Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Playground of Denial

My son is a freshman at California High School. He is currently enrolled in an online Algebra 2 course with BYU, which he is acing, achieving between 95 to 100% on his section tests.

Yesterday he went into his counseling office at school to drop off an application for final testing required by the state to prove he has achieved proficiency in Algebra 2. He handed the application to a counselor, who, unsolicited, informed him he would likely fail the Pre-Calculus class at Cal High he would be taking in 10th grade. She then assured him “most every student who takes the online Algebra 2 class fails Pre-Calc.”

He told me about this encounter when I picked him up after school. He was upset by her offhanded comments predicting his failure, especially since he's spending several hours a day, including the weekends online, working through the Algebra 2 class the school recommended, which will allow him to advance to the Pre-Calc class in the fall.

I emailed the school counseling center administrator with the following: “That this school counselor would confront my son with this messaging is beyond a poor choice on her part. It scared my son, entered doubt, and set him up to fail. Shame on her! Additionally, any school counselor with this kind of messaging should NOT be counseling students.”

Her response: “I know that [our counselors] would not tell a student that they would fail to pass the Algebra test. If he misunderstood her message, I am sorry.”

In the 12 years I have been dealing with the California public school system, no teacher or admin has EVER admitted to making any mistakes, has NEVER apologized for poor instruction or judgment, or their all too often lack of follow through.

Cal High has a 34% college readiness score, according to US News and World Report, which does a comprehensive study annually of US high schools. Cal High is failing, badly, clearly. My son, however, is a straight A student, and has been since 4th grade. He takes his studies seriously, obviously, and has earned trust, unlike Cal High.

I've blogged about problems with the public school system many times, and in particular this issue of denying personal responsibility, as every teacher and admin I've encountered has. The counseling admin at Cal High blindly defended her staff instead of, at least, looking into my son's allegation. Shame on her! Her school is failing to achieve even the minimal standards of advancing their students to college, yet, my son 'misunderstood' the ignorant counselor who did nothing wrong, according to her.

At the Parent Night last week, this admin stood in front of over 500 parents and told us that we should try and get our kids to at least achieve a D- in their classes because that way they get credit for the class. Again, shame on her!! What she should have said is if your student is getting a D in a class they should take it again, and again, until their grade is a C or better. But of course, that doesn't serve her, or the school. And since there is no accountability for teachers or admins success, they push for high school kids to get out in four years, educated, or not, isn't their issue. Too bad if these kids can't compete in the global economy because they don't understand the basics of math or science or how to write a paper, and therefore can't get into, or fail out of college. Not their problem. They still get their annal pay increases and their bloated pensions for working part time with summers and so many holidays, both federal and 'teacher work days' off.

The systemic problem with public education is NOT budget issues or lack of funding. Our public school system is in crisis, putting out kids that can't get into college and subsequently can't get jobs competing against foreign nationals who have the education and chops to do the work required in the real world. But the public school system isn't the real world. It's a protected haven, a monolithic autonomous monstrosity of teachers and administrators acting like bratty children on the playground of denial without adult supervision to hold them accountable for their behavior.

The only way to change this sovereign behemoth is to demand results from your kids schools. Demand teachers test frequently on material, a practice that's becoming non-existent, furthering the school systems lack of accountability. My daughter has had two tests in her 6th grade science class since the start of school in September of last year. And both were open book, which is also becoming common. With no real testing, there is no way parents can monitor student progress. Demand teachers test from memory frequently, and demand administrators hold them accountable for educating their students.

Bending over and writing checks, and voting for more and more funding through property taxes will not change our corrupted public school system. Parents and voters have a choice—Accept the status quo and expect their kids to be living at home well into their adult years while they apply for jobs that are given to more qualified candidates from private and off-shore schools, or go beyond just blindly funding them and get involved by demanding accountability and changes from our K-12 public education system. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pursuing the Creative Muse

How do you get good at anything?

How do you get great?
Obsession—Practice most all the time.

Pick any famous author, artist, musician, and they'll all have obsession in common. And while we, the public, enjoy the fruits of their creative labor, those closest to these individuals were/are generally left wanting.

Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, “was an indifferent and often inattentive father and husband.”

Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, “worked 12 hours a day seven days a week, [and] his wife, Carol, tended to their daughters, Jodi and Anne.”

Adrienne Armstrong, wife of Billy Joe Armstrong of Greenday said of her husband after the release of the album American Idiot, “I think it challenged us to a new level, pushed us pretty far, the farthest I ever want to go.”

The creatives above are all men. All married and all had/have children.

Now lets explore a few famous women.

The romance novelist Jane Austen never married. She was, in fact, 'relieved in later life to have avoided the pitfalls of married life, not least the huge risks of childbirth, “all the business of Mothering.”' 

Georgia O'Keeffe, the surrealist artist “wanted to have children but agreed with him [her husband, Alfred Steiglitz] that motherhood was incompatible with her art. She needed to focus all of her attention on her painting.”

Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul has never married, “the very idea of what it means to be a wife and the responsibility and sacrifice that carries — I wouldn't have held that very well." And she never had children. “If I had kids, my kids would hate me. They would have ended up on the equivalent of the "Oprah" show talking about me; because something [in my life] would have had to suffer and it would've probably been them."

Ms. Winfrey had the guts to address the unvarnished, unspoken truth when she referred to the “responsibility and sacrifice,” in being a partner and parent. The investment of time, physical and psychic energy it takes to keep a marriage vital, and the even greater demands of being a conscientious parent, interferes, and often waylays the creative process.

Men have historically been the breadwinners in the family environment. And while this trend is slowly changing, the fact is women who seek personal excellence, especially in the arts, often have to choose between pursuing greatness and being, at least, an available partner and parent. Even today, men rarely have to make this choice. Regardless of this disparity, anyone, man or woman, obsessed with becoming great [at anything] should recognize the 'sacrifice' and costs to pursuing brilliance.

As a wife, mother, and a writer, my creative muse is constantly vying for prominence over the needs of my husband and especially my children. When my kids were babies, the creative process encountered fewer distractions. I could stay rapt in story, run dialog in my head while changing diapers or pushing them on the swing at the park. Small kids, small problems. Big kids, big issues. Now the parent to a tween and teen, my siren is often overwhelmed by the very real traumas and trials of adulthood my children face every day. To help them navigate these tumultuous times, I question, probe, even invade their space to stay connected, be there for them as a sounding board, a trusted confidant to lean on, to envelope them in a hug and hold them when they're falling.

I chose to marry, to have kids. And while I willingly choose to be present, available for my family, forfeiting the relentless pursuit of my creativity is a battle I engage in daily. Much of my fiction focuses on this internal war, as in my novel Reverb, through James Whren's obsession with his music, the cost to the lives he touched and the price he eventually paid absorbed in making it with his muse. My recent novel, Disconnected, explores the propaganda of the 1960s still being sold today, as Rachel struggles with the reality that we can't 'have it all,' be everything we want to be, and still be there for our kids and family.

We glorify the brilliant author, the renown artist, successes in business, often secretly wish to be one of the famous. But to become great at anything means obsessively working at the job or craft, honing a skill set with relentless practice, which is the fundamental reason why genius is so rarely achieved. The price those who solely engage with their creative muse must pay is actualizing a full and balanced life.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Setup for Bullying

