Archive for January, 2012

Posted in Uncategorized on January 31, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

Agent 6Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The transition between “The Secret Speech” and this book is just about the only logical leap in this trilogy that doesn’t make sense. Leo Demidov leaves the KGB to be a factory manager, accepting a serious demotion in pay — and earning the suspicion of the State. At the same time, though, his wife, who had at one point been suspected of being a spy, is selected to be the leader of a student delegation to the United Nations and Washington, D.C.

While there, she is shot in a New York City police precinct. Leo tries to escape the Soviet Union into Finland so that he can get to New York to investigate her death, almost makes it, and then is sent to be an “advisor” in Afghanistan. This is helpful in that it shows the evils of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but it pulls the plot in Hawthorne-ian directions to suit the author’s message. Oh, and just wait until you find out who “Agent 6” is.

However, that message is powerful enough, and Smith’s descriptions are vivid enough, to pull it off. By the story’s end, Leo Demidov is not just a former KGB agent; instead, he is the dream that socialism and communism originally offered people. He is the notion of universal fairness and equity; he is the absence of poverty and prejudice. Just as the Soviet Union twisted and perverted that dream out of shape, turning it into a totalitarian farce, so was Leo bent — from an idealistic agent of the state to a functionary drifting farther and farther away from the center of power, pushed away by brutality and dishonesty.

However, just as idealism remains annoyingly alive, despite the best attempts of the Stalins and the McCarthys and the politically correct and the thought police to crush it, to make it sound and look like them. That’s why it is called ideal, though — what is right remains right; it is not subject to any particular political agenda, not even to any doctrine, should that doctrine veer into the wrong.

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45 Minutes of Shame

Posted in Uncategorized on January 31, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

I watched a feature on this morning’s “Good Morning Texas” about a Skype chat that President Obama hosted recently. Americans were able to ask him questions directly, such as a woman who was frustrated with the renewal of H-1B visas for highly skilled workers from overseas, because her husband, who is an out-of-work engineer, can’t find a job. Her point was that, if Americans can’t find jobs, there shouldn’t be overseas workers taking them, particularly in skilled areas. The President told her that the statistics suggest that her husband should be able to find a job quickly, because of the demand for engineers, but he also expressed empathy for her husband’s plight. Utlimately, she didn’t agree with the President’s answers, but she felt honored for the chance to ask him a question — and to have him listen to her.

Not so for  Joseph Drake. This Dallas ISD teacher sent an angry e-mail to school board member Edwin Flores, following the board’s recent extension of the school workday by 45 minutes. Mr. Flores’ remark at the passing of this motion: “We pay for eight hours, we’re going to get eight hours.” Drake’s email is angry, and he sent it from a school account. Rather than receiving a direct answer, though, Drake found himself the recipient of a different kind of response: being placed on paid leave for “alleged misconduct.” Full disclosure: I’m a public school teacher as well (different district), and there are restrictions on the reasons we can use school e-mail. But unless it turns out that Drake was misusing DISD credit cards, or listening to his iPod while he was supposed to be teaching his 4th graders, or something like that, it’s going to look like Mr. Flores, and the rest of district administration, is a group of bullies.

So, how did teachers react to the lengthening of their workday? Anger and protests, as you might expect. It’s easy to pick on teachers, because they have so much time off. However, if you look at their pay in comparison to careers in other fields with similar degree requirements, having about three months off, over the course of a calendar year, is about right.

And Mr. Drake isn’t the only protester. Another DISD teacher, who learned from Mr. Drake’s example and kept himself anonymous, set up a blog, called “Teachers 4 Change,” to urge a sickout on Leap Day (February 29, 2012) to protest what he calls a “leap backward.” His goal: 33% of all Dallas ISD teachers call in sick that day to show their concern.

Things like this are why many people don’t respect public employees, and really don’t respect unions. What would a sickout really do? Create chaos on campuses all over the city (remember those really ineffective substitutes you  had when you were a kid? Imagine a campus staffed with them, with a bunch of unruly kids running around). Make for a wasted day of instruction for the kids.

Instead of a sickout, agitate for change. Write letters. Call people who are in positions of authority (just don’t email them from a school account). Go down to a school board meeting and make yourself heard. Maybe it is silly for the school board to lengthen the work day in the middle of the school year, especially if the members haven’t thought out why you’re doing it, except to get to an eight-hour day. Keep building the momentum that insists that DISD bring in an innovative leader and stop the bickering.

Eventually, it has to work. Doesn’t it?

Triple Dipping?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 29, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

There are a lot of things that I love about being from Texas. The hospitality is second to none, we have a restaurant (in Waco) called “Health Camp” that, instead of quinoa and wheatgrass, serves onion rings that leave enough grease in the paper tray to make a swimming pool for an ant colony, and people like Kinky Friedman can run for governor.

