Monday, December 31, 2007

Little Children

We rented the movie "Little Children" last night--well, actually, we rented it three days ago and finally got around to it last night--and it was one of those movies that I enjoyed in the moment but resented later, upon reflection.

Damned reflection--always spoiling everything.

Not that it wasn't literate and well written, because it clearly was. And not that it wasn't stylishly shot and directed, because it certainly was that, too. And not that I didn't appreciate Kate Winslet's breasts and all, because, hey, I'm no philistine. It's just...

It's just that I'm so tired of movies in which ALL married couples are miserable, and EVERYTHING about suburbia is stultifying, and ALL men are immature knuckleheads, and ALL women are pinched and shrewish--except for Our Heroine, who is educated and elevated enough to: A)not shave her eyebrows, and B)find her neighbors small-minded and petty, and C)find her life--including her children--shallow and unrewarding, and D)read poetry--for pleasure! And use a dried rose as a bookmark! All of which, I realize, is obviously intended to make her as much of a knucklehead, in her own way, as the men in the movie--just in her own, educated and elevated way.

I know it's just a movie, and not intended to show the entire Broad Canvas of Life. But "American Beauty" was just the same. Suburbia = Spiritual Death. Marriage = Sexual and Emotional Death. Employment = Every Other Kind of Death. There's no real cause to any of this--nothing psychological or autobiographical or economic or political or religious or cultural. It's just Death.

And, as such, it's the attitude of an adolescent. Which is not surprising, given who makes our movies--a small group of people living in an amazingly rarified and isolated environment, with no real understanding of how anyone outside of that environment lives...except for their parents, who they probably resent and despise for being small-minded middle-Americans and thank GOD we escaped from that and made it to LA, right?

It's the same attitude I encountered in grad school, when I was in LA, twenty years ago. The style that everyone--EVERYONE--tried to emulate, in plays and films, was a kind of Less-Than-Zero-ish hip nihilism. And just as in "Less Than Zero," it was a nihilism practiced by people who knew nothing, who had been nowhere, who had experienced nothing. The coolest writers in the theatre department wanted to out-Beckett Beckett--but you know what? Beckett wrote "Waiting for Godot" in his fifties, after half a life of real engagement with the world. I mean, he worked for the French Resistance in World War II. So if he wanted to express a sense that underlying the Everything was Nothing, well, he had earned the right. Nineteen year olds whose only exhaustion was that they had run through all the recreational drugs available to them...not so much.

And they all grow up (more or less) and make movies for us. And in those movies, they tell us that they think we're all fools. And we pay ten dollars a ticket for the experience.

Quick--name a happily married couple portrayed in a movie or a TV series of the past decade. Can you? And I don't mean idyllic. Obviously drama requires conflict and all. I just mean happy, as in, this marriage is, on the whole, a pretty good thing. And our life together--here, in this house, with these people, in this community, is also a pretty good thing--worth working for, worth sacrificing for, worth holding together.

If you can think of one, let me know. I'm still working on it.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Reason #312 to Slow the F**K Down

Happy Children

Thing 1 and Thing 2 had a wonderful Christmas with their grandparents from here and from San Diego, and were, as usual, deluged with gifts. And they were wonderful, perfect gifts, too. Among the favorites were Plio, the robot dinosaur; Zoob construction toys; and a super-cool chemistry lab set from the Discovery Store.

But the best gift, by far, was having family here with us for days on end. Sounds cliched, but it's true. I'm very thankful that we were able to make the move out here one year ago, to be closer to the Wife's family here in Tucson, and my dad and his wife out in SoCal.

And it's not just me, saying this. As my dad was packing up the car to start the drive back home, he called to me to come get my son. I went outside and found Thing 2 sitting in their front seat, coat and backpack on, ready to leave. I said, "Oh, have to stay here, with us. But we'll see them again in one month, I promise." He burst into tears, launched himself at my father and stepmother, and refused to let go.

Can't wrap that. Can't return it. Can't replace it for any amount of money. Now that's a present.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Bill Moyers' Christmas Message To You

In our drugged state, we cheer the winners in the game of wealth, the billionaires who benefit from a skewed financial system -- the losers, we kick down the stairs. We open fire hoses of cash into our political system in the name of "free speech." Television stations that refuse to cover government make fortunes selling political bromides over public airwaves. Pornography passing as advertising assaults our senses, seduces our children, and pollutes our culture. Partisan propaganda gets pumped up as news. We feed on the flamboyance of celebrities. And we actually take seriously the Elmer Gantrys who use the Christian Gospel as a guidebook to an Iowa caucus or a battle plan for the Middle East. In the face of a scandalous health care system, failing schools, and a fraudulent endless war, we are as docile as tattered scarecrows in a field of rotten tomatoes.

And our collective response to the Grand Old Man of PBS would go something like this:

Dude, you're blocking the TV.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

No Propaganda Left Behind

Author Jonathan Kozol met with Senator Ted Kennedy about the re-authorization of NCLB, advocating a major rehaul rather than any "tweaks" currently being proposed. I used to be a big fan of Kozol's, but his "partial hunger strike" in protest of the education law (partial hunger strike? What the hell is that?) annoys me.

So does some of the cant embodied in the letter he sent to Kennedy, which prompted and framed their discussion:
The law is racially discriminatory in its immediate effects. In affluent white districts, where small class-size and high spending are the norm and kids routinely do well on exams, NCLB is not permitted to degrade or narrow the curriculum. In embattled and low-funded urban schools, in contrast, principals are being forced by threat of federal sanctions to impose upon their teachers proto-military and test-driven methods of instruction which they tell me that they pedagogically abhor. Teachers in these schools are often being handed scripts to read and told they must hold timers in their hands, in order to be sure that not a single minute of the schoolday will be wasted by permitting children to indulge their curiosity, enjoy a moment of healthy playfulness or humor, pose a thoughtful question, or pursue a serious line of interest that will, however, have no pay-off on a standardized exam. (emphasis mine)
By placing inordinate pressure upon inner-city schools to limit their focus to that very narrow slice of subjects to be tested, NCLB is robbing minority children of the culturally expansive range of subject-matter given to white children, while also deadening the intellects of inner-city kids by robbing them of the critical-thinking skills needed to survive in higher education or to function as discerning citizens. In a decade when black children are more segregated than at any time since 1968, NCLB is compounding the damage of their racial isolation by deepening the cultural division between these children and the mainstream of society. (emphasis mine)

All right, let's break this down. No principal is forced to take instructionally idiotic steps by anything other than his own limited vision and short-sightedness. I taught in a school that forced "proto-military" test prep methods on me and the kids, long before NCLB. NCLB doesn't mandate them or even suggest them. If schools are canceling classes and imposing regimens of test prep, they're stupid schools run by stupid people. If schools are canceling science, social studies, and art classes because the kids are so far below grade level that only by intensifying core instruction in English and math can they hope to catch up, well...doesn't that say something about the school's instructional program, or the level of readiness with which kids enter the school?

That said, there are HUGE issues around equity of input, and I agree in principle with all of the arguments Kozol and others are making here. You can't demand equivalent outcomes without providing equivalent inputs. Blame the larger economy, lingering racism, and lack of access to pre-K, if you like. But this particular law is not creating economic inequity and educational foolishness.

Meanwhile, there is much he says that's good and important:

Instead of improving the quality of teachers, NCLB is driving out precisely those highspirited, well-educated, and creative new young teachers our urban schools try so hard to recruit, while rewarding the most mediocre and robotic teachers who don't object to rote-and-drill instruction that requires no real contribution of their own....

The standardized exams mandated by NCLB are useless to our teachers since, unlike diagnostic tests, they offer no specific information on a child's areas of weakness and because the scores are not returned to schools by testing corporations until mid-summer at the earliest....

High-stakes tests administered in third grade are wildly unfair to children who have had no preschool education. Middle-class and wealthy children typically receive at least two years, often three, of rich developmental pre-K. More than 2/3ds of our poorest inner-city children have usually had none.

Then there's this, which I kind of agree with and kind of object to:

NCLB has been unsuccessful in narrowing the gap between the races.

