Too good to resist; from the New Yorker.
Anyone who thinks that because professional athletes make so much money they are completely jaded and blasé and don’t really care whether their team wins or loses needs to watch what happens when a baseball team comes from behind and wins a game in the bottom of the ninth inning: the players run out onto the field and jump up and down and hug and pound each other like they’re little leaguers.
Too blasé? Too cool to show excitement? Hardly.
Ask almost any down-in-the-trenches teacher – as opposed to education academics whose heads generally reside where the sun don’t shine – and she’ll tell you that perhaps the single most important determinant of student achievement is an interested and involved parent. Show me a child with a parent who’s engaged in his or her child’s education, that teacher will tell you, and I’ll show you a child I can teach and a child who will learn.
So doesn’t it stand to reason that most public school systems – especially large urban districts like Philadelphia – will inevitably see their learning environment decline and already-abysmal test scores fall even further in the coming years as more and more children with interested and involved parents switch to charter schools?
Every child who enrolls in a charter school has an interested and engaged parent – someone interested enough in their child’s education to declare that “I want more for my child” and who’s then willing to do the work involved in securing a place in a charter school. Whether that school is actually better or not probably doesn’t even matter; it’s the motivation behind the move that speaks volumes about the parent and probably tells us a lot about the child, too. The result of this growing migration, though, is that almost every new child who enrolls in a charter school does so to the detriment of the standardized test scores of the public school system he or she leaves behind.
Forget test scores for a moment – as if grand-standing politicians would ever let you, except in places like Philadelphia where most politicians simply don’t care. The classroom experience – you know, those things that the education academics haven’t yet figured out how to measure but that in many respects are as important as the things you can measure – can’t help but suffer as well. The children who leave are the interesting children, the children whose parents take them to the library, share experiences with them, ask to see their homework, talk to them at the dinner table, attend parents night at school, call the teacher when they think there’s a problem. They are parents who show an interest in their children’s lives and education and play meaningful and positive roles in shaping their offspring. Their children, in turn, make classrooms better and more lively and interesting places to learn for others.
Charter schools need not bother with the less able, the less well-behaved. Many charter schools, like private and parochial schools before them, have little or no tolerance for students who are not prepared to achieve. They don’t accept problem children, whether that problem is physical, intellectual, or emotional, or accept as few of them as possible. Among the students they do accept, if behavioral problems arise? Back to the regular public school you go. Newly identified learning problem or disability? Back to the regular public school you go. So what do those public schools reacquire? The worst of the students who abandoned them.
This has been going on forever. The Curmudgeon recalls his own time at the Mayfair School in Philadelphia in sixth and seventh grades, when he experienced being on the receiving end of the process of schools getting rid of students they didn’t want. Every month or two, a new kid would appear in class: someone almost invariably taller than the rest of the students, or maybe showing a hint of facial hair. The neighborhood kids – The Curmudgeon was bused to this school – would nod their heads and laugh or frown, knowing that trouble had just arrived. These were the kids that nearby St. Matthew’s had thrown out because they were too disruptive, and now they were in public school, where their primary impact would be to slow down the rest of the class with their misbehavior and inability to understand what their teachers were trying to teach. Teachers had an obligation to do the best they could with these students, but charter schools are under no such obligation: often, they can just kick them out and send their troubles packing – back to the regular public schools, where they diminish the learning experience of their peers and drag down their schools’ test scores.
The Curmudgeon isn’t suggesting that charter schools are a bad thing – or a good thing. But the next time you read that standardized test scores in a large urban school district have declined yet again, think about who’s taking those tests. Sure, there are still good kids and good students in those schools, but many of the best are leaving for greener pastures, leaving public schools with the unenviable job of attempting to do more and more with less and less. Their test scores have declined? The classroom experience isn’t as stimulating, as rich?
How could it possibly be any other way?
The Curmudgeon found this on the Facebook page of singer/songwriter extraordinaire Janis Ian and felt an overwhelming desire to share it.