But so can people like Rick Perry. And here’s where I don’t get Texans. Gov. Perry has won (according to my non-scientific count) the last 17 elections without having to participate in a single debate. He tried to ram through an order to inoculate every middle school girl in the state with an HPV vaccine made by a company that gave him a lot of money, and while the Legislature shot the order down, nobody seemed to remember when the next election came around.

Luckily, people in Iowa and New Hampshire seem to be a little smarter. Of course, if Gov. Perry had gone on Letterman or debated Bill White during the last gubernatorial election, things may have turned out differently here as well.

But did you know that Gov. Perry is billing us $800,000 (and counting) in security costs for his failed Presidential campaign? He’s collecting his normal salary, as well as retirement benefits that he had accrued. And now he wants us to pay for his security detail — according to the Dallas Morning News, it’s because he says he represents Texas wherever he goes.

Yes, he was representing us here.

And then here too. I wonder what that DPS security invoice will be from this trip to New York City?

According to the Austin American-Statesman, Gov. Perry has billed the state for 48 different out-of-state visits connected to his campaign for President.

Now, you may have heard that the draconian cuts that the Legislature put in place for many agencies will be hitting even harder in the second year of our biennial budget cycle. Was this in the budget? Will we be allowed to tap the Rainy Day Fund to make up the difference?

Or will Gov. Perry reimburse the state from his campaign contributions? Again, according to the American-Statesman and other sources, he will not.

Yes, you can get in touch with Gov. Perry to let him know how you feel about this. You can write him a letter, or, even better, you can call the Citizen Opinion Hotline at (800) 252-9600. It’s likely that you’ll have to leave a message, like I did, or when you press “2” you might get a live person. If they’re not planning the governor’s next trip to “promote Texas.”

If you can’t get the governor to call you back, at least keep this in mind when he stands for election for the 23rd time. Or the 28th. 

Addressing the New Segregation

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

I teach middle school English in the town of Frisco, which is a northern exurb of Dallas. When I was a kid, Frisco was a water tower that we whizzed by on the way to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle up in Denison, near the Oklahoma line. Now, if you know the area, you know that it’s a booming city, with a huge mall, the area’s only IKEA store, and a school district that will eventually have 9 high schools.

Our principal refers to Frisco as Fantasy Land at times. He should know; he’s taught in school districts that are a lot less affluent, and where parent involvement is nil and student behavior is ridiculous. Before I came to Frisco, I taught in another Dallas suburb that had mostly poor students (as defined by the Title I standards set by the federal government) and an administration that, frankly, was more interested in giving jobs to as many family and friends it could find than paying attention to instruction, and our financial hijinks almost sent the district the way of Wilmer-Hutchins.

All this is to say that I know what it’s like outside Frisco. Or outside Highland Park. Outside any of the enclaves that have grown up in the midst of Greater Dallas. Enclaves where those who have worked very hard and done very well for themselves have settled, to pursue the American Dream, in the form of mansions and overseas vacations and Hummers.

Jonathan Miller, a friend from my freshman dorm at SMU, sent out a link to an article by the columnist Charles Murray on what he calls the “New American Divide,” in advance of a book about the new separations in society, and about the best way to bridge those separations.

But here’s his main idea: while there’s nothing wrong with doing well, or even extremely well, by separating themselves off into neighborhoods of mansions, spending all of their time at country clubs, only getting involved with charity at fancy functions, the very successful are doing themselves — and the rest of the nation — a disservice.

What Murray calls “cultural inequality” is an intriguing notion. You see, it’s not OK anymore to tell other people what to do, or how to do it. As a result, too many people in the working classes of all cultural backgrounds are opting out of the institutions that teach self-sacrifice, hard work, and cooperative effort. Marriage, participation in the work force, and philanthropy are all dwindling in the lower classes.

Murray’s argument is that this has happened because (1) policies in the 1960’s made it much easier for unmarried mothers to survive economically without a partner and for people to subsist without employment, and (2) those who are still marrying for long periods of time, working very hard and doing very well for themselves are checking out of mainstream society.

They go to their own churches, move to their own secluded neighborhoods, and participate in charity work by sending checks and going to galas, rather than mingling with those that they would help. They don’t have any people to mentor who come from less privileged backgrounds, or from homes in which poor decisions have been made, because they don’t associate with them.

This, for Murray, is the new segregation. His solution: for people to choose to move, yes, to move, into neighborhoods and to go to churches and to visit social institutions where they will have to help people. As Murray puts it, “Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile.”

As an example in Dallas, I would hold up that group of parents that still sends their kids to Lakewood Elementary School in Dallas, all the way up through Woodrow Wilson High School. They believe that their school district should be great — and many of the parents there believe that part of participating in a community means attending your public school, and contributing to the community by being a part of it.

What if, instead of razing tenements and turning them into high rises and condos and row houses that just become new enclaves, urban planners sought to create more zones like North Oak Cliff, where residents mingle from a variety of backgrounds and work together to make a strong community? If more of the extremely wealthy demanded it, more of those sorts of developments would grow.

Please put your comments below — I’m curious to hear all of your thoughts about this. The idea that we all need to cooperate as members of a larger community is decidedly old-school. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Here’s the link to Murray’s column:

A Review of Tom Rob Smith’s "The Secret Speech"

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

The Secret SpeechThe Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure whether it’s the brisk pace or the vivid attention to detail that makes me feel like I’m right on the ground in Khrushchev’s era — maybe it’s both.

Leo Demidov is still battling the demons from his past that showed up in Smith’s first novel, “Child 44.” He and his wife, Raisa, have learned to turn a marriage of convenience into one of honesty and love. They have adopted Zoya and Elena, the daughters of a couple that was murdered in the course of an investigation that Leo was carrying out.

Now, one of Leo’s first arrests — of a priest — comes back to haunt him. Having posed as a novice to gain the priest’s trust, only to arrest him and attempt to take his wife away, Leo faces the wrath of the wife, who changes her name and becomes an agent of the state — and of dissidence, fueling violence for violence’s sake, using the State to foil the State. She kidnaps the older of Leo’s new daughters and places him and his wife in dilemma after heart-rending dilemma.

Ultimately, though, we see that the dilemmas they face are similar to our own — the choices we make for those we love, even if those choices end up hurting ourselves. Leo’s journey into a gulag, involving torture and the specter of execution; Zoya’s abandonment of her younger sister to indulge her anger; Raisa’s temptation to leave Leo if it means Zoya can come home; these are just some of the many choices that form a labyrinth through which Leo and Raisa must tread in order to pursue redemption, as slippery as it is.

And if the story isn’t enough, there’s also the tense narrative of the heady days between the end of Stalin’s reign and the certitude of Khrushchev’s, as the Warsaw Pact nations began to test their limits after the end of the era of pogroms. The slippery Fral Ponin, a consummate politician, might just be that era’s Dick Cheney (or vice versa), using the passions of others to manipulate them into doing his dirty work for him.

There are not many trilogies that I race through, but this story, and the one before it, have lured me to snatch the third installment, “Agent 6” for my Kindle as fast as the Whispernet will bring it.

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A Wake in Happy Valley

Posted in Uncategorized on January 23, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

If nothing else, the passing of Joe Paterno shows what an elusive quarry justice is to grasp. No matter whether Jerry Sandusky harmed 1 or 1000 boys, Coach Paterno had to go. His program, his assistant, his failure to follow through on what, by any account, was a horrifying report from his young graduate assistant. So what is the proper way to view “Linebacker U.”? Do all of the lessons in ethics and discipline that Coach Paterno taught go for nothing? Should the trustees remove the statue of Coach Paterno from the stadium? Obviously not. The many, many student-athletes who graduated from his tutelage and have gone out into the world to accomplish great things, whether in the NFL or in other professions, are an important part of Joe Paterno’s legacy. Through his teaching, he has made the world a better place. Through his trust in Jerry Sandusky, though, the world became hell for a number of young men. But here’s the thing — where is justice for them? If Sandusky is convicted and sent away to prison, that might bring a measure of closure, but what is true justice for the brutal theft of innocence and youth? How can Sandusky be brought to true justice for starting a lifetime of horror for each young boy? And if he’s acquitted, what then? Does that mean he is innocent — morally innocent, in addition to his legal status? How will we know? After all, does anyone really think that Casey Anthony didn’t put the duct tape on her daughter’s face? And does this mean that schools and programs that seek to build a high sense of personal responsibility in their student-athletes are all frauds? Ultimately, no. Coach Paterno should have gone back to his superiors to make sure that they investigated that terrible night thoroughly. He should have gotten Sandusky into a private office and demanded the truth. He didn’t, and that will give his statue a permanent shadow. None of that means, though, that his statue should come down. What it does mean is that in all valleys, Happy or otherwise, doing what is right is an exercise of constant vigilance.

Posted in Uncategorized on January 20, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

Child 44Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to outdo the likes of “1984” when it comes to expressing a true sense of the fear under which people live when their government is committed to their absolute control. The sheer humanity that forces Leo Demidov to stay on the case of these murdered children, even in a society that sees murder not as an individual horror, but as a rejection of that society’s principles — making investigation risky for those who would bring wrongdoers to justice — is the most powerful force in the story. From beginning to end, the story is on one level a terrific thriller. However, on a more important level, the story shows how pernicious and deadly a tool absolute power can be, especially when that power pretends to want to help everyone.

I find an interesting parallel between the paralysis of the Russians under Stalin and the paralysis of the American people. While the Russians had a legitimate fear of exposure and death keeping them from pursuing meaningful social action, far too many of us do far too little to bring change around us. We are not held in place by the fear of arrest, though — we are held in place by the forces of entertainment and materialism. Luckily, there is a difference. While the Russians had to wait for Stalin to die for things to (somewhat) improve, all we have to do is turn off the television, stay out of the mall and find a way to make the people and places around us better. Reading about the terrible existence of the Soviet Union under Stalin makes me glad to have the choices I do, and makes me resolve to do a better job with the time that I have.

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