Reboot

This blog started, like so many others floating around in cyberspace, with the noblest of intentions. It would highlight some writing I liked or was proud of, and hopefully other people would read it too and dig my stuff. It was really as simple as that. I diligently copied and pasted my writing, editing here and there as I went along, all the while applying for jobs in the media. I lived in hope that future bosses would read my missives and find a place for me in their newsrooms. Unfortunately for me, I got exactly what I wanted. It almost put me off writing for good.

I lasted about 6 months in the high-pressure environment of a small town newsroom. I churned out copy from morning until night. Countless hours of unpaid overtime were racked up as I tried to write up a storm in a one-horse town, covering all manner of things that no one really gave a toss about. I became conversant in the lingo and double speak of City Hall, I went to beauty pageants where farmers’ daughters vied to become a queen, I felt like I knew local criminals personally as I put the same names in the blotter week after week. As I wrote, edited, re-redited, edited some more, and then finally posted, I fought to silence the fear making its way into my consciousness, a gnawing sensation coming from deep within me that I had, in the words of George Oscar Bluth II, “Made a huge mistake.”

My last day at that job was one of the best feelings I have ever had. I felt like a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders and placed around the neck of the next poor schmuck.

The miserable experience of professional news writing just about snuffed out any creativity I had left in me. This blog went unattended and hesitant sketches at the plots for short stories gathered digital dust in archived emails. My mojo was nowhere to be found.

But those were the bad old days of 2013. The mere fact that I have typed this is a sign that while my mojo isn’t yet next to me as I type, it is somewhere in the house. So, I’m going to see if I can start tapping out some thoughts on a slightly more regular basis.

Bitches, I’m back.

© 2014 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

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The Importance of Being Earnest

Thursday April 12, 2012 saw the opening night of Colorado State University Theatre’s performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As an almost sell-out crowd took in the period stage design from the theatre’s opulent red seats, the half shell floor lights illuminated the exquisite silver tea service situated front and center.

Seated in the half-round of the University Theatre, the crowd is almost on top of the performers on stage. This intimidating studio atmosphere would daunt many actors more advanced in years than the students who trod the boards on opening night.

Striding on stage with all the purpose and cheeky disposition of a young Michael Caine, Seth Klusmire immediately won over the crowd with his interpretation of the character Algernon Moncrieff, the play’s lovable rogue.

The impeccable English accent Klusmire affected is all the more amazing since he is a Colorado native. Holding it on stage for the duration of the play appeared to barely tax him.

“Everyday I sat down for fifteen minutes, at least, just to talk with a British accent. Even if it was nonsense like ‘hello, I’m making breakfast,’ little things like that, definitely.”

This devotion to the craft was evident in the sacrifices that Klusmire had made in an effort to further his stage career, often at the expense of his other academic obligations.

“Balance? I’m not sure I balance anything. I’m going to die before the semester is over. I just became a theatre major, I was history education and I just had a test today in one of my history classes and it was rough.”

“You definitely have to make this your number one priority, and if you don’t, that’s going to be bad,” added Klusmire.

Competition had been fierce for all of the parts, and the actors were determined to make the most of appearing in one of Oscar Wilde’s most famous works.

“There is a sign-up list, and anyone can audition for the parts. I think about eighty people signed up,” said Tim Garrity, who stole the show as the acidic and aloof Lady Bracknell.

“There were about ten callbacks for the guys, and you weren’t on the list for Lady Bracknell yet,” laughed Kiernan Angley who played the protagonist of the piece, John Worthing. Opening night doubts about who should have filled the sensible shoes of the snobbish, insensitive Lady Bracknell were instantly vaporized. His delivery of the most famous line in the play, “A handbag?” dripped with all of the vehemence and incredulity that the young actor could muster. Garrity’s performance was so mesmerizing that the crowd almost gave him a standing ovation after his first lengthy monologue.

The fun being had by the actors was evident in the relaxed, assured performances. Obvious, too, was a deep respect for the author of the play, Oscar Wilde.

“I like Oscar Wilde, I like a lot of his writings, he’s just really funny and clever,” said Klusmire.

“It’s just a funny play, it’s not like big drama and theatre. It’s not like, ‘look at this art we’re doing right now, it’s so beautiful, they killed a baby, that means something.’ No, we’re going to eat some muffins and throw things at each other,” laughed Angley.

As the night continued the enthralled audience lapped up the performance. Multiple delays for applause occurred after monologues that seemed to be the pinnacle of the evening’s acting. Until the next monologue that was, as the actors sought to best each other with ever more classic performances.

