Listening Post (1/7/13)

JetsAfter the unforgivable sappiness of my previous post I need a little vitriol and random anger. Unfortunately lumped in with all the turn-of-the-century emo crybabies, Jets to Brazil were always rougher, rawer, and smarter than their contemporaries.  They’re one of those bands that I don’t actually know much about except that over the course of three albums they blazed an incredibly cool trajectory, moving from jagged indie (1998’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary) to Paul Weller-esque anthems (2000’s Four Cornered Night) to autumnal ballads (2002’s Perfecting Loneliness).  And then they were gone.

This is a live rendition of “Morning New Disease,” my favorite song from their debut.  Enjoy, get hooked, and enjoy some more.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

training

Twice a year – and only twice a year – I question my career choice.  It’s always fleeting, and it’s always in the ten minutes before I make the walk from my office to my classroom.  No matter how long I’ve been doing this (going on 18 years, currently) and no matter how much time and effort I’ve put into syllabus-creation and lesson-planning, those last ten minutes before meeting a new class remind me of waiting in the wings to go onstage.  I figure I’ll either connect with the audience and dazzle them with my brilliant characterization, or I’ll forget my lines, knock over a lamp, and pee myself.  You can always find me ten minutes before the first class of a new semester begins, head in hands, mumbling, “Gaaaaahhhhh.  Why do I do this?”

I stumble to class with all the confidence of a death row inmate on his way to the chair, but ten minutes later, after I’ve started to dig into the work and I realize that my students aren’t going to strap me to a chair and poke me with olive forks, I think, “Oh, yeah.  This is why I do this.”  It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a little frightening, it’s never dull, and it’s the single most rewarding career out there – but somehow I manage to forget all of that in my semiyearly anxiety.

It happens again and again, and now that I’m 36 hours out from the start of another new semester and another new group of preservice English teachers a semester away from student teaching, I’m gearing up for it yet again.  But that question – why do I do this? – was already on my mind.  Last night, a reader commented on my post with a great question: “If you weren’t a teacher, what other career would you choose?”

It’s a pertinent question, especially in a climate where teachers are continually asked to do more and more with less and less and still end up being vilified by the media and politicians and parents.  And I suppose if a teacher (beginning or veteran) thinks he or she would be happier doing something else, he or she should probably do that thing.  Because teaching is no place for reservations or reluctance.  To be a good teacher is to throw yourself completely into your job.  It doesn’t mean that you live and breathe and eat and sleep the classroom – in that direction lies burn-out – but it does mean that you have to be willing to work, and work hard, at your career.  It means you have to read and plan and grade and talk and write, sometimes simultaneously.    It means you have to have a willingness to sacrifice your time, to fall and pick yourself up again, to be discouraged a split second after being elated, to forego sleep and fun (especially in your first couple years), and to always be willing to adapt.

And, oh yeah – you have to love, especially your subject and your students.  Teaching is a leap of faith into the great unknown, and you have to love what you teach and whom you teach to make that leap, year after year.

It’s interesting for me to think about that question – “What would I do if I weren’t a teacher?” – because teaching came to me as a last resort, and the preceding two paragraphs weren’t even in my vocabulary as a new teacher.  When I started my undergraduate college career in the halcyon days of 1991 (a mere month before the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, and doesn’t that make me feel old), I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  I don’t know why.  I probably liked Corbin Bernsen on L.A. Law.  After that phase reached its logical conclusion I thought I’d study creative writing, but I realized I didn’t have the dedication to do that, and then I thought I’d study acting, but I didn’t smoke enough for that.  Then I thought – and I wish I were kidding – “I like reading and writing.  Why not teach English?”  And so I did.

It wasn’t long into my first year, though, that I quickly learned that just loving reading and writing isn’t enough.  Not even close.  The reading and writing bit – especially in my first year – was the least of my concerns as I just figured out how to survive.  As I wrote a few days ago, I had a lot of instructional freedom, but having a knack for the content of English and being a good English teacher are two completely different things.  This is the mistake a lot of current education reformers make.  They think it’s just a matter of knowing your stuff.  But it’s not just that.  It’s knowing how to get 4th period to forget they’re hungry for 50 minutes and it’s knowing when to let the kid whose parents are divorcing turn in his homework a day late.  It’s knowing how to make a 60-year-old book about growing up African-American in the South relatable to a bunch of privileged white kids and it’s knowing how to help the three Latino boys who barely speak English make sense of the language.  It’s breaking up fights outside your door and not taking insults personally and strategically ignoring emails from administration and telling Hollie – again – to put her makeup away and realizing that no one really cares about the standard on the board and learning to treasure those little victories that most people would miss but teachers are conditioned to freeze in time like a wasp in amber.

You have to love all of it, and I had to learn my way into loving it.

That’s why I do it, and why I still can’t picture myself doing anything else.  I do it even now, when the landscape is changing and it seems more and more like what the public and politicians and administrators really want are interchangeable cogs, automatons who can enforce a death march through a textbook, rather than passionate, principled teachers who are experts at what they do and who have made a commitment to the betterment of society.  I have to believe that there’s still a place for those kind of teachers, and helping my students find their teaching voice is the commitment to which I rededicate myself every semester.

Teaching is a leap of faith, and I make it gladly every day.

*****

Current listening:
Tindersticks st i
Tindersticks – Self-titled (1993)

Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of Plan

The-public-school-assembly-line-is-broken-1tpg0by

A few days ago I wrote about the many challenges facing new teachers and considered whether, if I were a new teacher today, I’d be able to work under a similar system of strictures.  My answer was about as wishy-washy as they come: Yes, but I’d probably hate it.

