Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Talk

So I'm working in my home office today, and Thing 1 is puttering around, on his winter break from third grade. He's looking at things through his microscope, building things out of clay, watching the Super Chicken theme song over and over again on You Tube--the usual. He wanders into my office, waving a cardboard wrapping paper tube around as a light saber, and asks me the following question:

"Dad, how do people have babies after they have a wedding? I mean, is it just like they have the wedding and then there are babies, or is it when they kiss, or what?"

And, professional educator that I am, I reply, "Whuh?"

I ask a clarifying question or two, just to make sure I'm where I think I am.

Says he, "I mean, how do the genes from the mom and the dad come together to make a baby? Is it when they kiss, or is it something else?"

Ok, well, that's clear enough. I ask him what made him wonder about such things.

"We were watching The Incredibles, and there's a scene where they get married, and then suddenly they have kids. And I know the babies have genes from both parents, so...how do they get them?"

So I explain the biology to him--because he is Science Boy and he actually does better if you start with the hard science, even at age 8. I even go to You Tube and find some video clips for him of sperm cells trying to fertilize an egg.

Of course, he's no fool. He wants to know how they got there in the first place. So I tell him. And, of course, because he is an 8-year-old boy, he finds the idea laughable and disgusting. I go online again (I was not expecting this conversation quite yet, so I didn't have an age-appropriate book ready) and find some cutaway pictures of male anatomy, so he can see that he has the plumbing for something other than urine.

"But he just point his penis and the sperm comes out at her like pee, or does he have to put it in her vagina?"

When I tell him it's the latter, he says, "Yuck." But, interestingly, not "YUCK!" Just simplly, matter-of-factly. Then he asks a few more questions. Then, satisfied, he walks away to play some more. As he leaves the office, I ask him if he has any other questions, or if there is anything else he wants to know.

"Nope," he says happily. "You answered everything." And off he goes.

Fine for him. I'm useless for work the rest of the day.

Home of the Brave

See, now I feel all guilty for inflicting that hideous rendition of "O Holy Night" on you. So here, have yourselves a fantastic little version of our national anthem, courtesy of an old friend I recently re-connected with through the magic of Facebook, Michelle Malone:

Michelle Malone sings the National Anthem

And so this is Christmas...

O, Holy Crap, this is good.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Who Can See Where We'll Be?

Looking at this amazing gallery of obsolete computers makes me remember my first TI calculator, back in middle school, which cost 75 dollars and seemed amazing at the time. 75 dollars! Now you can get a more functional calculator on a key ring, for pennies.

Not to mention the slightly ridiculous (even then) Kaypro--my very first computer. Ah, yes, I remember it fondly. The alleged portability. The teeny tiny screen with its even teenier, tinier letters. The way you couldn't see the results of any of your formatting on the screen--just the coding. Good times.

Makes you wonder what we might look back upon, thirty years from now, with amazement and amusement.

Friday, December 5, 2008

It's Funny Because It's True...or Maybe It's NOT Funny Because It's True

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Articles We Don't Need To Read

Because the headline is entertainment enough:

Guns N' Roses Lashes Out at Dr Pepper

This Just In

People feel more guilty about letting their TiVo'd television programs sit unwatched than they do about...well, whatever. Poverty, global warminig, shrinking 401Ks. You can fill in the blank.

Actually, the article doesn't make that comparison explicitly. But hell, if it's important enough to be on CNN.com, it must be important.

And thank God. I was beginning to worry that this recession was going to Change American Culture, or Shock Us Into Reality, or something. But no. At least, not yet. Have yourself a merry little Christmas shopping stampede...and pray that Hugh Laurie doesn't take it personally if you let an old episode of "House" get deleted.


You're sitting there and you have to weigh, well, 'I have to watch this thing, because I promised myself when I told TiVo ... I want the whole season of that! Go get it! And go get things like it!' And so you've committed to this decision and it's a burden -- suddenly your relaxation has turned into more work."

"TiVo guilt" isn't a new development -- a quick Google check offers
articles using the phrase dating back at least two years -- and it has its parallels with procrastination involving previous technologies. (Who didn't have a stack of never-watched VHS tapes collecting dust?)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cicero is More Than a Town in Illinois

For all of you language mavens out there, there's a lovely article from Great Britain about Obama's use of rhetoric, and its historical antecedents.

And yes, it is sad that only the British are well enough educated to a) write this story and b) think that the general public might want to read this story.

Here's a little teaser for you:

There have been many controversial aspects to this presidential election, but one thing is uncontroversial: that Obama's skill as an orator has been one of the most important factors - perhaps the most important factor - in his victory. The sheer numbers of people who have heard him speak live set him apart from his rivals - and, indeed, recall the politics of ancient Athens, where the public speech given to ordinary voters was the motor of politics, and where the art of rhetoric matured alongside democracy....

During the Roman republic (and in ancient Athens) politics was oratory. In Athens, questions such as whether or not to declare war on an enemy state were decided by the entire electorate (or however many bothered to turn up) in open debate. Oratory was the supreme political skill, on whose mastery power depended. Unsurprisingly, then, oratory was highly organised and rigorously analysed. The Greeks and Romans, in short, knew all the rhetorical tricks, and
they put a name to most of them....

Here's Why

Here's why you need to know all that history stuff. Because without it, this news story is just filler in the human-interest section:


When she came back from her White House visit recently, [Malia Obama] told her dad that she plans to work at the desk in the Lincoln bedroom. Obama, who is known to be an avid reader of Lincoln history, said his daughter told him "I'm going to sit at that desk, because I'm thinking that will inspire big thoughts."

That particular desk just happens to be where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And now it's where little Malia is going to do her homework. In the White House. Tell me that doesn't inspire just a teensy moment of awe.

From slavery to the presidency in 140 years. That's a long time for a person, but maybe not so long for a people. History may move slowly, but it moves.

Monday, November 24, 2008

You Are Here

How much of your country's history, civic structural organization, and founding philosophy do you think the general citizenry must know in order to keep the country functioning more-or-less as intended (or, if you're of that opinion--to return the country to a more-or-less functional place)?

There is an interesting civic literacy test online here. Go take it and see how you do. Here are the major findings of the test so far:
  • Of the 2,508 Americans taking ISI’s civic literacy test, 71% fail.
    Nationwide, the average score on the test is only 49%.
  • Americans age 25 to 34 score an average of 46% on the exam; Americans age 65 and over score 46%.
  • Americans earning an annual income between $30,000 and $50,000 score an average of 46%; Americans earning over $100,000 score 55%.
  • Liberals score an average of 49%; conservatives score 48%.
  • Americans who go to church once a week score an average of 48%; Americans who never go to church score 50%.
I'd say that's pretty appalling. I would argue that you cannot maintain a sense of nationhood and common culture in a country whose growth and energy are fed by a steady stream of immigration and an increasingly diverse population, without making an explicit and concerted effort to educate children and new immigrants about the ideas and ideals that (once?) defined us as a nation--especially since we are that very odd kind of nation that is defined by nothing other than common ideas and ideals.

I am one of those cusp babies, born at the very tail end of the baby boom and therefore not really of that generation culturally--and yet not really of GenX either. My political consciousness grew from childhood images of TV war footage, hippies wandering on the street, and Watergate. My introduction to politics and civics was tinged with an understanding that disappointment was to be expected. And yet, I was also raised singing old-fashioned patriotic songs, from "You're a Grand Old Flag" to "The Marine Corps Hymn." From the time I moved into Junior High School, at the bicentennial, I did not hear those songs again until 9/11--and then, only once.

