Friday, January 25, 2013

5-Second Book Review x 3

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Incredible.  A must-read.  The Great American Novel of the Iraq War.  This book accomplishes everything we ask of good fiction.  I can't throw enough superlatives at it.

 Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey

Great poetry about death, the South, race, and the Civil War (amongst other topics).  "Letter" and "Southern History" in particular blew me away.


 The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

A great read.  Everything I read by Perrotta is great.  He, like Fountain, has an incredible eye for social commentary and the ability to sneak it in alongside compelling characters and plot developments.  This is plain old good writing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Garfield's Glock

I wrote with my students this morning.  Here is the first-draft result plus a couple of photos I snapped of yesterday's Sunday newspaper and another one I took back in August.

We Have a Problem: In Response to the Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting

We have a problem, America. This is hardly news, but it’s worth repeating.

We have a gun problem, but the problem is bigger than guns—it’s about our culture. The fact that we even debate—in the face of conclusive evidence about guns and murder rates—whether or not to allow Americans to own semi-automatic weapons is insane.  If I talk aloud to an empty room, I’m thought to be nuts, but if I say I need a gun that can shoot 850 bullets per minute because a nonexistent boogey man scares me, well, that’s okay in America.

And that is nuts.

So, yes, banning semi-automatic guns should be an immediate priority.  Is that hampering freedoms, limiting the right to bear arms?  Maybe, but so what?  No man is an island, so we often limit each other’s freedoms for the greater good.  You can’t smoke in bars in Michigan anymore because it slowly kills the waitstaff and other patrons.  You have to wear your seatbelt in a car.  You have to pay your taxes.  All of these are laws for our own and the greater good.  Outlawing tools of mass murder is, obviously, for the greater good.  It’s such a no-brainer that disagreement is ignorant, stupid, or evil.  Or perhaps all three.

But guns are just the beginning.  We have a violent culture.  The makers of the movie Jack Reacher had the presence of mind to postpone the release of the movie due to the tragedy, but did we need yet another movie about shooting people in the first place?  It’s not just movies.  Our bestselling video games?  Also shooting people (or zombies, but let’s face it, these days that’s the same thing).

We have a violent culture.  We need more than a gun ban.  We need to reframe our thinking.  We need a semi-automatic gun ban AND to be better people.  We need to stop finding happiness and escape through fantasies of murder.  I understand the psychology of horror movies, our obsession with—and, it should be noted, value in—being entertained by our fears, but we’re well beyond that now.  Call of Duty isn’t about facing fears.  It’s about shooting people for entertainment.  This acceptance of violence as normal is our collective problem.  The mentally ill, and many not considered so, have a hard time seeing the line between accepted and unaccepted violence in our culture, and the culture has to own some of that blame.  Yes, we need more access to mental health care, but we also need to improve our culture.

Some say that violent movies and games are age-protected, that the young and impressionable can’t see them, but when I open the Sunday paper, I see ads for semi-automatic weapons of mass murder wrapped around the funny papers.  (In fact, it's the same model of gun, a .223 semi-automatic, used by Adam Lanza in Newtown.)  I should not see last-minute Christmas shopping circulars advertising rock-bottom prices for weapons of mass murder while trying to find Garfield

But I do.

(That's Lanza's model of gun again. Twice in the same newspaper.)

It's even in the comics themselves.  Here is one of the "funnies" that was underneath that wrap-around gun ad.  The "joke" is that one character wants to murder another with rockets.  This is not Bugs Bunny using mild violence to reinforce a joke.  This lacks a punchline whatsoever.  The desire to kill is the punchline itself.

So we have a problem.  We’re sick, and we need change, now.  We needed it a long time ago, but maybe, just maybe, we can use the unnecessary deaths of Sandy Hook’s children as motivation for the rest of us to grow up already.

Friday’s shooting was a tragedy, and the bigger tragedy is that it is only another school shooting.  The fact that I have to type another is all we need to know.  I, too, cried a lot over the weekend.  I played my ass off with my two-year-old son and then bawled like, well, like him because others cannot play with their kids today.  I’m also sad for his future.  I have to send him to school in a few years, and I don’t know if I’m willing to do that here.  America, we’re sick, and I don’t want my child to get the bug.

