23 July 2014

Responds Well to Praise -- A Song of the School in Verse From a Former Happy Idiot


I'm going to be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Thought true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender
From The Pretender by Jackson Browne

I feel like I’m making a difference. -  A lot of people.

I was teaching history at a public middle school. Five members of my teaching team including yours truly were having our weekly meeting. We were being told by an administrator about a new student who would be joining us in a few days. Two teachers who were still new to the education biz were busily scribbling notes. Notes that they’d never look at again. (They’d learn.) Everything the administrator said about this new lad made him sound like he’d recently been kicked out of hades for bad behavior. We got warning after warning. Then we were told — and I’d heard this one a million times before and after — he responds well to praise. I then happened to observe the teacher to my left scribbling those very words in her notebook. Responds well to praise.

Great. Who doesn’t? And more to the point, is this little tyrant going to give us anything to praise him for?

He didn’t. My recollection is a bit vague but I believe his stay with us could be numbered in days owing to a violation of one sort or another. Perhaps he exceeded his maximum allowed body count. If only he’d done something praiseworthy and one of us had been quick enough to offer a pat on the back or kudos or an attaboy or a trophy or medal of honor or certificate of appreciation or just a psalm. But alas.

Praise had become a big thing by the time I left public schools and began the restoration of my sanity. As in the case of the aforementioned little Lucifer, it was believed to have unique redemptive qualities and the ability to transform demons into angels. One piece of wisdom a principal imparted to us — and this one universally believed by people who never set foot in an actual classroom — was the idea that for every admonition we doled out to a student there must be five utterances of praise given to this same child.

Let's see how this might work. So little Tommy interrupts teacher to talk to another student, teacher re-directs Tommy and now is in debt to the lad to the tune of five hallelujahs. Let’s try it: way to get out a pencil, Tommy (1), thanks for pointing out the page we’re on to Cindy (2), good job lending a piece of paper (3). At this point there’s just two to go for the slate to be clean. But then…Tommy, you cannot say that word in class! Now you’re into the little bugger for five more plus the two previously owed. Seven. And most of the class time is gone. It could carryover into the next day. And what if he gets out of his seat early? You could be up to 12. Plus its so easy to lose count especially when you’ve got a tote board going with Rachael who was chewing gum and then decapitated Roger.

The whole deal sounds utterly ridiculous. But I have a confession. I lied. You aren’t really expected to offer five hosannahs for every stop-beating-Sam-with-a-tire-iron. The actual number is ten. As in 10. As in five multiplied by two. As in half a score.

That’s some fucked up shit, man.

I subbed for a couple of years while I was getting my TESL Certificate (teacher of english as a second language) and I actually observed some teachers gamely trying to praise their charges to the hilt. It was sadly funny to hear people being praised for being in their seats or sitting quietly doing their work or not talking. Good god it must have been exhausting for the teacher.

Mind you I’m quite the one for recognizing the achievements of students. Its something I learned from coaching youth soccer. Young athletes and students all too often have their errors pointed out and themselves focus on those missteps without enough recognition of improvement or for extra efforts. I’m big on motivating young people and building their self esteem and giving credit where it is due and offering encouragement. Teaching students from all over the world  as I do (most of whom from 17-25 years old) I am forever cheerleading and singling out students especially because they tend to be too hard on themselves. But here’s the deal: I do it when its earned. There’s nothing phony baloney about it. Sure I may go a bit overboard sometimes but I always start from a real place. It is never forced or contrived.

Our public schools are primarily staffed by fantastic dedicated hard working teachers who are under administrators — from all I can gather from my experiences and what I hear and read — who are a bunch of fucking idiots. The kind of lame brains who would want you to say: hey Putin another day without detonating a nuclear device, way to go pal!

Telling the next Charles Manson that he did a good job lending an eraser isn’t even a tiny step in addressing this child’s problem. Nor is it going to do much to keep other students from having their instruction interrupted when the little monster goes ballistic during class time. So this is the real problem. Schools do not have the wherewithal to really help Tommy. Certainly not by the time he’s in middle school. For most kids the ship has sailed on their school careers if not their entire lives by the time they're nine years old. Or sooner.

All schools -- from an administrative standpoint -- really do is mask problems. Like when the school I taught at decided not to continue in-house suspension because it looked bad that the vast majority of students in it were African American. So let’s hide the symptom rather than seeking a cure.

Sweeping problems under rugs is a speciality of public school administrators as is avoiding law suits and keeping the place looking sharp for one school board members come by. Addressing real problems in an effective matter...not so much. I do hasten to add that in addition to their own incompetence they are hamstrung by societal issues. Schools either don't get enough resources the wrong kind or spend too much dough paying their mucky mucks.

I could go on about schools. And on. And on. The six years since I escaped with my soul have allowed me time for a lot of reflection. I continue to be astounded at the work done by teachers and am proud to have associated with most of the ones I worked with over the years (there was one where I worked who I believe is still there who was real doozy of lying immoral scoundrel but she was the exception). Teachers are asked a helluva lot, given very little and respond like heroes.

They also respond well to praise -- but don’t need it.

21 July 2014

I Shave Magazines and Dollar Bills

Hey I got another unsolicited email that was just a thinly disguised attempt to take advantage of my blog for commercial purposes. The sender clearly perceived me as possessing a gullible and stupid nature. I offer said email and my response. Of course I have redacted the name of the company so that they don't benefit a wit from me.

Hi Richard, 

I'm Tracey, the community manager for REDACTED.com. Here at REDACTED it's our mantra to help people Shave Time and Shave Money. That's why we've created the best razors in the world for the lowest prices around. (Oh, in case you haven't heard of us or seen our viral video, we're the members only club that delivers the best quality razors and grooming supplies for a few bucks a month.) 

