Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Not-So-Fresh Debate

My new Super Hero of Brilliance is JoAn Karkos, for pretending she is the arbiter of taste and appropriateness for the Lewiston Public Library.

She borrowed “It’s Perfectly Normal,” a book for young adolescents about puberty and sexuality. She has heroically refused to return it.

According to news reports, Karkos claims she wanted to keep kids from having access to the book. Now she’s in trouble with the law, and, as of this writing, was about to be found in contempt of court and jailed.

It’s all part of her ploy.

Any time a non-heroin-addicted grandmother is on her way to The Big House for something besides prostitution, the national media goes bonkers.

As a result, several people around the country have sent the Lewiston Public Library new copies of the book. There are now five more available to be checked out.

Karkos has effectively quintupled the availability of the book to children.

We should all celebrate her sly, ingenious method of making sure fewer kids experience adolescence in a swirl of anxiety and confusion.

I remember it well. My junior high sex-ed class was informative, but it focused a lot on boring stuff like fallopian tubes and the vas deferens. As if I needed to know about my vas deferens in that moment. They left out the important stuff, like:

• How a woman gets the “not-so-fresh feeling” discussed in the commercials.

• Does size matter?

• What it actually feels like to finally have a girl… you know… look in your direction without making a face like she just tasted sour milk

The dictionary was not very helpful, either. What was I supposed to do, walk around asking people to define the “not so fresh feeling” for me? I learned after four or five tries in the grocery store how futile that was.

And “Hey, mom, do you douche?” was just not on the list of options.

These days, kids have Google to sort these things out, but some people are not comfortable with the idea of their child potentially learning about sex from some Internet pervert like Wikipedia.

So kudos to Karkos, I say, for giving kids better access to a professionally-written resource to help them make educated decisions about sex.

Sure, she could have just bought five copies of the book and donated them to the library. But that would have cost her $100, and it would not have drawn so much attention to this critical, overlooked issue.

She knows there are conservative nut-jobs out there who believe that if you don’t give kids information about sex, they’ll just go right on catching frogs and playing house until they’re 18, when it’s time to get married and have kids.

Karkos claims she’s practicing “Civil Disobedience.” Of course! She wants to go to jail to draw attention to her cause. That explains why she didn’t just tell the library she “accidentally” ran over it with a lawnmower or something.

By playing up the controversy, Karkos is championing the sensible idea that sexual feelings and behaviors are a (gasp!) normal – and maybe even beautiful – part of being human.

So no need to feel ashamed for being curious, kids. Read away.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Chaos Reigns Over Our Broken Democracy

So John McCain doesn’t know how many houses he owns. Let me be the first liberal to offer this response: Who gives a donkey’s monkey?

You heard right, folks. I wouldn’t vote for McCain at gunpoint, but his response to this question does not bother me.

If you and your spouse took in almost $6 million a year, how long do you think it would take before you didn’t know how many houses you owned?

It’s called investing in real estate, people. And it’s a smart move, especially right now, and it’s even smarter if you pay someone else to handle your investments. No wonder McCain doesn’t know how many houses he owns.

It would be like asking me how many dinner plates are in the kitchen cabinet. My wife cares about that stuff; I just wash them.

Obama, who previously cast himself as a transcendent figure who would not lower himself to the filthy, immature squabbling of superficial “politics as usual,” lost my respect by jumping all over McCain for being “out of touch with ordinary Americans.”

I don’t know how many times I have to say it. As a certified Ordinary American, I don’t want the President of the United States to be like me.

I want the President to be brilliant, like a five-time Jeopardy champion, but also to have absurd amounts of courage, like an amateur kick boxer with engorged testicles.

And he should also have an advanced soul, like Ghandi; the type of person who is not attached to material possessions, and therefore doesn’t bother to count his money, his houses, or his menservants, because he is too busy correcting injustices and stuff like that.

In short, the less like me, the better.

Just when I was getting over this foolishness, I found out that conservative saboteurs have been all over Fox News and the Internet claiming that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is fake, and he wasn’t actually born a U.S. Citizen, which would make him ineligible to become President.

Yet another example of how modern journalism has become less concerned with facts than with raising a ruckus.

The Annenberg Foundation, a non-partisan media watchdog, got their hands on the actual birth certificate from the State of Hawaii (via some cloak-and-dagger nighttime raid?) and declared that it has all of the features required by the U.S. State Department to prove citizenship, including a raised seal, verifiable signature, and giant white-out stain.

The Annenberg people took close-up photos of the birth certificate and posted the on their website,, along with a borrowed image of a birth announcement from the Honolulu Advertiser from August of 1961, and video from a time travel expedition to Mrs. Obama’s hospital room for a live interview during the birth.

It still may not be enough to quell the conspiracy theorists.

At this point I’m just disgusted with the whole process. So my vote is going to the only candidate who suggested after Hurricane Katrina that federal officials should be arrested for negligent homicide, and who berated the Pentagon for pouring money into companies that support human trafficking and sex slavery.

That would be Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party.

I don’t expect her to win, of course, but we need strong third parties around to remind us that there are… you know… issues.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Accountability: Making Us Stupider Since 2001

It’s “back to school time,” and we also have a major election approaching. Seems like a great time to take my car out on the Interstate and make sure its air bags are working properly.