One of the first things you need to understand about the Food Network Star competition is that cooking ability is the least important of the qualities the Food Network seeks from its contestants.
Television’s Food Network, which The Curmudgeon generally enjoys even though he has the palate of a six-year-old boy, launches an annual and highly artificial competition to attempt to create its own new “star.” There’s nothing wrong with the program or the concept – except that the contestants are flawed, the challenges are flawed, the judging is flawed, and the results, because of all those flaws, are ridiculous.
The contestants are seriously flawed. Have you seen any great chefs – or even any particularly good chefs – compete for the distinction of becoming the next Food Network “star”? Have you seen any chefs who would last even two weeks on Bravo’s Top Chef? Any chefs whose food you’d be willing to drive twenty miles for if they opened a restaurant two towns down from you? The Curmudgeon thinks not.
So if it’s not about the cooking, what’s it about? Personality. On the Food Network, the emphasis is on personality, not cooking skills. Despite this, have you seen any interesting personalities compete on Food Network Star? (Hint: obnoxious is not the same as interesting. Nor is quirky. Nor is weird.) No again.
The challenges are flawed as well. Actually, they’re more like stunts – cheap stunts that have nothing to do with identifying either a cooking or a television talent. Winning these competitions is by no means an indicator of someone’s likelihood of succeeding as a Food Network “personality.” Most of the contests ask participants to cook and present things in ways they would never, ever do if they had their own Food Network program. It’s sort of like asking actors auditioning for roles in Romeo & Juliet to prove they can sing and dance. It’s nice if the performers have those talents but there’s not a whole lot of singing and dancing going on among the Capulets and the Montagues.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Food Network Star is the judging – starting with the premise that the people doing the judging are qualified to determine who would be good on television. Let us start with The Curmudgeon’s least-favorite judge: Food Network executive Bob Tuschman. This is an easy one: if Tuschman was such an expert on what makes for good television he would never, ever allow himself to be an on-air judge. He must be a Food Network boss, though – a boss whose subordinates are too weak, too inept, or too subservient to tell him he has no business on television, that seeing him and listening to him must surely drive people to their remotes in search of a nice and safe Law & Order rerun. Is there any less appealing person on television today – anywhere? (Okay, maybe Sean Hannity.) Only one person benefits from his participation on this program: his co-judge, Susie Fogelson, who is no slouch in the obnoxious department herself but who, compared to The Tusch (and yes, The Curmudgeon is aware of the other use of this term, and yes, he believes it applies quite wonderfully in this case), is practically Mother Teresa.
A twist in this year’s competition is that the contestants are divided into groups coached by current Food Network “stars.” The only actual chef among those coaches is Bobby Flay, who has restaurants around the country and presumably once earned his living in the kitchen instead of in the board room and on television. Flay has a new venture, Bobby’s Burger Palace, that suggests that neither quality nor service matter much to this particular celebrity; the food is perhaps a half-step above that of McDonald’s and the service would benefit from a few lessons from Mickey D’s. The second celebrity coach is Alton Brown, who made his Food Network bones on his show Good Eats. Brown was terrific on that show, and he’s very good on Iron Chef, too. So how is it that a guy who’s so good on two shows is such a complete and utter tool on everything else into which the Food Network tries so awkwardly to wedge him? It’s not enough for him to judge; he seems determined to do so with a grim sense of self-importance and self-righteousness that sends The Curmudgeon running for his remote. The third celebrity coach is Giada DeLaurentiis, another performer cruelly forced on the viewing public by the Food Network. Let’s be honest: if she wasn’t adorable, wasn’t willing to show her cleavage, and didn’t have a mouth that looked like it was made to hold something the size and shape of a large cucumber, she wouldn’t have a television show. She’s certainly not employed by the Food Network for her culinary expertise.
