Friday, June 29, 2007

The Mike Bloomberg Show. Would You Watch?
Our Town downtown
July 2, 2007

When the Clintons were running for their second term in the White House, somebody commented that they’d win for sure because we had become an all-consuming, TV-watching nation and the Clintons offered us a sitcom-worthy dysfunctional-family show that we were in no way going to cancel just yet. They were just too much fun to watch, what with no 9/11 upon us and the Silicon Valley tiger still roaring along and balancing the budget. They were a fascinating show to watch in that easy time.

That very TV obsession of ours could be why Hillary and Rudy are in the lead. They’re two people we like to watch for whatever odd and not-odd reasons. They’re just weird enough to be ever-interesting to us in a TV way. You’d watch 10 minutes of John McCain and start flipping through the channels. Five or ten minutes of John Edwards. Surprisingly, I don’t think we really want to watch Obama for a whole season. He’s turned out to be kind of boring. You wouldn’t think he’d be, but he is. I think we thought he’d be like Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter because he made you think of them in his bi-racial gracefulness and his likeability and intelligence. But those guys, who were just picked as the country’s favorite two athletes, do something. They win majors and World Series rings. Obama just talks calculatingly and always looks good. Who wants to watch that? He’s too mild for a hit TV show. Other than the fact that he supposedly smokes and that his brother-in-law coaches hoops at Brown, he’s not tube-interesting in any special way.

Fred Thompson is the worst-looking human who’s ever even considered running for president. He looks like a criminal. Or a warden. Who’d watch that show without squirming? Mitt Romney is too-nice-looking. Something seems odd about him for that reason. Interestingly odd, because we don’t know anybody quite like him in our own lives, but not enough people want to watch that show. The Mormon show is already being done on HBO.

So, what about The Mike Bloomberg Show? Would you watch it? Would people outside New York watch it enough to make it a hit? Remember, hits are what people want. Hillary or Rudy would be a hit, no doubt; she probably the bigger hit with Bill’s potential infidelities a part of the plot. Of course, though, Rudy’s got quite a supporting cast of characters himself. It’ll be a tough call to see who of the two will go up strong against Monday Night Football.

But what about Mike? What’s he got that’s good TV material? For one, he’s a billionaire. That’s TV-interesting. He has a bunch of homes, luxury homes like you see in those heavy Sotheby’s real estate ‘books’ they put in the Times now and then. Maybe like the Clintons sold over-night stays in the White House, Mike could put up people in his Bermuda home, or one of the others, if the Lincoln bedroom is booked. Maybe President Bloomberg would refuse to go to Camp David or even live in the White House like he eschewed Gracie Mansion in favor of his nicer digs on 79th Street. That is good TV material. So, is his size vis-a-vis his good-looking, model-tall girlfriend. So is just the fact that he’s a president with a girlfriend. A bachelor in the Oval Office. Boffo TV. A Jewish bachelor in the Oval Office, to boot. Better yet. With a Jewish mother still alive. Come on. It’s getting good.

Plus, he’s got that voice. If Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters –and Newman--can make it big on the tube with their voices, why can’t Mike with his? That voice of his is an odd instrument. It may go over big, like Urkel. It’s a clean voice, a little bit of a sissy voice maybe, but clean in a good way. And it’s precise and confident, like that of a successful guy who’s used to being at the head of the conference table. That might work on the tube. And he’s certainly got the clothes for the role. He dresses perfectly. His haircut is good too.

I think the show would fly. I think he thinks so too. Stay tuned.

Bill Gunlocke

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Penny for Your Thoughts. Really?
Our Town downtown
June 25, 2007

You shake your head at the headline in the Times, ‘Schools Plan to Pay Cash for Marks’. You can’t resist the impulse to get angry about it and you get mad at Klein and Bloomberg, and Gates and Jobs, and everybody involved in TV while you’re at it, that they’ve let it (hell, hurried it, actually) come to this; that we have to pay kids now to open a book and read it long enough to answer some simple questions on a test. How lame is that! You couldn’t be lamer, if you ask me. Bloomberg and Klein and every person in town who cares about kids, or claims to, should all get in a big room and have that headline projected up on a huge screen at the front of the room. The rest of the day or week or year (or years) should be taken up with how it’s come to that and what can be done about it that week to make a dignified correction to our way of schooling so we don’t have to stoop to paying kids. No one could leave until the ‘what can be done’ part is decided upon and set in motion by the end of that week.

