Monthly Archives: May 2014

The baseball scrap heap

The 2014 major league baseball season is just past the first quarter pole, which is, of course, much too early to come to any conclusions about who’s best, or who is going to win. But we can see trends and tendencies.  I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and so see everything through a Giants-centric prism, and since my team’s in first place, with the best record in the National League, that prism’s pretty rose-colored.  The lads are doing splendidly.  But which lads?  That turns out to be an interesting question.

There are essentially four ways baseball teams accrue talent. They can do a good job of scouting and drafting and developing, using the amateur draft.  They can get good players via trades.  They can sign star players via free agency.  And the Giants have good players acquired via all these routes.  But the fourth way is the one least discussed.  They can get good players off the scrap heap.

Every major league team in baseball has a minor league system, with hundreds of talented young players learning their craft in smaller cities, playing for smaller crowds, and of course, paid (absurdly) lower salaries.  And every spring, teams draft forty or fifty new players, and have to correspondingly release approximately the same number of minor leaguers.  Those guys, those released minor league players, constitute the scrap heap.  They are obviously talented young men, and many of them have at least a few games major league experience, but for whatever reason, their parent clubs decided they weren’t good enough to keep under contract.  Once released, anyone can sign them, and for not much money. Obviously, they’re flawed players–you’re not going to sign Willie Mays off the scrap heap.  But nobody in baseball is better than the Giants at sifting through those guys and finding useful, productive major league players.

Everyone can do something.  That’s the implicit operative philosophy here; rather than focus on what someone can’t do, why not concentrate on what they can do, and put them in a position to succeed?

This was very much the philosophy of Earl Weaver, the old Oriole Hall-of-Fame manager.  He loved managing limited guys, guys like Benny Ayala.  Ayala couldn’t run, couldn’t field, couldn’t hit right handed pitching, and couldn’t hit a left-handed fastball.  But he clobbered curve balls thrown by lefties.  Weaver would give Ayala 80 at bats a year, all against left handed curve ball pitchers, and Ayala looked like an All-Star.  He couldn’t do anything else, but he didn’t need to.

It was also my philosophy as a theatre director, which I learned from watching Earl Weaver manage.  Everyone can do something.  When I was directing in college, we’d get a lot of kids auditioning who were limited as actors.  But in an audition, maybe they’d show me a spark, suggesting what they were capable of doing.  I’d cast them in a small part, but a part that required the specific skills that actor happened to have.  And they’d shine.  It’s nice if every actor auditioning for your show is Audra McDonald, but that doesn’t happen much, especially for a college production.  I think big business could use an Earl Weaver approach sometimes.  Figure out what people can do, give them a chance to succeed.

Nobody epitomizes this more, this year, than Mike Morse.  The Giants were the worst team in baseball last year at hitting home runs.  Their home ball park is a tough one for home runs, and they just didn’t have anyone on the team that can consistently hit the long ball.  Mike Morse, otherwise known as The Beast, has bounced around; played for Seattle, Baltimore, Washington, Toronto.  He’s a big, likeable, shaggy haired dude, with a huge swing and a mellow disposition.  He’s also a brutally bad defensive outfielder.  He’s slow, and he can’t throw, and his instincts are bad.  And he’s a terrible baserunner.  So the Giants pair him with Gregor Blanco, a very fast runner and a superb defensive outfielder, but not a power hitter.  That combination has given the Giants 10 home runs from the left field position.  Morse starts, and then, if we have a lead, in comes Blanco to play defense. It works.

Another scrap heap guy is our second baseman, Brandon Hicks.  Hicks was drafted by the Braves as a shortstop, made the big club in 2011, disappointed, signed with Oakland, was released, signed with the Mets, was released, and the Giants signed him this year.  Prototypical scrap heap guy.  He swings hard, strikes out a lot, hits an occasional home run, and will draw a few walks.  He’s never hit for any kind of batting average, and still isn’t now, because he strikes out too much.  But the combination of walks and home runs give him value.  The knock on him was that he wasn’t good defensively.  It’s true that he’s a little slow.  But he’s great at turning double plays.  So he’s an interesting mix of positives and negatives. And when the Giants’ starting second baseman, Marco Scutaro, got hurt, Hicks filled in admirably.  And he’s won three games with late inning home runs. Plus he gives the Giants an infield of Brandon Belt, Brandon Hicks and Brandon Crawford, plus odd-man-out third baseman Pablo Sandoval.  Need a fourth Brandon, guys.

A third one is reserve outfielder Tyler Colvin.  Colvin came up with the Cubs, and also played with the Rockies.  He was a pretty good hitter for Chicago, but then, in 2010, was hit by the shard of a shattered bat, which punctured his lung and nearly killed him.  It took Colvin months to recover from that accident, and finally the Rockies gave up on him.  The word for a guy like Colvin is ‘tweener.’  He’s not quite a good enough fielder to play center field, but doesn’t hit quite enough to play left or right. But he’s a terrific reserve, and the Giants are making good use of him.

The best Giants’ scrap-head acquisition, though, has to be Ryan Vogelsong. Once upon a time, he was the Giants’ top minor league pitcher. But in 2001, he was traded to the Pirates, tried to hard to impress the new organization, got hurt, and started bouncing around–Pirates, Phillies, Angels, two different teams in Japan.  In 2010, he and his wife talked it over, and decided it was time to quit.  All that scuffling, and he still hadn’t established himself as a major leaguer.  Time to find a real job. But that winter, the Giants called and offered him a chance to try out for the team in the spring of 2011.  Just a try out.  He made the club, pitched his heart out, and began a long stretch of sustained great pitching that led to an All-Star game appearance in 2011, and a World Series ring in 2012.  He’s still with the team, still defying expectations, but now with a big league contract.  Which means a guaranteed contract for sufficient money that he never has to work again if he doesn’t want to.

That’s the dream.  That’s the hope. And in baseball, it’s achievable.  Even for guys plucked off the scrap heap.  Never give up, because you honestly never know.

Reliving 2009; Tim Geithner on the Daily Show

For a fake news show, anchored by a comedian, Jon Stewart does a creditable job of covering the news, and nowhere is that more true than in his interviews.  Of course, The Daily Show does its share of ‘movie stars promoting their latest superhero movie’ nonsense.  But he interviews the authors of books he loves (and in every instance, he’s clearly read the book), and he loves in-depth (yes, actually in-depth) interviews with policy-makers.  And nowhere was that more evident than this extended interview with Timothy Geithner.