“I hate P.E.,” my almost 15 yr old son said over breakfast this morning before school.
“Why? I thought you were finally getting into it. What about the team you're on and the obstacle course you were doing, that you told me you're getting better at since you started lifting?”
He'd started lifting weights at home after letting his team of six down when he couldn't climb the rope at school. He was very disciplined about lifting daily, and I was proud of him for his follow-through.
“We switched to tennis in gym. Everyone picked partners and no one wanted to partner with me.” His eyes filled, just this side of crying.
“So what do you do in class if you're the only one with no one to play with?”
“I play by myself against a wall.” And now tears were falling.
“And everyone can see you playing by yourself while they all have partners?” It kind of slipped out. I was trying to get a visual on the scene, to help me define it, my mind searching for possible solutions to his dilemma.
“Yes. And it's really embarrassing, mom. I feel like a jerk.”
“Have you talked to the teacher about this?” And my ire rose as I considered the ignorant P.E. teacher for setting up an environment that set the stage for bullying.
“Yes. I asked if I could do weights instead, but he said they were for the weight class only, even though no one is using them during our P.E.”
“Do you want me to email your teacher and ask him if you can do something else than play against a backboard alone in front of your entire class for the next four weeks?”
“No,” he said, resigned, depressed. “I'll ask him today if I can run on the track instead.” But I know he won't. My son hates running.
Instead of emailing the teacher this morning without my son's consent, I'm writing this blog to dispel some of my frustration with this lazy P.E. teacher who chooses to remain blind to individual students he's supposed to be inspiring. This ignorant teacher had many options when setting up the tennis wheel of his gym class. He could have:
1. Assigned the teams himself.
2. Have the teams rotate so no student got completely left out of the loop, as my son has.
3. Given my son options of running, cycling, lifting weights since this teacher was too lazy to assign teams or rotate them.
Shame on him! His job is to inspire kids with a love of exercise, which is massively important for our health and well being throughout our lives. Instead, this ignorant teacher told the class of 50+ kids to pick partners and play tennis for the next four weeks, completely ignoring the set up for bullying he created for kids like my son who ended up with no one. Forcing my son to play alone makes him a target of taunting, which he's already experienced. It also sets him up for being excluded from future sports partnerships in which the teacher is too lazy to orchestrate the teams or address his students individual needs. But probably worst of all, it crumbles my son's ego, shames him in front of his classmates, enforces feeling small and valueless. And instead of learning to love athletics, he'll grow to hate it, and those associated with it, instilling anger instead of inspiration.
All of this was completely unnecessary, and totally avoidable had this P.E. teacher directed his students to include everyone, instead of minimally performing his job without accountability to anybody, even the students he hurts, possibly for life.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Problem with Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is loyal, according to the New York Times article in this Sunday's NYT Magazine. So loyal, that even after Andrew Wiener made a mockery of his commitment to sexual fidelity in his marriage to Huma Abedin, Ms. Clinton kept Ms. Abedin/Wiener on as her Chief of Staff.

Like most every article on Hillary Clinton's run for the White House in the 2016 elections, the NY Times article was long on name dropping and non-existent on exploring the main reason why I will NOT be voting Ms. Clinton into the presidency of the United States in 2017.

Bill Clinton publicly cheated on his wife, broke his vow of fidelity, and Hillary chose to stay with him. Where is the woman's self-respect? And how can she possibly be trusted to follow through with instituting consequences when nations around the world break their word on agreements? If Iran decides to secretly keep enriching uranium, and she finds out about it while in office, will she simply 'forgive' them as she did her husband?

As a woman, I fully support the advancement of women in all areas of business and politics. And I'd love to see a woman in the White House, but not just any woman because they are a woman. Rumor has it Hillary made a 'calculated' decision to stay with Billy because his influence and connections would help her advance her political career. And while this may be the case, what else will this woman do to further her own interests perhaps over the interests of a nation?

Hillary Clinton and her Chief of Staff Huma Abedin shames all women by staying with their husbands after these men broke their vows of fidelity. They are, inadvertently or not, making a public statement that profound commitments are valueless, that it is acceptable to get trampled on, lied to, publicly humiliated. Like battered women who keep returning to the husband who beats them, Hillary and Huma make it OK to be slapped by turning the other cheek.

My mother's first marriage was abusive. “Never let a man hit you twice,” she taught me. “Walk the first time he strikes you. Walk, run, but leave, because he'll hit you again, guaranteed.” Andrew Wiener did not stop sexting after he got busted the first time. And you can guarantee Bill Clinton didn't stop having affairs after Monica Lewinsky. And while I feel sad for women who stay with men who abuse them, such as breaking their marriage vows of fidelity, I'm disgusted with public women like Ms. Clinton and Ms. Abedin/Wiener, who should be ethical examples for girls and women to model, but instead are more interested in their personal advancement then being the mentors women need to move beyond subjugation to stand equally beside men.

