Thursday, January 31, 2008
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Yesterday we had a lock-down because there was a power outage and there were kids running the halls. The new principal has yet really to get the halls under control, and it's a big problem. He has drastically increased suspensions, so we do have a lot of bad actors out of the building much of the time, but no true learning will happen until we get the hoods, thugs, and goof-offs out of the hallways during class.
Today my theme lesson went reasonably well. During third period the English Dept supervisor and a lady from the State Dept. of Ed observed me. The kids were much less chaotic than usual, but they did swear a lot and throw things.
But more than half the class got their classwork done and demonstrated they'd mastered the skill. That pleased the observers no end.
The next two days are "professional development" days. That means planning time and and then long happy hours at Kelly's Pub.
See ya, Rudy. The plastic outdoor shopping mall known as Times Square shall be your legacy. That, and the anal raping of minority citizens by your jack-booted police thugs.
I suppose mentioning 9/11 with every breath was a failing strategy. All those slush funds and police escorts for mistresses and Bernie Kerik officials on the take didn't help your reputation a bit either.
And yes, I'm still bitter about the Commish we imported from your regime down here to B'more. He got jacked up for setting up slush funds and using the public kitty to fund six mistresses--what a surprise! Couldn't see that coming! It's a shame you won't be taking this type of fraud to the national level.
Wrong. The instructor is male, which is a first in my experience of ed classes, and not only was he a teacher for many years in the City school system, he was also a principal for many years. He's also a lawyer, and intends to teach the class as graduate law classes are taught. I nearly choked looking at the syllabus, which includes more writing than I've done through the previous 24 credits, and involves four legal briefs on landmark cases and a 10-page legal brief/analysis and concurring or dissenting opinion on a fifth. The prof is about a million years old, wears three-piece suits with a lapel pin, and has a helmet of pure white televangelist hair. Within ten minutes he'd cited a right-wing triumvirate including Rush Limbaugh, the Reader's Digest, and Antonin Scalia. But he's not an asshole fire-breather. He makes funny old-guy jokes and tells good stories.
Wednesdays I have an internship practicum and Thursday nights another dreadful "teaching reading and writing" class, for a total of 12 credits this semester. Much better than the 21 we took in the Fall last year. And, for the first time since last August I have no Saturday classes.
Today I'm teaching theme to 8th graders. They're not getting it. At least they liked the story we read yesterday, and I'm hoping we'll have an easier time working on this one. It's by Shirley Jackson, who ruled, and it's called "Charles." The kids liked "Charles" because a student character hits his teacher.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Alongside ideas pulled from Gnosticism, Kabbala, Mircea Eliade, and Milton, Pullman incorporates into his charming 2nd volume the Atlantean theories of Charles Hapgood and the theorizing of renegade archeologists about the true age of sapiens and civilization. Can't wait to see if volume three uses Terrence McKenna and the "magic mushroom as intergalactic consciousness" theory.
A monkey salaciously strokes a green snake and a witch does the deed with Lord Asriel. My kind of young adult fantasy!
Monday, January 28, 2008
Robin was covered in freckles and had amazing wide eyes and long red hair. We'd often run around town together, watching VFW league baseball games, climbing on the monuments at the local cemetery, visiting the old folks and getting candy hand-outs, and crawling under bushes and through fences and into whatever crawlspaces, barns, or feed lofts we could find. It's weird that I had such a 1950's small-town childhood. I remember vividly seeing her change into her bikini when she went with us to Ocean City one time. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
The last time I saw Robin I was in a car with my dad and we were driving up route 24. Robin was probably 18 at the time, and she was pushing a baby carriage. When she died she had six kids and a grandchild. I saw Missy Jo a couple times in Maryland when I worked at Hunt Valley Mall. I wish I'd gotten to see Robin again.
Some big fuss going on when I came home from work. Helicopters, foot chases, about a dozen cars rushing around at McCulloh and Whitelock.
The kids were wretched today. They hated Lukie's "analyze themes in Stevie Wonder songs" lesson. TJ wouldn't shut up the entire class period, so I gave him unsatisfactories on his basketball team conduct sheet. Then he cussed me out and told me to "suck his ass," at which point I told him one more word and I'd get him kicked off the team. Yasmin gave me a ton of attitude, Ka'nika said "Y'all know we don't understand what we're doing. We just copy what you say." Taymon threw a hat across the room. I wanted to crawl under a desk and sleep.
I expected all of this. Now that I'm the teacher every day they're going to push me, and see what I'll tolerate. I stopped the lesson finally and told them they had to do the scheduled classwork for homework, alongside their other assignment.
I can take the heat. I just need to buy liquor on the way home.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
There Will be Blood gets panned dismissively or praised lavishly-- inspiring extremes of opinion in the reviews I've read. The dude in the Baltimore Sun gave it a C-.
