Thursday, September 27, 2007

Philosopher King

My hero, Vaclav Havel (, if you don't know who he is), has a new book of political musings out, which may be why he's in today's New York Times with an op-ed. Here's a brief taste:

Whenever I reflect on the problems of today’s world, whether they concern the economy, society, culture, security, ecology or civilization in general, I always end up confronting the moral question: what action is responsible or acceptable? The moral order, our conscience and human rights — these are the most important issues at the beginning of the third millennium.
We must return again and again to the roots of human existence and consider our prospects in centuries to come. We must analyze everything open-mindedly, soberly, unideologically and unobsessively, and project our knowledge into practical policies.

Go read the whole thing. It may be the only rational, thoughtful perspective on national and global affairs you get from a politician this year.

Are We Not Men?

You kids knock that off right now, or I'm turning this jungle around and going home.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Day in the Life of Boys

I wake up at 6:20 AM to the sound of two boys laughing. When I come out to the TV room, Things 1 and 2 are sitting on the couch, eating the banana (T1) and apple (T2) I had left out for them last night. They are watching "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" for some reason. Thing 2 asks me when Christmas will be. I say "in three months." "Three!" he says happily. "That's how old I am!"

When you are three, the correspondence of numbers is apparently enough to bring a moment of joy to your life.

When I come home from my run, I sit out back to drink some water and read the paper. They follow me outside, as they do on most days, to dig around in the dirt or play with Nerf rockets, or whatever happens to grab their attention. Today they have uncovered an old toy of Thing 1's--a box of buttons and blocks, all perforated, with colorful shoelaces for tying things up in a variety of ways. Within minutes they have adorned my sweaty body with strange and fabulous necklaces.

Once I've cooled off a bit, I come inside to make their breakfasts. They sit at the kitchen bar to eat, swivelling back and forth on their stools and singing silly songs at each other, trying to make each other laugh and, I'm guessing, expel food from their mouths unintentionally.

Thing 2 goes off to school and Thing 1 plays with his LeapPad until I've checked email and am ready to start him working. He spends the rest of the morning on schoolwork: he writes a story and does some spelling for English; works on counting by threes, fours, and fives for math; and conducts a brief experiment on mass with his scale and a marshmallow. That, plus trumpet practice, gets him to lunch.

After lunch, he plays Pacman for a bit, but grows quickly bored and logs on to an educational video site where he watches short videos on giant squids, crocodiles, and sharks. We look up giant squids on Wikipedia and I read some of the more complicated information to him. Then he spends some time looking at how volcanoes work, which is one of his favorite things to do.

Just before 4:00, we head off to pick up Thing 2 at school. When we get home, the two boys race off to grab their tape-recorders-with-karaoke-mikes, presents last Christmas from their grandmother. I don't recall hearing them hatch this plot, but somehow, at some point, they have. It's interesting, because they haven't so much as looked at them for months. For about a half hour, they march around the house, singing gibberish songs into their microphones. Then they move to the piano and the trumpet, with a bit of ukelele thrown in for spice. Then, suddenly, all is quiet.

Naturally, I'm suspicious. I go out into the TV room and see the two of them lying on their stomachs, using glitter paint to make Fine Art on lots of pieces of paper. I fetch some newspaper and slide it under their workspaces, then beat a hasty retreat so as not to ruin the mood.

Oh, sure--sometimes they whine. Sometimes they scream at each other. Sometimes all they want to do is watch TV.

And sometimes it's a day like today. A day that is absolutely Nothing Special, and yet, for all that, entirely wonderful.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Back to the Future

On The Wife’s recommendation, I read The Time Traveller’s Wife recently. I liked it a lot, though there was one time-travel logical flaw which bugged me. I know—one detail in a 300+ page book—who cares? But I can’t help it. I actually woke up at three in the morning, earlier this week, because of a logical inconsistency in the first season of “Heroes,” which we’ve been catching up on before the second season starts. Ever since Brian Silverman and I obsessed over “A Sound of Thunder” in sixth grade, these things just have to be right, or it drives me crazy.

Anway. That’s not what I was going to talk about.

Some of the more poignant scenes in Time Traveller’s Wife, and indeed in a lot of time travel stories, involve the protagonist visiting his younger self and giving wise council—playing big brother to himself. I was reminded of—well, of all of those scenes today, while watching Thing 1 play at the park.

It was a school event, of sorts. We’re quasi-homeschooling Thing 1—which means he does all his schooling at home, but as part of an online charter school, with occasional support via phone and web from actual teachers. They try to plan a lot of social events to help bring kids together. Yesterday was a Lego club meeting. Today was allegedly a “sports day,” but it was really just unorganized fun time at a local park.

