"Greedo shot first, Winston. Greedo has always shot first."
Bassets view the sea differently from other dogs.
Whereas other dogs think about the surface of the water, Bassets think about the bottom of it.
Basset bones are dense. So dense, in fact, that whereas other dogs can frolic in the water and paddle around, Bassets will immediately sink to the bottom.
When I see Bassets cautiously wade into the water, I often think that they wish that they had diving helmets. Then, they could stand at the seas’s bottom, and look up at the dogs playing far above
I have never had children until now.
Even as I write this, I can see the understandable sneer on the face of any parent. Oh please, they seem to be saying. I’m comparing having dogs to having children? I have no idea. There is nothing that comes anywhere near raising a child.
And believe me, I know that. Having worked with children and young adults for more than a quarter century, I so often think of all the work and care that a good parent must devote to raising a good child. As I have said to many parents, I can think of nothing more difficult and demanding than raising a child.
With that said, though, I ask that I may offer the following, with, once again, the provision that nothing comes remotely close to raising children:
Raising puppies comes closest.
Time and again, as I’ve been navigating this world, I’ll notice something about looking after these two creatures (that would be Opus on the left, and Trixie on the right) and then share this observation with a person who’s raised children (that would be a parent). And so often, when I discuss it, the person will relate some story about their son and/or daughter that not only makes me think I’m learning some empathy, but reminds me that whatever it is that I’m complaining about, the stakes, for a parent of genuine human children, are exponentially higher.
Take, for instance, the first time that I learned one of the first rules of puppies: never, ever, leave them alone.
I learned this when I let Opus and Trixie loose in the living room after taking them for a post meal walk (and by the way, this will be part of another blog entry, but for, just this: it’s unimaginable many times it is necessary to take a puppy for a walk each day). Because the dogs were safely in the living room (we’d installed one of those gate things that fits into a doorway and prevents a small creature, human or otherwise, from leaving the room). I sat down in the dining room (where I write), and checked a few things on my laptop.
It was at this point that I came to know a feeling that every parent knows, at least the ones with whom I’ve spoken. It is that dreamy feeling that comes after having fulfilled a particular responsibility with a young creature, for at this point, it is easy to enter a realm of magical thinking. In this realm, fulfilling that responsibility--walking them, in this case--meant that they were now all taken care of, and that I could leave them as if they were a washer/dryer.
This lasted a warm, fuzzy four minutes or so, at which point I heard the two of them running around, and suddenly remembered that the puppies, though walked, had four legs, and sets of jaws.
I caught them making confetti out of a roll of paper towels. The paper towels, by the way, are there to clean up whatever messes they make as we housetrain them. Unlike cats, dogs cannot take themselves to the bathroom.
This will happen again (and again), I’m sure. And each time, it does, I will think, as I always do: how much higher the stakes are when this happens between a parent and their children.
Again, I can hear the exhausted exclamations from (understandably) exasperated parents: please. Is it only now that it has occurred to me that every moment of a good parent’s existence involves always thinking about their child, putting thoughts and concerns about themselves last?
To which I’m afraid I answer: yeah. I’m so sorry that I didn’t see this before, but yeah.
One time when I was outside with them off the leash,I turned my head for a moment, and lost sight of Opus. For the thirty seconds it took me to find him (he was in our front yard, as he often is), I could not help but think: he may be lost, and this is all my fault.
For the most part though, my thoughts are more of this vein: really, what is the worst that can happen if I leave a dog unattended in my house? There are a limited number of places that I’m leaving them, and the amount of trouble that they can get into is mild at best. I mean, okay, they can chew on wires, but even there, I’ve sprayed some bitter tasting stuff that the pet store sells on the wires, and this pretty much takes care of it. And the rest of the time, particularly when they’re in the outside world, they’re on a leash.
Children are not on a leash. Though there are gates to confine them to a certain part of the house, they are, on the whole, far more free range. Furthermore, having a bigger brain and opposable thumbs, they are capable of getting into far more trouble.
One of my friends told me about a time he was in the kitchen with his son. He was cooking. He was watching his son.
He turned his head for a moment. His son stuck his hand on top of a lit oven burner. For a little while, his hand had the imprint of the cover to the burner (there was no scar, fortunately).
I can’t imagine how I would have felt had such a thing happened to me. It wouldn’t have mattered that I made a mistake any human could make, that of turning my back on a small child for even an instant. No, for me, at that point, my conclusion would have been that as a parent, I was a total failure, and that it was only a matter of time before Child Protective Services looked into this matter.
Parents tell me they pretty much felt this way every day during the first several years of their child’s life.
There is much more that I can talk about, but for now: I really do think that for someone who’s never had children, experiences with a puppy, when a person relates them, can cause a parent to nod, smile, and say “okay, let me tell you a story…”
More to come. And many more pictures, because I want to show you many more pictures. That’s another thing that parents of babies do that I now get.