I lay most of this tension at the feet of the Common Core State Standards, which have been foisted on the public and their schools as the salvation for the broken education system.  Never mind that the myth of the broken education system, like the recent fiscal cliff debacle, was created by the very people who have the most to benefit from it.  And never mind that the standards themselves were largely created by non-teachers.  And never mind that the standards constrain possibility rather than expand it.  And never mind that the standards are the foundation for the most extensive series of high-stakes tests the world has ever seen.  Never mind all of this, because now, fallacy or not, teachers are stuck with them and they’re doing the best job they can with a truly lousy situation.

The Common Core proponents, meanwhile, continue to hammer away at their supposed quality and rigor, brushing aside criticism with a frankly awe-inspiring combination of hubris and denial.  “It’s all about the kids,” they say, because we all know how much kids love standardized tests.

I’ve often considered putting together a list of all the pro-Common Core myths with an eye to debunking each of them.  Fortunately for my lazy arse, Kris Nielsen has done a much better job with it than I ever could.  On his blog he’s currently writing a three-part series about the Common Core disaster, and his just-posted second part is (or should be, at least) the gold standard in Common Core criticism.  If you’re a teacher – or interested in public education – read it, save it, and drag it out whenever someone tries to tell you the Common Core is going to save us all.  In fact, the truth is that it heralds the end of public education as we know it.

Kris Nielsen: Reality Check: This Is How Democracy Ends – Part II

*****

Current listening:
Phantogram eyelid
Phantogram – Eyelid Movies (2010)

As Close as I Came to Being Right

biggest-loser-logo
The Biggest Loser returns tonight.  I will watch it, I will enjoy it, and I will steadfastly refuse to care that I’m not supposed to do either of those things.

I understand the impulse behind naming certain things “guilty pleasures.”  We all want to think our taste is beyond reproach, that we worship at the altar of the highbrow, and that at the very least we recognize that certain entertainments have little or no redeeming social value.  To cite something as a guilty pleasure is to position oneself as someone who knows better and in the process claim a certain moral or intellectual high ground.

It’s nonsense, of course.

When it comes to entertainment, why should we feel guilty about the things that give us pleasure? The truth (for me, anyway) is that I don’t trust people who claim to only like the “right” things. Thanks to my association with a certain music festival, I’ve come into contact with folks who claim only to like Japanese musicians who create found-sound drone collages out of kitchen appliances and the subsonic echoes of beating insect wings or six-hour black-and-white films about a Romanian peasant eating a potato.  It’s like a real-life episode of Portlandia, where  the insufferably pretentious assert their superiority by claiming never to have heard of Lost, and it always smacks of an effort to hide their insecurity by trying too hard.

I do recognize, however, that the flipside is true.  A steady diet of American Idol, Maroon 5, Nicholas Sparks, and Adam Sandler will do no one any favors, and those of us who have friends who snack incessantly on junk food should logically steer them in increasingly more substantial directions.  But taking those things in moderation – and, by necessity, recognizing their flaws – is nothing to feel guilty about.

In the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to quickly discuss three entertainments (TV, music, and book) that some people would call guilty pleasures, but for which I make absolutely no apologies.  I like what I like, and that’s really all that should matter.

I know I’m not supposed to admit to any of the things that follow.  I have a Ph.D., and therefore should spend my days surrounded by fine art, books of philosophy, and classical music.  But I have nothing hanging on my walls, I haven’t read a philosophy book since my brief fascination with Foucalt in the late 90’s, and classical music bores me to tears.

jillian-michaels-and-bob-harperTelevision – The Biggest Loser

The perennial weight loss competition works for me for a couple reasons.  The main one is that, at its best, it’s truly inspiring.  Unlike most reality shows that seem to wallow in humiliation, Biggest Loser actually tries to make a positive difference for people, introducing them to exercise and a healthy diet (in between those annoying product-placement spots for Subway and Tupperware, which assume the contestants have all been living on Mars) and encouraging viewers in need of weight loss to make a similar change.  I mean, sure, there’s humiliation here, too, as we watch horribly obese people fall off treadmills, but on balance it does far more good than harm.

It also works because the show has chosen its trainers well.  Bob Harper is the Zen, centered good cop to Jillian Michaels’ batshit, drill instructor bad cop.  When the contestants are resistant to the training, Bob employs New Age, feel-good reassurance, resorting to anger only when gentle negotiation fails.  Jillian, on the other hand, screams at them and beats them about the head and shoulders with her abs.  I’m ambivalent about the most recent addition, Dolvett Quince.  He’s sort of a combination of the other two, with a penchant both for sappy platitudes and yelling.  He’s an an inoffensive character and many of the contestants seem to like him, but I’m not sure what he offers that the show didn’t already have.

There are, of course, drawbacks that I have a harder time defending.  Most problematic for me is the way the show constantly falls into a hero/victim dichotomy.  I sort of resent the clips of Bob telling the contestants that they’re “heroes.”  I get that we live in a hyperbolic society where words are continuously dulled and diminished, but it seems especially cheap to refer to someone’s weight loss as a heroic act.  I don’t even care if the contestants are doing it to be better parents.  Losing weight to be good to your family doesn’t make you a hero.  It makes you a responsible human.

