Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Comic Relief

My first celebrity crush, when I was four, was on Alfred, the butler in the Batman tv show and comics. Bruce Wayne always struck me as a bit of a too-tortured soul. I felt sympathy for him, and wanted to be his friend, but I never thought of him as desirable. His superpowers are money (which is only interesting when you don’t have it) and finding the right people for the job like Lucius Fox, who designed and built all the gear on the famous utility belt and also built the batmobile (god, how I wanted a batmobile and a cave to go with it), but Alfred knew everything. Bruce would be sitting in front of his computer, head in hand, lamenting the inscrutability of the puzzle of the moment while Commissioner Gordon was ringing the Batphone off the hook and Gotham lay in peril. Up would waltz Alfred, a towel draped over his suit-clad arm, and say “But young Master Bruce, wouldn’t you just do thus-and-such?” and Bruce would stare in amazement as the pieces fell into place and exclaim his thanks. Alfred, ever unflappable, would reply, “My pleasure. Vichyssoise?” proffering a china bowl and silver spoon. Elegant, collected, and analytic. And he made soup. What’s not to love?

My mom didn’t approve of me reading comic books, so I had to sneak them home from the library. She was afraid that reading them — or reading science fiction or watching horror movies or playing sports of any kind — would make me a lesbian. I begged for comics anyway, not knowing at seven years old what a lesbian was but promising cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die that I would never ever be one, and she relented, allowing me to buy Wonder Woman (but only Wonder Woman, because she’s a girl) when we passed the comics rack at the grocery store. She had never so much as flipped through the 70s rendition of the amazon of justice, or she would have nixed Wonder Woman in a hot minute: pages filled with colorized pen drawings of scantily clad amazons engaged in vigorous athletics on Paradise Island or of jack-booted Nazis who routinely bound our heroine in ropes and chains would have realized the worst of her fantasies.

I found comic book collections—and all the other things I wasn’t supposed to have—in the library, from A Wrinkle in Time to Alfred Hitchcock’s collections of short stories featuring the horror of daily life, or the movie The Omen on VHS (I slept with the light on for a week). When I was in high school, I met friends in the school library to play D&D for a year before the librarian found out what we were doing and kicked us out, saying we couldn’t meet for satanic purposes. “But I’m not a lesbian!” I wanted to tell her, even though I knew it wouldn’t help.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Pardon our French

As a rule, if you have to use French words for something, I don’t like it. —- Alfred T. Pennyworth

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Mexican Mocha Syrup

Mexican Mocha Syrup

Cocoa powder
Vietnamese Cinnamon
Turbinado sugar
Cayenne pepper
Vanilla extract
Espresso coffee

Blend the powdered ingredients together in the bottom of a small sauce pan. Add vanilla and espresso and whisk over low heat until combined.

Store in a glass container in the refrigerator. Add to coffee, warmed milk, or any recipe you choose. In coffee, it makes an excellent pick-me-up, and helps cut through brain fog. Use with decaf espresso to energize without the jitters.

Nota Bene: the dry ingredients can be mixed and stored on their own for blending with coffee on the go. The cocoa powder needs a bit of agitation to blend, so leave room to stir.

Saturday, January 22, 2022


The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed. — Carl Jung

Friday, January 21, 2022

We need a new conversation about education

We've been talking about Education in economic, market-based terms for nearly a century in this country. Why? Competition has no place in educational access. We cannot and should not place education in the realm of a market. Students are not customers. Our love of economic analysis reflects a deep cultural belief in deservingness, and no other developed nation requires citizens to prove that they deserve an education. To do so is undemocratic and it's immoral. 

Educational policy leaders need to stop engaging in this sort of choice-based talk. Put in terms of choice, we are saying having a substandard option is permissible, and that choosing no education would be possible as well. Saying parents choose schools is like saying people of Flint choose the water.  

As a country, it's time to act as though we value education, at every level, for every neighborhood, as a basic common good, and not a matter of making "the best choice." We cannot compete globally without quality education, but more importantly, we are at risk of failing as a country from within. To be clear, this is not merely some historic policy position. No Child Left Behind essentially punishes schools in lower income neighborhoods by gatekeeping access to federal money through the use of our beloved test scores, a metric that reflects affluence more than any single other factor. 

The state of education in America is so abysmal, it is a miracle that we are in the global ranks at all. A century of deservingness-based policies have decimated human rights in America, and our inclusion on the OECD list seems suspect given that "today’s United States has proved itself to be exceptional in ... problematic ways that are shockingly at odds with its immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights. As a result, contrasts between private wealth and public squalor abound."

