Wednesday, October 21, 2009

We Fight Authority (and we win...and lose)

I wrote a couple of years ago about "authority" as it relates to education (here), but the idea has been nagging at me ever since.

Now I see this, over at Joanne Jacobs' edublog. Very interesting take on what's fueling the achievement gap in education. And you can believe it or dismiss it, depending on your political point of view (since we live in an age where political point of view determines the truth value of any statement, data be damned). But I think it's pretty indisputable that parental authority, and especially male parental authority, is in crisis.

Here's one example, from just last week. Look at what they say about our sitcoms and family movies and TV commercials. Men are doofuses. Men are dolts. Most are bald; most are fat; all are clueless. The younger versions--pre-baldness and pre-fat, are just overgrown children. And the women? The women are patient, kind, understanding, and generally long-suffering. What they have to suffer is us.

The flip side of the picture, of course, in our harsher, less pleasant entertainments, is that men are greedy, violent, unscrupulous, and cruel.

If you're looking for the adult male role models of yesterday, you won't find them. There is no Atticus Finch in our movies. There is no Father Knows Best on television. And, as the students in the Jacobs article protested, in far too many families there are no men at all.

All right, you say, that's fine. They were all lies anyway. There were no Atticus Finches. There were only Don Drapers. Sure, they dressed better back then. Men wore ties, even to go out to a baseball game. But they were the same dolts, doofuses, and overgrown children they are now, deep down inside. We just didn't show them that way in our entertainments.

And yes, we've all had to grow up, and realize that our gods have feet of clay. But does that mean that, as children, we should have no gods? That the process of growing ujp and becoming independent--the process of leaving the Garden and entering the World--should be gotten rid of entirely? No more garden--at all--for anyone? Is it really healthy to bombard our children with images of their parents--of all the adults in their community--being hopeless morons? Is it really healthy to teach children that they are smarter than everyone else? I know they think that already--that's part of being a child. But have we really decided that growth--all growth--is an illusion? That there's nowhere to go but down? Really?

Every movement that brought us to this place was right and righteous, and just and justified, even if they gave us some unintended consequences. Feminism's drive to balance the scales between the genders was right and was needed. And it did quite a lot of good. But I don't think it's brought us to the place we want to be. In too many couples, men and women compete for the traditional "man" role, neither of them wanting to be stuck with the nurturing, home-making role. Is that the healthiest way to raise children, I wonder--with both parents saying, "no, you do it"?

Outside of the home, the anti-authoritarian impulses of the sixties were more than justified, after Vietnam and Watergate. But where have they left us? We still have people placed in positions of authority over us--but we trust and respect none of them. We tear them down as quickly as we can, but secretly beg for someone with true authority to take their place. We mock our fathers and dream of some ultimate Daddy who will finally set things right. Robbed of the growth from dependence to independence, we grow up out in the cold from day one, dreaming of some theoretical warmth we've never felt. Isn't that a recipe for fascism? Truly free, independent people need to grow up feeling competent, capable, self-controlled, and well-informed. Do we get that by raising kids to believe that they can trust and rely on no one--not even as children?

And our own, personal sense of authority and command over our lives? We have none. We suspect all of our impulses and desires, both indulging them and hating them. We take on positions of authority at work or at home, and undercut and second-guess ourselves constantly. Raised to believe that all authority is suspect, we have no firm center. We are un-grounded. We do not stand upon the earth--we waver. We shuffle. We qualify every statement. We are weak.

Bugs Bunny used to be the animated character that symbolized America at its best--the way we wanted to see ourselves: witty, resourceful, optimistic, cocky, capable, unflappable. He epitomized the "can do" spirit that we thought we had--that we hoped we had. It was the spirit that looked on a problem and said "let's fix that."

What cartoon character do we see in the mirror now? Homer Simpson.

Personal authority shouldn't have to be a mirage. And it shouldn't have to be based on violence or the threat of violence; it should be based on wisdom--on understanding--even on empathy. There's nothing wrong with empathy--we naturally invest our trust in people who we feel understand the challenges and problems that others face, and sympathize. But that empathy is not a weak, watery sentimentalism. It doesn't wring its hands or bite its lip. It is grounded. It comes from a place of strength. And it is pointed--always--towards action. It says, "let's fix that," not "what a pity."

Let's fix that.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Shana Tovah, Baby

I have accepted an invitation from my local congregation to serve on its board. I have accepted the invitation, because I'm a sucker. But it's a terrible idea, on a number of fronts.

In the first place, I have no time. None. I have scrupulously ignored every email and entreaty and request from the board and other members, ever since signing on. With my work schedule, and travel schedule, and gradual school work, and house- and child-keeping, it's just not something that's high on my priority list. It should be. I accepted the responsibility. But it's my Bridge Too Far.

Also, I'm already over my limit of dysfunctional organizations (limit = 1, and that's the company I work for).

Also...well, I hate to say it, but I have very ambivalent feelings about the whole Temple thing. I always have. My religious life always moved back and forth along a continuum between Attraction and Repulsion, my whole life.

When I was twelve, deep in the bowels of Bar Mitzvah training, moving slowly along the track and preparing myself for eventual expulsion out into the world, I told my father that the temple we belonged to was a Bar Mitzvah mill, and that I wanted out. It was the mid-1970s, and the traditional position of the Reform Jewish family towards its congregation was that it was a place where one slowed down to about 20 miles per hour in order to eject the kid for Sunday School, before zooming off to do more interesting things. And, of course, it was that place you went for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in order to keep the guilt at bay. But that was about it. So when I told my father that our temple was a god-awful place that processed kids more than educating them, it wasn't like he was going to know whether I was telling the truth or not. So he hauled me down to the place to confront the rabbi (which is more than most fathers would have done, back in the day), and said, "The kid says this place is nothing more than a Bar Mtizvah mill." To which the rabbi replied, with a traditional, rabbinic shrug, "He's right."

And that was the end of that.

