Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Before Staying Overnight at Grandma's

My son says:

"When you're here,
and I'm there,
and you're dreaming—
will you come and locate me?"

Monday, June 18, 2007

JRN 101: The Secret Language of Newsrooms

Recently, someone asked what op-ed meant -- was the "op" for "opinion"? Well, it could be. Most newspapers, magazines and etc. have their own in-house style. In my experience, however, op means "opposite." This is just the beginning of a joy ride with language and meaning. To wit:

op-ed is "opposite editorial" — a physical location, usually directly opposite of ...

editorials, which are unsigned opinions, usually based on an editorial board's consensus, and part of...

The editorial pages, which are written by...

The opinion department, which is not to be confused with ...

The editorial department, which has its own zip code in a typical newsroom. Opinion vs. editorial is an important distinction, on the order of church vs. state, because opinion writes opinionated editorials; editorial writes objective news and features, and writers in editorial would get shot if they wrote an editorial (for the opinion department, that is) in most places.

Communication, baby. It's a fabulous business.

And remember: Magazines are books.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Jack and "The Man"

For my son's last day of school, we took him out for lunch. He picked his favorite diner—J&S Hamburg, a downtown institution. This small, white, cinderblock building has big strawberry shakes and regulars who hang out and give my son quarters for the M&M dispenser. Jack's loved the place since he began having opinions on such matters, and as a mom, it's perfect. Nothing too fancy. People are charmed, vs. affronted, if a kid stands up and shouts "Hi! I'm Jack!" They let him spin on the stools, instead of shooing him off for scaredy-cat liability reasons.

But things are changing. For one, they just banned smoking. And secondly, the end times have arrived. The demolition next door is in full swing. Developers are razing a former auto dealership in order to build a four-story complex of apartments, offices and storefronts, including a new home for our beloved diner. J&S will be bulldozed, to make way for a parking lot.

We're collectively sad about this. "Can't we have any small buildings?" I ask, rhetorically.

After we pull in, Jack darts over to the construction zone, where a yellow scooper truck is biting a tangle of steel beams. Jack turns to me, and quotes SpongeBob:

"Smells like big business."


Inside, before we leave, the waitress congratulates Jack on "graduating" from kindergarten.

"I'm a first-grader now."

"How nice!" she says.

"Why can't we have any small buildings?" he asks her.

She thinks for a second, then gets this nonsequitor. "I know," she commiserates. "All the buildings are big." She assures him that the new J&S will be nice. Jack says he likes this one. They're at a standstill.

"But you can take that with you." He turns around and points to a black-and-white picture on the wall. It's a vintage photo of diner, maybe from the 1930s.

"Yes, we can," she says. "And we're taking the grill too."

"What else are you taking?" he asks.

"I'm not sure," she says.

"The plates?"

"I don't know," she says.

"The radio?"

"I don't know," she says.

"Everything that's detached?" he asks.

She blinked at him. "I don't know."

"But you are taking the picture," he says, clarifying the situation, content to nail down at least one fact in this ever-changing world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

One of Those Days: Walking on Broken Glass

Blogger Seth Godin has a lovely post today on the good-vibe environment. He should've visited my house this morning for the antithesis. It was one of those mornings, where everything's gone rotten, quickly and mercilessly, capped by my son tossing clothes across the hall, missing the doorway and hitting a large mirror, which we watched fall in slow motion, hitting a chandelier, and then everything shattered, with little shards raining down on the pile of bedding I'd pulled off at 3 a.m. when my son threw up in bed.

Lovely. So what did I do? After tending the immediate issue — get away from the glass, check for injuries — did I turn this into a teaching moment, demonstrating can-do spirit when things go awry? No. I felt overwhelmed. I nearly cried.

Godin asks in his post: "Who's in charge of the vibe at your place? " Well, duh. It's me. And, as a single parent, only me. And I totally abdicated this morning, which created vibe of chaos. This mess — and my reaction to it — could be traced back to one simple act: a late cup of coffee. It set off a chain reaction. I couldn't sleep, then was too deeply asleep to hear my son coughing, so I didn't wake in time to spare him (and the sheets), then we woke late, then I was rushing both of us, setting a disorganized and unruly vibe, the kind that leads to boys going a little wild and throwing things. And I was too tired to do anything but melt down, instead of hugging him and saying how happy I was that he wasn't hurt.

I know, bad parenting moments happen, and it's not the end of the world. But now it's time to pull it together and turn things around, to take charge of the vibe: throw out the glass, put in a good day's work, hug my boy and have some fun, and get us both to bed in time for a long night of sweet dreams.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Dear Schools: Teach Our Children Well

Here's my boy, on his first day of kindergarten. Today's his last full day of kindergarten. Nothing says tempus fugit like children.

The clock also is ticking on Central Grade School, the historic brick elementary across the street where Jackson attends. Will it still be open in two years? Or, worst case, will the district raze it, pocketing millions for its primo land value, as other Michigan districts have done?

That's a good question. And we've only a few weeks till my district decides about closing three more schools.