That's certainly true, government bloviations to the contrary notwithstanding. But to say this is not to say that the law has had no positive effect. I'm out there in school districts all the time--poor, urban, challenged school districts--and the leaders of those districts are thinking and worrying about their African-American students in ways they rarely did before. And their special ed students. And their disadvantaged students. By disaggregating test data and insisting on progress in all identified sub-groups, the law has had the positive effect of denying school districts the dark and shadowy corners where they hid their lowest-performing students, showing only the overall, total scores to the world. This is precisely why some of those schools and districts have done Supremely Dumb things like canceling science and social studies classes, or instituting test prep drill. They're panicked. Well, they should be panicked--they been underserving and undermining these kids for years. The fact that they've responded so foolishly shows that they don't really know what they're doing.

Given where I work, I obviously have trouble with this (even though he doesn't mention my firm by name):

NCLB's S.E.S. requirement, compelling a low-performing school to hire what is termed “an external provider” to do tutorials with students, has opened wide the gate for forprofit corporations -- a half-way step to vouchers. While the law does not require schools to hire profit-making corporations, the marketing skills of Princeton
Review, Sylvan Learning, and similar firms have been remarkably successful at carving out a huge piece of our public education budget in return for services explicitly directed at test-score inflation but devoid of pedagogic value.

At least here he admits that it's not the law's fault. But I find his knee-jerk objection to private sector involvement in education (he's been worse on this in other articles) very short-sighted and limited. If there's a need, and the school has trouble meeting it, and someone is willing to step forward and provide help...why should the school be denied the help, just because the help has a price tag? Teachers come with a price tag, too, you know--and a pretty nasty union fighting for their salary, benefits, and work rules. Contrary to Kozol's opinion, teachers are not, by structural definition, saints or martyrs. They work for a living, like everyone else. Obviously, the best of them also have a sense of mission. But guess what? So do the people I work with.

Of course, buying lousy test prep (or even good test prep) instead of real tutoring services is a problem. And NCLB is at the root of this problem. The emphasis on testing--and state-level, rather than national testing--creates an enormous financial burden for states, which leads, in many cases, to a slate of multiple-choice tests (cheaper to make, cheaper to score) which lend themselves to strategy courses and test prep approaches. If NCLB could find broader and more rigorous ways to judge student performance, the schools who need help would have to find broader and more rigorous methods of assistance, which would drive education companies to provide broader and more rigorous assistance.

I like that remedy much more than Kozol's, which is, "Congress should prohibit the diversion of resources by our public schools to hire private test-prep corporations to inflate the children's scores by artificial means." Because what's artificial? If it's a stupid test, the score on which can be inflated simply by learning some basic strategies, then the gain is the gain, and if it can be bought, people will (and should) buy it. Make better tests, or fold in outputs beyond testing. Trust me, the companies will follow. That's just business.

Ach, I'm exhausted. There's lots of other stuff--some good, some bad. Go here if you're interested in reading the original.

Let it Go

My corporate overlords have summoned me back to New York for a couple of days. Walking into the lobby of our downtown office building, I see the usual array of Christmas decorations, including a semi-massive tree. And right next to the tree is a semi-massive Chanukah menorah, all lit up. Now, I'm no master of the Jewish calendar, but I know damn well that Chanukah ended a week ago last night. I counted out the gifties to Things 1 and 2 perfectly, and when #8 got unwrapped, I knew we were done. So why is there a lit-up menorah in our lobby?

Well, obviously it's there because the building managers don't want Our Jewish Friends to feel slighted or offended duing the Christmas season. Which is fine, up to a point. I mean, there should certainly be a menorah in the lobby during Chanukah. It's New York City, after all--the Tribe does have a certain gravitational weight that should be acknowledged. I always appreciated the inclusion.

But when the holiday is over, the holiday is over, no? If Chanukah ends two weeks before Christmas, as it did this year, I don't really need people to give me the "Happy Holidays" greeting. They can say "Merry Christmas." It's fine. Because it is Christmas now, whether I celebrate it or not. It is, after all, a federal holiday. And when people smile at me and say it to me, I know they don't really mean, "accept Christ as your personal savior or burn in hell." (all right, maybe some of them do, but most don't).

This whole over-sensitivity thing is insane. I'm part of a very small minority in this country, and as such, I have to learn how to navigate among people who are, in some way, different from me. That's what it means to be part of a minority. I see it more than they do; I live with it more than they do. That's just part of life. I certainly expect some sensitivity and inclusiveness and tolerance of difference on the part of the majority--I think that's my due, and right and proper in a large and diverse nation. But I don't expect the majority to pretend it doesn't exist as a majority, or to stop practicing its religion or its culture or anything else. By what right could I make such a demand? "Stop using the word Christmas in public, because it makes me feel bad"? Seriously? That's absurd. If I'm offended by the fact of Christmas, well, guess what? That's my problem.

You know, the fun part about being a member of a minority group is that you get to be different. You get to know things and see things that the majority, perhaps, doesn't. You get a unique perspective. There is value in that--not only for us, but for the majority, as well. That's why members of minority groups have been essential artists in our country--not just because they shine a light on their own lives, for everyone else to see, but also because they provide a new perspective on the majority, for the majority. The majority gets to see itself from the outside, for once. That's important.

So my holiday message to fellow landsmen, and members of other tribes across the country is, Let it go. You know who you are. Be happy with who you are. Accept good will when it's offered to you, however it's offered, without strings or qualifications. And stop caring what other people think. You probably don't know what they think, anyway.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Quote of the Day

Words are instruments we use to beat out tunes on broken drums for bears to dance to, when all we really want to do is move the stars to pity.

-- Gustave Flaubert

Damn. Maybe I really do need to read Madame Bovary.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Free Lunch

Back in a previous life, when I worked in theatre, I went to a conference in Philadelphia, one event of which was a guided tour of the city led by Teller, of Penn and Teller. Teller is the smaller of the two Insane Magicians—the sinister and silent partner. On this tour, however, he was very talkative. He showed us all of the venues and street-corners where he and his partner had performed as street magicians, before they found fame and fortune. He talked about the city, the people, and the various trials and tribulations faced by street performers of all kinds. One thing he said, a thing that has stuck with me for years, was that a real street performer had to give a real performance, with a beginning, a middle, and an end…the end being the passing of the hat. As far as he was concerned, the musician who simply left the hat on the sidewalk while he noodled around on his instrument was not a true street performer—or at least not a good one. The job of the street performer is to demand and hold the audience’s attention—to give you a real show right when you weren’t expecting one—and to make you stick around right when you were planning on walking away.

In my own little theatre company, we often debated about giving free performances as benefits or audience-builders. What we soon discovered was that people did not give much respect or value to things to which their creators had not assigned a value. In other words, people felt they were probably going to get what they had paid for—and if it was free of charge, it was probably crap.

Obviously, this rule has exceptions. Free Shakespeare in Central Park draws thousands of people every summer. On the other hand, free Shakespeare is only cash-free; you still have to spend the entire day standing in line to get one of the very limited number of tickets. That scarcity creates a value, and if you want your ticket, you do pay some kind of price for it.

There is a new report out about education, and this one finally starts to include some non-school data. Schoolteachers have long known that the problems they face in the classroom have serious roots outside of school—roots they are often unable to address. They get all the blame for poor student performance, but how much of the responsibility truly rests with them? Some, surely…but not all.

We talk about the societal value of guaranteeing all of our children an education. Few societies in history have tried to do that. Sometimes we say we’re trying to provide an equal education for all children, which is, historically, even more of a radical idea. Now, since No Child Left Behind, we claim that we are trying to provide a college-preparatory education for all children, which is so radical as to be, perhaps, ludicrous. Can we really provide both equity and excellence…to every student in the country?

Well, that’s a question for another day. Today I’m thinking about the idea of value. We talk about the value of compulsary, universal, K-12 education as though this value is self-evident and universally shared. And I’m not sure it is…especially among its recipients.

There was a survey I head about recently (I wish I had attribution, but I don’t, so it could be apocryphal) comparing high-school student attitudes towards education in India and the United States. Students in India used very goal-oriented language when talking about their schooling: I will learn things I need in order to succeed; I will be able to get a job; I will be able to get into a good college; and so on. Students in the U.S. used much more passive language: it’s something I have to do; my parents want me to graduate; I go because I have to; my teachers give me good grades; my teachers hate me; and so on. The comparison was startling and revealing: one group sees education as something they do; the other sees education as something that is done to them. One group sees education as a means to an end—an end that they value highly; the other group sees it as a thing in itself—a thing that they do not particularly value, or even understand. Is it any surprise that India’s students are outperfoming ours?