Geithner was, of course, President Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury when he first took office, the man principally responsible for the administration’s response to the financial crisis.  He has new book out, Stress Test, which I have not read yet, but will.  It’s essentially a defense of the Obama administration’s actions following that crisis.  And to some extent, the policies he advised the President to support and adopt did succeed.  Let’s be clear about that.  The financial crisis was world-wide, affecting many nations. Of all the countries afflicted by it, the US came out of it better than most.  We did succumb to austerity mania, but less so than, say, Britain.  The combination of bank bailouts and economic stimulus did some good, managed to fend off complete disaster.  Let’s be fair.  The economy still struggles.  But it could be worse.

But in this interview, Jon Stewart is relentless in insisting that the priorities of the administration were misplaced, that prioritizing saving the banks ignored the first victims of the crisis; hundreds of thousands of homeowners who remain underwater today.  And Geithner is less convincing in his insistence that he (and the President) were progressives too, that they wanted to provide relief to homeowners, that they wanted to save the housing markets, but that they just couldn’t pull it off.  That they were defeated by the political realities of the moment.

And I don’t question that they faced serious, and completely irresponsible political opposition.  Stewart makes a salient point about the idea of ‘moral hazard.’  One argument against bailing out homeowners is the moral hazard argument; that a bailout would have rewarded irresponsible behavior by people who bought houses they couldn’t possibly afford. Financial markets were able to speculate on bundled and securitized sub-prime mortgages because a ton of people signed mortgage documents committing them to payments they couldn’t afford.  So why should taxpayers who managed their finances prudently bail out people who did nothing of the kind?  And by rewarding irresponsible behavior, aren’t we incentivizing it?  Fine, I get all that.  But where’s the moral hazard argument when it comes to banks?  Why selectively argue moral hazard, to apply it to the middle class, but not to rich people?

Okay, so, go back to 2007.  Personal story: our home mortgage was owned by Washington Mutual, which later changed its name to WaMu, I guess because some consultant told them it sounded cooler.  WaMu: shudder.  Worst bank in America.  Which I didn’t know.

So I’m at work, sometime in the spring of 2007, and I get a call from a woman at WaMu, asking me if I was interested in refinancing my loan.  I told her that my wife and had been thinking about it, about a debt consolidation re-fi.  She told me about all the advantages of it, and pushed me to commit to it on the phone, that second.  I said no, and went home and mentioned it to my wife.  We talked about it, and decided not to do it.

That same WaMu saleswoman called me back at least seventy-five times.  She called four or five times a week, for months.  She got pushier and pushier.  She kept increasing the amounts I could borrow.  And I told her repeatedly that I wasn’t interested, and to please stop calling.  I finally had to threaten legal action if she ever called again.

All right.  WaMu, it turns out, was one of the worst offenders when it came to sub-prime.  (The loans she was pressing me to buy wouldn’t have been sub-prime–I’ve got good credit.  But that re-fi would have been bundled with a whole lot of toxic loans; I could have been a spritz of perfume sweetening a real turd of a CDO). (CDO=collateralized debt obligation–the prime driver of the financial crisis).

All right; that’s how hard WaMu was pushing this saleswoman to push me to re-fi.  That was her job, presumably, to approve loans, as many as she could.  Her job depended on it, as did her pay and chances for promotion.  And we know details about many of the loans approved by banks like WaMu, or like Long Beach (which WaMu purchased), or all the rest of them.  People with minimum wage hourly jobs and poor English language skills pressured to buy half-million dollar homes.  That happened.  It happened a lot.

So what would have been fair?  What would have been equitable, what would have been just? And let’s grant Geithner’s premise; letting WaMu go under would have been immensely damaging to the economy.  So the federal government took WaMu into receivership, then arranged a sale to JPMorgan Chase.  And the whole sale is still being litigated and it’s all a big mess.

But here’s what did not happen; people who were pressured to take on mortgages they couldn’t pay for (many of whom had no idea what the papers they were signing even meant), got no relief. And that pressure came from above, from WaMu executives, who pressured loan officers to approve basically every application, often apps with no documentation, no collateral, no paperwork even.

I understand Geithner saying that banks had to be rescued, that the Obama administration had to hold their noses and save companies that had behaved irresponsibly, and that it was also all okay because their bailouts have been repaid, with interest.  I get that.  But the world wide financial crisis was not just a failure of risk management and it wasn’t just a bubble, and it wasn’t just a bubble. It was an enormous Ponzi scheme.  Laws were broken.  Fraud was committed.  And nobody yet has gone to jail.

So, okay, I get that you didn’t particularly want to bail out AIG and Goldman Sachs, and that you were offended, even, that your job required that you advise the President to do so.  But why aren’t the CEOs of both those companies in jail?

I understand that at least some of the actions taken by big companies weren’t actually illegal.  Creating a CDO isn’t illegal.  Credit Default Swaps aren’t illegal.  So you can’t throw someone in jail for trading CDOs.  But you can tighten up financial regulations.  You can make default swaps illegal.

Banks are pretty heavily regulated.  But large institutions that behave in most respects like banks aren’t regulated at all.  The stock market is supervised (badly) by the Securities Exchange Commission.  But the SEC has no jurisdiction over bonds.  Why not? Why not at least push for it?  I really rather think that bank regulation would be a political winner, don’t you?

Conservatives call Barack Obama a ‘socialist’ and insist that debt is THE big national problem.  They’re wrong.  He’s not a socialist at all.  He’s a pro-business moderate, vaguely progressive, but timid in defending his convictions.  There was a better deal that could have been made.


Godzilla: Movie Review

Let me get this out of the way; Gareth Edwards’ new Godzilla movie is terrific.  I didn’t expect to like it.  I’ve never been much of a Godzilla fan, frankly, and the lousy1998 Matthew Broderick film didn’t help. But Edwards found a way to reimagine the story in human, character-driven terms.  The results are exciting, exhilarating.  Generally, massive CGI fight scenes featuring huge creatures are a bore, as, for example, in the Transformers movies, where Transformers grapple and it’s impossible to say which is the good Transformer, and which one is the evil one.  Or care.  Not this Godzilla.  There’s a fight scene between three monsters in which intervening humans are almost entirely ineffectual, and it still manages to be marvelous.

It’s not really a monster movie; certainly not a monster-imperiling-the-earth movie.  Or rather, it sort of is–Godzilla is huge, pretty well impervious to human weaponry, destructive, dangerous and scary.  And the other two big monsters in the film, called MUTOs, are likewise terrifying.  But Godzilla’s not malevolently disposed towards humanity. And actually, neither are the MUTOs.  They are, sort of, our creations–nuclear testing both awakened them and nourished them–but their imperatives are those of nature.  They want to feed and they want to breed. And we humans, we’re in the way.

Gareth Edwards has only made one other feature film, the 2010 independent film Monsters. It’s about an alien invasion, but it’s from the point of view of a journalist who agrees (reluctantly) to escort a tourist through an area of Mexico thought to be ‘infected’ by these alien creatures. It was a terrific sci-fi film, made with a limited budget, very much character-driven, and ultimately one that concludes that the invading aliens are mostly just trying to survive in a hostile environment, and that what they want is just what all species want: food, shelter, reproduction.

