Monthly Archives: January 2003

When I went to the

When I went to the CSNY concert last year, I could see even from afar that time is not a healer. Crosby, Stills, and Nash stood there, hair receding, grey beards, tummers hanging over belts, looking their ages and compensating for their lost power with new arrangements and limited choreography. Neil Young is in better shape, but no spring chicken. It was wonderful to hear them, especially Neil Young, who I think is a true genius, but it was somewhat depressing at the same time. Where have all the flowers gone? For me, it felt like what a man must feel looking at Judy Collins as a grandmother.

But have you seen Mick Jagger up close lately? I went to the Rolling Stones concert last week, and I was amazed by how this sexagenarian (let’s see, he’s sixty, but more than that he’s sexy) can still make all the moves. Admittedly, almost anyone can get up on a stage these days and look good with a twenty-foot projection screen behind him, an arena sound system, and a million digitally colored lights, but the only way you can tell how old Jagger (or Keith Richardson for that matter) is, is by getting a closeup of the time-stamped faces. Mick’s face shows every drug he ever ingested, every night he didn’t sleep, every woman he ever mesmerized. His body, however, is as lithe and agile as ever, and he doesn’t appear to be short of breath during an hour and a half of jumping around and singing his lungs out. Neither does Keith, who still smokes onstage. How come they don’t have chronic back pain, asthma, arthritis, heart palpitations, or any of the other stuff that makes doctors’ offices overflow with people of their generation?

The Rolling Stones epitomize people of my generation, who were brought up with a work ethic that defines a person by what he does rather than who he is, and who therefore won’t be pushed into retirement. We didn’t save enough for retirement because secretly we don’t want to retire. Retirement isn’t a stage you reach with pride if you’re a Boomer. It’s an admission of defeat: I can’t make the moves anymore.When you retire, you lose your power (see “About Schmidt”). Mick and Keith don’t need the money, but they do need the currency. If they retired, they wouldn’t get anymore girls.

Never mind. Forget I wrote all that. The next night I went to see “Shakira,” this century’s belly-dancing answer to Madonna. I have now revised my opinion. Compared to Shakira, Mick Jagger looks like he’s in a wheelchair.

Shakira works very hard on stage, while singing in two languages. She also writes her songs and produces her shows. She has a huge mop of blonde hair that she uses like a weapon–she shakes it around, throws it at you, flings it back…I wonder how her cervical discs will be in twenty years.

She also got up on a huge crane and was lifted over the audience at American West Arena during the finale of her show. Singing and dancing away in mid-air, she appeared fearless and triumphant –the modern Latina.

Music is always an indicator of the state of the culture. The past twenty years were about rap. The next twenty will be about Latin sounds: salsa, mambo, and all the signs that America is no longer white anglo-saxon protestant, but a true multi-lingual, multicultural society. It’s not like when the last century’s immigrants landed at Ellis Island, desperately trying to learn English, embarrassed by Italian and German accents.

We’re not a melting pot — a goulash — where all the ingredients blend together. We’re more like a bouillabaise, where each little shellfish keeps its shape and identity while contributing its own flavor to the dish.

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By the time the Sundance

By the time the Sundance Film Festival was over, I was rejuvenated enough to understand why people went to so many movies during the Depression. What a fantastic escape. By Sunday, I had no clue what my problems were. I know the Festival is over-commercialized, and that the presence of all the celebs is a distraction from the Indie film atmosphere, but once the lights go down you forget whether you are seeing an indie film or a studio film: the only thing that matters is if the film itself is engaging.

On that score, Sundance had everything from soup to nuts. There’s a real difference between the films that win prizes at Sundance and those that do not. The last two films I saw, “Thirteen” and “Capturing the Friedmans”, were head and shoulders above even the movies I had previously liked the best. “Thirteen” was about a thirteen-year-old girl from a rather loving and caring family who befriends the sexiest girl in the middle school. The plot was about the peer pressure girls this age exert on one another, how powerful it can be, and what incredible cruelty these innocent looking kids are capable of. At the end, I felt as though it would be impossible to have a child in middle school today; I thought it was difficult fifteen years ago, but the drugs have gotten more deadly, the crimes more heinous, and the family less influential than when I was bringing up my own children. These kids sniff glue, smoke pot, drink beer, have sex with strangers, shoplift, sell drugs to each other, pierce their bodies, tattoo themselves, lie to their parents, betray each other, –all without understanding what they are doing or what it means in “real life.”

