Monday, November 10, 2008

All the News...

The sad state of newspapers is something never far from my mind. I'm a black-ink addict and value what a free and vibrant press contributes to our civic discourse and our democracy. Unfortunately, the dailies are hemoraging more red ink than they are printing black. Readership is down, advertising is down, spirits are down.

Much of this has been attributed to the dessertion of young people from the daily paper habit. They get their news on-line.

Why bring this up yet again? This mornnig I was reading Tony Wagner's excellent book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even the Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need -- and What We Can do About It (the sub-head is way too long, Tony). Wagner argues that while children may be learning to read, they "are not learning how to think or care about what they read." Much of this he attributes to "teaching to the test" where teachers spend far more time preparing students get ready for standardized tests then teaching them to think critically. In other words, we are creating a generation of people who don't know why what is in the newspaper is important (whether it appears on- or off-line) nor do they know how to use what they read well enough to ask tough questions or reason through complex issues.

The consequence, however, is not just that we may be losing the chance to get our fingers dirty reading each morning, but that we will lose a vital pillar of our democracy because we aren't raising students who understand what it means to be well-informed. Blogs and Facebook applications alone won't do it.

This is an unintended consequence of having the media be part of the Wall Street economy. The news outlets give the market what it wants (or try to); those that try to deliver what they think their mission mandates may kill themselves financially. This is one time that I think markets are wrong. We must have a robust press if we are to have a robust democracy.

I'll report more on this book when I finish it. In the meantime, I can only hope that serious education reform is high on the agenda of the incoming Obama administration and that anyone with thoughtful advice -- Democrats, Republicans, Independents, hell, Socialists and Communists, too -- is invited to help solve this pressing problem.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Morning in America

I have to admit that I was nervous last night. I voted early and then spent the day canvassing in the nearest battleground state. I saw the energy and excitement, the lines at the polls, and the army of volunteers. In my head, I knew that Obama would be our next president and that a victory would likely be by a significant margin. I was doing what I could to to help. But still, as the early returns came in, I was nervous that something was going to snatch this away.

This morning, the energy and excitement are still there and nothing can change the outcome now.

So how did it happen? Why was Obama successful where Kerry and Gore were not?

There will endless disection of McCain and Palin's missteps and opportunities lost as well as Obama and Biden's successful moves. In the end, however, I think that there are four major causes:
- First, divisive politics has played itself out. It seemed that even those who played that game were sick of it. It's exhausting. Any government that emphasizes ideology too much over practicality unltimately falls in on itself (no matter what the ideology). People have real problems and, here among the general populace, it is pretty obvious that the challenges we face are enormous and that it is going to take all of us pulling together to solve them. Obama has tapped into that desire to be one country again.
- Second, the kid came to play. Obama's team ran a campaign designed to win. From the fund raising to the efforts on the ground, these folks understood that they had to organize, mobilize, and execute. Although the big bucks get the attention, the innovation, discipline, and execution were an equal part of the victory. Howard Dean may be the unsung hero here as he was the one pushing for a 50-state strategy early on; coupled with Obama's message and delivery, it was a strategy that just out-matched McCain.
- Third, the next generation is ready to take on the responsibility of leadership. With McCain's defeat and Obama's victory, we are seeing a true generational transition. The contest in four years will feature Obama and a Republican from his age cohort. Stepping up to shouldering our challenges comes just in time because there is plenty of work to do. This is when we of the post-WWII/post-Vietnam cohort step out of the shadows and look the future square in the eye.
- Fourth is luck. Had the economy melted in December instead of October, the outcome of the election might have been different. Show me a successful candidate who thinks luck wasn't a factor in his or her victory and I'll show you one who is lying.

We should be proud that we have elected our first African-American president. It is a divide that needed to be crossed. We have not worked out all of the issues of race relations but we have raised them to a new (and hopefully more productive) plateau.