I started taking private lessons with one of my father's students, who was Orthodox, and going to Saturday morning services with him at a tiny, store-front schul a few miles from my home (for which the rabbi gave me special dispensation to ride my bicycle). This was a revelation to me. The congregation was no more than a dozen families. I understood, for the first time, the role of community in the shabbat service. I understood why the Bar Mitzvah was important--they needed people to do things. And I understood the role of study--because every weekend, we didn't just listen to a Torah portion and then a sermon--we studied the Torah portion and then argued about it. Argued! Fiercely, sometimes. Long before college or grad school, I learned what a seminar was. And I understood why our religion placed such an emphasis on study, and on analysis, and on argument--because you were expected to hold your own, to speak up--to say your piece--to help the group work through a thorny and complex story. THIS is why they trained you to read the Torah and give a speech about it, for your Bar Mitzvah.

I loved it.

But, of course, I wasn't Orthodox, and my family wasn't particularly interested, and I had not one to talk to about it, or do ti with, was a long bike ride, and winter did eventually arrive. And I was 13.

And that was the end of that.

When I got to college, I did not join Hillel. I did not find a congregation. I did not even go to temple for the high holy days. Well, I went once. I sat in the back row and felt terribly out of place and wrong. I no longer remembered any Hebrew. The whole service felt like something I was supposed to know, but didn't know, so I felt out of place and foolish. I didn't stay long, and I didn't return.

But I felt bad about not observing anything. I mean, I went home to do Passover with my parents. I exchanged presents at Chanukah. But what about the high holy days? What about Yom Kippur? The whole idea of atoning for your rotten deeds and committing to do better--that was important stuff. And yet, going to temple did nothing to help me feel those things or think about those things.

Eventually, I started going out of town for Yom Kippur, to some national park or other Awe-Inspiring Location. I went alone and spent the day in silence--hiking for a while and coming to rest at some beautiful spot, where I could sit and think and...pray. I would say the shema, which was the only prayer I remembered, and then I would talk through the year that had passed--what had gone well, and what had gone badly. I apologized--to myself and Whoever was out there--and I promised to do better. And then I hiked down to whatever passed for civilization and had a big dinner.

Even now, years later, having belonged to congregations in Brooklyn and Tucson, raising children in them and sending them off to Sunday School (even teaching in the Sunday School for a couple of years in Brooklyn), I often feel as though I am missing out on the Real Deal when I sit through services and mouth the litanies. Yes, I am part of a community now. Yes, I am saying the words that my ancestors said, and participating in the rituals of my people. And often it's nice.

But it's never more than nice. It's never awe-inspiring. It's never difficult. I never really take the time to find some silence and really think about the choices and actions I've taken in the past year...and atone for the ones that have fallen short of my hopes for myself. Even when they give you time for silent reflection in temple, it's only about 30 seconds. And I have two fidgety boys to keep an eye on.

But those boys adore the rabbi and the cantor, and feel connected and at home in the congregation--and that's a hell of a lot more than I ever had, growing up. So...good for them.

And for their sakes, I care about the place. And for their sakes, I sit on the board.

But I'd much rather be sitting under a tree.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Why Johnny Makes Shit Up

I've seen two instances recently of people trying to read the new Health Care Bill on TV. One was on Comedy Central; the other was on Fox.

And yes, obviously, first one had to get through the jokes about how fat and heavy the bill is. But then they actually tried to read it.

The interesting thing is that on Comedy Central, John Stewart was genuinely trying to make sense of what he was reading (with an unable non-assist from Betsey McCaughey), while on Fox, Greta Van Sustern was simply making fun of the hieroglyphic text.

And the text IS barely decipherable. I've decided that this is the root problem. Yes, we have disingenuous pundits who spin things to cause hysteria. Yes, we have town hall teabaggers who repeat whatever they have heard, but at nine times the volume (and with guns). But at the bottom of the whole shitpile are these twin evils: People don't know how to write, and people don't know how to read.

Friends, it just shouldn't be that hard to read legislation. As complicated and old-fashioned as the Bill of Rights may be, at times, most of it is legible. Any eighth grader ought to be able to make sense of it. And since many people out there in America have nothing beyond an eighth grade reading level, I think it's important--a civic duty, really--to make sure that legislation is written at a level that is readable by them. This is not the middle ages. These are not gnostic, hermeneutic texts to be interpreted by an educated priesthood and explained for the peasantry. Say what you mean. Say it simply enough that everyone can at least understand what you've said. Let us argue about whether or not we agree with it, instead of arguing about what is actually on the page. Watching Jon Stewart spend ten minutes saying, "No, it doesn't say, it just doesn't say that" is painful. And ultimately a waste of time.

This goes back to middle school and high school. We need to teach people how to read--not Jack and Jill, and not The Great Gatsby (well, yes, the Great Gatsby, but that's another argument), but the things that will actually influence and affect their day to day lives. Who teaches kids how to read a lease? Or a mortgage? Or contrasting editorials on the same topic?

Reading and writing.

Who teaches students how to write business letters? Not the crappy sample letters we were all taught, that don't relate to anything real but format. I mean real letters, of the kind we might have to write, once we leave home. How do you let your landlord know that you are withholding rent until he makes the repairs you've been asking him for? How do you communicate with your elected representatives (without calling them Hitler)? What language do you use to express anger appropriately, reasonably, so that you are not attacked (or dismissed) for being a loony or a hothead, but are heard?

We like to criticize TV pundits, and the 24-hour news cycle, and our fellow barbarians, for the crappy level of political discourse in our country. And they're all to blame. But They are not separate from We. And We, as a country, are not raising our children with the skills they need to participate in a civil society, much less a democracy. We are raising them to have opinions, and to express them loudly and obnoxiously. But we are not raising them to doubt, or to analyze, or to support their opinions with facts, either verbally or in writing. So...we get what we deserve.

Or, as the great Pogo Possum once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Why do we insist on being these people?

It's not an accident. It didn't just happen. Anyway, even if it did just happen, we're perpetuating it now, quite deliberately. Apparently, we want this.

Why? Only the very rich have unfettered and unlimited access to health care. The rest of us do face rationing, already, as soon as we eat up whatever allowance our insurance allows us, assuming we have insurance.

I don't want to be these people.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Face in the Crowd

We watched the Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg movie, A Face in the Crowd last night. I had seen it once, many years ago. The wife had never seen it. If you have never seen it, you should get your hands on it and see it. Now.

