Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unforeseen Prescience

The current issue of Foreign Policy has a timely article on Hosni Mubarak and Egyptian discontent. Money quote: "Yet an increasing number of Egyptians no longer think their country's situation is all that funny, and they are turning the national talent for wit into a more aggressive weapon of political dissidence."

I'm growing weary of the worry amongst the punditry and policy wonks about post-Mubarak Egypt: either you're for democracy or you're not. Whether or not the Egyptians elect people who maintain our 'interests' is not the point. We'll work with the government the governed choose. It's time we stop basing the "national interest" soley on protecting resources for ourselves and maintaining security at the cost of others' freedoms.

Book #4, 2011

Remember when TV networks used to have extensive coverage of every NASA launch, every splash-down, every landing? Remember that big digital clock with the T-minus whatever time was left? I remember in school we used to assemble in the auditorium or library to watch launches because it was a big fucking deal and we were supposed to be proud of it.

And then it all stopped. NASA is a government program, and after Reagan you were supposed to hate that stuff and be cynical about it and fight to slash it to the bone. The Simpsons did an episode more than 15 years ago where NASA was so desperate for TV ratings that they launched Homer into space (a great episode, by the way--wasn't Buzz Aldrin a guest?).

Now that we don't glorify astronauts the way we used to, Mary Roach felt free to write a book like Packing for Mars. She researched diligently all the stuff you wondered about life in space but were afraid to ask: How do astronauts poop in zero gees? Do they jerk off in space? How do they eat? What happens if you vomit in your space suit? Has anyone ever joined the Triple Dolphin Club (the astronaut equivalent to the Mile High Club)? What's it like being stuck inside a capsule the size of a VW Bug's front seat with two other guys for two weeks and nobody can take a shower?

Roach visits research facilities, interviews astronauts, NASA officials and spokespeople, and meets the scientists who do the studies (as well as their human and not guinea pigs). The book is full of terribly funny and ludicrous information. I won't tell you any of it because I think you should read it, even if space isn't your bag--Roach is hella funny. I won't tell you why she watches a porn trilogy with Silvia Saint, and I definitely won't tell you what an "escapee" is, but I laughed so hard reading that chapter that I almost choked up my spleen. I'm going to check out her other books Stiff and Bonk.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Until very recently, I'd not seen any of the Toy Story films (though I'd watched and loved later Pixar releases). Through the magic of Netflix the Mrs. and I caught up on them quickly, and finished the trilogy last night.

I didn't see many films this year. I liked the immersion experience of Avatar, but if you peel aside its astonishing technological veneer there lurks a truly crappy movie. I enjoyed Inception. I adored the dark fairy tale Black Swan, and thought True Grit was a rousing entertainment. But Toy Story 3 might be better than all of them.

I remember destroying many of my toys one summer when I was 12 or 13. I lit Star Wars figures on fire with a BIC lighter and watched flaming sparkler drips of petroleum goo sizzle onto the stone driveway. I put Steve Austin into his rocket ship and launched him off the balcony with an M-80 along for the ride. (After that accident, NO ONE had the technology to rebuild him.) I also blew up the Oscar Goldman figure with an exploding brief case and Maskatron attachments, and the Bionic Bigfoot doll was pounded to dust by a cement block dropped from the same balcony. My Matchbox cars were reduced quickly and mercilessly by a standard claw hammer--if this destruction wasn't satisfactory, into the vice they went for compaction.

Many of these toys, in the condition they were and with all the attachments, fetch big bucks on eBay. Some of my Matchbox cars are now worth hundreds of dollars individually. I was fastidious with toys as a youth until I went beserk. Sure, there were times in my life where I could have used a few thousand bucks from that old crap. But Toy Story 3 is about the true value of toys, and reminded me of the imaginative and magical fantasy I imbued these objects with as a small child. Screw the crappy '70s TV scripts several of my toys were based on: kids write their own delicious narratives. I wonder how I'd react seeing these toys today? (Rosebud) Would I, as many do, try to re-capture the magic by paying exhorbitant amounts to have them again? What would I do if I saw a Steve Austin doll with the weird rubber skin you could roll back and get at the removable bionic components? Would I play with it? Do I remember how to play?

I'm glad to say that many of my toys escaped destruction to be used by cousins and nieces or nephews. Some of my old books, too. I'd like to see if those books still exist, in particular the Childcraft encyclopedia.

Why did I destroy those toys? I wanted to forge a new me, I suppose. I disavowed the intolerant religious and political views I'd grown up with. I decided to disavow the use of violence as a means of getting one's way. I wanted to move away from attachment to possessions. Who knows if any of this is true, or simply the imagination of an old man looking back at a time which no longer has much to do with himself at all.

That's the magic of Toy Story 3. It brings back a rush of stuff if you let it. Not all of the memories are joyous, but that's ok. Not all of Toy Story 3 is joyous either. It hurts, it's bittersweet, but that's why it's more than a flashy cartoon.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Back in early December, when my collaboration partner and I sat down to plan what we were going to do second trimester, we started discussing an expedition into the mysterious and macabre, featuring Poe and stories of the afterlife from different cultures.

