Mid-week Writing Prompt 1

Need some help getting started with your daily writing? This is your invitation to write with me today. Use the image below to inspire you tell a story, write a poem, a letter, a journal entry.

During the Mid-week Writing Prompt Series I will commit to writing for 30 minutes on each visual prompt. I challenge you to write as long as you can. If you are so inclined, comment on the mid-week writing prompt posts and share your writing with our small community on this blog. I hope there is no pressure to post, though. I only aim to inspire you to write.

Couple at Fireplace

This picture has a lot going on. Certainly we see the couple and their loving embrace. You can see how much the woman in this picture is leaning in for the kiss. This kiss certainly means a lot to her. The man has his arm firmly around her neck and back. Their relationship is clear to read. We have seen similar illustrations of love and affection. Perhaps some of us have been lucky enough to experience this kind of love and connectedness.

Framing the couple is this warm and vibrant fireplace and mantel. There is, indeed, a bright, warm feeling about this photo. What stands out to me every time I read this picture is the clock on the mantel. It reads approximately 12:25. Now, for the sake of my own imagination I am going to assume the clock reads 12:25 AM, because this makes the story in this photo far more interesting doesn’t it?  All of the sudden the intrigue behind this embrace, this kiss, is amplified when we put it in the context of a late night embrace, an after-midnight kiss.

In the dawn of my relationship with Rebekah, now my wife of nearly 15 years, I can clearly remember the exhilaration that absolutely consumed us while we were, perhaps recreating the scene in this photo. Each kiss lasting a millisecond and an eternity all at once. We began dating when Rebekah was still a senior in high school. She came from a family that imposed a strict curfew of midnight on the weekends, and I can remember many Friday and Saturday nights where I wished I could stop time for just one minute more before saying goodnight for good. When I look at this picture, and I assume it is the middle of the night, it is clear to me that time is irrelevant. The couple are suspended in eachother’s arms. No worries, no cares. And isn’t that an amazing thing about love? When we are in love time doesn’t matter. Everything moves quickly, often without us taking notice. When we fall out of love time stands still, we are stuck, immovable for a while.

It has been fifteen years since my wife and I were married and truly set out to forge a life together. That doesn’t seem that long ago, but it seems like a lifetime ago. We were young, immature. But we were madly in love (and we still are). Our inexperience matched with our tenacity helped us blaze a path on an amazing journey that has, to date, led us 1,300 miles from our first home to a new life and new home in Central PA. Did I know 15 years ago that we would be here today? No. And that is what makes every day so exciting.

Repurposed Books

 

I was in a meeting at the library the other day. This particular meeting was held in a boardroom setting and one participant was joing us via WebEX. A laptop was set up at the end of the long boardroom table so that she could see everyone else seated around the table in the room. To get a good angle from the webcam on the laptop the meeting facilitator used a large, outdated reference book as a computer stand to prop the laptop up to the appropriate height. 
I didn’t take a picture of the setup, but I wish I had. As I left the meeting, it struck me that this would make an excellent book idea. I would love to bring together a book of photographs that illustrate how books are repurposed in libraries. You see, on one level there is the sanctity of books that all libraries should promote. Libraries are our storehouses of knowledge. And that knowledge is kept in books. I once heard Gary Paulsen, the renowned author, once say of libraries that “Humans are the first species in the history of the world to store their knowledge and share it with the next generation.” So, each book is a contribution to that knowledge base and each book should be revered as such in a library, right? 

Well, that may be the view of a non-librarian, but on another level I imagine in the heat of a moment when one needs a doorstop, a paperweight, a tire chock, or a laptop stand, he or she might begin to look for the most readily available resource in his or her surroundings. In a library, that might be outdated books.

Now, I am one of those types of people who can not help but stop and rummage through a box of books dumped in the hallway of an academic building with a “free” sign posted above. I will comb through and look for a gem that I will later add to my own library in my office. I am a book addict. I can’t imagine a book of any sort ever loosing its value or utility. But I also know that when I need a quick reference I am automatically searching for information first online. So what do we do with books when they no longer serve as a relevant resource?

How should books be repurposed?

The Agent Teacher

Kara Newhouse posted a story this morning on LNP.com with the headline “District Attorney: Refugee students aren’t getting academic help because they ‘aren’t asking for it'”

The article brings readers up to speed on a lawsuit that has been filed by six refugee students in the Lancaster (PA) School District that claims the school district has unnecessarily denied the platiffs a “meaningful and equal education” each is entitled to under the law.

