Category Archives: Reading List

Are American Schools Anti-Intellectual?

Over at The Daily Beast, I review Amanda Ripley's new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, which reports on why schools in Poland, Finland, and South Korea are out-performing American schools:

For all our national hand-wringing about standardized testing and teacher tenure, many of us immersed in the American education debate can’t escape the nagging suspicion that something else—something cultural, something nearly intangible—is holding back our school system. In 1962, historian Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed it “anti-intellectualism in American life.”

“A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference,” he wrote, “underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else—the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children.”

It would be comforting to think that since Hofstadter’s time a string of national reform initiatives—A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core—has addressed these issues. And though there has been some progress on the margins, journalist Amanda Ripley is here with a riveting new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, to show us exactly why, compared with many of their peers in Europe and Asia, American students are still performing below the mark.

Read the whole piece.

The New New Fatherhood

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 2.33.45 PMThe old "New Fatherhood" was about mainstream, middle-class American men redefining masculinity to encompass spending more time talking to, playing with, and caring for children. Today at the Daily Beast, I write about the New New Fatherhood, as depicted by the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson in their important book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner CityThe study is a follow-up to one of the books I recommend most often: Edin's Promises I Can Keep, which pretty much demolished the myth of the "welfare mom."

The new book questions the stereotype of the "deadbeat dad." It describes how low-income fathers love and yearn to spend time with their children. But instead of seeing "quality time" as an add-on to the traditional expectation of the father as provider — as in the New Fatherhood ideal — single dads in economically depressed neighborhoods have argued that quality time and emotional connection are a fair substitute for earning and contributing financially to a child's core needs. This is the New New Fatherhood.

I write:

"The problem with this vision of 'doing the best I can' is that it really isn’t good enough. It leaves all the most difficult responsibilities of parenthood, financial and disciplinary, up to mothers. Edin and Nelson conclude that 'lower-class fathers have tried to bargain for a wholesale reversal of gender roles,' in which dads are the 'soft,' emotional parents and moms are the tough, pragmatic ones. If this were true, however—if poor fathers were becoming traditional “moms”—they would be living with their children and performing all the domestic labor involved with their care and feeding. This, of course, is not the case. In Edin and Nelson’s study, the vast majority of single dads are noncustodial parents and seem to prize buying their children ice cream or watching TV with them—the fun stuff—over helping with homework or taking them to doctor’s appointments.

Make no mistake: this isn’t only a poor-people’s problem."

Read the whole piece.

In Defense of Daisy

DaisyAh, Daisy — the glamorous, self-absorbed cipher at the center of The Great Gatsby. She has come in for a lot of hate from critics of the book and film. Richard Brody judges actress Carey Mulligan "overmatched by the part." Ester Bloom says Daisy is "a drip." Critisizing Fitzgerald's novel, Kathryn Schulz argues the Daisy/Gatsby/Tom love triangle is "psychologically vacant." She accuses the author of making a "travesty of his female characters–single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin," thus ignoring the vibrant women's movement of the 1920s. 

I don't think so. Daisy isn't awful, she is trapped and scared — and that is how Mulligan plays her, timidly. Raised a debutante in Louisville, she is expected to marry as a teenager, and she does, to the alcoholic, racist, chronically unfaithful Tom Buchanan. Daisy hasn't had the chance to go to college, or travel the world in the army, as the male characters have. She has a baby before she becomes an adult, and thus is hardly prepared to be an attentive mother. If there are opportunities out there for Daisy to live a more exciting, fulfilling life, she is only dimly aware of them. Is it any wonder she idealizes her first, adolescent romance, with a sweet young officer? Her brief affair with Gatsy is probably one of the only things Daisy has ever done fully by choice. Look at her wrists, bound by diamond cuffs. She is shackled by her own privilege. When she finds out her newborn is a girl, she can only hope the child will turn out to be "a beautiful little fool." Why? Because Daisy is smart enough to know how awful her predicament is, as an old money daughter and wife with few culturally acceptable options for independence. It would be easier, she thinks, if her own daughter could be simple-mided; if she could accept the role she was born into without coming to understand its severe unfairness. There's a reason why, in the film, director Baz Luhrman keeps drawing our attention to Daisy's massive diamond engagement ring. She has been acquired by Tom and is weighed down by men's expectations for her. Even Gatsby is in love with a chimera Daisy more than the real woman; as he tells Nick toward the end of the book/film, he wants her because she has always been "a nice girl;" the kind of girl who could help him his advance his climb from poverty into the upper class. 