I saw this first-hand when I was teaching. Motivating my kids was often very difficult—sometimes excruciatingly difficult. Because so many of them didn’t come to school with their own reasons for working hard, I had to give them reasons—constantly. I had to perform for them; I had to make the case; I had to convince them…every single day. And some kids simply refused to play along. Positive reinforcement meant nothing to them, because the goal held no value to them. It was my goal, not theirs. Negative reinforcement meant even less to them, because there was not much I could do to them that they would care about, and there was nothing I could deny them or take from them that they valued.

When people talk about suspensions or expulsions or the like, the phrase that is constantly invoked is, “You cannot deny a child an education.” But you know what? The ones who are really denying them an education are the kids who are behaving like idiots in the classroom (or who aren’t showing up at all). We’re there, every day, working our tails off for them. We’re offering, not denying. But you can’t force an education down someone’s throat. In fact, you could argue that it’s immoral to do so. Offering universal education to everyone is one thing; demanding that everyone take it is another. Ultimately, if they don’t want it or think they need it, they’re going to walk away from it.

So how do you create a sense of value around something that an audience may be taking for granted? There are three ways. First, you can sell the hell out of it. Second, you can assign a real cost to it. Third, you can limit its availability. There are plenty of teachers doing their best to focus on number one—but selling by itself is not enough.

Now, you might think that numbers two and three would chase people away rather than draw them in, but you’d be wrong. Think about my theatre example. With the exception of shows-featuring-movie-stars and such things, more people will attend a show that costs a dollar than one that is offered for free. People will fight hard to get limited seats because the limitation seems to suggest value. If the same show were offered in an arena where there was plenty of room for everyone…well, they might come, and they might not. I know it seems perverse, but the easier and more available you make some things, they less people will value and respect them.

Now, I’m not saying we should make all education private and force people to pay cash for their schooling. But perhaps we shouldn’t be hiding the already-existing costs so much. Kids don’t know what their education costs—how much money and effort is being expended on their behalf. They don’t know where the money comes from. And therefore, they don’t make any connection between how hard their parents are working, how much is taken from their paychecks, and where that money goes. It’s invisible money. It’s “free.” Perhaps ten year olds shouldn’t have to think about issues like this, but seventeen-year olds certainly should. If they skip school, or act up, they’re not just wasting time; they’re wasting money and effort—the money and effort of the adults all around them. And they should be made to think about that—and to wonder whether such largesse is infinite.

As things currently stand, though, they don’t wonder about that. They can’t, really—because that largesse is never threatened. You can’t deny a child an education. They hear that. They know it’s said. And it means one thing to them: “I’m untouchable!” And it’s true. Really, you can’t do anything to these kids…unless they pull a gun on you. You can send them to the principal’s office. You can suspend them for a day. But you can’t throw them out. You can’t ever take school away from them, or say, “Fine, if you don’t care, go home.” I taught at one school that allowed us to say this (a private school, obviously). Guess what? When I confronted a kid and said, “If you’re going to keep acting like a lunatic, I don’t want you here today. Go home,” the kid usually begged to stay in school and started negotiating about what he could do to make things better.

Think about this the way a good parent would think about anything of value that a child has. You take care of that puppy or I’m going to have to take it away from you. You share TV privileges with your brother or you’ll have to turn it off. If you don’t want to lose it, you’d better…whatever. Do your chores. Brush your teeth. Behave. Until there’s a cost associated with something the child is doing, until there’s a realization that they might actually lose it, they don’t think about how much they want or need it. They just take it for granted. “Sure, I like it,” they think, “but what’s the big deal?” When something is a big deal, we parents have to make it into big deal.

Well, if that applies to parenting, why shouldn’t it apply to schooling? Don’t you think there are kids out there who would learn the value of what they’re being given if there was a real threat to take it away from them? And I don’t mean permanently or forever. I’m not being cruel here. There should always be a way back in. But kids who think they can skip class when they want to and come back when they feel like it—those kids should learn that this might not be so. The kids who think they can act up, throw things, curse at the teacher, and disrupt other kids who are trying to work—all with impunity—all without any real consequence—they should learn some consequences. Looking back at your actions and saying, “I really blew it” is a major part of learning. It’s part of growing up. In fact, growth is impossible without mistakes, loss, and reflection.

I say there should always be a way back in, and there should—because the life lesson shouldn’t cost kids so much that it ruins the rest of their lives. So let them back in…but not easily, or quickly, or without effort. No, no. It’s easy the first time. Come one, come all—we assume the best and we offer you everything we’ve got. But if you screw up and show you don’t care—let’s say three times—we have the right to kick you out. For real and possibly for good (with due process, of course, and according to some pretty serious rules and regulations). And if you decide that you want to get back in, well,..that’s fine with us. But we’re going to need a letter explaining why you want to get back in, and we’re going to need a recommendation from an employer or someone else, and we’re going to need an essay explaining your goals and dreams, and what you plan to do to achieve them. Something like that. We want you to work your way back into school. We want it to be a little bit harder, so that you value it once we let you back in.

If middle and high school kids knew that this was a real possibility, how many of them would really push things to the limit? A bunch, I’m sure—but fewer, I think, than the number who act with complete license and impunity right now. And of the kids who are foolish enough to get themselves thrown out, how many would (eventually) work to get back in? A surprising number, I think. I honestly think that a “throw-out” policy could reduce the number of eventual drop-outs. I think the kids would learn that there was something going on at school that was worth their attendance and attention. I think a lot of them would take a more active and proprietary attitude towards their education—and actually start thinking of it as their education. By learning that they had something to lose, they might begin to realize that they had something to gain.

It’s carrot and stick. We shouldn’t be afraid of the metaphorical stick. All three of the things that create value have to be in play--because they really are in play, in life. Walking away from your education does have a cost. Aiming for college is a competition, and there isn't room for everyone. By creating a fantasy-land of untouchability in school, we're not setting these kids up for success in life.

We need to do more on the selling front—especially for kids who are not deeply enmeshed in a college-oriented context. We have to make that world more tangible and real to them, so that it’s more than an idea to them. It has to be a real goal—an achievable goal—and a goal they want. And then we have to make those other two points clear: it costs you something to get there, and there isn’t room for everyone.

Believe me, you’ll see more real work happening in school. And more active engagement, and (to use an ed-world cliché) ownership of one’s education. And a little less knuckle-headed, self-destructive behavior. This education business isn’t so rarified and strange as to be immune from the forces that drive the rest of us in our lives.

The big brother holds up a ball and shows it to his little brother. “You want it?” he says. The little brother says yes and reaches for it. The big brother lifts it up out of reach. “You want it?” he says again. “You gotta work for it. Come on!” And the little brother jumps and jumps and jumps to reach it. Why? It’s just a goddamn ball. He didn't care about it two minutes ago. And the big brother is a jerk. But he is the big brother, and he does seem to find it valuable—so valuable he’s making his kid brother work for it—so valuable he’s not sure just anyone can have it. Crazy? Perhaps. But this is how desire is born.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Man's Laws, Not God's

From a Times op-ed today that everyone should read:
If moderate Muslims believe there should be no compassion shown to the girl from Qatif, then what exactly makes them so moderate? When a “moderate” Muslim’s sense of compassion and conscience collides with matters prescribed by Allah, he should choose compassion. Unless that happens much more widely, a moderate Islam will remain wishful thinking.
This is Ayaan Hirsi Ali writing. If you don't know who this remarkable woman is, here's a little background.

Listen, we've all been there, as I said in the Chanukah post below. The Torah decrees that witches, adulterers, and non-observers of the Sabbath should be stoned to death. Christians hanged and burned suspected witches. We've all been through our historical phases of Justice By Ordeal. But the West has put (most of) that behind us...because of science, and reason, and the application of rational, scientific thought to our everyday concerns (yes, exactly the kinds of things our evangelical, fundamentalist whackos would like us to abandon--thanks a lot, guys).

And here's something getting little press or discussion: modern democracy did not happen and could have happened without that application of rational and scientific thought to our everyday concerns. Only when we stopped "taking things on faith" -- things like the divine right of kings -- did we start developing things like modern ideas of equal justice before law, trial by evidence, and representative democracy.

So I certainly applaud Ali for asking for compassion. Clearly it's in short supply. But compassion is a feeling, and real justice is not built on feelings. It is built on rational thought.

