Friday, December 30, 2011

Lee's Succinct Truth

Sometimes, I'll write a long post and, the day after, I'll see or hear something that pretty much sums it up in a fraction of the words. I suppose my last post can be found in a quotation from General Robert E. Lee:
"It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it."
Indeed. Let's face it: war is cool in a lot of ways. The shame of it is that those ways tend to get negated completely by a photo of the bloated corpse of a dead young man.

(Addendum: The quoting of Lee here is not meant to glorify, in any way, the principles of the slave-owning South -- I was merely interested in Lee's thinking as a brilliant military man, which he was. A friend was offended that I would even quote him, but I would quote anyone with particular credentials, if it made my point. Doing so is not intended as a justification of that person's morals.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Maze of Heroics

Last night, my family and I watched Peter, Susan and Edmund stand by Prince Caspian's side as the massive, evil Telmarine army advanced, great catapults lobbing massive stones to crack the walls of Aslan's How -- the Narnians' last refuge. The young heroes held their ground as the army advanced, slowly, thrumpingly, rhythmically, hidden behind helms wrought into fierce, iron expressions.

In the blue glow of the screen, I watched my children's faces more than the film. The boys' innocent eyes were wide, fixed on the action. They leaned forward to watch the battle unfold and, as Peter lead the charge forward, they bounced a little in their seats. Each time a heroic act was committed, they would let out a "Yes!" or a gleeful laugh.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Bloody Murder in Mario World

So, here we are in the Christmas aftermath -- that small stretch of time during which the kids are allowed to digitize themselves with no limits: play video games until their eyes implode; watch new movies over and over -- that period of sloth and messiness that thrives especially in the homes of teachers and educators like myself who have a break over the next week. One can never quite keep the housecleaning until the tree comes down, what with pine needles and toys everywhere. Yet, we try . . .

My kids got their latest electronic devices (iPod Touches). We're holding out on phones, even though, as my older son's principal informed us: "95% of fourth graders have cell phones" in his school. This number shocks me, but, so it goes.

Sure, they look innocent enough . . .
So now they have devices that can access the Internet -- You Tube, etc. They're good boys, my sons. They stay, most of the time, with the parameters we set for them. But it occurs to me, especially now, how nearly impossible it will be to protect them from things they shouldn't see so early in their lives.

For instance, a few months ago, they wanted to search You Tube for videos of Mario Brothers. They found some and started watching. I was in the room. I walked up behind them, checking, every few minutes. If I heard a voice that didn't sound like Mario or Luigi, I would get up and check. After a few minutes, they turned it off.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Pay the Piper

My affection for the students I teach (high school students) has been demonstrated lots of times here on H&R. I have defended them from cliched attacks on more than one occasion; I have called teenagers the "truest form of human beings." But liking them doesn't mean I won't be critical of them from time to time. In fact, it is out of affection that I am critical of them. I think, at least "live," in class or in the halls, they might even appreciate that.

Mozart, working for a living. Salieri scheming.
It's all a myth, but Mozart sure
could have used the money.
So, in light of this, I recently had an interaction with a student who might even read this blog -- not sure. I do like this student and I do respect his intelligence. But, in a brief conversation, he revealed something that has been shown to me many times before, but that didn't really take hold in my addled brain. An approximation of our conversation:

"Hey, Mr. Mat. I heard your CD over at _____'s house. I loved it. Awesome stuff. 'The Magician' was my favorite track."

"Thanks, ______. I appreciate it."

"No problem. I would get a copy of it, but I just don't pay for music."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Open Letter to Young People Considering the Miltary

[Readers: This is a grizzly piece, in spots. You might not want to read if you have a loved-one in a combat zone. It is inspired by a few days of my mulling over the loss of so many Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.]

Dear Young Person:

If you are thinking of joining the military, you should consider a few things.

First, be careful of the sepia-toned TV ads with close-ups of craggy-faced dads in pickup trucks talking to their sons after football practice about joining the army. Yes, it's cute that dad and son are giggling about convincing mom that he should join. Sure, it shows a bond between a son and dad that might be precious if tenuous, but the decision to join up is not something to giggle about. Ever.

Second, be careful of confusing your life with a movie. Movies just end, no matter how grizzly a picture they might seem to paint of war. Sometimes lives are dragged out long after the plot ceases to be interesting and long after the main character forgets all of his lines (because he lost part of his brain to an IED). Sometimes, he survives the war but lives a long, miserable life trying to forget about it. Sometimes he walks onto the set in heroic, shiny-buttoned glory and he rolls off in a wheelchair with a bag connected to it for collecting his feces and urine because he can no longer control his own bowels, let alone an enemy attacker.

Third: Yes, you can get money for college, but you can also get dead. Or insane. If you don't go off to fight, cool. If you do? You might wind up blowing someone's face apart and watching him die a squirming, screaming, horrific death in the hot sand right at your feet. That might make it difficult for you to concentrate in Composition 101 after your discharge. It is hard to focus on topic sentences in between memory-flashes of spattered pieces of bone and muscle clincing to a clay wall.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dear Albrecht: VII

Albrecht Soothspitz, b. 1327
I know everyone has been wondering where Albrecht has been. Millions, across the world (or, at least Nick, Shane and Zach from New Jersey) have been pining for another installment. Well, here it is, my friends. He has taken especially long to get through this batch of letters. He' s been up all hours of the night in his hermitage in the woods behind my house. I asked him why the light is always on an he muttered something about ending the financial crisis by converting iron into gold. Anyhoo, enjoy.