Some of the most powerful feminist depictions in art are the ones that show us how bleak life was for women before feminism, or for women who couldn't or didn't embrace feminist ideas. (Think: Anna from Anna Karenina or Lily Bart from House of Mirth. Even Betty from "Mad Men.") By design, all the characters in The Great Gatsby, male or female, are sketches; archetypes of the most cynical, materialistic slice of a cynical, materialistic, lost generation. Nick Carraway could be any Ivy Leaguer with writerly pretentions who gets a job on Wall Street. But I've always found Jordan, Nick's unrealized love interest and Daisy's best friend, one of the more intriguing people in Gatsby. She is a golf star — a famous female athlete! Jordan, with her boyish name, is optimistic and fun-loving; unlike that pitiable, delicate flower, Daisy, Jordan has a life.

In the end, when Daisy runs away with her brutish husband, there is little question that she has made the "right" choice. Marrying a gangster who loves her for her respectability wouldn't have solved her problems. Poor Daisy. She might be a bit of "a drip," but it's not because she's bad at heart. She is the representation of every woman entrapped by beauty, wealth, and femininity. She is a tragic, utterly conventional, child bride. 

On Mike Elk, and Thinking About Writing Careers in 2013

Two years ago, a young writer named Mike Elk lent his Huffington Post press pass to a union organizer, who used it to help 200 protestors crash a meeting of the Mortgage Brokers' Association. Elk was subsequently "fired" from his unpaid position as a HuffPost blogger. He then landed a paid gig covering labor at the Chicago-based lefty magazine In These Times, where he broke some news, but also demonstrated a sometimes self-defeating tendency to pick public fights with other journalists, frequently through confrontational tweeting. Now the foundation funding for his In These Times position has dried up, and Elk has again taken to the pages of the Huffington Post, this time to apologize for the 2011 press pass debacle, to proclaim himself a born-again "straight" reporter, and to complain that he has not yet been hired for a Big Reporting Job at a Big Mainstream Publication. 

Elk's essay is, of course, self-serving, since he hopes prospective employers will discover it when they Google him, in addition to critical coverage of his past misdeeds. Though I've corresponded with Elk via Twitter, I've never met him personally nor worked with him, so I can't speak as to what kind of colleague he is or whether his raw reporting and writing are ready for a much bigger platform. What I do know is that his essay brings up a number of important issues within journalism. Since I've been getting tons of emails lately from young writers looking for advice, I thought I'd use his piece as a jumping off point to ponder the following:

There's still no substitute for a traditional, newsroom reporting internshipWhether on your college newspaper or at a small local daily or alt-weekly, this is some of the best entry-level experience a journalist can accrue. (I did my time at The Journal News, The Brown Daily Herald, and the North County News.) Because small papers tend to embrace a fairly traditional way of practicing journalism — quaint notions of "objectivity" in tact — you will learn the rationale behind the profession's basic mores, which is kind of a crucial first step if, like Elk, you end up subverting or tweaking them later on. In the early and mid-oughts, young writers like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein skyrockteted into the media world by being really great, independent opinion bloggers. Publications wanted to hire them to introduce readers to what was then a new format. But that path has dried up as the blogosphere has become institutionalized. You should blog and tweet and Facebook, but all that probably won't be enough to land your first job. 

