Sunday, August 17, 2014

Christie: Proof He'll Run, Reasons He'll Lose

There can be no doubt that Governor Chris Christie will be running for president in 2016. He's taken trips to the states with the earliest primaries and caucuses and he's even begun commenting on foreign affairs. Not that he's at all qualified in that area, but when did that ever stop him from talking? The most convincing evidence of his intention to pursue a national run, though, comes from his latest actions in New Jersey, and ironically, those might actually cause his downfall.

First up is the New Jersey economy, which is limping along in no small part to the governor's refusal to do anything that will stimulate it. The jobs picture has not improved as much as the national numbers and Christie continues to blame middle class workers such as teachers, firefighters, police officers and government workers for the problem. Yes, he was able to get a landmark pensions and benefits bill through the Democratic legislature in 2011, but now, three years later, he's gone back on his promise to pay a full public pension payment because he says that the problem has not been fixed and that workers need to pay even more for their future benefits.

The "No Pain, No Gain"  tour has been a colossal failure so far mainly because the public is slowly coming around to the idea that public workers can't be squeezed any more and that Christie's refusal to ask wealthy New Jerseyans for more in taxes is good old fashioned Republican trickle down economics. The kind that hasn't worked since Ronald Reagan tried it back in 1981.  All it's lead to is wealthier wealthy people and a scramble for decent wages for the middle and working classes.

What's worse is that Christie appointed a committee to investigate why pensions and benefits need continued reform and
The head of a New Jersey board that determines how the state invests its pension money was in direct contact with top political and campaign fundraising aides for Gov. Chris Christie as the governor last fall mounted a successful bid for a second term.
So any chance that this committee will be an independent arbiter or that it will fairly assess the pros and cons of Christie's plan will be, say, nil.

The next clue to Christie's intentions comes from the fact that he and his adviser's are now becoming very stingy with information about the governor's public schedule. This is a guy who ran on transparency and openness and is now going all legalistic on the public and saying things like, "You guys want everything. You’re not entitled to everything. So we give you what you’re entitled to under the law. And I think that’s fair."

Fair, maybe. Politically smart? Not so much. If you want to be president, you should give the press the free stuff that it asks for and withhold the difficult information. That placates the press and makes it more likely that they'll give you a pass on the tough issues. And what's on the governor's schedule that would preclude him from fully disclosing it? More helicopter rides? Getaways to the Bahamas? It just doesn't make sense, and it belies Christie's desire to be known as an open politician. That's how he ran in 2009 and 2013. But now that he wants to be president, he's playing political word games.

And then there's that famous Christie personality, the one that yells at teachers, people in the military, retirees looking for answers, and anybody who deigns to disagree with him, available 24 hours a day on YouTube. Now we can add Twitter to the Governor's growing list of anti-social media harangues. Last week Christie involved himself in a discussion that frustrated commuters were having after yet another delay on the NJ Transit train system. They were also discussing the lack of another tunnel to and from New York and the fact that Christie's veto of a bill that would have provided money for a new tunnel leaves the prospect of relief far into the future. At a time when the governor could have provided for a little understanding and love, he again chose to argue, and that's not a good strategy when people are stuck in a station with no way to get home.

I suppose that Christie believes that yelling and belittling people who disagree with him is a sign of great leadership, but in the end, I think that this will ultimately sink him. Americans might be tiring of President Obama's cool detached manner, but they don't want a bully with a volatile personality in the Oval Office. We need a pragmatic, thoughtful person to interact with the country and the world.

We'll need to look elsewhere for that.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and Me: A Comic Reminiscence

When I got out of college in 1982 a friend of mine, Michael "Smooth" Carrington, and I became a comedy team called Bob and Smooth and embarked on a grand adventure to New York to become stand up comedians. Our home club was the Comic Strip on Second Avenue and we did the late, late, late night spots that all budding comics have to cover to hone their craft and not embarrass themselves in front of too many people. By 1983 we were finding a modicum of success, had played some important clubs in New York and had done some out-of-town touring. It was a magical time.