Ha! Just kidding. I actually meant to say that it’s a great time to evaluate the political candidates’ views on education, if they have any.

Candidates haven’t said much about education, which is weird, because the Bush Administration has spent the last eight years pelting public schools with spitballs.

Take the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires teachers to be “highly qualified” in a specialty field.

Unfortunately, “education” does not qualify as a “specialty field.”

So in order to be designated as “highly qualified” to teach high school English, I needed extra coursework or a bachelor’s degree in English (no worries – I found one in the dumpster behind Pat’s Pizza).

The only problem: an English degree teaches one a lot about which objective case pronoun one should use in one’s hypothetical sentences, but it does nothing to help one figure out how to teach kids to read.

Far too many kids walk into high school classrooms barely able to read. I need to help them with the basics before they can tackle Shakespeare.

But the President would rather make sure I can write a 20-page term paper on Moby Dick at 3 a.m. on the day it’s due without spilling black coffee on my keyboard.

This is just one example of how politicians make educational decisions that look fabulous in the headlines, but in the actual classroom make about as much sense as shoveling snow with a copy of Sports Illustrated.

Another example is the amount of testing (known as “accountability”) required by NCLB. Nowadays, teachers have to demonstrate accountability every six or seven minutes, which tends to squelch creativity and innovation in the classroom.

If students are learning half as much as they used to, at least we’re accounting for that half.

So what do the leading candidates have to say?

Let’s begin with Maine’s U.S. Senate. The Collins campaign lists a bunch of accomplishments for education on its web site, including establishing a special fund for rural schools to meet NCLB requirements, and a $250 tax write-off for teachers who buy their own classroom supplies (muchas gracias).

She also got an “A” ranking from the National Education Association.

What a nerd!

Meanwhile, Tom Allen’s website lists a grand total of 1 (one) accomplishment for education, which was to “vote for” an increase in college student aid funding. The NEA also gave him an “A.”

Allen is obviously the better candidate. He is so smart that he can slack off and still pull out a good grade.

On the Presidential front, McCain says schools “must have the resources and management authority” to provide a decent education. Judging from his support of NCLB and voucher programs, his idea of providing “resources and management authority” is to yank money away from poor school districts and threaten to fire principals.

Obama would rather “support schools that need improvement, rather than punish them.” He does not say how he would accomplish this, but outlined 15 ages worth of ideas for early childhood education, recruiting teachers, and other boring stuff that could, you know, do something about all those illiterate high school students.

Incidentally, Obama also got an “A” from the NEA.

McCain got an “F.” Maybe if they’d given him a few more doses of “accountability,” he would have done better.

Friday, August 8, 2008

An All-Out War on the Red Sox

I have a bone to pick with the Red Sox.

It was bad enough when they still had Manny, someone who knew baseball was just a game, and wanted to take it easy and let it all hang out.

Now they have boring, straight-laced Jason Bay, whose arrival signified the final nail in the coffin of the “Cowboy Up” Red Sox we loved in 2004.

Unlike Manny, Bay gives 110% on every play. But Manny has way more entertainment value, and he understands that the game is supposed to be a fun.

Now that he's gone, there's nothing to distract me from the horrible writing, reporting, and play-by-play calling that you have to put up with as a sports fan.

The Clichés drive me stark raving mad. In my own writing, I avoid them like the plague. I don't want my readers to become bored to tears, after all. But even I occasionally fall asleep at the wheel and allow some to slip through the cracks.

At least I'm not Bangor Daily News columnist Gary Thorne, who recently described the Manny situation as a “saga.”

Please. We already had the Brett Favre “saga” and before that, the Terrell Owens “saga” and the Barry Bonds “saga.” Let's leave the “sagas” for daytime TV, shall we?

Those who write for newspapers often fall prey to clichés because we work under pressure, day in and day out. At crunch time, when you have to pull out all the stops, the trite, convenient phrases readily work their way to your fingertips.

And then we wonder why newspaper circulation continues to spiral down the tubes. Before long, print journalism will have gone the way of the dodo.

A new approach to writing would come as a breath of fresh air to the newspaper industry. More time to devote to the craft of storytelling, rather than the mechanical pursuit of information, would seal the deal. A newspaper that can deliver the flavor of life to your doorstep is worth its weight in gold.

Unless you're reading a complete rag with no integrity, like the Portland Phoenix or the New York Post, your newspaper is probably reluctant to take a walk on the wild side. Eventually, they will wake up and smell the coffee, or they will pay the piper. Take your pick.

But newspapers are not alone in this farce. I'd like to put the hammer down on NESN every time I hear Don Orsillo declare that a pitcher “is in the midst of a meeting with himself.” Why not just say that he's “meeting with himself,” or, even better, that he's “leaving the mound for a short break,” or that he's “secretly plotting the destruction of the human race.” ANYTHING different would be wonderful.

And if a batter “goes down by way of the K” one more time, it will be the last straw for me.

It just dawned on me that we ought to have a hard and fast rule against clichés in the media.

What, you think I'm out in left field? You nay-sayers out there can just talk to the hand. Anything is possible, and, as you know, stranger things have happened.

It would be fun to try to watch Boston broadcasters and sportswriters come up with stuff to keep me from drifting off into la-la land for a change.

(There. That's enough ranting and raving for today. I hope I got it out of my system.)