Why are we trying to ram elections down the throats of the Muslim world, when what they really need is Scientific Englightment -- an Age of Reason? Without that, and until that happens, nothing else is possible.

And don't tell me it's a pipe dream or an impossibility, or that Islam simply will not allow it. That's nonsense. This is the same religion and the same culture that allowed for and cultivated the invention of Algebra, and that kept the flame of Greek and Roman learning alive after the fall of Rome--and added substantially to it. Without the scientific and intellectual work done by the Arab world in that period, the Renaissance in Europe never would have happened.

Doesn't one good renaissance deserve another? Isn't it time to return the favor?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Tonight is the first night of Chanukah (or Hannukah, or any number of other spelling variants). I had been planning to write something on this strange holiday, but Christopher Hitchens beat me to it. His essay is, as usual, bracing, witty, and nasty.

And correct, on many points. In fact, in his portrayal of the fundamentalist savagery built into the holiday's DNA, he leaves out a few fun facts. For example, the first casualty in the Hasmonean guerrilla war against the Seleucid empire was not a Persian occupier, but an Israeli collaborator. Very Jacobin. Very Bolshevik. Very...well, go ahead and slide in the name of any radical, true-believing mass movement you like. They're all the same.

What's interesting and instructive, though--what Hitchens chooses not to look at--is the holiday's development and mutation over the years. Yes, it began as the celebration of the "purifying" of Israel and the purging of its occupiers--a turning away from assimilation and cosmopolitanism, and a turning-inward to The Old Ways. It probably saved the religion from dissolving into the larger Helenistic world. If you're a Jew, that has to be a good thing, and worth celebrating. However, if you're looking for a modern counterpart to the Maccabees, it would have to be the Taliban, or perhaps the idiots in Sudan who wanted that English elementary school teacher to be slaughtered for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed. They're also trying to save their religion from dissolving into a very shrinking and cosmopolitan, America-centered world.

But here's what's interesting. That's not where Chanukah--or Judaism--stayed. Hitchens is correct that the squabbling among the Hasmoneans led to the intervention of Rome (at their request!) and the eventual occupation of the country. Which led to the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews. Which led to two thousand years of exile. But that did not lead to the vanishing of Judaism.

What happened to this particular holiday during that long period of exile? It had to go underground. You couldn't really celebrate the overthrow of occupiers and the restoration of state religion when living in someone else's country--not even a full citizen of that country, with anything like rights. So it became a quieter holiday, a celebration of light in the dark time of the year and a time of re-dedication. And, of course, for the children, it became All About The Miracle.

Through most of that time, Jews did live as a People Apart--partly by edict and partly, let's face it, by choice. Some Jews still live that way. But over time, in Europe and definitely in America, Jews were granted citizenship, and became part of the larger culture. In the last century, Chanukaah became all about giving Jewish kids something to do during Christmas, so they didn't have to feel bad about not getting presents. In earlier times and other places, that wasn't an issue, because Jewish kids rarely had non-Jewish friends. But they do now.

You could interpret this history negatively, as the decay and degradation of religion, and the swapping of commercialism for spirituality, and all that--just as many Christians feel about Christmas. But I choose not to look at it that way. Because Jewish kids actually have non-Jewish friends--and it's barely worthy of comment. Here were are, in 21st century America, and we can celebrate Chanukah without anyone worrying about Those Uppity Jews. And Christians can celebrate Christmas without making non-Christians feel oppressed (for the most part). There is an upside to Christmas becoming more about generic peace and family togetherness (yes, and Santy Claus) than only and exclusively about the birth of Christ. In a multi-cultural, multi-everything society, the only way for us all to live together in peace is for us to blur some of those sharp least in public.

We get all upset about what's going on in Islam these days, but few of us are willing to talk about the fact that we've all been there. Every religion has passed through this absolutist, fundamentalist, death-to-the-infidels stage. Every one of them. And some of them have had a Reformation, or an Enlightenment, and some of them have not.

What worries me is that we have voices now in our own country bemoaning and regretting those reforms and enlightenments that Judaism and Christianity have been through--the very things that have allowed us to live together, work together, learn from and enjoy each other, and build a great country together. Let's banish Santa and make Christmas only and exlcusively about Jesus the son of God, accessible only to believers. Not just in private, but everywhere and in everyone's face. Let's lock ourselves away from everyone else, learn only Yiddish, and dress as though we're in 18th century Poland. Forget us and them; It's just us.

Saint John Chysostom said, a couple thousand years ago, that if the Jewish rites and rituals were true, then all of Christianity had to be a lie. Which led to belief among Christians that the reverse also had to be true--if Christianity was true, then Judaism had to be a lie. It's us or them. Choose or die. And an absolutist, fundamentalist belief probably doesn't allow for any more wiggle room than that. Is that really where we want to go?

It seems to me that a multicultural society--and any kind of democracy--requires a good deal of wiggle room. We have to find ways to get along. Because it simply can't be us or them, or us versus them. There's only us--a great big us. E pluribus unum.
And amazingly enough, we've done it. We've made compromises, sure--every one of us. We've had to blur some distinctions in public that are still there, under the surface. We've made the choice not to push those distinctions to the breaking point. Any maybe it does make our various religions and belief systems less than pure. But it works.

It would be a shame if we didn't see that it works, and threw it all away.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Monday Morning Genius

Found this on Digby's Hullabaloo. Something to make you both smile and sigh on a Monday morning. Smile because it's...well, it's Sid Caesar and Nanette Fabray. What's not to love? And sigh because...well, just try to imagine anyone putting this on television today.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Art So Close You Can Pick Its Nose

This is just incredible. It's a 16-billion pixel photograph of Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." According to a story in today's New York Times Magazine, you can study the painting in more accurate detail now on your computer than you ever could in person, where your time and access are greatly limited. It's really pretty amazing. You can isolate an area of the painting and zoom in to a ridiculously fine level of detail:
Under the direction of the curator Alberto Artioli, an Italian tech firm called Hal9000 took nine hours earlier this year to shoot the mural, using a robot-controlled Nikon D2X digital camera that popped a wincing but harmless flash on 1,677 distinct pieces of the mural. Shot at 12 million pixels each, these pieces were digitally stitched together like a computerized quilt, radically increasing the resolution. The result blows the mind: an image that can be scrutinized as closely as if you had your nose to the mural, in perfect daylight, with 20/10 vision, wearing contact lenses made of microscopes.

10 Rules

I found this on Living in Syn, and I think it's important and wise. It's a speech Milton Glaser gave in 2001, called "Ten Things I Have Learned." Give it a read.

Here are a few extras--some things I've learned along the way:

1. Manners are more important than love
This seems strange, right? Because what's more important than love? Except, how many people can you really love in your lifetime? I mean, really? And what about all those other people? Manners fell into disrepute back in the 60s, when I was a child, but they're important. They're what makes a civil society possible. Not laws. Not love. Just basic manners.

2. There's nothing wrong with being a grown-up
I spent most of my 20s and a good portion of my 30s working as a playwright and theatre director, which is not quite as selfish and self-involved as being, say, an actor--but it's close. There were fulfilling moments and frustrating moments. Strangely, the most fulfilling part of that life, for me, was building and holding together (for a brief time) a company of talented, creative people. Not doing my own writing work or seeing that work staged, but seeing a group come together, work hard, and do great things. I had the same experience at my job, before I moved out here to Arizona, to work solo. Building and managing a creative team--trying to take care of them, motivate them, protect them in the face of challenging work and difficult deadlines--when it went well, it felt great. And now I realize that all of this was just the forerunner to building a family, which has proved to be the most fulfilling and satisfying time of my life.

I know our entire economy is built upon amusing 16-year olds, and that in pursuit of that goal, it seems to be in our country's best interest to push children into being 16-year olds sooner...and to treat adults of any age as 16-year olds for as long as possible. But the world needs grown-ups. Badly.

3. Man plans; God laughs
Or, you have no idea where you're really going, so go ahead and make your plans, but be ready to adjust and improvise when your plans blow up in your face. Because sooner or later, they will. Deal with it.

In fact, do more than deal with it. Revel in it. Learn from it. Because every disaster can be an opportunity. I learned that from my parents--from watching their lives. Every time life threw them a curve ball, they managed to learn from it and grow from it, and change in ways that made them (eventually, and not without some pain) happier and stronger than they ever would have been had life not interfered with their original plans. Life is smarter than we are.

