Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Another Tough Travel Day

I normally like the winter. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, too. In the summer, I am going to be glad that we had the cold and snow that we have this year--fewer noxious six-legged creatures survived this, and we certainly are going to have enough of a snow pack that drought is not going to be an issue even if there isn't a cloud in the sky for months--which, in this area, rarely happens anyway. But right now, a few days into March, it certainly is coming in like a lion. We had a quick three inches of snow followed by four hours of freezing rain around nightfall last night, and I went to bed at 9:15 partially because that crap was not easy to move--especially since in some areas around my driveway and sidewalk, the snow is already piled up to my chest level or even higher. I am getting flashbacks to a couple of winters when I was married and living in the hills of Johnson City, when shoveling a thirty-foot driveway took two hours because I had to walk every shovelful to the front of the house because it was piled up so high by the driveway that I couldn't throw it up high enough to get rid of it.
I am glad I did the heavy work last night because I really didn't need to do it this morning. I am supposed to be in Albany for a forum for my job at 9:30. The drive normally takes about two hours and ten minutes to get where I am going (about, fortunately, two blocks from where our agency's Albany office was once located. I don't really know how driving up I-88 is going to be, but a look at the map tells me that where I am headed has already had their advisory lifted, so chances are it didn't sleet or snow as much as it did here. That's no guarantee that driving will be no issue, though; I remember a few years ago when it took me 90 minutes to get from Chenango Bridge to Bainbridge, about 30 miles, because 88 was absolutely terrible, and there are other pockets on this drive--by Schenevus, Cobleskill, and Duanesburg--that seem to have their own weather patterns even in good weather. So I am going to give myself some extra time to get there.
There are no school delays, which is helpful; my daughter can go with me to my office and hang out there for a bit before walking the two blocks to the high school. And I am grateful, once more, that I have an agency vehicle and an agency gas card and an agency credit card; all I have to do is start it and go (well, after brushing it off first; the whine-ass baby in me isn't happy that we park in a lot exposed to the elements, but you can't have everything, I suppose). And as much as I would like to complain that I am too busy to take this kind of day--well, the grant that is due next week is completed and it is just a matter of final editing and signatures, while the big federal one is also largely completed and awaits editing. I am three weeks away from my turn as the new on-call person for the agency, which is turning out to be an affliction of Mosaic proportions for the unlucky person holding the phone, so I should be able to get everything out of the way without undue stress.
And this is not an agency-sponsored forum; if it turns out to be a waste of time, I'm not obligated to stay until the end--and for that matter, if the drive up does get hairy, I'm not going to catch hell for not attending. I've learned in recent years not to stress weather issues a day or three ahead of time; it really is something I have no control over and thus pointless to worry about. I'm honestly more worried about the "limited parking" caveat that was part of the forum announcement; I have had to go outside every two hours at far too many trainings/forums over the years to feed parking meters than I care to remember (and every city these things are held in seems to have unusually diligent and enthusiastic Traffic Nazis that materialize out of thin air like a genie when meters expire. I have gotten tickets, more than once, two hours and one minute after I put money in the meter--meaning that the ticket was issued seconds after the time expired. Ithaca is notorious for this, but I've gotten tickets in Albany before after only a couple of minutes of expired time.
Off to make the donuts. And by time I get back tonight, Sabrina will be at practice, and this is a group conscience night at the home group. I'm probably going to eat lunch and dinner away from the house, which doesn't happen often anymore. But everyone needs a break from the monotony of eating healthy, or healthier in my case, once in a while. I've dropped 18 pounds since the beginning of the year, and my clothes fit a lot better than they did at Christmas. I can deal with two slices of pizza once in a great while.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

More Fun With Tiger Woods

My least favorite famous athlete was in the news again, unwillingly, over the weekend. A former PGA pro claims that someone currently on tour told him that Woods' absence from the game this spring is not necessarily related to various back injuries he has been fighting for the last couple of years, but instead is a ban given him by the PGA Tour for using performance-enhancing drugs. There have been instant and impassioned denials from all parties, including Woods (through his agent), and the original accuser has since retracted his original statement.
But... this isn't the first time Woods has been accused of PED use. I do not know how often the PGA tests its players for PEDs, or what exactly they even test for. I remember there was a big deal made a few years ago when Vijay Singh used deer antler spray, which the PGA outlawed after the fact (and has spent most of the time since trying to catch Singh doing something else), and there have been other players that have caught suspensions of varying lengths (John Daly and Dustin Johnson the most prominent). In Woods' prime, there was always a subcurrent of whispering about him, especially after he went from rather-thin young man to seriously ripped when he was around 30. Woods didn't exhibit a whole lot of what we now would take as warning signs of steroid use-- his sex drive certainly wasn't affected, he was an asshole to most everyone around him long before the physical changes, and he didn't break out or suddenly add sixty years to his drives.
