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.