Unlike you, not all of us are savvy deal sleuths and time management experts. As a result, we're asking an elite group of influential bloggers like you to create a post on your blog about other ways you "shave time and/or shave money" in everyday life. At REDACTED, we are committed to shaving time and money for our members every single day, and we love to share our favorite posts on social media! 

Let me know ASAP if you are interested! 

Chat Soon, 

Tracey

Hi Tracey with an “e.” First of all congratulations on developing the best razors in the world and offering them for a low price. You are so cool to do that. Speaking of cool..I love your mantra. How often do y’all say it?

I do have a question however, who the hell told you I was a “savvy deal sleuth and time management expert?” I’ve been trying to keep that under wraps for years. But hey if the secret is out whattaya gonna do? Am I right?

Actually I have a second question: am I really part of “an elite group of influential bloggers”? If so no one is sending me the newsletters or telling me when and where the meetings are. I’d also like to see a list of the other members of the club. If they’re just a bunch of creeps I want out.

But you were asking how I shave time and money. Simple. Every week when my copy of the magazine comes I lay it on a table with all my paper currency. Then I simply apply shaving cream, get out my razor and shave both at the same time. It’s a great time saver! Truthfully though it does seem a bit silly as neither Time magazine nor U.S. dollars of any denomination grown whiskers. It is, however, a blast.

I hope you share my ideas with others, Tracey with an “e.” I can’t wait to “chat soon.” What’ll we talk about though? The crisis in the Gaza? Mounting tensions between Russia and Ukraine? Or how about the slipshod marketing techniques by second rate companies?
You pick!

Kisses,
Richard

20 July 2014

A Blabbermouth Tells a Stupid Joke and Another Acquaintance Dies and I Keep Writing

There’s this guy at work who never shuts up. This motherfucker person talks incessantly — mostly about himself — and says virtually nothing of any interest to anyone save himself.  Wait, forget the virtually nothing, make that absolutely nothing.

I think he’d shut up if someone drove an icepick into the base of his skull but then again there may be no force known to man that can stop the perpetual motion machine that is his mouth. Words are expelled in great long bursts as if they have a will of their own and force their way from the great recesses of his vacuous mind. No topic is off limits particularly if it relates to him. Adding to the horror is the abrasive monotone of his voice, words blasting out without rhythm as if a verbal jackhammer were at work. Of course he keeps the vocal volume is on full blast. The totally deaf can hear him. No one is immune to being cornered for a diatribe. A few of us avoid him like the proverbial plague that he is. If he's anywhere near the copy machine when I have to use it I take the polar route to get there. It's worth the extra time.

For people at work it is constant, breaks only coming when he or if we are teaching. Yes he is a teacher too. Pity his students trying to sift through the torrential downpour of his words. One imagines that after work he wanders the streets of San Francisco seeking prey. He pounces and devours the unsuspecting with words. Great swirling waves of words each more meaningless than the last. An incessant cacophony of nothing.

The other day after a rare pause in his bleatings he offered this short joke: “what’s the difference between a drunk and an alcoholic? A drunk doesn’t have to go to all the stupid meetings.”

And people rave about Oscar Wilde.

As someone intimately familiar with those “stupid meetings” that alcoholics “have to go to” I can attest to the fact that they have saved many lives. Some literally. People would have died had they not started showing up at AA meetings. Others have been rescued from poverty, illness or the dissolution of their family by those “stupid meetings.”

It’s serious.

That said people in recovery are notorious for having a sense of humor often directed at the person who stares at them in the mirror. Success in recovery requires taking the process seriously but not taking yourself so seriously.

But the joke wasn’t offensive to me because it took a jab at AA it was offensive because it was stupid. That’s another thing about 12 steppers, when they poke fun at themselves or even the vaunted “program” they have a tendency to do some with a degree of wit that is sometimes surprising for people who maybe only recently have spent their days in a constant stupor. Plus its okay when people make fun of themselves -- African Americans can make all the jokes about themselves that they want -- but other people ought to just shut the hell up.

Not to put too fine a point on it but drunks and alcoholics are the same thing. They are people who have the disease of alcoholism. What is different is a recovering alcoholic. That rare bird is someone with said disease who is trying to a) stay clean and sober and b) live successfully without her or his drink or drug of choice. And by the way doing the first without then moving onto the second is a waste of time. I’ve seen people who hang on desperately to their sobriety as it becomes their raison d’etre. They see sobriety as an end to itself when in fact it is but a vehicle with which to enjoy a healthy happy life.

Once loud mouth told his side splitter another bloke chimed in that he had gone to a few meetings once. Given his reputation for drunkenness and the fact that he often returns from lunch, shall we say “herbed up” it is not surprising that someone — perhaps himself — once directed him toward AA. Evidently with him it didn’t take and his life is so much the poorer for that fact.

I am not a preacher. If someone asks me a question I’ll gladly answer it and have done so. I also try — quite in vain — not to judge others. If judging becomes a habit for a person said individual tends to merely examine other people’s lives while ignoring their own. And you may also start thinking you know better and are special. This is a recipe for shit soup. Still it is impossible to ignore certain actions, comments and ridiculously stupid jokes. Human nature and all. And it can feel really good to vent. Seriously.

Yesterday I met my good friend Kevin for coffee. He is a living testimony to the wanders of AA having stayed sober for 25 years. Plus he has given countless hours in service time to the program helping himself by helping others. Kevin had to pass along the sad news that an old friend, Norma, was at death's door. Later in the day he forwarded word to me via email that she had in fact died (or if that's too blunt for you she passed away or on or left us or went to her reward. I prefer dead myself there's no ambiguity to it and its straightforwardness suits the occasion). Kevin had known Norma much longer and better than I, she and her husband having sat with him for many years at Cal men's basketball games. I'd chatted with her on occasion over the past 15 years or so and found her to be -- and these words are carefully chosen -- full of life. An energetic woman in her 60s (I believe her to have made it to 72) who busied herself with all manner of activity and always ready to share a few words and ask after a person. It's difficult to imagine so energetic a person still forever. But that't the way of the universe.