But it is fair to wonder about his physical breaking down over the last six years. Woods' knee gave out in 2009, and since then he has had one malady after another--which doesn't have to be an indicator of PED use,  but certainly isn't inconsistent with the notion, either. And Woods' growing inability to play the game with success does present some intrigue. He had some success after returning from his knee issues and the sex scandal--but fell short in what mattered most to him, major tournaments. Many players in other sports reported that one benefit of PED use was mental--they felt incredibly confident in their abilities when using them, and lost confidence after they stopped, even if they remained somewhat successful in their chosen fields. And Woods, who has always been wound tighter than most, would be more prone to this snowball effect than others; so much of his prowess and record of accomplishment was due both to his own belief in himself and the shock-and-awe he laid on his competitors, who were often beaten more between the ears then on the course when facing him. Woods losing his Superman aura was more damaging to his record, in the long run, than his physical deterioration; when the rest of the players began to see that they could, in fact, beat him with regularity, they played even better.
Woods has been ordinary or less than ordinary for a couple of years now, but even those that can't stand him, like me, were shocked to see him bouncing around the course this winter like a club pro at the US Open. I thought a few years ago that his decline from his peak was permanent, and that Jack Nicklaus' record of eighteen wins in major tournaments was safe. I am convinced of it now; Woods is not likely to win even one more major, much less five, and it is fair to wonder whether he will ever be able to win on the regular tour again, too. His short game has gone completely away, and he would not be the first and won't be the last golfer that lost his short game (including putting) in his late 30's, never to regain it.
But even more than the physical issues with Woods are the mental ones. Woods' "fans" (whom I have always believed were more evidence that people like winners and success more than they like individuals; it is impossible to overstate what a miserable excuse for a human being Woods has been since the time he was a teenager) have been drifting away as other players have risen to the fore, which I think bothers him. But I truly believe that the biggest factor in play here is the bully factor. Woods has been so used to getting his way, literally and figuratively, for so long, and I really think he cannot mentally accept that he can no longer impose his will on golf--not the courses, not the other players, not the fans, not the media, not anything. And it is eating him up... for Tiger Woods to sign a scorecard with the number "82" on it, as happened earlier this year, must have been like getting kicked in the ass by a thirty-foot kangaroo for him. And what we are seeing is that he never really liked playing golf so much as he liked winning at golf. The game has stopped being fun for him, and like most bullies, I seriously think he is going to walk away rather than accept being just another player, even one that is still near the top of the heap.
But I don't think he can be OK with being near the top of the heap. We saw that in 2013, when he won five times but couldn't close the deal in any tournament that mattered to him; he was as miserable as ever during the entire season. And I believe that is the last quality season we are going to see from him. All golfers are "horses for courses," in that they score better on some courses than others, and Woods is an extreme example--he has won some tournaments seven or eight times. For Woods to look like just another golfer on Torrey Pines, a course he has won on eight times, earlier this year was amazing--and Woods' withdrawal, I think, wasn't entirely due to a back spasm. It is the reaction of someone that is used to a certain level of success that realized that that level was not going to be achieved.
I do not feel sorry for Woods in the least, and while I don't wish physical problems on anyone, I will say that his current troubles on the course don't move me to tears, either. But I really don't truly believe that his current troubles are the result of not using PEDs, and I truly do not believe that he has been suspended or has tested positive for any illegal or against-the-rules substance. But that I can't dismiss the notion out of hand is an indication of just how far Woods has fallen in just a few short years. And I seriously doubt he is going to ever get up.

Monday, March 2, 2015


The Price of Silence, William's Cohan's exhaustive, comprehensive account of the 2006 Duke lacrosse case, is, at 600 pages, not for the faint of heart. But it is worth wading through nonetheless, because not only does it leave absolutely no stone unturned regarding the case, it also points up every cutltural issue that permeated it--legacies of racism, different rules and levels of justice for privileged people, the problems with alcohol use among the younger set, hook-up culture, and law enforcement run amok. It is a very sobering look at a cultural phenomenon that enveloped and divided the nation like few things have over the last few decades.