4. Love is a verb
This was a big one for me, and it took me a long time to learn. Love as a feeling is nice, but tricky and transient--and ultimately not so important, in the grand scheme of things. In the end, it doesn't matter what you feel; what matters is what you do. Love is what you do...or what you don't do. Wife-beaters claim to feel love for their wives. The religious right claims to feel love for "sinners," though they treat them like garbage. The left claims to love a wide array of interest groups--and often show their love by giving people new and less offensive names. But if I walk by a "homeless person," is it really morally superior to walking by a "bum"?

I've had the feeling of love for lots of people over the years, but if I look back closely and without rose-colored glasses, how many people have I actually loved--loved-as-verb--loved where you can tell it's love not because of nice words or nice feelings, but because of the things you do? I'd have to say it's a very small handful.

That's me. What would you add?

Saturday, December 1, 2007

No No Wri Mo, No Mo

Well, it's December first, which means that National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is officially over, and I have officially lost. After a final push last night, I managed to get my word count up close to 25,000, which was half of the 50,000 required for entry into the "winners circle." It was fun, though, and I'll keep plugging away at it. For the two of you who were keeping up with the entries, I'll find some way of sharing progress with you.

I met many people, at various coffee shops and bookstores around town, who hit or exceeded the winning word count. Bravo to them!

Of course, they all appear to be 25 years old. Harumph. I wrote like that when I was 25 years old. If I were 25, I'm sure I could have crossed the finish line in time. For me, though, at this stage of life, NaNoWriMo comes once a year, but LoChiReMo (local child rearing month) is forever.

I do have an exemption for the day, however, in honor of my post-oral-surgery swollen face. The Wife and Things 1 and 2 are off with my mother in law at something called (and I don't think it's the Vicodin talking), the Raindog Parade. Or maybe it's the Reindog Parade. Perhaps it's both--it has been raining an awful lot here of late.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Maybe It's Because He Used To Be Fat...

You know, I'm pretty liberal on every issue except education, and I don't think I side with Governor Huckabee on any of his positions (despite what that damned USA Today survey said). But this is funny. It just is. I aplogoize for nothing.

Stop The Presses: Man Has Teeth, Could Easily Bite Dog

Loathe as I am to drop the Teddy Bear Case, since it's generated Actual Comments for the first time (albeit loony ones), I think it's time to move on.

(Oo, I used "loathe" and "albeit" in the same sentence in a blog post. Is that legal?)

Anyway, here's a fabulous Tom Toles cartoon for your Friday. Just a lil something to remind you how hopeless and stupid our mainstream press can be when it comes to covering minor stories like our presidential races.

Enjoy, and have a good weekend.
P.S. If you're the kind of person who sends prayers or vibes or good thoughts to those In Need, see if you can focus a little energy on our friend at Living in Syn, who is dealing with medical procedures best left to the Spanish Inquisition...or Extraordinary Renditioners.

Happy Trails.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Death to Teddy Bear Infidels

And off to prison she goes:
KHARTOUM, Sudan - British teacher Gillian Gibbons has been convicted of inciting religious hatred for letting her pupils name a teddy bear Muhammad and sentenced to 15 days in prison and deportation from Sudan, one of her defense lawyers said Thursday...."The judge found Gillian Gibbons guilty and sentenced her to 15 days jail and deportation," said Ali Mohammed Hajab, a member of her defense team.

Emphasis, and incredulity, mine.

Update on Teddy Bear Picnic

The teacher in Sudan is now on trial for the crime of allowing her seven-year-old students to name their class teddy bear Mohammed. For any of you who saw the previous post and are interested in how the story is developing, here you go:
Prosecutor-General Salah Eddin Abu Zaid told the AP the British teacher could expect a "swift and fair trial." If convicted, she faces up to 40 lashes, six months in jail and a fine, with the verdict and any sentence up to the judge's discretion, official have said.....Gibbons' chief lawyer, Kamal Djizouri, scuffled with a tight police cordon before he was allowed in. British diplomats who were initially barred were also eventually allowed to enter.

Monday, November 26, 2007

No Teddy Bear Picnic For You

Tragedy or farce, or something in between? You decide:

A British schoolteacher has been arrested in Sudan accused of insulting Islam’s Prophet, after she allowed her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad. Colleagues of Gillian Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, said she made an “innocent mistake” by letting the six and seven-year-olds choose the name.... The BBC’s correspondent Amber Henshaw said Ms Gibbons’ punishment could be up to six months in jail, 40 lashes or a fine.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Gentle Warning From Your Father

On Andrew Sullivan's blog at the Atlantic is a list of some pithy quotes from James Madison, the father of our Constitution.

Here's one gem to mull over as you begin your post-Thanksgiving week:
If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.

I'm not saying anything. I'm just saying.

But What KIND of Mad Scientist Are You?

Oh, sure, I'd like to think I'm more of a Peter Venkman type. But the data don't lie...

Your Score: Ray Stantz

172 Heart, 159 Genius, 121 Cool, 149 Excitability

Dr. Raymond Stantz - (Dan Aykroyd)
Ghostbusters (1984)

You are Ray Stantz! The heart of the Ghostbusters. You're well-meaning, smart, and you have a childlike sense of wonder about the world. You might get taken advantage of, every once in a while, but it's okay... You're doing your part to help save the world.

"Gozer the Gozerian... good evening. As a duly designated representative of the City, County and State of New York, I order you to cease any and all supernatural activity and return forthwith to your place of origin or to the nearest convenient parallel dimension."

Other scientific possibilities:
Gary Wallace
Wyatt Donnelly
Peter Venkman
Jordan Cochran
Egon Spengler
Doc Brown
Newton Crosby
Paul Stephens
Ben Crandall
Wayne Szalinkski
Winston Zeddemore
Ben Jabituya
Lazlo Hollyfeld
Ray Stantz
Buckaroo Banzai
Chris Knight

Link: The Which 80s Movie Scientist Test written by xxyl on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Finally, Enlightenment

Here is a fun little quiz from USA Today on the presidential race, the issues involved, and who stands where. Answer the questions and find out which candidates are closest to you in beliefs on a variety of hot-button issues. And if USA Today says it, it must be true.

Somehow, I ended up with Mike Huckabee at #1, Mike Gravel at #2, and Dennis Kucinich at #3. I'm not sure how that's even possible, and I sure as hell can't figure out what it says about me. Nothing good, probably.

You can retake the quiz, or adjust some issue slides to see a potentially different result. Changing only two answers--on Iraq and Taxation--and changing both positions in only very mild ways--I somehow managed to swap out Huckabee and replace him with Chris Dodd. Now I'm even more confused.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

And Please Tell Me THIS is a Joke

This is just awful. I'm hoping it's not true but I find myself unable to dismiss it That thing of which I have no more.
The U.S. Military is demanding that thousands of wounded service personnel give back signing bonuses because they are unable to serve out their commitments. To get people to sign up, the military gives enlistment bonuses up to $30,000 in some cases. Now men and women who have lost arms, legs, eyesight,
hearing and can no longer serve are being ordered to pay some of that money back.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Please Tell Me This is a Joke

And I thought the Australians were sensible people. Sigh.
THERE'LL be no ho, ho, ho this Christmas. Aspiring Santas have been told not to use the term "ho" because it could be seen as derogatory to women.

Thirty trainees at a Santa course in Adelaide last month,
held by recruitment company Westaff, were urged to replace the traditional festive greeting with "ha, ha, ha".
I'm hoping this is just a bad joke that some idiot newspaperman took seriously.

Hi! Bye!

Thing 1 did not get a strong, early start in bike-riding. Our neighborhood in New York was too hilly for street-riding, and while we did go down to the park on occasion, it wasn't often enough for him to work his way out of training wheels. Now we're in Tucson, where spring was so hectic it flew by, and only a lunatic rides a bike during summer.

At last it is autumn (yes, it took that long), and we were determined to help him get up on the bike. Last Sunday, we took the boys to a nearby park. Thing 1 rode around on the training wheels for a bit, but the bike was very wobbly. After all, he's seven now, and far too big to be riding on flimsy little wheels.

I took them off and reassured him that everything was going to be fine, and that I wasn't going to let go of him. I ran alongside the bike, holding on to him, but he panicked. "I can't do it," he said. "The OT told me I couldn't ride a bike without training wheels." He begged me to put the wheels back on.

