Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cheating The System

Does the end justify the means, or does the means determines the end? That is our question tonight as we ponder the cheating scandal at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City.

Of course, all of us who have been through elementary philosophy courses know that the means determines the end. It is funny; we were just discussing this in one of my classes today while reading William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Brutus wants to murder Caesar because he feels his ambition will cause the destruction of Rome. Murder for the good of Rome? I do not see how this could ever turn out well and it doesn’t.

Therefore, this situation at Harvard-Westlake should not turn out positive for the students involved. I am glad the administration at the school took decisive action and expelled six sophomores and suspended a dozen others. A strong statement needs to be made against cheating as well as plagiarism and other forms of intellectual theft.

But who is to blame for these students’ behavior? Do they come from families that teach such immoral acts as acceptable methods to get what one wants? Are the teachers at fault for leaving the tests out where students could access them by causing a distraction? Harvard-Westlake is a wealthy school drawing the top students in the city. Do students of privilege think this shortcut of cheating is somehow owed to them?

Our society encourages kids to get the result. The method is unimportant. These kids see the corruption all around them. Politicians take money from special interest groups. Parents follow less than moral business practices. Even teachers are not immune to bribery and conflict of interest.

The outcome is now more important than the process. No one cares how these kids operate day to day; the only concern is, did they get into the college of their choice? Parents compare notes. Where is your kid going? Some of my seniors are frantically waiting for their letters from colleges. Should they fail to get in, they will immediately appeal. Why? They are in competition with each other.

We put tremendous pressure on these kids to achieve at all costs. We demand As from them, and nothing else matters. Even in sports, parents pressure coaches to play their kids, and fights and threats have resulted when these adults do not get their way.

In a private school such as Harvard-Westlake, I wonder how much favoritism goes on. I remember clearly at my private high school just up the street from the Harvard-Westlake campus, certain students whose parents had more money than everyone else, or held positions in the community or in business, were often given preference. We had actors’ kids in my school. At least one was a full blown alcoholic with a variety of beverages stashed in his locker. Still, it took several violations and infractions before he was expelled. Dad would just come down to the school from the set and write a check. All would be forgiven. Every student knew this, and realized this was not moral behavior on the part of the school. I have not worked at Harvard-Westlake, nor do I know any teachers who work there, but if there was not at least some of this biased behavior going on, they would be the first private school I have ever heard of that did not show some preference for well-heeled students.

We see how celebrities are treated, how many chances they receive when they break the law. We know that checking into rehab is now the excuse for everything from drug addiction to racism.

For some crazy reason, Americans think they are somehow above the law, that the rules do not apply, that “do-overs” are automatic.

At my school, I am regularly asked by parents and students, after the quarter or semester has ended, if there is any “extra credit” a student can do that will repair a low grade. This is after the report card has already been issued.

One of the teachers in my department came to me with a child’s essay. The student wrote a draft which the teacher graded. Unfortunately, the grade was low. The child met with the teacher and they reviewed the draft. He was then sent home to rewrite the paper. When he turned in his final draft, the teacher found the first draft covered in the mother’s handwriting. She had rewritten every line; the child had simply copied her text in a new draft. When the teacher confronted the parent, the mother said she did not understand what all the fuss was about. These are the actions that teach are children that cutting corners is appropriate, or even expected.

Cheating is a fact of life in the classroom. Students are learning about life. They are trying out behaviors, and not all of them will be honorable. That is why a teacher must stay vigilant and when a student behaves immorally, offer a quick remedy and punishment. Parents should be counted on to support this moral education in the classroom, and follow through with proper moral behavior at home.

At a dinner party one night, I heard an acquaintance bemoaning the failing grades his child was receiving at school. In full hearing of the kid, he told the table that he cheated all through school. He could not understand why his kid was so inept that she could not pull this off. He was not, in the least embarrassed by his own admission. When I ran into him a few weeks later, he told me he had discovered a sure-fire solution. He had hired a “tutor,” a college student, to do all of his middle school daughter’s work for her. Now she was getting As, and as far as he was concerned, the problem was solved.

And we wonder why our children cheat?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Goodnight, Dutton's

So Dutton’s Books in Brentwood is closing. All good things must come to an end. I just thought with book shops it would be different.