 As Elk writes, foundation funding for journalism can be problematic. I've been lucky to receive funding from four foundations (New America, the Nation Institute/Puffin Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation) that have never sought to influence my writing or reporting in inappropriate ways. Yet this isn't always the case, especially when foundations are going directly to publications to fund specific beats or even articles. (This happens shockingly often, and is becoming more common.) Another problem is that foundation-funding is usually short-term, doled out in year-long or project-specific grants. This means writers and publications are constantly anxious about whether their grant will get renewed, which increases the pressure to hew to a donor's point-of-view. When you consider all this, the old advertiser-driven model doesn't look too awful. Personally, I welcome Buzzfeed and other eyeball-hungry outlets onto the media scene. They will fund serious work by successfully getting readers to their site with lists, GIFs, and lifestyle and entertainment coverage.

The liberal magazine space can be an unstable place to build a writing career. Most professional writers don't want to earn $200 per article, or $40,000 per year, forever. What's more, journalists like to reach a broad audience, including those who disagree with us. So as we gain experience, we gladly embrace a more explanatory and less polemical tone, we try to be more narrative in our writing, and we begin to pitch mainsteam publications, in addition to those on the left. As Elk learned, this isn't something to be cynical about, but rather the natural evolution of many journalistic careers. This is not to imply that opinion magazines don't publish excellent work — THEY DO! –but in the opinion writing space, young journalists are competing with professors and think tank staffers who can afford to write for free or next-to-nothing. So to compete in the markets of both liberal and non-ideological media, we really do need to build explicitly journalistic skills such as breaking news, obtaining and analyzing data, filing FOIA requests, and uncovering under-examined sources from the past and present. Elk has done his best work interviewing on-the-ground sources, and it's an important lesson for any young writer.

(Editing is probably the safest journalistic skill set to develop, as it tends to be relatively well-remunerated, even at low-budget publications. But this post is mostly about reporting and writing.)

Be easy to work with. This is a crucial piece of career advice I always offer, and that I've come to through hard-lived personal experience. For a journalist, this means that in addition to being polite, positive, and punctual, you are easy to edit: clean prose, humble attitude. It means you demonstrate the kind of journalism you think is important mostly by doing it, instead of by complaning that other people aren't doing it. Of course, press criticism is important stuff, but probably not the safest route to long-term employment in the first few years of a career, since you don't want to alienate potential bosses or mentors.

I'd be happy to address feedback and questions in the comments section.

Old posts on journalism careers


Mike Elk asked me to post the following response from him, which I am quoting directly:


"I really enjoyed your article and a lot of valuable insight. I must say though that my primary motivation behind writing this article was not as you state in "hopes prospective employers will discover it when they Google him, in addition to critical coverage of his past misdeeds." I wrote mainly because I wanted to be free of not being right about something. I grew up in a household where my Uncle Herb was a hero because he refused to the take the easy way out by naming names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He stood on principle and while I stood on principle by admitting what I did when it happened, I didn't stand on principle by defending myself. It bugged me, it made me feel dishonest, which I couldn't take. Finally, after being denied a job, I was forced to confront the full force of my dishonesty and I felt I had to say something. It feels good getting rid of all that ego and pride that led me to not admit the full cost of my mistakes. I feel like a free man."



2012: The Year in Review, Education and Beyond

Education story of the yearThe Chicago teachers' strike. American teacher unionism was founded in Chicago in the late 1890s, as female, largely Catholic elementary school teachers resisted centralization policies–standardized testing, a uniform curriculum, numeric teacher evaluations–pursued by a male, Protestant bureaucracy. So it was fitting that the loudest cry of protest against contemporary standards-and-accountability school reform emerged in the Windy City this September, as teachers resisted professional evaluation tied to student test scores, closures of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of the charter school sector. You can read my history of Chicago teacher unionism here.

