view, not to have it. And discrimination is bad, bad stuff.

In a traditional American understanding, laws can make policy, but they don't create rights:  they recognize and protect rights which already exist (in some deep, moral sense Jefferson described as self-evident, God-given, and more significant than mere physical reality). When a state votes against gay marriage, then, they are not just snubbing gay couples--they are putting themselves at odds with the natural law this nation was founded on.

The Primal Magic View of Marriage

Not everyone, though, sees marriage primarily as a public expression of a private commitment between two people. To many people, marriage is less social contract than a primal magic which inherently and necessarily involves both genders.

In many cultures, there's a belief in male and female energies or forces. And in many cultures, marriage is a mystical way of fusing these forces together, making them one. If you look at the Abrahamic religions, for instance, the culmination of the creation myth comes when God creates human masculinity, sees that it's empty and incomplete--can't be completed, in fact, by anything in the rest of creation--and then creates human femininity and fuses the first man and woman together in marriage. The marriage is described as a radically important relationship that supersedes even bonds and debts to one's parents. In later narratives, other uses of sexuality are described as dangerous and destructive.

To most people who have this view of marriage, it makes no sense to talk about gay marriage as a right, because gay marriage simply isn't marriage: the primal magic recipe only works when both genders are involved. And the main reason, in this view, why governments acknowledge marriage in the first place is not to celebrate or affirm couples for their love, but because deep down they know that the primal magic does work and is the best foundation for society.

From this perspective, a government can really only pretend it is offering marriage to gay couples, something which it is not only unwise, but also impossible to truly do. To demand gay marriage on fairness grounds, then, is sort of like demanding on fairness grounds that gasoline be a renewable resource. That is, you could change the legal language to include gasoline under the category of "renewable" for purposes of taxation or grant money, but that wouldn't change the underlying reality the language described before the change.


Many people see gay marriage as a potential cause of future cultural upheaval, but the debate over gay marriage is also a symptom of the substantial cultural upheaval our society is already undergoing. For those who see marriage primarily as a public expression of a private commitment, the case for gay marriage is clear and compelling and opposition to it is backward and discriminatory. For those who see marriage as an inherently dual-gender sacred system, gay marriage is simply not marriage and efforts to have it recognized as an inalienable right are an alarming collective self-deception.

Currently, half of American voters are in favor of gay marriage and half of American voters are opposed to it. That may change in the near future (especially if the amount of time people spend on Facebook vs. the time they spend with traditional religions is a factor in how attitudes develop). But even if one side "wins" in the courts or through legislation, neither view of marriage is likely to go away any time in the next century or two or ten, and we will have to find some way to live with each other in the meantime. 

Maybe it will help us to remember that both positions are based on assumptions which are beyond the realm of the rational. It is not possible to experimentally confirm the existence of a cosmic right to have one's relationship affirmed by society: one must simply hold a truth of that kind to be self-evident. It is not possible to prove that marriage is based on a merging of male and female energies that goes deeper than any social contract: this is, clearly, a matter of faith and religious experience. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

How to Make Republicans Competitive Again

I try not to read about politics too much, but when I feel overwhelmed or frustrated, I sometimes resort to reading headlines, wikipedia entries, or old abandoned textbooks until I reach a self-induced information coma. Like most forms of self-medication, however, the information coma has some damaging side-effects: the most troubling of which is that even after the numbness is gone, some dregs of insight remain.

For example: based on their levels of support among the young and Hispanics, the two demographic groups most likely to own the future, the Republican Party appears to be dying.

There was a time in my life when this would not have bothered me. I've voted almost exclusively for Democrats and still lean left on Election Day. But a functioning democracy can't afford to be all about winning on Election Day; it needs to be about the constant exchange of ideas in search of solutions that will help unite people will diverse value sets.

If one party loses its competitive edge, democracy suffers twice. First, whatever good proposals or critiques that party brought to the table are likely to go unheard. Second (and this, for me, is critical), the stronger party loses interest in understanding the positive values the weaker one built itself on. And that, my friends, would be a great shame. Because I genuinely believe the wisest leaders have always understood that liberal and conservative impulses ought to be treated as yin and yang.

I hardly ever vote for Republicans, but that doesn't mean I want my kids growing up in an elephant graveyard. 

So in the interests of making our democracy stronger, I offer two simple proposals that would help the Republicans become competitive again in key demographics:

1) Instead of opposing all income tax increases on the wealthy, Republicans should demand that for every new $1 of tax, the deductible charitable giving cap be raised by $1.50.

Big government vs. little government is an important debate to have. Community vs. greed is not.