This Godzilla rests on a similar paradox.  One of the reasons it works is its focus on characters.  It stars terrific actors, indie-stars and character actors–Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe. Even its Studley McMuffin main character, Ford Brody, is played by the British actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, good-looking, sure, but also a fine actor.  And we care about the characters. There’s a scene early in the movie where Bryan Cranston, as head of a Japanese nuclear energy facility, has to shut a safety door on his wife (Binoche), killing her, to save everyone else in the plant. It’s an emotionally devastating scene, powerful and compelling, and it makes us care immensely about Cranston’s character, and also about Taylor-Johnson, who plays his son. The film is full of scenes like that. The film takes the time to make us care about the people.

But simultaneously, it’s a film about how little we homo sapiens matter in the larger scheme of things.  Godzilla and the two MUTOs, the three main monsters in the movie, are going to do their thing–survive, eat, reproduce– no matter how many shells our tanks fire at them.  So this is a film about people we care about, people who matter to us and who we root for, but it’s also a movie set in a world (our world!) in which human beings don’t really matter all that much at all.

(Except to screw things up.  It’s a film about that, too, about the idiocy of nuclear testing, about the Bikini atoll and Frenchman Flats and what colossally arrogant clod-hoppers we all were, thinking we could split atoms and blow up islands without consequence.)

Ford Brody, the character played by Taylor-Johnson, is a navy lieutenant, tasked with ordnance disposal.  And there are lots and lots of soldiers in this movie.  And without exception, the soldiers in the movie are courageous, dedicated, exceptionally well trained, and differentiated as characters. And their service completely doesn’t matter.  Much of the movie involves conversations between Admiral Stenz (Strathairn) and the scientist, Dr. Serizawa, played by Watanabe, ‘what do these creatures do, what do they want, how can we kill them’ conversations.  And plans are made that seem sensible enough, and those plans are executed with precision and intelligence by highly trained, exceptionally competent military personnel. (One of the film’s most spectacular scenes, a nighttime HELO drop, is absolutely breathtaking).  And none of them work at all. Nothing we do makes the slightest difference.

That’s not entirely true. It’s still a movie.  SPOILER ALERT: Our hero does manage to save mankind.  His actions aren’t part of any larger military plan and are, in fact, entirely improvised, but he does act bravely, and he does save the day.  But only sort of.  The hero of the film is Godzilla.  And he saves the world spectacularly and it’s really emotionally satisfying and an exceptionally cool scene.  But he doesn’t do it because of his love of humanity.  He may not even be aware that mankind exists. He saves the day because he’s an Alpha Predator, and that’s what happens at the top of the food chain. END SPOILER ALERT.

I could poke holes in the plot, if I wanted to.  (In fact, my wife and I had a good time after the movie doing just that).  And I could point out that Elizabeth Olsen (a terrific actress), doesn’t really get to do much except hope, forlornly, that her husband will show up.  And that we spent some time trying to figure out if it passes the Bechdel test.  (It sort of does, we decided).  But those are minor quibbles.  Godzilla is back, and he’s as huge, and powerful, and morally ambiguous as ever.  As morally ambiguous as Nature itself.  It’s a stunning movie.


Jesus: A Pilgrimage, book review

Every day, just after breakfast, for the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed a morning devotional with this lovely book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  It’s by a Jesuit priest named James Martin, who also works as a ‘spiritual director.’  I’d never heard of that particular calling before, but essentially, a spiritual director is someone who works with people to help them understand the specific ways God may be working in their lives.  In any event, I can see how his work informs this book.

A few years back, Father Martin went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In each of this book’s twenty-five chapters, he talks about a place in the Holy Land that he visited, his experiences there, the insights he gained, contemporary Bible scholarship about those places or the events that took place in them, and a quiet meditation on the larger themes suggested by the New Testament.  He writes with such good cheer, humor and optimism that he’s a delightful companion for this kind of spiritual journey.  But the emphasis is always on the scripture itself, on his own prayer-life, and on both the historical Jesus, and his own personal encounter with Jesus-the-divine.

What I found was that this wasn’t a book that’s meant to be read straight through, like most books.  It’s rather a book meant to be savored, a chapter at a time, quietly meditating and praying each morning. As I read it, I found myself remembering my own visit to Israel, back in the late 90’s. I remember visiting the Garden Tomb, and the Garden of Gethsemane. I remember the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian vendors, and their good cheer and kindness, and how fun it was to bargain with them.  It came rushing back, all of it.

And I love Father Martin’s insights.

Consider his words “Blessed are the poor.” Not every poor person is grateful or generous.  And grinding poverty is an evil. But Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up in a poor village, knew that we can often learn from the poor.  Jesus comments about poverty are frequent in the gospels, so it’s always surprising when professed Christians set them aside.  But Jesus is saying that more than helping the poor and more than combating the systems that keeps them poor, we must become like them, in their simplicity, generosity and dependence on God.  We are to become poor ourselves, to strip away everything that keeps us from God.

Naive?  Possibly.  But in an America where so much rhetoric is focused on the poor as ‘takers,’ it’s refreshing to see this modern King Benjamin, focusing on the way we all of us must rely on the bounty of God.  And this is an earned insight; Father Martin spent years working with the super-poor in Kenya.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  At the time I was reading it, I realized that I was, unaccountably, angry.  A lot. I don’t have a lot to be angry about, honestly.  I’m comfortably enough off financially.  I have a wonderful family, and a wife who loves me and who I adore. But years of chronic illness had begun to drain my patience. I was tired of constant pain, tired of being unable to walk more than fifty yards at a time, tired of feeling exhausted and without energy.  And so even the most minor slights began to feel like major insults.  And I woke every day, and went to bed every night, tensed with anger and resentment.

But as a Christian, as a Mormon, as someone who genuinely would like to live by the Sermon on the Mount, I needed to find some perspective.  I needed to cultivate gratitude, as the Beatitudes urge us to.  I needed to say “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”  I needed to embrace the richness and joy of life, and let minor tribulations go. I needed to continue to see my illness as a great blessing, and not as a limitation.  I needed to pray again. I needed to worship.

And then this book fell into my hands.  And I read it, one chapter a day, for a little shy of a month.  And it led me back to works I consider scripture.  And it led me back to a deeper relationship with my Father and my God, who I so often neglect, but who will never cease to love me.

And as I was reading it, my parents came to visit, and to be honest, my relationship with them hasn’t always been as good as it should be.  But this was a good visit, a joyful visit.  I found myself seeing them differently too.

