Saturday, October 31, 2009

Victory is Mine!

I want to thank everyone who voted for me as winner of Blog-a-Day Month. I knew when I started this campaign that I was going up against two veterans in Scott and Lance. However, I was counting on the fact that their routines had grown old and stale, and I figured the public would be ready for a change.

Boy, was I right. You, the people, overwhelmingly elected me Blog-a-Day Month champion, with Lance coming in a distant second and BADM founder Scott finishing a disappointing third.

Exit polls showed that those who voted for me did so because they liked the variety of my topics, the volume of my work, and the quality of my prose. In contrast, they said that Lance tended to repeat himself, and Scott was just plain weird.

"That one guy just writes about comics all the time," commented Antonio Edelwiess of Lance C. Johnson. "He does some stuff on religion, yeah, but all of his cheeky references to Norse gods get a little old."

Voters also questioned the moxie of Johnson's silly dietary crusades. "He quit a day early on the vegetarian thing," said Richard Shiner. "And what kind of man even pretends to be a vegetarian in the first place? Give me a carnivore like Nolan, who can't even remember the last day he didn't eat flesh."

As for Scott C. Harris, voters often had the same reaction as the title of his blog, "What?"

"Dude admitted to writer's block about halfway through, and I was like, 'no s--t,'" said Amanda Huginkiss, a former paramour of Harris'. "He was just posting photos of his vacation. What is he, my grandparents?"

Other voters declared Harris' Thursday night blog the final straw. "He interviewed himself! Isn't there some rule about not just posting a bunch of rambling nonsense?" asked Hugh Jass, once a Harris supporter.

Although my election as BADM winner was a landslide, it was not unanimous. Analysis shows that Scott won the octogenarian demographic while Lance swept the pedophile vote.

On a serious note, I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to read my rants, and especially those who took the time to comment on them, either here on blogspot or on facebook. If I didn't think anyone was paying attention, I wouldn't have made it through the whole month. I crave affirmation, but not enough to make one of those quizzes about how well you know me, so this is my only outlet.

I don't think I'll do Haiku-a-Day month in November. It just seems beneath my talents. I'm not sure yet if this blog death march made me likely to blog more often (my last one before BADM was in August) or less. I guess we'll see.

I do know this: I am grateful to my loyal fans for the landslide victory they provided. I humbly thank the also-rans, Scott and Lance, for providing me with the minimal competition they managed to muster.

Peace! I'm outta here!

Friday, October 30, 2009

"That's Just the Way I Was Raised"

There may be no lamer way to defend one's point than this old chestnut, which simultaneously ends any conversation and also attempts to put the speaker on a higher moral plane than the other side. I have parents. They raised me right. You were probably raised by wolves.

I've seen this saying pop up all over recently. One of my mom's friends used it over Facebook as a dig after my mom voted "yes" in a poll about allowing gay marriage. "I'm surprised at you, Kathy. I was raised to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman." By implication, my grandparents must've dropped the ball with my mom.

Also by implication, this lady couldn't possibly have learned anything about acceptance or come to her own conclusions in the past 60 years. Once your parents stamp you with their intolerance, you're set for life. Nothing you can do about it.

It's also used frequently by racists. Oops, sorry. They're not racists. They were just raised to believe differently than non-racists. I saw this most recently in the excellent HBO documentary Prom Night in Mississippi. It focused on a high school in Mississippi that had been having segregated proms (organized by the parents) for the past 50 years. They were still doing this into 2008.

But not because they were racist. You see, they was raised to be believe that blacks should be with blacks, and whites should be with whites. The white parents don't have nothin' against the blacks, they just didn't want their youngins dancin' with 'em. Ain't nothin' wrong with that, right? Just good ol' Southern tradition.

I'm not saying that this expression is never appropriate. Writing prompt thank you letters because that's how you were raised is unquestionably a good thing. Always making your bed is swell, too.

However, basing decisions involving social justice on antiquated, bigoted religious beliefs or drunken, redneck ramblings of your primary caregivers is no way to go through life. If every generation followed the example of the one that came before it, there would be no progress.

Imagine a world where everyone used this phrase as an excuse for everything they did. I'm a drug addict because my mom did meth when she was pregnant with me. I kidnap and murder young boys, for my dad was Jeffry Dahmer. I vote Republican; my parents were lifelong GOP fundraisers. You see how bad it can get?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Story Told, Part IV: The Aftermath

I wrote the following email to the editorial board of The Claw just hours after my "reassignment" meeting. It's pretty melodramatic in retrospect (esp. comparing myself to Obi-Wan Kanobi), but it was a pretty melodramatic situation.

Claw Editorial Board 2006/2007-

I wanted you guys to hear this from me before it's everywhere.

I was called into a meeting with (the principal) and (vice principal) today where I was told I was being "reassigned" from journalism to an English II class because my "professional and educational training was better spent in the core curriculum."

You all know the real reason for this. We told the truth too much this year, and we upset the people at the top. I was asked to soften and change things, and I repeatedly told them that wasn't my role as an adviser of journalism. I don't regret any of it, and I wouldn't change a thing (except the staged fight photo of Greg and Ron).

I know many of you will be angry, and that's fine (I'm plenty angry, too). You are free to make your voices heard in any proper, acceptable format. I don't know whom the new adviser will be, although I doubt anyone currently employed at CP would take the job.

The greatest service you could do for me (those of you returning next year) is not to resign. Instead, remember what I taught you all year long. That journalism is important, that you are the watchdogs of a free society. Never let anyone hold your leash. They can't STOP you from printing what's true and newsworthy, and if they do, they are breaking the law and violating the U.S. Constitution. Keep that spirit we had this year alive, pass it on to the new minions, and all the time and heart and soul I put into being your adviser this year will not have been in vain.

It was a privilege to work with you all...even Dimaggio. I can't thank you enough for all the hard work you put in and the hours of your time you gave me so that we could make The Claw a better newspaper. Above all else, do not doubt that: it was better. I have heard too many unsolicited comments from students and faculty to refute that claim. I'm sorry I won't be around to reach my goal of making it the best student newspaper in the area.

Many times, there's a price for doing something differently and challenging authority. This is a good life lesson for each of us. Perhaps it is better, as Mr. Antolini tells Holden in "Catcher in the Rye," to live humbly for a cause, rather than die nobly for one. But I'm pretty headstrong and don't like being told what to do. Thus, my love for journalism.

If any of you ever need me, you can always reach me at this email. Kinda like Obi-Wan Kanobi, I'll be with you, always. I'll never forget the year we spent together. What a ride it was.

Thanks again. Take care,


From then on, I let nature run its course. I did not solicit a single plea for my reinstatement. Two of my friends and colleagues (Lance Johnson and Joel Swett) wrote emails to the principal, expressing their disappointment and disapproval with the decision. I believe Lance's was signed by other members of the English department. I received a few emails from other staff members who wrote that they had truly enjoyed the paper that year and couldn't believe the principal's decision. Over a dozen more approached me and made similar comments. It's safe to say it was a nearly universally unpopular decision.

Keep in mind this happened the last week of school. Finals were going on. Students and teachers alike were concerned with other things. Still, my case became somewhat newsworthy. I got this email from a Contra Costa Times reporter two days after my meeting with the principal:

Hi Mr. Nolan,

Students and teachers have been calling me in an outrage over what seems to be your reassignment. Apparently, you will not be able to teach journalism next year?

If you are interested in talking with me about it, please let me know ASAP.

I gave the newspaper an interview that came out a week or so later. It ran on the front page of the local section, replete with a photo. Other media outlets started picking up on it, as a version of the Times story ran in the San Jose Mercury News. I can't link to those articles because their online archives don't go far enough back, but here's a mini-editorial that the S.F. Chronicle wrote about it. I had friends and acquaintances contacting me to let me know they'd heard my name mentioned in a news story on KCBS radio. A while later, the California Teacher's Association (CTA) Magazine ran an article about academic freedom that featured my story and comments. My old ally, The Student Press Law Center, penned an article in its newsletter about my case as well.

I actually missed most of the hubbub. I left for trip to Europe with my then-girlfriend shortly after school ended. Meanwhile, the kids were attempting to fight the battle. Keep in mind, many of them were seniors who had just graduated. School was out for the summer. They had their parents calling the school nonstop, demanding a meeting with the principal. I believe they finally may have gotten one, but she just stuck to the line "It's a personnel decision, and we don't comment on those." She also would not comment for any other stories.

What could she say? It wasn't a terribly defensible position. Cleverly (no doubt with help from district advisers), she had waited until the last possible minute to get rid of the nuisance. Now she just had to ride out the summer and wait for it all to die down by the time school started again in September. It didn't die down quite as much as she had hoped. There were three articles referencing the staff's disagreement with my reassignment in the first issue, including this touching tribute from new co-editors in chief Ron Lee and Jessica Shea.

