Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Men Series Finale – Make Room For Daddy?

First appeared on Blogcritics.

While the line “Is there a doctor in the house?” has been used for comic reasons in many films and in live shows, there are also times when a doctor is needed in real emergencies and one hopes he or she is in the audience. In relation to the series finale of Mad Men coming this Sunday night at 10 p.m. on AMC, it seems medical professionals may be needed both on screen and for the audience watching at home. There definitely will be a need for a box of tissues and a shoulder to cry on if nothing else.

One character we know for certain has already seen a doctor – with devastating results. The fact that Betty Draper Francis (January Jones who seems unappreciated by critics and some fans) has terminal cancer threw a sucker punch at us. Here we were expecting Roger, Pete, or Don to kick the bucket, and along comes news that is both tragic and far-reaching in scope. Betty’s being told that she has nine months to live doesn’t just change her trajectory, but that of Henry (her second husband), her children, and good old Don (Jon Hamm).

All sorts of thoughts about the finale have been running through my head for weeks now, dancing like sugar plums and hand grenades. While I expected dire consequences for certain characters, Betty was not one of them. In fact, when Don looked back on the happy Francis-Draper family as he left the house after a visit, I felt it gave him the incentive to start a journey of no return, knowing that all was okay with them. How wrong I and many other viewers were.

If ever a dramatic TV series were like a novel, Mad Men certainly is the closest thing I have experienced. Series creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner has allowed the story to take its time, meandering here and there perhaps, but always bringing tertiary moments back into the bigger picture in some way. He has been especially brave in development of back stories, particularly Don’s upbringing as Dick Whitman and the explanation for how Dick became Don.

So while other story lines seem resolved – I am not certain, but as far as I am concerned all the other major players are settled in my mind. We know Betty is going to die; Joan is off with her new beau to California; Pete is back with Trudy; Ken got his revenge; Harry got his computers; Megan got a cool million dollar pay-off; Roger accepts his fate (as his dirge-like organ playing clearly demonstrated), and Peggy got perhaps the best curtain call in the history of TV dramas as she strutted into the office with a cigarette dangling from her mouth while carting Bert Cooper’s painting of an octopus pleasuring a woman for all the stuck up male bastards at McCann-Erickson to take note – don’t mess with this woman!

No, for me, the only major character yet to have a resolution is Don. After watching “The Milk and Honey Route,” the penultimate episode of the series, I was struck by how similar it was to “The Granite State” (not in content but in theme,) the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad. Just as Walter White spent this episode not interacting with any of main characters in a place foreign and far from home, Don is similarly displaced and dealing with people he doesn’t know, but because we know Don we understand his reactions and they all have meaning in this episode directed by Mr. Weiner.

Remember when Jim Hobart dangles the Coca-Cola account to enhance Don’s interest in working for McCann? Well, how funny is it that Don is asked to fix a Coke machine in his modest hotel in Oklahoma? He also is asked to fix a typewriter and has difficulty getting the young motel handyman Andy to smuggle him a bottle of booze.  These things seem strange but in essence this is Don’s penance, his opportunity to do some good deeds, and then some.

Don goes to the pool for a swim and he sees an attractive woman on a lounge chair. We know the old Don Draper wheels are turning in his head for a few moments, until her noisy kids and husband break the spell. Don should have expected no less here in the middle of nowhere, so he takes off his shirt and dives into the pool – a symbolic baptism similar to season two’s dip in the Pacific Ocean.

Don is not done with penance here though. He gets talked into going to a fund raiser with all the veterans in town after revealing to the motel owner that he himself is a veteran. For those who don’t remember, while serving in Korea as Dick Whitman under Lieutenant Donald Draper, Dick accidentally causes an explosion that kills Draper and burns his body beyond recognition. The wounded Dick exchanges dog tags with the corpse and becomes Don – inheriting not just an identity but the opportunity to go home quickly.

At the fund raiser there is a good deal of drinking. The vets at Don’s table each share war horror stories. One old guy (played deftly by Max Gail of Barney Miller fame) tells of killing Germans in World War Two. The look in his eyes reminds of us of Don’s glare, which always seems to mask the depth of horror and the heft of guilt for crimes better left forgotten. Don’s inspired to tell his story about dropping a cigarette lighter and killing his Commanding Officer, and instead of getting negativity or derision he gets a support group.