First of all, if you've never seen this movie, you probably don't know that Andy Griffith can do a hell of a lot more than be folksy. In this movie, he's a scenery-chewing, demonic whirlwind.

Second of all, it's just a great movie. Brilliantly written, brilliantly acted all around, brilliantly directed.

But most importantly, and most depressingly, there is almost nothing hideous about our current politics or media that this movie, in 1957, didn't predict. Style over substance? Image over message? The rise of the soundbite? They saw it. The setting of country over city to drive conservative politics? They saw it. The use of country folksiness to mask political demagoguery? They saw it.

In fact, as the movie progressed from merely witty to truly unpleasant, The Wife turned to me and said, "this is nauseating." Because they saw it all--all of it--in television's infancy. Even the use of pop culture and rock music to sell shitty products.

Okay, so it's nauseating. So we should have known better. Don't let that stop you from renting the movie, if you've never seen it. Because it's witty, and biting, and savage, and worth seeing.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Birthers: Too Stupid to Ignore?

Bill Maher has a very good op-ed today on the subject of the idiot Birther movement. You know, the one led by the crazy Russian woman who claims that we're living in Nazi Germany, which is supported by crazy Americans like the woman who screamed "I want my country back!"

Which I translate as meaning, "I want my white presidents back!"

In fact, the birther argument is so profoundly stupid that I can only conclude that what's driving it is far beyond, or below, the actual (stupid) argument being made. After long and careful thought on the subject (five minutes, max), I'm interpreting the birther position thusly:

Barack Obama cannot be an American citizen, because there are no educated black people in America unless they come from somewhere else.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Health Care: Building a Mastadon Out of Spare Crocodile Parts, When What We Need is a Pony

Let me start by saying: I don't know anything about health care or health insurance, except as a consumer.

Let me also say: I think Ann Coulter is an evil clown.

However, this recent column of hers raises some good points, I think, once you clear away her usual anti-liberal hysteria.

We all know this health care plan is not the one we would create ex nihilo. We all know we have to work with the muck we're mired in. We're not going to start from scratch. That's just reality. Insurance companies are going to be a part of any new system; they just are. Identical coverage for all citizens is never going to happen; half of the country is just set against it.

But why THIS? Can't we be any more imaginative with the pieces we have on the table? Why are our legislators showing SO little imagination?

Never mind; I withdraw the question.

Here's my Brilliant Plan. I challenge our gummint to tell me why something kinda sorta like this wouldn't a) work, b) be cheap and reasonable, and c) satisfy critics on both sides of the aisle.

DAY-TO-DAY CARE. Most of the time, most of us need to see a doctor for very minor maladies. Really, what we need is a nurse. We need an antibiotic. We need to see if something is sprained or broken. We need a throat culture. There is no reason why those of us with insurance should have to schedule an appointment with an actual doctor for this, at top dollar (regardless of who is paying), and those of us without insurance should have to clog up emergency rooms. Drug stores like Walgreens have started opening walk-in clinics staffed by registered nurses to handle just this kind of low-care traffic, and they're convenient, quick, and cheap. Why not encourage the entreprenurial spirit and let a thousand such flowers bloom, competing with each other for low cost and good (but low-level) care? I don't need health insurance to cover a quickie visit to a nurse when I need a flu shot. Let most of us handle this ourselves. And provide people below the poverty line--or some other line--with a voucher or a card that gives them either unlimited access to such facilities or a certain number of free visits per month.

CATASTROPHIC CARE. If we want to provide some level of government-supplied, universal coverage, without making conservatives feel like we're being nanny-statish, why not aim up here, where people can really suffer? Provide a high-deductible, catastrophic insurance policy free of charge (i.e., paid for by our taxes) to all citizens, so that if something horrible happens, it doesn't wipe out people and their families. With a pool as large as Everyone, it ought to be a reasonably cheap policy to create, maintain, and fund.

IN-BETWEEN IS UP FOR GRABS. In between quickie nurse visits and cancer surgery is a wide territory, and this is where the rich can buy their boutique insurance policies, those of us with families or chronic conditions or whatever can hope for good policies from our employers (which can still be a selling point in job recruitment), those of us who are young and healthy can go without if we so choose (to Coulter's point), and the poor can get some kind of government assistance a la Medicaid. I would think that insurance companies would be able to craft some kind of in-between-y policies like this that are attractive to people who need them and reasonably inexpensive for employers, since the scope of services covered would be much narrower.

I welcome your thoughts, you 2.5 people who read this.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Brains are Funny Things

It was a grey and overcast morning here in southern Arizona--a rare event. Being a Yankee by birth and an autumnal kind of person by disposition, I tend to fall into a reflective mood on cool and cloudy mornings like this--sometimes wistful, sometimes melancholy. But even that doesn't explain the weird thing that happened to me this morning.

I started the day alone with Thing 2, who slept in bed with me, most of the night, after a bad dream. Thing 1 is off on an adventure in the Galapagos Islands with his grandfather, and The Wife spent the night in nearby hotel, either to have some horribly tacky affair or to finish the novel she's writing.

Thing 2 was in a jolly mood, watching Sponge Bob while I sat on an early morning conference call, and then trotting out to the car when called, his new stuffed animal in tow (in a cardboard box he's using as a bed, with a pillowcase for a blanket). We drove him to preschool/camp, listening to NPR and yakking happily away.

After I dropped him off, as I was driving home, a flood of memories washed over me--unbidden, unpredicted, and out of nowhere. All of a sudden, I was remembering a play that I wrote and directed back in college--26 years ago. As if some long-locked door had suddenly swung open, I could see entire scenes play out in my head--specific lines of dialogue, costumes that people wore, and songs--entire songs, line after line of the lyrics I wrote--things I hadn't thought about in...well, in close to 26 years, honestly.

Where did it all come from? What triggered that flood of memories? I have no idea. And HOW? How is it possible that such incredibly detailed memories reside inside me somewhere, fully accessible and present if the right key trips the lock?

Bits and pieces of the play have lingered with me all morning--more lyrics trickling into my head as the hours go on.