I'd give it an A. It was close to an A+, but was a bit too long, and the performances got a bit off the rails at one point. But for 98% of There Will be Blood I was mesmerized and disquieted sufficiently to forget myself and my troubles and just soak it in.
Daniel Day-Lewis? C'mon. Always awesome (though I admit I've never managed to sit through The Last of the Mohicans). And P.T. Anderson has ceased his narrative tricks and multiple viewpoints and interlacing stories and crafted a straightforward, harrowing film about scrabbling in the dirt to get rich.
I was telling my students Thursday that my grandparents were born in houses without indoor plumbing, and that my mother grew up in a house with an outhouse as well. They thought I was bullshitting them. There Will Be Blood happens only 100 years in the past, and the viewer gets a true taste of how medieval life was in much of the US at that time.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
The last time I read 1984 I was 13 years old and only knew US History up to WW2. Mysteriously every year the school curriculum would end before Korea and Vietnam. There was still a Cold War, and a rather dangerous one at that, and we still kept inventory of the supplies stored down in the fallout shelter at our secondary school.
It was fun to revisit Orwell's dystopia and see how the absence of a Cold War has not changed the degree of his prescience. Now free societies in the West are filming citizens and monitoring their movements on a scale to make the Red Chinese envious. The US has more prisoners in its system than the Russians do in theirs, the US uses torture and claims it doesn't, the US media are a sham who do the bidding of their paymaster owners and government power-brokers. Illiteracy abounds in a growing underclass of forgotten and "unsalvageable" proles, relegated to bombed-out urban war zones, their passions stirred by jingoists and Jesus-whoopers and war-mongers, while the wealthy steal funds from the public trough at an unprecedented level. War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and Slavery is Freedom grow truer all the time.
Orwell always worried about propaganda in "democracies" more than in the tyrannies. As his protege Noam Chomsky often points out, you don't have to control thought in dictatorships because you can bludgeon people if you find it necessary. In "democracies" governments find any means they can to control thought. 1984 is all about controlling thought.
The torture sequences are as vivid as anything in Sade, and there are sublime moments of sadness when Winston Smith falls in love and realizes what he and his fellow men have been missing all along.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
"If they find you you will get another 4 days, and then you will get transferred to another school."
"Ok, man. I warned you."
I walked back into class. Yazmine said "You talkin' to Shaq out there. I seen you."
Then Shaq got jacked up for trespassing by Lukie and an AP. Immediately Yazmine started telling other students I was a snitch. By the time I got to the cafeteria the kids were saying I'd sold out and was doing teacher business.
I mean, yeah, whatever. I didn't snitch on Shaq, I warned him. But I can use this new reputation to my advantage if I play it right. Tomorrow I've got to be The Man anyhow as I take over two of the worst classes for the rest of the year.
"If you build world class facilities, you will get world class students. If you build prisons, you'll get prisoners."
We went to see Bill Strickland in the Poe Room at the Enoch Pratt Library last night. Cha went to schmooze with the movers and shakers ahead of time, and I was going to meet her there for the actual book talk at 7. Apparently she didn't believe me because she called poor Ellen C. and guilted her into giving me a lift in order to make sure I'd show.
I fully intended to go. Strickland has done incredible things in Pittsburgh, starting an educational and training center for poor people, single mothers, drug users, etc. He believes the arts are transformative, that everyone is a first-class citizen, and that if you give people a welcoming aesthetically pleasing place to show you what they can do, most everyone can be successful. Instead of giving a speech or reading from his book, Strickland showed slides of his center and what the students have accomplished. He punctuated his talk with homey bits: "This was done by poor people who can't learn," or "Here I am, a black guy from the ghetto, and the Dalai Lama is holding the door open for me." He made sure to point out along the way that he got everything done by showing these slides to rich and powerful people across the country who in turn gave him what he needed to build the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. His resume is inspiring, and could make about 99% of humanity feel lazy and incompetent and purposeless by comparison; of course the point is to make you realize how things can get done if you're willing simply to get out and do them.
Strickland wants to build 200 more centers like the one he built in Pittsburgh. He says to do it he needs to get on Oprah. He says "Tell people about my book. My book tells my story." I haven't read it yet, but I shall. I'm telling you about it now, however, so you can at least Google the guy and see what's been going on in "a poor black neighborhood with a high crime rate" for the last 20 years. I think if Oprah got Bill Strickland on his show that Bill and Melinda Gates would build his centers for him tomorrow.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Baltimore bought several helicopters with Homeland Security grants. They're always buzzing around from here to there, but I still pass teens in hoodies doing hand-to-hand sales on my way home from work, there is still an open-air drug market two blocks from my house that everyone knows about (including the cops), and gangs of middle-schoolers still ride scooters and dirtbikes around City streets and public parks without regard for traffic laws or public safety. Often these teens end up with cracked-open skulls when they go the wrong way up one-way streets, or when they pop an over-aggressive wheelie in an intersection, etc. There are also cameras on every corner around here, with flashing blue police lights above them. Often thugs sell drugs in plain view of these devices.