This is a crucial moment in Mad Men history because other people know Don used to be Dick Whitman and don’t care (as Bert Cooper once told Pete Campbell), but for Don to admit publicly what he did to his CO is what amounts to being in a confessional. Earlier that day he seemed to be baptized and then he gets a chance to confess his greatest sin – can absolution be far away? Perhaps not at all.

When Andy steals the bag of money from the fund raiser, the vets come to Don’s room and blame him. They beat him with a phone book (talk about letting your fingers do the walking), take his car keys, and warn him that he has to get the money back. While some may see this as more penance for Don – even retribution for the real Draper’s death – it is another wake-up call. Don gets Andy to return the money, drives him out of town, and then turns over his car keys to him. This seems to be Don’s way of saying grace, of receiving the absolution he most desperately needs and desires at this point by saving another human being's soul. Andy had all the signs of going the Dick Whitman to Don Draper route, and Don stops him in his tracks and gives him a way out in a sort of symbiotic moment of salvation.

That is why, after the kid drives off in his car, Don sits at the bus stop in the middle of nowhere with a smile on his face. He is carrying all his stuff in a bag from Sears, has no car, and ostensibly no more connections to anything or anyone back home. At this point whoever he is – Dick/Don or Moe, Larry, or Curly, the man is totally free.

The series finale should be “California here I come” for him, a return to the ocean for another cleansing. I pictured this as the last shot of the series – Don diving into the waves, happily accepting a return to being something other – not Dick Whitman but not Don Draper either. I believed he would assume another identity, get a quiet job someplace, and allow regular life to subsume his once high cost lifestyle.

All this would have been well and good until I learned about Betty. Now the most important woman in Don’s life – not Betty but his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) – will need him more than ever. Don’s connection with Sally is deeper and more meaningful than anything in his life, and he not only wants her to be happy but also to know that he cares about her. Sally is the only person Don has probably ever truly loved, and no matter what Sally may say outwardly, she needs Don to be there for her and to be her father.

My feeling is that Weiner wants to end this series like the great novels – in my mind especially as Hemingway ended The Sun Also Rise. Just as Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley were never meant to be happy, neither were Don and Betty; however, I think Don will give up everything to make his daughter happy and to be with Sally and her brothers, even if that means a return to New York and all that entails.


Don living out his days in an ascetic lifestyle in California used to be what I envisioned as the end of the line for Mad Men, but now I think that it will be a slightly warped but earnest version of Make Room for Daddy. At least until Sunday night, as Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

  Photo credits: AMC       

Saturday, May 9, 2015

NFL DeflateGate – Tom Brady Faces Suspension; May the Farce Not Be With You

First appeared on Blogcritics.

brady1 - getty Let me start by saying I am a NY Jets fan (I have bled green as far back as I can remember), and nothing delights me more than to see the New England Patriots have some sort of difficulty. In my mind we Jets fans are the "Jeti" (like the Jedi from Star Wars) and the Patriots and their minions are the Sith (arrange this word’s letters a little differently for an even more apropos appellation) of the National Football League.

brady5-bleacherreport  Led by “Darth” Bill Belichick and his willing apprentice “Darth” Tom Brady, the Patriots have used the dark side of the farce (a power derived from insanity, greed, and some talent) to assert the reach of their evil empire over as much of the NFL planet as possible. Whenever the Jeti or other forces of good question their tactics, the farce is employed to warp the minds of investigators and the denizens of their empire to trick them into believing Darth Bill is just an innocent and fun-loving coach with no designs on becoming Emperor.

Now that you have the background, there are signs that the farce may no longer be with them as we get DeflateGate (Part Two). Don’t confuse this with DeflateGate (Part One), which basically placed the blame on deflated footballs used in last season’s AFC Championship game on a poor anonymous underling. That, of course, is one of Darth Bill’s best mind games – I didn’t do anything wrong and neither did my right hand Darth Tom, but now we are learning that the story has legs longer than that guy on stilts in the circus, and the farce will not be with the Evil Empire anymore.

Their nefarious tactics are being revealed now in the Wells Report submitted by investigators hired by the NFL. It indicated that Darth Tom was “at least generally aware” of the deflation of the balls by Jim McNally, a Patriots locker room attendant, and John Jastremski, an equipment assistant (I ask you if you have ever heard two better names for red shirts?). The steaming light saber (or smoking gun if you’re tired of the Star Wars references by now) involves text messages between the red shirts (months before the incident) indicating Darth Tom wanted his balls deflated to his liking.

brady3-thedailyshowOne can understand now that more than the farce was with Darth Tom and the Patriots as they defeated the Colts 45-7 with his doctored balls. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is one of the many fans around planet NFL who is outraged by the story and vents anger at the QB, even if he jokingly refers to how “handsome” Darth Tom is and all that junk with the wife and kids (hey, creepily a lot like Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader). 


brady2-APNow we get word that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will suspend Brady and that it will be announced next week. While some are hoping for a full suspension for all of the 2015 season, there are indications (according to sources for the NY Daily News) that Brady will only be suspended six to eight games. While we Jeti are delighted and savoring this news, it is with sadness that we learn old Darth Bill, the brains behind his brawny apprentice Brady, will seemingly walk away from this at least personally unscathed (meaning no suspension and no fine as in SpyGate). Of course, Darth Bill without Darth Tom is probably as lost as Beavis without Butthead and probably will have no idea where to find his remote control, but I wouldn't cry for the guy who has finally seen that the win any way possible philosophy has its limitations.

brady4-gettyIt is encouraging to see that Goodell is taking this report seriously. All kidding aside, it is hard not to do so. Every fan of the game should want it to be played cleanly and fairly. Goodell has suspended guys for domestic violence, illegal activities, and drug use, and these things take place off the field; however, what Brady has done is an on-the-field violation that could directly affect the outcome of games – including championship ones.

The Patriot minions are no doubt crying foul this morning in hearing about Darth Tom’s impending punishment, but the Jeti and all the rest of NFL fans everywhere are celebrating this victory over the dark side. It used to be funny to joke about Brady’s balls, but now more than they will be deflated – Darth Bill has lost the power of the farce, and Patriot plans for domination in 2015 are seriously in question.

Photo credits: getty images, AP, thedailyshow, bleacherreport

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Baseball Brouhaha – A-Rod Hits Historic Homer; Yankees Want a Do-Over

First appeared on Blogcritics.

rod5 When I was a kid playing stickball in the streets of Queens in New York City, not far from where my beloved Mets played at Shea Stadium, we had one thing those guys in Major League Baseball could never use – the “do-over.” A do-over was a fail-safe mechanism, a corrector of supposed wrongs, and an eraser of something that shouldn’t have been. In short a do-over was the answer for anything that could be argued or couldn’t be explained.


If I was in the field and a ball got hit my way but was deflected by the bumper of a parked car, I simply yelled, “Do over.” If the car had not been there, the ball would have been in my glove, so it seemed without question that the play had to be rewound and done again. If my friend was at the plate and about to swing, but a car came speeding his way as he swung the bat and missed the ball, clearly that called for a do-over. Anything we could not resolve (safe/out, foul ball/fair ball) would be ripe for do-over status. Amazingly, once a do-over was called, no one on either side ever took offense or objected – it was a safety net that avoided arguments, fights, and delays of the game.

Now in the real world of MLB the venerable New York Yankees organziation, the team that calls upon a tradition of excellence and a history of championships, is basically calling for a “do-over” with Alex Rodriguez – the man without a country in 2014 because of a suspension for using PED. Now A-Rod is back and with a vengeance, hitting homers and defying the general opinion that he would be washed up and useless without his meds.

rod-3On Friday night in Boston A-Rod slammed career homerun 660, tying him with the great Willie Mays. This normally would be something for MLB and the Yankees to celebrate profusely (anyone remember the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa parties?); however, it is being downplayed because the Yankees owe A-Rod a $6 million bonus for this achievement that they are now unwilling to pay. The team management’s logic is simple – who knows how many of those previous 659 homeruns came as a result of PED use? How can we honor a milestone that is in itself suspect? How can we promote suspect homeruns when they are unmarketable?

Probably knowing that his handlers will be taking legal action against the Yankees, to his credit the usually blabbering A-Rod has kept rather low key throughout all this. Despite all the people who do not like him, no one can deny that the man knows baseball and in fact loves it. At times one can say A-Rod is consumed by the sport; however, it’s hard for many people to forgive A-Rod for what he did, but the truth is that no one can deny what he has accomplished statistically. In his mind this must be A-Rod's ace-in-the-hole.

The average Joe off the street can take the same PED that Rodriguez took, get in the batter’s box, and not even make contact. The thing people forget is that A-Rod was and is full of natural talent and ability; he could hit, field, and play with the best of them. The drugs didn’t do that for him; he was born that way. Unfortunately, now A-Rod becomes a good deal like Pete Rose – a man with all the Hall of Fame statistics in the world but with no way to get elected.

rod-4At a press conference the day after A-Rod hit the historic homer, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman indicated that the team had a right but no obligation to pay A-Rod the homerun bonus. What Cashman is basically saying without saying it is this – We will accept the homeruns A-Rod hits on the field that win games for us and put people in the stands, but we will not recognize them on or off the field. Apparently, MLB is in agreement with this attempt by the Yankees to basically call a “do-over” in regards to A-Rod’s performance.

When asked if he thinks that A-Rod is clean now, Cashman cautiously responded, “I hope so.” Notice the salient way this questioned was handled. Cashman is clearly calculating every angle in hopes of voiding whatever he can in the future should any testing results come back that can assist in the Yankees attempt to vilify A-Rod or void their contractual obligations.

As a Mets fan I must admit that I have never liked A-Rod. Long ago when there were rumors that the Mets were trying to trade for him, I hoped that they wouldn’t be successful. When he was signed by the Yankees, it only exacerbated my dislike for the man. I felt he was egotistic and the worst thing of all for his team, the fans, and especially the kids watching him – a totally “me” player all about himself and what “he” could accomplish.

Now, I oddly find myself on A-Rod’s side. For one thing, the man paid his debt, if not to society definitely to MLB. After serving the punishment, he came back to the slings and arrows of outrageous reporting and rumors that he was washed up. A-Rod showed them all what he could do during spring training and is still doing it during the regular reason. Maybe the Yankees don’t want to acknowledge that he hit that homerun officially, but they are gladly accepting the win over the Boston Red Sox that it provided. This is most certainly hypocrisy at its worst.

After tying Mays for fourth on the all-time home run list, A-Rod seemed overwhelmed by the moment and its significance. He said, “It’s good to do it in a good team win. I got emotional there.” Obviously, A-Rod feels the pressure and understands the implications – not just of the accomplishment but of the Yankees refusing to acknowledge it. Some people may say that it took him until now to be a team player, but forget the bonus because there is more than money at stake here – it’s A-Rod’s legacy.

rod-2As for the great Willie Mays, he remains a class act all the way and released this statement: “Congratulations to Alex Rodriguez on his 660th home run. Milestones in baseball are meant to be broken and I wish him continued success throughout his career.” It goes without saying that Mays had the kind of career any player, including A-Rod, would have wished for as a kid. Now Mays wishes him well as he ties his career homer mark, and you can’t help but wonder what is going on inside A-Rod’s heart and mind.

When told of Mays’s statement, A-Rod responded, “I’m speechless.” Of course, as the enormity of the situation becomes clear to him, the reality of what he has done and failed to do, someone with the class of Willie Mays could loom as a reminder of what could have been. That makes A-Rod a tragic figure – someone along the lines of Hamlet or Macbeth, someone enormously gifted and fortunate who could have had it all except for one tragic flaw.

Still, no matter what Cashman and the Yankees organization would like the narrative to be, there are two simple facts here. One is that A-Rod hit all those homeruns (660 as of this writing). Two is that nothing they can do can erase them. The Yankees would like it to be different, but there are no “do-overs” in big league baseball. MLB knows that, the fans know it, and so does A-Rod; now it becomes clear that sooner or later the Yankees will have to know it too.

  Photo credits: sport-kid.net, daily news, MLB 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

New York City Is Getting Coyote Ugly

First appeared on Blogcritics.

coyo There is a news story trending here in New York City and vicinity that has people going bonkers – there are coyote sightings everywhere. Just today there was word that a clever coyote that eluded police for days had been apprehended. Everywhere across the city people breathed a sigh of relief – that is until another coyote sighting is reported. And lately, that seems like every other day or so.

coyo 5I must admit that the only thing I know about coyotes comes from watching Saturday morning cartoons. Wile E. Coyote (he had a business card claiming that he was a genius if you recall) could never manage to capture that elusive Road Runner, despite the many deliveries of contraptions from ACME to accomplish the task. More often than not Wile E. was seen falling from a precipice and ending up in a cloud of dust way below.

The media has stoked the fires of this story and New Yorkers have loved it. It is because (like bears in northern New Jersey before them) of the wild reactions of people on the street that the fear factor of these creatures gains traction. The encroachment of wildlife on our fair city is nothing new (over the years I have seen hawks, raccoons, possums, owls, and the ubiquitous city squirrel), but now everyone is acting like they are scared.

If you judge by the comments of locals, you would think that werewolves were terrorizing the city. Next thing you know men and women will be securing their homes, making silver bullets, and getting ready for the blood thirsty beasts to burst through windows and doors and try to devour children and small animals. Oh, the madness of this coyote apocalypse!

coyo 2There are voices of reason though amidst the insanity here in the naked city. Mark Weckel, conservation scientist and co-founder of Gotham Coyote Project, believes New Yorkers should not fear the carnivores. He notes that the animals have moved south and established dens in the Bronx after many years of living in Westchester County. 


Coyotes (Canis latrans) are closely related to wolves but are smaller and usually weigh 30-50 pounds. They are normally shy animals and stay away from people, but there have been reports of people trying to pet or feed coyotes. According to Weckel that is not a very good idea. Keeping the coyote a “wild” animal is better for them and for people too.

coyo 3So why are New Yorkers getting crazy about coyotes? In part the story of an attacking rabid coyote in New Jersey stoked the flames of the fire. Now people are thinking of these “wild dogs” as something menacing. As soon as city residents see one they are excited and scared, and the police have been called in to search for them once their presence is reported, the goal being to tranquilize them and bring them to animal shelters.

Since the last sighting in Middle Village people on Long Island are hoping that they won't be next. Weckel notes that Long Island is “the last large land mass without a breeding population of coyotes in the United States.” However, with them being in adjacent Queens it should not be too long before they are seen there too.

I have had to deal with raccoons for years, and mostly they are nocturnal creatures who do not bother anyone; however, poorly stored garbage tends to attract them and, one time after a party, I learned the hard way about sealing the garbage container lids. I heard a noise in the yard, turned on the porch light, and discovered a raccoon enjoying itself. When I opened the door, old Rocky ran off with a prize – the carcass of that night’s roasted chicken.

It seems obvious that coyotes are looking for food, so we can do our part by not feeding them and keeping garbage secure. There is also a realization that wild animals have been living all around us for years. Anyone who has put a pumpkin outside for Halloween knows what squirrels will do to it. New Yorkers are usually resilient and now we must not get coyote ugly here; let’s forget the hysteria and get over it – coyotes are, as Weckel observes, here to stay.

For now the coyote stories are going to continue to be amusing, mostly because of people’s reactions. As coyotes settle in and become New Yorkers, there should be a gradual acceptance of their presence, just like those extremely annoying cartoon characters in Times Square. And, if we have any luck, some of them will make their way into the subways and feast on the rat population. That would be a win-win for all New Yorkers – coyotes and people.

  Photo credits: NYPD, ny daily news, kleberly.com,    

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Scary First Haircut - a Short Story by Victor Lana

First appeared on Blogcritics.

cut4 As I neared my 5th birthday, my hair had grown wild and untouched by human hands – except for my mother brushing it affectionately. After a summer of sun, beach, and water, I entered the first week of September blissfully unaware that something unexpected awaited me.

“He can’t go into Kindergarten looking like that,” Dad said. 

“Oh, dear,” Mom said, “but he's so cute.”

“He looks like a hippy,” Dad said.

I watched my favorite TV show, and as Bugs Bunny said, “What’s up Doc?” I wondered what a hippy was and what that had to do with me.


 *

Late on Saturday afternoon my father’s father came into the kitchen. “Ready for the old trim,” he said.

Suddenly the two of them were heading down into the dark abyss of the basement. I never went down there because I assumed that trolls, witches, and ghosts patrolled it, and I wanted nothing to do with that place.

As I plopped down and played with my G.I. Joes, I heard my father yell, “Vinny, come down here!” 

“Me?” I thought. “I must be imagining things.” 

“Vincent, get down here now!” Dad yelled again.

Mom came into the living room drying her hands on a dishtowel. “Vinny, sweetheart, please go down by Daddy.”

“I never go down there,” I said.

“You’re starting school next week, so Daddy has to get you ready. Your teacher’s going to be Sister Regina, and she sent a letter home telling us how you are supposed to look.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes, you need to wear a uniform, get special shoes, and you need a haircut.”

Cut3Mom led me to the cellar stairs. As I stared down them I heard banging and the muffled voices of Pop and Dad talking. I tried to turn back and looked up at Mom; she was crying. I never saw Mom cry except when she and Nana were watching their soap operas.