It's all very strange.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ubi Sunt

We watched the movie, Rachel Getting Married, a couple of weeks ago, and one of the things that resonated most strongly with me was the family's house and the extended family of artists, musicians, and layabouts who seemed constantly to be on hand. 'That was supposed to be my house," I kept thinking. "The big, old house--the sane guy in the center of many concentric circles of eccentric people. Wasn't that supposed to be me?"

I've had a habit, even as far back as high school, of seeing myself (and therefore allowing myself to become) Nick Carraway to all the Gatsbys around me--the supportive friend, ready to listen--not the do-er, but the watcher and recorder--not the crazy one, but the crazy one's friend. Well, maybe it wasn't a habit or a choice after all. I've always been a writer by temperament, and that's what writers do.

When I left school and committed myself to making a life in theatre, that same dynamic held. There was always drama around me (real-life drama, above and beyond the stuff we were creating), but it was rarely my own. In fact, when it was my own, my friends seemed to resent the fact that I was stealing focus. It's like that old joke: "Enough about me. What do you think of me?" And that seemed to be true not only of the actors in my theatre company, but also of the other friends I had accumulated over the years--passionate, interesting, complicated people, all. I resented it, sometimes, but only sometimes. Other times, I envied their passion, their single-mindedness, even their ability to be selfish. It's hard to be successful in the world of art and entertainment if you're not feverishly single-minded and willing (and able) to sacrifice everything (or everyone) to your ultimate goal. But I don't think you can choose to be that kind of person. You either are or you aren't. And, as it turned out, I wasn't.

So things fall apart, and over time, people drifted away, in pursuit of other dreams--or the same dreams, but in different places and with different people. And for many of us, there was also, eventually, marriage, and children, and the cocooning and separating from others that inevitably happens.

For me, part of the marriage and children thing involved moving around--from Atlanta to Manhatten to Brooklyn, then from Brooklyn to a small town along the Hudson River, and then out to Arizona. And the center cannot hold when there is no center--when everyone is in motion, all the time. I have friends back in Atlanta, where I went to college, who have never left, and who still maintain a gravitational center that keeps relationships and people in orbit around them. I don't have that. Here in Arizona for two years, I'm only just now beginning to accumulate some friends. But they're different kinds of friends. They're the parents of my children's classmates. They're fellow congregants at our synagogue. They're good people, and nice people. But they have their own families, their own cocoons, their own centers of gravity. And there's nothing very strange about that--it's how most of us live, these days: four of us here; three of us there; two of us somewhere else. Lunch? We'd love to, but give us a call first--our schedules fill up so fast.

Sometimes, though, I wonder about that alternate reality--the pathway I imagined for myself, that never really materialized. I imagine the too-big, falling-down old house, somewhere with big trees and big lawns, and woods, where people drop by unannounced and stay for days; where there is always something wonderful cooking on the stove; where someone is always playing music, or practicing a scene or a dance; where you can always hear, from some room, a passionate argument about something; where a familiy's generations live together, instead of miles apart from each other. Life as a community, instead of life as an isolated pod.

And then I realize where I first got that image, and it's not from my old life in the theatre, it's from a life imagined in theatre: it's the house and the family in You Can't Take it With You--a play I first read in High School, probably thirty years ago, sitting in the school library--alone--during a free period.

So the movie two weeks ago makes me mourn for a world I first saw imagined in a play. And life is just life is just life is just life.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Death of a Thousand Cuts

I used to like democracy. Sounded cool, supported by lots of important people, blah blah blah. But I'm over it.

When I ran a theatre company, I tried to lead it democratically. Likewise when I managed a curriculum team. But there's a difference between "leading democratically" and "allowing chaos." A big difference. I am currently working in an "allowing chaos" place.

Actually, it's the worst of both worlds. On odd-numbered days, I am given tasks and told what to do, and usually am treated like a fool for not having anticipated the task before it was asked of me. As I said to someone recently, no one asks me to do anything; they ask me why I haven't already done it.

And then, on even-numbered days, I participate in endless, endless conference calls, where we hash and rehash ideas, watching the minutes and then hours dribble away while nobody takes the lead or says what they want, and opinions go around and around in circles, with bosses saying, "What do you think?" or "Is that fair?"

In my graduate courses, we read the same constructivist nonsense--about how leadership is a dirty word, and everything must be decided by everybody. But that's crap--nobody wants to be on the committee of the whole, with the entire universe as its agenda, forever. People want to be able to do their jobs. People want their colleagues and bosses to do their jobs.

I'm not saying we want to be automatons. Obviously, we don't. We want to own our work. We want the freedom and autonomy to make decisions. But OUR decisions--that affect OUR work--not every decision in the world.

A leader doesn't have to make every decision for the group--nor should she. But someone has to sketch out the larger vision of the organization, so that everyone else can feel like their working at a common purpose, and swimming in the same pond.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Who Needs Arts Education?

I participated in a round-table discussion on arts education back in New York, a few years ago, and wrote the following as an opening statement. On the day of the event , they decided to change the format and simply launch us all into dialogue, so I never got to use this.

I had completely forgotten about it until today, when my brother sent me a wonderful video on Facebook, of a group of children being led in song in a school auditorium. I posted my never-used remarks in response, and then realized that I had never posted them here, for posterity...or whatever.

So... here they are.

At about four o'clock this morning, when I realized that I hadn't yet come up with an opening statement for tonight, a book named Lila popped into my head. There's a section of this book where the author talks about the early days of scientific classification. He describes how scientists first came up with their categories of mammal, fish, reptile, and so on. And he describes what happened when these scientists encountered the duck-billed platypus—which, as you may know, doesn't fit neatly into any one category. So, did the scientists go back to the drawing board and re-think their system? No, they just decided that the platypus was wrong, and assigned him to his own, special place—outside.

See, the definition—the artificial construct—that was right. It was the living, breathing creature that was wrong. We can only imagine what the platypus might have wanted to say in response.

We in the world of art fall victim to this platypus syndrome far too often—and nowhere more often than in the world of K12 education. I'm certainly not the first person to suggest that our school system classifies and categorizes knowledge in a way that is alien to how most people live their lives. We've actually tried to convince generations of children that History is something different from life, and that Literature and Science shouldn't be talked about in the same room. We've allowed them to think that that some people simply "get" Math and others simply don't. And we've allowed them to think that art is… optional.