How about using those Homeland Security grants to hire more fucking cops? Or, better yet--legalize drugs and take the business away from murderous gangs and put it into regulated and officially sanctioned businesses.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
"I don't think so," I replied. "Nobody beats me at arm-wrasslin'."
Unfortunately, Hassan heard me. I've mentioned him here before. He's like an Econoline van with feet. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by dozens of excited teens chanting "Hassan!"
But like I said, nobody beats me at arm-wrasslin'. There used to be a guy name of Matt who could stale-mate me back in the day. I think we arm-wrassled a dozen different times and stale-mated each go. He was a fucking moose, a fucking moose from Adams County PA. He could hit a softball about a half-mile, but likely coudn't run a half-mile without keeling over. After we'd arm-wrassle my entire arm would tingle for hours, and the next morning my shoulder would ache like a sore tooth.
I told Hassan that I was three times his age, and that this wasn't fair. "You should wait until you're 18 or 19. You could take me then." He laughed, and his giant polar bear paw swallowed my tiny hand.
I put him down in two seconds. The kids were shocked. Then Nat Turner wanted a go, and I made short work of him too. They made fun of me because they said I turned pink when I arm-wrestled. I shrugged.
Next week I take over Lukie's classes for the rest of the year. I need to earn their respect any way I can.
Monday, January 21, 2008
Delicious, weird, and satisfying. Pullman creates a world just a hair's-breadth off from our own, and instantly captured my imagination the way Ursula K. LeGuin or Julian May did when I was a much younger lad.
The Golden Compass dares to suggest that the things kids are taught by adults may not in fact be true at all, and refuses to treat its audience like children. Illicit love affairs, gore, and phony theology abound. I read it in a day.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
The Heart Like a Lion CD Release Party was a smash. There was jump-roping, there was poetry, there was a presentation of short film, there was JP McDermott and Earthdragon. There was also a sizable and enthusiastic crowd, and the Ellen Cherry band rocked the 2640 Space. I've seen shows there before and the sound disappeared up into the vaulted ceiling--not so last night!
The two YouTube clips are songs which got substantial local airplay on WTMD last week.
The new album is a smash, and you should check it out. Even in her moment of triumph Kristin was gracious and keen to share the limelight with friends and fellow artists.
After her father told her to write a hit song, Kristin penned "Starting Over," which served as grand finale:
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Last night was Cha's birthday blow-out. She transformed the living room into a karaoke disco lounge. We blew through five pounds of lumpia and three magnums of Yellow Tail. And other, much better wines brought by kind guests.
Cha is now twice the age she was when we started dating, and I adore her twice as much.
Friday, January 18, 2008
When Waugh wrote Decline and Fall the British Empire was in its last throes. At the height of its global expanse, and financially flush, no Englishman could have imagined in the 1920s that within two decades it would all be over and Anthony Burgess would be writing essays about how losing an empire wasn't so bad.
Allow me to say that as badly deserving of satire as the British Empire was at the time Waugh begain lampooning its pretentions, our current American Empire is in much more dire straights.
Paul Pennyfeather is expelled from Oxford for running around the common without trousers, which of course is forbidden for students of theology. Penniless, he goes to teach at a remote private school in Wales despite having nothing to teach, and then has a series of adventurous misadventures which are at times hilarious.
I suppose Waugh had some inkling what was coming down the pike for his beloved homeland, because he called his book what he called it, after all. I often get the same inkling when I'm teaching in America. At any rate, this is a good novel, and is the second good novel by Waugh I've read. I read The Loved One years ago, and liked that one even more.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
When I arrived home I saw her kissing a much older man on my street. I immediately called Lukie, who called Rasheer's mother.
This morning Rasheer was in the building but not in class. She saw me in the hall and freaked out. "Why the fuck you call my mother? Why you snitchin'?" Her eyes were huge and round and swimming in opposite directions, she was incoherent and unfocused. I'd already spoken to the school counselor about her in the morning. Miss B said simply: "Her mom is at a loss. She says Rasheer hasn't taken her meds in three days."
"Rasheer," I said. "When you are not in class I am still responsible for you. If you got hurt I would be terribly sad. I need to know where you are, and I will always tell your mother if you are not where you are supposed to be."
"I'm pissed off, Mr. G," she said. Then she said "Psych!" Then she laughed and started slapping the walls. I thought of her being maced and thrown on the floor by Officer Black a few months ago, the last time she stopped taking her meds. She's heading in that direction again.
