Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Welcome Complication

I had plans for this weekend that were hatched many days ago. But as many people have noted over the years, if you want to make God laugh, make plans. But the factors that, in the last few days, have completely turned this weekend upside down are all welcome developments, ones that I have gladly adjusted my aims for and accommodating with a smile on my face.
It started with Sabrina, actually, and a (for once) welcome intrusion from her mother's side of the family. Most of MOTY's family are proof that the sort of people one used to see on daytime television are, unfortunately, real and not actors. But somehow, MOTY's sister broke free of the cesspool and has become a responsible, productive, and pleasant member of society (a teacher and volleyball coach for years at a couple of school districts in the area, and her son was an excellent athlete and goes to college now), and has, in the last year, met and become engaged to a very nice man. They are moving in together, in a house within a few minutes' walk of my brother and mother's houses in Endwell. This weekend was moving time, and she, who has served as a mentor and maternal-type figure to Sabrina in recent years, asked Sabrina to help her move some stuff Friday. Which Sabrina was glad to do. It also, I am convinced, gave Sabrina a reason to avoid her mother's presence at the meeting she has attended with me for the last year or so. Sabrina's mother has been somewhat consistent about attending meetings now, but her attempts to reintegrate herself into Sabrina's life are meeting with skepticism and uneasiness on Sabrina's part. MOTY, true to her personality and like many people in early recovery, is still very much "I want what I want and I want it now," and while I feel some sympathy and empathy for her wishing to somehow right the wrongs with Sabrina, I also know my daughter, and her mother's attention isn't a real welcome development--especially since the lion's share of it seems to always come when there are other people around. Sabrina feels that much of the expressed concern is for show, to try to project an image, and it's a reasonable view to hold, especially in view of the way her mother has been for the length of Sabrina's life. It's a tangled situation, and one that I am glad that I have no direct part in it. But I do know that her mother's sudden reappearance in the rooms has added to Sabrina's very high level of stress, and that like many 16YOs, she would rather not face stress head-on if possible.
Earlier in the week, Sabrina received an invite to one of her friends on the softball team's summer cottage, and I let her spend the night there. She will be home by noon today, so we can get over to my mother's house for a few hours. My sisters are both in town this weekend. My relationships with all my siblings have evolved and bounced all over the spectrum several times in recent years, but at this point in time, as far as I know, I am getting along with all of them, so there are no tensions to be managed, no teeth to be gritted, no outstanding grievances to be addressed. And whatever my issues have been in the past, I do have to say that all three of my siblings have been very good to Sabrina for the length of her life, and I do not mind in the least making time in a busy life so that Sabrina can spend time with them whenever they come to town (and whatever the dynamics of my side of the family, nobody on my side of the family has ever approached the toxicity of MOTY's brothers and their partners and ex-partners, even at their worst).
And then at four o'clock, we have softball practice for our City League team. I have a full squad this year--fifteen players, and all of them, to my knowledge, plan on playing, even those with opportunities to play in other summer leagues. At the school team scrimmages yesterday, I talked with my friend Ed, who coaches another team in the league, and I don't think that there is any doubt that we are the favorites to win the league this year. We have four players that are the best or at worst second-best in the league at their positions, and of the fifteen, every single one of them can do something well. It is going to be a challenge to manage playing time equitably, and try to keep everyone happy and engaged. In the next couple of weeks, I am going to scrounge around and try to find times and fields to have practices on. I'm not sure when the season is going to start, but I want some of the kids that haven't picked up a bat and glove since last summer to have the rust shaken off by time the games start. And honestly, I want as much time as I can to figure out who can and can't do what, and try to devise a lineup and rotation that gives both our players and the team the best chances to succeed. And I will attempt to apply what I learned last summer, too. I felt for years that I had the ability to be a good coach, and last year confirmed that feeling--but I also realized that I had much to learn from other coaches that employed different strategies and have different views on playing winning ball, as well. And I hope I took the right lessons to heart.
