Where were we, now? Je suis Paris!

As it happens, I began this post one week before the bombings that took place in Paris this past November. And further (as it happens) I was consumed with sadness, frustration, and degrees of separation as I followed the stories that emerged following the attacks. I did what so many did and looked at maps and wondered, “Had I been there?” “Did I see that place?” And of course, I also recoiled and braced myself for the inevitable onslaught of hatred and vitriol that would certainly rise from the dust… the Islamaphobia, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bile. And of course, this was all around keeping the internet buzzing for days. But it did not come from Paris. What came from Paris spoke to exactly what makes Paris what it is: Parisians were not filled with fear and hate. They were not screaming about the danger and immoral nature of all people of a certain creed, ethnicity, or faith. They remained, as ever, precisely what purveyors of terror loathe: compassionate, brave, loving. Of course they were hurting and mourning but they did not let that change who they were fundamentally – at heart. For this reason, Paris won. And Paris will continue to be victorious. We (especially in my own hate-riddled nation) should all take a lesson from Paris.

Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kissing! Life! Champagne and joy! #Parisisaboutlife

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And this is the spirit of Paris that I experienced and adored for my brief shining days in the City of Light this summer.

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Ah, yes… Paris. Back to the city of love & light to celebrate Bastille Day! We had the good fortune to be able to stay in JM’s place in the 15th Arr. for the fete. Although he fills the space with Airbnb when he is not there, he was willing to let us squat, with one condition, one of his renters wanted to stay an extra night, which meant he would be there with us. Who were we to complain? We were in a gorgeous flat practically under the Tour Eiffel.

When we arrived, it was clear that Leon had just woken up, ah! to be a young college student on the loose in Europe again. He was sweet, if overwhelmed, as four women with what seemed like an over abundance of stuff for our brief stay (But hey! Preparation!) rolled in. As we came in Leon asked me if I was American. As I had begun to do over the previous week, I immediately apologized as I said yes (it is easy to do when one receives a regular amount of criticism for which they are immediately forgiven, “because you’re American”). Leon laughed and said, “No! I love Americans!”

Now this was a nice turn of events. Leon is a grad student in Warsaw (and one helluva smart cookie, I might add) and he had a bunch of questions about the States. He especially wanted to know about California (because who wouldn’t, says this California girl) and surfing. I told him that I had gone to school in San Diego. He looked at me with total surprise, “Really? I am going there on a doctoral exchange next year!” [Hi Leon!]

I mean, really, what are the odds? I guess they are greater than I would imagine because this sort of thing seems to keep happening, but really, this seemed so intentionally, randomly perfect: a Polish student just staying one more night because Paris, and in the house we were staying in because, Paris, and so on and so forth, because: Paris.

For Bastille Day we would stroll the city and make a picnic (here again, the dilemma of the picnic) and there was a concert in in the park at the Tour Eiffel and then of course, fireworks. The city was buzzing. And Paris has a very unique buzz (because, say it with me: Paris). It is hard to articulate… and now I find myself these weeks later still committed to writing about this summer, and the details get fuzzier, but the sensations remain palpable. The city was touched with the kind of afternoon light that remains in the northern latitudes during summer. It was warm in that way of urban places, a little sticky but not humid like we had all come to known in our years in SE Asia, a little gritty, and full up with people in various stages of their day. There was a general sense that everyone in doing their own things was also generally moving in concert with everyone else. Streets were being closed and people rerouted and everyone just seemed to be moving along, changing course when nice young French officers of the law said to do so. Maybe it was all the wine….

We had brought sandwiches (which I made, so, yum) and wine. Interestingly, we could not bring the wine bottle into to park, which explained this odd phenomenon we had been witnessing, which was people buying and then dumping out myriad bottles of water. Ahh… the wine receptacle! We followed suit. I bought a standard water bottle and drank some and dumped the rest. Then we poured the wine into the bottle. We were confused, had we purchased a lilliputian bottle of wine? Why did it seem like there was so little? Was the water bottle so big? Our volume-based comprehension hilariously off, we shrugged at our little tiny amount of wine in our giant water bottle and headed in. On seeing our teeny weenie wine stash the officers stopped us – mon dieu! “No caps on bottles!” They demanded.

What?

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Okay then, we carried on with our open sloshy bottle of wine. In hindsight, that a full bottle, plastic or otherwise, was their biggest concern seems quaint and of a time gone by.

When we arrived for the concert, seating was unavailable, as I had predicted and Frenchie had pooh-poohed. We finally just plopped down on the ground next to a lovely group of older tourists, a very jovial and friendly group of South Americans in front of us, and two sweet young Vietnamese students to our left. We made conversation, ate sandwiches, drank wine, helped people mop up spilled wine, talked about tattoos with the older folks behind us, and took in the fete. It was a basic international delight.