“Thirteen” made me look at Jerry and Amanda, my foster kids, and see that they haven’t turned out badly at all, given all the givens.

“Capturing the Friedmans” is a documentary about a family torn apart when the father is accused of molesting children in the afterschool computer class he teaches. It deals with several big themes: trust, truth, love, and loss. It also deals with the role of government in our lives, and with the role of media. Arnold Friedman, computer teacher of the year, orders some child porn through the mail. The FBI starts a file on him, and later his house is searched and he is forced to confess to being a fan of kiddie porn. He is then assumed to be a pedophile, and to have molested every child he ever came in contact with. One of this three sons, the youngest, is accused alongside Arnold because he helped out in the after school class. While the three sons stick by their father, the mother is disgusted and unable to deal with the social stigma attached to Arnold’s alleged crimes. Between the police, the investigators, and the media, the case spirals down (or accelerates up) to something that could probably never have happened.

Arnold, the consummate father, kills himself in prison, but not before he takes out a $250,000 insurance policy on his life and makes his youngest son the beneficiary. The insurance money allows Jesse to start over in life after serving a six year prison sentence for something he definitely didn’t do, and his father probably didn’t do either. Arnold’s act was the last desperate move on the part of this former model citizen on behalf of his family. The case was being tried at the same time the McMartin pre-school case was in the news, so the Friedmans didn’t have a chance.So sad.

Let’s talk for a minute about the jury’s perspective on these films. This year’s dramatic jury consisted of Steve Buscemi, Emanuel Levy, David O. Russell, Tilda Swinton, and Forest Whitaker. (It’s always three actors, a professor/critic and a director.) I believe “Thirteen” won the Dramatic Director’s award because it is so incredibly difficult to coax convincing performances out of young actresses, and also because the film had hundreds of scenes that had to be set up and taken down, making the film a project management nightmare. “Capturing the Friedmans” won the Documentary Grand Prize, I believe, because it interwove Friedman family videos, news footage, and current interviews so masterfully.

Now that I’m home, I realize how much I’ve learned from Sundance, just by attending.

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The best part of Sundance

The best part of Sundance has been the Qs and As at the end of the films, where you get to ask these directors how the hell they ever came up with these ideas and what it cost them to make the movie. At “What Alice Found,” I learned that the director made the film in DV because it allowed him to get easily into tight spaces such as the cabs of semis and the living rooms of RVs. That, by the way, was a cool film about a middle-aged couple in an RV who pay the bills by selling the woman’s services to guys at truck stops. The guy is retired from the army, and the woman has paid the price to escape from Paducah, Kentucky. Along the way, they meet a girl named Alice, who is on her way from Conway, New Hampshire to Florida because she’s hjealous of a friend who is going to the Universityof Miami to college. Alice has robbed the safe of the supermarket where she works and begun a road trip to Florida, but she’s soon stymied by the fact that her old car has blown an engine. The couple picks her up and she gradually learns to be a high-priced whore, along with all the ethical conflicts that attend the world’s oldest profession. If you get to see this film, please do, because it is highly original. Judith Ivey gives a terrific performance as the “whore with the heart of gold” who educates Alice.

At “Raising Victor Vargas,” I saw a director who cast his movie by putting up flyers in the New York City public schools and hiring friends and relatives of people already in the cast. This film, which has been picked up by Samuel Goldwyn (who was himself at the opening) is about a sixteen year old Dominican boy and his brother and sister, who are being brought up by their grandmother, and their forays into young love. It’s touching and funny, and the “star,” Victor Ruzak, gives a marvelous performance, second only to his grandmother, played by Altagracia Guzman — not a professional actor. The director told us that he scripted the movie completely, and then didn’t share the script with the cast in advance. This gave the young actors a chance to improvise, and to be present in their characters every day on the set. You can tell it’s improvised by the dialogue, which is rich in trash talk characteristic of teen-age boys: “hey niggah, wassup motherfucker.” More poetic than you would expect.