I have never been to Dutton’s in Brentwood, although when I taught in Santa Monica, I came very close. Now, I will definitely go before the April 30th closing date. For me, though, my heart will always belong to Dutton’s in North Hollywood, a store that closed more than a year ago now. I would prowl its musty, dusty aisles and stacks and find a number of reasonably priced gems to stock my growing shelves at home. North Hollywood is where I purchased my complete Pepys’ diary, circa late 1800s. In fact, from my spot here at my desk I can see at least a hundred volumes I remember purchasing at Dutton’s in NoHo.

When the closing was announced, I went in several times leading up to the last week. The strangest thing was to see the shelves and aisles less crowded. Even after the store closed, there was still some stock around. Some of the shelving units had books stacked three deep. The place finally emptied out a month or so after closing, and now it is supposedly a fitness equipment store. I have no reason to frequent that stretch of Laurel Canyon Boulevard anymore.

Some philosopher once said that we die twice—once when we die physically, and again when everyone who was alive and remembered us dies. Well, Dutton’s lives on. I remember. My book shelves are loaded with Dutton’s books. I will keep the memory alive, and let me just say, Barnes and Noble simply won’t cut it.

I do have a story to tell about not Doug Dutton, the proprietor of the Brentwood store, but his brother, Davis who ran the NoHo location.

I was calling around one day trying to locate a nearly out of print book called The Reporter’s Handbook. According to several sources, it is a must have for serious journalists. None of the chains carried it, and I was not familiar with Amazon at that time. I called Dutton’s and asked if they could order it. They did, and told me it would be in the store within weeks.

When it finally arrived, I went to pick it up and pay for it. At the register, I discovered that the binding had split and separated from the pages. Because it was a special order, and nearly forty dollars, I was very disappointed. I told the clerk as much, and we were soon joined at the counter by Davis Dutton. He examined the book and promised me he would order another.

A week later, I was in the store again to pick up the second copy and I quickly discovered the same problem. Davis again looked at it, examining both copies side by side. He told me that most likely the entire print run was damaged. He told me how to repair the book with a little glue. It seemed simple enough. “Are you a journalist?” he asked me with his intense grey eyes.

“I am trying to freelance,” I replied. “I am actually a high school English teacher.”

“Have you published anything yet?” I told him about a piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times and some book reviews I wrote for The Bloomsbury Review.

“So what are we going to do about this book?” he asked. He stared off into space, and I thought he was computing the discount he would give me on the book. The store employee stared at him expectantly. “Here,” he said after a minute, handing me the book. “Write a good story.” He smiled at me across the counter.

At home later that night, I followed Davis Dutton’s recipe for fixing the book. It worked perfectly, and the book sits on my desk to this day. I only hope that I have managed to write a few good stories for him to keep my end of the bargain.

That will be what is missing when the last Dutton’s shop closes. No high school kid working at Borders will know how to fix a damaged book or encourage a young writer to tell a good story. With any luck, he might be able to point out where the fiction section is.

Los Angeles will miss its literary light, and we will all suffer for its loss.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Of Loss And Living On



Still she haunts me phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes…

Lewis Carroll

Recently, my mother told me she would not be able to see me or speak with me for a while. I did not know what she meant at the time, because my mother is dead, and she said this to me in a dream, but I think I am beginning to understand now.

On January second of 2006, my mother and father went to their friends’ home for a New Year’s celebration. The party was a yearly tradition among friends who had known each other since high school. My mother, a diabetic with multiple sclerosis, had too much to eat—sweets, cakes, candies—and was struggling to breathe. My father took her to the bathroom where he helped her use her inhaler. Her breathing was still labored, so they decided to call it an evening. On her way out, steadying herself with a walker, my mother could not help herself. She grabbed one last candy, or maybe a piece of fudge.

Out on the driveway, in the cool night air, she was unable to climb into the truck with my father’s help. She asked him to wait a moment, and give her some time to catch her breath. “Okay, I can make it now,” she said, and fell over into the passenger seat of the truck.

My father was used to my mother passing out from too much sugar. He simply wanted to get her upright in the seat, belt her in, and take her home, but something about the way she fell over panicked the friends who had gathered around the truck. One ran around to the driver’s side and climbed in. Together, my father on one side, the friend on the other, they tried to raise her. They could not; she was dead weight. And more frightening, she appeared to have stopped breathing.