When I came back from getting engaged in Europe, I had two contacts from legal organizations. One was from the ACLU. The other was a lawyer from CTA.

After meeting with the ACLU in their offices in San Francisco, they decided that they didn't have cause to take legal action, but they wrote a letter of reprimand to the principal and intimated a "we'll be watching you" approach.

The CTA lawyer felt that we might have the basis for a complaint and filed one on my behalf (without cost to me, of course. I neither asked nor paid for legal representation). The ensuing details are beyond tedious, but the bottom line is that the complaint was dismissed. The principal had done nothing illegal. She had "reassigned" me, as was her right as principal. She has ultimate authority over those decisions. I now understood why she had said nothing criticizing my performance as journalism adviser in that meeting, even though I had confronted her about it. Making a case that I was doing an unsatisfactory job wouldn't help her in the least; it would only cause her difficulty. Better to vaguely claim it was a "personnel decision."

In September of 2008, the Governator signed into law the "Journalism Adviser Protection Bill" The law took effect on January 1st of this year and protects an employee from being "dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against" for solely acting to protect a pupil's speech, or for refusing an administrator's order to illegally censor speech.

In other words, what happened to me is now against the law.

Apparently, this sort of thing happened enough so that even California's politicians took note. If there's any lasting good that came out of this whole ordeal, I'd like to think that my case formed at least one brick in the wall that eventually formed this bill. I'm sure there are still principals abusing their power over student publications. If you're reading this, and you know of any incidence of this sort, the best favor you could do for me is to let the kids and their adviser know that the law is now on their side. They don't have to be pushed around anymore.

What happened to the paper after I left it? I'll tread carefully here out of respect for the work the staff and their advisers put into it. Many of my ex-staffers soldiered on and did their best, but I think it's safe to say The Claw hasn't been the same these past four years. A huge part of the problem has been continuity. In the three years after I was removed, the newspaper had five different advisers. That is not a misprint. One year they had three different teachers.

Although by any objective standard the newspaper is less successful than it was during my tenure, the principal got exactly what she wanted. It's reverted to publishing the traditional "all one big happy family" fare, without a whiff of controversy. I highly doubt anyone has been called into the office recently because of an objectionable topic. I do have it from a very reliable student source that two years ago the principal forced a writer to change part of a story after again indulging in the (illegal) practice of prior review. The adviser didn't put up a fight. Of course, there were three of them that year, so I can't put the blame there.

I believe that a quality school newspaper can unite the student body and imbue the campus with a sense of pride just as well as a great football team can. That is what is so frustrating. We had actually gotten kids excited about a student-run publication, and it was ripped away because of the insecurities of a small group of administrators. They chose their own comfort and interests over the interests of the school.

It's been three-and-a-half years, and I'm clearly not over it. Probably never will be. But at least now the story has been told.

And that's the way it was.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Story Told, Part III: Tension and Termination

Please take a gander at Parts I and II, or you're just going to be lost here.

I left that second meeting after assuring the principal and vice principal that we would make a concerted effort to check news items with them and get their stance when applicable. But I also made it clear that we would continue to seek out and report on stories of interest to the student body, whatever they may be.

From then on, things got frostier. Our first edition of the new year (2006) was led by the headline "December Brings Freshman Violence Epidemic." We reported on a spate of five altercations during the month, replete with student accounts, no doubt further endearing ourselves to the administration. In addition, we ran a feature article on school violence/safety in general. At the wrap-up meeting, we decided that we were running the risk of beating a dead horse, and concluded that we wouldn't run anything more about fights unless something extraordinary happened.

The edition also included an editorial about how abstinence-only education was harmful, and a letter from a vice principal that pointed out an inaccuracy in a past issue about the funding of agenda planners that were given to students at the beginning of the year. I wrote to the V.P. privately and thanked her for holding my reporters accountable for their mistakes; I couldn't possibly catch everything they misunderstood or just plain got wrong. I smelt a brief whiff of progress; this was the free press in action and consequence.

Then came issue #7 in March, and from then on out, things were pretty much hostile. We scored a major coup by getting a hold of a student's schedule which showed that he was slotted to be in a "systems management" class. This would essentially have made he and another student school-wide tech support. For some unknown reason, the administration had moved both students into other classes.The Claw had been banging the drum all year over the lousy state of campus technology, and now we had irrefutable proof that the administration not only hadn't tried to make things better, they'd actually made things worse. The article contained several quotes which attributed the schedule change to a specific V.P. We tried repeatedly to get a statement from her, but she dodged us, and we ended up with a "no comment."

It was student journalism at its finest, but it was more egg on the face of those who run the show.

Even more controversial was the article on the dangers teens faced on the social networking site The article itself was fairly tame; what happened behind the scenes surely helped me along the road to reassignment.

The kids had caught wind of a sophomore runaway; the rumor was she left home in order to meet up with an older man she met on myspace. I checked the web; there was a story in a local paper citing the girl's name and situation. One of our reporters called the girl's mother, who had apparently contacted major news organizations railing against myspace. She went off on the perils for teens due to the website's lack of oversight but would not address how it had affected her daughter personally.

After the writer got off the phone with her, the mother called our principal and demanded that we not print anything about her daughter's disappearance (the girl had since returned unharmed and resumed classes). I received a memo from the principal instructing me not to allow my reporters to write anything about the girl or her case. She claimed she didn't want us "to get sued."

I was almost positive what she had done was illegal, but I wanted confirmation. I emailed an organization called The Student Press Law Center in Virginia. They wrote back and informed me in no uncertain terms that the principal had committed "prior restraint," which is, in fact, illegal. It violates two sections of the California Education Code, along with that pesky First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

I went back to the editorial board and presented them with their options: We could run the story using the girl's name, we could mention her case but keep her anonymous, or we could leave her out altogether. I couldn't have been prouder of the decision they made. They believed the fact that a CP student ran away because of a connection made on myspace was relevant, but they didn't see the need to put her name out if she didn't want it (she refused to comment for the story).

I sent a letter to the principal, informing her of our decision. It read, in part:

Since your memo to me re: the (student's name) situation, I did some research. You’ll find attached an email from the Student Press Law Center in Virginia, a resource I found in an accredited guidebook.

At an editorial board meeting today, The Claw decided to pursue the story. We will give (student) and her mother the option of anonymity, although, legally we do not have to. We will be talking to both on Friday. Regardless, her situation will be a significant portion of a larger article on the potential dangers of and how it relates to CP. We think it’s an important story that needs to be told.

Please read the attached email; it spells out quite clearly what your responsibility is as principal. If you have any information or clarification to add to the story, feel free to let us know.



I tried to be nice about it, but I wasn't backing down. I didn't hear back from her. What could she say? She had clearly overstepped her bounds. I still have a copy of the memo.

The next issue was our traditional April Fool's satire issue, known as "The Flaw." It contained the usual Onion-style tomfoolery, and I found myself in the office yet again after we delivered it. This time, there were "several complaints" (none to me personally, of course) about one particular item. Our managing editor, Tomo Hirai, had dressed in drag, dolled himself up, and created a fake personal ad. His "likes" were "rich old men, kitties, and puppies." His dislikes included "homophobic people." It was pretty tame stuff, unless you consider the mere act of cross-dressing potentially offensive.

The principal apparently did. She was worried that the school's gay students would be insulted. This was especially laughable if you knew Tomo at all. He was about the least likely member of the staff to denigrate the gay community; in fact, he was responsible for the article earlier in the year about being gay on campus. I told the principal that I felt she was worried for no reason and promised to ask the LGBT club on campus if they were miffed by the ad. The outfit's president told me the whole group thought it was funny as hell. Crisis averted.

In the next couple months, there was a bell schedule controversy where the principal became upset that I was revealing the content of faculty meetings to my reporters, who were then going to ask her questions about what she had said. Even though we tried to keep the administration in the loop and give them the chance to go on the record, as I'd promised back in December, they almost never responded to interview requests. A lot of times we were forced to run the standard "despite repeated attempts, so-and-so was unavailable for comment," as with this story.

The final straw came after the annual multicultural assembly. A group of Latina girls had caused a disturbance by coming out of their seats and down to the floor, dancing. One of them had been chased around half the gym by one of the campus supervisors, in full view of the half the student body who attended that assembly.

We had already planned on writing a story about the assembly, and now we had an angle. My reporters went to work interviewing some of the girls involved. One of them claimed the school was racist in persecuting the Latinas for merely showing their spirit. She wished to remain anonymous in part because of her inflammatory comments and also because she had ditched class and gone to both performances, in violation of school rules. We also interviewed the campus supervisor to get her take.