On that same point, I grow tired of how the female competitors – usually mothers – are often portrayed as victims, as though gangs of rogue Hostess executives have held them down and force-fed them Twinkies.  Numerous times throughout each season, Jillian or Bob or Dolvett will say something  like this to one of the women: “You gave everything you had to take care of your family, and you didn’t have any time to take care of yourself.”  Look: I’m sure she was busy.  No doubt.  I’m not diminishing the difficulty of raising a family.  But when the show starts, many of the women are pushing 250 pounds or more.  That doesn’t happen by accident, nor does it happen overnight.  They might not have had time to take care of themselves, but they sure as hell had time to stuff their faces.  I think this bothers me precisely because in most instances The Biggest Loser so often avoids treating the contestants like powerless victims.  The show is usually about owning up to your demons and taking control of your life.  Laying the blame for some contestants’ obesity at their families’ feet seems like a cop-out.

All of this is to say that, even with its flaws, I have no problem supporting a show that encourages its viewers to be fit, to get healthy, to make smart choices.  Where most reality shows glorify bad behavior, The Biggest Loser asks us to live up to our potential.

ColdplayMusic – Coldplay

Ever since 2005 and the band’s appearance as the “You know how I know you’re gay?” punchline from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Coldplay has been seen as the relentlessly sappy group of effeminate Brits who give romance a bad name. Among certain music fans, their name is shorthand for cheap emotion and mass-market sentiment – the Hallmark Cards of guitar rock.

It’s not a totally undeserved reputation, but I love them anyway because, left out of that larger discussion is a really important point: they write some killer melodies.  Their 2000 debut, Parachutes, is a dynamite collection of songs that’s been overshadowed by the ubiquity of hit single “Yellow,”  and its follow-up, 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, is one of my Top Ten albums of the first decade of the 21st Century.  And yeah, some of that album has been overplayed, but seriously: listen to “Clocks” with new ears and dare to tell me it’s not an amazing song.

Those first two albums went a long way toward replacing The Smiths in my lovelorn late-20’s vocabulary, and I vividly remember singing songs like “Shiver” and “The Scientist” at top volume as a balm for another broken heart.  And maybe this is why I’m drawn to Coldplay despite their detractors: at heart, I’m just as sappy and weedy as the band.

Anyway, 2005’s X & Y isn’t nearly as good as its two predecessors (although I still find “Fix You” to be almost annoyingly wonderful in its panoramic, widescreen bombast), but their last two albums, 2008’s Viva la Vida and 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, have taken the admirable tack of following stylistic tangents while still incorporating some of the most hummable melodies of recent times.  It hasn’t made them more masculine, but in our testosterone-heavy culture, I’ll take a little sensitivity anyday.

Stephen KingBooks – Stephen King

I’ve written about King so much in my other blogs that I’m a little tired of my own effusiveness.  But for the benefit of new readers: Stephen King is almost solely responsible for the reader I am today.  I think avid readers can trace moments like these, the times when we’ve read something that fundamentally alters not just our reading trajectory, but our lives.

I don’t know how I discovered it – or more importantly,why my parents let me read it – but Stephen King’s Cujo knocked me on my scrawny little 13-year-old rear.  I mean, are you kidding me? A big-ass dog ripping people to shreds, and my first encounter with the word fuck in literature?  Up to that point I was heavily into the fantasy novels of Terry Brooks and my reaction was this: “I’ve been reading about elves when I could have been reading this all along?  Ho-lee shit.”  Fortunately, this was in the late 80′s, before King had written eleventy-hundred books and started recycling plots.  The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Firestarter, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone – all fell in short order. This locust-like rampage through King’s bibliography eventually got me to Danse Macabre, wherein he describes some of his favorite authors.  And it was in that book that I first encountered Harlan Ellison, a sorta-kinda science fiction writer who continued my literary journey.  Ellison led me to Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, who eventually got me to Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy and T.C. Boyle and most of the other writers who are my favorites to this day.

But King set me on this path, and I still feel a debt of gratitude for that.  To this day I faithfully pick up his newest book whenever it’s published, but I don’t do this out of obligation or nostalgia.  King’s very popularity leads people to lump him in with (in my opinion) less-talented writers like Sparks or Grisham, but, as with Coldplay, I think this knee-jerk reaction obviates people from actually experiencing the art.  And King, for as long as he’s been doing this, still writes terrific stories with great passion.  Not every book is a winner – I grew tired of the Dark Tower series around Book 5 and still haven’t been able to finish it, and I’m still reluctant to read From a Buick 8 because I think we can all agree that two haunted car books is two too many for anyone – but I think we’d all be lucky to maintain such consistently high quality for nearly forty years.  So, y’know, struggle manfully with the new Thomas Pynchon if you like. King’s upcoming sequel to The Shining will give me more pleasure in the long run.

One final note about all of this: liking what you like and being proud of it, as I hope I’ve shown here, doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge its faults.  But it also doesn’t mean that just because it has faults that it’s not worthy of your attention.  For me, it’s more important that we have passions than that we worry overmuch what other people think of them.  And, to that end, you should feel free to make fun of me for liking any of the things I’ve written about here, just as I will make merciless fun of you for liking Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or Nickelback.  It’s only fair.

*****

Current listening:
Joy big
The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar (2011)

I Found That Essence Rare

YAL

When I was a teenager – and even, if I’m going to be honest, into my early 20’s – I was an angsty little dude.  It usually had to do with girls and my inability to date them, and I cloaked myself in self-righteous misery.  Imbued with the solipsism of the young, I knew no one else at my high school – those backwards, cow-town knuckle-draggers, as I viewed them at the time – understood my pain, and so I’d lose myself in music.  Morrissey knew what I was going through.  My awkwardness and self-loathing felt right at home on Joy Division’s icy tundra or in the sonic architecture of The Cure’s Disintegration.  I felt harmonic convergence with Elvis Costello’s bile in “I Want You” and Paul Westerberg’s raw anguish in the Replacements’ “Answering Machine.”  It was comforting, reassuring, to feel like I wasn’t alone.  When I needed an escape, all I had to do was put on my headphones and let my friends sing to me.