And winding up today will be an appearance at a barbecue at my friend's house. She has been a part of our fellowship for as long as I have, and we have been a pretty substantial part of each other's life for the last decade or so. We have similar values, similar views of recovery, and as a result have a lot of overlap between our circles of friends, and it will be, no doubt, a very comfortable and pleasant time there. It's become a bit of a tradition to have cookouts at her home in recent years, and we always have fun there.
And the fellowship has also provided its own welcome complications. One of the men that asked me to sponsor him a few months ago disappeared shortly after we met for the first time, and resurfaced this week after a near-fatal binge. He is chastened, full of guilt and remorse, scared as hell--but also more willing than he ever has been in the past to change behaviors and attitudes. To that end, he asked me to take him to the 6:00 PM meeting last night, and to take him to the 10:30 meeting this morning. I will make time this week to sit down and resume the sponsorship process, too. There have been two other guys that have dropped rather broad hints that they are looking for sponsorship; I have my doubts that one is going to follow through and the other is currently working with someone else, but at least the interest is there, which tells me that I am carrying my own message in a manner that other people are finding some resonance with. And a factor in that is that I am meeting with my own sponsor regularly; I missed almost all of the scrimmage yesterday because I had to meet with Ray. I cannot emphasize enough how much working with Ray more consistently in recent months has been a positive development. Not only is his insight and experience helpful to me, but talking with him about why I do what I do, and why I am feeling the way I do about aspects of my life, has been immensely beneficial. It has forced me to think through what I am doing, exposed some fallacies, strengthened the resolution to follow some courses of actions, forced me to justify to a neutral observer why I think what I want to do is a good idea--and make adjustments based on the feedback. This is how sponsorship is supposed to work--I am not controlled by him, but I do respect his knowledge and experience, and I value his input. He is not loud or overtly forceful, but when he has a strong view on something, I have learned that I ignore what he says to my detriment--and so I don't ever ignore it anymore.
And the results have been awesome. There is no doubt in my mind that working with him has been an accelerator of the positive changes in my life over the twelve to fifteen months. And positive developments really do build on themselves; I have not been this jazzed or felt this good about my spiritual condition in many years, perhaps ever. The monkey cage has been quiet for a long time; I am finding it easier than I ever have to apply spiritual principles in more areas of my life than I ever have before; and I am as conflict-free as I ever remember being, going clear back to childhood. I am not all peace, love, and understanding all the time, far from it--I have lost my temper several times in the last few weeks. The difference is that I have not held onto the anger, found some acceptance, worked through the issue and make quick and honest amends (especially where Sabrina was concerned), and analyzed why the feelings came so quickly to a boil and worked on changing my attitudes and reoriented myself to having God, instead of Lord Farquaad or some ninny in my agency or inconsiderate oafs that have overrun my world, as my Higher Power.
And one underrated factor that I had not considered was a seeming benefit at the time--until I let go of it. I have been on various high blood pressure medications for years. I'm not going to rehash the details, but I recently had reason to stop taking the medication I have been on--and I am convinced that the month or so when I couldn't go a day without losing my temper (briefly, usually, but nonetheless far too frequently) was, in retrospect, at least partially due to some sort of withdrawal from the medication. I've been off it completely now for three weeks--and when I stopped into a pharmacy that had one of those blood pressure machines and I put my arm in it, my pressure was much lower than it had been in recent months. I have been convinced for years that my blood pressure is almost entirely dependent on what my weight is, and it was making no sense to me that my blood pressure was supposedly unchanged after losing 25 pounds since January. Many of my friends have detailed instances when medications they were taking for various conditions ended up being exacerbating, instead of alleviating, those conditions, and they went through some sort of withdrawals when they stopped taking those medications. And I believe that just happened to me, too... I don't care what the corporate types tell us, or what guys with degrees tell us, because they have a strong, vested interest in saying what they do. But I am increasingly convinced that being on any medication for any condition on a regular--more than a few weeks--basis ends up causing more problems than it solves. Not to be overly simplistic, but medications is turning out to be another area where "better living through chemistry" is turning out to be a dangerous crock of poo. Human beings have been on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years, and our bodies and physiology have a base or "normal" state that has stood the test of time. We cannot alter those time-tested norms through laboratory-engineered chemicals with only positive effects. We don't have an issue embracing this concept when those chemicals are labelled "cocaine" or "heroin"; why do we resist the notion when those chemicals are labelled "Diovan" or "Ramipril"? My daughter's emotional roller coaster, I am also coming to believe, is at least partially due to the fact that she has been on the same birth control medication for a year. We just changed it because it was no longer controlling her period like it had been--but I have also noticed that, after she got a blood level up on this new med this week, she seemed less emotional and more "normal" than she had been. I really think that the last pill pack had been in the body for too long and was causing adverse effects. I am beginning to seriously believe that all meds that are not part of our "natural" makeup or taken in as a part of our "natural" diets get to a point where their beneficial effect is exhausted and they become part of the problem.