Meanwhile, we have a young fellatrix in our class who has taken to writing her own name and phone numbers on desks all over school, with her own little marketing line: "Want your dick sucked? Call me." She includes both a cell and home number. The social worker and the counselor have been working with her daily because she's been caught several times servicing large groups of males at once in the stairwells. Apparently it's not working.
And I started today by catching E. Muffin jerking off in class. I suppose this is better than breaking up fist-fights.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Writing about sex is always a risky venture. Inevitably more questions than answers arise. Naomi Wolf tries to figure out what makes "women" out of young girls, and I think her explanation is unsatisfactory. I don't fault her, however, because every book on sex is ultimately unsatisfactory. Concluding with the idea that women should think about how they think sex instead of how they do sex is reasonable, but will that eradicate the problems faced by the 13-year-old girls in her own examples? A lot of books have tried to drain the Virgin/Whore swamp, and failed. I'm afraid Wolf's does too.
I think the book suffers because Wolf knew it would piss a lot of people off, including fellow feminists and liberals. Much of it is defensive and a bit stilted as a result, but there are fine passages of memoir.
There is value in Wolf's book. I think her suggestion that we look to the past for solutions is wise. She describes how the sexual revolution and the "discovery" of the clitoris have been happening periodically for milennia, and that inevitably there is a recession following brief periods of liberation into recurring dark ages of repression. She writes that "Tiresias was right," that woman are more carnal than men. And men fear women's sexuality as they fear any mysterious place they can't go. But through examples of past approaches to sex and womanhood--from the ancient Chinese Taoists to the Native Americans of the southwest desert--Wolf shows that there are healthier, more sensible attitudes about sex which avoid destructively privileging one sex over the other.
Following the Summer of Love and the sexual revolution and Feminism, we still have young women (and men, frankly) who are cast adrift between puberty and young adulthood with only the debased cues of mass media available to teach them how to behave and think about sex and relationships. By writing about what befell her own peers and their generation, Wolf bravely shares her own confused path. The book, unfortunately, is as confused as its topic.
Monday, January 14, 2008
"No," I explain, "that's the title of a book and a TV show. Look for an expression in this paragraph that you've heard a million times. Something you understand, but when you think about what the words actually mean it doesn't really make sense."
"Crack of dawn!" Kevin says triumphantly.
"You got it! What does crack of dawn mean literally?"
"Up early in the morning?" Kevin asks.
"No--that's the figurative meaning. Think about the verb crack. What cracks?"
Shontrice says: "A egg."
Kevin says: "A whip."
Richard says: "My butt."
Sunday, January 13, 2008
I'm a jaded old fan of ghost movies; I've seen it all, and can almost invariably spot a gimicky cheap thrill coming down the pike before its pay-off. There were a couple such moments in The Orphange, however, when I leapt about three feet out of my chair. Only about 12 people made the noon matinee today, but we sounded like a far larger crowd following one particularly effective surprise--gasping, shrieking, and finally chuckling in uncomfortable admiration. I have to give del Toro props for catching me off guard.
Yes, The Orphanage is similar in setting and theme to del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, but he manages to make a completely new film using the same raw materials. He can go on doing so every couple years, so far as I'm concerned.
Update: Ha! How lame am I? Del Toro only produced El Orfanato--it was directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Sorry, dude!
Saturday, January 12, 2008
I read this so long ago I can't remember which grade it was. Perhaps ninth grade, and Mrs. Weisman's class? I picked it up again because I know it's going to be useful on the Praxis II English content test for teacher certification, which I'll be taking sometime this spring.
And I also picked it up because it's fucking great--Dickens or Twain great--by turns charming, funny, deeply troubling, and full of a queer positive hope about humanity that humanity continues not to deserve.
If you're gonna shoot your wad and write one book, this is the way to do it. I teared up at the "your father's passin'" scene, just as I did when I read it the first time, and just as I do every time I watch the movie.
I also think he's dead wrong about Eastern Promises, but again I admire the authority with which he states his case, and thought you should read it if you're considering renting the DVD.
Friday, January 11, 2008
I can't seem to write on overhead projector transparencies without staining my hands. This is my left thumb after scrubbing with a variety of soaps and cleansers.
Most of the kids were good today, and they earned homework passes by writing acceptable Brief Constructed Responses.
BCRs are on the upcoming Maryland State Assessments. It's all about those tests, baby.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Took this with a crappy old Sony camera, our first digital. Back in '02, likely in June.
Alchemical symbol of Sol and Luna near the north entrance to the cathedral. As Fulcanelli would say, a great Adept was responsible for these carvings. Or, for the more conventional thinkers--God separates Light from Darkness.