But of course I wasn’t alone.  What I was feeling wasn’t singular to me.  It wasn’t even special or unusual.  Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and looking in the rearview mirror it’s plain that I was suffering from nothing more serious than adolescence.  But at the time it was weighty, momentous – the fate of the world was held in the answer to the question, “Do you want to go to the movies with me this weekend?”  And to ease this suffering, we want to know that someone out there understands us.

I found comfort in music.  Increasingly, today’s teenagers find it in the pages of Young Adult Literature (YAL), which is in the middle of something resembling a golden age.  I keep up with it as well as I can as part of my professional responsibility, and the quality has never been higher.  Sure, there’s purely escapist nonsense like the Twilight series (and just about anything else categorized under the giggle-inducing “Teen Paranormal Romance” section of your local Barnes & Noble), but man, the best of the best holds its own with – and sometimes even exceeds – the quality of so-called “adult” fiction. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to name just three recent favorites) tackle serious issues (cancer, mental illness, and racial bias, respectively) with sensitivity and sophistication that can be appreciated by readers who haven’t seen adolescence in quite a while.  Like, ahem, yours truly.

I bring up the issue of content – and these three books in particular – for a couple reasons. One is, as I described at the beginning, the importance of seeing yourself in art.  Just as it was infinitely reassuring to hear Morrissey sing, “I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does,” I think I would have immediately been drawn to It’s Kind of a Funny Story (had it been written in 1988) and its thoughtful depiction of a teen dealing with depression and anxiety.  Similarly, for teens dealing with physical illness, The Fault in Our Stars treats its cancer-afflicted main characters with dignity, respect, and humor, and Alexie’s Part-Time Indian is a powerful (and powerfully funny) account of growing up as the Other, torn between two cultures who seek to hold you back in different ways.  This is what the best of YAL does: It holds up a mirror to the reader, letting him know he’s not alone and giving him the tools to survive.

But the mirror can also be flipped around to reflect the outside world to someone unfamiliar with it.  Growing up in small-town Ohio, at a school whose demographics skewed nearly 100% white, Alexie’s book would have been just as much a revelation to me then as it is to the small-town Georgia teens who populate the schools around me now.  With its accessible language and relatable characters, YAL can do immense good in helping younger readers broaden their horizons and deepen their empathy.

But of course some people just don’t get it.  What prompted me to write this post was discovering this article from England’s Daily Mail, which completely mischaracterizes YAL as “sick lit” that morbidly traffics in human misery, apparently for the purpose of exploitation and book sales.  Or, as the author herself states, “Since the vampire book bubble burst, publishers have been looking to find the next big thing in the lucrative world of young adult fiction.”  That’s right, folks: cancer sells, dont’cha know.

I’ve had a problem with this kind of reporting from critics before.  It’s the same kind of blinkered, short-sighted ignorance that led many respected movie critics (including my beloved Roger Ebert) to heap praises on the film Waiting for Superman, despite the fact that it’s a thinly-veiled propaganda piece (funded in part by the Gates Foundation) attacking public schools in favor of private charters.  The critics reviewed it as a movie without fully (or even partially) understanding how it plays into the current debate about education reform.  So they bought the movie’s bogus thesis that there’s an education crisis and promoted the movie in their reviews as a solution to the fabricated problem.

The same thing happens in Carey’s article about YAL.  Instead of exploring the mountain of research that discusses the benefits of YAL for readers of all kinds, Carey instead calls on “children’s book expert” Amanda Craig, who says authors have “a moral and social responsibility” when they write for children, and books about illness, suicide, depression, etc., shirk that responsibility.  The implication is that the books are exploitative (she specifically singles out Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why), using serious issues like depression, illness, and suicide as cheap plot devices to sell books.  

Which is absolute nonsense.

Roger Ebert (if I can mention him again for just a moment) wrote something that has often guided my response to both books and movies, and I’m paraphrasing: “A movie isn’t what it’s about.  It’s how it is about it.”  Of course a book about teen cancer can be exploitative. But to say all books about teen cancer are exploitative is to completely ignore just how nimbly, sensitively, and respectfully Green writes about it.  Vizzini doesn’t cheapen teen depression by writing about it, nor does Alexie sensationalize racial prejudice.  In talking to other people who have read these books (and other YAL like them) the reaction isn’t, “Cool cancer book, yo.”  It’s more like, “This really helped me to understand what people endure when they suffer from cancer [depression/prejudice] as a teen.”  The books have an impact not because they titillate, but because the best of them have important things to say about life with all its challenges.

It’s tempting, I think, for adults to want teens only to read sugar-coated tales where the most serious adversity is forgotten lunch money.  But teens face ever more serious challenges, and YAL is just one way of helping them negotiate this minefield.  To ignore the way literature can be a place of solace seems to me to be an even bigger avoidance of moral and social responsibility than to write a book that helps teens find comfort in their – and our – imperfect lives.