In this city, with the richest history of transforming lives through opportunity and education in the world, it’s come to this: We’re going to pay kids to study?

It’s not unprecedented though, this paying kids to do well in school, even in my life. In the small rural Western New York State town I grew up in, four brothers lived two doors away. Their father was a doctor. He was kind of a moody guy who wouldn’t wave to you even if he was driving by slowly and must have seen you waving to him like you waved to just about everyone in a town that size when they were driving by looking for someone who might be waving at them. You’d eventually learn to line yourself up with trees next to the sidewalk as cars passed, to avoid all that waving, But none of this eagerness or hiding mattered to the doctor; he would stare straight ahead and just keep driving.

The doctor was a smart guy and played chess at lunch time when any of the four boys were around to play with him. He liked the Yankees and would always watch their games with the boys. I envied all that and used to hang out over there. They always had big cases of pop in the garage and your large glass was always filled with ice and exotic brands from the cases, like Cream Soda. The doctor smoked and had a wooden dispenser-like thing on the knotty-pine wall in the TV room where one pack of Camels would be replaced by another when he took one. Like a Pez dispenser on the wall. There was a stuffed fish on a plaque right next to it.

Their mother was smart too. She was on school boards and library boards and if women had been allowed to take up the collection at mass at the Catholic church she’d have been extending the long-handeled basket among the pews with the best of them. So, the four boys were smart and mostly a cut above the other kids in the small parochial school just up the street from them—and me. I wasn’t in class with any of them. Three of them were older, one was decidedly younger. I amend that: one year I was in class with the boy two years older. So small was the town and the Catholic grade school we went to, that when I was in third grade, the third and fifth grades were combined in one classroom. I remember him being real smart. I also remember him having a bottle of prescription red cough medicine in the back pocket of his heavy corduroy pants. He’d take a slug out of that whenever he wanted. The brothers were a confident bunch, and the nuns loved them.

But they didn’t get good grades just because the nuns loved them. They were smart and would have gotten good grades in the rural setting our growing-up took place in if they’d never even bought their school books. At home, they had stacks of comic books and sports magazines and the whole set of the Hardy Boys. That they’d get ‘all A’s’ was a given. But that didn’t stop their ol’ man, the doctor, from giving them a dollar for every A they got. We couldn’t believe that! A dollar!

Looking back on it, it was having all those books and magazines and comics that made them know stuff in school. The dollar for every A was after the fact. Yo, presidential-hopeful-despite-your-denial Mike Bloomberg, you must know that. Come on.

Bill Gunlocke

Friday, June 15, 2007

May I Recommend ‘Falling Man’
Our Town downtown
June 18, 2007

My middle grown daughter loves Three Lives bookstore in the Village and goes there a lot apparently just to hang among the books and see what's new. She said she picked up Don DeLillo's new novel 'Falling Man' off the table and read the first paragraph and put it down when she realized it was about 9/11. She obviously hadn't seen the back of the book, which she must have assumed was a just the standard picture of DeLillo or some old blurbs about 'Libra' or 'White Noise'. The back is an extension of the blue sky of the front cover, but with the Twin Towers standing up through the clouds.

I'd read the book; that's how we got talking about it. I thought of it as my story, like you would if you read it. We all take that day personally. But I've been wondering since my daughter mentioned putting the book down, what younger people who saw the towers fall or heard all the noise carry around with them. A buddy (and a father) always reminds me that you never really know what your kids are thinking, and I know that, but I wonder how the world looks to the young people who were probably out at a bar or a restaurant the night before. Are they OK? I mean she said she put the book down after seeing it was about 9/11. The book makes you think about it all again. The Times’ Michiko Kakutani didn't care for it, but she is so annoying you can't read her anymore.