As the play moved into the third act, set inside the morning room of the Manor House of main character John Worthing, the circuitous route that the play had taken started to arrive at its conclusion.

Members of the crowd who hadn’t seen the play before, or read the play in its entirety gasped as the truth of John Worthing’s heritage was revealed. As the play’s characters all found the ending to the proceedings that they had so desired, once again it came down to Garrity’s Lady Bracknell to upstage all the others. Displaying the pompousness and utter disregard for the suffering of others more commonly associated with the British aristocracy, Bracknell tied up the loose ends of the plot.

As Angley delivered the final lines of the play, the house lights went down and the student actors ran off stage in near pitch darkness. A few seconds later they were back on stage taking the customary bow before a standing ovation from the crowd.

The opening night was a tremendous tour-de-force from a relatively inexperienced cast, setting the bar extremely high for future productions by the Colorado State University Theatre troupe.

© 2013 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Breathe Deep and Meet the Locals: Biking in the Himalayas

So you’ve made the decision, you’ve got your gear together, and the tickets have been put on the credit card. The easy stuff has been done and now it’s time for the real work to begin. Where do you look for travel advice? Who can you expect to find out there? What are the inherent dangers in doing a circular bike trip at the foot of the Himalayas in Northern India?

If you listen to the advice out by the U.S. Department of State then you won’t feel like going very far at all.

“Jammu & Kashmir: The Department of State strongly recommends that you avoid travel to the state of Jammu & Kashmir (with the exception of visits to the eastern Ladakh region and its capital, Leh) because of the potential for terrorist incidents, as well as violent public unrest.”

This obviously isn’t what you want to hear if you are about to set out on the Rishikesh Loop that will take you right through the middle of this area. But, what if it’s just America overreacting again? Maybe the pragmatic British have something different to say.

“We advise against all travel to rural areas of Jammu and Kashmir other than Ladakh; all travel in the immediate vicinity of the border with Pakistan, other than at Wagah; and all travel in Manipur,” states the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.

The next line has more grim advice, “We advise against all but essential travel to Srinagar and Imphal,” which is unfortunate as Srinagar is exactly where you have to go. Then the British Foreign Office puts the final nail in the coffin of your dreams by saying that air travel is the only way to get around up there. Time to start reaching for the ticket cancellation option?

Not so says Navneet Prasad, a foreign exchange student who lives near the area in question. He explained how Paul Woollams would have fared up there.

“Even after he left Rishikesh and started heading into the Himalayas he wouldn’t have looked too out of the ordinary,” says Prasad, “there are people from all over the world there, it is one of the most visited places in India.”

But what about the more remote areas as you move into Jammu and Kashmir?

“People out there don’t have experience of people from America or the United Kingdom, especially riding a bike,” laughs Prasad.

“It’s crazy, even though I live in India and I know these things happen, nobody would expect him to be doing these things up there.”

Local hospitality plays a critical role in an adventure like this. Since this style of trip involves the rider spending long periods alone, friendly contact with the locals becomes even more important.

“Paul would have been treated really well, because people would have been curious to know things about him,” says Prasad.

“Where is he from? What is he doing? They would want to know these things.”

It also appears that location affects friendliness in India as well.

“People up north are different, their behavior and nature is really good,” beams Prasad, “even the military up there wouldn’t have cared, they would have been really helpful.” A fact confirmed by Woollams himself.

So the locals and military are on your side, now it’s just a matter of turning the crank and moving forward. Which is of course easier said than done at 15,000 feet. To put that idea into perspective, here are the heights of some popular tourist destinations: Cuzco (11,000 feet), La Paz (12,000 feet), Everest Base Camp (17,700 feet), and Kilimanjaro (19, 341 feet). At these heights altitude sickness can have a severely debilitating effect on a rider. Confusion, fatigue, irritation and an inability to sleep could seriously derail your plans.  But, don’t let that sort of thing put you off too much, The Center for Disease Control website carries plenty of advice on how to tackle the problem. All that’s left to do is to cast those doubts aside and begin the countdown to the road trip of a lifetime.

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Choosing the Right Ride for Your Epic Journey

Data complied by the U.S. Census Bureau and released in its 2012 Statistical Abstract shows a steady increase in the number of people taking up cycling. Apart from a couple of blips in 2005 and 2008, when the number of people cycling declined, cycling has maintained its status as a growth pastime in the United States.

So what happens if you decide that cycling to work, or getting involved with a local club just isn’t enough? What if you decide as Paul Woollams did that you want to go out and see the world on two wheels? How would the average person go about getting kitted out? These are the moments when it’s probably best to seek out the advice of an expert.

