Mall Rumbles on Boxing Day!


Every morning I wake up to news. Not intense news, mind you. More “browse-the-headlines” news. If it looks stomach-turningly negative or hopeless, I take an ostrich-head pitch into the sands of Skip-It. But if its lead becomes curiouser and curiouser, I read.

Today the news was about December 26th. OK, it’s the Feast of St. Stephen, all right. But it’s “Boxing Day” in Jolly Olde, too, and even though that means “boxes” as in gifts or gratuities to those who serve you throughout the year and not float-like-a-butterfly sparring, boxing as in rumbles were the order of the day.

What Boxing Day was supposed to mean: tips for the help. Forget Upstairs, Downstairs or whatever they’re showing on PBS nowadays. We’re talking tips for the garbageman, the paperman (formerly “paperboy” until age did its number on  him), or the USPS mailman who leaves your packages in the rain rather than walk an extra 30 feet to the protected porch.

What Boxing Day actually meant yesterday: another “victory” for social media. Apparently young people (what they call “hooligans” in the renascent Soviet Union) ran riot in dozens of shopping malls across the country. Fisticuffs. Stampeding. Shouting random words like, say, “Gun!” (So, so random.)

Kids will be kids, as the saying goes. But what it really provides is another example of the toxic mix or our age: the Internet and boredom. “Let’s see,” the young and the bored collectively typed. “Around three days into our vacation from school we’ll be bored silly. Can we all scream, run, and tussle in malls at 4 o’clock eastern, 3 o’clock Central, 2 o’clock Pacific? I’m almost sure it will go viral if we do!”

And we don’t need degrees in Communications 2016 to realize that there is no honor higher in life than having uploaded film from your cellphone go viral, garnering umpteen thousand hits from the masses slash great unwashed slash madding crowd.

Ho-hum. Off to our next headline, our next positive contribution to the greater good….


Taking a Constitutional


Yesterday my wife and I took a constitutional. That’s “old-speak” for taking a walk for your health, mental and physical. In “new-speak” that might mean getting the heart rate up, conducting a slow cardio workout brisk enough to be good for the ticker, and clearing the mind with a nip of north wind.

The dog, much to his chagrin, was left home. As a Christmas gift, I gave him his own “constitutional” first. The problem with a long, brisk walk with a dog is dogs have little interest in the brisk part. No, they are the original stop-and-smell-the-roses (and grass stems and rocks and trees and telephone poles and crumpled McDonald’s bags and other dog turds) walkers. Maddening, not mind-clearing.

So, yes. A good start to the new year (which can be declared any old day of the year in the autocracy of your mind). When we returned we had that “good feeling” you get after you do the right thing. You know, like after the benediction at church as you file out, after they remove the needle from your arm and hold up the heft of you (in a dark red plastic pint) at the blood donation center, or after you let that long-suffering car on a side street enter traffic ahead of you with a friendly wave.

We cannot control much in this indifferent world, and it can get depressing to think about at times. But consider this: If a daily paper for your day came out every night, the front page could be plastered with more good than bad — all good, even — because you rule that microcosm like the most benevolent of dictators.

A sanguine thought, no? Good for the constitution to think about, even.

Is 50 a More Reasonable “F” Than Zero?


If you want to play political football in a school system, talk about eliminating zeros. The practice, seemingly laughable only a decade ago in education (which is notoriously resistant to change), seems to be gaining traction across the country, as summed up in this Washington Post article.

The biggest hurdle is tradition. The 100-point scale is an institution. Teachers know it, parents know it, and students know it. Teachers grew up with it, parents grew up with it, and students are growing up with it. Well, most of them are. But now, under the logical argument that “F” is a grand canyon of 59 points while A, B, C, and D are mere gulches of 10, the times they are a changin’. That’s right. Reformists believe grading is more fairly done on a 5-point scale, one which apportions ten more democratic points to each letter.

This logic is hard to dispute, but the sticking point comes with students who do no work whatsoever. As stated in the article, some students working under the new criteria have learned to “job” the system, passing a course even when they do not do some of the assignments. After all, you can survive such neglect if you are awarded 50 points vs. zero for nothing. Thus you see terms like “reasonable attempt” and “good-faith effort” as requirements for the 50.

