Thursday, March 31, 2011

Swimming in a New Pool (Or Is It An Old One?)

Today I did something I recommend everyone do at least once in their lives. I went swimming in a pool where no one expected me to swim. I'm not speaking literally, of course. I swam in the professional acting pool. I shot a TV spot for an Internet Parental Control Software. That's right -- while none of you were looking, I got inspired (by Liv Ullmann, initially, and then by watching Ken Weinstein living his dream as a music publicist, and finally by the positive way my wife encourages me in life). I went out and found a listing for something, emailed, along with a pretty bad photo of myself, got called in, got called back, and shot the commercial. And guess what: I'm going to get headshots done. And down the road I may even get an agent! So what's an educator doing swimming in these waters? I'm having fun, that's what. Find those waters for yourself. And then dive in.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When Place Equals Character in Film: My Top-10 List

One characteristic that many of my favorite movies have in common is a strong sense of place. It's almost as though the setting becomes an additional character in the film. Here's a list of some of my favorites:

  • 10. The Ice Storm, 1997, dir. Ang Lee. I was ten years old when this movie was meant to take place, in 1973. I also grew up in Westchester County, in the suburbs just north of New York City. The nuances of both the exteriors -- the way the landscape rolls -- and interiors, including the ever-present wood panelling brought back vivid childhood memories for me.

  • 9. To be fair, The Crooked Corner, (2005) is directed by my good friend, James Savoca. But I'd include it on this list, even if it weren't. It was filmed entirely on location in Brooklyn, New York, and from the opening credits on, the architecture of that borough, along with the other-worldly Gowanus Canal neighborhood, makes this a film that gets under your skin and into your psyche.

  • 8. Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986, dir. Woody Allen. I guess you could pick any number of Woody Allen films and describe New York as a character. Manhattan or Annie Hall, come to mind. But the architecture montage in this one is what made me remember it so well.

  • 7. Paris, Texas, 1984, dir. Wim Wenders. The deserts of the north-Texas plains and the silver towers of downtown Houston are unforgettable aspects of this film.

  • 6. Breathless, 1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard. This is the original "guerilla" film. Paris. Nuff said.

  • 5. Easy Rider, 1969, dir. Dennis Hopper. The commune. The road. New Orleans. All of it art. Best exterior Americana since John Ford, for my money.

  • 4. Wings of Desire, 1987, dir. Wim Wenders. I fell in love with everything about this movie. Including Berlin.

  • 2. My Life as a Dog, 1983, dir. Lasse Hallstrom. The characters are all unforgettable, as is the small Swedish town they inhabit. Such a beautiful film. If you haven't seen it, rent it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Morning Pages

If you're a writer who's blocked, or an actor who hasn't auditioned for anything for a while (I've been both), then I highly recommend the book, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. The last time I read the book, it resulted in an unpublished novel -- lost now, unfortunately -- which I really loved, called Porchlight's Travels. My writing career, such as it was, was de-railed by a whole host of realities, most of them happy ones, like marriage and career success and children. Now, years later, I have "picked up" the book again (in quotation marks because I picked it up virtually, by downloading it onto my Kindle). The book is full of great tidbits; I especially like all the inspirational quotations, perfect for tweets and FB status updates. But really the best, most useful aspect of the book is its simplest one, called "the morning pages." I hope I'm not infringing on any copyrights here; I really just want to sing Ms. Cameron's praises for putting down on paper something so obvious. If you're blocked (or even if you're not, eventually), make sure to sit down first thing in the morning, open up your journal and just write. Three pages, at least. And that's it. It's so simple, but I'll tell you something: It works. Those of you who have been tuning in to this blog have noticed it. I started reading the book at the beginning of this year, and my creative output has been, at the risk of overstating it, explosive. I'm coming up with ideas, writing every day, and going on auditions. (More on that later, as it develops.) Try it out if you don't believe me. Find the time in the morning, and see what happens. Then let me know.

Monday, March 28, 2011

(Satellite) Kids Say the Darnedest Things

I recently posted this photo of a hat my lovely bride bought me at the Zilker Garden Festival here in Austin. As expected, a few people commented on the menacing nature of my scowl. But then one of my former students from Satellite Academy commented on it, saying "Sunscreen, Dan."

(I guess she thought my skin looked kind of red, which I suppose it does, now that I look at it. I've got a minor case of rosacea, and have for some time now.)

This brought me back to Satellite, when my students used to love to comment on my skin tone. "Yo, Dan, whattsup? Why you so RED??"

"Because that's my skin tone," was my standard answer. Sometimes I'd use it as a "teachable moment" and talk about the rosacea.

"Yeah, but you MAD RED, Dan!" Of course all the attention would then make me turn even redder.

I learned early on not to take these moments personally. And what am I going to say, really? "Stop looking at me."? These poor children had to look at me six hours out of their day.

I can remember some teachers getting really upset by the direct nature of the way our students addressed our appearances. One of the talk shows that were wildly popular with our students at that time -- Springer, maybe -- had a recurring spot that allowed kids to bring in their teachers for a makeover. My students were wild about the notion of a makeover.

When they asked me whether I'd be willing to go on the show, if they could convince the show to have me, I said, "Sure, why not?"

I never heard anything about it, so I assume they never got the call to bring their teacher in. I know, I know, it would have made a better story had I been on the show. The way I prefer to think of it is that they sent in a photo and the producers decided I was too pretty to be a "before" picture. (The photo below, notwithstanding. My wife STILL gives me hell about that shirt...)

Anyway, I'd like to officially thank Liz for her concern about my skin, and I'd also like to thank all my former students about never being too shy to speak their minds. I love and miss them all. (Well, almost all...) ; o )

Sunday, March 27, 2011

From the Vault: "KGSR and Me"

February 3, 2009

Recently I’ve been aware of how important music is at this particular moment in my life. I suppose it always has been; however, it's been my tendency to remark on its significance after the fact. I’m one of those members of my generation who fills his iPod with songs from the past, dredging up memories of spiky haircuts, girls in legwarmers and sweaty, flailing college students on beer-sticky dance floors from years gone by.

Or, in the more distant past, if I hear anything that was in the top 40 between 1973 and 1977, I’m transported back to Rocky Ledge, a local swimming club, hidden away in the hills of North White Plains, where my brother and I spent our summers swimming, looking at girls and listening to people like Paul McCartney and Wings, War, Rod Stewart, Earth Wind and Fire, Frampton and the Bee Gees being piped constantly through loud speakers around the grounds.

So now here I am in this new place, this new city so well known for its music, and I’ve been introduced to KGSR, a station that does its best to honor Austin – not only musically, but by making sure to profile people in the community who do good works, in the areas of charity, education and the arts.

And every day, between the hours of 7 and 8 in the morning and then, after work, between 5 and 6, I turn on the car radio and listen to GSR’s programming. (Yes, I admit to sometimes switching over to Bob-FM during commercials, for the aforementioned fix of 70’s and 80’s one sometimes gets to hear there.) I’ll also occasionally dial up on my office computer when I’m anchored there with a lot to write. I never complain about the songs they tend to repeat, this due to the realization I mentioned at the start of this entry; these are the songs that will evoke this special time in my life in the years to come: “Real Love” by Lucinda Williams, “Sister Lost Soul” and “Always a Friend” by Alejandro Escovedo, “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles, “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz, “Strange Overtones” by David Byrne and Brian Eno, lots of Lyle Lovett, some Dixie Chicks, a smidgen of Johnny Cash, and the occasional Willie Nelson, of course.

