Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes Review (Spoiler Alert!)

Watching weekend Tweets during the opening days of Sherlock Holmes, I noticed mixed reactions. So now that I’ve seen Sherlock Holmes twice, I wanted to share my own, detailed thoughts on this great movie and some of its best—and worst—moments. (Full disclosure: the film’s Fight Coordinator is also one of my martial arts instructors.)

Maybe it’s because we’ve had some Wing Chun Kung Fu training and knew what to look for, but the first thing my husband and I agreed upon right away was that the fight scenes were a lot of fun. My husband especially loved the way the audience was let into Holmes’ head with the slow-motion “planning” of each strike. Although I could see other audience members squirming at the slow-motion, full-contact shots—and these were, indeed, filmed full-contact—the brawl in the ring was one of our favorites, a scene which, according to an inside source, wasn’t even in the original script. When Robert Downey, Jr. advocated for the inclusion of such a scene, Fight Coordinator, Eric Oram, suggested Holmes would surely take as methodical an approach to his fighting skills as he does to the other bodies of knowledge he pursues. He called the bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred match Holmes’ “fight lab”. His suggestion paid off.

The script itself was good. While movies with great ending twists, like The Usual Suspects, are fun to watch, I prefer a script that carries me along with just enough of a hint that I feel like I’ve started to figure some of it out myself—that, “I got it, I called it! Dude, I called it!” moment that makes the audience feel smart is worth its weight in ticket sales for the groundlings. Yet the movie left enough unexplained that Holmes still had the stereotypical “here’s how it was done” moments, enough to keep hard-core fans of the original author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from moaning in distress. (Keeping the fanboys and –girls happy seems to be Mr. Downey’s specialty, afterall.)

I thought the mysteries of the case fit Conan Doyle’s standard fare, the dialogue was true to what I’ve read of the books so far (well done all, going back to the stories for those geek-pleaser lines), and the details appeared to stick to the canon. The humor and timing were just right, though given Holmes’ strong sense of irony in Doyle’s original portrayal, I think the script could have taken even more without becoming a comedy. (Holmes, trying to convince Watson to help him pursue the case: “No girl wants to marry a doctor who can’t tell whether a man’s dead or not.”)

Granted, I’m no expert, but I happen to possess two amazing volumes of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, (“upon [which] I can thoroughly rely”) containing four novels and 56 short stories, and filled with copious notes, diagrams, illustrations, maps, photographs, etc., and deeply-detailed analysis by the leading experts of the Holmes canon at the time of its publication (1967). The forefront of Holmes research has surely advanced in the 43 years since then (and the book as been updated, of course), but the historic photographs alone, taken of real places mentioned in the stories that now no longer exist, are priceless. I’m curious to hear what the Baker Street Irregulars and their ilk thought of the movie. I imagine them picking the story apart with the most fine-toothed combs, assuming as they do that Holmes and Watson were real people rather than characters in a novel. Then again, as long as they buy movie tickets and aren’t beating any real corpses, who cares?

The casting was wonderful in all the places that mattered. Robert’s amazing range securely held Mr. Holmes in a snug embrace, though he was (uncharacteristically) humble when discussing his portrayal in interviews. His accent (a point on which he was not humble) was as spot-on as he had bragged about. (It’s always nice when an actor lives up to the hype he creates for himself.) The only time I couldn’t understand him was when he was in his Carl Malden-with-an-eye-patch disguise, but that seemed to be primarily the result of the drunken street accent he was imitating (to get it right or to be understood—that is the question).

In one of my favorite scenes, Holmes semi-intentionally insults Watson’s soon-to-be fiancé; when she throws her glass of wine at him and Holmes is left to eat his dinner alone, he does not wipe the drink from his face. Rather, he calmly tucks his napkin into his shirt and cuts into his meat—his penance becomes the dinner’s emotional dressing. A classic Downey acting choice, that one simple omission delves into the deeper emotional conflict Holmes struggles with—he doesn’t want to lose his best friend to a marriage and is satisfied that he may have further driven a wedge between them, yet is self-recriminating enough to accept the hurt he’s caused Watson’s Mary (and, by extension, Watson) with a little self-flagellation.

Mr. Law was a perfect Watson, my reservations about his athleticism to the contrary. Though I never saw him as old, stupid, or bumbling, I initially believed he was more frail than he was portrayed in the film, due to his shoulder injury and bout with what may have been typhoid fever during the Afghan War. I’m still researching that one, but Jude Law himself
effectively makes the case that an 1890s military man like Watson would have seen “some hardship” that surely would have toughened him up (see minute 2:12, onward). Both men could act their way around just about anyone, given the opportunity and the right script. And their chemistry was so thick you could chew on it. I’d wager they’re set to become one of the best screen duos in a very long time. If there was any fault in the film, it certainly wasn’t Robert’s or Jude’s. I wondered whether Irene Adler’s American accent fit the actual sound of the time, but on that point I know very little, beyond listening to the oldest “talkies” and a general understanding of the ways in which the sounds of a language can shift over time. I know nothing whatsoever about Adler from the stories, having not gotten that far yet in my reading. Rachel McAdams manages to turn her little-known criminal character into a vivacious woman far ahead of the time and place in which she finds herself. I do wish Downey and McAdams had offered us a few more intimate scenes—when she ends up in handcuffs I’m afraid I don’t care too terribly.

The other supporting actors did a fantastic job, for the most part. Lestrade perfectly fit the man I imagined from the stories—he looked and sounded as if he had leaped off the page. (I assume his literary partner, Mr. Gregson, was removed from the script from the outset to tighten things up.) And the gigantic Dredger was played with more heart than most oversized baddies. My father was a career officer, so I have a special place in my heart for Constable Clark (“Clarky”)—my favorite supporting character. Perhaps make-up could have given him a wee bit more color, though. Make-up also needed to decide just how to portray a healing cut on Holmes’ mouth. I assumed at first that it was the result of the
hit he took during filming, but as I understand it now, the six-stitch injury he sustained was on the inside of his mouth. So the waxing and waning of his cut lip was an annoying distraction (continuity screw-ups tend to unsuspend my suspension of disbelief).

Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of Lord Blackwood is my biggest gripe. I had to agree with a friend of mine—he was not nearly menacing enough to fit the diabolical nature of the character. With little physical connection between him and those who assisted him in his intricate machinations, he seemed to float through frame after frame, looking anachronistic in his tight leather trench and half-slicked, half-shaved head. It was as if Guy Ritchie forgot which movie he was making. The rest of the period costuming was thoroughly Victorian—as it should be, given Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan (“A Room With a View”) was in charge—which makes Blackwood’s appearance clash even more. Given Beavan’s otherwise faithful dressing, I have to assume this was a directorial choice, one which I hope Mr. Ritchie will learn from before moving on to the sequel (which is already moving forward).

The arrangement of most of director of photography Philippe Rousselot’s shots showed his Oscar-winning talent (“A River Runs Through It”) and my favorite shot, hands-down, is one that begins tightly focused on a box that says “This Way Up”, then flips over into an overhead view of the chase scene between Dredger and Holmes.

The rest of my gripes were quibbly ones. For example, when Holmes and Watson jump out of the boat and head for the factory, they end up in water up to waist and chest, respectively—but once they’re in the factory, they appear perfectly dry. Adler and Watson pin the map onto the floor with heavy objects—twice. And how did Lestrade know where to find Holmes in that attic? Where was that attic, anyway? The same place where Holmes had been fighting in the ring? How Holmes knew about the glass knife held by Blackwood in the opening scenes was never explained. While it didn’t detract from the story, the fun of Holmes is hearing him show off what he knows and how he knows it. And the electrical device with which Holmes zaps Dredger frustrated the heck out of me—what the hell IS that thing?

And I hated the stupid crow that kept appearing at Blackwood’s crime scenes. Either Blackwood is a “magician” or he’s not. If he’s not, then leave the crow for an artistic statement in another film. In my opinion, the visual cue was distracting and sophomoric.

Finally, I noted a number of places where the trailers (both
the first and second) contained scenes that were cut from the movie: The white-clad female victim from the opening scenes of the movie appearing to “fall” upward. Lestrade reproving Holmes for his methods. Holmes struggling with a scantily-clad Adler as he admonishes her to “Be a lady.” Adler’s line, “They’ve been flirting like this for hours.” (Was that last referring to Watson and the boatman, or Watson and Holmes? Was it taken out after the ridiculous homophobic flap began?) Changing the movie after the trailer’s been released is of course nothing new in the industry, but I’ve always found it annoying. And it speaks volumes about how the editing of a film has played out. I wondered whether the scenes with Adler had contained more of the sexual tension that would have added a deeper dimension to the relationship between her and Holmes.