I want to show everybody pictures of these two. Be kind.
19 OCTOBER, 2019-MY LIFE AT THE MOMENT: AN EMAIL TO MY DAD ABOUT AN INTERESTING POINT MY FRIEND JOSH FOSTER MADE ABOUT DONALD TRUMP
Note: a few days ago I sent my father a copy of the letter that Donald Trump sent to Turkish President Recep Erdogen--a letter that Erdogen reportedly threw in the trash--which was as follows:
THE WHITE HOUSE
October 9, 2019
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
President of the Republic of Turkey
Dear Mr. President:
Let's work out a good deal! You don't want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don't want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will. I've already given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson.
I have worked hard to solve some of your problems. Don't let the world down. You can make a great deal. General Mazloum is willing to negotiate with you, and he is willing to make concessions that they would never have made in the past. I am confidentially enclosing a copy of his letter to me, just received.
History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!
I will call you later.
...to this, my father, with his talent for brevity, replied:
I hope you'll recall what I said last year. The man is dangerous to this country. he is without a doubt the most stupid being on this planet. Or may brilliantly evil. He has no regard for this country. He is only concerned with his fat self. by the end of the upcoming week, I hope the Democrats have sufficient evidence for impeachment. We'll see. The corruption 45 has visited on this nation defies description. Love ya meeses to pieces.
...yes, he did indeed write "meeses to pieces."
And believe it or not, it actually figures into my reply:
Josh Foster, a good friend of mine from UMASS with whom I've reconnected on Facebook, offered an interesting theory:
Besides being sociopathic--that is, having no moral or ethical sense--he shows all the signs of having a serious learning disability.
Think about it: he doesn't read, his vocabulary is limited, and he has had to compensate with what seems to be a complete lack of academic acumen with the sort of glib, populist style that makes his approach work crowds in the basest way. At his military school, he was horrible in academics (remember that he paid to have all his school academic records suppressed), but apparently excellent in non-academic matters, such as military discipline (in other words, he did fine when someone gave him easy to learn, simple orders that he could master, and then execute in lockstep). This would also explain his fondness for authoritarian leaders.
It also makes sense, because if you think about it, Fred Trump was apparently exactly the sort of father who would be a nightmare for a person such as this. No doubt, if Trump indeed has a learning disability, his father, as opposed to viewing him as a son he loved unconditionally and therefore accepted as who he was (which would have led the way for his overcoming or adapting to his disability), no doubt viewed him as "damaged goods," and probably sent him to military school with the idea that such a place "would toughen up that stupid kid of mine."
I know it's incredibly difficult to do this, what with him having done so much damage and spewing hateful, hateful things, but if I turn him into, say, one of my students, and try to find some humanity in him, I honestly see him a sad, sad person. I really do see him as a person where, if I were to have gotten through to him and had a one on one conversation with him after a class, he would have burst into tears, and talked about horrible, horrible experiences with his father saying that he was no good, that he was a waste of human life, and that his father was ashamed to have him as a son.
This would also explain why he's so desperate to win people's approval, and why he needs, so badly, to believe that huge crowds of people come to see him. Having no sense of self-worth can create a void in someone that they desperately need to fill with others giving them the love that they never got when they were young...and therefore don't have for themselves. This would also explain why he needs to surround himself with expensive things, and why he so needs to put his name on everything. Having those obscene accoutrements of wealth and privilege--the buildings with his name, the gold toilet, the trophy wife--allows him to say to the world "hey...I'm worth something. Really. I'm worth something. Don't you see I'm worth something?"
Again, I know that attempting to have compassion for such a person can make any self-respecting person roll his eyes. Dick Cheney (okay, maybe not self respecting, but...) after all, said "while conservatives want to deal with terrorists, liberals want to analyze them." And my response to that, though, was always: well, why not both? Yes, when they grow up and become monsters, we need to deal with them, but it's important to remember that they all were children, and that only a select few--the truly sick--come out of the womb as monsters.
And even here, just about every time, in almost every case, true sociopathy traces itself to some horrible trauma suffered at an incredibly young age, perhaps as early as six months. Perhaps Fred abused him as a baby...perhaps even sexually. It's really not out of the realm of possibility.
In other words, someone, something, usually made them who they were.
If you remember the film "Manhunter," there's a telling moment that honestly reminds me of Trump. As Will Graham is "saddling up" to confront Dollarhyde, the murderer, Jack Crawford (Denis Farina's character) says something to the effect of "it almost sounds as if you feel sorry for him." And Graham says something to the effect of "yeah, I do. He started out as a kid. He was probably a sweet kid. Then someone did horrible things to him, and turned him into the sick, twisted psychopath that he is now. And now he have to take him down."
