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."

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Resurrection of Skinky

Yeah, look closely--he's there in the cage (first picture), and Thing 1's hands in the second. I guess he was hiding deep in his substrate somewhere, perhaps under the big wood chips, all this time. I don't know. When had didn't emerge or eat his food for 24 hours, I felt around and then put a plastic spatula in there to move things around, and I felt nothing. And the whole rest of the week, he didn't come out. So I'm to blame, but I remain confused.

Meanwhile, I owe Thing 2 a new hat.

This does, however, raise a creepy point: the babysitter got Thing 2 to confess to something he didn't do...and to believe, thereafter, that he had really done it.

One must be very careful with small things...people and lizards.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What Kind of Reader Are You?

A wee online quizee for your weekend pleasure.

Here are my massively unsurprising results:

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Literate Good Citizen

You read to inform or entertain yourself, but you're not nerdy about it. You've read most major classics (in school) and you have a favorite genre or two.

Dedicated Reader
Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Book Snob
Fad Reader
Non-Reader">What Kind of Reader Are You?">Create Your Own Quiz

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Skink Story

At the annual reptile and amphibian show and sale last week, Thing 1 became enamored of the Australian Blue-Tongued Skink, a particularly silly-looking lizard with stubby feet and, yes, a blue tongue. The man holding the skink assured us that it was laughably easy to take care of ("Give him some dog food every coupla days, that's about it") and nearly as harmless as a stuffed animal. Thing 1 has been craving a pet ever since he had to give up his gerbils when we moved West, so we relented and purchased Skinky for him.

My son and Skinky quickly became good friends. They would sit together on the couch, watching shows on Animal Planet, or work together on obstacle courses on the kitchen table. Thing 1 was very gentle and careful with his new pet, and was only disappointed at the animal's desire to burrow under the substrate in his terrarium for most of the day, emerging only to eat and to bask in the heat of the heat lamp.

Two days ago, I started to be worried about Skinky's health. I could see the skink-shaped bulge in the substrate, but he didn't seem to be coming out to eat. That evening, after the boys went to bed, I opened the cage and tried to rouse him...only to discover that there was nothing in the bulge but wood chips. I felt around all over the cage. No skink.

Well, he couldn't have escaped by himself. The terrarium was locked, and his stubby little legs couldn't have gotten him out anyway. One of the boys must have taken him out the previous day and...what? Dropped him by accident, and then been too embarrassed to say anything? Released him into the wild? I had no idea.

It couldn't have been Thing 1--he would have said something. And anyway, he had spent the day telling his grandmother all about the lizard, and how he wanted her to see it. Thing 2, on the other hand, had been awake early in the morning that day--before either Thing 1 or I had gotten up. He had had the time to do the crime. But could he really have reached all the way into the cage and gotten Skinky out? And what would he have done with him?

The next morning, after a semi-exhaustive search under every bed and couch and behind every shelf, I asked Thing 2 if he had taken the lizard out of its cage. He said no--and betrayed not a hint of guilt. He said, "Maybe bad guys came in and took him." Uh-huh. In fact, when we got to his school, he accosted one of his friends in the hallway and said, "Did you take Skinky?"

All right, I said to myself, so he's a sociopath. At age 3.

Thing 1 seemed to take the news pretty well. He was sad and worried, but not heartbroken. He had no illusions, though--he knew his little brother had done it. The more the little one protested, the more Thing 1 said, "I can see right through you." This made the very literal-minded Thing 2 shout, quite indignantly, "No you can't!"

Somehow, the babysitter was able to get the truth out of him last night. And when I spoke with him this morning, he admitted it. He had taken Skinky out of his cage, opened the front door, and let him go. "He's cold blooded," he explained to me. "He needed some air." Then, seeing the look on my face, he added, "It was an accident?"

No, I said, as gently as I could. Dropping him might be an accident. Taking him out of his cage, opening the front door, and leaving him outside--that's a bad thing, but it's no accident.

I tried to explain why it was such a Bad Thing--taking what's not yours, hurting a living thing, lying...all that. It only kinda sorta made an impression. I made him apologize to his brother. Then I made him bring me his beloved and treasured pirate hat, which I cut to ribbons in front of him. He looked devastated. I said, "I know this is something that you love. Well, your brother loved his pet. And you took it away from him, and you hurt it, and now he will never have it again. And if you feel sad right now, that's exactly how your brother is feeling."

That seemed to do the trick.

And as I walked away to make their breakfast, what did I hear the bereft Thing 1 say to his little brother? Not, "I hate you." Not, "How could you?" But: "That's okay. I'll get you a new pirate hat some day."

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Up on the Roof: Random Ramblings at 5 AM

My friend Maxley was Owen Wilson before there was Owen Wilson. In my little world at college, he was a rock star. Tall and thin, with a mop of red hair, a big nose, and a gangly walk, he was, nevertheless, a magnet for interesting guys and pretty girls--one of those charmed people for whom nothing ever seemed difficult and in whose path no obstacles ever seemed to be placed. I got to know him during our sophomore year when he decided--on a whim (which is how he decided everything) to get involved in theatre. Naturally, he was a natural, with a sense of ease and command on stage utterly unearned by training. We became friends later in that year, when I cast him in a play I had written. It was Maxley who taught me to sit on roofs.

