Monthly Archives: September 2008

The American Journey of Barack Obama


The winner is…


Thanks to all who entered!


Hachette Book Group has generously given me a copy of The American Journey of Barack Obama from the editors of Life for review. Not only that, but they sent me an extra copy to give away to my blog readers.

This book is absolutely gorgeous. There are many candid photos of Barack Obama in this hardcover book, and a lot of them I had never seen before. I just can’t tell you how beautiful this book is, so here is the official product description:

For decades Americans have turned to LIFE to see, understand, and remember the most important events and people of our time. Just as LIFE once opened up the glittering Kennedy White House, LIFE now focuses its lens on Barack Obama.

The American Journey of Barack Obama covers the candidate from his childhood and adolescence to his time as editor of The Harvard Law Review and his Chicago activist years, culminating with the excitement and fervor of the historic 2008 Democratic National Convention. The unfolding drama of Obama’s life and political career is cinematic in scope, and never has it been presented so compellingly.

In addition to a powerful array of photographs that were taken by many of the country’s greatest photographers (and some that were snapped, in the quiet moments, by Obama family members themselves), this book also includes a Foreword by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, an incisive narrative biography and original essays by some of our finest writers, including Gay Talese, Charles Johnson, Melissa Fay Greene, Andrei Codrescu, Fay Weldon, Richard Norton Smith, Bob Greene and several others.

Many readers will find a new understanding of Obama. All readers will feel that they are bearing witness to a singular, undeniably American story.

If you want a chance at winning this book, comment and tell me why you’re voting for Barack Obama. (US Residents only.)

Winner will be announced on this post Monday, October 13th, 2008, so comment before then!



Filed under books, contest, opinion, politics

Shaking Hands with Aliens

The book I’m reading right now is called An Intimate Understanding of America’s Teenagers, which is descriptive of the contents of the book, but it’s the subtitle I’m particularly fond of – Shaking Hands with Aliens.

The book, by Bruce J. Gevirtzman is a very well rounded look at teenagers from the perspective of the parents, the teachers, and most importantly, the teens themselves. Gevirtzman himself is a very involved English teacher (with 34 years under his belt.) It’s apparent by the contents of this book that understanding teenagers and helping others understand them is an issue very close to his heart.

Each chapter offers great insight from many perspectives and some surprising humor, though it’s not all fun and games. Some of the book, for example the touching personal stories on poor self image, are incredibly heart breaking. This book will help you go where few parents dare to tread – into the mind of your teen. Understanding their language, thoughts and consequent actions will help you guide them through this difficult part of life. I recommend this book to all parents of teens, or parents of older children on the verge of the dreaded teen years.

As an added bonus, here is are TWO articles by the author which I have been granted permission to reprint. The first is immensely valuable and I encourage everyone to read it and take it to heart. The second is more on the humorous side.

Parents and Failure
By Bruce J. Gevirtzman,
Author of An Intimate Understanding of America’s Teenagers: Shaking Hands With Aliens

As September approaches, almost every schoolteacher in America fills with excitement and trepidation. It is, after all, a new year. Like baseball in spring, anything seems possible for a teacher in the fall when it comes to a renewal of spirit: new students, new gimmicks, new courses–and hope does spring eternal. Most good teachers take a mental inventory of what needs to be done to become more successful in their classrooms; unfortunately, however, that usually means having to dwell temporarily on the downside of education.

One major obstacle in a teacher’s quest for instilling academic superiority in her students is parents; after all, every educator knows that the school is a partnership among students, teachers, and parents. This is an unspoken–and sometimes formal–contract. But when parents fail to do their part, the institution breaks down. Students learn less,
teachers percolate with frustration, and precious monetary resources jut into ineffectual directions.

Clearly, most parents meet almost insurmountable challenges and provide laudable support for their kids in their schooling; but too many parents have broken the contracts with their kids and the teachers, thereby aiding and abetting a free fall of the education system in the United States:

1. When Parents Have Been Sitting On Their Tushes
Any subsequent ramifications of an individual’s slothfulness depend on the place of responsibility that person hoists in the first place. Sadly, many American parents–men and women in supreme positions of awesome responsibility–are simply lazy. Not to diminish the sacrifice, hard work, compromise, and exhausting dedication of millions of Americans in their pursuit of parenting, but some mothers and fathers don’t exert themselves too strenuously while tending to the needs of their own children.