My parents were Depression babies, WWII children, and Eisenhower teens. They missed the 60s entirely, being too busy raising children. They were not radicals. They did not raise radical children. And yet, they did not raise cynics either, though I had plenty of cynical peers, growing up. I read, and still read, Jefferson, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman without irony or snickering. I believe in the things they wrote, even if I see scant evidence of their legacy around me. I know I should see more evidence of it. I know things would be better if I did.

A nation that wishes to be both ignorant and free is a nation that never was and never will be. Somebody once said something like that. Brad Pitt, maybe?

UPDATE: Just BTW, here's my score on the test:
You answered 31 out of 33 correctly — 93.94 %

The two questions I missed were on economics. Figures.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Book of Dad: Recent Chapters

1.
I go for a run but am interrupted by The Wife, driving past me with Things 1 and 2, coming home from school. Thing 2 has contracted Coxsackie, which is highly contagious. Thing 1 is sitting next to him in the backseat, looking unhappy. I pull him out of the car, and the two of us walk home together. He skips happily ahead of me, arms swinging back and forth in his floppy, oversized shirt. Then he stops and turns around, with a very serious look on his face, and says, "I've got to get to a junkyard soon so I can start making my water-powered car. I just need to figure out how to get the water boiling to make it go." Then off he skips again.

2.
I am driving Things 1 and 2 to a restaurant, to have dinner with their grandfather and grandmother. They are in the back seat, playing with something they have decided is their shipboard computer. "We're going to the restaurant planet, right, Dad?" Thing 2 yells. "Right," I say. "Are we going into hyperspace yet?" "Not yet." "Can I count down when we're ready?" "You absolutely can."

3.
Thing 2 finds a dinosaur book he likes at a used bookstore where we have nearly endless credit from our last book dump. We bring it home and start to read it at bedtime, only to discover that it's a wacky, creationist account of the dinosaurs, explaining how they lived among people (specifically Noah), and how their fossils aren't as old as those dumb old scientists think. I whisk the book away and explain that it's full of mistakes (I may actually have said "lies") and that I need to return it. Thing 2 is devastated, even when I promise to get him a new dinosaur book. He is eventually placated, but Thing 1, the scientist in the family, and a serious student of all things dinosaur, asks me about the book for days thereafter: why would people write that? Why would they say things that aren't true? I think I'd almost rather have the sex talk.

4.
Thing 1 also has taped a picture of a triumphant Obama on his bedroom door. At age 8, he was VERY concerned about this election, and insisted on staying up to watch the returns. He fell asleep in our laps long before the end, but The Wife woke him up later to let him know Obama had won. He grinned and said, "Thank you, Mommy," and went back to sleep.

5.
"I love you all the way to the moon and back."
"Well, I love you all the way to the sun and back."
"Well, I love you all the way to the end of the galaxy and back."
"Well, I love you all the way to the end of the universe and back."
"Well, I love you all the way to the end of the universe, and then even farther than that, and then back again, and then out again, and then back again, a hundred times."
"Well, okay then. I guess you win. Good night, Sweeite."
"Good night, Daddy."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Well, at least they're taking it well...

From one corner of the right-wing blogosphere:

We’re now looking at the reign of an illegitimate usurper who has made a joke of the election process in this country. He has feloniously gathered hundreds of millions in illegal contributions, he has used his arm, the so-called “press” to do his business by refusing to do the people’s business which is to vet people and ask questions, he has used uniformed thugs to intimidate voters at polling stations, he has used corrupt organizations and willing accomplices in state
governments to illegally register ineligible people (quite a few of them dead and/or imaginary) to vote, and those are just some of his crimes against our Republic....At the top of that hierarchy, they have a neophyte empty suit now. A clown who, while capable of reciting every word that Bill Ayers ever wrote from memory, has absolutely zero experience in how to run a country. Or a hot dog stand, for that matter. Unlike his ideological forefathers, the National Socialists and Soviet Communists, he doesn’t have a solid machinery and the experience already in place to run it. He’ll fuck up so bad every day that it’ll almost be too easy to skewer his ignorant ass. That dumbass fuckhead is in so far over his head that it’s not even funny.

This whole "working together" thing is going to be hard.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Baby Steps

I'm reading reviews of new books on school reform, and it's all the usual blather about Proficiency and Accountability and Blah Blah Blah. The usual arguments about whether or not All Students Can Reach Proficiency by 2014. One book posits that if legislation had demanded of doctors that No Patients Die by 2014, the doctors would have fought back. Not sure the analogy holds, but it's interesting.

Does every single student in the United States have the ability to read, write, and do math at a college-ready level? I have no idea. Neither do you. Neither does anybody, really. Our attempts to get them over that line, thus far, have been haphazard and pathetic.

But there's another question that we probably could answer, which is: Does every single student in the United States need to be able to read, write, and do math at a college level?

Folks, we can't even promise our children a solid eighth-grade education by the time they leave high school. Maybe we should start with that promise and see if we can live up to it, before we reach higher.

I mean, it's lovely to hope that all adults in our society will understand Algebra. But the sad fact is that millions of adults in our society do not understand decimals and fractions. And can't write a coherent paragraph.

By aiming at the moon, are we eroding the ground beneath our feet?

Who Are We?

If you're in the mood for an article that combines descriptions of plague bacilli, tapeworms, and fat mice with quotes from Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, and SpongeBob Squarepants, then I refer you here to a fascinating article about our "selves" and the foreign bodies we carry around within us that may have some sway over our alleged free will.

A little creepy, but fascinating. And very well written.

And, touching back to the the post below and its silliness about elitism, go read this article and see if you disagree with me that this so-called science article is immensely deepened and enriched by making reference to a wide range of literature.

Sine Qua Non

I found this over at Joanne Jacobs' edublog:

Bournemouth Council, which has the Latin motto Pulchritudo et Salubritas, meaning beauty and health, has listed 19 terms it no longer considers acceptable for use.

This includes bona fide, eg (exempli gratia), prima facie, ad lib or ad libitum, etc or et cetera, ie or id est, inter alia, NB or nota bene, per, per se, pro rata, quid pro quo, vis-a-vis, vice versa and even via.

Its list of more verbose alternatives, includes “for this special
purpose”, in place of ad hoc and “existing condition” or “state of things”, instead of status quo.

The amusing headline from the original article, from Great Britain, is:

Councils ban 'elitist' and 'discriminatory' Latin
phrases


They are phrases that are repeated ad nauseam and are taken as bona fide English, but councils have now overturned the status quo by banning staff from using Latin terms, which they claim are elitist and discriminatory


I've never head this particular definition of discriminatory before. Elitist, sure. Latin is elitist. Fine. But discriminatory? My understanding of that word is that it has to do with erecting barriers for one group of people--keeping some people out of or away from something. Latin is not such a barrier; there's a big ole door right there in the wall of elitism. All you have to do to walk through it is, you know, learn it. And I don't mean learn the language. I never learned the language. But I can handle the odd phrase, because I read. And if you have trouble with Latin phrases, there's only about a dozen websites out there that provide definitions for common ones.

How is it that every generation in Europe and America since the fall of Rome has managed to live with some amount of Latin woven into their home language, but we--we special folks of the early 21st century--are just too precious and vulnerable to be able to handle is?

