Wow. I’m having trouble putting into words my reactions to watching the dominance of the United States swimming team at the Beijing Olympics. The U.S. has always been competitive in swimming, but we are hardly alone in the world. The Europeans, Great Britain, South Africa, and particularly Australia have always been very tough competitors. The results from the first three days of competition hardly reflect that however. Standout performances include Michael Phelps’s 200 free, where he blew away his own world record by two seconds, Aaron Piersol and Natalie Coughlin’s wins in the 100 back, and the men’s 4×100 free relay, featuring Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, and the incomparable Jason Lezak. (Not sure what relay I’m talking about? Refresh your memory with this slideshow.)

One of the most remarkable aspects about all this is the fact that the United States has no state-sponsored swimming program, occasionally cited as a weakness. Our Olympians hearken from swimming programs sprinkled across the country. Michael Phelps is still coached by his age-group coach, Bob Bowman and Jason Lezak coaches himself, a feat any swimmer will recognize as just plain remarkable–the bottom of the pool is hardly dishing out inspiration.

What we do have, however, is one of the best collegiate swimming programs in the world. This is largely do to the dominance of our post-secondary schools in general. Our universities and colleges attract the best students in the world so it’s only logical athletes are part of that equation. These institutions have the funds necessary to run first-class athletic programs and offer scholarships to elite athletes from around world. In this respect, the United States is indirectly responsible for Olympians from smaller European and African countries who are recruited as college athletes to swim for the best coaches in the world. Many end up staying in this country to train for the Olympics literally in the same lane as American athletes. A state-sponsored program would never support such an open-door policy.

Let me cite an example: As I was listening to Rowdy Gaines cover the semi-finals of the women’s 100 backstroke, I was struck by a name he mentioned. Gaines was talking about the Zimbabwean swimmer, Kirsty Coventry, seeded first in final heat (where she was out-touched by Coughlin) thanks to the world record she set in the semi-finals. Coventry was coached by Kim Brackin at Auburn University, one of the powerhouses of United States collegiate swimming. Kim (McDonald) Brackin was co-captain of my very own high school swim team in Ithaca, New York during my sophomore year. Kimmy went on to swim four years at the University of Albany and I’m sure I would have lost track of her forever had I not stumbled across an article in a reception-room magazine featuring an interview and picture of Auburn swim coach, Kim Brackin, instantly recognizable to me as Kim McDonald.

Apparently, the name lodged itself in some corner of my mind because when Gaines mentioned Kim Brackin at Texas, it jogged my memory. Anyways, I couldn’t be prouder to know her. She is not yet 40, the head coach of one of the best swimming programs in the country, and coach of several Olympic athletes. Pretty damn impressive, lady. SHABA.

In an indirect way, Kim Brackin and Kirsty Coventry illustrate my point about the virtues of a laissez-faire sports program. Athletes in the United States have a lot more say in who coaches them than they would if we adhered to a state-sponsored model of athletic development. Swimmers choose the coach and program that best fits their needs, such as Kirsty’s decision to swim for Kim. These programs are enriched by the presence of foreign athletes, who better their chances by training in world class programs while spurring on homegrown athletes to higher achievement as well.

So, while the rest of the world debates why so many swimming world records are broken at the Olympics, I’m casting my vote for our hands-off model of athletic development. More of the fastest swimmers can be found in the U.S. than any part of the world, propelling the sport forward at an exponential rate. Let’s learn from this model.

Updating this list was a good idea. (You rock, Heather.) Apparently I’ve unleashed a monster.

1. Summer blockbusters. This summer it was what I’m going to call the big three: Ironman, The Dark Knight, and Hancock. I’ll save the meat for the actual post, but suffice to say that one of the reasons I’m a fan of blockbusters is because I think they reflect the cultural zeitgeist. Interesting viewing this time around.

2. Thursday in the Square. I’ve written about this awesome, free concert series before, but this summer my stupid muscle tear kept me from most of the shows. No more!

3. New vacation plans. A bear sanctuary in West Virginia, or maybe the Adirondacks, weather depending.

4. Chronic back pain. Actually, I’m not going to write about this because I don’t want to give it any more space in my life.