2. When Parents Have Children As Children Themselves
Not that younger parents are always the worst parents; this would be an unfair generalization. However, when teenagers bring babies into the world, conditions are not ripe for success. Babies breeding babies reminds us of the amazing speed at which the female body develops and becomes capable of growing life inside; it also reminds us of the blooming immaturity that ensues in adolescence, even if the child has engaged in sexual intercourse and is equipped with fertile eggs. In short, babies having babies sounds ridiculous–and it is.

3. When Parents Put Themselves Before The Needs Of Their Children
An oft-uttered and insanely ludicrous comment of self-reflection, one that has turned out to be nothing short of a narcissistic rationalization for depression and misery, is the following: “Hey, if I’m happy, my kids will be happy! How can my kids be happy, if I’m not happy?”

Parenting requires compromise, sacrifice, and selflessness; furthermore, it mandates the recognition that these qualities are essential. Self-denial, self-absorption, and selfishness have no place in a home where the children’s education has become a top priority. Mom and Dad don’t always get what they want, and sometimes the pain of this realization becomes unbearable. Some kids live in homes inhabited by adults whose names they do not know. Mothers stream in and out new boyfriends and studs faster than their kids learn new letters of the alphabet. When Dad gets a weekend custody visit, he farms off the kids to babysitters or daycare, so he may spend alone time with his new honey (of the week). Sometimes men and women sternly demand that their own kids take a liking to their new love interest and even their new love interest’s siblings! Children whose lives have been torn asunder by death or divorce must now share any remaining love and affection from the remaining parent with a strange adult–whom the children may not even like.

4. When Parents Forsake Good Role-Modeling
Kids watch their parents. If mom and dad have absolutely no self-control, respect for authority, reverence for honesty, or desire for goodness, neither will their children. If mom and dad devalue, ignore, chastise, and deemphasize their children’s schooling, so will their children.


5. When Parents Give Up On Their Children
More than once a parent has trusted their child’s teacher with these emotionally charged words: “I have tried so hard with Johnny! I just don’t know what to do with him anymore!” Translated: I’ve done my best; now, I give up!

In the education arena parents become downtrodden and frustrated all the time–perhaps here more than anywhere else in their children’s lives. How many parents finally surrendered, after looking at that last report card? How many parents finally called it quits, after that last nagging phone call from the teacher or the school’s vice-principal? How many parents threw in the towel, after that last warning from the city police department about their kid’s ditching school? It has become so much less taxing and stressful, so much easier for parents to officially “give up” on school than to continuously bash their heads against a brick wall on the little red schoolhouse.

6. When Parents Don’t Spend Enough Time
Columnist John Leo wrote in U.S. News and World Report, on September 3, 1997, about the critical nature of parenting when it came to a child’s learning. Leo argues that it is not so-called “quality time” that matters most with parents and their children; it is quantity time with his parents that could determine a child’s adult life. In many American homes today we find children as lodgers, filling space, going almost privately about their daily business, sometimes–but sometimes not–under the watchful eyes of a nanny, babysitter, or daycare worker. In these homes kids are not special, growing human beings, small souls who must be loved, nurtured, attended to, and raised appropriately; after all, it requires time for all that singing, storytelling, cuddling, cooing, ball playing, disciplining, and molding. What, with parents both busily off to work or happily tending to their own social lives or stressfully managing the conflicts and tribulations of a mixed-and-matched extended family, just how do they find time to do things with their own kids? The truth, of course, is that these days numerous American children have only one parent due to death, divorce, or a mother never bothering to get married in the first place. The truth, of course, is when it comes to time–actual quantity time–our children wind up with the proverbial short end of the stick.

7. When Parents Don’t Enforce Rules

Kids want rules and boundaries, and they find themselves a lot more comfortable with parents and teachers who paint clear borders and enforce them. Children whose parents compel them to finish their homework and then set a reasonable, consistent bedtime do better in school than kids whose parents deflect these decisions to the kids themselves. Parents who set curfews and punish for violations of those curfews actually do their children a huge favor. Clarity of law, explanation of (occasional) conformity, and enforcement of discipline go a long way toward maintaining a home that will help to foster education excellence in the children.

