Monday, April 30, 2012

The Price of Difference

Ever since my boys were born, I have been trying to piece together an accurate picture of what I was like when I was a child. I'm not sure how well I am doing, but I know that some of my success as a dad depends on figuring it out.

In my memory, there doesn't remain a lot of negative stuff. I got teased a little, but that doesn't feel like a big section of the tapestry of my life. I spent a lot of time by myself, but I enjoyed it -- still do. I went through spells of jealousy that I wasn't one of the most popular kids, but, still, I had friends. When I look back, I can see occasions when the door to superficial popularity was opened for me; timidity, not superior logic, saved me from stepping through.

I was a good athlete, but never one of the best -- I was always a "starter" but never really a standout on the field; I got to be either the hero or the goat on several occasions. 

On Valentine's day, in grade school, I got quite a few less Valentines than a lot of the kids (this is before teachers started "protecting" our kids by requiring each student to provide Valentines for everyone), but by high school, I found I got along well with most "groups" of kids. People seemed to like me because I never drew lines around them, especially not boundary lines. I found high school generally insulting and constantly boring (except for English class, where I was allowed to generate my own ideas) and I never wanted to be there after the afternoon bell or after practice was over. I wasn't one of those kids who went to games I wasn't playing in or to any nighttime functions that I could avoid. 

On the whole, I have no real attachment to my high school years, though I am happy to have learned that a few of my classmates, with whom I have recently reconnected, have become extraordinary adults.
Past moments of happiness remain vivid to me. They usually involve solitude and a pair of stereo headphones; or a book; or a blank sheet of paper; or an impossibly silent pine forest at dawn. But they also include summer nights of deep conversation with good friends and the friendships that can only come from making music with others.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Hobbit and the Fruit Bowl

Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings movies, is not one to let the grass grow under his technological feet. (Hair on top, I'm not sure about.) We already know this, based on the extraordinarily impressive effects in his trilogy. But now, it seems, he has screened parts of the upcoming movie The Hobbit at 48 frames-per-second, twice the speed of the traditional 24 frames-per-second and the reactions were mixed. It seems some people thought the movie just looked too real.

Isn't that interesting? What is even more interesting is that we seem to be sort of alluding to an old debate about art. Is this the new objection to "representational art"? Is Jackson giving us echoes of the perfectly and photographically-rendered bowl of fruit? (As you probably know, many fine artists think photographic-looking art is not art -- that the art comes out of the interpretation of the image. For one example, you might think of the impressionists.) We'll have to see.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Smiling Assault

I think that I have mentioned before how much I hate formality – dressing up, sitting up straight, etc. But that doesn’t change the fact that it occurred to me, the other day, that a renewal of good, old-fashioned formality might just be the thing that can save our world from the groupthink, individual-suffocating vortex it is swirling down into.
We need to function in groups, right? It is, at times, essential for survival. So, we move into cities; we make organizations; we form “teams” and “think-tanks” and “committees” and “task-forces” for stuff.  We can all see the usefulness of working in a group. If we don’t see it, we at least have to admit that we are generally forced to, regardless of our perspectives.
The problem begins when individuals of the group begin to melt into each other. I think formality might be at least part of the remedy for this.
My wife, Karen, is a nurse. I used to joke about the fact that she referred to the doctors she worked with by their first names.  I used to ask her, “What happened to ‘yes, doctor; right away, doctor’” – the good old days when nurses called doctors “doctor” and the doctors called nurses “nurse”?
As a guy who is still a little uncomfortable with being called “Mr. Matarazzo,” even though I hear it a thousand times a day, my immediate reaction to informality between doctors and nurses  is: Good. Cut out the bull – we’re all equal. Formality, schmormality.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Playing Jesus

When I was a boy, I would watch Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth around Easter -- back when they would show it on one of the networks as a "miniseries." Back when we still knew the fun of waiting for something to come on TV -- the joy of anticipating something we couldn't instantly access online. (And while we're at it, get off my lawn, you kids!)

Over the Easter break from school, my wife and I sat down to start Jesus of Nazareth on video (alas) with our sons. We are watching it in about hour-long sections. They're enthralled. The philosophical questions are flying. Woe to my sons' theology teachers, that's all I can say.