Tomorrow will be an easier day, for certain. The only thing on the calendar right now is my sponsee Don's nine-year anniversary; I do not normally attend the Monday night meeting, but of course I will be making an exception tomorrow. But chances are I will not be lounging around the house all day tomorrow, that some complication will arise. And I am also reasonably sure that the complication will be a welcome and positive one. That's what happens when you live a non-isolated life that has good people as a part of it.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Odds And Ends, Late May 2015

A few snippets of random observations and fever spikes:
1) There was a freeze warning issued last night because the projected low temperature was 31 degrees Fahrenheit (why we still use this temperature scale is beyond me, but the failure of this country to use simpler measurements like the metric system is fuel for a post I'm not going to write this morning). I more or less ignored it. One good aspect of living in the urban hellhole is that temperatures in the actual city rarely reach forecasted lows, and so it has proved. I just took a tour of the garden and yard, and while it is chilly out, nothing is damaged and there is no apparent frost anywhere. My guess is that we bottomed out around 34, maybe 33. You would think that people that have lived here for any length of time would know that this temperature differential exists--but three different people that saw me tending to the garden yesterday felt compelled to tell me that I needed to cover my plants last night. I just smiled and said "Thanks" rather than argue with them--but I know better.
And gardening in the city has other advantages, too. No deer, no rabbits, and fewer bugs top the list, especially if you plant among the other plants marigolds and onions, as I do. Now if I could just figure out a way to keep the fungus that preys on cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins after about July 1, I could actually grow those vegetables right up until the first real frost in the fall...
2) Sabrina has some kind of scrimmage today--in Windsor again--but is not coming home from it. If anyone doubts that softball/baseball has become a pursuit of the affluent, consider the fact that no less than four of her teammates (out of thirteen) are part of families that have cottages in the country that they are retreating to this long weekend. There's a cookout and a sleepover at one of them that she is going to (parents are invited to the cookout, but I am not one for the country, I am not one to go to gatherings where alcoholic beverages are likely to be served, and some of the parents that are likely to attend are not people I really want to spend my free time around). And I decided that, considering what a difficult half-year it has been and continues to be (her fourth-quarter mid-marking period report came home yesterday, and it's the worst one in her entire career. It will go up--the week where, between AP tests and getting out early for away games, she didn't attend a single class after sixth period led to some make-up work that hasn't been completed yet--but still, for a kid that was averaging over 100 this time last year, it's concerning me), to let her go. We sat down yesterday and I told her that going forward into her junior and senior years, she really needs to evaluate her priorities. Even if she was starting every game and hitting .900, the kind of drain that softball has turned out to be on her time isn't worth it, in my opinion. But I am also aware of how much being a part of the team matters to her, and things like today's excursions are certainly benefits, at least for the kids.