When we arrived, several mothers were sitting on park benches in the shade, chatting. As usual, they looked a bit alarmed and suspicious to see a Male Intruder join their ranks. A few girls were playing nearby in the playground. A few boys were off in the distance playing kickball. A few other stragglers just walked around. Thing 1 surveyed the scene and decided to climb trees. He seemed to enjoy himself for a while, and then wandered off to do something else. And this is when my time travel moment kicked in.

I watched from a distance as he tried to attach himself to the group of wandering boys. They were too far away for me to hear their conversation, but close enough for me to read body language. Thing 1 is small for his age and scrawny. The other kids were a bit older, but not dauntingly so. I saw my son talk to them excitedly about…something—nodding his head, waving his arms around. He can talk a mile a minute, and about things as various and strange as volcanoes, dinosaurs, the periodic table, and an imaginary island of his own devising, with an entire species of animal he has invented. God knows what he was trying to talk to the other boys about. Whatever it was, they weren’t interested. Words were exchanged, and the boys turned and walked away. Thing 1 stood there, watching them. I could see his body sag slightly, his head dip down. I waited to see if he was crying. He didn’t seem to be, but he seemed on the verge. The other boys were snickering as they walked away, and speaking conspiratorily to each other about something. My son waited a few more moments, then began throwing a tennis ball up in the air and catching it. Then he threw it across the field and chased after it. And he was fine. But he was alone, and he stayed that way.

And in a way, it was like watching a child grapple with an inherited illness—watching him suffer, saying to yourself, “I gave that to you.” Because I could so easily have been watching myself. How many moments like this one at the park filled my own childhood, before I learned to stop trying and just make peace with solitude? Many many. And I was fine. But I was alone.

Not completely alone, and not permanently alone. I always had one or two close friends. Three at the most. And they meant the world to me. But outside of that little circle there were hundreds—always the boys—and they always seemed to be walking away from me, snickering, talking to each other conspiratorily. Whether it was at camp when teams had to be chosen, or at school, trying to find a place to sit in the cafeteria, or the auditorium, or the art room.

And in the end, I was fine, and I realized I didn’t want to have anything to do with them, either. The things they cared about meant nothing to me, and still mean nothing. The conversations they wanted to have bored me to tears, and still do. Life really does stop being High School Forever, and you make peace with who you are and who you aren’t.

But it’s awful to watch it all play out again with your son, exactly the same way. Because the road is long and difficult, and that eventual state of peace and acceptance is a long way off. And right now, even finding those important one or two friends is difficult for him.

I’m doing what I can to help him cope—getting him karate lessons so that he can stand his ground and not get bullied, for one thing. But he is who he is, and he isn’t going to be anything other. I can’t pull him aside and give him any wise council that helps him be more Regular Guy-like. All I can do is try to help him be happy with who he is. Which I do—constantly. And he is happy, most of the time. Happy and curious and energetic and fun-loving.

But every disappointment I watch him endure—every cold shoulder—every snicker—is a like a knife to my heart. And I suspect it’s going to be that way for a very long time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"News Stories We Can't Finish" Department

"I am an ambassador for Judaism," Madonna proclaimed this week while visiting Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Do we really want to know what comes next?
I don't.
I really don't.
I just want someone to make the lambs stop screaming.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Thing 1's trumpet teacher suggested that he watch the video below, of trumpter Rafael Mendez. It's all about precision and control, and it's pretty amazing--it closes with Mendez playing the Mexican Hat Dance on a single breath.

Being the person I am (He Who Broods On Larger Implications), it has gotten me thinking about this idea of excellence, and what place it has in our culture anymore.

In the education field, of course, we've completely given up on the idea of excellence. For most teachers in most districts, even the goal of proficiency is ludicrously pie-in-the-sky, leading teachers and administrators do things like cancel everything but math and English and drill those subjects till test day. And still the students can't pass.

One of the reasons for this downward slide is a lack of rigor--a refusal to demand, and teach to, excellence (in our teachers as much as in our students). I've been in schools--across the country--and seen error-strewn student work posted on bulletin boards. Some of the work was corrected; most was not. Some of it was graded; most was not. What, exactly, made it worthy of display and celebration? What values do we teach our students when merely completing something makes it worthy of applause?

Are things any better in the arts--the world I more or less left behind in order to be a Responsible Parent? I would have to say Hell No.

What does excellence mean in popular music these days? Is there an agreed-upon definition? There are tastes, of course--everyone has tastes and preferences. But I'm talking about recognition of skill that transcends preference. You can hate jazz, classical music, or the trumpet, and still have to acknowledge that Mendez is a master. It's clear what Good is, and what Great is, completely apart from personal preference.