All six students are enrolled at the Phoenix Academy. I don’t know anything about this school, but I am going to do some research on this matter. Newhouse’s article states that the platiffs’ spokesperson claims the Phoenix Academy is an alternative school for students between 17 and 21 years of age who have not succeeded in the traditional high school in the district. In short, the refugee students a were admitted to an alternative school without first attending the “regular high school” that has a fully funded linguistic and cultural support program.  Why? I don’t know, but I am going to find out.

This leads me to something very important I need to share with all of those new teachers opening their classrooms for the first time this year. Please do not forget that you are an agent for your students. Yes, you are an employee of a school district, but you are also charged with the care of the greatest resource your community has–its children. 

As this latest case out of Lancaster shows, school districts are not always going to be quick to provide support for its students. Support is expensive, and school administrators often complicate things when they see numbers instead of individuals. Teaching is a humane profession that deals directly with human beings. Never lose sight of this. 

If a district is going to require students to ask for support before they can receive it, teach your students how to ask. Tell them and their parents who they need to speak to. And, if necessary, speak on their behalf.

Why My Son Isn’t Voting for Trump (Or, Hillary)


I found this placemat at a vendor’s stand earlier this year when my wife and I attended a homeschooling conference. It was on sale because it will be outdated in January. We bought it so that I could begin to pass down my love of presidential history to my children.

For reasons I can no longer recall, I waited until my senior year to take my required course in world history for my BA at Friends Univeristy. The course was taught by a full-time financial aid representative who worked at the college. He had a MA in History and was working on his doctorate. I admired this professor a great deal because he presented world history in such a way that made the content memorable and lasting.

One of the many things he taught me how to do in this course was to memorize the names of all the kings and queens in the history of the British monarchy. While this may sound like a waste of time, memorizing a country’s leaders in order ultimately reveals important perspectives on the history of that country. So, I memorized all of the names and passed the test on the British Monarchy.  I must have told him how much I enjoyed the opportunity to learn this aspect of history following the exam because he then gave me a new challenge.

“Now, try to memorize the names of every U.S. President.” He said.

So began my interest in presidential history.

I have written some about the power of an invitation in the landscape of teaching and learning. When a teacher invites learners to explore what they don’t know or what they presently can not do, there is a spark of imagination that can grow into a nearly uncontrollable blaze if given oxygen and fuel.

In this case, the oxygen came from my father’s interest in history. From a very early age I can recall my dad always reading a book about a historical figure–of a US president. Throughout my childhood we made trips to historical landmarks, including Dwight D. Eisenhower’s library in Abilene, KS and Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon. Without question, specific experiences rich in presidential history could be found in my life and this was the initial rush of motivation that I needed to take on the task delivered through a simple invitation from a dedicated teacher.

The fuel to keep the fire burning was easily accessible and readily available–books. When I left class that day, high on a new opportunity to learn, I walked to the Friends University Library and found that the library had at least one biography on every US President in the stacks. I printed the list and committed myself to read at least one book about each president–this is a goal I am still working on, but I have made significant progress on this goal in the last five years.

My independent study of these men (yes, the club is all men for now) has shown to me how dynamic the office of the President really is. From its founding the United States has been in some state of formation and reformation. Each leader, for good or ill, has shaped the trajectory of our formation and the rate of our progression toward a “more perfect union.” I have also found a new sense of perspective through this study. As devisive as we feel today (make no mistake the United States is divided quite clearly by ideological, social, racial and economic identities) our current political discourse doesn’t even compare to that of the late 1700s through the 1830s. I mean the country was so bitterly divided at that time that a civil war nearly tore the country apart permanently. And while there are many comparisons to the civil unrest we are experiencing today to the 1960s Some would say we haven’t even begun to see the darkness those in the 1960s lived through when a president, a presidential candidate and prominent civil rights activists were assassinated in the street. At each turn, when the future of the country looked bleak, new leaders have emerged to help the country to heal, connect and build for a better tomorrow.

Back to the placemat.

Since we hung the nearly obsolete presidential placemat on the wall in our dining room I have watched Wyatt, my five-and-half-year-old, looking intently at each picture. Sometimes he asks me to read the names of some of the men pictured on the mat. One time I caught him laughing at one of the pictures.