And no one--no one--comes out looking better for their roles in it. Not the Duke University administration, those who participated in the rush to judgment, who were and are in thrall to the "sainted fucking Coach K (Mike Kryzewski, the basketball coach)" and their self-perception as Ivy League South. Not the Duke faculty, of whom nearly one hundred members publicly used the alleged incident to push their own fevered, in some cases paranoid agendas, and refused to admit they were wrong when that information became available. Not the attorneys for the accused, who, once justice was secured, went for milking the proverbial cash cow dry. Not the police department of Durham, North Carolina, who used the allegations as a way to pursue an already-begun crackdown against what they perceived as a bunch of rich Northern kids ruining the city with their partying ways. Not the alleged victim, who literally could not tell the same story twice, was a habitual and perhaps pathological liar, and had the judgment skills of a peach pit (and who is currently in prison for murdering a subsequent "boyfriend"). Not the accused or the athletic team they belonged to, who, at the end of 600 pages, appear to be more or less what they appeared to be before the allegations: arrogant children of privilege that really didn't have much of a conscience or understand that hiring strippers was in and of itself a highly suspect moral action. And most of all, not the rogue prosecutor, who ended up disbarred and disgraced because he cynically (despite his protestations to the contrary) used a flimsy bullshit allegation as a way to win an election as district attorney.
I could write for days on all the issues that this book explores in depth, but I am going to touch on only three. The first affects my own community as much as Durham's and most other communities in America. Duke's experiences with a drinking age of twenty-one mirror almost every other college's in the country, in that it has led to widespread evasion of the law and cemented the role of fraternities/sororities as the center of college social life because of the relative ease in which those groups can obtain alcohol. When I was in college, the drinking age went from 18 to 19, and went to 21 shortly after I graduated. And while Geneseo in the early 1980's partied hard, it was not what we see today on college campuses. There were Greeks around the campus, but no frat houses on college property, and while they were a part of campus culture, they did not dominate it, not at all--it was almost as if they were a separate orbit that only occasionally intersected everyone else's. And everyone was better for it; there was not widespread tension, animosity, or envy of those that belonged to them, and my memory is that there was only one particular fraternity that had a reputation of being over the edge--and they were cracked down on rather hard, even before a major brawl in the parking lot of a bar located a few yards off the campus grounds...the point is that the abuse of alcohol is magnified, not diminished, by the higher drinking age on college campuses. But it also points out that given a choice, most young people will prefer alcohol to harder drugs if alcohol is available. One of the reasons that harder drug use has become much more widespread among the young is that alcohol is not readily available for those not in college--and to corrupt a phrase, if one is going to go, might as well go big. And as much problem as alcohol abuse can bring with it, its effects tend to take longer to cause major problems in abusers' lives, and it doesn't bring about a marked increase in complications like Hepatitis C, HIV, and other sexually transmitted conditions. The higher drinking age was a noble experiment that has been proven to be more trouble than it's worth; it's time to go back to 18, or at least 19 (which would make it illegal, still, for most high schoolers).
The second is hook-up culture. I honestly, after finishing this book, am much more open to Sabrina's stated desire to attend college abroad than I was a week ago. What I read of the misogynistic, alcohol-soaked college life at Duke--and the evidence cited that Duke is worse than most, but not markedly so, in this area--and the way young women not only are treated, but their own acceptance and complicity in it, made me sick to my stomach. I am more aware than most of the corrosive effect that the Sexual Revolution has had on American society; I deal with the effects for a living. But I went to college in the early 1980's in a college town where the ratio of female to male students was 2:1--and hook-up culture and one-night stand prevalence wasn't like it is now, not to the same degree. I am truly wondering if, rather than an alcohol  thing, it's a wealth thing; it costs a lot of money to go to Duke, and the attitudes displayed by most of the male undergraduates are very much like those of the rich and entitled that have stained and poisoned American culture over the past thirty years. I have two daughters already in college, and while I am not deeply concerned about them becoming enmeshed in this sort of degrading, nihilistic culture--I'm more worried about it today than I was last Monday. And I am becoming convinced that my old presentations I used to do about the effects of pornography and cultural attitudes on our youth need to be updated and presented again in local schools
And the last was the blatant abuse of power by law enforcement. Moving in the circles I do, I am aware that justice is not blind, and that prejudice and personal animus have a much bigger role in what gets prosecuted than is generally known or understood. This district attorney ended up getting disbarred because his bias was so transparent, and he was so blatant about his using the case to further his political career--but he also showed incredible stupidity in hitching his star to the alleged victim, whose defects of character are too numerous to go into here. If not for that stupidity, and the fact that the accused had some of the best, high-octane lawyers working for them, he wouldn't have paid a price for publicly accusing three young men of a crime they did not commit and tearing them to shreds in their own community. I have been aware of a few cases where, for whatever reasons, the DA's office has gone after someone that did not do what they were accused of doing. Those cases were similar to this one, in that the accused were not sterling citizens and were unsavory in some way--and I have a feeling that this is a very common occurrence in DA's offices across America. And if not for the very unlikely and unusual set of circumstances in this case, the guy would have gotten away with it. It is unnerving to think of how many people in this country are in jail because somebody in a DA's office decided that they were too scummy to stay at liberty, or because they made a convenient target or scapegoat.