So let's start with the obvious: among political moderates, taking a hard line against taxes for the rich has made Republicans look like total schmucks. Because even in a country founded on tax protests, it's hard to feel righteous indignation when people who earn six figures every six months are asked to pay the extra 4.6% they did before Bush II came along. And the idea that we all win if Mark Cuban trickles that 4.6% down by paying people to re-buff his fourth yacht doesn't fly well when it comes from the same mouths that are fighting the Children's Health Insurance Program. Just sounds too Scroogey.

For many libertarian economists, of course, Scroogey arguments will always fly. But for most independent voters--especially young voters--yachts vs. CHIP is an automatic forfeit for whoever's on the yachts' side. And so sinks an increasingly taxphobic Republican economic policy.

But here's the thing: deep down, I don't think most conservative idea-makers care deeply about Mark Cuban's fourth yacht. If I'm right, the whole tax fight last year wasn't really about keeping money in the hands of the wealthy--it was about keeping money out of the (admittedly rather slippery) hands of the federal government. In conservative circles, I have heard, this is sometimes called "starving the beast"-- because conservatives seem more aware than their liberal counterparts that even the most well-intentioned government programs can go all Jekyll & Hyde, tearing apart the very communities they were supposed to help.

Given that danger, who is really best equipped to solve our social problems--the government, or private groups? I honestly don't know--in my experience, private groups are rarely as efficient as conservatives expect them to be. But I'm pretty sure that if Republicans focused on raising the charitable deduction limit rather than resisting taxes on the top bracket, voters would be able to focus more on the core public vs. private issue. After all, Gates Foundation vs. CHIP is a much fairer fight than yachts vs. CHIP is. 

2) Add a plank to the Party Platform pledging to increase opportunities for legal immigration. 

Order vs. hospitality is an important debate to have. White Americans vs. Latinos is not.

By definition, Latino voters are here legally. So if they believed the immigration debate was really about rule of law and not even a little bit about mean...about a totally non-racist desire to keep foreign language speakers away from our neighborhoods....then I think they'd be a lot less antagonized by the debate. But if they grew up (like I did) in areas where kids with fervently anti-immigrant parents were liable to pick on any black-haired kids they could, then it makes some sense that they'd steer clear of anti-immigrant politicians.

But what if the Republican Party got serious about expanding legal immigration?

After all, this is something Democrats (many of whom rely on labor unions) don't seem to have done a very good job at. They talk a much better talk on understanding, compassion, and even tangible benefits for people who have made it here without the blessing of some bureaucrat's stamp in triplicate, but they don't seem eager to open the borders wide enough to let in the workers our economy actually demands.

Republicans could be all over that. They could be using their tried-and-true talk of free trade to let people trade their labor where it's needed without borders getting in the way. They could be driving out illegal immigrants the easy way--by replacing them in the marketplace with legal ones.

As it stands, assimilation into America for many young Latinos, South Asian immigrants, and others typically means initiation into liberal political circles, where sharing a language with seasonal workers or men who wear turbans isn't looked down upon. But if Republicans could make one key change on immigration in a conscious effort to open up the party's small-government, family-values message to hard-working, family-driven immigrants, then I think you'd see growing numbers of young, brown people feeling comfortable with the word "conservative."

And for the yin-yang future of our democracy, that's got to be a good thing.

So there you have it. Two simple changes that could help revitalize an aging Republican Party and bring balance to the Force without actually requiring anyone to pay another cent in taxes (so long as they're willing to step up on that private solutions bit) and without requiring any rules fanatic to treat undocumented immigration as a crime-in-name-only.

And now it's time for you, dear reader, to write your state's Republican Party leaders with this invaluable advice, which you will offer free of charge.

You probably should not mention that it comes from a registered Democrat...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

I am the 49th percent!

So, read yesterday that some people are driving around New York City projecting the Occupy Wall Street slogan "99%" onto public spaces (the "we are" part has been omitted, as no one wants to be a giant building. Well, except Donald Trump, who is definitely not the 99%).

Now, you may think this looks like an awesome discount sale on the Brooklyn Bridge--but it's not. It's a real-world Bat Signal. Here's professor and activist Mark Read, who drives the car that projects the signal, on this daring coop day tat of post-neo-modern art:
The bat signal is really simple. It's big and it reads as a bat signal - it's culturally legible [...] It's a call to arms and a call for aid, but instead of a super-hero millionaire psychopath, like Bruce Wayne, it's ourselves - it's the 99% coming to save itself. We are our own superhero.
You got that? When we see this signal, we--or at least those few of my readers who earn less than $386,000 per year--are supposed to hop in our common-man-mobiles and go tie up a bank or round up the predatory credit card offers that roam our nation's streets or maybe even lie down as human barricades across the entrance to the Bellagio.