The paramedics were called, and together with the firemen, they pulled my mother from the truck and worked on her failing body for what must have seemed like hours on the driveway, in the ambulance, and later at the hospital. By the time I arrived, she had been pronounced dead; she had never regained consciousness.

It was not until several weeks after the funeral that I had my first dream of her. She was confused about her death. She claimed to have died of an infection. I could hear her voice, but I did not see her lips move. In fact, I am not sure I saw her at all in the dream; I just knew she was present.

Later on, I would see the corner of her sleeve in a darkened doorway in the middle of the night in my home. I would catch shadows and flashes in darkened rooms. None of this disturbed me. I knew she was around, probably trying to figure out this new existence, this new dimension.

I believe in this other place that she has gone to. It is not the heaven of my Catholic childhood. It is a transition between this life and the next. I have no scientific proof of such a place; I simply feel it beyond a shadow of a doubt. The place is beyond our senses, and can only be accessed in our dreams. The dead do not linger there for long. They transition on to the next life, the next stopping place.

And this is what my mother was trying to tell me. The transition was over. She was moving on, maybe had to move on. All I know is that I must now live without her in this world.

I am a teacher of literature in life, and my students often ask me why poets always write about death and love. Every poem, they say, is about death or love. I know secretly that poetry is written for the young, but is only understood by the old. Poets write about death and love because we all fear death, and wish to be loved. There are other things: work, play, friendship. All of them are important to a rich life. But death and love are the things that keep us up at night. We are afraid no one will ever love us for who we are. We contemplate such a life in a vortex of swirling ghosts and shades of who we once were, a long time ago.

In the end, we must learn to live on without our loved ones. We must hope that others will come to love us, and mean as much to us, as those who have passed over. We must wait for our own ends to come, when others will miss us, and must learn to live on without us.

In the years since the death of my mother, I am struggling to continue on, much more than I will tell anyone. It is my secret. My mother and I never got along very well in life, so I am uneasy with her death, thinking about things said, or left unsaid.

There is anger. If she could have found some measure of self-control, found a way to get her life back on track and defeat her weaknesses, we could have had a chance for a better relationship in the future. She was only sixty-one years old.

And sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I see as if forged in light, her face superimposed on mine. In many ways, I am her twin—diabetes, hypertension, history of obesity. How will I defeat my own demons? If one cannot imagine overcoming an obstacle, what chance is there for victory? Is not some of the anger reserved for her really directed at me?

But she is gone now, and words no longer can be spoken between us. At least not in any coherent fashion. Her words can only float to me in the smoke of a dream. And anger is irrelevant to the dead. In the light of day, all I can do, in the midst of my own journey, is to wish her Godspeed and hope that for once in her tumultuous life, she is at peace.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Undiscovered Country



I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”

Between classes today, I watched a live feed over the internet of Randal Simmons’ funeral. KCAL 9 estimated the crowd at 10,000 mourners. Many news outlets claimed it was the largest funeral in LAPD history. From the first moments as Officer Simmons’ casket was wheeled into the church to the accompaniment of bagpipes, the service was moving and heartfelt.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s speech was clich├ęd, and he tried to inject a little venom into the proceedings by stating that newspapers only report the facts in an obituary, and that the LAPD is not defined by consent decrees and other court documents, referring to recent troubles for the department. He then proceeded to detail how many wounded police officers he had visited in the hospital, and how this was the first time he had to deal with the death of a policeman in the line of duty. I thought his remarks typically focused on him when he should have been comforting the family and the citizens of Los Angeles.

The most moving moments of the day were when his partner, Officer James Hart spoke. He even injected some humor into his tribute. Also, Officer Simmons’ family members spoke of him and his devotion to not only his family and friends, but also his charities and his church. Officer Simmons’ Christianity was a touchstone of nearly every remembrance.

By far, the most intense moment came when his fifteen year old son spoke. I admired the young man’s courage—to be so young, and to stand before 10,000 people and a large television audience and speak about his relationship with his father was truly awe-inspiring.

The sun was setting when the graveside portion of the service ended. From the air, Holy Cross cemetery in Culver City was a sea of navy blue, the streets and roads choked with law enforcement vehicles from around the state. Two ladder trucks from the Los Angeles Fire Department raised their ladders in a salute at the entrance to the cemetery. It was an incredible sight, one I will not forget anytime soon.