It’s time for change. It’s time to grow up. It’s time to stop playing guns because it hasn’t been a game for a long, long time now.

Let’s get better.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

On the Upside of Illness

Man, I love teaching Honors Creative Writing if for no reason other than daily Sacred Writing Time.  Here is mine from today:

On the Upside of Illness

Halfway through the work day on Monday, my body betrayed me.  I had a to-do pile a foot deep, but doo-doo pile was worse.  I was dizzy and weak, I had to sit down. 

I went viral.

I toughed out the day because that’s how I was raised: workers work, whiners whine, and ne’er the two shall meet.  I made my way home like a drunk driver.  Radio off.  Mirrors adjusted correctly.  I blinked hard to focus on the white and yellow lines ahead—all eyes and ears on the road.  Miraculously, as with my early twenties, I and the other drivers survived.  I got home, trudged inside, and fell on the couch. 

I didn’t get off it until ten hours later, at which point I merely moved upstairs to the bed.  I didn’t ultimately arise until 12:38 Tuesday afternoon.  My body shut down for roughly twenty hours.

Of course, we’ve all been there, or at least most of us have.  A nasty virus hits you and you shut down.  Nothing particularly interesting here, except, somewhere around Tuesday morning during one of my feeble attempts to get up, I had the epiphany that being sick was an utter joy.

Not being sick sick mind you—there is no joy in cancer, for example—but dealing with a short-term nasty bug like mine was a pleasure.  I, for all intents and purposes, was granted a day-long vacation.  A true vacation, with no demands, pressures, or schedules.  My one and only priority was to sleep, and due to my outrageous fever (I never checked it formally, so the data-hogs among you are left wanting numbers, but trust me, I was aflame), my dreams were unreal. 

I suppose druggies discovered the joys of surreality a long time ago, but I’m no druggie.  I like the world too much to escape it without control.  But a 24-hour shot of fever dreams makes for a very do-able vacation.  While on the couch, I distinctly remember my wife and child playing and listening to Christmas music.  So, my fever-addled brain determined that my son was made of snow.  Later, in the bed, I dreamt I had moved to a major city, like New York (but not New York, in that way dreams work), and crashed a party full of engineers watching a stadium concert by Aerosmith or Coldplay or some such schlock. Everyone at the party accurately decided, while munching a variety of fresh berries and whipped cream, of course, that the fireworks far outperformed the music. I then took back my bicycle from the high school basketball teammate who had stolen it to ride around the party, and I rode it home through the air.  As in, flying, like E.T. only better because there was no E.T.

But, as mentioned, somewhere after noon I finally rose, was able to eat and drink a little, and began my slow re-acquaintance with the real world.

I cannot begin to tell you how let down I was.

The fantasy fever world was better in many ways (except for my son—I’m glad he’s real and not Frosty) because it all held wonder, a sense of mystery and unknown fun that the real world lacks.

Today, I reported for work.  Slower and duller than usual, I’m making my way through the day, but I can’t help but think that we’re missing some bigger point.  On my way in today, my brain still making the adjustment to regular life again, I thought a leaf blowing across the road was a fairy.

And why the hell not?

Why must we so rigorously and religiously stick to schedules and plans and data data data?  Don’t get me wrong—I am one of science’s biggest defenders, so this is not a piece decrying what we know to be true.  My son is vaccinated—no bioweapon in daycare is he.  Evolution happens (see exhibit: The Virus That Crushed Nobis Yesterday).  Physics tells us whether or not asteroids will smoosh Toronto.  But there is still room in life for the bizarre, for moments that don’t need to be or cannot be quantified, for the embracing of the unknown and impossible.

We don’t need to push ourselves so hard every day that life loses its wonder.  As I exit my orbit and prepare for splashdown, I’m trying to embrace the opportunity this bug brought me.  I hope to become a better me because of my fever dreams.  Today, I’m only taking on as much work as I can do well.  I’m quitting at quitting time so I can play, really play, with my son and wife.  And I’m making sure I get a full night’s sleep.  The dreams are too good to be denied.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Meditation, Of Sorts

Yesterday's reflection, a first-draft:

There is No News Cycle on the Trail

The world today
went farther into the
handbasket's hell,
no doubt,
but forgive me
for not noticing this time.
You see,
it's late November in 
Michigan, the time
when Joe Henry says you can
almost see the river 
turn to steel,
and as a native son
I vouch
he's right.
Because Charlie & I hiked
two hours today
and spent a good chunk
of time tossing sticks 
into the grey lake,
the only motion 
our arms, flying sticks, & ripples.
A few curious does watched us
from afar, twitching white tails at
the imperceptible breeze.

The lake cares not

for problems.
Neither do the deer.
Neither, for that matter,
does my two-year-old son,
as impressed with each throw as he was with the first
because I can get the sticks
all the way to the water
20 feet out, past the muck.
Yes, you can always
hurl the dead wood
beyond the muck
to still water beyond.

And you can do it
& again.


And here's the great Joe Henry song, "Sault Saint Marie," referenced above.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Poetry, Football, & I Still Miss Lloyd Carr

My alma mater just lost, again, to the devil's football team.  I think this poem might explain what happened.  Go, sigh, Blue.


Louis Jenkins

I take the snap from the center, fake to the right, fade back...
I've got protection. I've got a receiver open downfield...
What the hell is this? This isn't a football, it's a shoe, a man's
brown leather oxford. A cousin to a football maybe, the same
skin, but not the same, a thing made for the earth, not the air.
I realize that this is a world where anything is possible and I
understand, also, that one often has to make do with what one
has. I have eaten pancakes, for instance, with that clear corn
syrup on them because there was no maple syrup and they
weren't very good. Well, anyway, this is different. (My man
downfield is waving his arms.) One has certain responsibilities,
one has to make choices. This isn't right and I'm not going
to throw it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Do It For the Children

A rambling, oh-so-rambling initial reflection on NCTE12

Something like 300 student papers are chewing at my heels, but before I crack my lion tamer's whip at them, I have to offer one reflection on the NCTE Convention 2012.  I have many--too many to name--positive responses to this year's conference, but it's the one negative theme that nags me today as I watch my stressed-out students take final exams.

Dozens of sessions at NCTE revolved around the Common Core.  [Most of you are teachers, so I won't define that here.  If you don't know about the Core, check it out.  See you back here when you're done (but while you're there, note that there's only a link for Statements of Support, not one for Statements of Refutation).]  If I had a dollar for every time I heard a presenter say, "I know they're standards, but they're really not that bad," I could've spent all of Saturday night at the blackjack table with the money earned, and I'm a lousy gambler.  The problem is, I never heard anyone say, "I know the Common Core standards don't exist for the kids' sake, and they were created as a cash grab by those looking to profit off of education."

The bigger problem is, that would've been accurate.

I get the desire for standards.  I used to serve on a scoring committee for the MEAP test in Michigan.  Even there, in the lion's den, I was a vocal dissident, so the coordinator--a wise woman who knew that tests weren't The Answer--shared an anecdote with me that still resonates ten years later: When the test started requiring that students have a writing portfolio, she received numerous phone calls asking where they, the schools, were supposed to get this "student writing."  In other words, a number--small, yes, but extant--of schools weren't having students write at all.  So, I get it.  Standards can go some good.  The bottom-feeders need a kick in the pants or at least a bare-minimum standard to guide them toward best practice.  I can concede the standards as a baseline, a set of common expectations so that those schools and teachers that somehow (and that somehow leads to the real problem, but that's another discussion) would otherwise get through a school year--or even a day or week--without the students doing some of their own writing know that they need to get kids writing. 

But that leaves a wide majority of schools who see more harm than benefit from educational mandates.  The students didn't ask for this, nor did their parents.  So who did?

I'll give you a hint: At least a dozen vendors in the exhibition hall at the convention had "Common Core!" banners and stickers slapped on their books.  They aren't complaining.  The testing companies sure aren't complaining.  Their slot just paid out.  So who should be complaining?

The kids.

And their parents and their teachers and anyone else loosely affiliated with their educations.

