Saturday, July 4, 2015

How to Ruin Our Land in These Easy Steps

Take a field of trees,

Slap a "For Sale" sign on it,

Tear it to shreds,

Throw up some concrete.

Why must we continue to do this to our land/city/ourselves?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Envying Balance, or state of assessing academic achievement in Texas schools

Just open your eyes and realize the way it’s always been
(lyric from The Moody Blues song The Balance)

Random Envy 5

Envying Balance,
or the sad state of assessing academic achievement in Texas schools

A hot Texas topic these days: teacher pay (and summer hasn’t even arrived). Of course, messing with anyone’s pay is an edgy way to run a business (or a state). The issue is whether to pay teachers for longevity or paying them based on merit. Longevity matters – just showing up for work everyday and being dependable matters. Especially in the face of classrooms with swelling numbers of students with all sorts of differences: behavioral, emotional, cognitive. Then throw in individual attitudes and different levels of motivation. With emphasis on placing children in least restrictive environments, that means no sending them home or to another school just because they are acting crazy and restricting the flow of routine.

But then again, going the extra mile also matters. How valuable are you when you DO show up? Do your students rush to your room in the morning because they long to learn something and they miss your inspired teaching? (Well, that’s not too likely – maybe at the onset of a fresh year when the summer has become a little boring, but even then they really are just rushing back to see what their friends are wearing and how the opposite sex has matured since they saw them last. And by April that thrill has long been replaced by the drudgery of dragging through everyday classes taught by teachers who are feeling their enthusiasm slide right out the window.)

Here’s an amazing idea! Why not keep a basic longevity rate AND give extra pay for those who earn it. Instead of solving the problem in our typically black-or-white approach, why not a more balanced one?

Then there is the dilemma of individual teachers testing students based on teacher judgment and style preferences versus the standardized approach of using one nationally-based instrument to assess everyone and attain consistency in instruction and outcome. The STAAR test (interesting acronym since hardly anyone finds it to be very shiny) attempts to assess knowledge in some unified way. This test calls for four-item response choices, lucky if you are the test-taker because you don’t need to know the answer as definitively as you would on fill-in-the-blank or short answer tests. You simply must identify it when you see it. I can do pretty well on that if you test me on state capitals. I know that Olympia goes with Washington and Jefferson City goes with Missouri (particularly if Austin, or Atlanta, or Oklahoma City are some of my choices). But stop me on the street and ask me outright what the capital of South Dakota is, and I may blow it. Remember too that any test that requires four multiple choice responses allows for a pretty significant 25% guess factor. On a lucky day you can look a lot smarter than you are (or, the opposite if it’s not your best day). We have a solution for the easy guess bit, though. We make the tests very tricky, altering a word here and there to make for subtle and confusing response options. So now, instead of focusing on teaching children useful life skills, we teach to the test and instruct them how to take tricky multiple choice tests. (Of course, this itself is a life skill of sorts – how to not be fooled by tricksters and predators, like those who develop group-administered tests!) If all life decisions were multiple choices this would be alright. Imagine being able to choose a spouse based on a choice of four persons (hey, on second thought, that’s not such a bad idea!). Sometimes, though, the multiple choice doesn’t work. (Imagine a police officer pulling you over, asking how fast you were going, and your reply is, “What are my choices?)” We do love our computers and our conveniently scorable tests, though. And who wants to read lengthy essays that require scoring judgment? (But at least now answers can be typed, and teachers don’t have to decipher scribble.)

Political parties are having a lot of fun with this issue, conjuring up all kinds of new strategies every year, each no real improvement over the previous year and ultimately just creating confusion. Democrats push one direction, Republicans push the other. (And speaking of that, wouldn’t we be more balanced if we voted “independent”; being Americans, shouldn’t we be proud to embrace anything with the word “independent” in it?) The requirement that one accepts a “package deal” instead of a balance is difficult. It’s simply too hard to endorse everything one group stands for.
Even the Beatles made occasional mistakes in musical or personal judgment.

Okay. We see how this writing has evolved. It’s really a piece on balance itself. And that is a more eastern concept than our back-and-forth, schizoid western way of conducting affairs, where we change directions annually in order to try to reach the balance we are desperately shooting for to begin with…

To be continued….

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Earth Day: Green with Envy

“You know your culture from your trash”- Peter Gabriel, song lyric (Steam)

Random Envy 4
Green with Envy

*******Special Earth Day Edition*******

[Beware: spoilers! “Scathing commentary” alert!]

What are we celebrating on earth day? We honor individuals with birth-days, but how do we honor and show appreciation for our land?

Signs clutter the few remaining open spaces on Louetta Road. “Land for sale!”; “Tattoo artist”; “Tree clearing”. (Or the worst of all, “Rent this sign”.) First we uglify the land with signs,
then we bulldoze all the trees and pave over the grass with concrete. We insult our earth, construct buildings we don’t need to sell services and products we already have, use the building until the business flops, then move down the street, tear down more trees and start another project. (I’ve seen this happen in other locations even when business was booming – are you listening Walmart ?)

This is the legacy we leave for our children. (Exception: the Mormon Church on Champion Forest Drive - at least they built a beautiful building to look at, like the beautiful cathedrals in Europe.)

We don’t need another restaurant or car wash, we need more trees that will produce fresh air for us to breathe.

We don’t need to constantly yearn for vacations to visit scenic places because we have destroyed the very scenery we already had. Be grateful for the zoning and conservation that some towns maintain. Think about it - would you drive all the way to Telluride if it looked like Houston?

How to honor Mother Earth? Support any organization that protects trees by encouraging planting, preservation, etc. Be friends with the Sierra Club. If you have the time, are brave, and have bail money, chain yourself to a 100-year old oak tree that is about to be plowed over to make room for a four-storey apartment complex that will crowd our environment and congest our city even more (they may drag you to the slammer and show your face on the 10:00 news, but you can at least sleep with good conscience). Support zoning – even its opponents would support it if it meant a topless nightclub with open gambling and guns on the street was going up in their neighborhood!

At what cost do we stick out our chests and proclaim, “Look at us – the fourth largest city in the country”? (As we’re dragging the bottom on the “most livable city” list.)

Happy Earth-day.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Random Envy 3- If I were king......



I admit it. Sometimes I wish I were king. Not only that, but I would like to just appoint myself to that role. No messing with time-wasting and expensive elections that just cause bad feelings, with all that mudslinging and name-calling. Don’t worry – I won’t do anything crazy, like re-instating slavery or taking away women’s right to vote. I have considered abolishing trucks, SUVs, minivans and other gas-guzzlers - these are not fuel efficient and minivans are ugly. But, with low gas prices, who really cares? I have also considered doing away with all timeouts in football and basketball games – it would make everything speed up nicely, and eliminate so many commercials. And if we really MUST have a “red zone” in football, let’s just go ahead and spray that part of the field red. At this time, these are only considerations…

One day I will be king. The world is too intelligent a place not to notice that I would be great in that role.
The first thing I will do is a little housecleaning. I will prioritize the following:
-Change the spelling of the word “raspberry” to “razzberry”
-Ban all one-way streets
-Put a maximum occupancy limit on HEB
-Remove from the English language the word “brouhaha”
-Reserve the word “awesome” for only things that truly are (like the Grand Canyon, or spaghetti)
-Eliminate all wires and coat hangers (although I haven’t decided yet what I will replace coat hangers with)
-Do away with all laugh tracks on sitcoms (better yet, do away with all sitcoms)
-Reverse daylight savings (spring back, fall forward – that makes so much more sense anyway)
-Ban all ad-libbed vocal acrobatics used by singers performing the national anthem
-Eliminate all reality TV shows (which are actually scripted and thus are not real anyway)
-Eliminate all committees (they just obstruct getting anything done)

I also would have many changes to make for our fair city of Houston:
-Officially change the city name to Tokyo (because it is so huge), or Mecca (because everyone is coming here)
-Hang “no vacancy” signs beside Houston city limits signs while I’m at it
-Make it a felony to cut down a tree in Houston
-Remove all “Watch For Ice” signs on Houston bridges (they are only useful two days of the year and by the time they have been up all the other 363 days everyone ignores them when they are needed)
-For that matter, just ban all signs (they are ugly and only contribute to too many distractions and too much useless information)
-Limit the number of Mexican restaurants and car washes on Louetta Road to one each per mile
-And on the same street, reduce the size of the huge American flag at the Service First car center (it has caught 3 airplanes already)