A national commitment to education is a national commitment to its citizens, and the United States needs to right her course through an about-face approach, leaving marketplace competition at the wayside and valuing her people over profit for the first time since the founding of the country. The moral failure of leadership has been with us since we threw tea into a harbor. It will only end when we choose to treat citizens as the reason for our nation to exist instead of as liabilities on a balance sheet.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Social Gospel and Education

     The New York Times article "Do Other Countries Teach Better?" opens with a paragraph that sets out its framework: the US labor force is at a disadvantage for global competition in the "new global economy." The headline sets the stage for this salient leap of illogic, proclaiming, in the form of an investigative question, that "other countries teach better."
     I cry foul from the starting whistle. One cannot simply take a ranking of a basic performance metric to evaluate the global success of a population, and the editors' greatest sleight of hand here is in presenting "millions of laid off workers" as the result of a faulty national education program, generally, and of bad teaching, specifically. Essentially the equation we are shown in the headline and first paragraph is that a lack of robust employment in the United States is the teachers' fault. Put this way, it seems like a silly sentence. Nonetheless, we all do love a graph, and the editors make great use of the OECD rankings.
     "The United States is losing ground in worker training to countries in Europe and Asia whose schools are not just superior to ours but getting steadily better." It's important to note that this article comes in 2013, a few years after the great 2008 financial crisis, an economic implosion that was borne by the workers, but not by the businesses that had created a financial house of cards. But let's leave these considerations aside for a moment and discuss the comparison at hand. Do "other countries teach better?"
     The editors rightly highlight two key differences between Finland and the United States: first that education is seen as a social investment, and second -- most importantly to the editors and likewise to this scholar -- that teachers have a place of high esteem in Finnish society, reflected by rigorous training and excellent relative compensation growth within the profession. The United States takes an extreme opposite approach, and the results are clear. But what makes this approach possible in Finland and impossible in the United States?
     The answer lies in the editors' analysis of school funding in Canada, where differences in neighborhood economic levels are evened out by state coffers, again an approach exactly opposite of our country. "Americans tend to see such inequalities as the natural order of things." This, along with a national sentiment of devaluing education generally, is at the heart of the situation on the table. And American disparagement of education is itself predicated on the belief of "inequalities as the natural order of things." Only in America do you hear the adage "those who can't do, teach," and one hears it quite often, a sentiment more in line with Mao Zedong’s “cultural revolution,” which devalued intellectual pursuits and demonized academics. In Finland, Canada, and most everywhere in the world, even in the countries who performed at lower ranks on the OECD chart, it is assumed that if we want people to be able to do, we must at some point teach, and this gets to the heart of the editors' analysis. 
     Anywhere else in the developed world, a situation where "40 percent of ... public school students [are] in districts of 'concentrated student poverty'" would constitute a national crisis to be addressed with utmost urgency. In the United States, we take such a situation as a given, a reflection of "the natural order of things." What cultural conditions exist to make disparity "the natural order?" 
     This mindset reveals an underlying cultural belief in economic success as ultimate proof of moral superiority, an outgrowth of Frederick Jackson Turner's "rugged individualism" mythos turned into a cult of social darwinism, the so-called Social Gospel of the 1920s. The blueprint of the social gospel continues to drive political decisions in all areas of American society, but especially in the realm of education. "If you deserved an education," the social gospel seems to tell us, "you could afford one." Economic success is proof in this country of deservingness, whereas in other developed countries it is treated as luck, literally referred to as fortune, and comes with a sense of social obligation. The form and weight of this obligation varies from one culture to the next, but the presence of some form of duty of care for those less fortunate is undeniable in all the OECD countries on the list. China dominates the list because they have made sweeping social and political changes to value education, reversing inequality in education since the death of Mao. "Shanghai has taken several approaches to repairing the disparity between strong schools and weak ones, as measured by infrastructure and educational quality." The United States, by contrast, instituted the No Child Left Behind policy, which in effect punishes weaker schools by diminishing their funding and teacher salaries through gatekeeping federal money. 
     "If things remain as they are, countries that lag behind us will one day overtake us," the editors conclude. Their litmus for success is not, interestingly enough, on our rankings at mathematics within the OECD nations. Instead, it is American economic prowess that the editors say is in peril, that which is so worthy of preservation that we should bend the political will to achieve it. One wonders if this reflects an internalization of the American social gospel or if the authors are attempting to spur a national commitment to education by, as this reader suspects, speaking a language that will finally matter. 
     I return to my opening point. Do "other countries teach better?" is not exactly a fair question given the cultural differences on display. How the United States manages to rank as well as it does given the hostile social climate towards education is the real mystery. Perhaps America has no business being in the OECD list given the educational condition of the country. Instead, the results reveal a bit of a miracle, a story of overwhelming creative talent of educators combined with a foundation of capacity in students. The results show that America is squandering her greatest resource, her people, in a relentless adherence to the value of individual economic achievement. We must change our definition of success as a society and make a radical about-face of political will. The editors show that the commodification of education creates a risk to our global standing. We are not lacking teachers with the ability to "teach better." We are lacking leaders who value education enough for all citizens, and thereby the country, to succeed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022


The Universe never tells us if we did right or wrong. It’s more important to try to help people than to know that you did. More important that someone else’s life gets better than for you to feel good about yourself. You never know the effect you might have on someone, not really. Maybe one core thing you said haunts them forever. Maybe one moment of kindness gives them comfort or courage. Maybe you said the one thing they needed to hear. It doesn’t matter if you ever know. You just have to try. 
—-Naomi Nagata, The Expanse