Sometimes the right book comes to you, as a special gift.  This has been that, for me.  And so I humbly recommend it to you.  And it’s for everyone, I think, for believers and non-believers, for Bible scholars and for neophytes, for Mormons and Christians, and probably also for my wonderful, kind, gentle atheist friends too, because we can all learn to love our brothers and sisters more completely.  Or maybe it’s just the right book for me, and one that doesn’t mean anything to you.  If that happens, then that’s fine too.  We all find our own ways towards forgiveness, charity, compassion.  We all find our own path toward love.




Brick Mansions: Movie Review

Movies  are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them

-Pauline Kael


This time, we’re going to use every bit of the stupid buffalo

-attributed to Penny Arcade

Brick Mansions is as idiotic a movie as I have ever seen.  The plot makes no sense whatsoever, and the characters’ motivations and actions are similarly incomprehensible. It has, and earns, a 27% positive score on  And none of that matters at all.  I saw it with my Dad yesterday, and we had a blast.  It’s jaw-dropping, amazing, breathtaking. Ignore the plot, forget the story; this is David Belle’s American film debut.

In fact, there’s one movie I compare it to more than any other–and the similarities between these films is uncanny–Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx (1995).  That was the break-through movie for Chan, his first American film after years of Chinese superstardom.  Here’s from Roger Ebert’s famous review of that film:

Any attempt to defend this movie on rational grounds is futile. Don’t tell me about the plot and the dialogue. Don’t dwell on the acting. The whole point is Jackie Chan – and, like Astaire and Rogers, he does what he does better than anybody.

In Rumble in the Bronx, the bad guys Jackie’s been fighting against for the first half of the movie become, with no explanation whatever, his best friends in the last half of it.  This also happens in Brick Mansions.  In Rumble, tattooed ghetto hoods are pretty bad, but the guys in suits are the really bad guys; same as in Brick Mansions.  Jackie, in Rumble, has one stunt where he jumps off a roof through a tiny window in the next building; David Belle reprises it in Mansions.  But both movies take your breath away with the ingenuity and physical amazingness of the stunts.  For Jackie Chan, it was martial arts.  For David Belle, it’s parkour.

The biggest difference between the films is this: Jackie Chan starred in Rumble, while Mansions is a buddy movie, with Belle playing Paul Walker’s sidekick.

This makes it, ostensibly, a Paul Walker movie.  And of course, watching a Paul Walker movie nowadays is pretty bittersweet.  Walker died in an auto accident in November, after starring in the Fast and the Furious movies.  And Walker was, by all accounts, an agreeable and decent young man, giving millions to charity.  His performance in this isn’t anything special, but he holds the flick together.  Brick Mansions also includes incredible stunt driving sequences (Walker’s action-flick forte), as well as some creditable fight scenes.  He’s fine in this.  And David Belle is really only astonishing in his chase scenes and fight scenes and stunts.  He’s not a terrifically charismatic screen presence (unlike Jackie Chan).  But those Belle parkour sequences are so good, they make the entire movie.  (And I think he’s bare-chested throughout so we can be sure he’s not wired up to anything).

The premise of the movie is that the Brick Mansions section of Detroit, once home to the city’s rich folks, has become the worst slum in the city, home only to drug lords, like Tremaine (played by the rapper RZA).  RZA owns the drug trade, as it happens, and commands an immense army of nasties, most prominently Rayzah (Ayishah Issa), a leather-wearing dominatrix, an smiling enforcer K2 (played by the French-Canadian actor Gouchy Boy), and a mountainous thug with the character name (I kid you not) Yeti, played by former pro wrestler Robert Maillet.  Paul Walker plays detective Damien Collier, the one honest cop in Detroit. But to infiltrate Brick Mansions, he needs a criminal sidekick Lino; hence David Belle.

So Damien and Lino have to go into this walled-off slum, to capture Tremaine, and also to defuse a big bomb that’s about to do some swift and radical slum clearance.  And of course, they carefully employ the usual plan favored in Idiot Action Flicks, the one where they walk in the front door and beat everyone up, counting on the several thousands rounds being fired at them by various baddies all missing.

I’m not sure SPOILER ALERTS matter in movies this foolishly plotted, but skip this paragraph if you want to experience the full catharsis provided by this plot’s measure of pity and fear.  Trumaine, despite having shot innocent people for no reason earlier, suddenly transforms becomes the Conscience of the Movie in its last act.  And the movie offers this ray of hope to poor, beleaguered Detroit–they should just make their leading drug kingpin their mayor.  That’d work!  And that’s by no means the stupidest part of the ‘plot’.

Lino has a girlfriend, Lola (Catalina Denis), who gets captured by Tremaine and held captive and lesbianly threatened by Rayzah.  (And she and Rayzah of them have conversations!  Full of threats, back and forth!  Two women, talking! Right before one of them pushes the other one off the roof!  It passes the Bechdel test!!!).  And Rayzah uses a razor to cut off the two top buttons of Lola’s blouse, for no reason but this: so that for the rest of the movie, that blouse will have two fewer buttons.  As Lola’s being captured, surrendered to Tremaine by a corrupt police captain, Lino kills the jerk who turned her over.  When Damien/Paul Walker is assigned to work with Lino, we’re told that he is in federal prison for that murder.  Cut back to Lola, who is still tied up with the same rope as was used when she was captured, and still wearing the same outfit (missing the same two buttons).  So: two possibilities.  Either Lino was indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced in about three hours.  Or Lola has been held by Tremaine for however number of months or years it would actually take to try and convict Lino, without her ever having been untied or allowed to change her clothes or brush her hair.

Or we’re just not supposed to notice massive inconsistencies in the movie’s time frame.  Because what matters in these things isn’t coherence or intelligibility.  What matters is a) Lola’s costume missing two buttons, b) Damien being assigned to work with a (horrors!) criminal, c) the subsequent establishment of a fun buddy dynamic between the movie’s two stars, and d) suitably glowering footage of evil Tremaine and eviler Rayzah.  Those objectives accomplished, stuff like the plot making sense don’t matter.

Because the point of the movie are chases and stunts and fight scenes.  And those are all quite spectacular.  Belle has this one escape scene in which he runs up walls, climbs poles, leaps off roofs, vaults over various baddies, and kicks people in the face, all done with the camera far enough away for us to really see the stunts, and edited to look like one continuous sequence.  It’s really spectacular stuff.  And it makes the movie worth watching.  While the film is certainly stupid, it’s not inconsequential.  David Belle is one of the founders of parkour, and he’s amazing.

We don’t always (or even often) go to movies for enlightenment, for inspiration, for art. Or even for them to make sense. A lot of the time we go to movies to have fun.  And this movie is fun.  My Dad and I sat in the theater with another guy, a total stranger, and afterwards, we were dumbfounded at what we’d watched.  And the other guy just shook his head.  “Wow,” he said.  “Wow.”