I will also attempt to solve these dilemmas:
-If something is neither here nor there, where is it?
-How do you get under the weather?
-How do you get beside yourself?
-Why do we say chi-pot-le but not Brett Fav-re

I will keep these very few rules:
-Be respectful
-Be responsible
-Green = go; red = stop [no change, that’s a sensible rule]

That’s my platform, and I stand by it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


THE EDGE, or the Benefits of Bribery

Sometimes you just get desperate. I find myself on a Saturday morning at Champion Forest Gym – er, that would be Church, on one of their cavernous basketball courts (expecting the Houston Rockets to come out any minute as the music pounds away and the team introductions boom out). Our team trots onto the court, but all knees must be knocking, as they have been blown out of their first two games and I’m sure they have little confidence that they will fare better this time. Despite giving them another of my usual fiery pre-game pep talks as their assistant coach about how this time it will be different, their eyes have that glazed-over look like they’re just waking up and wondering how they got here.

I have little cash on me, but I will start with one player. My child. Bree is actually a sharp basketball player, who usually serves as point guard due to her dribbling skills and speed, and ability to drive the ball toward the goal. But she, like the others, is aware that her team is continuing its downward spiral that unfortunately lasted throughout the entirety of last season. Hey, don’t judge me! We’re not talking about deflated balls here, Tom Brady, just a little motivational incentive…On her softball team, I found that an occasional bribe worked well with Bree, until the team became so good and consistent that I simply had no need to pay her to perform.

But basketball is different, and this team is comprised of different girls, and this is a fresh morning. $5 per shot made. That’s my deal. When she is on court, I simply call her name out, and when she turns to look, I flash an open hand. She nods her head and goes to work. I do see intensity (and, wait a minute, could that be selfishness as she ignores her teammates’ cries to pass the ball, and stubbornly dribbles to the goal despite having players hanging all over her?). Yes, and look – she has made four points and her team is actually ahead! A few others are also hitting shots. Her teammate Paris is on fire, rebounding, stealing, and flaring across the court like a runaway train. She has made a few points too, and would probably have more if she could learn to actually slow down at the goal and shoot more carefully, with purpose, instead of simply flinging the ball in the direction of the hoop and hoping something happens as she sails by.

Despite our showing, it remains a defensive game, with neither team amassing many points. In fact, when the final buzzer goes off, the score is a mere 10-9. (Not a baseball score either.) Unfortunately, at the last period the opponents pulled ahead, and we are on the short end again. Bree still collects her cash, but at the table following the game, every face looks glum. The girls are dejected – so close, and still they couldn’t pull it off. I admit to one of the parents that I was paying for points. She merely laughed, remarking, “How do you think I got Paris to play so hard?” But despite our underhanded techniques, we still lost. That’s karma for you. (Or maybe the other team was receiving bribe money too.)

This gave me a wonderful idea. Instead of bringing post-game snacks, I will propose that we use the money for a bribe fund. Each family kicks in five bucks (7 x 5 = $35) and if the team wins each girl gets five. If we lose, the money is carried over for next week. Organized bribery. More systematic. Everyone wins. Imagine if we played this closely a game with only two girls bribed – what could happen with all seven? It would be just the edge we need. And with all the losses this year and last – these parents would gladly cough up a mere five dollars for a victory and an injection of pure self-esteem as a bonus.

Just a thought….

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Random Envy: Competition Days

(from the producer of Envying Job)

Competition Days

It’s a brisk Friday night, and my eight-year old daughter Brooke is ready. This is her first season of basketball and only her second basketball game ever. Maybe last week’s eight-point contribution to her team’s 32-4 victory was a fluke. Maybe not. She runs all over the court, defending, rebounding, stealing…I tell the team that stealing is wrong, unless you are playing basketball, in which case it is not only okay but is enthusiastically encouraged. Brooke has also mastered the hoop – she has 10 points when the game is over, her Lady Tigers have 22, the other guys 8. Apparently no fluke here.