Overall, I loved the film—along with enough movie-goers to give the inventive Avatar a good run for its money. I’d love to hear your reactions.

Happy New Year to all!

Photo credit: Warner Brothers Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Shifting Sands of Educational Policy: San Mateo Community College District

In my ten years working as a part-time faculty member at the College of San Mateo, I had never been to a Board of Trustees meeting at the San Mateo Community College District. Had I known it might stretch on from 6 p.m. to 10:45 p.m., I might have thought twice. I’m glad I stuck around much later than the rest of the students and faculty who came to make their voices heard, because I discovered just how little of what was said (and said quite eloquently and movingly, in some cases) was internalized by the members of the Board. Although they claim that they maintain a policy of not directly addressing the statements made during the open comments section, in fact, they spent a great deal of time addressing them—long after the speakers had left the building.

College of San Mateo English Professor, Merle Cutler, delivered a laudable speech identifying struggling students served by CSM who have gone on to reach amazing heights in their academic careers. Unfortunately, were these students to arrive at CSM’s door today, with the current budget crisis stripping the programs that could assist them in bettering their lives, none of them would be where there are now. She went on to praise the San Francisco City College and its Chancellor, who took a 25% voluntary pay cut, in marked contrast to our own Chancellor and administrators, who have collectively raised their salaries, on average, 30% over the last 5 years. Would she support the policies of a man willing to make these kinds of sacrifices? “Yes, I would,” Ms. Cutler answered emphatically.

I'm not sure that I fully agree with Ms. Cutler's high praise of SFCC, but she did make some important points. It should be noted that the College of San Mateo, which serves roughly 11,000 students, receives just over $25M allocated from District funds; the District Office receives just under $8M—almost one third as much as the entire college. At last month’s Student Budget Forum, CSM President Mike Claire made the case that, were we to get rid of every administrator in the college, we would still have a shortfall of over a million dollars, because administrators have “retreat rights”. This means they can return to their teaching positions with seniority intact if they are no longer working in administration—it also means other faculty members with less seniority may be bumped from their positions. (Note that the college is also required to retain a certain number of administrators in order to maintain its accreditation status.)

What this doesn’t address is Ms. Cutler’s confidence issue. Taking a pay cut or pay freeze isn’t so much about the money saved. It’s about the gesture. It’s about showing your constituents and those who look to you for leadership that you’re willing to be a part of the solution, no matter how small that part may be. It’s a basic social principle: Each of us gives up a little so that no one has to give up a lot. (Near the end of the long evening, Trustee Holober offered, “I may be opening Pandora's Box... There is room for cutting at the District level and the college level if we’re talking about benefits and wages.” Cut wages and benefits at the District level? Given their history, I have to wonder how seriously that might be considered. And at the college level? Pandora’s Box, indeed.)

Of much greater concern to me was the issue of the Board’s adoption of a document entitled “Reaffirmation of Core Values and Principles” (click here to read the full text). While the concept of restating decision-making criteria is sound, there already exists a well-defined mission for this District (click here to read it in full). In some of the first statements made that evening, District Shared Governance Council Co-Chair, Patty Dilko, mentioned Skyline’s “Letter of Concern”, written to protest that evening’s planned adoption of the Core Values document. Ms. Dilko felt, however, that faculty, as represented through the Academic Senate, were satisfied that their voices were being heard and that the process by which budget cuts were being planned and reviewed was working well. (As a faculty member sitting at ground zero, I’m not sure “working well” is the phrase I would use.)

Board President Patricia Miljanich acknowledged receipt of numerous emails pleading to hold off a vote in order to run these Core Values through the shared governance process. She responded, “This is setting a policy, which is what we do.” The Board plans to use this document to deal with upcoming issues, she said. “We have not created this in a vacuum.” Ms. Dilko noted that the District Senate is not asking them not to vote, but said the Senate will be discussing in their upcoming meeting the items contained within the document. “We are engaged in understanding them,” she said.

I would be happy to offer my own assessment of just a couple of parts of this document, in the interests of furthering the Senate’s “understanding”, especially in light of the fact that the visiting speakers seemed not to have made a dent in the understanding of the Board.

The most impassioned orators of the evening were students from Cañada and Skyline Colleges who spoke out in opposition to budget cuts in general, and in defense of Student Services in particular. Katy Rose, who has been recruiting fellow students and encouraging activism at Cañada, spoke not to the Board, but to the rest of the assembled, urging that they not be complicit in allowing cuts. We need to stop accepting the idea, she said, “that we take whatever we can get.” Instead, “we will get all that we can take.”

The rest of the students had come from Skyline to plead for the colleges. David Walters suggested that there is enough money in state and local coffers, but it is being misspent. Noemi Perdomo worried that immigrant students, currently able to take classes as a result of Assembly Bill 540, will suffer under cuts to EOPS (Extended Opportunity Programs & Services—a state-funded program assisting underrepresented, non-traditional, low-income and educationally disadvantaged students to gain access to, and successfully complete, a higher education). They will not be able to work or go to school without such programs, she said. I would further like to point out that workers pay taxes which then fund local programs and services—highly-skilled workers with college degrees pay even more. Those who do not work often require the use of social services, which are then less well-funded. It is therefore in the region’s interest to continue to pay for these programs at the college—the return on investment is significant.

Several students advocated for DSPS (Disabled Students Programs & Services), which continues to face draconian cuts of up to 70%. Fernando Gomez claimed the DSPS program helped him conquer the setbacks his learning disability had created and allowed him to move from earning Ds and Fs to As and Bs. “This is not money that is being flushed down the toilet. We are working hard every day, every night.” Michelle Araica spoke through freely-flowing tears, “I know everyone keeps saying that these cuts aren’t personal…I am a DSPS student. And it’s starting to feel personal.” Tom Wong likened it to “taking away a guy’s wheelchair and building more wheelchair ramps.” This put me in mind of the construction projects on all three campuses, seen by many as completely incongruous, given our financial situation—construction during the recession has been a real PR battle for the District. In a sense, Mr. Wong is correct--by unfunding our DSPS programs, we may lose our wheelchair-bound students as we add more ramps.

But the statements of these three students hit the mark in other ways they could not have anticipated.

It is generally agreed that the Board members do not respond to open comments. However, Trustee Richard Holober asked the Board’s indulgence to make a statement. The normal process in these meetings, he said, is for students and faculty to come to the meeting, tell the Board what is on their minds, and then, often, they leave. “And we get down to the nitty-gritty of dealing with these budget cuts. And I think that creates a disconnect.” He asked the students to go out into their communities and apply the same passion in support of the fund-raising initiatives the District plans to push in the near future (a maintenance assessment district, general obligation bond, and parcel tax were all floated as possibilities, later in the meeting). While I agree that we need to move beyond our neighborhoods and even beyond our county borders, I also think we need to turn our attention inward. After sitting through the rest of this meeting, I feel we need to examine under a microscope every step being taken by the Board.

Sure enough, Mr. Holober’s prediction came to pass. By 8 p.m., none of the student or faculty speakers were still in the room. And the Board did indeed “get down to the nitty-gritty,” sans opposition.

The vote to approve the Core Values document happened quickly and without further opposition. Once adopted, The Core Values document became the defining element for the rest of the evening’s discussions. Note the following language:
“Student support services and staff are also important and help ensure the success of our students in their pursuit of a postsecondary education; however, the Board believes that, in order to preserve the greatest number of classes and programs to meet student demand, the College district may need to reduce, consolidate and/or automate student support services.”
In keeping with this document, Trustee Holober stated that the college needed to serve as many students as possible and he further intimated that students who require significant financial input were a burden on the system. He offered the following example: If closing the child care center at Skyline inconveniences 40 students who will no longer be able to come to school, and the costs of keeping that center open means cutting classes that impact 350 students, he would rather remove the child care center.

On its face this seems logical. But is this the same rationale being used for cutting the colleges’ Disabled Students Programs and Services or its EOPS programs? In other words, because it costs more to assist a student with a disability—from dyslexia to an autistic spectrum disorder to, as Tom Wong pointed out, a physical challenge requiring a wheelchair—we are no longer going to fund these programs? Because a recent immigrant or an at-risk student requires additional financial input, we are no longer going to serve these students? I personally find that rationale unconscionable. It flies in the face of the actual mission statements of all three colleges. And it is wholly un-American.