The book itself, for its length and scope, is pretty readable, and the author clearly spent a lot of time doing his research and getting his stuff right. This book will stand the test of time as the definitive work on one of the most divisive media frenzies of this generation.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Conspiracy Theory

I like to think of myself of relatively grounded, and certainly not prone to flights of paranoid fancy. I do pride myself on being intellectual by nature, and although I have proven to my own and everyone else's satisfaction that I am not smart as I think I am on some days, I also know that there are many times when I see things more clearly or discern obscured truth more quickly than many of my fellow travelers on this planet. There have been times when those around me have listened to me talk with passion about some pet idea of mine or my analysis of something going on in the world and have told me I am nuts or wrong, and a couple of months or years later, I turned out to be simply ahead of the curve, that I saw reality further, deeper, and faster than most. That hasn't always happened, but it's happened often enough that I have come to trust that little internal beeper I have when something pricks my "not right" meter. 
And watching the political scene unfold on state and national levels for the last decade or so, I am becoming very suspicious that something that seemed in the realm of Jesse Ventura-like conspiracy theories a few short years ago may have some substance to it. Those that browse in this space regularly know that my political leanings are (take your pick) "progressive"/"liberal"/"left-wing"/"populist." And I am unapologetic about being so; I have lived in a country that has moved progressively rightward in political atmosphere since the time I was started school, and I have seen this country morph from a place that, deeply flawed as it was in many policy realms and societal mores, had a very broad base of prosperity and had a deep commitment to idealism in both domestic and foreign policies to a nakedly imperial power that has aggressively redistributed income upward so that broad-based prosperity is firmly a thing of the past, with financial and political power becoming more entrenched in ever-fewer hands. That's not news, and our Congress and executive branch of government are filled with people that are part of the very small elite that are most definitely among the "haves" and that enact policies in their own self-interests. 
That's not news, either. What is increasingly beginning to gnaw at me is that, if you talk to any random sampling of people that actually bother to vote in this quasi-democracy, very few people--as few as a quarter of the supposed electorate--actually support, if you ask them, the policies and goals of the elite that have been in charge of the country. The approval ratings for the national legislature hover between 12 and 20 percent--and yet the turnover in Congressional elections is small, and what turnover there has been has been in favor of the elite interests, not trending toward electing more people whose surface politics are more in line with what most people say they are in favor of. I am aware that most people tend to exempt their own incumbents from the general disdain for the legislative bodies that those incumbents belong to. While I find that infuriating, I don't find it incomprehensible. What I have been wondering, though, in the last three or four election cycles, is why there is a real and growing disconnect between polling numbers leading up to elections and what the actual votes are recorded as. I can think of at least a dozen congressional elections, and a few contests for things like governor and even some close races for state offices, where the actual posted results have been as much as fifteen points off the last polls done for those races. 
Again, that doesn't have to be necessarily sinister--except that in nearly every case, the shift was in favor of a candidate that represented the least distress to the status quo. The arguable exceptions were the Missouri and Indiana Senate races two years ago, which I will return to shortly. But it sure seems like a lot of people, if the results were taken at face value, seemed to fill out a ballot that was much different than what the pollsters were telling us to expect, and that almost all of these voters that seemingly changed their minds at the last minute changed them in favor of the candidate that was more inclined to further the agenda of the financial elite/conservative element of the American political spectrum. 
This tendency hasn't gone unnoticed. But the usual explanations for it are twofold. One is that there is something flawed about the polling process, that there is some problem with the way poll questions are framed or in the cross-section of the electorate they query. And the other is that in the end, the losing candidate wasn't strong enough, or didn't provide enough of a compelling case to actually get people to mark their ballots for them. I think that in some cases, there might be some credence to the second scenario; the one that springs immediately to mind is the woman that ran against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky last fall, who ran perhaps the most lackluster, frankly stupid campaign that gave anyone that was dissatisfied with McConnell absolutely no reason to view her positively other than the fact that she wasn't McConnell. I am very much disinclined, though, to give any credibility to the first idea. Polling has been around for decades, and while there are those that do not do it well, most polling outfits have their act together, and use methods that should give an accurate sampling of what the electorate is thinking and planning on doing. It makes no real sense to believe that in the last decade, with all the advances in technology and with more feedback and historical data to fall back upon, that poll numbers would be less predictive of what voting totals actually are when Election Day comes. 
There is an old saying that there are no contradictions; if there seemingly is one, it is because one of the underlying assumptions is false or flawed. And if there is a discrepancy between poll numbers and actual results, and the issue likely is not with the polling and polling methods, what does that leave as a possibility for the discrepancy? Well...who's counting the votes? And there has been a real, substantial, and marked change in how the actual election results are tabulated and counted in this country over the last fifteen years. And I think we, the American electorate, really need to look more closely at those changes, and not blindly assume that the ballot that we cast is being accurately recorded and counted. 