Bravo Maria Shriver for being an example and mentor for today's women to aspire to. Run for the 2017 Presidency and I'd proudly vote for you!!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Butterfly Effect

Monica Lewinsky sucked Pres. Clinton's cock, getting George W. Bush elected, which lead to the 2008 financial meltdown with the Republican's anti-regulation policies, and left not only millions of people without any retirement, but my father without enough money to care for himself, compelling us to use our little savings to help him. This investment into my father's care comes out of our kids college funds, and will most likely effect them down the line.

The other day a friend emailed me freaking out that she'd entered the stairwell at her job with a well-known start-up and saw the married CEO of her company sucking face with an employee. She has a right to be upset. The CEO is putting the company, its pre-IPO stock value, and its almost 300 employees at risk by displaying his extra-marital affair publicly. His sloppy behavior can not only get him fired, but eventually lead to the demise of the company with scandalous press chasing away customers and business associations alike. And, of course, there are his two kids and a wife at home who will suffer, possibly lifetime scars from his selfish indiscretions.

When a butterfly flaps it wings in Central Park, it does NOT cause a typhoon in India. But the Butterfly Effect is very real, and very personal, for all of us.

We all engage in this effect one way or another. When my DH and I fight, I'm more apt to yell at our kids, causing them to snipe at each other. Continual fighting over time may result in fierce sibling rivalry, and instead of self-confident, productive people, they grow up isolating and angry, learn to self-protect and become CEOs and Presidents who seek physical contact over emotional intimacy to combat their gnawing loneliness.

The Butterfly Effect is an unalterable phenomenon of the human condition, but that doesn't mean we must be doomed by it. Our ability to perceive the future, and then adapt our behavior in response is uniquely human, dramatically separating us from every other life form on this planet, and one of our greatest strengths.

Had Ms. Lewinsky stopped to consider the possible ramifications of Pres. Clinton's solicitation, perhaps she'd have made a better choice. Why do I sight Monica? While our President, and the CEO of my friend's start-up are completely responsible for their twisted behavior, it's clear these men were 'thinking' with their little heads, and damaged egos can not perceive the future, which puts the onus on the other participant/s in the encounter to actually think. Those who cheat are culpable for their actions, but those who are party to cheating are equally culpable.

The Butterfly Effect is neutral, and can generate productive outcomes by simply starting from a positive position. I teach college students to take their ideas and turn them into start-ups, and those students start companies that produce products that enhance lives. As the companies grow, they employ people, who can then supply a home for a family, which in turn gives [at least public] education to their kids, who can parlay that into higher education and advance our understanding to combat disease and extend our lifespan. One never knows...the possibilities of what we can achieve are infinite.

Awareness that no man, or woman is an island is the key to directing the Butterfly Effect to consistently positive outcomes. Every day we touch the lives of many others, whether we're at home, on the internet, at work, or shopping at Target. We effect those around us, our environment locally, even globally with our consumption of resources. Choosing a Prius over an SUV, or the appropriate sexual partners; helping someone in need, not just during the holidays but any day improves all our lives collectively. Be acutely aware of your connection to others, and the cascading Butterfly Effect, and it may just be the lives you touch in your home town today will indeed lead to the cure for cancer from someone on the other side of the world tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Art of Marketing Fine Writing

Most every fine writer (fiction, essays...etc.) I know has a 'real' job, the one that pays the rent, the bills, puts the kids through college. Even most 'bestselling' authors rarely make enough to support a family. Sorry for the bad news, but it's a fact. If an author writes full time (and lives a middle-class family lifestyle), they are either financially supported by their 'real' job, a partner/spouse, a trust fund or inheritance. Very few [and mostly single] authors are self-supporting through their fine writing alone.

List ten current authors off the top of your head, and they are probably self-supporting. Now, list a hundred contemporary authors, living, working authors you know by name. Most of us can probably only name the first ten, if that. And those are the writers making enough money to put their kids through college. With the tens of thousands of authors out there, good authors, writing great reads, why is that?


I kept thinking, 'If I can just get a good agent, that's when I'll have 'made it.' Or, 'If I can just get in with Random House or a known publisher, then that's when I'll be able to quit my day job and write for a living.' And while I've utilized neither, I now know many authors who have an agent, and are publishing with major houses, yet still most of us don't know their names, and these authors can't afford to quit their day jobs.

So what is an emerging author to do to get noticed?

Market themselves.

When do you get to stop marketing? Never. Sadly. Even if you are James Patterson, you still need to promote your work. James does. Look at the NY Times Book Review section and you'll see ads for his books there. Watch TV? I see commercials for his books consistently. He is on talk shows, and interviews with Charlie Rose and PBS. James is marketing all the time in one form or another. And just like Patterson, as an author you are the CEO of you—a company of one writer. And if you want to sell your work, especially with so many writers out there competing for market share, i.e. readers, you are going to have to market—you.

One of the few remaining reasons to go with publishing pros these days is ego. Getting accepted by an agent and/or publisher is a rush. It feels good! Yea, someone liked your work enough to rep or publish you. The only other reason to go with a publisher is 'reach.' A major publisher can increase your reach—extend your marketing beyond Facebook or your friends and family.

Truth is, most agents take emerging writer's profits without offering much benefit. They may get your book placed with a known publisher, but most publishers (large or indie-pubs) do very little to promote or market new author's work. They don't want the risk. If they market their authors at all (most indie-pubs don't), they put their advertising dollars behind authors that have proven they can make the publisher money. Lots of money.

New authors can extend their own reach these days, too:
● Social network your work through groups and sites relevant to your genre.
● Soliciting reviews from popular authors, book bloggers, online magazines and newspapers are great ways to get noticed outside your circle.
● Use special features and giveaways on Goodreads.
● Put your work on LibraryThing, and any related writing site.
● Review other authors work, and discuss in groups and forums often.
● Do guest blogs and interviews on popular book blogging sites.
● Talk about your book. The number one job of any CEO is to sell their company. As an author, you are your company. So talk about writing, the process, your genre, your novels whenever you can.

So when do you get to actually write? About half the time. The other half you're marketing if you want to be a selling author.

Sucks, right?

Yeah. OK. I hate it, too. All I want to do is write. I LOVE WRITING! It's fully engaging, exciting, totally captivating making up stories so real the characters take over and play the scenes. But about the only way an emerging author is going to get to write most all the time is when you are selling so much that Random House comes to you with an offer, because at that point there is no risk to them to put advertising dollars behind you.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, though I've not heard of any. No unknown, new author I know of has ever gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars put into ad campaigns for their first novel out of the gate. Only after the book has sold a lot (which the author generally made happen with their own marketing) does the publishing house pay attention and open their wallets. If you are one of those 'exceptions to every rule' authors, I'm sure readers of this blog would love your comments and insight how this happened for you. And no fair if your uncle or brother is an executive at Viking or Penguin.

I publish this blog to market myself, J. Cafesin, as a writer. I choose this particular subject today, not only to help emerging, and even known authors (who want to stay known), but to remind myself what it really takes to fulfill my dream of quitting my 'real' job to become, and to stay a full time fiction author.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Reasoning Behind ObamaCare

I had a bike accident in my early 30s and smashed in my head and knee. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, something I would have protested had I been conscious at the time. I was in Emergency for over two hours, laying on a gurney unattended, the curtain around my small area the only thing separating me from ten other people laying on gurneys in the large room. I watched doctors and nurses pass me without stopping to inquire what I was there for. When I finally got a nurse's attention I asked if I could go, but she insisted a doctor had to sign a release before I'd be allowed to leave.

Three hours into my Emergency visit a doctor came in and examined me. He told me I had a mild concussion that would heal itself, but my kneecap had been crushed in the accident and would have to be surgically repaired. I had no health insurance as a freelance designer, and there was no way in hell I could afford surgery. He assured me if I didn't have surgery I'd be unable to continue playing racquetball, be drastically limited in most any sport, and probably limp the rest of my life. I left the hospital five hours after arrival in a wheel chair since I couldn't walk with my knee blown up from the impact with concrete, and crying, knowing I could never afford the surgery he recommended, thinking I'd be crippled for life.

My sister was on a ski trip with her husband the same time I had my bike accident. She fell going downhill and tore her knee up pretty badly, ending up in a private hospital room in Lake Tahoe the same time I was in Emergency down in L.A. While I was still recovering in my rented house a week later, choosing between paying my hospital bill and eating for the next month, she was in surgery having her knee repaired by a renowned orthopedic surgeon at UCLA Medical Center. My sister's husband was a commercial real estate developer, a millionaire since his early 20s, and they were fully insured.

President Obama lost his mother to ovarian cancer in 1995, around the same time I hurt my knee. In Obama's own words:
[My mother] was 52 years old when she died of ovarian cancer, and you know what she was thinking about in the last months of her life? She wasn't thinking about getting well. She wasn't thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality. She had been diagnosed just as she was transitioning between jobs. And she wasn't sure whether insurance was going to cover the medical expenses because they might consider this a preexisting condition. I remember just being heartbroken, seeing her struggle through the paperwork and the medical bills and the insurance forms. So, I have seen what it's like when somebody you love is suffering because of a broken health care system. And it's wrong. It's not who we are as a people."

Obama's mother's employer-provided health insurance covered most of the costs of her medical treatment, leaving her to pay the deductible and uncovered expenses, which came to several hundred dollars per month. Her employer-provided disability insurance denied her claims for uncovered expenses because the insurance company said her cancer was a preexisting condition.

My knee eventually repaired itself for the most part. I was able to play racquetball a couple of months after the accident, and I don't walk with a limp today. I was lucky. I would have died from cancer, or extended illness, unable to afford any treatment at that time. I did get medical insurance soon after my bike accident from Kaiser HMO, basically the bottom of the barrel in health care. The individual plan cost me $350 a month, lower than anyone else out there, and I lied on their application about per-existing conditions since my knee was basically healed by then.

My sister was back to skiing a month after the surgery. She's had two more accidents and two more surgeries since, until she gave up skiing as probably not her sport. She can choose to go back to skiing any time, of course, because she's had the best medical care money can buy.
Millions of Americans aren't as luck as my sister and her family.

ObamaCare was NEVER about providing medical insurance for the wealthy. They don't need it. The rich take care of themselves, always. Sometimes, many times, off the money they make on the backs of everyone else, but the bottom line is they don't need assistance taking care of their own. ObamaCare was intended to cover those who can't afford medical insurance, or medical care, or pay the outrageous hospital bills whether insured or not, that come after every stay, regardless how nominal.

My 13 yr old son was in a bike accident and broke his arm. Now fully insured with Blue Shield of California, we paid almost $1,000 out of pocket for what our PPO insurance didn't cover. And we're lucky, because we can afford to pay the out of pocket expense. We're not in the horrible position of having to choose between getting our children health care or feed them, as so many Americans are today.

The southern states, such as Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, have the highest poverty rates in this country. Their arrogance is only superseded by their ignorance in supporting the Tea Party who is actively trying to kill ObamaCare, when the poor are the very people President Obama is trying to help.

ObamaCare is designed to provide health insurance for everyone in this country. Why is that important? For the rich (and members of our congress), it's not so much. They're covered. My sister and her wealthy family will live longer and in less pain overall than most Americans. For the middle class with jobs that provide health insurance, why should you care? If you lose your job tomorrow, what then? It's not like the olden days now, where you worked for a company for life and died a few years into retirement. Odds are you'll go through many jobs in your career life. And the interim between jobs, what happens to your family if someone gets sick? Cobra—insurance extension, only covers the first year and is absurdly expensive.

We need a health care system that provides for every American. President Obama tried to make that happen in a much broader way than ObamaCare, but the Republicans and Tea Party whittled it down to the present ObamaCare plan, then blame him because it isn't perfect. But it is a step in the right direction, to insure every American, whether you work for an employer, or have the guts to try a business on your own, whether you're wealthy or not.

Like our President, I too hope we, as a nation, are better people than simple watching those who aren't privilege with wealth suffer. Right now my family can afford to pay a bit higher insurance premiums being required by some to fund ObamaCare. I am willing to make this investment now, to help those in need, but also to cover myself and my family if down the line I can not afford health care coverage. Instead of tearing down the Affordable Care Act, we must rise up as a nation to support the first health care legislation, ever, that provides for every American now, and for the future health of our country, 'and that [our] government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'