Saturday, March 27, 2010

Vacation Time!

Views From the 14th Floor is on vacation for a week. See you guys in April.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Majority Rule, Minority B.S.

After eight years of G.W. Bush, Darth Cheney, and company, America spoke up loud and clear. They elected a man of mixed race to the White House, a man who stands pretty clearly in the center left of the political spectrum. They elected a pretty large majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives and to the Senate. The economy was in a shambles. We were at war in two separate countries with little hope of resolution of those wars. We had developed the largest budget deficit in history and subsequently the largest national debt in history, eclipsing that massive debt acquired during the Reagan-Bush years.

America wanted an end to the wars. America wanted the economic mess straightened out. America was promised health care for everyone, and they decided that they wanted that too. That is to say that a majority of America voted for that. Then when the duly elected President, House, and Senate took their places in Washington, the right-wing, the decidedly minority right-wing, erupted. Apparently the idea of democracy and majority rule didn't appeal much to the right. They began doing everything they could possibly do to thwart the desires of the majority of Americans.

Being vocal about your opposition, even if you are obnoxious, is a part of democracy. Solemnly swearing to defeat the people who did what you didn't want done is a part of democracy. It happens. You're welcome to speak your mind. Enlightenment ideals and freedoms are part and parcel of our system. Threats, abuse, and attacks in order to frighten and intimidate are not. Unfortunately, I find ample evidence in American history of other groups who have used the same tactics. The KKK is just one.

As Congressmen went about their business this past weekend and tried their level best to vote their consciences, tea party protestors hurled racial epithets, anti-gay slurs, anti-semitic slurs, left swastikas and threatening notes, and in at least one case spit on a respected Congressman. After they were unsuccessful in scaring Congressmen into voting the minority line instead of the majority line, they have resorted to throwing bricks through windows of Congressmen's offices, leaving threatening phone messages, and in one case cutting a propane line at the brother of a Congressman's house, falsely believing this to be the residence of the Congressman. This goes beyond free speech and loyal opposition into simple criminal behavior.

Then there is the Republican Party's Congressional delegation trying to do anything they can to put a stop to healthcare reform after the fact, using any procedural trick they can pull from their hat. Various states have threatened to stop healthcare reform in their states by passing state laws that stop the federal action. I have news boys and girls. This already was tested in the late 1850's and early 1860's. There were the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and an idea known as "nullification." It had to do with "states' rights." A Civil War was fought over the issue. The federal government has supremacy and individual states do not have the right to override the actions of said federal government. It has been deemed unconstitutional. That's the difference between federation and confederation. Remember confederation? They lost the Civil War. Slavery was outlawed once and for all.

Here's the thing people. The right-wing ascendency that started with Ronald Reagan is over. The right-wing is going to have to accept it. The idea of less government, less taxes, and less oversight of all things has been proven to be a bogus concept. The era of less social safety net and unrestrained military buildup has come to an end. It produced the biggest national debt in history. It produced the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. It produced the biggest international backlash to American foreign policy in history.

It is time the minority stopped trying to intimidate the rest of the population into accepting the same policies that got us into this mess to begin with. The majority has spoken. It is time for sanity and reason. It is time to end the ascendency of racists, bigots, and those who somehow think that those with different skin pigmentation are lesser beings. It is time to end the ascendency of those who think that people who grow up speaking a language other than English are lesser beings. It is time to end the ascendency of those who cannot accept those with different religious views, or those who have different sexuality. It is time to end the ascendency of those who have scads of money and who don't give a damn about what happens to anyone else.

And while we're at it, it's time to remind Rush Limbaugh that he promised to move to Costa Rica if healthcare reform passed. And it's time to remind him that Costa Rica has universal healthcare. He's welcome to take Sarah Palin and all of those tea party set people with him. Let's see how they like Costa Rica, and how Costa Ricans deal with them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Crisis in Education, Part II

There has been a great deal said recently about the root causes of our crisis in education in America. One of the prime causes consistently trotted out by those on the right is that the teachers' unions protect bad teachers, thus promoting bad education. They also claim that teachers' unions drive up the cost of providing education to our children and have exacerbated a bad financial situation. It's no surprise that those making these claims are those who advocate more privatization of public schools and who also oppose universal healthcare in America. In short, we are talking about those who take it as an article of faith that less government is better, and less government in your schools is also better.

In a recent Op-Ed piece printed in the Chicago Sun-Times conservative activist, Star Parker, basically made the argument that unions in general are bad, and unions in our schools are especially bad and the result of all this unionization of our public schools is a bad education for minorities. She then goes on to argue in favor of more charter schools and vouchers to send kids to private schools.

What this is advocating is, in essence, dangerous. There is only one pot of public money and taking money from already underfunded public schools to give it to private schools and charter schools denies yet more funding to public schools already in need of more funding. Yes unions fight against this trend. They fight to preserve the viability of public schools. The movement toward more charter schools and funding of private schools through vouchers, if taken seriously, will eventually lead to the total destruction of the public school system.

There is an argument that private schools and charter schools do a better job of educating children, despite paying their teachers less. This is very selective fact finding. Now that the charter school movement in America has been a reality for a decade or more, the real facts are in. They do not provide a better education for our children. Those charter schools, and private schools that practice selective enrollment have better results. Well, of course they do. They cherry pick the best students, those who were already doing better than the average public school student, and voila they have success.

