Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Streets of Baltimore

Our City is burning. I have been up on the roof several times today. I watched the smoke from burned cars curl up and drift in slender tendrils just three blocks west of our house. Then a CVS was looted and burned at the same spot. CNN, MSNBC, and even Al-Jazeera were filming live a couple blocks away from our tiny back yard. The experience is surreal. I've thought a lot about saying something, but all I can manage is this: Today many white people felt terrified that they would be pulled from their cars and beaten (or worse) as they fled the City after work. And for no reason other than the color of their skin. If rumors prove true there were some cases of this today. I in no way condone the violence. I abhor it. But those white people who felt genuine terror need to remember the taste of that fear...being pulled from your car at any moment and beaten or worse for no other reason than the color of your skin...and imagine feeling that fear every day of your life. And imagine knowing your father, grandfather, and uncles all had endured it, and seeing no hope for your son to escape it. Wouldn't you want to burn shit down too?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Maps to the Stars

I rented this via iTunes, and the editor's note said something to the effect that David Cronenberg used to specialize in "body horror" films, but now he has "evolved" into a much more mature and sane artist. Whoever wrote that note is a dimwit, because several of Cronenberg's "body horror" films were very mature and artistic affairs--Dead Ringers, eXistenZ, Rabid, Videodrome, etc. Whereas the iTunes editor thinks that Maps to the Stars is a sign of evolution and maturity, I think it's a return to form to his "body horror" heyday after a dalliance in slickly produced somewhat slight action flicks featuring Aragorn as a gangster. This film needs about a half-dozen viewings--and I need to re-read a few Greek dramas as well--to truly appreciate it critically. It's a film about Fate and it speaks the language of Greek myth. There's a lot of incest, there are shades from Hades with Delphic pronunciations, there are life events in a family with cosmic resonances. And at the same time it's a brilliant satire on the shallow nature of Hollywood and stardom and celebrity capitalism. The title of course is a double-entendre, referring at once to Hollywood star maps and to the stories from which the names of many of our constellations were derived. The Paul Eluard poem referred to throughout might help decipher the film's meaning. Julianne Moore is great. The film looks gorgeous--fantastic set design and cinematography. It's deviant and hilarious and darkly disturbing all at once. Might be Cronenberg's Mulholland Drive!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book #2 of 2015

I've read and enjoyed a couple dozen books about WW2 and/or its key figures. This is one of the best, penned by a skeptical, analytic historian, a very careful and methodical researcher who doesn't make claims without first tracking down all available accounts and assessing the deviations. And yet Trevor-Roper is never dull--he's scathingly funny in his descriptions of Nazi Court insiders like Himmler and Goering, and his writing about Speer contains the finest analysis of that troubling figure I've encountered. This little book about the last days in that Berlin Bunker is a classic. Highly recommended, but mostly for readers with a more than casual interest in the subject.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Book #1 of 2015

I must admit I almost bailed on Wilton Barnhardt in the middle of chapter one. I found the central consciousness so annoying, so cloying, and so close in maturity and temperament to the middle school students who assail me daily in class that I nearly shelved the book in my "donations" pile. But I persevered, and gladly...because this novel progresses through the points of view of several characters associated with a grand old Southern family not only in decline, but in precipitous free-fall. Many chapters are dark and sardonic in the tradition of Southern Lit, but there is always a lively and wry sense of the humor of things, and some outrageous laugh-out-loud moments. Barndhardt captures the South, and its damnably intractable problems with race, poverty, and historical accuracy. But this South is not your grandparents' Dixie, and it is doomed to fall a second time to the combined civilizing pressures external to it and to those continuing to rise within its boundries.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Innocents

I never shop at Barnes and Noble...well, almost never. Bad blood from the days I was a Borders employee? But B&N is still hanging in there, doing the brick and mortar thing. Even if their selection is shallow and even if it's hard to find books amongst the clutter of knick-knacks, iAccessories, board games, mugs, and Rosetta Stone stuff. But once a year they have a 50% off Criterion Collection sale. I allowed myself to buy six titles this year, the rule being they had to be films I'd seen once or twice and adored, and always thought about buying but never did. The first of my recent purchases in the Blu-Ray player was The Innocents. Henry James in his late phase loved to pull back the curtain a bit on the paranoid consciousness of authors--his own, in particular--the endless inferences and digressions and interpretations his mind took after an overheard snatch of dialogue at some society party feature prominently in all the late works, but most particularly in The Turn of the Screw and The Sacred Fount. The Turn of the Screw was turned into a wonderful screenplay by Truman Capote, and made into a delicious little film featuring fantastic sets and fine actors and truly remarkable cinematography. The Governess of course "writes" the entire story in her virginal, puritanical, repressed little mind. Capote has obviously read the scholarly debates about the story--whether James intended the hauntings in the tale to be "real" or not--and he comes down firmly on the side of--well, I'll leave it to you to decide. But all the clues are available to the Governess as she constructs her hot and steamy fantasy of demonic dead lovers attempting to take over the bodies of her innocent charges. It's a good time no matter which interpretation you prefer!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Outward Bound

Five days canoeing and camping along the Potomac River with my 8th grade Crew. I've known these guys since 6th grade and it was a privilege to share this Expedition with them. Our Outward Bound instructor was a former Marine and a current marathoner. He had us up at six daily to run and pump and dip (in the river). I lost 9 pounds and was pleased to see I can still run 7 minute miles pretty easily despite no cardio training in 2 years. The last morning we did a 5k and I ran it under 24. Not bad for a crusty old guy out of condition! We paddled 32 miles in five days, often moving down the river for 6 hours or more. The kids took complete responsibility for unloading boats, packing in to camp, setting up, preparing meals, getting a fire going, and organizing a pack line, then stowing the boats safely for the next day. In the morning after working out they would do the reverse. I helped them a bit day 1 after they were trained, but by the next afternoon I was refusing to help them and they were self-sufficient. They even navigated. My kids were amazing. Yes, there was drama, there was homesickness, there was whiny neediness, there was miserable discomfort, there was surly discontent. But these guys were gutsy and honest and stepping WAY outside their comfort zones with grace and perseverance. I had a joyous time--my best, most satisfying experience as a educator.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Work Exchange or Sanctioned Human Trafficking?