Now, children in elementary school don't have this problem. They're generalists. They learn about Native Americans in the morning—then they go make an Indian village out of pipe cleaners and corkboard after lunch. They don't care. Art is simply one way of understanding the world—one way among many. Children get it, but we've forgotten. We treat art as a specialization in middle and high school, and not a very important one, at that. If older kids even have an arts program in their school, it's usually a separate, set-apart world, the point of which is…well, I don't even know what the point is. To study art for its own sake, I suppose—to learn the techniques, respect the discipline, and clean the brushes when you're done.

Well, I'm going to argue that art for art's sake is nonsense, especially in our schools. Art doesn't have a sake—only we have a sake. Art is for life's sake, or it's nothing. And in too many schools, it is nothing. It's considered a frill—a luxury—the first thing to cut when budgets get tight. And that's our fault, as artists, because we've allowed ourselves to be defined at the margins—when in fact we should be the vital center, the beating heart of any school. Art isn't just a way of expressing our emotions. It's the place where everything we study meets. Art is history, math, science, poetry, all rolled up together. It is, to a large degree, what we do with what we have learned. And it has so much more to teach us than we allow into our schools.

For example—one example—what does it mean that, at a certain point in European history, painted representations of reality stopped looking two-dimensional and took on depth? Where did perspective drawing come from? What's the science behind it? Why did we suddenly understand how to do that, when we never had before? Why did it happen as we moved out of the middle ages and into the Renaissance? And what did that shift, along with all the other seismic shifts of that era, do to the way people perceived their world? These aren't small questions. If you were going to teach teenagers about the middle ages and the Renaissance, why wouldn't you want them to look at these paintings, and how they changed? Why wouldn't you want them to study cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts, and how they changed? Isn't that at least as effective a way of showing how a world evolves as reading about King X and War Z? And what if—here's a radical thought—what if students could actually make some of that art while they were studying the time period? I mean teenaged students, here, not little kids. What if they had the chance to discover, tactilely, just how laborious a task it is to illuminate a manuscript by hand, and what it must have meant—physically and emotionally—to move from that world into a world with a printing press? Why wouldn’t you want their hands to understand what their minds were learning?

The art we create—and the way we go about creating it—can tell us so much about the world we live in—our beliefs, our values, our dreams, our nightmares. It seems incomprehensible to me that we've allowed the arts to be defined as window-dressing for suburban schools—pretty to look at and a great selling-point for parents looking to move into the neighborhood, but utterly without weight or consequence. We’ve been placed outside everything that is considered important. We simply don’t fit.

I used to get angry at school districts for thinking this way, but I don't get angry at them anymore. They're following our lead, as artists. We've either defined ourselves this way or allowed ourselves to be defined this way. Either way, it's our fault.

After all, the platypus couldn't fight back—but we can.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Attack First, Ask Questions Later

All right, be fair and balanced--and, good Libra that I am, I must try to be fair and balanced--here is another view of the whole Tea Party thing. I can't embed it, so you'll just have to go visit the link.

And you can agree or disagree with the commentary on media bias all you like. The disturbing thing here, to me, is the home video captured of this CNN reporter speaking with a woman in the crowd after her official report, which attacked and denigrated the protesters. As if her report wasn't unprofessional enough (and God knows, it was), it's even worse to learn that she spent time speaking with people in the crowd later, learned something more interesting and less cartoonish about what motivated some of the people there, and then chose not to use any of that information in a follow-up broadcast.

The commentator in this video, by the way, is a man named Bill Whittle, who writes very thoughtful and insightful essays--carefully written, deeply considered essays--right here. I often disagree with his views, but I'm always interested to read them, and I'm often challenged to re-think my own positions and more carefully defend my points of view. Which is exactly what reading widely should make you do.

But we don't read widely anymore. We read very narrowly. We figure out who agrees with us first, and then decide to read them. We lock ourselves away from those who disagree with us, because...well, because they're disagreeable. But that tactic doesn't serve us well. Because if our opinions are correct, we lose the opportunity to sharpen our teeth on opposing views--to figure out how best to respond to those who disagree with us, how best to fight back. And--horrors--what if our opinions turn out to be incorrect? What if we are wrong? Shouldn't we want to know? Shouldn't we want to make sure? And how can you find out if you are wrong, if you don't test your views out in the light of day, and make sure they stand up to criticism?

Here is an interesting book on the subject--on Stephen Colbert's "truthiness," and how it actually works in our world. Worth the read.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"I think it's a toss-up"

The IRS is not the country's thumbscrews, and the "tyranny" of taxation is not the same thing as living under an autocrat. The fact that people out there in my country can't tell the difference just shows that our way of teaching history is, in fact, crap.

"They didn't know fuck-all about tyranny."

Too right.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Tea Party Tyranny
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Thursday, April 16, 2009


Incredible stop-motion animation, using photographs displayed across a room and then re-photographed. Courtesy of BoingBoing.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Lamest Generation

The Wife was off doing one of her various things last night, so after I tucked Things 1 and 2 into bed, I sat down to watch some crappy TV and wait for her to return. I couldn't watch anything good, of course--not without her. So Lost had to wait. I ended up watching an episode of Desperate Housewives. I used to watch it regularly, but I've kindofsortof lost interest. And yet, there it was on the DVR. Or, rather, there they were--several unwatched episodes.

The episode I chose is probably a month old, by now. I'm not sure. The couple who run the pizza restaurant were in dire financial straits, on the verge of losing their business. The father, against the advice of his (desperate) wife, fires his entire staff and enlists his children to help. They whine and complain, but they do it--until a crowd of high school kids come in to the place, and the two oldest kids--twins--who are in high school--refuse to serve the table. It will be too embarrassing, they say. One of the kids at the table is a prick, and will make fun of them for it forever.

The dad gets angry--too angry--and ends up yelling at the kid and pushing him up against the wall, saying things like, "I've put everything into this restaurant. Everything!"

See, the dads are desperate, too.