On the way back from taking them to lunch Lukie and I broke up a mob scene of unattended sixth graders in the hall. There were two young-ins dukin' it out hardcore in the middle of a mass of blue-shirted bodies. We got them apart and one young man's face was swelled up on one side like a volley ball. He was about four feet tall but built like a pit bull. Lukie got the kids back in their class room and seated, I got on my phone to ask why there was a sixth grade class upstairs with no adult present, meanwhile trying to assist a young lady suffering an asthma attack. Once we had things under control and the office knew the situation, I decided I better roll out because we had Rasheer's mother waiting for a parent-teacher conference. I asked Lukie if she wanted me to go take care of that while she waited for an administrator to come babysit the sixth-grade class. She said yes. I saw Nat Turner and he asked what I was doing. "We broke up a fight between sixth graders. D'Shawn and somebody else."
"D'Shawn my boy," Nat told me. "He a soldier."
Nat knows full well I know the implications of that remark. "You think that's a good thing, Nat?" I asked him.
"We don't make the world how it is. We just live with it."
Were I a character in The Wire, I'd have said "True, dat." Instead I told Nat that a few young men with the strength to be leaders could make a difference. He did what he always does when I talk to him that way--he shook my hand with a complex sequence of grips and fist-bumps, culminating in a hug/back-slapping manoeuver.
I talked to Rasheer's mom about how well her daughter had done the last couple of days. Then I saw Nat Turner and The Gardener in the hallway. They asked me where I live at in the County, and I said "County? I live near Whitelock and McCulloh."
"Sheeet," The Gardener said. "Mr. G go hard." The Gardener is an honor-roll kid. He's a light-skinned half-white student with long reddish-blond braids. He wrote his memoir essay about going to juvey hall for having sex with his girlfriend in school in the sixth grade.
Lukie approached looking dazed and shocked. She was carrying her pink sweater in one hand. It was covered in blood splotches. "As soon as you left they started fighting again. It was a mess. I couldn't control a room full of tiny tots for ten minutes."
I felt terrible for leaving her, but had figured she of all people would be fine down there. Nat said "Was it D'Shawn again? I bet he messed that other punk ass up. My nigga."
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
I was surprised by Rite of Passage because it reads like a young adult novel; I would like, in fact, to teach it to my eighth graders in the spring some time. I expected more from Wright than this improbable romp, but at the same time I was pleased to find a book I might be able to use with my kids one day.
Johnny finds out that the City is moving him from his foster home. Problem is, he has been there since infancy and never even knew he was an orphan. Immediately his world turns topsy-turvy and he finds himself in a tough urban gang.
This is not on the same literary level as Wright's other novels by any means, but there is enough depth to make for interesting discussion with middle-schoolers. Read Native Son or Black Boy instead, or the stories in Eight Men.
What to make of the film (which I found rather boring and old-fashioned)? It makes the U.S. government look like it is populated by a bunch of whoring, drunken sleazebags, so in that sense it's accurate enough. But there are a number of things both the book and the film are suppressing.
I think Chalmers is right about the Carter Administration's blundering do-gooderism; I mentioned it in my blurb about the flick. And of course most of his detailed refutation of the film and the book is spot-on. But I think the film is critical of what we've done and what we're doing in Afghanistan, but in a very sly way (the Zen Master story/the yahoo-cowboy footage of Soviets blowing up everything willy-nilly). Had it bludgeoned the point it would have been less likely to be made. Is it perfect? Hell no, but I found it reasonably entertaining. Perhaps if the film had ended with footage of Osama bin Laden packing up a SAM missile in the desert Chalmers would be satisfied.
And in case anyone doubts the Iranian claim that we faked that footage of speedboats taunting US warships: remember the Vincennes Incident bullshit cover story, and the Gulf of Tonkin bullshit.
I've been trying to stay away this time, but felt the siren call this week following Barack Obama's victory in Iowa, and started watching cable and network coverage before New Hampshire.
What a sad state of affairs. Endless speculation, spurious gossipy asides, and pointless discussions of candidates "tearing up." This morning everyone was talking about "how we got New Hampshire so wrong."
You got it wrong because you suck.
Again, I note that partisan dingbat Pat Buchanan looms large over many of these cuckoos. Sometimes his analysis is actually interesting, and he was the first person I saw (on Joe Scarborough's AM crapfest) to say that it was ok for Hilary to tear up because she's a human being, and he didn't see why it garnered all sorts of media hoopla.
I think I'll go back into hibernation, even though I'm terribly interested in how this is going to shake out. We all should be. I just wish we had media capable of covering the process and informing potential voters, instead of power-hungry star-struck nimrods who learned journalism watching Nancy Grace and Dr. Phil.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
This here novel was enthusiastically recommended to me by a co-worker at Borders about 12 years back. I picked it up and put it promptly on the shelf, then in a box, then unpacked it at the new place and put it back on the shelf, where it caught my eye the other day.
I haven't been pulled along by such dread anticipation since The House of Sand and Fog. Larry Brown writes rural South like nobody's business, and Father and Son may as well be a new book in the Old Testament. In fact they could probably throw out a few of those old shoddily constructed clunkers and replace them with Brown's book, which more clearly delineates Cain and Abel and all that ghastly brutal eye for an eye shit. Terrific stuff, but grim, grim, grim. And violent.
Glen gets out of prison after serving three years for running over a boy while driving drunk. He promptly sets about avenging some slights from years before, and ends up fighting a monkey and then doing some stuff even less legal. Meanwhile the good-hearted and upstanding local sherrif tries to hold his county together as everybody starts fucking up at once and a bunch of old bad karma betwixt his and Glen's kin starts bubbling over. I don't wish to spoil anything for ya, but I read the last 50 pages in about ten minutes, not wanting and needing to know what would happen. Plum near drove me bonkers.
This, by the way, is the second novel in a row I've read wherein a monkey comes to a bad end. I'd like to know if there's a third out there--not because I dislike monkeys, but because these two novels were great and I wonder if that's part of the reason? Why stop a good streak?
I understand Larry Brown died of a heart attack in 2004. Damn shame. I'll be tracking down his other books.
I was also secretly terrified by the request, because I don't typically review music in more than a most shallow manner. I'll think about books and films a bit before blurbing, but don't really consciously consider music much, and I don't have a set of characteristics which define "good" records. I either dig it or I don't. Plus, there's that whole "How do you respond when friends want your opinion of their work?" problem. You know the one. Should I write nice things even if I don't think them? Should I be completely objective? Brutally honest? Constructive? What if I--gasp--hated the record?
I've been listening to Heart Like a Lion daily now for a couple weeks (I'm listening to it now, in fact), and while I can't say all my fears were unjustified (I can't improve my skills as a music reviewer), I can say that all the other fears were rendered moot after a couple listens, because I dig it. Today is the perfect type of weather for a listen, because HLaL reminds me of other CDs I pull out as soon as the weather hits 70 degrees for the first time, usually in May, albums like Liz Phair's Whip-Smart or Aimee Mann's Lost in Space, albums which rock a bit, grow occasionally introspective, dip into trilling piano and poppy hooks while not fearing a bit of dissonance, albums which strike a variety of emotional tones but manage to be interesting and fun in their entirety.
I've got three of Ellen's previous CD's; I like Years best of all, but even on that fine recording there's a propensity for her voice to sound different than it does live, somehow almost reserved. She's got a powerful set of pipes, but on CD it often sounds like she's holding back--perhaps an equipment or production problem? Well rest assured that on the new album this isn't the case at all. The vocal production is uniformly excellent, and I can find no fault with the mix (E.C. was quick to point out that this was chiefly due to the genius of Darin Lang a.k.a. Thundergod--drummer and chief engineer for the recording. Kudos to him!).
The musicianship is exceptional throughout as well--E.C. (protestations to the contrary) is a gifted guitarist/pianist, and she's not only got Thundergod on drums, but also the classically-trained duo Kirsten and Lucien Welsh on cello and bass respectively; these are fantastic players I know well from their many live gigs with Move Like Seamus.
So, what I'm left with are the songs. When I find a CD with half good tracks and a couple stand-outs, I'm typically pleased. Heart Like a Lion exceeds this standard with several excellent songs. Ellen Cherry's decade of songwriting and touring is evident in the title track (which opens like a classic '80s pop song, with an irresistable keyboard sequence a la Cindy Lauper), "Starting Over" builds gently to a great hook, and the opener, "Giddy Up!" is a jumping rock number with clever time changes and another wonderful chorus. Tracks 2-6 are all marvelous, and really show off the record's diversity. I like the mysterious intro to "In Reverse," the energetic jam "Take So Long," the jangly melancholy reverby feel of "I Hope to Dream of You Tonight," and then the complete shift in tone to the upbeat and folksy "Something Insanely Clever" (which has some percussive guitar chord work reminiscent of Michael Hedges).
I mean, yeah. I'm going to stop now. But I've been telling folks about the CD Release Parties* in person for some time not because I know Ellen Cherry and her bandmates, but because I like this record a lot. I know I'm going to be there because I want to hear the songs live. You should too.
*Note, DC readers, that there is a show in your neck of the woods too!
Monday, January 07, 2008
I've done a bit of traveling, and like many travel shows. No Reservations isn't my all-time favorite (Rick Steves' PBS show reigns supreme for its practical advice, which saved me lots of dollars and sent me to totally awesome sites off the beaten path), but it is easily my second-fave. Bourdain is acerbic, opinionated, smart-alecky--but he's also self-deprecating, witty, and writes well about more than just food. I adore his show, because he's all about maximizing experience, avoiding (and trashing) the banal and generic, and eating food purchased from street vendors, which all other travel shows forbid as a matter of course (except for Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods).
