Monday, September 29, 2014

"Things We Lost in the Fire"

Last night, I had a discussion with my son (he's in the seventh grade) during a longish car ride home. As a member of his chorus group at school, he wants to ask the director to perform a song by Bastille called "Things We Lost in the Fire." My son loves the band and the song is a better-than-average pop song. The only problem, pointed out by my son, is that it contains these lines:
You said, "We were born with nothing
And we sure as hell have nothing now."
My son's concern is the mild curse. He wonders if his teacher will allow them to do the song.

I pointed out that they could do it by substituting "heck," thinking, even as I said it, how artistically stupid that would sound. My son immediately said, "If we do that, we might as well  just not do the song. That sounds stupid."

(Good boy. Actually, melodically, it would work better with "as hell" simply dropped, but that's neither here nor there.)

This all lead to a discussion of appropriateness as related to audience. My son, though he thought enough to worry about the curse in the song, tested the waters a little by pointing out that Bastille does the song in concert and they play the song on the radio. This lead to further discussion, mostly regarding small children and grandparents at school functions. I think he got the point: in different contexts, the mild can be seriously amplified.

I told him the story of when I used to teach Shakespeare's Othello (the Branagh version, with Fishburn in the lead). In this version, there is a brief scene of nudity, in which Desdemona drops her nightgown on the wedding night. It is brief, so, while showing the film in class (to juniors), I would casually walk by the TV and, with impeccable timing, hold up a manila folder to block out Desdemona's charms for the three second during which they made an appearence. The class, of course, would laugh and jeer and one kid said, "Mr. Mat -- it's not like we never saw stuff like that before." My response was, "Not with me, you haven't."

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Chances of Me

If a little Italian guy in 1328, by the last name of Matarazzo (and, no doubt, looking exactly like Mario from the Nintendo games), had bent over to pick up a dropped spoon and, as a result, had missed seeing a beautiful girl walk by, things might not have unfolded from gallant introduction, to marriage, to ancestral line...and I might never have existed. And you would never have read this.

But, because, instead of having dropped the spoon, he fumbled a little and recovered and, sipping his soup, leveled his gaze at a dark-haired beauty to whom he simply had to speak, I am here to annoy you with posts like this.

Maybe God made him catch the spoon. Maybe Fate made him catch it. Maybe it is just pure, un-biased chance.

Either way, it inspires a feeling of awe, does it not?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Socks, Coffee Cups and Puppy Dogs

When I was a teenager, my mother used to get mad that I didn't clean up after myself. When she was very mad, she used to say, "I'm not your maid. You think I am your maid."

I would protest, back then, that I did not think she was my maid. I maintain that protest today: I never thought that. Nor did I mean any disrespect when I left my socks on the floor. I was just scatter- brained and immature. (Thank God I have completely emerged from those shortfalls! What?)

Should I have picked my socks up? Yes.

Is leaving one's socks on the floor a disrespectful action by virtue of a lack of consideration for one's mother? Yes. But does that lack of thought toward one's mother mean a complete absence of respect? No.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Modern Angry Mob

A man is recorded on a security tape, forcing himself on a little girl in a hallway. The girl is on the ground; the man is leaning over her, holding her neck, his lips pressed to hers. He is stopped by a bystander who is seen rushing into the video and slamming into the attacker, who runs off. The hero finds that the girl is dead. Police are called. Investigations are begun.

The man is found and is identified by comparison with the tape. He is arrested and then released on bail pending a trial date. He is fired from his job. The media goes wild. Local news runs the tape. Facebook and Twitter buzz with calls for justice, especially from angry, empathetic parents who have seen the poor girl's mother and father weeping in their misery on camera.

He deserves everything he gets! He is a sick, twisted pervert. We all hope he goes to jail forever or that he is castrated. The bastard should fry. Eventually, he is punished severely.

Well, I made up this scenario, so I can tell you the truth because it is my story.

Friday, September 19, 2014

All Hail the iPhone 6!

With a few key strokes, I probably just secured myself around a thousand page views today. I mentioned...IT. The iPhone 6.

iPhones are cool. I have one. Over the few years that I have had one, I have drifted away from interest in it. First, the games started to disappear. (Needed more room for music.) Then, Facebook and Twitter were removed. (Needed still more room for music, plus, I determined that my life is not nearly exciting enough for minute-by-minute updates to the world; also, I wanted to regain the valuable moments of boredom in which I once wallowed while waiting to pick up kids and going in dental waiting rooms.)

Now, my phone is, to me, a music player on which I get occasionally interrupted by a text or phone call. I admit that, for awhile, I was a bit seduced by the niftyness of the iPhone. And, yes, I have kept "Words With Friends." But, other than that...the romance is dead.

Whether the iPhone is cool or lame is irrelevant, I suppose. But one question remains: Why would anyone wait in line for one? For hours...or days? News reports this morning estimated a line two miles long at one store. I don't think so.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Children With Armies

From Peter Brook's 1963
film adaptation of Lord of the Flies
Once, when I was teaching Lord of the Flies (a novel, if you are not familiar, about a group of young boys stranded on a desert island and left, completely without adult supervision, to build whatever society they could) I decided to try an activity, before the very first discussion.

I don't seat my students alphabetically; I let them choose their seats and then I make them stay put for subsequent classes for the sake of learning their names. This was a sophomore class and we had been in session for a few months, so they were completely familiar with the established seating, with the room and with me.

I told them all to get up and to stand at the back of the room; then, I instructed them to sit in alphabetical order.