We should also be proud of the roles that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin played in this race. Though neither of them will be in the White House this time, no one will be surprised when a woman is on a national ticket again nor will we be shocked if she wins. In fact, we'll be surprised if a woman isn't on the ticket. That glass ceiling has been shattered.

Senator McCain was particularly gracious and generous in his concession speech. If we had seen more of that John McCain in the campaign, he might have been delivering an acceptance speech instead. It was not to be for Senator McCain but we should all be proud of his long and continued service.

I was drawn to Senator Obama early in the primaries. Despite the lack of a long resume, he inspired me in ways that the other candidates did not. I felt that was important -- as important as the ideas and the specifics (or lack thereof) in the policy proposals. But the job we have before us will not be solved by one man no matter how charismatic he may be. He is going to need us to be as passionate, as involved, and as ready to work as we have been over the past two years. We didn't just elect him; we elected us.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Jenna v. Elizabeth

I'm watching a documentary on the Windsors on PBS. It's a glowing portrait with nary a negative word -- one of those classic admiration fests. But still I was struck during the footage on WWII that then Princess Elizabeth volunteered for the Ambulance Corps. She may not have done much beyond attempt to change a tire for the benefit of the cameras, but she donned the scratchy uniform and gave the feeling that they were all in the fray together -- from the palace to the trenches.

It made me wonder why we'd never seen a Bush daughter doing something similar during our many years fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States has lost a sense of common purpose and sacrifice for the greater good. It was both dishonest and dishonorable for President Bush to have taken the nation to war without asking everyone to sacrifce. While bullets flew in the desert it was tax cuts on the home front. IEDs ripped through Humvees while Americans cruised happily to the mall in their SUVs.

We have been a divided nation for too long. While the war should never have been started, once the tanks were rolling there should have been a concerted effort to bring people together through sacrifice. It is yet another opportunity missed by this administration.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Free Christopher Buckley!

I'm fascinated by the ouster of Christopher Buckley from the National Review. I know Christopher a bit and he's a smart, funny guy. He certainly is capable of making up his own mind and is more than articulate.

The part that amazes/outrages me is that he had to offer his resignation, and that it was accepted, because he expressed his own opinion. He looked at two candidates and picked one. Isn't that what America is all about?

Granted, the first amendment was an amendment. It's a bit like the leather package you pick for a car -- it wasn't on the original spec sheet but you chose it and it came with the car. Freedom of speech means that speaking your mind shouldn't get you pushed out the door.

Peggy Noonan was also in the firing line after her "Failin' Palin" column in the Wall Street Journal. Peggy didn't go so far as to endorse Obama but said that Palin had yet to make a sufficient case for herself. When I went to offer my comments, the other commenters were vociferous in calling for her to be tossed off the pages of the WSJ. I tried to offer come to her defense, it's the least a gentleman can do, but comments were closed.

The Republican party of Bush/Cheney/Rove reminds me of the Communists under Mao when ideology trumped all. Smelt iron in the backyard to give power to the people even though the iron was lousy. Make the farms communal even though food production plummets. Clamp down on any press that doesn't agree with you.

And so we are back in 2008. Buckley, Noonan, who else? What kind of country have we become when you can't say what you think without consequences?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Spin Cycle -- RNC style

I didn't watch as much of the RNC as I did the DNC -- a bit of convention fatigue plus the abbreviated schedule -- but I did catch the speeches by both Sarah Palin and John McCain. I give Palin credit for the excellent delivery of a ho-hum speech and McCain demerits for the mediocre delivery of a better speech.

Palin certainly knows how to charm a room. She pauses naturally for the laugh and applause lines, knows when to wink or smile to reinforce a point, and chums the water with base bait like a pro (then again, she once was a commercial fisherwoman). She did smile too much, as did McCain though in her case I chalk that up to those years of beauty pageant training. When you are making a serious case, you need a serious face.

When she spoke about her own story, she was compelling. When she launched into distortions of Obama's stated positions and other partisan mud-slinging, she lost me entirely. I heard the "red meat" but had to ask: Where's the beef? The speech was extraordinarily light on concrete policy recommendations or other substantive material.