Someone might confuse e.g. for egg? Well, then, someone needs to learn.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

NaNoWriMo: A Second Year of Craziness

November is the dumbest month, for those of us who have absolutely no free time to begin with, but take on the additional challenge of writing a 55,000 word (minimum) novel between November 1 and November 30.

Yes, it's NaNoWriMo time again (that's National Novel Writing Month). I failed to complete my opus last year (and, sadly, it remains unfinished to this day--a testament to my inability to work without deadlines). But that is not stopping me from trying again, this year. And since my worklife has only gotten crazier in the past year, AND I've started a doctoral program in the meantime, I anticipate fantastic results from this year's word race.

My only saving grace is that I'm adapting a play I wrote back in 2000, so there's some raw material for me to start with (which may be cheating, but I don't much care).

Feel free to drop by here if you're interested in tracking my progress and reading the Work as it develops.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why Do They Hate America?

This is damn good. And she can sing.

Too bad she's a non-real American music-redistributionist who pals around with piano-playing moose.


Check Your Sources

This is why it's so important to teach kids in high school and college how to find, quote, and attribute sources...and how to hold others accountable for the accuracy of their research.

I know it's only Ann Coulter, but it's a good object lesson:


MSNBC's Keith Olbermann histrionically described Todd's hoax as "a narrative straight out of Reconstruction-era, race-based fear-mongering: a black man, 6-foot, 4-inches, attacking, sexually assaulting, fondling, mutilating a young white woman." His expert pontificator on race was The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, who said the Pittsburgh hoax was "the blood libel against black
men concerning the defilement of the flower of Caucasian womanhood. It's been with us for hundreds of years and, apparently, is still with us."

Okay, let's go to the videotape. Here is the actual Olbermann report, with Robinson's guest punditry. As any sixth grader would be able to interpret, neither man believes in the incident--in fact, this show aired after the incident had been revealed as a hoax. They are discussing an accusation that the McCain camp had pushed the racial assualt story before the police had even released a report of their own. They are not reacting to the incident credulously and with outrage. Their anger is directed at the cynical, manipulative pols who are trying to play on ancient racial fears.

This is why they taught you to do your homework, people. Don't just skip to the answers. Sometimes, the answers lie.

Plus ça change, plus ça le même chose

...which is just an elitist (i.e., French) way of saying, "same old, same old."


Here's a map of projected presidential voting, next Tuesday:





And here's a map of Union-supporting vs. Confederacy-supporting states, circa 1861:



The song remains the same...except for those damned Dakotas and their neighbors.


All thanks to Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic Monthly for making the comparison.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Higher Education

See the college debate blow-up below, unless you have issues with strong language.

The two people "arguing" are, by the way, college debate coaches. Professors. People with doctorates. Just so you know.



The comments below the clip on YouTube claim that what this video is all about is racism or reverse racism.

Interesting. For me, it's about what "debate" has decayed into, even on our college campuses. And it's about how a "professor" carries him (and her)self in public, as a model of the life of the mind and the pursuit of intellectual inquiry. But that's just me.

Clearly, whatever set this thing off was a big deal, and led to high emotions. By the end of the video, someone trying to make a point about it all is crying. I grant that this was hot.

But isn't a university--and a formal debate--supposed to be a place where hot issues of great import can be dissected and analyzed rationally, somewhat coolly...and with a level of maturity that would exclude, say, mooning your opponent?

Or is everything--everything--from talking with your classmates to formal debate to TV news to presidential campaigns --is everything in our public life now Kindergarten?

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Gates of Repentence

In my twenties, I used to go off into the woods somewhere at Yom Kippur and try to reflect in some place of awe and wonder on the year that had just passed--a waterfall or a mountaintop, or something like that. I didn't belong to any temple, and was pretty disaffected from organized religion in general. I had gone back once or twice out of feelings of guilt and responsibility, only to sit in the very back, among strangers, not knowing any of the Hebrew and wishing that I could have a Genuine Experience of...something.

So...the woods. I would drive up into the North Georgia mountains (I was living in Atlanta at the time), the base of the Appalachians. It was terrain that reminded me of what passed, in my life, for sacred space--the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where I had spent the summers of my childhood. I would stay overnight in a bed and breakfast near a state park, and set out, early in the morning, for a hike. The isolation of the drive and the night was a nice break from the chaos and noise of my life back in town, full of the usual twenty-something drama and angst. By morning, I would be used to the quiet. And I would set out for a walk, breathing in the mountain air, watching the light filtering through the leaves, and hearing nothing human anywhere near me.

When I got to wherever I was going, I would stop, and sit, and recite the shema quietly to myself. And then I would talk--quietly, under my breath, but audibly. Having had the time and space to think through the past year, I was ready. So I talked through all of the mistakes and screw-ups and near-misses I could remember, and vowed to do better in the coming year. And then I would head back to my car, and back to the city.

I haven't done that for many years. Now, with a wife and two children, I belong to a temple and I go to services. I know the Hebrew better than I did in my twenties, and I know enough people in the congregation not to feel a stranger. But still, I wait for a moment of genuine religious feeling. And still, I find it missing.

At our congregation's Kol Nidre service, the evening service that begins Yom Kipuur, two cellos play the central tune as a duet, separating the two singings of the prayer. It is beautiful and haunting--and it is the one truly evocative and emotional moment of the holiday for me.

I am a Reform Jew, and it is a 100+ year old tradition that was started as a reaction against mysticism and mumbo-jumbo and outdated rituals. But in far too many cases, it left us with dry, lifeless services, where we say the same thing three times (spoken in Hebrew, then spoken in English, then sung in Hebrew). Why so much repetition? Well, probably because my grandparents' generation banished Hebrew, and my parents' generation brought it back, but without bothering to ensure that my generation learned it. So we do the Hebrew because we think it's right, and we do the English so that we can understand it. And then the cantor sings it, so that...well, I guess so that the cantor can keep his or her job.

And in the cause of pluralism and progressive politics, the words have too often been stripped of any power. We recite a prayer called al chet, to enumerate our wrongdoings as a community. But instead of saying "we," (as in "we have lied,") our prayerbook now says "some of us." Because, you know, maybe I didn't, or maybe you didn't, and why should we blame everyone?

Well, because that's the point. We're confessing as a community.

And one of the Rotten Things in this prayer, according to our prayerbook, is something like (I don't have the book in front of me) "some of us engaged in xenophobia." What's next? "Some of us were not as tolerant of the differently abled and the weight-challenged as we should have been, to encourage self-esteem"? I don't know what the original Hebrew was, but I'm betting it was something like, "We have hated the stranger in our midst." Now that's something with some real meat--something to feel bad about and try to remedy.
I mean, seriously, people, what is ritual without a little poetry?

I have sacrificed religion for churchiness, and it's a shame. I would like to find my way back to the religion. I've tried, half-heartedly, once or twice in recent years. But going for a quick walk in the park, while still embedded in one's crazy life, doesn't quite do it. It's hard to find the time and the space, in a life smothered in obligation.

But maybe next year. For now, there are, at least, the cellos.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Debates Are Pointless. Debates Are Not Even Debates.

I watched as much of the town-hall-y debate as I could stand, which involved a precise mathematical calculation of when I was going to pass out, minus an hour to watch House (yeah, it was a rerun. Who cares? I have ten of them saved, thanks to the USA channel's eternal House marathon). I got to see McCain call Obama "That one," and, really, that was enough for me.