The trouble with that is clear: What constitutes a “reasonable attempt”? And how do I know “good-faith effort” when I see it? One teacher may rule that a student made a reasonable attempt to complete an assignment while another may scoff. Here we go again–out of the frying pan and into the fire. The semantics of these terms are as fuzzy as grades themselves, wherein my “B” may be the equivalent of your “C.”

In his book Grading Smarter, Not Harder, Myron Dueck offers ways out of the dilemma, but it includes solutions not viable in every school, including Saturday in-school and lunch work sessions as solutions for incomplete work. Teachers might, nevertheless, be interested in looking at Dueck’s Late or Incomplete Assignment form, which can be found by scrolling down to Strategies for Addressing Uncompleted Work.

The other kick-around mentioned in the Washington Post article is the up-and-coming “do-over” or “retake.” Dueck addresses this in the free first chapter (see link above) in his book. You simply give fewer choices in the retake/make-up version of the test, thus making it a more difficult test. It’s only fair, he argues, because students have had more time (in the case of students out the day of the test) or a second chance (in the case of retakers) than the students who took it on the assigned day. Knowing the retake is more challenging should discourage students from “not studying so hard” because they know they have a fall-back, too.

One clever “turnabout is fair play” argument in Dueck’s chapter addresses late work. Many teachers are adamant about deducting points for late work, arguing that it merely reflects the “real world” and that students would quickly lose jobs if they did not complete work on time. Dueck says this is simply not true and uses teachers themselves as proof. He gives the example of collecting reports or data from teachers by a specific date. Getting 100% of the reports on the given day is a pipe dream (true). What about volunteer reports, such as collecting data on students who might be eligible for certain awards? Many teachers who, like their students, are “busy,” take a pass on this type of thing every time. In both cases, imagine if it went into their files on some report! OK. Don’t.

Is there a single solution to these zero and retake debates? No. Is either the old or new system completely fair? Probably not. Teachers and schools need to make decisions based on which system  is MORE fair. Also essential? That they constantly ask themselves this question: What is my primary purpose as a teacher, and how does the system I adopt help me to achieve that purpose? No, not so it is easiest for me, the teacher, but so it best serves learners who need to learn–even those who would play cat-and-mouse with any system presented to them.




Ah, Memorial Day Weekend


I can see by my television that it is Memorial Day weekend. Tributes to fallen soldiers? Documentaries? Public-service announcements? Car commercials, actually. Big-time sales. Hurry. Now. All those “Russian” words (jarring, isn’t it?).

I can see by my neighborhood that it is Memorial Day weekend — the unofficial official (or is it official unofficial?) opening to summer. What I am seeing is the absence of a lot of things I usually see. Namely people. They are all gone, it seems, to their unofficial official summer houses. Or, at the very least, to their official unofficial holiday weekend rental.

Meanwhile, I walk my dog in eerie silence. No one for the pooch to snarl at. He should be named Monopoly because he dislikes other dogs and wants the neighborhood to himself. Happy, happy dog!

I can see by the temperature that it is Memorial Day weekend. The past two days Mr. Fahrenheit has nudged ninety, pas-de-deux with his partner, Ms. Humidity. Fans. Air conditioners. Dry throats. I might as well move to the South where entire existences are spent indoors on recycled air. “The South” being the 7th Circle of Dante’s Hell, of course.

How is your Memorial Day weekend, then? Are you on the ocean with your family and your phone? The mountains, maybe? Don’t tell me. A lake house!

Or are you like me, feeling… left behind, out of it, un-hip? As Emily Dickinson would say, “Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!”


Acupuncture with the People


I call it pins and needles, though I couldn’t tell you the technical term for those sharp objects practitioners stick in us. Pin? Needle? Whatever. You get the point if you’re lying there.

I decided to try it a few months back and, as my choice of venue, entered a “fast-food” style acupuncture establishment. These locations are cheaper by far, but you don’t get the one-on-one handholding (er… puncturing) you get at a more expensive joint.

Instead, you enter a room with six La-Z-Boys covered in moss-covered sheets, are offered a neck warmer as a collar of comfort, and lean back until you are almost on your back looking up. There is also a single bed for those who prefer it–and they’re out there–but for the most part, your fellow acu-nauts, like you, get La-Z.

When the guy with the needles sits by your side, he will whisper the gateway words: “How you doing?” Woe is he who dares ask a patient how he’s doing. Would he be decked out like a filet awaiting skewers if he were “doing” at all? No. But it is a formality. A protocol to be observed.