But virtuosity as an instrumentalist is old-fashioned and, it seems, entirely beside the point these days. It still matters in classical music and in jazz, of course, but who really cares about those anymore? Weirdos. Fringe-dwellers. It's not Mainstream. In the Mainstream, everything is synthesized and pre-programmed, and even when real instruments are involved, not much is asked of them. I mean, we aren't exactly hearing new Jimi Hendrixes out there, are we? It's just not part of the conversation.

What about singing? Yeah, what about it? Doesn't virtuosity in singing have anything to do with public approval or popularity? I mean, come on--it's singing. We must care whether or not it's good.

Well....must we? Did we love Madonna because of her pipes? Is Brittney our latest tragic heroine because of the pure vocal skill that she's throwing away?

Listen, there are certainly things we like and hate, and want and don't want in our musical artists--but musical skill is not one of them. It's not that we hate it. It's just not relevant. It's not the point of the exercise. Maybe it's because the larger show has overtaken the musical performance. If Brittney can dance, we consider her a good singer, somehow.

How about in the visual arts? I'm no expert, but it seems to me that what is desired and applauded these days is conceptual daring rather than virtuosic or even skillful execution. I'm not sure what excellence would even mean these days. If Damien Hirst is a great artist for displaying a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde, what does execution even mean? A clean tank? He's famous because he proposes and executes daring and provocative ideas. But the execution requires no particular skill or craft--nothing that requires years of training and practice and honing of ability.

It seems to me that, in all these fields, the idea of working and sweating to develop and hone one's skill and technique is just...not that important.

Rigor and excellence are still demanded in the world of athletics, though I'm sure the prevalance of steroids and the lifting up to glory of Barry Bonds will work to make a hash of that sooner or later. But for the moment, at least, it's one area where we do care about not just raw ability, but the training and shaping of that ability to the point of excellence--to the point of transcendance above what ordinary people can do.

And listen, obviously there are exceptions to all of this. We do celebrate and hold in awe certain performers who rise above the rabble out of sheer skill. But we also, sometimes, resent them for it, and think of them as being elitist and Not Like Us....which was supposed to be the whole point.

Is it that outrageous and impractical and unrealistic to desire a culture in which we raise our children to at least aspire to excellence in all things--to train their minds and their bodies--their spirits and their appetities--their physical and aesthetic desires--to seek out and work towards the best that the world has to offer, and that they can offer the world?

Yeah, you're right. My bad.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I've been sampling blog reactions to the sixth anniversary of 9/11 from the left and right of the blogosphere, and it's pretty much what I expected, since it doesn't seem to change from year to year. From the left we get, "America sucks, America is led by fools, America is doomed--and deserves to be." From the right we get "Never forgive, never forget."

Helpful, all.

Actually, I have no problem with "Never forget," but then, I'm a Jew, and it's my job never to forget. Of course, one look at the Arab world can tell us what the downside of that attitude is. Keeping your past alive is one thing; staring at it for so long that you confuse it with your present is another.

"Never forgive" is troubling. It's amazing to me how trippingly from the tongue it falls, across this allegedly Christian nation of ours. Never forgive? Really? Never?

I understand the emotions behind the statement, especially in our current context, where our political leadership has made it impossible for us to take correct action and Make Things Right. Had we stayed full force in Afghanistan, pursued Osama and Al Qaeda into Tora Bora and across the globe as we originally promised--relentlessly and to that organization's obliteration--and had we seen some success in that endeavor--I don't think we would be in a "Never Forgive" frame of mind. When justice has been served, forgiveness becomes more palatable. In fact, it is absolutely necessary, for the culture to be able to move on.

But that's not where we are, is it? Terrible things happened to us, and we feel the wound still open. Even as we inflict terror and destruction on other people, we realize that our efforts are mis-aimed (if you're on the left) or at the very least ineffective (if you're awake).

Here's how I'd prefer to formulate the mantra: "Never forget, never surrender, never assume."

I know "never surrender" sounds neanderthal-ish to some. To me, it's more of an internal command. It means hold fast to your ideals, even in the face of difficult day-to-day reality. It means pursue the right, even when you feel hopeless.

But I don't feel comfortable saying that without adding "Never assume." Because we've seen what happens when a group of people holds to "Never surrender" without thinking. And it's awful. "Never assume" means that you must always reconsider and re-evaluate to make sure that your analysis of the situation is correct, and that your actions are, and continue to be, on the side of truth and justice. Because we're human and we make mistakes--we rush into things with limited facts and limited vision.

And that's fine, sometimes--that's reality. We can't always dither and talk and wring our hands endlessly, refusing to act until we Know Everything. Sometimes we have to leap. So fine--we leap. We act. But that doesn't mean we have to turn off our brains, as this administration has done. "Stay the course" is nonsense if it isn't said after reconsideration and analysis.