The third film of the day was “Levity,” a blockbuster by Sundance standards because it had about $5 million in funding and a cast that included Kirsten Dunst, Holly Hunger, Morgan Freeman and the incredible Billy Bob Thornton. Again, a wild story about a man who, as a youth, murdered a convenience store clerk in a robbery, and is released from prison after serving twenty-two years of a life sentence. Still carrying the guilt, Manuel Jordan (Thornton) goes back to his old neighborhood and looks up the sister of the boy he murdered. He is seeking forgiveness and redemption, although he believes both are really impossible. It’s an uneven film that will be very popular at the box office, although I found a lot of it trite and predictable. It was filmed in Montreal; you would be surprised at the influence of Canada and Canadian filmmakers at Sundance. There’s big film talent in Toronto, at least, because the Canadian government supports and funds film.

So after all these days of seeing movies, we still did not see any of the films that won prizes last night. The big prize went to “American Splendor.” Today we will see a couple of the other prizewinners: “Capturing the Friedmans,” which won the documentary prize, and “Thirteen,” which won the Directing prize. Just goes to show that you can’t even get a taste of the Festival by seeing “only” four films a day.

Here’s an observation: one of the other prizes was won by “Flesh and Blood,” a film about a woman who takes in kids with special needs. If there was one theme that ran through the festival (in my mind, anyway,) it was the theme of dysfunctional families, non-existent families, families in trouble. Seems to be on everyone’s mind…

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I have come to the

I have come to the conclusion that the documentaries at Sundance are of higher caliber than the dramatic features. I have also come to the conclusion that anything that’s been through the Sundance script workshop sucks. We saw “Dopamine” last night. It’s about Rand(John Livingston), a computer animation specialist whose mother has Alzheimer’s, and whose father has therefore researched the neurological and hormonal causes of all emotions. Love, apparently, comes from a secretion of pheramones that releases dopamine in the other person. Who cares? Rand is developing an animated character, Koy Koy, that can feel emotions. When he falls in love, he decides also to develop a mate for Koy Koy even though it’s not in the business plan of the company he works for.I See what I mean? understand how difficult it is to write a film that explains the science of an emotion, and I applaud the writer for trying, but I am here to tell you that one also must develop characters and advance a logical plot to keep the audience’s interest.

The best part of the evening was going to a condo in Park City where, at a small private party, I met Paul Vachier, someone I’ve been reading on the noend list for years, and Russ Klein, another list member who has actually started a multimedia empire of gay pornography. He showed me a series of temporary tattoos, paper doll-like refrigerator magnets of nude men with various outfits to dress them in, a DVD movie called “The House of Morecock,” and a new magazine, “Xodus.” I found all this amazingly clever, and I wonder if it’s possible to develop such an empire outside the world of gay porn.

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We didn’t get into “Pieces

We didn’t get into “Pieces of April,” but it’s been sold to a distributor and we’ll see it in theatres. So we went to the Sundance Digital Center, where we played with all the new equipment available to filmmakers. For about $10,000 anyone can get a SONY digital camcorder that’s almost professional, and a Sony Vaio multimedia PC system with Avid editing software. Then all you have to have is talent. For most film people, using the software is a new skill; for someone familiar with software and technology, it looked pretty simple.

I can’t believe the studio system hasn’t already gone away. Certainly it will, as for most dramatic and documentary films anyway it is a fantastic waste of money. We participated in a panel about the making of “Pieces of April,” which was financed by a company called Indigent Productions– the company that made “Tadpole” and “Personal Velocity,” two hits from last year’s Sundance. The film, one of the most talked about at the Festival, was shot on digital video in two weeks. It had a scaled down crew, and the cast took backend participation. The financier, Micah Green of ICF, said that with the Indigent model, actors and actresses actually get checks from their backend participation (as opposed to most studio films, in which their is no backend — it’s eaten up in expenses.) This seemed to him like some sort of New Age miracle.

Historically, “backend participation” in Hollywood is a way producers have of taking advantage of talent. To me, the new model is similar to that of tech startups, in which people always accept lower salaries in return for options. When I asked Micah if this was analogous in his mind, he said it wasn’t, because most technology company stock becomes worthless as the companies go out of business before the stock becomes valuable. His view is pretty jaundiced about tech companies. I told him he was wrong; another woman in the audience burst out laughing and said she had put her kids through college and bought a house with her stock options. As a matter of fact, the most money I ever lost was investing in a film deal. Most films don’t even get finished, let alone sold, let alone seen by enough people to make them profitable.