Matt McMillan and Ian Venable are both bike builders and avid cyclists who work at Lee’s Cyclery in Fort Collins, Colo.

“I’d recommend a touring specific bike,” says McMillan, “something with a steel frame.”

“Yeah, steel definitely, because it’s stout and it’s repairable,” adds Venable.

The importance of having a steel frame becomes obvious when you realize that even in the most remote areas of the world, there is someone who can fix it.

Next on the list of components that need to be able to hold up to the rigors of multiple environments are the gear sets.

“If it’s a self-supported tour, then you’re going to need to carry a lot of gears, something like a mountain bike rear cassette,” says Venable.

There is also the dilemma of wheel choice; should you go with fashionable 29-inch wheels or something else?

“26-inch is the most common size, they do make touring frames with these wheels,” says McMillan, “add onto this something with a wide range of gears, something that can haul your load.”

It is possible to walk into a bike store and pull something like this straight off the rack, have it tuned up, and then head out on your journey. But how much money are you going to pay for such a bike?

“Probably about $1500,” says McMillan, “maybe a little bit less.” Of course, there is the other option of a customized build at the store.

“You can make it as expensive as you like,” laughs McMillan. “I guess I wouldn’t want to put absolute top of the line stuff on there, because some of that is very specific and not every part of the world is going to have parts available.”

“You’re bound to have mechanical issues, it’s just a matter of time. Something that’s going to be fixable is going to become more desirable.”

So armed with a wallet and desire, what brands should the prospective traveler have in mind?

“Shimano, they’re known for their reliability,” says McMillan, “they are also worldwide.”

There are also multiple versions of steel frames available, so picking the right one is an exercise in weighing up competing variables.

“A frame is not a frame, there are many, many different types of steel out there,” says McMillan.

“There’s Reynolds steel, Columbus steel, Tengay steel, and many more that I don’t even know about.”

The steel itself varies on lightness and strength and so does the price. But McMillan felt that it wasn’t completely necessary to go for the top of the line in frames all the time.

More importantly, you’re going to need some wheels to get yourself on the road. McMillan and Venable both have some suggestions.

“An aluminum alloy wheel is just going to be stronger and lighter than a regular wheel,” says McMillan.

“It’s probably worth spending a little more on the wheels than you would think.”

Venable suggests a particular brand prospective riders should be thinking about, “Shimano XT hubs with Sun Rhyno Lite rims.”

“They are really good value and they are bombproof.”

Surprisingly, you could put all of these separate components together for roughly the same $1500 that you would spend on an off the shelf model. So why bother?

“You would just have much more bike in terms of quality, and it would be personalized to the specifications that you wanted,” states Venable.

So when you get that desire to go a little further than nearly all other riders, get a plan together and make your way down to your local experts for some professional advice. It will pay off in the end.

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Liquor Store Caters to Changing Tastes

In the cavernous retail space occupied by Wilburs Total Beverage in Fort Collins, CO., manager and beer buyer Jeff Matson ponders just exactly how many craft brew brands he has in the store.

“You know, I can’t keep count, it changes every day.” After a period of mental calculation, along with a visual inspection of the endless shelves and coolers, Matson felt semi-confident of the number.

“About 500.”

As a beer buyer, Matson has to have his finger on the pulse of what his clients desire. In Matson’s eyes there’s one product that’s going to blow up over the summer.

“Ciders. Within the last year or so ciders have really been making a comeback. I was buying cider years ago and people were laughing at me. After pounding beer after beer after beer, you have a cider and boom! You’re ready to go back to beer. It’s just a nice cleanser.”

Matson is such a large fan of ciders that he has been steadily cultivating the shelf space that gets devoted to the esteemed apple product. This is of course the tricky part of being a beer buyer, trying to anticipate a whimsical public. Past trends often leave things no clearer either. Last year it was black IPA. This year could be a variation of that, or something completely different.

“It’s funny, things will always come in waves. I remember all these doubles and imperials that were strictly for anniversaries. Then they became the norm, just because we can. Then it was oak ageing, I remember the first bourbon stout I had, now you can get bourbon everything. Of course, we now have the wild ales and the sours.”

It seems that in Fort Collins you can throw a stone in any direction and hit a brewery, a brewpub, or somebody just making homebrew in their garage. Matson felt there was an underlying reason for this explosion.

“It might be because of Odell and New Belgium being from Fort Collins. It’s something that people who grew up here in Fort Collins can claim as their own. Because of them making beer, then people are more likely to try other craft beers.”

However, in setting up the way that his store marketed craft beer Matson had been careful to not alienate the uninitiated either.

“The best selling craft brews I have in the store comes from my ‘mixed six’ area. I got three doors (refrigerator door space) dedicated to just singles. That was one of the first ideas I had for the store.”

In doing so Matson allowed for people to just try a little bit of what the fancied each time, instead of asking people to commit to a whole six pack of something they’d never tried.

“It’s just a great tool to introduce new beers.”

For people who do know what they want, which local brewery does Matson think dominates the market share in store?

“You know, of course, New Belgium. But I tell you what, Odell is creeping,” laughed Matson.

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Urban Education Leader Avoids Modern Administrative Role

Anne Prendergast is a rising star within the ranks of the Chicago Public Schools system. Her ability to engage some of the toughest and most alienated kids in the whole of the U.S. has left Prendergast with the world at her feet. The option to become a principal and run a whole school with her singular vision is right at her fingertips.

But, Prendergast has sidestepped that option and instead chosen to become a Spanish teacher at Westinghouse High School on Chicago’s northwest side. Even though Westinghouse is a selective high school, many would argue that Prendergast, a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, should have gone for a bigger job.

Unfortunately, Prendergast saw the work lives of principals revolving around three very distinct spheres.

“Having to deal with low student attendance, things like students not coming to their school. Lack of parent involvement, trying to think constantly about how to get parents involved, and spending lots of time in the office dealing with budgetary issues.”

The time spent on site was also a concern for Prendergast, “Our school day is from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and I think the principal is there from 7:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. If a regular job is nine-to-five, then it’s definitely longer than that.”

Being stuck inside the office dealing with financial headaches appeared to hold no allure for Prendergast. And why would it? Scrabbling around for donation dollars to make up for budgetary shortfalls is both time consuming and tiring, and within Chicago Public Schools, is left solely to the administration team.

And even then, when the money is in the coffers, mistakes are still made at an administrative level that end up putting the school in a bad position.

“Because there’s so much on a principal’s plate, they’re missing deadlines and time-sensitive grant money has run out and we haven’t spent it yet. That money then gets reabsorbed into some sort of general fund and it’s gone for the rest of the financial year,” said Prendergast.

“I think the other issue is that you have to be really clever about the way that you spend it. I remember Ms. Gurley at Michele Clark High School put teachers in administrative roles, but kept paying them as teachers, because you only get a certain amount of administrator funding. She would be like, ‘I’ll have one less security guard, and I’ll take that money and put it into a teacher fund, and then I’ll call that teacher an administrator,’ you know, you really have to be clever. So, it’s an issue of being smart on both sides. You have to be educationally clever, but you also do need to understand money to some extent.”

Often, this dual job role is beyond the ability of many of the nation’s principals who thought they were just progressing from their role as an educator. In Chicago things are no different.

“I’ve seen a lot of schools that are now shifting their funding to include a business manager, because their principal can’t do it. I think the principal’s realize that, so then they have to find the funds to pay for the business manager. It’s just become such a big part of the job,” said Prendergast.

Prendergast and her partner had even discussed the possibility of her going for an administrator’s license within Chicago Public Schools, but had eventually decided against it.

“All they do is manage angry parents and deal with budgets. Assistant principals are being made to do what principals used to do, and principals just spend every day in crisis-management mode.”

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Government Encroachment and Money Management: America’s Principals Under Pressure

The workload is seemingly endless. The pressure only ever seems to increase. Business models have replaced the pure joy that the vocation used to reward people with. The life of the school principal in modern U.S. teaching has changed drastically over a generation. Not so much that it would be unrecognizable, but enough to start sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of teachers looking for the next rung on their promotion ladder.

“The number one problem that I encounter on a daily basis is the management of the building,” said Penny Stires, principal of Boltz Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Making sure that I have a sub there, if someone is absent, making sure that I have a plan to get that covered. Lunch duty, if teachers are absent you have to make sure that you have it covered.”

Once the kids and teachers are covered, the daily routine begins to heat up in the office.

“Just the flow of the office, making sure parents are tended to in a timely fashion. One of my main responsibilities is answering calls to parents, dealing with their concerns about something that happened in the classroom, or some other problem with their kid that they want to get addressed right away,” said Stiers.

These things manage to fill up 50-55 hours a week of Stires’ time, an average amount according to many principals, but the specter of progress is never far away. And with progress comes extra work. The Colorado Department of Education is always on hand to heap on some extra initiatives for Stires to deal with.

“There are way too many initiatives. There are too many to realistically, and effectively address, way too many. That leaves me attempting to balance the needs and wants of the state, the needs and wants of the district, and the things that I know to be true within the building,” said Stires.

Stires also wondered how the introduction of Colorado SB10-191 was going to affect her workload. The Great Teachers and Leaders Bill as it is also known, has, according to the Colorado Government website, been introduced to deal with an unwanted side effect from teacher tenure. In some cases, teachers gained tenure and then let their standards slip. The website promotes the bill as a way to, “Emphasize that a system to evaluate the effectiveness of licensed personnel is crucial to improving the quality of education in Colorado.”

Stires just saw it as more work, “Every teacher in your building, all over the state, will have to be evaluated every year. That is huge. I like the accountability part of it, but like I said, this is huge.”

Then of course there is the financial aspect to the business of education. The Colorado Department of Education recently announced the per child budget for all of its districts for 2012-13. With some help from the School Finance Act, further swingeing cuts aren’t expected across the board, but the funding will most likely stagnate at 2011-12 levels. 2012 was the lowest dollar amount for state funding of education since 2006. For Stires, the reality was that she was going to receive $1.66 less per student than last year’s under-funded amount.

Stires understood well the financial component to her job, but she had one thing many principals at present don’t. Somebody who understands money better than her to look over the books.

“We have a book keeper and I told her that ‘no class that I took in my undergrad or grad school for education prepared me for managing a $3 million budget.’ We are extremely fortunate here at Poudre School District to have a book keeper and an office manager, who are both trained in the systems that we use for budgeting.”

Even with this sort of professional help, the workload was still enormous.

“We have to get that budget stuff done, this is why we end up working 55 hours a week. If you compromise and do the budget stuff during the day, you’re not going to be an instructional leader. That’s why all the financial stuff waits until after the daily educational duties have been performed. I spend so much time writing grants, something I’d never done before. It’s all about the money and enrollment,” said Stires.

At the other end of the spectrum, the job of preparing graduates to become some of the nations principals falls to people like Donna Cooner at Colorado State University’s STEPP program. Cooner spearheads an instructional team that does its best to ready the participants for  a workload more befitting a politician than an educator.

Cooner reeled of a list of problems that the new principal will run into; the external pressure for student achievement scores, the political environment that education is viewed in, the challenge of the students and the building, and ultimately the stress of how much of your own personal time it will take to run the school.

Cooner, like Stires, also saw the looming cloud of EduBusiness on the horizon.

“Buildings have become more autonomous with their budgets. They are becoming like little businesses where they have to recruit students to their campus in order to get the per student dollar allocation from the state or local government.”

“They have to advertise, they have to figure out what their angle is, they have to figure out what their pitch is going to be for the public. They have to be savvy in things such as PR, and they have to figure out how they are going to be different from the identical school down the block.”

Schools that don’t get with the program quick enough soon find themselves dipping in enrollment, beginning a helter skelter ride to the unfunny house of budget shortfall.

“Principals are expected to know their school-based budgets, and to be able to recruit and publicize in order to bring in new students. It’s a different ball of wax to what it was in the past, you’re expected to do everything,” laughed Cooner.

Cooner also agreed that the endless push for new government initiatives was having a detrimental effect on the day-to-day running of schools.

“It is a concern. When there is grant moneys that come in, it is often tied to purchases that are made for a new program, a new curriculum, new books, and then in five years some new thing comes down and all of it is done away with again. Then consultants come in and that costs money. It’s difficult. The resource issue is huge, it’s back to the budget. But, there’s no training. There’s not even a budget course required in their administrative training.”

“There’s nothing about how to maintain resources over time, long-term planning, strategic planning for budgets. It’s just not something that people are getting trained in,” said Cooner.

Cooner admitted that the program at CSU still doesn’t cater to this financial aspect of administrative training. But, she was upbeat about the exposure STEPP graduates were getting that allowed them to see how much of a money manager they were going to have to be.

“The best way we do it is through their internships. They shadow principals and the see the levels of stress involved before they go into it. They spend all of their internship hours shadowing, and I think that’s the best way for them to get a feel for the job. There isn’t a course in finance that’s required right now, but with new standards from the state there may be in the future,” said Cooner.

Whatever the future holds for Colorado education, one thing appears to be sure. As money for education funding dwindles, it will fall more and more onto the shoulders of already overworked school administrative staff to get creative with budgets. At what cost to the quality of education provided remains to be seen.

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved