What’s New, Pussycat? Wo-oh-oh-oh-oh-OH-oh.

Of course we all feel essentially the same about Egypt’s Wonderful Revolution.  I’m sure no words of mine can express our joy better than can a static camera in Tahrir Square.

However, completely coincidentally, I came across the following YouTube video, which sort of makes me feel the same way:

First of all, Tom Jones is a lot like Henry Fonda.  You might remember them as performers who were great — in their own time.  Competent, entertaining; they fulfilled the slot they were meant for.

But then you see them again.  Tom singing “It’s Not Unusual,” or “What’s New Pussycat?”  Henry flinging the switchblade onto the table in Twelve Angry Men, or stumbling over himself to follow Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve. Anything they did, really.  and you realize they weren’t just great in their time; they were timelessly great.

Then, if you’re about my age, you may have possessed a little vinyl 45 rpm recording of “The Fool on the Hill,” not the Beatles version, but the one by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66.  I heard this record before I even knew it was a Beatles song (I was waaaay out of it in those days, way out of it.)  I danced to Sergio and his brilliant band a thousand times, imagining that I was the one no one understood.  I was the fool.  (Half right, as it turned out.)

So when this video came across my desktop, I was stunned.

I danced again, alone in my room, while I watched a whole country turn a corner.

Thank you, Tom and Sergio.  And Power to the People.  Right on.

Posted in Proleitics, Something is Boring Me But I Don't Know What (Entertainment) | 1 Comment

The Kid is All Right

Ginsberg is home from college and Darren and I are doing what we always do when she is around: wondering who the hell raised her. We are neurotic as all get-out with self-doubt levels hovering in the high 80s, and yet our daughter is well-adjusted, reasonable and capable.  What gives?

We especially wonder about how she turned out so well when we observe the minority of other kids — teenagers and college kids — who are real shitheads.

On “Men of a Certain Age” last week (if you aren’t watching this, start — a really well-done show), Joe caught his daughter and her boyfriend just after they had sex in his bed (he is divorced and the two kids sneaked into his house behind his back).  He was shocked, of course, and upset, and tried to talk to her, but she ran out of the house claiming she had to get to her AP class.  He tried again when she stopped by to change her clothes, but she treated him as if he were a nosy stranger and an argument ensued.  He ended up grounding her, and she denied his right to do that, especially at her mother’s house, where she usually lives.   The mother agreed with the daughter and refused to enforce the grounding.

Yeah, it’s just a TV show, but it’s representative of so many parents, parents who don’t understand why their kids don’t respect them, why they have no influence over their kids’ actions, and what their kids were thinking when they mixed pills and alcohol.

Darren and I are, no lie, mixed-up people.  But when we look at Ginsberg, we have always seen a human being.  We love her and our impulse is to be honest with her.  To obfuscate is to disrespect your audience, and she simply doesn’t deserve to be ignored or lied to.  If we had a rule, we had a reason for the rule.  If we couldn’t articulate the rule, maybe it was a stupid one.  So we told her the truth, and we expected decent behavior for sensible reasons.

Oh, and one more thing.  Long before she entered middle school, when we saw rude kids on television, or in public, one of us would turn to her and say, “Ginsberg?  You see that?  It’s rude.  You’re not allowed to do that, okay?”  Sometimes we would add for good measure, “Please don’t become a sullen teenager, Ginsberg.  It’s just not necessary.”

By the time she suffered her adolescent woes, she knew we were on her side, and she was as appalled at “typical” teen behavior as we were.

I work with a lot of teenagers, and have done for nearly fifteen years.  Some are more polite than others, but most of them are good at heart, and only want to be treated as if their ideas and feelings matter.

It’s as simple as that.  It really is.

Posted in I Hope You Get Old Before I Die, What's it all about, Alfie? No, really. What? | 1 Comment

A Few Hundred Miles to Graceland

My friend Belle (fake Disney name) used to pretend her father was Elvis Presley.  I love that about her.  (I used to pretend I was a Kennedy.)  She’s our pretty friend, the one who admitted she would think twice before leaving a burning building without makeup on.  The one who actually contemplated putting my name in for “What Not to Wear.”  But didn’t.

A few years ago, Belle and Hayley and Annette (more Disney names) and I went on a road trip.  We figured out later it was a magical one, but I should have known right away, because I never want to go on a road trip.  Not any more.  I hate long car rides, I don’t like sharing bathrooms, and I like to sleep in my own bed every night.  But for some reason, when Belle, who had settled in Atlanta, suggested that she meet the rest of us in Memphis, I was in.

My favorite part, no lie, was Graceland.  I thought — I’m sure you can understand why — that it would just be funny.  And yes, I felt both a chuckle and a sigh at the decor, which reminded me of my father’s Houston apartment of the same era, only a hundred times spiffier.  Shag carpet, avocado green and orange furniture.  You could just hear the Tijuana Brass somewhere in the background.  My favorite part of Graceland was when they efficiently sit you down to watch a little film about Elvis, in case you’ve forgotten, while you wait for the bus to carry you across the street to the mansion.  I laughed, but then I watched.  I don’t know who produced this film, but they’re a genius.  It’s all the good and none of the bad, of course, but somehow they didn’t actually deny the bad; they just didn’t mention it, like your parents when they’re telling your grandparents about your A in Geography, and leaving out the part where you got suspended for smoking pot.  It was all good-natured, and it actually did remind me of something.  That Elvis was GREAT.  He was so talented, such a warm entertainer, so downright beautiful in his youth, and, while they didn’t mention this either, he was so taken advantage of by Colonel Parker — and everyone else around him, probably — that I was sad and overwhelmed, but at the same time I felt so lucky to be able to watch him perform.

As the film ended, I turned to Belle and said, “Belle!  You had the coolest dad ever!”

Belle and I have a second favorite memory of Graceland.  As part of the house tour, we were led out back where Elvis is apparently buried.  People slow down here, to take pictures and read the various plaques.  His headstone is huge, white, very dignified.  As the four of us wound with the crowd through the line to get to the viewing area, we observed a middle-aged woman taking a picture of her two small children, who she had told to sit just in front of the giant headstone.  Suddenly she screamed at them, “Stop covering up Elvis’ name!!”  Hayley and Annette didn’t hear it, but Belle and I caught each others’ eye and started laughing.  We tried to stop; I swear we tried.  We did a fair job of keeping quiet, but every time we looked at each other we started up again.  Another friend of mine, Joaquin, used to say he and his sister called this sort of thing “Americana,” and I thought that word to myself.  So American.  So true, and sad.

We realized later the trip was magical, as I said before.  The most magical thing was that it turned out to be the last trip Annette took.  We visited Memphis over Memorial Day weekend, and she died that August.  We knew she was sick.  On Beale Street, I sat with her on the curb for a few minutes so she could catch her breath.  She wore a wig that weekend, covering her baldness.  We knew she was sick but we had no idea she would die.  Certainly not so soon.  Afterward, her husband told us that trip was one of the happiest times of her life.

Right after I heard from Annette’s husband that she was gone, I called Hayley.  We said the usual things, made more vivid by shock.

But we also remembered the other side of the coin.  Separately, we had each made Annette cry during that trip.  Not on purpose; these things happen when you’re cooped up together in a car for so long.

I still don’t know what to make of that true, sad thing.  I just shake my head when I think about it.

Posted in What's it all about, Alfie? No, really. What? | 2 Comments

A Good Day to Teach

In the world of schools, right before a break, everyone becomes stressed out to the point of near insanity.  Students and teachers alike are heard laughing maniacally right before they break into sobs.  A sea of shoulders sag.  We put on weight, or waste away.   So when something inspiring happens, news travels.

Yesterday was a good news day.

1. First, my studentfriend Anna brought me a slam poem she had written as her Poverty Project for her humanities class.  Anna is sweet, hilarious, and hungry.  She likes to come to my office and hunt for snacks.  Having determined that her family is upper middle class, I’ve threatened to call her parents and ask them why they don’t ever buy her any food, so she tries to lay off, but sometimes she just can’t resist those fruit cups.  She is also a struggling Asian.  Her parents want her to be a doctor, but either because she really is lazy, or because she is purposely subverting their Plan for Her Life, she gets mediocre grades.  I know she’s smart.  She asked to borrow a book over the summer, and actually read it.  It was Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, not a book for slackers.  Anyway, she brought me the poem and it was pretty good.  It got vague toward the end, but it was an apostrophe to Poverty and pretty effective.  I told her to check with her teacher about saying the “Fuck You” part out loud, and wished her well.  Later, I heard that her performance was outstanding, the hit of the class.  Apparently she teared up halfway through, and her audience got the full effect of how fucked up it is to be poor.  Good job, Anna.