“We have an obligation to try to do something proactive to try to relieve the situation we’re in in the District,” said President Miljanich. If the colleges are not organized enough to make decisions on their own about where cuts should be made, Vice President Dave Mandelkern suggested, the Board will do it for them. “Face it, the budget train’s leaving the station. And people need to be on board.” VP Mandelkern requested an organizational chart of all of the programs being cut and all of the programs being kept, while Trustee Karen Schwarz further asked that the rationale behind these decisions be included in the chart. However, it was pointed out that in order to make equitable, reasonable cuts, the Board would need a lot of knowledge and expertise—and this is the job for which they’ve hired their college Vice Presidents. VP Mandelkern replied, “If you’re going to need us to be experts, we’re good students…we’ll get there.” Pres. Miljanich replied, “We’re never going to be the experts that we’ve hired others to be…but we are going to be proactive and we are going to be involved.”

So some members of the Board are willing to become experts with enough depth to choose between courses and programs at the college? Are they ignoring the fact that faculty have primacy over instruction? Are they not also able to see that there are accreditation standards that need to be met in order to keep our colleges operational?

Given the magnitude of the cuts to DSPS, EOPS, and similar programs across all three colleges, VP Mandelkern asked whether there are even viable programs left and whether we should in fact consider consolidation of these programs at one of the campuses. The Board’s continued insistence on consolidation of student services, especially services for the physically disabled, would create transportation and logistical issues. It might even inconvenience our students to the point that we end up in violation of state and federal laws.

Another reason why I find this document so grave is the institution of substantive changes to the District Mission Statement, the Preamble of which provides a useful summary:
“The District is committed to leadership by providing quality education and promoting life-long learning in partnership with its community and its surrounding educational institutions. It actively participates in the economic, social, and cultural development of San Mateo County. In a richly diverse environment and with increasing awareness of its role in the global community, the District is dedicated to maintaining a climate of academic freedom in which a wide variety of viewpoints is cultivated and shared. The District actively participates in the continuing development of the California Community Colleges as an integral and effective component of the structure of public higher education in the State.”
Note the words “…promoting life-long learning in partnership with its community…” in the very first sentence. Yet, in the very first paragraph of the body of the new Core Values document is this statement:
“While lifelong learning classes have long been an important part of the community college mission, in the current situation, these courses cannot assume the same importance as transfer and workforce development courses.”
The second paragraph goes on to state:
“…the most important consideration as budget reductions are proposed is whether or not the proposed action will unnecessarily reduce our core mission courses in transfer and workforce development.”
The Board has now identified a “core mission” that no longer includes community education. I wonder how their constituents within the county feel about that change? (Note that these are the same citizens the District wishes to tax to pay for its upkeep and programs, and who they hope will purchase memberships at its new fitness center.) Are they intending to change the mission statements for the three colleges, too? Is this the kind of policy they intend to set? (And by the way…if this is the “core mission”, what do we call the rest of the Mission Statement? The “secondary mission”?)

This was all the more amusing in light of that evening's presentation showcasing art commissioned for the buildings recently completed at Skyline. The slides included renderings of several mosaics which tastefully incorporated words from the District's Mission Statement. Ironically, included in these mosaics were the words “lifelong learning”, which the Board of Trustees had just voted to de-emphasize!

I would argue that the San Mateo Community College Board of Trustees is not taking a “proactive” stance. It is taking a dictatorial one. In light of the current crisis, members appear to be taking the opportunity to make changes that will have wide-ranging, long-lasting implications.

If you're able to attend a Board meeting, I suggest you bring coffee and pay attention, right up to the end. I can promise you an enlightening experience, watching the sands of educational policy shift beneath our feet.

Watch your step, my friend.

Friday, 16 October 2009

CSM, Please Don't Kill Geography

The San Mateo Community College District is attempting to pit Department against Department and professor against professor as the College of San Mateo is forced to cut programs and slash their budget by 22%. But the professors are refusing to play the game. Rather, a show of solidarity against this desperate race to the bottom was their overwhelming response at the Joint Faculty/Staff/Administration Emergency Meeting that convened on CSM's campus, Friday.

The job market worsens and California's Legislature sits on its hands while the state of education in one of the richest states in the world grows increasingly more grave. As an adjunct (part-time) professor at the College of San Mateo, I am smack in the middle of the worst of it. State budget cuts have necessitated, trickle-down style, major cuts at SMCCD, to the tune of $6 million. The District offices began with "suggested" cuts to a preliminary group of programs and courses--then requested that faculty ammend and add to the list to reach the target goal of culling $1.8 million from faculty funding.

Guess who was on that preliminary list?

Yep. SMCCD is trying to kill Geography.

American geographic ignorance is the butt of jokes around the world and this is what they give us. Even fewer educated people. The mother of many of the world's great sciences is being murdered--and she's not alone. Some of her children may die along with her: Anthropology, Humanities, and every foreign language Department other than Spanish may be the most jarring of the other programs on what faculty are unaffectionately calling "The List", but the losses don't stop there. And every one of them is dire and heart-breaking.

If you want your program to stay, the District told us, you need to find another program to cut in its place. The long-term repurcussions on both the structure of the college and the relationships within and between college departments carry the potential for tearing the school apart. It's the old colonial "divide and conquer" strategy that we are suffering from even today--Shia vs. Sunni, Hindu vs. Muslim, tribe vs. tribe--in regions all over the world.

But professors don't get to be professors by turning a blind eye to the world. The assembled were all viscerally aware of the strategy. And its implications.

During the meeting, faculty were each given 3-5 minutes in which to educate their peers on the need for keeping their departments intact. Some of the presentations were formal and well-prepared. Others were off-the-cuff, read from notes scribbled minutes before standing to speak. Every one of the speakers had something vital to share, and each presentation added to and informed those that went before. There was a strong sense of collegiality, of solidarity, of shared dedication to our group mission: that of educating and empowering our community. By the time all of the assembled had finished, the group was no longer feeling frightened and defeated--they were inspired, angry, and ready to take down or climb over whatever obsticles the District might try to throw in their path.

After all, the group agreed, without faculty and transfer courses the students need, there will be no students. And without students, the campus is nothing but a beautiful shell. The Board of Trustees voted to fund the construction of a new fitness center on campus. I suppose it might anchor the beginnings of a great resort. That seems to be where we're headed, at this rate.

But that wasn't why this campus was built. It was founded on the promise of a brighter future for the citizens of this region, this state, and the world. It was build to serve the diverse, dedicated students who come to CSM seeking a quality education and the opportunities that education can offer.

The assembled faculty felt that yes, funding will likely return, eventually. It may be five years, it may be ten, but it will return. Philosophy professor Dave Danielson reminded everyone that when it does, we need a viable structure to return to. Hacking and slashing at selected departments and eliminating whole programs would not leave us many options, in the long-term.

One professor of Chinese studies described the anger she had felt as she sat down at her computer Thursday night to write out what she wanted to say. But, she said, "I calmed down once I got here because I realized I am not alone--we are all in this together."

"This is like a bad harvest year," she said. "And CSM wants to kill its children for food."

As for Geography, I must admit, I'm frustrated beyond measure that I have to spend so much time justifying the importance of a discipline that is so incredibly vital to our Pacific Rim state, now more than ever. Such is the Geographer's lot in America. Sad but true.

I would love to hear your reactions. Even better, email your reactions to the SMCCD Board of Trustees. They need to know what you think of these cuts. They cannot sit in isolation--they are beholden to the community at large and they need to know the reactions of the community they serve. Tell them how you feel.

While you're at it, please remind them not to kill Geography.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Health Care Providers: They're Like Servers Who Bring You Everything On The Menu...Whether You Want It Or Not

I've been blogging at Silicon Valley Moms about the importance of the health care reform debate (click here to read the post). And I'm on a letter-writing campaign to remind every one of our U.S. Senators to vote for those pieces of legislation that protect the health of American women. Along the way, I came across Senator Maria Cantwell's excellent speech to the Senate Finance Committee about controlling the runaway costs of medical coverage. (For those who don't know this, the Finance Committee is holding the reins of this health care horse--they have all the power.) In the video posted below, Sen. Cantwell (D-WA) likens health care providers to a server in a restaurant who brings every item on the menu to your table, whether you've asked for it or not and whether you can consume it or not. And, I would add, whether you can afford it, or not. She makes a powerful point that driving costs down should be an essential part of any health care reform legislation.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Mom Rant: "I’m tired of taking care of your kid!"

On Sunday, July 12th, 3-year old Demetrius Jones disappeared. He was in the care of his grandparents when he wandered off, riding his electric toy car, and ended up in the nearby river.

Any parent’s nightmare.

Thankfully, he was found two hours later by a group of fellow campers on the lookout for him, kneeling on all fours atop his overturned car, which was lodged near the river bank in nine feet of water. He was sunburned, but alive.

This incident underscores something that’s bothered me for a very long time: caregivers who don’t pay attention because they think everyone else will.