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We planned on only taking in some of the show, and to walk back to meet Nic for the fireworks. A plan easier to conceptualize than to actualize. The throngs of people were so dense at times it seemed like we were all part of one gigantic freakish humanoid organism. We had previously deduced that getting across the river (to a better view) would be impossible with the street closures and such, so we would stay in the 15th and made our way. And really, being in central Paris for Bastille Day was not going to suck anywhere that we found ourselves. (Although, after much time to talk about it on the latter part of our journey and even more since we have all been back, I know that Frenchie was still, ever consumed with ensuring that her ill-prepared compadre [*raises hand*] and her actually ill compadre [Nic] were having a the perfect Paris experience. If only I could have better communicated at the time that for us – and I take the liberty to speak for Nic here – anything and everything was perfect.)

We slowly made our way back to the flat and found to our chagrin (more to hers I am sure) that Nic was still under the weather. No bother, we scooped her up and headed for a vantage point for the fireworks.

As did everyone else in greater Paris at that moment.

Despite of being in a kind of funny spot near the metro station on the Boulevard de Grenelle, the entire spectacle was just that: spectacular spectacular!

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And there it was. The city of light.

When I heard that the Tour Eiffel had gone dark to mourn the victims of the November 13 attack, I could not imagine what it would look like, such a contrast to the Paris I had seen aglow with light. We should all be so lucky to say je suis Paris.

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On Teacher Evaluations: Or how to potentially commit professional suicide in less than 1,500 words

You can’t oppress someone who’s not afraid anymore. 

I wrote this post just under a year ago. I did not share it because… well, I thought it mattered not to. I still felt afraid I guess. But the struggle to do what I do, and to do it well, continues to grow everyday, and becomes more and more challenging at every level. Yet, my salary, benefits, and incentives do not grow, in fact are reduced and eliminated regularly (hello 35% increase in the cost of my benefits next month!) 

Now I no longer feel afraid. I feel frustrated, and ready to do something different rather than continue to try to improve a system that doesn’t want improving, or simply has a different end game in mind. I don’t know what that will be. In fact, I have absolutely NO idea what I might ever do outside of teaching because I never really gave it any real thought because I loved teaching, and I was good at it, and so why would I have?

I still love teaching. It is just so rare to be able to actually focus on doing that with everything else that has become a priority in American (or at least Californian) education. Recently, one of my team teachers said to me, “You should teach college,” which is an insult when levied at you by another high school teacher… it is code for “You do not really seem to have it in you to deal with the kids so why don’t you go sit somewhere in an ivory tower and contemplate your belly button along with your outsized intellect.” The funniest part of my colleage saying this to me, is he was party to the criticism levied at me by the “evaluator” described below who said I try to teach too much material and would be better suited for tertiary education, and told me that it was an insult (like I needed to know this.)

I don’t know what I might do next. But my times, they are a changing’….

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I had another “professional evaluation” on Tuesday. My administrator (actually one of two administrators who have been assigned to me because apparently I need double administrating) decided he would assess my teaching during my first period sophomore World History class, on the first day of the new semester, after a three day weekend. Because, what a great time for a quality demonstration of academic pursuits and endeavors.

Seriously.

And the more I thought about this, the unscheduled evaluations and the purported purpose behind them,  the more I realized, I am just not playing this game anymore.  Through, truth be told, there are some who have said I was never all that good at this game in the first place. [I am reminded of  the reaction of my illustrious graduate advisor Paul Starrs, on my contemplations around pursuing a PhD… ‘Well, I am just not sure you would fully appreciate the structure of the social science world at that level….’] But through this entire rigamarole at my current school, where they simultaneously offered me a permanent contract AND said I required further evaluation [really? REALLY? If I am that suspect, why are you keeping me around??] it has become more and more clear that the purpose of the Professional Teacher Evaluation has absolutely nothing to do with assessing or improving pedagogy. In even suggesting this, my disinterest in improving my methods is assumed. Which only further substantiates the fact that you are simply not paying attention.

And so as I sat and looked at the evaluation I would have to sign, always with the option to write a written response/rebuttal that no one reads and means less than nothing, I decided I would do my very best Lisbeth Salander and say nothing and just sign the damn thing. Which would be better than opening my mouth, because if I did you could be sure nothing good would come of that.

What would come of that would be something like this:

You are not interested in seeing how good of a teacher I am, or helping me become a better teacher. You are interested in “catching” me. Catching me not using the precise language, strategy or technique du jour that you have prescribed across the board for a faculty of 200.