The truth is that public alternatives also do better. There are college preparatory high schools in every large city in this nation, and they all have selective enrollments, and they all have better success than do neighborhood schools that take any kid, regardless of ability, regardless of behavior issues, regardless of any number of personal and social issues that cause charter schools and private schools to exclude them from their ranks. I will put graduates of Northside College Prep and Whitney Young in Chicago up against the best and brightest from any of the elite private schools in the city.

The real truth is that there are not enough charter schools and private schools in existence to handle the load from the public schools, if we wish the total demise of the public schools. The real truth is that only the best students from the public schools get into those schools and the students who are struggling are left behind in neighborhood schools that constantly have more resources drained from them by sending those resources to private enterprises that don't operate by the same rules. Kids are violent and disruptive and display criminal behavior? Expel them...., unless of course you are a neighborhood public school. Then you educate them as best you can. You can't just rid yourself of them because of the detrimental effect on the rest of the students. They are the public. These are public schools.

Public schools deserve funding. Most of the kids in America can't go to private schools or charter schools. Furthermore, we need a well-paid, well-educated, well-trained force of teachers in those schools. Arguments against unions because they get reasonable salaries and benefits for the teachers, while keeping classroom size down are spurious. Why would any reasonable person with a college degree, a Master's Degree, a PhD want to work in a school that pays them pitifully low wages and scrimps on the benefit package? Plain old good sense will tell you that most people will go elsewhere to someplace that rewards education and competence with remuneration. How can teachers be expected to provide a world class education to students when they are asked to teach 30-35 kids in a classroom. Data shows that the larger the classroom, the more behavior issues occur, and subsequently the teachers have less time to actually meet the needs of individual students.

So let's just stop this "Unions are ruining our schools nonsense." Unions look out for the job security of teachers, yes. However, they also look out for the best interests of the schools, by ensuring that quality teachers can afford to work in education, by ensuring that teachers can reach the individual students in classes of reasonable sizes. They are looking out for, not just the best and brightest students, but also the students with challenges and disabilities. In short, teachers' unions are looking out for the education of America's children, all of America's children. Efforts at destroying unions and privatizing our schools are misguided. A great many dedicated to doing their best to provide quality educations for all, despite overwhelming odds. Walk a mile in their shoes sometime. Go to one of these so-called poorly performing schools and follow a teacher around for a week or two. Then tell me that they and their unions are ruining education in America.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Crisis in Education

All travelogues at this site are suspended temporarily. I repeat, all travelogues at this site have been suspended temporarily. There is a crisis in education and it is much too important, dire, and seriously annoying to be ignored. Oh my goodness, where do I start?

As I see it, the crisis has 3 main points: A) Asinine fools like those on the Texas State Board of Education are trying to hijack the public schools and make them propaganda machines for the right-wing, i.e. Ronald Reagan was the greatest President in history and Thomas Jefferson was an asshole who had the unmitigated gall to coin the term "Separation of church and state." Let's leave that Jefferson clown out of the curriculum. Or try this on for size, "Forget about what objective historians have to say about many of the founding fathers being Deists and not really Christians at all. This is a Christian nation and we need to put the 10 commandments and prayer back in the public schools." Or better yet, "Evolution and global warming are mere theories and questionable science at that. Let's teach creationism and delete all reference to human impact on the environment from science textbooks." Oh my god! Would you send your child to a public school in Texas? Are you aware that this nonsense is spilling over into other states and your state's public school curriculum could be next?

And that's just the first critical point of three. B) The feds are short on cash and they're cutting the amount of funding they give to the states. The states are short on cash and they're cutting the funding they're giving to local school districts. The local school districts are short on cash and they're firing people, closing schools, and eliminating vital programs. C) Most of America just doesn't give a shit. They could care less about the public schools. America doesn't value education. America doesn't want to fund education. America thinks privatization of the public schools will be a good thing. America thinks teachers are all a bunch of lazy schmucks who are paid way too much, and the teacher's unions are keeping them all from being fired and are mostly responsible for ruining America's schools.

One thing at a time, though. The cash issue? Kansas City, Missouri has closed half of the schools in the district. The second largest school district in Illinois, Elgin, has just laid off over a thousand employees. 732 of those employees were teachers. 24 were administrators. I am a teacher, but I also hold an administrative certificate, and I sit on the Instructional Leadership Team for my school. I was called to a meeting at 8 AM this morning by my Principal. She went to a meeting with Ron Huberman, the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools yesterday, along with all of the other Principals in the district.

Here are some of the highlights of what Mr. Huberman has suggested, in order to cut back based on the projected budget shortfalls for the coming year(s). 1. Increase class size in both elementary and high schools to 37 students/class. Reduce Special Education and bilingual program spending, and thus teaching positions in those areas. 2. Cancel academic enhancement programs 3. Cut teaching positions not supported by the numbers (1 teacher/37 students). 4. Reduce funding for gifted and talented education programs. 5. Cut all funding for credit recovery programs like evening and Saturday school programs. 6. Encourage retirements among those who are getting long in the tooth and are being paid way too much. Then don't replace them when they retire. 7. Fire all of those teachers who are in violation of residency requirements for employment by the City of Chicago, and live outside the city limits. Then don't replace them. 8. Fire employees who have allowed their certificates to lapse, and thus are not legal anymore. Then don't replace them. The fun just goes on and on.