3) There will be, for the third time in four years, hockey played on Memorial Day weekend by the Rangers. They won last night easily, tying the conference finals at two each, heading back to New York for Game Five Sunday. And while some people were complaining that Lundqvist gave up twelve goals in two games against Tampa--have these people seen Tampa play? Ryan Callahan, when he was a Ranger, was one of the team's top three offensive weapons--and he is no more than the eighth best forward on the Lightning. That team is the best offensive team I've seen in many years in the NHL; if they ever get anyone with real offensive ability on the blue line, they will be the first team to average four goals a game since the 1990's. Still, the Rangers are more than capable than beating them--Nash scored twice last night, St. Louis had his first goal of the playoffs and had about six really good chances, and Kreider continues to put the puck in the net. And even though Lundqvist isn't going to be posting insane save percentages now--he's still the King, and as such he is still the biggest advantage the team has, both in that he is their best player and that he is so much better than his counterpart in the Tampa goal, who has not played well in the last couple of games.
#changetheending
4) I will not be lacking for things to do this holiday weekend. Today, I will attend the first scrimmage, then leave early to meet with my sponsor, then work on the yard, then take a guy that I was starting to sponsor before he went on a run to the 6:00 meeting, then home. Tomorrow, morning meeting, my mom's in the early afternoon, City League practice at four, cookout at Kathie's at six. After a glorious sleep-in Monday morning, another cookout in the afternoon, and then my longest-term sponsee will be getting his nine-year medallion at the Monday night meeting, with yours truly presenting it. I will be working on the yard and garden as time and energy permit Monday, too, and at some point this weekend, I have to clean the house, or at least the bathroom and kitchen, too.
What's leisure?
But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Death In North Carolina

The first I saw of it was on Facebook. A guy that I went to high school with posted something about a relative of his that, like a whole lot of people that are originally from here, now lived in North Carolina, in the general vicinity of Charlotte. And that relative had been killed in what appeared to be some kind of awful road rage escalation. Then more details became available, and they are so egregious that the story has become a national one, especially in the aftermath of the investigation. This was no mere "someone loses their shit and fires a gun" story; whatever the lead-up to the confrontation, it has become clear it was an execution--no one, no one, fires five shots into an unarmed man without some thought going into the process, without a recognition after, say, the second shot that "I am trying to kill this guy."
And he surely did. And at least to this point, the shooter got away with it. Because of the peculiar nature of the relationship between the law and people's love affair with firearms in many parts of this country, and North Carolina is one of them, there wasn't even an arrest in the immediate post-shooting period. And after a very brief period of looking into the matter, the local police department exonerated the shooter, a local firefighter, of any wrongdoing, ruling that the firing of five bullets into an unarmed man was justifiable.
The inherent ludicrousness of shooting an unarmed man five times being justified has become a secondary story in national news coverage. The main focus of what attention it has received in places other than here is of a "man-bites-dog" nature; the victim was white, the shooter black. In the wake of Baltimore and Ferguson and Eric Garner and all the notoriety of police misconduct and murders in the last year, this attention was somewhat noteworthy. But the larger points are largely not being noted or addressed. This shooting had much more in common with a cause celebre of a few news cycles ago--the Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. And the official excusing of the taking of a life stands on the same shaky edifice--that in some places in this country, the perceptions of a person that owns a gun mean more than notions like justice, accountability, and basic human decency. This view, in essence, codifies with the force of legal authority the frontier mentality--that any feeling of threat and fear is a good enough reason to fire away. Never mind if the threat is real, or results in the loss of a life; it is only the thoughts of the person holding the gun that matters.