Again, about trying to understand all this as opposed to merely being enraged by it: I'm reminded of that line in the Netflix show "Mindhunter" that we watch, which is about the establishment of the FBI Criminal Psychology Department, and shows two men solving crimes by talking to serial killers: "In order to catch crazy, you have to know crazy."
By the way, getting back to the whole military thing, Trump's love of all of that--the authoritarian regimes, the glorification of Stalinist/Hitleresesque military parades--reminds me of something you said about the military in general: they take care of you, and give you a sense of self worth.
"They clothe you, they feed you, they tell you what to do, they give you approval they give you these really neat things that you wear on your lapels...it's everything a child wants," you once said.
Also, when I think of the affection Trump has for military parades, I'm reminded of the way you said you felt when you were a ROTC Wing Commander, and had hundreds of guys saluting you, and how, when you then went into The Air Force as a lieutenant, you felt a rush when 40 year old enlisted men saluted you. Of course, for you, having been raised with love, it was the sort of thing you could walk away from, hence your decision to rejoin civilian life.
At the same time, though, imagine someone who didn't get that love. For them, those salutes are the only thing close to love and approval that they get, and consequently, they can't do without it. It brings new meaning to those people who say "I love The Corps." For some of these people, the "love" of their superiors and the "love" of the organization may be the only thing resembling familial love that they've ever received, and that they will ever receive.
This also explains, by the way, why people such as Trump react so savagely not just to humor, but to pity, even sympathy. Of course, the humor part is easy to explain--at the core of many bullies is a deeply insecure person who can often be reduced to tears by mental bullying--but the pity part (and here I mean genuine empathy of the "Oh, my God, you went through hell" variety, as opposed to the vindictive "you're a little man, not in size, but in stature" variety) is a bit more complicated.
Think of that part in "Good Will Hunting" where Will's therapist, Sean (Robin Williams) is looking over his case file, and sees all the gruesome photographs of Will's abuse. This, or course, leads to that classic "it's not your fault" moment, and it's important to remember that before Will breaks down in tears, he gets violent. It's truly as if Sean is finally getting to the core of things, something so painful, so horrible, that it's agonizing to confront.
And unfortunately, most people just can't face that pain. It's just too horrible. They cover it up with rage and money, and it slowly hollows them out.
I know I'm sounding like Dr. Phil here, but it just explains so much, even the sad, pathetic correspondence with Erdogen, which, let's face it, reads like the sad, semi-literate scribblings of a second grader. When we strip all of it away, we see, at the core, a truly sad, fat little boy, sitting on the stoop and crying because his father abused him yet again an unloved person, probably abused as a child...and now, because of that abuse, we're paying the price for it.
Thankfully, there are people in world raised with unconditional love, which in turn fosters an inner strength, and consequently, leads to the creation of a deeply compassionate and empathetic person. And it is from this love and kindness that I draw hope. Yes, he has done horrible damage, but he still has not crushed the incredible kindness and decency that we saw in Obama, and, I think, see in Warren, and, yes, in Sanders, and, yes again, in Biden.
It's easy to think that this is The End of Times. At the same time, I draw faith from that moment, in "Watchmen," when Adrian Veidt says "I did it. I brought it to an end," and Dr. Manhattan smiles sagely and says: "Nothing ever ends, Adrian."
Or to put it another way: even if Houston wins, there's always next year.
Love you, man.
October 12th, 2019-MY LIFE AT THE MOMENT: INTRODUCING THE SONG "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND" TO A GROUP OF FIVE YEAR-OLDS
I’ve always said that if I can bring home five good minutes from my job each day, I’m happy. Just five minutes where something happened where I was happy, and felt as if I was doing something worthwhile.
I got about thirty minutes last Wednesday. And in fact, it was probably thirty of the best minutes I’ve had at any job, ever.
It goes like this: part of my job involves teaching kindergarteners and first graders computers. As a specials teacher--that’s what they call the folks at my school who are either not elementary school classroom teachers or the folks in the upper grades who teacher English, Social Studies, Math, and Science (there’s also phys ed, art, World Cultures, library, and music)--I get fifty minutes every other week with these kids. Fifty minutes is just way too much time to expect a kindergarten or first grade student to continuously sit in front of a computer, so I looked for something else I could do at the beginning of the period.
So I started teaching basic songs to myself on my four-string tenor guitar (which, with the way I’ve tuned it, is basically a steel string baritone ukulele) that I could play for the kids for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of class. I began with simple ankle-hugger faire, such as “The Wheels on the Bus,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” I have since moved on to teaching myself songs such as “The Garden Song (Inch by Inch),” and “The Erie Canal.”
I’ve also been listening to the music of Dan Zanes. Zanes was the lead singer of The Del Fuegos back in the 1980s. For the uninitiated, The Del Fuegos were a garage style Boston-based band that achieved critical acclaim in the 1980s. When the band broke up, Zanes settled down and started a family.