8. When Parents Don’t Provide Stability and Security
Parental factors that precipitate childhood insecurity–and the ability of children to perform to their potential in school–abound. They are…

* parents who have affairs; adultery, infidelity; dating after divorce or the death of one parent

* alcohol or drug abuse

* domestic violence

* financial woes (to which the children have become privy)

* ill health of one or both parents

* extended visitors (family or acquaintances)

* domestic conflict (constant arguing, use of profanity, verbal threats of divorce)

* frequent changing of residences

* absentee parents

* criminal behavior or imprisonment of one of both parents

Now that so many American homes are headed by men and women who indulge in one or more of the above behaviors, many American school children are feeling unnoticed, unloved, and–what may be worst of all–unprotected. When we mix these with school, the ensuing chemistry is awful.

9. When Parents Aren’t Feeding Their Kids
Parents have the responsibility of making sure their kids are properly nourished. Sometimes students complain they didn’t have time to eat or grab a glass of juice in the morning. But that doesn’t let their parents off the hook. When kids don’t eat right, they don’t do well in school. Every bit of evidence gathered in recent years–as though we really needed any–proclaims the importance of adequate food in a child’s diet and its relationship to student excellence in almost every facet of the education process.

10. When Parents Refuse to Stress The Value Of Getting An Education
Cultural and racial discrepancies in standardized testing and SAT scores have so much less to do with institutionalized racism and so much more to do with blatantly inept parenting; the culture or race is totally irrelevant. My own father, a short, dumpy-looking, white guy from Europe, had been kicked out of school for helping to throw the principal down a flight of stairs; he never finished the 8th grade. But he always refused to allow this failure to block his reverence for the schools and his constant encouragement of my sister and me to do our best in school. Just before I entered high school (the 9th grade), he sat me down, his hairless head shining in the lamplight, and he sternly said, “Listen, Bruce; I want you to remember one thing–something I forgot to do when I was in school. Here it is: When your teacher tells you to do something–and he’s wrong–just remember that the teacher is right.”

My father did not have to convince me of the veracity of his wisdom; he showed it to me almost every day in the glow of his own parenting. Parents who bring education to the forefront in their children’s lives also bring with this emphasis a reverence for dignity, discipline, humility, and integrity. Clearly, these are values that should never be compromised. And when parents reinforce the worth of these ideals by role-modeling them at home and by demonstrating behaviors that support and respect their kids’ institutions of learning, their childre–and our nation–become a whole lot better.

As we get ready for another school year, most parents will remain an asse–not a liability–to their children’s education, but often the students who do the best in school are not, coincidentally, also the winners of the parent lottery.

©2008 Bruce J. Gevirtzman

Author Bio
Bruce J. Gevirtzman is a high school English teacher who has also, for 34 years, served simultaneously as a sports and debate coach. Also chief playwright for Phantom Projects, an acclaimed youth theatre group that has performed across several western states, Gevirtzman has authored and directed more than 30 stage productions. He has been featured on NBC and PBS, and in the Los Angeles Times. Gevirtzman runs educator workshops focused on teen issues.

And here is the second one:

The iPod
By Bruce J. Gevirtzman,
Author of An Intimate Understanding of America’s Teenagers: Shaking Hands With Aliens

He strolled into the room and quietly laid his books on a desk. Class would begin in about three minutes; soon the teacher would be droning on about something utterly irrelevant to his life. Entirely removed from his surroundings, the small plastic gadgets in his ears piped in the words that resounded repeatedly in his head, chorusing the ideas that he has heard about sex and violence and crime — and women. Vulgarities and obscenities that had always been forbidden in mainstream American media were now a daily part of his life — a ritual — since he was six years old.

He could play that rap refrain in his brain without the assistance of an iPod, one of the most popular play toys known to post-9/11 teenagers. But the iPod somehow gave him power. The iPod increased his status. He had become the latest of the Boomers’ grandchildren to use a technology the Boomers had only dreamed of: music you choose, music you take with you, music you listen to at your whim! American high schools and middle schools, however, have not joined the hippest of all music generations in promoting the iPod craze; very few school officials condone them, allow them, or use them. The acceptance of iPods in American secondary schools has grown tantamount to the acceptance of the small transistor radios of the 1960s, when kids snuck them into schools in order to hear the World Series (played during the daytime back then). Those radios existed — they were certainly there — but most school officials simply shrugged their shoulders in a quasi acceptance of the new technology of the time. It had become the old, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. And was listening to the World Series — America’s Pastime, after all — really that bad?

As a teacher, I loathe the use of iPods at school for three main reasons:

1. They disrupt the kids’ concentration. Students should be thinking about what’s happening at school — ideas about algebra, government, and Whitman — not Snoop Dog’s latest bout in jail or Eminem’s most recent confrontation with guns and cops. At the very least, they should be looking at the school’s “Vision Statement” — no one can figure out its significance — that is plastered on the walls of every classroom.

2. They lose them. Bureaucratic nightmares over lost iPods tend to thwart the benefits of being ever-connected to the woes of young convicts who lament about their bitches standing them up and their homies talking shit to them.

3. They scare me. Not literally frighten, but just knowing — or having a good idea — what is being heard in those earphones at any precise moment is enough to rattle my nerves. I might try denying my most subjective assumptions and pretend as though my students were listening to the Righteous Brothers, but I have a feeling I won’t be fooling myself for long.

Okay. I’m probably battering around too severely the presence of portable music devices. After all, we’ve all used them at one time or another; in fact, when I go to the gym, I wear a headset while working out. True, I listen to am radio talk shows that would bore the ever-lovin’ tears out of most teens; and, true, a huge antenna juts in the air off the front of the headset making me look like a Martian — but I do wear a headset. I’ve told my students that while they’re in my classroom, they’re not allowed to even show me an iPod (or other such contraption) before, after, or during class, unless it has one of those pointy antennas.

Naturally, they laugh. But I’m serious.

The newest technology has been both a boon and a bust for modern educators. Seeming to compromise the effectiveness of educators, some of the most modern advances have presented thorny challenges. Technology has always presented an enigma, a whole series of contradictions, paradoxes, and hypocrisies: for example, one of the most amazing advances of modern man has been the invention of the automobile. Who can imagine today’s world without cars? Besides pleasure transportation, the entire economy now depends on materials being transported by vehicles on wheels; yet, a couple million Americans have been killed in automobile crashes since the early 1900s. In the last decade, 10,000 more teens died in the United States in car crashes than members of the military who died during the entire 10 years of the Vietnam War.

On a micro level, consider modern teenagers: I’ve thought really hard about this, and I can’t remember too many advances in pop culture technology — except for television, of course — that had affected teenagers prior to the advent of VHS and CD players. The needle on the record player served my generation just fine, but in the late seventies the old needle-driven Victrola began to wane with the arrival of the new eight-track tape systems. From this time forward, technology — especially related to the media and communication — has sped at such a breathtaking pace, many other old codgers haven’t caught up either.

And when writing about the iPod — or merely discussing it with fellow teachers — that is exactly what I feel like: an old codger.

My students laugh at me when I tell them my views on music technology. Back in the seventies, when stereo first became a big deal, I had said, “Hmm . . . I’m not sure if I like that sound.” “Why?” The seventies kids had asked incredulously. “Well, there’s something to be said for music that filters through only one speaker. The sound is more solid, fuller; in fact, for my old doo-wop records, I like the scratchy sound the record player produces. Without the scratchy sound, it just wouldn’t be the same.” Which, of course, was the point for these kids. They didn’t want it to be the same! The same was out. Stereophonic music bellowed all over the school. In those days, if you weren’t “stereo,” you were a total geek; homosexuals in the Marine Corps received nicer treatment.