As a person grows older more and more people of your acquaintance die. It starts with grandparents and other older relatives then eventually there is a friend or co worker or cousin and soon parents and siblings and more friends and for someone like myself there are even former students who meet premature deaths. I tend to write about it a lot, I suppose because I'll never get to write about my own death. At least not after the event. (If it turns out I can write post mortem it'll make for a helluva story, check that -- a heavenly one.)

One thing I've noticed about death is that its the ultimate affirmation of life. You have any doubt that life is precious and to be used and lived to the fullest,  just contemplate for a minute those you know who are no longer around. I'm still wrestling with my brother's death almost two years later and being the sole remaining member of the little family I grew up in. It's a heavy burden but it also behooves one not to wallow in sorrow or self pity but to exalt in our time here. I'm still trying like hell to live up to my dad's and brother's legacies and celebrate their lives by making the most of my own. If it seems a hokey concept then you probably haven't started losing friends and family members or are too cynically minded to be worth taking to -- no offense.

So I'll miss the few occasions when I'd see Norma and I know that her husband is going to need all the love and support of those close to him, particularly his and Norma's two daughters.

Life is precious all right. I'm going to try to spend the rest of my time as positively as possible and stay the hell away from people who blabber their way through it. Who needs that shit.

17 July 2014

A Short Bit About Sneezing and then a Longer Thing About Tourists and Some Random Guy that is Obviously Fictionalized

I don't like when people give me the god bless you after I sneeze. First if all let's keep imaginary supreme beings out of my bodily functions. Secondly, why? It's a frickin' sneeze leave me alone about it, I was already inconvenienced. Plus I don’t hear you say anything when I burp or cough so let's let it go.

And then am I really expected to thank someone for god blessing my sneeze? Come on. What if I rattle off another three or four? You going to keep it up and am I supposed to thank you for each? Talk about pandora’s box. And don't think for a second that you can get away with a gesundheit. Just because you've made it secular and ethnic doesn't make it okay. Can we just agree to ignore other peoples sneezes beyond perhaps offering a hanky if one is needed?

Hanky. There's a word you don't hear very often anymore. What a disgusting notion. You blow your nose into some cloth than stick said item into your pocket. Then maybe you get it out later and let go again. Perfect it's back in your pocket. People even hawk loogies into hankies. I suppose your hanky is more environmentally friendly than a wad of tissues. But at what cost? Yer carrying around germs for crissakes.

And here's something else that's new. Used to be that when you had to sneeze you just let go. Not anymore fella. You've got to sneeze into your arm. Supposed to do the Dracula move.  Great, now you've got snot on your jacket or shirt. Because a sneeze into thin sir is really going to start the next influenza epidemic? I call bullshit. But I’m stuck with it. I start sneezing into the atmosphere and I’m suddenly a crude thoughtless asshole. Enough with this.

*********************************************************************************

Today I took the trolley to the Ferry Building during my lunch hour to make a purchase for the wife’s forthcoming birthday. The trolley I took back only went as far as Pier 39 as sometimes happens so I had to walk the rest of the way to the school where I render my services. The walk took me through the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf.

During tourist season.

Yuck!

Places like Fisherman’s Wharf were created and are maintained for the sole purpose of separating people from their hard earned dollars. There are shops aplenty with all manner of junk that no one need and often never think to buy until they see it. Like the tee shirt that says: "will trade my wife for beer" or the one that says "will trade my husband for wine." Yokels actually stop and guffaw at this sort of thing. Tourist traps cater to the lowest common denominator in our society just as television and the film industry generally do.

Imagine if literature and intelligent cinema and local craft fares and farmer’s markets and sustainable gardens and organic food and theatrical productions and poetry were promoted a third as much as fast food restaurants or chain stores or super hero movie sequels or tourist traps. Maybe we’d have far fewer overweight men in Donald Duck tee shirts walking around slurping diet colas and taking photos of Aunt Bess and Little Emmy in front of the wax museum. Maybe if the dollar didn't rule popular culture we'd have more reasoned debates and more sophisticated tastes and fewer guys like that fella over there....

He's coming out of a McDonalds eatery emitting a belch. His family is in tow. He’s Todd Lichen from Kansas City, Missouri. Todd’s large belly pushes against his tee shirt and makes his legs look skinnier than they are. His fat has settled in his stomach and face which has a baseball cap shading it. Todd is with Linda — that’s his wife — their 12 year old daughter, Sarah and nine year old boy, Alex. Sarah is bored by everything and hates those moments when she’s not looking at her cell phone. Alex is excited, as is generally the case. He’s a bit portly already and spends too much time watching TV and playing video games but Todd and Linda don’t mind too much because he’s good boy and shows promise as a student. Sarah’s not much of a student right now but they figure that its just a phase because she can write really well and her teacher’s have always liked her. Linda likes being a stay-at-home mom. She always has plenty of projects around the house to keep her busy plus she’s got to look after her parents who are getting on especially now that her sister Lynette is divorced and raising four kids on her own oh and Linda helps her out too plus she volunteers down at the animal shelter once a week. Todd is a building inspector and the pay is pretty good and with what his folks left them they’re doing all right and even have some money invested. Todd’s brother Kirk is an investment counselor and he helped set them up.

Todd and Linda are kind of glad to be out of Missouri in July what with it being so hot back there. They’re enjoying San Francisco’s cool fog and light breezes. They always vacation in different parts of the US. Todd has never been out of the country — not even to Mexico — and doesn’t see the point what with so much to see and do around this country without the hassle of really long plane flights and passports and shots and whatever. Maybe some day when the kids are growed but for now they’re happy just to see the good ole USA.

Plus Todd likes to see his dollar being spent in country and for example always buys an American car. He loves the country its been real good to him and his family as it has been to millions and millions of others. Todd sure can’t imagine any better what with all the freedoms and such, not that he’s ever tried.

