Wednesday, April 29, 2009

This I Believe

Since the election ended, I have really stopped posting overtly political things. Well, when I say "stopped", I really mean, significantly scaled back my posting of political things. The fact of the matter is, I have done so because when it comes to politics these days, I have loyalties to neither person nor party. Frankly, that is because there is no party that aligns itself with the things I believe. And politicians these days are all basically hacks. That isn't to say that politicians being hacks is a new development. It probably has always been that way, it is just now I no longer believe in party ideology. But what I can say is that I believe in the following:

1. I believe that you don't solve the problem of debt by creating more debt if you are either a person or a government. Eventually, you are going to have to pay up, and unless you can be honest with taxpayers, and tell them straightforwardly that they are going to have to pay these costs at some point in time, then you shouldn't entertain the notion as your policy. It is insincere to tell them that only the top 5% of wealth earners can pay for the follies of the other 95% of Americans. And it doesn't add up to think that you can only tax these people to pay for every significant social program that you want to create in the future.

2. I don't think our economy is ready for cap and trade. Nope. In fact, I can't think of a worse time to institute cap and trade policies. It would be one thing if alternative energy sources were readily available and the government wasn't in tremendous debt and was able to actually afford to subsidize things like new nuclear power plants, solar and wind energy (plus the completely new energy transmission system that would be required to move the places that could produce solar and wind energy to the places that consume energy). But we don't. And the fact is, what the Obama administration doesn't want to tell the American public, and what the opposition has done a poor job articulating, is that cap and trade really equals a huge tax on energy consumption that will ultimately be borne by all Americans. Household energy bills will increase dramatically as well the cost of all consumer goods. And of course, this will effect people with lower incomes the most who can't afford to have their fixed monthly expenditures rise this much. And if what is left of American manufacturing his to pay these costs, then inevitably, unemployment in this sector will rise astronomically.

3. This brings me to my next point - why are people so afraid of nuclear energy? Seriously. Maybe I am not because my grandfather felt so confident about the safety of nuclear energy that he bought land and built a house less than five miles away from the nuclear power plant in North Carolina that he helped to design and that my uncle has been an engineer at that same nuclear power plant for over 30 years. Never once when I have visited my grandmother there have I felt unsafe. Sure there is the storage issue, that has to be dealt with, but if we were a little more like the French, then we could reuse our spent nuclear fuel and have a little bit less waste.

4. I was against the war in Iraq from the time it started and have always been skeptical of the war in Afghanistan. The fact is, I think that raising our troop levels in Afghanistan isn't going to do any good. If anything, it already has done more harm. Now the Taliban are active in Pakistan, and I think that alot of the ground support that the Taliban are getting in Pakistan has to do with with the way that we are continuing to fight the war there - where civilian casualties are a way of life, as we try to fight a war from long distance. If the Taliban or other extremists do get control in Pakistan, then we are in trouble. Or rather, at the very least India is in trouble. Remember how Pakistan has nuclear weapons? Why don't people seem more concerned about this?

5. I am mad that the Obama administration is making friendly overtures to the Sudanese government, responsible for genocide. I can't even begin to explain how upset I am about this. I have previously stated that I can never fully be a President Clinton fan because of how he wilfully ignored what was going on in Rwanda. And now, we have the Obama administration talking about how they are going to normalize relations with a horrible, horrible government. Look, I can take you shaking hands and exchanging books with Hugo Chavez. I can handle you playing nice with the Castro brothers. While I think that these people are brutal dictators who really torture their political opponents (which I thought the Obama administration was against in our own country, but lately I am convinced, they are really just interested in creating a political show), I could take that, but GENOCIDE? Come on, Obama. Please stand up for something! I realize you are now suddenly afraid to use that word when you are in public (Remember your visit to Turkey?). But here we are, you are President. You are born of a Kenyan father. Why won't you stand up for Africans? Why won't you exert REAL diplomatic pressure, engage in real diplomacy by doing a little Chinese arm-twisting, talking to other states in the region, etc. Instead, your approach is to make nice with leaders indicted by the ICC Court for real war crimes. Let's call it what it is - APPEASEMENT. Now don't expect me to believe that you are sincere when your administration talks about prosecuting people for torture. That doesn't have anything to do with a real commitment to human rights. That has to do with a real commitment to political expediency. Didn't Samantha Power, who is in your administration, write the book on genocide? I realize, she is probably out on maternity leave, but that shouldn't mean that a commitment to the issue also should be on vacation.

Perhaps I should leave it at that for now. I have worked myself up too much over #5, and now can't think about anything else.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

New Widget

I am obsessed with viruses and infectious diseases. It has been said before. Thanks to the CDC, I have added a widget to keep people informed about the latest news from the CDC about the Swine Flu outbreak.

I am not a doctor, information is all I can provide.

That and hand sanitizer...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Identity Thieves

I am sometimes a rather paranoid being. It is just a quirk. So, earlier in the week when a dear friend of mine sent around a picture of her new puppy that had the file name of the name I secretly reserved for my first born daughter, I freaked out. Like George Costanza on Seinfeld who rightfully claimed the name "Seven" as exclusively his, I feared that my chosen name was now tainted and ruined. It turned out that I was wrong. That wasn't the name that my friend was giving the dog. It was the name that the breeder had given the puppy and my friend was giving the puppy a different name. However, this moment and the ensuing freak-out led me to realize that I have been having lots of freak-out related identity issues lately, as some of the things that I have loved for a long time have become increasingly popular.

Take cupcakes for instance. I have loved cupcakes ever since I was in second grade and every friend's birthday party at the Dreamland Skate Center involved rainbow airbrushed cupcakes from Winn Dixie. Since then, I have had a full on buttercream fixation. So, when the cupcake craze of the early 2000s ensued, I was one of the early people to jump on board, although I will credit the beginning of that craze to the Magnolia Bakery episode of Sex in the City. I think it began with Magnolia Bakery. Some people in LA will argue that it began with Sprinkles, but I think that is highly unlikely, since it is my personal belief that no positive trend or fad ever originates in Southern California. In my time in New York, I found myself scurrying between cupcake bakery destinations all over the city, trying to find the best spot. Because of the wide variety of cupcake offerings, I lamented my visits to other cities that lacked cupcake offerings. But that was back in the day when Magnolia Bakery only had one location. And now, it turns out, cupcakes are ubiquitous in every city in America. I don't disparage this. Who doesn't love a cupcake? In fact, I promoted it. I will never forget the day when I decided that I needed to one up everyone in a librarianship class at UW; when it was my turn to bring a "snack" I forked out $100 bucks to bring everyone cupcakes from Trophy Cupcakes. Everyone loved me and that day, many more people became part of the cupcake mania that has swept the nation. But at some time, I felt like my buttercream addiction was part of my identity.

This isn't the first time that I have claimed a bizarre identity associated with a dessert. I do it all the time. First it was bread pudding. I was all about bread pudding; tasting different varieties, claiming authoritative judgments about texture and sauce choices. Then I was all about creme brulee. I was one of the first of my circle to purchase a mini -blow torch for the sole purpose of having creme brulee when ever I so desired. Now, everyone I know owns one of those things. People are using mini-torches nearly as often as they are consuming cupcakes. Lately, I have moved on to Souffles. These are the most challenging to make and serve and ordering one in a restaurant means that you will have to wait twenty extra minutes to consume your dessert, but the texture is refreshing. Secretly, I am hoping that the difficulty associated with a decent souffle will preclude it from ever becoming too popular.

This is clearly ridiculous. I didn't invent any of these desserts. I cannot claim ownership of them. And part of the fun of making something sweet and delicious is knowing that other people will enjoy those things. But we all want to stake out parts of our identity that seem unique. And my dessert obsession was one of these things, but by no means the only one of these things.

I am possessive of the name "Milo" since the book "The Phantom Tollbooth" means so much to me because of my childhood, my family, and in particular my mother. In the animated version of the book, there is a song, "What's to become of Milo?" and I just always pictured singing that song to my future son when he was naughty. I spread the love of The Phantom Tollbooth whenever I can, but yet, if anyone I knew ever named their child that, I would feel huffy, because I put so much thought into this - cue George Constanza. I cannot understand nor explain this since of propriety over things that really do not belong to me. But it happens. And when these things become popular, what can one do?