The strike has had a few interesting results. First, it raised the profile of Chicago Teachers' Union leader Karen Lewis, who is a less compromising and more leftist figure than Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers. Second, it brought to the public's attention the tension bewteen increasing test-score pressure on teachers and schools while cutting budgetary support for art, music, counseling, school psychologists, and the many other crucial, yet more holistic services schools provide. Third, it resulted in a compromise contract with both progressive and regressive features. More funding for social support services, especially in high-poverty schools, is a good thing. Continuing to backload teacher salaries and bonsues, though, will not make the profession more appealing to ambitious young people or career-changers. Yet it is encouraging that CTU agreed, at least in theory, to professional evaluations that include evidence of student learning. Now the devil will be in working out the details, particularly on what role standardized test scores will play, and how to evaluate teachers of currently non-tested subjects and grades, like art, music, PE, and kindergarten.


Magazines of the Year: Tomorrow and Jacobin.

Education research-finding of the year: Teachers matter, and not just for academics. A study by economists Raj Chetty, Jonah Rockoff, and John Friedman found that teachers who consistently improve their students' standardized test scores also help children avoid teenage pregnancy, get to college, and earn higher incomes. But there is a crucial caveat to this finding: The study was conducted in a low-stakes settingin other words, among teachers whose pay and evaluation were not tied to test scores. The researchers admitted in their paper that when tests do become high-stakes, there is an increased risk of score manipulation, which can occur either through teaching-to-the-test or outright cheating. In high-stakes settings, test scores become less reliable and, therefore, their link to better life outcomes for kids could be compromised.


Under-reported education trend of the year (and decade): Sociology used to be the academic discipline with the most influence over public education policy. Today that discipline is economics. On the upside, we now have more data about children's academic and life outcomes. On the downside, education policy-makers are paying less attention to aspects of children's lives that are more difficult or impossible to quantify, such as parental involvement and comfort with diversity.


New York restaurant of the year: Pok Pok. We only had the patience to wait in line for this place once, but it was so, so, so worth it. A close runner-up is Battersby, where I had two wonderful meals. Another year, another few reasons never to leave Brooklyn. 


Book of the year on How We Live NowTwilight of the Elites, by Chris HayesThis bracing book about "America after meritocracy" has implications for every area of policy-making, but is especially sharp at deconstructing myths we tell ourselves about education: that test scores measure aptitude and that elite schools serve the common good.


Education story to watch in 2013: The roll-out of the Common Core. Will the movement to implement shared national academic standards remain bipartisan, or will conservatives and Republicans increasingly turn against it? Will schools implement the Core faithfully, or will myths about the standards–like the false idea that they cut out fiction reading–persist?  


Albums of the year: "Break it Yourself," by Andrew Bird. "Sun," by Cat Power. "Channel Orange," by Frank Ocean. "The Idler Wheel…" by Fiona Apple. "Shields," by Grizzly Bear.


Education book of the year: My favorite was Saving the School, by Michael Brick.


A book to pounce on in 2013: The absolutely masterful Hope Against Hope, by Sarah Carr, the definitive account of education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans, told through the eyes of a student, a teacher, and a principal. A gripping narrative with deep historical and political ramifications. 


Cultural controversy of the year: The battle over the future of the New York Public Library's main branch, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Should this world-class research institution ship several million books to New Jersey, and open space for a lending library? Should architect Norman Foster, known for his glass additions to historic buildings, be let loose on this Beaux Arts masterpiece? I work there almost every day, and I still can't decide how I feel about it. 


TV Show of the Year: "Girls." Feminists are funny. 


#longreads of the year: This past spring, the magazine that launched my career, The American Prospect, experienced a terrifying brush with death. I'm so glad donors and subscribers have helped The Prospect continue its work, because under editor Kit Rachlis, it has published some amazing writing. Monica Potts' "Pressing on the Upward Way" is a compassionate, beautifully-constructed portrait of rural poverty in Eastern Kentucky. Equally stirring was Gabriel Arana's "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," which not only told Gabe's personal story of surviving "ex-gay therapy," but also broke news by revealing how the psychiatrist who pushed to define homosexuality as a mental illness, Robert Spitzer, has come to regret and retract his previous work.