I am glad that there are still places in this country that are not in thrall to the thought process of people that view the world as an environment so hostile that they must carry an arsenal of weapons around to feel capable of functioning. I am glad that I live in a place where killing violence is not an acceptable form of dispute resolution. And I am glad that I live in a state that views society as built on laws, with reasonable discourse with one another the main form of conflict resolution, not force. Never mind the frontier mentality--this is a prehistoric mentality, or at best a Hobbesian outlook on life, when the world is a fundamentally nasty, predatory environment and life is a brutal battle for survival. In the twenty-first century, after ten thousand years of "civilization," it is shocking that this sort of view still not only holds sway among some, but is officially sanctioned by what passes for authority in some places. We don't shit in the woods anymore; we don't dress ourselves in animal furs; we don't live in a world lit only by fire after the sun goes down. In so many areas, we have moved past the primal, naked fear of not only the rest of the world, but of rival human beings.
But apparently not in Concord, North Carolina.
And there is one part to this story that some are belatedly realizing, hopefully to the benefit of most of us in times to come. The reversed racial roles in this sordid story have been noted--and it points out a more fundamental difference that is going to have to be addressed if real change is ever going to take place in our world. The shooter was African-American--but he was also a firefighter, a part of the local power establishment, someone who very definitely is considered, by those in authority, as one of the elites. Police and firefighters are usually linked in the public mind, for good reason--they are considered arms of authority. And as such, when authority has to deal with them when cops or firemen have transgressed statutes that most of us, the Not-Them, would be called to account for--they are often not held to account. That even racial differences, in a place where historically race means a Whole Lot, are transcended in dire straits, should be a warning shot across the collective bows of the huge number of us that are not representatives of authority, and are not part of the wealthy elites.
They really do view the world as Us Against Them. And when push comes to shove, justice is a joke. They will stand with each other, even burying considerations that normally hold fast, when the interests of their class solidarity require it--and the rest of us will get no justice, no fair shake, no peace. Everyone not them is the enemy, and execution--and official sanctioning of such--is on the table when they feel threatened. And the rest of us--and such quaint notions as accountability, justice, and "no one is above the law"--can go straight to hell.
The real enemy is not defined by race, or even by attitudes regarding ownership of arms. It is defined by power--who holds it, who wields it, who decides whom power gets wielded against. In the words of George Carlin--"It's a big club, and you ain't in it." Race and political persuasions are ultimately mere distractions from the real issue at hand. Those that have power will use it, above all else, to preserve their own prerogatives and privilege. Even race bows down to the need to close ranks against those that are not in the circle of power.
It is painful to see the pain of the relatives of the man that was executed. The bewilderment, the wide-eyed sense of "How the hell is this happening? This is America!" is palpable and obvious. And I ultimately think that, even more than Ferguson and Baltimore and any of the other dozens of instances in recent years where forces of authority have run roughshod over the notions of justice, the Pittarelli case will have the most long-term effect. Because it has most graphically demonstrated that the most significant difference in American society is between those that have power and authority and those that do not--and that those that do will do anything and justify any action to preserve it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Prune the Bush, Now

There has been some space in the news this week devoted to the dog-and-pony show that is the Republican presidential candidate field. More specifically, much has been made of the supposed "smart" Bush brother, Jeb, and his stumbling, bumbling response to a rather innocuous question posed by a reporter: if he knew then what he knew now about Iraq, would he have still authorized the war twelve years ago? Bush made four different attempts at answering--and then "clarifying" that answer--before essentially caving and saying, yes he would have.
Which ought to disqualify him from seeking the Presidency, if there was any sort of objective testing of prospective candidates. I can understand why someone, in 2003, might have supported the invasion. It has become clear that there was a major, systemic effort to dupe the American public and members of Congress about the nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It has been clear for a number of years that the "intelligence" was in large part fabricated--brought home by the fact that absolutely no "weapons of mass destruction" have ever surfaced, by the fact that several of the lies that were told at the time have been exposed, and by the fact that no substantial or even incidental link has ever been established between al-Queda and Saddam Hussein's regime. At the time, in a fresh post-9/11 atmosphere, it was an easier-than-it-should-have-been sell to Americans, but nonetheless, there was an active effort to lie to us about the need to go to war, an effort beyond normal "differing interpretations" of available information. In the context of the time and place, supporting the invasion may have been questionable, but it was not indefensible.
