Schools Find Emphasis on Risk-Taking Often Backfires

SAN DORITO, California. Students at this modern high school sixty miles north of Los Angeles perennially achieve high test scores on standardized exams, a fact that has caused educators around the state to try to replicate its methods.

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San Dorito High School: Home of the Fighting Taco Chips


“San Dorito was one of the first schools to adopt the concept of ‘risk-taking’ as a guiding principle,” says education consultant Thomas Byrnes-Jones. “They don’t just cram facts into kids’ heads, they challenge them.” The school’s mission statement, posted on its web site, boasts of a “positive learning environment nurtured by risk-taking, ownership, and whatever the buzzword-du-jour among educrats happens to be.”

That philosophy has spread to other schools with mixed results, as teachers and administrators sometimes adopt risk-taking without a firm understanding of what it means in terms of curriculum and pedagogy.

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Fun couple


“Risk-taking may not be appropriate at lower grade levels,” says California’s Commissioner of Education Dwight Hulbert. “We had a seventh-grader in the Hidden Valley Middle School propose marriage to his teacher after they’d only gone on one date, to see ‘The Graduate’,” he says as he shakes his head with disapproval. “I don’t think you want to make a long-term commitment like that until you’ve lived together for a couple of years.”

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. . . and when I turn this valve, you’ll hear a loud explosion!”

At the elementary school level, the notion of risk-taking can sometimes energize students with unintended consequences. “We found Mrs. Ilmberger, one of our less popular teachers, locked in the janitor’s closet,” says Sister Mary Agnesita of Holy Name School in Youngstown, Ohio. “Her third grade class stole her wallet and car keys and drove to Chuck E. Cheese for the afternoon.”

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The students were apprehended when they tried to use the pizza chain’s prize tickets as currency to buy gas, says local Chief of Police Erskine Howell. “They should have traded them in for the skull’s head finger skate boards,” he notes. “Those are real popular with your typical pimply-faced gas monkey.”

For Lost Pepsi Generation, Not a Lot Left to Live

NEW YORK.  On the surface, Amelie Bernard seems content enough as the 68-year old widow sits alone in her Bleecker Street apartment surrounded by memorabilia from her youth.  “We were young, we were in love and mad for the world and all its glorious prospects,” she says with a wistful smile.  “Then they hung a soft drink’s name on us, and everything somehow or other turned sour.”

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Bernard is referring to a several-year period beginning in 1964 when Pepsi-Cola, a carbonated soft drink, adopted “Come Alive, You’re in the Pepsi Generation” as its slogan.  Adolescents who came of age during that time soon felt the burden that many experienced between the two World Wars, when legions of disaffected young people were tagged “The Lost Generation” for their inability to concentrate on simple tasks such as changing Gertrude Stein’s tires as they dreamt of a more glamorous future.

“The so-called ‘Lost Pepsi Generation’ is now retiring and faces a bleak future when they will be bombarded with commercials for adult diapers and denture adhesives that emphasize their decrepitude and not their youth,” says Morton Oswalt, a professor of geronto-sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk.  “They are realizing they will never write Great American Novels or record opera-length rock albums, and many face the prospect of depression in what should be their golden years.”

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“What’s there to smile about?”

Many members of the Lost Pepsi Generation became expatriates, abandoning cola drinks entirely for Wink, the Sassy One from Canada Dry, Squirt, a grapefruit-flavored concoction that its inventor called “the freshest, most exciting taste in the marketplace,” and Sprite, a delicious lemon-lime flavored beverage made by the Coca-Cola Company.  “You’d see these kids walking around listlessly like zombies without caffeine,” says cultural historian Mel Girardin of the American Museum of Trivial Stuff in Concord, Mass.  “It spawned a lot of B-movies that are now cult classics, like ‘Night of the Living Clearasil.'”
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Wink and Squirt: Ou est les soft drinks d’antan?

The soft drink company abandoned the “Pepsi Generation” tag in 1967 in favor of “You’ve got a lot to live, and Pepsi’s got a lot to give,” setting off a massive manhunt for the preposition “for,” which was implied but not used in the slogan.  “We were a whole new generation, coming at you, going strong,” notes Bernard’s friend Cynthia Carroll.  “We put ourselves behind a Pepsi–we were living, we belonged!

On the Prowl With the Lunch Money Enforcers

Wealthy suburb Wellesley, Mass. has hired constables to collect unpaid lunch money.

                                                            The Boston Globe

“Don’t do it–the chocolate milk is three cents extra.”