For me, watching this film is another of those time-warps. In the first place, I had a really cool experience with the music, this time. As a kid and as a "wannabe" composer, I was always enthralled by Maurice Jarre's score -- especially Christ's theme. If you are interested, this is it:

Friday, April 20, 2012

River and Pond

We accept stuff all the time; we just sit back and take a "that's the way it is" attitude.

Gradgrind and Bounderby
I hate that. I also hate the fact that in order to break away from that "that's the way it is" situation, we wind up having to be less like salmon swimming upstream than like goldfish trying to swim up into a full-blasting fire hose.

But "that's the way it is" doesn't mean "the way it is" is okay. It might be insurmountable, but that doesn't make it right.

For instance, we all have to work. "That's the way it is." We all get subjected to grueling days of hard work and job-related stress. Lunch just ain't free. That's all there is to it.

But there is something really wrong about this.

Last night, my eight-year-old son was having a hard time with his allergies. He's got them pretty bad. He was coughing and sneezing in bed. He also doesn't like when his brother, in the bunk below him, falls asleep first. It makes him feel lonely . . .

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Controlled Procrastination

Procrastination can be pretty therapeutic, I say. If you do it right.
The wrong way to do it is to put things off without thought – without a clear picture of what needs to be done and of what the “deadline” for completing it is.
Those who don’t practice what I like to call “controlled procrastination” are in a constant state of self-pressure. They are always worried about getting things done “ahead of time” and, so, they are always under pressure. “Ahead of time,” if you think about it, is “always.”
Sure. You can say “If I get it done ahead of time, I don’t have to worry about it anymore. “ I guess that’s true. But doesn’t this constant looking-ahead get tiring? The pressure never ends...
Nay! I say that the healthiest and happiest of us procrastinate with control.

Monday, April 16, 2012

For Karen

(Once in a while, a poem sneaks up on me. Here's another, inspired by a soft and restorative Easter break and a pretty cool wife...)

I look back over the movie of my life –
Some of the scenes are of lonely lovers in tuxedos,

With loosely-hanging untied bowties,
Standing on wet streets
Under crane shots in the fire-hose rain.
There are shots of rooms with long, light, seawind-lifted curtains over big windows, 
The young character rocking on her bed of rumpled sheets,
Sunset wavering through in flashes of orange.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Giant and the Jerk

I'm working on a book review right now of an excellent (and only) complete biography of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction writer/scientific speculation guru, best known, in popular spheres, for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick for the enigmatic and groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Neil McAleer's biography is called Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke. My review will soon appear in When Falls the Coliseum, so I won't say much here, outside of the fact that I am finding the book extremely interesting and insightful -- especially as a guy who teaches science fiction literature.

Clarke was an amazing force in shaping scientific thought (and action), not just through his fiction but through his non-fiction writing and personal appearances.

One section from the book really strummed a sour chord in me, because the incident in it is, as far as I'm concerned, the perfect example of the worst possible kind of normally functioning person in our modern world. It is people like the technician in the excerpt below who cloud the skies and keep the planes of the intelligence and the enthusiasm grounded. It is people like this who slow the essential work that humanity needs to do in order to save itself. (I know I sound dramatic, but -- damn it, I feel this way about shallow people. It is this kind of apathy and one-dimensionality that I try to fight against, every day, in the classroom.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A (Not Unpleasant) Puck to the Brow

One of the most overused bits of advice in modern wisdom is: "Live in the moment -- live for now and not yesterday or tomorrow." That's meant to help us keep our heads in the game, as it were; no regrets, no time wasted in attempting to engineer the future in ways in which it was not meant to be engineered. But, in one way, don't you find that we are hard-wired to the now?

In certain situations, this hard-wired nowness becomes really evident.

I often have these...moments, regarding my wife. Yesterday morning, taking advantage of the chance that my Easter break from school gives me to slip back in to my Count Dracula schedule (late nights, not [necessarily] neck-sucking) and to lie late into the morning/afternoon in bed, I had one of those moments. (Don't worry -- this wont get weird, I promise; or, at least not any weirder than it already is.)

I looked over at my wife. She was playing Scrabble on her phone, or something, and I had a thought that occurs to me once in awhile: Who the hell is this woman and when, exactly, did my life get attached to hers? I'm glad it did get attached to hers, don't get me wrong...but wasn't I just playing in a sandbox? Wasn't I just thinking thoughts about me and the man I might become and the life I would have as a grownup? Wasn't that just, like, six minutes ago?