It was not lost on me that this year's convention with its strong Common Core focus was held in Las Vegas, a city whose very existence depends on greed, on unfettered capitalism where profits are made by exploiting people.  But exploiting a guy out for a bachelor party with $100 to burn and a 14-year-old trying to learn how to write an essay are two very different actions.  This standards-n-testing system is hurting the kids.

So I return to work where I'm planning lessons on Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" and Gary Snyder's "For the Children," and I'm thankful for friends like Troy Hicks and Jory Brass among others who I hear presented a session on educational profiteering.  (I'm sorry I missed it--wish I'd seen it in the program ahead of time.)  I've only begun to poke around the wiki they set up for the session, and I'm further stunned by what I see.  Thanks to those giving voice to the opposition.  Dig through that wiki.  Thanks to Liz Holman for sharing it.  Get the back story on the Common Core.

Gary Snyder's poem, "For the Children," closes with "stay together/learn the flowers/ go light."  I suspect when he says "learn the flowers," he doesn't mean children should memorize the genus-species of every flower so they can bubble in the correct blank on the answer sheet.  It means something more about to know nature, to know life, to know how to survive and maybe even thrive.  He does not mean we should memorize to pass a test.  He does not suggest that the way forward to a better future for our children is to present them upon the sacrificial altar of profits.

He most certainly does not mean that.

As a card-carrying smart alec, my bit of civil disobedience over the convention weekend was to make Common Core Twitter jokes with friends (search #CommonCoreFilmRemakes and #CommonCoreRapRemakes if you're so inclined, and don't worry, I was still taking notes on sessions too), but I suspect this won't be enough to save our students' educations.  The opt-out movement excites me, but it's still too small.  What else can we do to ensure a real education, not one that's focused on test scores?

Because as the saying goes, we're doubling down on stupid.  We need to change course.

There is hope; there always is.  The highlight of the trip for me was Sherman Alexie's address to a roomful of high school and middle school teachers.  He was brilliant and hilarious, as always, and shared a fictionalized account of getting the St. Paul NPR station a few days earlier.  In the story, the cabbie was heroic and wouldn't give up until he got his fare to the door.  Long story short, Alexie connected the cabbie to the roomful of teachers, and he said, "Thank you.  Thank you for getting your fares to the door."  A pause, then in a whisper, "I love you all. I do."  And he left the stage.

That was his closing comment.  I hesitate to share this out of context because in the moment, this was more incredibly powerful than my words can begin to convey.  It brought the roof down, brought the room to tears and an ovation. What should be a simple bit of tenderness, a nice thank-you, became an emotional thunderclap due to the standards-n-testing movement.  Teachers are so exhausted, attacked, confused, and frustrated that a short message of thanks and love brings us to our knees, exposes the unnecessary burdens put upon us.

But again, we're adults.  We can take it, better than the kids at least.  But the kids have to take this abuse too.  Every salvo launched at teachers hits the kids too.  I don't have to take those tests; they do.  And they take a lot of tests.  A LOT of tests.  A LOT of tests.  And each of those tests makes a profit for
Pearson or
the College Board or
American College Testing or

some other blackjack dealer laying out cards with a twinkle in his eye.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The News or The Onion?

Why is critical thinking important? Because discerning between the News or the Onion is a real life skill.

 Here it is at work (or not, really): A satirical military blog post was mistaken for a real article, resulting in calls for a ballot recount.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

I haven't put up a poem in awhile. [Heck, I haven't been putting much anything on the blog in awhile (a certifiable trend in the post-introduction-of-Twitter world, I presume).] But I heard this poem on The Writer's Almanac while walking the dog two nights ago, and I must share.

 In short, Gerald Locklin nails all of my hopes and goals as a father: to raise a good kid, a good person who washes dishes for mama and also enjoys life, its music and words, its joys both collaborative and solitary, its love. So, please, go forth and read "An Easy-Going Weekend" by Gerald Locklin. Enjoy it, and see you in the morning.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Strange times

Just an FYI: The singularity may be happening.

I invited my students to think of unique events they had witnessed and to write a brief essay about it.  We were using Michel de Montaigne's "Of a Monstrous Child" as our model text, so the idea was to use narrative support for a claim, as Montaigne does in using his observation of the conjoined twins to support the argument that anything naturally occurring cannot be deemed unnatural.

