Friday, June 29, 2007

And in Other News...

This just in from the Jerusalem Post:

Hamas TV on Friday broadcast what it said was the last episode of a weekly children's show featuring "Farfour," a Mickey Mouse look-alike who had made worldwide headlines for preaching Islamic domination and armed struggle to youngsters.

In the final skit, Farfour was beaten to death by an actor
posing as an Israeli official trying to buy Farfour's land. At one point, Farfour called the Israeli a "terrorist."

"Farfour was martyred while defending his land," said Sara, the teen presenter. He was killed "by the killers of children," she added.

I'm not even sure what to add to that.

Taking a Stand

Okay, I know, I's only MSNBC. And Joe Scarborough can be an idiot on occasion. But I just love this.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Kiss

The Wife tells me that her writing class has asked me to respond to the story she has written here:

Damned impertinence, if you ask me--assigning homework to people not even registered for the course. But I'll do what I can.

I have fond memories of the night she writes about, though it's odd and irrelevant details that stay in my mind, like the color of the plastic cups we grabbed from my room for drinking wine, and the fact that they had come from some college function years earlier, back in Atlanta.

But I remember the big picture too. It was definitely a movie scene--and not just in retrospect. For me, it was less laden with Serious Meaning. I mean, it was a good kiss, for sure, and a great evening. But at the time, it didn't signal anything life-changing to me. I didn't think to myself, "I'm going to marry this person."

Of course, I did marry this person, albeit years later, on a different coast, after my Starter Marriage dissolved.

(Dissolved? Let's be fair: "was wrecked by me.")

I did marry this person, and now it's almost eleven years later. Eleven years of marriage. Two kids. Too many jobs. Too much to do, always. Is there such a thing as a Perfect Kiss now?

For me, it's not about how the kiss feels. I know how kisses feel. For me, it's about what a kiss can do.

She's standing in some room; it doesn't matter which. Her face is wan and tired--or furrowed with concentration. She is absorbed in something important--there is always something important that needs attending to. (I often tell her that on her tombstone, I'll have carved the epitaph, "She Got Things Done." It's just a joke, of course--I'm sure to go before her.)

So many things demand our attention and don't really deserve it--and the things that really deserve our attention escape us. I'm as guilty as anyone, but it's always easier to see from the outside.

(Drama Queens, current and recovering, please feel free to recite Emily's speech from Act III of Our Town at this point)

I come up behind her and kiss her on the back of her neck--gently enough to brush the soft hairs there and feel the goosebumps rise up. I place my hands on her shoulders and the tops of her arms, and I turn her around--if she is still too absorbed in Whatever to turn around on her own. And I kiss her--not our usual, fleeting, catch-her-in-the-hallway kind of kiss, the kiss of busy people running in different directions--but a real kiss. An "I remember you" kiss. And on a good day, I can feel the cares and worries and distractions fall away--and when I pull my face back, I can see her smile.

She has many smiles. I guess we all do, but I'm a specialist in this one person, and I know her smiles. This one is the one I wanted--the big grin, not posed or poised or controlled, but automatic and enormous, making the corners of her eyes wrinkle and the green in her eyes twinkle. She hunches up her shoulders a bit and giggles a little. It is a radiant smile--a room-changing smile.

She thinks it's a goofy smile, but she's wrong. It's the smile that I married.

I'm not 25 anymore, so I don't expect a kiss to change the world. But anything that can stop the world--if only for a few minutes--a few minutes to help me remember, and remark, and recharge--that's a blessing.

The World is Weirder Than We Know

Archeologists in Sarpsborg have found one thousand year old skeletal remains that appear to be Incan.

The skeletal remains were found during conservations work at St. Nicolas church in Sarpsborg, a city 73 kilometers (45 miles) southeast of Oslo, NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting) reports.

When archeologists were to move some rose bushes they made the surprising discovery of the remains of two older men and a
baby. "When we were about to take hold under the rose bush the skeletal remains slid out. It was quite surprising," Mona Beate Buckholm, archeologist at the Borgarsyssel Museum, told NRK.
One of the skulls had characteristics that indicate he was an Inca, the South American people centered in Peru.

"There is a bone in the neck that hasn't grown and this is an inherited characteristic only found among Inca Indians in Peru. This is sensational," Buckholm said.