She mentioned that we should have the kids read Mort. I'd never heard of Mort, but picked it up.

Mort is the title character of the novel, a sort of gangly awkward youth in need of a nudge out the nest. He's thoughtful but dim-witted, and meanders through his chores. Dad's had enough, and hauls him off to an apprentice fair to get him attached to a master so he can learn a skill. The only master interested in Mort is a skeletal figure in a black robe carrying a scythe. Mort ends up apprenticed to Death. He learns the ropes, but as he starts taking on the most dread of duties, he finds himself incapable of sticking to the script, which has potential dire consequences for the Universe.

This is a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, and my first. There are many laudatory comments on the novel's cover that Pratchett is uproarious and hilarious and outrageous--actually he's more droll or wry. I chuckled now and again. It took me forever to read the book because I wasn't completely won over. But I did finish it, and imagine that middle schoolers might like it. Though I've read comparisons of Pratchett and Douglass Adams, I'd think a more apt comparison would be Pratchett and Piers Anthony's Xanth series: harmless fantasy novels which are cute, full of bad puns and quiet sexual innuendo and authorial asides. In other words, perfect for imaginative middle-schoolers.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I've been at this blogging thing for a decade or so. The past couple years I've devoted far less time and seriousness to it than previously--I plead other priorities. I think of the subjects I would have been quick to jump on before (the recent election, the Giffords shooting, the canning of Olbermann) and find it a bit surprising I've allowed them to pass without comment. But that's the way it is.

I never even told you how awesome The Other Shore was at Single Carrot, and now it's too late for you to see it. I didn't blog about True Grit. I never mentioned how great Gianni Schicchi was at the Randolph in Silver Spring.

So I promise to stop slacking. A new year, a new re-newal and all that.

Oh, and BTW: Balti Mara at Creative Alliance last night? Awesome!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Day #80

I'm rushing through literary analysis skills like a madman, trying to get in the No Child's Behind Left Untested stuff in before the MSAs in March. I'm finding it quite difficult what with the combo of language arts and social studies, but as my planning partner says: "The kids will be fine. Fuck the test. You're in a charter school. Teach them the skills that matter, not the skills that are tested."

As much as this statement is precisely in line with my personal beliefs about education, it's really hard to do after the previous three years of "teach to the test! if your test scores drop you will be shit-canned! the test is all that matters in the universe!"

So, Poe: the kids like learning about him, but not so much reading him. "The Tell-Tale Heart" was typically successful, but I had to drop the reading level substantially for about 95% of my kids. I've used it so far to teach plot, conflict, and motivation. "The Black Cat" was too hard, "The Pit and the Pendulum" too long, and I'm dreading the poetry in a couple weeks after hearing about the revolt the 8th graders had over "The Raven" and how boring it was.

Tomorrow I'm going to stay with the macabre theme but stray from Poe in order to use "The Monkey's Paw" to teach motivation, characterization, and visualization.

What's up with the Poe Toaster?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Reprieve

Up at 4am, anxious about the work day. Dreamed all night about kids and class and behavior problems anyway. Lay in bed for an hour, trying to get back to sleep, failed, went on the City Schools website via my iPod at 5:30am and saw that schools were closed.

There was much rejoicing.

Today is Cha's 39th birthday. Hard to believe I've known her since she was 15. Hard to believe she's put up with me for so long!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Day #74

"Mr. Geoff!" she gasps excitedly in class while I'm getting ready to teach using motivation to analyze character. "I believe that school is pointless. I have to explain it to you."

"Ok, Stacha, but you'll have to wait until after class."

"I can't wait," she whines. "You don't need to teach because it's not important. The world is Hell. We're all in Hell right now!"

I convince her to wait and teach the next step of my lesson. As annoying as Stacha can be, she's also brilliant and awesome, and I can't wait to hear what she has to say. And at lunch I'm not disappointed. I share my tangerine with her as Stacha outlines a truly amazing Gnostic theory of existence: the Earth was created by Satan or a false God, and things like school and jobs prevent us from following God's true Will. Only those who wake to the truth of this, who try to drop out of the rat race and "walk the Earth in peace," will have a chance at redemption. Adam and Eve didn't have jobs, after all, and they were happy.

I tried a few meager stabs at her belief system, just to see what she'd say: Would you rather live in Paradise and know nothing, or live in Hell and have a chance to learn? etc. I also told her that she is not alone in her belief. I asked where she got her ideas and what her mother thought about it: mother doesn't know, and would be shocked! But the ideas came, according to Stacha, from reading too much.

I know the feeling. I suppose I should encourage her to write them all down. Maybe she can print them up in a pamphlet and distribute it anonymously around the sixth grade. Maybe our own little Gnostic splinter group will form?