This list is incomplete. But I know that wherever life takes me in the future, the moment I hear any of these songs, I’ll be driving down I-35 from Pflugerville to Austin, pulling into my numbered parking space at Austin High, pointing out the longhorn statues walking across the roof of the car dealership to my kids, or wondering why the hell all those birds descend upon the La Frontera Shopping Center every evening at dusk…

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Calming Sound of Baseball

Baseball in March is not the same as it is in October. There's more tanning going on out there than anything else, really. Split-squad games with home run balls that drop over the fence into sunny patches of grass, where children run and grab for them.

I suppose the big, serious fans (no not those big, serious fans) get really into watching spring ball, but to me it's even more like watching paint dry than it sometimes can be during the regular season. Oh, come on, don't get like that now. You know the games I'm talking about -- the ones that hit the three-hour mark in the middle of the seventh inning. And then the pitcher has the nerve to step off the rubber and go for the rosin bag, just before the batter steps out of the box, right before he's finally ready to pitch the damn ball.

Anyway, let's just say I doubt these pre-season baseball games get the highest ratings around.

That being said, I will cop to one thing: I love the sound of baseball. I love the din of the crowd when something happens, as well as the continuous murmuring of it when nothing happens. I love the crack of the bat, and the chatter of the broadcasters.

It all brings me back to the summers of my childhood. This was the soundtrack. My brother and father were big fans. I watched the Mets and liked them, but not to the same extent. But it was a constant, and now I associate the sounds of a baseball broadcast with home.

I don't watch much baseball any more, although I did get excited about the Rangers last year. I don't forsee watching many games on television this season, but they will be on once in a while, and that sound will carry through the house like a breeze. And I will feel at home.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Honoring the Dead 100 Years Later: The Triangle Factory Tragedy

This date has significance, as today marks the centennial of the day a group of 146 garment workers -- most of them young women, the youngest of whom was 14 -- perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The factory was near Washington Square, which, coincidentally, was also the first place I called home, when my parents brought me to their apartment at 2 Washington Square Village, Apartment 8-H, the day after I was born.
Those girls and women must have gone to work that day as they did on any other. Maybe they walked; maybe they rode the trolley. Perhaps it was warm for late March, promising Spring, or rainy, or chilly. They probably thought nothing of it, as they made their way into the building and up the elevator to the ninth floor.
Who knows what the morning was like for those girls and women? They were the hardest-working of the working poor -- Jewish and Italian mostly, many of whom had recently arrived in America, hoping for something better. If not better for themselves, then they hoped for a better life for their children, real or imagined in the future.
There are some good oral histories from that infamous day one hundred years ago -- most notably in Howard Zinn's seminal A People's History of the United States, as well as in the library of the American Social History Project in New York City.
The reason I know about the ASHP, which some may think of as somewhat obscure, I admit, is because I had the good fortune to work with one of the best Social Studies teachers/historians in David Silberberg.
David and I worked together at Satellite Academy High School from 1992 to 2004. He still teaches Social Studies there -- the only one left from that Dream Team of a teaching staff from the late-1980's and early nineties. (Happily, I can say they've brought on great teachers consistently since then, and there have been many new Dream Teams in the intervening years.)
We talked about team teaching quite a bit, as David and I shared an office in that wonderful, run-down building across from the Tweed Courthouse. The American Social History Project had developed a powerful interdisciplinary curriculum that was meant to be taught by a Social Studies and English teacher together, so that students would learn about events through first-hand oral histories, while developing their writing and literacy skills. It was perfect, and I loved every minute of teaching that class.
In addition to examining the stories from that horrible incident, David and I worked with our students to understand images, like the one above. Television obviously hadn't been invented yet, but photography had, and the images of all those girls and women falling, jumping from the ninth floor to their deaths, became a rallying cry for the labor movement. Management had apparently blocked off and locked doors to prevent workers from stealing scraps of fabric. They had also chosen to forgo fire drills, because, they said, it hampered productivity.
I thank people like Howard Zinn and David Silberberg who keep telling the story. Organizations like the American Social History Project and HBO, who produced an excellent and heartbreaking documentary about the fire deserve our collective gratitude, as well.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Back is Back

The thing about having chronic back issues is that you can be going great guns for a year, which has been my case this time around, when something random happens. A sneeze, a cough, a missed step off a staircase, a pothole, or speed bump. And you feel that oddly familiar burn once again....

For me it was dismounting from my bike in front of Super Donut this morning at 5:30. I'd picked up some speed rolling up onto the sidewalk, so that the impact on my feet as I came off the bike was a bit more jarring than I'd planned. Freshly out of bed with not nearly enough sleep under my belt, the pain was immediate. I adjusted by doing a few waist rotations, which made me feel immediately ridiculous. Doing calisthenics in front of a donut shop.

The pain is contained at the moment, but I'm sure it will be there when I get up, so that I will need to do some more exercises. I'm telling myself I won't go back to Dr. Madden and his torture devices. Just need to take care of my diet, my abs, and my hamstrings. Do that, and the back will fall right back into line.

At least temporarily...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

NMA Condemns Region 13 for "Alphabet Soup"

by Ilsa Chudfen, Staff Reporter Austin, Texas The newly formed watchdog group No More Acronyms (NMA) officially condemned Education Service Center (ESC) Region XIII for going over their newly-established 50% limit in terms of acronyms. "We counted them up," said NMA's Director of Online Record Keeping, Alec Dunfish. "In their events list for the morning of Wednesday, March 23, 2011, they used acronyms in 7 of the 8 items posted. That's like WAY over 50 percent." NMA's official condemnation is a symbolic gesture, and, as APD Police Chief Art Acevedo pointed out, "This means absolutely nothing, from a law enforcement and/or legal standpoint." Dunfish was outraged by Acevedo's comment, demanding an apology, "ASAP." A spokesman for Acevedo and the APD said that Dunfish was walking a fine line by issuing invented condemnations. "Dunfish needs to mind his P's and Q's," the spokesman said. In an email to the press, Chief Acevedo responded directly to Dunfish's demand for an apology, noting "OMG, I am LMAO and ROTFL." As for ESC XIII, Executive Director Terry Smith could not be reached for comment, but ESC XIII's ATTAP (All Things to All People) Janet Basey rolled her eyes and was quoted as saying "TTFN" before slamming the door on this reporter's face.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dancing, Forever Dancing in the Waves

I was absolutely blown away recently, upon viewing an episode of "Master Class" on HBO. It's a documentary series in which they have a "master" in some field or another sit down and work with a group of high school-age students who have been identified as particularly gifted in that arena.

This one featured the Swedish actress and director Liv Ullmann, who is around 70 now. She was brought in to work with five actors from around the U.S. -- three boys and two girls.