2. Later that morning, I attended the presentation of a senior research project.  Lincoln prefaced his invitation announcement that morning with the statement that “Studying for finals is for losers,” but he’s actually really accomplished.  The senior research projects can be about any topic, as long as you can find academic sources for it.  Within the short history of Cultural Studies, you can find academic sources on just about anything, so many times the students will choose superheroes or TV shows or Disney princesses to study.  Yeah, these subjects sound lame, especially when we’re talking about high school students.  But many of the seniors do a surprisingly good job with them.  Lincoln’s subject was Eminem and the Id.  Suffice it to say that he set a new standard for the project.  His thesis was plausible and he made his argument not only persuasively, but entertainingly, and cleverly.  And he was humble about it.  Go, Lincoln.

3. Then, there was my waif of a poetry class.  It’s not a writing class; rather, we read and analyze and discuss great British and American poetry.  But, due either to a misunderstanding about its nature, or the fact that other classes fill up faster, I always end up with a couple of people who actually like poetry and want to learn, and a majority who are stunned to find themselves reading “Whoso List to Hunt,” let alone “The Wasteland.”  I try to cheer them up by giving them the option, on one essay, of writing about Phillip Larkin’s “This Be the Poem,” or “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop,” but even dirty talk by distinguished poets doesn’t get them interested all on its own.

This year, I have two girls who like poetry and are sensitive; one guy who obscures his smarts in class but comes by my office to talk to me in more depth about what we’ve read; one non-native English speaker who transferred from my other class because he claimed the reading was too hard, but who turned out to analyze literature brilliantly in his papers, the little liar; another voluntarily mute boy who has had behavior problems in the past but also  showed up suddenly one morning playing gorgeously in our violin quintet; and three football players.  Two of these came into the class a couple of weeks late, having dropped another class in which they got bad grades on their first papers.  They got bad grades because they do the bare minimum of work and, well, they aren’t very good at writing.  Again, something about the “poetry” class made them think this was all going to be easy.

The football players and I have an interesting relationship.  They are inherently competitive, and they are used to getting away with doing little in venues other than the football field.  They like to make bets, such as, “Hey, Ms. ____, if I can get this bottle into the trash can from here, you’ll cancel the essay, right?”  I say no, and they throw it anyway, and claim to have won the bet.  Even when it takes them two tries.  I just laugh.  They also tried all semester to get me to come to a game.  I’ll be honest, as I was with them.  I really don’t like sports.  And I hate going out at night.  And I have a million things to do.  But they kept bringing it up.  I told them I’d come to a game if all three of them read my novel.  One of them actually checked it out of the school library, and surprised me by being able to name the characters.  I think he actually read some of it.  But the others let him carry that one.  Two of them also like to come to class, drop their books, and ask to go to the bathroom.  After two days, I naturally told them I thought they could probably manage that some other time.  This also became a running joke.  One of them started asking in Spanish, as if that would change things.  They hopped around pretending they were going to wet their pants.  They pretended they loved the arty movie I showed, that I was pretty, and couldn’t possibly be as old as I said I was.

So yesterday, their ballads were due.  As I say, it’s not really a writing class, but I try to break up the monotony for them with small projects.  I had played them a variety of very cool ballads — House of the Rising Sun, The Ballad of John and Yoko, Tom Dooley, Rocky Racoon, The Long Black Veil, Frankie and Johnny, and Jim Malcolm’s The Party — and asked them to write a simple ballad on the tragic subject of their choice.  I was dreading the class in which they were to read the ballads aloud.  From the complaining and oddly obtuse questions I had received from the football players, and lack of enthusiasm from most of the others,  I was expecting bad work and pretty boring recitations.  I thought about canceling, just collecting their written work and analyzing a poem in class instead of hearing the song/poems recited out loud, but the students really needed to be pushed, even if the results weren’t great.  So I steeled myself.

Well, the ballads were uneven in quality, but the class was entertaining as hell.  We agreed they could exchange poems and read one another’s aloud so it was less embarrassing; I even told them they could take a pass if it was just too excruciating.  Then I agreed (bottle missed the wastebasket, but it was a good idea anyway) to give a little extra credit if they actually sang their work.  My favorite penultimate moment was when one of the players sang his take on MacGruber.  But the real success of the day was the violin player, the guy who never said anything in class.  He sang (and sang well) his story of Ed Gein, the serial killer.  And the ballad was perfect.  It sounded like something Pete Seeger wrote.

