Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Price of Fame: from Rock Shirts to Low-Cut Gowns

uch a weird soup we've boiled up with this virtual, social, meta-world we have created. 

I followed a young lady on Instagram a few years ago. She was a young drummer -- high school aged, I am guessing -- and after she commented on a post of mine, I checked out a video of her playing. She was very talented and I encouraged her in the comments. (I'm a drummer, too.)  She was cool: sort of a "tom-boy" totally about the drums; all about the retro-rock T-shirts and classic tunes and playing with endless energy. 

At this point, she has a huge following, and I am torn about the results I have seen. I mean, I am happy for her success. But, now, she sometimes puts videos of herself playing in...not rock T-shirts. Evening gowns, in fact, often, and party dresses. Revealing ones. 

Old man rant alert: What has happened? How did we get to a world in which guys think it is okay to watch her videos and say things like (and I quote) "Please, fall out..." (they are not talking about her hair ribbons) and "A front view would have been mint." 

Part of me wants to rebuke these jerks in the comments (my fatherly impulse kicks in: "How dare you talk to her like that?") but another part of me thinks, "Why didn't you stick with T-shirts? Your playing said it all, kid!" 

I guess the sad reality is that she would not have gotten as many followers if she had stuck with the T-shirts. I guess she knew she'd get these comments. And, yeah, I know she doesn't need me to defend her. In the end, though, it's hard not to fall into dad mode and think about the person behind the Instagram persona. 

Here we are on dangerous ground. The facile and short-sighted response to this might be to interpret what I am saying as "victim-blaming." Of course, it's not her fault those dudes are sexist jerks. She should be able to wear whatever she wants and not get electronically cat-called for it. The blame is on them: they think it's okay to say what they want because of what she is wearing. 

The sad part, however, is that she thought she needed to do this to get "likes" and she was right; that's the even sadder part. 

I stopped following her, because, strange as it may seem for the perverts of the world -- and they pop up in her comments, with pictures indicating their aged, seedy, whiskey-reddened mugs -- I have no interest in ogling a girl who is less than half my age; nor in seeing her ogled; nor in watching her present herself in a potentiall ogle-inducing manner when her talent was enough. 

It's a shame, because it used to make me smile to watch her play; the youthful energy was inspiring; it reminded me of my early days of playing for hours in my bedroom (God bless my parents' patience) and it reminded me that there is a foundation of joy in what can sometimes start to feel like a job for me, these days. 

I don't blame her for anything. I just wish the world were not so...the way it is... 

(The picture at the beginning of this post is if Viola Smith, one of the first pro female drummers who, ironically, often played in evening gowns...)

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

No, We Shouldn't Replace "Algebra" with "Home Maintenance"

Okay. Enough is enough with this "they should stop teaching (academic subject) and start teaching ("real life" subject) in school.

No, Social Media Guru, we should not replace Algebra, Physics and World Literature with "Laundry 101," "Home Maintenance" and "How to Balance a Checkbook." (Who even does that anymore, anyway? What's a checkbook? For God's sake, if you are going to be critical, at least be up to date!)

And, no, the fact that you were never asked to solve a quadratic equation after high school does not prove that you wasted your time in learning about it. Do you really think that any educator ever seriously thought that knowing how to explicate a Shakespeare sonnet was going to either save your life or put food on the table? Not a one, I can assure you. 

The purpose of all of those "useless" classes is to strengthen your brain. (If football players are never asked to do push-ups during a game, why, in the name of Jehovah, would they ever do them in practice?) 

See, miraculously, I was able to figure out how to do laundry, to operate a toaster and to apply for a mortgage without coursework on it. This may be because I can explicate a poem. It may be because I wrestled (admittedly, without success) with the Pythagorean Theorum. Whatever the cause, I can read a box and make macaroni and cheese and I never had one culinary arts class! 

Education is not just about the dissemination of facts. It is not just skills and memorization. It is the development of the human brain through challenge and intellectual exercise and critical thinking exercises.  

And if we want to take it a step farther, what's the point in taking a class in which you learn something you can master by watching a six minute YouTube video? (I never had a home maintenance class, but I have done plumbing and electric work because (1) I can look things up and (2) I can think.)