Am I the only voter in the country who is tired of presidential candidates using these forums to score points off each other, rather than explain what they think needs to be done? I'm so tired of the "But he voted 120% of the time for blah blah blah," or "And my opponent failed to blah blah blah." Enough. He's a liar and a spinner and a hack. You, alone, stand between us and ruin. Point taken. Move on.

And am I really, truly meant to believe that these two gentlemen (who, by the way, keep telling us how often they work "across the aisle") cannot and do not agree on ANYTHING, EVER? It's absurd. I know they do. I curse the handlers on both sides for forcing their puppets to pretend that there is no common ground, no zone of agreement. How I would have loved either candidate to have said (perhaps on climate change), "We agree on this one, and we look forward to working together, regardless of what job either of us ends up having, come January."

Obama tried during his nomination speech. He said lovely things about how the issues that we obsess over in campaigns are, by and large, issues where common ground is available. We can find common ground on abortion, on gun control, on gay rights. Most of us actually live there, in a sensible middle-ground. But politics is not about coming together to solve problems. That's policy. And we don't do that anymore.

Also, I'd like to institute a police light and siren controlled by the moderator, for use whenever a candidate refuses to answer a question, like when neither Fine Gentleman was willing to say whether health care in this country should be treated as a commodity. Of course they didn't want to answer it--I get that. And I get why--because it would force them to talk about health insurance companies, and whether they should continue to play such an enormous role in raking in cash, raising costs, and screwing up our care. Do providers of health care deserve to make a living? Of course they do. Is it absolutely required that we have a middle-man sitting between them and us, as consumers? One would think that a National Health Care Debate would raise a question like that. But one would be wrong.

And, finally, how are events like this--tightly controlled, narrowly defined, and negotiated to the point of suffocation--supposed to give us insight into anything relevant? All we get are repetitions of what we already know, to reinforce our previously held opinions about everything. I watch that stupid approval meter on CNN, and when McCain speaks, Republicans are happy, and when Obama speaks, Democrats are happy, and so what? I know that, thanks to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, we've come to believe that our presidents must be protected from spontaneous interactions with the public or the press, but come on. Must we coddle these candidates like infants?

You know what I want? I want the Thunderdome (two men enter, one man leaves. And Tina Turner as moderator). But since I can't have that, I'd settle (happily) for a non-mediated, non-negotiated free-for-all, with anyone able to ask anything, and no time limits, and genuine argument between the candidates to see what they say and how they react as real people put on the spot, and (please, God) plentiful boo-ing from the crowd. And perhaps a little dramatic waving of pitchforks, just to keep them honest.

Please? Once?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Nitpicking

I concede beforehand that this is not earth-shaking. It's not even particularly consequential. But this bugs me.

NEARLY 3,000 YEARS after the death of the Greek poet Homer, his epic tales of the war for Troy and its aftermath remain deeply woven into the fabric of our culture. These stories of pride and rage, massacre and homecoming have been translated and republished over millennia. Even people who have never read a word of "The Iliad" or "The Odyssey" know the phrases they have bequeathed to us
- the Trojan horse, the Achilles heel, the face that launched a thousand ships

Now, granted, this is not from a literary journal of any kind; it's from the Boston Globe. And, granted, the article has a lot that's useful about it. But still. I said in the title that this was nitpicking, and a nit is a nit. "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships/and burned the topless towers of Ilium?" is not from the Iliad; it's from Christopher Marlowe's play, Doctor Faustus. Now you could, I suppose, claim that the phrase traces its thematic roots back to the Iliad, but it's a stretch, and it's not what the author meant. And anyway, the burning of topless towers comes from the Aeneid, not the Iliad.

OK. Pedantry break is over. Back to work.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

And the Lion Will Lie Down With the Beach Ball

From an issue of The Watchtower:


I can't do it justice. Just go over to TBogg and read the commentary provided by him and his readers.

Friday, September 19, 2008

TSA: Protecting You From Your Own Possessions

So it's not bad enough that my crappy little plane last night had a broken reading light above my chair, or that water was dripping down on me, apparently from the air conditioner. No...that was just the appetizier. The real treat came when I got home, unpacked, and discovered that the TSA, during a random and routine search of my checked baggage (they were kind enough to put a slip of paper in my bag to let me know they had been there), decided that my underarm deodorant and cologne posed a threat to national security and needed to be...er...liberated from my baggage.

Thanks, guys! Thanks for all you do to Keep America Safe.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"Obama Will Raise Your Taxes!!!"

Pig-lipstick, sez I. Take a look at this graphic from CNN. It's pretty clear--pretty brutally clear--where the money is going to come from...and where it's going to go.

Republicans like to crow about how Democrats favor "income redistribution," but they love it just as much. They just want to redistribute it in a different way: upwards to their already Very Comfortable friends.

I mean, honestly. Giving 45 thousand extra dollars to people already making over 600 thousand dollars? While graciously giving $300 a year to people who are barely scraping by? In what world does that not qualify as obscene?





God Bless Craig Ferguson

Sometimes it takes a convert--or, in this case, a naturalized citizen--to explain your religion to you.


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

John McCain Bought Me My Desk

Are any of you watching this craptastic smorgasbord of nonsense tonight?

You know, I kind of liked ole Mike Huckabee out there on the campaign trail, even if he didn't believe in evolution, and thought the world was 6,000 years old, and all that. He seemed like a decent enough sort of person--a mensch, in a southern Baptist kind of way, if such a thing is possible.

Well, that's gone.

At the convention tonight, Huckabee told a heartwarming story about a teacher in Little Rock who wouldn't let her students have a desk in the classroom until they could tell her how they could earn one. The students tried various things, like "get good grades" and "behave," but none of these were the right answer. Finally, at the end of the day, she had a parade of veterans, in uniform, bring in the desks, and she said, "you don't have to earn your desk, because these folks earned them for you, and don't you forget it."

And oy, such tears you could see in the audience. They were verklempt, in a doughy, white, middle-American kind of way, if such a thing is possible.

But let's dry those eyes and talk a bit, shall we? First of all, that's a terrible trick question and a lousy teaching strategy, and the lady should be fired or at least Seriously Warned to Cut It Out. But whatever. It's a quasi-religious/patriotic parable of sorts, and ole Mike has a license to tell those, so we'll let it pass.

The more serious point here, though, is that this was all a set up to talking about John McCain's sacrifice, and how he deserves a desk in the Oval Office, and so forth, because he helped buy our freedom with his service. And it's clever, for sure. Nicely put. It works. But is it honest?

I'm not saying McCain didn't sacrifice for his country, because God knows, he did. And I'm not saying he's wrong about us getting fat and soft and weak in an increasingly dangerous world, because we probably are. But to say that his service--in that particular war--"earned those kids' desks" is to say...quite a lot. Because let's face it--his job during that war was to drop bombs on a bunch of peasant farmers thousands of miles away from this country, who had never done the people of this country one single harm, nor ever intended to, nor ever could have, had we not gone over to their house with our terrible toys. The only danger the people of Vietnam posed for our country was in the fevered imaginations of crazy politicians (until, of course, we turned them into enemies worth killing). Had we never lifted a finger against them, I doubt that anything very much would have changed in recent world history. Vietnam would have been united and communist, which it is anyway. The Soviet Union would still have fallen. But we would have had about 56 thousand fewer dead people then we have now...and a country that was, perhaps, less fractured.