The principal caught wind of the thrust of the article and asked if she could see it before we published it. This could also be construed as an infraction of the California Ed. Code; a principal does not have the right to preview content before it goes to print. It's called prior review. However, she hadn't demanded it, so I decided to play nice in the spirit of diplomacy and let her see a rough version of it. She wrote me an email about it with the heading "Personal and Confidential," so I won't reprint any part of it here. However, I'll let you fill in the blanks by showing you what I wrote in response. It's easy to see now that this email sealed my fate:

To address your points:
As for the matter of these being "confidential" issues dealing with student discipline, they cease to become confidential when the students themselves tell
reporters about them and the information is gathered in a legal and ethical way.

As for what is or what is not "responsible journalism," that is obviously a subjective matter. You are right; it is my job to teach them ethics, and they
know that anonymous sources are not preferred but are only tolerated when there is good reason for the person to remain anonymous (all newspapers do this). In this case, we believed there was. I should also note that I had them cut part of the girl's quote where she had said "(The campus supervisor) should be fired," and explained to them that we should not allow this girl to slander specific people while choosing to remain anonymous.

I allowed them to run the incendiary comment you referred to because while I do not believe that College Park is a racist or sexist high school myself, I do understand that it is a representative view of at least this group of students that it is. That is newsworthy. Again, another person might see this differently, but that is what my seven-plus years of journalistic experience and instincts are telling me.

Another part of teaching them journalistic responsibility is getting both sides
of the story (being "fair to all," as you said). The reporters went and interviewed (the supervisor) after talking to these girls. She gave her side. We printed it. This is another of the issues I was trying to get Ali to let you comment on for additional representation, but you two never connected.

A controversy (two sides disagreeing) is what makes a news story. I understand that as the primary representative of the school, you would prefer not to have controversy exposed or highlighted. Again, that is not the objective of the free press, even a student newspaper. Journalism is not about avoiding controversy. It is about finding out what's on people's lips and minds and investigating the story. After the multicultural assembly, few students were talking about the content of the assembly- most were talking about this girl being chased by (school officials). I actually never witnessed it. It was entirely student motivated. I don't believe the article was unfair, unethical, or irresponsible.

If you want someone to be advisor who will never allow the school to be portrayed in a negative light or will suppress information or opinions which could be considered controversial or troublesome, then I am not your man. I believe strongly in the ideal that the press should be independent and especially report on things that the people in power don't want exposed. My favorite quote on this subject is from Dan Rather, who said, "It's only news if someone doesn't want people to hear it. Otherwise, it's just advertising." I will not be in charge of a propaganda publication, no matter how good its cause. It just doesn't interest me.

It will perhaps please you to know that I am going to make communicating with
the administration and getting better representation from that faction a primary goal for next year, if indeed I am still adviser.

You may also be pleased to know that in the final draft of the multicultural
article, a quote has been added from (the girl) where she tries to explain away the
fact that she was at both assemblies in a clear violation of school rules. She
comes off like a real brat.


There it was. I made my ideals clear, once and for all. I had told the kids I would fight for them, and I would not compromise or bend to the will of the people who controlled my fate. Looking back, I was basically daring her to take me off the paper. However, I still don't regret what I wrote or the stance I took. I still believe in every word.

The final issue came out on Friday, June 9th, the last week before finals. Ironically, in my last "Nolan's Rants" column, I thanked the principal for "not making it personal" even when the paper's content "found the crosshairs squarely upon the administration." I ended by writing that, "I consider her a friend."

The following Tuesday, during the last week of school, I was called into the office for the last time. I honestly didn't know what to expect; although, I knew it probably wasn't good. As you can tell from my documentation of the events, I was still shocked and angry.

June 13, 2006

8:39 AM

I was given an official memo to meet at 8 AM this morning with (the principal and vice principal). When I arrived, the principal immediately informed me that she had decided my “professional and educational training were better suited to the core curriculum.”

My job assignment from April (4 classes of American Threads and the journalism class) was recanted, and I was assigned an English II class in journalism’s place.

I let the principal know that I was disappointed and told her how hard I’d worked and how many hours I’d spent trying to make The Claw a better paper. I asked for a better explanation that the one she gave me, because that was a politician’s line, a beaurocrat’s line. She said she was sorry I felt that way, but in terms of the “big picture” (including that students tell her I’m the best English teacher they’ve ever had) that me “professional and educational training were better suited to the core curriculum.”

I told her I felt betrayed, that this was a stab in the back. I also told her I knew that this was not about the core curriculum, this was about me not being the journalism adviser anymore. She would not engage me, only saying that she’d thought about this for several months and decided it was what was best.

At no point did she offer a criticism of my work as journalism adviser. At no point did (the V.P.) say anything.

This is all told to the best of my recollection, 45 minutes after the fact.

-Andrew Nolan

Tomorrow: What happened next.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Story Told, Part II: Early Success and Controversy

Before I go on, I want to reiterate that I'm writing this mostly from memory, so the sequence of events may be off, and I may not remember who exactly said what, but the essential facts are all here. Furthermore, I have hard copies of all the old issues and saved memos and emails from the principle (pun intended) players.

I knew putting out the first issue would be tough. I had zero experience working with the computers, the off site printing company, or the staff. Very few of them had any idea what they were doing, either. I focused on controlling what I could control: creating a storyboard with page layouts, editing as much of the copy as I could, and imbuing the paper with a new attitude.

Find out what students are worried/talking about, and write to that, I told them. Don't worry if it will upset people. Furthermore, even the most "boring" stories have something that makes them interesting. If they're fixing the potholes in the parking lot, find out where the money came from to do it and who's upset that it wasn't spent on another problem. It's one of the oldest tenets of journalism: Find the angle.

Oh, and one other thing: I stressed that there would be no more making up quotes for stories. I knew for a fact it was rampant in the years preceding me. I demanded reporters take notes with citations.

As I recall, we had planned to have 16 pages that first issue but had to cut down to 12 (because of the way it was printed, the paper had to come in four-page increments) due to several stories being too short, poorly written, or just not handed in. As I mentioned in yesterday's blog, there was a lot of dead weight on the staff. I quickly learned which reporters/editors were reliable and who should not be counted on.

Cutting down pages on the last day of production would become a recurring theme. So would staying until after the street sweeper went by on Viking Drive, at approximately 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday nights. That first issue, some of us were there until well after that.

When the inaugural issue came out that Friday, I had mixed feelings. It sure wasn't much to look at. There was too much text and not enough art. It contained a lot more typos than I was comfortable with. The stupid falcon illustration was bleeding into the top headline. After distributing the edition, I had the class spend an hour-and-a-half combing the paper for any errors they could find and noting them on the board. I made it clear that we were striving for 100% perfection.

At lunch, quite a few teachers told me they were really impressed with the paper. One said, "Just from looking at the headlines, I can tell it's better (than previous years)." Looking at it now, I'm proud of lots of the stories.

We led with the controversial teacher decision not to write letters of recommendation for students as part of the faculty's contract dispute with the district. Ali Saragoza, who would become our star reporter, also scored an interview with then-Superintendent Gary McHenry about the negotiations. Managing Editor Tomo Hirai wrote an editorial critical of the teachers' stance, while the talented Angelica Bell wrote a counterpoint. There were stories about aggressive enforcement of parking rules, student complaints over "fat testing" in P.E., MTV's sway over teenagers, and a feature that asked the question whether the cross country team was simply a very dedicated squad of runners or some sort of demented cult of personality. We even managed to make a traditional homecoming story interesting by pointing out that the dance and football game overlapped, forcing students to choose which to attend. We were learning to find the angle.

Editor-in-Chief Robby Sutherland also wrote a "Welcome Back" letter where he told the readers that The Claw would no longer be covering national news stories that would largely have to be lifted from other publications. We would focus on local stories that affected our readership directly. He also encouraged any feedback, criticism, or suggestions.

After the first issue came out, I received a letter of congratulations from the Principal. I thanked her for it and told her the next one would be better. She looked quizzically at me and said something like, "I thought since you were new, you were just going to do two or three a year." That was the end of the good times.

After the second issue came out, I got called into the principal's office, where I was met by the Principal and senior Vice Principal (an excellent administrator and great guy), along with the first two issues of the paper, covered in yellow hi-lighter. It seems they had some concerns. Mostly what I recall from this meeting was that they didn't like "focusing on the negative," in particular campus violence.

The V.P. pointed to one hi-lighted headline that read "Violence Increases With New Term" and asked, "What do you mean by increases? From when?" I explained that there seemed to be more fights than last year, as evidenced by the quote within the article from another administrator which read, "I think that there have been more fights simply because there are more students this year." I also noted his own quote in the story, where the Veep commented "Usually, I've noticed there are more fights in the beginning of the year because of the heat" in addition to the fact that the freshmen were still "getting used to each other."