It came to a head, last week, while visiting family in Los Angeles. My little ones and I were at the neighborhood clubhouse, one afternoon, passing the fifteen-minute adult swim time by sitting in the gated wading pool area. There were a number of small children roughly four and under playing alongside two or three adults. Two of the mothers sat at a table in the shade, completely absorbed in conversation. A three-ring binder lay open in front of them; they appeared to be having some kind of informal, flip-flop-attired meeting. When the time was up, most of the kids walked back to the pool. I noticed as we exited that someone had put a box in the door of the gate. I squinted at it for a second. The two moms at the table were still sitting head-to-head. I let it go.

Seven-year old Boo isn’t a very strong swimmer, so she still needs a grown-up nearby for those frequent panicky moments when she gets tired halfway across. And The Bug won’t even put her face in the water. So my Dad and I each took a kid and paddled around the big pool. Boo and I were hanging onto the edge at about the five-foot mid-point, when I looked up and noticed a tow-headed two-year old with flimsy, inflatable water wings walking confidently toward the deep end. He sat down near the side and started scootching himself to the edge, as if to climb down the swim ladder. There was no other adult within forty feet, on this side.

I swam up to the little guy, knowing my strange presence would be enough to give him pause. “Hey, buddy,” I smiled. “Where’s your mommy?” As most two-year olds would, he sat and stared at me, mute. I looked to my right, where some of the moms from the kiddie pool were splashing with their own gaggle of toddlers. “Excuse me,” I asked the nearest, “but is this your little boy?”

“What? Oh. No, his mom’s in there. Hey Linda! Linda!” she called to one of the women still sitting in the semi-gated area. When one of them looked up, the woman in the pool pointed in my direction. “Is this your son?” I asked. The boy’s mother walked over to the gate and stuck her head out. She was about thirty feet away.

“He’s okay,” she assured me.

“In the deep end?” I asked, incredulous.

“He’s got floaties. He’s fine,” she replied.

Okay. Let’s just suppose this little guy is a great swimmer. But the fact that he’s got water wings on at all makes me think he’s marginal, at best. And let’s just suppose that the woman assumed the bored, squinting, teenage life guard on duty would keep an eye on him. But can we talk for a second about the fact that 1) this woman had no idea where her son was in the first place and had to be shouted at to even look up from her tet-a-tet and 2) the gate to the wading pool was left open and her boy could therefore get out and go ANYWHERE? (Please note that the main gate was also being held open by a Nerf football, probably put there by someone who didn’t want to bother with digging out a key, and note also that immediately outside the main gate is a parking lot. Bad combination for small people security.) Not to mention 3) the boy’s mother was obviously expecting the rest of the pool’s occupants to save her urchin, should he get into a danger he shouldn’t have been in to begin with.

“You know that children can still drown with these things on, right?” I point out loudly, waving my hand toward the airy little vinyl pillows encasing his chubby arms. Honestly, I’m surprised they even sell these things, any more. A false sense of security is the last thing a parent needs. She opened her mouth to reply, paused pointedly. “Okay.” She clamped her lips shut and called to her boy, who dutifully came back to the (sort of) gated fold.

My father thought I was out of line. His reaction shocked me, actually, given that he’s seen horrible things happen to children as a result of neglectful parents in his long career as a police officer. I should think that making a statement might make this woman think twice (I hope so, anyway) and might even save that child’s life, in the future. Even the tiniest chance of that happening makes being a jerk worth the social disgrace.

Now, granted, a neighborhood pool is nothing like an open campground with a river nearby. But the point is still the same. Caregivers of any kind need to watch their charges—especially the littlest ones.

I know that there are moments when wee people will wander, despite our best efforts. It’s happened to me and to others I know. The key is that we make the best possible effort to prevent it. But for an adult to willingly ignore a toddler and allow him to swim, unsupervised, in the deep end of a swimming pool? Worse yet, to not even know that he’s doing it? That pisses me off to no end.

Why? Because I’m the hyper-vigilant mom who watches and worries. I can’t relax at all when kids are near any potential dangers because you just never know when something might happen. As a kid, I once saved a baby from drowning when he walked off the pool steps in the shallow end, right under his chatting parents’ noses. I was the only one who saw him do it and I was halfway across the yard. It wasn't until I jumped in the pool, half-clothed and shouting, that anyone noticed what had happened.

I was big sister to a little brother who I swear had a death wish from the time he pulled himself up on two feet. Now that I’m a grown-up, I would love to chill out like the other adults around the camp fire. But I CAN’T. Because stuff like that happens all the time.

I don’t mind watching out for other peoples’ kids. What irks me is when they EXPECT me to do it, without asking, and therefore feel okay with doing whatever suits their selfish little hearts while their kids wander around, unsupervised.

I don’t intend to keep my own kids in a rubber room for the rest of their lives. They’ll have to experience things, fall down and scrape knees, maybe even break bones. But when it happens, it won’t be because I didn’t try to do my job, the only job any parent truly can be held to: helping my kids survive into healthy adulthood. It truly makes me want to vomit, to tear my hair out, to weep uncontrollably when a child is killed or maimed because of the egocentricity of those responsible for their care.

So to all of those selfish, irresponsible parents and caregivers out there: Please, do your job.

Because the watchful parents, the lifeguards, the police officers, the fire fighters, the paramedics, the social workers—you name it—we’re all tired of doing it for you.

Photo credit: Adam Reaburn

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Iran Just Won't Give Up

Since the day the protests began in Tehran, I'd been following a lot of the #iranelection info zizzing around inside Twitter, checking up on trusted blog posts, and watching videos. But recently, I've missed a few days worth of Twitter feeds (kids on summer vacation needing more attention and spending time with family who do NOT get the social media craze were big factors). Now I'm getting caught up. So I wanted to share with you some quotes, as well as one new blog site I've found.

Last Friday's prayers were historic, in many ways. It was the first time since the election that Hashemi Rafsanjani has spoken at length, publicly, about what's been happening in his country. A former President himself, and a man with a lot of clout, as a result of his role in the 1979 Revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran and established the current government, rumors had been flying around for weeks about his involvement in support of the protesters from behind the scenes. There were high hopes for his sermon on Friday. Perhaps too high, for some of the protesters. In case you hadn't heard, the government made its expectations of Rafasanji abundantly clear by arresting his family immediately after the protests began. Most reports from eye-witnesses in Tehran on Friday were willing to acknowledge that outright condemnation of the government would have been political (and perhaps literal) suicide.

Where he put his weight was in his silences. By NOT upbraiding the government directly, by NOT mentioning Supreme Leader Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad at all (which, apparently, is unheard of in Friday prayers), he spoke volumes. And judging by the tenor of high emotional intensity exhibited in online accounts, his listeners heard every tacit word.

I'll start by sharing with you a post from a young woman who calls herself "Pedestrian". (I won't tell you her age--read her bio on the "About" page of the site. A helluva writer, she is.) She posted her reaction and a general translation of Rafsanjani's sermon. Be sure to bookmark her home page and come back for more.

YouTube has videos of the speech itself--you can find them linked on this blog, where blog author, Naj, has posted translations to the last three segments of the speech, so far.

From reading through portions of Tehran Bureau's website, I've taken some selected cuts of quotes from eyewitnesses on Friday:

After the sermon, we got up to pray. And we suddenly noticed how cozy everyone had become [Many leading clerics believe that men and women should not stand side to side when praying... But today, they were praying next to each other which is unprecedented].

After the prayer we got up to leave, but we were being instructed to chant Death to America. We would answer back with Death to Russia. He would want us to say the blood in our veins is a gift to our leader, but we would say the blood in our veins is a gift to our nation.

We were walking happily along until we reached 16th of Azar Street. We could see armed men standing behind the gates of the University of Tehran. The guy beside us kept saying: “Do you know what will happen if these guys are ordered to come out?” We finally agreed to let him take us out of the crowd. We were happily leaving when we saw a HUMONGOUS crowd run our way. People were scrambling to escape. When I spoke to one person later, when he had calmed down, he just kept saying: “Whatever that was, it wasn’t tear gas. My entire body is burning.”


There was violence today, but not as bad as the previous demonstrations. People were bruised and beaten, but not as many and not as severely.

We were getting up to leave the prayer, when we saw a truck coming our way from the distance. We could makae out a dozen or so militias in black uniforms in the back of the truck. Someone yelled: “don’t get up! sit!” We sat, frightened, as there were only 30 or 40 people and the truck was getting closer. Suddenly, people around us all ran to our side. They all sat down. We were at least a few hundred now. The truck backed up and left.


Since people couldn’t break out into chants in front of the thug squads, they had to resort to codified slogans. “Marg bar Diktator” (”Death to the Dictator”) alternated with “Marg bar Russiye” (”Death to Russia”) — this was a sly jab at Ahmadinejad-Khamenei due to their alleged alliance with Russia in orchestrating the vote coup (Medvedev had promptly congratulated the fraudulent win and welcomed Ahmadinejad to a regional summit after the elections; Russia is widely believed to give behind-the-scenes support to Ahmadinejad’s government, bypassing sanctions, selling arms, helping build the nuclear plant in Bushehr, etc.)