In this way we will:

1) Stick it to the Man (who has, admittedly, been sticking it to us for some time now).

2) Assuage any guilt we might otherwise have about our own unbelievable excesses.

Now, don't get me wrong: I agree with the protesters that there's something wrong when one-fifth of income in a country goes to less than a fiftieth of the population.

BUT: c'mon, folks...really? I'm somewhere around the 49th percentile of America in income, and I am totally loaded! I have a house(/basement apartment) that has a bathroom bigger than the historical landmark pioneer cabin down the road. I eat imported fruits FOR BREAKFAST. Like, from the southern hemisphere. Also: I can fly. Not every day, of course, but it sure beats pulling a handcart across the muddy plains. If my house gets hot, I change the temperature of the air! Two hundred years ago, if you did that you'd have been stoned for witchcraft.

I am so rich I don't even have to hire a servant to:
-fetch my water from the nearby mountain streams
-pre-soak the beans I cook with
-scrub the stains out of my twenty or so different sets of clothes
-carry my letters around town
-take care of my horses (which I don't need in the first place) or drive my carriage from place to place

Not that my life is perfect.

Actually, no. I take that back. My life is pretty much perfect. My kids can go to doctors when they're sick...or even when they're well, just to make sure everything is hunky-dory. We do really eat really, really well. And when we're done having shelter and food and adequate healthcare, we still have money left over.

Let me back up a moment. The one percent are very powerful now, but I believe in One God who they'll ultimately be held accountable to, and I don't think He's going to be impressed if they found excuses not to share their wealth.

But I don't think He's going to give me a free pass, either. From a historical standpoint, I am also the 1%.

How am I handling it?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Oompa Loompa Doobity Diddle...

Guess who came up with another riddle?

I see with only one eye:
even apples and oranges are the same color to me.

I speak only one language:
and it's easy to learn, but impossible to master.

I touch almost everything you know:
you'll try and you'll try, but you'll never escape me.
Even running from me only reminds you of me.

So give up running--
pull me close to your mouth;
let me burn at your side.
To hold me is bliss, but to love me is poison.

I'll make you what you are...but what am I?

Update 3/17:
My sister read this riddle and asked first: is it water?
No, I said.
Fire? she asked.
No, I said.
Earth? Air?
Neither, I said--though I have it on good authority that it's a gas.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why Merit Pay Is An Awesome Idea--For Reptiles

"In the history of bad ideas, this one's a humdinger, okay?"
-Billy Bob Thornton in Bandits

There are millions of bad ideas in the world, ranging from the ice-tray-style architecture of the Titanic to the commercial release of blue ketchup. But only a few of bad ideas--such as Newt Gingrich--have made me take to my blog in shock and indignation to say: "what are we thinking?"

Today, for no particular reason, I want to add merit pay for teachers to my list of potential disasters.

In this case, I can actually understand why the bad idea sounds good to so many people. Unless you are currently self- or un-employed and were home-schooled by a single parent who never took you to church, you know from experience that some teachers are better than others. And odds are you also know from experience that some of those less-better "others" are, truth be told, incredibly, epically bad.

I can understand why it would bother you if your hypothetical second grade teacher, who has held off retirement so she can make yet another generation completely math-phobic, gets paid more than your daughter's second grade teacher, who sells her plasma to buy extra craft supplies so she can nurture her twenty-eight students' underfunded artistic sides. I get it: you know now where babies come from, and you've forgotten why the sky is blue so many times you no longer care, but you still wish you could solve the mystery of how to reward good teachers--and punish bad ones.

And if we were talking about politicians, pimps, or other sales professionals, I agree that the answer would be easy. Money! Just put a big jar of it in the principal's office. Bring the teachers in each morning and let them salivate over it a while. Then, when the bell rings, send 'em into the classrooms and tell them to knock those kids out! (Only not, you know, literally.)

To put the principle in analogy form for use in standardized testing:
A warm rock / is to / a reptile
A cash money bonus in one's hand / is to / ________
Look, even an NBA player will put out a little extra effort for the cash bonus that comes with a playoff game--and NBA players are already crazy rich. The magical motivating power of money goes beyond making a living. It's like dollar bills have natural pheromone scents in them that induce action at a level deeper than conscious thought.

Couldn't we harness psychology in education? I've heard that 70% of candidates would be willing to light their own hair on fire to get a campaign donation or free promotional slot on Fox news. Surely, given a similarly powerful motivation, teachers would be willing to light their students on fire--and "education is," as I am reminded annually by surrogates of William Butler Yeats, "not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

Why not offer the stick/carrot combination of merit pay to teachers?

Well...for basically the same reason that you don't use warm rocks to motivate mammals. There is a fundamental mismatch between what teachers value and what merit pay offers.