The Wife had taken Thing 1 to see an occupational therapist to help with fine and gross motor skills, and especially with his fidgety-ness, which she claimed (and the OT seconded) was due in part to moving from crawling to walking too quickly as an infant. But I couldn't believe the woman would have told my boy that he flat-out couldn't do something.

The Wife agreed--that's not what had been said. "Well," I said, "that's what he heard. And now he's convinced himself that he can't do this." She went off to talk with him for a while. When she came back, she said, "he's willing to try it three more times, as long as he's going downhill."

Good enough. I took the training wheels off again and we went up a gentle slope. We ran down the hill together, and after about five feet, I was able to let go of the bike. When we got to the bottom, I told him that I hadn't been holding on, and he was amazed.

Well, we didn't do it three times; we did it thirteen times. Down the hill, then straight across the park, then up the hill, then around behind the baseball field. And he fell a couple of times, but not badly. And when he did fall, I said, "You can get upset and throw the bike away, or you can brush yourself off and try it again till you get it right--it's up to you."

It's been a week now, and he's gone riding every single day. We can't keep him off of it.

Yesterday, he zoomed past where we were sitting and said, "Hi! Bye!" And I said to myself: Well, there it is. There's child-rearing in a nutshell. Because everything he learns is a step away from me and into his own, independent life--from talking to walking to reading to bike-riding to whatever comes next. He is as happy to say Bye! as he is to say Hi!

And he should be. I remember what it felt like--the freedom to just go--wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. To be free, and independent, and alone--alone to go places, or to go nowhere--to stop along the way and look at the trees, or read a book, nothing.

I was very lucky, apparently. From what I hear and read, that kind of alone-time is rare and getting rarer. Kids always have someone watching them, guiding them, planning events for them. Which is great. But I loved those times when I had nothing to do and nowhere to go--even when I had no one to do things with. I loved being able to head out on my bike--or on foot through the woods--or onto the lake in a rowboat--all by myself, to explore and imagine and dream. I would march through the woods and find rocks to climb on and clearings to play in. I would row out to my own little Tom Sawyer island in the middle of the lake. And I would bike around our neighborhood for hours--sometimes with no destination, just to ride.

Looking back now, part of me is horrified at the freedom my parents gave me. In today's context, it's unimaginable. He could have drowned! He could have fallen! He could have gotten lost! All true, I suppose. And in many cases, it would have been hours or days before anyone found me.

Fortunately, none of those terrible things ever happened to me.

I'm sure I won't feel safe giving Thing 1 quite that much latitude--the world being what it is today. But I hope I'll be able to give him some. Enough that he can feel the world is wide and free and his for the exploring, and that there is time enough and room enough in it for his own, uninterrupted dreaming.

In the meantime, he takes practice spins around the nest, improving his technique and strengthening his wings.

Hi, little bird!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I Pledge Allegiance

To whom do we owe allegiance, as educators? It seems like a simple question, and most of you out there who are teachers--if not all of you--will say "the kids," to the point where it really needs to be capitalized (The Kids) and maybe even have a registered trademark symbol after it.

And we all believe it. Why not? And we're all good and committed educators, so I take your word for it, and I hope you take mine.

And yet, we know that there are some not-so-good and not-so-committed educators out there, all of whom probably say--and believe--the same thing. And so...what's the difference between us and them? And are we so sure there is a difference?

What does it mean to commit yourself to serving the kids? And who are the kids, anyway? Your kids, in your class? Or all the kids in the school, regardless of whether you see them or not? Or all the kids in the district, regardless of whether you ever meet them or not?

When I was teaching, I saw countless instances of teachers shutting their ears and their doors to one initiative or directive after another, to do what they considered best for their students. I was one of them. In my more traditional school, when I thought the principal was wrong about something (and that was daily), I did what I thought was right. In my more collaborative and progressive school, when I thought my colleagues were wrong, I stopped meeting with them to plan lessons. And believe me, I was no loose cannon. I was merely doing what everyone around me was doing.

I've seen principals try to create a sense of school unity and spirit among teachers, but those moments are rare, and usually fruitless. The system is not set up for that. One's allegiance, as a teacher, is with the union, not the school. After all, you can be removed from a school and sent elsewhere fairly easily, when someone with more seniority comes along. You can choose to move to another school yourself, and bump someone else from their position because you have more seniority. Seniority can force administrators to make staffing decisions that are harmful to the students or the school, because the desires of the teachers outweigh...everything. And in the hard times, the bad times, you're expected to walk out and go on strike with your union brethren (and sistren), regardless of what may be going on in your school. It is utterly irrelevant whether or not your administration is taking good care of you and your colleagues. That team is not important. It should not even be thought of as a team.

The union doesn't want you to feel allegiance to your school--because allegiance is a big word--a heavy word. When you pledge your allegiance to someone or something, you are handing over more than what is comfortable. You are handing over--to some extent--your autonomy. You are saying that their needs are your needs; their fight is your fight, and that you will do what is necessary for the common cause. When you pledge allegiance to your country, and your country calls, you are expected to answer--with your life, if necessary. We do not--or we should not--make such pledges lightly. And no teacher union wants you to feel that kind of a bond with your school or your principal. It weakens the union's collective bargaining strength. It is supposed to be us against them--labor vs. management--and you may not--you must not--make a separate peace.

Except, in fact, there is no "us." Because teachers, in most of the schools I've known and visited, do not feel any sense of collegiality, comradeship, or common cause. Where money is concerned, they'll throw their lot in with the union. In all other cases, it's every man for himself. And woman. And, therefore, sadly, child. Other teachers may be acceptable to eat lunch with from time to time--but don't ask me to make any sacrifices for them...or to limit my own autonomy for some so-called "greater good."

So, as we said at the beginning, we ally ourselves with our kids. Or we say we do. I wonder how true it is. I've seen so many teachers fight bitterly and angrily for the right to continue doing what they've always been doing, and in so many cases, I've felt as though what is driving the fight is the desire to do what they want to do. "Don't talk to me about need. This is what I want." I've seen teachers scream against core curriculum because they are afraid they'll lose their freedom and creativity in the though the adult's freedom and creativity are the ends in though the teacher's pleasure and amusement is more important than the student's learning. I've seen teachers scream at a superintendent that their individual happiness and contentment is a more important concern than the economic viability of the district as a whole. Give me a raise, though the heavens fall.

I've seen this before. When I worked with a small, not-for-profit theater company, we had actors who were bitterly offended about not getting paid for their work. I would have loved to pay them, and myself. But we were a tiny, shoestring business, raising just barely enough money to put on our shows. From where I stood, as a company officer, we were all working very hard just to raise enough money to let these people do what they loved doing. From where they stood, though, it didn't matter how much more hard work was required, as long as no one expected them to do it; they wanted the cash. "Pay me a stipend, even if we have to cancel the show."

Lunacy? Of course. But it shows where their ultimate allegiance lay. And because they could not see beyond themselves, they ended up hurting...themselves.

What if a curriculum audit found that what you were doing in your classroom, while fascinating to some students and personally rewarding to you, did not fit in with what was being done elsewhere at that grade level--and that, as a consequence, the students in your classes were moving on to the next year under- or mis-prepared...and were having trouble right now in other core classes because of what you were or were not doing? Would you teach different material? What if a comparison of test scores made it alarmingly clear that something about your pedagogical choices and techniques was less effective than those of your neighbors--that certain practices you disliked were yielding better results than those you liked? Would you teach a different way?

Of course you would. You are all wonderful people. But don't kid yourselves--not everyone would. I've seen scores of teachers who have refused to budge an inch, even when presented with information that what they were doing was harmful to students in the context beyond their classrooms. Because to them, in their real, day-to-day lives, there was no context beyond their own classrooms. They were islands. It was just them and their kids.

Of course, they claimed that everyone outside their classroom was a fool, and that no one outside really knew their kids--knew what they needed. But it was a lie. They simply used the kids as a front--as a mask. They did what they wanted to do, because they wanted to do it.

Don't get me wrong--these are also teachers who stay late, who work hard, who spend their own money on classroom supplies and books. This is not about laziness, or lack of commitment. It is about limited commitment. It is about the inability or unwillingness to commit to anything beyond a specified orbit--beyond the place where you are in ultimate control.