So--honorable service, absolutely. Honorable sacrifice, yes, beyond words. Honorable fight in the cause of freedom...not so much. Not his fault, perhaps, as a soldier, but certainly ours, as a nation. And we should own up to it. Because when we can't (and we can't) we keep making the same bloody mistake all over again.

I wonder in what future decade an American politician will be able to say that out loud, and if I'll still be alive to hear it.

Puppet-masters

Somehow, even though it comes as no real surprise, I find this grindingly depressing:

There was a flutter of attention when McCain campaign manager Rick Davis told a group of Post reporters and editors yesterday that his team was having to rework the vice presidential acceptance speech because the original draft, prepared before Gov. Sarah Palin was chosen, was too "masculine." While we all wondered to ourselves what might make a speech masculine or feminine, no one batted an eye at the underlying revelation: that the campaign was writing the nominee's speech before knowing who the nominee would be.
Since political speeches used to be written to reflect the thoughts, dreams, aspirations, and plans of a candidate, even if the candidate did not write the actual words, one has to stop and wonder what these speeches are intended to do now--now that they are written before a candidate even emerges. Whose thoughts, dreams, aspirations, and plans are being reflected here? The RNC's (and if so, as interpreted by whom)? John McCain (and if so, how is this speech supposed to be different from the one they're writing for him)? The speechwriter himself? Or some cabal of handlers and spinmeisters, whose job it is to decide which ideas will "sell" out there among the base?

I guess the nice thing is that, if various scandals and skeletons render Governor Palin unpalatable, they can simply dump her and replace her with some other right-wing puppet. Then all they'll have to do is change the pronouns again.

Now that's what I call discipline: the message is all that matters; the actual humans are irrelvant.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Iron Lady

While we're on the subject of book banning, here's a little tidbit from the political past of Sarah Palin:
Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to
fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

Cuz you're either with us or against us, right?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Fight the Power

Because our young people learn all they need to know about sexuality and puberty from watching television, a brave woman has decided that the kids in her community should not be subjected to this book. To keep the tykes from reading it, she has withdrawn the book from her local library and is refusing to turn it back in, even under threat of jail.

Here is what the School Library Journal (those communists) has to say about the book:
Grade 4-8-A wonderful guide for young adolescents setting sail on the stormy seas of puberty. Packed with the vital information they need to quell fears and make wise decisions, this "sex manual" uses of clever cartoons to enliven and expand the text. Frank yet playful, they portray a reassuring array of body types and ethnic groups and illuminate the richly informative, yet compact text, allowing readers to come away with a healthy respect for their bodies and a better understanding of the role that sexuality plays in the human experience. Birth control, abortion, and homosexuality are given an honest, evenhanded treatment, noting differing views and recommending further discussion with a trusted adult.

In defense of her actions, which she considers civil disobedience, the woman has this to say:

"Children are not meant to be sexually active."


Right. Because once you become informed about a subject, you simply HAVE to participate in it. It's beyond your control.

Well, at last. Now I finally understand why I tried so hard to invade Poland after studying World War II in High School.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"pictureless chains of black print"

Yet another depressing article about the teaching of English in these here United States. Apparently, the rising generation--those "digital natives"--are so radically and profoundly different from any human being that preceded them that they cannot access the printed word anymore. It simply can't be done. Or, maybe it's just that they find everyone who was born before them, and everything those people endured, boring. It's an old and tired argument:


Until we do a better job of introducing contemporary culture into our reading lists, matching books to readers and getting our students to buy in to the whole process, literature teachers will continue to fuel the reading crisis.

That sentence seems to fit the article's title: "We're Teaching Books That Don't Stack Up." And it fits the bumper-sticker synopses that I've read from several bloggers who have linked to the article. It's all our fault for forcing children to, you know, participate in the history of the world.

However, there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Yes, the author flogs the usual suspects: classic literature is boring, kids can't relate, they want something contemporary, reading is boring, and so on. But there's another culprit on the scene, and the folks talking about the article are decidedly not talking about it:


"Butchering." That's what one of my former students, a young man who loves creative writing but rarely gets to do any at school, called English class. He was referring to the endless picking apart of linguistic details that loses teens in a haze of "So what?" The reading quizzes that turn, say, "Hamlet" into a Q&A on facts, symbols and themes. The thesis-driven essay assignments that require students to write about a novel they can't muster any passion for ("The Scarlet Letter" is high on teens' list of most dreaded). I'll never forget what one parent, bemoaning his daughter's aversion to great books after she took AP English Literature, wrote to me: "What I've seen teachers do is take living, breathing works of art and transform them into dessicated lab specimens fit for dissection."

So let's give the classics a break, for once, shall we? They've surived many generations and there is no reason why they cannot be appreciated by many more. It's our English teachers who are getting in the way--who are turning art into a chore. Even "The Scarlet Letter" can be saved. The Wife used to teach it to inner-city New York teens, years ago, and it was their single favorite book of the year. Why? Because she helped them find the soap opera within it. She helped them connect with the living, breathing human beings inside the story.

That used to be what English teachers did. They helped students understand literature that was a little bit challenging, a little bit above their heads. They gave them access.

Now, I guess, too many of them just give quizzes.

Education is about one thing, and one thing only. Really and truly, it is. We make things so damned complicated, but it's really all just this: Education gives children access to the world in all its variety and complexity, so that they will be prepared, someday, to inherit it. The end. All the skills, all the content, all the 3Rs boil down to just that. Because otherwise it's just noise.

So does it matter whether every single high school graduate can remember the components of a grasshopper's digestive tract? No. They will not all be scientists. But they will all be human beings, and as such, they need to understand the interrelatedness of living things. Because when they inherit the earth, I'd prefer it if they didn't destroy it. They will be human beings, and as such, they need to be able to look at aspects of this complicated world from multiple viewpoints--to see things the way scientists do, sometimes, and the way historians do at other times.

When I was in the classroom, I did not expect all of my students to become the next Dylan Thomas; but I did want them to be able to use literature of all sorts to understand how the world looks, tastes, and feels to different people. And I wanted them to be comfortable enough with writing in all sorts of genres to be able to communicate to other people how they thought the world looked, tasted, and felt. Because you need to be able to walk around in other people's shoes, if you're going to be any use as a human being (see? I learned that from "To Kill a Mockingbird").

You want to know what's going to be on the test, kids? Yorick's skull is going to be on the test. Because you're all headed there in the end (that's right, kids. Where be your gibes now?), and what you do with the time you have--the short, short time you have--actually does matter.

Or maybe it doesn't. I don't know. "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps," Mr. Beckett says. And he should know.

So does it all matter or doesn't it? Your paper should be five paragraphs long and as devoid of interesting content as possible. And please...I have a 125 of these things to grade. Neatness counts.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Where is Supernanny When You Need Her?

It was 10:15 PM when my host's son came to the door to pick up his child. The two-year-old was remarkably fine: wide awake and happy as a clam. My hosts, on the other hand, were dead tired after a day of entertaining the two year old and Thing 1, whom I had brought out to California on an 8-hour road trip at their invitation (but alone, after Thing 2 came down with a nasty stomach virus that kept him and The Wife at home).