*****
Current listening:
Low curtain
Low – The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996)

Listening Post (1/4/13)

Love

The universe has a way of correcting itself, even if sometimes takes forty years.  Released the same year as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Who Sell Out, as well as debuts by the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix, Love’s 1967 album Forever Changes is every bit the classic as its better-known peers.  It sank more or less without a trace upon release, the band imploded, and visionary singer/songwriter Arthur Lee eventually ended up in jail on firearms charges.

As time progressed, though, admirers caught on to the album’s blend of dark-edged psychedelia and impeccable songcraft.  When Lee was released from prison in 2001, he returned to the stage a conquering hero, fronting a reconstituted band with original Love guitarist Johnny Echols and frequently playing Forever Changes in its entirety to sold-out crowds.  When Lee died of leukemia in 2006, “better late than never” for his band’s crowning achievement was cold comfort.

But enough bio.  I finally caught up with the band in 2000 and was immediately floored.  I’ve given Forever Changes a lot of spins in the last dozen years, but after not listening to it in a while I recently bought a copy on vinyl and it’s every bit as good as I remember.  Lee had a way with a melody, to be sure, but Forever Changes one-ups the other psychedelic bands of the era by going dark with the lyrics and relying heavily on strings and brass to carry the tunes.  Opening track “Alone Again Or” is the song from the album that (rightfully) gets all the press, but my favorite is actually the closer, “You Set the Scene.”  This video is from the band’s triumphant performance at 2003’s Glastonbury Festival and is a strong argument that every song should end with repeated trumpet fanfares.

Notes on Achieving Orbit

rickygervaisstephenmerchantWhen it comes to movies and television, we’re conditioned to respect singularity. The pop culture landscape is cluttered with the names of directors who are credited as the sole voice, the lone vision, behind their films.  This gets hammered home through trailers, commercials, and opening credits, when movies are billed as “A (insert name here) Film” or “A Film by (insert name here”).  This often gets done without recourse to logic or reality, when even marginal talents who haven’t contributed anything of real consequence to cinema history, but who also don’t write or produce their own films, are granted an authorial credit.  I don’t particularly have anything against Jon Turteltaub, but I remember being especially peeved during the trailer for his recent film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, when it was marketed as “A Jon Turteltaub Film,” as though that actually means anything to anyone.  (“The visionary behind National Treasure is directing a Disney flick marketed to kids?  Sign me up!”)

Sometimes, though, it’s earned.  In this country, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane stands as probably the most obvious example, with Welles as producer-writer-director-star of what is often considered to be the greatest movie of all time.  Woody Allen is another good example, taking a writer-director credit on all of the 42 features he’s directed, and starring in many of them, including undisputed classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Probably the most relevant contemporary example is writer-director Quentin Tarantino, whose films clearly boast the man’s unique visual style and verbal gameplay. Even pulpier names like Kevin Smith and George A. Romero can lay legitimate claim to singular authorship.  As both writer and director of many of their movies, there’s no denying that the end products reflect their particular sensibilities.

More interesting to me, though, is the creative partnership.  Whether it’s Martin Scorsese’s brilliant work over several movies with Robert de Niro, Tim Burton’s partnership with composer Danny Elfman (13 films), or Christopher Guest’s unparalleled troupe of improvisational comedians, I’m drawn more to the work of people who clearly inspire one another and do their best work in each other’s company. I’m sort of fascinated by things like Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s brilliant trifecta of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz, or even how Judd Apatow has continually worked with certain actors over the course of his career.  Interpersonal dynamics, and the process by which artists complement each other, are, for whatever reason, much more compelling to me than the notion of one person taking primary responsibility for a work of art.  I’m not taking anything away from that accomplishment (when was the last time I wrote and directed a movie?); I just find it less interesting than, say, Bill Murray showing up in every one of Wes Anderson’s films.

My favorite partnership, though, is pictured at the top of this post.  Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – while not solely filmmakers – have done more to entertain me in the last seven years than anyone.  Their original UK version of The Office is one of the best shows of the decade, and I watch the whole thing at least once a year.  Their follow-up, Extras, doesn’t hit quite the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s every bit as entertaining and possesses some impressive emotional undercurrents  that sneak up on you when you don’t expect it.  And their podcast with Karl Pilkington (and the subsequent travel program, An Idiot Abroad) is glorious in its free-associative absurdity.

I’ve detailed my admiration for Gervais in previous posts on previous blogs, so what I really want to do is take a few moments to talk about the underappreciated Merchant.  As good as Ricky is, it’s only in his collaborations with Stephen that he truly soars.  For instance, Gervais is a decent standup comedian, but his two American specials aren’t essential viewing in the way The Office or Extras are, and Ricky’s first directing credit without Stephen, 2009’s The Invention of Lying, is certainly sly and funny, but it’s also frustratingly uneven and dips significantly in an overlong final act.  While their individual strengths are obvious – Ricky is an expert at broad comedy, where Stephen seems to be subtler, quieter, and more self-deprecating – it isn’t clear exactly what role each man takes in their collaborations.  However their responsibilities are defined, it’s clear that Gervais’ best work is done with his frequent partner.

One of my favorite things about Extras is that it allowed Merchant to introduce the character of Darren Lamb, the well-meaning but completely incompetent agent to Gervais’ character, Andy Millman.  Their scenes together transcend typical TV comedy because their interactions are based 100% in character; there’s never a sense that the comedy comes in favor of jokes at the expense of who these two men really are.  And, more importantly, each of their scenes is tinged slightly by sadness and frustration, giving the show surprising emotional heft.  Darren really wants to do well, but he lacks the necessary something (responsibility? mental acuity? common sense?) to get the job done.  Even so, there’s always the sense that the shallow and indecisive Andy doesn’t deserve someone as loyal as Darren, even though the agent is clearly not helping Andy’s career.  It’s a virtuoso tightrope act, where the viewer’s allegiances can shift within a scene, from wishing Darren would finally do something right for a change, to wishing Andy would take it easy on a guy who’s clearly trying his hardest.  I think this dynamic is mainly a credit to Merchant, who could easily play Darren as a dolt.  Instead, he comes off as a good-natured and fiercely loyal scatterbrain, whose best will just never be good enough.