And just like with my actor friends, that illustion of ultimate control ultimately hurts them. Because when every teacher is a free agent, doing whatever he or she thinks is best, then every September is utter chaos. Five times a day, thirty kids erupt into the room with no common language, no common skills, no common background. And the teachers bitch and moan about all the other teachers--the lack of discipline, the idiocy of the choices. For months they roll their eyes and say "what were they thinking?"

Well, you know what they were thinking. They were thinking, "I'm alone in this." They were thinking, "I know what's best." They were thinking, "I do what makes me happy."

Pogo Possum warned us, years ago: we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

You Are Here

Feeling lost? Confused? Unsure of where you are in this dense wood through which we journey, in our three score and ten years (or whatever), and where you should be going?

Well, I can't give you any detailed and personal answers, but here's a road map to get you started.


Sunday, November 4, 2007


At the urging of The Wife, I am participating this year, for the first time, in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Quality is not important--reaching the goal is. Of course, I do care about the quality as well.

So far it's been a lot of fun. And since this is a public endeavor (I have to post my word count nightly), I thought I'd share it with any interested parties out there who read this.

Click here to check on my daily word count...and to read the novel in progress if you so desire. It's a mystery, entitled "Cool for Cats."

Friday, November 2, 2007

Read a ___ Book

(Hey, there's still time to add your Perfect Movie Moment to the post below. As of this posting, we have a total of, well, none)

I'm at the annual meeting of the Council of the Great City Schools this week, in beautiful Nashville, Tennessee. At lunch today, we were treated to an exhortation from the Reverend Jesse Jackson, which was, as you can imagine, 50% inspiring and 50% depressing.

One of the things he complained about was the video below, which he said had been broadcast on BET and was now on YouTube. I went to see it after his speech, and I thought I should share it with you.

Jackson was mightily offended by the video, and said it was degrading and depraved. He especially objected to the repetition of "Read a motherfucking book." He used it as an example of educators' sad history of Just Taking It. He said, "If ten school boards across the country called BET and told them they found this video offensive, you know they would have taken it off. But we don't complain. We don't stand up for what we believe. We don't fight."

Having now seen the video, I find the issue very interesting. If you haven't seen it before, take a look. Then we'll talk.

I think what it's trying to do is say all the things Bill Cosby (the currently vilified and maligned Bill Cosby) is trying to say, but in language aimed more directly at its target, rather than the parents. Is the language harsh? Well, sure--but no more so than in the way any teenager talks to any other teenager. Is the imagery degrading to women? Well, sure--but no more so than the imagery in any rock or rap videos. Are the messages positive and important? I would say HELL YES. And who dares say them? Could I have said any of these things to my students (other than "read a book")? No way. NO WAY. These are things that only a parent or a friend or a very close adult (coach, mentor) can say. And to say them--to say them and have them heard--they have to be said in the listener's language.

But Jesse Jackson was offended, not by the message, but by the medium. I wonder if he feels as though the vernacular is passing him by. I would worry too. I do worry. I would like to think that soaring rhetoric and old-time, passionate sermonizing can still resonate, can still move people. But if you find that they can't, well...use what works, right? What's more important--that you teach, or that they learn?

And what did the rest of the audience think about what he was saying? Well, walking out of the hall, I saw one African American woman shake her head and tell her friend, "Honestly, for a minister to use such language. It's just not right."

For more on this, go to YouTube and see the piece that ran on CNN, where someone says, "People who aren't in our community are not going to see this as satire." I find that sad. But there are a lot of points of view on this.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Perfect Movie Moment

There are times in our lives when everything seems too perfectly perfect--too well staged, too well lit, too well written to be happening in mere life. Perfect Movie Moments.

Here's one of mine. It's a longish story, with the Perfect Movie Moment at the end.

I was teaching Conversational English in the brand-new Republic of Slovakia, which had split from the Czech Republic about two weeks before my arrival. I was posted to a small village, all by myself, after two days of orientation with about thirty other people. During my stay, I spent most of my weekends traveling around Eastern Europe or visiting orientation-friends who were living in more interesting towns than mine. Making such plans was always tricky, as few of us had phones (in my town, the only phone option was to place calls in the public booths in the post office), and there was no such thing (yet) as email. Most of the time, we communicated by telegram, which was charmingly old-fashioned and occasionally hopeless, since a Slovak functionary who didn't speak English had to transcribe the message on both ends.

Most of the teachers in our program were either fresh out of college or recently retired. At just-about-to-turn-30, I was one of the oddballs. There were two others like me, and I clung to them for dear life.

Deep in the wintertime, one of the recent retirees sent word that the spa in the town to which she had been posted would allow her to bring in a group of us for the Full Treatment. This resulted in the first and only reunion of our entire group.

Piestany, the spa town, was renowned for the curative effects of its waters. Or, if you wanted to be cynical about it, it was what was available to most people, given the deplorable state of health care in the country.

But people did believe. Witness the statue that stands outside the spa.

We arrived en masse, and our charming host billeted us at various places around the town. I stayed with my fellow oddballs at someone's flat--I can't remember whose. We ate and drank and had a fine old time, the first night, and woke up early the next morning to face The Treatment.

The spa treatment we received was as follows:

1. mineral bath
2. mud bath
3. lie under a heat lamp, wrapped in tin foil
4. brutal massage by a former Olympic wrestler
5. shower.

The mud bath was by far the oddest part of the treatment. Boys and girls were sequestered, then led into giant, domed rooms with shallow pools of warmish mud. We bathed there naked. Now this was strange on a number of levels at the same time. In the first place, I had never seen any of my colleagues, male or female, in the nude--nor was I expecting to do so on this day. Secondly, bathing in shallow, warm mud (clothed or naked) is just...strange. Bathing naked, in shallow, warm mud, with near-strangers, is massively strange.

Well, all inhibitions aside (and I assure you, by the end of all of this Thing they were aside), the whole treatment felt wonderful. When we exited the spa into the bright winter day, we all felt inhumanly relaxed, at peace, and light on our feet. We walked through town and found a place to eat lunch. Then someone suggested that we take a walk in the woods.

This is how good the damned treatment felt: a bunch of wussy westerners was willing to walk through the woods--in Eastern Europe--in February--without a moment's hesitation.

Our charming hostess knew of a road that went up into a hill and out the other side, onto a road that would lead back to town. So off we hiked.

The road was rural but not deserted. There were small houses and farms all along the way, all silent and snow-covered, with smoke curling out of chimneys. At one house, we saw a man standing on the roof, sweeping snow down to the ground. He waved to us cheerfully, and we happily waved back--cheer having been something we were finding in short supply throughout that country.

The hike went on much longer than any of us had anticipated, and were were all starting to wonder if it would end on the promised road or, perhaps, a gingerbread house occupied by a hungry witch. Eventually, though, we did emerge from the woods onto a road. Across from us was a roadhouse, small and quaint, but open--which pleased us all immensely, as we were cold and hungry and thirsty.

We walked in, sat down, and started to warm up, little realizing that all eyes were upon us. Clearly, this wasn't the kind of place that out-of-town tourists frequented. But the surprise and curiosity led to friendliness rather than hostility, and very soon we were everybody's best friends. A small band started to play, and everyone started to sing. Somehow, we were all just drunk enough to sing along in a language we barely knew. This scored us even more points with the local crowd.

We stayed until closing time, which was right at sunset, and walked out with the patrons and the musicians to wait for the local bus to take us back to town. We all piled on the bus, whereupon the musicians struck up once again and everyone started singing--musicians, former bar patrons, bus passengers, and us. And when the bus arrived in town, we followed the band to their next gig--all of us--a twilight parade through the wintry streets of Piestany.

Well, that's my story. If you've had a similar "this could have (or should have) been in a movie" moment, add it below in comments, why doncha? I'd love to hear it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

And Then There's This

Damn Kids

Accurate prophecy or alarmist tripe? You decide:
We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

It's gotten so bad that, as my friend nears retirement,
he says he is very seriously considering moving out of the country so as to escape what he sees will be the surefire collapse of functioning American society in the next handful of years due to the absolutely irrefutable destruction, the shocking — and nearly hopeless — dumb-ification of the American brain. It is just that bad.