Documentary of the Year: "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry," by Alison Klayman.

Personal Highlight of the Year: Pacific Street. With this guy.
Happy New Year, folks. 

The Chicago Strike and the History of American Teachers’ Unions


Margaret Haley, the "lady labor slugger" of Chicago. She was one of the nation's first teachers' union organizers.


It has been difficult to discern what specific details are left on the table in the Chicago teachers’ negotiations. Broadly, we know the union leadership resents Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s enthusiasm for non-unionized charter schools and neighborhood school closings. It is also clear that professional evaluation is a big issue, as it is in states and cities across the country. To what extent should teachers be judged by their students’ test scores, as opposed to by more holistic measures? Job security, especially for teachers in schools that will be shut down, has been eroding, which the CTU sees as a calamity, yet many reformers applaud. And of course, there is pay. Is it fair for teachers to demand regular raises when unemployment is so high, and budgets at every level of government are strapped?

I’m not going to pronounce on these questions today, but I do want to offer a quick history of teacher unionism to keep things in perspective. The modern teachers’ union movement began in Chicago in 1897, and many of the problems back then — from low school budgets to testing to debates over classroom autonomy — remain more than salient today.

In 1800, 90 percent of American schoolteachers were men; by 1900, three-quarters were women. The feminization of teaching—a job once filled primarily by transient young men, often saving up to finance a legal or medical education—was, in large part, why education became one of the few white-collar unionized professions in the United States. Here’s how it happened, and why it happened in Chicago.

Around 1830, the American political, business, and intellectual elite began to come to a consensus that state governments should guarantee all children a free, basic education. Businesses wanted literate workers, and there was the idea that education would reduce social ills like intemperance and crime. But more than that, Common Schools reformers believed the young nation’s tenuous experiment in popular democracy required informed citizens, voters able to balance competing claims, judge the character of candidates for political office, and generally put the long term common good above short term, individual gain.  (Like today’s education reformers, Common Schoolers were an idealistic group.)

The inescapable reality, however, was that schools were expensive, and Americans, then as now, didn’t like high taxes. So in order to rapidly open many more schools, states, cities, and towns made the conscious choice to hire mostly female teachers, who were cheaper to employ. To sell that idea to a public wary of women working outside the home, and accustomed to corporal punishment and other stereotypically masculine ways of retaining control over a classroom, Common School reformers like Horace Mann, the Whig politician, and Catharine Beecher, the public intellectual, wrote and spoke ad nauseam about women’s moral superiority. As a schoolteacher, Mann lectured, a woman would be like an angel, “her head encircled with a halo of heavenly light, her feet sweetening the earth on which she treads, and the celestial radiance of her benignity making vice begin its work of repentance through very envy of the beauty of virtue!” Male teachers, Beecher liked to say, were “low, vulgar, obscene, intemperate, and utterly incompetent.”

This bracing rhetoric covered up an ugly reality of pay discrimination. Most female teachers earned just half the salary of a male teacher, and their jobs were getting harder and harder each day. In turn of the century Chicago, classrooms housed 60 students, many of them new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who couldn’t speak English. Yet teacher pay had been frozen for 30 years at $875 annually (about $23,000 adjusted for inflation), less than a skilled manual laborer could earn.