I was thinking about Maxley last night on a flight home from Large, Unnamed Industrial City, where I had endured yet another of those vaguely unpleasant meetings where teachers gripe and snipe about how Impossible everything is and how it's All Our Fault. To get to this meeting the day before, I had woken up at 3:00 AM, taken a cold shower, and flown out at 5:00. This got me to Large, Unnamed Industrial City just in time for the meeting, which I managed to muddle through reasonably coherently. But after that, I collapsed. So on the flight home, I slept as much as I could, occasionally listening to music so as to drown out the intensely horrible, celebrity-gawking banalities coming from the teenage girls sitting behind me. One of the songs that came up on the IPod was "Up on a Roof."

I think it was the combination of that song and the East Coast, early autumn weather that set off the reverie. There's something about the beginnings of fall weather--the quality of the light, the hint of crispness in the air--that always triggers memory and nostalgia for me. Suddenly, listening to that particular song, I was back in Atlanta, sitting on a rooftop with Maxley and Chester and the other Large Personalities I knew back then. For Maxley, it was a way of getting away from it all and above it all (though from my point of view, he was always above it all). Get a different perspective, a different point of view. For Chester, it was just another place to indulge in public urination.

I remember a cast party where almost everyone got up on the roof. In fact, at one point, someone was choreographing a kick-line of some kind, with at least five or six people behind him, following his moves. I watched from the peak of the roof, from my usual Artistic Remove. It's where I spent a lot of my time--too much of my time: slightly removed from the action, watching, taking notes, turning it all into fiction. As the Wife likes to say, quoting a song, I was The Boy With The Beard In The Corner. Sometimes I even had the beard.

But being up on the roof also made me part of some exclusive club--part of the in-crowd. So I was both in and out. Did people realize, or sense, that I was tangential, that even within that crowd, I was the boy with beard in the corner? Probably not. It never occurred to me even to think about it at the time--for me, it was the first time in my life that I had ever been part of any in-crowd, however tangentially.

It was always quieter up on the roof. You were just high enough above the traffic and the party noise that you could have a conversation, or just sit in happy silence together, beer in hand, watching the world go by.

My last roof was the roof of my own house--the first house I owned, as part of my Starter Marriage. We hosted a New Year's Eve party, picking up the hosting duty from Maxley, who had left town that year. Somehow, without trying very hard, we attracted close to a hundred people--people who had been at all of Maxley's parties over the years, and lots of people I had never seen before. I found a couple of strangers in my attic, making out. I found a guy in a tuxedo in my kitchen, cooking black-eyed peas. Late in the evening, Starter Wife informed me that Chester and several other people were sitting on our roof, even though she had asked them very politely not to do so. Of course, asking Chester anything very politely was her first mistake. With Chester, a rolled up magazine whacked against his nose was always a better bet. I climbed out to talk to them about this infraction. And I stayed out there for an hour or more.

I should have known right then that I wasn't ready for marriage--or at least that marriage. Unfortunately, it would take another two years to figure it out.

Maxley is out in Los Angeles now, with his wife and two beautiful girls. I haven' t seen him in years, even though I'm now living much closer to the west coast. In fact, I've gone back and forth to LA at least ten times in the past year for work. We tried to get together once, but work stuff kept intruding and I had to cancel our dinner plans. We email each other very occasionally. More often, I see his face pop up on TV commercials--or someone else will email me to alert me to the fact that Maxley is on TV.

Now it's six o'clock, and the house is stirring. The Wife is up and about, and Things 1 and 2 will soon be awake. Almost time to make the boys breakfast. Almost time to get them dressed. Almost time to take them to a birthday party for their friends.

The past fades away, and the present takes over and makes its demands. As it should.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Culture of Death

All politics and root causes aside, what does it say about a culture when the video below can be shown proudly on TV? When the actions filmed are celebrated and held up for emulation?

It says, at the very least, that we live in very different worlds. But we knew that.

I have to wonder, though: Did anyone watching this back in the Middle East see the same insane disconnect that I did, between the words of the introduction and the actions of the video clip? Did anyone say, "If this is what we celebrate, as a people, then we are doomed"?

And you can argue with me that "all politics and root causes aside" is precisely my problem. You can argue that only an understanding of the politics and the root causes can make this video seem sane and rational. But I would argue back that no politics or root causes make it sane. I do not forgive this, or make accomodation for this, or say, "You have to understand the context."

Whether you blame the Palestinians or the Israelis--or a combination of the two--for the predicament of the people living in Gaza and the West Bank, the fact is that many people--far too many people--in far too many times and places of the world--have lived lives of desperation, lives of limitation, lives where they did not have sufficient personal or political freedom. Few of have them responded by training their toddlers to become murderers.