Todd is just as happy to eat lunch in a fast food place and have dinner at an Olive Garden or some other place that’s familiar. Food is food in his book and why spend a lot of money on some fancy place? There’s a real nice steakhouse near where they live that they go to once a month or so but other than that the chains are just fine. Todd figures his health can’t be too bad him not smoking and being only 43 and only occasionally having so much as a beer. He gets vegetables and fruit in his diet when he can, Linda sees to that.

As for travel Todd is real happy to go on tours and see what other tourists see. He thought their trip to Alcatraz this morning was real interesting or as he says it, inner esting. They took a lot of pictures and he's only sorry Sara looked so bored but what can you do kids are what they are. He’s looking forward to seeing the Golden Gate Bridge up close. Just like he got a kick out of seeing the Statue of Liberty last Summer and Mount Rushmore the Summer before that and the Alamo three years back etc.

Linda wants to go see the Castro District that’s so famous for all the gays that hang out there but Todd isn’t sure its such a good idea. He may have Linda take Sara there tomorrow while him and the boy go look at the ballpark where the Giants play. He never understood about the gays and why they make such a big fuss about what they are not that he cares one way or the other just so long as they don’t bother him or his family. Todd’s not much into politics though he doesn’t like paying taxes and would like to see em cut. He also wants to be damn sure that the government doesn’t try taking his guns because he’s big on the second amendment and believes everyone else should be too because its part of the American heritage or whatever. Though he doesn’t remember much of his school history Todd is real sure that the founders meant for everyone to have their own gun and he won’t hear of anything different on the subject. Other than that Todd stays out of current event type discussions, he’s got enough to concern himself what with his job and the family and of course football which he loves and other sports which he likes though not basketball so much. Todd enjoys nothing more in the world than plunking himself down in his easy chair to watch a game or whatever ESPN is talking about if no game is on. Linda and the kids have other shows they like to watch which is why there’s a TV in the playroom and another in the master bedroom.

But so anyway Todd has a tooth pick working out some pieces of meat and he’s ready to do whatever else is on the agenda he can’t remember what though Linda will know.  Linda is a good wife. Todd doesn’t even pay much notice the fact that her looks have faded pretty fast and she’d kind of filled out in ways you wouldn’t want. Linda hasn’t paid much attention to things like new clothes (for herself) and make up since Sara was born. Those days are over for her and she barely looks in a mirror anymore. Todd loves Linda with all his heart but physical passion is no longer in the cards not that it matters, both of them are generally too tired by the time they go to bed anyway.

Linda reaches into her purse for their “agenda.” Todd can’t fathom how Linda’s purse can have seemingly everything and anything in it. Tissues, bandages, gum, tweezers, tylenol, cough drops, addresses, maps, lip stick, keys, candy bars, twisties, rubber bands, pens, anything you’d need on any occasion in any emergency. Sometimes Todd kids her asking does she have a canned ham in there in case they get hungry. Todd is a kidder all right. He likes a good laugh and he enjoys giving people a hard time about this or that.

Finally as he's wondering off thinking of nothing, just looking, Linda reminds him they’re going to where they catch the cable car and that sounds real interesting. Inner esting.

Me. I’m getting the hell out of the commercial wharf area and into my building. I’ve got work to do.

15 July 2014

The Lap of The Lord -- My Brief Flirtation With Gawd Almighty I Can't Believe that Ever Happened



Born again naturally.

I spent two months being a born again holy roller christian. Right smack in the middle of my early 20’s when what was first and foremost on my mind was getting laid and getting high. I was such a devoted member of the assembly of god church that in addition to attending services on Sunday morning and reading all the church provided literature I could get my hands on including the holiest of all books that there bible, I went out most every night and pursued all the sin I could get my hands on. Two faced me. The halo at my feet.

What was I thinking? Why had I answered “the call”? Why did I go through the motions of something I didn’t believe, not in my heart not anywhere? Why did I sit through sermons that were equal parts conservative political philosophy and what Jesus had to say? Why did I still there when the pastor lambasted Roots, the then recently aired mini series about slavery, for supposedly being racist as it depicted all white people in such a negative light? Why did I go to their barbeques and listen to conversations about how all films were evil accepting perhaps some Disney movies? What was I doing among these bible thumpers and gospel humpers?

Damned if I know. And I suppose they all thought I’d be damned for sure once I skipped my baptism and never showed my hide around their parts ever again. (A few months later one congregationalist bicycled past me as I strolled down the street and exclaimed cheerily, "jesus loves you!" I told her to thank him for me. Wonder if she ever did.)

I was staying with a young married couple, Bill and Robin who had been reborn years earlier and were regulars at the church. They were so devout that a few years later Robin left Bill for another man who she’d had an affair with and a year after that Bill was living with a woman outside the bounds of holy matrimony. Don’t guess he was still going to the church at the time. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

They let me crash on their sofa that summer as I was a college student without a place to live for two months. They were fun and funny people who enjoyed my fun and funniness though I didn’t understand about this whole god business they brought up from time to time. It didn’t seem to fit with who they really were and as I’ve already given away, wasn’t. Maybe we’re all hypocrites of one kind or another, especially when we add a religion with all its dos and don’ts and strict beliefs about why and how to the mad mix that is our brain and the original sin of the way we think with it and view the world. You’ve got to give up so much of who you really are and what you really believe to swallow whole someone else’s rules. People who are true believers and give themselves wholly to a belief system have abdicated so much of their nature that they are forever pixilated and confused but don’t have the ability to realize it. They subjugate their own ideas and fears and questions in such a way that its as if they are suppressing a gigantic dump. The fumes pour out of their system and foul the earth. So much.

Bill and Robin were always broke, often desperately so which was real bad considering they had a three year old son. Their usual response to dire financial circumstances was to pray. At one point I asked my brother to bail them out with a loan which he did and I suppose they convinced themselves that god had just answered their prayers. Yeah, right.