“What is so funny?” I ask.

“That one (Martin Van Buren). His hair is funny!” He exclaims while continuing to laugh.


I take a closer look, and he is right. Van Buren’s hair is the wildest of the entire bunch.

My reflection is interrupted by another question.

“Who is this, Dad?”

He is pointing to the picture of the 44th President.

“That is Barack Obama. He is our current President.” I say.

“Can we vote for him again?” He asks.

“No.” I said. “He has served the maximum number of years one is allowed to serve as President. In November we will vote for a new President.”

“Hillary or Trump?” He asks.

“That’s right. Hillary or Trump.”

Wyatt thought about this for a moment, looking at the placemat. Then, he said, “I wish we could vote for him (Obama).” He said pointing at his picture. “His hair is the coolest.”


And, in one sentence, I think my son had revealed something quite profound about presidential politics. The hair does matter.

Manly Influences: Part 1

For twelve years or so I have been kicking around the idea of writing a short memoir as a tribute to the many mentors who have helped me shape the person I am today. Chief among these would be my father, Lynn Skillen. But he is only one towering figure in my experience who has given me timely advice or served as role model. And while Dad will certainly have a prominent place in this memoir project, I would like to develop a larger theme in the book on how important we adult men are in the lives of boys and male teens.
Sitting down to write a memoir about relationships is, I believe, a lot like stepping on a scale. If you have done the hard work first, you aren’t too worried about what the number is going to be.  If, however, you have failed on some level to make good decisions about diet and exercise, you may be shocked, saddened or even depressed by what you see in the end.

I have been fortunate, and maybe a little lucky, to have lived a fulfilled life with few regrets thus far. But I imagine that as the profiles of the many pillars in my life unfold in print I will see both points of pride and regret. Regret for missed opportunities. Regrets for fading connections. But what I hope is reveled is that we, all of us, ultimately have a responsibility to one another; that if we are to finally come together we must first rely on one another, trust one another, love one another.


Carl Owen: The Manager at QuikTrip #358

I have always been about my work. Just ask anyone I know. They’ll tell you that I have always been at work. When I was sixteen years old my stepdad brought home a job application from his favorite convenience store, a store he stopped at every morning on his way to work for coffee and cigarettes. That store was, of course, QuikTrip Store #358 at the corner of Ridge Rd and 21st St in Wichita, KS.

QuikTrip is a large convenience store chain in Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas. These aren’t your small scale gas stations with snacks and stale coffee.  QuikTrip is in a category all of its own that prides itself on keeping clean, bright stores stocked with modern conveniences like fresh and frozen foods, large fountain drink stations, many varieties of hot, fresh coffee, and a cafe of hot sandwiches and roller grill treats.

I met Carl right after I completed new employee orientation. I was assigned to his store as a part-time clerk trainee. I don’t remember much about our first meeting, but I imagine it was a short introduction before the business of the store took over. Something that I have never been able to completely comprehend is that a 24 hour service business like QuikTrip never, ever stops. For 365 days a year the lights are on at QuikTrip and the employees are part of a system that keeps every store operational. During the year and a half that I worked at QuickTrip I would often slip into a speculative thought exercise wherein I would imagine the extreme conditions that would force a manager to close a QuickTrip store. As it turns out, beyond armed robbery, which didn’t happen at QuikTrip too often (not a whole lot of cash is on hand at any give moment) the business and operations administrators had procedures in place to keep the cash registers open.

Even in the event of a long power outage, QuikTrip could still take your money. Though the gas pumps would be rendered inoperable in a power outage, and the fountain soda station would cease to work, the computerized cash registers could still work for about 30 minutes on a backup battery.  So, if a store had three registers, there would be 90 minutes of operational energy before the manual receipt pads and old-school credit card machines with imprint plates would be used to sell whatever we had left to sell. I finally arrived at the conclusion that QT would only lock its doors right after the very fabric of society had finally fallen to outright chaos.

So, when I arrived at #358 for the first time I imagine it was late-afternoon in the middle of the week. The store would have had at least a dozen patrons. Carl would have been behind the register and he would have invited me to join him behind the counter. He was a tall man who operated the store from his spot behind the register with absolute confidence. He had a sense of clarity that I envied. It could be felt with the punch of the “cash out” button on the register and punctuated by the slamming of the cash drawer after every brief transaction.

