Monday, August 29, 2011

More Perils of Group Think

Michael Winerip on Steven Brill's new book Class Warfare writes:

The villains of Mr. Brill’s story are bad teachers coddled by unions.

With his legal training and business background, Mr. Brill is expert at chronicling the union’s failings. He documents the growth of the New York City teachers’ contract from 39 pages in 1962 to 200 today, along with work rules that can be used at every turn to obstruct principals from improving schools. He details the case of a Stuyvesant High School teacher who was so drunk that she passed out at her desk, only to have the union claim on its Web site that she was disciplined as part of a scheme to harm senior teachers.

He goes a lot easier on the reformers who have spent recent years pushing the expansion of charter schools and standardized tests. Mr. Brill identifies the millionaires and billionaires who attack the unions and steered the Democratic Party to their cause. There is Whitney Tilson, who parlayed $1 million of his parents’, relatives’ and own money to build a hedge fund that he told Mr. Brill was worth $50 million; Ravenel Boykin Curry IV, who works for the family’s money fund and has homes in Manhattan, East Hampton and the Dominican Republic; and David Einhorn, who at age 38 “was already one of Wall Street’s successful short sellers.”

The book is called “Class Warfare.” I expected Mr. Brill to explore why these men single out the union for blame when children fail. If a substantial part of the problem was poverty and not bad teachers, the question would be why people like them are allowed to make so much when others have so little. I hear this all the time from teachers, but when I asked Mr. Brill, he said, “I didn’t see it as the rich versus the union guys, although now that you say it, I can see how you could draw that line.”

Brill could see, huh?

While I'm on the topic of Brill's book I think Sara Mosle's review of it in last Sunday's Times Book Review is well worth reading. (If you haven't yet, it took me a long time to work up the nerve to read it.)

A little later: I realize I gave this post a title that made very good sense in my head but not so much outside. In his article, Winerip talks about how people who lead and pay for the school reform movement (like Brill) mostly talk to each other and not "the other side." The entrenched quality of the debate about education reform reflects this. Similarly, in Jeffery Toobin's profile of Clarence Thomas, referenced in my anxious post about Irene, Toobin points out that Thomas and his wife only socialize with people who agree with him. This might be one reason why Virginia Thomas thought it was reasonable to call Anita Hill to ask her to apologize. That is, everyone Ginnie talks to thinks she should. In any case, this is why I called this post More Perils of Group Think; after all, it's not making a huge claim about intellectual honesty that it requires talking to people with whom you disagree.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Irene, Clarence and Rick

I sat down this morning to write a post about Irene and how big storms like it make me nervous about climate change, not to mention how thinking about lower Manhattan flooding makes me think about lower Manhattan disappearing, and how I can't believe the moment when Irene is coming is a moment when Rick Perry, who apparently thinks the whole idea of climate change is a little bit of elitist hooey, could be the Republican nominee which means he'd be in the running to be President, and it's also a moment when Clarence Thomas, who thinks he can think like an eighteenth century white slave owner and other writers of the Constitution, is seeing his legal and political agenda flourish, but writing a post like that made my wrists freeze and eyes water so badly I had to get up from the computer and make some granola instead.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Melissa Clark Eats Breakfast

And a whole lot more. Read all about it here.

Full Metal Branding

While we were on vacation we stayed in a house with a TV but without 24/7 PBS kids. We stayed in the house during a long rainy day, too. As a result, my kids watched Disney shows they'd never before, and now when my son asks to watch TV, he says, and I quote, "Can I watch Disney Sizzlin' Summer?"

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses

I first learned of Poser, Claire Dederer's memoir about yoga and family, when I walked past a book store and saw the book in the window. I remember taking in the cover and having a familiar, small, bitter encounter with sour grapes. I wished I'd written a book like that! Could I have written a book like that? Could I bring myself to read a book like that? What if it was really annoying, everything that bothered me about yoga when I used to take yoga? Or, even worse, what if it was everything I'd loved about yoga and more?

Then, conveniently, I forgot all about it until a friend who'd just read it said something exceedingly generous and kind. She said, "You could write something like that." Having read the book all I can say now is: "I WISH!"

Dederer is a terrific writer. She's spot on about so much. Her book is about yoga in America. It's becoming a mother and coming to terms with her own mother, family, and the 1970s. Dederer also and of course writes about the culture of mothering in which she (we) finds herself. (For a nice discussion of the book, read Sue Dickman's review.

Before I had children, I did yoga. I would even go so far as to say I practiced yoga. For years. In my mid and late twenties, yoga pretty much anchored my life and while I never threw off coffee and thirty pounds in pursuit of the perfect down dog, in my mind I came close by going to classes more than three times a week four weeks a year and contemplating yoga retreats as vacations. When I was depressed, I had yoga. When I couldn't get pregnant, I had yoga. When I thought I would never get pregnant, yoga turned into a way to make peace because through yoga I thought I'd explore things my body could do by banging on the doors of a host of things I thought it couldn't. (Hello split!) And now, I don't practice yoga anymore for a couple of specific reasons, so reading about Dederer's yoga classes felt like a little bit of time travel through which I got to be smarter and funnier than I really am and do an arm balance to boot.

All this to say, if you've taken yoga or haven't, had kids or haven't, or loved From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler or didn't (although I don't know anyone who didn't love that book and really don't want to think about the person who wouldn't), you can appreciate Dederer's book. She builds a world and fills it in and flips back to another world and it's not all perfect and the whole time it's great to be there with her.