But now? Now? After all this evidence has come to light? After the abject and total disaster that the invasion and its aftermath turned out to be? After the all the unforeseen consequences that have resulted? Now one is still willing to say that the invasion was not a mistake? Holy crap.
In a way, I can understand that Bush is a tough spot with that particular question--it was his moronic, possibly evil brother that was at the helm when this catastrophe was hatched and unleashed. If Bush had said something like "that's a trap question because you're asking me to throw my own brother under the bus," there would have been about a day's worth of comments, and the matter would have put to rest--without his exposure as a moron. But he didn't do that; instead, he essentially doubled down, even at this stage of the game. And you know why? Because a lot of the same fools that devised the original plans for his brother are part of his "team." Because the stubborn refusal to take responsibility for a disaster that has shredded both our national credibility and severely compromised our "security" still is paramount for these people. Never mind Iraq; these people are committed to the idea that Vietnam was not a mistake. These people ought to be thanking whatever God they worship that they are not in prison for the many crimes, up to and including treason, that they committed--and instead they believe that they are entitled to another try.
I think that's what is most infuriating about this entire episode. There is no real reason at all to believe that Jeb Bush is qualified to be President. His father wasn't particularly effective, and his brother was one of the worst Presidents of all time. His father projected an air of competence that proved to be illusory; his brother was a mean-spirited, close-minded moron that proved to be in way over his head as President. Jeb Bush as governor of Florida did no lasting good and some lasting harm, and he has absolutely no new thoughts or ideas about governing that give the impression that he wants to be President for any reason other than he thinks he is entitled to be.
He is not. He is the embodiment of failure, of undeserved privilege given stature that is manifestly undeserved. There is not a single Republican that is currently a candidate for President that I think would be effective in the job, but this guy is perhaps the worst of all of them. For God's sake, he makes Mitt Romney look like Abraham Lincoln.
The correct answer to the question, by the way, would have been--because it is--"knowing what we know now, yes, it was a mistake." That Bush tried to defend it, four different times, is evidence enough anyone that casts a ballot with the name "Jeb Bush" marked on it ought to have their right to vote taken away. It's one thing to have differences of opinion or differing ideologies. It's quite another to deny reality, and the fact reality-deniers' ballots count the same as people with those of people with functional cerebral cortexes is truly disheartening and depressing.
If this is the best "freedom" can bring us, we're drowning in a heap of dung.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review: BEAUTIFUL YOU

This is the third book of Chuck Palahniuk that I have read, and I honestly do not know what to make of him. He is one of the more renowned American writers of this age, with a certain amount of gravitas due to his being the author of Fight Club, and it is clear that he loves to engage in satire on a very broad scale. Beautiful You takes very wide aim at certain aspects of American society; whether it hits or not is dependent, I suspect, on the reader.
The plot, as such, is rather simple: a billionaire spends decades in search of the ultimate sexual secrets, and develops a line of "personal care products" that, when introduced, make women across the world so addicted to sexual self-gratification that society grinds to a halt. The premise of this is somewhat offensive, and there was a point about halfway through the book when I was ready to stop reading. Fortunately, the book was saved by two developments. The major one was that the premise turned into an elaborate device, using modern technological developments, to introduce a subject that is near and dear to both "serious" and "suspense" novelists: the mad genius looking to not only take over the world, but to achieve immortality. The over-the-top imagery and savage, casual caricatures that are staples of the Palahniuk novel are employed to full effect here, and the climax (pun intended, as anyone that reads the book will instantly see) of the book leads to both a figurative and literal castration.
And the minor one was a Ron Jeremy reference. You can't hate a book that references Ron Jeremy, and honestly, the context was both devastatingly effective as a caustic comment on American values and also quite funny.
I cannot decide whether I like Chuck Palahniuk or not. But I keep reading his books when I see them, which is what I suppose is all that he and his publisher care about. And I have to say that it is refreshing to see a best-selling author start from scratch with each new effort, instead of serializing his characters and his work.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Guns, Bullets...Schools?