I left school around 3:00 PM and stopped by the burned out Rivera home where Officer Simmons and four members of the Rivera family lost their lives. The property is now surrounded by a ten foot chain link fence. Flowers and candles cover a portion of the sidewalk in a makeshift shrine. Inside the fence, debris and burned up furniture litter the lawn. A partially burned washing machine sits in the drive way. The windows and doors are boarded up with plywood. The most startling display is the five crosses planted in what is left of the front lawn. The crosses are labeled with the names of the victims. Nearby sat a news van, and several other cars slowly passed the property.

Death and destruction. The senseless loss of life. What was clear today is that the Simmons family will dearly miss a husband, a father, a brother. The sole surviving Rivera brother is now alone in the world. Others are injured and will carry the emotional and physical scars for the rest of their lives. All of this because of one, deeply disturbed young man. And in the week and one day since the shooting, how many other shootings have occurred across the country? A man kills five at a college in Illinois. A fourteen year old kills a classmate in Oxnard and will be charged with a hate crime, making him eligible for the death penalty.

In a supposedly first world nation, a country that values freedom and has offered countless millions the opportunity for a better life, we have people turning on one another and committing homicide over what? In one case, it was a matter of parking tickets.

Randal Simmons tried to encourage young people from poverty and diminished means to succeed. He tried to offer others messages of hope. According to his fellow officers, he was a beacon, a shining example of self-sacrifice and bravery.

It is up to us to continue to foster humanity, to reach out to others. For Officer Simmons, his calling was his Christianity. His faith was his vehicle to make sense of his own life, and to assist others, especially children, to make sense of their lives. We must find our vehicle—it might be religion, but it could also just be an appreciation of the human experience, what it is that makes us human. We must reach out to people, to what is good and decent inside of them. We must find away to connect. In this age of technology and emptiness, it is our only hope.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Evaluating Eli Broad's Evaluation of Charter Schools



In the February 5, 2008 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Eli Broad, noted philanthropist and home builder, wrote a piece praising the success of charter schools. For the record, charter schools are “public schools that have been exempted from selected state and local regulations.” To me, they represent a hybrid: sort of a public school, kind of like a private school with some bureaucracy attached, although not as much as a regular public school.

According to Broad, “successful charter schools across the country have five key ingredients in common that enable them to improve student achievement.”

One, “successful charters…focus on getting students to achieve to high standards…they offer a rigorous curriculum, assess student progress frequently and regularly use this data to improve instruction.”

Two, administrators “in successful charters are not just effective instructional leaders or master teachers who work closely with their teachers to improve instruction and learning. They are also effective managers of complex school budgets. And unlike many traditional principals, charter principals are empowered to decide whom to hire, whom to fire and how to spend dollars to best meet student needs.”

Third, charter school offices have minimal staff and “rely on the best research-based practices and technology to funnel all available dollars to the classroom.”

Fourth, charter schools use only proven methods for educating kids. “These include creating smaller schools, offering double blocks of math or reading, extending the school day or enforcing a strict dress code.”

“Finally, successful charters hold school leaders accountable for student results. The bottom line: students perform or the schools are closed.”

Broad applies the business model to education. He believes “market forces will pressure neighboring district public schools to improve.” If public schools face stiff competition, teachers will have to improve to stay competitive. In Broad’s view, a little capitalistic competition makes everyone a winner. “Those of us who come from the world of business understand what is at risk if we do not dramatically improve our public schools,” Broad writes.

In Broad’s first point, I hear echoes of Catholic schools. The parochial school system pioneered the “rigorous curriculum.” It is the public school system that watered down what students learn in order to improve performance statistics. If you do not challenge the students, they will not rise to meet the expectations, and therefore will not “achieve to high standards.”

In his second point, logic wins out. It makes good sense to allow the person on the ground to make decisions. No public institution has been successful when led by bureaucracy and red tape. LAUSD is a perfect example: it is simply too big and too overloaded with bureaucrats. What always amazes me is that these people forget what is the heart of the school: the classroom, the teachers, and the students. Teaching and educating are not about principals and business managers and purchasing agents. Those offices should work in support of the classroom. This also connects with Broad’s third point. Eliminate the needless administrators and put their salaries into the classroom. We do not need management; we need the funds we spend on the management salaries to fund classroom equipment, supplies and teachers’ salaries.