5. Truth and writing. How much of me do you actually know from reading these posts? I think the absences in any work say as much as what’s included. What’s truth anyways?

6. Stuff White People Like. Why was this blog so popular? I won’t deny its accuracy, but seriously, who reads this stuff?

7. The Dark Side by Jane Mayer. I know, this is a repeat, but this book is so important, especially on the eve of a presidential election. Do we want four more years of people aligned with this adminstration? More than that, can our we survive four more years?

8. Politics of fear mongering and racism. This is America! We are so much better than this! I’m disgusted with both Bill Clinton and Karl Rove.

9. Yuppy privilege. Thank you HST for sparking this one. The Hell’s Angels and the California college leftist movement came to blows in the 1970s and not much has changed since. Blue collar America and the liberal elite are still miles apart. Maybe they always have been; during the nineteenth century, Louisa May Alcott wrote a Utopian novel, Work: A Story of Experience, envisioning a better future for women of all backgrounds. The heroine, Christie Devon, could bridge the gap between women from different walks of life. Who are the real-life Christies? Oh, we’ve come a long way baby, but how far truly?

Happy thoughts.

I’ve been really remiss about posting on regular basis lately. It’s not that I didn’t think about the blog, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Thanks to a whole lot of English education and a brief stint in the field of journalism I can pretty much write on demand, but my thought process went somewhere along these lines: it’s summer and there are no looming deadlines, so why force myself?

I have been reading a lot this summer, however, thanks to a muscle tear in my calf that occurred the day before school ended. This meant shelving our plans to hike the the John Muir Trail and left me in a foul mood for most of July. Thankfully in that regard, summer is winding down and I’m starting to look ahead to a new school year (one where I’m not doing double duty as technology facilitator either, yay!) and after meeting with Heather and Justin to hash out some new additions to the English 4 curriculum, I’m inspired to write again. Thank you both!

I’m starting off easy, which as any good writing instruction will say is the place to begin. What follows are some new additions to my Writing Territories list, an assignment we ask the seniors to complete as they are setting up their blogs. The list is intended to give them a place to go when they come up empty-handed for ideas.

So, here are my additions:

1. The Dark Side by Jane Mayer. I’m about halfway through this book about how the Bush administration’s war on terror lead to the erosion of the civil liberties we’ve championed at home and abroad since our inception. Even though I knew this was happening, I’m nonetheless appalled by the details I’m reading. If you want to check what compelled me to read it, check out Alan Brinkley’s review for the Times’ Sunday Book Review, Bob Herbert’s mention of it in his Op-Ed column, and Jennifer Schuessler’s review for Books of The Times.

2. Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism. I read three works by Thompson this summer and became slightly addicted to his out there brand of writing and reporting. I was especially intrigued with Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 and what I learned about the inner workings of a national election.

3. Mountain biking and big bruises. I’ll let you guess on this one, but the bruise was so impressive I had Stanley take a picture.

4. Home improvements. Since we didn’t get to hike the John Muir Trail this summer, we worked on our house. Joy and happiness. I did get to use a nail gun though.

5. Interdisciplinary instruction. This is my latest foray into the world of professional development. I’m looking forward to working with five English and Social Studies teachers to explore the pros and cons of this approach.

6. Gender specific instruction. The Boys’ Literacies study team will consider whether the changes we’ve implemented have been effective and whether gender-specific classes are advisable.

7. All of the other books I read this summer. You can check out my Shelfari page if you want a sneak preview.

8. What I am going to do next summer…especially considering how academic this list is. I mean, good grief, I need to get a life!

Until next time.

For the five of you who read this on a regular basis, I’m still here! Look for more posts in the very near future!

Did you turn your lights out for Earth Hour between 8-9 PM Saturday night? (I did.) Do you even know what I’m talking about?

Google’s Earth Hour Page

If you don’t listen to Canadian radio stations and weren’t curious about why Google reversed their usual bright white background, chances are you missed this initiative, which is a shame because it’s a good one.