It was here my training began.

QuikTrip had a system every employee had to follow with precision.  When a new clerk clocked in a duty sheet was printed and the clerk had the entire shift to complete these duties. A task that was always on every shift sheet was the “shift walk” which included a number of small tasks to keep the store cleaned and stocked. A clerk was judged on how well, and how quickly, he or she could manage all of these tasks while assisting on the register during busy periods in the store.

Carl, at this time, had worked for the company for about 10 years. He had worked in a variety of stores all around Wichita, ascending the management ladder in a relatively short amount of time. There are many things Carl taught me to make my work at the store easier. But some of the most important lessons he taught were the lessons he lived, and they are the lessons that prevail even today.

“Save your steps.” 

Carl moved with precision. He knew that every minute was precious and every step needs to be made for a specific purpose. I can remember that when I began my job at #358 I ran around twice as much as I needed to. I was a little lost as the layout of the store was still unfamiliar.  In the first month I imagine Carl watched me running around the store quietly sensing the perfect opportunity to show me how I could begin to build efficiency in my workflow. Within a few months I had adopted Carl’s system for running a good shift.

“Do it yourself.”

He was the first “car guy” I knew. Carl was known to drive a full-size Chevrolet pickup truck to work most days.  On the other days he would drive a vintage Camero he was in the process of restoring. I don’t know that I ever saw the finished product, but I could tell Carl took great pride in doing all of the restoration work himself.  This transferred into many aspects of his job he was passionate about. Carl had six employees at his store who could keep the inventory of the store in top shape, but Carl insisted on inventorying and stocking the products he was most passionate about. He developed long-standing relationships with vendors and made it a point to talk with them on a personal level with every visit they made to the store.

One day, there was a pretty big sale on motor oil at the store. He secured a case for himself and set one aside for me. “Take this.” He said.  You’ll be due for an oil change soon, won’t you?”

“Thank you.” I said.  “I usually take my car to the Jiffy Lube for regular oil changes, but it is always good to keep some oil around.”

He looked at me for a moment. “You pay someone to change your oil? Why? it’s easy to do it yourself.”

I thought about it for a moment. “I guess I never learned how to.”

Carl took the opportunity between customers that day to draw a couple of simple diagrams for me on how I could change the oil in my own car (YouTube wouldn’t exist for another six or seven years at this point). About a month later I put my car up on jack stands and completed an oil and oil filter change on my car at a fraction of the price that Jiffy Lube would have charged me. I also felt a sense of accomplishment, and that is something that has stuck with me for quite some time.

These lessons have had a tremendous impact in my life after QuickTrip. There isn’t a day that goes by in which I don’t dwell on the lasting messages and lessons Carl taught me to save time, save money and make the best of every opportunity.

I had a rare opportunity to reconnect with Carl last summer when I was visiting family in Wichita. I stopped at a QuickTrip store to pick up a snack for my kids. Carl was behind the counter, not behind the register, but talking with the manager of this particular store. As it turns out he continues to ascend he company management structure and had been promoted to a regional supervisor a few years earlier.

Through our brief reunion I tried to convey the impact he had on my career and my life. But the meeting was probably far too brief to communicate his influence.

Is Trump the Gonzo Candidate?

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“…why not run an honest freak and turn him loose, on their turf, to show up all the normal candidates for the worthless losers they are and always have been?” –HST “Freak Power in the Rockies” (1970)

As Donald J. Trump accepted the RNC nomination on Thursday night I couldn’t believe at first what my eyes were seeing, but more importantly I could not believe what I was hearing.

Something I don’t broadcast too often is that I am a registered Republican, but I more closely identify with the Libertarian party. I know, let’s try to keep this between you and me. If you are still reading I’ll also point out that I am something of a political agnostic–I really don’t believe in any of them in DC or Harrisburg anymore.  One more disclosure: I follow politics like a casual fan with season tickets to the game. I am no professional in this field, but I enjoy watching it.