Not one, but two of my students wrote about Call of Duty.  For one, the "unique event" he had witnessed was a virtual shooting when his avatar hunted down a friend's avatar and shot him.  In the head.  Note: He didn't use terms like "avatar" but rather personal pronouns, ala "I shot him."

This raises a host of questions, of course, but the one on my mind is this: My students are teenagers.  They have lived.  They have had experiences by now.  Rather, they should have had experiences by now.  What does it say when two students when asked to pick the most interesting, unique event they have witnessed choose a violent moment from a violent video game?

Does it count as the singularity if, instead of the machines using computational power to surpass human intelligence, human intelligence regresses and lags behind because its sitting on its candy ass staring at screens, leaving the machines smarter by default?  We might be in trouble here, folks.

If you'll pardon me, I have to go outside now.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Wait, We're Supposed to Check History Before Forming an Opinion? Sez Who?

Disclaimer: This is not a politics blog.  There's enough of that out there, done by folks smarter than I.  This blog does occasionally talk about writing, though, and that's why I post the following.  It's first draft mess that started as an email to a friend, but when it got long, I decided to put it here instead.  Enjoy:

If this essay about Obama and Nixon (and many other points) by Mark Lilla at the New York Times were turned in as an assignment in my class, I'd say "edit it down by 50% and re-submit," but that said, the content is spot on.  I wish he would publish another, shorter version that the average busy American could read in two minutes because the ideas need spreading.  I've been saying the same for awhile now--the whole country went wide right.

If you didn't follow the link and read Lilla's essay, it boils down to this: Obama is not only not a leftist, he's not even a Democrat by traditional definitions.  He and Nixon are eye-to-eye on most policy stances, and not even Reagan would make it through the contemporary foaming-at-the-mouth, Tea Party-fueled, ideological primaries. 

Regardless of your political leanings, this is a legitimate concern for our country's well being.  Two heads are better than one, right?  Then we need to stop labeling people, to get more points of view, and to be adult enough to consider varying viewpoints in determining the course of our country.  The right answer is almost always a shade of grey, not black or white.  Mislabeling a president (again, regardless of whether or not you like him) isn't helping anything.

I get where it comes from.  I understand the desire for simplicity.  Life is complicated.  It's an utter mess.  It's hard to understand what's going on, so we want to simplify, to label and categorize and put people and ideas in neatly labeled files.  We're living in Martha Stewart's America--we like clear organization.  But complex ideas (and just about any idea being dealt with by our governments--city, state, and federal--is complex) cannot be slapped with a one- or two-word explanation and put in the appropriate, color-coded storage container.  They require serious thought and multiple points of view to be handled properly.

So, if life is complex--and I hope we can agree that life is complex--then can we at least stop labeling Obama, and anyone else for that matter, with one- or two-word categorizations?  The man contains multitudes, and his barbaric yawp is more than a health care act.  The same goes for any other public, or private, figure.  The last president contains multitudes too (although one gets the sense there are somewhat fewer layers involved there).

Stop labeling or at least stop labeling so simply, so one-dimensionally.  Obama is not a socialist.  If he were, corporate profits would not be higher than ever before because said profits would be federal income instead.  But they're not, so, period.  That's all there is to that.  By all means, debate and discuss courses of action and policy proposals, but do so with at least of modicum of fact-based self respect.  Just because someone says "A" doesn't mean "A" is true.  Just because you say it doesn't mean it's true.  Repeat that mantra as many times as necessary, and please, Americans, have some dignity and start arguing instead of just yelling.

You needn't espouse outright lies to have a debate.  In fact, doing so means people with brains automatically dismiss you as a moron.  Good writing is good argumentation, and good argumentation uses facts to support an opinion.  Supporting opinion with opinion is worthless.  Using simplified and wrong labels is just weak.  [Note: Why anyone still votes for the hundreds of candidates who do so is beyond me.  I have no answer for that other than please stop.]  It's lazy, and given that America values bootstrap-yanking hard work, such lazy tossing about of mistruths is just un-American.  Be more, Americans.  Accept complexity and the challenge it provides.  You're smarter than this.