If you live in Buffalo and were clueless about Earth Hour it’s necessarily your fault, though on some level each of us must ultimately accept responsibility for our actions even when the cards are stacked against us. And, boy-oh-boy, in the United States we are really behind the ball when it comes to taking a hard look at our impact on the environment. We represent a small percent of the world’s population, but use a large percent of its resources. Of course this says an awful lot about just how privileged we are to live in this land of plenty, but they also says an awful lot about how wasteful we are as a country.

For the most part, household energy use doesn’t make that much of a dent in our energy consumption (businesses and municipalities account for much more as reported here in the Toronto Star) as a whole, but turning off the lights for an hour raises awareness about the impact that each of have on our environment. And that’s why it’s a shame if Earth Hour came and went and didn’t make any dent in your activities because if any country stands to have a positive effect upon our environment, it’s us, the Pigpen of our planet.

I’ve been giving my environmental footprint a lot of thought lately because when I started teaching I made a conscious decision to let go of some of the good habits I developed growing up in the very green community of Ithaca, NY. I rationalized my decision by telling myself that it was a matter of survival. As a first-year teacher I faced 80-hour work-weeks, unpredictable classroom behavior, pre-tenure observations, new teacher meeting requirements, extra-curricular obligations, and the necessity of completing a graduate degree. The result? I decided that I probably wouldn’t have time to wash my plastic bags for a little while. (I also let my exercise and cooking habits slide, but that’s another story.) And given all that, maybe that decision was justified, but it’s been almost four years since that date and I’m still entrenched in my bad habits.

So, today I’m starting fresh. And right there is what is so cool about Earth Hour and why it must be expanded beyond a handful of target cities. (To read more about the iniative, check our the World Wildlife Federation page here.) My one hour of hanging out in candlelight gave me time to think about just how environmentally unfriendly my own habits had become–from not reusing plastic bags, to not purchasing environmentally friendly cleaning products, to eating too much takeout (the plastic containers are not currently recyclable and styrofoam is such an environmental disaster it ought to be banned outright)–and reminded me that it wouldn’t take much effort on my part to do better. Just like turning out the lights.

Here’s my plan: invest in reusable grocery bags, switch from plastic to cellulose bags for food and trash, switch my household cleaning products to ones that are environmentally friendly, all of which and more can be easily found online and in the organic section of most grocery stores. I’ll also gradually migrate from incandescent to flourescent bulbs, and figure out what adapter I need to hook my laptop to our TV and switch from renting videos at Blockbuster to Netflix’s on-demand program in order to cut down on my husband’s extraneous trips to the video store. I will continue to compost kitchen scraps, buy small cars and avoid using pesticides. (I also conserve energy by setting my thermostat at 65 and turning off the heat completely when I’m not home and at night. All of my major appliances have high Energy Star ratings too.)

What are you going to do?

I feel a little funny broaching the topic of the war in Iraq because I’m not sure that I’ve done anything to earn the right to weigh in substantively. It’s easy to approach such topics from an academic standpoint (and I’ve done so myself in a previous post on The Bourne Supremacy): issues are cut and dry, not confused by emotion, personal opinion or those sticky moral questions of right and wrong. Even when someone on the outside has the foresight to acknowledge things in shades of gray, theirs is still only a two-dimensional view. The following article about the U.S. death toll in Iraq published in the New York Times reminded me of the distance that always exists between writer and subject.

Only this time, things are a little different. Reporters Lizette Alvarez and Andrew Lehren didn’t take the usual route to mark the new U.S. death toll high in Iraq. Instead, the authors chose to focus upon four U.S. servicemen who died while on duty in Iraq. And rather than tell their stories for them, Alvarez and Lehren integrated the words of these men right into the body of their own report. This had two impacts: first, it was a painful and effective way of reminding the reader that although these guys were in some way speaking, their words were all that remained of them. And second, the integration of the men’s voices into the piece communicated the significance of the number 4000 in way that resonated so much more clearly than a traditional straight news story ever could.