The school discipline issue became a point of contention throughout the rest of the year. Administrators would often decline to comment on these matters, citing student confidentiality. They would get upset that names of students were used in the paper, saying that those matters were private.

What they failed to (or refused to) understand is that the newspaper's job is not the same as theirs. If a fight happens in front of 50 witnesses, it is a public event; therefore, it is newsworthy. It is on the minds and lips of the student body. Our job was not to sweep it under the rug. Furthermore, The Claw used only the names of kids who would willingly talk to the paper and didn't mind being quoted. We never named the "victim" in a fight (although most students could've told you who they were).

Since we relied on students for quotes, there would often be inconsistencies. One fighter claimed he had to go to an expulsion meeting for his actions. The Principal denied this and was upset that we had allowed his quote to appear as such. The problem was, she couldn't verify to the reporter (because of the aforementioned confidentiality) whether his stance was accurate. I told her we'd do our best to make sure kids we interviewed knew their facts, but any newspaper is going to have misinformation, and that's quadrupled when you're dealing with students and student journalists. It's the price of free speech. The best we could do is run corrections and letters to the editor.

It should be noted that I had to eat some major crow in this first meeting. One of the items they had hi-lighted was a staged photo of two journalism kids fighting (at night, no less) to illustrate the school violence story. It was stupid, bad journalism, and I never should've let them take the photo or run it. Being up at two in the morning on a weeknight and desperate to fill space makes you punchy. Still, it was bad judgment on my part, and I admitted it right away and swore nothing like it would ever happen again. Nothing did.

We left the meeting amicably. They believed they had gotten their concerns through to me. They had. Other than the stupid staged picture, I didn't share their concerns. It wasn't my job to produce a newspaper for the administration. It was my job to teach journalism. Unfortunately, those two interests often collide. It's the nature of the game.

I went back and told the class what the school officials had said, and assured them than other than the ridiculous photo, we wouldn't be changing a thing. One edition later, I was back in the office.

This time, there was no hi-lighter. Their main concerns were twofold.

The first was that they felt the tone was "too negative" and that we should try to "focus on the good stuff that goes on around here." This is about a clear example as you can get of the powers-that-be trying to control the content of the newspaper.

In particular, they were upset about a story claiming students were apathetic about a long-running senior experience project. I assured them that these were student reporters who understood the pulse of the campus much better than their wishful thinking did. Besides, I pointed out, although the thrust of the piece was that most seniors weren't excited about the project, I had made sure the story included a quote or two from some who were. That's called balance, another journalistic attribute.

They were also frustrated about perceived "inaccuracies." The two that I can recall them bringing up are difficult to categorize that way. Our lead story in the third issue dealt with the sorry state of technology at CP. We cited the teacher who used to be the on-site tech guy as having resigned over what he claimed was a lack of support from the administration. They debated that claim. I tried to explain that this wasn't an "inaccuracy" but a matter of opinion. They should feel free to write a letter explaining their position.

Next, we entered the Twilight Zone. The Principal pointed to an article which stated that she needed to hire extra biology teachers because biology was being moved from sophomore to freshman year, thus, the need for twice as many bio teachers for that year only. I asked her how that was untrue. She admitted that it wasn't, but she "didn't want them to think they would lose their jobs at the end of the year." Isn't that a possibility, I inquired? "Yes, but I don't want them to know that" was her answer. This actually happened.

To be fair to the Principal here, she wasn't being malicious. It was her job to keep everybody happy and on board, and this is why she disliked that year's version of The Claw. We pointed out the school's dirty little secrets and aired its dirty laundry, without resorting to tabloid tactics.

In that same issue, we published a groundbreaking article about being gay at College Park. We turned out a special eight-page issue for Winter Break where we managed to report on a bomb threat that took place on the day we went to press. We were doing good work, and people were starting to notice. Issues of the paper no longer littered the hallways. There was a buzz around the school when the newspaper was delivered. We got more letters than in all the past years I'd been there combined. I got compliments from other teachers and emails from parents. One read, in part: "First of all, let me tell you that the newspaper seems much improved over the past years. It seems so much easier to read and the articles very interesting. The articles written seem to have more depth to them than in previous years."

Furthermore, in the words of Lou Brown, it was startin' to come together. We'd worked out a lot of the kinks. We were still there late into the night, but every issue was better-looking and better proofread than the one before. For the first time in College Park history, we put the paper online, starting with the third issue. You can view the articles here, but be aware my tenure only extends through issue #11 of 2006.

There's a special bond formed on a newspaper, replete with stressful nights, drama, craziness, tantrums, laughter, cursing, and most importantly, lots of burritos, KFC, and pizza. One editor quit; another had to be replaced because his heart wasn't in it. Unexpected stars rose: The precocious Angie Barber (and her ever-peeing puppy, Mamba) vaulting into Co-News Editorship, the entirely-too-energetic Dan DiMaggio stepping up as Sports Editor, the invaluable and tightly-wound Ron Lee as Layout Editor, the just as invaluable and even more tightly-wound Managing Editor Tomo Hirai, Jessica "Teddy Bear" Shea as the relentlessly positive Business Manager, Chelsey Clay, the reliable and grounded Entertainment Editor, the often "sick" but loyal and talented News Editor Erica King, and the more-interested-in-watching-sports-but-usually-at-least-there Editor-in-Chief Robby Sutherland.

If you don't know these people, that paragraph was probably pretty tedious, but they all deserve mention for putting the work in for me that year. I challenged them to do something great, and by and large they responded. I can still hear Tomo playing "The Internet is for Porn" on the computer, followed by Ron softly crooning a medley of "Hey, There Delilah" and "Hands Down," accompanied by his acoustic guitar. The fact that they're most likely the only ones still reading this is also key.

I think it's time for a break. Tomorrow, s*&t gets major.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Story Told, Part I: The Prologue

This may very well turn into two parts, because I want to get it all out, every aspect, and there's no better time than now.

It's been over three years since I was "reassigned" as adviser of College Park's student newspaper, The Claw. All the kids who were on my staff have now graduated. No students currently attending C.P. can remember a time when I ran the newspaper or seeing the original "Nolan's Rants" column in print rather than in blog form.

A lot of what happened in my one year as adviser has begun to fade from memory; although, the embers of anger still flare occasionally. The first issue of the current edition of The Claw came out Friday and raked the coals a bit. There was a time when the smoldering rage would keep me up at night. That's what happens when you put your heart and soul into something, The Man takes it away, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

The Saga:

In the summer of 2005, I heard that the long-term adviser of The Claw had taking a job in greener pastures at another district. It was a position I'd always been interested in. I'd been a three-year staffer on my high school newspaper (where there was actual competition to get on staff), and I'd been the sports and managing editor. I idolized my adviser there; he was grizzled veteran. He had set up a system where he didn't have to do all that much because he'd built a culture of journalistic know-how that was passed down by the editors.

I then went to college and wrote for U.C. Davis' student newspaper, The California Aggie, for three years. I also took journalism classes. I was, beyond a doubt, the most qualified teacher on campus to teach the journalism class at CP. I was also the only one who actually wanted the job. Neither of these things has changed in the past four years.

I asked for and was immediately awarded the position by the grateful first-year Principal. Before I go further, I'd like to clarify that I think she is a decent principal in general. I just have this one giant issue with her because I believe she short-sightedly chose her own self interests over those of the school and the kids. Someday, perhaps I'll forgive her for that. It hasn't happened yet, mostly because she hasn't apologized.

I started the year hoping to re-create the culture of my high school paper but quickly realized it was impossible. At Campolindo, students had to apply, submit writing samples, and interview if they wanted the honor of toiling for La Puma (yeah, that's the real name). The Claw, like most of College Park's electives, was a dumping ground for underclassmen. Freshmen and sophomores were thrown into the class with absolutely no skill or desire for journalism. The first day of class, there were something like 45 kids (the contract max is 37). I asked who had no interest in being there, took down the names, and turned them into a friendly secretary for removal.

Then I assessed my talent. I had perhaps seven or eight experienced staffers from the year before, including two or three editors. I also had a few upperclassmen whom I knew to be quality writers. In general, though, I had a lot of dead weight. I felt like Manager Lou Brown at the beginning of Major League.

Since I didn't really know any of them, I conducted interviews for editorships, giving weight to experience and seniority. I chose a senior named Robby Sutherland as editor-in-chief, not because he seemed to know what he was doing (the kid still confuses "your" and "you're"), but because he seemed to get what I wanted to do with the paper, and I sensed a connection. I knew I could yell at him and push him, and he wouldn't break. Well, unless Nip/Tuck were on, and then he would tune me out.