Michael Sam, and Jackie Robinson

Like an unfathomably large number of my fellow American sports fans, I spent quite a bit of time last week watching the NFL slave auction amateur player draft.  The best young football players in the country, having previously been weighed and measured, raced against each other, challenged to weightlifting contests, given the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, interviewed extensively and investigated by teams of private detectives, were selected by the 32 teams in the NFL, teams representing cities where, if selected, the young men will be required to live and work without any say over either circumstance, compensated only by all of them becoming millionaires. The worst teams got to pick first, in an effort at competitive balance.  Despite this, the two teams generally thought to have drafted most effectively were the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, both perennial winners.  And this exercise in compensatory socialism represents the highest triumph of capitalism imaginable; the NFL’s business model is universally admired in the world of professional sports. There isn’t any part of the NFL draft that’s not insane.

I watched, for example, watched for hours.  And I don’t even like football that much.  And for the most part, the telecast is unimaginably dull.

Which is not to say it’s lacking in drama, or in human interest.  The biggest speculation over the early stages of the draft was over who would draft Johnny Manziel.  ‘Johnny Football’ as he came to be known, and marketed.  He was the best college player in the country over the past two years, but also possibly too small and slight to succeed in the pros. Plus, he’s a fun kid, charismatic and charming, but also perhaps too avid a partier for everyone to be completely comfortable picking him.  As team after team passed on him, the camera increasingly followed his every grimace and grin.  Finally he was picked, by Cleveland.  And immediately, all the commentators agreed it was a perfect fit for him, Cleveland, a developing team in need of some excitement, with a fanatical fan base, and also excellent receivers for him to throw to, and also simultaneously a terrible fit for him, because Cleveland’s line isn’t very good and he’s going get killed back there.

And a similar dynamic played itself out on Saturday, the third (!) day of the draft, in the seventh round, as team after team passed on Michael Sam.  And then, finally, seven picks from the end of the entire draft, the St. Louis Rams took the plunge.  And America was treated to the genuine emotion of a fine young man achieving a dream, and responding by kissing his romantic partner.  Who, in Sam’s case, happened to be another young man.

Sam is a barrier breaker, the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL.  He won’t be the first gay player.  In 2003, Kwame Harris was drafted by the 49ers in the first round, and played for six years.  Harris came out after his career was over, and now says he regrets not doing so while playing.  There have undoubtedly been many others.  Sam absolutely deserves kudos for coming out openly.  But times have changed; I don’t think there’s any doubt that locker room culture is more welcoming to gay players today than even eleven years ago.  Or, also, that it’s not entirely welcoming.

Like most of the players drafted, Sam finds himself in a perfect situation for him, and also a terrible one.  Jeff Fisher, the Rams’ coach, is a very strong personality, who has already made it clear that in his locker room, Sam will be treated as just another player.  The Rams’ team is young, and St. Louis is close to the University of Missouri, where Sam played his college ball.  There’s already a fan base in the area ready to root for him.  That’s all true.  And Michael Sam was a tremendous college player.  But lots of great college players can’t hack it in the NFL.  Sam did poorly at the combine; was demonstrably slower and less agile than other guys competing as defensive linemen.  And the Rams, the team he’s joining, already is loaded at defensive end, Sam’s position.  Robert Quinn and Chris Long, the Ram’s starters, are outstanding players–Quinn’s probably the best end in the league.  Their backups, William Sims and Eugene Hays last year, were also excellent, and would start for any other team.  Sam is probably too slow to make an impact on special teams.  If the Rams carry five defensive ends on their roster, Sam might make the team as the fifth guy there. If they decide to carry four, he’s likely to be the odd man out. That’s not homophobia; just the harsh reality of life in the NFL.  His best chance of playing in the NFL would be if one of those players were injured.  And, of course, that’s also, brutally, possible.

One comparison I’ve heard is to Jackie Robinson.  And there’s some validity there. Michael Sam is a pioneer, as was Jackie.  Some people compared Sam to Kenny Washington, the first black player signed to an NFL contract.  (And Washington also was signed by the Rams, same franchise).  But there are a number of significant differences.

Not many fans know this, but the NFL beat major league baseball to integration by a year.  Jackie’s debut was in 1947; Kenny Washington’s was in 1946.  But Washington was only the first black player to sign; three others joined him in the NFL in ’46.  Washington was joined by Woody Strode, Bill Willis and Marion Motley, playing professional football together.  (FWIW, Willis and Motley were superstars; Washington was a good player, and Strode’s career was short, just that one season.  Strode made his mark in movies; he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Spartacus).

But Jackie Robinson faced it all alone. And baseball was a much bigger deal back then than football was.  And the baseball season is longer, and the player uniforms don’t hide the man behind padding.  Jackie was always a target, and racist idiots had 154 games to unleash their bile on him.  I rather liked the movie 42, which came out last year, but my main criticism of it was that it never came close to capturing the sheer hatred Jackie Robinson faced every day of the ’47 season.  I don’t mean to diminish the struggles of Washington, Willis, Motley and Strode, but I don’t think they faced anywhere close to the sheer hatred that Jackie Robinson did.  But of course we should honor them all.  Their courage remains an inspiration.

The other thing about Jackie Robinson, though, was that he couldn’t just be a ballplayer.  He had to be a star.  He had to dispel the widely circulated myth that baseball really didn’t discriminate; that black players just weren’t good enough to play at the major league level. In the meritocracy of professional sports, black guys hadn’t been signed or scouted for a reason–there really were substantive racial differences that made them unlikely to succeed. And so on. That specific pile of racist BS was the main one that Jackie Robinson had to flush away, and the only way he could flush it was to excel, to be, not just an exciting and capable player, but a superstar.  And he did it.  He’s not in the Hall of Fame as a symbol or as a pioneer.  He’s in the Hall, absolutely legitimately, as a ballplayer.

Not only was Robinson an incandescent talent, he had also to exhibit near-saintly deportment.  Faced with endless taunts and provocations, he had to . . . turn away, to not respond, to not strike back.  For a proud and intelligent and ferociously competitive young man, that had to be incredibly, even incomprehensibly difficult. But Robinson was carrying the freight for his entire race.  He pulled that off too.

I don’t think Michael Sam will have to face anything like that today.  Sam just has to be a football player. The struggle, to be a good player but also a gay pioneer, probably ruined Kwame Harris’ career.  Harris was a first round draft pick, expected to be a star.  He was, as a player, a disappointment, and he now says that the subtle homophobia of the locker room was a reason he could never quite find his way professionally.  That might happen to Sam too, but I think times have changed enough that it might be easier for him than it was for Harris.