We had all had lunch together: my hosts, their son, the two-year old, Thing 1, and me. And as we were settling up, the son turned to his father--my friend, a supremely generous and kind man of 62--and asked him if he could take the two-year-old for the afternoon. He said this knowing full well that his father had guests for the weekend. That didn't seem to faze him. He had things he wanted to do. And his father, who adores his grandson, said, "no problem."

And, honestly, it was no problem...for the afternoon. But then it got to be dinner time, and no sign of the dad. So we took the (adorable) two-year old off to dinner with us. And then it was after dinner time. Thing 1 took a shower, read a book, and happily passed out (after a day of playing golf, swimming, and playing more golf). I came downstairs after tucking him and found my two hosts still entertaining the two-year old. They looked wiped out, but they kept on going. They had to. What choice did they have?

And then, at 10:15, the father came to pick up his boy. He didn't hug him or pick him up. He let his mother carry the boy out to the car. He did not seem to notice--or care--how tired his parents were.

And it all just mystifies me.

I see behavior, sometimes, that seems (to me) to be so clearly and obviously wrong that I can't understand how normal and rational people can endulge in it without shame. I can't even imagine asking my father or my in-laws to look after my children at a time when they were entertaining guests. Who does that? What kind of person is so convinced of the importance and rightness of his desires that he can't see anything else? Or who can see other people's needs, but discounts them down to zero compared to his own?

I know, I know. Tons of people. But I still find it mind-boggling.

My hosts never said a word about it. They are far too decent for that. I also said nothing (though I am not too decent). But I could see a pained look in my friend's eyes, and it was about more than being tired (though he was surely that). I could see the annoyance, and worse, the embarrassment. This particular dirty laundry was not, I think, part of what he wanted to share with us this weekend.

And I felt bad about his embarrassement, because surely that emotion should have belonged to his son. That emotion, or worse. Because embarrassment is easy. Embarrassment is what happens when you get caught. What his son should have felt is ashamed. Shame is what you feel when you know you've done wrong--whether you get caught or not. Shame is what you feel when you catch yourself--when you realize that you have fallen short of the standards you have set for yourself, or the standards other people have expected of you. It's what you have to struggle with when you know you haven't been the person you should be, or would like to be. It's more than an Oops, and requires more than a Sorry.

It's an emotion that seems to be in short supply, these days.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Idiots on Parade, Chapter XXXIV

From MediaMatters:

David Gregory on Edwards: "Is this another skeleton in the Democratic closet that Barack Obama must struggle to overcome?"


Ah...yes. Of course. Because Edwards' adultery was not a personal decision; it was an expression of party principles. No--worse--philosophy. Adultery is actually a key plank in the Democratic party platform, placed there by Bill Clinton himself (don't laugh; some Republicans probably believe this, even while they conduct their own clandestine affairs). No, wait, it's even worse than that; his extra-marital sex was probably conducted in some kind of secret Democratic party clubhouse, while the lady in question wore a donkey mask and moaned, "Tax me, baby, tax me."

It's too bad. I used to like David Gregory.

Where, oh where, is the national news anchor leading with this headline: "Edwards' affair: why is it any of my goddamn business?"

No Clothes

Quoted from The Daily Howler, who does his best to keep everyone honest:

OBAMA (8/5/08): So now the Republicans are going around—this is the kind of thing they do. I don't understand it. They’re going around, they're sending like little tire gauges, making fun of this idea as if this is “Barack Obama's energy plan.”

Now, two points. One, they know they're lying about what my energy plan is. But the other thing is they're making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption by 3 to 4 percent. It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant.

You know, they think it is funny that they are making fun of something that is actually true. They need to do their homework. Because this is serious business. Instead of running ads about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, they should go talk to some energy experts and actually make a difference.

Wow. The Audacity of Hope is nothing compared to the Audaciy of Telling the Truth. Clearly the man is going to be punished for daring to use the L word (no, not Liberal: Lying).

You know, I think McCain is probably intelligent about all this stuff. He knows damned well that the tire gauge thing is not Obama's whole policy, and that it's an actual and real energy saver, even taken by itself. In fact, he came right out and said so (quietly, and later, when no one was listening). It's just sad that he's surrounded himself with the usual hacks and idiots, and that he's allowed them to run the game for him.

And even they aren't ignorant--that's the really scary part. They know what's true and what's false. They just don't care. They love love love the Big Lie--because it's cool, isn't it? To be able to take something so patently false, so completely the opposite of reality--and make people believe it's true? Now that's power. John Kerry was a coward; George Bush was a war hero. HA! Barack Obama is a pampered elitist; John McCain is a salt-of-the-earth commoner. HA! What should we do next, make you believe the rain falls up? Let's try it!

This is the apocalyptic end-result of politics being combined with marketing: the utter and absolute comtempt of the leadership class for the people they lead. The kings of old had contempt for their subjects because their power was not in any way dependent on the people's happiness and satisfaction. Our so-called democratic leaders have contempt even though their power is dependent on our happiness and satisfaction, because they're so fucking easy to manipulate.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha Ha Ha

Well, not this time.

So, John Edwards--who is not running for public office at the moment (and is therefore what kind of Pressing National Interest?) had an extra-marital sexual affair.

And that's news...why, again?

Oh that's right--because our national news media have an insatiable appetite for scandal. And since this is America, appetite translates as entitlement. I want it, therefore I have a right to it.

You know, a swarm of reporters shouting questions at you is not the same thing as a bailiff swearing you into courtroom testimony. The press has a Constitutional right to ferret after and publish whatever it considers to be news--but that doesn't mean that any of us have a Constitutional (or any other) obligation to be honest with them. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite. We've come to believe that a Man with a Camera has a right to your innermost thoughts as long as the camera is pointed at you. That's nonsense. He has a right to exactly nothing.

As far as I'm concerned, the only honorable response to public questions about your sexual exploits is to lie. Politicians and other celebrities should lie like hell whenever they're asked about their private lives--and they should announce clearly and plainly that they are lying, and will continue to lie--perhaps ludicrously so--for as long as the press continues to ask such idiotic and unimportant questions. "This is none of your business," they should say, "and if you continue to ask me these questions, I'm just going to start making stuff up."

Sure, they'll print it anyway, and the first few victims will get smeared, and The General Public will believe it. But after a while, the sheer volume of nonsense coming out of everyone's mouths will start to make the questions pointless. And then, perhaps, they'll stop.

Death to the Gatekeeper


Okay, I was wrong; I did have something to post today. Take a look at this article by a 20-year veteran TV writer who decided to leave it all behind and become an English teacher:

[A]pplying to a teaching-credential program has taken me months of pointless, numbing, bewildering toil. I've submitted stacks of applications, online and on paper, along with college transcripts and letters of recommendation. I've written a five-page letter of "self-reflection," completed 45 hours of early field experience, endured a TB test and had my fingerprints taken to prove that I'm not a convicted felon.

And that's just the start. It gets worse and more humiliating as it goes on, ending with this:

I understand the idea of "standards-based" education. But the standards to which I'm being held here are not high standards; they are just a high pile of standards, a mountain of detritus generated by various acts of legislation whenever new statistics come out showing that California schools are failing, that teachers are fleeing the state, that high school students can barely read. In a system so broken, why are they trying so hard to weed out anyone who, in spite of everything, still wants to come in and change a child's life.
There is much sad wisdom in that quote, especially this part: "The standards to which I'm being held here are not high standards; they are just a high pile of standards."