Me and my buddy Rocco was crusin’ the streets on the lookout for perps, when all of a sudden his stomach starts growlin’ like a bastard.

“What’s with you?” I asked.

“This is a tough beat,” he said, staring out the window into the middle distance, a blank expression on his face.  You get that way after a coupla years on the lunch money deadbeat beat.  “I got to ride around all day, thinkin’ about tater tots . . . and chocolate pudding . . . and peanut butter cookies.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said.  “I’ve got two, maybe three years left–that’s all I can take.  Then I want a desk job, somethin’ nice and easy, on the glide path to retirement.”

“Yeah,” Rocco said, brightening a little.  “A cabin up on Lake Winnipesaukee, a little boat there–that’s what I want.”

His dream.

I tell ya, the burnout among my fellow officers is takin’ its toll.  Rocco is the third partner I’ve had in three years.  The other two are gone now, one demoted to parking enforcement, the other–my buddy Jimbo–out of law enforcement entirely, unless you consider bein’ a mall cop a police job.

No more fishsticks!

Jimbo broke the first rule of lunch money enforcement; do not give the scofflaws home court advantage.  You want to catch them off their property, in some fancy shopping mall or sumpin’, then ease up to ‘em, introduce yourself, say there’s a little matter of $23.67 due to the public school lunch fund–you wouldn’t want to bust our town’s AAA+ bond rating now, would you?  They usually fold like a cheap card table–it’s too embarrassin’, with some snooty clerk displayin’ a diamond tennis bracelet before ‘em.

But no–Jimbo had to go all commando.  He scaled an iron gate with security cameras and this venture capitalist’s wife had her private security force on him before you could say “tuna noodle casserole.”  Let me tell ya, from the beatin’ he got, he looked like leftover American chop suey when they got through with him.

American chop suey: It was this bad.

Today, we’re after the mother of little Timmy Salmon, a twelve-year-old who’s been grabbing Jello brand parfaits and butterscotch pudding off the shelves like they’re going out of style, which they are.  You never see them on the menu of the nicer diners anymore–too bad, ’cause some of these kids are lookin’ like junior sumo wrestlers with all the transfats in the ice cream sandwiches.

We’re cruisin’ in our car, a 2008 Plymouth Neon Bulletin that sticks out like a sore thumb among all the Range Rovers and Escalades on the streets, but hey–the American people get the unmarked cars they deserve.  We spot our prey–a frost-job blond in Capri pants and a load of chains around her neck that looks like a Mister T starter set.

She’s trying to back into a parking space outside the Kate Spade Shop at The Stores at the Malle of the Metrowest–no wonder the prices are so high here with all them definite articles they got to keep up.

We wait until she’s got her Lexus stuck on the diagonal–too far out to corner in–and I whip our vehicle across her front fender and block her getaway.

“What are you doing?” she screams at me through perfectly-aligned teeth made straight by thousands of dollars of orthodonture in her well-spent youth.

“Constable Mike Matern, Wellesley Lunch Money Enforcement Bureau, Ms. Salmon.  We need to talk.  Rocco–patrol the area.”

Da Rock stakes a position out in the street to wave cars around the scene of the crime.  We don’t go for the police tape first thing–only if there’s resistance, and the threat of violent scratching by nicely-manicured fingernails.

I take out my citation book and scan down the list of unpaid charges.

“What’s this all about?” the woman snaps.  She’s a thin-lipped hoyden with a potential for violence nurtured on the field hockey fields of da local high school is my guess.

“This is all about $32.13 in outstanding charges run up by your son Timmy there,” I say.  “We accept VISA, MasterCard and–of course–cash.”  I give her the smarmiest smile I can muster.  She’s a little bony for my tastes, but I could see in da back of my mind getting it on with her in a sort of handcuffs and police baton role-playing session.

“Can I . . . have your lemon square?”

“That’s impossible,” she says.  “I load up his swipe card every week with $25.  If he ate that much for lunch he’d be twice his size.”

“I’m not sayin’ yer right, and I’m not sayin’ yer wrong, lady,” I says to her.  “I’m just saying that’s what he’s got on da books of da school.  You wouldn’t want us to have to fire that nice young music teacher we just hired–all because a little Timmy’s sweet tooth, now would you?”

This gives her pause, so she pauses.  She’d never be able to walk into a PTO meeting again if she screwed up the enrichment that her neighbors pay through the nose for in property taxes.

“Well, it doesn’t sound right, and I’m an MBA!” she says–as if that’s gonna make a difference to me.

“I’m wonderin,’” I says.  “Your little Timmy–has he got a girlfriend?”