Then, when he was shopping for songs for his child, he was disheartened to find that most of the music was saccharine and, frankly, bad. So Zanes began a second career as a performer of children’s songs. He has since produced a number of albums that combine catchy original songs with lovely interpretations of classic numbers, many of them with such guest artists as Lou Reed, Amy Mann, and Suzanne Vega.
Here's Dan Zanes, with the help of Suzanne Vega, doing a rendition of "Erie Canal:"
Anyway, I started teaching myself some of these songs for my classes (they’ve been a big hit), and I thought about how, at our school, 8:00 to 8:30 is sort of an extended homeroom before classes begin that we call “morning meeting.” I offered to come into the classes of the kindergarten teachers and play on Wednesday mornings, as I have a free first period on that day, which gives me the time to prepare to teach my classes. All of the teachers rebuffed my overtures, except for one, Kim..
“You’re welcome to come to my class anytime,” she said.
So I came into her class two weeks ago, and the result was the picture at the beginning of this post. The kids treated me like a rock star.
That, of course, was a great thirty-minute part of my day, but the best thirty minutes came last Wednesday.
I had taught myself “This Land is Your Land,” and after playing the basic stuff last Wednesday, I said “okay, now I’m going to play a song that I’m sure you all know.”
I gave the title, and a large number of students looked at me blankly.
And I thought: wait. Of course a lot of them have never heard of this song. They’re five.
It just sort of feels as if we were all born knowing that song. There’s just something about “This Land is Your Land” that’s so iconic, such a part of what we know, that it’s actually easy to forget that there was a time in all our lives that we didn’t know it.. And considering that so many of my students have parents from all over the world, it’s even more likely that they didn’t hear that song in their household.
This led to a genuinely profound feeling: of all the people in the world, I was going to be the one who turned these kids on to “This Land is Your Land.” Me. If they liked this song, for the rest of their lives, when they talked about it, they would say “oh, yeah...one of my teachers, Mr. Leif, turned me on to that song when I was in kindergarten.”
So I played the first line a couple of times and taught them to sing along to it, and then the second, third and fourth. Then I played the song for real.
Of course they sung with uncertainty, but after we came around to the chorus the third time, a number of them were singing. It was pretty sweet.
Then, another realization came over me.
I teach in a school that’s diverse in a big way. There are kids with parents from African countries (a lot from Ghana and Kenya), Asian countries (Lowell, Massachusetts, where I teach, has one of the largest Cambodian populations in the country), and Spanish-speaking countries (a lot are from The Dominican Republic). So here were kids with parents from all over the world, and they were singing “This Land is Your Land.”
And I thought about the current political situation, and how there is so much talk about how people who come from other places are terrible people who are coming here to do terrible things. And here were the children of those people, smiling and singing their hearts out. Then I thought about how Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” as an angry retort to the jingoistic “God Bless America,” made popular by Kate Smith, which he couldn’t stand (and recent news stories about some of Kate Smith's other recordings show that her earlier work was very much in accord with many of the current political sentiments of today).
And all those lyrics that I’ve been singing all my life took on such a profound meaning as I say these kids joyously singing them. Honest. Though I’d always liked the lyrics, I’d never had such a deep feeling of the truth of them.
Last Tuesday, the day before what would be the little session where I introduced Kim’s students to “This Land is Your Land,” I had asked Kim if I could stop by on Wednesday morning.
“Derek,” she said with a smile, “let me just make this clear so that you don’t have to keep asking: you’re always welcome in my class on Wednesday mornings. I don’t know why the other teachers don’t take you up on your offer, but as long as they’re not going to do that, it means that I have something great going on in my class every Wednesday mornings. Just come in.”
I will, Kim. I will.
25 July 2019 (Thursday) - My Life at The Moment: Playing my Beloved Vorson Electric Ukulele with Baritone Tuning
Jeez, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything.
I’m afraid it’s just going to be that way for a while. Long stretches of nothing, followed by a furtive entry that I dash off in a few minutes. That’s just the way my life is at the moment.
So much of my headspace involves teaching. Last week I went to a Code.Org workshop, which gave me all these ideas for teaching coding to my middle school students. I’d already attended the workshop that involved teaching to the younger grades, and now I have to nail down lesson plans for all this stuff.
In addition to this, my big brother passed away suddenly at the end of May, and it became immediately obvious that my father needed to live closer to me. So I spent the end of June and a good part of July helping him pack up his house down on Long Island (he rented, fortunately, so he could pull up stakes quickly) and move everything up here to Massachusetts. Now he’s a two-minute drive from where I live, and we’re checking out a Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway tonight.