Well, no, I don't think it is. But I can see how anyone who has been in the Ed Biz for a while might feel downhearted. Look at California: there are thousands of high school students who cannot pass an exit exam requiring nothing more than middle school math. They take the test again and again and again and again, all the way up to 12th grade--and sometimes beyond--and still they can't pass it. Thousands.

Look at the universities, where students are being asked to take remedial courses--for no college credit--to re-learn (or finally learn) the math or language arts skills they never got in high school.

Look at the corporate world. When I worked for Large Investment Bank as a secretary (sorry: Banking Assistant...all job titles having been selfesteemed for our comfort), I saw year after year of entry-level hires who couldn't write to save their lives. The vice presidents had to nurse them through every document they created. And these were, without exception, Ivy League graduates.

And let's not even get into our increasing historical and scientific illiteracy.

Something is definitely going on, and what I find interesting about it is that it's going on at a very basic level. Everyone is in a panic about Algebra, but if you dig a little bit, you find that the real problem is with basic number sense. We want our kids to take Algebra earlier, so that they can all move into Calculus...but they can't even make change. And we want young adults to read sophisticated technical manuals, understand complex legislation being proposed, and navigate through the treacherous waters of political opinion-mongering...but they can't even make it through a page of Dickens, or write a coherent paragraph.

In our rush to sophistication, or in our love of Grand Theories, are we simply shortchanging the basics?

The Wife had a student teacher, years back, who, when given the chance to work with 11th graders for the first time, decided to introduce them to deconstruction. These were kids who were still struggling to construct something. But that didn't matter. She had learned Cool Stuff in grad school, and she wanted to pass it along.

There was a teaching assistant when I was in grade school who was notorious for using his section of Introduction to Theater as a way to expound Marxist Theory--or his version of it, anyway. For him, every play in the history of drama was nothing more than a series of master/slave relationships and domination of the poor by the rich. It's certainly a valid lens through which to view literature--but it's a lens. And it was the only one he was providing to his students--students who had no prior context or exposure to the material.

Maybe context is the whole thing, here. We're too busy, too fascinated, too Beyond It All to take the time to lay the groundwork and establish deep context for students. We want them to take courses in the Latino Civil Rights Movement in high school, when they haven't yet gotten a grasp on the basic chronology of world or American history. But nobody wants to teach that--it's boring. It's old fashioned. It's not progressive. We all want them to do critical thinking, but none of us wants to teach them critical thinking.

Let me ask you this: if we wiped out all the state-specific high school exit exams that have blossomed under the sun of No Child Left Behind, and replaced them with a single, national test for 17-year-olds that assessed nothing more complex than reading comprehension at an 8th grade level, simple paragraph writing, and pre-Algebra level math, what percentage of our students do you think would pass it? More than 50, do you think?

I agree with the writer of this article that a population that cannot interpret or advance a logical argument is a population of sheep, if not outright slaves. Witness how many people swallow O'Reilly, Hannity, and Limbaugh (yes, and Michael Moore) without any willingness or ability to question what they say. But these are complex skills that have to be built from the ground up. There needs to be a clearly articulated progression of instruction with an eye towards the eventual goal: What do we want our 18-year olds (or our 22-year olds, if you want to hold our colleges accountable to anything) to know and be able to do? How long does it take to get there? What are the steps along the way?

And teachers are willing to have that discussion. They are. But only if they get to decide what that goal is and what those steps are. Each one of them. Separately. Independently.

You know, education is not assembly line work, by any means. But there is an end product, and it is the result of the work of a large number of people. And if each worker in this particular "line" is so in love with his or her job and how they perform it that they can't see or care about the end product, then the end product ain't gonna work.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Women in Film

If you have not seen this already, check it out. There is interesting analysis of it in this week's New Yorker magazine, but you can decide for yourself what the composite here really means or communicates...if anything.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Eleven and Counting

Last Friday was my eleventh anniversary. Here's a little video to honor the event and illustrate my feelings about it.

Perhaps if I'm very very good in this life, the Karma Boys will allow me to come back as an otter. But I'm not taking the deal unless The Wife gets to come back with me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The World is Not Enough

The baby on the airplane is crying again. This time, it's a deep, anguished, guttural cry--part gurgle, part scream--and I can tell it's not going to go away any time soon. My immediate thoughts are: 1) selfish (so much for getting any sleep on this flight), and 2) self-righteous (don't you have a pacifier for the damn kid? A bottle? anything? What were you THINKING?). Other thoughts come later.

It's a full day later now, and sitting, alone, at dinner, I think back to that baby--or, rather, my experience of that baby--and my new thoughts are: this is an experience that doesn't really exist.

Which is nonsense. It happened, and it was experienced by a couple hundred very annoyed people...not to mention the baby itself. But here's the thing: I don't know those people. I will never see those people again. Even if I did, I wouldn't recognize them enough to say, "Hey, you were on that flight with the screaming baby..."

No. As far as I am concerned (and let's face it, reality comes down to nothing more than those things about which you are concerned), I'm the only one who experienced it. I can tell people about it (look--I just did), but I can't share recollection of it with anyone, because no one within the limited orbit of my life shared that experience.

And so the event stays inside my head, and if I want or need to think about it, I can pull it up, look at it, mull it over, and put it away in memory. But it never leaves my head, and it doesn't exist for anyone else that I know or care about. It is completely internal to me. And as such, it is a very lonely thing.

I was thinking about this at dinner tonight, a full day later, because at dinner--at the close of a long and hectic day of professional development and all the attendant hassles--I was alone again. Usually when I travel for work, I am traveling to a place where colleagues are already in place, and I have people with whom I can have a drink, eat dinner, and so on. Not this time. Although I am in a beautiful, some would say magical place on this trip, it is still quite lonely at the end of the day. Where I go, I go alone. Where I sit, I sit alone.

And the beautiful, magical nature of the place makes it even worse, because there is no one with whom to share it. What a waste of a sunset, I think, when there's no one I care for close at hand, to whom I can say, "Look at that sunset!"

Not that I don't appreciate and enjoy the sunset, or the waves, or the mountains, or any such lovely things, when I'm in their midst, even alone. I absolutely do. And there have been times in my life when I have deliberately set out to be in the midst of such places, very much alone, because that's what I wanted or needed.

But I'm an old, married guy now. I'm used to being part of two. Or, really, four--because I miss my boys, too--even after taking care of them solo for nine crazy days, I don't say to myself, "Thank God I'm away from that!" but, instead, "The boys would love this."

Maybe that's why I wrote plays, when I wrote plays--to share, if not autobiographical experiences, at least ideas and emotions. And perhaps the absence of that outlet makes this occasional isolation more intense. I don't know.

Annie Dillard talks about locating the meaning of life, such as it is, in the witnessing of the beauty of the world--because what point is there in God's beauty if there is no one there to appreciate it? And perhaps, as a corollary, one could add that there is no point in appreciating the beauty of the world if you cannot share it, and your feelings about it, with your fellow creatures, and add it to your stock of memories, metaphors, shared experiences, shared language, and history. Perhaps the beginning of civilization is really just the ability to say, "Remember that time...?"

My grandmother, who was a great lady but who could also be bitter and spiteful and petty when the mood hit her--or when such behaviors could produce Massive Jewish Guilt in her offspring--used to complain that when she visited our family, she felt alienated by the shorthand with which we spoke to each other--the deep, broad, and complex web of shared associations and memories and jokes that bound us together as a family. It was not the DNA; it was not the house; it was the day to day life we lived together that drew a line around us and defined who was In and who was Out. And my grandmother could feel--viscerally--that she was out. And she hated it. She tried to buy her way in with gifts, and cajole her way in with guilt, but it wasn't a favor to be dispensed or withheld. You had to be present for it, and present continually, day after day. There was no other way to obtain it.

And isn't that what we pine for in relationships, and mourn the most when they dissolve? Isn't the hardest thing about dating again, after a long-term relationship dies, the re-building of that web, and that pain you feel when you realize that the other person doesn't yet get your jokes?

We always say--to the point of cliche--that what we're looking for is someone who knows us. But what that really turns into is a laundry list of traits and facts and preferences. Here--memorize this. There will be a test. But I think what we're really looking for--which we simply can't get ahead of time, or guaranteed, or in any other way but by putting in massive time together--is someone who knows where we've been, because they've been there with us. That's who our true friends are. That's who our life partners are.

It's not just "I am yours and you are mine," or even "what's mine is yours, and what's yours is mine." It's, "The world is not the world without you."