I've grown used to people putting down my city. There's a casual contempt, based on fear, which in turn is based on, I am convinced, racism, in the outlying districts around here for Binghamton. I know because I was a part of that environment for the first thirty-five years of my life, when I was living in the other two of the Triple Cities, and at that time, I shared it. I moved to Binghamton for the first time in 2002, and have lived here ever since, five years on the South Side and now almost eight years on the West Side. And I've grown rather weary of the constant putdowns about the city; I've written in this space before about the advantages of living in what I sometimes (stealing a phrase from noted blogger Duncan Black, who uses the term to refer to his city of Philadelphia) term, in jest, "the urban hellhole."
But many stereotypes have at least a kernel of truth to them. When my daughter was younger and coming up through elementary and even (because she attended the better of the two) middle school, I vociferously defended the city and its school district, because prior to high school, the district showed off engaged and caring teachers, responsible and effective discipline policies, and fostered an environment that focused on responsibility and learning. Sabrina is now a few weeks shy of halfway through high school, and I have to say that the last two years have left a very bitter taste in my mouth. Whatever the virtues of the school district in the lower grades, the high school is--well, not the lower grades. The heart of any school is its teachers, and I have seen more lousy and ineffective teachers in Sabrina's two years in the high school than I did in her decade in the younger grades (pre-K, K, 1-8). This year, especially, has been awful. The two she has teaching Advanced Placement classes seem to be caring, effective, and take their job seriously--the history instructor even more impressive because he is also the head football coach, and managed to never once give the impression that being the coach was his main job. The rest of them have been ordinary at best, and there have been two that have especially bad. The French teacher is an immigrant from Senegal that appears to believe that part of his job is to be more American than Americans. More than once, his uber-patriot, Fox News propaganda-spouting political views have spilled over into the way he teaches and grades, and my daughter, being my daughter, has run into problems with him. She is not docile, she does not let bald untrue assertions go unchallenged, and she does not apologize for being open-minded--and as such as run afoul of this clown several times for--I am not kidding--"insubordination" and "disrespect for America," by pointing out that she does not feel compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, standing with her hand over her heart, because her loyalty is to the government of the country defined by the Constitution, not a piece of colored cloth, and that she does not believe in God and so is not going to pledge anything to any nation "under God." I don't necessarily agree with her stance totally, but I'm not going to tell her not to have her own opinions, especially since she has put a lot of thought into her stance, and in any event it is not a requirement that students do snap to attention during the Pledge like recruits at West Point. I could live with his personal disdain for her stance, and even understand, if not like, disdain for her. But for her grades to plummet because all of a sudden he is deducting points because of "non-participation in class" and "attitude not conducive to learning" is bullshit. She got a 79 last quarter, after 89 and 92 the first two quarters, and she has already complained to her guidance counselor once about this guy, which I am sure is the major reason behind the ten-point drop in grade. It infuriates me that he can get away with this with impunity--but the school district is not known for keeping its faculty under any sort of control or restraint.
Which leads to the second problem teacher. She has one that apparently saw too many movies as a kid about nasty spinster teachers; she has reacted to turmoil in her personal life (that she has been far too open about in class to her students) by taking out her frustrations on the kids in her classes. In this case, the teacher is engaging in a bit of "tall poppy syndrome;" Sabrina and her best friend, two high-honor roll kids for years running, have been targeted several times because they are done with tests first, complete their labs without struggle, and, I am convinced, have visible outside interests. There were four different occasions in the past quarter when disparaging remarks were made about them by the teacher in front of class, and Sabrina's grades mysteriously began to plummet after Sabrina asked her to stop referring to her and her friend disrespectfully in front of the rest of the class. There is no way that suddenly her lab work degenerated by thirty points' worth in a few weeks. None.