I watch and read a lot of political commentary. My Twitter feed is full of posits by political candidates and pundits of all stripes and parties.  The modern political news cycle moves far too fast for me to catch everything, but political storylines are plentiful this day and age, and they serve as a great distraction sometimes. Something I’ve noticed of late is that we don’t really have a political correspondent like the late, great Hunter S. Thompson. I am not a Thompson scholar, but I have read all of his books and I once taught an advanced seminar on his works at Elizabethtown College in 2014. And I have wondered for two years now, as the 2016 campaign has unfolded, what Thompson would say about the political landscape that America now has to consider.

Thompson published the columns he wrote as an embedded journalist during the 1972 presidential campaign in a single volume he titled Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. In this disjointed text Thompson applies the in-the-moment, full-throttle “Gonzo” style journalism to give Rolling Stone readers a front-row seat to the American political process. I say “disjointed” because it is the best word I can use to describe the book. When the columns are published next to one another in sequential order, there is a lack of continuity one might find in a collection of works by Friedman or Kristol. Thompson’s reporting often put himself in the center of the story. The net effect was that the reader felt he or she was there with him in that moment.

As a political figure, Thompson was an irreverent visionary who some say was way ahead of his time. His own bid for the office of Sheriff in Aspen, CO commenced and ended in defeat in 1970. Thompson ran on a Freak Power platform. His plan was to engage a population of dope users, bikers and other marginalized populations to push his unconventional candidacy over the top. In short, he sought the highest office of law enforcement in Aspen by courting a coalition of voters who were most certainly on the other side of the law.

His own campaign in Aspen, and the success of his first major publication Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs caught the attention of Rolling Stone, a magazine that was looking to play a role in engaging the new youth vote in play for the 1972 election after the Twenty-sixth Ammendment to the US Consitituion was enacted–giving 18-year-olds the opportunity to vote for the first time in a national election. Thompson became a political correspondent for the magazine and the rest became history-in-the-making.

Thompson left such a strong imprint on American politics covering the ’72 election that even late in his life political reporters would often ask him for his insight every four years. This was a topic he cared deeply about.  So much so that it has been said by surviving family members that the re-election of George W. Bush was one reason he finally decided to take his own life. Now gone, his influence floats over every political season as life-long fans and admirers, like yours truly, speculate about what he would say if he were still alive today.

In 2014 Marin Cogen of National Journal published an article called “The Gonzo Option” in which Cogen offers a profile of former Montana Democrat Governor Brian Schweitzer. The article introduces Schweitzer to a larger audience and describes him as the “Gonzo” option for the Democrat presidential ticket. Schweitzer is opinionated. He is liberal on some issues; conservative on others. He doesn’t fit the Democrat mold in 2014 (or 2016) because he, among other things, is pro-Second Amendment and boasts an A+ rating from the NRA. While Schweitzer is a seasoned politician, he looks a lot like an unconventional outsider much like Thompson must have appeared in the Apsen election of 1970. As Bernie declared (and it has been recently confirmed through a huge email dump posted on Wikileaks), the fix was in for Hillary, so maybe we will have to wait some time for a Schwietzer candidacy.

Enter Trump. His nationalist campaign message makes blood nearly shoot out Van Jones’s eyes and stirs the hearts of middle-American conservatives (not all conservatives in fly-over country, but most). However, from his acceptance speech at the RNC many see a complex political viewpoint developing. Trump, like Schweitzer, is clearly conservative on some issues and quite liberal on others. Trump, like Thompson, is tapping into the growing sense of so many people who feel the last 8 years have been a disaster for them. They have been, effectively, on the other side looking in. Like it or not; it’s working.

Trump applied an important aspect of Gonzo in his campaign for the RNC nomination. He made the story about him as much as possible. When he wanted to dominate the news cycle he would change a primary acceptance speech into a press conference ensuring that all media outlets would give him ample airtime to set the narrative. When Ted Cruz was speaking at the convention, and it was clear Cruz was not going to endorse the nominee, Trump made a well-timed entrance into the Quicken Loans Arena–inserting himself into Cruz’s speech which had been the top story of the day on the Convention floor an in the press boxes. He is a lightening rod, a sure-shot ratings producer for TV stations and news outlets. Like him or hate him, he has brand recognition and he just steamrolled an established political party as a complete political outsider. He is bombastic, incidiary and improvisational. While predictable, we still listen to him, just as we listen to Schwietzer and read Thompson, because we know he will say something unexpected.