The fact is, I have got to return to this whole Erich Fromm idea that I have forgotten that we are not the things that we own (the mini-torches, the trips to cupcake bakeries across America, the children that we proudly name), but rather that we are defined by what we are, what we think, what we believe. Modern American ownership culture reduces us to all paranoid freaks, because we feel like these things define us. And so every now and again, we get plunged into these identity crises because suddenly everyone else now owns the thing that we thought only we did. But that isn't what makes us unique.

But for the record, my firstborn daughter's name will be "Eloise Magnolia". So I am documenting that here. And if you subsequently name your daughter's name that, I will consider you a thief.

One cannot root George Costanza out entirely in one day.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

More on Edu-ma-cation

My sister sent me this email as a follow up to my last blog on education. I thought it was good, so I wanted to put it here:

I just read your blog. I agree. There are too many pointless distractions. In a school that is close to failing, but is sure to have some sort of dress up week every month in some way, I think that priorities are messed up. It's amazing how our school probably had the least school spirit and no such thing as popularity but probably had the most people go on to college and careers. It would be an interesting study. I bet it would all be related. Maybe I should get a grant to study that. People forgot what school was really about a long time ago. I hate the merit pay. It will ruin education even more. The only people it will encourage are horrible teachers who are only interested in their own gain and glory.

Here is what I emailed her back:

I totally agree with you. The idea of merit pay will only be helpful for jerks who suck up to administrators to get in at good schools with good test scores or who get the good students, regardless of whether or not they are good teachers. Put a great teacher in a bad school where kids aren't taught the value of education at home, and a great teacher can't succeed there. Put a bad teacher in a great school with wealthy kids whose parents want them to do well in school, and they will get the merit pay. Pure crap.

If they took all the silliness out of the schools and actually focused on education, then maybe they wouldn't have such a bad school. If I ever have kids, the first day the kid comes home and tell me that it is "pajama day" at school tomorrow is the day I withdraw my kid from that school and tell them that they are going to a different school tomorrow.

I agree with you about the study. I would start by removing the following from schools - cheerleading, homecoming dance and courts, proms, student government, and "dance teams." If some parent complained that I was taking away their kid's chance to get a "cheerleading scholarship" to college, then I would tell them to have their kid study more so they could get a real scholarship, not some fake one. Then, I would defer the savings from all of those programs into a fund for science education.

Then, I would get all European on them and take all kids that weren't working hard on academics and put them in some technical high school program. At least they can learn a useful skill that way.

Problem solved.

Sadly, no one would ever vote for me to institute this plan in any school district in America.

In the Middle lies the Problem

This column, by Thomas Friedman, is the most emailed NY Times article today. His primary point is that the US's economy is facing greater problems because of the poor education of so many of our citizens. On that point, I can wholeheartedly agree. However, I am not so quick to penalize teachers or public schools generally as Mr. Friedman might be. In fact, I greatly attribute my educational opportunities growing up to being the daughter of a fantastic teacher, in particular, being the daughter of a middle school teacher.

Why middle school, you ask? Well, because middle school is make it or break it time, in my opinion. Mr. Friedman points out that fourth graders in the U.S. perform on par with fourth graders (or similarly aged children) in other industrialized nations. However, by high school, the knowledge gaps between U.S. students and students from other developed countries are quite pronounced. What happens in between? Middle school. Herein lies the problem. Middle school education, for most American children is a joke. For most American children, you could probably take away grades 6-8 and put a graduating fifth grader into class with ninth graders and that 11 year old probably would be on par with the 14-15 year olds in terms of knowledge. I don't blame the middle school teacher for that. What I do fault is the actual Middle School + the mentality of the average middle school student.

Here is the problem with middle school - kids suddenly become EXTREMELY image conscious in middle school. Suddenly, cliques are incredibly important. Clothes are really important. Cheerleading becomes really important. School dances can become really important. Popularity contests like student government associations become really important. The more important these trivial things become, the less important the actual content of courses are. Here is my simple equation, the greater the amount of time schools allow these ridiculous distractions to perpetuate, the less time students actually spend worrying about whether or not they are going to be able to get into the algebra class for eighth grade so they can study geometry in ninth grade. Then there are the middle school parents, don't get me started on this (so much about who ultimately takes education seriously really has to do with who a student's parents are...).

So this is where being the daughter of a middle school teacher (who taught at my school) helped me tremendously. I had always been a good student in elementary school, but so were lots of kids that today are working at Walmart cash registers across America. The fact is, in middle school, my peers saw my identity wrapped up in my position as a teacher's daughter. Therefore, they already didn't trust me. I was an outsider - I never fit into any of the cliques. The only people that consistently liked me in middle school were the other teachers and they liked me because I worked hard in their classes. This was an anomaly in middle school. I knew I could never win a popularity contest (lost every student election I ran for). What I could win was every poetry contest, every weekly science trivia game in Mr. Helton's class, the stock market game in Mr. Gilmore's civics class, etc.

This doesn't mean that I had good relationships with all of my teachers. Quite the contrary - I once sabotaged a spring concert of my middle school band because I had a bone to pick with my band director. But that was in eighth grade, when I knew I would be getting out of that place shortly. The reason that I had courage to do something that brazen (willfully squeak my clarinet through a performance of Ritual for Band), was because by being the unaccepted teacher's daughter, by the end of eighth grade I felt that I could claim my own identity this way. Sure the cheerleaders didn't like me because I refused to let them copy off of my math tests and I got called Dougiette (after Dougie Howser, M.D.), but it turns out being rejected socially benefited me academically. It ultimately led me to reject the high school where my classmates would be attending in favor of the IB program at Pensacola High School, which was the best thing that could ever happen to my high school education.

I have my Mom to thank for that - a lifelong public school teacher. If these notions of merit pay ever live to see the light of day, the "merit pay" calculation for my mom probably will not take that into consideration. But it should. Her three daughters, all with advanced degrees and working in academics today should be all the evidence that any "merit pay" calculation should need.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Truer Words Were Never Spoken

I can't help but agree with this assessment and cure for the current economic state:

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Good Day

Congrats Tar Heels! You worked hard and overcame much this year. And you made me cry. I will miss seeing you play together, but you all are deserving of much success.

Thank you for your dance skills and your tremendous ups on and off the court, Danny! Thank you for your sweet, sweet, honey shot, Wayne! Thank you for your speed and good hands Ty! Thank you for always giving something more Deon! Thank you for your unfailing determination Tyler! Thank you for molding individual, talented superstars into a great team Roy! Thank you all for a great season!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Amongst the Cherry Blossoms

It is that time of year again when middle schoolers and families on vacation from Wisconsin venture in to our nation's capital to see the annual nature even known as the blooming of the Japanese Cherry Blossoms. To celebrate our first springtime in DC together, as well as our first year married, I took David on a Cherry Blossom cruise. Here is how we looked after boarding the ship, but before embarking:

But here is how we looked later on the same boat after embarking. It was a fairly windy day after all:

The cruise took us out the Washington channel and into the Potomac, which affords one exciting views of the planes taking off and landing at Reagan National Airport. According to some, they say that the approach into Reagan National for landing is the most dangerous in the commercial airline business. I am no pilot, but I know all of that banking left and right to follow the bends of the Potomac when I am landing always leaves me feeling slightly unsettled...

Once under the 14th Street bridges, the view of the cherry blossom splendor makes itself evident. Here it is surrounding the Jefferson Memorial:

And here it is highlighting the Washington Memorial:

After checking out the views of the cherry blossoms from a distance, we decided to get a closer look while on dry ground.

In the shade of the trees, we finally could take a couple of pictures without our sunglasses on. Our aging eyes need the protection when in direct sunlight.

There were plenty of tourists sharing the cherry blossoms with us, but it is DC.

My hair managed to make a full recovery from the wind...

To close, another shot of the Washington Monument peaking out from amongst the cherry blossoms.

The only ingredient missing from an otherwise perfect spring day is that Knightley wasn't allowed to go on the boat cruise with us.