In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, there was legislation enacted to make all balloting electronic, across the nation. All fifty states now use some of sort of digital voting system--my state, New York, was the last in the nation to dispense with the old-time voting machines and go to one that frankly is a lot less voter-friendly, in my (and a lot of other people's) humble opinion. This change was put in place so that the supposed irregularities, those that helped put Bush II in the White House, would be eliminated; there would be no way to be confused about paper ballots and hanging chads and all the other vagaries of primitive vote tallies, right? In this modern, technologically advanced age, why not let computers record and tally the votes? What could go wrong?
Well, for starters...who's making the machine that counts them?
And who among us is qualified to figure out if the machine is programmed correctly or honestly? Even in a hypothetical situation, if somebody or somebodies did tamper with the machine's programming, or put the fix in the original specifications, how would we know? We wouldn't, and we wouldn't become suspicious until there were a slew of results that were unexpected, that were not in line with expectations, and that would be in favor of those forces that would make, install, and operate the machinery. 
In other words, pretty much like we are starting to see with suspicious regularity now. And for those that automatically discount such speculation as paranoid conspiracy thinking--look around you. In every aspect of American life, it seems, those in charge of making the rules and of setting the parameters of the game have extremely busy, for a long time, rigging the systems in their favor. In banking, in credit, in home finance, in redistricting, in legislation surrounding government regulation, in the legal system, in government on state and local levels, in dozens of other areas--those with the power to do so and the means to control the terms of engagement are cheating and rigging the system. Do you really think that they are going to sit on their hands, when the opportunity is given to them, and anxiously wait on the results of honest vote tallies--especially when those votes are of the people they are bilking and wringing as much money out as they can? People that most of the elite actively are coming to or already despise? You can believe that if you want to. 
You can believe in the Tooth Fairy and Bigfoot, too, if you want to. But this is one of those areas, one of those ideas, that in my mind falls under "it's obvious, once someone else points it out" category. If you were poring millions into a process that benefited you like it does most of the financial and political elites of this country, with the rewards being astronomical, would you really leave the results to chance? Would you really leave your fate in the hands of average people? Yes, you can spend a lot of money trying to get people to vote your way. But you can also improve your chances of getting what you want by leaving as little to chance as possible. And one way to do that is to, ahem, selectively count the actual votes, especially when the mechanism in place to do so is such that there is hardly anyone in the country that would be able to detect where the monkey wrench was in the process. 
I don't think wholesale, massive fraud is necessary in order to get the desired results. Our lords and masters have always been more subtle than their counterparts in other lands. And to paraphrase Joseph Kennedy, why tamper more than necessary? They don't need landslides to get their preferred result. They just need to record more votes on the official tally than the other side.
There have been an increasing number of election results that don't quite meet the smell test in recent years. And I am positive that there are going to be quite a few more in years to come. Even the two outliers in recent years, the Senate contests I referred to earlier, can be explained by the peculiar and unique circumstances of those races. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock made themselves so odious that I believe that enough people turned against them as to flood the tweak, if one was in place at that time. I also think that, like any financial proposition, people don't spend the money if they don't think they have to, and I am sure that the powers that oversee these kind of operations never dreamed Indiana and Missouri would be in play, and got taken by surprise by the results. I doubt very much that anything is going to be left to chance ever again. I suppose I should say that this is not a Republican/Democrat thing, in my view; it is an elite thing, something that those who enjoy power and influence are perpetrating on the rest of us. I have long been of the belief that there is no fundamental difference between the two parties; the Democrats are less objectionable than the Republicans, but they are just as in thrall to the status quo and those determined to loot the vast majority of us as the other side is. It is a difference of degree, of method, not of basic philosophy. I would not be surprised to find that in places like New York and New Mexico and California, if there is tampering with the vote counts to be found, it is in favor of the blue wing of the elite, not the red. 
But the ultimate result is the same: no real chance of change, no meaningful choice, and those currently benefiting from the system as is will continue to benefit. "Democracy" has always been much more of an noble ideal than actual reality. And it is becoming less so with every passing year, and I am afraid that the "voting" process has just become an elaborate shell game that is a completely empty gesture. 
George Carlin, in his later years, took vociferous issue with the idea that one could not complain about politics if one didn't vote; he stated that the best form of protest was to not vote, because by voting, we were implying that we were satisfied with the system and the process and the "choices" that were given to us. And with every passing year, I am coming to believe that, on this as on so many other issues, Carlin was right. I truly do not believe that our votes are honestly tabulated anymore. It's possible, even likely, that they never were--but what's different with the advent of mechanical, digital voting machines is that the illusion of impartiality and legitimacy is easier to sell to the gullible. 