I wonder what the young people make of how long it's taking us older people to get the new tower or the memorial (which is it? I can't remember) built at Ground Zero. What do they think of Chase getting a great deal-among-older-guys to build there? What do they think of the pictures of the men in dark suits and shovels with hard hats on, all smiling like Robert Moses?

Do sirens get them thinking about it still? A woman at dinner the other night told me she still thinks about it every time she hears an especially persistent siren. I saw a long line of cop cars twice last week speeding somewhere and I wondered. I cried a couple times reading 'Falling Man'.

DeLillo's the guy people had been waiting for to write about 9/11. The day was all so personal and proprietary that his take on it was certain to bug some critics. It did. But I almost started reading it again right after I got to the ending. It held me in a way that I wound up not wanting to let go. It was the first thing since the attack that felt like the days after. For all the photos and all the great amateur footage of the days after I've stared at, this book felt the most like it.

I hope they build a bookstore down around Ground Zero. Downtown needs more bookstores. There have to be places a daughter can go where she can happen upon something like a book by Don DeLillo. Where else can you go but a bookstore and not be assaulted by the cheese of commercial signage and taxicabs with last night scores in lights on top?

I gave my ‘Falling Man’ to the woman of the couple I had dinner with the other night. I don’t know if they’ll read it or not. They have TiVo and that doesn’t mean they’re watching less TV. They’re just watching fewer commercials. They’ve got stuff backed up like stacks of old ‘New Yorker’s waiting to be watched. It’s tough for a book to get face-time in the world of TiVo. Even if Charlie Rose has an author on often, he gets more turned on by guys who invent stuff like TiVo.

What can you do? You can’t make people read Don DeLillo’s ‘Falling Man’, even New Yorkers who should have been in line waiting for it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Way Too Many Cars Here, For Sure
Our Town downtown
June 11, 2007

I don’t hate cars. Nobody does. A letter to the editor in this issue even points out that Al Gore rode in cars to his various readings around town a couple weeks ago. Cars are a remarkable invention, honed over the decades to fit us in so comfortably behind the wheel that even the clumsiest of us seem to coordinate feet, eyes and hands well enough that we get to our destination without causing a wreck. You wouldn’t think that was possible after watching people waddle and veer as they ‘walk’ along the sidewalks here. Somehow behind the wheel they waddle and veer less. Go figure.

I miss having a car sometimes. I have listened to almost no music since I moved here nine years ago. The car was where my tunes were. How can you listen to Bruce Springsteen sitting in your apartment anyway? You have to go through the gears on some of the best tunes to get everything out of them. Think the triumphant Jerry Maguire screaming ‘Free Fallin’’.

Too many cars in a small area is a bad scene though. New York City is too small an area for all the cars that come in here every day.

Last week a buddy came in by car from Connecticut to take me to breakfast on my birthday. The rigmarole he went through to try to find a place to park on the street near my apartment was nuts, a stupid way to spend time. The drive to find a place in a parking garage was a wander. When we did find one, the guy waved us off; he was full already at 7:30. We begged him and he let us stay for two hours while we ate. After breakfast, my friend said he‘d give me a ride to work. No going. He had to drop me off three blocks away from the office, so heavy was the traffic. Later after work my kids were coming to get me for a birthday dinner. They called to say they’d be late because of the traffic on the avenues and the cross-streets in the Village.

So who can not be for some version of Mayor Bloomberg’s adoption of London’s charging drivers who want to go into the business/busyness area of the city? People think it’s a bold plan on the mayor’s part. It was bold for London mayor. Once you saw it worked there, how could a New York City mayor not try it? I like Mike, but it takes no genius to follow a leader who’s figured out a way to lessen a major problem. He’d have been a fool not to propose this.

It has to happen. Some version of it. Do I like the idea that it’ll take all sorts of movie cameras to monitor it? Of course not, who does? But what are you going to do? Outlaw cars and make it look like that little area by the river in San Antonio that they always show during Spurs games? You want some cars. Wouldn’t you rather have cars going by than a street fair in your neighborhood every day? I would. Cars and their movement give some energy and pace to the place. But they have to be controlled.