And just to be clear: I'm not wringing my hands, and moaning with indecision, and saying "America is doomed and should be." I know what country the people of the world flock to for educational or economic or political opportunity--and it's not Saudi Arabia.

And I know what 9/11 was all about, in very real and concrete terms, because I was in New York at the time. And my wife was in Lower Manhattan at the time. And I spent the day watching the television, waiting for the next cell phone call from her, and wondering--in between calls--whether she was alive. Believe me--I am not in a forgiving mood, even six years later.

But when Osama bin Laden releases a new video that lays out an argument against us that is clearer and more rational and more logical than any of the puffery or demagoguery or platitudes put out by our own leadership, then yes, I am angry at our leadership. Furious, actually. Because I can't believe that, six years later, we're enabling that jackal to sound like a statesman.

We have squandered so much in the last six years--in blood, in treasure, and in international good will. And still the idiotic juggernaut rolls on--unaccountable, unswayable, and deaf to all the world.

There is so much we could have done--so much we needed to do. So much that will still need to be done, even if we give up and run away.

"Let justice be done, though the heavens fall" has been replaced by "Let the heavens fall, whether justice is done or not."

Are you okay with that? I'm not.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What We Know

A tiny bit more, all the time:
The mystery of how we read a sentence has been unlocked by scientists. Previously, researchers thought that, when reading, both eyes focused on the same letter of a word. But a UK team has found this is not always the case. In fact, almost 50% of the time, each of our eyes locks on to different letters

Full story at

Friday, September 7, 2007

Over the Rainbow

A sailboat slides across the water. At this distance it is all abstraction: a large green triangle, a smaller green triangle, a vertical line. It moves across the horizon, cutting through the tall umbrella stands in the foreground. Between the distant boat and the umbrella stands at this seaside bar, surfers rise and fall on the gentle breakers. The sun is starting its afternoon descent, and the water is beginning to sparkle with flecks of gold. I sit in the shade of a banyan tree, its twisted branches canopying over me and plunging down into the earth beside me to create new trees. There are three distinct banyans here, and yet all are really the same, single tree, looping and twisting and shooting out new growth everywhere. I sip my mai tai and listen to the gentle music and the gentle waves, and everything—around me and within me—is wonderfully, perfectly calm.

Context is everything. Before I came to Hawaii for the first time, I found ukeleles and Don Ho and fruity rum drinks absurd—kitschy and silly in the extreme. And yet here I am, surrounded by all of that, and it all feels completely natural and correct. In fact, I find that I look forward to it. What seemed silly and childish in my abrasive and fast-paced life seems, here in Hawaii, to be normal—and more than normal: something to be desired. The music just fits. It fits the palm trees and the gentle breezes and the mild, cool water. It fits the people here. Like them, it is kind and gentle, lilting and quiet. The notes stretch out languidly and lazily, like the days. The voices are mellow and wistful. It is all tranquility and peace.

Does the world outside us inform our music, or does our music help to create a world? The aborigines are said to believe that song originally brought the world into being—and that only the correct song, remembered and resung from generation to generation, can maintain the world. I like that. It means that music is not simply reaction; it carries responsibility. We choose the world we want to live in, in part, by the songs we choose to sing.

Right now, “Over the Rainbow” is playing on the stereo—the ukelele and falsetto version one hears on TV far too often. It is very popular here—recorded and live. Strolling musicians love to play it at the local restaurants here—especially the restaurants popular with toursists. I’m sure it resonates strongly with visitors from the colder parts of the mainland…because there really is a land that we’ve dreamed of, once in a lullabye.

Obviously, it’s not all gumdrops and unicorns here. It is, after all, a real place. Skies are blue—but for many people, the dreams that they dare to dream don’t come true. On the leeward side of Oahu, where we have been working with some middle and high schools, there is a great deal of poverty and homelessness. Driving up the western coast, one can see tent after tent after tent. It’s hard enough to get students to do their homework when the surf is up, the teachers tell us—but it’s a whole lot harder when the kids don’t have a desk to work at…or electricity. But the people we meet are unfailingly nice, and are eager to make things better for their kids in whatever ways are possible.

We will be back again in a month, to continue the work we’re doing. For now, though, it is time to return home—to wife and boys and desert.

As my night flight lifts off, I can see the island outlined and defined against the sea by a ring of lights, the mountainous core remaining dark and mysterious. We swing around the south shore, leave Hawaii behind, and rise up into the clouds. And then darkness, all the long way home.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Back to School

To celebrate the start of a new school year, I invite you to take a brief look at the most frequently banned and challenged books in America's public schools over the past year:

Goosebumps young adult novels: sure
Grand Theft Auto video games: check
Misogynistic and violent rap lyrics: fine
The Great Gastby: hell no!

So we beat on, boats agains the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past...the Dark Ages, in this particular case.