I'm not buying it. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Real Problem in the School District

There is no bigger proponent of public education than me. A love of learning not only leads to more choices when it comes time to make your way in the adult world, but it also is indispensable in order to grow and thrive emotionally and spiritually as we get older, too. And nothing inculcates that love of learning more than a positive educational experience. Virtually everyone that can measured as a "success" by whatever standard one uses to define that admittedly-nebulous term will, if asked, point to some point in their childhood where some teacher or some adult lit the internal fire that fueled that level of achievement in later life.
Teachers and public education have been under fire for many years now, though, as the American educational system has malfunctioned, at least in comparison to many other places around the globe, and our "educated" youth and young adults not only are not as knowledgeable as those in other places, but emerge into adulthood with a disdain for the learning process and with a strong disinclination to examine or challenge deeply-rooted beliefs and values with any kind of regularity. The problem has been noted by those in political power, and there have been some attempts to address them in the last twenty years or so--all of which have turned out to be disastrous. No Child Left Behind was the brainchild (and if there ever was an example of "oxymoron," the use of this word in conjunction that ever issued from George W. Bush's cerebral cortex is the golden standard) of the second Bush--and it is quite possible that it will do more lasting and permanent damage to the country he served as President of than the pointless, hopeless, and morally deficient "War on Terror." No Child Left Behind is more or less universally accepted as a failure; progressive elements openly disdain it, and the conservatives that used to champion it have lapsed into silence regarding it. Now the "fix" of the moment is Common Core, a set of educational standards that is so divisive--and so flawed--that it has fueled controversy from the day it was introduced a few years ago, and continues to be a lightning rod for opposition from both conservative and progressive alike.
Common Core was largely pushed and is still officially sponsored by the National Governor's Association, which is an allegedly bipartisan group of the nation's governors. A look at the people that have chaired this body over the years Common Core was being developed is more than enough to dismiss it as terminally flawed: Mike Huckabee (in the news for his ignorant views on just about everything on a weekly basis as he flogs his 2016 presidential ambitions), Janet Napolitano (presided over several immigration fiascoes as Arizona's governor, and ran Homeland Security extremely ineffectively in Obama's first term), Tim Pawlenty (who ran Minnesota into the ground with his tax-cutting, service-cutting policies),Ed Rendell (an alleged Democrat whose term was noted for opening casinos, death penalty signatures, and support for privatization of schools), Jim Douglas (noted gay marriage opponent in one of the most liberal states in the country), Joe Manchin (now commonly regarded as the "Senator from the NRA"), Christine Gregorie (who cut salaries and benefits unilaterally for state workers as governor), and Dave Heineman (another tax cutter and major Keystone pipeline proponent). It is hard to imagine a worse group of "leaders" in American politics, and I, for one, would not let a single one of these individuals teach my dog to roll over, much less allow to set policies to educate anyone's children.
And if Common Core wasn't bad enough on its merits, or its origins, it has the unflagging support of the Spoiled Little Bastard. Game over. I know a few teachers, and every one of them thinks Common Core is awful, and in speaking with them, I have to come to believe that the dislike is much more than the natural tendency to view serious changes askance. There's nothing of value in it. Most teachers rightly are fearful that they are going to be the ones that catch the flak when Common Core's flaws come home to roost, when they are not responsible for the creation of the content, and I agree with that sentiment totally. It's always the teachers that catch the blame.
And it's hardly ever the teachers that caused the problem.
In my mind, the ultimate villains aren't the teachers, and they are not even the politicians. It's the people that run the school districts--the administrators. The older I get, and the more I see of what goes on around this area in the schools--and my program has both a substantial presence in local school districts and regular contact with administrators--the more I am convinced that the major cause of virtually every school-related problem can be found in the administrative buildings.
Every school district in the area has had to cut services and teaching positions in the last 5-6 years, which necessarily negatively impacts the quality of the education our children receive. One thing conspicuously not cut in any district that I am aware of are administrative positions, and the salaries paid to these administrators are shockingly high. The numbers vary from district to district, but I can tell you that there is no way in the world that the Binghamton City School District should be paying over a dozen people anywhere near, much less exceeding, a hundred thousand dollars a year in salary. Especially since the new principal of the high school has revealed herself to be, in my clinical professional opinion, a fucking idiot. From decisions about school discipline to decisions about school closings, there is not a single policy I've agreed with, and no discernible rhyme or reason as to why many decisions are made. This woman is in way over her head, and this district, already taking on water in several areas, is going to go under if she stays in her job much longer. I am glad beyond belief that my daughter has just over two years left in school; she has a chance to graduate before it all blows up. Because it's going to go.