I started down the stairs slowly, the old wood creaking as I took each step. As I got to the bottom I stared ahead at Pop sitting on a chair with a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. Dad had some kind of machine and he ran it along the back of Pop’s head. It made an awful noise like an electronic insect gnawing at Pop’s hair.

Looking back up the stairs, I noticed Mom shutting and bolting the door. Doom obviously awaited me. I turned and walked toward them. Pop had his head down and Dad took something else from the table and started to scratch it on the back of Pop’s neck. “Hey, watch it, Vince!”

“Sorry, Pop,” Dad said.

Cut2I slowly went over to the table and saw all these assorted instruments; I recognized some things as different kinds of scissors but the other stuff looked unusual and like it could hurt someone. Dad noticed me and said, “Take a seat, Pal. I just have to finish up with Pop.”

I watched as he took a comb and a pair of scissors and clipped around Pop’s ears. “Hey! Quit nicking me!” Pop said.

“Sorry, Pop,” Dad said.

I had no idea my father gave haircuts. We used to pass the barber shop on the corner every morning, and Dad would say that was where he got a haircut. Now I knew that Dad, who was a New York City cop, also could be a barber. I knew he fancied himself a doctor – he had pulled enough splinters out of me with his implements and stinging rubbing alcohol. He also thought he was a dentist, having the thing with a little mirror on it and other metal tools that he used to probe my mouth. I figured Dad could do just about anything.

Pop stood up; Dad shook the gray hairs off the sheet and stared at me. “You’re next, Pal.”

I went to the chair, sat down, and felt the sheet coming around me like I was getting tied up. He secured the top part around my neck, and it was very tight and caused me to cough. Dad loosened it a bit and said, “Sorry, Pal.”

Pop started up the steps, knocked twice on the door, and Mom unbolted it. I closed my eyes and thought, “This was all part of a plan.”

I stared ahead and realized that there was a mirror above the shelf on the basement wall. I could actually see myself ready to be tortured. Dad reached over to the table and brought a pair of scissors and a comb close to my head. I watched as he combed my hair forward so that it covered my eyes. Snip-snip-snip and suddenly that hair was gone and I could see again.

Cut1I felt the sweat running down my back as he combed my hair back, put those things down, and brought that electric contraption up to my temple. As he turned it on it reminded me of that terrible sound I heard in the dentist’s office, but this was right next to my ear. I shut my eyes and didn’t open them again until Dad finished his work.

“Okay, Vinny, all done,” Dad said, taking the sheet off me and shaking all my dark hair from it onto the basement floor next to Pop’s gray hair.

I stood up shakily and touched my head; my hair felt like little needles against my palm. I looked in the mirror and saw most of what had been on my head gone. “Why’d you cut off so much, Dad?” I asked.

“It’s called a crewcut, Pal.” I started up the stairs and looked over the banister. Dad took a broom and began sweeping up the hair on the floor.

When I walked into the kitchen, Mom started crying again, fell down on her knees, and kissed my cheeks. “I’m sorry, my boy.”

I didn’t like seeing my Mom cry and said, “It’s okay, Mom. I’m fine,” and I was; I had survived my first haircut.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Common Core Wars – Parents Opting Out of Testing Can Change Education for the Better

First appreared on Blogcritics.

opt 2 Parents across New York State and other parts of the country are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. This anger stems from school districts ramming testing linked to the infamous Common Core Standards down their children’s throats, which takes an enormous amount of class time away from instruction.

There is also the issue here in New York of connecting the results of said testing to teachers’ evaluations. Parents and teachers have always represented the most important partnership in education – working together they can form the crucial bond that will make a child’s scholastic experience a success. In this case both parents and teachers find themselves even more drawn to being on the same team – for the sake of the children and the teachers’ careers.

All over the United States parents are opting out of standardized student testing. Here in New York State alone, it is estimated that over 150,000 students did not take last week’s state ELA exams (given in grades 3-8). This week the state math exams begin, and the forecast is that the number mentioned above could double or even triple based on dissatisfied parents reacting to the situation at schools across the state.

What is happening here? Is it a "mass act of civil disobedience" as NY Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez labels it? Or is there even something deeper happening here? Could it be that parents are finally realizing their rights in the education equation and are standing up to the bullies in school district offices and state education departments? As a parent and educator, I am leaning toward the latter as the most reasonable and logical explanation.

My children are not in grades that require state testing in their school, but if they were I would definitely “opt out” on their behalf. Besides the inadequate preparation for poorly constructed tests being the reason, my main concern (and I know many other parents agree) is the inordinate level of test anxiety that these assessments create. The “high stakes” atmosphere of teachers being pressured to proctor exams on which they know there students will do poorly, coupled with the realization that the results will be used in their evaluations, creates a pressure cooker for kids. These exams do not provide teachable moments but instead day-upon-day of nervousness and despair.

opt 3As for the exams themselves, these ludicrous instruments set up at least 70% or more of the students to fail (judging by the results here in New York). What authority charged with the best interests of their students would dare to administer such testing?

There is also all the test prep time, the professional development for teachers (inadequate at best but still requiring them to be out of their classrooms), and then even more time for the tests to be marked (again taking teachers out of the classroom). Then, to rub salt into the wounds, these same teachers who know they have not been properly prepared for the Common Core, are asked to prepare the students for exams that they know they are not ready to take. To add insult to injury here in New York, Governor Cuomo and his minions have then said that the results on these exams will be used as part of end of the year teacher evaluations.

Any rational person would take a step back and say, “This is absurd,” but this has always been the plan of Cuomo (and his partner in crime former New York City Mayor Bloomberg), to try to break the teachers’ unions, to fracture teacher tenure, and to support a new charter-school type of mentality that basically means that teachers will be paid off an established salary scale and have little or no job security.

Parents are revolting in mass demonstrations because they are smart and they know who has the best interests of their children in mind (the teachers). Today’s parents have realized that they are the taxpayers – the ones who are funding what these districts and state education departments are doing. Why should they sit back and allow a bunch of bureaucrats to sabotage education by basically condemning children to a school year of teachers teaching to the test? Thankfully, parents and teachers are forging an alliance to take back education, which in essence means eliminating most or all of these standardized tests in favor of something really radical – a day devoted to actual teaching!

opt 1Teachers have a right to be worried – the pernicious plan put forth places them in the crosshairs and they are realizing that they have to fight back. Teachers’ unions are aligning themselves for a push back against the testing, and they are getting overwhelming support from parents who not only value their professionalism but believe they have a right to job security.

Can you imagine any major company creating something they know would fail most consumers? Let’s say a company makes a product that they realize will not work 70% of the time; however, the profits are so large that they put it out there anyway. They also charge their suppliers and store owners to push the defective product and, if they do not, their jobs will be on the line. Well, this is what has happened with standardized testing – especially exams linked to the Common Core – it is a failure and yet it continues to be pushed upon our children.

opt 4Proponents of the Common Core and the testing linked to it will tell you a different tale, but that is because this is BIG business. Testing costs are astronomical, and districts that have signed multi-year contracts with companies are stuck with a faulty product and thus shove it down the throats of their students, teachers, and parents. This is as bad as a doctor who knows a drug does more harm than good but, because of his hospital’s relationship with a pharmaceutical giant, prescribes the drug for patients anyway.

It is reassuring to see so many parents standing up to their districts and education departments. If Gonzalez is right and this is a “movement,” then we have to beat the drum and continue to press forward. We must to get to the point that every child’s parents in every school across the country joins the “opt out” group. This will show where the real power lies in education – the parents!

There have also been subtle threats from district leaders. They say that if parents push to opt-out that the Federal government will withhold funding from school districts. This is another attempt at bullying, but those in elected office should reconsider hurting students by punishing schools with less funding because they didn’t get things to go their way. Parents also hold the power of the vote, and any politician who would advocate withholding funds from schools certainly will feel the pain the next time parents go into the voting booth.

opt 5Standardized testing is starting to look like Humpty Dumpty – the big fall is imminent, and all the testing companies’ horses and all their men won’t be able to put it back together again. When that happens education will return to a place where reading, writing, and arithmetic are more important than expensive testing contracts that only line the pockets of executives who have no idea nor care what happens in a classroom.

For now parents have been exercising their right to opt out of standardized testing in growing numbers, and this trend is not going away. With even more opt outs predicted this week, the hope is that parents will continue taking back the essence of education from people who have obviously forgotten the golden rule – teachers are supposed to teach subject matter not to a test. We are moving in the right direction now, but we need this to be the start of a continuing effort to let school districts and education departments know that inevitable change is coming.

As for teachers, this movement by parents should be an affirmation of their efforts and for them to continue doing what they best – teach! Parents and teachers must continue to unite; they have nothing to lose but their standardized testing chains.

Photo credits: AP, Syracuse.com, genius.com

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Mad Men – Don Draper’s “Death” Is Preordained

First appeared in Blogcritics.

mad 1 There is always a good deal of talk as a dramatic series reaches its end about who is going to survive, especially the main protagonist. Think The Sopranos, 24, Dexter, Breaking Bad, and The Shield for good examples – and only Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan had enough moxie to pull the plug on Walter White.

The discussion now continues regarding Mad Men and its conflicted lead Don Draper (Jon Hamm), with the watercooler talk firmly on the “Don will die” side. This conversation is ludicrous because people are missing the truth – Don Draper is already dead.

Now, we can take that literally because Don Draper – the real Don Draper – is actually long dead because Lieutenant Donald Draper died during the Korean War. The man we know as Don is actually Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute who dies giving birth to him. Having been brought up in a house of ill repute, Dick has no trouble switching dog tags with Draper after he is killed in a battle that also wounds Dick. When Dick returns home as Draper, he has been awarded the Purple Heart.

Fans of the show know that Don is no war hero – but all of this hangs around his neck like an albatross. The slick Don Draper we meet is a creation of circumstance, timing, and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who gets into a drunken stupor with Don and forgets that he never offered him a job. Don takes every opportunity as we can see from these actions and this propels him to the spot where he is now – able to write a $1 million check to second wife Megan (Jessica ParĂ©) as a way of settling their divorce amicably.

mad 4Getting back to the guy we know as Don now, there is definite evidence that he is going to “die” but not in the way everyone may be thinking. Don’s journey has been a long and excruciating one – with much of the turmoil of his own doing – and as the pieces keep crumbling all around him, that “falling man” from the opening credits is surely imagined as Don taking the plunge like a despondent stockbroker jumping after the crash in 1929.

My thinking is that the end of the 1960s has driven a definitive nail into Draper’s coffin. That was his decade to shine; and the Don Draper we know – buttoned down suit, slicked back hair, shiny shoes – is just not meant for the 70s. When he leaves Betty (January Jones) and her family in the last episode, he realizes not only what he is missing but what he has lost. The man who had no family life growing up has nothing now.

mad 2This brings us to Diana (Elizabeth Reaser) – a waitress Don sees in a diner one night who reminds him of a lost love. Don doesn’t usually pursue women who work outside of his realm of high-stakes advertising, but she intrigues him enough that they have a sordid back alley tryst and then later he brings her home. On the elevator in his apartment building, old flame Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) and her doctor husband meet them and Don has an uncomfortable moment of past and present lovers colliding – but Sylvia acts as if Diana is not even there. Her ignorance is either bliss or defines what Don means in her life now – nothing!

Unlike other women, Diana ends things with Don and this defies the logic of his life – women don’t leave Don Draper. Don, who famously once said, “It’s over when I say it’s over” sadly learns the fat lady has sung without even realizing it. When he returns home to his apartment, he discovers Megan and her mother (Julia Ormond) have cleaned out the place. He stares at the vacant space incredulously, rooms as empty as his life has become.

My theory as we move forward is that Don is going to realize that he can no longer live the lie that he has created. All of his machinations have left him alone and broken, and there aren’t enough cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, and willing women to assuage that internal pain that is tearing him apart. Don hates his life just as much as other people despise him. He is not loved; he is no one’s friend, and there is no hope for Don Draper in the world that he has established.

So Don Draper will indeed die in the series finale – and it will be of his own doing. No, Don’s not going to fall off the building as in the opening credits, but he will shed that sleazy Draper skin that has become thickened, hardened, and inured to life’s true pleasures. Don will go back to being Dick Whitman, fur salesman, used car salesman, and basically nobody.

Only by throwing away all Don has accomplished can Dick ever be free. Dick never earned that Purple Heart or anything that came after it. Now Don can go off and be Dick again, and in doing so he will be able to perhaps connect to the things in life he has always wanted but could never attain – love, family, and happiness.


mad 3At the end of the opening credits we see the silhouette sitting peacefully and smoking a cigarette – but that is not Don Draper. I believe that is Dick Whitman and he can finally relax and be the person he has always been meant to be. Yes, Don Draper will “die” in the end, but that’s the only way he can ever really live. Photo Credits: AMC, pixshark.com