Right now, Sam’s just fighting to make the team, like any other rookie. (Also, in interview after interview, impressing people with his intelligence, passion and poise).  He has to demonstrate, in the locker room, that he’s just another player. He doesn’t have to be superhuman. He doesn’t have to be Jackie Robinson.  Everyone at Missouri says that last year, he was a team leader, a locker room enforcer, a good guy.  His sexual orientation matters, because it’s not going to matter.  Anyway you look at it, that’s progress.


Women of Faith: A Review

Women of Faith is a short film made on a shoestring by some former students of mine.  You’re not likely to see it except here.  A young woman, Julianne, clearly distraught, perhaps in despair, wanders into an art gallery, featuring paintings of women.  The artist talks to her about the paintings, and as she peers into each one, it comes to life.  She sees a short vignette about an inspiring LDS woman from the past.  That’s the premise of the film.

It feels a bit like a Church film, and its intent is obviously inspirational and at least somewhat didactic.  But didactic about what, with what intent?

Julianne, the distraught young woman, wants to get back to Africa, where she’s done humanitarian work in the past.  The artist is named Eve, and carries an oh-so-symbolic apple.  And I think that’s really what the film is about, young women embracing the mission of Eve. And I think it’s related to Julianne’s dilemma.  She wants to leave, to go somewhere where she’s needed.  And Eve helps.

The film’s vignettes are interestingly tangential.  Like, one of them is about the painter Minerva Teichert.  But it’s not really about her work as a painter, particularly.  It’s about whether she should marry Herman Teichert, who was not LDS.  This is what I mean by tangential; an Idaho woman, from a time and place sort of hostile to art, and definitely unsupportive of an artist’s life, nonetheless wants to (and intends to) paint, but  the conflict of the film has more to do with her marriage than what we might expect.  So the message isn’t really about feminism v. patriarchy, or even cultural expectations v. My Dream’.  It’s about something more down-to-earth.

But really, it’s about embracing the possibilities opened up by Eve.

And what is the mission of Eve?  In medieval theology, she was understood straightforwardly enough.  Eve messed up.  Eve lived in paradise, partook of the forbidden fruit, and ruined Adam’s life.  Kicked out of the garden, a life of pain and sorrow and illness and death.  Eve blew it.  Eve’s the reason our lives down here suck.

We don’t see it that way, we Mormons.  The key scripture for us is Moses 5:11.

And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.

Eve ate the apple, to be sure.  But we believe she did it on purpose, knowingly, that life in the Garden was one of stasis, pleasant enough, but without growth or learning or any real happiness.  By transgressing, Eve opened the door to sin, yes, and temptation and pain, but also joy.  Instead of a placid and undemanding contentment, we suffer, we bleed, we bruise, we die, but we also open up the possibility of progression.

What would art be without Eve? Spiritless decoration. What’s drama without conflict, what’s music without counterpoint, what’s dance without movement? Eve’s choice introduced the exquisite tension of human sexuality to mere procreation, introduced the abrasive possibility of contention and disagreement to human relationships turned placid and undemanding.

We take it a step farther, in fact.  Whether we understand ‘Eve’ and ‘Adam’ and ‘Serpent’ and ‘Eden’ as actual beings in an actual place, or as metaphors and types and symbols, either way, we think that narrative echoes one we all went through.  We all were Eves. We believe in a pre-existent state where we all had a choice to make; mortality with all its suffering and misery, or eternity without conflict or difficulty or growth.

We made, I think, an informed decision.  We saw the earth; we saw life on earth evolve from slime mold to amoeba to dinosaur to hominid.  We saw violence; we knew what that was.  We saw disease and suffering; we knew what those were as well.  We chose deliberately to come to a place that had to look just plain terrifying.  But we also knew we’d never learn a darn thing if we didn’t go.

I wonder if that’s why we put so much emphasis on rites of passage. Births and naming ceremonies, adulthood, birthdays, graduations, weddings. We probably had a big party ourselves before we went.  And I don’t doubt that I was a peculiarly timid and cowardly spirit.  I wanted to wait; I didn’t want to come until evolution led us to an age where people had things like air conditioning and antibiotics and dentistry.

Anyway, we reject, we just flat out reject a ‘curse of Eve.’  We reject, pretty much completely, the idea of Original Sin.  To us, original sin just means a propensity for rebelliousness.  And, come to think of it, maybe that’s Eve’s real legacy.  A kind of fearless chance-taking, a spirit of adventure, a commitment to ‘nobody tells me what to do.’  If so, nicely done, Mom.


My daughter and I had a great time Saturday night at Plan B Theatre’s celebration of the First Amendment, And The Banned Played On.  Various local politicians and Salt Lake celebrities read excerpts from favorite children’s books that have been banned somewhere or another.  Dangerous, subversive, pornographic works, intended to destroy the morals of America’s Youth.  Like Charlotte’s Web.  And Winnie the Pooh.  And The Giving Tree.  And Green Eggs and Ham.  And Where the Wild Things Are.  And The Wizard of Oz.  You know.  Books by commies.

It made for a deliciously entertaining evening, and I couldn’t possibly do a better job of reviewing it than this lovely piece by my friend Les Roka.  But my daughter and I had a wonderful conversation about it in the car on the way home, and it led to this thought.

Isn’t censorship the single most foolish human endeavor ever?  I mean, for some reason people keep doing it.  It’s culturally universal.  All the books listed above were banned somewhere in the United States, and we’ve got a First Amendment.  Most civilizations have practiced some form of it historically.  But isn’t the failure rate essentially 100 percent?  Isn’t the inevitable result of censorship this: that later generations look back at those doing the censoring as complete and total idiots?

Now, of course there are times censorship works fine, if the goal is to destroy books and the knowledge and wisdom found in them.  If, when you burn down the library of Alexandria, you destroy priceless copies of books now lost to mankind, you have to say the book burners won. Just in terms of my field,  dramatic literature, the losses are devastating: Sophocles wrote 123 plays–7 have survived.  Aeschylus wrote 90; again, we have 7 today.  For Euripides, the count is 18 of 92.  Saddest of all is Menander, who wrote over 100 plays, of which only the Dyskolos remains.

But when we think of burned manuscripts, destructive fires in the libraries that collected them, our reaction is sadness and anger.  ‘What a shame,’ we think.  ‘What dolts,’ we think, ‘to have destroyed or neglected so much of our historical legacy.’  Basically nobody thinks ‘boy, those generations of censors did good work.’

As my daughter and I drove home on Saturday, we talked about some of the celebrated censorship cases in American history; over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, over The Tropic of Cancer, over Howl.  Do you know the name David Kirk?  He was a literature professor at SFSU who testified that Allen Ginsburg’s Howl was a work utterly lacking in literary merit.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. . . .