Bill took me to a couple of revival meetings. I went out of a combined lack of anything better to do and curiosity. When the call came for converts I could hear him pray in a whisper that I be “saved.” Well one day I just strolled on up there and accepted jesus as my lord and savior. I hadn’t felt anything at the time it just seemed like the thing to do. This was the next chapter in what was rapidly becoming one helluva crazy mixed-up  life that was going all directions at once and getting me nowhere in particular and taking me everywhere.

Here’s what it was: it was something new. Brand new. Let’s try this new thing it’s gotta be better than that old thing which was really nothing at all.  I’d come to jesus and things would get better. Better than what I didn’t know but I was disinclined to over do my thinking.

I accepted my new faith whole hog except for the prohibitions on things I liked to do and anything that infringed on my political beliefs. (And what it is with evangelicals and conservative republican orthodoxy? What is there about jesus, a hippie if there ever was one, that appeals to war mongering gun lovers who think its just tough luck if you're poor?)

So I would show up on Sundays and occasionally for other functions and pretend to speak in tongues (now there was some weird shit that I knew I was faking). I believed but did not feel that there was a god in heaven who’d had this book called the bible written and who’d sent his kid down on earth to perform miracles and die for our sins. Please note that sins are still committed and still need to be forgiven and according to the church I attended if you didn’t accept jesus you go to hell where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Some god, eh? Oh but he will answer your prayers --or not -- I mean its his will after all and just because you pray for your cousin to get cured of his cancer doesn’t mean he will be. But pray anyway because it gives you something to do while your cuz is dying and gives you some sense of involvement and if he dies so what you did your part and can’t be faulted it was god’s will. God’s will. No accounting for that.

I thought a lot about all this nonsense as I sat through church services replete with individuals giving their testimonies usually about how god had acted in their lives and how grateful they were and how god had given meaning to their life and blah blah blah. I sat there and thought what a lot of bushwa it was. How I lasted two months I do not know. I suppose it was because I was supplementing the holy spirit with alcoholic spirits and the tender affections of heathen women.

I grew up Lutheran. This is the white bread of religions. There’s no radical orthodoxy involved no out of the ordinary rituals or weird rites or goofy practices. A simple sermon, some standard hymns some rote prayers and you’re on your way and you likely wont be asked to do much between Sundays unless you want to donate a sweater to the poor.

I went to Sunday school and loved it for the stories. Gotta give the bible credit, its chock full of really good tales, maybe especially for kids. I went through confirmation when I was 14. Towards the end of the process the pastor predicted that most of us would stop showing up at church once we were confirmed, I thought that I’d be different just to spite him and in fact I showed up one Sunday after my confirmation and never again in a church until my savior summer that I’m detailing here. Before all the Sunday school and stuff started I was baptized. Of course I was baby at the time and had no say in the matter nor any memories of said event. I imagine that as an infant the whole business was rather annoying and probably even made me bawl. Point is I’d been baptized but that didn’t count in the assembly of god which believed you had to be older and aware of what was going on for it to have meaning and for god to accept it and punch your ticket to heaven.

So I was scheduled one Sunday afternoon to be baptized. I was going to ride into church with Bill and Robin as was the custom. Seemed to me overkill as I’d already endured a service that morning. I had some time to kill and as was my wont when time was available I traipsed down to a local watering hole to imbibe some spirits. Again not the holy kind. I went to a place called Madison Bear Gardens which was three floors of bars that in the evening had one floor for dancing. Another floor served food and the other was just for plain old drinking. I sat down and had a beer. As was generally the case, one beer led to another, then another and another and I was off. Besides the US Open tennis final was on TV and this was during a short spell in my life when I enjoyed playing and watching the game. Tennis lasted longer for me then the church. Less rules.

It wasn’t long before I thought something alone these lines: “screw the baptism, I’m bailing on this whole christian business and concentrating on fun.” And so I did.  I stayed in the bar and got good and zonked. By this time my stay at Bill and Robin’s sofa was over and I’d moved in with roomies in one of those dens of sin us college kids lived in. I returned to that home late in the evening to find a note from Bill. I forget all the details of it but do remember one line: "you’ve been lifted to the lap of the lord in prayer.” So there I’d been right at god’s lap and I’d passed on the idea of plunking myself down and having a seat. Imagine. And what about the almighty? There I was within easy reach and he passed on me. Gee thanks. The note assured me that I’d be welcomed back into the fold any time and that prayers were being proffered for my safe return to the church. I then realized just how silly I’d been. It wasn’t just that I’d wasted my time with this whole born again business, I’d wasted other people’s time too. Hell god himself was probably annoyed with me for giving a bunch of lip service to him then chucking it all to drink beer and watch tennis. In any case I felt free. Liberated from the bonds of religion, never to bother with it again, or to bother it again.

It's a very strange chapter in my life. One that defies easy explanation. In the intervening years I've thought a lot about god and how in all likelihood no such being exists and that christianity is done well more harm than good. Yes I know that there have been many charitable works performed by christians for hundreds of years. I also know that much war violence torture and suffering has come out of the church. But in some ways the worse -- you should excuse the expression -- sin by the church has been shutting down peoples' minds and imaginations. By providing false and easy answers and hopes that are not based on any rational thought or -- dare I say it -- science, religions have slowed human progress, stifled the arts and limited the capacity for hundreds of millions of people to reach their true intellectual and spiritual potentials.

Amen.

13 July 2014

Almost 40 Years of Three Days of the Condor Still a Great Film that Still Stirs Memories

On a Saturday night in the Fall of 1975 Becky and I went to see a new film called Three Days of the Condor (1975). Becky and I were living together at the time. She was quite functional as a lover and friend but was devoid of intellectual curiosity and I’d guess that to this day she has maintained her streak of not picking up a book since high school. I didn’t realize it at first, but I was quite fortunate when she packed her bags and left the next Spring. Anyhoo we went to see this movie and I really liked it. Not sure that Becky cared for it. It should have been a clue that our relationship was not built to last that we generally didn’t like the same sort of films. I recall watching They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969) on TV with Becky and wanting to discuss it afterwards and she didn’t see the point either of the film or my musings on it. Warning sign.