Over the past two decades I've noticed that all the restaurant and shop employees in places like Ocean City, MD have become East Europeans. I've been quite curious about how they were treated and the agencies which brought them here. Today we picked up two youngsters from Lithuania who are staying with us a couple nights via AirBNB. They were traveling down from Atlantic City NJ to Baltimore on Greyhound, and planning to do three days in DC and a week in New York before flying home. Via car-ride small talk I found out that M. and W. were guest workers for a casino hotel who did housekeeping over the summer. "It was terrible...not nice at all," W. said, twining her long Goth dyed red hair around a finger. A quick litany: The guests were disgusting and mean. The bosses were rude and intemperate. The dormitory was not secure and in the first week many students had their personal belongings (phones, laptops, passports) rifled and stolen while they were asleep or at work. When the students complained to the owner of the dormitory he replied: "At least you weren't shot or stabbed!" This sounds a lot less like a work exchange program and a lot more like officially sanctioned human trafficking. Is this the impression of the United States we want to send back with thousands of East European kids eager to practice English and get work experience? Why do we bring them here to expose them to the worst aspects of first-world capitalism and decay? Why should they go home and tell friends the USA is better than Russian dominance of Eastern Europe after their experience here? Even worse, lanky, athletic and tall M. told me they were supposed to work until yesterday but the hotel booted them out because it went bankrupt. Ironically I picked them up at the Greyhound station next to the shiny, new Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore City. I was very self-conscious about the appalling state of our roads and sidewalks and West B'more neighborhoods as I drove them to our house in Reservoir Hill. I remember back before the neoliberal revolution in the 80s when roads and sidewalks and public areas in the USA were pretty well maintained as a matter of course. I've driven on better roads in Honduras than we have in this City. How badly we've been derailed, and how hard it will be to get back...

Saturday, September 06, 2014

7 Year Itch

I'm two weeks into my 7th full year as a middle school teacher in Baltimore City public schools. This will be my 5th full year at our amazing hippie dippie progressive school in Pigtown. I work with the best people ever, the smartest, the most genuine, the most creative, compassionate, supporting, selfless, innovative...OK, you get the picture. I'll not inflict any more adjectives upon you. (well, one more: they are also all sexy). Over the past seven years I've morphed from a Language Arts teacher to a Humanities Teacher, meaning I mostly teach Social Studies and History now. I think I'm getting the hang of it. I think my first two weeks of school were my strongest start yet. And judging by the ideas swirling around my brain I think this entire trimester may be my strongest yet! Now if I could actually get the plans down on paper, LOL.... I started the year in a dark place. I felt drained and detached, and that feeling had hit hard last January. I was BURNED OUT and summer did nothing to change that feeling. I've never had a job for more than 7 years, and I wonder if I'm experiencing that cycle again, the need to move on and try something new. Just in case, I've applied for a position teaching deployment kids in Europe for the Department of Defense. This is just a shot in the dark--but it would be nice to take a couple years off from Baltimore and teach in Belgium, Germany, or Portugal. But I would be an idiot to leave my school. It really is the best school in Baltimore City, and my wife often claims it is the best school in the state of Maryland. (She has been in LOTS of schools in Maryland, and she's an expert at what makes a good school.) The professional and personal relationship I have with my current supervisor has been the most fruitful and challenging and rewarding of my career. I know our kids and have taught little brothers and sisters of brothers and sisters I successfully got to high school. I was pretty instrumental in building the middle school, and I have a certain status in the building as a result. I can be very unorthodox and loose in a way that public school administrators find galling, and yet my bosses tolerate my quirks, foibles, and insanities because I find a way to deliver the goods, the goods being challenging, exciting content delivered in a way that gets the kids fired up and thinking deeply about issues. If I work anywhere else it'll be: "Follow the curriculum, update your Word Wall, have a detailed scripted plan hanging on your board for us to access when we do a compliance audit." That change would be difficult, to say the least! Other reasons I'd be a nut to leave: I can sit down with teachers struggling with an Expedition plan and just off the top of my head give them an angle or a barrage of potential objectives and connections regardless of the topic, and this school is the exact sort of environment where a weirdo like me can help the most. I have very strong emotional, personal, and professional bonds to my coworkers. I really love these people. We not only teach the kids, we continuously teach each other, and we always fill in for others and support each other through the rocky challenges of 180 days of hard core urban education. I feel in many ways that my best students at this school have been the administrators and other teachers I've worked closely with over the past half-decade, and I hope I was their best student as well. But I also never wanted to teach middle school--I was assigned to it by Baltimore City and became typecast as a middle school teacher over time. I would like to teach high school for a while. I also would love to live in Europe for a while (before I'm too old to adjust and enjoy it). So if DOD offers me a gig in Italy it would be really hard to say no. Perhaps I won't make the grade, and I won't have to make a decision at all?