What follows is a montage of some of the best of Darren’s bits with Andy.  I don’t know how well these brief excerpts will translate to someone who doesn’t know the show, so I’ve also included a longer scene, which is one of my favorites.  These scenes serve as a compelling testament to the quality of Gervais and Merchant’s partnership, but they also prove that Merchant is crucial to their joint endeavors.  In this way, Merchant looks to be Brian Eno to Gervais’ David Bowie: Gervais is capable of quality stuff on his own, but it’s only with the right collaborator that he achieves greatness.

*****
Current listening:
Love forever
Love – Forever Changes (1967)

Everybody’s Got Nice Stuff but Me

45records

Music fans: Have you ever stopped to consider just how good people had it in the 1960’s? I’m totally aware of the argument against nostalgia and the contention that the past is never as good as we imagine it to be, but seriously: Just think about it.

I was recently reading an article about The Who, and the author made a throwaway comment about how in the late 60’s the Beatles were singing about love and the Rolling Stones were singing about lust, but the Who were taking a decidedly darker tack, singing about things like gender confusion and sexual predators.  And my first thought was, “Yeah, that’s pretty interesting.”  But my second thought – one that really hadn’t occurred to me before in any real way – was, “Damn.  The Beatles, the Stones, and the Who were all recording at the same time.”

Do we have anything comparable to that today? It’s nice that Springsteen, Dylan, and Leonard Cohen all released new music last year, but their 2012 iterations aren’t exactly the same as their 1970’s versions. And there’s just no way we can put Bieber, Swift, and Rihanna in the same category without vomiting.

The really bewildering thing is that the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who are really just the tip of the musical iceberg.  Let’s take 1968 and 1969 as a test case.  Consider the embarrassment of riches released in just those 24 months:

The Band – Music from Big Pink
The Beatles – The Beatles (aka The White Album) and Abbey Road
Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills
The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
Cream – Wheels of Fire
The Doors – Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade
Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland
The Kinks – The Village Green Preservation Society
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin I and II
The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only in it for the Money
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet and Let it Bleed
Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends
Sly & The Family Stone – Dance to the Music, Life, and Stand!
Small Faces – Ogden’s Gone Nut Flake
The Stooges – Self-titled
The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat
The Who – Tommy
Scott Walker – Scott 2, 3, and 4
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle

Even cherry-picking (and leaving out stuff I generally don’t care about, like the first Fleetwood Mac album, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and Bowie’s largely crappy debut), this is an unbelievable list of albums.  I count at least fifteen stone classics, a handful of highly influential albums that have grown in stature with time, and a number of  lesser works by major artists.  I mean, just stop and consider that The White Album, Astral Weeks, and The Village Green Preservation Society were all released in the same month.

There have certainly been other productive periods (the prime punk years of 1977-1978 would be a good comparison), but has there ever really been another concentration of indisputable classics like the one above?  I’m casting about, but not coming up with much.  And I admit this begrudgingly.  I formed my music tastes as a teenager in the late 80’s, worshipping at the altar of R.E.M., U2, The Smiths, Joy Division, Pixies, and all the other usual suspects from that era.  I still devour music voraciously, seeking out new bands that inspire and entertain.  My three favorite albums from 2012 came from bands I didn’t know about last January.  I hate hippies.  But I’ve still got nothing.

And I wonder why this is.  I’m reminded of Jimmy Fallon’s character in Almost Famous, prophesying the changing music industry.  Is that it?  It’s just a business now?  Artists aren’t allowed to mature on their own anymore?  They need the instant hit that allows for maximum merchandising, and an inability to replicate that gets them cast into obscurity?

Or is this just another version of the literary canon that gets taught in school?  Are Sgt. Pepper, Exile on Main St.,  and Pet Sounds just the musical equivalent of Romeo & Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye, overshadowing other works of equal merit just because they were created first?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I’m certainly willing to listen to theories.  As I write this I keep thinking about the word I used earlier: concentration.  I absolutely think there’s still brilliant music being made (f’rinstance, I’d rate Elbow’s 2008 album The Seldom Seen Kid as highly as just about anything on the above list), but it’s not happening in the same numbers, and there’s just no way to make the argument that we’ll be looking back on the music made in 2012 with the same regard as the music made in 1968 – and if any of you say Ke$ha, I’ll punch you in the throat.

There’s just something about that time period that we haven’t been able to replicate. But maybe we’re not meant to. Maybe the fault is mine in trying to turn it into a past vs. present cage match. Okay. I can live with that. But the fact remains: I’d trade 90% of what was released in 2012 for just a handful of albums that lived up to the quality of 1968.

*****

Current listening:
Nick nocturama
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Nocturama (2003)

Listening Post (1/2/13)

clock-opera-band-007When I’ve previously kept a blog at the end of a calendar year I’ve half-heartedly attempted to assemble a series of best-of lists.  I love reading these year-end lists (it’s one of the best ways for me to discover some great stuff that slipped through the cracks), but I’m crap at making them.  #1 and #2 are always solid, but after that I might as well draw names out of a hat.