Anyway, the dad sees the error of his ways the next morning, and decides to close the restaurant and sell, at bargain prices, everything inside. They make just enough money to pay off their debts. In the end, they are left penniless and unemployed.

BUT--the point of this arc of the episode is that the dad learned a valuable lesson and did the right thing. This is clear and least from the point of view of the writers and director. Yes--he saved his two teenage sons from mortal embarrassment. Never mind the fact that they both look to be about ten minutes away from graduating. Never mind the fact that college is now out of the question, for them and probably for the other three kids coming up behind them. This is never mentioned. His choice was correct. Because he spared their feeeeeelings.

So, lesson number one here is the obvious and oft-repeated one: the people who create our popular entertainment don't have a fucking clue how most of us live, though their costumers and set dressers can create a reasonable facsimile of what reality looks like. When I taught high school in New York City, fifteen years ago, there were plenty of kids who worked at their family's restaurants, or dry cleaners, or whatever. Did they love doing it? Probably not. But they knew why they did it. They did it for the family, and they did it for themselves--because the family's economic health made it possible for them to go to school and, possibly, go on to college.

Granted, they were all the children of recent immigrants. I have recent ancestors who worked in the family business as children, too. Would I have done the same, a few generations later? Not happily, I'm sure.

But there's the point: you don't do it happily, but you do it. Because you're a child, and your very limited, short-term sense of happiness is not what grownups build a family upon, or make huge decisions based upon. Did the dad on this TV show blow up, and get too angry? He did. Did that invalidate what he was trying to say? It shouldn't have. The scene needed to end with him calming down--that night, or the next day--and explaining to his nearly-adult son why this business had to survive, and why facing some short-term embarrassment was a minor thing compared to bankruptcy. He might have even coached the kid on how to face the abuse he might get from the asshole kids at the table--how to hold himself with pride, and speak with authority, because he was helping to run the family business, while the other kids were still useless parasites.

But no, he apologized, and he shut down the business, and they're broke. And I have no idea what happens next, because I'm too busy to catch up on three or four more episodes.

But if our TV reflects our culture in any way--if the people who make the shows are not as clueless as I'd like to think they are--if they really do know what's going on--then we're in massive trouble. Because if we, as a culture, really do condone and applaud this mindset--that our children are precious flowers who must be protected from all hurt and harm and who should not be expected to help the family in times of crisis--then what kind of id monsters are we raising? If we, as a larger culture, can't find it within ourselves to gird our loins, grit our teeth, and do some unpleasant things in order to survive hard times, if unpleasant things are required (and by the way, we are in hard times. Even the stupid show acknowledged as much), then...well...we aren't going to survive hard times.

Just imagine how this very same scene would have played out in a TV show from the 1950s or even the early 60s. I think it's pretty obvious. The kids would be told to buck up and deal with it, they'd face down the assholes at the table, who would end up more abashed and repentant than their real-life counterparts ever would, and the kids would learn a Valuable Lesson, which would be spelled out in excruciating detail around the family dinner table in the last scene.

So trite! We laugh. Good thing we've come so far.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Yes, Glenn Beck is a simpering idiot.


However, this organization he's trying to tout, between tears, is interesting. Anyway, the website is. I don't say "interesting" as in "perfect" or even "something you should join." Just "interesting."

Why do I find it interesting? Because, coming from Crybaby Beck, the whole thing will immediately be dismissed by the Left. And yet, if you look at the 9 principles and 12 values, would Democrats really object to most of them? I mean, the whole thing is shrill and jingoistic and weirdly nostalgic for the aftermath of a hideous disaster, but the basic ideas listed are...well...pretty basic ideas for us, in this country.

I take exception only to Principles #1 and 2.

Interestingly, #1, that America is Good, doesn't fit in with the rest of the list. First of all, it's not a principle; it's just a platitude. Second, it's the only thing on the list not accompanied by a pithy quote from one of the Founders. That, alone, should have set off some alarm bells. Personally, I do not accept knee-jerk self-congratulation as an important principle, for myself or for my country. I know Beck needed nine thingies on his list, but surely he could have come up with something else--something that could have been supported by one of our Glorious Founders. I'd even be happy with something about how we try to be good--that it matters to us to try to be good, and how, even though we sometimes fail, we have (so far) been able to correct our course and push on in the direction of living our principles better than before.

#2 is the usual God stuff. I know it's important to most Americans. I just wish we'd all shut up about it, because it's not important to everybody--and even the believers can't agree on what, exactly, they believe. Couldn't we come up with some language about reliance on a power greater than ourselves (interpret that how you will), and leave it at that?

Then there's that thing about you and your spouse being the ultimate authority. Man, if only the right really believed that. Just think of all the abortion rights and Terry Schiavo-ish crap we'd be able to do away with.

World's Worst Airport

I have nothing even remotely interesting to say, and haven't had for weeks now.

So watch this, instead. It is funny.

Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quick Question

...for the guy in the white pickup truck heading East on River Road this morning--the guy with the super-big clown tires that jacked up the entire vehicle, the naked-woman silhouettes on the mudflaps, and the vanity plates rooting inanely for the local college team--the guy who blasted his crappy music at everyone, weaved in and out of traffic in order to get...wherever...faster than the rest of us, and tossed his half-full Big Gulp cup out the window at the rest of the world--a world which didn't seem to exist or matter much to Himself:

Could you possibly be more of an asshole?

Just checking.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Eating of Books

"She read my books the way a young cannibal might eat the hearts of brave old enemies. Their magic would become hers."

Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird

One of the strangest thing about raising children is how it can force you to look at your own life, your own past, from the outside, from across the room.

It doesn't happen every day. Your children are not clones of you, after all. They're not mirror images. But every once in a while, you see a flash of something--an aspect of yourself inside of them. You look at your son and see yourself at that age, as others probably saw you, and it can knock you to the floor...or tear you apart.

My son learned to read in Kindergarten, and it was hard going. Although he loved stories of all kinds, he preferred to have them read to him. He didn't pick up reading naturally, as an outgrowth of being read to, as I apparently did (the story my mother told was that one day, while she was reading a story to me, I stopped her and corrected her. She had been paraphrasing and I was reading along. That was how she discovered that I could read). The reading instruction Thing 1 received at school was clumsy and poorly done, and he became a resistant and reluctant reader. And an even more resistant and reluctant writer.