Elementary schools are closing nationwide, and the reason isn't some muddy mix of societal trends and inflation and rising property costs. It's a simple matter of numbers. Enrollments are declining because there aren't as many school-age children as there were 10 years ago. Population is cyclical: Baby Boom, baby bust, mini-baby-boom, mini-baby-bust. And that's where we are now, a mini baby bust. In many communities, birth rates began declining by more than 25 percent in the mid-'90s. Add to the mix programs in many states that allow students to attend new charter schools on the public dime, and we've got empty classrooms across the nation. It's simple math.

Yes, it's a problem, and school districts are handling it by closing elementary after elementary. There are a number of issues here that affect all of us, whether we have kids or not, and I've written about many of them (see links below). But beyond those very important issues is something new that I'm concerned about-- the big picture of school-construction, nationwide.

School Deconstruction, Meet School Construction
In March I received a press release titled "Record School Construction," that began: "Dear Colleague, As you know, California's Proposition 1D passed on November 7, 2006 and authorized $10.4 billion in education construction in California. Similarly ambitious construction agendas are arising across the nation for Education." The release directs us to a new online catalog of firms that provide constructions services to school districts.

So there's that -- record construction -- and then there's a record number of schools closing.

So is the right question this: What the...?

What comes to mind right now is .... Journalism Rule No. 1: Follow the Money. Because this needs some explaining.

I realize in some cases, things need updating and populations shift, but none of that is happening on a record scale. What is happening is that as schools are shuttered, billions are going to construction and renovation. My district, which is closing in on shuttering its fourth, fifth and sixth elementaries in a few short years, has simultaneously undertaken massive renovations of two of the least populated elementary schools, stripping those schools to their bones and redoing them in high style. Why? Are we short of money, or are we not?

On top of that , billions of dollars were spent in the '90s to accommodate the mini-baby-boom that graduated several years ago. My own district built new junior and senior high schools. And today, to keep them filled, they're shifting elementary students (sixth-graders) up into junior high, creating even more empty classrooms in elementaries.

The thing I've heard no one mention is this: With all that mid- to late-90s construction, every district nationwide already could see that the mini-baby-boom was ending soon. Most if not all the kids who would populate these newly built junior and senior highs one day soon were already born--and there were definitely too few of them. What were school boards thinking when they asked for bonds and paid for bricks, foundations and new desks? Did they expect that 25 to 50 percent more children would just ... materialize?

The cost to folks in my district for those mid-'90s bond issues has been $270 a year on average. For five years worth of needed classroom expansion? Wouldn't Quonset huts been a better choice?

What it's looking like is that I'll be paying $8,100, all told, for this: Building unnecessary schools in farm fields, closing vibrant and historic neighborhood schools, subsidizing the local building trade, and, possibly, watching my son spend in hour commuting on a bus that's chugging $3-a-gallon fuel.

What does this teach our children?
Related Links: Two Essays on Central Grade School
—You can find a reprint of an essay on my neighborhood school at YourPlace. The story won first place in this online magazine's first essay contest, and I remain honored.
—For a look at the land-use and community implications of school closing, check out my essay at the Michigan Land Use Institute's Elm Street Writers Group, where I float some ideas for co-use of facilities.


Friday, June 1, 2007

Game On: Clan of the Cave Writers

Today begins a two-month novel-writing challenge with a writer friend, part of my endless quest for motivators that actually work. This latest offensive is prompted in part by reading Steven Pressfield's "The War of Art," a tough-love homage to creativity that sweeps away all our "yeah, but..." detractors and tells us to just sit down and do this thing.

Pressfield contends that we're programmed, genetically, against creative action. As cave folk, we either worked with the group, hunting and gathering, or died. Well, writing is an act of self that doesn't necessarily generate prehistoric berries, leg of pterodactyl or wooly mammoth fur -- and if you're not pulling your weight, you might get voted off the island. And then what? Writing also physically separates us from The Group. In cave times, being on your own meant imminent death. (I mean, what if you had the flu and a sabertooth tiger stumbled across you? Could you run fast enough? No, you could not.)

So our deep-down self resists, with all its got, anything that could separate us from the safety of the group, because apparently our genes can't tell time. (Don't be mad at yourself--you're just trying to stay alive.) And because we're so evolved, that resistance can get extremely sophisticated.

Beating our own self-immobilization is a matter of getting up every day and disabling resistance before it figures out what's going on. How? Just sit down and do this thing. Write. Rituals help ritualize this, and habituating writing lets your autopilot fight resistance so you don't have to (at least not as much). This is an unending battle, and you're going to need allies to cover your back, especially on weak days. If you don't take the offensive, every day, resistance will begin making its case. You'll want to spring clean, analyze your childhood, question your work, suffer incurable maladies, create relationship dramas and fiscal crises, all to prevent yourself from working. Sound familiar?

Yes! It does! Because I only know two writers who actually sit down and write their novels without a deadline, without kicking and screaming and having their lives fall to pieces. Two, god love 'em, out of scores and scores. That's all. (Maybe they need their own diarama?)

Thanks for the insight, Mr. Pressfield.I'm going to take a stab at sitting down every day with fiction for the next two months, and see if I can mud-wrestle my inner mini cave-me to the forest floor.

Check out "The War of Art" here.