The nation’s first teachers’-only union, the Chicago Teachers Federation, was founded by two pissed off lady educators, Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin. They split the CTF from the administrator-dominated National Education Association in 1897. Haley, a sixth-grade teacher, became a national political force after she launched an investigation into the school system’s budget. She found that major Chicago corporations, including the Chicago Tribune and the city’s railroad, gas, and electrical utilities, had been issued 100-year “leases” of land owned by the Chicago public schools for far-below the market rate, and were paying no taxes whatsoever on the land. Haley’s successful lawsuit against Chicago’s leading corporations, and her decision to ally the Chicago Teachers’ Federation with the blue-collar AFL-CIO Chicago Federation of Labor established teacher unionism as a potent force in American urban politics, and earned her the ire of the conservative elite. One businessman called her “a nasty, unladylike woman.” But Haley knew that because female teachers couldn’t vote, they needed the muscle of the male-dominated labor movement to back them up in their efforts to win higher pay and more say over how schools were run.

Amid these tensions, in November 1902, the Andrew Jackson School on Chicago’s West Side hosted the nation’s first ever teachers’ strike.  Superintendent Edwin Cooley had replaced a popular female principal at the school with a man sent from the central district office. On Halloween, Janice McKeon, a longtime teacher with deep ties to the predominantly Irish neighborhood, booted a student from her 55-person class for using profanity against another child. When the new principal sent the offender back to class—and McKeon refused to let him enter the room—she was suspended without pay for 30 days. A week later, on Nov. 7, 400 students, parents, and teachers protested outside the school in support of McKeon, giving a boost to the newly formed CTF.

Political reformers of this period looked at the chaos of urban school systems and concluded that young, non-college educated women weren’t tough, ambitious, or intellectual enough to be effective teachers. Men like Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Columbia University president and standardized testing-enthusiast Nicholas Murray Butler, and Harvard president Charles William Eliot vowed to once again attract a higher-class (read: male) professional to the K-12 classroom, and to turn education into a “science” governed by standardized teaching practices and measured by test scores. Margaret Haley, however, saw female educators not as the problem with poverty-stricken schools, but as part of the solution. She wanted to try a different way of running schools, one that increased budgets, but also relied less on technocratic centralization and more on the instincts of individual educators with ties to the communities in which they worked.

For awhile, the early CTF found a partner in Chicago schools superintendent Ella Flagg Young, a fiercely intellectual high school teacher who earned a Ph.D at the University of Chicago and became a disciple of John Dewey, the founding philosopher of American progressive education. Young led the Chicago system from 1909 to 1915, and worked with the teachers’ union to institute a pedagogy based on theories of the whole child, which emphasized a broad curriculum and project-based learning. She allowed “teacher councils” within each school to set priorities, arguing that empowering teachers would help students achieve joy in learning. “In order that teachers may delight in awakening the spirits of children, they must themselves be awake,” Young said. She also resisted attempts by business leaders to direct working class children to a narrowly conceived version of vocational education, and she continuously fought corporate efforts to pay lower school taxes. Ultimately, business interests on the school board succeeded in pushing Young out of office.

There are some obvious parallels between the teacher labor battles of the past and those of today. First, teaching remains an overwhelmingly female profession, one that is often understood more as a romantic calling than as a career like any other, in which pay, autonomy, and working conditions matter. Second, raising taxes is typically a political nonstarter; in a system serving an extremely needy population, there is perpetually the need to do more with far less than would be ideal.

But there are also clear differences. Today’s teachers, though they earn less than other college-educated workers, do make a stable, middle-class salary. They are working within a knowledge economy that rewards worker flexibility and lifelong learning; it would be counterproductive, both for students and for the strength of organized labor, for local teachers’ unions to hang on to old notions of rigid job security and near nonexistent teacher evaluation. (Many teachers’ unions do have their own proposals for how to evaluate teachers, through processes like peer evaluation and portfolios of students' work. There are also good ideas from other quarters, like much more rigorous classroom observations.) And while large class sizes remain a problem, many high-poverty schools in cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles are actually experiencing rapid declines in enrollment, in part because of competition from charters. This help explains the push for school closures and teacher workforce reductions.

Teachers’ unions are among the most controversial institutions in American public life. I hope to demystify them in my upcoming book. There is much more to say, but for now I will stop here.