I left class in a hugely better mood, and had one more success to add to the hallway news system.

Thanks, students!  You da mans.

Posted in Teachery [sic] | 2 Comments

Watching “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia”

I tell stories about my family.  Dysfunctional, or perhaps Malfunctional would be a better word.  Sometimes I forget that I’m not exaggerating.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is a documentary about a family named White, who, suffice it to say, law enforcement is both familiar with and reluctant to visit.  One of them is a famous “hillbilly tap dancer.”  One gives birth to a baby, laments the lack of opportunity in their geographical area, and promptly snorts cocaine in her hospital room.  Another explains how, when her mother dies, she may be so upset that she will have to kill someone.

Entertaining, in  a sad way.

But what really struck me, as I watched the scene of the matriarch’s birthday celebration — drugs and naked hijinx are featured — I noticed the house they were in looked JUST LIKE where my brother lives.  Furniture so tacky it could never have actually appealed to anyone.  Lots of sentimental knickknacks dusted with crack.  Extremely large TVs in the midst of squalor.

I’m still figuring out how to feel about this one.  But I recommend it.

Posted in Something is Boring Me But I Don't Know What (Entertainment) | 3 Comments

The Myth of the Dinner Table

For years I have been hearing that healthy families, families with children who don’t become drug addicts or wastrels, eat dinner at the dinner table.  No watching TV, no failing to show up due to soccer commitments.  It is implied that, if a family chooses not to adhere to this trope, they are doomed.  Also, irresponsible and asking for trouble.  And bad.


If I haven’t mentioned it before, our daughter Ginsberg is so well-adjusted we are always startled when she is not upset.  We, her neurotic parents, would be depressed for days if someone criticized our art, or blamed us for something that wasn’t our fault, or just looked at us cross-eyed.  Or at all.  (“They’re mocking us!” we often exclaim when driving about town.  How dare people in other cars look at us?)  Ginsberg gets annoyed, and then she forgets all about it.  Often, we project our feelings onto her mentally healthy slate, only to realize she doesn’t even remember the incident we are sure is whittling away at her self-esteem.

Ginsberg is so psychologically sound she is patient with us when we act this way.

I can’t remember the last time we ate at a dinner table.  Our table is in a room we hardly ever enter, except to clean up cat vomit or wrap presents.  We eat on the couch, and we watch scads of TV.  We also pause frequently to rant, ask for clarification, or discuss why the Bridezilla in this episode is actually right about the centerpieces.  We try to guess who is the murderer.  We tell anecdotes, or explain how the news (all news, everywhere — even Jon Stewart occasionally gets something askew) is misrepresenting the facts.  We also like to disdain the overuse of eye makeup and trendy fashion.

We bond.

So, as usual, when someone says a family must do X to be healthy, they are looking at a side issue, not the meat of the problem.  Healthy families talk; healthy families like one another; healthy families want to hear what everyone has to say.  The dinner table is just a piece of wood, people.  And TV is a part of the world, made insanely convenient to observe.

Posted in What's it all about, Alfie? No, really. What?, Wifey | 1 Comment

Watching the movie “Protagonist”

Just finished streaming a little-known movie called Protagonist. This documentary features four men who found meaning in extreme activities, then backed off after meeting their real selves coming around a corner.  A gay man who, raised a Christian, fought his most basic desires to preach against homosexuality; an abused child who grew up to rob banks and join a prison gang; a bullied boy who master martial arts, but unknowingly followed a mad man; and a German, also abused as a child by his Nazi father, who becomes a leftist terrorist.  All four experience an unfulfilled but primal need, a period of belonging where viewing the world in black and white is necessary, and a moment of catharsis that proves they have chosen the wrong path.  The director (who it turns out is married to the martial arts guy, but that doesn’t come up in the film) uses an Errol Morris-style talking head structure, and mars it only a little with her weird use of puppets and Greek drama to enhance the stories.  I didn’t understand that part, and don’t find it necessary, as the men themselves are well-spoken and have heartfelt stories to tell.  Anyway, watch it if you have a couple of hours.  It’s all about the gray.

Posted in Something is Boring Me But I Don't Know What (Entertainment) | Leave a comment