The day was scorching hot and I heard fellow Mousavites saying that just by being present on the streets, we oblige security forces to stand for hours in the hot sun in their heavy uniforms, helmets, vests, masks … the best revenge we can muster nonviolently!

I hope, if you're able, that you'll follow these events, too, and share any great resources you find. Though events could still move either way, the tide seems to be shifting and the swell change promises to be as tragic as Tienanmen Square or as inspiring as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I wish with all my heart for the latter.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Holy Air-Quality, Batman! Scottish Government Vehicles To Go 95% Carbon-Neutral By 2010!

The Electric Smart Car

Because I like to get an outside perspective on the news of the world, I've lately taken to following the headlines of foreign news agencies on Twitter, especially the BBC World News. I highly recommend getting a broader perspective. This is, of course, even more important for teaching my World Regional Geography class, this upcoming semester (that is, as long as it isn't cancelled due to the 30%+ budget cuts of this year).

The Scotsman, the national newspaper of Scotland, recently published a piece titled: "Scots vehicles to go electric in next ten years, vow ministers". David Maddox, Scottish Political Correspondent, described an "ambitious plan by the Scottish Government to make 95 per cent of vehicles low-carbon" by 2010--a target the U.S. could only dream of. (Read the full article here.) Although rapidly acting on a carbon emission reduction of 42% by 2020 that was recently passed by Members of Scottish Parliament, the new plan "has been met with scepticism by [both] drivers' organisations and environmental groups."

But, I'd rush to add, at least they're DOING something.

(Think we should we wait to see what happens before we act? I refer you to the following video for a thorough analysis of that mindset.)

The comments section of online articles can occasionally present valuable criticisms and observations beyond the scope of the original article itself. This is one such piece. I'd like to quote the user KampungHighlander, of Jakarta, who responded to fellow commenter drunken proffet's call for hydrogen power, rather than electricity:

Drunken Proffet [wrote]: "Well you could use hydrogen to power your cars."

Unfortunately Hydrogen has hit a few technical bottle necks that has seen most major Auto Manufacturers opt for Lithium Ion Batteries as the technology of choice.

The major stumbling block is that the amount of electricity to separate Hydrogen from the Oxygen molecules in water requires a lot more energy than you what you get by recombining the two in a fuel cell.

Lithium Ion on the other hand has had a couple of technical breakthroughs such as increasing the life cycle to 50,000 charges and discharges and the newest batteries can be fully charged in as little as five minutes.

The arguments about infrastructure are a bit silly considering that establishing a recharge point costs about £200 and that most roads already have an available source of electricity. It is not nearly as difficult as it was to establish the infrastructure we currently have for liquid fuels.

Studies done in the US even show that it would actually save Electric utilities money to store surplus power in a grid of EV's rather than rely on expensive standby power. With Scotland becoming a large producer of intermittent Wind Power this will only become more important.

Ultimately what will drive peoples buying decisions will be cost, so [as long] as petrol remains the more expensive alternative people will switch to electric vehicles. Other incentives such as exempting electric vehicles from VAT or allocating the best parking spaces to EV's could also be offered to speed up adoption.

Some other points to consider:

1. Where will the energy come from for electric cars? (Not coal-fired power plants, I hope!)
2. How much will the infrastructure for recharge points cost? Who will be in charge of them?
3. Can we really make them cost effective?
4. Can car manufacturers make electric SUVs and powerful trucks for the Super-Size Me American???

There are countless other questions yet to arise, I have no doubt. This is more than the simple issue it's often painted to be and I'd like to see more discussion on the issue. This coming fall, I'll be putting the matter before my students to see what they come up with--quite often they amaze me with their insightful queries and commentary. With increasing committments for sustainable energy and reduced carbon emissions, both in and out of the political arena, the end of the year promises to be interesting, at best.

Yes, I'll be watching the news...

Monday, 29 June 2009

Garden of Friendship

Looking around at the faces of your friends,
I see so many blooms
in the flower garden of your years spent
tilling and sowing this Earth.

It’s a vast garden
with plants of all sorts:
some are annual, seen but once a year;
some perennial, beautiful and close, year-round;
some are trees that blossom and bear fruit
then sleep, dormant, in winter,
but always with dreams and thoughts of you
not far off in spring.

Some flowers begin as unexpected weeds,
a nuisance, a thorn bush,
that suddenly reveals itself
a new species of rose
heretofore unknown, even to itself;
a treasure unpredicted,
but no less a valuable addition to the sights along your path.

Some flowers will scatter their seeds to the winds,
far beyond the walls you’ve built for yourself
and the plant you knew will die;
all you have to do is open the garden gate
into the unknown
to find it again.

Some flowers look good at the table;
some complement your hair, your clothes, your eyes;
some are tall, dominating the borders of your life;
some are small, almost unnoticed near your feet;
some just listen, swaying gently,
when you have something to get off your chest.

Talking to flowers makes them grow stronger:
you share your breath
and they thrive
giving to you the sweet oxygen
you need to survive.

Remember always that these gardens overlap,
that as each of us lies within you
in varying capacities, hues, and shapes,
so too, you lie within our imagined boundaries.
And our gardens are mightier than so many
for having been inspired by your growth,
graced by your beauty,
and enhanced by the seeds
you have sown within each of us.

May this, your latest year of so many springs past,
be your best ever, spurring each of us on to new heights
by sharing the life-giving air you exhale
with every word,
every smile,
every moment of your amazing existence
in this flower-filled world we share.

Angela Orr also posts at: Silicon Valley Mom's Blog and From Basic Training To Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey. She can be followed on Twitter: @AngelOrr

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Is The Iranian Vote "Meaningless" Afterall?

Like thousands of others, I've been following the situation in Iran all week. This morning I posted on the subject on the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog site, here. The first comment I received noted the irony of Americans giving up their freedoms in the name of security, while Iranians, who have little true security to begin with, are willing to face repurcussions in the name of having a nearly "meaningless" vote (her words) counted by the ayatollahs who will ultimately do as they please, anyway.

In trying to formulate a response, the first analogous image that came to mind was the Amazon rainforest. And do you know the fastest way to destroy a pristine environment such as the Amazon? Build a road through it.

Once people learn what democracy is all about, it becomes harder and harder to keep them from driving across that newly-paved road, claiming the land on either side, building homes and businesses, and creating physical, social, and cultural environments that never before existed in that place.

Asking for what you want, even if there's little chance you'll get it, is never meaningless. That's like saying a prayer is pointless. Even if you're not prone to religiosity, you might consider the fact that prayers, wishes, and meditations all focus our energies toward a goal. That focus can alone bring about changes. Maybe small ones, at first. But sometimes that's all it takes to move forward.

Now see in your mind's eye millions of people, every able-bodied person in a large city, filling 6-lane roads from side to side and as far as the eye can see in either direction. If you think the ayatollahs aren't paying attention to those prayers, you're sorely mistaken. Changes have already begun.

Just ask the wiped-out micro-ecosystem of the first tree felled.

Can the original environment be restored, at that point? Perhaps, over time. But only by killing all of the people.

Angela Orr also posts at: Silicon Valley Mom's Blog and From Basic Training To Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey. She can also be followed on Twitter: @AngelOrr . For more info from Twitter sources, follow #iranelection.
Photo credits: OLIVIER LABAN/MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images; BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Star Trek and the American Psyche

I love action films. Mostly of the superhero variety. They make me feel powerful, like I could take on the world. Like anything is possible.

At least for the hour or so after watching one.

After finishing finals and getting all of my students' grades in on time, I felt I deserved a little treat, so I took myself to see Star Trek. By the time I left the theater, my can't-get-out-of-its-own-way 4-banger Honda was a bomb of a starship, powering down the onramp of Highway 101 on a Thursday night. Every other car on the road was a chunk of blown-up scrap metal and I was on my way to save the planet from the Romu--I husband from the kids.

I am, as I write this, listening to the soundtrack. In my room sits a Star Trek poster that, lucky me, was being taken down as I was walking into the theater. Really, I'm no Trekkie. Not that there's anything wrong with being a Trekophile. It's just that I'm into diverse experiences and rarely let myself get tied down to one genre of film, music, sport, or hobby for long. I like to soak it all in. I guess you could say I know just enough about my favorite things to be dangerous.