On Writing, ctd. (or, Writers Just Want to be Liked)

Maud Newton argues the big problem with David Foster Wallace's writing is his desire to please and to be liked. Matt Kiebus responds.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On Writing

This weekend in the Sunday Times Magazine, Maud Newton had a really interesting piece on David Foster Wallace's influence on how we've been writing over the last fifteen, twenty years. Back when I subscribed to Harper's Foster Wallace wrote for it and it was there that I read his brilliant essay about going on a cruise, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and, my favorite, Tense Present, an essay I ripped out and have taken to every apartment or house I've lived in since. I didn't read much more of his writing, but when I started A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I had to put it down within the first one hundred pages because it was too much like what I knew about Foster Wallace. But what I didn't know, until I read Maud Newton's essay, is David Foster Wallace is the reason I want to throw in a "you know" all the time. Not to mention all those exclamation points! Who knew? I should have. I guess.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Michelle Rhee Won't Talk

Little miss I love the media doesn't love USA Today so much. All that investigative reporting into cheating on tests in DC. So inconvenient. Here's the story.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Schedule and The Child

Coming up on a new school year, wondering, again, if I'm not doing the right thing by my kids with their after school activities (neither plays a sport and our music lessons have not involved any practice), I was greatly relieved by reading this article. It seems that kids will find their way and learn to love things they do when they grow up, even if they didn't do those things as children! Phew!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Out in the Woods

The other day, I was in the woods. Not woody woods, mind you, but a slightly wooded trail in a small town in Pennsylvania (settled since the mid-nineteenth century). The path I was on is a quiet, nicely shaded lane between a private road and a sort of steep slope leading up to the backyards of a few nice houses. It's the kind of path on which someone like me might take pleasure in a not taxing but not city-ish morning walk. It offered the smell of forest, the illusion of seclusion, the memory of bigger, harder, longer hikes. That particular morning, it also offered a bear. And that's not a typo for deer. That's a B-E-A-R.

There I was, walking along the path, thinking my thoughts and enjoying the quiet, for not a soul was around, and then, coming along the path toward me, was a pretty good sized four-footed creature in a brown coat whom I'd much rather encounter in, say, Blueberries for Sal. Lucky for me, and unlike in Blueberries for Sal, there was no bear cub around. Only the one bear. And me. Here are some of the thoughts that ran through my head as I decided to get off the path and find a place to hide among the skinny, measly, paltry excuses for trees that grew between the backyards and the path:

"A 42-year-old New Yorker, mother of twins, was found in the...."
"I saw Grizzly Man. It's not winter. That bear isn't hungry. Can bears see?"
"I don't want to be a 42-year-old woman from New York, mother of two...."
"It's garbage day. The bear is way more interested in garbage than me....."

As the bear came up to a point relatively parallel to where I was, it stopped and looked over my way. By then I was crouching trying my best to look like a rock or a tree or something, in spite of my blue and white striped waffle-rib top from the Gap. It occurs to me now that I should've stayed calm by humming to myself that song from A Chorus Line -- "Every day, for a week I'd try to be a baseball, be a sports car, ice cream cone...." -- but I didn't. As the bear looked in my direction, waggling its nose in the air for a moment, I, for some reason, stood up and then I stayed very still, and then the bear turned off the path and into the growth on the other side of the path, and then it kept going.

Before I finish this little yarn, I should say that I no longer run for exercise. A little over a year ago I started seeing an applied kinesiologist who pretty well convinced me that if I wanted to keep walking for the rest of my life, running would not help me. But that day, waiting for the bear to put some distance between himself and myself, I thought, "F$%*&! not running," and took off down the path running as fast as I could for as long as I could, this time singing to myself, "He says to me, why don't you run, I see you ain't, got any gun."

Later that day, after hearing that I'd seen a bear on a path quite near the lake where we were at the time (with our children), someone said to me about the bears in the neighborhood, "They're really harmless." And, really, they may be. But they're still bears.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Twist on Friday Night Lights

Here's a story about a high school team that practices at night to accommodate players fasting for Ramadan. I keep wanting to say it's "fascinating," but it's not. It's just a story about a reasonable decision by a coach to meet the needs of his players as whole people. I wonder when decisions like these that don't adhere to the normative (Christian) calendar and standards will no longer be seen as exceptional or newsworthy but just part of that whole e pluribus unum thing.

Friday, August 5, 2011


Frindle is an absolutely charming book about a boy, his teacher, a big idea and the power of language to bind them altogether. I often cry when I read children's books (oh to see me at the end of Knuffle Bunny Free), and my kids kind of love it kind of hate it. To them it's like seeing a rare and somewhat bizarre insect. They want to huddle up and peer as if farsighted at the strange event unfolding in their immediate universe. Anyway, they got to do just that at the end of Frindle, because I'm a sucker for a life-enhancing student-teacher moment. It's short, it's brisk, the characters play their parts pitch perfectly, it's a great read, even if you're not going into fifth grade.

One Other Thing About the Nook

On the one hand, reading both Treasure Island and now The Moonstone have brought me only joy without the schlep; on the other, reading on The Nook outside means seeing what's happened to my post-40 chin and neck reflected, mercilessly, on its screen. Really, it's a little too much information.