There is a lot of talk on social media about not letting the barrage of crazy shit coming out of the White House overwhelm us into paralysis.
The best of these messages came from my pal Flo, who I will quote here:
“The important thing for all of us to remember is that we must not let our ‘shock’ define the narrative here. That is, the founding fathers had this scenario, among others in mind, when establishing judicial, legislative and other remedies to counteract this type of behavior. Our job is to make sure the checks and balances are utilized to the fullest extent by those we elected to govern.”
Bless Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for their words on Saturday. Other members of the legislative and judicial branches need to join them in growing a pair. The Legislative and Judicial branches of government standing up to the Executive is our only non-violent alternative to the damage Presidents Bannon, Conway and Trump are working to create.
So, People, drag out your words and start writing. I just dashed this off to Senator Ron Johnson. It might not be a masterpiece, but that is not the point.
Dear Senator Johnson:
I am asking you to remember our system of checks and balances, and to stand up for what is right.
This country was founded by men of their time, men who were forward-thinking, men who had lived under oppression and who came together to form “a more perfect union.”
Their vision was messy, but it has endured (and survived a Civil War) for more than 200 years.
Now, our union is again under attack from the inside. As a citizen, I can raise my voice and stand up for the America I love – the America that provides opportunity for all regardless of race, creed or circumstances of birth. An America that provided public education and welcomed my four grandparents, who fled Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. Family members who did not lie in unmarked mass graves, killed by the Nazis.
You, Sir, can do much more. You are in a position to stand up for what is right and to use your voice to stop the slide from the Democratic Republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers to an authoritarian regime.
I love my country, Sir, and am deeply concerned at the events of the past week. I do not support Betsy DeVos, Rex Tillerson or Jeff Sessions and am appalled at the lack of forethought that appears to be emanating from the executive branch.
I ask you to think deeply about history and to stand up to the administration around policies and individuals that threaten the future of our country and the world. The recent ill-considered decisions regarding immigration and health care policy would be good places to start.
Any time you want to meet to discuss these things in person, I would be willing, able and grateful.
Note: The second of several postings about the most amazing reunion in the history of reunions.
Dear Anyone Who Gives a Rat’s Ass About Education:
First off, thank you.
Secondly, never underestimate what you can learn watching something you’ve spent a year planning as it unfolds.
We were in the midst of the formal portion of the afternoon program – a part for which I’d taken ownership. I was simultaneously watching it and marveling at my own cluelessness.
By “we,” I mean approximately 70 of the 250 students and all four of the teachers who spent the first several months of the 1974-75 school year creating an original theater piece to commemorate upcoming US Bicentennial and the rest of that year and all of the next one performing it.
The reunion included a four-hour afternoon portion (free and open to all), followed by a catered dinner at a local restaurant ($25 and open to the first 100 people who made a reservation – 65 people bought tickets).
We wanted to keep things free form, so people could have plenty of time to reconnect and hang out.
The result was an afternoon and evening that mostly consisted of happy screeching, animated conversations and an impromptu post-dinner sing-a-long (with guitar accompaniment) for those interested in exploring the number of “American Pie” verses they remembered. Afterward, there were gatherings at a local bar and at the hotels where some of us stayed.
But Bob, who directed the theater department and had started the reunion ball rolling, had a copy of a 1975 film, “Making ‘Revolution.’” He wanted it to be a surprise at the reunion. With a running time of just under 10 minutes, it wasn’t long enough to stand on its own programmatically.
We knew from the get-go that he & Ron, our orchestra director, would be there. Those two have never been out of touch with each other. But we also wanted our choral director and dance teacher. Jim and Kathy hadn’t stayed in touch with Bob and Ron, and they hadn’t imbibed the social media Kool-Aid. We turned to more analog methods to find them, and succeeded.
So I put together a program. Our classmate Patty, who became a high school music teacher, was available to emcee. Jim wanted to speak first. Bob wanted to speak last. Kathy and Ron were happy to be in the middle of a teacher sandwich. Jim bravely agreed to end the program by leading us all in singing Peter Lukins’ setting of “The Lord Bless You & Keep You.” It was always the closer in high school chorus concerts.