The last thing we need is to turn education into an entirely practical and superficial pursuit. I loathe math, and I even had to go to summer school for Algebra II, but I am still glad I had to take it. It expanded my brain. It helped me to grow new synapses. (Synapses? Psychology? When am I going to use that?)

Would it be nice to teach high school kids how to manage their money? Yes. How to change the oil in their car? Yes. But should these things replace traditional academics? No. Electives? Sure. 

A famous guy in education is Professor Harold Bloom. His learning pyramid is almost sacred in the field. (The lowest levels of learning are at the bottom; the highest at the top):

We want kids to approach the top of the pyramid. Some people need to fix the cars, sure. And there is nothing wrong with becoming a mechanic, don't get me wrong, but we won't get any innovation in cars if kids don't reach for creativity, analysis and critical thinking in school. 

There is a reason why the most successful people are readers, lovers of art and philosophical types, even if they are scientists. 

Once, a local celebrity, Pat Croce, who, at the time, owned the Philadelpha 76ers, came to guest teach my sophomore American Lit. class. When he got there, he asked what we were working on and I told him: The Transcendeltalists. He turned around and quoted Emerson. (What? A sports team owner? Shouldn't he have have stuck to finance and business classes?) 

If we teach kids nothing but the practical, we're setting up for a pretty lame world. 

So stop it. Really. It's a foolish and short-sighted argument. 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Griggl and The Teacher: A Dialogue (Earth, 2200)

"So," says Griggl, the young colonial student from the plant Zorgoz. "Teacher -- what happend to the humans that lived on the planet Earth before we came here?"

"Oh, they were very unevolved creatures, Griggl. The problem with them is that they thoughtlessly pursued goals that eventually ruined them."

"But," says Griggl, "I thought our Great Book teaches that 'to reach upward is to find Paradise.'"

"Well," says The Teacher. "That's true. But it depends what one reaches for. Our archaeologists have figured out much -- but not all -- about the extinct Earthlings. They and our anthropologists say the Earthlings were actually ended by what is called call 'cultural suicide.' They seem to have wanted, within their collective spirit, to become extinct. Even before they created the weapons which caused their ultimate end, they seem to have been trying to figure out ways to make themselves irrelevant. For instnance, they created computers that made art, music and literature with what they called 'artificial intelligence.'"

Griggle grimaces. "What a strange choice, Teacher. Is not creativity the highest function of the mind? Why would anyone want to automate it?"

"Why, indeed," says The Teacher. "You see, they were obsessed with proving what they could achieve, whatever the cost, even if that cost was their own irrelevance or even their extinction. Our historians think that this is a result of their lack of internal spiritual peace. They never found cheegara, as we have: that innate assurance that our worth as beings is equal. Oh, they talked about it. One great document said that 'all men are created equal, but archaeological evidence suggests that even as they wrote this, some of them were enslaved."

"What's 'enslaved'?" asks Griggl. The teacher explains. Griggl listens and tears form in all six of his eyes. "So, they wrote what they did not truly believe. That goes against the Great Being's Second Edict: 'To lie is to dishonor the life spirit. To lie to soothe one's mind is the most abhorrent weakness.'" 

"It does, indeed, Griggl," says the teacher, handing the young lad several tissue sheets. "As I say, these Earthlings seemed to have been plagued by an obsession to prove their worth and strength, something we left behind long ago. It even lead to their creating weapons that were capable of a level of damage that made their use unthinkable. Yet, they used them."

"But -- why?" asked Griggl, wide-eyed. 

"They became crippled. At some point in history, the leader of one of their gracols ("countries," they used to call them) committed unspeakable atrocities on another while the rest of the gracols watched. No one wanted to act to stop the atrocities, because it meant possibly unleashing these weapons. But it was counter to their natures to not help others in need. (They were not an all-bad race.) No one knows exactly what happened -- whether the rest of the world thought it was better to die than to watch others suffer; whether one of the insane leaders acted without care... but, at some point, the weapons were unleashed. We take comfort in the fact that, as our historians believe, they actually wanted this cultural suicide. Perhaps they know their time had come and that all civilizations must, eventually, fall."

Griggl's mandibles had dropped wide-open. 

"Alright, class. You are all in your Second Year from spawn. Time to get serious: Let us turn our studies to the great philosopher, Frezznah-po and his Meditations on Psychophysics."

The class groans. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Soundtracks of Chaos: There's Nothing Good About War (Part II)

I spent some words the other day trying to convince my readers and the rest of the world (from the perch of a relatively unknown blog, so kudos to me for the positive self-image) that war is an outrage -- an outrage that doesn't make us feel outraged, because it is an ingrained part of our world history. We simply throw our hands up and say: "It's part of life..."

I also posited the idea that war will never end until we can convince our children to see it as an outrage and to, more importantly, feel that it is an outrage. 

It so happens that, yesterday, my son was watching a Call of Duty tournament on YouTube. He plays the game, as well. I have never believed that these games cause kids to be violent (he is not violent, nor are the majority of kids who play it) but, having just written my last piece, it hit me like runaway rhino: this game is part of the problem of the normalization of war -- part of the muffling of the much-needed feeling of outrage. 

As long as people can look at war and at shooting others as a form of entertainment, we will never make the transition into the outrage against war that I called for in part one of this little anti-war series.  

We all agree that war is a thing best avoided, but, as a species, we humans have a hard time feeling that it is an outrage. It's, as I said, "part of life," to us. History tells us this; literature tells us this; film and TV tell us this; our elder family members may have fought in wars and we admire them (as we should) for their courage. Sure, we are all able to shake our heads and say, "Man, war stinks," but so few of us are able to feel outrage about it; to say: it just is not something we should continute to accept. 

I think I have recounted this before, but I remember my dad telling me about a time when he and some friends were watching the news during the Vietnam War, and, as they rolled footage of the fighting, my dad said, "Hard to believe. People are actually shooting guns at each other." According to him, his friends didn't know what to make of that statement. One of them even called him "a weirdo." 

He was, indeed, a weirdo. A sad state of affairs that more people are not that weird. 

So, there sat my son, watching a game with realistic graphics of shooting and killing and there sat (on the TV) an audience full of people cheering (cheering!) when one of their favorite players gunned down another. (Meh -- no loss. They just have to wait to "respawn.")

That said, let's process something together: Can you imagine a video game based on rape? -- in which the objective was to rape other characters? Of course you can't. But...why not? 

If any two actions vie for equal levels of moral outrage, they are the taking of a life and rape. (Though, personally, I often think rape is the worse offense.) We would never, however, create a video game in which raping people is the objective. This is because rape is felt to be as outrageous a violation of human morality -- of humaness itself -- as it really is. Everyone on the planet but the profoundly inasane and the deeply evil agree: rape is an unspeakably horrible act. 

This is the state that our thinking about war needs to reach. 

But, imagine the effect over the centuries if we off-handedly started to include rape in our games, films, stories, TV shows, etc. Not as a topic for awareness or as an outrageous act of some hateable villain, but as background noise or as a common occurance that people just shrug off and move on from. Imagine if, over generations, it were presented as an unavoidable occurance in life. Would the perspective shift? Would people say, about this unsepeakable new game objective, as they do about violent video games: "It's not really's just a game."

So another proposed impossible solution (which is more of a meditation than an implementable solution, you might have already gathered): 

We eliminate all media in which war is a topic. Over time, kids and adults who don't see violence as entertainment, will again be shocked and appalled by it and they will have developed the outrage for war that is necessary to produce leaders who will avoid it at all cost and citizens who will refuse to show up to fight. 

Sadly, we lose Henry V, of course. We lose great films like Glory and Saving Private Ryan. We lose all war-based video games and all games with guns and killing. The Iliad and The Odyssey need to go. Indiana Jones? Superman? Captain America? The Sun Also Rises? All Quiet on the Western Front?

Chess? (American) Football? Both based on war. Toy soldiers? Those little green army men? Boy Scouting? R.O.T.C?

I know is sounds ridiculous and I am even more aware that it is an impossibility, but it sure does underscore something: We are conditioned to accept war from the earliest periods of our lives. 

If we could do it, though, would it be worth it? Should some Shakespeare go out the window if it means that our sons and daughters would see war for the outrage it is? If this could all really be done, what would the impact on the economy be (no football)? What about the video game industry? -- the film industry?

If my solution were to work (probably over a century, if not longer) would the trade-off be worth it? I would argue that, to end war, even the greatest works of literature of all time might worth forgetting. Wouldn't you? Surely a few great movies, too... And some fun entertainment... 

As I said, this is all more of a meditation than a praxctical solution. I'm pretty sure it would work, but I know it could never be applied. 

A last thought, though: books and movies that conjure outrage for war might be allowed to remain... I'm thinking of works like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. 

At any rate, as Sting once wrote, "I hope the Russians love their children, too."

Friday, March 4, 2022

Soundtracks of Chaos: There's Nothing Good About War

I can see we are going to keep doing this. This whole war thing. A thing that is truly, completely and ineffably outrageous, but that is so much part of our history that we just seem to accept it as part of the human condition.

The curse of it all is that war is not only something people accept as inevitable, but it is something that can bring about the best in individuals: their courage; their heroism; their selflessness. Movies about war move us for a good reason -- things like Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, Glory... 

And there is nothing as beautiful as the idea of one person laying down his or her life for another. It's powerful. Even the Bible agrees. 

In Ukraine, right now, we see heartbreakingly beautiful grandmothers shouting-down Russian soldiers in full kit. We see businesses who used to manufacture mundane, everyday items making anti-tank "hedgehogs" instead, throwing aside their usual purpose of making a profit. 

We see a laudible President Zelensky brushing aside offers for "rides" and asking for "ammunition" instead.

I think of my dear-departed Uncle Vince, a little Italian-American welder from New Jersey who signed up for World War II and landed with his "band of brothers" on the beach at Normandy, praying for God's protection as the bullets thudded down, sending up small geysers of blinding sand. I think of him, and I am deeply proud. I love his memory all the more for his courage: a regular guy (a simple welder) who was willing to sacrifice everything for freedom. 

At some point, however, we will need to rinse that stuff out of our minds. Life is hard and it affords us plenty of opportunities to be heroic. We don't need war to bring out those scattered stories of inspiration. They will happen. There are plenty of bad-actors in everyday life; we don't need to set a stage with tanks and bombs and guns and soundtracks of chaos. We don't need to pretend it is okay to decide when to send boys and girls to their deaths, because it simply is not.  

I will say it again: war is an outrage. It's worse than Steinbeck's famously proclaimed "failure as a thinking animal." It's worse because it is deliberate and it is done in the interest of those in power with disregard for the people they are supposed to serve. In the case of Putin, a dictator -- and a bullying, self-serving, egomaniacal piece of filth -- has decided he wants another country and he is simply going to take it. There is no concern for the children he is sending into battle -- and they are and always have been children. Every time we have a war, we send kids to their deaths. (Again -- the outrage in that statement is so obvious, but...we just let it remain the case... We accept the inevitablity of war.)

By all accounts, Ukraine's problem isn't that they don't have a good military. It's that Russia has so many more boys to send to their deaths. Think about that. An outrage

What are we supposed to do? Do we start a world war? Are the sanctions enough? Do we unleash the nukes?

I'll tell you what we do: we just hope we survive this one and that the surface of the planet does not get wiped clean of our angry, petty, arrogant faces and their grand plans. 

And then, we start a worldwide campaign of subversion. 

We start teaching our children that there is nothing good about war. There is no glory in it. There is no payoff. I know, I know -- you are thinking about honoring those who sacrificed themselves. I am too. How can we not teach about them? -- honor them? But I am going to guess they'd be on my side. I'm going to guess my Uncle Vince would not want any more boys (or girls, now) to go through the torture and the lifelong pain he had to endure. 

We need to teach our kids that war is an outrage, conceptually. More that that, we need to make them feel it. Think of how far we have shifted other things social perspectives. Look at how we have changed perceptions of things like, say, interracial marriage. In my lifetime, I have seen it go from hush-hush scandal to a thing that goes almost unnoticed (except by the last holdouts of racist ignorance). 

A long time ago, Carl Sandburg said: "Sometime they will give a war and nobody will come." It is possible, I suppose, though I do doubt it. It would have to be that every parent around the world would have to be part of the subversion; that every young man and woman alive would say: "Invade who? No, I don't think so, old man. You invade."

I know it is an implausible solution, but it really is the only one: We need to change how we teach our kids about war. Will we? I doubt it. But a solution is a solution, no matter how hard it might be. Or maybe even how impossible it might be. And even if we don't manage to get everyone to accept that war is an outrage, maybe we will, at least, raise a generation of politicians who think it is. 

Yeah, I know this essay is worth nothing, but, at least I can say I tried.