McCain is not a natural speech maker and it shows. His speech was well-crafted -- especially when he took his own party to task in order to reburnish his credentials as a maverick. But for too much of the speech, he would deliver a line and then smile like a kid who had made it successfully through a difficult fingering exercise on the piano.

When he spoke about his past and about his desire to change Washington, he was compelling. The blatant pandering to the party base and his distortions of Obama's positions were also awkward and off-putting. He didn't feel comfortable in his own skin while he was doing it.

Of course so much of the conventions is about spin and counterspin. It matters less what the candidates say than how it is interpretted by the pundits afterwards. Palin's selection had several Republican spokespeople spinning in reverse as you'll see in this brilliant video montage from The Daily Show.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Words Can Move

I am in awe at the level of oratory in evidence at the Democratic National Convention this past week. At a time when media is fragmented and attention spans are even more so, when ear buds seal out the outside world, when we're all Facebooking, blogging, and twittering, it was wonderful to have four evenings of well-crafted, superbly delivered speeches.

From Kennedy, to both Clintons, both Obamas, Gore, Biden, and more, we heard words that informed and inspired. You might not agree with the politics but you have to admire the level of public discourse. These speeches both preached to the choir and challenged the opposition. They set forth lofty goals and practical policy direction. They started conversations, at least in my circle, and brought focus to the importance of the election ahead.

I am grateful for the break from the attack ads and blathering pundits. Words still have power. Oratory is alive. Let's hope the Republicans can keep the level high.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How Much is That Puppy in the Window?

The last time I got a dog, it was easy. Then again, I was young and naive. It was a simple trip to the shelter at 92nd and York, picked out a pooch, and headed home. Sure, choosing a border collie/spaniel mix was a bit nuts given that I lived in a studio apartment in Manhattan. But he was such a cutie.

He was also a triple reject and came with claims that he couldn't be housebroken. With a little love and structure, he was easily housebroken. In fact, he was curb trained. There was a learning curve, sure, but we wound up having 12 great years together.

This time around couldn't have been more different. There were many more considerations about breed: small enough for the city, mellow enough to live with a persnickety cat, and non-shedding. That led us to seek out Cockapoo breeders.

The nearest one didn't return our outreach calls. The next one required that we clear our schedules for at least four months and not leave the pup alone for more than two hours (and that commitment was just the first step in the approval process). The third required a four page application that was similar in depth to the vetting for a spot as candidate for Vice President.

Finally, the fourth (the farthest, the most expensive) had pups available and made it no more difficult (and only slightly less expensive) than buying a Porsche. Truth be told, the breeder was a great help. She set us up with lots of supplies and answered all of our questions.

Once we had our little guy (and he is a cutie), things got even more complicated. Which vet to choose? Which trainer to engage? Which puppy socialization group to join? To crate train or not? What about doggy day care? The questions cascade like a spilled bag of kibble.
The vet and breeder told us to keep contact with other dogs to a minimum until he had had all of his shots (16 weeks). Then the trainer said that weeks 12 - 14 are critical to his socialization. Screw this up and we'll need to engage a doggie therapist later on. We decided to take our chances and he's enjoying his canine companions.
We've engaged, I'm almost afraid to admit, a Zen dog trainer. Grasshopper, when you can snatch this training treat from my hand... She's great, but I do feel like we've crept a bit too far up Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
The search for doggie day care keeps me up nights. Friends have conflicting recommendations and the online reviews for each provider seem to range from "they make my little darling feel like a king" to "my little darling came home with a gaping chest wound that no one at XXX seemed to notice." There's even a puppy prep school.
I am going out to buy several pair of cargo pants as each walk requires paper for picking up droppings, treats to reward the dropping process, a flashlight after dark, and occassionally the puppy training manual for last minute reference in the field. We've even found a doggie water bottle that flips down for easy Fido sipping and that clips onto my belt.
I wouldn't trade this dog for anything, but I miss the days when a dog was just a dog.