As for successful practices in the classroom, devoting more time to instruction with double blocks of teaching is again a no brainer. We need to increase, at the very least, the number of school days per year. We might also do some experimenting with time, too, like starting the school day a bit later. Some of my colleagues have classes at 7:30 in the morning or even earlier. Studies have shown that kids benefit from more sleep. Why can’t school start at 9:00 and end at 4 or 5? Those are the common work day hours in the real world. Why not keep the same hours in the classroom?

The only thing that I disagree with Broad on is his final point. The business model does not work in schools. You cannot teach a kid to a national specification. Yes, floor joists can be regulated. Building materials must be up to code. The city must inspect buildings for safety. But it is very difficult to quality control the human mind.

Often, the success of a teacher and course is not apparent for decades. I shudder to think what might have happened if my teachers were judged by my success level in their classes. I did not experience the fruit of my teachers’ efforts for years. I wish I could go back now and tell them they made a difference. I know what they were trying to do back then, but I needed a few years for my emotional and physical maturity to catch up.

Standardized testing does not fit the bill for assessment. It can reveal some of the teacher’s success, but it is not reliable.

I remember once when I was in third grade and had pneumonia, I missed an entire week of school. This was the week the school administered the grade level standardized tests. When I returned, they allowed me one day to make up a week’s worth of testing. By the afternoon, I was just bubbling in anything. I was so tired, I just wanted to finish the damn thing and go home. A month later, when the school received my results, they called my mother in to give her the unfortunate news that her son was brain damaged, at least according to the results.

Some kids do not test well. There are anomalies in the testing process. A kid could be having a bad day, or recovering from a debilitating disease, or just simply out of energy to pay attention for an extended period of time.

I agree with Broad that there are real ramifications if we do not improve American education. Arguably, the consequences are already apparent. But the solution is not to demonize teachers or test students to death. Go to the school and spend some time there. Are lessons in critical and analytical thinking a daily occurrence? Are teachers creative and innovative? Are students responding? Do the people in the school, teachers, students and administrators, appear to enjoy what they are doing? Are students writing well, reading good books, creating interesting and intriguing science experiments?

If one spends time in a school, the learning should be apparent. There is no magic evaluation or test that will indicate quality control like an inspector at the end of an assembly line. This is human growth and development. It comes in fits and starts, in darkness and in light. It is framed by the Renaissance and the Dark Ages.

Years ago, I watched my wife teach a first grade class in a small Catholic school. The students entered knowing no alphabet or phonics or words. I watched those small people go from colors to shapes to numbers to letters to vowels and consonants to words, and incredibly, around January, to reading. The world bloomed for them. They read. Then they wrote. And by the end of the year, they were picking their own books to read, doing basic addition and subtraction, and drawing pictures. They wrote paragraphs and stories. To me, watching, it was magic. Learning is a gift in the abstract, and therefore, it cannot be adequately measured. It can only be appreciated, fostered, and in the end, whatever the result, it must be celebrated. This is how we should reward learning in America.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Aftermath: More Photos





The Aftermath





School reopened today as scheduled. Students were dressed up according to different genres of music as part of Spirit Week. The neighborhood shooting and the death of Officer Randal Simmons was on everyone's mind.

The streets surrounding the home are still closed. Department of Transportation units are allowing in vehicles with media placards and residents. Otherwise, no one else is admitted. While walking around and taking photographs, I observed a verbal disagreement between a CBS Channel 2 news crew and a resident. Evidently, they had parked in his driveway without permission. The LAPD officers guarding the scene intervened and had the crew move the van. As you can see there is still a large police and fire department presence in the neighborhood as they are still working it as a crime scene.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Incident

Of all the square miles of Los Angeles and its suburbs, I awoke today to find the location of ground zero for a police shootout and my place of employment to be identical. The TV in my bedroom popped on as it usually does at five a.m., and through the haze of sleepiness, I heard the words “Oakdale and Vanowen.” I sat up and stared at the dark and shadowy figures on the screen. All the streets surrounding that intersection were blocked off. Police cars and unmarked vehicles, fire department apparatus and trucks, and several large trailers marked “Command Post” lined the streets.