I have a lot of friends and relatives who are very smart people and who were encouraged to go into fields like medicine, engineering, even business--and who decided to become teachers instead. Knowing in advance what the salary difference was.Which pretty much proves these aren't the kind of people whose standard decision-making processes are based on maximizing their access to piles of cash.

Teachers do care about economics, of course, but they are largely people who value stability rather than about maximizing earnings. That's why good benefits packages are attractive to most teachers, while merit pay is not. The same incentive structure that sends salesmen salivating just makes teachers nervous.

So teachers complain about how hard it is to measure student achievement accurately. Teachers' unions lobby against merit pay plans. And politicians, who thought they were offering teachers a good thing, pass bills anyway and accuse vocal teachers of being crypto-communists.

But what would happen if lawmakers stopped trying to force merit pay on teachers and offered them something they actually want instead?

What if they rewarded good teachers, for example, by leaving them alone?

I've talked to several teachers about this and their eyes always seem to light up when I paint the picture for them. What if, I say, in reward for better tests results, you were given greater reign over your own curriculum? What if good teachers were rewarded by being freed from at least part of the burden of state and federal mandates dictating how they'll spend their time?

Most teachers didn't get into teaching to make more money; they got into teaching to make a difference.

Can we stop treating them like salesmen and reward their successes with flexibility and trust?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friends don't let friends let Newt Gingrich near their kids...

OK. As you may have noticed, I've pretty much given up on my blog to focus on running marathons every day behind my fifteen-month-old son while nursing the bruised rib I got from my 7-year-old daughter, Kira. BUT, as some very famous Americans have said "these are the times that try men's souls" and "there comes a time when one must take a position" and so on. Which is to say: a recent event has forced me back to the mighty (if metaphorical) pen...of my keyboard.

It happened yesterday. I mean, it started a week ago, when South Carolina primary results left me feeling sort of dirty and slimy inside. But it happened yesterday, when, shortly after dinner, my wife made reference to some week-old coverage of the South Carolina debate, and I found myself trying to explain to Kira who Newt Gingrich is--and why her parents think his recent success with the public is, well..."close to despicable."

It's uncomfortable to talk about Gingrich in the presence of a child, let alone with a child, but I did the best I could. I kept brief my explanation of his failed relationship with the 7th commandment--the one about not having a boyfriend or girlfriend while you're married--mentioning only that he hadn't kept it and didn't think people should be bothered by that in his case. Then I explained that he isn't very honest, which is a commandment Kira understands in a more immediate, day-to-day way. But to me, those problems don't adequately capture the man's continuing contribution to America's moral decline. So I attempted to describe his political style in a way she could understand by explaining that Newt Gingrich also does not believe in speaking kindly to others, that he actually likes to be rude.

Kira was startled by this. Being rude in the heat of the moment she understood, but liking to be rude? Didn't being rude make people feel sad in their stomachs after they realized what they'd done? Nicole stepped in here to explain that if Newt Gingrich feels sorry, he doesn't show it because, "honey... he's kind of a bully. And that's just how bullies act."

This cleared things up for Kira immediately. She brightened. "He would not be allowed in my class, then. We have a sign that says 'No Bullies.'"

Nicole and I laughed. That's true, we said: Newt Gingrich would have some trouble in second grade. He could come to the class--you don't want to throw anybody out--but if they were going to be fair, he would probably have to go talk to the principal about how to keep the school rules. We told her we were glad she didn't plan on becoming a bully. And then we brushed teeth and said prayers and tucked her happily into bed.

Serious worries, though, returned--as they often do--after the kids' bedtime. I mean, we'd already talked about the outside possibility that Newt Gingrich might actually become the nation's next President. We'd worried, of course, about many of his political views. Beyond policy, we'd also thought to worry about how his AM radio approach to diplomacy might go over internationally, and about how his erratic personality and delusions of grandeur might show us how much weight a President really can legally throw around these days. Heck, we'd even thought to worry about the sheer number of hotel workers worldwide a President Gingrich might pull a Kobe Bryant or Dominique Strauss-Kahn on.

But we hadn't remembered until last night that the President always, always make symbolic visits to elementary schools.

Schools where he's said that poor students should be scrubbing toilets to teach them work ethic.

Schools where he may or may not be eying teachers to join his possibly "open" current marriage.

Schools, most importantly, whose rules he never did learn to keep.

Please, America. Don't do this. Vote for a liberal, vote for another conservative, vote for the bizarre mixture of the two that is Ron Paul. But no matter what your political views are, please don't vote for Newt Gingrich.

You see: the children are watching. And even in this age of mass media and murky moral standards, there is at least one thing--who happens to be a current presidential candidate--our children still can and should be protected from.
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