Actually, it's not a high pile of standards; it's a high pile of bullshit. It's a high pile of tasks. A real standard is not a chore or a task; you should be able to demonstrate in many different ways that you meet a standard. For example, if we had real standards for high school graduation or college entrance, a student would be able to get her degree or enrol in college regardless of whether or not she ever attended high school.

Set me a standard and give me a chance to show you I meet it. What's the standard? Ability to write a long and literate essay on a topic of your choice? Bring it on. Ability to solve complex equations? Throw some at me. Let's go. Who cares whether I sat in a crappy classroom for four years or worked by candlelight at home? All that matters is that I can walk the walk.

But obviously that's not where we live. We don't really care about standards--because they're elitist by definition; because they're hard to meet, and god forbid we should demand the hard of anybody; because they take ability and talent, not simply endurance.

What we do care about is hoop-jumping. If you've abased yourself sufficiently to show that We are boss and You are dirt, then you can come in. If you've jumped when we said Jump, then you're our boy. Oh, and don't forget to write that check. One has to pay one's dues.

I think back fondly to my first teaching job, at a wacky little private school for troubled kids who had simply not fit in at any of the normal schools they had attended. There was nothing normal about this school...or its teachers. And whenever we needed to hire a new teacher, the headmaster would look through the resumes and dismiss the ones that smacked of Credentials. "All I care about," he said, "is whether they know their stuff and love kids."

And, really, that's all it should be about, isn't it? Show me that you know and love your subject area--inside-out and upside-down, not just what's in the syllabus--and show me that you love hanging out and talking with and listening to kids. Everything else you need, you can learn.

If we stopped creating un-manageable classrooms full of too many kids with too many different problems and not enough time to do anything meaningful with them, we wouldn't have to spend so much time simply trying to "manage" our classrooms. And then maybe we could reach out to those 20-year veteran TV writers more easily and say, "You want to teach kids? Go ahead--teach."

Making Various Artistic Media Do What They Shouldn't Be Able to Do

I have nothing wise or insightful to say today--or, really, for the past week or so. So here are some pretty pictures instead...courtesy of Frostfirezoo.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sights Along the Sound

Sunday morning, 8:30. From my rented porch, I can see the waters of Puget Sound drift quietly by, past cedars and pine and a hundred yards of low scrub. From here, it looks as though the beach is a straight walk from the porch, but actually, you have to walk down quite a long and steep flight of stairs. Across the Sound, the land rises and falls in its own gentle, green waves. Further off, to the right, I can see inlets and channels and more distant land.

A variety of birds are squawking and chittering. I can identify crows, but not much else. The air is cool and crisp and wonderful.

There are deer here who must never have known a predator. They are bold and calm and fearless—they do not flinch or run when you pass by or approach them. Two nights ago, at dinner, a doe and three fawns walked right up to the window where we were eating. Taking a cue from us, perhaps, the three fawns jockeyed for position under their mother and began to nurse.

If it weren’t for the constant and harassing phone calls and emails from work, this would be very peaceful indeed. Just days before we came up here, The Bosses let me know that, back at the Home Office, they had declared a moratorium on vacations and personal time until after Labor Day, after all of our new schools had opened. All well and good, said I, but this vacation was planned and paid for months ago by my mother-in-law, to pull all of her extended family together for her birthday. Well, all right, said they—you can go, but don’t call it a vacation and make sure you maintain phone and email contact.

The problem with a start-up company is that every new thing that has to be done is Completely New, and has no clear structure or process behind it. Deadlines are aggressive, goals are set high, the stakes are even higher—but there’s no clear agreement on how things should be done and who should do them. And even where there is agreement, it’s not clear that the process agreed upon is correct or efficient—because it’s all too new.

In the position into which I’ve been thrust, as the Point Man for these new schools—the person situated between the Home Office and the partner districts—everything is supposed to funnel through me and be managed by me. In practice, what this tends to mean is that people simply dump tasks on me—tasks that could easily be done by other people, and sometimes tasks that really must be done by other people, because I don’t understand them.

So it’s not just calls and emails I have to manage up here—it’s also confusion and repetition, redundancy of effort in one place and lack of effort somewhere else. I’m not as patient with all of it as I should be.

And I should be. Because when I can shake all of that garbage out of my head, there are barbeques and saunas to be had, bonfires and boat parades to watch, and two happy children to play with—marching through the woods with walking sticks, digging for clams on the beach, or learning how to kayak.

And the Sound rolls by whether I’m wise enough to watch it or not. And the crows caw, and the wind blows, and the giant trees are unconcerned.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Ten Years After

"What do you see yourself doing in ten years?" Ed asked me. We were sitting at a restaurant table overlooking the Columbia River at sunset, watching sailboats tack back and forth. Ed is a jovial and gregarious man--a former high school principal working as a consultant for us as we put our virtual schools together in the Pacific Northwest. He is a Friend To All in southern Washington, and he knows to start a converstaion when a deathly pause has settled in.

"Ten years?" I said. "I have no idea." And it was true. I can imagine five years out, maybe. But ten?

Ten years ago, could I have imagined where I am now? Not even close. Ten years ago, I was living in Brooklyn, married but childless, with a withering theatre company and a brainless but pleasant-enough secretarial job. I had left teaching behind three years earlier to focus on theatre, and now that theatre was drying up--or our little company, at any rate, I had no idea what the next step should be. Could I ever have imagined myself with living in Arizona, raising two boys, working in the for-profit education sphere--hanging out with superintendents, writing curriculum, building new schools? No frigging way.

Ten years from now? When I am fifty-five years old? Good God--I can barely imagine next week.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More Funny

Okay, so apparently I'm wrong. The entire universe has lined up against that New Yorker cover, proclaiming it Very Not Funny.

Oy.

Well, this is funny, without qualification:

Send a JibJab Sendables® eCard Today!

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Death of Satire

Everyone else is yammering about this, so I've resisted all day. But I can't stand it anymore.

Here is the piece of magazine cover art that's driving everyone insane:





Well, there it is. Awful, ain't it?

Apparently, some people have trouble understanding that it is meant as a JOKE--as a piece of satire poking fun at the idiots who think that Barack Obama is a Muslim, or a terrorist, or unpatriotic, or that Michelle is an unreconstructed member of the Weather Underground or the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Trey Ellis, at Huffington Post, thinks that the cover would have been okay if the artist had just put the image inside a thought bubble and put a picture of Bill O'Reilly at the bottom of the page. This is a strategy generally known as "killing the joke by explaining it." This can also be accomplished by placing a banner across the picture that says, "Satire--Do Not Take Seriously."

And this is why we cannot have satire anymore, apparently. Jon Stewart is okay, because he smirks and grimaces enough to let you know when a joke is a joke. Stephen Colbert is a little more dangerous, because on his show, he lives entirely inside his persona and rarely ever winks at you. But he's still okay, because ten thousand writers and commentators have explained his satirical stance, so we all know what he's about, even if we couldn't figure it out for ourselves.

But this? A piece of visual art, slapped down in front of you with no mediating presence to guide you through it? No Finnegan's Wake-style skeleton key to unlock the Deeper Meanings? No voice-over telling you what to think? What were those idiots at the New Yorker thinking?