This, to me, is just another example of how Hollywood and Silicon Valley don’t talk and don’t understand each other. Everything Indigent said about its model was familiar to me, a woman who has never made a movie. The panelists spoke bravely about how the line producer called in favors to get catering at lower cost; I don’t think they realized how lean and mean most businesses must operate.

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I finally saw it: the

I finally saw it: the film a festival like Sundance is supposed to be about. Of course there are 230 films here, and I only get to see 20, so I get just a taste of what’s really available, but “All the Real Girls” typified Sundance for me. It was written and directed by David Gordon Green, who looked as if he were about seventeen. And it was about the lives of high school graduates in a North Carolina mill town. It was about first love. And it was the most beautiful, emotional, lyrical film I have seen in either of my trips to Sundance. The film started slowly, with the boy and girl staring at each other, and the girl asking the boy why he has never kissed her. He tells her it’s because he’s her brother’s best friend, and she asks him to kiss her on the hand. The kiss takes forever to execute, and it’s only later that we learn the complex thoughts that must have been going through his mind: “this is Tip’s sister.” “I’ve screwed 26 other girls, why not her.” “What’s she really asking?” He has a real problem deciding between the girl and his best friend. He has another problem: he’s not fully separated from his mother yet. This first love will turn him from a boy who puts his head in his mother’s lap and does her bidding to a man who can have a serious conversation with her about his future.

All the characters in this film are slow thinkers and slow talkers. It’s not that they’re not smart; it’s that they’re not quick. On screen, we’re used to quick. But, as Green suggests, that’s not everybody. And it may not be how we fall in love. Or how we fall out of love. Especially when we’re young.

In the Q&A after the film, I heard Green say that his object was to make a film about young love that did not have the familiar setups and payoffs we usually associate with teen movies. In fact, “All the Real Girls,” except for a couple of conversations about women among the boys, looks absolutely *nothing* like a teen movie. When it’s over, you realize that it has been so powerful that the characters are engraved on your sensibility, and you wish things would turn out a little better for them in the future. Both the lovers and the friends around them grow up and mature through this first love, and as you can guess, it can’t last.

One negative comment: all the male characters looked too old to be playing seventeen-year-olds. Put that out of your mind, and this film rocks.

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Frances MacDormand can certainly get

Frances MacDormand can certainly get into some unusual situations. In “Laurel Canyon,” she plays a famous record producer, a child of the ’60s, who has somehow produced a son who became a doctor. This son does not understand her values, and is embarrassed by her when he brings his girlfriend home. The girlfriend (Kate Beckinsale), an M.D. working on a Ph.D. in the reproductive genomics of the fruitfly, becomes quite curious about the mother’s lifestyle, which includes weed, booze, music, and sex in the swimming pool of the Laurel Canyon home at which they’re all temporarily staying. Her curiosity becomes strong enough to provoke a sex scene between mom, mom’s younger rock musician boyfriend, and son’s girlfriend. Have you ever heard this line uttered by a mother in a movie before: “I’m just not going to screw my son’s girlfriend. There’s a place to draw the line..” or words to that effect. Thanks, mom.

Interestingly enough, the first comment from the audience at the end of “Love and Diane” was from a man who said he was disappointed that the film depicted family dysfunction and drug addiction as only the province of the lower classes. I hope he was at “Laurel Canyon” to see that at least one movie extends dysfunction way up the socioeconomic scale.

The film’s about the expansion of horizons and the clash of values. MacDormand looks great: vibrant, intelligent, cynical, and sexy. Unfortunately, the screenplay is not as good as she is, nor are the two young actors she plays against. It’s pretty slick, commercial, and predictable, which is sad since Lisa Chodolenko’s first film, “High Art,” was pretty original.