The biggest problem from the get-go was changing the culture. The former adviser had been in charge of the paper for years, and she pretty much ran the show. She took most of the photos, she wrote the headlines and captions, and she laid the paper out on the computer. She was not just the editor-in-chief, she was pretty much the editor of everything. Not only did I not possess the computer skills to do all that, I wanted it to be the kids doing the work. I hoped to re-create the system that had worked so well in high school, with the teens taking responsibility for making sure their newspaper was something they could be proud of, all the while training new staffers and passing that attitude down to them. I really think we could've gotten there. But I never got the chance.

The other huge shift in culture was getting across that the class wasn't "Newspaper." The class was journalism. Since I'd first started at CP, the paper had come out on time, looked reasonably good (although replete with its share of errors), but it was incredibly milquetoast. I can't remember one time it stirred controversy or even captured the school's attention. It covered all the usual events: Homecoming, football games, Prom, fundraisers, school plays, etc. It was journalism by the barest minimum standards. It was just there.

On the first day, I told the class that business as usual was over. We were going to stir the hornets' nest. We were going to report the truth, even if it made people (including school officials) uncomfortable. Actually, we were going to do it especially if it made them uncomfortable. I made them a promise: As long as we were practicing good journalism, I would have their backs. I wouldn't allow anyone to tame the content of the paper as long as I was in charge. I would fight for them.

I kept my promise. It produced unequivocally the best newspaper of the 11 years I've been at College Park.

It also cost me the job.

To be continued...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Death of Newspapers...and Journalism?

Ever since I went to college, I've been getting the San Francisco Chronicle delivered daily. I could never understand why everyone didn't get a newspaper every day. It was incredibly cheap, and it had the written equivalent of a long novel's content every day: News, features, sports (my favorite), entertainment, comics, classifieds, etc. And that was before you even counted the special weekly sections like food, automotive, real estate...right to your door, before you were even awake.

I think I paid something like $15 every three months. What an amazing deal. It's almost surreal when you think about it. All stuff for around 25 cents a day? What an amazing country we lived in.

I just got the notice for my most recent three month subscription. It's about $65 for three months. It's no longer an amazing deal. I'd be better off picking one up for 75 cents out of the box occasionally while reading most of the paper online. Yet, I continue my subscription every month, even as reports continue that the Chronicle, like almost all other metropolitan newspapers, is a sinking ship. Even the Gray Lady, the New York Times, just laid off 100 reporters, after laying of 100 last year.

I know it's free to read them online, but here's the problem: Nobody's figured out a way to make money off that yet. So the newspapers desperately reorganize, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Meanwhile, journalism schools go kaput. Bloggers are the new journalists. Can you imagine taking someone's blog seriously?

What will happen if all the newspapers go out of business? I shudder at the thought. Will there be any more journalism, or just "news organizations," both television and online, broadcasting their own biased talking points?

I don't have a solution to this. I'm this close to dropping my subscription myself. I'm aware it's a changing world, and maybe journalism can change with it. As a former journalist myself, though, I am extremely concerned.

People already have enough trouble obtaining information without a filter. I'm terrified of a time when we won't even realize the filter's there.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Party Over Principle, Part II

Now that Barack Obama and the Democrats have a super majority, we can do whatever we want. We have been busy repairing the ravages of eight years under Bush.

What have we done, you ask? Well, basically our focus has been saving the economy. I mean, can you believe how badly things were effed up by the last administration? Anyway, we fixed it. We threw a ton of money at the problem and bailed out some failing companies. The system itself is fine. No changes needed there. It wasn't the lack of corporate oversight that killed the economy; the free market is all good. Well, as long as we keep throwing money at it when it fails, anyway.

Then there are those two pesky wars. Those are Bush's fault, of course. Yeah, yeah, lots of us voted for them, but what were we gonna do, look like pussies? Barack's got everything under control.

We're gonna get out of Iraq any day now. What's the rush? Violence is way down, and the defense industry is the only part of the economy that's booming (no pun intended). As long as we leave eventually, Obama's kept his campaign promise.

Afghanistan is more difficult. You think it's easy to occupy and control a country that for centuries has been the place where imperial military power goes to die? Obama's doing exactly the right thing: Stay the course, maybe add a few troops here, subtract a few there, and we'll have this place locked down in no time. Even if it doesn't look like he has a plan, that's part of the plan.

Oh, and you know how he promised to end the ban on gays in the military? He will. When it's convenient for him. Yeah, we know there are a bunch of guys who have been discharged from the armed forces, their careers ruined, for merely being who they are. Yeah, Obama could make that all go away with the stroke of a pen. But he's really busy dealing with all the stuff Bush messed up, remember? He'll get to it when it has the highest possible political impact. That's way more important than allowing thousands of soldiers to resume their lives and remedying a national embarrassment.

We've also been really busy with health care reform. It's our number one priority. Now, you'd think that since we have a filibuster-proof majority, we could pretty much pass whatever we want. And you'd be right. But what fun would that be? The Republicans were such giant douchebags; we don't want to be like them. So we compromise.

Yeah, 70% of Americans want a public option, but what do they know? That was just something we floated out there so we could take it back later. And the stupid Elephants bought it! You see, by letting them essentially write the bill, we let them feel like they're still involved. Barack's also done a clever thing by cutting deals with the drug and insurance companies. Know your enemy, right?

If you're looking at what we've done so far, and saying "What have you done so far?" then you don't understand politics at all. The Republicans have it easy; they all think exactly the same. We Dems encourage everyone to think for themselves; party unity is fascist.

A cynic might ask what the point of even having a Democratic party is if we can't band together and get things done, even when we have all the power...

Hey, have you seen how good-looking and charismatic our President is?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Party Over Principle, Part I

I'm a Republican, so I hate Barack Obama, the Democrats, and everything they do.

I was hoping that the U.S. would get the Olympics, but then I heard it was going to be in Chicago, Obama's home base, and I started rooting against it. When he went to Europe to campaign for it, and it failed, I was elated. Let someone else benefit from the world's largest sporting event, as long as Obama doesn't get another feather in his cap!

Speaking of bogus cap feathers, can you believe Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize? What a joke! Even though he said he was surprised by it and didn't think he deserved it and had nothing to do with his selection, you know he orchestrated it somehow. He probably made some commie deal with those commie European countries, because he's a socialist. You know, being a communist and a socialist is the same thing, and he's both.

Then there's this whole bailout disaster. He's giving our tax money to businesses because they're too big to fail. He claims it would destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs and entire cities. Where did he get such a commie idea? When Bush did it, he was just saving the free market from itself. Obama wants the government to own everything. Even my big screen t.v. And he will not get my big screen t.v. Supposedly, he's following the example of another commie Democrat FDR. You're taking cues from the guy in the wheelchair? What a loser.

Did you see the video of this white kid got beat up on a bus by a bunch of black kids? You know who ordered it, right? Obama!

Remember when he ordered those Somalian pirates killed? What a racist! If they were white, he never would've done that. He's half white, you know. He just pretends to be all black to get all the blacks to vote for him. What a fascist move, taking out those pirates. Fascists and communists and socialists are all the same, you know.

Did you see when he killed that fly? Ha! He claims to be all environmental, and he kills a fly? What a hypocrite!

Did you know Obama has a puppy! Puppies are the worst! Any real American would have a cat!

Then there are his democrat cronies. Can you believe the Donkeys elected a comedian to the senate? What qualifications does Al Franken have? At least Ahnold was an action star. That's someone who knows how to get things done.

And did you see the bill Franken proposed? It protected employees of government-contracted companies (like Haliburton) from getting gang-raped. Can you believe that? I mean, what's a better example of good 'ol American capitalism than gang rape of federally contracted employees? We had no choice but to vote against that nonsense.

At any rate, both those wars are shams. What's Obama thinking in Afghanistan and Iraq? They're both dead ends. Whatever solutions he's proposing are wrong. Send more troops? Wrong. Pull troops out? Wrong. Stay the course? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As long as the Dems run things, nothing can be right. Nothing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"They're Gullin' You, Mister!"

The titular quote ("gullin'" is slang for "fooling") is from one of my favorite literary characters, John Proctor, in The Crucible. Proctor was a Puritan. Puritans definitely would've been Republicans: Strict, religious, anti-science, yet possessing the occasional proclivity for an adulterous sex scandal. They would've fit in just fine.

As far as modern Republicans go, there are essentially three groups. The first two I totally get. The third puzzles me.

The first group are essentially modern-day Puritans. They're defined by what they don't like. They hate abortion, evolution, religions other than Christianity, gays, immigrants, and, if you catch them after a few beers, most people of color. I totally get why these people vote Republican.