I’m going to include an excerpt here, but I would really encourage you to read the story in its entirety. It’s incredibly powerful. The first paragraph is written by the reporters, the second is taken directly from Myspace and incorporated into the body of the news story.

For the soldiers in Iraq, reconciling Adhamiya with America was not always easy. One place was buried in garbage and gore and hopelessness. The other seemed unmoored from the war, fixated on the minutia of daily life and the hiccups of the famous. The media was content to indulge. …

I was amazed, truly dumbfounded wondering how we as Americans have sank so low. To all Americans I have but one phrase that helps me throughout my day of constant dangers and ever present death around the corner, “WHO THE [expletive] CARES!” Wow America, we have truly become a nation of self-absorbed retards. … This world has serious problems and it’s time for America to start addressing them.

Ryan Wood, Myspace blog, May 26, 2007

The other reason I’m struck by this particular story is that it reminded me again of the ways that our social, cultural, and educational landscape is rapidly changing. I have spent the past couple of weeks preparing for a presentation on integrating blogs into the language arts classroom. As far as my content area goes, this is kind-of a no-brainer: I teach writing, blogs are a vehicle for just that. But they would hardly be worth going to all the trouble of using if they were little more than journals. What makes blogs blogs, so to speak, is the ease with which they allow the writer to synthesize ideas from various sources and provide a digital record of that thought process through links.

What does any of this have to do with a news story on U.S. death toll caused by the Iraq War? The reporters supplemented their story with excerpts taken from texts written by the soldiers themselves, including letters, emails, and Myspace. The Myspace accounts written by the soldiers are particularly interesting because they mark a dramatic shift in the way we communicate and receive information. Previously a soldier’s personal thoughts on the war would have been known only to those people close to him, but with the advent of Myspace, those opinions are accessible to anyone with a computer. In this particular instance, they have been transcribed from Myspace into the body of news article published on the New York Times.

Before Myspace, could this have been accomplished in another way? Certainly. The reporters might have interviewed Specialist Wood and then integrated his comments into their news story. However, Woods’s words are especially poignant this time because he can no longer share his thoughts with the reporters personally.

Besides the tremendous emotion and power that the soldiers’s words carry, what strikes me most about Alvarez and Lehren’s choice to include block quotes from the soldiers themselves is the way that they are mimicking the way that Web 2.0 has revolutionized the web in their print news story. I applaud their choice because I think it makes for interesting reading, and as an educator I must also take note of the way that the digital revolution is changing the way information is exchanged, even in print.

I really thought that I was done writing for the night, but after reading Gail Collins’ Op-Ed piece on the successful downing of an inoperational satellite by the Pentagon, I couldn’t resist making mention of it here. It is Vonnegut-worthy satire.

As Collins’ reported, the cost of knocking this hunk of metal out of the sky was a cool 60 million. Upon the Pentagon’s recommendation, the President decided that the tiny odds that this dysfunctional satellite would fall smack into someone’s back yard and filling it with an unpleasant gas justified the cost of taking it out. Mind you, I’m all for protecting my own little ecosystem out here in Eden, but as Collins points out, an estimated 17,000 things have already made their way from space to Earth through out atmosphere and the odds of any single one of them hitting us is several million to one. My back yard and I, for one, have yet to be hit.

Collins challenges her readers to imagine what they might do with 60 million to invest in protecting their personal safety. Here’s my two cents; and I’ll even stick to the topic at hand. Instead of playing star wars with defective space equipment, I would invest the 60 million in research grants to PhDs and postdocs for the purpose of creating environmentally friendly satellites, ones that would burn up upon passing back through the earth’s atmosphere without being blown to smithereens beforehand. Alternatively, my 60 million might support research and development of satellites with a longer shelf-life; these “environmentally friendly” satellites could be easily be retooled and upgraded as technological advances deemed necessary. And I’m not a scientist! Heaven knows there are better ideas out there!

Here’s a link The New York Times news story on the event. It includes a great picture. Here’s the critical Chinese response to the event as reported by The Times, and here’s a link to The Lede’s coverage of the event, which includes some direct quotes from Pentagon officials justifying their decision.