“I don’t think so,” she says.  This is called “community policin’” in Boston–gettin’ to know people in their neighborhoods, tryin’ to understand their situation before you haul ‘em in and some goo-goo liberal judge releases ‘em without bail to run up big lunch bills again.

“‘Cause a lotta da time, we find young boys blowin’ through their lunch money ’cause they got a main squeeze–ya know what I’m sayin’?”

“That would be news to me,” she says, still skeptical, but at least willin’ to hear me out now that I’ve shared with her da fruits of many years of experience trackin’ down free-spending young men.

All of a sudden her eyes get as big as the stones in her David Yurman ring as she looks over my shoulder.  “Timmy!” she exclaims, and I turn to look.

Who should we see but the little man himself, squiring not one but two girlfriends down the street, like he’s Iceberg Slim or somethin’.

“Hi Mom!” Timmy squeals, obviously proud of his prowess with the ladies.  “This is Courtney,” he says, very graciously, “and this is Christina.”

Timmy’s mom gives him a look of disapproval.  “Young man–it’s not nice to have two girlfriends at once.”

Timmy looks from one girl to the other, and the expression on his face makes clear he doesn’t want to give up either one.  “Are you sure?” he asks after a moment’s reflection.

“Sure I’m sure,” his mom says.

Timmy’s face clouds over.  “I guess that means Daddy’s in trouble.”

“Sure I’m sure,” his mom says.

Timmy’s face clouds over.  “I guess that means Daddy’s in trouble.”

Writing Coach Toughens Her Tyros With Message That “Whining Isn’t Writing”

SOMERVILLE, Mass.  Maggie Turbek was once a promising young writer, but at age 58 she finds her future is largely behind her.  “I had one moderately successful novel, so I feel I accomplished something,” she says of “Under the Rhododendrons,” her clear-eyed look back at her youth written when she was 28.  “Had I known how little money you make from a moderately successful novel I would have just gone to work at the Post Office.”

Turbek:  “The cable guy didn’t show up?  Another ferry sank in India–I think that’s probably worse.”

But Turbek’s case-hardened knowledge of what it takes to become a writer is much in demand these days among those just beginning their careers in the field, all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and toting newly-framed Master of Fine Arts in Literature degrees from one publisher to another.  “Maggie’s tough, but that’s what I need,” says Chloe Sevigne, who is currently shopping a collection of short stories that she used as her master’s project at the University of Arkansas-Hoxie.  “Whenever I start to go off the rails, she blows the whistle.”

The service that Turbek provides, along with her young assistant Lorna Twellman, a recent graduate of Tufts University with a worthless English degree, is to monitor clients’ on-line activity to keep them focused on writing and not complaining about the thousand daily shocks that everyone’s flesh is heir to.  “I blame the whole ‘Customer is always right’ philosophy,” Turbek says with apparent disgust.  “If everything isn’t perfect in your little world, you think you’re entitled to wig out instead of getting your ass in your chair and writing.”

“I can’t write today–it’s too nice outside!”

“Maggie, I hate to interrupt, but I think you should see this,” Twellman says to Turbek, like a latter-day Alexander Graham Bell calling to her Watson.  “Good grief!” Turbek says as she reads a Facebook comment by Michael Hofstrau, a blocked writer who signed up for Turbek’s “Basic” service at $240 a month.  “There should be separate lines in Starbucks,” Hofstrau writes.  “One for people who haven’t got their shit together, and one for people like me.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Turbek says as she nudges the younger woman aside, “but this calls for high-level intervention.  ‘Hey Michael,'” Turbek taps out on Hofstrau’s Facebook page, and Twellman recoils at the ferocity with which the seasoned pro cracks away at her keyboard.  “Raymond Carver used to write on scraps of paper in the laundromat.  I think you can put up with somebody who doesn’t know the difference between a chai latte and a caramel macchiato.”

“If I see any of you complaining about noise from leaf-blowers, I’m going to come to your house and smash your keyboard over your head.”

Soon the young writer’s complaining ceases, a sign that he has turned back to his work; a sports/science fiction novel about a time-traveling Negro League baseball team that plays on Mars. “Nobody ever got anything written by whining,” Turbek says as she returns to her desk.

She taps her space bar to make her screen saver disappear, then checks the blog of Melissa Hurwit-Hwang, an M.F.A. from Skidmore who’s working on a blank verse poem cycle about the oppressive character of counter-top household appliances of the 1950s, even though she was born three decades later.  “I could KILL those stupid Jehovah’s Witnesses, ringing the doorbell just as I was getting going good!” the young woman writes.  “I’ve lost my inspiration for the day.”