First grade was even harder for him. It wasn't until we began home-schooling him, in the second half of first grade, that he began to pick things up. The increased focus on him, and the more structured phonics program we used, seemed to help. But he still didn't enjoy it. He loved being read to, but didn't want to read. He loved telling stories, but wouldn't write anything down.

And that was hard for me. Books have always been intensely important to me. I've always been a devourer of books. And, of course, a writer. My son seemed so much like me, in so many ways, and yet...why was he having so much trouble here? And why couldn't I help him?

And then, all of a sudden...things changed. It may have been the new school he went to, and the kids he began collecting as friends. But it also may have just been him. Suddenly, he's a reader. An avid reader. Suddenly, he's reading himself to sleep every night, with a book light. Suddenly, with no prompting or difficulty, he's graduated from little kid books to chapter books with no pictures. He devours them. Then he reads them again. Then he moves on to the next one. Sometimes, he'll sneak out of his bed at 10:00 PM or later, just to let us know he's finished his latest conquest.

It's such an important lesson, and one I seem to have to learn again and again. Thing 1 is his own person, and he comes to things his own way, in his own time. His process is often internal and hidden. We don't see a struggle, a gradual growth, and attainment. Whatever is going on, we don't see it. What we see is No...No...No...and then, all of a sudden, in an instant: Yes. Finished. Complete. Done.

The day-to-day can be a struggle--on so many fronts. I have to remember to trust him and have faith that, with a little help perhaps, but probably just more patience and calm, he'll get where he needs to be. In his own time. In his own way.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Late, Great Joe Katz

I just learned, through the magic of Facebook, that one of my favorite teachers from high school--or ever--has died. His name was Joe Katz, and he taught history at Roslyn High School.

I despised history as a subject in school. I found it dull, and I found its teachers duller. It was all content with no context. And the teachers, by and large, were grey and unwashed and uninteresting.

Strangely, though, I chose to take an honors history class as a senior. It was called "American Thought," and it was the first class I had ever taken that had no textbook. Instead, we had a packet of articles and essays that had been Xeroxed by the teacher. It also had no real syllabus, beyond, "let's talk about stuff."

The teacher, Joe Katz, chewed gum, had wild and untamed eyebrows, and was trying to corner the market on bicentennial-themed quarters (it was 1980 at the time). He didn't teach. Not any way I had been used to. He harassed. He cajoled. He challenged. It was my first seminar, and suddenly, I loved history.

I have forgotten almost everything that my high school teachers forced me to read, outside of novels and stories in English. But I remember the essays I read for Joe Katz--because he wasn't afraid of being controversial and confrontational. We were high school seniors, and we were expected to grapple with the world.

This was serious business for Joe Katz. He had been teaching for long enough, at that point, that he had sent students to Vietnam. The draft had gone away not so long ago. Being 18 was not, necessarily, a guaranteed joyride. In fact, when some of the kids in class came in wearing Hawaiian shirts and sitting in folding lawn chairs in honor of the first day of spring, Joe Katz lashed out at them for being superficial and foolish. "You want to make a statement?" he yelled. "Find something worth saying."

One essay I remember vividly was about a history teacher who secretly started a fascist youth group in his world history class in order to lure his clueless students into behaving thugishly--in response to their blithe criticisms of the Germans under Naziism, and how stupid they must have been to fall under Hitler's spell. Little by little, the teacher ratcheted up the outrageous demands on his new "club," until they were spying on their classmates, threatening them, and even wearing armbands. He then brought them into the auditorium to see a video link-up with the youth group's national convention, whereupon he showed them scenes from the NAzi Nuremburg rally. They got the point. They got the point so well that some of them had complete breakdowns and had to leave school. The teacher, needless to say, was fired, sued, and more.

But it was GREAT reading material. And OH, how we argued about it. For days. And it wasn't just opinionating. We had to defend our opinions with...all of that historical content we had learned and found so boring and useless in other classes.

I've carried that particular story around in my head ever since, and pulled it out on many occasions.

I've done a lot of teacher and curriculum-developer training sessions on "teaching for understanding." Joe Katz is the teacher who taught me what that means.

Rest in Peace, Joe. And if there is a heaven, may be you be arguing gloriously there, with the best and the brightest.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Coolest inauguration photo ever

This is one of those megapixel photos that allow you to zoom and zoom and zoom so deeply that you can see people's dandruff. Check out Justice Clarence Thomas sitting behind Obama. Truly a great man. Hrmph.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Anniversary of Exile

Sixteen years ago this week, I ran away from my home, my life, my parents, and my wife to teach English in a small town in the Republic of Slovakia (which had just recently--weeks before--stopped being a part of Czechoslovakia). Since I can't honor the occasion with a halushki and knedle dinner with my fellow former teachers, as I used to do in New York, let me commemorate with a reminiscence of that Great and Strange Day, sixteen years ago:

By the time I got to Krupina it was dark and I was drunk. Queasy on Slovak liquor and a disgusting lunch of fried cheese, exhausted after five hours of bad road, I had no desire to take in any scenery. All I wanted was a warm bed and a thick blanket to pull over my head. I was so tired and disoriented that everything seemed to be happening in a dream. The clown car I'd been bouncing in all day disgorged one passenger after another, until there was no one left but the mayor, his driver, and me. None of them spoke English, and the only thing I knew how to ask for Slovak was beer—the one thing I definitely did not need.

The smog-belching tin can finally came to rest in front of an enormous, decaying building—my new home. We walked my bags up three flights of echoing stairs to my room. The mayor opened the door, babbled some things I couldn't understand, and scrawled a street map on a piece of paper. He wrote down a number and pointed to his watch. Then he shook my hand, beamed at me with pride, and left.

And I was alone—for the first time in a week. Alone in a silent, strange room. Slowly all the chaos and convulsions of the past week began to subside, and I was able to look around and catch my breath and think again.