They were working on a scene from Streetcar Named Desire, and I loved the way she directed them. So much love in her direction. She wasn't "easy" on them by any means; in fact she was often openly critical of their choices, but in such a warm, supportive fashion. Her passion for theatre was evident and you could see the kids soaking it up.

Obviously, it brought back great memories for me of what it's like to be a young actor, bonding with a teacher, and with a group of fellow actors. As Ms. Ullmann says when she first meets her students, "I'm just so happy for you. You are in the best possible work there is. No matter what happens -- whether you 'make it' or not, this is the absolute best job you could ever have. You are together, working as a team."

The show was jammed with amazing pearls of wisdom, but the thing that really got me was when she said goodbye to these five kids with whom she'd just spent two intensive days.

"I want to tell you a story," she said. "I had my daughter with a man who was much older. On his 60th birthday, we had a party for Ingmar Bergman. At one point he and our 9-year-old daughter walked down to the seashore. He asked her, 'Tell me, what do you think your 60th birthday party will be like?'

"'I'll have lots of friends over, and Mommy will be here, and she'll be very old by then.'

"'What about me?' her father asked. 'Where will I be?'

"'I'll come down to the beach, and you'll be here, dancing in the waves. And we will dance together.'

"As you all move along in theatre, and in life, I may not be able to be with you," Ms. Ullmann said, "but I'll be there, dancing with you in the waves."

I like this image. I think I like it better than the more traditional, cottony-cloud heaven we all have in our collective psyche. The next time I go to the beach, I'll stand by the shore and imagine both my parents, dancing together, then noticing me there, smiling and opening their arms wide and welcoming me once more into their embrace.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I'm a Big Fan... of the Big Fans

Here is the hilarious wikipedia "explanation" of the Spanish band "Locomia":

Locomía (also known as Loco Mia) was a Spanish pop group popular in the 1980s and 1990s. They combined elements of tropical with British music of the New Wave and New Romantics. Their first hit was the eponymous "Locomia".

The original members were Xavier Font, Manuel Arjona, Gard Paschieer, and Luis Font. In 1987, the latter two were replaced by Juan Antonio Fuentes and Carlos Armas, followed by Francesc Picas. The band was probably as famous for its costumes as for the music. They often appeared in extravagant outfits that combined Spanish matador pants with frilly jackets done in eighteenth-century style. Fan-twirling was an important part of both their stage performance and their music videos.*

By way of an explanation, I should let you know, if you didn't already, that the members of the (reconstituted, apparently) band lived next door to us on the top floor of 8 Cava de San Miguel, right in the middle of the ancient part of Madrid. I lived there in the late 1980's upon my brief return to Madrid, after my mother's death. They were pleasant enough when I would occasionally pass one of them on the stairwell or coming out of the door to their apartment. Nothing particularly unusual went on there, except for a lot of rehearsal time, with loud playback in the background. When they weren't dressed in their garish costumes, they actually looked quite, well, normal. Kind of preppy, really.

The main annoyance that came with living next door to pop stars was that young girls would often ring our buzzer (5th floor, Right-hand side apartment) thinking it was Locomia's (5th floor, left). There was just so much high-pitched tween screaming one could take, particularly when it came late at night. I can see how that might have gotten pretty old pretty fast.

Sadly, I left that apartment, and Spain, before getting to know any of those lads very well. I will say this for them: It was evident that they were serious dancers, who worked hard at what they did. True, their "music" (ahem) may not have stood the test of time, but don't rule out a Locomia reunion. Couldn't you see them opening for Lady Gaga?

I could.

* Speaking of their videos, here's one. And oh, by the way... you're welcome! And you have to admit it -- the fan twirling is kind of cool.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

In My Mother's Love of Great Writing, A Call to Action

I woke up this morning thinking about a line in one of my mother's letters in which she describes the writing of one of her favorites, John Gardner. She was reflecting on him the day after his death in a motorcycle accident. "You must read at least one of his books, just to find out what beautiful writing is. When I read something by him -- whether paragraphs, pages, or chapters, it's like a person who knows and loves music listening to beautiful music. Heavenly!"

I don't remember how this line made me feel when I received that letter back in September of 1982; I'd imagine it gave me a mixture of encouragement and fear. At age 19, I was expert in the writing of cliches. My mother must have read my stuff the way a piano teacher listens to a child starting lessons, or a monkey banging on the keys.

My writing began to improve when I worked with Tobias Wolff at Syracuse. Not coincidentally, this was around the same time that I was introduced to Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, Chekhov, Cheever, Tolstoy and Raymond Carver -- all masters of fiction and the short story -- not to mention my teacher himself.

At that time Toby had not yet reached the level of fame he now enjoys. He was well known in literary circles, having published a celebrated short story collection called In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, his first. I believe his second book, a novella called The Barracks Thief had just been published around the time I first worked with Toby in 1981 or '82.

I don't mean to disparage or diminish the work of my high school English teachers, because I had some good ones -- Bob Button, my journalism teacher at Grosse Pointe South High, who taught me to write concisely and was the first to publish my work in the award-winning school newspaper, The Tower, Mary O'Donnell, Ugo Toppo, and Renee Landau at Harrison High, who all pushed me to do better. But Toby's insistence on making my characters believable and my writing original is what ultimately made me want to be a writer.

My mother's letter reminds me, of course, that she was my first, and arguably most significant, writing teacher. Being a voracious reader, she instilled in me, early on, the importance of reading. Her letters have brought back into stark focus that writing is something I both love and strive to do well.

I know I've told myself over these last few months not to write about writing, but I feel the need to express my intention of creating a work of fiction that is symphonic. I'd like it to be a piece that is worthy of my mother as a reader with an ear for the music of great writing.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Glimpse of Things to Come

I'm not sure if maybe it's because my week off is coming to a close, or because we had a late night last night, but today felt long and trying. To be honest, the idea of going with the whole family to the quinceanera (Sweet 15 Party) of the daughter of a colleague of my wife's was not at the top of the list. I didn't complain about it, however. I went at Jeanette's pace, and we got there an hour late, which is not bad for us.

I relaxed into the place -- Fiesta Gardens, in East Austin, overlooking Lady Bird Lake -- enjoying the mariachi band, and the barbecue sausage. I had a dance with my wife, which is always enjoyable for me, and by that time, the beauty of the night was in full force. We were out on the patio, and the full moon was shining down on us through ratty palm trees, blowing in a gentle breeze. Jeanette and I agreed that it felt strangely like Santo Domingo.

But my favorite moment of the evening came when I looked up and saw that my wife was now dancing with another man -- my five-year-old son, Jackson. I had the presence of mind to run over there and get this shot, and even though it's blurry, I love it.

We've taken Diego and Jackson to many parties like this one, with loud music blasting, and people dancing and having a good time. They usually just run around in circles on the dance floor (I'm sure many of you have these kids at your parties) until they're exhausted. Don't get me wrong; there was a lot of that tonight, too. This was the first time, though, that one of our boys really took the time to make a serious stab at dancing with Mami.

I'm not sure whether Diego will ever be able to shake his shyness enough to dance publicly with his mom (though he was doing a mean solo robot tonight, when he thought no one was looking), maybe he will. Jackson, on the other hand, is raring to be out there in the mix, and I have a strong suspicion we'll be seeing him cutting the rug and shaking a tail feather at many parties in the years to come.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Hanging at the Super Donut

The tables here at Super Donut, at the entrance of the Shadowglen subdivision where I live, off Route 290, are an afterthought. There are three of them, with bench seating for six people each. I'm the only person I've ever seen sitting at one of them. They're like the tables in a Chinese take out place in the Bronx.

At about six a.m. every morning, I ride my bike over here to convene with myself. I listen to my rather limited playlist on my iPod, write in my journal, drink a cup of coffee, and look at my reflection in the plate glass window, against the darkness of the pre-dawn sky.

The morning ride has become lovelier as the weather has improved. Even though it's still dark out, the birds are waking up, singing their tunes, and the air smells musty and bovine, like the countryside.

All that being said, I do admittedly sometimes wonder what the hell I'm doing here in this context. Cookie cutter property lots with similarly-colored houses on them. I flash back to when, as a boy, I had a nightmare that involved being stuck in a green and unchanging landscape. It turned out to be the Matchbox cars carrying case I owned that opened out into a gridded subdivision, where one was meant, I suppose, to fill the driveways with one's various Matchbox vehicles.

There was something eerie about the too-green green of the painted grass. It creeped me out. I told myself as a child that I'd never want to live in such a place.

And yet here I am.

There are many advantages to living out here in Manor, not the least of which is the price tag. We do have a nice little house, but what we're missing is the character of some of the many Austin neighborhoods. I'd love to live on a street lined by live oaks and other shade trees. I'd love to see a lime green house, next to a fuchsia house, next to a house with a cast iron sculpture of a giant rooster in the front yard. I dig the "Keep Austin Weird" style of those neighborhoods.

I'm reluctant to make any moves related to these feelings, however, because of the shit shape the economy's in nowadays. Our street, like many in our development, is lined with too many "For Sale" and "For Lease" signs. For now, the best move is no move at all. Ideally, the economy will right itself in the next five years or so, while Jeanette and I climb the salary ladder, so that we're able to get a decent return on our house, as well as afford a cute little home on a cute little street in Austin. There will always be some imperfection wherever we go, but I'm needing more variety, and more of a sense of community.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I Know, I Know: Everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's Day

My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Hazel Ferell, and try as I might, I cannot locate any photographic evidence of the Ferells in my mother's scrapbook, although she does mention her grandmother, "Momma Ferell," in a couple of her letters. (I did, however, find proof in our family geneology Tracking Barefoot Runyan: Descendants of Isaac Barefoot Runyan, compiled by Marie Runyan Wright.) Anyway, I mention it because it means I have some Irish in me. I believe my mother was a quarter Irish, so I guess that makes me an eighth. And my kids would be one-sixteenth, right?

Saint Patrick's Day is actually a holiday I've never really gotten into on any level. I'm sure I've worn green most years, (I'm wearing muted olives and camo as I write this)but I don't believe, for example, that I've ever drunk -- or vomited up -- green beer.

In fact, for the past eleven years (wow) since my father's passing, I've had my own, personal reason for having a negative reaction to this holiday. In March of 2000 my father was dying of cancer and was an in-patient at Greenwich Hospital. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and did not have a car. In order to visit my father, I had to take a Metro North commuter train about one hour each way -- not a pleasant experience under normal circumstances. But when you're going to visit a dried out and yellowing version of your once vital parent while surrounded by people euphemistically referred to as "revellers," the reality becomes nearly unbearable.

The memory of visiting my father on St. Patrick's Day gives me no ill will toward the Farrell sliver of my genetic make-up, nor to the Irish as a people. (This is where I'm supposed to say "some of my best friends are Irish" or "my favorite band is Irish," or "I just love Conan O'Brien!")

I will say that when I think back to my time in Europe in the late 1980's, Ireland was one of the most welcoming places we visited. I don't know whether Sue Barney will remember it this way or not, but as I recall our arrival in Dublin, I picture us with our tourist map open, riding the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit). We are immediately surrounded by a group of kindly older men, poking at our map with their pinkies and pointing in various directions. They were literally elbowing each other out of the way in order to help us, and none of them had their hand held out for payment. I don't know whether we offered; I'm sure they would have refused it, and strongly.

I realized some time later that the reason they may have reacted to our presence that way could have been -- aside from their generally generous nature -- our age. We were in our early 20's, and in the Dublin of the late 1980's you just see people our age. They all left for England, America and elsewhere, hoping for better prospects. It's changed since the tech boom of the 1990's, but back then it was like a reverse Peter Pan or Logan's Run situation.

Well now, this rumination on Saint Patrick's Day has brought me halfway round the world and back! I suppose one of the things that makes us human is our ability to hold a plurality of meanings for a variety of things at one time. This holiday may very well be one of those complex things in my heart for years to come.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Out of My Depth

Because I live in "the live music capital of the world" and because my old college friend Ken Weinstein works in the music industry, I've had the opportunity to spend time with him during a couple of his visits here in the two and a half years since I moved here from New York. The first visit was during the Austin City Limits festival, and the second was today, during South by Southwest.
I picked Ken up at the home of a friend of his this morning at about 10. He looked reasonably well rested, despite having come in on the late flight from JFK. On his suggestion we went to Juan in a Million, on East Cesar Chavez, where we dined on migas which I actually love (Who knew?) and caught up with each other's lives.
From there we drove downtown, meeting up with Ken's friend, local deejay Andy Langer at Franks on 4th and Colorado, where we watched Jack White (formerly of the White Stripes). He started out by noting, "I see more black gadgets than faces," because the crowd around him were holding up our iPhones and Blackberrys, shooting pictures and video of him the entire time. At one point Kenny noted, "The only reason I can see anything is because I'm watching him through that guy's iPhone."
Jack played two songs on acoustic guitar, the first being "Not Fade Away," which he introduced as "a Texas song." The other was "Dead Leavein the Dirty Ground," a White Stripes song.
After the brief showcase was over, Kenny and I walked east to the Convention Center, where he got his badge. Then, Ken began bumping into people, including his business partner, Jim. And then a guy named Andy. And then a guy named Lyle. And then a woman whose name I can't remember. Then another. And another. And another.
We made our way with Jim back over to Franks, where Ken ran into Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke who was extremely pleasant, graciously indulging fans who approached him, asking to have their pictures taken with him. After driving Ken, Jim and Andy over to the Four Seasons hotel to drop off Ken's stuff, I had the option to continue on with them. But I thought of Jeanette and the kids, and decided I needed to make my way back to them.
I think I may have been a little intimidated by the Industry Talk. I realized at some point that for these guys the festival is work. I was tagging along, and I think I needed to find some familiar ground.
It's not the last of South by Southwest for me this year; I'll try and get some sleep tonight and jump back in at some point, either tomorrow or Friday. It was great to see my old friend, but for me he was really the headliner of the festival today. Everything else made me feel a little out of my depth.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Great Diego Cooking School Debacle

Picture a little face. The face of a seven-year-old boy. He's looking up at you, and he's asking you, "What are we going to do today, Daddy?" He asks the question with a mixture of intrigue and misgiving. This morning, when Diego asked me the question, as he does on most non-school days, I heard my wife say from the bedroom, "No se lo diga." Spanish. Our code language, and probably the only way we'll get them to learn it, because if they think we're telling secrets on them, they're going to want to understand it.