The second group is defined by what they do like: money. They're well-off, and damn everybody else. They disdain taxes and love hedge funds. Inconsistently, they tend to support costly wars and are usually Christians themselves, which contradicts the whole idea of getting rich and screwing the poor. Hypocrisy aside, I get why these people vote Republican.

The third group is the one that frustrates and perplexes me. They are social moderates, often pro-choice and trusting of science instead of a very old book. They're usually middle to lower-middle class. They often benefit from the services government provides far more than they pay into the system. Yet they hear the word "taxes," even if those taxes are aimed far above the bracket they belong to, and they see red. They oppose any impediment to the "free market," such as limiting executive pay and golden parachutes, even as their homes are foreclosed and their cost of living goes up without any pay increases. They despise unions (except the one they happen to belong to). Their patron saint is Joe the Plummer, a man who was convinced that his American Dream was going to be trashed by Obama's tax plan if, in fact, he had WAY more money than he actually did.

They look at statistics that show that CEO compensation has risen from 30-1 in the 1960's to 300-1 in the 2000's and don't blink. It doesn't phase them that every economic statistic that can be measured shows that the top 5% are getting richer, while the middle and lower class either stays the same or goes backward.

Why not? It's because of that great American myth that's been pounded into our heads from the day we were born: All of us can be millionaires. It just takes hard work and a little luck. So they keep voting for politicians who look to help the upper class almost exclusively because they firmly believe that they will be the elite earners someday themselves. It's the equivalent of basing your vote on the assumption that you'll win the lottery eventually.

In the meantime, this demographic ignores a very basic fact: There is only so much wealth, so many resources to go around. I'm no economist, but I can explain this in basic terms. Wealth is like a pie. If the top five percent are taking over 60 percent of the pie (that's approximately the number), there's less of it for the rest of us. So, you say, "I don't begrudge those CEO's making millions; what does it have to do with me?" They're taking huge chunks of the pie, and you're offering them seconds out of your own measly portion. They'll be happy to keep eating as you keep voting for the guys who take their marching orders from them.

I'm not naive enough to believe that the Dems don't take their cues from corporations, also. This is why I usually vote Green. But for middle-class, non-Evangelical citizens to keep helping out the Elephants is contrary to their own interests. Worse, they're being "gulled" by very cynical people who smile and promise future riches even as the they count their supporters' money and feed them peanuts.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Man Crush

One of the benefits of society becoming more accepting of different forms of sexuality is that men can finally talk openly about other men they consider attractive. Let's face it; we all have one guy (or several) that we look at and think: "You know, I'm not gay. But if I were..."

Ironically, the fact that you're able to admit to your "man crush" makes you more heterosexual, not less. Only someone secure in his sexuality can admit that he likes the cut of another man's jib and not feel self-conscious about it. It's those who lack confidence in their manhood who splutter, "What? You think another guy is hot? That's so gay!"

My man crush has been unwavering since I was a teen (although I never would've admitted it then). When I saw Last of the Mohicans, I saw a representation of all that is man: Daniel Day-Lewis.

Not only does DDL exude masculinity and charisma, he's a fantastically talented actor. From My Left Foot, to In the Name of the Father, to Gangs of New York, to There Will Be Blood, he's a completely different person. Can you believe this guy-

and this guy-

are the same person? Amazing, right?

I just finished up The Crucible with my juniors, and they're well aware of my man crush. I'm so impressed by his turn as John Proctor in the film version that I pattern my own performance after it while reading the play aloud in class. I swear I think I almost squeezed out some tears this year during the climactic scene. What can I say? The man inspires me.

Here he is, exuding unwanted sexuality as he calls Abigail (Winona Ryder) a whore:

So, how about you? Who are your man crushes? Ladies, go ahead and pick your woman crushes. It's nowhere near as taboo, but it's always entertaining for us fellas.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Open Wound

In June of 2008, I was cocky and naive. I wrote a blog entitled "It's Over," about the gay marriage issue.

The polls at the time were showing that more and more Californians were in favor of it, fabulous gay nuptials were springing up all over, and I couldn't care less what the rest of the backward-ass country thought of us. Once again, my state had it right, and we led the way. Prop 8 was on the ballot, but I wasn't really worried about it. At the end of the entry, I wrote that I was hoping this was the last I'd be writing about this issue for a long time.

Then came November 4. I was just so...fucking...ashamed.

I can still remember that night vividly. The surreal sight of Barack Obama and his family, looking so wonderfully, completely different than any other president in history, coming out to accept victory. Tingles. Chills. Elation.

Perhaps ten minutes of good feeling. Maybe it was only five. Checking the computer as the polls closed in California. What? 54 to 46 in favor? Sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Elation becoming shock. Exchanging Facebook posts with other incredulous Californians. Disbelief. Sadness. Shame.

Denial became guilt. I should've done more. I hadn't even gone to any rallies. I'd tried to go to one, but it was raining, and there was traffic...I had donated $100 to No on 8, but I could've given more.

Then I realized that I wasn't really ashamed of myself. For the first time in my life, I was ashamed of California. I was ashamed of us.

Guilt became anger. It's been almost a year. The anger hasn't left.

We took a huge step forward by electing our first minority president. Many of those same people who voted for Obama caused us to take two steps back by voting Yes on 8. This is more than incongruous for me. This actually makes my head want to split wide open.

How do you go to the ballot box and make the decision to take away someone's civil rights? To negate their happiness for something that affects you not in the least? How did this happen?

Riding my bike to school the morning after the election, I came across one of those plastic yellow "Yes on 8" signs on the ground. I stopped, got off my bike, and put it in my backpack. At the time, I wasn't sure why I was doing it. When I got home, I put it in the closet in my "Mantic." Whenever I catch a glimpse of it, it still raises my ire. The illustration depicts the silhouettes of a happy little family, all holding hands under the sunny "Protect Marriage: Yes on 8" banner. It makes me wretch.

Years from now, when my kids ask me "Why would people vote that gay people couldn't get married?" I'll show them that sign. I'll tell them about the fear and misinformation the homophobic, compassionless masses spread in the name of their religious beliefs.

They said children would be taught about gay marriage in kindergarten. I'm not even going into all the ways that this is ridiculous, but the most illogical aspect of it is the fear of zealots that exposing youth to the idea of homosexuality encourages them to be homosexuals. As if being unaware that there's such a thing as homosexuality is the only way to not become gay oneself.

They said that their rights would be infringed. Their churches would be forced to marry gays. There would be lawsuits. What this completely ignored was that churches already had rules in place about who could get married in their cathedrals. I should know. I had to satisfy all sorts of requirements in order to get married in a Catholic ceremony by a priest. The Mormons don't even let non-Mormons watch their wedding ceremonies. The gays would somehow be able to ruin all that.

They claimed morality. Their justifications start with "Well, I'm a Christian, so..." and "That's just not the way I was raised." You wonder why we atheists can't just be neutral toward religion, why we claim it's actively dangerous? Look no further than Prop H8te. Not all religious people voted for it, but those who did were almost exclusively Christian. Why their religious beliefs supersede someone else's civil rights and happiness is something no one has able to explain to me.

Then came the backlash of people even angrier than I. I in no way condone acts of vandalism or violence. But supporters of Prop 8 act bewildered that the rest of us just can't accept the majority's decision and move on. They just don't get it. This wasn't an election about a new tax, or a new park, or re-naming a frigging street. This was people's lives. This vote told an entire segment of the population that they were second-class citizens. You organize and fundraise an effort to take something away from people that you personally enjoy, and you don't like it when they show up in front of your church? Tough. You reap what you sow.

Of course, the great irony in all this is that Prop 8 only postponed the inevitable. Either a court ruling or a counter-vote will remedy the situation within the next 5-10 years. Even the homophobes must understand that, at least subconsciously. I was right in that original post; I just underestimated how hard intolerance would die, and how effectively it could rally, to paraphrase Henry Ward Beecher. I think that's what gets to me the most. It's so easy to chart the course of history, yet the ignorant ignored all that and voted based on their own personal prejudices.

If you voted for Prop 8, let me put this in language you should recognize: You have sinned against your fellow man and everything this country's supposed to represent. You have shamed our state and tainted its reputation.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Ode to My Family

This week I'm assigning the Heritage Project to my juniors. They basically have to put together a portfolio detailing as much of their family's history as they can find. The project also entails a good deal of reflection; we want the kids to understand that they are the product of the generations that came before them. Our relatives pass on more than just physical traits to us.

Every year, this gets me thinking about what I would've done had I been tasked with this undertaking. Knowledge of my own family history is sorely lacking. I'm aware that I'm Irish and German (hungry, angry, and tipsy), but as far as I know, we can't name when or who the ancestors were who came across the pond.