Now I see an offer for early retirement coming down the pike. This would reduce payrolls by eliminating some positions and by hiring younger employees with lower salaries in other cases, but the question remains, "Who will pay for the pensions for all of these new retirees?" Just as the feds have been borrowing from the social security fund to pay the bills and it is now time to pay the piper, the State of Illinois has been borrowing from teacher pension funds for a number of years and now they will have to fund them or the funds are in danger of coming up short. The downstate pension fund is in worse shape than the Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund, but both have been underfunded to some degree for a number of years.

This brings us to Point C. America just doesn't give a shit about public education. They don't want to pay taxes to support it. In these pages, I have time and again gone on about how public education is the key to America's future. We have to fund it, or risk becoming a 3rd world nation, a backwater akin to Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, or, dare I say it, Mexico. How much is a one way plane ticket to Australia?

In the State of Illinois we have a reasonably low income tax. Just raising the income tax by 1% will go a long way toward alleviating the Draconian cuts in school budgets. Yet people, primarily Republicans, resist. In my own case, this would mean paying out an additional $700-800 over the course of a year. At the outside, this would mean an additional $30/paycheck in taxes. And it would save thousands of jobs, and the quality of education for millions of Illinois students. How can anyone, in good conscience, oppose this move? If you are a citizen of Illinois, I urge you to call your legislators. If you are a citizen of somewhere else, call an Illinois legislator anyway doggone it. Okay, don't. Your own state is, in all likelihood experiencing a similar crisis and it has to be dealt with. This is big. It's nationwide. Do we let the current financial crisis get the better of us, or do we look to the future and start fixing things right now? There's an educational crisis in America, and it's time we all did our part to fix it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Did the Northern Lights, So How About Starlit Nights?

I'm really itchy to tear into those morons on the Texas State Board of Education who brought right-wing politics into the social science curriculum, but it's late and I haven't time for it today. I'll be back to that anon. Meanwhile, my numerous fans are clamoring for more travelogues. Okay it was one person, but she was convincing, so let me tell you about the time Babs and I decided it would be a good idea to go to Morocco.

It did sound like a good idea, so we flew into Casablanca and on the first day we were there, Ramadan began. For those of you who may not be familiar, Ramadan is a monthlong Islamic observance where everyone fasts from sunup until sundown. Mind you if you're a non-Muslim and a tourist, it is possible to get something to eat or drink during the day, but if everyone else in the country is observing, they get a little cranky when someone doesn't observe the fast. Besides, it's just a little rude to be eating when everyone else is starving and cranky. Found out along the way that smokers are prohibited from smoking sunup to sundown as well, and there were some really irritable hotel employees.

The upshot is that we, for the most part didn't eat from sunup until sundown for the entire time we were there. How long were we there? Well, let's see, we saw Casablanca, Essaouira, Marrakech, the big dunes in the Sahara Desert, Fez, and a lot of territory in between. We were there for most of a two week Christmas vacation. Christmas vacation? How about that? Spend a Christian holiday in an Islamic country with a bunch of cranky Muslims.

Frankly, Casablanca wasn't much, a big business and industrial center for the country. We moved on to a quaint little place on the Mediterranean called Essaouira for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Essaouira was lovely and while we were there we learned the ways of the medina. We bought a couple of rugs. Tourists in the medinas (old walled cities within the modern cities) almost never travel alone. The medinas are confusing and winding, and you almost always pay a guide to show you around. For the record, they're all the same, with the same crap that people try to sell you. Some are just larger than others. This is based on seeing the medinas of Casablanca, Essaouira, Marrakech, and Fez.

Anyway, you get some local guy who speaks English to show you around, and he shows you all the usual touristy stuff and takes you to see very specific shops because he gets a kickback from the shop owners if they make a sale. We had been to Thailand already at this point in our travel careers and we thought we had seen aggressive sales people. Yikes! In one shop that specialized in decorative tiles we walked out, not happy with the price. The shop owner came running out of the shop and chased us down the block to offer us one last lower price. Yes we bought the tile.

There is a very ceremonial aspect to every visit to a shop in Morocco. Can't just walk in and browse like you do in America. The shop owner has to offer you the hospitality of a cup of tea. We're talking tea poured from big teapots into little cups or glasses and all of the tea has a bunch of mint and sugar in it. The locals jokingly refer to it as "Berber Whiskey." Anyway, once you walk in and sit down and the tea pouring starts and the hard sell begins you begin to feel like a fly in that spider's web, a bit helpless. Had to wonder at the time how this tea drinking was jibing with Ramadan. Well, they recognized that we were Americans, and not Muslims, and anyway, "Commerce is commerce and religion is religion and never the twain shall meet."

So to get anywhere in Morocco, a pretty cheap way is by Grand Taxi, usually a beat up old Mercedes with a stick shift. They'll drive you from city to city for a pretty reasonable price. Trouble is, going over the Atlas Mountains they tend to fly along at pretty fast clip and I'm reminded of a line from Arlo Guthrie's "Motorcyle Song." ...."On one side of the mountain road was a mountain. On the other side there was nothing....." So these taxi drivers go flying along these winding mountain roads and the dropoff on the one side looks like about 5000 feet, and you meet a Coca Cola truck going the other way. Something's gotta give. We had this one driver who was seriously religious enough that he faithfully says his prayers 5 times a day. He's driving along the mountain road at about a million miles per hour and suddenly pulls off to the side of the road. He reaches under the driver's seat and pulls out a prayer rug, gets out of the car, goes to the edge of the cliff where he unrolls his prayer rug facing Mecca, and gets down and says his prayers while Babs and I sit in the back seat of the taxi twiddling our thumbs and hoping we can convince him to slow down a little. Who knows? Maybe with all that praying, he's convinced that Allah will protect him, no matter how crazy he drives down the mountain roads.