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We are waiting in line

We are waiting in line to see “Laurel Canyon.” We got up this morning and tried to wait for “Masked and Anonymous,” but only the first twenty people from the wait list got in. All around us we know there are celebrity parties in fancy houses on the hillside, but we only see people in jeans and ski parkas camped out in queues trying to snag tickets to the films with the hottest buzz. Today we are going to stand in line four times to see if we get into anything, because everything we wanted to see was sold out by the time we bought our packages. $650 for twenty films, and we still can’t choose what we see. The industry folks have this festival all tied up.

But the independents are fighting back. A subset of Sundance is Slamdance, where more experimental films are shown. And there’s even a new piece of software “Without a Box” ( that allows filmmakers to submit their work to festivals all over the world electronically. If you log on to the web site, there’s a standard application, and once you send your film, the software can enter it for you anywhere you wish.

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Films You May Never Get to See

27 January 2003

Namaste from Sundance Film Festival,

The Hardaway adventuresses are at Sundance. We have already gotten a taste of the real deal: a meal in the Easy Street Brasserie at 10 PM (when it had an empty table)and a ride in the Music Taxi, a big van with a live guitarist who played “Love the One You’re With” while driving us to the hotel. On the side of the Music Taxi’s van it says “Better than sitting in a snowbank.” There’s not much snow, because Utah is suffering a drought, but there’s no drought in the movie department.


“Bukowski: Born to This” is a documentary about the life of Henry Charles Bukowski, a novelist and poet of the sixties who reminds me of a cross between Dylan Thomas and my friend Mike Lacey.

Reading Bukowski’s work transformed the life of the Apple ad copywriter who made the film. Indeed, the director ditched his advertising job and started flying all over the world to interview people who had stories to tell about Bukowski, who died in 1994. Seven years later, director John Dongellen has a finished film that was chosen for the documentary competition here at Sundance. He also has no idea of what the eventual market for such a film will be, or of how to distribute it. Fortunately, the film was self-financed. Hope it gets to A&E.

“Swallow” was part of a group of four short subjects; it was the best of the group by orders of magnitude. It’s the story of a high school kid whose father dies, leaving him grief-stricken, without enough money to go to college, and with lousy SAT scores. His guidance counselor refers him to a special kind of scholarship for kids with special issues.

The scholarship turns out to be an “internship” with two drug smugglers who teach the poor kid how to swallow cocaine tied up in a condom with dental floss.

The film is a true learning experience; I certainly didn’t know that the wax in the dental floss protects the body from the effects of the swallowed cocaine. I also didn’t know drugs were smuggled to and from so many different locations.

Our adolescent hero receives $5000 per trip; he gets to some exotic places, such as Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia, but just for a few hours.

In a somewhat cliched resolution, he tries to stop smuggling as the dealers keep upping the ante: he is now bringing in black tar heroin, which is far more dangerous to his body, but is more lucrative to the dealers. The dealers, of course, do not let him go easily.

One of the saddest parts of the film is that the poor kid tries to study for his SATs and finish his senior year of high school in between trips.

I found “Swallow” totally riveting and equally disgusting. I never wanted to know this much about how drugs are smuggled inside the bodies of human beings who can easily die if there’s a burp in the process.

Although “Swallow” had nothing to do with my life, the next film, “Love and Diane,” reminded me enormously of my own experience as a foster parent.

Diane is a mother of six who loses her children when she becomes a crack addict. Her daughter, Love, grows up in four foster homes and a group home. By the time she is eighteen, she’s back home with Diane, pregant and HIV positive.”Love and Diane” explores the mother daughter relationship between these two women, neither of whom really wants to be the adult, and neither of whom has ever really known a mother’s care and love.

As they try to get it together to bring up Love’s baby, the filmmaker, Jennifer Dworkin, allows us insight into the complexity of the social issues surrounding poverty and family dysfunction.

Because I was a foster parent, and I saw this story played out almost exactly in the family I fostered, I appreciated both the filmmaker’s efforts to present the family in glorious three dimensions and the family’s willingness to tell its story to the public. “Love and Diane” goes beyond the artifically constructed challenges of “Survivor” and the other reality TV shows into the situation of a group of people who didn’t choose these challenges and see no reward at the end.

The film’s been picked up commercially and will open in twenty cities this year. In the first part of 2004, it will air on PBS’ POV show.

“Tupac: A Resurrection” was thelast film of the day, and we were disappointed in it. It reminded us of any one of a hundred “Behind the Music” episodes, and contributed very little to my understanding of the great power Tupac Shakur still exerts over teenagers through his music.