And now for something completely different from the fickle face of competition. My older daughter Bree’s team plays the next morning. I’m assistant-coaching the team, yelling, cajoling, and pleading for them to find a spark, anything to come back from last week’s 20-4 pounding. They have played that team before, last year, and we knew what they were capable of doing. But we never saw this train coming. Nine girls – already unified by playing on a soccer team together – and all one grade older (and taller). Not to mention without a weak player on the roster. Five play while four rest, ready to come in at the buzzer to continue the punishment their buddies have inflicted. When the long buzzer sounds at the end the final is 31-0, and we couldn’t find it in us to make one shot. Not a pretty sight. Since I’m the assistant coach, I berate myself more than the team. My softball team wins constantly. Maybe I’m just not a good loser. Maybe losing is okay, just not getting creamed. Maybe I should give this up. Maybe it’s Maybelline.

Getting up at 3:30 on Sunday morning is just wrong. But since tomorrow is a holiday and I can sleep in, I will handle this. And at least I don’t have to actually RUN in the Chevron Houston Marathon starting at 7:00, like my wife Becah does. She will be competing, both with others and, in response to her own demands, with herself, to complete the half-marathon and survive to tell about it. We arrive at the private bus shortly before five, and we are soon off in the darkness, heading for Minute Maid Park. A few of us spouses were along for support, as well as a personal trainer to handle the post-run bending and massaging. Sean, the fitness club owner and half-marathon runner also, is fending off teases about his ability to endure this run (as he is a self-proclaimed strength trainer and is probably making this run more as a response to a dare than anything). Sean is smiling, a youthful-looking, buffed fellow who looks like Hans and Franz have been pumping him up (but without Aaron Rodgers’ soft spots). Someone suggests he wear an outfit like a superhero, complete with cape. Sean fears that the media could catch him lying face down on the street - with his Fitness 101 insignia on his cape and footprints across his back – should he give out before hitting the finish line. Not a good advertising campaign.

The runners leave the bus before seven, obsessing over how many clothes they should layer on since the brisk morning (in the forties) is predicted to warm to sixties as the day unfolds. It’s still windy and very chilly, though, and one wonders how the guys jogging toward the starting corrals shirtless and in their shorts are fairing right at this moment. In a surprisingly short time, we spectators find ourselves standing in front of Capitol Street listening to the DJ and the pulsing music as he cheers on the Ethiopian frontrunner lady who has won the full marathon for the second year straight. I see “Batman” chugging along in the crowd of other finishers to follow. Becah passes in front of us, still moving after 2 hrs. 10 min. of endurance, crossing the line, all while probably planning how she will sign up next year for more. Everyone is waiting for Sean, wondering if he chucked it all and went for pizza, but he arrives, grinning, with no footprints on his back. In the reception hall, a group of people dressed in pink shirts let out a cry and hug a lady who has just entered the room, walking over with one leg artificial. She has seen the half-marathon through to its finish. Leaving the building Becah and I see her just ahead of us, wearing a t-shirt with the word “Achilles” on the back.

The bus ride back is full of congratulations and a few aches and pains (as well as some “never again” remarks). Cold Dos Equis are being popped – so much for healthiness – in celebration that, successful or not, ready for another or not, it is all over.

Continuing the competition on Sunday are the NFL conference championship games. Green Bay is amazingly cakewalking all over Seattle, quieting their usually-deafening throng. It is soon 19-0. Russell Wilson at one point in the game is 2 of 9 in completed passes, for 20 yards. By the end of the game he will throw four interceptions. I’m convinced this must be an imposter, or an alien in disguise. Then Seattle gets a touchdown. Then faster than I can blink Wilson takes one in himself for a TD and it is 19 to 14. Soon after Marshawn Lynch is actually walking into the end zone for a 20-19 Seattle lead. Wilson runs back and, off-balance, heaves one across opposite field for a two-point finale. Even though Green Bay is able to tie the game with a long field goal, I know it is over. The real Russell Wilson returns again to polish off the game by hurling the ball skyward, and it falls in the end zone right in the arms of his receiver even as a defender is hanging all over him. 28-22, Seattle. The clamor in the stadium erupts back to its usual level. Russell is weeping tears of joy and appreciation, revealing his bravest side yet.

The next game should be equally exciting. Indianapolis had edged out New England 38-34 in a past
championship game. But Andrew is out of Luck and Tom Brady and crew run all over the Colts 45 to 7. If it were a boxing match it would have been called.

Competition. It wrapped its arms around our whole weekend. I know there’s more to our lives, but here I am, embracing it right back, putting it down in writing, come what may.