At the appointed time, we got everyone seated and the program started.
I can’t tell you directly what it feels like to address a bunch of people you were paid to deal with – and evaluate – 40 years ago, who have shown up because of something you made happen that seemed like a good idea at the time and you could. Based on what I saw, it feels pretty good.
What I hadn’t expected, though, was to realize that there was something revolutionary going on right at that moment, and right in that room.
I wanted every “expert” with an opinion about public education – particularly those in politics, educational policy or educational administration – to see it, and I wanted every parent and every person who cares about the future of education in this country to feel it.
If they did, maybe more contemporary students would have teachers working in the types of settings that generated the kinds of things our teachers said last Saturday afternoon.
We, the People, are the ones who need to make it happen.
I will leave you with our teachers’ words, and some links to video where you can actually see them being said. (Cynthia, one of my contemporary teacher pals, declared: “It sounds like Mad Men with teachers!” when I told her something about what was in the 1975 film. I won’t spoil the surprise, but let’s just say that there’s no way in Hell that you’d ever see one of today’s teachers on camera engaging in that behavior in any kind of work-related setting. Everything they were saying would have been drowned out by howls of outrage and screams about “Degenerate Bad Role Models” from smug Ignorami who are certain that teachers are lazy wastrels doing a job that they could do cheaper and better.)
“Where do you have a job where you go every day, and love what you’re doing and make music?”
“I could not wait to come to school – to work – in the morning. I loved every minute of every day I spent…If UFA were still open, they would have had to drag me out in chains, kicking and screaming before I would ever retire.”
“Over our careers, we were often asked to sit down and make sure we had enough statements available if someone asked us why the arts were necessary or what was significant…. It would be lovely to take a capsule of this and take it back, because you don’t see it until after the fact.”
“We started out as a group….and we rehearsed and we rehearsed and we rehearsed and then we became a family.”
“I was only going to stay a couple of years and move on, but I kept getting these terrific kids and they kept coming and coming.”
“The fact that I wanted to do a dance class, (administration) could have said, ‘No, that’s not happening,’ and (the principal) didn’t. He said as long as the numbers warranted it, we could have it as an addition to gym opportunities. And then it kind of snowballed, so we were able to think about how, choreographically, it would help in musicals.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cu5xE9FjRyk – This is the 1975 video, which was digitized from the original celluloid version, which had deteriorated. For that reason, the digitized version was sped up some. All props to Jim Houghtaling, who took the digitized version and did his best to restore it to the actual speed.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyHqne6B4KE – This one is quite long and expertly produced by Jim. It contains images from the reunion itself (probably not terribly interesting to anyone who didn’t go to school with us). Some of the speakers are edited, and there are reunion scenes. All the music is our high school selves on the recording we made at the time, and the 1975 film begins at about 25:52.
Today is all about taste – good and bad. First, the bad.
That would be Brian Williams. It wasn’t enough for Brian to be a tall, handsome, white, rich and hugely successful anchorman at NBC News. He had to lie about being in a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq so he could also appear to be … I don’t know. I got nothing. Well, that’s not completely true.
As a former reporter, I am disgusted. I never made it to the big leagues. It’s not that I wasn’t good enough (I might not have been, but that’s not the why of this discussion). It’s that I started late. I was in my 30s when I got my first full-time job at a small-town daily newspaper. The pay was terrible. As a single mother of three young daughters, I qualified for $126 a month in food stamps. I worked my butt off. I hated the pay, but oh, I loved the work.
A year or so in, my editor sent me and another reporter to a local school to talk to students about what we did as part of a career day event. A third-grader asked me if I’d ever lied in a story.
“I’m too lazy,” I told him. “It’s a lot of work. You have to remember who you told what to and when. Also, I have to look at myself in the mirror in the morning.”
Then I got serious and talked about how important it was to report whatever it is you’re covering in a way that lets a reader draw his or her own conclusions, to describe whatever it is you’re describing while also staying out of the reader’s way. Telling the truth, I told him, is the most important thing a reporter does.