I'll leave the movie reviews to the experts; there've certainly been enough of those. But, for those of you who wanted to know, yes, I loved it. Yes, I saw it again tonight, when I took my husband for our date night and he loved it. The characterizations were so brilliant that when Karl Urban (who plays Leonard "Bones" McCoy) says, "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a physicist!" it was like hearing an old inside joke, rather than a cheesy one-liner. Anton Yelchin (the engaging star of the film, Charlie Bartlett), and British comedian/actor Simon Pegg, as Chekov and Scotty, respectfully, were my favorites by far, with their amusing, wide-eyed enthusiasm and excellent reactive timing.

The Cal State Northridge Oviatt Library gets a shout-out, too: it's never looked so good, upgraded as it has been to Starfleet Academy's venerable gateway to the universe (as an alum of CSUN, this was probably the only thing that pulled me out of that delicate suspension of disbelief no filmmaker of good fiction ever wants you to part with).

What I realized as I sat through the end of the credits (yeah, I'm one of those people) was that this movie specifically spoke to the American psyche. It touched on many of things we purport to value: Independence? Check. Strength? Check. Intelligence? Check. Compassion? Check. Loyalty? Check. Freedom? Check.
Cue one slowly-raised eyebrow.

Americans are generally seen as being strongly independent. We certainly don't like being told what to do. Rebellion is our hallmark. Ah-ha, James T. Kirk, right? And truth Americans are fiercely interdependent, creating families where none exist, emphasizing community, supporting one another. Seriously, why are you even reading this blog to begin with, if not to make a connection or be part of the community of Trek-watchers?

When Americans have trouble making human connections in the world around them, they become depressed, lonely, anxious, even downright crazy. Maybe that's true of humans in general. But we sometimes ignore even this essential element of human nature in our quest to be independent citizens. I talk with my students about this every year during our discussion of the regionalization of popular culture. Americans all strive to be "different", and yet we desperately want to surround ourselves with other people who are different just like us. Because we don't want to be alone.

We admire strength--cage matches, wrestling, superheros. It sets us constantly at war with ourselves: brain vs. brawn. We tend to hate hanging out with people smarter than ourselves, because it makes us feel dumb when we know we're not. (Related fact check: Did you know that we rarely marry outside our I.Q. range?) I've gotten so sick of the "Proud Parent" bumper stickers that I'll cop to having laughed at the one that reads, "My kid could beat up your honors student." On second thought, maybe that's not so funny.

At the same time, we expect our nation's leaders and innovators to be America's "best and brightest" (well...for the most part, anyway). Kirk has always been seen as the classic brawler type and Spock was always the brain. But Kirk was no dummy, either, as this film works hard to emphasize. It isn't just anyone who can outwit the infamously unwinnable Kobayashi-Maru training exercise. And he did manage to surround himself with an exceptionally talented crew. Keeping in mind that this is just a film, it does tell us something about the expectations we have of our heroes. Maybe there's hope for my brainy daughter, yet.

We don't want to hand everything to our young people, though. They have to want it badly enough to overcome challenges--sometimes the kind that can kill you. In your deepest heart-of-hearts, you want to be a risk taker, I bet. (You can nod--no one's looking over your shoulder.) Even if you can't possibly imagine yourself parachuting out of an airplane, you wish you had the guts to do it. And you want to watch someone else try it. (Survivor, anyone?)

We also expect compassion--kindness and mercy shown to those weaker than ourselves. Animals, children, even a tough guy sprawled on the floor in a puddle of his own fluids. When Nero the nasty dude's ship is about to fall into a black hole, Kirk offers to help him out of his moment of peril. Nero's such an ass****, even Spock doesn't want Kirk to offer--but that's what the good guys do, right? Perhaps a bit of the chivalrous ideal has carried through to the 21st Century. But we do wish we didn't have to be so nice, all the time. And quite often we aren't. In real life, we try to show mercy when we can emotionally afford to, but we all have those moments when what has been done to us is more than we can bear and we go a little overboard. It's just part of being human. Or, in Spock's case, half-human.

Different cultures have different ideas about what it takes to overload someone's personal circuits. And for those cultures that don't get our fascination with violence, let me put it to you this way: it's great to let our heroes kick some bad guy ass and just be done with it. These are imaginary people who will never have to face a courtroom, never have to think about the family of the person they're shooting. Real life isn't like the movies. So it's okay with us when the bad dude loses that last sweaty hold on the ledge while the hero watches, unmoving. Nevertheless, I have to admit that this is one area of the American experience that could maybe still use a little tweaking.

Americans value loyalty. The buddies who stick up for one another. The person who won't give up the secret codes. The friends and even enemies who won't leave a team member behind, despite the odds. We respect stepping into the lion's den and putting your life on the line to help another out of danger. The vast majority of Americans deeply admire those who serve in the armed forces--it is the ultimate sacrifice in the name of loyalty to country, kin, and freedom. And we go out of our way to point out these examples of loyalty and celebrate them.

Why? I think it's because human beings are save-our-own-asses creatures. For the average person, "loyal" only goes as far as it serves us to be so. Have you never been disloyal to a co-worker, a friend, or a loved one in the interest of getting what you really want? Don't tell me you've never said, "So-and-so asked me not to say anything, so this doesn't go past this room, but..." Come on. I'll admit it--I stole the guy my best friend was eyeing in high school. And again in college. (Loyalty often takes an especially large, flying leap when our hormones are at stake. Just ask anyone who's ever dealt with the repercussions of an affair.) It makes us feel as though there's hope for our selfish selves when we see others giving so much. Kirk has to enter Nero's ship in order to save his captain from Nero's clutches. If he doesn't go, we couldn't respect him.

Freedom is something we have been fighting for as a nation since Day One. The right to choose our own destinies--to do what we want, when we want, however we want. And yet we give those freedoms up every day. For work. For our own or our children's education. For the basic need to maintain order in the world around us. Often we give up our freedoms in the name of security. Heads-up: terrorists are now using common American surnames as disguises, so even guys like Bob Smith are getting searched at airports. Think about how much control over your life lies in the hands of any company with which you hold a credit card. What would happen if you stopped paying? But just try giving all of your credit cards up. Do you realize how hard it is to live a socially and culturally well-adjusted life without a credit card? Yeah, okay, I know there are thousands of people who live "off the grid". I dare you to try it. Let me know how it works out.

All action films have that "saving the [something or someone]" intensity. These are, in essence, bedtime stories for grown-ups. The best action films, like the best bedtime stories, remind us of what is important, what we should aspire to. Ultimately, this film, and the series that begat it, was about more than independence, strength, intelligence, compassion, loyalty, or freedom. It was about hoping. Hoping there's a better future. Trying to make it so.

And that, right there, is the American psyche at its best.

This is an original post. Not only is she a superhero in training, Angela also writes for the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog, Basic Training To Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey, Sundance...Or Bust! and her Twitter followers.

Image created by: Mark Storey Graphic Design & Art. Star Trek movie imagery: Copyright 2009 Paramount Pictures. Star Trek and all related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved by their respective owners.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

LOL = Love Of Learning: Helping Gifted Children Succeed

Our school needs to figure out how to celebrate each child's abilities--at every level.

Oh, they talk a good game about differentiation in the classroom. But when it comes to day-to-day instruction, reality is far removed from this ideal. True, children struggling to keep up with grade-level materials are given extra help to even out the classroom ability level. But children who are well beyond grade-level materials are forced to suffer through "reinforcement" instruction, no matter how boring, in order to maintain status quo.

It's been my experience that students forced to stay with the group when they are well beyond the material let their grades slip. This may sound backward--how can a bright student fail a course they could run circles around? But let me ask you this: Have you ever had to sit through a meeting or a talk that centered around subjects you knew well, perhaps even better than the speaker? Were you bored to pieces? What did you do? Doodle in your notebook and make it look like you were taking notes? Did you text your best friend under the table about the snore-worthy performance at hand? Did you give a damn about any of it? I'm willing to bet you mentally checked out. I would. I did.

When I was high school, I wanted to take a theater arts class. But the timing conflicted with the advanced history class I was slated to take. So I took theater arts and signed up for the remedial history class that fit my schedule, instead. After two months, I was so bored I stopped taking notes. I stopped paying attention. I wrote poetry instead. And I started failing my exams.

Thankfully, I had a teacher who paid attention and called me on the carpet. You're too smart to fail this class, he said, so what's really going on, here?

Instead of admonishment, he gave me responsibilities. I was to help him grade exams and keep his record book up-to-date. He gave me a research project and discussed details of each day's lectures with me after class. And guess what? I started asking questions in class again--the kinds of questions that made the other students turn around to stare at me. But I didn't care any more. I'd tuned back in to KLOL, "Love Of Learning Radio".

