Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Smaller Steps

With the passing of Neil Armstrong last week, we were all reminded about the nature of true heroism. Armstrong arguably created one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century as he became the first human to set foot on the moon. Many of the commentators rightly pointed out that it was one of those moments when everyone alive on that July (20th) 1969 day knows exactly where he/she was when history happened. It's probably fair to say that everyone who wanted to se that dramatic moment made every effort to do so. Not quite.
I grew up loving the space program. In my Junior High Homeroom we all listened to Alan Shepherd's first orbit flight. I read books about satellites and knew the difference between the Jupiter C and the Vanguard missiles. Hell, I even took my plastic model of an Atlas missile and tried to launch it with a Co2 cartridge at the local park. I ate, slept and breathed space travel. By high school and college, my interest in science took a back seat to my interest in social science. The civil rights movement had a lot to do with that. Still, I would have watched the moon landing, if I could have. I couldn't. Here's why: July 20, 1969 found me in Houston, Texas the home of NASA. Irony, you bet. I was just completing my training as a VISTA Volunteer and the supervisors of the program made a conscious decision not to have trainees watch the moon landing. Many of us had been involved with the Welfare Rights movement in Houston as part of our training. We had worked with local welfare recipients to help them navigate the maize of rights and potential benefits they were legally entitled to...if they could read. Many could not. In the Houston of 1969 not everybody was enthralled with the moon landing. As the crew of Apollo 11 prepared to land, residents from Houston's 3rd 4th and 6th wards were being arrested in demonstrations designed to protest the amount of federal money allotted to the space program and defense department for it's Vietnam misadventure. The war on poverty was never a clear priority and many of Houston's underclass knew that and wanted to make a statement. VISTA supervisors did not want any of the new volunteers to be arrested. We were encouraged to be invisible anyway, but they thought that there was no margin of error on this day so they packed all 30 of us up in a big bus and gave us a beach party in Freeport, Texas on the Gulf of Mexico. By late afternoon, as we swam in the warm water under dark and darkening clouds, a hurricane warning was issued and we hightailed it back to Houston. We were so hungry when we finally reached a large Italian restaurant back in town. The program sprang for a pasta dinner and we never had much money. I recall most of us ate the butter placed on the table before the bread arrived. Nobody talked about the moon landing. We had seen nothing. We had no TVs. We were on another planet.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Duly Noted

We've probably all done it.  Either directly or as a conduit.  It's been going on for years in most classrooms, if not all.  Part of the fun is that it needs to be clandestine.  There is risk involved.  But information too.  Passing notes.  And now it will most certainly be a thing of the past, another casualty of the new technology.
Recent studies suggest that in class note passing is being replaced by texting.  It's not the same is it?  How could it be?  Certainly the urgency is familiar, and  no doubt the themes, ideas, and gossipy nature.  The look, however is quite different.  Risk, yes, but somehow, in this age of thousands of instant messages daily, an even milder risk.  Unless you factor in that most teachers will confiscate a cell phone...but not for long.  Parental need to be in contact in the era of school lockdowns and shootings will always trump the nuisance factor.
So a tearful goodbye to those juicy notes that students have passed for ages.
In my 33 years in the classroom there certainly were some memorable notes.  Sometimes, I'd find them on the floor while cleaning up after a long day.  All that drama and the receiver hadn't the good sense to even find the waste basket.  Occasionally I'd intercept them.  My policy was to snatch a note mid-pass and rather cooly put in in the back pocket of my pants while suggesting the sender or recipient come back after school to retrieve the precious message.  I got pretty good at it too, never missing a beat if the class was reading aloud or taking a test, or if we were in the middle of a discussion, I could get the job done.
On occasion the notes were never claimed.  Just forgotten.  More than once, while doing laundry I'd find a note and enjoy the contents.  Usually they were a big disappointment.  Noting really earthshaking just some catty remark or a question about the time or date or place of a party or game.  Sometimes there was relationship drama.  That too was ephemeral and seldom had the same meaning or importance 24 hours later.
Of course I did find a few very revealing notes, including the time place and monetary amount for an upcoming drug deal.  Can't recall the outcome there.
Classroom notes did reveal something else that I found quite relevant.  Writing voice.  Kids that struggled trying to conceive an "official" academic sounding voice had no problem showing creativity, vocabulary, and real emotion when they wrote the notes they passed.  That cannot happen with texting for a number of reasons but the two most obvious are that all texting looks the same unlike the color, size, and shape of handwriting and even the paper it's on.  The language is different 2.  See what i mean.
I noticed long ago that students aren't the only ones passing notes in school.  Attend any faculty meeting and you'll see many of the same behaviors by teachers.  Seems like the ones who are the biggest complainers of those behaviors are often the biggest participators in the very same behaviors when they in a meeting.
There are a number of collections of student-passed notes.  Like the rhymes in autograph books and yearbooks they are spicy and revealing, and clever, and poignant.  They are also soon to be a thing of the past.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Going Down Down Down, Down Down

What are the hallmarks of a culture in decline? If we look at historical examples like the last days of the mighty Roman empire we see all manner of amoral/immoral diversions and amusements. If we look at our own, we see TV shows like "Honey Boo Boo." This program explores the daily life and adventures of an obnoxious child, looking more like the spawn of Porky Pig, and her even more ignorant family. The latter was the subject of a recent Today show segment asking a couple of journalist pundits to comment on the appeal of this TLC (The learning Channel) pseudo documentary about the lives of (in their words) a "redneck" family and their daughter, the aforementioned HBB. That these people are idiots becomes translated into "people being themselves." That the parents, one of whom is bordering on morbidly obese, are about the worst models of parenting makes no difference. Right now, it's cheap programing cost that is trumping any form of intellectual curiosity. It works well in an increasingly voyeuristic culture. In fact the recent spate of TV shows giving viewers glimpses into the lives of compulsive hoarders, religious colonies, hog and gator hunters, and all manner of child "beauty pageants," must have lowered our collective IQ, right? Are media executives and their corporate sponsors trying to hasten our decline? Not knowingly. It's just Gatsby's green light shining bigger and brighter than ever. If you show it they will watch. They laugh and text and telephone and slobber on themselves, and the media moguls go to the bank faster and more often than we did last year. At what cost? What Marx called the opiate of the masses is now the religious worship of unreality TV. We prefer the inner lives and workings of alcoholics, the obsessive compulsive, the dysfunctional, and the hyper-materialistic, than the reality of our involvement in Afghanistan, the systemic genocide of a Middle Eastern dictator on his own people, the consequences of climate change, genetically altered food, Wall Street thieves. The real irony, of course, is that much of this repugnant programing occurs on The Learning Channel. Learning what?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sidewalk Noir

I walk past the stately movie theater and read the marquee once again. It's there, in all Capital letters, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, Is this the name of a film, or something necessitated by the construction zone immediately next to the theater's entrance? I've been wondering this for a couple of weeks now. This aging Norma Desmond of a movie palace just might be protecting its patrons. This condo being built right next door to the theater is rife with cement blocks, nails, and all the scraps of metal and wood such a project can provide. The two are just a few feet apart. This condo will literally be backstage. (well, almost) Then again, this warning phrase could just be a film title for the 8:25 showing. Why the marquee? People don't read the marquee standing under it. Safety Not Guaranteed is the story of a disaffected WWII vet new to Los Angeles. He begins his postwar career as a private investigator whose insomnia Takes him over the hilly streets of Hollywood to the fast decaying but barely detectable LAPD. Chinatown Olvera street, City Hall, Griffith Park, Hollywood Bowl, Brown Derby, Santa Claus Lane Parade, UCLA, Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica Pier, Mulholland Drive, and He stalks them all... Like the butter flavoring in the popcorn, Like the wine stained allies, the sidewalk in front of the theater, Safety Not Guaranteed.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

National Geo-graphic

If reality television is, at best unreality, then one program I've recently seen creates a whole new category. It's a distorted view of reality taken to new, angelic heights. (pun intended) American Colony: Meet the Hutterites, presented by the National Geographic Channel must be seen to be believed. It has the look and feel of the National Geographic we all know and love. But that's where any resemblance departs. The attempt here is to showcase the daily life of a Hutterite colony in northern Montana. Like Mennonites and the Amish, the Hutterites have long held a fascination for the rest of us. They live in colonies that manage to stay true to their Protestant/Calvinistic European heritages. They work the land, revere the land, live off the land, and die on the land. They eschew much of what we cal modern technology...or at least they are supposed to. In the voyeuristic world of reality TV there is very little evidence of the Hutterites eschewing anything. The kids drive fast, want I-Pods, violate the dress codes, and swear a blue streak. But then this is a TV show. It's all very entertaining for a few minutes before the realization hits. These programs are not only contrived, they are probably scripted. Some of the episodes resemble the recycled plot lines from Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show. The "acting" is beyond terrible; it's hilarious. "Hey," one of the teenage boys says, "I got an idea. What if we..." and then an evil plot is hatched to tattle on someone, subvert the beef jerky competition, or go deer hunting when they should be doing something else. The Hutterite Dutch/German dialect is very much in evidence. While I'm equally fascinated by this look at the colony life, I can't help thinking this is a real life version of The Katzenjammer Kids. I just dated myself, but as a child I'd read the Sunday funnies out loud to myself and damned if these Hutterites don't sound and act the same. Somewhere out there a program or documentary exists with accurate or realistic images, or at least details of a difficult life without contrived plot lines for a Hutterite colony. This isn't that program, but, if we're lucky, it might give rise to one. The entire experience of relying on National Geographic to give us the quality and depth we've come to expect begs a few crucial questions. There are issues of education, technology, climate change, and deteriorating socio-economic conditions in this society that impact everyone. Given the current state of geographic and economic affairs; given the current moral atrophy, materialistic obsession and lack of political will, we all might benefit from learning how the colony really survives.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Side Tracked

I really didn't want to sit at that table. No choice. I need a plug for my lap top and that was the only one available. It's the designated "Handicapped" table, but everyone I know uses it all the time at my favorite coffee shop. I always figured that if anyone actually needed the table because of their physical disability, I'd vacate it in a heartbeat. So, I'm sitting there cooling down from our first 90 plus degree day and this couple walks in. Well, not exactly. He, morbidly obese, was walking unassisted and she, heavy, but nowhere near his weight was moving with a walker. They both edged toward me and naturally I offered to move. There's the dilemma. Am I moving because I want to, have to, or because I need to? We all agreed there was room for everyone and ended up sharing the table for about half an hour. To say that this pair was right out of Gary Larson's "The Far Side" would be an understatement. But I'm not trying to denigrate them, just trying to capture the accuracy of the scene. Drinking their Cafe Freddos (a mocha milkshake) they shared courteous, casual conversation with me. After a while it became clear to me that they had a lovely co-dependent relationship. I mean that in a positive way. I mean it like there is someone for everyone...maybe. Eventually they decided to make Ben and Jerry's their next stop but not before the male in the equation took out a Bible and started copying a verse from Matthew onto a yellow legal tablet. His handwriting was small and meticulous. I've always managed to attract people who are often the direct opposite of myself. From the squirmy social dance days of Jr. High school to the people who friends thought might be a good match when I was single. (I never knew 20 minutes could be so long) The truth is, if you center yourself during these awfully uncomfortable situations you can really learn a lot about yourself. Today I learned that I should probably stay away from designated tables.