I don't recall who turned me on to Mr. Constance's excellent little tome, but it's fantabulous. Constance was an intelligence officer working for the English who occasionally got locked away for extreme manic depression. His descriptions of the states is certainly the best I've read--I liked it much more than either Darkness Visible or An Unquiet Mind. To be fair, however, I should point out that Madness, Wisdom, and Folly is not simply a memoir of madness. Its subtitle is, after all, "The Philosophy of a Lunatic."

And what a philosophy! The opposite poles of his disorder, combined with the crisp intelligence and far-ranging knowledge of a true intellectual, gave Mr. Constance a unique and entertaining take on not only his disease, but the cycles of history and the troubling duality of existence.

Readers of Aldous Huxley or Jung or Spengler might find much which is familiar here, but Constance argues clearly his belief in a sort of Negative, feminine unitive consciousness associated with the Unconscious, and its contrary Positive, masculine divisive consciousness associated with the modern Western mindset, and he succinctly explains these ideas and their influences on individuals and civilizations.

Then things go a bit haywire with his prophetic visions--but they're great and entertaining, even though they were to come to pass in the '60s, and let's just say he either misinterpreted them or they were (as he suggested might be the case) simply the ravings of a certified lunatic; as far as I know Stalin was not arrested and tried for crimes against humanity in Vienna following an atomic holocaust. But as Constance writes in his philosophy, it doesn't matter if things are really real, so long as they are Actual to someone they are true.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Day #73

The kids were loud and rowdy, raising a Monday ruckus and I had to scream at them, which we're not supposed to do in the lovey dovey charter school--but from time to time I get tired of the cacaphony and now that I have my voice back after a month of upper respiratory woes it's nice to be able to bellow a bit. My boss was off sick today so I felt able to let loose a bit.

Some of the kids have been so excited about the Poe stuff that they've secretly read "The Tell-Tale Heart" or downloaded copies of "The Raven" off the internet. These they pass around like contraband, mixed in with dirty lyrics from Nikki Minaj. They think I don't know but I have snitches in the 6th grade who come to me at lunch and tell me EVERYTHING. I wonder what they make of Poe's stuff, un-mixed and raw in the rather difficult for today's middle schoolers original English? I suppose I'll find out in a couple weeks when we move from social studies considerations about Poe (how his life affected his work, what his life can tell us about B'more in the 1800's, etc) to literary considerations.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


"A man is supple and weak when living, and stiff and hard when dead."

There's a hundred-odd pages of this stuff, riddled with asterisks footnoting doubts about textual authenticity and thee accuracy of translation. I'll have to seek the Tao elsewhere.

Day #72

Missed a couple days this week. Was sick going into the winter break with a cold. Wednesday before Xmas I thought I was out of the woods and feeling fine, then Wednesday night got clobbered and spent the rest of the week in misery. Monday I went to work and realised too late that that was a terrible idea. Ended up in an urgent care facility Tuesday, diagnosed with acute sinusitis and an ear infection. Got a Z-pack and doctor-ordered extra day off. Back today with more energy but not much voice: kind of hard to rein in obnoxious behavior when you can barely talk. But I managed. The kids are digging Poe, and digging the little clues we're picking up as I unveil the expedition to them bit by bit via background knowledge chunks about which they make notes and generate questions.

Some of the kids have already made the inferential leap from E.A. Poe living in Baltimore and being the writer of the Raven to the Baltimore of them jumped up in a kind of Eureka moment today and said "That's why the team is named the Ravens--the mascot's name is Poe! I never knew it!"

We haven't even read the poem yet. Can't wait to show them the Simpsons version.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Gearing up to teach Poe

Night of the Demon was a Xmas gift from John, who relied on a review in the Fortean Times. I loved it, and had a great time thinking of all the later horror films which borrowed heavily from it, including the recent Sam Raimi fear fest Drag Me to Hell, which frankly more than "borrowed" from Night of the Demon; I think Raimi ripped off the entire plot and made only minor changes to assuage a guilty conscience.

Yes, there are a couple moments where the special effects are too gratuitously bad a la Godzilla, but these are short-lived and involve close-ups of the demon's latex face and furry suit. There is shortly before the demon's manifestation a wonderful effect with sparks and smoke. Had the director chosen to halt the effects there and allowed the viewer to imagine the demon's face, it would have been even more frighteningly effective.

Another documentary-style horror flick, and the worst yet. A punishingly stupid movie, with a ridiculous Young Goodman Brown/Helter Skelter finale.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Back to Work

10 days off, during which I'd hoped to recover from my cold and get some rest. Instead, the cold got much worse and I head back to work aching, hacking, and diminished. But I shan't feel sorry for myself. I'm teaching Poe this trimester, and being tubercular and of melancholy bent will suit me. This is the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth, after all, and his grave and the house he shared with Muddy and Virginia are very close to my school. I'm excited!

After Poe we move into stories of the underworld from various cultures, which is a cool way to do social studies and literacy combined. The kids are going to research different ideas of hell and then write stories about spending time in the underworld of their choice.