It sounds stupid, but I'm watching it happen, even now. At mid-semester, my first-grade daughter's behavior marks started to drop. She's not being "a good listener" and her "citizenship" needs improvement. She tells me she lays on the floor during morning circle time, when the children gather for the beginning of the day's instruction. I ask her about the high points and low points of her day and they almost always involve recess.

Before she even started Kindergarten, I met with her principal to discuss how the school's philosophy and academic planning would help my child to succeed--and what we could do, as parents, to partner with her teachers. "We can't keep her from getting bored," he said. (Yes, that was a direct quote.) Can't keep her from getting bored? Then why are we here?

No, we can't afford a school like Nueva, where Kindergarten costs $24K. Even if I could send her there, I'd still object to the elitism that implies. Only the rich smart kids get help? Hm. Besides, we thought the Palo Alto School District, which is lauded by more than just local parents, would have the high-quality teachers who would know how to help our daughter. Surely they've dealt with children like ours, before. Surely they'd have a plan in place to help. GATE programs were on the books, which we were excited about. But in reality, these don't start until 4th grade. We have to hope her love of learning isn't crushed before then.

Honestly, I went through some of the same things. My parents had me tested before I'd even started school. And Hemlock Elementary in Vacaville, California was willing to work out a deal. My reading was the most accelerated part of my learning, so they pulled me out each day during reading time and put me with the highest reading group of the next grade up. I was analyzing Madline L'Engle's "A Wind In The Door" in third grade. And it made all the difference in the world.

I understand the need to keep children from becoming stigmatized or having their egos overly-inflated by "special" treatment. But won't they become more so by staying in the classroom with their peers, who copy off of their papers and worry that they're not good readers because one classmate is powering past them like a blur? Will the advanced math student get so bored with simple addition and subtraction that he starts acting out to call attention to his boredom and try to change a situation that he otherwise has no control over?

These are not just rhetorical questions. I've been that advanced kid. In secondary school, I was surrounded by others like me in some of my classes--and many of us had dealt with the same social and academic pressures growing up. I had a soul-crushing experience with a pissed-off girl in a Junior High math class who was under the impression I thought she was stupid (I didn't), and ostracized me because of it. The worst part was, I really admired the girl.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's important for children to learn how to work in groups of mixed abilities. When they have the emotional maturity to understand why it's important. But to do so day in and day out, with no hope of mentally flying free is frustrating. I fear my child, and other children like her, will end up using their intellects in destructive ways just to exercise them, or turn to other, physically-damaging escapes. These bright children have the capacity to do amazing things in and for this world. To say that they are doing so well we don't need to worry about them is doing them--and ourselves--a disservice.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and share what may be an unpopular opinion. I believe children who are academically gifted are special needs children, just as fully as students traditionally identified as such. Their needs are different. But in both cases, we ignore them at our peril.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Learning To Love You, Again and Again

When we are searching, the search is everything. Desperation, drama, adrenaline, trying to fill that empty brain place with hormones programmed to satisfy the want.

When we find, we explore, we exchange, we dance in ecstatic discovery. We wallow in the rush of lust and slide slickly.

And then...we learn something we didn't want to know. We find a handprint on the window. All we see is the smudge, while the view blurs behind.

Anger, hurt, confusion--betrayal. Why didn't I see that blemish before? How stupid I was! The anger turns outward to save the inside from feeling. Drop it and let it roll--I don't care! I don't care where it lands.

When it all changes, we shut down. We cry. We ignore. We move on in our hearts, whether our bodies stay or not.

The world moves in its course, magnetic north shifts--maybe reverses completely--and we find ourselves in a place unrecognizable. No, wait. I know this place. It is, essentially, where it all began. Because I am searching again.

The cycle repeats and repeats and repeats. The common denominator? It is me.

And one day I decide to stop and fight. I will NOT let that smudge distract me. That is MY life outside that window and I no longer want to bother with prints and bugs and scratches. I wipe. It smears. I shout. Shut me out? No more!

Pulling and pushing yield nothing. Locked. My fist through the glass? Pain. A chair thrown? Broken chair. That is not how I want to get out there. But I won't sit on the chair and wait. That smudge is in the way. I pace, I explore the perimeter, I plan. I growl in frustration. Head in hands, hair in fists. Wild eyes look to the ceiling for inspiration. the latch.

Slowly standing, I flick the lever upward with a quick finger and a click that echoes. A light touch, pressing away, and the glass slides aside in one smooth motion. It was that easy?

Wasted time!

No...not all. I learned that I can fight. That I can enter on my own terms and glow in the garden of a life I choose to participate in. Love was never lost--it turned chrysalis while I wriggled around inside. And when I emerged into the light, it was waiting for me.

I don't need to search. You waited. And I am here, not new, but renewed. How will you choose to enter and greet me?

Find me. I am yours. I always was. And I do need you. I had forgotten, closed in for so long. Have you?

Open with me. Let our colors comingle.

And I will learn to love you again.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Living At The Speed Of Light

We interrupt this program for a brief, important mind bender....

Here we gooooo.....!

Jumping. Mentally and bodily. Metaphysically, spiritually, philosophically. Present to past to future. Sideways to an alternate present along the same world lines. Diagonally to an other-worldly present. Sliding along the z-axis. Discovering a new axis--the hidden dimension.

And still, as my body turns to energy, silently exploding every molecule as I become bright and unreal, still some semblance, some of the essence of me is maintained and, at some distant point, reforms as matter once again. How is it I can remain the me that is the essence of my mental and emotional configuration?

I ask you to consider what dies when your "life" is over. Your body is still made up of essentially the same amount of matter at the moment of your death as it was in the moments before. But the electrodes the emergency crew pasted to your heart and brain are no longer registering an energy signal. The energy that resides in you, the energy fueled by the chemical reactions of eating and breathing, conducted by the water coursing through your cells, has been released. Where does it go? Now there's a more pertinent question.

And if it is energy that makes you alive, then wouldn't all of the matter in your body turning into pure energy make you even more alive? Turn you into a god?

Perhaps gods ride the energy waves that pass through space, electromagnetic radiation constantly on the move, bent only to the will of deep gravity wells, black holes. Ahhh. Perhaps THAT is hell. Enter, the w-axis!

E = mc2. If matter accelerated to the speed of light becomes pure energy, would pure energy slowed to the speed of molecular vibrations become matter once again? And what form does that matter take? Does the slowing energy decide for itself? The angel Maroni--from blinding light to anthropogenesis. Zeus in the form of a swan or a golden shower. Shiva and Krishna and the many forms of the Hindu "pantheon". Fairies and djinn and bunyips. An immaculate conception. The crazy diversity of religious, mythic, and fairytale forms from every culture. All of them energy, once—light that learned to slow itself down and Become.

And if that god-like energy decides to travel away from Earth, what does it become in other places? Are the forms taken limited by the physical environment in which they find themselves? Do they become bacteria under the ice on Mars? Minerals on a comet? Solar flares and sunspots? Dust and dark matter?

How does matter accelerate to the speed of light? And, more intriguingly, how does it slow down, again?

Pressing the brakes.

This is why I love geography. It is a subject that draws from every other field and looks at the world as a whole, from a spatial perspective. It is a holistic subject, by nature. And it has made me look at the interconnectedness of everything in ways I might not otherwise have considered. The philosophical underpinnings of science. The scientific basis for religion. The religious nature of household plumbing. It all fits together.

In a similar way, so do we. You and your body, me and mine. You and I. After all, you’re here now, aren’t you? Sharing the interlocking pieces of life with me as I write and you read. For that, I send my thanks across the ether. Step into the sunlight and catch the vibe.

Ah, here we are. Pulling into the station. Please keep all appendages inside until the ride has come to a full and complete stop.

Thank you for riding, Lighties and Glowingmen.

And now, back to your regularly-scheduled program...

Monday, 4 May 2009


The Japanese have a word
for the space between
holds together
moment and moment
is as full as the pieces
pinning its ends
Each step on the path
is planned
to set your eye
here or there
as you move through
The grace
of each footfall
happens where
the stones are carefully placed
In the space between souls
as full as the emptiness
can make her

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Soloist: Channeling The Soul Of A Writer

There is a small group of people who shadow the streets of downtown Palo Alto. On Sunday mornings, one shuffles mind-numbingly slowly past the diner I've just left. Teeth missing, clothes clean but ill-fitting, he babbles in a barely-audible voice. I pass a woman who meekly asks for spare change, her wrinkled and flabby arm outstretched, styrofoam coffee cup held half-heartedly in her hand. I'm fairly certain they live in a nearby building. All of them seem to be suffering from one mental illness or another. Who are they? How did they get here? I often wonder. And, Am I really helping if I give them what they ask for?

I hadn't asked myself these questions in nearly a year, since the economy tanked and we stopped going out to eat on Sunday mornings. Now, I had begun to think about them in a whole new way.