“If words can change the world, dictionaries would be in jail.”

Turbek scans the post with disgust, takes a piece of chewing gum out of her mouth and tosses it in a wastebasket, then adds a comment that causes the younger novelist’s face to redden 90 miles away in Amherst, Mass.  “Melissa, sweetie–Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan after he was interrupted by that notorious Person from Porlock.  You’re telling me you can’t crank out a couplet or two today?”

There is silence on the screen for a while before Hurwit-Hwang replies.  “Sorry Maggie.  I promise–I’ll tackle toaster ovens this morning, and electric skillets this afternoon.”

Turbek then turns her attention to a male client whose productivity declines dramatically as the college basketball season approaches the climax of “March Madness.”  “Don’t waste your time on Kansas,” she reads when she logs onto the blog of Art Shmansky, a would-be writer of noir children’s books.  “They’re going to fall apart like a pair of Wal-Mart sweat socks in the first round.”

“What a nimrod,” she says with disgust.

“What?” Twellman asks, hoping to learn from the woman who’s considered the Mistress of Darkness among writers who’d sell their souls for a six-figure advance.

“He’s getting into it over a stupid basketball tournament that won’t start for two weeks!” Turbek replies.  She quickly logs on to the site––chooses a user name and a password and breaks into the discussion with a ice-cold blast of realism. “Hey Shmansky,” she writes.  “Do you think Raymond Chandler gave two shits about CCNY vs. Holy Cross?”

Usually a rapid responder, the budding writer is stunned into silence.  “Well, uh, my writing coach just called for a substitution,” he types after a while before signing off.  “I’ve been benched, so it’s back to my imitation hard-bitten, cynical prose.”

A Cockroach in the Museum of Fine Arts

Am I mistaken in thinking that cockroaches are attracted to art galleries for the warmth rather than the pictures?

Review by Raymond Tallis of Eric R. Kandel’s “The Age of Insight”

It’s been a while since I took my cockroach Archy to the museum. I tend to get “museum feet”–the sudden urge to sit, or better lie down–as soon as I set foot in a marble-floored mausoleum dedicated to the highbrow. Archy, by contrast, can’t get enough of the stuff.



“You’re not gonna bolt for the gift shop and look for Edward Hopper t-shirts the way you did last time, are you?” he says with all-too-apparent disgust at my short cultural attention span.

“You know my limits,” I say.

“You haven’t . . . grown much since you pulled me down from your parents’ bookshelf two score and ten years ago.”

He’s got that right. I first encountered the Arch-man in the living room of the house I grew up in, wedged between golf books by Dr. Cary Middlecoff and the 23-volume set of the Art Linkletter “Kids Say the Darndest Things” library. It was a gift from some whimsical friends to my parents, who didn’t make much headway through it since poetry–Archy’s preferred genre–wasn’t a big part of our family life. Or any part at all, other than Burma-Shave signs.



Archy and Mehitabel, the cat who was his muse, provided me with hours of entertainment, seasoned with extended periods of confusion. Many of the jokes went right over my head, but I plowed on because of the George Herriman illustrations.

“I want to see the new American wing,” Archy said, recalling me from my reverie.

“You’re the boss,” I said, although I didn’t really mean it. I would have sunk to a new low if my boss was a cockroach, instead of your standard-issue jackass.

I plopped him in my shirt pocket so we’d only have to pay one admission and we made our way to the “You Are Here” stanchion and tried to figure out where we were.

“I don’t know why it is that people have such negative attitudes about cockroaches,” Archy said as I traced my finger over to the little escalator symbol.

“You guys don’t help your cause any by scurrying whenever humans turn on the lights,” I said. “It makes you look suspicious.”

“Can’t afford to take any chances,” he said. “You ever been hit with the heel of a Talbots pump?”

“Let’s leave my erotic fantasies out of this,” I said, cutting off the personal stuff at the pass. “Also, those cheap motels you stay in–it doesn’t help your reputation.”

“You mean like the one you checked your parents into for graduation, and your mom complained about the men and women coming and going all night long.”

“It was Brookline, home of Leonard Bernstein, Conan O’Brien and Mike Wallace. It looked like a respectable place to me.”

How was I to know?


We passed through the hall where Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival” is displayed, and stopped for a moment to take it in; the importunate man, his reluctant partner.



“It’s the same the whole world over, ain’t it?” Archy said, and a young woman in black toreador pants and a sweater that drooped over one shoulder looked at him disapprovingly.