As the modern machines sounded truly better, my arguments for the old mono sounds echoed hollow. I could no longer justify not using at least an eight-track tape player; I even bought a car, a brand new Mercury Cougar, with an eight-track! How I beamed with self-assigned coolness every time I inserted one of those oversized tapes into the huge insert slot near the bottom of the tape deck! My semimastery of modern music technology gave me my hippest moments as a high school teacher; after all, I was using their machines to play my music! And what could be hipper than that? Some of my students — who then were not much younger than I — even liked the same musicians: Gordon Lightfoot, Dan Fogelberg, and Cat Stevens. We not only shared in the technology for playing the music, we had the same tastes in music, as well! What a glorious time!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up: not with music, not with technology, and not with teenagers’ voracious appetites for new things. They rapidly progressed from the tape deck to the CD player’s multisystem sounds world, while I still tinkered with my record player, hoping I could catch Radio Shack at just the right time for a new needle; unfortunately, Radio Shack stopped storing those needles, and I once again was left behind in the technology boom.

Maybe that’s been the source of my hostility toward the iPod. I don’t know how to put the music on the dang thing to begin with, let alone play it when I go to the gym! While I’m with my wife and kids, listening to an iPod would be a definite no-no. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I am definitely an old dog.

And these are definitely new tricks.

©2008 Bruce J. Gevirtzman


Filed under books, culture, helpful hints, kids, opinion

Hispanic Heritage Month Muchos Books Giveaway!


Using to generate a list of 5 winners, I am pleased to announce the following will receive the eight Hispanic Heritage books from Hachette Book Group!

Pamela White
Charlene Kuser
Linda Pinto

CONGRATULATIONS! Thanks to all who entered and to those who did not win this time, I wish you buena suerte for next time. Stay tuned to this blog for more book giveaways and contests!


You are some lucky, lucky readers. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I have another contest to offer and the prize is EIGHT BOOKS. Not only that, but there will be FIVE winners this time. Your chances of winning and getting this awesome prize are pretty high. I am so excited for you guys and a huge thank you to Hachette Book Group for allowing me to host this generous giveaway!

The prize includes the following eight books:

1. Dream in Color By Linda Sánchez, Loretta Sánchez
2. Gunmetal Black By Daniel Serrano
3. The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters By Lorraine López
4. Bless Me, Ultima By Rudolfo Anaya
5. Brownsville By Oscar Casares
6. The Hummingbird’s Daughter By Luis Urrea
7. The General and the Jaguar By Eileen Welsome
8. Tomorrow They Will Kiss By Eduardo Santiago

If you like cultural fiction and non-fiction this is pretty sweet!

Here is how you enter:

1. You must be living in the US or Canada (sorry, international friends!)
2. You must be able to provide me with a mailing address if you win. (No P.O. Boxes!)
3. You must use a valid E-mail address when you comment (otherwise I won’t be able to contact you!)
4. Leave a comment on this post telling me one of your favorite things about Hispanic culture – it can be a dance, a word, a type of music, a food, a tradition, type of clothing, a vacation spot, etc. There are no wrong answers.
5. All comments must be received before midnight EST on Sunday, September 28th, 2008. Five winners will be chosen randomly and announced here on Monday, September 29th, 2008. Winners will also be notified via E-mail.

Buena suerte! (Good luck!)


Filed under books, contest, culture

Measure of the Heart

A study done earlier this year revealed that one in six women and one in ten men are at risk for developing Alzheimer’s. That leaves a lot of people looking at years of potentially caring for a parent who suffers the frustration that comes with dementia. Many of us will deal with the painful journey of becoming a “parent to our parent”.

In Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzeimer’s, a Daughter’s Return by Mary Ellen Geist, we follow Mary who leaves her job as a CBS radio anchor and returns home to Michigan to help her mother care for her father. The book is honest, heartwarming, and her journey will resonate with the millions of Americans who are facing the same obstacles.

Geist not only shares her touching story, but gives practical advice on how to make it through. This is a must read for anyone facing the challenge of caring for an aging parent.

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Filed under books, health, opinion

The Book of Calamities

The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning by Peter Trachtenberg explores the nature of things such as adversity, hurt, loss, illness, and death to find the lessons (if any) that humans take away from them.

As the author points out in the Introduction, “Everybody suffers, but Americans have the peculiar delusion that they’re exempt from suffering.” … Maybe that is why it is harder on us when it does come.

Trachtenberg masterfully weaves together his own philosophical as well as personal questions with great stories from fiction and real life. It’s a heavy read, but well written.

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Filed under books, opinion