I also adore Singapore, where I spent an exhausting three weeks on a business trip for Borders in '97. After working 15 hours in the cash office reconciling million-dollar deposits, I'd stumble across the road and down into an underground food court for the most divine meals ever perpetrated for under two bucks. Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisines blended? Can't beat that. Sometimes the locals who sat with me at random would give advice about the food and we'd end up sharing dishes with each other. I'd leave the food court and stumble back to work for another 10 hours training the inventory crew and re-arranging stocking procedures, the food having dispelled my exhaustion and rendered me whole. Bourdain opened his show in a typical Sing food court, pointing out that such places there aren't at all what they are here.
What a strange little city state! Governed by a bizarre benign fascism, with mandated respect for its various cultures, races, and religions, legal prostitution and illegal everything else, and the hottest women on the planet? Gotta get back someday. Orchids grow on the median strips and there are lizards on the skyscrapers.
I recall fondly the ten-course Indian meal I had there, and the restaurant owner who told me he could have a silk suit made for me for $40 while I ate. Or the day my friend Yong took me antiquing and we had a traditional Chinese breakfast--a sort of porridge made from pork broth and flour dumplings. Or the day I watched a Filipino cover band play English and American rock songs in an Irish bar near Boat Quay. Crazy.
The young thespian in this scene from The Wire is a current student of mine. We had a major confrontation today because he tried to carry his backpack into class and he had a hoody on over his uniform--both no-no's. I sent him to the office, and he came back saying "The principal told me it was fine." I asked where his pass from the office was, and he rolled his eyes and stormed off, because of course he never even went to the office.
In other words, this kid ain't acting, he's being himself. But he does a great job in the show, and he's very bright when he applies himself.
The kids never cease cracking me up. Today Taymen was out in the hall singing at the top of his lungs "Don't you want me baby, don't you want me, aaaaaa-oooooh!" Were I to rank songs I'd expect inner-city middle school kids to sing with enthusiasm, the Human League's "Don't You Want Me" would be near the bottom of my list.
"Where did you hear that song?" I asked, curious.
"TJ was singing that shit. He all gay," Taymen said. His manner of speaking is in itself hilarious, hung halfway betwixt the speech stylings of Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. I reminded him that we don't use "gay" as an insult in my classroom, to which his response was "We ain't in your classroom, God-fro. We in the hallway." Again, I was cracked up.
I saw TJ in 3rd period. "TJ, why are you singing 1980s pop songs?" I didn't even have to mention the specific title, he just burst out with: "Donchoo wan me ba-beee, donchoo wan me aaaaaa-yo!"
I asked if this song was in a movie, or perhaps had been sampled by a hip-hop artist. TJ said "I dunno where I heard that shit. Who sang that, Mr. G?" I told him, and said "That song was out when I was about your age."
"Dag," he replied. "You like 50 'n shit."
Sunday, January 06, 2008
A lovely day to spend out on the roof, reading and drinking wine. Of course I was much distracted by the wheeling of various birds, as starlings, blackbirds, pigeons, and a variety of gulls dropped by for a visit, hopping about the tar paper, moving to a nearby tree, perching on phone and power lines to squawk or beep or cheep at me. Clouds drifted low and slow before a bright blue sky, and I was visited by some barely coherent bees, astonished into awakening far out of season by the sudden warmth. They hovered around the wine glass and then continued what I'm sure was a wasted search for pollen.
Yo! Adrienne dropped by for some tea and chat, and now I've got to fetch my book and chair from the roof afore the sunset. That chair, by the way, was hand-carved by Ifugao tribesmen. It's carved from one chunk of wood and folds in half neatly, which is how I got it from Banaue to Manila to BWI.
Emily and her brothers and sisters live in Jamaica until a fierce storm destroys their family home. Their parents put them on a merchant ship to London for fear of their safety. This turns out to be a most ironic decision, and much hilarity ensues.
A pirate novel where the pirates aren't necessarily the most villainous characters, and a comedy of surprising seriousness. Children, monkeys, pigs, and pirates perpetrate atrocities and face the fickle whimsy of wretched Fate. A bizarre and unforgettable novel, part Moby-Dick, part Middle Passage, all fun.
And--need I mention it?--this is another NYRB reissue.
Saturday, January 05, 2008
Friday, January 04, 2008
Anyway, the comment alerted me that the NYRB Classics imprint has a blog of its own, which sadly hasn't been updated of late. Just what I need--a new way to read about their catalog so I can spend more $$$. So, if you're a nerdy bookish dilettante like me, check it out.
TJ looked hurt that I was so obviously becoming The Man. "Dag, Mr. G. I thought we was tight. Now you gettin' all teachy up in here."
The students were excited about Barack Obama. Taymen said "Yo man, black people takin' over!" Davis put his fist in the air at this. "Power to the people. Hilary came in second and shit."