So, shame on Brian Williams, who has made it harder for all the hardworking journalists out there who practice their craft with ruthless integrity. All the money in the world will not buy his reputation back, and his stink taints the rest of us.
Okay, enough about that man. Because I wanted to have a standard of living and because I started late, I no longer commit acts of journalism on a regular basis. Which brings us to things good and tasteful, or at least tasty.
One of the perks of my current job at a large Midwestern technical college is proximity to the best-tasting homework in the universe. Our associate degree, technical diploma and certificate programs include culinary arts and baking and pastry arts degrees. That means we have a student-run bakery and café, pop-up restaurant and a student-run section of the main food court. There is also a fine-dining restaurant called Cuisine.
The front and back of the house are separate classrooms, and the students are responsible for all the functions that occur there. So the maître d’, servers, buspeople, hosts and managers are all culinary students. Every week they switch off different roles. At mid-semester, the course ends and they switch with the students who worked in the back of the house. There, they rotate through all the roles one would find in the kitchen of a fine-dining restaurant while the former kitchen staff becomes the dining room crew. Chefs need to know what goes on in a dining room. And potential chef-owners get a sense of what they’re thinking about signing up for in a low-stakes setting.
I’ll be honest. The service is kind of slow. Which is not a surprise. After all, the students are not training to be servers, they’re training to be chefs. The food makes up for it, and then some. Also, the service is extremely friendly and the prices are ridiculously cheap for what you get.
This past Tuesday, my friend (and colleague) Rick and I and lucked into lunch on the house. If we’d paid, the meal would have cost us $17 each before tax and tip. The restaurant moved into a brand-new space two years ago. It’s spacious, decorated in warm neutral tones. Walk in and you don’t feel like you’re at work anymore. Two large monitors are mounted on the walls. No matter where you’re seated, you can watch the kitchen action. Great food and reality TV. I have had worse days at work!
Rick ordered this: “Jeff Leen Chicken, pan-seared breast and boneless leg with tomato-basil mousseline forcemeat, cauliflower risotto, baby broccoli with red onion, and yellow pepper and romesco sauce.”
I ordered this: “Grilled Hanger Steak, pommes frites, baby broccoli with red onion and yellow pepper and truffle Madeira sauce.”
We had salads, too. I had this one: “Mixed Greens, apples, dried cranberries, almonds and goat cheese with a basil-chive vinaigrette.”
Rick ordered this: “Spinach Salad, mango, red peppers, scallions and toasted sesame seeds with a curry emulsion dressing.”
We didn’t order wine, because we were going back to work. But we could have, because the restaurant has a license to serve a single glass to any customer who is of proper age and orders one. The school applied for the liquor license because students need to know about food and wine pairings. We also didn’t order dessert, which looked great. But time was running short and we both like to make sure we are giving the taxpayers of Wisconsin their money’s worth.
We were standing in the living room of my sister’s house when my 16-year-old niece (who will never be smarter again in her life than she is now) said, “C’mon, tell me you wouldn’t want to be 16 again.”
What I wanted to say was “*#^K NO!!!! ARE YOU CRAZY????”
What I said, instead, was “Not for all the money in the world.”
What was going on inside my head looked something like this:
The marriage part of my first marriage
The unemployed/bad relationship part of the aftermath of my first marriage
Being working poor well into my 40s
What I was thinking about those times can most easily be expressed using some imaginary xml tags:
<cower><cringe><shudder>The marriage part of my first marriage</shudder></cringe></cower>
<cringe><shudder>The unemployed/bad relationship part of the aftermath of my first marriage</shudder></cringe>
<shudder>Being working poor well into my 40s</Thanks but no, thanks>
Now is definitely better.
Anyway, back in my cringe-worthy high school days, I was an orchestra geek.
Orchestra was a bright spot in a dark time. No matter how bad the rest of my life was, eighth period meant I got to play music and be part of something larger and far better than myself.
Also, our urban public high school had no defined ruling class and a really great performing arts department. In 1975, music and theater faculty wrote and received a grant to create an original musical work celebrating US Bicentennial in 1976.
Here’s a description from a document prepared by New York State:
“As an outgrowth of a Pilot Project Search program to develop an interdisciplinary approach to cognitive learning, the students and faculty of Utica Free Academy decided to create and produce a rock opera for the bicentennial. Vocal, instrumental, drama, art, English, social studies and audio-visual students and faculty have used classroom and extra-curricular time to create, write, design, plan, organize, build, and produce ‘Revolution.’ Through music, dance, drama, and the visual arts, the sense of the American Revolution rather than the revolution itself is conveyed. Aspects of local history are included.”
It’s probably more realistic to contemplate keeping 200 frogs in a wheelbarrow than trying to get a bunch of high school kids to write a musical. But Mr. Barone, Mr. Hanosh and Mr. Hebert (theater, choir & orchestra) and Mrs. Schmidt (dance – yes, our urban public high school had a dance teacher) pulled us together. Every Wednesday night that fall term we met in the orchestra room. Anyone who showed up was welcome to pitch in.
My sister and I ended up with co-writing credits. My song was in the first act, hers in the second. I remember how jarring it was the first time I heard the brass section belting out the notes I’d been hearing as guitar chords.
Our friend Jeannie wrote lyrics. Prodigies like Sam & Sar wrote music, lyrics and did their own orchestrations. Mike wrote lyrics and designed the logo, which appeared on the stage curtain and on the T-shirts we wore for performances. Joe worked on lighting and tech design. I could go on, but I won’t.
Fast forward 40 years. Through a series of events I can best describe as serendipitous and confusing, I am part of a three-person planning committee with Jeannie and my high school stand partner, John. Along with ex-officio members Mr. Barone & Mr. Hebert – now Bob & Ron – we are in the midst of planning a Revolution Reunion this coming summer. In the spirit of our high school, we’re throwing it open to anyone who was part of the performing arts department, whether or not they were in high school for that show.
I don’t remember when I last spent more time laughing with other people while getting real work accomplished. The three of us haven’t interacted in any meaningful way since high school. So it has been a joy to discover how much we still like each other, how compatible we are as a work team and how closely aligned our ideas and expectations are for the reunion.
We’ve been meeting via Skype on a quasi-monthly basis across three different time zones (Pacific, Central & Eastern) since October. We bought a domain name and John (a professional web designer) created a splash page. We wrote a letter and designed a survey. Bob locked down a location, and we’re now collecting data – via survey – on how many people to expect and what sorts of activities other than the afternoon event we’ve taken on people might want to see occur.
For me, though, the best part of the reunion has already happened.
Call it one of life’s minor miracles. Or some sort of reassuring sign from the cosmos that maybe the world isn’t a completely terrible place. Which, based on my experience, is what happens when you suddenly reconnect with people you liked a lot in your teens and they turn out, in your fifth decade, to be people you like even more now.
Someone’s probably coined some snappy one-word definition to sum up that feeling. But I’m old school. So I’m just going to say that being on Skype with John and Jeannie is a non-stop flight to that zone where nothing bad can touch you and your next big laugh is never more than 30 seconds away.
I like to think I grew up in a practical family, but as I get older, I’m realizing the truth is more that I grew up in a family that liked to think it was merely practical.
I’m in the process of working out exactly what to call us. For now, I’m gonna go with Practical Gothic.
My grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They got to the United States in the early decades of the last century, just in time to raise their children – my parents and their siblings – during the Great Depression.
Dad’s parents settled in Boston. Mom’s were in Central New York. I never met Dad’s father, a cantor whose poor health prevented him from succeeding in business.
My mother’s father died just before my third birthday. I remember Zaydie. My sister and I used to crawl around on his lap as he lay on his recliner, his legs covered with a blanket. He called us “knaidlach,” the Yiddish word for dumplings. He was 25 when he married my then 14-year-old grandmother, the second-oldest girl in her family.
My parents were the first in their families to graduate college. Mom’s parents were farmers who hadn’t gone past third grade. She became a teacher. Dad, from a long line of Orthodox rabbis and cantors, went rogue and became a Reform rabbi.