The result of this great mess is…a great mess. The program has produced one legitimate star: Guy Fieri, whose Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, one of The Curmudgeon’s favorite programs on television, seems to constitute most of the Food Network’s prime time schedule these days.
But the other “next” stars? For people who are supposed to be very special, they’ve proven to be very ordinary. Here’s a list of the other (non-Fieri) “next star” winners:
Aaron McCargo, Jr.
The Hearty Boys
See any “stars” on this list? The Curmudgeon doesn’t. See people who even still have programs on the Food Network? The Curmudgeon sees a few, but don’t you think they all, if they’re such stars, should have their own Food Network program? Of those few who still have programs, do you see any who have prime-time programs? Or are they all relegated to Saturday morning and other times when the network draws about eight viewers?
The reality is that the Food Network is staging a contest for potential “stars” of the very kinds of programs it doesn’t want to air anymore: shows where someone stands behind a stove and demonstrates how to cook. Gone is Emeril Lagasse, who could be a bit of a clown but who also could cook up a storm. Gone is Mario Batali, who probably knows more about cooking and food than anyone who’s ever been on the Food Network. Gone is the oh-so-serious but oh-so-skilled Sara Moulton. Gone are Jamie Oliver and Tyler Florence, replaced – especially in the network’s prime-time schedule – by contests (Iron Chef, the cupcake sissy, Chopped, Food Network Star, and the extraordinarily obnoxious Sweet Genius); the insufferable Robert Irvine, speaking badly to and about people and pretending that failure is imminent even though every viewer knows failure is not possible; and Guy Fieri’s wonderful Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.
Meanwhile, programs that show people how to cook are relegated to Saturday morning and weekday mornings and afternoons – when we’re all asleep or at work. There you’ll find Rachael Ray, who never appealed very much to The Curmudgeon but who now looks better and better, in comparison to other Food Network fare, with every passing year; the phony-as-a-three-dollar-bill Paula Deen; and of course, the wonderful Ina Garten. This is where the next Food Network star will end up – but not for very long, because history suggests that the next Food Network star will quickly become an unemployed former Food Network star. Of course, at the Food Network, The Tusch would probably declare Jacques Pepin to be unemployable.
Maybe the math suggests that producing one Guy Fieri in eight years makes it all worthwhile. But if it doesn’t, then the Food Network is guilty of deceiving viewers into thinking it’s going to do something substantial with its new “stars” and then relegating them to middle-of-the-night time slots before tossing them aside like yesterday’s news. Last year’s “star,” Jeff Mauro, hosts one of the worst programs the Food Network has aired since it parted ways with Robin Leach: a show about – can you believe this? – cooking hamburgers! The only reasonable explanation for this waste of time is that The Tusch and Susie came to realize what an abysmal choice they made and are now distancing themselves from poor Jeff, who’s probably a few months away from working the line at a T.G.I. Friday’s – or maybe Bobby’s Burger Palace.
The premise of Food Network Star is that it’s a competition between (typically) young cooks with personality, the assumption being that if they’re great cooks and have great personalities, you have the makings of a Food Network star. The reality, though, is that it presents no great chefs and no great personalities and no one with a meaningful chance of becoming a future Food Network star. Instead, the network is suckering those poor contestants into thinking they might one day grow up to be a Bobby Flay or a Guy Fieri – or, if the curves work out right, a Giada DeLaurentiis – and they’re suckering Food Network viewers into watching a contest in which the winner wins nothing at all.
While this is not exactly a new development, The Curmudgeon has just learned that there’s a book called Signing for Dummies.
Seriously: Signing for Dummies.
Is this what they mean by “irony”?
It’s a good thing the political correctness police have chosen to leave this one alone, wouldn’t you say? Oh, what’s that? You say you can’t HEAR ME?
The Curmudgeon writes short shorts.
Though he likes to think of himself as a bit of a literary fellow, The Curmudgeon had, for more than fifty-three years, been blissfully unaware of the existence of a genre of short stories known as “short shorts:” short stories of no more than 2500 words that are even tighter than conventional short stories.