I won’t backtrack now and rehash my entire list, but for the inaugural Listening Post of Gold Star for Robot Boy, it seems appropriate to share my top song pick of 2012.  This year, #1 was a given since early spring when I first heard Clock Opera’s “Belongings.”    I’m a fan of melancholy, and what initially drew me to this song was its bittersweet repeating piano figure and the naked regret in singer Guy Connelly’s voice.  So far, so maudlin.  But what catapults this song into the realm of the classic is its slow build and the way it achieves lift-off at the 3:45 mark, leaving melancholy behind and becoming something defiantly euphoric.  I could listen to this thing until my ears bleed.

“Belongings” was my favorite song of the previous year, and Clock Opera’s debut, Ways to Forget, was my favorite album.  Still waiting on that American tour.

These Things Are Sent to Try Us

educationcorporateschool

I started teaching in 1995.  I was 22, straight out of my teacher training program, and completely ignorant of what I was getting myself into.  My first assignment was four sections of 9th grade English and two sections of 10th grade English.  During my first day on campus, my department chair handed me a slim binder containing the required curriculum for my two classes.

9th grade
Semester 1:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Short story terms (exposition, conflict, climax, etc.)

Semester 2: 
Romeo and Juliet
Job prep (résumés, cover letters, interview skills, etc.)

10th grade
Semester 1:
Black Boy
Poetry

Semester 2:
Lord of the Flies
Research Paper

And that’s it.  Aside from a book room filled with class sets of supplemental texts to use alongside the required ones, that was the sum total of the curricular oversight I received as a new teacher.  In some ways, this was intimidating. Contrary to the labor-free wonderland envisioned by non-teachers, where lesson plans are apparently stolen wholesale from colleagues or divined straight from the ether and students are grateful for the opportunity to work industriously while the teacher kicks back with a mug o’ joe and the newspaper, good teaching is hard.  How would I teach and assess the required texts?  What other books would I choose to complement them?  How would I make literary terminology not just interesting but useful?  And – most importantly – what would I do when I wasn’t teaching the meager curriculum required by the district?  In an 18-week semester, Mockingbird and short story terminology represent at most eight weeks of instruction.  Ten weeks is a lot of time to get to play with.

So a lot of my first few years of teaching were spent experimenting: inventing lessons, collaborating with colleagues, trying things out and then modifying them for future classes. It was exciting.  Thanks to my teacher education program I had a solid theoretical foundation from which to draw (even if my experience with educational technology began and ended with the Apple IIE), and at my school a handful of young colleagues – and one old, cranky colleague to whom I will forever be indebted – who were just as jazzed as I was about being in the classroom and who were happy to share and experiment with me.

My first few years of teaching were terrifying – I had the same challenges as most new teachers, figuring out classroom management, motivating students, contacting parents, etc., etc. – and they were exhausting.  Twelve or fourteen hour days were the norm, and I remember collapsing in a heap on the weekends just long enough to recharge my batteries for Monday when I’d get up and do it all over again.

But more than terror and fatigue, exhilaration is the emotion that really stands out to me when I think back on that time.  How many teachers currently feel like they have the freedom to  to experiment, to play?  I was in the enviable position of actually having my administration  trust that I knew what I was doing, and feel that I should generally be left alone to do it.  How many teachers today feel that?

If the preceding paragraph feels like a transition, it is.  I currently work with pre-service English teachers in a university teacher preparation program, as well as with practicing teachers through an affiliate site of the National Writing Project.  My dissertation was on standards, assessment, and education reform.  By necessity I’ve kept a close eye on the development of the Common Core State Standards and their implementation in my current state of Georgia.  I’ve made a career of trying (and, I hope, mostly succeeding) to be an intelligent, reflective educator who provides his students with a meaningful education.

All of this build-up has been to get to this reveal: If I were a new teacher – now, in 2013 – I think the current state of education would break my spirit in no time at all.

New teachers are facing challenges unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime, and the truly shameful thing is that these challenges are caused by people who supposedly support education.  In my conversations with new and veteran teachers alike, I hear stories of low morale, early retirement, and administrator coercion, of being made to teach to scripted curricula, of being told the Common Core doesn’t just dictate what to teach (an important enough issue by itself) but how to teach it.  If teachers are so important – as I believe they are and as the educrats behind the current reform initiatives claim they are – why in the world are they being treated as borderline incompetents who can’t be trusted with a piece of chalk?  This loss of agency – and the subsequent effect it can have on professional identity – is of paramount concern.  If we want teachers to stay in the classroom past the long-established five-year “burn out” window – becoming, in the process, career teachers who have the ability to do the most good for their students – why are we now making conditions for them so untenable?

If I were a new teacher and, instead of the thin binder of curricular objectives I was handed in 1995, I was instead given the Common Core State Standards – an exhaustive list of narrowly-defined tasks that treats the teaching of English like an autopsy – I’m not sure how long I’d last.  Take a moment, if you have the stomach, to take a look at the linked document and compare it to the short list of curricular objectives I was handed as a new teacher in 1995.  I’m not arguing that my list was superior – I could, for instance, see a poorly-prepared teacher being a total disaster with the short list – but that it allows for a kind of freedom and autonomy that I’m not sure the Common Core permits.

Is there still room for the kind of experimentation I enjoyed?  I’d like to hope there is, but the catch is that administrators have to support it.  What I’m increasingly hearing from teachers – and what is just now being reported by the press – is that this isn’t happening.  In Georgia, for example, the Department of Education Common Core frameworks that were supposedly created as “guides” have been interpreted by some site and district administrators as mandates.  The result in some schools is that there’s now an artificial 50/50 split between reading literary and informational texts and explanatory and argumentative writing.  Teachers have been told that this is what they will do, and in some cases have had texts, assignments, and assessments selected for them.

As a new teacher, I’m not sure I could do this.

Well, okay.  I could, but would I be in it for the long haul?  Would I love it?  Would I make a career of it?  And, most importantly, would I be any good at it?  I’m less certain of those answers, and I find myself increasingly saddened that my current students may not have the chance to experience the joy and excitement of finding their teaching voice in the way I did.

There’s some truly excellent writing being done by folks who are pushing back against the current education reform initiatives (people like Diane RavitchP.L. ThomasAnthony CodyStephen KrashenSusan Ohanian, and the collaborative website Schools Matter), and, personal bias aside, their work is more compelling than anything so far published by the Gates Foundation or the other pro-Common Core voices.  What they’ve all rightfully pointed out is that the biggest problem facing American public education isn’t the perceived “brokenness” of the system, apparently embodied by legions of underworked, overpaid, unionized teachers.  The problem is the shameful proliferation of poverty – and especially child poverty – and the effect it has on student learning.  Read their work, and if you find it convincing, please consider adding your voice to the growing numbers who want to see American public education preserved, not destroyed.

Current listening:
Graham a
Graham Coxon – A + E (2012)

There Is No Ending

I have what charitably could be called a love/hate relationship with blogging.  It’s well-documented on my previous blogs – usually in the first post like this one, so at least I’m a creature of habit – so I almost don’t feel like taking the time to tread familiar territory here.

And yet.

It always feels like the act of admitting my faults as a writer will somehow protect me from falling prey to them again.  It hasn’t worked yet, but hope springs eternal, right? So here it is (again), for better or worse (again), with an added twist: honesty.

First, the facts, for new readers: I’ve kept a blog in various incarnations for almost ten years.  My longest stretch was 2003-2006, when I (along with legions of adolescent girls) recorded my thoughts on LiveJournal.  When I returned to grad school I abandoned good ol’ LJ and picked up on Blogger (née Blogspot), which lasted for a few months.  Sometime after I got bored of that one I started up on WordPress, and I’ve been faithful to this platform ever since.  I’ve gone through at least three different iterations of the blog in the last five years, none lasting more than several months, although when I’m on, I’m on, posting one or two substantial pieces of writing daily.  I don’t pretend the work is of uniformly high quality, but I put in the time because I take the writing seriously.

So what’s the deal?  Why do I tire of it?  Why the lack of fidelity?  Why does my relationship with blogging resemble my relationships with women in college?

One answer is easy.  I run out of things to write about.  With only one recent exception – the death of my mom – I’ve tried to keep my personal life out of the blog.  Anyone who’s spent even a minimal amount of time poking around blogging sites knows the dubious quality of many personal blogs.  No one cares what I had for breakfast, what Harmony said on the bus this morning, or what the cute boy in Geometry was wearing today (for the record: oatmeal, One Direction is “dope,” and plaid).  Treating my life as anything special is self-indulgent silliness.  But without my own life to draw upon, that leaves me with the grist on which I typically fall back: the stuff that interests me.  But as much as it interests me, I soon tire of writing about music, movies, books, pop cultural ephemera, politics, and education.  There are only so many essays I can wring out of my love for Woody Allen or my hatred of the Common Core.  I get bored, as do my threes of readers, I’m sure.

So that’s one reason.  But the bigger reason – the uncomfortably honest reason – is this: I’m a thin-skinned writer, and I don’t function well when it feels like I’m mainly writing for the void.  I don’t need to hear that my writing is great, but I like to hear something.  As I said before, I take this seriously and I put in the time, but that investment starts to seem less and less worthwhile when it seems as though the only person reading my writing is me.  That, as much as anything, is why I run out of gas.  I know what I think about, say, the new stupid Common Core thing or that great movie everyone’s raving about or the latest idiocy from Fox News, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort to put those thoughts in writing if there’s no ensuing dialogue from readers. Without readership, there’s nothing separating this blog from my old-school pen-and-paper journal … except that these posts take a helluva lot longer to write.

This feels a little icky for me to write because it sounds like I’m putting the blame on you, the reader.  Saying, in effect, “My writing is magnificent – now, comment!” And that’s not it, or at least that’s not it entirely.  Because I usually take the lack of comments to mean that my writing is horrible, beneath response, not worth the time it would take to tell me I suck.  It’s a neurotic little hamster wheel I find myself on whenever I start this thing up again, but I also know that it’s one of the best ways of holding myself accountable for writing regularly. But, in the interest of honesty, it’s also the truth. I’m a fan of instant gratification, but I teach and I write – two endeavors that are often done entirely on faith.

So here I am again, and I have a proposal.

This blog will likely contain the usual business: commentary on education, politics, and pop culture; reviews of films, music, and books; recommendations of whatever happens to be tickling my fancy at the time; infrequent forays into memoir and creative writing.

But.

If you’re good enough to leave a comment – good, bad, or otherwise – I’ll be good enough to take requests.  I don’t have something to say about everything, but if the content is lacking I’m happy to try something different.  It’s not truly collaborative, of course, but I’m trying.  And I’m all about customer service.

*****

Current listening:

Massive blue
Massive Attack – Blue Lines (1991)

Current reading:

Do androids
Philip K. Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

Graveyard
Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book (2008)