The archeologists now plan to try and find out what the man was doing in Østfold, and how he came there.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Have I Mentioned That I Hate US Airways?

UPDATE: The fancy-schmancy electronic board behind Shaggy Vague Guy at the podium now reads:

Flight 2716 Dep: 7:10 PM
Estimated Departure: 9:46 PM
Thanks for flying US!

Thanks for what, now, exactly? Are they trying to be funny?

I may die here.

I Hate US Airways II

UPDATE: So the Podium Woman stomped back to our gate and informed us that the plane coming in, was, in fact, the size that had originally been booked. However, that size plane was too big for the gate we were at, which was, by the way, the second gate to which we had been sent. So we were sent packing down the hall to another gate.

Now, you might be asking, as I was, what exactly they were expecting before they made that plane-size announcement. Clearly they already knew, or thought they knew, that the plane was too small for the number of passengers booked, long before they told us. If they hadn't, they wouldn't have scheduled that plane for that gate, which could only accommodate smaller planes. So they knew, and they deliberately did not tell us for some 45-50 minutes, for some nefarious reason. To avoid ticket-changes? To avoid a stampede? I have no idea.

The delay currently stands at two hours. That means the delay out of Phoenix is now longer than the whole, entire flight to Fresno--both legs of it combined.

I was promised a jet-pack. When I was a kid, I was assured that in The Future, everyone would have jet backpacks that could zip them wherever they wanted to go.


I Hate US Airways

Nothing profound to report today. Just this: I hate US Airways. Every time I have to fly with them, I regret it. When I first moved to the desert and had to fly America West, just pre-merger, it was okay. The flights were competent and the people were nice. Now, though, it's always a mess. I've had occasions when I've had to change a flight, and it's taken close to a half-hour for the kiosk-itarian to make the change--even when it was exactly the same flight but a day earlier. And, of course, it always cost me a hundred bucks. There was one time when the woman told me that it was going to cost me fifteen hundred bucks to change from flight X on Wednesday to flight X on Tuesday, but I laughed so hard that she got embarrassed and made it go away. In fact, I was able to avoid the hundred dollar charge once, when the kiosk-itarian couldn't figure out how to enter the charge...even with three other gnomes helping her.

Today I'm trying to go to Fresno, which should be punishment enough. As of right now, I've made it as far as Phoenix. My flight out has been delayed by 90 minutes. No explanation of why. Suddenly, we're told that the inbound plane has been downgraded to something smaller, and that more than 20 passengers will have to get bumped. Then, ten minutes later, the woman at the podium comes on to tell us that she has now been informed that the plane was not downgraded. She has marched off to find out what the real deal is. Meanwhile, 20 or more people wonder whether they're leaving Phoenix tonight.

A return flight home is loading immediately to my left. I'm sorely tempted to take it. If a bunch of allegedly fresh-faced and eager summer school teachers near Fresno weren't expecting me to train them on a math course tomorrow morning, I'd do it.

But you know how it is. One can't let the kids down

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Faith-Based Policies

We've spent six years belittling our president for believing things based on faith, or at least his "gut," rather than relying on facts or data. But I think it's time to look in the mirror and realize that he is no weirdo or anomaly. He is ours. He is us.

I toil in the vineyards of Education. If ever there was a field where people believe what they want to believe, it's Education. Which is funny. Or sad. Or maybe both.

Educational research is always tricky. You can't do truly double-blind, scientifically controlled experiments to measure the effectiveness of this teaching strategy or that instructional material (though everyone claims to), because the object upon which you are testing the strategy or material is an entire human being, in all its complexity. You can take two fifth-grade classes with comparable grades, cultural backgrounds, and so on, and make one into a control group--but that group is made up of 20-30 unique individuals. And test scores or family income don't exactly tell you everything you need to know about any particular person. So it's hard, and results can be viewed with skepticism by anyone who wishes to view them that way.

On the other hand, we've been educating our young in one fashion or another for a few thousand years, so there's a good historical record of what works and what doesn't. What I find alarming is when educators or educrats or grad students looking for a book to publish decide for spurious reasons to trash the historical record and claim that something we've been doing for hundreds of years with a decent rate of success is radically wrong, completely ineffective, and must be changed.