With nervous breath, I approached the petite, graceful woman at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center to ask after the tickets being held in my name. It was a little late to worry that I'd forgotten to wear any jewelry or make-up. I hoped against hope that I wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb amongst the assembled cinemarati.

The theater was still largely empty. At the front were two chairs, off to the side, set there in anticipation of the Q&A after the film. It was like being at Sundance all over again. And Joe Wright, Director of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, was in the building.

So I sat in the front row.

Because the Rafael Theater is one of only a handful of its kind operating as a not-for-profit, the theater directors often solicit donations from media companies in order to keep this lovely, down-town San Rafael treasure functioning in first-class fashion. Now in its tenth year of operation, the Rafael has hosted many special screenings and events like the one I was attending this evening. My darling friend Tammy Lelie works for TV5, a French TV station in Los Angeles, one of the media companies the Rafael targets. Tammy wasn't able to make it up to the Bay Area on a Monday night, so she RSVP'd in my name. Only, I was in no position to promise anyone anything. I'm just a lowly writer.

I was there to see The Soloist.

My brother, Mac, slid into the seat next to me. A handsome and gifted musician with an insight I've always trusted when it comes to the world of sound, he had his own reasons for wanting to be here. I grinned over at him. At least one of us looked like a movie star.

Joe Wright stepped onto the stage to explain the film, a few feet from where we sat.

For those of you who know nothing about the movie's subject, you'd do well to visit Steve Lopez's website. The man is a penetratingly inspired writer, an L.A. Times human-interest columnist and the author of the book on which the film is based. (Even better, buy the book.) On the face of it, the movie is about one homeless, schizophrenic musical genius--Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, brilliantly played by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx. Channeling Beethoven with his two-stringed violin to the accompaniment of the street sounds of Los Angeles, Ayers entrances Mr. Lopez (intimately portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr.), who ultimately befriends and tries to help him.

If you want more details or insight, you'll have to hang on. There will soon be countless reviews by experienced film critics and analysts. I am neither of those. I'm not here to tell you that the film was touching and inspiring, engaging and informative, well worth your precious time and money. (It is.) I was there to support Mr. Downey, a fellow Wing Chun student. I wanted to see him channel a writer's soul.

Though there are many layers to the story, it was the writer's journey that touched me, most. I've struggled for a lifetime with my own writing and found that the creative process of wordcraft is not a subject generally treated with any kind of realism or depth in movies. The booming assumption that the movie-goer is looking for pictures, for action, has drowned out the written experience within the medium. Yet Mr. Lopez and Oscar-winning screenwriter, Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), manage to convey the sense of dialogue between writer and readers that Lopez reaches for in his column pieces.

It was easy to become drawn into his life--its loneliness, its humor, and its drive. And drawn into his search for the universal truths that the best writers, front-page or obscure, humble or self-obsessed, may eventually discover. While the written word can become a conduit into the human soul, sometimes it takes actors like Mr. Downey to bring them to life, give them sonorous wings, emote them and make them as real as L.A. traffic. Yet, it is the words within the script that are the genetic material from which the story springs.

Tell the world and they will listen, Lopez says. Ask, and they will respond. We are each of us desperate for connection, for exchange. As folk societies give way to popular culture, we invent ways to create new communities, even as the old ones crumble around us. We feel a sense of belonging, of purpose, of gratification, when we know that we've helped one another. Lopez himself finds a renewal of purpose in the emotional journey into Ayer's life, fueled by the love/hate relationship between he and his ever-present estranged wife and Editor, played with well-seasoned tenderness by Catherine Keener. (Many liberties were taken with this particular character, in the name of both story arc and privacy. The real Mrs. Lopez was not his boss, nor were they ever estranged, as far as I was able to discover.)

Imagery of Los Angeles from a distance punctuated the film. Such scenery usually pulls me out of the moment, as it generally serves up a feeling of alienation and anonymity. In this particular case, however, the pull-backs were done in such a way that I felt the interconnectedness of every element of the city, from a single pigeon to the interwoven tapestry of streets and highways and the buildings set between them. The form and function of a complex whole, the sprawled body of the city, relies on each person like my own body relies on its cells to survive.

As writers, we often wonder, Who is out there? Are they hearing me? Am I merely keeping myself occupied, putting food on the table? Or am I making a substantive difference? Having only just begun my public entry back into the written medium, I felt relief to know that words can indeed form connections like those Mr. Lopez has made between people who will likely never meet outside of his column. With hard work and a dose of courage, I can only hope that someday I will make that same sort of difference.

Lopez's journey begins amidst the backdrop of layoffs at the L.A. Times. At the end-of-film Q&A, one audience member asked the Director whether he decried the demise of print media that made such layoffs necessary. Mr. Wright responded that print could never completely disappear, but he "fear[ed] that less and less money will be spent on investigative reporters...searching the darker corners and not coming up with anything for years and years--until they discover Watergate."

I believe very deeply in the need for pioneers of all sorts. I am not brave. I am not willing to risk much when it comes to bodily safety. And I know I'm not alone. I need people like Steve Lopez in my life, people who can explore the cracks and shadowed corners of the world and come back with treasures to share. Stories of the human spirit, faded but glittering, magical in their uniqueness, and redemptive in their sharing.

Ultimately, the message is that each of us is our own person, no matter how flawed. I'm sorry. Did you hear that? Let me repeat: No matter how flawed.

Lopez eventually discovers what Ayers and many of the authentic cast themselves deeply understand: that no one has the right, nor, I daresay, the ability to change another. It must come from within--or not at all. The dignity and humanity of each and every human being, regardless of their mental state, is inalienable. The best we can do is foster the good in one another and be there for whatever lies in store.

In the filmmaking tradition of British Realism, well established in places like India, Mr. Wright drew twenty cast members from the Lamp Community facility that is shown in the film. All diagnosed with mental illness, "The Lamp Chorus", as Wright referred to them, spent four months in workshops before rehearsals began and worked closely with both principal actors and the Director throughout the film. Wright commented on the many misconceptions surrounding mental illness and homelessness, especially amongst the lawyers involved in the project. They generally felt, according to Wright, "that mental illness equals mental stupidity." And yet, he said, "These people understood better than the lawyers what sort of film we were making." One person apparently went so far as to claim that the Lamp Chorus members should be replaced with professional actors because "it was morally reprehensible to reward these people for the choices they had made."

As a body, the audience gasped at such a comment. Yet I wondered how far many of them would carry their new understanding after the film was over. How will I see those same people wandering town on Sunday mornings? How will the practical application of this new insight take shape?

Mr. Wright discussed at length his concern over the general agreement that medication will "cure" the mentally ill, without the understanding of what those medications do and how they alter not just one's state of mind, but one's entire personality. In one scene, a member of the Lamp Chorus explains in her own words why she wrestles with taking the Lithium prescribed to her. It takes away the voices in her head, she says--voices that comfort her and help her feel safe. As Lopez tries to find a way to put Ayers on medication that he feels would help his friend, he slowly comes to realize that medications aren't the only, or even the right, answer. While I personally do believe that medications are warranted in some cases, there needs to be a more realistic assessment of every individual. For Mr. Ayers, there is no cure--only a dignified acceptance of who he is.

Foxx's portrayal of Ayers is absorbing and humanizing, all the more so because he spent time both clandestinely observing and conversing face-to-face with the real Mr. Ayers, who often played throughout the day on the streets of Los Angeles, not far from where filming was taking place. Jamie Foxx has a strong classical training in piano, and is himself a gifted musical performer--learning to play the cello for The Soloist was not a difficult a stretch. He also claims to have had a childhood fear of mental illness, exacerbated by a college prank in which someone apparently slipped him a drug that caused him to believe he had indeed gone mad. The experience has enabled him to deeply tap into some of the same feelings and fears Ayers nearly drowns in.

Joe Wright's next film, Indian Summer, begins production next January. It's subject matter? The partition of India and Pakistan. Just a fluff piece, he jokes, at the audience's audible reaction. "I was wanting to learn something."

I stepped out of the Aroma coffee shop next door to the Rafael, still affected by the images and events of The Soloist. I was thinking about that man on the streets of Palo Alto. It's not my job to fix him. But it is my responsibility to respect him. He is as worthy as any of us. And he doesn't need a musical instrument to prove it.

We forget, sometimes, that it's okay to be ourselves. The rest of the world be damned. Write the words or play the cello or run the race that is yours to run. The world will catch on when its ready.

Note: All rights to the photo above are reserved by their respective owners. No copyright infringement intended.

This is an original post. When she isn't following Steve Lopez on Twitter, Angela also writes for the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog, Basic Training To Black Sash: A Mother's Wing Chun Journey, and her Twitter followers.