Thompson, as I said, ended up losing his bid for Sherrif in 1970. The vote was close, but he lost. He did, however, help frame one of the greater upsets in the ’72 DNC primary by supporting Geroge McGovern in his work for Rolling Stone, and he is a long-standing American icon who will continue to prevail so long as we subject ourselves to elections every four years.

Is Trump the Gonzo candidate? Maybe he is. If Schweitzer is, as National Journal suggests, then there is a case Trup is too. He and Schweitzer share some similarities, though their backgrounds are quite different. Politically speaking, they both represent a new type of candidate in presidential politics–the unpolished and brash personalities who are not poll tested or beholden to one contemporary political ideology.

Would Thomposon endorse a Trump candidacy? Probably not. Trump’s acceptance speech revitalized the landscape of Fear and Loathing (and paranoia) Thompson railed against in nearly every piece of writing he published throughout the late 60s and 70s. So, Trump would certainly give Thompson plenty to write about today. Trump painted a pretty grim picture of America in his acceptance speech–a scene we haven’t seen since the 60s. To see Thompson’s comparisons of today and the 1960s would be insightful and illuminating. We could, perhaps, learn a great deal about ourselves and the hand we have all played in creating an environment in which Trump is a candidate for President.

What about Hillary? I don’t know if Thompson would support her either. Hunter was quite critical of the Clintons, particularly during the fallout of the Whitewater scandal. He would have plenty to say about the many scandals that have lingered around Mrs. Clinton. Thompson, a well-known harsh critic of Nixon, absolutely loathed cronyism and corruption.

So, it is difficult to say who Thompson would support today.  Many of us in the voting public may be just as conflicted when it comes time to pull the lever for one of the two major candidates.  Of the two party system, Thompson once said, “There’s a terrible danger in voting for the lesser of two evils because the parities can set it up that way.”

To put it another way, Evil is just one election away from the White House. Buckle up, America. We are in for a wild ride.

The Unplugged Summer Continues

These are exciting times for cord cutters. I think the big TV entertainment providers are beginning to get a little nervous because today in the mail I received two unsolicited offers. One from Xfinitity and one from AT&T/DirecTV. Now, I am a customer of both companies, so the solicitations were not completely out of the question, but I see some interesting things happening in the way these companies will begin to do business with the end user in the near future.

For example, Xfinity is trying desperately to lock customers into a long-term contract by bundling Internet, telephone, X1 TV and home automation (read home security). The Xfinity “Quad Play,” as they are calling it, is priced at the promotional rate of $185.00/month, which is where the “Triple Play” (Internet, phone, X1 TV) was priced out a few months ago when I decided to cancel my TV subscription with Xfinity. What is interesting here is that Xfinity is recognizing that customers my age are leaving in droves, and the big media giant has decided their best play is to entice us all back with a sweet “home automation” system. You know what this is? It is nothing more than a hard-wired home security system that would be rendered useless if I ever cut Xfinity off completely. So, there you have it. If anyone takes them up on this offer he or she (or they) will be locked in for at least two years paying roughly $215.00 (or likely more) for a few channels he/she/they actually watch (DVRed most likely), a dialtone he/she/they never use(s), a home security system that will likely never be used, and a reliable internet connection that would cost about a third of what he/she/they is/are paying Xfinity if he/she/they just purchased it as a standalone service.

The offer I received from AT&T/DirecTV was a little more interesting for a cord cutter. Without reading much of the details too closely, my first impression is that AT&T would like to offer two years of DirecTV service (including NFL Sunday Ticket and four premium channels) at $50.00 month. Why is this interesting to cord cutters? DirecTV has a streaming app that works on all mobile devices, and with this DirecTV subscription AT&T customers can enjoy unlimited data to consume all of that DirecTV content. Sure, it’s a two-year agreement, but it is interesting.

If I add up all that I am spending to avoid paying Xfinity over $200.00/month it looks something like this:

  • Telephone and Internet from Xfinity $101.00
  • SlingTV $20
  • HULU $8
  • StarzPlay $9

That is roughly $37.00.  Four only $14 more per month, or $336.00 for the life of the two year contract (or roughly 3 and a half months of X1), I could have access to all that I want to watch through Sling, HULU and Starz plus the entire NFL football season, all four local stations, and three more premium channels.

See, isn’t that interesting?

Unplugged Summer

So, here’s the short version.