When I have a free minute I mess around with my electric ukulele (you read that right). I restrung it from G-C-E-A (standard soprano tuning) to D-G-B-A (baritone ukulele tuning), so now I basically have this tiny instrument that sounds like a wailing electric guitar.
“That’s so you,” said my friend Avery.
Yes, I guess it is.
I picked up a cheap tripod so that I could start recording myself playing songs. I will then upload these to YouTube. Perhaps a dozen people will watch them, if that.
This is fine by me. I just want to have proof that I’m still creating things. Most of the time, I’ll film them in front of my garage.
Sometimes I’ll film them in exotic locations, such as the cemetery a block away from where I live (that would be Megan’s house). At the same time, I like the grungy feel of just recording these grainy videos in front of the garage door. My goal is not so much to have people listen to my music as have them see me playing this incredibly simple instrument and saying to themselves “hey, I could do that.”
Hmmm….maybe I’ll post a video today. Yeah. That’s a good idea.
Many times, these videos will feature me looking at a music stand, which contains the chords and lyrics to the song I’m singing. I always have a problem remembering the chord progressions and the lyrics. I’m hoping that someone watches it and says “hey…I don’t have any problem remembering chord progressions and lyrics. I could buy a Vorson electric ukulele, string it with electric guitar strings (use the four thickest strings, by the way), and play something a lot better than what he’s playing.’
To which I say: yes, that’s what I want you to do, particularly if you’re between the ages of, say, 13 and 25. Buy an electric uke and string it like a guitar that doesn’t have low E and A strings. In a week, you’ll know enough about how to play the electric uke to play simple, catchy songs. Then you can find a bassist and drummer, and start a band.
Anyway, all this writing about the electric ukulele is making me want to pick it up and play it. I’ll post something by this afternoon. That’s what I’ll do. Yeah.
So I sit here and write. At the moment, I can’t think of anything worth posting.
The words stumble out of me. They do not flow. They are choppy and lumpy.
When I write in the morning, I feel as if I’m writing on a sort of deadline. I want to post something, and I have until about 5:30, when I need to get ready for school.
I look for something to write about.
I check my email. There is something in there about “Avengers Endgame.” This makes me realize that I have practically fallen off the earth when it comes to pop culture.
Yes, I am aware that “Avengers Endgame” is a big deal. Yesterday I watched a news story about how some people went to a marathon of all the previous Marvel films before watching this one. It amounted to 56 hours of viewing. The movie theater provided showers outside for anyone who needed one, along with yoga instruction, presumably during the Eric Bana version of “The Hulk,” which wasn’t that great.
Okay, so I wasn’t completely in the dark with the Marvel thing.
I do, however, always feel as if I fell behind in the whole comic thing, and never really got a chance to catch up. There are whole swaths of characters in these films I don’t know at all. When I’ve seen a couple of them, people around me have started applauding when characters turn up unexpectedly, especially during the end credits.
At school, I struggle with mixed feeling about the game “Fortnite.” On one hand, some of my students are thrilled that I loaded it onto my phone, and some were talking to me with more enthusiasm than I’d ever seen. On the other hand, it’s a fiercely addictive game with disconcerting violence, and some of the students playing this game are as young as eight years old.
I’m going to check it out this weekend, but I’m already expecting that, surprisingly, I’m going to be bored with it. Okay, I get it...100 players roam around a landscape, finding weapons and supplies so that they can pick each other off. This just doesn’t seem that exciting to me.
It also seems way too complicated for my tastes. Most video games these days require, it seems, more effort to learn them than I expended learning to edit audio and video. So I think to myself: I can spend time creating things, or I can spend time running around in a virtual world, virtually killing people.
Yet I do want to play this game, just to see what all the fuss is about. If there are big issues and concerns with it, I want to be able to discuss those these things as someone who’s familiar with the location of them.
I’ve just checked out the game on my phone. It just seems like a chore to learn how to play it. It is difficult for me to imagine this being any fun.
At the present, I would much rather write blog entries, stories, and songs.
Maybe I’m just not cut out to be all that much into video games. I had an X Box for a while, and loved “Skyrim” and “Resident Evil.” At the same time, I found “Halo” and “Bioshock” kind of boring.
Maybe I’m just not made for these times. I mean, I do love pinball, particularly the newfangled machines that Stern and Jersey Jack are turning out. They, too, are incredibly complicated, with computer chips creating a complex series of tasks in which I find myself occasionally scoring millions of points for unwittingly doing something right.
For now, though, when it comes to video games, I’d just rather learn to play major and minor seventh chords on my guitar.
So it’s early, early morning, and I’m writing. Once upon a time, in my head, I had ideas for many, many stories. Perhaps I still do, but they’re buried somewhere.
For now, what I write about is just what’s going on in my life, which means that I spend a lot of time writing about work.
I have an easy day today. There is a fifth grade field trip, which means that I don’t have a class first period. This is already my easy day, when I have two back-to-back preps second and third period, which means that I have a raft of free time this morning.
Of course, there is always a chance that this raft of free time may go to subbing for other classes. Time will tell.
If I don’t sub, I’ll spend more time with the Code.Org stuff, deciding which parts of it will work for the next eight weeks, and which parts of it won’t. I’m taking a professional development seminar on it this weekend, and I actually think that it’s going to be a whole lot of fun.
There’s this slight, subtle difference between the writing that I do for myself--the writing that stays in my journal--and the writing that I do when I have an eye toward posting it in my blog. It’s a little less personal, and I don’t engage in the same relentless self-analysis that accompanies my journal entries.
I just write differently at the moment. I almost feel, when I write this way, as if I’m writing a letter to about ten people, those friends who read my blog. I know that if they wrote stuff like this, I’d want to read it, so I guess I’m writing for them.
Let’s see. My friend Laura now manages a yoga studio in Los Angeles. I’ve written about Laura before, and how she chucked a high-paying job teaching in New York, and pretty much moved to L.A. without a net; I admire that in a big way.
That’s her on the right.
“So I’m this fifty year-old yoga instructor working with a bunch of kids,” she said. “Who’d have thought it?”
Then there’s my friend Beth, who retired to California and now spends a lot of time making incredibly cool art. One of her major projects involves making dioramas out of books in which she hollows them out. Every time she posts one on Facebook, I smile.
My friend Yvonne is leaving behind a high-paying job in New York and moving to Florida to teach engineering at a branch of FSU in Panama City. She’s a Southern girl, and wants to move back home; she also wants to surf more. She said my moving to Massachusetts without a net inspired her; this made me happy.
I study aikido with my friend Joe, who’s one of the wisest people I know. We keep talking about creating an audio version of Choose Your Own Adventure. Perhaps we’ll do that this summer.
I realize as I’m writing this that I’m kind of skipping around, which is the way I write when I’m writing a letter to someone. Often, when I write a letter, I tend to ramble a bit, the way I’m rambling now in this paragraph. When I do that, I tell people that they can just skip over the paragraph, but of course, I usually tell them they can do this in the last sentence of the paragraph, which means that they have to read it to get to the point where I tell them that they can skip it if they want.
Perhaps it would be better if I began a paragraph by saying “you can skip this paragraph if you want.” Then I could just ramble for a while, creating a sentence that’s really long, one with a lot of commas, semi-colons, and ellipses; I wouldn’t feel too bad about it, because I’d have warned the reader that they could just skip over that sentence...and that they could move to the next paragraph. That would make more sense.
Whatever. All I know is, I’ve written something that’s over 500 words (that’s my minimum for posting length), and I’ve posted it. That counts for something.
A while back I downloaded the above video from You Tube for a health teacher. It’s stayed with me, because again and again, I think about the way things are now, and I feel as if entertainment--everything, actually--reminds me of the ideas in this brief film.
If you’re reading this and haven’t checked out the film, here’s a brief summary (and afterward, I’ll explain why I think about it a whole lot lately):
The film discusses the effects of meth in the brain. Briefly stated, each brain cell has a supply of dopamine, the pleasure chemical. Normally, a neuron releases a set amount of dopamine, which hops to the next neuron. The next neuron then has a batch of receptors that grab the dopamine.
Once the dopamine has delivered the “pleasure message,” it hops back to the receptors of the first neuron, which absorbs it so that it can recycle the dopamine.
When someone does meth, the meth hijacks the first cell, causing it to release way more dopamine than usual. Then, after all this dopamine floods the next neuron, the meth blocks the dopamine from returning to the first cell...which means that the dopamine just keeps on hitting the receptors of that second cell, sending one pleasure message after another.
After a while, though, that dopamine dissolves, and the first cell hasn’t been able to recycle it, which means that the first cell now has a lot less dopamine. To make matters worse, all this overstimulation of the second cell’s receptors cause the second cell’s receptors to withdraw.
The result is a constant upward treadmill, in which the user takes more and more meth so as to get that first cell to release ever decreasing amounts of dopamine, which that second cell has an ever decreasing ability to absorb. Eventually, it gets to a point where the user is taking meth just to feel the “normal” feeling that was the way he or she felt before doing all this meth in the first place.
I say all of this because when I think of all the sources of entertainment that are out there these days, I feel as if we’ve become a nation of burned-out meth addicts.
I think of the first “Star Wars” movie, of which critic Pauline Kael rightly said “The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head; for young audiences Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes.”
I still remember that when I saw this movie, it was a rush unlike anything I’d ever experienced. There was one amazing thing after another, with no let up.
At the same time, I remember having a conversation with a colleague a few years ago, in which he discussed watching the film the previous weekend.