Dear Albrecht:

My wife is on the computer all day, every day. On the weekends, she gets up and gets on Facebook and stays there all day. When the work week comes, she comes home and gets on the computer after dinner and uses it until way after I am in bed. If I wake up when she comes to bed, she picks up her iPhone and gets on Twitter with it, as if to ward me off, in case I get frisky. What should I do?


Friday, December 16, 2011

Plato's Cave: Cartoonized

That famous parable that everyone should revisit from time to time. Something to ponder on a Friday. Really cool.

[Hat tips: Frank Wilson and Maverick Philosopher]

What do you make of the idea of the escaped man going back? -- or having been obligated to do so? That's the most intriguing part, to me . . .

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Lights flash to keep cars out of the roadwork zone. Police cruisers are parked on either side. Great, growling machines with shining hydraulic tubes and flashing lights slam and scratch and bully rock and sand into piles as tall as houses, metal teeth raking against the condemned asphalt.

One of Hine's famous Empire State photos
The air is a chaos of sounds thrown from machines capable of feats mankind once only dreamed of. The traffic is disturbed and re-routed. People curse; impatient officers wave them on. The machines press around them all. Other machines stop and start, alive with the impatience of their driver-brains.

But at the very edge, two men in yellow work helmets, jeans and luminescent vests stand at the edge of the project, where the dismantled road meets the active road. There, with gloved hands, they handle small, work-battered shovels with surgical precision, carefully scraping dirt and rubble away from what will soon be the seam between the roads. One after another, small shovels full are deposited into a wheelbarrow that has two wooden handles whose ends are worn smooth from contact with human hands; at its front, greyed by dust, a tiny wheel that is the ancestor of all this mechanical might waits humbly to make the impossible possible.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Yuletide Twilight Zone

As some of my regular readers might know, I have sort of a love/hate relationship with tradition. Sometimes I think it is the greatest thing in the world and sometimes I think it is a nothing but a source of worthless discomfort and pretense.

But, be that as it may, my dad taught me stuff. He usually taught me stuff by just doing what he did -- he wasn't big on sit-down "lessons," but he certainly set a clear example. One of the things I always saw him do was to "tip" people who did things like bringing heavy boxes out to the car. It was automatic -- he'd hand the guy a few dollars and the guy would say "Thank you sir," and life would just hum along.

I like that. It seems like a nice little traditional formula, to me.

(Wavy dream sequence lines take us from past to present . . .)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Flipping Switches

When did we all get to be so nice? -- so unbelievably nice?

I'm teaching a composition class right now; it is a cross-disciplinary class that I team teach with a history teacher. We explore global issues and then use the good-old Aristotelian modes to discuss and write about them. We have a great bunch of kids -- about sixty of them. They are all high school seniors, of varied academic levels, from advanced to standard college prep.

For their last paper, we explored the issue of genocide and assigned a paper in which they were to question what would cause an individual to decide to participate in such atrocities. After we showed them the extremely moving film Hotel Rwanda, the history teacher introduced them to an experiment performed by Stanley Milgram. In short, Milgram wanted to explore the factors that would have affected Nazis who participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust.

What Milgram did was to create an experiment that was not what it seemed on the surface. He advertised for people to participate -- he would pay them four dollars. The volunteers were directed to a panel with switches. The switches were marked with voltages. What the volunteers were supposed to do was to ask a person, in another room, questions. The other person was to be shocked if he didn't give the proper response, in increasing levels of electricity.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Finchian Logic

Once in awhile, I will read something, somewhere, and I will realize that, on this particular day, I am not likely to write anything nearly as good -- and that, consequently, I should just shut the heck up and let another writer's words be heard.

Please read this brilliant piece by my good friend and When Falls the Coliseum colleague, Scott Warnock. A fantastic narrative meditation on fatherhood and the choices a man must sometimes make:

 "A Story: What Would Atticus Finch Do?"

Monday, December 5, 2011

Slow-Cooked Fast Food

You know what frightens me a little about us? -- people, I mean. We are really eager to accept things the way they are, even if they are way worse than the way they were pretty derned recently.

Oh, sure, we'll moan about "how it used to be," but, for the sake of ease, something in our heads makes us want to accept stuff, "as is." Things go more smoothly that way, I guess.

Or maybe we do this because we feel like we simply can't stand up effectively against things like plummeting standards. One of the most popular American phrases right now (annoying as I might find it [imagine the whole of the American populace not adjusting its phraseology just to please me]) is: "It is what it is." Usually, this is a resignation: It ain't changing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

And the Winner Is . . .

A friend and former student of mine just posed a question on Facebook: Who is the best songwriter of the last twenty years?

I've been thinking about this for three days and it's difficult to say -- not because I haven't liked any songs in the last twenty years, but because I'm not sure that I can think of a lot of actual songwriters who have written over that period, outside of the established ones (like Elton John, who is doing some of his best work ever, even though there is not a lot of buzz about it).

What it comes down to, for me, is that there are three kinds of people who put together songs.