I did that from memory.  I can cite a lot of it from memory.  In the 2010 movie about the Howl trial, Jeff Daniels plays Kirk in a performance that’s a comedic masterpiece.  That’s how we think of David Kirk nowadays.  A joke.

Probably best to define our terms.  Obviously no library can purchase every book, and library boards have the difficult task of deciding where to spend limited resources.  That’s why a literary canon is helpful, and also why it’s ever expanding. I’m playwright in residence at a local theatre company; they have to make tough decisions every year about which plays to produce.  If they look at 20 plays and decide to produce 5 of them, they haven’t censored 15 plays.  That’s not censorship.

I know another local theatre company, an exceptionally good one, that basically only produces small musicals and small-cast comedies.  That’s their niche.  And they do great work.  That doesn’t mean they’re ‘censoring’ larger cast musicals, or large cast dramas.  They know their audience, and they produce plays that audience wants to see.  Publishers can’t publish everything, theatres can’t produce everything, libraries have limited shelf space.

No, censorship, as I’m using the term, involves bowing to pressure.  It’s when a library or school or bookstore is pressured to not carry a book, or, having carried it, to remove it from their shelves.  It’s when a theatre company decides to cut that word or that speech or that gesture from a play they’ve agreed to present, or when the author of some book is threatened because of something he or she has written.  If a professor publishes a controversial book, s/he has to be able to rely on the university where s/he teaches to have her/his back.  That’s why tenure and academic freedom are so essential, and why any university that doesn’t have real tenure or doesn’t strongly support academic freedom shouldn’t be accredited.

As a private citizen, if another citizen says something I disagree strenuously with, and I state my disagreement strongly, that’s not censorship.  I’m uncomfortable with campaigns to fire someone, or to boycott a product based on something someone said.  I like robust debate in a democracy.  And I think that censorship is by no means limited to conservatives.  The punishment of politically incorrect speech is as distasteful to me as any other kind of censorship.

I have been censored, and, sad to admit, I have acted as a censor.  Back when I was a college professor, I was very occasionally called upon to see a student-directed theatre production, to see if there was anything in it that might offend our audience’s sensibilities.  I found it a profoundly distasteful task, but I did it, mostly because I know most of my colleagues hated doing it as much as I did, and it seemed selfish to me to refuse to do a disagreeable job that might otherwise have to be done by a friend.

What I hated about it was this: when you act as a censor, when you’re there to censor a play production, you watch it differently than you ordinarily do.  You can’t just enjoy it.  You’re there to look for things to be offended by.  You’re watching it from the perspective of someone who gets offended by stuff, whatever, language or subject matter or something.  And that’s a horrible way to watch a play.

Censor-watching isn’t the same thing as criticism. On this blog, I do a lot of criticism, of plays and movies and books.  Criticism is a healthy thing, and a positive thing.  When you criticize a work of art, you’re trying to look beneath the surface, trying to figure out what’s really going on, or at least what appears to be going on.  When I see a play written or directed by a friend, I want to do that friend the respect of taking their work seriously, to really interrogate it, to really break it down.

But censorship is inherently shallow.  Censorship is when you count the number of swear words.  Censors look to be offended; they’re trying to be offended.  A critic offers the artist the compliment of suspending disbelief.  The censor can’t be bothered to work that hard.  The censor doesn’t want to share in experiencing the central act of art; to bear testimony, to lose ourselves in a story and a world, to feel compassion for another damaged and lost soul.  The censor instead wants to bask in the warm glow of self-righteousness.

Censorship judges.  Censors don’t get Matthew 7:1-5.  Censors can’t get past the mote in the brother’s eye.  Censors are blinded by the beam.



Common Core and testing, part two

Yesterday, I wrote about Common Core and testing, and it generated a lot of interesting responses.  A lot of actual teacher-type people defended Common Core, said they use the curriculum in their classroom and like it.  As I said in my post yesterday, I don’t actually have a problem with the Common Core curriculum.  Of course, I also said that I had a huge problem with it, which suggests a certain confusion on my part.  So let me clarify.

One veteran teacher I respect said she liked the Common Core approach to teaching math.  It was initially confusing, she said (the problem that Louis C. K. had with it), but if you persevered, it allowed you to understand mathematics at a deeper, profounder level; not just how to solve a problem but the underlying principles informing problem solving.  I believe her.  Another good friend liked the creativity in the Common Core arts curriculum.  So that’s good too.

The conservative critique of Common Core is that it’s a prime example of federal overreach, on a par with (shudder) Obamacare.  Well, I like the ACA; I like Obamacare.  And I find that kind of ideological opposition to Common Core misplaced.  Silly, in fact.

I believe that Common Core works.  I think that it’s a valid and interesting approach to the ever-vexing problem of curriculum.  (NOTE: SKIP THIS NEXT BIT, IF YOU WANT TO). I’m sort of an amateur medievalist, and the entire 9th-14th centuries of scholasticism were obsessed with questions over curricula.  Should they teach the Trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric), or should they also add the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).  One of my heroes, Pope Sylvester II, was accused of witchcraft, because he dared teach his students the Quadrivium.  And because he used (disgusting!) Arabic numerals.  And used (horrors!) an abacus. (Still trying to figure out how you taught mathematics before the invention of the zero.  But I digress.  Like, massively.  Sorry).

Ahem.  Sorry.  Anyway, Common Core; I’m fine with it.  What I dislike is the notion that it should be universal, compulsory, the One and Only True Curriculum.  Shouldn’t there be choice?  Surely with all the Education PhDs out there, someone could create a rival curriculum?  Let teachers decide.  Lay out some possibilities.  Teachers all have strengths and weaknesses, and maybe what works great for one teacher, another teacher balks at.

When I think of the most important and influential teachers in my life, what I remember first and foremost was how strong their personalities were, and how their teaching was an expression of those personalities, an extension of who they were.  I studied playwriting, for example, from Sam Smiley.  I found his approach to playwriting astonishingly uncongenial.  He based it on his own bastardization of Aristotle’s Poetics, and he wanted us to break down our play into beats before we wrote a single word, and I just couldn’t do it his way.  And as a person, we were polar opposites.  He was a runner; I don’t run; he was a socialist, I was (then), pretty conservative.  But I loved Sam, and I learned more from him than from anyone else, and his lessons ended up informing my own writing. Not my approach, but the final product.  He wanted us to figure out the structure, then draft the play.  I can’t do that.  I need to draft the play, then go back and figure out the structure.  But we get to the same place.