I was in an overheated, under-furnished cell of a room. The room had brand new, bright blue carpeting, a fresh paint job, and three pieces of furniture: a desk, a desk chair, and a hard, narrow, platform bed—all stark and utilitarian and white. French doors led to a sliver of balcony which looked out over a sleepy, sleeping town. Between the town and me lay train tracks and a factory. Blue smoke chuffed out of a chimney and drifted over the houses.

I closed the doors and looked at the room again. So this was my home for the next six months. Nothing soft, nothing comfortable—nowhere I could lean back and relax. Nowhere I could sit and read a book. I put my bags in the closet and went out into the anteroom. The doorknob came off in my hand.

The anteroom was almost the size of my bedroom. It was unheated, uncarpeted, and dim, and it held nothing but a coat closet and several doors. Stuck to the closet were three or four stickers with pictures of body builders. Along one wall was the door to my room and the door to my neighbor's room—from which I could hear giggling girls and tinny pop music. I had been told that my suite-mate was a truck driver who was only in town on the weekends. He seemed to be very much in tonight—and he was re-painting his room. The smell sat heavy in the cold entryway.

There were two other doors to inspect, on either side of the two bedroom doors. Behind one door lay a shower room with a sink. There was no bathtub, or even a shower stall—just a nozzle attached to a long hose, sitting in a metal cradle on the wall. There were no hooks for towels, shelves for toiletries, or even a mirror. In the middle of the floor was a drain.

Across from that door was a small room with a toilet. The room reeked of shit. Toilets in this country had no water reservoir; you dropped your business straight onto the metal bowl, then pulled a chain. Water whooshed down to wash it away, then gurgled into emptiness, leaving stains and stink.

The smells of old shit and new paint were too much for my jittery stomach. All day I’d been feeling queasy as we bounced up and down along the treacherous roads in pea-soup fog. I had been trapped in the back seat for hours between the mayor and the school director—both large, sweaty men who spoke no English. The one person who did speak my language, a woman named Elena, sat up front, chatting away to distract me. But it was no good. I longed for some fresh air and a break from the bouncing.

The fog got worse, and we crawled for hours behind a line of army jeeps and a tank. I had no idea whose soldiers they were—remnants of the Red Army, heading back to Russia, or Slovaks re-deploying in their brand new country? I couldn’t tell—all I could see was the silhouette cut out on the fog. It was a creepy sight. I hadn't seen soldiers and army jeeps on any roads since my childhood, when there was a draft in my country, and a war. I tried to remember those images to keep my mind off our driver, who was swerving wildly, lurching from side to side on the serpentine, invisible road. He'd had more than a few shots of plum brandy during lunch, and it seemed to be making him feel invincible. Not me. The vision of tanks emerging from fog was frightening enough without the additional terror of dying on a country road in the middle of nowhere. I closed my eyes, but it didn't help. Fried cheese and hard liquor sloshed back and forth in my guts, and I held myself tight, all the way to my new home.

And now I was here. Alone. I knew the name of the town and the first name of the one woman who seemed to speak English. How could I find her again if I needed her? I couldn't—she had vanished into the darkness of the town. What was my address here? Was there a phone? What would I do if something terrible happened to me in the night? Who could I go to for help?

No one. I understood that now. I was on my own. I had cut loose from all my moorings and now I was at sea—out alone in the deep, weird world. I was lost, just as I had wanted. All the trauma and sorrow I had created back home, all the wreckage I had made of my life in the past year, all of it was behind me now, in a crazy dream-land where beds were soft and door-knobs stayed on doors. But I wasn't there anymore, and I had no way of getting back there till my time here was done. I was committed. I was trapped. I was free.

Up until a week before I had left home, I had deluded myself into thinking I'd be stationed in Prague, or at least close to Prague—the city of Kundera and Havel and Kafka, the center of all the Great Changes and New Beginnings taking place. This was what I was after. Two new countries had just been born, two new republics rising out of the ashes of the Communist regime which had squatted over the Czech and Slovak people for years. I had been reading about it, and now I was going to witness it first-hand.

Except I wasn't needed in Prague. There were hundreds of Americans and Brits and Canadians in Prague already, most of them teaching English. No, I was needed in a different place—a place called Krupina—which was not only remote from the capital; it was now, as of January first, in an entirely separate country. I felt duped when I first got the call informing me of my “charming willage,” but it was too late to back out. They needed me, and I needed to escape.

When I arrived at the orientation site in this new republic of Slovakia, I was handed a sheet of information about the town I was assigned to. It said: "You will be the first volunteer from our organization to this school. There are not any other volunteers in the town. Krupina has a population of 8,000. It received its royal charter in 1244 and was a mining town for many years. In the town you will find an observation tower, a park, and a factory. The surrounding mountains are excellent for hiking."

So I was to be completely isolated here. Not exactly what I had been hoping for, but it was too late to complain. I had thrown my life into the hands of chance, or fate, and here is where I had landed. There had to be a reason. At least, I hoped there was a reason. At any rate, it would give me some time—some perspective on the mess I'd left back at home. It would give me a chance to think, away from all the people who wanted something out of me—my parents, my wife, my friends. It would give me a chance to figure out what the hell I was supposed to do next. And I could go back home at the end of it, with confidence and a sense of mission, and fix whatever needed fixing...or break whatever needed breaking. I could face my looming thirtieth birthday with some calm, saying, "Yes, my life is heading down the right road at last."

And yet...

And yet right now, in this close and overheated place, where everything was heavy smells and hard furniture, I wondered if I really knew what I was doing. I lay down on my palette and clamped my Walkman on my head. I tried to sleep, to forget where I was for a while, but it was hopeless. A freight train began hooking up outside my window—each car chugging noisily forward then smashing back against its neighbor to link up. One after another. All the awful images of the life I'd run from, coupled with the long day and the bad alcohol, and the shit and the paint and the endless, grinding noise, and the realization that I was really, actually lost and alone in the middle of nowhere—all of it put me over the edge, and I stumbled out to the stinking toilet and retched.

P.S.: It got better. It actually got quite wonderful. But slowly.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


I'm writing staff evaluations (and reviewing evaluations being written by others) all week.

It's nice to have the magical tubes of the Internet to escape that drudgery from time to time.

But I'd rather have this: