Friday, March 30, 2007

Some crazy stuff I heard last night

You meet some strange people on the Lower East Side of New York, and they all seem to have a story. I was out very late last night and I met one of these characters outside a bar. He told me something striking that I recorded early this morning. I paraphrase a bit, but this is pretty much what the old guy said:

I once walked into a room that was full of light. There were people there I knew and they extended themselves to greet me. “We’ve been waiting for you,” they said. “How good it is that you have come.” And they smiled and I smiled and we embraced each other as brothers. They said to me “it is good that you are here, for we are just about to eat.” Then we ate from the table and told our stories and shined upon each other. They asked how I had come, and how my journey was. I told them I had been outside, wandering the halls in darkness. They despaired and said “how awful,” and kept on eating. “Yes,” I said. “It was, but I did not know it. I never knew there were such places as this, with brilliant light and marvelous food, and friends; and just when I thought I would wander the halls forever, I found this room where you have all been.” And everyone cheered and sang and someone passed the wine and we all drank- just as they all had done the day before and the week before forever back until the room first lit up so all could see. But after a while, I pushed back my chair and slipped away from the table. I walked around the room, admiring the walls and the ceiling and all that was there. Someone approached me and asked if I was enjoying myself. I said I was, and thanked them. “It must feel much better to be in here than it did to be out there.” I nodded, and clasped my hands behind my back and circled the room in contentment. After a while I had circled the entire room, and seen all that was there, and finding myself back at the door, it occurred to me to go. All my brothers were still singing and drinking and I predicted that I would miss them greatly. I opened the door and stepped back into the corridor from which I came. I stood outside the room and listened to the singing as I closed the door and sealed it off forever. Since I could not remember in which direction I had been walking, I chose one at random and started on my way. It was very dark in the corridor, but I did not mind. “I had always walked this corridor in dark before,” I thought. “Why should it matter now?” And so I walked and thought and walked, occasionally stumbling against the wall. Eventually I came to another room and walked into it. This time, there was no one inside, and the light was very dim. I could not even see the walls from where I stood. I could not see if there was anything in the room at all. I walked into the center of the room and sat down in the muted light. That is where I stayed. I never left that room.

Bizarre. I'm not sure I have the faintest clue what the hell that old guy was talking about, but I thought I'd pass it along.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Twilight of the Idols

There are two key jokes to this post. The first comes from an old political cartoon. A very old political cartoon. When George Washington was running for president, someone published a cartoon of Washington on a donkey being rope-lead by an aid towards D.C. The caption read "leading an ass to Washington." It passed for satire in the seventeen-hundreds.

The second joke comes from the sixties, as all fairy tales do. The gag was, during the Kennedy administration, to refer to Massachusetts as Machusetts. Why? Because the ass was in Washington. It's not a very good joke, but I sometimes refer to "Machusetts" in passing to test peoples' credulity and to see if there's anyone around these days from the sixties.

Why are those two lousy jokes key? It's like this:

I was at KGB bar last night, a retro-communist nostalgia establishment (no senator, I am not now, nor have I ever been...), and sipping Brooklyn lager with a life-size bust of Lenin (V.I) starring me down, those two jokes elbowed out some space in my mind and called my attention to something. Washington and Kennedy are probably the two most worshiped figures in American history. You could make an argument for Lincoln, MLK, or Roosevelt; or maybe you'd take an athlete or artist- a DiMaggio, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan. I don't know. But certainly Washington and Kennedy are way, way up there. These men have inspired histories, monuments, political movements; we have raised them up as shining examples of our finest traditions and values (despite some minor indiscretions- which we also lionize) and yet these men are not above a little sarcastic quip. That's kind of an impressive thing. I can't imagine V.I. suffered any mischievous raillery at his expense.

I think that our curious nation may be unique in its capacity to subject even its most cherished heroes to the wrath of public opinion (not to mention rule of law). I saw the Lives of Others last week- a political thriller about the control of speech in socialist East Berlin- and I was amazed at the lengths to which the statsi would go to deny a simple freedom that we Americans enjoy almost to excess: the right to criticize our leaders. Really very impressive.

Perhaps America, in its relative youth, has simply never encountered the idea that is so great that it must be upheld, yet so fragile that it must be protected- like socialism was purported to be. Maybe we have just been very lucky in our brief two-hundred-some-year history, and we have never confronted the problems like over-population in China, or famine in India, or furious religious war in the Middle East, and so our political freedoms have come relatively cheap. I generally sympathize with this argument- especially when righteous Americans go around telling cultures much older than ours how they need to shape up.

But that argument aside, I find it pretty swell that for all the modern interest in celebrity idols, our values and practices preclude the idolization of anything that could potentially threaten those values. Or to put it another way: in America, you can call anyone an ass.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Where Have All the Eberts Gone?

I have been a steady reader of Roger Ebert’s reviews for about 6 years now. I read them before I see a movie and afterwards, and often for movies that I never plan to see. A lot of our more independent film orientated friends laugh off my laudatory appraisals of his work, preferring a Manohla Dargis or a David Denby perhaps. I’m here to set the record straight about old Roger, because he’s all I need – my ten-thousandth spoon when all I need is a spoon – and because he stopped writing due to the return of his cancer last summer, and I haven’t enjoyed a movie in the same way since.

For those of you who are snickering at my steadfast devotion to this man’s work – those of you who love your A.O. Scott or Anthony Lane – can just stop right there, because not a single name I have listed, neither Denby nor even the apotheosized Pauline Kale, has won a Pulitzer Prize for their film reviews. While I agree that a Pulitzer Prize and three bucks will get you a cup of coffee, I just wanted to throw out a little objective praise as a groundwork for my highly subjective and loving tone in this post.

With critics of any art – it may happen once in a lifetime or never at all – there are those critics who are universally off base (we’ll call them Peter Traverses) and those who seem to cater their appraisals just for you. And I don’t mean to imply that I agree with all of Ebert’s critiques; he hated the Usual Suspects, Tommy Boy, and the majority of Adam Sandler pics and raved about a lot of movies that, and I don’t want to mince words, frankly blow. Total agreement is neither a prerequisite nor a criterion for your perfect critic, for the onus of this arguably symbiotic dynamic, between reader and critic, falls on us. Tell you the truth, I’ve gotten the feeling that Roger doesn’t really need me at all. What sets Ebert apart, for me, is his true enjoyment of film. You get the sense that Ebert walks into a theater as both serious journalist and wide-eyed youth, entering each time with the hope of recapturing that Whitman-like wonder and openness that great movies offer, though we have suffered a dearth of these moments in recent years.

What those other critics of high repute lack is this innocence. They provide cynicism in spades (just read Denby unwarranted attack on Ben Stiller) but with the mirthless eye of the disassociated intellectual. They don’t have any fun with their work – too in love with their own prose and opinions. I don’t blame them; I assume that after one builds a career (on rock and roll? With bullets?) that their detached eye cataracts, and focuses on only those negative attributes of a film. In this context, however, Ebert stands apart, retaining whimsy in the face of what must be an overwhelming desire to ripe some movies apart. While some can do it with venom, good old Roger does it with panache:

As in Ebert's review for A Lot Like Love: "At one point he[Kutcher's character] flies to New York to pitch his dot-com diapers to some venture capitalists, and is so inarticulate and clueless he could be a character in this movie. To call "A Lot like Love" dead in the water is an insult to water."

And one of my favorites Ebert reviews, which remained the only justification for my having suffered through The Village, Roger sums it all up: "Eventually the secret of Those, etc., is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.

And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we're back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets."

I hope you get better soon.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Why Did We Want to Fight?

I must be brief because the damn internet here goes in and out. When I return to the states, I will declare one thing: Don't sign up for internet in South Africa. It sucks.

That being said, which we sometimes say, after recently viewing two documentaries, The Fog of War, a compelling personal journey with former Secretary of Defense and alarmingly formidable mind (especially for an 85 year old), Robert McNamara, and Why We Fight, a modern view of the dangers and progress of what Eisenhower labeled in his farewell address, "the military industrial complex", which I've always thought sounded like a psychological condition. (Ever since Henry got back from the war it's like he's distant or something. The doctors told me he suffers from a military industrial complex.)

Both films are chilling reminders of the uncanny madness of war and the continued ease with which we enter them. As I watched them more than four years after we set foot into the quagmire of Iraq, the question drawn to my lips (but left unspoken, because I wasn't with anyone and talking out loud to oneself is a sure sign of a military industrial complex) was not "why we fight" but "why did we want to fight in the first place." For me, the war began in the Spring of my Sophomore year in college, 9/11 had woken me from the solipsistic outlook in which most undergraduate time is spent, and a large group of protesters had formed in the center of our campus.

In the days leading up to this anti-war demonstration, blackboards around campus advertised the when and where. I don't remember which day of the week it was as that kind of thing tended to blur during these years, but the VirginaDissentator and I strolled out to watch, most likely using the jaunt to justify our skipping either our monkey course or art history. The neoclassical quadrangle looked as it did on any other day -- we usually had some sort of demonstration, be it from the ISO, Israeli Palestine something or other, or who knows (like I said, solipsistic) -- but this time people took notice of the anti-war crowd which had assembled with a microphone at the center of the quad.

Facing the growing numbers of protesters were an equally burgeoning cohort of -- and this is where I get confused -- were they pro-war protesters or merely anti-anti-war protesters? Just to clarify. VA and I were off to the side, as he put it at the time, "supporting big tobacco "(smoking cigarettes). These reactionaries, some of whom I recognized from the Football team, the rich kid social club, and -- those mythical beasts of our campus -- the Republican club, all sporting American flag paraphernalia, army fatigues and some bare chests (though these guys may have just been soaking up the early Spring rays). So, embarrassed as I was by the anti-war gang singing "Blowin' in the Wind", I couldn't comprehend what the other group was doing. Like a speech by President Bush, it was tough to watch for too long. Neither side compelled my allegiance; they were both friggen nuts as far as I could tell. Could someone please start a dance off or something, anything, a competitive eating contest. The tension had to be broken.

But, I'm sorry to tell you, dear readers, that this did not end in a dance off (side note: I would have betted on the anti-war gang in this. Those Repubs didn't look like the dancin' type. No question, though, the football team would have taken the eating contest.). I don't actually remember how it ended, as VA and I walked away, probably coughing as we tried to make sense of the spectacle we had just witnessed. Now in retrospect, I wonder if those anti-anti-war types have given due time for reflection. Were their sentiments just and justified? What were those sentiments exactly? In the face of overwhelming proof against WMD's and the Osama/Sadam link, have they reconsidered their views? And because I keep asking myself these questions outloud, do I have a bit of a military industrial complex?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

An answer, heavy on the vigor.

Recently Boston put to me a list of questions that should probably include PhD, JD, MBA, and MEd degrees as prerequisites. Since it was a response to an equally complicated query about abortion and gun control, and even though he ducked the question I posed, I'm gonna choose the wrench. Why? 'Cause fuck him, that's why.

Excuse my candor, but I'm a little drunk on Sapporo. See, I got paid last night at midnight, and decided to treat myself to some grocery store sushi and two imported beers. I'm hoping that 44 ounces of beer, combined with the NyQuil I'll take around 8 (because I've been fighting a cold for about a week) will knock me out early enough to leave me with the energy I need tomorrow:

Wake up at 7 (later than any other teacher I've heard of, public or private) go to work, direct traffic in the parking lot, teach five sections of two classes (better than most loads nationwide) pay three dollars for a shitty lunch in there somewhere, get behind the wheel of a full sized school bus (I got the CDL on my own time, thanks) drive 90 minutes to a game, coach for two hours, drive home, wait for the kids to get picked up, drive home, and try to hammer together lesson plans for Tuesday in time to pass out before midnight. I'll be paid just under $100 for my efforts tomorrow.

Pity party aside, I'm drunk on a Sunday afternoon eating sushi. If you'd told me I'd have a job that would afford me this opportunity in college, I would assume that I'd have followed approximately 40% of my college classmates into law school. I don't live a bad life, but the life I lead is below the standards of most Ive League graduates. The question I get most from kids is "Why are you doing this? Didn't you go to Columbia?" I laugh it off. There are a million things that I hear as a teacher from my kids and my family (don't you want a job that might, um, reward you a little more?) that I laugh off. The one thing that kills me is when strangers at a bar ask what I do.

"I'm a high school history teacher."

"Wow, that's great. You know what, I've always thought about doing some teaching."

FUCK! YOU! You thought about it?! Does anyone else get an answer like that? "Oh, brain surgery? Yeah, I've considered dabbling in something like that." No one says that, because they know they couldn't do brain surgery. But they think they could teach. That's the key issue. There is no respect in the profession, largely because the need for teachers is so great, that just about anyone CAN get a job teaching. But many of them suck at it. Thus, the cycle continues.

The best way to increase the desirability of teaching positions is to increase the salary. Triple it, whatever you need to. All of a sudden those people who condescend to me will try to get the job, because they're soul-sucking moneygrubbers, some of whom (despite my insults) could be excellent teachers if they were rewarded monetarily. Teaching would become a desirable job, driving the applicant pool up and allowing the best to be hired. So yes, Boston, call it a panacea if you'd like to demonstrate the vocabulary your education provided. Greed is good, and all that jazz. Strike up the band, the cliches are raining like cats and dogs.

The one problem it doesn't solve? Firing shitty teachers. If you had a brilliant applicant pool but no vacancies, and couldn't get rid of someone who was terrible, the system continues to fail. As far as the quality of administrators, I believe it's analogous to the teaching situation. Managing a school has its own peculiar issues, but a phenomenal manager will never take a job in a high school if he could do a similar job for three times the money at a business. Raise those salaries, too, and you will get better candidates.

Money can help these issues. And your question about raising taxes is answered thusly. You're right to suggest that many people who want education to improve often accept a slight tax increase. I don't want a slight tax increase any more than I want that backhanded compliment in a bar. Crank them way up, because I agree with you. There's nothing else worth it.