At five a.m., the details were sketchy: a man barricaded inside his house called 911 last night about nine to say he had killed three members of his own family. Police responded, and when the LAPD SWAT team attempted to gain entrance, two officers were shot. One died at a local hospital; the other was critically wounded. The suspect was still barricaded, and a tactical alert had been called by the police.

I called the vice-principal at home. She in turn called the principal, and we all went into standby mode, waiting to see if we would be allowed onto campus. I began calling fellow teachers to tell them to turn on the news. Clearly from the news helicopter shots, I could see our school. One of the command post trailers was sitting in the intersection right outside the school fence. Los Angeles Department of Transportation units permitted no traffic into the area.

Two hours later, and after a number of phone calls, police and administration officials closed school for today.

By eight a.m., the situation had become clearer. LAPD identified the deceased officer as Randal Simmons, 51, a veteran with twenty-seven years on the force. He had been shot in the neck upon gaining entry to the home in the 19800 block of Welby Way and died at Northridge Hospital about one a.m. this morning.

The second officer was James Veenstra, also 51 and with a similar history in the department as Simmons. He had been shot in the face and was in critical condition but expected to survive.

Two other officers suffered minor wounds.

Police identified the shooter as Edwin Rivera, age twenty. According to police sources he had a rap sheet and some history of mental illness. Neighbors also reported that he was in a gang. His family denied all of this, those that were still living, that is. Rivera killed his father and two brothers in the initial attack that instigated the 911 call. His stepmother made it out alive when police fired tear gas into the home.

Simmons was the first SWAT officer to be killed in the line of duty since the unit’s inception in 1967.

By nine o’clock in the morning, the incident was over. Fire crews battled the flames inside the home ignited by the tear gas canisters. Rivera lay dead in the front yard, shot by an LAPD marksman. Police commandeered our school auditorium to use, according to the Los Angeles Daily News, as a place to question surviving family members of the shooter. The school business manager said that because the neighborhood was evacuated, residents also camped out inside the auditorium.

I know we have a plan in place should something like this occur during school hours. After 9/11, those kinds of plans became commonplace in every workplace, building, school, and high rise. We did not have a solid plan for the timing we were faced with today. We needed a phone tree. Also, the school business manager did not have accurate email addresses for some parents. However, we adapted. The word got out, and for those that did not hear about it, I am sure the police barricades stopped them.

I spent the rest of the day watching news reports and getting caught up on work at home.

The school will reopen tomorrow. Meanwhile, flags will be flown at half-staff for Randal Simmons. This evening, several families are grieving the loss of loved ones, and they are in our thoughts and prayers.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Hungry?



Hungry: Lessons Learned On The Journey From Fat To Thin
By Allen Zadoff
Da Capo Press, $19.95 cloth
ISBN 0-7382-1105-2

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have mentioned it as part of their health care reform packages. Nary a newscast can pass without at least one story about it. HMOs around the country are preoccupied with treating or better yet, preventing it. Obesity is the new priority for the medical community in the United States. With the increasing girth of Americans we also have the peripheral diseases: hypertension and diabetes.

Diet books are a staple of the publishing industry. They come in all shapes and sizes, and offer everything from ways to increase willpower to specific foods to eat to lose weight. The grapefruit diet, anyone? And the writers of these books often become rich and famous, appearing on talk shows and on magazine pages touting their solution to the fat problem.

Allen Zadoff takes a different approach. In his book, Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey From Fat To Thin, Zadoff tells us that it was when he stopped dieting and let go of the pursuit to drop pounds and tried a different approach that he actually lost weight.

“From the time I was a young boy, I loved to eat,” Zadoff begins the book. He loves Devil Dogs, Doritos, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Drakes Coffee Cake; the list is endless.

He divides the book into four parts. The first, “What I Believed on the Way Up the Scale,” details some of the dead ends, missteps, and false ideas Zadoff encountered on his way to more than 300 pounds. “I went on plenty of diets in my life: Weight Watchers, Scarsdale, Slim Fast, Diet Center, Jenny Craig, Medifast. They all worked for a while, but then my willpower failed me.”

His acting teacher later tells him, “You have to find out why you’re eating so much. If you find out why you’re eating, you’ll be able to stop.” So he launches into a search for the root cause of his obseity. That search lasted thirteen years. At the end, he is no closer to a solution. “Through it all,” Zadoff writes, “I clung to my teacher’s idea that knowing why I overeat would set me free.”