Grammar, for example. We're told pretty consistently by The Field that grammar simply cannot be taught in a traditional manner anymore. No sentence diagramming, no memorization, no worksheets. It Must Go.

God knows, we should always be looking for ways to vary and enrich our instruction. But they claim that these practices simply Do Not Work. And more--that they are evil and destructive. They run research studies to prove that grammar need not be taught explicitly. Never mind that grammar has been taught explicitly in pretty much every culture with a written alphabet--and English and Latin grammar in England and then America since at least the Middle Ages (to those who were educated at all). If the writings of Shakespeare, Milton. Chaucer, the Bronte sisters, Franklin, Jefferson, Thoreau, and a hundred other authors are any example, the traditional system of education did a fairly good job of producing competent and effective writers. It may not have been wildly fun, but it did the job.

And before you object--okay: forget about Big Authors for a second. Go read the letters or diaries of regular, ordinary folks. Read some battlefield letters from the Civil War. Ordinary people could write. So let's stop deluding ourselves that education in this country finally Got it Right after, say 1972--because the quality and sophistication of the writing from ordinary Americans a hundred years ago beats the quality and sophistication of many of our best educated people today, hands down. It just does. Sorry.

I'm not saying it's all due to teaching grammar. That's absurd. I'm just isolating that one element of language instruction. Writing in general is taught badly, if at all. But our education professionals tells us it's not necessary anymore. That it stifles creativity, and so on.

I suspect the truth is that the teachers simply don't want to teach grammar, because it's boring and not Fun (and learning must always always always be Fun), and are therefore looking for any evidence to support what they want to do anyway. I suspect that quite a lot of educational research is like this. We believe X is correct because we wish it to be correct. Now let's go try to prove it somehow, so we can feel good about ourselves.

That may not be science, but it sure sounds a lot like what the present Administration did in Iraq.

How about outside of Education? I read a report four or five years ago about the results of a longitudinal study of children of divorce. The theory back in the 70s was that divorce need not have to harm the children. We believed that because we wanted to believe it--because easy divorce was good for Self Actualization and Self Esteem and all those other 70s things. It made the grown-ups happy, so we needed to try to prove that it didn't hurt the kids, so we could keep doing it.

Except it turned out not to be true. It does hurt the kids--seriously and across the board. The results were pretty categorical and damning. Now, obviously we're not going to outlaw divorce, or anything like that. But perhaps, when kids are involved, we should be taking it a lot more seriously. Perhaps we should put the needs of our children before the desires of the grown-ups, on occasion. But I don't exactly see that happening. I don't see any shift in our cultural attitudes based on real data.

Do you? Honestly? If hard-core data came out tomorrow proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that watching television was profoundly harmful to teenagers, how many parents would do the hard and unpleasant work of denying TV to their teenagers? And how many would do the slightly easier and pleasanter work of finding a justification for continuing on as before?

We keep on doing what we want to do because it makes us happy, and nobody--nobody--is more important than us. So we find rationalizations and justifications to make the collateral damage seem less severe, if not invisible.

Again, sound familiar?

I don't want to blame the baby boomers exclusively, but I think they've definitely led the charge, generationally. Their desires are normal not because they're normal (maybe they are, maybe they aren't, but that's not the point), but because they're theirs; their beliefs are correct not because they're correct, but because they're theirs; their actions are moral not because they're moral, but because they're theirs. As a group, they have always been dangerously self-absorbed, and it seeps into every aspect of their life, and ours. The mine-ness of any desire or idea is its own justification: "I must be a good person; I'm me."

So I'm sorry, but Truthiness didn't come into our lives with George W. Bush. It's been there for a long time. And it's not going away just because there's an election coming up next year.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

I'll Tumble 4 U

It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon--hot and dry. There's a gentle breeze outside that's knocking the wind chimes around just enough to make soft music. The doves and quail harmonize while flying sorties at our various bird feeders. Thing 1 and Thing 2 are asleep.

Earlier this afternoon, I took the boys to a birthday party for a little girl in Thing 2's preschool. He's been insane about this party ever since I made this mistake of telling him about the invitation, over a week ago. Every morning since then, his first words have been, "Is it time for Ashley's party?" And every morning, after learning that it was not yet time for Ashley's party, I've had to talk him out of a deep and forlorn funk.