We caught a jet to Fez from the nearest airport to avoid more of this insanity. Spent New Year's Eve in a really fancy hotel in Fez, and at the New Year's Eve dinner they had some French lounge act playing pop music, and they appeared to be a French take on the Partridge Family or something, Father, Mother, and teenage son performing for the tourists. Cheesy lounge act in cheesy lounge act outfits. In a bit of side interest, a waiter at our table was sporting Chicago Bulls socks with a big #23 conspicuously stitched on them. Michael Jordan worship was international at that point.

Took the train from Fez back to Casablanca. Sitting in a 1st class in one of those semi-private rooms with room for 6 people sitting on seats facing one another. A woman got on and came in and sat across from us in Rabat. Seeing that we were Americans she took the head covering off. Then 3 local men got on and came in and sat with us. She immediately put the head covering back on. I believe one of them sat next to Babs and tried to rub her leg. No international incident ensued, but seriously nasty looks were exchanged. Let's just say that Islamic men and their ideas about treating women need some serious examination.

All in all the trip was not what we had hoped, but there was one bright spot. We went all the way to the South of Morocco to the Dra Valley and arranged a trip into the Sahara to see Les Grand Dunes. Somewhere I have some wonderful pictures of the parking lot at the hotel with Land Rovers sitting aside a bunch of camels. When arranging the trip into the desert, we had the option of hiring drivers in Land Rovers or taking the traditional route on camels. Let me just say that I do not ride camels. Big, stinking, ugly, cantankerous creatures. Not my idea of a good time. We hired two young men in a Land Rover and off we went in search of the Grand Dunes.

The desert is a strange place, with its own rules. Periodically you come to police checkpoints and necessary bribes take place to ensure your further progress. What bribes? The odd thing we discovered was that in many instances the bribes consist of 2 liter bottles of water. Water, the currency of the desert. When our young drivers arrived at the last town before entering the serious desert, we stopped at what was a Moroccan version of a 7/11 Convenience Store. They emerged with two necessary things, Marlboro cigarettes and candy.

Almost as soon as we got out of the town and into the desert, we encountered a group of nomads, complete with camels and goats. We stopped and cigarettes were distributed to the adult men. Candy was distributed to the children. We were then allowed to go on our way. I have no clue how these guys knew where they were going. We sported no fancy GPS devices. There were no clearly marked roads to drive on. We were just heading out across the desert and up and over the small dunes and past the occasional oasis, and they apparently knew exactly where they were going.

These young men spoke not 3 words of English but they had some Annie Lenox club mixes they plugged into the tape deck and we listened to that while we navigated the desert. Apparently they had seen some old American movies about the Desert Fox and there were scenes of jeeps jumping over the top of these dunes. Every time we headed up one of these little dunes and came over the top going airborne momentarily, they would look at each other and yell, "High action!" This was apparently the blurb from the Preview of the movie and the only English they knew. Every time they yelled "High action!" they would burst out laughing and it was contagious. We were flying across the Sahara Desert and listening to Europop and referencing old American movies about the desert and having a ball hanging out with two 20 year old Berber guys.

After a couple of hours we arrived at the campsite and there they were, big golden sand dunes hundreds of feet high. We were assigned a tent with cots to sleep on and with hand-woven rugs thrown over the sand for a floor. There was one toilet set up for the camp to use. Dinner was to be served after dark and until then we were on our own. Babs and I trudged to the top of one of those dunes and watched as the sun began sinking in the sky. The endless stretch of mountains of sand stretching to the horizon was golden. For the record, most of the Sahara Desert is not mountains of golden sand but sandy ground and a lot of rocks, sort of like one of those Martian landscapes you've seen pictures of, just not red colored. It's really brown.

That evening Babs and I shared dinner with a French couple and their eye-rolling, attitude laden teenaged children. The camp crew provided us with all the tajine and couscous we wanted. Wine was extra. The crew drummed on overturned buckets ala bucket boys on street corners in any major American city while singing nonsense in Arabic. We went to bed with a million stars overhead.

In the middle of the night I had to go to the bathroom and when I emerged from the tent I looked overhead, seriously, for the first time. The air was so clear that stars, normally obscured by city lights and pollution were visible. There were so many stars that were visible that constellations one would ordinarily recognize were lost in the crowd of billions upon billions of stars. And the difference in the sky between the time I had gone to bed and the rotated sky of several hours later was like looking at a sky where someone changed the channel. It was a moment of beauty, and silence, and like nothing I have ever experienced before or since. It was the Sahara Desert at night.

Morocco, not a place I care to go back to, but the desert? Well, it was one of the top 3 experiences of the natural world that I have ever experienced. Give me Iceland and the northern climes. Give me the Sahara and the isolation and beauty of the desert. Next up, Palau and giant clams and lion fish and jelly fish without stingers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Northern Lights and Starlit Nights and Jellyfish Without Their Stingers

On days like today, it's easy to recognize why I live where I do. I've been off work for a couple of days because of a really nasty cold and the early March weather has cooperated with the nasty temperament emanating from the runny nose, sneezing, and coughing. It has been gray as my mood. Today both the fever and weather broke. It turned sunny and the temperature rose to 60 degrees. The water in the lake is a lovely color of blue. The lakefront path is full of runners, bikers, walkers, and those just sitting around soaking it all up. Now, as I look at the yellowing rays of late afternoon sunlight on Navy Pier I realize why it is that people work their entire lives to get to a place like this.