For twenty-eight years, Zadoff searches for a cure for his obesity. He characterizes himself as a junkie, like someone stuck in the clutches of heroin. He is an addict.

The breakthrough comes in the third section, but it may not be what the reader expects. Zadoff tells us that there are no magic diets. “You probably want me to give you a diet. More than a diet. You want a magic formula that will solve your problem forever. That’s not what I have to give.” And he is right. This is not your usual diet book.

He uses a stoplight as a food model. He wants readers to write down the foods they cannot handle. These must be foods over which the reader has no control. If she opens the box or bag, she eats the whole thing. There is no possibility of self-control. These are the red light foods. “Now make a list of behaviors around the foods that you can’t handle,” he tells us. This list is labeled Red Behaviors. Next comes a list of foods that sometimes cause problems—yellow light foods. And then there are the foods you can eat, and stop eating, without a hitch—you guessed it, the green light foods.

The red foods are the triggers—therefore you most avoid them. They are the smack to the overeater’s junkie personality. So these red foods are off the table. Period.

Zadoff goes on to say that he eats only three meals a day without snacks. He plans the meals with foods he knows he can handle, and then he sticks to the plan. He also throws away his scale. “When I began my journey toward thin, I bid adieu to the scale. I did not weigh myself before or after I lost weight.” He does not place importance on weigh-ins; a scale is just a tool for him to use, or not use on his journey.

He ends the book by discussing what he knows now, present tense, and what it is like to live this way day to day. I think the most important note about this book is that what Allen Zadoff says is not earth shaking or new. It is a simple equation: an obese person is a food addict and therefore must change his behaviors. An addict cannot continue to take even a little heroin. So a food addict cannot take even a little cake. As someone once told me, it is eat to live not live to eat. Food is fuel, nothing more, and we must maximize the quality of the food to get the most bang for the calorie.

Ultimately, that would be my assessment of this book: he tells us what is common sense, or what we should already know. If you need a reminder, if you need the reaffirmation, then read the book.

To understand why Americans are obese and why this is such a powerful issue, we need to delve into the psyche of the country.

Americans are fat because they have always gotten whatever they wanted. We don’t like to be frustrated in our quest for the perfect life. And what does that perfect life look like: the large, palatial house in the suburbs, the two or three cars in the garage, the big screen TV and surround sound system, the overstocked refrigerator, the bathroom that is the size of a basketball court, the matching walk-in closet, the endless shopping and eating and consuming. Again, I think of Henry David Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.”

We call the generation that lived during and after the Second World War the “greatest generation,” a phrase that became the title of Tom Brokaw’s book about them. They are considered the greatest generation because they fought tyranny and evil and won. They survived. But they also survived shortages and empty store shelves, depressed economic conditions, and, intensely real hardships. Today’s Americans could not survive under such conditions. The scary thing is, with the way the economy is going, they may be facing such conditions in the near future.

We are fat because our lives, in some ways, are too easy. There are too many luxuries, too much excess, too much fat in nearly every corner of American society. We need to readjust our priorities. We need to rethink the things that make our lives complete. It is not the number of things we own, or the amount of food we stuff in our mouths. We do not need huge portions at our restaurants to make us feel as if we got our money’s worth.

If you want to blame it on the war on terror, or the natural course of things, the United States is still suffering. There is a leadership vacuum. The days of the empire may be numbered. We need to realize we are like everybody else. We are no different. We have lived telling ourselves we are the most important people, living in the most important nation, and that we wield the most power. We are the anointed ones in a gilded age. But the woods are burning and it’s time to wake up and smell the smoke.

Here is the reality: human beings all look the same naked. You can tell the American, though. He’ll be the fat one. It is time for us to behave like reasonable human beings instead of mindless, hyperactive consumers of anything and everything we touch.

I agree with Allen Zadoff when he emphasizes that it is not really a diet an obese person embarks upon, but a way of life. There is no going back to the way we were. Let’s introduce a new paradigm in America. Feed the mind instead of the body. Let’s go back to the spiritual, the intellectual, the deeper resonance of home and family, hard work and discipline. Let’s lose some pounds, refocus our lives, and prepare for what’s to come. Let’s be hungry once again.