At the last minute, I discovered that I had to bring Thing 1 along to the party, even though he was not invited and was at least four years older than most of the kids who would be there. But The Wife had a massage appointment with her sister and mother, so I had no choice.

When we got to the party, at a storefront tumbling emporium, Thing 1 was hesitant about doffing his shoes and leaping into action. The father of the birthday girl was wonderful, though, and assured him that he was more than welcome. "The more, the merrier," he said. Which I then had to explain to my son. But the explanation seemed to do the trick, and Thing 1 was off.

Thing 2, upon entering, did exactly what he told me he was going to do, which was to find the birthday girl and give her a big hug. Thing 2 is three and a half years old, and there's not much in this world that's cuter than seeing a three and a half years old hugging a just-three year old and wishing her, unprompted, a happy birthday.

Things were dicey for Thing 2 at first, as the party had been scheduled right on top of his usual nap-time. The Wife had tried to get him to nap earlier in the day, but that turned out to be a joke. Early on in the party, whenever Thing 2 had a run-in with someone else, over a toy or a ball, or whose turn it was to go down a slide, there were big boohoo tears. But somehow, miraculously, he got over that phase and settled down into very happy, crashing-around-like-a-lunatic play.

These tumbling places are about as primitive and low-concept as you can get. It's just a big room in a strip mall,with cushy floors and lots of balls, ladders, foam ramps, trampolines, tubes, and balloons. Every so often, the young women who run the place rearrange the items to focus the kids on one aspect or another. But other than that, it's just a big indoor playground. The kids go nuts for an hour, then stop for cake and "Happy Birthday," then go crashing around for another half hour.

But it works.

We spend so much time agonizing over birthday parties and other events for kids, competing with each other to outdo the last party, showering kids with more Stuff than they can possibly ever play with or keep track of, one-upping each other or bettering our own last personal best, putting their names in flashing lights, four feet high (I actually did see this once). And yet, what do the kids really want?

Well, obviously, once they get older, once they get used to the excess, they want more of what they've gotten or what they've seen. They're made to want--the whole economy is dependent on it. So they want. They're nothing if not compliant.

But does any of it make them happy? We keep doing these outrageous things for them, and our efforts leave the kids cold. We keep buying more and better crap for them, and the crap becomes...well, crap...within a couple of weeks. So what do we need to do to bring them a little special, out-of-the-ordinary joy? What's going to work? Which movie tie-in toy will do it? Which version of which new video game system is the right one? At what critical mass of My Little Ponies will you reach the tipping point to happiness?

Here's what I saw today: at the very end of the party, the young women who run the place brought out a big Something Hidden surrounded by upended tumbling mats. Above the Something was a fan. They handed out pompoms to everyone. They turned on the music, then turned on the fan. And then they brought out the bubble wands. The Something Hidden was a big tub of soapy water. That's all. But once they started making bubbles and launching them into the run in front of the fan, you should have seen the delirium--the pure joy. The music was as cheesy and ridiculous as you could imagine--electric organ music that reminded me of every skating rink I had ever been to as a child. But it had a certain goofball charm that was perfect for the occasion. The kids ran around with their pompoms, trying to chase and catch the bubbles, which poured out from the fan and filled the whole room. And every child, from the two year-olds to my Thing 1 at nearly seven--every child was in absolute heaven. Chasing soap bubbles.

We spend so much time and energy and money doing the wrong things, when the right things--so many of them--are so simple. As simple as a soap-bubble.

I don't know. Maybe it's all just too simple for us to see.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Without Merit

Interesting things seem to be afoot in NYC regarding teacher merit pay:

I don't think tying pay bonuses to standardized test scores alone is the best way to go, and I acknowledge that figuring out where one teacher's contribution to student learning may end and another's may begin, making the whole idea of merit bonuses tricky, take a look what the always-helpful teacher's union president has said on the issue in the past:

The UFT president, Randi Weingarten, has said in the past that using test scores to set salaries or determine tenure is like "telling an oncologist that the only way to keep your job is for your cancer patients to survive." A spokesman for the union said Ms. Weingarten had no comment on the grant., Randi. That's not a good comparison at all, and how happy you must be that the analogy section of the SAT has been dispensed with forever. However, I would be willing to bet that oncologists who do have a good track record of patient survival tend to be more in demand than those who don't, and get paid quite a bit better. Just a guess.