One day I opened a bill from the cable company. This month they wanted $213.67.  And what, you might ask, do I get for all of that money?  Well, it depends who you ask.  If you were to ask the cable company they would tell you that I got a top of the line, HD receiver and DVR that can record up to five programs at one time, access to 165 channels that I can watch live, thousands of hours of on-demand programming, mid-grade high-speed internet (and a rental fee for the modem included), dialtone service to my home telephone line (I know. More on this later), access streaming through a number of apps provided both by the cable company and third party provides, and a general sense of belonging (I have been a customer of the cable company for 7 years now). Oh, and I only have one TV in the entire house.

If you were to ask me, I would tell you that the price was beginning to outpace how much I actually used all of these services.  Or, to put it a better way, I think our priorities changed a little.  And this change was going to have a lasting effect on our relationship with the cable company. Basically, I found that we weren’t watching that much live TV anyway.  And what really mattered was that we had a quality connection to the Internet. Beyond that, we noticed nearly all of our viewing time, if it existed at all, had shifted to what we could stream through Amazon Video and what we had recorded on our massive DVR. So, I didn’t believe I was really taking advantage of all the cable company was offering at $213.67. So, I decided to switch it up a little to see if we could save some money.

Pulling the plug was a little difficult for me. Growing up in a rural part of Kansas there was a great divide between those who had cable television installed in their homes and those who did not. My dad was not the kind of guy who was going to shell out the additional expense for another 20 channels in the late 80s and early 90s. Heck for five years we didn’t even have a TV in the home. That all changed when my dad married my stepmom who brought with her a big screen TV and an affinity for HBO.

So, for most of my adult life I have felt that a cable connection to your house meant something.  It was a symbol of achievement and status.  And I had a pretty sweet set up with the cable company.  That huge DVR was quite impressive, and all those channels… But if I had to be honest.  We only ever watched about 12 different channels–four of these were DX, NickJR, Sprout, and Disney. So, I called the cable company and told them we were through.

“Why are you canceling today, sir? Are you switching to Dish or are you streaming?”

“I guess I am streaming.  We’ll want to keep our Internet and our phone line, but I don’t like the new price of the bundle I currently have.”

“I understand, sir.  What if I could authorize your old price of $135.86 for the next 12 months, would that convince you keep your current services?”

I hesitated. Thought for a moment and said, “No, I think that ship has sailed. We’re moving on.”

And so it began.  Our season as cord cutters. So, how do we do it?

Amazon

I like Amazon Prime. Even when the rate hike came a few years ago to $119/year I didn’t even think about canceling.  We shop almost exclusively on Amazon and the free two-day shipping pays for itself in the first month. So, the added benefits of an online streaming library has always been an added bonus. And Amazon gets parents.  They have exclusively distributed a number of great programs for kids.  Our favorites for my 3 and 5 year olds are Annedroids and classic episodes of Reading Rainbow.  And, not to mention, all of the PBS shows we already love are available for limited streaming on Prime.

We stream through a Fire TV set top box.  We have also used a ROKU and Apple TV, but we primarily use the Amazon box because we have so much media that we have purchased through Amazon an this seems like the best way to access this content right now.

Sling TV

If you are into cordcutting then you need to meet Sling. For just $20 you can stream live some of the big channels the cable company will charge you $40 or $60 a month to access.  Of the 25 or so channels we have access to through Sling we watch a lot of HGTV, CNN, ESPN and Disney. There are other channels, including an automated Weather Channel loop, but I justified the monthly subscription saying to myself, “I can afford to pay $5/month per channel that we watch the most.”

So far, Sling has been working quite well for us. It’s on most days in our home and we have never experienced an outage.

Another added benefit that isn’t publicized much about a Sling subscription is that if ESPN is included in your lineup you can also access ESPN on the WatchESPN app. This, of course, opens up so many more viewing opportunities.

MLB.TV

I really enjoy watching baseball. So, I took 1/6 of what I will save annually now that I am not paying for cable TV and bought a subscription to MLB.TV–the premiere streaming experience in all of professional sports.

And, let’s face it. With as long as the baseball season is, this is a small price to pay for countless hours of content streaming for nearly seventh months.  Who has time watch anything else?

 

The Slow Death of the Laptop

I have been told that I live a complicated digital life… Well, maybe that isn’t completely accurate.  Perhaps I should say it like this: I have a complicated digital workflow.  Here is a snapshot of my everyday carry (EDC)–the things I must bring with me everyday to work.

The contents of my briefcase are as follows:

  • iPhone 6
  • iPad Pro 9.7
  • Apple TV (3rd Gen)
  • MacBook Pro (mid-2009)
  • Moleskine Jounal

Each of these tools serve a specific purpose in my life and career.  I am a college professor and my primary job is teaching courses in composition and education methods.  I don’t have a dedicated lab or classroom, so I need to be able to present interactive and multimedia material in a variety of classrooms on campus.  Not all presentation equipment is designed and installed in the same era on my campus so I have always felt that I needed to remain flexible.  I needed to have a variety of tools available to ensure the content of my courses can be seen and heard.

I have owned three different iPads in the short life of this device–an iPad 1st Gen, iPad 2, and now an iPad Pro. I have tried for years to migrate from the laptop to an iPad, but I ultimately arrived at the conclusion that my iPad was a great consumption tool but a horrible creative tool.  So, I carried both for a long, long time it seems.

This all changed very recently that though when my iPad 2 stopped working one day. The battery had died overnight, so I plugged it into a wall outlet hoping it would charge throughout the morning. I had planned on utilizing the device later in the day to read some student responses to a recent writing assignment submitted through Canvas. Instead of charging the device simply remained dark. No response whatsoever. It was a brick.

What to do. I thought, “I don’t need to replace the iPad.” I attempted to talk myself out of buying a new iPad and then I read up on the recently released 12″ iPad Pro and I was sold.

Apple has begun to release devices that work like, or even better, than most laptops. There are many features that I love about this new iPad Pro that have made my entire work flow easier, but a couple of platforms like DropBox and iCloud have made the transfer to primarily using an iPad full time.

The one enhancement Apple brought to the iPad that has made all the difference is the ability to multitask between two apps in a single screen. With this one new ability brought to the iPad, the laptop is dead and my briefcase is a lot lighter.

This summer I have taught two online classes almost exclusively with my new iPad Pro. In my mind this is the ultimate test for the iPad in an educational setting. With this device I have managed two courses in Canvas, developed new content using iMovie, PowerPoint, Word, Excel and Numbers.

VW, The Accountability Movement and the “Unwitting Accomplices”

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates delivered remarks today in a televised press conference regarding the $14.7 Billion VW will pay out in settlements for programming the software of its cars so that it could “pass” an emissions test during annual inspections. 

Yates said, “By duping the regulators, Volkswagen turned nearly half a million American drives into unwitting accomplices in an unprecedented assault on our environment.” 

Strong words from an appointed beurocrat in a government that could be a better example in the area of managing emissions. But I digress.

As I read up on this story about how VW went to great lengths to “deceive” so many people just so it’s cars could pass an arbitrary emissions test, I can’t help but think about the often absurd measures the education systems go to show “growth,” “progress,” and “proficiency” in the era of hyper “accountability.” The massive changes that have occurred in language arts classrooms in the last ten years alone to ensure students perform on state reading tests are quite noticeable and would stand out to anyone visiting a middle school or high school English class today. 

In just 20 years handwriting has been all but illuminated from the curriculum in American schools. Fewer and fewer students are graduating every year without the ability to write (or read) cursive. Novel studies and book reports have been replaced with more cold readings of nonfiction texts through which “text features” are discussed and analyzed under the guise of interpreting the “author’s purpose” for including that graph, this picture, or those tables. A lot of creative writing has been replaced by more expository/augmentative/persuasive writing.  These are, of course, excellent and relevant modes of writing to develop in secondary classrooms, but they are often taught with a regimented, predetermined set of guidelines in an effort that nearly stifles all creativity in the process. 

Band has been replaced with more reading comprehension test prep. Choir has been replaced with more reading comprehension test prep. Art has been replaced with more reading comprehension test prep.

To what end? It is simple. These programming choices schools are nothing more than an attempt to demonstrate that, at the time of the test, students can show they are “literate,” just as VW was trying to demonstrate their cars were “efficient and Eco-friendly.” 

When will school children who have been subjected to the ongoing high stakes testing/accountability insanity find justice?  Will it be said one day that we, the American people who send our children to public schools and pay our property taxes to our local school districts to support this system, are unwitting accomplices in what can only be described as an elaborate assualt on the minds, creativity and success of our children?