Last spring, though, The Curmudgeon – an avid reader of short stories who collects short story anthologies – came upon a collection of short shorts at a library used book sale and devoured them immediately.
It was love at first plot twist.
In addition to the scintillating little essays he publishes here several times a week, The Curmudgeon also writes fiction – specifically, short stories – and has for many years. His short stories, though, tend to be pretty long short stories – typically in the neighborhood of 7000 to 10,000 words. Even within the structural confines of the short story – you remember from high school, the Greek unities of time, place, and action – he likes exploring even highly defined ideas in pretty serious depth.
The Curmudgeon had long toyed with the idea of trying to write shorter short stories, but learning that such tales constitute an entire literary genre was the extra kick in the pants he needed to give it a serious try. Less than a year later he has now completed two and written a first draft of a third.
Now, it’s time to unleash one of these stories on an unsuspecting readership that does not come to this space for fiction. So here, after that long and winding and probably unnecessary explanation, is The Curmudgeon’s first short short, which he calls “Out on the Edge.”
Maria Quinones scurried down Broad Street as quickly as her short legs could carry her. As usual, she was the first student out the door when her accounting class ended – the intended outcome of sitting as close to that door as possible. It wasn’t that she had no interest in the subject – not at all. She did this because accounting was her last class of the day and the sooner she could get to the subway, the sooner she could get to the part-time clerical job that was paying for this and her other courses.
She had hurried down the corridor and then down three flights of stairs, through another hallway and finally out the door in the direction of Cecil B. Moore Avenue. As she descended the subway stairs she heard a train and accelerated from a fast walk to a run, almost brushing against a tiny black woman dressed all in black. Maria then came to the cashier’s booth, flashed her train pass, and flew through the turnstile and down another flight of stairs just in time to see the train pull away without her.
She now had about five minutes until the next train, so she relaxed and caught her breath. Maria had no set work hours, so she wasn’t worried about being late, but she was free to begin work as soon as she arrived and needed every ten-minute increment on the clock that she could possibly get.
As she always did, Maria took a quick mental inventory of her surroundings. Occasionally she would find a familiar face – a classmate, a neighbor, and once, one of her professors – but today there were only a few people waiting for the subway and none looked familiar. More important, she checked to see if there might be anyone present who posed a threat to her well-being. The subway, she knew, was safer than it had been when she was a little girl and her mother had told her stories about pickpockets and molesters and how her older cousin Ivelisse had been mugged on her way home from school, but still, the improvement was only marginal and the potential danger very real. She always stood right at the bottom of the stairs so she would be near other people, making it unlikely that anyone with mischief in mind would target her. On this day and at this off-peak hour there were only about a dozen people on the platform, all of them within about twenty feet of her except for three tall, slender teenagers who stood well off to the side.
Even though the last train had just departed, Maria looked up the tracks every few seconds, as she habitually did, in search of a moving light that would be the first sign of the next train’s arrival. As she looked, she noticed the tiny woman she had passed near the turnstile, only now clearing the last of the steps and turning toward the south edge of the station.
No more than thirty seconds passed and Maria again checked for an oncoming train. She saw no light but again noticed the old woman, who was still walking toward the south end of the platform. She looked again fifteen seconds later, and then fifteen seconds after that, and the old woman had finally stopped just steps from the far southern end of the platform.
What did she think she was doing, Maria asked herself. Doesn’t she know it’s dangerous to isolate yourself like that, to make yourself a target for muggers? She looked down again and saw that she was not the only one who had noticed the old woman: the three teenagers she had taken note of a minute ago were now slowly working their way toward the edge of the platform.
This is bad, Maria told herself. It was just like all those animal programs on television, where the predators watched a herd closely and quietly and waited until one of its members, usually an infant or an animal that was sick or injured, strayed from the pack and gave them the easy target they had so patiently sought.
She tried to think quickly as the boys continued moving carefully toward the old woman. Was she wrong about what might be happening? If she wasn’t, was there anything she could do about it? If she tried to intervene, would she be putting herself at risk? Did that even matter?
Just a few seconds passed, but they felt like minutes. She leaned over the tracks again – still no sign of the next train. She took a quick look at the other commuters near her, hoping there might be someone who could help. She rejected that idea – it would take too long to explain. She also decided against going back upstairs to alert the cashier; there wasn’t time.
The boys, meanwhile, crept closer to the old woman, who was oblivious to their approach.
Maria had no more time to think. She had to do something immediately or look away and hope for the best.
She took a half-dozen quick steps toward the woman.
“Hola, Tia Anita, is that you?” she hollered in the old woman’s direction as she waved her right arm.
The woman neither responded nor turned in Maria’s direction.
Maria continued faster toward the woman.
“Tia Anita it’s me, Maria, Domenica’s daughter,” she called out in a loud, strong voice.
The woman now noticed her – as did the three boys. Maria looked out over the tracks – still no train. She quickened her pace and stepped up to the woman, who just looked at her, confused but unafraid. The boys looked at her, too.
Maria hesitated, and then, with no better idea, threw her arms around the woman and whispered in her ear.
“Grandmother, these three boys over there want to hurt you. Please take my arm and walk back with me to where there are other people and we can be safe. Please.”
The woman stepped back, alarmed both by this stranger’s arms around her and by her message. She turned, though, and saw the boys.
“Please, grandmother, take my arm,” Maria pleaded.
Despite her initial reaction, the woman did as Maria asked and they walked slowly back to where the others stood, unaware of what had just transpired a few yards away, near the bottom of the stairs. They were about twenty-five feet from those others when Maria heard a muttering voice behind her: “Bitch,” it groused. She knew then that she and the old woman were safe, and just as she permitted herself a sigh of relief, she heard a train rumbling in her direction.
Some companies succeed by offering outstanding products; Apple, Sony, and Honda come to mind. Some may succeed based on excellent service – like, say, Nordstrom’s or Amazon. Still others, such as Walmart and Target, succeed on the strength of great prices.
Some companies seem to succeed in spite of themselves. McDonald’s, for example, serves mostly swill yet is wildly successful; US Airways hates its customers and treats them with utter contempt yet has managed to survive despite this – okay, and also despite two bankruptcies caused largely by the incompetence of its leaders. Years ago The Curmudgeon read an article in a financial magazine recommending the purchase of stock in Michaels Stores – the crafts shops – based on reports from analysts who visited the stores, found them incredibly poorly managed, and argued that if the company could make money despite incompetent leadership, Michaels could become even more successful if it ever got some decent management. (Note: The Curmudgeon has no idea how Michaels’ stock has fared over the years but can tell you from personal experience that the poor store management remains unchanged.)
And then there’s Verizon – or, more specifically, Verizon Wireless. This company may be in a class by itself.
As noted in previous posts, The Curmudgeon doesn’t have much use for a cell phone. He’s single and has no children and works at home. That means he’s easy to reach and doesn’t have young’uns for whom he always needs to be accessible. When he’s out he really doesn’t want people trying to reach him; unless it’s an emergency, he wants folks to leave voice mail messages on his home line, which he very promptly returns. Texting? Please.
Prepaid wireless plans are perfect for The Curmudgeon, and he’s had one for about four years. The sound on the cheap phones – one of his co-workers calls it a “drug dealer’s phone” – is as good as the sound on the high-end devices that do everything but iron your shirts, and at ten dollars a month, you can’t beat that deal with a stick.
Despite his satisfaction with the status quo, The Curmudgeon recently found himself in the market for a new phone when he concluded that his Palm was on its last legs and he would soon need a new device to keep his entire address book as well as his work schedule, which is extensive and detailed. His criteria for a new phone were simple: he wanted to keep his prepaid plan, he wanted the phone to be able to replace his Palm and house his address book and his calendar, and he wanted to be able to back up all this data so if something happened to the device he would still have access to all of his stored information.