Is there some reason I haven't figured out why teachers should be the only employed adults for whom compensation must never be tied, in any way, to competent performance?

Monday, June 4, 2007

Attack of the Killer Critics

For some perverse reason, I've been slogging through all of the print and online reviews of the recent slate of summer movies. As far as I'm concerned, they're all god-awful.

Note to people who get paid to review works of art and entertainment: you can leave the ignorant snarkiness to us Bloggers now. Since you're getting paid to do this, try to provide something useful, like informed opinion.

Ah, but what should inform that opinion?

My very first professor back in Gradual School, many and many a year ago, was a man named Michael Gordon. He had been a member of the Group Theatre back in the 30s, and had abandoned Socialism and Theatre to head West and make a lot of money in Hollywood, directing such fine pieces of cinema as "Pillow Talk." Late in life, he had gone into teaching--as some sort of penance, I think, or to tilt the scales back into balance before having to meet Anubis, god of the underworld. When I knew him, that introduction looked ready to happen any day. He was a tiny and wrinkled little raisin of a man, with thick, black-framed glasses, ludicrously artificial, jet-black hair, and a blue cardigan that he wore every day (or perhaps one of a fleet of blue cardigans that he kept stocked in his closet).

Michael ran a class called Manuscript Analysis, in which we had to produce 20-page papers every Monday morning, describing and analyzing a play or screenplay he had given us. Early in the course, he made clear to us what he was looking for in analysis, by quoting Goethe, of all people, on the role of the Critic. The critic, said he, should answer three questions:

1. What was the artist attempting to do?
2. How well or poorly did the artist do what s/he set out to do?
3. Was it worth doing?

Pompous as the reference to Goethe may have been, I've kept that definition close at hand for years. I think it's useful, and rarely used. Most critics ignore them completely, and focus instead on these three questions:

1. What did I want the artist to do?
2. To what extent did the artist do what I was hoping or expecting?
3. How many sarcastic comments or ad hominem attacks can I squeeze into my word-count, to show everyone how clever I am?

Case in point: the New Yorker magazine's recent review of the third installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. At one point in the review, just before calling the new movie "At Wit's End" instead of "At World's End" (see how clever?), the reviewer attacks the movie's intricate and convoluted plotting, comprehension of which requires at least a passing familiarity with the second installment of the series. Apparently this is a Terrible Thing To Do, and a sin committed by Spider Man 3 as well. The reviewer says of these filmmakers:

What they fail to realize is that big summer movies, even the successful ones, are designed to be forgettable, passing through our system at precisely the same rate as a pint of Pepsi. Nothing is left but fizzing nerve ends and a sugary soupçon of rot.

Now, had he said "what I want of summer movies..." I would have forgiven the comment. I would have thought he was a jackass, but not, perhaps, an agent of Satan. However, he did not say that. He said, with authority gotten from Idon'tknowwhere, "big summer movies...are designed to be forgettable."

Really? They are? Every one of them? By design? By law? SAYS WHO?

Really? ANY movie that is big--meaning, I suppose, large budget, big stars, opening-weekend hoopla, and so on--and any movie that is released between Memorial Day and Labor Day--has been designed by its creators and released by its studio with the intention to be forgettable and stupid? Studios, writers, directors, actors, and so on all conspire every year to release complete idiocy because that's what Big Summer Movies MUST BE?

Is this worth deconstructing any further? Is there some reason why, just because a movie was released during the summertime, we should be holding it to the lowest possible standard...and then deriding it when it even attempts to aspire to something more?

And this is a reviewer for a major national magazine.

Personally, I enjoyed Pirates. And Spider Man. I wasn't offended by being asked to follow a complicated plot, even in a mere summer movie. I wasn't outraged at being expected, in Part 3, to be aware of what had happened in Part 2. I kind of took that for granted. But then, I wasn't aware of the Eternal Law of Summer Movies as laid down by The Critic. So, foolishly unmediated, I went to see the movies and enjoyed them.

Perfect? Of course not. But I thought they did very well what they set out to do. They just didn't do what The Critics wanted them to do.

As for me, if I wanted to spend my summer evenings surrounded by nothing more engaging or demanding than deafening noise and blinding lights flashing in my eyes, I'd go find some hideous laser light rock 'n' roll show.

Do those even exist anymore?