Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Fantasy Island - the 2014 reboot

I'll be the first to blame my out of whack hormones for this post (which will likely become a series of posts just like it did last time because I don't have just one island....noooooo....I have an archipelago).

If you aren't familiar with the fantasy island game, it goes a little bit like this. One deserted island, you and the people you'd pick to be stranded with given the option. You aren't supposed to pick your spouse or significant other, you aren't supposed to pick friends or family or anyone you know in real life. This is a purely hypothetical fantasy journey we're on, so just enjoy it for the fun it is and don't overthink it.


Now, the traditional rules of the game are that you get 5 people per island. I say per island because there is supposed to just be one island, but like I said before, I prefer an archipelago...meaning I have a male island, a female island, a geek island and several other islands. I even have an island where I'd like to send people to be banished forever.

In this version, I reserve the right to increase the size of the island. Because rules schmules. And this is a fantasy, dammit. So there.

If you missed the first incarnations of these posts, you can read them by using the following links.

The 2012 Male Island

The 2012 Female Island

All other islands in the archipelago

Up first will be my male island. I've discovered quite a few new additions to the list in the last couple of years, so get comfortable and enjoy. Consequently, I've had to bump a few off the island. Tear.

1. Tom Hiddleston.

I get a little obnoxious fangirl about him, so I apologize in advance. Sort of.

Look at this.


Also known as Loki in the nerdiverse, he is something magical to behold. Those eyes. The naughty smile. It's just not right that one guy can be this good looking. He's funny, he's a total goofball, and there is an entire website devoted to parts of him. If you are interested in checking it out, just know that I'm warning you before you go. Give yourself a few hours to scroll and time to take a cold shower afterwards.


Plus, this scene was in Thor 2 (and honestly, he's so much hotter than Thor...). I may have squealed in the theater. Hot damn.


There is also this. Everyone should watch this.


2. Norman Reedus.

If the zombie apocalypse ever happens, he's coming with me. For serious.


I was late to The Walking Dead party, but I showed up okay, and that's all that matters. I may have binge watched entire seasons at a time to catch up, but so be it. Daryl is worth it, dammit.

My phone case has the wings from his vest on it. I got a tiny Daryl for Christmas that sits on the windowsill in my kitchen. I'm not actually kidding about either thing. I ugly cried when he ugly cried in the show when his good for nothing older brother finally died. Who doesn't love a good ugly cry???


The more I get to know about him, the more I like him. He's hilarious, he's a photographer, he's a former model who never took himself all that seriously. His face was reconstructed after an accident, and he passed up the chance to have it completely fixed. One of his eye sockets is made of titanium. True story.

His instagram is definitely worth following because it has photos like this one.



3. Robert Downey Jr.

He is Ironman. I mean, he just is. He's one of my favorite people in the universe and somehow he gets better looking the older he gets.


I would like to drink this coffee.



I adore him, have for a good long time now, and my adoration of him seems to grow a little bit more with each passing year. In the latest version of Ironman, he doesn't just kick a lot of ass, he also deals with the fact that Tony Stark has anxiety..which just proves that I could actually be a superhero after all.


He's been to hell and back a few times in real life and somehow came out of it all this significantly improved version of himself. He's irreverent. He's talented. He's hilarious. And he really doesn't care what anyone thinks of him.


4. Benedict Cumberbatch



I also arrived late the the Sherlock party, but I got there. He really does play a convincing quirky genius well. And a wicked Khan, for that matter. Seriously..who else geeked out a little when they saw that?

Anyway, he's not exactly the conventional leading man, but he does it for the nerdiverse. Let me tell you.

Just watch this.

I could listen to him read ingredient labels on the back of a cereal box all day. This is better though. Baby.


This prompted me to dress up my elf, Gollum and take this picture.


I have issues. I know. You don't have to tell me.

For a while, I couldn't really see what his appeal was, and I wondered what it was that all these women were talking about. Then I watched this scene. Over and over and over.


5. Christian Slater.

Because he was the first on the list and he'll probably forever remain on the list no matter who else comes around because...well...because this.



And this.


Do you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up? Yes, Happy Harry Hard-On. Yes I do.


Oh.My.Gawd. He's still speaking to me after all these years. Plus, the soundtrack from this movie is freaking amazing.

Honorable Mentions


Oh, Adam. You shouldn't have.

Anthony Mackie as Falcon. Swoon.

Jon Snow, you know nothing.

Byung Hun Lee. You are welcome.

Paul Rudd. Don't act like you know me.
No dance-y remixes allowed.

Mr. Cooper. Yes, we are that formal.

Because he can be anyone.

Bring it on down to JT-ville.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Things That Piss Me Off Tuesday - the "news", racists, prom hell and bittersweet symphony edition

It's Tuesday again, isn't it? I feel like we just did this....or maybe I'm just getting old now and the clock seems to race faster.

Anyhow, there is a lot going on in the world and in my little teeny corner of it worth ranting about, so we'll just get to it.


The News That Isn't
Yesterday for Lefty Pop, I wrote a piece about how pathetic the news has become here in the U.S. over the past couple decades. It's sugarcoated and spun and myopic and neglects to tell us most of what is actually going on in the world that we should know about.

Well, but the most recent shenanigans of the Kardashians are sooo pressing, right?

No. No they are not.

WHY DO WE CARE?

The problem is that news, like everything else anymore, is driven by money. Ratings. People want to see concerts and celebrity interviews and actual news makes them sad and uncomfortable. God forbid people be sad and uncomfortable....then they'd actually maybe want to find out more or do something about whatever made them sad and uncomfortable, and we can't have that happening now can we?

I swear. The whole post-Earth obese humans in recliners sipping their food through a straw glued to the screen getting every single thing they need from one massive retailer thing...it's really not that far off, you guys. We get a little bit closer every day.


Did you know that two weeks ago over 200 schoolgirls disappeared in Nigeria and no one seems to know where they are or who took them?  Did you know that while we busy ourselves with debating about whether climate change is real or not, there are places around the world actually sinking because of overuse of groundwater, putting all low lying areas at risk already?

Probably not, because whoever runs our "news" here either doesn't want you to know or thinks you can't handle it. If you did know, it's probably because you already rely on BBC or Al Jazeera for news.

This Week in Racism
Oh, Cliven. Just stop talking. You're digging yourself a hole that even to most fringe Congressmembers  and talking heads on tv aren't going to want to help you find a way out of. Do yourself a favor and just stop talking.


He got some company in the ridiculous racists department in the past few days, in the form of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. The owner of a professional basketball team in a sport utterly dominated by black players decided to tell his (mixed race) girlfriend not to associate with them and certainly not to bring them to any games....and she taped it.


The team members silently protested before their playoff game, removing the warmups with the team name and logo and throwing them at center court.


The Miami Heat joined them in solidarity, doing it as well.

The NBA is supposed to make some kind of statement today about how they intend to go forward with the situation. We'll see if they actually have the wherewithal to stand up to this man, or if they slap him on the wrist.

Ironic that all this happens the same week that the Supreme Court seems to decree from the mountaintops that racism is a thing of the past, the playing field is already leveled and affirmative action is unacceptable.

Head:Wall.

Prom Hell
There have been so many cases in the news about things gone wrong at or before the prom that I thought I'd try to gather them up for you here.

The most tragic case of them all involves Maren Sanchez, a 16 year old student stabbed to death in the stairwell at her high school last week because she declined a prom invitation from the boy who killed her. Apparently we now live in a world where turning someone down that you aren't interested in for a date means you might be murdered. So much promise for the future, such a beautiful and intelligent young woman, just gone...all because she said no.

A North Carolina female student was kicked out of the prom for wearing pants. Apparently females aren't allowed to wear pants now. Because it is 1884. There isn't even an existing dress code for the school officials to attempt to cite here, but they gave her the boot anyway. They've since apologized, like that will make everything better.

Can't wear pants if you're a girl....but you can wear a dress, right? Maybe, but it depends on who you are. Apparently, another school was forbidding certain female students from entering the prom over the weekend, citing the dress code restrictions on the lengths of the hems on their dresses. We'll ignore all the girls allowed inside with short dresses and just keep out the ones we deem inappropriate...uh huh. Seems legit.

Yet another school forbid entrance to quite a few students and even went so far as to have them forcibly removed from the premesis. They rarely gave a specific reason, but cited dress code violations. These dresses (only the girls were targeted) were deemed inappropriate, though the pictures parents have shared of the kids banned online seem mild by today's standard. One of the offenses included "too much cleavage"...so girls, you'd better not be stuck with large breasts because your breasts are inappropriate by definition.

Let me get this straight. Girls can't wear pants....but they can't wear short dresses either (unless, of course, we decide they look acceptable in them). They can't have large breasts either. Quick...someone tell me we don't live in a sexist society perpetrated by rape culture. I dare you.

My Bittersweet Symphony
I don't intend to be all Debbie Downer, and I promise that once I get this out, I will stop wallowing...but can I just ever have a second to be happy and excited without something coming along, smacking me in the face and reminding me of how much I have lost?


I have been resistant to purchase anything for the baby because I'm paranoid and a natural born worrier. I have, in my basement, a box still full of the things we bought for the first baby, the one that I never met. So I wait. I wait until I get to a point where I feel safe and secure and confident that everything will be okay, and I was finally at that point.

So, being as that I am finally in this good place and looking forward to the future with some happiness and excitement, we went to the store and bought the first few things for the baby yesterday.

We came home to a letter in the mail having to do with my mother's death.

And Rafiki lifted the cub and the Circle of Life song punched me in the gut.

It's not fair, so much in this life, and it seems like it always manages to get pointed out to me in the most obvious way in the moments where I'm the most content and forward-looking. I get dragged back to the past, to the times that are no more, to the voids left, to the people who are just gone now.

I guess this is just the way it goes, though. I'm finding that I have to take and keep those moments of joy and feel them as much as I can for as long as I can because I know that there is usually something lingering in the shadows, waiting to remind me of all that I've lost.

Dammit, it's not fair.

Okay, there. It's out. I'll shut up now.

Look at this instead. It's the shirt that convinced Mini Me that having another baby brother won't be the worst thing that ever happened to her.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Boys, Girls and Books

For the past few years, I have spent most of the summer reading with my kids. The first year, we tore through most of the Harry Potter series. I told my oldest son that he could only watch the movies after we had read the books and it became a family affair. What started out as something we intended to do only for short periods of time became something they all were obsessed with. The kids became book critics, movie critics, picking out all the differences in the film interpretations, from the major changes to the subtle issues.

Back then, only my oldest was a confident enough reader to help me in the actual reading aloud of the books. Since then, two of the other kids have begun taking chapters at a time.

Yes, we read the books aloud. That way, even my five year old is a participant.


I started sharing the lists as more people realized what we were doing. These days, it seems that kids aren't being required to read many novels in school anymore, though we were definitely assigned them back when we were there. I don't want my kids to miss out on the importance of these stories, so we do it over the summer. I schedule a book a week and try to choose books with film adaptations to watch after we finish reading.

This year, I decided to give them a little more input into the books we would be reading this summer, and they helped with the selection of about half of the books. We read To Kill A Mockingbird over Spring Break and they fell completely in love with the story, the characters, all of it.

Here is this year's list if you haven't seen it already.

May 26 -        20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
June 2 -         Little Women
June 9 -         Catching Fire
June 16 -      Huckleberry Finn
June 23 -     off/catch-up
June 30 -     Divergent
July 7 -         Frankenstein
July 14 -      Of Mice and Men
July 21 -      Shakespeare: Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet
July 28 -     Edgar Allen Poe: stories and poems TBD
August 4 -  Diary of Anne Frank

Anyway, as soon as I posted the list this year, I got a few comments from people about the books chosen...primarily about Little Women. Mostly it was concerns about whether boys would want to read the book.

I knew then that eventually this post was going to be written, it just took me this long to get to it.

My concerns are many, but they all boil down to one issue - gender equality. If we don't blink an eye at a girl reading Huckleberry Finn, why do we doubt that a boy might be interested in Little Women?

Why is it that most of the classic stories we grew up reading centered on male characters and no one ever thinks to doubt their literary value, but the instant that a book that focuses on females is mentioned, people shy away from it?

Why do we see the inherent good for all children in the books about boys, but just assume that boys won't want to read anything about girls?

Why?

I don't have a good answer for you, but I am sure that it has something to do with our male dominated society, one that we may be unintentionally perpetuating if we only ever expose male children to the stories about other boys.

Girls need heroines. Girls need protagonists. Girls need to be the lead characters, they need to read those stories. Girls need books that hold more relevance to them, to their stories, to their lives. And boys need to read those books just as much as the girls do.

Sometime after attending Comic Con last year, I finally wrote the piece about Wonder Woman that had been floating around in my head forever. Questioning why the movie producers won't take a risk on a film with her as the lead, even in the blockbuster superhero film world we currently occupy, it just seems, well, wrong. Part of the reason is the systemic doubt that women and girls will provide enough of a fan base to market to (which is patently wrong). Part of the reason is this bizarre notion that men and boys will never want to watch a movie about a female superhero (which is also patently wrong).

A big part of the reason there isn't a Wonder Woman movie, though, is the same reason that people flinched when I put out the reading list this year. We assume, on their behalf and without even presenting or requiring it, that boys will have no interest in the stories of girls.


Anthony Mackie plays Falcon in the latest Captain America movie. He gets it. We all need to.

We don't tell them these stories. We don't require them to listen. We don't even bother to ask if they would be interested. And we start doing it when they are young enough that they grow up with the expectation that they never will have to actively listen to the stories of women.

At the same time, girls are subjected, almost constantly, to the stories of male leads, of male characters. And we often don't even see what is missing.

So, I urge you all, whether you have boys or girls or both, tell them all the stories from the time they are small. Read all the books with them. Teach them different viewpoints from a time that they are so young that they will grow up with a greater understanding. Teach them from birth, teach them that there are stories for all children.

My boys will be reading Little Women this summer. Will yours?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Mama Birds and Free Range Pooping...or why you shouldn't take advice from celebrities....

It is happening again you guys. Yet another celebrity, unsatisfied with the level of fame that whatever it is that they are known for has garnered them, has become a self-proclaimed parenting expert.

Let us all rejoice.

I'm being sarcastic, but you knew that. 

I hope you knew that.

I always find it terribly interesting that so many of these celebrities who write these books about parenting usually do it when they have had one child for a few years. Because every seasoned parent totally knows everything after doing this for a couple years, right?

Again with the sarcasm.

Of course they don't know everything. None of us do. The people who actually have some kind of credential or training that would to some degree allow them to actually claim they know everything still don't know everything. The people like me who've parented several different kids with several different conditions still don't know everything. Even people who raised entirely functional adults don't know everything.

And you sure as shit haven't figured it all out when you have one three year old. 

Speaking of shit, I'll get to that in a bit. Literally. There will be poop discussions below, and if that is the kind of thing that makes you uncomfortable, just stop reading now, because it's pretty nasty, this poop issue I will soon speak of.

Before we get there, though, I wanted to address my real issue with this latest incarnation of parental wisdom, this one written (okay, like, it was totally dictated in part and probably actually written by someone else) by Alicia Silverstone. My bad. I had to throw in some obnoxious Clueless type dialogue, since that is why she's famous and all.

Oh, wait. She shook her ass on the hood of Aerosmith's car too. That's right.

My real beef with this book is the fact that she talks about health care decisions and maternal mental health conditions as though she has any goddamn idea what she's talking about. She is another celeb who rants about the dangers of vaccines and talks about how her unvaccinated kid is healthy so obviously it's working out just fine. 

Which is totally fine. For now. For her. Until it's not.

Bangs head on wall.


There are plenty of legitimate concerns that parents have when it comes to vaccines, but people writing books with no scientific background that proclaim they've skipped all shots and their kids are fine so far aren't just possibly endangering their kids, they are endangering the kids of whoever reads their books and follows their so-called advice. I'm not even going to rehash all the society level issues involved here. 

It's not just that, though, that chaps my ass. Even worse are her musings about post partum depression, and how it's less likely to happen to new mothers that live "kindly" whatever that is supposed to mean. She's not a mental health professional, she apparently hasn't suffered from post partum depression, she doesn't know what the hell she is talking about and yet she's doing it. 

She's saying all these things as though anything about living kindly is going to have a damn thing to do with how maternal hormones affect a mother's brain in the postpartum period. 

It would make more sense if she was jumping on a couch all batshit crazy the way Tom Cruise was around the time he claimed to be an expert about PPD. 

Okay, it wouldn't make more sense, but it would be much more entertaining.

Now that we've established that being an actress with one child who is "healthy and unvaccinated" and who has never had to deal with PPD isn't qualified to be giving out advice to anyone about either topic, let's talk about some of the other things in this book of hers.

The book, that, by the way, I'm not linking on purpose. If you really want to go find it, there's a search bar up top. I'm not about to send her any traffic. 

Anyway.

She's talked in the past about pre-chewing food for her son and then spitting it into his mouth. Like a mama bird. 

There are apparently even videos of this. Again, not linking, because ewwwwww.

This poor child and the things he will be picked on for when he gets just a little bit older....

For the love. Why anyone would take advice from someone who feeds their child like this is beyond me. If your kid can't chew the food you want him to eat, that generally means he shouldn't be eating it yet. Logic is amazing, isn't it?

She also encourages parents to potty train their children using her kindness technique, part of which involves free range pooping, which is exactly what it sounds like. Literally, let the kid run around pantsless and poop in the yard. Like a dog. 

I'm all for pantslessness, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sending my kid out back to work for number two. 


Aside from the whole ick factor, you have to wonder what planet she lives on. I mean, does she clean it up??? I hope she cleans it up. I actually assume she doesn't do it herself, because she's probably far too glamorous to scoop anyone's poop....so does her gardener have to do it? Does she tell them what it is? Do her neighbors know there is human feces on the lawn next door?

The free range pooping goes along with her other training techniques, which seem to mostly involve watching your kid for signs of impending pooping. So you're supposed to sit around, wait for the grimacing to begin, then plop the kid on the pot, cheer wildly and pat yourself on the back. Some people start doing it as early as 6 months, long before babies are even walking.

I have a newsflash. Ready for this one???

That's not potty training. It's mommy training. 

If the kid can't even physically get to a toilet and you are the one putting them there, who is really being trained here?  Hint....it's not the kid.

I have better things to do than worry all day long about whether my kid is on the verge of poo, then rushing him to the potty just to applaud the fact that I have nothing better to do than to wait for this to happen. 

I've trained four kids to poop in actual toilets. She has a kid who poops on the grass. 

Which book do you want to read, hers or mine?

Seriously though, these books are ridiculous, and the idea that they fly off the shelves into the eager hands of new parents is a little bit terrifying. Talk to your pediatrician, talk to the nurses, talk to your parents, talk to your friends. Talk to literally anyone else in the known universe before you start taking advice from a woman who chews up her kid's food and spits it into his mouth.

As if.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Quick and Dirty Thursday - the patriot, the teacher, the wrestling coach and the oligarchy

After asking for some topic ideas on my Facebook page this morning, I decided to write about all of them, plus another one that was going through my head already.

Because, you see, I have a special version of crazy. I'm going to try to keep each story brief (haha), so that I can cover them all in time to actually take a shower and get to my son's classroom celebration.

Speaking of which, he is kicking ass right now. Considering that he started out the year as one of the youngest boys in the class, having missed almost the entire year of preschool the year prior for health reasons, with a speech articulation problem that made communication almost impossible, and we are where we are now, I think he gets a high five. Seriously. We were looking at possibly retaining him a few short months ago. Now he's reading.


And he's pretty dang adorable, if I do say so myself.

Sometimes the most important tool in teaching kids is just giving them time to figure it out.

Anyway, on to the topics of the day.

Cliven Bundy, the patriot?
If you haven't heard about the drama in Nevada, I'll try my best to summarize. Rancher's family owns ranch in Nevada for many generations, grazes cattle on public land. BLM comes in and takes over rights to the land because of an endangered species, begins assessing fees to graze cattle (pretty sure the state was charging fees before, that were paid). Anyhow, Cliven Bundy refuses to pay grazing fees, keeps grazing cattle. BLM sues him for unpaid fees and wins. He still refuses to pay. Feds threaten to take his cattle into custody, and manage to round up a few. Bundy puts the call out to anyone wanting to help protest, hundreds (maybe thousands) of pissed off gun toters show up. Stand off with feds occurs. Feds release the cattle.

If you listen to anything the far right is saying, Bundy is a patriot. A hero. Many elected officials have rallied behind the guy, claiming that he is fighting for liberty and state's rights, and against the intrusion of the federal government. Some of them are already regretting that affiliation today after a story broke about what a ridiculous racist the guy is, on top of everything else. He actually said, and I'm not even kidding, that blacks might have been better off as slaves than as the recipients of government assistance.

In 2014. He said this. On camera.

I'll wait for you to pick your jaw up off the floor.

Here's the thing. This guy isn't a patriot, as much as he wants to pretend that he is. He's mooching off of federal lands, lands that other ranchers pay for access to. He just wants special treatment. He's refusing to comply with orders of both the federal government AND the court system, which has resoundingly ruled against him. Defiance of the law doesn't make someone a patriot. It makes them a lawbreaker. He just happens to be a horrendously racist one too.

The First Amendment and The Teacher 
David Foggin is a high school teacher in West Virginia. On his Facebook page, he posted a rant about the gay-straight alliance club at the school, one that makes my grammar loving ways cringe. Here it is, hopefully you can read it.


Oh, my eyes. Anyhow, he posted this on his Facebook page and promptly was suspended by the school. Students and others are now rallying around the guy, saying that it isn't offensive if you know who he is, that his First Amendment freedom of speech should protect him, and on and on.

Here's the thing. The First Amendment freedom of speech is nowhere near as absolute as people think it is. You can say whatever you want, you can write whatever you want, you can post whatever you want on Facebook. What you can't do, though, is insulate yourself from the effect and consequences that your words might have. In this case, he's a teacher in a public school. Most districts I've had any exposure to have specific rules about posting anything or saying anything about the school, the district, the students (or anything else school related) on social media. There are also often restrictions on political posts that have nothing to do with the school itself. 

The reason - teachers are agents of the district, they hold themselves out as affiliated with the district. The district can absolutely discipline them for doing things like he did. 

The issue of whether what he wrote is offensive, is I suppose, subject to interpretation. Some of the LGBT students at the school stand behind him, others are glad he was suspended. It's hard to say these days, as the vast majority of anything we write or say can be deemed offensive by someone, which is why it's particularly important for people with jobs like his to be careful about what they do. This was an intentional post on his part, intended to be a rant, intended to target the alliance. It was intentional. 

Besides, he should be ashamed of himself for the spelling and grammar errors. For the love, he's a high school teacher. Editing is so important. Honest.

Christ Helps Me Wrestle?
Oh lord. Literally. So there is a school in West Virginia with a wrestling team and a coach who loves Jesus. Awesome. Public school teachers and coaches can love Jesus all they want, or be Atheists. Or be Scientologists. Whatever. What they can't do is pontificate to students, they can't force prayer on anyone, they can't be tossing bible verses around, and they certainly can't use bible verses as team slogans.

That's exactly what happened, though. 

Apparently, the wrestling team has used a bible verse as their slogan since the 90's, and recently painted said slogan on the gym walls, and everyone was just fine with it until someone wasn't. That someone is a team member and his family who challenged the motto. They didn't threaten legal action, but cited all the Supreme Court decisions that clearly state that public schools cannot promote religion.

The school agreed to paint over the motto and it has been removed from the website. 