And Binghamton is far from the only district where the primary problem is that the people in charge are stupid, ineffective, or both. When I first got the job I have now, and was in the field working with homeless students in districts in Tioga County as well as Broome, I had serious issues with an official in the Owego-Apalachin school district who didn't believe that any youth were actually homeless and actively refused to follow federal regulations that required the schools to take certain steps to ensure access to school for kids with housing issues. This bimbo has since moved onto a similar position at Union-Endicott, which is one of the area's largest districts--and the district has gone from being one of the most responsive to troubled youth's needs in the area to one of the least. There are similar Neanderthals in positions where they can be obstructive, not helpful, or actually dangerous in several districts that come immediately to mind. Even relatively responsive districts have individuals that anyone seeking to help students that need it learn to avoid or find ways to go over the head of. It's not the teachers, in most districts, that are the issue with the problems in our schools; it is the administrators.
And what is frustrating, as a parent and as a citizen, is the utter lack of accountability administrators have. This came to light recently with the superintendent of one of the rural districts in the county. A few years ago, I participated on a panel for a Binghamton University social work class with this superintendent. After it was over, we talked for a few minutes. She was aware that her district had a largely-unseen problem with homeless youth, which I didn't expect--but I was also taken aback by her obvious disdain for the parents of her district. She was quite blunt and vocal about the fact that she hated dealing with them, characterizing a majority of them as people that had poor experiences in school when they were young and inherently hostile to school officials as adults. I hadn't really considered that idea previously, and I've never forgotten that conversation, because it has affected the way I do my job. I don't do much in the way of direct care anymore, but when I did, from that point forward, I made an assumption that every parent I was dealing with had not had good experiences with those trying to "help" their child--and I went out of my way to seem non-threatening and to emphasize whatever strengths the parents had (which was hard work finding any, in some cases). This same official got into hot water recently for sending a letter around to the parents in the district reassigning some administrative positions--without a vote, which is required by law. There was an uproar, followed by a lame attempt to backtrack (saying "discussion" should have been used rather than "decision", which in my humble opinion was worse than the original arrogant usurpation of power, not only for its transparent lameness but because substituting the word in the letter would cause the letter to lose its coherence). And I thought that this is was why school districts are the way they are in a nutshell.
And they don't have to.
 To administrators, the average parent is an idiot, and they truly believe that only their own small group has anything of value to offer in the way of input. I will grant you that I am sure that there is a level of expertise that one acquires as a matter of course when doing jobs--but you cannot lord it over those that ultimately pay your salary so openly and so brazenly display the contempt you have for them. It's symptomatic of a lot of other areas of American life--the open arrogance and sense of privilege that those in charge of virtually any entity of significance have for the great unwashed and unlettered. And what's doubly sad is that hardly anyone bothers to vote in school elections--which is, perversely, the one arena where individual votes probably would make the most difference. And even that, too, is jerryrigged to discourage participation; most school votes are scheduled during the working day and publicized with the same diligence as a neighborhood garage sale. The administrators not only count on widespread disinterest and apathy, they do their best to encourage it.
And the next time one feels like raging against a teacher, or a politician that is pushing some inane initiative, try to remember who it is that actually runs your school districts. It isn't anyone in Albany or Harrisburg or Atlanta or St. Paul or Washington. It's the suit making three times the amount of money you are that has tenure and really doesn't to answer to anyone on any substantive level.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Dress is White and Gold

Yes, we did have this discussion in this house last night. And it briefly got heated--until I actually saw that my daughter was not being obtuse or stupid, but actually believed that the dress was blue and black. It isn't, but apparently she and millions of other people actually see blue and black there. Which is beyond me.
Many years ago, I read somewhere that a nation cannot help but be judged by the things it is interested in. If that's the case, this country pays far more attention to insubstantial, frankly stupid matters than it should, which...well, you can connect the dots. And something like this controversy only proves the point. In the space of one day, this picture of a white-and-gold dress has become a global obsession. I have seen dozens of celebrity tweets and comments about it, it is all over my Facebook feed this morning, and I read articles about it in at least four different publications online about it. Probably by this time next week, no one will care anymore, and anybody going through the archives of this site a year from now will be wondering what the hell I am talking about--and I probably will, too. But the noise is real while it lasts.
I don't really know what those mistaken souls that see blue and black are looking at; I don't see evidence of either color anywhere in the picture. And this little hubbub penetrated, briefly, to some deep recess of my character that I had thought I had banished to some gulag. My first thought when my own daughter was insisting that it was blue and black was "You're wrong." My second thought, when she wouldn't admit she was wrong, was "You're an idiot." I didn't say that, but I thought it, which is almost as bad. I did verbally express, in a manner that was more unkind than it needed to be, that I felt that it was clear as day that the dress was white and gold; as I said, it kind of heated for about twelve seconds around here.