Really healthy, I know.

"No se lo diga." Don't tell him. My wife's instincts were telling her that if this boy got an answer to his question ("We're going to Central Market for a cooking class.") he would raise all kinds of stink and make my morning a living hell. (I say "my" morning, because Jeanette was headed for the merciful sanctuary of work. I'm "off" for Spring Break this week, so I'm on Daddy Day-care duty.)

"We're going on an adventure!" That's our stock response when we don't want the kids to know where we're taking them. Of course, they've figured this out by now, so he immediately asks me to be more specific about said adventure.

"You'll see, buddy. You'll like it."

It's not until we're pulling into Central Market that I reveal the truth of what's happening. "I don't want to do cooking class! I hate cooking class!"

"You do not hate cooking class," I say, remaining calm, but with beads of sweat already forming. Don't let them smell your fear; it's like blood in the water to them.

"I'm not going!" he said, walking away from me in the parking lot.

"Diego, you get back here NOW. One....TWO..."

Then comes his meltdown. The tears well up and fall. Despite all my efforts at Love and Logic, I become Daddy Monster, the daddy I don't want to be. I issue threats, doing my best to make them reasonable. Jackson, the five year old, is -- and by the way, Jesus, thank you -- calm and not so concerned about cooking class. I think he's figured out that there will be cookies involved, and maybe a lot of them.

My threats are enough to get Diego into the classroom, where the instructors look at me with concerned expressions on their faces. Diego repays my threats of depriving him of his greatest love -- technology -- by refusing to participate in the class, for which we paid a nice little chunk of change, I might add. I watch them from outside the glass, Jackson happily cooking and eating and eating and goofing with the other boys and eating, while Diego sits by himself, coloring. He's not disruptive; he's got an almost eerie peace about him, and inside I'm churning.

I must, of course, enforce my punishment. He is not allowed any technology for the rest of the day. I spend way too much time wondering why the hell I let this stuff get me so angry, and why I can't be the in-control father that I fancy all the fathers around me to be.

But then something occurs to me. Diego is a smart, smart child. He made the choice to take control of his situation, even though he knew the cost would be something dear to him. It must be difficult having your days dictated by someone else all the time. As much as it annoyed me, at the end of the day I kind of have to applaud the kid for standing up for something.

I won't tell him that though, will I? Like fear, they smell empathy, and feed on it voraciously.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Letters from My Mother

While doing some spring cleaning today, I happened upon a handful of letters my mother wrote me between the fall of 1981, when I went away to college and January of 1987, when I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I'm about halfway through them and had to stop, because of a heaviness in my heart. Hearing her voice brings her back, but it also reminds me of how much I've missed out on, since her death in 1988.

Writing those words, I came to a chilling realization: In two years, she will have been gone for twenty five years -- the same amount of time I got to spend with her on this earth. That just feels so unfair to me.

My mother was a letter writer of the old style. I have many memories of her sitting on her chaise lounge, spending days on one handwritten letter to her friend Kay, or her cousin Sharon. Her letters to me are chatty, newsy and filled with humor, including a very short story called "McKay," about a lobster I bring home to cook for my girlfriend. McKay is the lobster's name. She often encourages me to study hard ("keep that pretty Runyan nose to the grind-stone!"), but stops at one point -- presumably during one of my early academic slumps -- to say, "Good grades in school are better than bad, Dan, but your happiness is the important thing!"

She takes pride in her artwork, particularly a bust that she created in her YWCA sculpture class. I remember the piece well; it's a woman's head, topping a long, elegant neck. Her hair is in a bun, and she has a faraway expression. It always made me think of Modigliani. I'm not sure where that bust ended up. It may be in my brother's home in White Plains. I'd love to keep it for a time, if it's there.

More than anything else, my mother's letters to me are filled with warmth and love. I often say the thing I'm most thankful for that my parents gave me is the capacity to love.

She ends one letter with "And every night at 7:00 PM, consider yourself hugged -- whether you want to be or not." The one that made me have to stop reading closed with her saying, "I am so very fortunate to have people like you, Mike and Hanno as my family. Don't ever forget how special you are."

She, too, was a special person. I knew it then, and did my best to express it in my awkward, late-adolescent way. As I've said, she would have adored Jeanette and the boys, and she would have been endlessly amused watching me struggle with Diego and Jackson in the same way she and my father did with Mike and me. I'll read the rest of those letters when I feel I'm ready to, and then I'll put them in a safe place, so that I can share them with the boys, and describe the remarkable woman who was my mother.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Another One from the Vault: My Life According to U2

It's late, I'm tired, and so I reserve the right to pull from the vault. The following is from one of those questionnaires that were popular on Facebook a couple of years ago:

Using only song names from ONE ARTIST, cleverly answer these questions. Pass it on to 15 people you like and include me. You can't use the artist I used. Try not to repeat a song title. It's a lot harder than you think! Repost as "my life according to (artist name)"

Pick your Artist: U2

Are you a Male or a Female:
Stories for Boys

Describe Yourself:
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

How do you feel:

Describe where you currently live:
Zoo Station

If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
Where the Streets Have No Name

Your Favorite form of Transportation:
Walk On

Your Best Friend is:
Two Hearts Beat As One

You and your best friends are:
Conversations on a Barstool

What's the weather like:
Beautiful Day

Favorite Time of Day:

If your life was a TV show, what would it be called:
Into the Heart

What is life to you:
Pride (In the Name of Love)

Your last relationship:
Stuck in a Moment and You Can't Get Out of It

Your fear:
Last Night On Earth

What is the best advice you have to give:
Sometimes You Can't Make it On Your Own

Thought for the day:

How you would like to die:

My soul's present condition:
Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World

My motto:
Peace on Earth

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Protest Boy Grows Up

It was a good turnout today for the "Keep Texas Smart" rally at the capitol building in Austin, and a beautiful day for it, too. Or so I'm told. I couldn't make it to the protest, because, well, my son had a playdate.

That's right, I missed an important political demonstration, because I had to take my children to a six year old's birthday party. If you'd told me this back in the day, when I was shouting the usual chants (What do want? PEACE! When do we want it? NOW! and We're gonna beat back the racist attack, we're gonna beat-beat back the racist attack!) that I would have to bow out of a demonstration, and that that was my reason, I think my brain would have exploded.

When I was in my early and mid twenties, I attended a number of rallies in different places -- Boston, Washington DC, Syracuse, of course, where we camped out in shanties in front of the administration building, demanding our trustees divest from South Africa, and Madrid, where I joined an anti-NATO demonstration. We marched out to the American military base in Torrejon, where I got a swift lesson in the difference between American and Spanish police practices. In Spain they're less shy about dispersing a crowd. One moment we were marching peacefully across the square, and the next a projectile the size and color of a tennis ball whizzes audibly past my left ear, and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly we're hauling ass back in the direction from which we just came. The tennis balls turn out to be smoke bombs, and people are crying and coughing everywhere.

So I guess what I'm saying is I'm something of a protest veteran. I'll never forget when I was arguing with my father about politics. We were in Milan, visiting with my brother Andrew. Dad kept smiling at me as I made what I'm sure I thought was an iron-clad and heartfelt case about whatever my subject was; I don't remember that part. Finally I said, "What? What are you smiling at?"

"I'm remembering something that Pierre Trudeau, the former Prime Minister of Canada said, when they asked him what he thought of his son being a Communist. He said his son was in his twenties, and he'd be surprised if he wasn't a Communist."

I was so insulted at the time. I think now, however, that I probably felt that way because I knew he was right. It was his way of saying he appreciated my political idealism; I guess I just wished he'd put it more simply at the time.

And now I allowed Jeanette to represent us at today's rally, of which, by the way, I don't mean to make light. The state of Texas needs to fund education, as I've said in detail in previous posts.

I couldn't help but picture my father, sitting up in heaven, his feet dangling off a cloud. He was looking down on me, as I watched my kids frolic in their friend's backyard, and my wife chanted amidst thousands about 15 miles to the west. I pictured him with the same smile he had on during our political discussion in Milan nearly 25 years ago.

Friday, March 11, 2011

You Haven't Lived....

I sometimes worry about my boys. I worry because I see myself in them so much. Jackson has much more confidence than I had at age 5, so I can sometimes more easily relate to Diego's shyness and general sensitivity. He's a kid who feels his feelings in a very real way, but quietly.

Jackson, on the other hand, is full of passion, and it's written all over his face. It's what gives his eyes that sparkle, and what gives him the magnetism he's possessed nearly all his life. It's easy for me to imagine him as a young man, falling deeply and heavily in love with some beautiful young woman. Like his father before him (and likely mine, before me) he will throw his entire soul into loving that special person.

All that stuff is good, you're probably thinking. So what is there to worry about? Well, those of you who, like me, have had your heart broken are the ones who can understand about the worry piece of things. When you allow yourself to love as hard as you can, the fall from that flight is meteoric. The pain takes your breath away, and you're convinced for a while that there is no possible way you will survive it.

I'll never forget -- and this is nearly thirty five years ago now -- when my first girlfriend told me she thought it was time for us to give each other space and see other people. I couldn't catch my breath. Once she drove away, I sobbed uncontrollably. I don't know where my family was at that time, but I was glad they weren't there to console me and share their wisdom about how things that don't kill us make us stronger. It also allowed me a grand gesture. I went inside, still breathless and sobbing, and collected up everything I could find that had anything to do with her. I grabbed photos, books, letters and put them all in a metal trash container in my back yard, and yes, I lit them on fire.

Of course in hindsight I now wish I had saved that stuff, as I realize what a lovely and innocent relationship that was. Sadly, no evidence of it exists today! At the time, however, it was cathartic to burn that stuff, as I cried, remembering the way her hair cascaded down on either of my face when she would lie on top of me and kiss me. The tears and the fire made me feel better, giving me the sense that I had taken control of the situation, and allowing me to move on with my young life.

This evening when Jeanette and I were discussing the way Jackson's friends tease him about his classmate Gabriella, whose birthday party is tomorrow, saying that he "likes" her, we looked over to see that he had tears in his eyes. "I don't like Gabriella," he protested. "I don't!"

The poor guy, I thought to myself. He'll feel that same pain and I'm sure he'll make others feel it, as well. Like me, he'll come out of it, and will eventually find the love of his life. It will be a bumpy road, as it is for many of us. But in the end, you haven't lived, until someone has broken your heart.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Gringos in Paradise

In the summer of 1979, just before moving back to New York after our one quick year in Michigan, my family and I had a vacation in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Obviously, this was long before I knew I would marry into that country and become a "Dominicano honorario."

The weather was beautiful, of course, and I remember enjoying everything about the Hotel Santo Domingo where we stayed. There was a big pool, tennis courts, and a guy who made you as many perfect omelets as you wanted every morning for breakfast. My father respectfully did his best at speaking Spanish, which was pretty good, as I remember, instilling in me that same wish to make the effort when traveling to countries where English is not the primary language.

In addition to these pleasant memories, there were also a couple of ugly moments. This part's a little hazy, but I remember a flight in which we had to change planes in Haiti. One of the planes we were on was a tiny one, which was pretty bumpy and scary, and my mother was completely freaked out. Being a smoker, she dealt with her fear by lighting up. I remember Haitian women seeming pretty angry as they told her to put out her cigarette in Creole. My mother played dumb for a few puffs, before finally putting it out. Not a good international moment for our family.

The other uncomfortable moment came when we took the shuttle bus from the hotel to the zoo. We were greeted upon arrival by a large group of boys who were asking for money. Our guides told us not to give them any, which we didn't, and in response, they yelled, "Gringos fuera! Gringos go home!"

I was 16 then, and it was the first time I was really aware of our image as Americans in the rest of the "developing" world, and that our tourism, and the American dollars that go with it, are both loved and hated at the very same time.

I've been to Santo Domingo a few times as an adult, and it's a different experience for me now. For one thing, I'm fluent in Spanish, which helps the situation. In addition, I no longer stay in hotels; my in-laws built a house that is only a few miles away from the Hotel Santo Domingo. (In fact, my brother-in-law had his wedding reception there.) I enjoy my visits there, but despite my honorary status, I've never fully lost the awareness I gained on that trip in 1979 -- that as an American, I symbolize many things to people, and I know it is important to keep this in mind, wherever I go.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In Search of Carol Runyan, College Student

Today I finally made my pilgrimage to the place where my mother attended college -- Denton, Texas. I managed to fit in a visit while working with my schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, about 45 minutes away. I made arrangements to meet my friend, Robin Lind, former teacher at Austin High, for dinner. She moved to Denton last summer in order to be closer to her ailing mother.

In preparation for my trip up there, I did a bit of research, confirming that my mother graduated high school in 1949, which meant she would have finished Texas Woman's University in 1953. Thank you, Google! I then looked up that class, and saw that they created a memory book (see above) that they published in 2003, in conjunction with the class's golden anniversary.
I called the alumni office in order to determine whether it was possible to buy the book or not, and they confirmed that I could, for the price of $18, which seemed fair. They confirmed that she had, in fact, graduated in 1953, with a degree in "Costume Design," something I had not been aware of. For some reason, however, she is listed as "lost" in the book (which also misspells her name as "Mary Runyun."
I went ahead and bought the book anyway, thinking I may be able to find a friend of hers -- a name I recognize, or perhaps someone in Texas or Arkansas I can contact to see if they remember my mom.
Walking around Denton with Robin, I tried to imagine my mother walking these very same streets, nearly 60 years ago. I plan to return, perhaps with my family, to walk the campus during the daytime, and try to bring my mother into focus for my wife and two sons, who, sadly, never had the chance to know her.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Finally, Joyful Classrooms

Like most schools in Texas, the one I visited this morning is gearing up for the State Assessment (TAKS) Exams coming up in the next two months. The first couple of classrooms I visited, along with the principal and an assistant superintendent, were the usual -- children sitting with copies of released tests from previous years and teachers timing their responses. Teachers said things like, "The TAKS is going to want you to know this," and, "I know this isn't exciting, but you may need to know this for the TAKS."

I took a deep breath, silently telling myself not to fall into any pre-conceived notions, to try and find gems among the dull stones of conventional, "drill and kill" test preparation. Just as I was steeling myself for more of the same, at best, the principal said, "Why don't we move over here to the science labs."

She said it almost as an aside, as if we could have just as well skipped it, and I'm so thankful we didn't. The eighth-grade science classes were getting ready for the TAKS, as well; however, there were no release tests anywhere to be seen. No digital timer clicking down the minutes they were to be seated in silence, puzzling over word problems, or yawning, or drooling, or looking out the window, imagining they were anywhere else but here.

Instead, the science teachers had set up three stations in each of the three labs we visited. Each station had a hands-on cooperative lab that corresponded to an area that would be covered on the exam. The students heard nothing about the test, however. No one apologized for having them do the work. No "outside adversary" in the person of the standardized exam. Just teachers rotating with the students, doing measurements, making educated guesses, predicting, and then analyzing results.

There was not one bored kid in that room. They were working together, and laughing together, and they were learning. When that test comes along, they will have had real, physical experience with a good deal of what they're being asked to recall.

Those of you who've known me for a while may be surprised to hear my saying things that could be interpreted as somehow "pro-standardized testing." During my time in New York, I was quite active in the anti-testing movement. What I've come to understand is that while we may wish to replace exams with more authentic, interesting, engaging forms of assessment, we still need to get our kids to pass these tests in the meantime.

I thank the folks I visited today, because they helped me to understand that there is a right way and a wrong way to prepare students for tests. We should think about this lesson, as we consider how to do instruction in general. We don't have to bore children, and then wonder why they stop coming to school, all the while blaming those nasty tests. And we can't keep doing what we've been doing -- allowing tests to drive the way we teach, so that it becomes predictable and boring to the point of holding kids hostage. Instead, let's take ownership over the material, and do everything we can to make it fun and engaging for our students.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Real Tears for a Traveling Dad

It takes some time for me to get geared up for these monthly flights to Dallas. (I'm leaving for another one tomorrow morning.) Not to bore you with the details, but there's some preparation involved -- both in terms of paperwork, and also getting ready emotionally. Even though it's only two nights and three days each time, it feels like longer.

Tonight was the real kicker. Still tired from an after-school nap, Jackson, my five year-old, sat next to me at the dinner table, kind of leaning on me. My seven year old was on my other side, also leaning, when he said, "Jackson, why are you crying?"

When I looked over at Jackson, there were real tears running down his cheeks. "I don't want you to go, Daddy. Please don't go."

This was a new reaction for him. Normally, there's something like a disappointed "Awww," which moves quickly over to extortion, as he begins to make a play for a present. This time, that other shoe never dropped. He just cried. My heart heaved, and I nearly joined him.

"It's okay, baby," I said, "don't cry. I won't be long. Just a couple of days."

I wanted to explain to him that Daddy is not only lucky to have such a good job, that he likes, he's lucky to have any job at all in this economy. A child will not understand it, and besides, he's crying for a very basic reason. And it's something the whole family can relate to, because we're all hitting it at more or less the same time.

The fact is I've been taking these trips for a year now, and it's been hard on all of us. Jackson, being the youngest, is expressing it more directly than the rest of us are. I want to tell him and Jeanette (Diego seems to be taking it best) to just hold on for one more year, till the grants I'm managing expire in February 2012. At that point my work will likely be more rooted at the service center, with only occasional trips.

Until then, we'll need to hang in there. We're taking our own trip at the end of April, as a family, and I think that will help, too. It isn't just the fact that I'm going on an airplane that bothers Jackson; it's that I'm going on an airplane without him.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fun With Anagrams (Afghans Warm Unit or Farming What Anus)

If you're a writer of fiction, looking for character names, you may want to consider going to one of the many anagram generators on the Internet and entering your name. I did that for Daniel Fuchs, and here are a few possible character names:

For men:

Alec Dunfish
Ace Lundfish
Chas Dunlief
Sean Dichful

For women:

Nica Feldshu
Luca Endfish
Luca Denfish
Shena Cidful
Ilsa Chudfen
Lisa Chudfen (Ilsa's sister?)
Luna Cedfish

If you're not looking for character names and you just want a few chuckles, try opening up your search, and including your middle name. Here are just a few of the many returns (over 88,000 total) I got for Daniel Runyan Fuchs:

Enchilada Fury Nun
Sunny Arachnid Fuel
Unafraid Lunch Yens
A Chained Funny Slur
A China Deny Unfurls
A Larch Dies Unfunny
A Raunchy End Sinful

This is what one does when one has insomnia, or no new ideas to blog about.

Try it. It's fun!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Imperfect Haiku

At age 7, during my first semester of second grade, I wrote an imperfect haiku:

"A dog is made of
Love. And so are
you. And so is a bird."
People look at it now, framed on the wall in my office, and have one of two reactions. It's either an "Aww, that's so cute" response, or some variation on "What were you trying to write?" I don't remember much about this poem -- not the poetry unit we must have been studying, or my teacher praising me for what I'd come up with. I do vaguely recall my parents being excited about it, and I think it was my father's secretary, an amateur calligrapher, who penned it on a piece of fancy French stationery paper, so that my parents could frame it.
As an adult, I can imagine my parents must have been quite moved by what they read. We were not particularly religious, so I didn't get this notion from church, or the Bible. My parents didn't really go around expounding on their philosophies of how to treat other people. So they must have looked at this thing I wrote and wondered, did this really come out of our son? I was the exact age then that my older son is now, so I can easily put myself in their place.
It marked the first time I was ever "recognized" for a piece of writing, so it may have set me on that path, or certainly been one of the determining factors that made me consider being a writer. Of course, the encouragement of teachers and parents is invaluable in the development of a child, and I was definitely afforded some good old-fashioned positive reinforcement here.
Growing up and seeing the imperfect haiku (it's got the wrong number of syllables, according to traditional formula), I was always a little embarrassed by it. I thought it was silly -- a goofy sentiment.
Now that I have arrived at middle age, however, I have come to understand that these words are not goofy, silly or cute. In fact, they're profoundly spiritual. These are the words of a child who looked at the world around him and saw a connecting influence, a thread that ran through all things. He didn't get it from doctrine, dogma or parental speeches. He got it from watching his parents and how they treated each other and him. And how they interacted with the world around him.
The moment I wrote down this poem, I wrote down my philosophy on life. And you know what? It hasn't changed much in the past 40 years.
A dog is made of love. And so is a bird.

And so are you.

Friday, March 4, 2011

I'm NOT a Nerd, BUT . . .

I should start right off by telling you I am not a Trekkie. Or a Trekker; however, some might make the argument -- rightly, perhaps -- that the fact that I know what these terms mean suggests that I am both. At any rate, what brought me down this particular road was a comment that a friend of mine made on Facebook, when she said, "I know it's old economy, but I really enjoy buying magazines and books that can be held in my hands, not just on my iPad."