“It’s so incredibly slow,” he said. “I mean, jeez...there’s just so much talking, and the action doesn’t really kick in until the final hour or so. Before that, it just goes on, forever and ever.”
And he’s right. Though I don’t find it boring, it’s amazing how slow the pace of “Star Wars” is compared to today’s films.
It’s also amazing how primitive the special effects are. Yes, taken in the context of their time, they’re amazing, but if you watch it with a group of kids, they’re liable, with their visual sophistication, to complain that the effects are lame.
And they are. Because after it came out, people soon tired of it. They needed more stimulation.
And so the entertainment industry gave it to them. We’d depleted our dopamine receptors, so it was necessary to make the high stronger.
One of the first things to go was plot development. Many years ago, when I attended a filmmaking class at The New York Film Academy, one of my instructors talked about a concept in films called “the setup.” This is the part of the film in which the writer puts all of the pieces in place, and then sets them on their way.
It used to be that the setup of a film could take thirty minutes or more. That certainly is the case in Star Wars, even with its then hyperactive pacing. No long wait for a setup here...the film begins with that huge Imperial cruiser blasting away at that tiny Rebel craft.
Yet even there, the film spends some time developing the main idea. It’s quite some time before Luke, with nothing left on Tattoine after the Imperial forces leave his home a burned out wreck, joins the Rebel forces.
Compare this to the first five minutes of “Fight Club,” whice came out twenty years later. No wasted time here. The film begins with the explosive sound of The Dust Brothers, while the first shot--appropriately for this essay, considering its brain chemistry analogy--follows the brain’s cortisol stress signals and pulls outward, through the skill, through the skin, and down the length of a gun barrel jammed into Edward Norton’s mouth.
From there, we get the setup in a hyperactive blur of quick cuts, and within two and a half minutes, we know it all.
And that’s the way, it seems, that everything goes these days.
And I find myself, when I read and watch films, deep in the throes of addiction to this kind of pacing.
I see sign of it in my students. No more do most students want to sit and listen to a teacher lecturing or telling stories. No more do most of them sit down and play board games.
Instead, they play first person shooters, where the violence is ratcheted up to almost pornographic levels. A little while ago, I watched a Charlie Brooker documentary on video games, and, not having played a first person shooter in some time (I always found them dull, and some of them gave me motion sickness), and I felt like a depressed old man, stunned at the violence (check out the nine-minute mark of the "Charlie Brooker's Gameswipe" video that I embedded above this essay, and tell me what you think).
When I read, I find it difficult to stay with stories that take time to develop. And, more depressingly, I know that there was a time that these things genuinely gave me pleasure. It wasn’t the visceral, meth-like pleasure of a quick cut action movie; instead, it was this slow, graceful pleasure, one that I could count on again and again.
I see it in old pinball machines as well. A while back, Megan and I went to The Pinball Machine Museum in New York, and I was stunned (and, yes depressed), at how slow and boring the pinball machines of my childhood were. I must have played “Captain Fantastic” hundreds of times; then, when I tried it out in the museum, I played it once, and quickly moved on to the more modern machines, with their ramps and digital sounds and bi-level construction, some of them even featuring a second, miniature pinball machine (“Family Guy” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” come to mind).
I used to be so excited when a new comic book movie came out, and honestly, I know that the following sentiment is not just because I’m a lot older now: I’m burned out by them. I’ve lost track of the Marvel Comics films, and feel an overwhelming sense of “meh” at the whole thing.
Yet still, there are these little things.
Every so often, something comes around that reminds me of what it was to get that sort of natural high from a story, in which I felt this calm, lasting sense of seeing something truly great, something that made me simply smile and say “that was...boy, that was something.” One film that comes to mind is “Mr. Holmes,” a film in which Ian McKellen plays not Magneto but an elderly Sherlock Holmes. I still remember, midway through, turning to my father and saying “this is a truly great film; everything is great in this film, everything.”
“Yeah,” my father said, “that’s about right.”
Look, I’m not saying that I don’t like checking out a mindless summer movie every now and then. It’s just that now, mindless summer movies are the norm, and they come out all year round.
And more and more, I find myself retreating from them, seeking to detox myself, and rediscover the calm, quiet pleasure of a story well told at a steady pace. Man, after all, cannot live on meth alone.
One thing I’ve learned as I transition from being a school librarian to being a teacher: I buy a lot more stuff.
Let’s see. First off, there’s the laminator. This is a godsend. I’ve used it to make copies of my roster that I can then write on it with a wet erase marker; then I can make notes as to how my students did in that particular class.
I note these things, transfer them to my grade book, and then run them under the water where the things I wrote wash away. Then I dry them off.
This makes me think about whether it’s better to use wet or dry erase markers. Things wipe off easier with dry erase markers, which always makes me concerned that I will put these things in my backpack, and that a lot of the things I wrote will be missing by the time I get home. At the same time, it’s a lot easier to clean things where I’ve used a dry erase marker.