“What’s her problem?” Archy sniffed when she was out of earshot.

“You said ‘ain’t,’” I told him. “You’re just confirming the worst cockroach stereotypes when you talk that way.”

“What stereotype–other than La Cucaracha–would that ditz have in her teeny little mind?”

I gulped. “Well, a lot of people think cockroaches are attracted to art galleries for the warmth–not the pictures.”

I could have knocked him over with a feather, but that would have been no big deal since he was so small to begin with. I could have knocked him over with a piping plover’s feather, or a least tern’s feather–a really small one.

Least tern, with even leaster baby chick.


“You . . . have . . . got to be kidding me,” he said, loud enough for the security guard to shush us. “I’m a freakin’ published poet, jack,” he snapped.

“I don’t think that cuts much ice here,” I said. “I mean, your work wasn’t exactly highbrow stuff.”

“Oh yeah? Well how about this, pal–ever heard the expression avoir le cafard?

“‘To have the cockroach’? Sure–it’s from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.

“Lucky guess. Anyway, he picked cockroaches–and the whole cockroachy feeling that life weighs you down with–as the symbol of modern consciousness, something none of these over-educated twits can lay claim to.”

A few more heads turned, many of them containing high 700 SAT score quality brains. I could see my bumptious friend was wearing out his welcome. “I’m getting tired,” I said.

“Isn’t there some kind of Walk for Museum Feet I could support in the hope that someday we could get through an entire afternoon without you bailing out on me?”

“I’m not bailing out on you just yet.”

“You mean you’ll at least take me to the American wing?”

“No–I want to stop in the gift shop and see if they have any Edvard Munch t-shirts.”

We Must Love One Another or Die: A Brief History

For “Freedonian Bob Dylan,” Oxygen is Blowing in the Wind

MUSZRKLIA, Freedonia.  As he looks back on a career that spans a half-century, Norkd Vneliak laughs and shakes his head at the transformation he’s undergone.  “I was a nice Byellorussian boy who wanted to grow up to join the Freedonian space program.  My dad owned an appliance store,” he says wistfully.  “I was no good at leveling washers, dryers and refrigerators and there was no money for college, so I decided to become a folksinger.”

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“How many roads must a man walk down, before he reaches 17th Street?”


And so he did, hitchhiking to this city, the artistic capital of Freedonia, where he scuffled for several years playing in blznikas, small coffee houses that offered him a venue in which he could hone his craft–without pay other than a free meal–in imitation of his hero, American folk singer Bob Dylan.

“When I hear him first time, top of my mind blows off!” Vneliak says.  “I resolve to be like him–his father own appliance store, my father own appliance store.  Maybe I could bed cool chick like Joan Baez.”

But Vneliak’s mimicry, while sincere, failed in one important respect; because of his halting knowledge of English, he didn’t realize that many of Dylan’s most stirring images were metaphors, metonyms or other figures of speech.  “In translation Vneliak’s lyrics come across as flat,” says rock critic Miles Snibor of Earworm magazine.  “That’s because the dude took too many science courses.  He just doesn’t get it.”

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“Free-do-nia, Free-do-nia, they call the place–Freedonia.”


And so Vneliak’s homage to one of Dylan’s best-known songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” is an unfortunate triumph of the literal over the figurative as the hard sciences he picked up at the Gymnasium dos Blurzkag taint the fertile images of his American inspiration.  “What is the composition of the earth’s atmosphere,” he sings soulfully to a crowd of greying bohemians who’ve followed his career through his eponymous first album to his 2014 6-CD retrospective, “The answer my friend, is nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide, the answer is these four gases.”

A similar disjunction is to be found in Vneliak’s knock-off versions of Dylan’s protest songs, such as “It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”  “It’s a soft, it’s a soft, it’s a soft, it’s a soft–it’s a soft rain’s gonna fall, without calcium, magnesium and certain other ions.”

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“This one’s going out to my good buddy . . . uh . . . Norkadee Veneeliak.  Or something.”


A visit to the United States in search of the King of American folk music he loves so much ended in frustration after Vneliak visited Worcester, Mass. based on a six-year old copy of Rolling Stone which said the Hibbing, Minnesota native would be playing there on May 16th.  Unfortunately, the issue was six years old, the most recent copy of the music magazine that Vneliak found in his dentist’s waiting room.  “This is unfair!” Vneliak shouted when security guards blocked his entrance to the Zipper Hospital Centrum in the Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World.  “I come all the way from Freedonia, could I at least get t-shirt?”

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