You can't live every moment here though. It wouldn't resonate the same with you. It would begin to take on the aspect of the ordinary. You have to travel and see things, some of them pretty spectacular, so that you can come home again and really appreciate what you have. Know what I mean? Been away on a vacation, a very nice vacation, for a couple of weeks, but you've been sleeping in hotel rooms and eating restaurant meals for so long that when you get home and open that door you just breathe an audible Aaahhhh. Your own shower. Your own bed. Meals from your very own kitchen. And in my case, my very own views from the 14th floor.

The travel bug bit me but good a long time ago, and I have been a lot of places, some of them pretty nice, some not so nice. Every one of those experiences, though, are a part of who I am. They all have value, even the ratty little motels in the middle of nowhere that smell musty and bring to mind Norman Bates. Of the good places, I sometimes wonder which were really the best, which were my very favorite, and it's hard to pick them. Sometimes you try going back to the favorites and they aren't so nice anymore. You wonder why they appealed to you at the time. Good travel experiences sometimes lie at the intersection of place and time. Change the time, but go to the same place, and it ain't the same.

In the same place, different time category lies a hotel on the Left Bank in Paris. In 1988 Babs and I arrived in Paris without a hotel reservation and stumbled into a lovely little hotel with an elevator barely big enough to hold the two of us and our suitcase, The Hotel Claude-Bernard on Rue Des Ecoles. The clerk clucked at us when we told him we had no reservation, but found a room for us nevertheless. Two single beds were pulled together for us and made up as one double bed. The bathroom was almost bigger than the room. The windows looked out over the street and we had a birds eye view of a candlelight march of students from the Sorbonne. It was lovely really. Went back a few years later after we had become accustomed to travel and nicer things and the hotel seemed, how shall I say, ummm, a little on the seedy side.

Without going back to try to relive them, I do have a couple of favorites, however. One Christmas when we were on our way to Belgium for a visit, we got a great deal on airfare by flying Icelandic Airways. For the special fare, though, we had to stop over in Reykjavik for a couple of days. What can I say? The sun came up at about 10-10:30 in the morning and went down about 1:30-2 in the afternoon. Walking around at night (Night was most of the day as well.) we stumbled upon a small lake in the middle of town. Walking around the perimeter, we looked up and saw the oddest green lights that looked like something out of a laser show at a rock concert. I actually looked around for the source before realizing that I was looking at the Northern Lights up close and personal, so up close that they were directly over my head, not somewhere in the distant North. Kind of an Oh my god, factor there.

On that very same trip we signed on to take a day trip to the top of a glacier, an adventure quest. We headed off on our trip in a 4 wheel drive Nissan something or other with two other paying customers and a driver and navigator. We headed down a 2 lane blacktop through the moonscape that is rural Iceland. At some point we left the blacktop and headed down a gravel road. Then our driver pulled over at a gate leading into a field covered in snow and boulders. The navigator got out and opened the gate, and the driver got out and let some of the air out of the tires. It seems that with less air in the tires, you get more surface area and better traction. Off we headed over the snow and boulders to the foot of an immense ice and snow covered mountain. Duh! The glacier. Our guides stopped and got out again. This time they let out all of the air in the tires. Hike up a glacier? Whatever for? We drove up that sucker.

When we got to the top of the glacier we stopped. Time to get out and run around a bit. I have no idea how deep the snow we were walking on was, but the top layer we were walking on was made up of crunchy crystals that reminded me of quartz crystals I had found in creeks when hiking in Arkansas. We found ourselves looking over the edge of a big cone that was covered in ice, the top of a dormant volcano. The guides explained that the ice layer over the cone was about a mile thick. Looking to our north we could see the Arctic Ocean. Looking to our west we could see the North Atlantic. I was just hoping that frigging volcano didn't decide to get undormant all of a sudden.

When it came time to go back down again the driver didn't go back the way he came. He relied on his GPS to get us down another way and once or twice took a wrong turn, at which point he had to back up and turn right or left to avoid going off a cliff. All the while he was regaling us with the story of how his best friend had held his wedding on the top of this glacier. The guests arrived on Snowmobiles. A hearty outdoorsy wedding for a hearty outdoorsy group of native Icelanders. Anyway, we arrived at the bottom and got on a small dirt track through a farmer's fields.

At one point we crossed a small stream that was frozen over. We stopped and everyone got out. I believe it was at this point that the driver used an air compressor to refill the tires on the vehicle. Because there are volcanoes in Iceland, all the water is a little bit tainted with sulfur. Taking a bath or a shower is smelly. Because of the sulfur content in the water, when it freezes it sometimes forms what our guide called snow roses. Down on the surface of the ice on the little stream were the most exquisite little frozen formations that looked, for all the world, like little roses. Never seen anything like it before or since. The rest of the trip back to the hotel was pretty innocuous, and completed in the dark while driving along the edge of a fjord. The stay in Brussels with side trips to Waterloo, Brugge, and Antwerp was nice, but when we got home again, it was Iceland that really stuck out in our minds.