Recommended reading:

Citizen Teacher: The Life and Leadership of Margaret Haley by Kate Rousmaniere

Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980 by Marjorie Murphy

In Defense of Peter Beinart

Please head over to The Nation to read my essay on Beinart's important new book, The Crisis of Zionism:

Beinart accurately diagnoses the central challenge for the 21st century international Jewish community: how to come to terms with “the shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power.” In other words, if Jews do not learn to wield our newfound military, political, and economic strength ethically—showing the same concern for Palestinian and Arab-Israeli minority rights that we hope gentiles will show for Jews—then we, as a people, have failed to learn the painful lessons of Jewish history.

What I found most revelatory about The Crisis of Zionism was the way in which Beinart appeals not just to Jewish political liberalism, but also to our faith. The holy books of Judaism are filled with portents about what happens when Jews abuse power, Beinart notes. After Persia’s Jews toppled Haman, the anti-Semitic royal advisor, they slaughtered 75,000 people in retribution; our texts recount that both the Babylonian and Roman destructions of Jewish empires came in the wake of Jewish moral decadence. “Our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse,” Beinart writes.

Read the whole thing.

Remembering Adrienne Rich

Here are my two favorite verses from 1976's "Twenty-One Love Poems:"


Where in this city, screens flicker
with pornography, with science-fiction vampires,
victimized hirelings bending to the lash,
we also have to walk…if simply as we walk
through the rainsoaked garbage, the tabloid cruelties
of our own neighborhoods.
We need to grasp our lives inseparable
from those rancid dreams, that blurt of metal, those disgraces,
and the red begonia perilously flashing 
from a tenement sill six stories high,
or the long-legged young girls playing ball
in the junior highschool playground.
No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,
sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,
dappled with scars, still exuberantly budding,
our animal passion rooted in the city.


Since we're not young, weeks have to do time
for years of missing each other. Yet only this odd warp
in time tells me we're not young.
Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with a purer joy?
did I lean from any window over the city
listening for the future
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ring?
And you, you move toward me with the same tempo.
Your eyes are everlasting, the green spark
of the blue-eyed grass of early summer,
the green-blue wild cress washed by the spring.
At twenty, yes: we thought we'd live forever.
At forty-five, I want to know even our limits.
I touch you knowing we weren't born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.

Follow-Ups and Reading Lists and a Poem

I'm caught up in long-form writing projects this week, but here are some quick thoughts and reading recommendations until I can return to the blog in full force:

  • I got a lot of interesting responses to my post on Siri and abortion access. A common critique was that it's crucial to catch problems like this early in a new technology's life cycle, before it reaches mass market penetration. I totally agree, but maintain that greater progress would be made for more women right now if half the attention paid to the Siri contretemps was funneled into building basic web sites for locating reproductive health services. For example, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has created Bedsider, which allows you to enter your zipcode and get a list of nearby clinics that provide affordable contraception. We need something similar for abortion.
  • Linda Darling-Hammond (on the left) and Rick Hess (on the right) are two of the smartest people in education policy. Here is their joint prescription for fixing No Child Left Behind, and for the federal government embracing a more "humble" role in school reform.
  • On the occasion of the Utne Reader downsizing, my friend Reihan Salam has a very thoughtful post on how small-ciruclation print magazines created "virtual communities" before the Internet. As Reihan notes, this was a big part of being a nerdy kid in the 1990s. And yes. I basically owe my life to small-circulation print magazines!
  • Speaking of which, the new issue of N + 1 contains delightful histories of Pitchfork and Gchat. Pick up a copy.

Lastly: My New Year's resolution for 2011 was to read a poem each night before bed. I failed miserably (of course), but in the spirit of the year ending, I've attempted to actually do this occasionally for the past month. Here is an old favorite, which I still find almost shockingly irreverent. But it's true, I think, nonetheless.

A Brief for the Defense, by Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.