So what I’m hearing from teachers is exactly what I would expect to hear; some teachers say ‘hey, I like Common Core, it works well for me.’ And other teachers say ‘I loathe Common Core; it’s awful.’  That doesn’t strike me as a problem; it strikes me as a wonderful opportunity, for genuine diversity and the unleashing of creative energy.  In fact, that kind of difference is what education should embrace.  And I don’t have the slightest problem with the idea that kids in Maryland are learning slightly different material than kids in Wyoming are learning, or even that kids in Miss Johnson’s third grade class are learning slightly different stuff than the kids in Mrs. Smith’s class across the hall. I mean, I’d have a problem with it if Miss Johnson was passionately committed to the belief that 3+6=11.  I don’t want either of them to teach anything that’s actively untrue. And sure, you don’t want Mrs. Smith’s kids to go to fourth grade and have no idea what’s going on–you want her 3rd grade curriculum to dovetail, more or less, with the curricula taught at the next level. In broad, general terms, there should be some agreement on what basic stuff is being taught.  So there’s a continuum here, between ‘absolute anarchy’ at one end of the scale and ‘micromanaging’ on the other end of it, but I really don’t think it should be all that hard to agree to meet somewhere in the middle.

So, by all means, let’s embrace Common Core.  And let’s equally embrace five other curricular approaches.  Let teachers choose.  Let them mix and match.  What’s wrong with a smorgasbord approach to education?

But one thing everyone agrees is this: standardized testing has to go.  All of it.  Permanently.

I taught for twenty years at the university level, and during that time, I probably gave a thousand tests, probably a lot more.  I think tests can be an immensely valuable pedagogical tool. I like tests.  I never once gave a multiple choice/matching/true false type test.  I think they’re worthless. I gave essay tests.  But I like tests.  I think it’s important to figure out how well kids are getting it, and above all, how well they’re thinking. And I tried to grade them carefully.

That’s the value of tests–they serve an invaluable and legitimate pedagogical purpose, for some teachers. Other teachers don’t like them, don’t use them, and find other ways to figure out how their kids are doing with the material. (For idiosyncratic reasons of my own, I refuse to use the fashionable buzz words ‘assessment’ or ‘learning’ or ‘learners.’)  Anyway, I think tests should up to teachers, a tool that some teachers use and that some teachers don’t use.  Up to the teacher.

But if a teacher does use tests, then those tests results should be entirely between her and her students, or, perhaps, between her, her students and their parents.  Sharing test results with anyone else strikes me as completely inappropriate.  The purpose of administering a test is to help the student, to give the student some idea of how well she’s mastering the material, and what she needs to work on.  And to give the teacher an idea of where she can best help the student.  And, sure, I can see some advantage in involving parents in that process.  But that’s absolutely it.

But sharing the results of a test with someone else?  With the principal?  With an administrator?  With the school board?  With the government?  To share a private communication with anyone not involved in that most sacred interaction, between student and teacher?  I cannot even begin to express my outrage at the very idea of it.

And then to hold test results over a teacher’s head, to use it to threaten and intimidate, to say ‘your pay depends on your student passing this test?’  To say ‘your school will be punished if your student doesn’t pass this test.’  To say that basic resources you need in order to teach effectively may be denied you if your students don’t do well on a standardized test?  Nothing corrupts the education process more than that.  It’s completely immoral.  It’s disgusting.  It warps everything sacred and pure about the educational experience.

One thing you hear is that the standardized tests are so important to teachers that they’ll teach to them; that it warps both curriculum and pedagogy.  Of course that’s entirely true.  It’s a basic scientific principle that the act of observing any phenomenon changes its behavior.  We see it in American education, the way testing warps and twists and harms the entire profession.  I just think it’s worse than that.  It’s a profanation of education.  It changes the very nature of the teacher/student relationship.  Instead of a test being a potentially valuable tool, another positive teacher/student interaction, it makes kids stress over something that doesn’t benefit them at all.  It makes teachers complicit in their own loss of autonomy.  It turns academic freedom into a sick, sad joke.

The only positive of standardized testing, the only place where testing has some limited integrity is this: it clarifies, as nothing else could, the absolute contempt in which political elites hold teachers.  Politicians love paying lip service to teachers, love using teachers as props in political rallies, love making pro forma protestations of how much they care about education.  But testing gives the lie to all of it.  If you’re a teacher, know this: they do not trust you, they do not respect you, they do not honor what you do.  When they say they do, they’re lying.  How can you know that?  Testing.  It’s an exact expression of their contempt.  Every standardized test carries the message ‘we don’t think you’re doing a good job.  We don’t trust you.’

Okay, they’re not all villains, and I mean, I do get the appeal.  The President, the Secretary of Education, governors and state school boards and local school boards and congresspeople, they’re all pro-testing, because what they want is certainty.  They want proof, solid data, irrefutable evidence that kids are learning, that school is a good investment.  But teaching is too important to allow for that kind of certainty.  Teaching is not a science; it’s an art form. It’s measured in lives changed, not in numbers, not in test scores.

How do we fix it?  First of all, let’s be clear about our objectives.  I want all standardized testing to end, immediately and permanently, at all grade levels in the United States.  That’s what I’m about, and that’s what I’m aiming for.  Here are some possible ways for this to happen (and I’m in favor of all of them.)

Civil disobedience.  Remember Clark County Nevada, those three administrators who were caught altering test scores?  Or the same thing in El Paso, Texas?  Or how the same thing has happened in forty other states?  Or in twenty three California schools? Some people have gone to jail over cheating. And yes, that’s deplorable. So wrong, so criminal.  Or, let’s call changing test scores part of a protest movement and do it everywhere?  A lot of parents are opting their kids out of testing.  I’m sympathetic, but wouldn’t it be more effective to let your kids take the tests, but tell them to fail on purpose?  Make it kind of fun?  These tests don’t matter to the kids, at all.  Why not turn them into a national joke?  Cheat more, not less.  Civil disobedience, man.  Far out.

Lawsuits.  When I was teaching at BYU, a lot of professors (myself included) would put graded tests in a box outside our offices, let students pick them up.  We got a memo from the college saying we should stop doing that, because it was a violation of student privacy to let other students paw their their tests while looking for their own.  In retrospect, I think our college was right on this issue, and that I was wrong.  I know the government will argue that they’re not sharing individual test results, but only aggregate scores, but I don’t think it matters.  I think a law suit, suing the federal government for violating student privacy by sharing their test scores could very well win. At least, it’s a tactic we should try.

Finally, of course, we need to make our voices heard by politicians across the entire political spectrum.  If ‘opposition to Common Core’ becomes another conservative cause (which is where it’s trending), it will lose.  This has to be a bi-partisan issue, Republicans and Democrats united in opposition to standardized testing.

I really think this is an issue with some energy right now.  Let’s speak up.  Let’s write, text, email, phone, organize.  Power to the people! Power to the people, right on.  And while we’re at it, raise teacher pay.  That would help too.