"Nuh-uh," Yasmine replied. "Hilary came in third. She finished behind that Opie-lookin' muthafucka."
I'll say one thing about these 8th graders. They know more about politics than my freshmen at Towson University did.
Thursday, January 03, 2008
Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence is the best book of its type I've ever read. Of course this is the only book of its type I've encountered, rendering primacy in its genre simply obtained. Fermor is known for travel writing, and I suppose this is partially in that vein; but it is mostly an anthropological and historical account of his visits to and sojourns in some monastic communities. It is a fantastic little book, and I eagerly await reading his others, also recently resurrected by the miraculous NYRB press.
The first third of his account concerns time spent in the Abbey of St. Wandrille, which I unforgivingly failed to visit during a long stay in Rouen in 2002. Fermor's initial revulsion at monastic life is gradually replaced by an enthusiastic acceptance of its attractions. He is not there to take orders by any means, but is simply renting a room to finish a book. And yet he becomes a part of the Benedictine community, cherishing the quiet, the learned monks, their good works, and their vast library. His writing is, as my students would say in admiration: "off the chain." Take, for instance, his description of a ruined stone church:
"It is as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since."
Lovely stuff. And Fermor writes history as well as he describes architecture, music, and people. Of course a fantasy of mine is retreating for some time to a similar situation, outside the bustling busy-ness of modern life, to do some tolle lege of my own. If you have a similar dream, Fermor's book will increase its potency.
I'd not read Richard Powers, and I suppose it was about time. Prisoner's Dilemma is my favorite type of dense, po-mo novel--the type that doesn't read like a dense, po-mo novel. At first I found the book a bit distant and off-putting, but quickly I was subsumed by the strange revisionist history contained in alternate chapters, and once I realized the significance of these bizarre episodes featuring Walt Disney and interred Japanese-Americans, I was hooked.
Eddie Hobson, Sr. came to young adulthood during the second World War, and was unable to serve the cause to his satisfaction. By the time he enlists, he is assigned to travel air bases stateside and help decommission them, leaving a powerful desire for vengeance unsated. He feels that the world was wounded and that he was helpless to do anything about it. This feeling is amplified once the atom bomb is developed and used. Eddie is bright, but becomes so dismayed by his perceived inability to effect change in the world that he creates an alternate universe of his own in secret. Eddie's created reality merges with 'real' Reality in the symptoms of a mysterious illness: seizures, bleeding, erratic behavior. These symptoms render Eddie increasingly unemployable, and his wife and children find themselves at wit's end. A strange and affecting romp through Cold War America.
A local songwriter showcase last night featured Rob Thorworth and Ellen Cherry, with David Glaser hosting. A good time was had by all.
Ellen Cherry has an upcoming CD release party at the 2640 Space, which rules (I've been there many times for shows, weddings, and political events). Ellen's new CD is quite something (more later!), and rumor has it she'll be appearing on Baltimore Unsigned with the full band, so check it out!
Rob has a new baby, so he's got no forthcoming CDs. But Dig it Up and Life is Suffering get a lot of play at my house. (Sample tracks here.)
I'd never heard David Glaser--he's also rather good. Sort of like a cross between Dave von Ronk and Bob Mould.
Enjoy the YouTube clips. Unfortunately I don't have top-'o-the-line vid equippage.
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Sometimes I just need a monster movie, and The Host satisfied my craving. A creepy US Army mortician orders his assistant to dump toxic chemicals down a sink that drains into the Han River in South Korea. A few years later, a giant tadpole with a vagina dentata face terrorizes picnickers in Seoul.
Sometimes The Host wants to be Shawn of the Dead, sometimes Godzilla--in other words, it's sometimes intentionally funny, and at other moments it's unintentially so. But the film is not particularly derivative, and in fact there are some quite effective moments (the monster's initial appearance on land, for instance, is handled cleverly). There's some implied criticism of how governments use fear to manipulate their citizens, but screw that high-fallutin' stuff and enjoy the beastie.
Had this been a 90-minute film, I'd call it a must-see monster flick. At two hours it's a stretch, and requires some forward scanning to get through.
The increase was due to a tax credit miscalculation which the City was supposed to have fixed back in July. The fix was never processed, though we were promised it had been taken care of. Our mortgage company paid more than $3000 in taxes and we only had $600 in escrow.
This morning I emailed our new City Councilman, naming the names of those who'd promised this problem was fixed, and telling him the entire sordid story. By noon he'd tongue-lashed the schmucks at the City and State property assessment and tax offices, and I had emails promising action waiting from a variety of bureaucrats who wouldn't return my calls in July.
Thank you, William Cole. That was fast action! Now that I know how responsive and helpful you can be, I have some suggestions about Booker T. Washington Middle School...