I was one of those many earnest people who responded with my agreement. I made some overly-precious remark about how much I'll miss being surrounded by books in bookshelves in "The Future." That's when I flashed on Star Trek: The Next Generation and realized that Captain Picard had a Kindle long before it was invented. I remembered the way a young actor in a red shirt would come officiously onto the bridge with a little plastic rectangle, hand it to Picard who would tap it a couple of times before handing it back to the extra and getting back to his captainly duties. Paperless society. No books. Just Kindles, or whatever they called those plastic rectangles.

Then I remembered a visit I had recently to a middle school in Fort Worth that is using their grant money to shore up their science department with technology. They bought a classroom set of these really cool probes that can help the kids find everything from heart rates to air temperature to barometric pressure. "It's a freaking tricorder, I thought." Those Star Trek writers foresaw this device, too.

Remember how ridiculous you thought it was that in the Star Trek future every individual would be packing a little hand-held communicator that flipped open? Hello? Look around.
The only error they made on Star Trek is that you never see anyone walking in the background talking on their cell phones, er, I mean "communicators."

And finally there's the lovely Lieutenant Uhura, who had everyone beat. Back in the mid 1960's, and check out what she's rocking. Yep: It's a Bluetooth.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My Response to an "Attack" on Public School Teachers

(This comes from Deborah Meier's Education Blog which I highly recommend. The first comment was posted by "Anonymous," and the second is my reply to him/her.)

I find it interesting that we can draw such different conclusions from your list of headlines. If the public has been complaining about teachers for more than a hundred years, is it not reasonable to look askance at the teachers?

I have heard in my years as a teacher every excuse in the book but never this one; A good percentage of the people that I work with are incurious, not very bright and have 'given up trying' (if they ever tried at all). They were attracted to the career because of the (as they saw it) relative ease of the job.

I think it is high time that we acknowledge that there is a huge percentage of people who teach that should not, and it is this crowd that the public is fed up with.

Ask yourself this one question: What is the quality of conversation in the lounge with your fellow teachers?

(And my response...)

You sound like someone who's been in public education for a while. As a fellow educator (20 years now), what I've found to be the case is that you have a preponderance of the kind of teacher (and teacher's lounge) you describe in your comment when you have leadership that allows it to happen.
Before you start typing your response, let me explain what I mean: I'm not talking about "allowing" it in the sense of not putting people on "growth plans" or giving unsatisfactory ratings, although there are schools where that may be an issue. The good public schools (and there are MANY of them, despite what we don't see in the headlines) have leadership that empowers both teachers and students, in the service of creating a prevailing interdependent culture. Those who do not "buy in" and function positively in this school can get help in the way of peer-to-peer training (i.e. critical friends groups, PLC's, and the like). If one of the folks like the ones you write about happens to sneak in (which they don't generally do, by the way, due to careful hiring practices that often include student voices through their membership in hiring committees, but it does happen occasionally, I'll give you that), they don''t tend to do well in these peer-support situations.
What I've seen happen is that they try to close their doors and do their thing -- whatever that may be -- in isolation. The joke's on them, however, at the empowered, interdependent kind of school I'm referring to, because the doors are understood to be open. Closing ones door (figuratively, and sometimes literally) effectively marginalizes that teacher, and they begin to hear a consistent message that comes from ALL stakeholders -- kids, parents, teachers, and yes, the principal:
"We don't do that here."
If a school can say this to an ineffective teacher, and mean it, and have it be intrinsically true because it's woven into the fabric of that school, then the problems with the kind of teacher you describe cannot flourish and will invariably leave or improve and "get with the program."
Anonymous, if you're thinking, "This poor guy is living in a Pollyanna dreamworld," feel free to ask me for a list of schools where I've seen this interdependent empowerment dynamic prevail. I'll be happy to provide it for you.
And guess what: It's a longer list than you might think.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

It's a "Boy Thing"

This obsession with, well, farts. I won't say "flatulence," because that's just too fancy. We enjoy farts and most things fart-related. (Don't worry; I won't be too longwinded about this topic. I mean, how much is there to say about it, really?)

I only bring it up because as the chauffeur, I am subjected to a daily dose of (no, not actual farting on the part of my kids; I'd proudly say that in true, pull-my-finger father fashion, I probably put them through much more than they do me) fart JOKES.

Lately, it's gotten pretty bad. We listen to the Wizard of Oz soundtrack on the way to their school. They have taken to replacing every other word with fart. I know it's juvenile and ridiculous, but try singing this out loud (you know the tune) without laughing:

"The house began to fart. The kitchen took a fart.
It landed on the Wicked Fart
In the middle of a fart,
Which was not a healthy situation for the Wicked Fart."

Oh, come ON! That's funny.

By the way, just as an aside, when I was their age, we weren't allowed to say "fart." It was considered a Bad Word. The euphemism of choice in our household was "bottom burp," as in "Danny, did you just do a bottom burp?"

In retrospect, I just find that hilarious!

Hey, I think I just figured out where the boys got their obsession from!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Got Fooled (Again): Abbreviating a Classic

Okay, so I'm driving home from work on Springdale Road, slowing down for some traffic up ahead, when one of my favorite classic rock tunes of all time, Won't Get Fooled Again by the Who, from their "Who's Next" album, comes on the radio.
Perfect! This is exactly the song I want to hear in this situation. At about 8 minutes 30 seconds, it should get me through this bottleneck approaching the junction with Route 183. I crank the volume, and straighten up in my seat a bit, getting myself prepared for some serious air drum action. (And air guitar, and air synthesizer.)

But then a weird thing happens. The long, meandering, cyclical, hypnotic synthesizer intro goes about a quarter as long as it's meant to. The thing gets cut off by the entrance of Pete's power guitar and Moonie and Entwistle's power rhythm way too early. "What the hell?" I say out loud to an empty car. See, one of the ways that you show your pride as a "Who-Head," which I've been since my freshman year in college, thirty years ago, is to air-guitar and/or drum your way into this song, right on cue. Won't Get Fooled is full of these hooks that fly in through the mist of the synthesizer line, which flows the entire length of the song. (You get extra points if you can nail Pete singing "Do ya?" quietly, a few bars after Roger sings the line "I know that the hypnotized never lie.")

The question I have is one that many would probably find naive, and maybe some of my musically inclined friends (Andy L., Ken, Jem, Chino, Jess, Pete H., Dave L.) can answer it for me:

Why is this okay?

They chop the song up so much that it goes from an eight and a half minute rock meditation to a three minute piece of chewing gum. I mean I didn't even get to the traffic light by the time this version of one of my favorite songs was over. It completely changes the experience for the listener. Am I making too much of this?

My guess is that Pete Townshend must have made some loot on this deal. After all, Who songs are popping up all over the place, in commercials, and for young people of this current generation Who Are You is "the CSI song," Won't Get Fooled Again is "the CSI: Miami song," and Baba O'Riley is "the CSI: New York song." Don't get me wrong; I'm a big CSI guy, and I suppose I'll always be a Who-Head at heart. But come on, man. Won't Get Fooled Again is not a three minute song. That's like making a three-minute version of Freebird or Stairway to Heaven or Hotel California or American Pie. These songs require commitment on the part of the listener, and I was so ready for that this afternoon.

I guess in the day of 140-words-or-less tweets, I shouldn't be so shocked, right?