And the academic environment is, infuriating as it may be, less concerning than the social setting. Sabrina has matter-of-factly told me that although she has not personally been involved in any major issues with trouble students, there are a lot of them in the building, kids with no future and no incentive to do well, kids that view the rest of the student body as prey for them to act out on their own frustrations and lack of social skills. And there is also an element of true danger lurking beneath the surface. There have been a couple of instances of weapons being found in the school, and yesterday two bullets were found in a classroom--and no one carries bullets without having a gun to hand somewhere nearby.
As much as I do not want to see it, I am to the point where I would not mind metal detectors and x-ray machines at the entrances to the school. There are too many junior thugs, too many kids that have watched too much TV and played too many video games that promote violent behavior as a solution to conflict, and too many kids that high school is a holding pen for rather than any instrument of education. The high school settled down for a couple of years after the near-riot a few years ago, but the tension levels have ratcheted back up, even with an increased police presence in the school (there are now four officers whose full-time beat is the high school). And I have no doubt, with the jails full and drug use among the young the highest it has ever been, with more guns around the area than ever before, with fewer and fewer opportunities for constructive activity available to teens and young people, that one of these days, one of these guns and knives that keep getting found in the possession of students are going to be used.
I hate to sound selfish, but I sincerely hope that when--not if, but when--that day comes, my kid has graduated. This area has been home to me for a long time. Binghamton schools have not degenerated any more than others in the area; quite honestly, my alma mater, Union-Endicott, faces many of the same problems regularly and has a smaller student population (and has fallen from a higher height twenty or thirty years ago). But the continuing dearth of positive opportunities here have become a feedback loop; with fewer parents living lives of opportunity, fewer kids are growing up with any sort of positive support, and those kids turn into teenagers with no real hope of making a decent, productive life for themselves. And with adolescence difficult for even well-adjusted kids with much to look forward to, well...
We get kids with guns. Kids that fully embrace faux "values" such as "not being disrespcted" and treating boyfriends/girlfriends as possessions and "survival of the fittest" and intimidation and violence as a solution. Kids that view authority figures askance or as obstacles--a stance not helped by many authority figures acting unworthy of holding it. Kids that know that the school has to keep them around no matter what they do, because of educational "reforms" that in practice have made dropping out very difficult, and disciplinary banning impossible.
It's not quite the same atmosphere as a correctional facility. But it's a lot closer than it used to be, in all aspects of operation, Teachers are acting more and more like correctional officers, and students are acting more and more like inmates. And that is truly frightening to behold.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Book Review: THE FORGOTTEN GIRLS

For most of the few days it took me to read Sara Blaedel's The Forgotten Girls, I found it a little hard to follow, for a couple of reasons. One, Blaedel is Danish, the novel is set in Denmark, and as a result, the names and places are unfamiliar, and even spelled using letters not found in English. It takes some getting used to. The second is that the novel is translated from Danish, and like almost all translations, there are a few passages that are awkward or make a lot of sense. The second diminished as the novel proceeds, and I have to say that the sluggish first two-thirds of the book is more than made up for by the ending. The plot is simple but intriguing: a woman is found dead in the woods after falling down a ravine--and is eventually identified as someone that a death certificate was issued for thirty years prior, while in the care of a mental institution. The main character is a female police detective, and as she delves deeper into the investigation, she also finds herself immersed in a crime wave of rapes and murders happening in the same patch of woods. I was totally rocked by the way the book ended; there are horrific twists in many detective/suspense stories, but this ending not only blindsided me, it actually made me feel queasy. And it made me think about whether similar atrocities occurred in years past in the treatment of the mentally ill in this country--and I suspect the answer is yes.
It is made clear at the end of the book that this book is part of a series featured the detective, which just goes to show that book publishing norms are the same across the world, I guess. I didn't really didn't develop any real interest in the character or the parts of the book detailing her life away from the job--but this was a first-class murder mystery. And if I see other books in the series in English, I intend to read them.