I feel a little better about it after seeing that most of the world with access to social media has had similar experiences. I am sure there is some larger lesson to be made here about how we all see things differently, how perspective is necessary when making judgments about each other, and how even what seems to be completely obvious to us can appear to be something totally different to someone else. Blah blah blah.

And this dress is not blue and black.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thoughts on a Celebration

Last night, a member of my home group celebrated her anniversary. She is someone that I have come to know and respect a great deal over the last couple of years, and I was very happy to be present and see her garner a lot of love and testimonials. And it was a bit of an object lesson, too, in that there was almost an even mix of people there among those that have been part of our fellowship for a long time--measured in decades--, those that have been around for much shorter periods but have committed to the process, and those that are either just coming in the door or coming in again after a relapse or two. I've lost a lot of the smugness I used to have about having never departed after arriving in recovery, because it's taken a lot longer to get a better grip on some of my character issues than merely those associated with drug use; indeed, a better way of stating that was that my drug use exacerbated existing character issues, but the issues merely manifest themselves in different ways when the drugs are down. It's really only in the last calendar year or so that I've made progress on a couple of really deep-rooted ones, and fuller benefits of what is possible from working the 12 Step program that allowed me to put the drugs down so long ago have started to be realized.
Which was the point of a few of the old-timers there last night that spoke. The celebrant's sponsor is a woman that is one of the few still around that knew me as a young man, and she was very much a positive influence on me in my first few years clean. She doesn't live in the immediate area anymore, but she still has an outsize impact on the fellowship around here through her network, and listening to her last night, I was again reminded of just how powerful our message of freedom can be. I looked around at those sitting in the room, and I saw at least eight people there that have been in the rooms for at least fifteen years--not all of us with continuous time, but for the most part, there  since I've been there. And I considered not only how much all of us have changed over what we were circa 1999--but how much of the changes in us have taken place recently, in the last one to four years. One can take that fact in a number of ways: that a foundation has to become very deep in order for certain levels of change to occur; that our disease of addiction is much more deeply rooted than any of us thought when we got here; and that with a God in our lives, anything truly is possible, and that if we steadily move along on the journey we undertake to seek Him, wondrous, nearly incomprehensible change for the better takes place.
And not in a material sense. There were no millionaires in the room last night, no captains of industry, no political power players, no media stars. But there were a number of people there that are content and even happy much of the time, people that have raised and are raising their kids, that work in jobs that help other people make more of their lives. There were people there last night that have not had to fill out change of address forms for many years, that have been able to get pictures taken for various licenses and certifications rather than jail bracelets and mugshots, that only have gotten fingerprinted when moving to better jobs or higher levels of security at current ones.
And it was also very gratifying to see those there that have bought in, that have got a year or two clean under them, that are just starting their own journeys and are overcome with wonder at the easing of their own pain that brought them into recovery. They are the ones that will be the legs and the engine of the fellowship as my generation starts to fade into the sunset--conversations among us are likely to focus on retirement plans and vacations, rather than college degrees and jobs and after-school daycare like I hear among the younger set. There are many meetings when I am perfectly content to merely sit and listen as they garner and share their experiences; it actually makes me feel happy to see others discovering what I discovered years ago, that this way of life really does work.
And those that are starting or re-starting the process were also present last night. The look in some of their eyes was both hopeful and apprehensive, hope that it might happen some day for them yet scared of what lies ahead. But it takes what it takes to develop the willingness to embark on the journey, and for almost all of us, pain is the primary motivator for change. No one in their twenties should ever feel ashamed or nervous about being in a meeting or coming back after a relapse; I truly feel they should be commended for seeking change at a much earlier age than most of those in my generation did. As I have told many of my friends and colleagues, they're actually smarter than me in that they took some action before they wasted half their life. I may not have left since I got here--but it took me ten to fifteen years longer to get here than it took for many of them.
And one last thought went through my mind last night. I attended the same person's celebration last year, and I remember several people that were present a year ago that were not there last night. Some have definitely slipped back into active addiction, some have drifted away from the rooms with the actual relapse merely a matter of time. The sad fact of the disease of addiction is that sometimes, with some people, the disease wins. It is, no pun intended, a sobering realization, and fraught with pain. Celebrations are a nice reminders that victories over our disease are worthy of recognition, but there are no treaties of peace with our addiction, but merely armistices. If we are fortunate, we will see those people again some day, tail between their legs but still in one piece.
But we also may not be fortunate enough to see that. There are always familiar faces on Mobile Patrol, if we look at it, and all too often there are familiar names in the obituary section of the newspaper. Celebrations of clean time are balm for our souls, but they are milestones, not end points, and the nature of our affliction is that it is relentless and ever-present. We celebrate because only the foolish take their clean time and their restoration to sanity for granted.