I bought plastic white cards, a hole puncher, and 3M hooks. I put the hooks on the wall, and one on the back of each computer. I numbered them 1-25 to correspond to my roster, and punched holes in them so that they hang on the hooks.
The students come in, take their assigned number, and hang it on the back of the computer. That way, by just looking at my roster, I know their names. Considering that I see hundreds of students a week, it helps me in getting to know who’s who.
I need permanent markers for writing these numbers on the cards. Also, in addition to writing things on my rosters that I wash off, I occasionally write permanent things on them, such as a grid for my seating chart, and the correct pronunciations of student names.
I bought an amplifier and a microphone so that I could talk in class without having to raise my voice over the students who simply don’t stop talking when I’m teaching. Some of them clearly want to just disrupt my class, and if I raise my voice, it becomes a control issue. There’s just something different about an amplified quiet voice as opposed to borderline shouting.
Of course, then when I walk around to check on student work, these same students get out of their chairs, walk to the front of the room, and grab the mike. Then I have to drop everything, go to them, and gently ease the mike from their hand. This takes tact and calm assertiveness.
I buy gum and candy. Once a month, I hand out these things. There is far more enthusiasm for these things than there was back in my old school, where most parents dropped their children off in Denalis, Escalades, and Mercedes Benzes.
In fact, I notice that pretty much everything I give to students here just gets more enthusiasm. When I do card tricks, students whoop it up. When I hand out Tic Tacs at the end of the day, they run up to me (which is why I may need to stop this; it’s not that great having students run up to me when they’re supposed to be walking to their respective bus areas).
I’ve just purchased ten packages of green beads. I did this because one of my lessons, as I wrote about the day before yesterday, involves kindergarteners learning about algorithms by planting a seed in soil. Using soil with a kindergarten class is insane, so we’re going to plant Life Savers in a bed of green beads.
Then there are the binders. I’m using the Code.Org curriculum for my coding instruction, and there are lesson plans for each grade, K-8.
6-8 is one set of classes, but I need six separate binders, because there are six separate units of instruction. Then there are two separate curriculum guides for the K-5 classes (and one binder each for the lower grades). That’s fourteen binders.
Then there are the two oblong binders for the PDFS of the children’s books that come with the Code.Org lessons for the kindergarteners. Of course I laminated these pages.
I also need to laminate a number of pieces of paper to make paper marble roller coasters so that the kindergarteners can understand how to debug a program. They do this by constructing a marble roller coaster, and fixing the things about it that don’t cause the marble coaster to to work.
Then there are the gumdrops and toothpicks. One of the lessons involves younger grades learning about frustration, and how to persevere when things don’t work out the first time. They do this by constructing a support system out of toothpicks and gumdrops that can hold a book.
To avoid buying perishable gumdrops, I bought a one-pound blob of Silly Putty. Alas, this didn’t work out...the Silly Putty is too mushy. So now I have a one-pound blob of Silly Putty.
It is probably unwise to give out wads of Silly Putty to my students, who will no doubt learn, quickly, that you can turn a blob of Silly Putty into a bouncing ball.
Then there are the plastic containers for all these things. One of the activities involves the students cutting out manipulatives to learn the basics of a graphical coding program modelled after Scratch, a program designed at MIT. It would take forever for students to cut out these manipulatives, so I’m going to laminate the sheets, create the manipulatives, and then put them in separate plastic containers.
Then there were the binder rings I used when I made separate guides for students to do Scratch projects. I made hundreds of these. I had to laminate every page, punch holes in the corners, and then group them together.
It also was necessary to get two mini pairs of pliers to open the binder rings, and close them again.
This took time.
And I need plastic cups. I need these to hold those beads, and for another lesson, in which students learn programming by “programming” a partner to stack up plastic cups in a specific pattern.
There’s also aluminum foil. Another one of the lessons involves students learning about trial and error by making aluminum foil boats, and seeing how many pennies they can put in the boats before they sink. This also involves buying containers to hold the water, and the purchase of a large bucket that I will fill with water so that I can then fill the containers.
I will also be purchasing many, many towels from the local thrift store.
Perhaps I will scrap this lesson, as the idea of tubs of water in a tech lab makes me think that things stand a chance of getting seriously out of hand.
Amazon has, of course, become my salvation. I often wonder what someone who is collecting my buying history makes of these purchases, which seem to have little rhyme or reason to them.
Of course, there’s also the Chromebook I bought to keep a log of what’s going on during the day.
Need to get ready for work. Then I will stop by the drive through Dunkin Donuts, and buy a decaf iced coffee with skim milk, unsweetened, and two glazed stick donuts. That is a purchase that I look forward to every morning.
And that’s what I’ve bought so far. I’m sure there will be more.