I hope you've enjoyed my little travelogue, but I'm just getting wound up. Tomorrow? Morocco and the Sahara Desert. If you're really nice, maybe the day after I'll get into the sea kayaking trip in Palau that led to Jellyfish Lake, and snorkeling with giant clams, and lion fish, and well let's just see where this thread takes us, shall we? Meanwhile, Reykjavik in winter is etched on my brain. Someday maybe I'll return at the solstice to see what it's like when the sun doesn't go down.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Selling By the Season

I was walking through the dairy aisle at the grocery store this afternoon and turned a corner. Jutting out from the top of a large refrigerated case was a sign that said, "Sports Drinks." When I looked into the case, it was full of Bass Ale, Guinness Stout, Harp Lager, Killian's Irish Red, Smithwick's Ale, Bailey's Irish Creme, and assorted alcoholic beverages commonly associated with St. Patrick's Day. Sports drinks? Well I suppose drinking is considered by many to be a sport on St. Pattie's Day.

This is just one more example of the all-out marketing that is done in America to maximize sales of various products. Every product has its season. In a capitalist system, selling is what its all about. If there is a particular time of the year when you can sell boatloads of your product by pushing a special occasion, you can maximize your profits. Why not?

Now we all know about the Consumer Fest between October and January that is the Christmas Shopping Season. Retailers selling everything from clothing to toys to video equipment make out like bandits playing on the idea that every good Christian in America is supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus by spending copious amounts of money on presents.

Of course the grocery stores make out like bandits at Thanksgiving, focusing on turkeys galore and assorted side dishes. At New Year's and St. Patrick's Day the booze people market the heck out us and make a fortune off of what regular drinkers refer to as "Amateur's Night." This is not to mention sales of goofy hats, noise-makers, and assorted fireworks at New Year's. This is not to mention the odd Hallmark card, goofy leprechaun hats and paraphernalia at St. Patties.

Then of course, Easter sells a lot of ham, Easter baskets, eggs, dye for said eggs, and brand new Sunday church clothes for the little ones. If you happen to be Jewish, check out the ethnic food aisle in the grocery store about Passover time. July 4th has its barbecue push and fireworks. Hey, summer all by itself has a push for warm weather gear and beach crap. How many bicycles, tennis rackets, golf clubs, and accompanying clothing are sold at the beginning of every summer, only to be used once or twice and stored away. And of course assorted beach crap as aforementioned, and sunblock and insect repellant.

And these are just the major holidays. President's Day? Mattress Sales and Car Sales. Memorial Day? Ditto. Plus summer kickoff items. See above paragraph. Labor Day? Ditto. Plus summer's end items. See above paragraph. Then there is Valentine's Day and the push to sell love via Hallmark cards, roses, candy, candlelight dinners, and weekend packages at expensive hotels. (Ever stay in the Jacuzzi Room at a Country Inn and Suites? Long story, but you haven't missed a thing.)

Someone you know have a birthday? You owe them a gift. Someone getting married? You owe them a gift, and they have a particular store to buy it at, and a list of what they want. Anniversary? Gift. Death? OK no gift here, but an expensive bunch of flowers is expected. Does it never end? Hmmmm. No.

Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder what I've been doing wrong all these years. Babs and I got married at City Hall on Christmas Eve and surprised everyone. No big wedding. No registry. No wedding presents. Her brother had 2 big weddings complete with gifts. On the third time he went away for a quiet nuptial at his own expense and without the gifts and hoopla. Funny thing is I think this time it's going to take. I think this one will last. At any rate Babs and I feel a little cheated about that and have considered getting remarried so we can get the cool stuff given to us. Trouble is we've been married since 1986 and we bought most of the cool stuff for ourselves already.

What I think I'd like to do is to add a newly marketed holiday to the many, many already in existence. Who the heck ever heard of Sweetest Day twenty years ago? Anyway I'm not famous enough to command a real live national birthday celebration like Dr. King and Abe Lincoln and George Washington. Not even a local or regional celebration like Casimir Pulaski. What we need here is some serious marketing. Within a year or two, "Buy Rex Ray a new BMW Z4 Day" might just catch on. People all over the country could just send small amounts of money. It all adds up. Sort of like political fundraising and NPR Pledge Drives.

If that works out we might just try "Buy Babs Ray a condo in South Beach Day." The Rex Ray BMW Day will be October 6. The Babs Ray Day will be September 20. Cash, checks, credit cards will be accepted. A Pay Pal account is in the works. Phone lines will soon be open. The Rex and Babs Days Website will be there for all who want to wish us well and receive good karma in return. Damn! Sometimes I think I should've been a politician or a televangelist. There's good money to be made in huckstering. Welcome to America, home of the brave, land of the free, and American Express.

Friday, March 5, 2010

If You Don't Have Anything Bad to Say...Wait! That's Not How It's Supposed to Go.

Did you ever have one of those days where you just didn't feel like you had anything to say? The sun is shining. The work week is over. Thinking about going out for dinner and a pleasant evening. Just kind of feeling like a big stupid grin.

Part of the problem is with blogging, and sometimes with life in general, the general run of conversation is negative and when things are going great, people tend to shut up. Lousy day? Bitch! Bitch! Bitch! Never hear the end of it. Good day? Silence.

Think about the evening news. In a 30 minute news program there are usually 24 minutes of bad news, 5 minutes of commercials (Some would say that's bad news as well.) and one heart-warming "Aww, ain't that sweet, ain't that cute, story." People are drawn to bad news like gapers slowing down on the expressway to see the accident. "Ooooohhh! Can you see any blood and gore?"