Although my grasp of long-ago Nolan/Houser history is cloudy, I was fortunate to know my four grandparents quite well. They've all passed on now, but they each imprinted me with distinct parts of my personality. This isn't going to be terribly interesting unless you're related to me; as Delores O'Riordan croons in the ballad that inspired this entry's title, "Does anyone care?" If you stick around till the end, you can watch the video; it's one of my all-time favorite songs.

My Grandma Ruth Nolan was one of the most giving people I have ever known. She lived to make others happy. The only thing she really liked doing for herself was playing bridge with her friends for a quarter a hand. Then during the summer, on our annual r.v. camping trip to the beach in San Diego, she would give my sister and I all of her winnings from that year. When I was a kid, nothing made me happier than having a surplus of quarters to spend at the arcade. Any philanthropic instincts I have are influenced by her.

My "Poppa" Ivan Nolan was a salty Irishman with a Russian name. A recovered alcoholic, he kept packets of gum all over the house, presumable to fight the cravings. There were Wrigley's containers in every conceivable drawer and cabinet. No man ever loved dogs more (he had one Irish setter after another), which certainly applies to me.

However, what I most took from Pop are two of his defining traits. First was that the man couldn't stand to go to bed. There was always one more light to be turned off, one more door to make sure was closed. He would shuffle up and down the hallway well past midnight. I think of this sometimes when I'm up late reading Facebook status updates rather than turning in for the night.

The second thing I inherited from him is much more evident to those who know me. Poppa had an incredibly dry and sarcastic sense of humor. Not everyone "got it," but from an early age I thought the dude was hilarious. It could border on mean, but there was always a twinkle in his eye, and I understood he wasn't malicious. There was also no one else in the history of the world who could growl the word "S*#tfire!" as magnificently as he.

My "Gammie," Maxine Houser, did not put up with a lot of nonsense nor suffer fools well. She did not tolerate excuses for laziness and rude behavior, and she never let me get away with giving less than a good effort. I'm making her sound like a taskmaster, which she wasn't. She could be fun, too. But when I find myself glowering at a student who's trying to snow me or give me some lame excuse as to why he or she is late for the third time this week, I know I'm channeling my Gammie.

I once called my "Gramps," Norman Houser, "The only perfect person I know." He seemed to know everything, from who wrote what book, to what to do for a head cold, to how to fix a broken...well, anything. He was meticulous and intellectual. He was a high school principal who also wrote a moderately successful book about the dangers of drug use. He played the organ every morning and could charm the neighborhood peacock into entering the house.

He and Stephen King are probably the two biggest reasons I ended up an English teacher. Gramps read to me relentlessly, and always pushed me to read above my level. At his behest, I read both Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird (two books I now teach) years before being assigned them in high school.

Oh, and if he'd ever been on Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune, they could've sent everyone else home.

And now, as promised, The Cranberries!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

I Thwart Terrorism Yet Again

I went back to Davis last night for the homecoming game against Winston-Salem. Near the start of the game, five boisterous young men sat in front of us. They stood out a bit because they had streaks of blue and gold paint on their faces; Aggie football doesn't exactly invite face-painting intensity.

They were speaking another language and didn't seem to totally understand the rules, although they were spirited. I finally asked them where they were from: Saudi Arabia. They are here studying English, and they said they hoped to stay and go to school in Davis. They professed to love Davis and asked me questions about football. I noticed that they also weren't averting their eyes when the cheerleaders and their short skirts pranced in front of us.

As I was leaving, I told them I was glad they were here, and I hoped they enjoyed Davis. It was a very positive experience.

It also confirmed one of my oft-stated ideas. Instead of forcing democracy on people using a barrel of a gun, give them football. Give them cheerleaders. Give them beer.

We spend so much time talking about how we're the greatest country on earth, but the face we present to much of the world is wearing camouflage and yelling, "Get your hands in the air!" If the Taliban is as rotten as we say it is, it should eventually fall on its own. People want freedom. They want Rock Band. They want big screen televisions and cargo shorts and porn. They don't want foreigners breaking their doors down; they don't want their houses bombed.

Conservatives credit Reagan with "winning" the Cold War and bringing down the Soviet Union. It may surprise you to know that I don't. I think rock n' roll and blue jeans did it, along with the the lack of basic necessities like toilet paper. Gorbachev opened the door a crack, and Western Civilization came flooding in, without a shot fired.

Instead of dropping artillery, we should drop dvd's of Mad Men. We should leaflet their streets with copies of Playboy. Our Humvees should blare Kanye West, and our soldiers should throw beads and tube socks (that's what they were launching into the crowd last night, the Saudi Arabians ate it up, along with everyone else).

Give them running water, electricity, and a McDonald's on every corner, and they'd never think of blowing themselves up.

Friday, October 16, 2009

$13,000>Transformers 2

As an avowed horror movie junkie, I had to check out the highly-buzzed-about new flick, Paranormal Activity. It was made for $13,000 with no recognizable actors, gore, or special effects. It's a close cousin to The Blair Witch Project, but with less mystery at the end. If you liked that one, you'll like this.

I can already project the trajectory of this movie. There's going to be a huge rush of praise, followed by the inevitable backlash of people who see it after being told how good it is, go in with their expectations too high, and proclaim it's overrated.

What I liked most is that I can tell you what's good about it. Remember what that was like? Before the days of big, overwrought, CGI nonsense like Transformers 2, G.I. Joe, and the excruciatingly awful-looking 2012 took over the multiplexes? Try asking someone what he liked about those movies. You'll get "It was hella cool" and "It had so many 'wow' moments" and "Megan Fox is hot."

Here's my breakdown, sans spoilers ("sans" means "without," for all my younger readers):

What's great about the film is that it plays with our feeling of safety. Blair Witch took place in the woods. Those people went looking for trouble. Paranormal Activity is shot exclusively within a young couple's San Diego house. We're trapped inside with them, and the claustrophobia builds. Furthermore, most of the really bad stuff happens in the bedroom, while they sleep. That's the place we all should feel the safest, but when we sleep we're never more vulnerable. That paradox played havoc with me for 90 minutes.

As per horror movie tradition, things start innocently enough with some soft thumping and harmlessly moved personal items, and the suspense builds from there. There's the typical macho arrogance from the alpha-male who thinks it's all a big joke...until s*&t gets real. And boy, does it ever get real. There are some slow moments, but the last ten minutes are as harrowing as it gets.

I wasn't impressed by either of the two main actors, particularly the woman, but they were passable enough to keep things in the realm of believability. The film's strength is the way the suspense keeps building with the use of very simple techniques that don't take an army of computer programmers. The use of stop-motion photography. A light going on and off. A menacing growl.

Low-budget success stories like this show that all is not lost for filmmakers who aspire to be more than glorified video game programmers or purveyors of torture porn. If you loved Hostel because "It was hella sick, bro," this flick's probably not for you. But if you are able to let your imagination run wild and don't mind being haunted when you turn off the lights, this is a pretty creepy Activity. Lol hahahahahahaha.

Only in America: The Mormons, Part II

Before I get to all the things I like about the Mormons (and there are many), I didn't want to leave out any of the highlights of their totally unhinged beliefs. It might be too late already, but yesterday's warning applies: Easily offended Mormons should stop right here, although today's post will focus a bit (and only a bit) more on what's valuable about the Latter Day Saints.

Where to begin? Well, there are the temple garments (sometimes derisively referred to as "magic underwear"), which some church members claim can ward off physical dangers such as knives, bullets, and auto accidents.

Then there's the idea that if you're a really good Mormon, God will reward making you a God yourself! Perhaps this is why the Mormons convert people at such a rapid rate, even with their ludicrous story. Who wouldn't want to rule his or her own universe?

Side note: I don't fully trust the sanity of people who are converted to Mormonism as adults. This guy is the best example.

I haven't even gotten into the single aspect that the Mormon church is best known for: polygamy. It's too easy a target, quite frankly. I actually don't have too much of a problem with "plural marriage," as the LDS puts it. I'm a bit of a libertarian, and what goes on between brainwashed consenting adults and their extremely virile men is their business. The fact that several of Joseph Smith's 30 wives (conservative estimate) and Brigham Young's 55 brides were minors, with some being as young as 14, troubles me more. If my prophets were verified pedophiles, I might think twice about giving away 10% of my income to said church so they can build fancy temples that exclude visitors. Just sayin'.

Right now, you might be thinking to yourself, "Hey, jerk. When does all that good stuff about Mormons start?" Well, how about right now? For those who are enjoying it so far, don't worry; I've saved one of the most insane, offensive Mormon practices for later.