Last night I watched Three Days of the Condor for maybe the fifth or sixth or seventh time. As I have previously on several occasions, I watched it with the missus with whom I’ve been happily married for 27 years. (Happy for me. I think the jury's still out for her.) She does pick up books and she reads them and she likes and loves many of the same films as I do and we both really like TDOC. In terms of “serious” relationships I’ve made up for my earlier misstep many many times over by this marriage.

TDOC one of the many 1970s films like The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), Marathon Man (1976), The Conversation (1974), Serpico (1973) and Alien (1979) in which there is a conspiracy afoot and one or two brave men — in one case a woman — tries to uncover it and live to tell the tale. Some uncover. Some don’t. Some live. Some don’t. If you want to know how the protagonist in TDOC fares — one Robert Redford — you’ll have to watch the movie and by the way I heartily recommend that you do. If you've seen it before, watch it again. What, you got something better to do?

Redford plays a CIA agent of sorts. Joe Turner reads books for the agency to see if the material is being used or planted by national security agencies for the US or enemy regimes in actual operations. He works in an office with seven other similarly employed agents. One seemingly typical day it is his turn to pick up lunch. He returns to find everyone in the office has been killed -- as he was meant to be. It seems our friend has uncovered something that some folks wish he hadn't (after all these viewings I'm still not clear on why they wiped out the whole office). Wisely Joe hits the streets (of New York) and soon realizes no one can be trusted. Though not a field agent, Joe is a resourceful sort which is a good thing because anyone on the run from the CIA has to use his wits to good effect. Not surprisingly his home is being monitored. This is the proverbial nowhere to turn scenario. So Joe kidnaps a woman, Kathryn Hale (Faye Dunaway) to aid and abet him. She is understandably reluctant at first but becomes a willing accomplice as she senses his sincerity and falls for his dashing good looks. This is after all Robert Redford.

A few posts ago I mentioned -- not for the first time -- the incredible run of films in which Ms. Dunaway appeared over a ten year stretch starting with Bonnie and Clyde (1967). This is not her meatiest roles from among those films, but as was her custom she handled it very well.

Among Joe's foils is a mysterious paid assassin played most ably by Max von Sydow. It's a helluva good story and for my money (what little there is of it) the finest directorial effort by the late Sydney Pollack. The computers are of course quite anachronistic but the storyline holds up well. Particularly the notion that oil is of paramount importance and would lead a country to go to war (sound familiar?). There are many elements of the film that have been subsequently borrowed by others such as the Bourne films. Here is the original rogue agent defying his superiors and foiling them at every turn. In TDOC Cliff Robertston and John Houseman have the type of roles that the likes of Chris Cooper and Judi Dench would later play as frustrated higher ups trying to reign in someone who "knows too much" and is a threat to national security. The stripping of trust is a staple of many very good films; its something Hitchcock did to perfection. It is a terrifying scenario when those closest to us can no longer be counted -- or are dead -- and our institutions betray us as well.

This is what makes TDOC among the great paranoia films of the Seventies coming out in the wake of government exposed lies about Vietnam, assassinations, domestic spying and Watergate. They were intelligent films that did not rely on prolonged action sequences, special effects, exotic locales or gratuitous love stories. America didn't feel it could trust its government anymore and this fear was reflected in film. Actually it might be more accurate to say that these weren't paranoia films as much as they were telling it as it was and is. If not in actual fact then certainly in feeling.

As to the movie going experience I can say unequivocally I feel much nostalgia.  Mind you I'm very very happy to own a veritable library of films on DVD and to have access to hundreds of others via such providers as Nextflix and Hulu but there was something special about movie going in bygone days. For me the Seventies were the pinnacle. It was the golden age of cinema with story the king and the shackles of censorship removed and a passel of great directors working. There were no computers to watch movies on and anything on TV was interrupted by advertising and edited for sexual content and language and extreme violence. Even without knowing what was to come in a few decades, many of us only rarely bothered trying to watch a movie on the telly. So going to the theater was a special experience. The one chance to see a film. There was no notion of waiting for anything to come out on video.

In those days I would actually go to movies at night, even and especially Saturdays as I did when I saw TDOC with Becky (it's bargain matinees for me now, the smaller the crowd the better). It was an event and there was always something good playing. Also the theaters were actually theaters and not the sterile multiplexes of today that have no character. Individuals theaters were unique. And the experience was actually called "going to the movie theater." Theater. 

I wonder whatever became of old Becky. We had a few good months and I'm only embarrassed that it was she who saw that we were going nowhere. The damndest thing though, I have no clear recollection what she thought of Three Days of Condor. Probably not much. Today's current crop of Spider X Wolverines probably suit her taste more.

But I am happy that the missus loves the Three Days of the Condor. She's aces.



11 July 2014

Backpack Whack Jack More Fear and Loathing on Public Transportation

Tiny Asian woman whacked me with her backpack on MUNI yesterday. Not unusual except I was sitting and she didn’t just graze me, this blow would have felled a rhino. I offered a stern disapproving look after ejaculating an exaggerated “ow!” It was more at the offense than any injury. She offered an apology the repeating of which lessened its effect.

There was an old female junkie on the bus replete with tattoos. Hard to say her age because clearly decades of drug abuse had sucked years out of her. It’s not so much the drugs themselves that does that as the lifestyle the junkie leads. Lack of nutrition and sleep coupled with stress and illness will leave a 30 year old look deep into middle age. The poor lady looked horribly depressed. Maybe she was in recovery — she sure wasn’t high at the time and if she was she had gotten a hold of some really bad stuff. Being in recovery is no guarantee of happiness or contentment or even freedom from depression. Indeed addicts need to get clean then learn to live that way. You take drugs and booze away from a user and you’ve got one fucked up crazy human being who has to learn how to be in the world all over again without the benefit of being a child living at home.