One thing I’d like to see happen if the number of cars is reduced in the city is for the street light patterns to change. One of the maddening things about living here, without a car, in a city that gets pats on the back for being a great walking city, is to have the street lights timed so that if you walk at a normal pace you get stopped at every corner as you walk along the avenues. It can drive you nuts if you have to go far, especially if you walk the same route every day. You find yourself breaking into a trot every few blocks just to break the pattern. But the pattern gets you again the next block.

Oh, and one more thing; while the mayor’s putting up the cameras to catch the scofflaws, I wish he’d order as many more cameras as it takes to monitor the speed of all the cars in the city. It is unconscionable how fast some cabs and other cars go up and down the streets here.

Bill Gunlocke

Friday, June 1, 2007

Teaching to the Test is a Good Thing

Our Town downtown
June 4, 2007

If you want to be thought of as cool or progressive or humanistic, you say you don’t like tests. When it comes to schools, you say, don’t teach to the tests. You say No Child Left Behind is misguided, because it makes teachers do just that, teach to the tests.
If you’re one of those, you’re like me. And, like me, you probably thought, or just intuited, that the whole-language approach was better than phonics for teaching kids to read. But we were way off on that, according to almost all the studies. Maybe we’re way off on the tests too. I hope we are, because it was just announced last week that the city schools are going to test the kids in grades 3 through 8 five times a year now in both math and reading. Even the high school big kids are going to be tested in all their subjects four times a year.
I surprise myself; I’m all for it. I changed my mind. Can I change yours? The tests can only help the schools here where all kind of help is needed. You can’t avoid tests, shouldn’t avoid them.
If you go to the gym, there’s a scale. Fat guys—and thin guys—weigh themselves routinely with their little towels around them. They want to see how they’re doing. They want to know that what they’ve been doing is working. They want to know if it’s not working, so they can do more, or do something different. If they run, they use a good watch to time the whole thing. Same with swimmers. You might see either of them checking their pulse in the neck or at their wrist. If they use the treadmill, they monitor the monitor. Golfers want to know how far their drives go at the driving range. It’s only natural to want to know how you’re doing. Coaches also want to know how you’re doing.
Teachers do (did, at least) too. Remember in grade school how you’d have a spelling quiz every single week. There would be math quizzes all the time. You’d have to do questions at the end of every chapter in history. You have to do the same in science. It isn’t like we sat outside under an apple tree listening to a teacher who changed his costume every class to look like Louis Pasteur one period and then Ben Franklin the next and then Rosa Parks. Mostly it was read the stuff and you’ll be tested on it. Wasn’t that sort of teaching to the test? Weren’t we studying for the test? What’s the big deal about tests?
These new tests are only like 45 minutes long. It isn’t like they’re anxiety-inducing, all-day deals. They’ll probably be about 30 minutes when you factor in classroom management and forgotten pencils. What’s the big deal? Do teachers avoid tests now because the whole system is so bad, they’d rather not know how the class is doing? Or is part of their reluctance to embrace the new testing program a result of teachers not wanting to have to grade a big stack of tests five times a year? But now the kids can take the test on computers, and they can be graded easily that way.
There are all sorts of things that should be tried in an effort to improve the school experience in the city’s public schools. These tests will certainly not be the whole answer, but they can help by showing what’s working and what’s not working. Coaches at half time get handed a clipboard by one of the assistants and on it are stats like the number of offensive rebounds the team got in the first half. The numbers tell who on the other team is killing them, who’s in foul trouble. Once these numbers are looked at, adjustments can be made to do better in the second half, in order to win the game. That’s the goal. It’s the goal of school too. You want the kids to do well. If some numbers on these new tests will give the teacher and the principal some guidance in going forward, how can anyone resist them? It isn’t like these kids are studying the sonnets of Shakespeare with such intensity that one period five times a year devoted to a test will knock them off their game.
Good for the Mayor and Chancellor Klein.
—Bill Gunlocke