Here's the thing: Mormons are some of my favorite people. Heck, they're everyone's favorite people. That's the great thing about the South Park ep I posted yesterday. It's really hard to dislike a Mormon, much less be angry with one. Mormons are kind, caring, polite, responsible, and intelligent. They are almost always exceptional students. Just a couple weeks ago, I witnessed one of my Mormon students do something incredibly touching for another student who had recently experienced a tragedy (intentionally vague to protect confidentiality here).

Clearly, the LDS are producing people of outstanding character. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer asks, "How do we get Mormons without Mormonism?" Is it possible to create the benevolent character traits seemingly inherent in Mormons without instilling them with all that crazy crap?

I would ask a follow-up question: If we could do that, would we want to? What kind of society would we breed?

The only way that Mormons all turn out sharing those similar qualities is the steady and persistent indoctrination they face from the moment they are born. Make no mistake; it is the very definition of indoctrination. There's a reason their kids go to school before school. Largely, this prevents them from becoming the little a-holes that many of their public school peers turn into. They are bred to be subservient to authority. After all, with a story that nuts, the fewer questions they ask, the better. I'm consistently amazed that although they're the some of the smartest kids I have, very few seem to question the totally illogical/impossible story they've been fed. That's some serious mind control.

What would the world be like if it were made entirely of devout Mormons? It would basically be the plot to the movie Pleasantville.

Women's roles would be narrow and well-defined. Mormon women are expected to get married at an early age and breed. Career is not a priority. I doubt any Mormon women would disagree with me here.

There would be art, but it would be Pat Boone, Walt Disney, Stephanie Meyer, and paint-by-numbers. Mormons are not skilled at outside-the-box thinking. Their entire life is about structure. Mormons would've never invented jazz, rock n' roll, The Godfather, Caddyshack, "The Cask of Amontillado," The Great Gatsby, Guernica, or David.

The Mormon ban on viewing R-rated films deserves its own paragraph. Nothing speaks to the irrationality of the faith more than outlawing some of the greatest art of the past century because five strangers (the MPAA) somewhat arbitrarily decided that people under the age of 17 shouldn't watch it. Yet that's exactly the policy. The words "close-minded" don't come close to describing it.

Civil rights issues would be just fine, as long as you're a white, heterosexual male who wants lots and lots of wives. The LDS has a long history of stubbornly dragging its feet until they are forced into the fire. They only gave up polygamy when President James Buchanan sent the Union army to Utah to halt the practice. The beauty of the Mormon religion is that God is constantly passing on revelations to the church elders, so they were able to save face and say that God no longer wanted them to engage in plural marriages. Convenient.

Race has also been a thorny issue for the Mormons. First, there's that whole "the Indians are dark because God cursed them" thing. Then there was Brigham Young's virulent racism that restricted blacks from becoming members of the priesthood and restricted them from other temple ordinances. He made these decrees in 1850. To the LDS' credit, they saw the error of their ways quickly and rescinded them. In 1978. Hey, at least it didn't take the Union army to change their minds this time. Just a decade or so of mulling over the civil rights movement and what it meant for them.

Then there's the church's latest triumph, the massive funding and organizing effort that helped push the anti-gay Prop 8 over the top. This time, when the public used their own free speech to push back against the church's stance to deny people equal rights, they claimed to be the oppressed minority. They'll probably be issuing a revelation changing their position on this one in 2060 or so, 20 years after the rest of America.

Perhaps the worst aspect of an all-Mormon world would be the utter arrogance the church exudes. One of the church's lesser-known practices is baptism for the dead. Not satisfied with converting the living through their mandatory missionary service, Mormons have a ritual within their temples where a congregation member (often a youth) will stand in for one or more dead people as the deceased's names are read. These souls are thought to be posthumously given the opportunity to be "saved" by the LDS. The church has some of the best genealogy research in the world in order to make sure they don't miss anybody.

Your dead ancestors, yes, yours, have probably already been baptized by the Mormons. How do I know this? Because they've already gotten to Adolf Hilter, as well as millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust. Stunningly, the families of those who perished because of their Jewish faith objected to this procedure. To its credit, the LDS agreed to stop baptizing Holocaust victims. As far as I know, everyone else is still fair game.

All those rosy smiles and good behavior come with a cost. Just ask the Arkansas emigrants who died at the hands of Mormons dressed up as Indians in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

I still adore my Mormon students and friends. But I wouldn't want a world full of them.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Only in America: The Mormons

"Mr. Robinson, Mr. Robinson!"
"What a horrible mess!"
"I broke your window with my ball."
"And I've come to confess!"
"You knew I'd be angry! ("Yes!") Aren't you afraid? ("Yes!) You'll have to pay for this mess you have made...but I'm proud of you, child, for you have displayed honor, the stuff from which heroes are made!"
"I told the truuuuuuuuuuuth!"
"He told the truuuuuuuuuuuth!"

If you grew up during the 80's and watched television, you recognize the preceding exchange. I haven't seen that commercial in probably 20 years, yet I didn't have to watch it again before composing those lines from memory. I could've recited the whole thing. I love that ad. Not only is it well-produced and catchy (and stars a young Alphonso Rebeiro), it's got an undeniably moral message: Own up to your mistakes. The world would be a better place if more people took the song's message to heart.

I must've seen that mini-musical hundreds of times in my youth, along with scads of others like it. The one where the dad bursts into his daughter's room and angrily yells, "Are you guys having a pillow fight in here?" at a bunch of terrified teenage girls, then says, "Cuz I sure wouldn't want to miss a good pillow fight!" as he joins in is my second favorite. This one is awesome (and culturally diverse) as well. At the end of these, it would always say, "Brought to you by the Mormons! The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS)." At the time, I couldn't care less who was paying for those commercials; all I knew was they were kick-ass in an incredibly cheesy way.

Although I knew Mormons growing up (my basketball coach and his son come to mind), I didn't really understand how the LDS was different from my own church until high school. There I realized that Mormon kids were waking up an hour-and-a-half earlier than I was to go to some sort of special Mormon training every day. This was completely unfathomable to me. I couldn't stand one hour of church a week. They were getting up early to do it on a daily basis? From then on, I realized that the LDS wasn't like any other Christian denomination.

Before I go on, let me be clear that I am going to generalize at certain points in the rest of this blog. These are my impressions from my lifetime of relationships with Mormon acquaintances, students, and friends. I realize that all Mormons are individuals, with their own thoughts and feelings, but most do share similar traits. As religions go, they are about as homogeneous as it gets. To paraphrase BADM also-ran Scott Harris: If you're a Mormon, you probably shouldn't read the remainder of this.

The fascinating thing about the Mormon religion is that it is uniquely American. Other forms of Judeo/Christianity rely on ancient history from the Middle East. The Latter Day Saints' prophet, Joseph Smith, grew up in New York during the 1800's. It's so much more immediate, not to mention patriotic.

It's also completely insane.

The Mormons believe all the illogical and impossible stuff of the actual Bible; in addition, they tack on loads of other easily-refuted nonsense. For instance, the Book of Mormon claims that Native Americans are actually descendants of Jews from the Middle East who crossed the ocean in 600 B.C. Read that sentence again. It's not just preposterous, it's preposterous in a whole bunch of different ways. Joseph Smith's dictations also include references to elephants and horses, neither of which would have lived in America in the time he describes. Oh, and all mankind descends from Jackson County, Missouri. That's where the Garden of Eden actually was, you see.

Even the most amateur anthropologist/archeologist could explain how all these claims are ridiculous. These things are simply not true. You can believe that the sun spins around the earth (as most religions did for thousands of years), but that doesn't make it so.

Even more ludicrous is the story of how Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon. Here's the version on Wikipedia. In case you're worried about bias, I suggest you go to the LDS website. Better yet, ask a Mormon to tell it to you. Their versions will all be basically the same. No matter how you hear the story, you will be struck by one thought, assuming you possess an ounce of rationality: This story has more holes in it than Sonny Corleone. I don't have the energy to get into all of its absurd aspects, but what's not in dispute is that a man looked into a hat and translated aloud "golden plates" using a "seeing stone." He had to return the golden plates to the angel Moroni when he was done, of course, so nobody can see them.

One of the fastest-growing religions in the world is predicated upon the belief that a man spoke the revelations of God by looking into his hat. Only in America.

I have lots more to say about the Mormons, including much praise, but this is already getting long. Damn my verbosity. I'll pick up with Part II tomorrow.

If you're left wanting more, check out this brilliant South Park episode. It's one of the few times that there is no satire needed; they just tell the story of Joseph Smith and welcome incredulous laughter. I would love to hear the reactions of any Mormons who've seen it (although they may not be allowed to watch it).