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Path to Awesomeness

Last night, after a day of Easter visits and of seldom-matched gluttony, even for my family, my older son (ten) was in an uncharacteristically euphoric place. He's a happy kid -- don't get me wrong. But, during the car-ride, on the way home, he was simply brimming with enthusiasm for the day we had just spent:

"Wasn't that a great day? That was an awesome day -- what a great night, too. Don't you guys think that was a great night? And, man, isn't this a great town that Uncle Matt and Aunt Bean live in? Look -- they have a bank and a car store and pizza places and there a Walgreens...and a church. Everything is, like, right here -- you could walk to anything you wanted in, like, five minutes...and..."

And on he went, spurred on by me. I was having a blast pointing out even more things to him: "And look -- a place for Chinese food. And there is a liquor store in case you ever want to get drunk (laughs from the kids -- sidelong glance from the wife)... and a doughnut shop and..."

...and the kids got more and more rev'ed up about the neighborhood as we went, ridint the Hawiian wave of post-holiday joy.

[For the record, that particular liquor store has up, on  its marquee, maybe my favorite home-grown advertisement of all time: "COLDEST BEER ALLOWED BY LAW."]

Anyway, I wondered about this extreme good mood -- what had made it such a good night and day for my boy?

A writer named Gretchen Rubin, author of a book called The Happiness Project -- a book that I haven't read but that my wife has told me a lot about -- maintains that in order to achieve happiness, we should do many things, once of which being: Remember what made us happy as children. Those things probably still apply, if in an altered or slightly updated form.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Greek Man Dies for Mythical Money

On Wednesday, I put up a post about my dad saying that if everyone in the world were like him, little children would be safe on the streets. It was little philosophical reductions like this, by my dad, when I was young, that probably set the machine of thought in motion for me.

One of his stories involves a time when he was watching TV with some friends during the Vietnam war. They were taking in a news report about the war, with film from the battlefield. My dad said, out loud: "Look at that."

"What?" a friend replied.

""People are actually shooting guns at each other."

Oblivious to my father's point about the absurdity of the human condition, one of the friends turned to another and said, "What the hell's the matter with this guy?"

I am a fan of reducing things to what, I hope, is their essence, as my dad was trying to do for a hopelessly indoctrinated audience. That's the only way we can get to truth, as far as I'm concerned.

So, how about this one: a man kills himself in Athens, Greece, over his financial woes, claiming, out loud, that he doesn't want to leave his kids in debt.

Over money. Money. There's another soul ground up by the machine's gears. Another result of our brilliant social/financial/political organizations that have developed over the centuries. A man ends his life over shiny metal -- or, worse, the paper that represents it...or the digital code that represents the paper that represents the gold...or, that is, represents the gold that is supposed to be in the coffers -- safe in some vault -- that is represented by the digital codes that represent the paper that should represent that gold, if it were, in fact, plentiful enough to actually support its representation by the paper that is now digital code for money that might or might not actually be there, depending who you talk to...

Be that as it may, a man is dead. Look what we've done. A life ends over bills. The worst thing about that is that, to many, it doesn't even sound absurd; the same way it didn't sound absurd to my father's friends when he stated the obviously horrific, so many years ago.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


This just popped into my head today as I was talking with a class that is writing a paper about school violence.

My father once said:

”If  everyone in the world were me, a little, three-year-old girl could wander out of her front door at three o’clock in the morning, out into a big city, and she’d get picked up and find herself safely at home before she knew it . But everyone in the world is not me. “

Amen, Dad. Amen.

Seems so basic, doesn't it?

My dad, arranger and composer, Joe Matt (his professional name from a
time when it was best not to be obviously Italian -- center),
in the studio with celebrated
jazz organist
Joey DeFrancesco (2nd from left)

Monday, April 2, 2012

What I Love About Me

You know what I love about me? There's only one thing, really, that I think is perfect about Chris Matarazzo. Just one.

Before I tell you what that thing is, it's important that you understand that just because I grew up in the American generation that heard a song that told me "the most important person in the whole wide world is you" three times every Saturday morning on TV, it doesn't mean that I bought into the pervading approach to self-evaluation...

...I don't believe people can do anything they set their minds to. I don't believe positive thinking is the answer to every problem. I don't believe "attitude is everything." I don't believe that arrogance is an acceptable way to express confidence. I believe that we should be careful when we make statements like the one I am making here.