In the fall of 1983, some of the Comic Strip regulars started an improvisation group that performed on Monday nights. Word quickly spread and we were performing before some pretty decent crowds and, if I can be so bold, the troupe was pretty darned funny.

In October, Robin Williams showed up and said that he wanted to perform with us. Turns out that he was in New York to film the movie, "Moscow on the Hudson" and had heard of the improv group. Of course, he knew all about the Comic Strip, which, with the Improv and Catch a Rising Star was one of the big three clubs for comedy in the city. To say that we were thrilled was an understatement and of course we all wanted to perform with Robin, which made for some interesting choices once the improv games commenced.

What I clearly remember was that Robin Williams was both one of the most confident, and one of the most scared individiuals I have ever met. When we were on stage together (tickles me to get to say that) his was a comic beast who spewed funny lines (and some unfunny ones) as easily as most people breathe. He was a joy to work with because, well, anything was fair game, any word was acceptable and any clunker could be turned into a laugh.

I particularly remember Williams' eyes while we interacted with him. His face and body might be in overdrive, but his eyes were very nurturing, giving us a look that said, "it's OK, just say what you want and have confidence in the joke." It was a terrific feeling because those of us in the improv group were certainly very nervous to be on stage with him. If one of us said something particularity inspired, those eyes smiled and winked (without winking) and he would take off with whatever line we had fed him. He was also generous while being a straight man, feeding us lines like comic t-ball stands that we could easily hit out of the park.

Of course, we all wanted to be on stage with Robin Williams and that led to some interesting turns. We played an improv game called tag, which is pretty self-explanatory; two people start a scene and then another comic tags one on stage, the scene stops, that comic leaves, and the new comic takes over. What happened was that we would all tag each other and leave Williams on the stage for an extended time (not that he minded), but it looked like a tutorial with eager comics approaching the guru and giving him lines that he would manically churn into his own private routine. The audience didn't care. Neither did we.

But Williams also appeared scared at times. Perhaps it was the fear that all comics experience when they're thrown into a new situation without a script and need to be funny. Sometimes he would continue to talk even though what he was saying was not very funny, hoping that the next thing out of his mouth would get the crowd going. There were also periods when he would disappear. It was difficult to do that when we played the tag game, but in other games he would say one thing and then withdraw, and he'd have this blank, scared look on his face. It didn't last long, but I noticed it. He also was one of those comics who was always "on," telling jokes but never revealing himself to any of us. I certainly understand that this might have been a function of his not knowing any of us, but my experience with comics who are always doing material is that they really don't know what else to say.

And for all of his fame, even in 1983, he came to the Comic Strip alone, left alone and always said the same thing when he went out the door. He had one of those huge down jackets that were fashionable in the 1970s and 80s and he would hold it close to his chest when the night was over and say, "I've got to go home and feed this thing."  Not terribly funny, but that's what he said.

I also saw Robin Williams utterly destroy another 1980s comic, Eddie Murphy in a performance that, looking back on it now, anticipated their career trajectories. At the time, Murphy was a star on Saturday Night Live and his two movies, "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Trading Places" had put him on the mega-star map. The Comic Strip was also Murphy's home club, (the club's owners were his managers), and he was using it to test out and hone material for his first national tour. The other club's comics, including me, stood in the back to see what Murphy had, and for the most part it was funny, but not spectacular.

In the middle of his routine, though, Murphy made a big mistake. Robin Williams was in the audience and Murphy asked him to come up on the stage and improv with him. Murphy never had a chance. Williams ran comic rings around him and was so stunningly funny that the audience didn't want him to leave. Murphy took back the stage, but the rest of his routine paled in comparison to what we had just seen.

My favorite Robin Williams story, or at least the one that I can connect to him personally, came after Williams finished filming "Moscow on the Hudson" and didn't perform with us anymore. One of the other improv games we played was called Expert, where 5 or 6 comics sit on stage and the audience tells us what subject we are experts in. We were then free to adopt a personality and, hopefully, be funny (I was an expert on water, hubcaps, and WD-40).  A comic named Rob (I forget his last name) had a character he created named Dr. Vinnie, a crude, rude, sexually-obsessed Brooklyn pseudo-doctor. He was very funny and performed the character every week that Williams was with us.