Think about the TV schedule. How many murder and mayhem shows are there on TV, compared to feel good shows? Not only is there Law and Order, but Law and Order SVU, and Law and Order CI. Not only is there CSI, but CSI Miami, and CSI New York. NCIS and NCIS Los Angeles. Then there are the really creepy ones like Criminal Minds with a new serial killer every week. On cable channels one of the biggest hits of the last decade has been Dexter, about a serial killer who kills serial killers. Need some uplifting? Whatever for?

The Academy Awards are coming up on Sunday and check out which movies win the awards. Think there will be any comedies that win? I think not. Movies that convey serious messages and are movie equivalents of bad news are generally the big winners. Movies about how badly people treat other people are usually the big winners. Oh sure there are movies with uplifting messages, but to qualify for the big awards, someone has to go through some serious trauma while getting to the uplifting part in order to qualify for serious enough for an award.

What's up people? Can't we just feel good about stuff every once in a while? Can't it just be OK to feel good about feeling good? Enjoyment keeps the blood pressure down. Enjoyment helps you live longer. I know it feels good to bitch about work, bitch about the government, bitch about the morons on the expressway, to bitch about stupid people in general, but when you start looking at it from the outside, all of that bitching gets a little old. How about a feel good day once in a while. What do you say? As the old saying goes, "Smile. People will wonder what you've been up to." OK, so a lot of them will wonder if you're lacking in mental faculties or a candidate for the asylum, but know what? Just feeling good and letting people know it is, how shall I say this, hmmmm.....just pleasant I guess.

National Feel Good Day has been declared, so go out there and say something nice. Enjoy yourself and your day for a change.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To Play or Not to Play, That is the Question

March is an odd time of the year in Streeterville. It's still pretty cold out, but it's starting to warm up a little. The days are getting longer and there is actual afternoon sunlight after I get off work. Soon there will be Daylight Savings Time, but most importantly, it is the time of the year when the real change occurs. It is now "cooler near the lake." When I left the outpost in Back of the Yards today, it was 42 degrees at the Mini. It was 38 by the time I arrived in Streeterville. Last I checked, the water temperature was still 35. Big body of water. Big local effect on the meteorological conditions. Nevertheless, it will soon warm up appreciably and RDR will return to the lakefront running path.

That has nothing to do with what I wanted to talk about today, however. I work professionally as an educator so as a result I think a lot about education, youth, and the future of our nation, and the world as a whole. Working as I do in an inner city neighborhood in one of those schools that are regularly condemned and referred to as failing, I get a unique perspective on youth, and education, and our nation's future. One of the travesties of the youth in such places is what I think of as the "I wanna be Michael Jordan syndrome."

Let's face it, the media gives short shrift to people who make scads of money doing mundane things like being doctors, lawyers, engineers, or any of a million functional things in our society. The media gives a lot of space to dudes who are athletically gifted and make millions of bucks playing basketball, football, baseball, tennis, or more recently, in the case of Lance Armstrong, riding bicycles. That has to be a lot of fun, playing games that most people have to leave behind early on because they have to get a job and pay the bills, and doing so until middle age, and doing so for a great deal of cash. Who wouldn't want to do that?

Trouble is that the persons who do that into middle age and get rich doing it are a very small group of very gifted athletes. Images of snowballs in hell come to mind. In poor neighborhoods across America, however, there are kids who are being brought up and led to believe by family and residents of the hood that White America won't allow you to get ahead. (It never occurs to a lot of poor white kids that the rich white people will let them get ahead either.) The only examples of monetary success and respect that these kids are pointed towards are those of the gifted athletes in professional sports, drawn heavily from minority populations and the poorer white neighborhoods. Kids begin to believe that this is their ticket out of the bad life and into the good life.

This is all despite the fact that there is an African-American man in the White House, an African-American on the Supreme Court, endless numbers of African-Americans, Latinos, and poor kids of every race, creed, and color who work hard and get PhDs, LLDs, and MDs, not to mention the MBAs who grace the business world and make more money than all of the above put together. It never occurs to a lot of kids that the odds of getting rich are a lot better if you just study hard and go to school seriously than if you try your damnedest to become a professional athlete.

Only the top tier of high school athletes get to play at the college level. Only the top tier of college athletes get to move up to the professional level. An awful lot of pro baseball players never get beyond AAA level and would have made more money doing any number of things that seem less glamorous. Same kind of situation with basketball players and football players. If you're really good but can't make it in the USA, you might make it in a foreign country. Of course you better be prepared for culture shock and the hard work of learning another language when you emigrate to play your game of choice.

And a large number of pro athletes find that their careers are ended in short order when they sustain career ending injuries. Specifically, a lot of NFL players live their post-NFL lives as virtual cripples. It's a very physical and brutal sport, even for those who are 6'8" and 275 pounds.

What got me off on this tangent initially was the fact that I read today about Jacob Hickman, a young man who played football at the University of Nebraska. It seems he was invited to a dog and pony show for the NFL and told them "No thanks." A lot of people did not understand. The young man in question has already had 4 surgeries and has 14 screws in various parts of his body. He has a college degree and a good future that does not involve football, and simply did not want to put himself through any more of the physical stuff.