Here's the thing. In our current universe in this country, there is a push, again, by conservative Christians to allow prayer in schools, to alter science curricula and more. Most often they cite religious freedom as their right, and claim that those rights to exercise freely should exist within the walls of a school as much as outside them. The trouble is, though, that not everyone believes the same things. Not everyone is Christian, and all those people have the same rights as the Christians. Public school is not the place for Jesus. 

Besides, I'm pretty sure Jesus would be more focused on hunger and illness, homelessness and oppression, war and turmoil than wrestling. 

The Oligarchy in the United States
A new study out this month challenges the very foundation of everything our country is built on, namely democracy. We are taught to believe that every person's vote matters, every voice should be heard, that we are all equal and all that jazz...except anyone who has lived more than a few years here knows that isn't exactly true.

The United States is very much an oligarchy, it just took this long for someone to call it what it is. 

An oligarchy is defined as a governmental system where the power rests in the hands of a few. It is usually used in reference to monarchies, but in our case we have elected officials, so it's not that type of oligarchy. Instead, ours is one based on wealth, because money is what drives everything. Money is what gains access to elected officials, money is what allows commercials to be run on television hiding behind seemingly innocuous sham institutions, money is what paves the path to control. 

Do our individual votes and voices matter? Sure, but we are all pawns in a game being played by those with the biggest stakes. 

The best example I can think of locally is the manipulation of information in the oil and gas industry. Here in Colorado, we seem to have taken Sarah Palins "drill, baby, drill" advice a little too literally. Even people who are generally pro-industry are starting to cringe a little at the rate in which wells are being erected all over the state.

People have concerns and a lot of them. People are worried about contamination, about pollution, about traffic, about property values, about seismic activity, about the short term gains being made at the long term expense of the area. Those concerns, if you believe the ads on tv and run in the paper (the ones in the paper are carefully crafted to appear just like another section in the paper, not an advertising supplement), are all unfounded. We should just embrace the wells popping up everywhere. Sure.

Organizations like Coloradoans for Responsible Energy Development have sprung up. Even their acronym sounds legit, CRED. They tell us that fracking is safe, that the families who sell off rights to their lands are all happy, that there is no danger to the environment. They ask what is in fracking fluid but never tell us. They tell us that the water supplies are fine, but don't tell us how many shares they are using. 

Oh, and CRED is funded by oil and gas. They just appear objective and fair.

It's things like this that skew public opinion, because individuals watching at home don't necessarily understand the money behind these ads, the manipulation being done. So, are their votes always going to reflect a truly objective decision? Hell no

Of course the US is an oligarchy. I'm just glad someone finally said it. 

"We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both" ~Louis Brandeis

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Common Core, Standardized Testing and How We Got Here

There is a revolution of sorts underway in our educational system here in the United States, but it isn't one that everyone is excited about. This revolution isn't one that is coming at the urging of educators, it isn't coming at the behest of concerned parents, it is coming from the top down this time. This revolution is one that, if you have children in school, teach or have any exposure to the world of education, you are most likely already aware of, at least in some capacity.

This major shift is collectively referred to as Common Core...but what is it exactly?

I'm going to try to answer some of the most common questions that people have, address some of the concerns, and discuss how and why we ended up here in the first place. Then, I will talk about what we can do about it.


Before I do any of that, I want to give you all a little bit of background about myself. Before we left California, I was enrolled in a credential program to become an elementary school teacher. I had completed all the prerequisites and done some student teaching already. We moved in the middle of it, and the programs here in Colorado were completely different. Though I have not officially worked as a teacher in a public school district, I do have a significant amount of the background knowledge. I'm also looking at this as someone with a legal background and as the mother of several children currently in school. I have some unique insights into this subject as I have many friends working as teachers and administrators at all levels in several districts around the country. I've been working on this post for a while now, and I hope that I address the major concerns you might have, though due to time and space constraints, it's going to be virtually impossible for me to address them all. 

I also want you to be aware that much of what is in this post is my personal opinion, based on what I have seen. I'm not citing anyone I know personally, I'm not tying anything to the district we are in specifically, I'm not discussing any specific schools or teachers or curriculum issues. These are generalizations based on observations, and my opinions are mine. 

With all that out of the way, though my interest in this topic is certainly one from the perspective of policy and society, it is also one that I'm personally invested in. As I write this, one of my children is being used as a guinea pig in a standardized testing pilot program. They are taking three days of instruction away to pilot a computer based test that won't even count for or against the kids who are taking it right now. 

When I say he is being made a guinea pig, I mean it pretty literally. He isn't the only one of my children who is being subjected to pilot testing this year either. 

I mention the testing because reality is that standardized testing has become a routine part of school life for students, for teachers, for administrators. More and more time is being spent with each passing year it seems on these tests. When we were children growing up in California, we were subjected to a few days of standardized testing once a year, and California was, at the time, an anomaly. I know many people who never endured even the testing we were given back then.

How did we go from a system that spent a few days at most testing children to one that resembles what we have now?

It's not a simple answer, and it's something that has concerned people for quite a while now. For decades the only major tests that students had to worry about were the SAT and ACT, used in college admissions. Now, routine testing begins in our district at the kindergarten level, state testing begins by third grade.


The Department of Education didn't even exist until 1979 when it was created under the Carter Administration. Prior to that it was included along with Health and Human Services. At the time, schools were subject to state and local regulation only with no intrusion or interference from the federal government.  Under the tenth amendment,  the states are supposed to retain the right to handle all issues not set aside for the federal government, a contentious issue in many areas including education. Education essentially went from being a state issue to a federal one that year, though the issue has never been widely accepted by everyone and is still being challenged now, particularly in light of recent changes.

In 2002, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, which will still cause most veteran educators to cringe a bit. The law, with the intention of raising standards and creating accountability for failing schools, mandated for the first time that all students were to be tested. The results of those tests were to be used to gauge growth and select out failing schools. Couched as an aid program for disadvantaged students, it focused on setting high standards, creating measurable goals and forcing the entire education system to find ways to evaluate how much students were learning.

While the intention of the law might have been sound, the effect of it has been that schools have become increasingly focused on test scores. Curricula have been altered to concentrate on the topics that appear on the tests. Learning has been pieced out so that the students can jump through the hoops we decide they are supposed to jump through.  Under NCLB, the only way a school can receive federal funding is to test students and show Adequate Yearly Progess (AYP), though the tests themselves are set under state laws.

Around the time that NCLB was enacted, there was a huge public push, coming mostly from dissatisfied parents, for school choice. To really know if one school was better than another, there had to be some sort of objective criteria to use as a basis for comparison. Parents, in many ways, helped to create the testing beast we are dealing with now. 

The consequence of enacting school choice is two fold. First, and perhaps worst, is the truth that once it's out there, once you've given parents the opportunity to enroll in any school they choose, once there are other publicly funded alternatives, you can't put the rabbit back in the hat. Once it is out there, it is out there. 

The second issue with school choice (and vouchers and charter schools and every other incarnation of school choice that has been created in the past few decades) is that it takes away any personal investment in a particular school. If parents are dissatisfied, they can just leave. There is no incentive on their part to help work to improve schools. Compound that issue for a few decades and you can see that failing schools keep failing because they are losing students. Then they lose funding. Then their test scores might go down even more. If the scores go down, teachers may be faulted. Lower enrollment affects the number of FTEs a school has. And the cycle keeps spinning. 

So, as of the beginning of this decade, we now have a system in total disrepair. Parents are dissatisfied. The federal government, in an attempt to force accountability, has created an enormous testing burden that districts must pay for or risk losing federal funds. You might think that all this came with some tangible benefit to students, that we were doing a better job for them, right?

Wrong. Compared to other nations, we are slipping and have been for some time now. 

In fact, there is growing criticism of our system by a unlikely source - college professors and the high school teachers that are issuing them the warnings about this generation of students. Professors are now being made to teach classrooms full of students who grew up in this test-focused, accountability driven system. Their test scores are fine, but everything else is lacking. These students might be well seasoned at filling in bubbles and answering the specific questions we tell them are on the test, but they've lost the ability to think critically, they can't brainstorm, they can't entertain complex intellectual discussions. All subjects that weren't on the tests were pushed aside, focused on less. Some schools cut funding for extracurriculars, for sports, for language arts, for anything that wasn't on the tests. The quality of student writing has gone downhill significantly. Schools aren't focusing on grammar and syntax anymore, they are more worried about reading comprehension because it's on the tests. Students can use a computer for anything in the world except adequate research. Even in the areas that we might think objective testing would suit students - math and science, we are slipping. These teachers are seeing first hand the effect of a decade of this system on students, but no one is listening to them.

Why? Why aren't we listening to the veteran teachers who are warning us?

They see it. They know that we aren't teaching kids to think anymore. We're teaching them to pass tests, because we're now tying teacher ability to the grades the kids get on the tests. We're focusing so much on getting the lowest level learners to pass so that we create the appearance of growth that we aren't pushing the highest level learners the way they should be, the way they need to be. We are laboring under this illusion that all students can and should learn the same things at the same rates, then testing them as though it could ever be true.

And we're doing it because if we don't, our federal funding will be cut. Teachers are doing it because their livelihoods depend on it. If they don't get kids to jump through the hoops, their jobs might be in jeopardy.

All this ignores the 500 lb. elephant in the room - which is this: in education, we cannot control the inputs into the system. The teachers, the administrators, the districts have no control over which students walk through their doors. Those kids bring their home life situations, their socio-economic statuses, their poverty, their hunger, their primary language, their learning disabilities, their mental health conditions, their intelligence levels, their parents and the level of involvement they are willing to put in, their realities. None of that is subject to the control of the school system, but we want to believe that we can hold the schools accountable for test scores in a situation where the vast majority of conditions contributing to how a child learns are entirely outside anyone's control.

The system is a mess, and instead of allowing individual districts discretion in how to best deal with the situations they face, instead of funding school lunches and providing transportation universally, instead of trying to eliminate some of the real-life impacts facing these students, and in turn the districts they belong to, we are focusing on outputs alone. Numbers.

And we're doing it more and more and more. 

Under President Obama, yet another federal input was enacted affecting education. This one, called the Race to the Top program is an incentive based program that gives districts money based on innovation, lifting restrictions on charter schools, test scores, performance reviews and compliance with Common Core standards. Districts don't have to apply for the money, states do not have to participate, but when faced with the reality that per pupil funding seems to go down almost constantly, most did submit applications. Only those with the most points were awarded money.

Don't comply = no money. It is sold as an incentive system, but it's really punitive in nature.

The program and its funding were a way to basically force compliance with Common Core standards. What is Common Core? I'm sure that most of you have heard the phrase, but there isn't a whole lot of information out there that presents it objectively. I'll do my best. Deep breath.

Common Core, in theory, is completely sound. It's the idea that all students, in every state in the nation should be taught and learn the same basic material at each grade level, particularly in math and English. It is easy to see how this idea is a logical one, particularly for students who have to move between districts or even states during their school careers. It makes more sense for all fifth graders to learn certain topics than for schools to pick and choose which grade those topics are covered in. 

Having said all that, just because it is sound in theory doesn't mean that the execution of the theory is working well. It seems to be going smoothly in some areas, not so much in others. I'm also a born skeptic, so I always ask the question of who initiates something and who stands to gain. 

The standards were written, put out into the world and quickly adopted by most states, lauded as progress. Now that they are beginning to be enacted through changes in curriculum, teachers and parents are waving their hands in protest. 

The standards themselves were written by a panel of 27 people, including just a few teachers and composed mostly the representatives of the testing industry. Wait? What? The people who stand to benefit directly from the technologies being required wrote the standards? 


There was no transparency involved, something usually critical to education in particular. The Department of Education is expressly forbidden from writing or recommending curriculum, so the funding for the creation of the standards was all provided by private funders. The Gates Foundation footed the bill and invited many groups to evaluate the standards, except many of the evaluators weren't in the business of education or evaluation at all. 

Sold to teachers unions as a way to ensure that all students were being taught the same material, it was viewed by many as almost a civil rights issue, which garnered support from many within the educational world. Then the standards were adopted by legislatures sight unseen in most states. The vast majority of elected officials have no experience in education.


Anyone sensing who has the real motivation now?

If you guessed it was the testing industry, the curriculum industry, the tech industry, you'd be correct. If you guessed that major industries are the ones supporting it, that the Chamber of Commerce supports it, you'd be right too.

This year, many of the Common Core requirements are being rolled out in districts around the nation, now stuck with them as a condition of that Race to the Top funding they received. With no choice but to implement the changes, curricula have been changed significantly. 

Think about it. If the same math books have always worked, then no one would need to buy a new one. If we change the standards, add some "new math" to the tests, force it onto the curricula, guess who needs to buy new materials?

What has resulted are math homework sheets being sent home all over the country that have parents scratching their heads. In some attempt to teach children to think critically, we are unnecessarily complicating even the simplest arithmetic. Well, it sells books. (Told you guys I am cynical)

Perhaps even more concerning than the changes to the curricula that are the most obvious so far, usually the math worksheets, are the early results of the tests being administered.


They are quite literally setting them up to fail. 

This program, being implemented for the so-called benefit of students, is setting them up to fail. On purpose.

The Common Core standards are supposed to set goals, based on grade level. They are not supposed to dictate curriculum, but the reality is that in many places they are being implemented almost word for word. The standards written by this group of 27 mostly-industry people, aren't even subject to revision or changes if instructors find fault with them. They just are what they are.

So then, what can we do?

If you're a parent who has sat at a kitchen table and tried to help your child with math homework this year, you know that this isn't working already. You've seen it up close and personal. 

What can we do?

We can approach our school boards with our concerns. We can write our representatives and request that states either reject Common Core or adopt standards that comply with the requirements of Common Core, but allow for modification and flexibility as well. We can urge funding for the arts and the extracurricular classes that enrich the lives of our students and provide some of them with the only real motivation to stay in school. We can become involved with what our children are learning and how they are being taught. We can talk to their teachers, we can ask questions. 

I know that with my children, the math in particular has presented issues already. What should be important is providing children with alternatives, with different approaches, with ways to solve the problems - then we should let them figure out which one works best for them. We shouldn't be forcing all of them to learn to do everything in the most complicated way possible for the simple fact that some of them won't be able to understand it. Some of them need the alternatives. Teaching isn't about dictating how to learn, it is about providing kids with the tools to find their own solutions. 

We need to push for adaptations in the testing and instruction for kids who need more help, who learn in other ways. We need to understand that children learn in different ways, at different speeds, and that it is okay. 

We also need to stop believing that all children need to hit the same goals for school in the first place. Not everyone will go to college. Not everyone should go to college. We absolutely need schools to teach all those children life skills, to teach them job skills, to give them alternatives that might come in the form of all the classes not tested - the auto shop classes, the wood working classes, the home economics classes, the personal finance courses, the family life classes, the arts classes, the music classes. You can't tell me that those are any less important than math and writing, when in fact the opposite is true.

Our education system is broken, but it can be repaired. It can be repaired only if we stand together and fight against this corporate intrusion, these mandates that serve to benefit no children, but line the pockets of the testing industry.

One common suggestion is to unlink the CC standards from the testing, which could actually address many of the concerns people have expressed.

This is our future, this is the future for our children. 

Let's do all those things that the federal programs promise. Let's refuse to leave children behind. Let's race to the top. 

But let's do it the right way. By letting teachers teach again. By giving districts the money they need without tying it to some artificial measure of growth. By supporting the people on the ground, the teachers in the classroom. 

Reach out to the teachers in your life. Tell them you support them. 

Then do it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Things That Piss Me Off Tuesday - The Boy Scouts and Game of Thrones edition

How's that for a bizarre pairing?

Welcome to my brain, you guys. Like last week, I'm just writing on two topics even though there are a million other things going on in the universe that I could include, and I'm doing it because I know that I'm going to have a lot to say about the two that I am covering.

Besides, I wrote about all the people asking the moronic question of whether Hillary Clinton could be a grandmother and the President at the same time over at Lefty Pop yesterday. That chapped my ass too.

Anyhow, off we go. I'm probably going to use the swears. Just warning you.


The Boy Scouts are "Saddened" by the gays
Just when you start to think that antiquated institutions might be capable of real change, just when there is a glimmer of hope that thinking can evolve, something like this goes and happens.

The Boy Scouts of America has revoked the charter of a Methodist church in Seattle, shutting down the Scout Troop and Cub Scout Pack they sponsor after a gay Scoutmaster came out publicly.

He was ousted by BSA in March, but the church refused to remove him from his position. The church explained that they stood by the Scoutmaster because they have a policy of non-discrimination. So, BSA did what it logically thought it had to do...revoke the charter entirely.

In a public statement, BSA has said that they are, "saddened by this development, but remain committed to providing all youth with the best possible scouting experience where the scouting program is the main focus. We are contacting the parents and leaders of the units to inform them of the chartered-organization change."

Right. Because the best way to provide all youth with the best scouting experience is to dissolve the Troop and Pack. And this made BSA "sad".

Bullshit. They painted themselves into a corner and are content to keep painting as their tiny space gets smaller and smaller. They created this problem when they made formal rules banning gay adults from leadership. They could make it all go away.

Bangs head on wall.

Seriously, you guys. I was SO pissed when I saw this last night. The fact that my oldest son had just come home from his troop meeting makes it even worse...because as much as I loathe the BSA right now, I'm stubbornly digging in my heels as a vocal advocate for change. Boy Scouts is a hugely valuable organization. It has been a part of my husband's life for almost his entire life. It has taught my son so much, given him so many opportunities, pushed him to try new things, gain new skills.

If what is going down in Seattle comes anywhere near his troop, though, I will pull him so fast that heads will spin.

The BSA is digging their own grave, again. Membership is way down, in large part because of their homophobic stance. I can think of at least ten families I know personally who have pulled their boys or refused to join at all because of the anti-gay position of the scouts. I know leaders who've quit over it, good leaders with so much to offer the organization.

People are fed up.

The church that sponsors my son's troop is an inclusive, non-discriminatory church. I know people in scouting who fit into every single banned criteria. Good people. Good leaders.

One day, not too long from now, either the BSA will have run itself into the ground through no one's fault but their own, or they'll have realized how wrong they were and done everything they possibly could to try and repair the damage they've already done.

Personally, I hope they figure this shit out in a hurry and do the right thing. I'd really hate to leave scouts over this, but I'll do it in a heartbeat.

Game of Thrones, Revisions and Rape
Two things. One, I am basically a superfan of the series, more of the books than the show. Two, what follows will contain specific information about scenes that have played out in both the books and shows, so if you are going to yell at me about writing spoilers, stop reading now.

Anyway.

I've written before about the books, and how I began reading them some time last year. We tried to watch the show at first, but were a little taken aback by the violence and couldn't get into it immediately. Instead, at the urging of a few devoted fans, we decided to read the books first and take it from there.

Though most of the books come in somewhere around a thousand pages, we found ourselves tearing through them. Then we started watching the show.

Initially, my reaction to the show was (and for the most part remains) good. The casting is spot on. The sets are unbelievable. The costuming is easily the most impressive I've ever seen for a television show. And, almost always, the creators of the show have done a good job translating the books for the screen.

Necessarily, they have to change pieces of the stories. It would be impossible to make a 10 episode season based on a 1,000 page book and not take some things out. I don't think that anyone out there is annoyed that all the little nuances and all the little back stories aren't included. Plus, in this particular series, the imagery in the setting is easier shown in pictures than it is described in the books. What can take ten pages of detailed writing can be shown far easier if it is done well, and it usually is.

Where I struggle, though, is where the fundamental pieces of the stories of major characters are changed.

In the first season, Daenerys, the child bride, is raped by Khal Drogo on their wedding night for no particular reason. In the book, he works to gain her consent (well, assuming that a 14 year old girl sold by her brother in marriage to a man twice her age could really consent anyhow) prior to consummating the marriage. She is reluctant to enter the marriage, yes, but she accepts her husband and she initiates their first sexual encounter. She ultimately falls deeply in love with Drogo and he becomes her sun and stars, a story that seems far less plausible if he rapes her violently the first night they are wed.

The rape of Daenerys is glossed over in the show, just merely a piece of that episode, and does nothing to alter the rest of their storyline as a couple or hers as an individual. So, then, why change it? It's a legitimate question to ask, even in the fictional world of Westeros.

Westeros isn't a calm and peaceful place. It is filled with violence, particularly sexual violence and objectification of women, as it is. So, then why do the show creators feel compelled to make it even more so on screen? Why?

It's a question that needs to be asked, and it is being asked again because it has happened again. Another storyline containing major characters has been altered.

This time, it's Jaime and Cersei. Twins and incestuous lovers, he is the father of her children, though they are held out to be fathered by the now dead King Robert. Cersei is, all the way through to her core, an evil character in the books. She is manipulative, she is vindictive, she is selfish, she is cruel. For whatever reason, one that escapes me, the creators of the show have tried to humanize her on a few occasions. The first occurred when she was consoling Catelyn at Bran's bedside in season one. We're all supposed to ignore that she played an active role in the child's injury, and that the story she tells about losing her own child doesn't even exist in the books.

I was a bit mystified when that scene played out.

I was even more upset when this week's episode aired. In it, Cersei finds herself alone in the sept with Jaime, alongside the body of their dead child, Joffrey. He has been back for weeks in the show (though in the books he had just now returned), and she had refused his attempts at showing her affection as she is now disgusted by the fact that he lost his hand.

In the book and in the show, they engage in intercourse right there alongside their son's dead body...but in the book she resists him only initially, and only because it's "not right" (whether she's referring to it happening next to a dead body or the incest in general...who knows?). In the show, however, she resisted far more vocally, never went along with it and screamed no throughout the scene.

It was filmed as a rape, not the sudden emotionally driven act that happens in the book.

I am greatly troubled by this for a few reasons. First, it again makes her the sympathetic character here, when the books by this point in the story have painted a very different picture. Second, Jaime has evolved greatly by this point in the story and the reader relates to him more, wants to understand him, even root for him by this time. His chapters are written from his perspective, and we have tremendous insight into what he is thinking.

Clearly, it is impossible to film a show from the perspective of a character, but what happened in this episode doesn't just fall short of showing his perspective, but it perverts it entirely and alters the viewers perception not just of her, but of him as well.

There is also the looming elephant in the room of why the creators of the show seem insistent on changing these particular story lines. These are not small and inconsequential changes done for time and story compression reasons, these go all the way to the core of these main characters.

It also appears that Martin wasn't consulted on this change, a very significant one. He certainly never intended the scene to play out as a rape.

For those who didn't read the books, I can see how the show would paint an entirely different picture of them both. For those who have read the books, we are mostly just disappointed. We are seeing things in the scene that weren't there because we know how it should have happened. We are reading things into it that aren't present on the screen at all.

And why?

Why did Daenerys need to be raped on her wedding night? Why did Cersei have to be raped in the sept? Why are Daenerys and Cersei, arguably the two strongest women in the show, both now victimized on screen in scenes that either didn't happen at all or played out very differently in the books?

Why?

Sadly, my answer makes me even more uncomfortable, and I truly think that it is because of the sensationalism in the objectification of women, of the screen appeal (if one wants to call it that) of sexual violence against women.

Rape in this world is fine because she falls in love with him eventually. Rape in this world is fine because they've had children together. Rape is fine because they've already had sex. Rape in this world is just part of this world.

Rape is part of this world because it is part of our world, because we live in a world where we disbelieve women who have been assaulted, we let rapists off if they can throw a football, we worry more about their futures than the women they harm.

This is rape culture, and it's playing out on screen here now.

I'm disappointed, HBO. Very disappointed.

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