So determined, he visited the Verizon Wireless web site and had pretty much zeroed in on the phone he thought he would purchase when his browsing was interrupted by an instant message from a Verizon service representative. After a brief exchange, the representative confirmed that The Curmudgeon had indeed selected the phone best suited to meeting his needs and wanted to take his order. He was not quite ready to buy, so he thanked the representative for her time and logged off.
A few days later The Curmudgeon visited a Verizon Wireless store because he wanted to see the phone in person before buying it; if he liked it, he would get it immediately. He also wanted to confirm whether the phone could be backed up to protect the data it held.
If you’ve ever visited a Verizon store, you’ve seen the face of retail arrogance. Too few sales people have to serve a store full of customers, who are required to sign in and wait – often for a half-hour or more, only they won’t tell you how long – until their turn arrives. Who runs a retail business like this? Who looks at customers who come into their establishment prepared to spend a hundred dollars or more for a device, along with hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of service, and routinely expects them to wait a long but indeterminate amount of time for the privilege of turning over their money?
The Curmudgeon had no intention of signing in and waiting but had a stroke of good luck: the store had an expeditor – a young woman whose job was to ring up off-the-shelf purchases and direct customers to the assistance they sought. She saw The Curmudgeon looking at the object of his interest and, thinking she could close a quick sale, asked if she could help. The Curmudgeon still had that one question: can you back up the data stored on the phone? The woman disappeared into the back, returning a few minutes later with the (non) answer: “I don’t know. I can’t find anyone who knows.”
After thanking her for attempting to help The Curmudgeon left, returned home, and immediately went to the Verizon Wireless web site to check out the phone once more. He found it, found a statement that the phone can indeed be backed up, and attempted to purchase the phone.
The site wouldn’t let him. For some reason – he still doesn’t know why – the site would not let him put the phone in a cart. Because The Curmudgeon spent several minutes attempting to do this, another helpful service representative appeared, deus ex machina, via instant message, offering to help. When The Curmudgeon explained the problem the representative had no solution but recommended calling Verizon’s “customer care” line to order the phone directly; he even provided the customer care phone number. The Curmudgeon thanked the representative for his help and immediately called Verizon – whereupon, after a five-minute wait in hold hell, he was informed that customer care representatives cannot take orders; customers must order directly from the site.
Customer care, it turns out, is apparently a Verizon Wireless euphemism for “customer we-don’t-give-a-damn.”
The Curmudgeon sighed and said he guessed that meant a return trip to the store, where the “help” had not been terribly helpful. The telephone representative had another suggestion.
“Don’t go to the store,” he said. “The people there work on commission and aren’t interested in spending their time selling a $100 phone and no service contract. Go to Walmart. They sell the same phone, it’s cheaper, they won’t try to push you into a contract, and they know the phones just as well as Verizon people.”
And that’s exactly what The Curmudgeon did.
By the way – that phone? You can only back up telephone numbers, not the calendar, which makes it utterly useless for the purpose for which The Curmudgeon purchased it.
The Curmudgeon’s conclusion: the people at Verizon Wireless are idiots – arrogant, incompetent, and self-satisfied. They believe they’re entitled to your business and that customer service is something to be provided only grudgingly, and certainly not well. Verizon Wireless is clearly one of those companies that succeeds in spite of itself, and The Curmudgeon is confident that his next pre-paid plan will be with another company.
According to a report last week in the Los Angeles Times, a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that a high level of physical activity will help prevent future obesity among white adolescent girls but will not have the same value for their African-American peers.
Does this mean we can soon expect an indignant Jesse Jackson to mount a national campaign against exercise? Against the study’s authors? Against white adolescent girls? Against Richard Simmons?