A couple of weeks later, Rob came into the Comic Strip and was very excited. He gathered us around and told us that he and his girlfriend were dining at a large restaurant across the street from Lincoln Center when Williams entered the restaurant. Of course, the place began buzzing as patrons noticed who had just walked in. Williams surveyed the scene, noticed Rob at one of the tables at the far end of the restaurant, and at the top of his lungs bellowed, "Look! It's Doctor Vinnie!" Imagine being in a restaurant and a star recognizes you.

That was Robin Williams. He was accessible and aloof, confident and unsure, always looking for the funny and frequently finding it. I will leave the psychoanalysis of his demons to those more qualified than I to discuss them, but his untimely death has me thinking about the shortness of life and making sure that we experience what we can.

I will say that I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have crossed paths with him and I will never forget those few weeks in the fall of 1983.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Education Reform Silly Season

It might be summer, but the education know-nothings are clearly not at the beach. The latest case-in-point is former CNN correspondent Campbell Brown's incredibly uninformed comments on teacher tenure that, unfortunately, millions of people saw and didn't stick around for the fact-checking. Her musings come on the heels of a California decision in which a judge ruled that tenure is unconstitutional because it deprives some students of a quality education. There is another case against tenure in New York States and I will assume that many other states will soon join in. It is true that there are some teachers who should not be in classrooms because they are ineffective or burned out, but depriving teachers of a due process right and subjecting them to firing because of issues unrelated to their job performance is the height of irresponsibility.

In Campbell Brown's case, she quotes the popular half-truth that the teacher is far and away the most important factor in a child's success, and that if all classrooms had effective teachers, then all students would learn. I suppose we could read this as a compliment for great teachers, but I also read it for the folly of what it implies.

What she and other education know-nothings are essentially saying here is that an effective teacher can overcome poverty, child abuse, hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, dysfunctional and nonfunctional families, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, developmental disabilities, ADHD, the autism spectrum, lack of sleep, entitled parents and students, and general ennui and make productive citizens out of every child. This is what teachers see in their classrooms and every one of these factors, or a combination of many of them, is a distraction or an impediment to learning. If effective teachers could negate them and educate children in spite of them, then we also need to elect teachers to Congress and the Presidency because the country clearly needs them.

The truth is that teachers do overcome these obstacles, but not at the pace that society needs in order to help all students. What then happens, and the education know-nothings are quick with the response, the teachers, whose students do not perform well on the latest misuse of data, the teacher evaluation metrics, are labeled incompetent and worthy of firing. Since tenure is in the way, getting rid of it is the know-nothing's illogical retort.

The proper response would be for those with microphones and cameras to focus their attention on providing living conditions in all communities that allow for jobs with livable wages, responsive public services, adequate public health care, affordable housing, enrichment opportunities for the children, and safe neighborhoods. Those teachers who work in such communities know why their students are more prepared than others. It's not rocket science, but it is science; and we know how the right wing feels about science.

To further the folly of their arguments, though, the know-nothings have managed to institute teacher evaluation systems throughout the land that will do everything except provide for a valid measure of an effective teacher. They've made testing the default activity in schools when there is little research to support a system based on such testing. And for those teachers who don't teach a testable subject, there's the SGO, or Student Growth Objective. But now those measures are under review because, surprise, SGOs don't provide for a valid measure either.

In New Jersey, teachers who have questioned the testing/SGO folly are finally being heard. Tests, which were going to count for 30% of a teacher's evaluation, will now only count as 10% for the coming school year, and SGO's will be under scrutiny for how they are used for evaluation. Neither measure has been shown to predict or confirm a teacher's effectiveness, and putting them under a microscope should confirm that. Of course, with Governor Christie now running for president, the chances of further reform are nonexistent, but perhaps in a few years things will change. Still, many otherwise qualified teachers will be affected by the evaluation system. That's the shame of it all.

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