When I am stuck to my chair like a bug to an entomologist’s cardboard, I often hear the whispered laments of other patients: “Buzz, buzz, buzz, my back… buzz, buzz, my stomach…buzz stress…buzz, buzz, buzz, my shoulder, elbow, knee, arthritis.” After a few questions and assurances, the pointillist tears open the new, germ-free needles and selects his points of entry.

Which brings us to another quirk of “Acupuncture with the People.” All you do is roll up your pant legs to the knee and sleeves to the elbows. All pins go on these extremities (and, occasionally, your face). It seems limited in its way, and I imagine, though can’t prove due to my penury, that people with private sessions get more pins over more real estate than we do. In that sense, I envision something similar to a massage, where you get down to the essentials and the doctor finds every tributary known to Chinese man.

No, they’re not called tributaries. Meridians. Like you’re a globe. A map. A cartographer’s pin cushion.

It’s a relaxing hour, anyway. You know. Lying peacefully to the soundtrack of Chinese music and the sounds of water falling, trilling, flowing. And birds, too, like the dawn of the ages.

Very Zen. Zen interrupted, that is, by the creak of La-Z-Boys (people getting up, people lying down), by the buzz-buzz-buzz of lamentations, by the whispers of comfort, and, now and then, by stentorian snoring.

Me, I can’t sleep. I don’t do it very well in my own bed at 3 a.m., never mind in a room with six other pilgrims seeking succor in ancient Chinese wisdom. But it’s all one, and it all becomes a habit, after awhile.

Doesn’t everything?

My New Book Is Out

Indifferent World

Like how casually I said that? As if I ever had an OLD book out?

Whatever. Enjoy the moment, St. Andy Warhol once said. It’s fleeting. So am I. And at my age, you avoid Fleet Street all you can. Know of any very long streets I can stroll?

The new book is called The Indifferent World and it is available from my publisher. Or, if you want a signed copy, you can buy direct from me and hope the pony express I employ gets it to you as fast as amazon prime. For that purpose, I’ve fired up a separate poetry-only blog site here.

Pretty cool, no? (Rhetorical question)

Walter Isaacson: Advice for Wanna-Writers

walter isaacson

The world does not lack for advice. It is easy to lay down pronouncements and critiques. Still, if it’s backed by action, it’s worthy of our attention. Any number of adages support this truth: “Actions speak louder than words,” “Show, don’t tell,” and “Don’t just talk the talk–walk the walk.”

Recently my nephew was in the audience at a Washington D.C. speaking engagement for Walter Isaacson. The name was news to me, but a little digging (with a Google shovel) showed that he is president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. He also authored a biography of Steve Jobs, the late and much-heralded leader of Apple.

Walter’s advice has to do with writing. The two most memorable ear nuggets he offered my note-taking nephew were these: Don’t own a TV and spend at least two hours writing every day.

Alarmed? If you’re an American with writing ambitions, I can see why. Not own a TV? Oh your God!

Isaacson claims the empty corner gives him three more hours a day over the average person (average persons, you may now wave from your computer monitors).

If I took his advice and dumped my TV, I would save a lot of extortionist cable TV company money, for starters. And I wouldn’t miss it as much as my wife would. I no longer follow any television series to speak of. It’s come down to this: I only watch Red Sox baseball games (and even those serve mostly as background noise while I do other things) and UConn basketball games (admittedly, these exercises in “Jekyll or Hyde tonight?” torture get my undivided).

Could I learn to live without these televised sporting events? Sure. But once the Wicked Witch of the East’s snazzy socks curled up and disappeared under the foundation, there’d be the Wicked Witch of the West to contend with: the surrogate TV I’m watching right now as I type this post.

Uh-huh. Computer time. Every bit the match for TV time when it comes to ambition-suckage. And a distraction I would miss more than my wife would, making us even in our venial sins.

What about two hours of writing a day? This is tougher still for those of us working full time. Especially if, like me, your best hours are first thing in the morning. And you’re due at work by 7 a.m.

True, I could take the Walter I. plunge after supper, but I’m a shell of my former creative being by then. By 7 p.m., fatigue is my muse.

Nevertheless, Walter Isaacson’s are words to mull like unsipped cider. Getting published is not for the faint of heart; it is for serious warriors. Who don’t pay cable TV bills. And who “type the type” for at least two hours a day.

End of wannabe story.