By the time my sister and I showed up, things were pretty much etched in stone.
We were the youngest of Bubby and Zaydie’s 15 grandchildren. The nearby next-ups were four years older than we were. The oldest, Larry, was born 20 years before me.
We spent lots at “the farm” where Mom had grown up. Mom’s older brother and his family lived there, but my uncle had stopped farming and become a photographer. Duke and Penny, the dogs, were the only animals. Calling it a farm made no sense to me, but I was a kid, and no one much cared what I thought.
Half a century later, with more information, I’m lurching toward answers.
The good news is that I have a few. The bad news is that they’ve raised a lot more questions.
My family’s practicality is a fact. My immigrant grandparents worked hard and stressed the value of education. They passed those values on to my parents, and my sister and I have passed them on to our children.
But they passed on a few other less socially acceptable things, too.
Some of those can be traced to money, or, more accurately, its pursuit, and the fallout of its absence. Some of it can be traced to mental illness, which definitely ran in my father’s family.
I’d like to think that that ran in my mother’s family too. Which might seem strange. But it’s so much nicer to imagine that your great-grandfather killed his children, beat his wife and got his oldest daughter pregnant because he was mentally ill and not just evil.
Unless, that is, you’re still figuring out whether to be practical about it all.
According to my mother, I wore out five copies of “Pat the Bunny” before learning to read – which I did before starting kindergarten.
This did not endear me to Mrs. Ferris, my kindergarten teacher (“Kindergarteners aren’t supposed to read”). It especially did not endear me to my first-grade teacher, Helen Zoeckler.
I spent many an unhappy hour crying in Mrs. Zoeckler’s classroom, sometimes during school hours (making me <not> very popular with my classmates</not>) and sometimes when she would keep me after school, forcing me to repeatedly write words I already knew how to spell correctly. She did not define “crocodile tears,” a term she used derisively whenever I cried. (I didn’t know the word derisively then either, but all props to Mrs. Z for her brilliant illustration of the concept.) When my right-hand pointer finger was severed in the middle of my first grade year (I was right-handed), she moved my desk directly next to hers, facing my classmates, and made me write with my left for three months.
Helen’s true gifts – she would have made a great dominatrix or prison warden – were completely squandered on a generation of traumatized first graders. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that she was unmoved (or maybe even perversely aroused, but I’m not going there) by the misery of six-year-olds.
Dorothy MacDonald’s classroom was the next stop on my educational journey. My presence there afforded Dorothy an opportunity to sharpen her throwing skills.
Because her teaching and my learning styles were not exactly compatible, I found a better way to learn. This involved the artful placement of interesting reading material (mostly biographies, but pretty much any of the chapter books in our school library) in my lap, out of Dorothy’s view. She’d be droning on about something like math (which was not my friend) or spelling (which I rocked), and notice I’d tuned her out. Aiming to capture my attention and the respect she felt I owed her, she’d lob erasers at me. You can probably guess how that worked out – although at least she got some gratification via the appreciative laughter of my classmates.
I have no idea what became of those lovely ladies. In the nightmare closet of my imagination, I see them, hunched over a cauldron as a fire burns beneath it, cackling as they watch imaginary children roast for having had the audacity to learn to read without first suffering their <sarcastic font>loving</sarcastic font> ministrations.
In the end, all that early and under-desk reading paid off and I grew up to be, among other things, a book critic. I’ve written reviews for big-name and not-so-big-name publications. And that has put – and kept me – on publishers’ mailing lists, even though I took a break to go off and get my MLIS degree. (That is another story for another time, but it had nothing to do with my love of books.) Books still just show up in the mail. Also, I have plenty of amazing writer pals (including the kid sitting next to me in that photo – she’s my sister) and now that I’m done with my library degree, I’m building my very own pile of paper with words on it. I may share some of that here as things progress.
Getting back to that whole reviewing thing, though – expect some thoughts and opinions on books you may want to either check out yourself or acquire for someone who may like them.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).