In another example, Myron Rolle, a safety on the football team at Florida State was scorned by NFL representatives because he eschewed the NFL draft so he could be a Rhodes Scholar. He has designs on being a neurosurgeon. I expect that, in the long run, Mr. Rolle will fare pretty darned well. A lot of our young men (and women) should use him as a positive role model. There are very few Michael Jordans or A-Rods. There are a lot of talented and intelligent young men and women who can, with a little hard work hit the big time as MDs, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and businessmen and women.

That being said, I have to think of a friend from college who was a pre-med student, a very bright guy. Thing was, though, he was also a very big guy who could play football very well. Came time for graduation, he was offered a job with the Seattle Seahawks. I don't know what eventually happened to him. We lost track of one another over the years. Thing is, I would put good money on him never becoming that doctor he originally wanted to become, and considering the fact that he and I are both in our late 50's, his football career was over about 30 years ago. What has he done with himself since? Good question.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Hey, What's On TV?

I must admit that I am a lifelong TV addict. Oh there was a time when I was young and convinced of my intellectual superiority that I eschewed TV. Then I realized that there is only so much staying at home and reading a person can really stand, and only so much going out with friends and drinking heavily that a person's body can really stand. I re-developed a TV habit at that point. I returned to the ways of my childhood when I could watch a lot of hours of TV non-stop.

I remember the summer that my father's step-mother, "Granny Ray," came to visit and I was watching endless B movies (The Mummy and other Boris Karloff greats) on TV on a Saturday afternoon. Now Granny Ray insisted that a young man of age 9 really needed to be outside playing and being active. Turns out she wanted to watch the Chicago White Sox on another channel, and couldn't have cared less if this 9 year old was being active in the Great Outdoors.

When I was a kid there were 3 channels on TV, NBC, ABC, and CBS. A little later on, somewhere during my college years PBS became a fixture. Then somewhere in the late 1970's and early 1980's HBO, Showtime, and MTV became fixtures. Over the next 20 years the number of channels and niche markets exploded. I'm honestly not sure how many channels I have, but it numbers in the hundreds. Trouble is on any given day when it's a distinct possibility that an American citizen can, in all honesty, say 500 channels and there's nothing on worth watching. How did that happen?

At this advanced date, and with all of those channels competing for viewers, it has seriously cut into the viewership of the original 3 NBC, ABC, and CBS. Ergo, the ad revenues have also been divided by a great many more channels. A great many of the cable channels survive by playing endless reruns of programs gone to syndication. News channels make their money off of whatever goes on in the world and making it sound catastrophic or sensational. Movie channels play the same movies over and over again until people get sick of them and they have to get a new batch.

NBC, ABC, and CBS, and OK add Fox at this point, well they continually try to find ways to cut costs. Turns out actors, writers, and directors are expensive so they have resorted to endless "Reality Shows" and a lot of sports extravaganzas that are hyped to the Nth degree. Today is March 1 and there has been some highly hyped sports extravaganza since sometime back in December.

First there were the NCAA football "Bowl Games." How many bowl games are there these days for goodness sakes? Then there were NFL playoff games and, subsequently the Super Bowl. There may have been a week or two lull, but then came the Winter Olympics. I'm still trying to figure out how the USA can produce the best hockey players, skiers, figure skaters, etc., etc., etc., but cannot put together a curling team. Don't we have enough heavy drinkers in the Northern States to compete with the beer drinking Canadians? Or is Molsen Golden more conducive to curling than say Miller Lite? One of life's little mysteries.

Anyway, after college football, pro football, and what seemed like months of Winter Olympics, we are now moving into the sports extravaganza part of the year known as "March Madness." Conference playoffs will decide who gets to go to the Big Show, and then, with 64 teams, a tourney that lasts a couple of weeks will dominate the TV. By the time that's over it will be nearly April.

So what next? Well people, you'll simply have to watch some actual TV shows for a while, albeit a short while, because the NBA playoffs will occupy the center place on the TV for a good month. (Unless of course you're a hockey fan, and then the Stanley Cup Playoffs will take center stage for an equally long time.) By the time the NBA and NHL playoffs are done and over, baseball season will be in full-swing. It will be summer and a million distractions, not involving TV will beg for our attentions.

Next thing you know it will be the end of summer and college football will be starting up again, the baseball playoffs will become the centerpiece of in October, and pretty soon it will be time for the college football bowl games again. Does anyone write regular TV shows anymore? Is there a place in our world for comedies and dramas? Is there a place for professional musicians to entertain us en masse, and not a bunch of amateur wannabes on "American Idol"?

Turns out that there are comedies and dramas out there, but some of them are on cable and none of them go by the seasonal schedules they used to. Once upon a time the new TV season started in the fall about the time school started, after Labor Day. You got new shows until about the time school was out, at the end of May. Then there were re-runs all summer and then the cycle started all over again. Now shows seem to run for a couple of months and then disappear for several months and then re-appear for a couple of months again. The old rules and seasonal time-frames do not apply. Got a favorite show? Got used to seeing it week after week? Well don't get too used to it. It won't be there after a couple of months. It may come back after an absence of 6 months, but it won't be there for the 8-9 months that we once were accustomed to. Sigh.

Now if you'll excuse me, the Winter Olympics have ended and the NCAA playoffs haven't started yet, so I have to search for a reasonable sitcom or cop show. Failing that, I do have Netflix and a backlog of movies I haven't watched. Then again maybe I could do something constructive with my time. Hmmm. Nahh! TV it is.