I sat behind my desk and the questions started to roll in...

"So...Mr. Mat...uh...alphabetical across or up-and-down?"

[I shrugged and looked out the window, dramatically.]

Friday, September 12, 2014

Parenting Through Humiliation

Over the past few years, I have noticed a trend of parents applauding other parents who have humiliated their own children, on video, in order to get their kids to change behavior. Supportive observers seem to regard this as "taking control." I regard it as an ego-centric attempt to cover up the fact that those parents failed to be in control in the first place.

There's the video of the cowboy-hatted philosopher who repeatedly shoots his daughter's laptop with a 9mm handgun after he reads a letter to the world about how bad of a kid she is. I think that one started it all. (I won't link to such psychological child abuse.) There's the dad who moved his daughter's room into the driveway because she doesn't clean up. Since then, I have seen numerous videos meant to humiliate kids into behaving better. They tend to "go viral." And people tend to support it.

Many praise these parents for "being tough" with their kids. I find that disturbing beyond description. Sickening.

I find "being tough" with one's kids to be essential. I think my own children would attest to the fact that dad is no pushover when it comes to action and consequence...which is probably why I don't wind up desperate enough to go to social media for my parental mojo. I actually work, incrementally and consistently, on instructing my kids in proper behavior and by imposing consequence when they don't do what I ask. Sadly, sometimes they are not pleased with me when this happens, but...they get over it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Road Not Taken: A Lesson's Lesson

I just finished a lesson on Frost's "The Road Not Taken." I began with a clip from the movie Dead Poet's Society in which Robin Williams's character gives an erroneously one-sided reference to the poem; the one that sees the speaker's choice as one that resulted in something positive. The poem is ambiguous and to see it otherwise is to turn it into an impotent motivational poster.

Why? Because Frost wasn't stupid enough to think being different is a guarantee to happiness. We all know, from life experience, that being different can result in immense success or in doom. It all depends how the cookie crumbles.

It's like Bradbury (and I love the man deeply) saying "jump off of the cliff and build your wings on the way down." Yeah, that's great, Ray -- it's good advice because it worked for you. What about the guy who doesn't finish the wings in time because he didn't have you talent or luck?

Yeah. SPLAT!

My dad was a lifelong musician who supported a family as a player and arranger and never achieved fame. His advice was less poetic.

The problem is, reasonable advice is not as sexy as spinning around trailing ribbons and singing "follow your heart." The hard part is that when one is really, truly different, one will have reached a place in which it is not externally apparent. One has to let go of ego in order to reap the benefits of true originality. Once you brag about your difference or try to advertise it, you are just like everyone else.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I thought it over and took the one that made sense to my heart and my mind and that didn't lead to a flaming death or a slow descent into madness and starvation...

...and that had made all the difference.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Time Warp; A Concept Stretch

Case 1: A man is cautioning another man about the next step he is thinking of taking in a battle. The advisee tells the advisor to "stop being a woman."

Case 2: A mother sees her daughter before a date. The daughter's skirt is "too short." The mother tells the daughter to change, because "it is better to present a little mystery."

Case 3: Three teenaged boys are standing on a corner in the city, cursing and making racy comments about girls. A woman is seen approaching and when she gets to the corner, the boys take off their hats and say "Good evening." When she is gone, they go back to being crude. 

Case 4: A twenty-something is working at a burger joint. He is fast and he is courteous, hoping that the boss will see his hard work and give him a raise one day. He wants to do his best, because some day he wants to have his own accounting firm and he believes hard work is the answer to realizing dreams.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The First Day of School

Every one of these kids walking in these doors today is someone’s son or daughter; each one of them is a person, with un-testable strengths. If teachers and administrators around the world insist on remembering that, everything will change for the better. But, as long as these kids are regarded as outcomes, we will continue marching on the path toward mediocrity and anonymity. 

That's really all there is to it. 

Italian kids crossing a rope bridge to their school;
Modena Italy, 1959. Source: History in Pictures. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Until the Last Summer...

I am a big advocate of the idea that we can reason through our emotions. This is not meant to be a dismissal of the idea that some emotions creep up under the security systems of logic. Sometimes we just feel things; sometimes those things have no discernible origin. We wake up in a bad mood. We just go from feeling just okay to feeling melancholy.

Still, I would argue that these things don't happen for "no reason;" they simply happen for reasons that are not apparent to us, consciously. If we thought hard, we might be able to trace the reasons. But, sometimes, we are simply unable or unequipped to do so. Sometimes we seem to feel things for "no reason."

What's left is to reason our way through whatever we feel.

Here I sit, the week before starting another school year (I am a teacher and an academics vice principal) and I have "that feeling" -- the same one I have had the few days before school since I was a kid. It's the emotional equivalent of indigestion; there is a lingering melancholic ball at the pit of my soul. It's not quite sadness; it is more like a haunting of memory that just won't take full shape; more like the presence of groundless guilt -- a smudge on the window looking out to a bright day. Maybe it is a mood best illustrated by this Monet painting:

Monet: "Wheatstack (Sun in the Mist)"
I spend all summer in school, making schedules and planning for the upcoming year. I am there, already -- but that little kid feeling comes back anyway, unbidden and illogically real, like a curtain of gauze.

So what does logic tell me to do? Just get up and do it. It's not a big hurdle; it's not a serious problem. But is might be a tiny example of those emotions we feel but can't pinpoint. So, I teach my sons, when they express the feeling: "I don't want to go back to school, Dad. I don't want summer to end."