Recovering addicts have to learn to navigate life without that one thing they loved most. That one thing that provided comfort. That one thing that provided joy. That one thing that gave reason and meaning. That one thing that was everything. It’s a confounding way of life which is why so many people relapse. Its much easier not to even try.

I’ve been something of a mess for large swaths of my life but I have managed to — as the saying goes — take care of business. This includes knowing that I needed to get clean and stay that way. The infinitely more difficult part is living an emotionally healthy life and being a positive fellow passenger on planet Earth to those around you. That took me years and I’m still very much a work in progress and fully expect to be until I draw my dying breath.

But I digress….

Today’s MUNI ride featured no vicious blows just the usual bumps and elbowings and kicks and toe steppings. I’ve learned to adjust to riding through Chinatown and among Chinese people. Now the reader should know that I teach at an international school with students from all over the world and I like people equally from all parts of the globe but I do recognize that their different cultures and different norms. I may especially like some peoples and cultures but I am adamant about not disliking any (until such time as I come across a culture of cannibalistic necrophiliacs who bludgeon puppies and slap strangers). So my recognition of the reality of Chinese bus behavior is totally non judgmental. And here is part of the point: I no longer am offended by anything but the most egregious actions like the aforementioned full on backpack battering. I do not shake my head or think evil thoughts. I know the drill. But I’ve also adapted. I return elbow for elbow when getting on or off. I give no quarter and ask none in return. I realize that riding with my Chinese brother and sisters is a full contact sport and I’m just this close to wearing full body armor. You gonna shove me to get off the bus two seconds earlier than me? I’ll shove you back and gain that two seconds. Deal? I’ve yet to draw so much as an angry look from any 88 year old Chinese woman who I’ve jousted with. I may even be earning their respect. They’ve got mine. Just so long as I’m not taking a fully loaded backpack blast to the ribs.

10 July 2014

Misanthropic Musings During Lunch



I am sitting in a room adjoining the teacher lunchroom where sundry teachers prattle on sharing nothing evading everything dancing with somethings. Verbal sparring jarring dancing gymnastics and play. Banalities exchanged freely.  

Habits
- I drink this much coffee this often.
- And I drink that much that often.
- I buy some of these every week.
- I buy them once a month.
- I sleep this long.
- I sleep that long.

How is Everybody?
- Oh and how are you?
- I’m fine.
- That’s good.
- Yes it is very good that I am fine. I like being fine.
- I like it when you’re fine and I like it when I’ m fine.
- Yes being fine is quite good. The other day I wasn’t fine.
- That is quite sad.
- Yes I didn’t like not being fine.
- I never like not being fine either.

Plans 
- What are your plans?
- These are my plans.
- I like your plans they are good plans. I don’t have any myself.
- Oh that’s good too not to have plans.
- Yes it can be good to have plans and it can also be good not to have any plans at all.

Past Actions
- And what did you do earlier?
- I did this. What did you do?
- I didn't do anything but once I did that too.
- Did you like doing that?
- I loved doing that and I will do that again sometime.
- You should, you really should do that.

Important Topics
- Hey can I join in? Can I pontificate in my grating voice and establish for you how high-minded and intelligent I am?
- Okay we’ll pretend to listen while you launch into a diatribe.
- Great here is something I care about and am thus angry about because of this other related matter and here is what I believe should be done about it because I just read an article about it. Actually I just skimmed it and have a cursory understanding of the issue but feel empowered to discuss it because of my inflated sense of self.
-Yes you are self important and pretentious, as a consequence I will establish that I too have a strong opinion about something that makes me angry though I am impotent to do anything about.
- All right now I’ll pretend to listen to you as I think of how much smarter than you I am and as I plan what I will say next that somehow relates but is really an attempt to demonstrate how bright I am because --you know -- I went to college.
- Okay but I'm going to go on extra long about my thing because I'm bitter and I love the sound of my own voice.
- No one else does.

Segue into Loathing
And mostly there is the hatred. What you hate what aggravates you what gets on your nerves what you can’t fathom what you don’t tolerate what you won’t put up with. Rant. Rave. Complain onto your grave.

- I'm so angry about.
- Yes that pisses me off too.
- My expression of outrage suggests that I am knowledgeable and passionate.
- Yes that your passions are stirred about this matter is most impressive.
- I know, right?
- I too am angry. There is something that really gets on my nerves.
- Oh yes that is annoying. I share your outrage.
- This is what sophisticated people do -- bitch about things.
- I am most sophisticated of all because I bitch constantly and am always shaking my head knowingly.

Left Unsaid
- I'm going outside for a cigarette because it is the ultimate act of self loathing and I hope to die prematurely after suffering for years from the effects of smoking.
- Yes I recognize that you have that disgusting habit but I am non judgmental which is a good thing considering my issues with overeating.
- Your overeating is obvious to us all but we pretend not to notice.
- I overeat in part because my life has not turned out the way I had planned and I'm bitter.
- I'm also disappointed with the course my life has taken which is why I drink heavily on weekends.
- Well I hope you enjoy your cigarette and are able to ignore the long term effects of your addiction.
- I'm unable to ignore those effects as my breathing is labored.
- It's not wonder neither of us are in a meaningful relationship.
- I'm pretty much impotent anyway so by not being in a relationship I merely avoid the embarrassment of sexual dysfunction.
- Well catch ya later.
- Yeah it was a chore talking to you as you are so banal but I'll also close our conversation by wishing you god's speed.