The film was a collaboration between the Shakur family and some MTV people, and perhaps that’s why it was so one-sided. I think they should have given the project to a director whose previous work did not include so much contemporary music. Maybe Clint Eastwood could have given us a new perspective on Tupac. Maybe the great Redford himself.

The taxi ride on the way home was delivered by a company called “Powder for the People.”

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Learning Online


Learning Online
This week I participated in an online dialogue with a gentleman who wanted to know if he should go back to school for an A.A. degree, and if so, if he should do it online. He has a wife, kids, and a job. Of course he should do it online, if he does it at all. But should he do it at all? Is a degree what employers are looking for these days?

I have a Ph.D. I’m still not sure why I got it, probably because I hated every job I took when I got out of school: after Cornell, a publishing job; after Columbia, an advertising job; after Syracuse, a professorship at Phoenix College. But there I was, a Ph.D., no school to go back to, and I hated that job, too. It took me years to figure it out: I hated working for anyone else. So I started my own compan(ies).

In the intervening years, I have also amassed a real estate license, a securities license, an MCSE, and a certification to teach yoga. I am a lifelong learner. Everyone should be, and everyone needs to be. But I haven’t ever considered another “degree” or going to school purely for money.

Good thing. Some of the jobs we used to think paid very well are being challenged by the New Economy. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (2001) physicians, for example, start at $40,000 a year, only $5000 more than veterinarians. And animals pay out of pocket for their health care, which makes the cash flow better. Amazing that managed care has 1)put physicians on a salary schedule and 2)lowered the economic outlook for one of the former highest-paying professions.

Check out the average starting salaries for various occupations. This is pretty depressing on the whole. I started in communications many years ago at $25,000 a year, and the salaries have not changed at all. Yet people say communications is one of the most important skills for jobs, marriage, raising children, etc. And look at teaching.
Position Starting Salary Education Required
Accounting $34,500 4-Year College Degree
Advertising $26,600 4-Year College Degree
Biologist $29,000 4-Year College Degree or more
Chemical Engineer $46,900 4-Year College Degree or more
Communications $25,224 4-Year College Degree
Computer Science $45,700 4-Year College Degree
Dentist $110,600 Graduate Degree
Electrical Engineer $45,200 4-Year College Degree
FBI Agent $34,400 4-Year College Degree
Flight Attendant $13,700 High School Diploma
Hospital Administrator $40,000 4-Year College Degree or more
Human Resources $29,800 4-Year College Degree
Industrial Engineer $43,100 4-Year College Degree or more
Interpreters $13,000 High School Diploma/Fluent in Foreign Language
Journalist $24,000 4-Year College Degree
Marketing/Sales $31,900 4-Year College Degree
Nursing $32,927 4-Year College Degree or more
Optometrist $55,000 Graduate Degree
Paralegal $30,700 High School Diploma
Pharmacists $42,500 4-Year College Degree or more
Physical Therapy $35,700 4-Year College Degree or more
Physician $39,000 Medical Degree
Psychologists $37,800 4-Year College Degree or more
Teacher $25,700 4-Year College Degree or more
Travel Agent $13,770 High School Diploma
Social Worker $24,000 4-Year College Degree or more
Veterinarians $35,900 Graduate Degree

The jobs above are mainly professional. They’re not the ones you apply for in big corporations. And they’re not the ones that give you the big stock options.

Some jobs (large corporations with online recruiting software and professions that require licenses) may eliminate you from consideration if you are missing a piece of paper (degree), but even they concentrate on asking for skills and experience. I’d still vote to learn because you want to, not because you think the piece of paper will bring you more money. When “they” tell kids not to drop out of school because college degrees bring more money than high school diplomas, “they” mean you need to get good skills that the marketplace wants. And those include judgment, decision-making, research, and problem-solving, teamwork, creativity, etc as much as they include scripting, coding, yada.

That being said, I’m a big proponent of online schooling. If you want to have the “learning experience” in general, which consists of all those soft skills I mentioned above, go full time to a school. If you want to learn something specific, do it online. Even Harvard and MIT are putting their courses online. There’s no reason for me to update my real estate license in a classroom.

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