This is why Huckleberry Finn is pulled off school library bookshelves all over the country. No one seems able to read it anymore. I mean, they can decode the words perfectly well; they just can't read it. Too many layers. Too many levels. Too many narrative masks. Hell, we can't even read Dickens anymore--and that's not even about the satire; it's just too much descriptive text to wade through. It's boring, yo. Like...what? I'm supposed to read 500 pages of history and character description and shit, when Saw IV is on cable? You want to know when the "best of times" is? It's when that guy's head fucking explodes.

(And somewhere out there, someone is reading this and saying, "Nobody's head explodes in Saw IV.")

I'm sorry Obama's camp is putting out Statements of Displeasure about the cover. He's been so good at letting crap roll off him; I wish he would let this go, as well.

Or joke about it. Please! What I wouldn't give for a politician who could get the joke and not be afraid of being seen to get the joke--and maybe even do it one better--like commenting that the artist left out Michelle's "Death to Whitey" armband.

Alas.

Monday Morning Beauty

Can't embed the video, so go here.

The frogs are cute. But keep watching.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Bash-Your-Head-Against-the-Wall Time

You know, the American People are, on the whole, reasonably intelligent, with a reasonably intelligent sense of what is urgent and important in their private and civic lives. We may not always be wise about finding solutions, or even properly analyzing those problems, but we more or less know what they are.

It seems clear to me, therefore, that the members of our glorious National Press Corps must be aliens:


In poll of pet owners, McCain tops Obama
Pet owners find McCain with his house full of animals more appealing than the petless Obama

Really? Seriously? This is what our noble journalists--heirs to Zenger, Mencken, Murrow, and Woodward--think we need to talk about in our current election?

Are they complete morons, incapable of following an actual story? Or is it just that they're so deeply filled with contempt for the rest of us that this is all they think we can handle?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Just For Fun

Too much serious junk on this blog of late. Here's something amusing to look at--the product, I'm assuming, of a very bored programmer, somwhere.

Enjoy.

July Fifth

A lot of people these days talk about "September 10th thinking" as opposed to "September 12th thinking," the idea being that 9/11 changed everything.

So here's some July 5th thinking: not just the glory and pride of the 4th, but also, along with it, a slightly more somber reflection on what it all means to us now, and what our obligations are to our heritage.

Of course, no one writing now seems able to be somber and reflective (we do hysterical and knee-jerk much better), so let's dial the wayback machine to when Abe Lincoln was 28 years old. Because Lincoln at 28, sadly, trumps pretty much everyone who has come after him, at any age. Money quotes in bold, for those who need to skim...


We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them--they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their's was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

How then shall we perform it?--At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide. (...)

At the close of that struggle [the Revolution], nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or brother, a living history was to be found in every family-- a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related--a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned.--But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone.--They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.

They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.--Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.

Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.""

Freedom's Just Another Word For Being Armed to the Teeth

I've heard many arguments for school dress codes before, but this was a new one for me:

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth

There's nothing easier than confusing the symbol with the thing itself--with thinking that the paper money in your pocket is somehow more important and valuable than, say, the food in your shopping cart; or believing that you are fighting for a flag, and not for the people and the ideals behind it.

It's July 4. Here is the thing itself:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them
shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
It's easy to miss the fact that "all men are created equal" and "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" contain terrible contradictions when put together--and that our entire American life is built on the tensions between these contradictions. How do we keep the dynamic tension between equality and pursuit of happiness, when that pursuit will often put us at odds with each other, competing for the same things? We may be equal in rights, but we are not the same in talents or drive. No matter how much equality of opportunity we legislate, there will never be equality of outcomes. Nor should there be. And yet, how do you keep that inequality of results from becoming so permanent that the next generation has no equality of opportunity?

It's also easy to forget how confrontational this document was--not only with King George, but also with any government that was going to follow it. It plainly and clearly states that government has no power or authority other than that which we give it--and that we can remove it any time we like.

What I find so fascinating is that this government has not fallen--has not been attacked and replaced--while so many others, in so many other countries, have. Perhaps there is nothing healthier for a government than to be constantly reminded how vulnerable and conditional it is.

It's something we've seemed to forget during the reign of King George IV, these past eight years.

And will we remember it again? Will our children understand it? Well...let me ask you this: how many teenagers can actually read the damned thing? If we had scrapped every high school graduation reading test in the country and replaced it with the Declration of Independence and few questions asking students to analyze it and demonstrate comprehension (and I have no problem stating that no one should be able to graduate from American high school without demonstrating comprehension of this document) how many students would have passed, this year?

We the people have some serious work to do.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Go Solar

There's a new bill in the senate, sponsored by Bernie Sanders, pushing for rebates of up to 50% for homeowners who install solar power in their homes. You can read it here.

I live in southern Arizona, where we get intense sunshine something like 420 days out of the year. Why I'm not already being encouraged--strongly--to install solar panels is beyond me. If it was affordable, I'd do it tomorrow.

History Will Teach Us Nothing

Especially if we're stoned in class...


Probably a fake, but who cares? I especially love the "700 years ago" part.

From Frostfirezoo, if you're having trouble reading it here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Barbarians Inside the Gate

Sometimes it helps to have a real writer explain to you what should be patently obvious--in this case, that waterboarding is, was, and always will be torture.

You can hear it a dozen times and say Yea or Nay, depending, I guess, on your level of paranoia or xenophobia. But when someone who knows how to wield a detail explains it all for you--in this case, Christopher Hitchens--you kind of have to stop mewling and simply accept the fact that it is appalling, barbarous, and Should Stop.

Here is the ghoulish video accompaniment, for those of you left cold by mere words.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Watch-Melting Time

There is a video I can't seem to embed, but which you should go watch, called Chronotopic Anamorphosis, by Marginalia Project. I don't understand anything about it, other than that it's some kind of new video software. But it's very odd. And it gets odder, the longer you watch it.

Enjoy.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

It occurred to me at some point over the last few days that when my father was the age I am right now (a handful of months away from 45), I was graduating from high school. The thought completely threw me.

It's not just the standard "How could I be so old?" or "How could he have been so young?" though it's a little of both of those. It's also about memory, and my kids.

I graduated from high school when my father was 44. That means that every childhood memory I have of him--every growing-up memory--everything before I left home and went to college--happened when he was younger than I am now. It's a lifetime of memories.

I try to think back and picture him, and of course, in my mind he appears Old at all times, because to me, as a child, he was always Old, as all grown-ups are Old.

Do I look that old to my boys?

Then I think way back, to second grade--to the age of my own Thing 1. What do I remember from birth to age 8, from my own life? I have to say: not much. Hints and glimpses of things, here and there. Fragments.

And it makes me wonder: of all the things I have done with my sons up to this point--the walks in parks, the carousel rides, the zoos and museums, the trips to Mystic, or Stockbridge, or Hawaii...what of all this will he remember? To me it seems a lifetime packed full of events, but I wonder--for him, will it all be lost, rendered down into hints and glimpses--pushed aside by more pressing things as he grows up? How much of the time we have spent together--the time I have loved, and relished--will he remember?

If I knew I was going to live forever, I suppose it wouldn't be as big a deal. There's always time to make new memories. But who knows how long we've really got? Who knows? If I died tomorrow, what memories of their father would either of my boys be able to hold onto, as the years went on? By the time they graduated high school, would I be anything more than a glimmer? If my own father had died when I was in second grade, what would I have remembered by the time I left high school?

Grim ponderings for a bright and sunny Monday morning.

Bah--enough of that. Get back to work.