People are finishing eating and talking and thus giving their mouths' a rest for a bit. It's been my pleasure to tune out today's conversations through the magic of my iPod. It's unlikely that I missed anything. Although I kind of wonder what Barbara is doing this weekend and what Garrett thinks of the mayor and I wonder if Lena is caught up on Game of Thrones yet.

Hey, ya miss school ya miss out.




08 July 2014

Reds - The Passion of Reed; Stephen Fry Does America; And I Proclaim a New Number One

For our Independence Day viewing we selected that thoroughly patriotic film, Reds (1981).  It is a movie rich with ideas political historical and philosophical and all neatly wrapped within a love story.

Warren Beatty directed and starred as John Reed the leftist journalist who penned the classic book about the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World. Diane Keaton co-starred as his wife Louise Bryant herself a lefty and a writer. Other historical figures depicted include Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapelton) Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) Louis Fraina (Paul Sorvino) and, in smaller roles, Lenin Trotsky Max Eastman and Big Bill Haywood.

It's a great sprawling film of places history politics and ideas. It covers a tumultuous time in the world's history what with World War I and the Russian Revolution in the mix. There are arguments fights betrayals and passion -- the passion of John Reed who zealously pursued the story as a journalist while becoming part of the story. Beatty is not satisfied with merely giving history lessons or prodding audiences to consider political or philosophical discussions. There must also be romance. Young passionate people often hungrily pursue love -- or at least sex. With senses wide awake lust is just a shot away. The Reed-Bryant romance, at least as depicted here, was as enflamed as the times and included betrayal in the form of an affair between Bryant and O'Neill the sotted playwright. There is a familiarity about those scenes and a wise creepiness to Nicholson's performance than can be difficult for a man to watch. You'll be hard pressed to find a more sneaky cynical seducer.

Reds does not seem to be regarded as a classic which is something of a mystery to me. Perhaps it is viewed as espousing leftist politics and thus is a tad subversive for mainstream tastes. It's not a perfect film but it deserves a lofty place in the pantheon of historical epics. Its one of those movies that can send you scrambling to the history books to learn more (okay to wikipedia) and if you're of the type you may shed a tear or two. It really is a grand love affair and an example of grand scale story telling done right.
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It's wonderful to discover a gem in an unexpected place. I was looking for I knew not what on Netflix instant a few days ago and decided to give Stephen Fry in America (2008) a try. Fry is the classy witty British comic/actor/writer/BAFTA host famous for any number of reasons including his very public struggles with manic depression and bi polar disorder. He is charming and erudite without a hint of snobbery. Suffice to say I am a fan. I'd had this six part made for British telly series gathering dust on my instant queue for ages and it seemed the July 4th weekend was a logical time to take it for a test drive. I hadn't expected much but I got plenty.

In late 2007 early 2008 Fry visited every state in the US via a London cab that had been refashioned for American roadways. The result was an absolute delight. There was no pretense to Fry as he hobnobbed with a lobster fisherman in Maine, a wiccan in Massachusetts, a prostitute in Nevada, a trucker in Nebraska a convict in Mississippi a bigfoot pursuer in Oregon and an inuit whaler in Alaska -- to name but a few. Stephen Fry, despite his height, talks down or looks down on no man or woman. Only in speaking to the camera would he comment on the vulgarity of this or the silliness of that and never at the expense of one of his interviewees. He showed the same sort of respect he was afforded.

The show is an utterly charming and surprisingly comprehensive look at America, Americans and Americana. It actually gives an anti patriot such as myself an appreciation for the -- excuse the cliche -- rich tapestry that makes up this country. It also is a stunning look at the geographic magnificence of a country that boasts such wonders as the Grand Canyon, Great Plains, Everglades, and huge national forests and long coastlines. The show is a great way to look at the US through a foreigner's eyes and learn no small about it. It's nice to see America without any political rancor and without red and blue states but just with people. Fry of course is the ideal host and I only wish there were many hours more of the program.
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"They probably sit around on the floor with wine and cheese, and mispronounce allegorical and didacticism." - Woody Allen as Isaac Davis in Manhattan.

So it happens that every once in awhile -- and I've checked I have a right to do this -- I'll change my number one movie favorite move of all time. It hasn't happened in long time nor does it occur often. But it did this past weekend. After many years at the top The Godfather (1972) gave way to Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). The Earth has not spun off its axis as a consequence.

(It might be worth noting that Diane Keaton is in both the aforementioned films as well as the previously mentioned Reds and of course The Godfather: Part II. She was on quite a run for about a dozen years. Another actress who had a similar golden age was Faye Dunaway who appeared in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Little Big Man (1970)Chinatown (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and Network (1976) over a ten year stretch appearing opposite Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and William Holden, respectively.)

The film Manhattan has been in my life since it first hit theaters 35 years ago. Like most Allen movies it is smart and witty and character driven. Allen has always managed to create characters with relatable neurosis such as Manhattan's protagonist Isaac.  He is intellectual without being pretentious or pedantic and he loves women. His relationships include a high school student (Mariel Hemingway) and a highly neurotic writer named Mary (Keaton) and his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) who has taken up with another woman and written a book about the dissolution of her marriage to Isaac -- much to his chagrin.

Isaac despises then falls in love with Mary. He dumps the teenager only to realize he's made a mistake. This after Mary has re-entered an adulterous relationship with Isaac's best friend. He also impetuously quits his job writing for a TV comedy show. Fickle is as fickle does. But Isaac never lapses into depression nor does he drown his sorrows and indeed he always has his sense of humor and a way of rolling with life's punches and if not always learning his lesson learning something along the way.

Manhattan is an exquisite film to look at (cinematography by the late great Gordon Willis who also shot the Godfather films) being a veritable love letter to the titular city. As with virtually all Allen films the musical score is a perfect accompaniment, in this case via the strains of Gershwin.

The film's ending recalls another classic cinematic climax, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931). Whenever I finish watching Manhattan I feel refreshed excited and intellectually stimulated. I love it.