If you were interested in understanding my teaching you would interact with the material, talk to the kids, ask me questions about what I am teaching, look at the products….

In a nearly 20 year career I know that I have actually taught some kids valuable things. Academic things to be sure, but also about social currency & fluency, and how to use the academic knowledge they glean in school out there in the real world. And this has been important, especially in schools heavily populated with students most people call “at risk”… and I call interesting.

I have acknowledged my students’ life experiences, (what we used to call schema but I’m sure you have some other word for it now) and I have allowed my students the opportunity to be authentic in their learning and related experiences, not forcing them into a sentence framed cookie cutter way of experiencing and expressing everything. Through permissible authenticity the kids I have taught have been able to see how what they bring to world can be modified and customized to fit and work for success, but fundamentally remain the unique and interesting people they intrinsically are.

Sure there have been kids I did not reach and did not like me – an AP Lit student who plagiarized his entire senior project (and then convinced an administrator that it was because he was unclear on the objectives of the assignment and believed he had done what I wanted – and she bought it! ) comes to mind, but those numbers are far fewer than those who I made laugh, work hard, think, write, read, complain, and DO WORK all along the way, in an often archaic and sometimes ineffective (childish and stupid) American high school system.

But you are not interested in knowing these things. You do not want to know if I am effective – or affective. If you did you would look at the results I achieve with my students in your programs like common assessment and literacy (the top in the school if you are prone to quantitative analysis. You would look at the work my students are doing in the larger world with technology, in spite of embarrassing tech limitations. You would look at how I handle and manage my most vulnerable kids after school and outside of the classroom through any number methods.

But you don’t.

You come to see seniors in the afternoon before vacation or finals. You come to see sophomores first period on the first day of a new semester. You hassle me over minutia – you don’t like art on the walls. My calendar is not up to date enough (time passes you know?) You ask me to use different colored dry erase markers. You want to know why my white boards aren’t cleaner. And you put this in my professional evaluation, which purports to evaluate how I TEACH.

You say my class is too hard when I challenge students and lacks academic depth when I “scaffold.” You are unaware that the fluctuation in rigor actually moves kids through a super rigorous and fast-paced curriculum by building confidence and then creating opportunities to take intellectual risks. The ebb and flow challenges them and creates a safe place that builds trust and lets them explore their metacognitive abilities.

You say I must check for understanding by having every one of the 30+ students in every 58 minute class period practice individual oral expression; and in the same breath you say ‘Give them time to think!’

But really, the problem is bigger than your lack of interest in my actual ability to teach teenagers, so that just makes the whole “professional evaluation” that I am not going to read but will passively sign, even less meaningful.

The thing is, our kids need to want to learn, and we’ve created a society in which – for many reasons (incompetent schools, myopia, ignorance, ill placed priorities, an emphasis on wealth over substance, a refusal to acknowledge that the achievement gap cannot be fixed until we give historically disadvantaged or low achieving kids and their families a minute to actually think about school without worrying about a million other things like survival) the education we are selling is not being bought.

So, when I teach kids who are uninterested in a traditional education I have to find different way to show them it matters. This is not done with your sentence frames. It is done by modeling successful, tenacious behavior. This behavior manifests itself in most of the things you cannot stand about me: how I dress, how I speak my mind, how I laugh at myself and with others, how I incorporate material or methods that borrow from pre-existing interests to hook kids, how I use language to express complex ideas/speak, and how I maintain my authenticity in the face of your unyielding demands to make me leave that all behind.

And by the way, if that means they hear me use a swear word once in while… I think they’ll survive.

How I suck at “Social Media” and how this allows me to use it prolifically.

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Let’s start with full disclosure: I blog (which is a poncy way to say ‘I have a blog’), I have a Facebook (again, a ridiculous way to say ‘I use Facebook’), I have an Instagram (I actually think this is how everyone says this), I have two Twitters (one is for work; my students use Twitter for current events via KQED and it is a good format, and I have a personal account which is my only truly locked down and private outlet within the social media sphere), I used to have Myspace (two of those too – one for me and one I allowed students on – I do not do this with Facebook now, I just say no until students are out of school, then if they still care, I will accept their friend requests), and I have a Google+ but I have no idea what it is – although it seems public. Oh, I have a YouTube account too, but I think if you use gmail you have this because of the pervasive trend towards conglomeratization. I do not have a Linkedin – and I wish people would stop inviting me because it is a totally useless concept in my field. I do not have Flickr, DeviantArt, Tumblr (although I had a school one for a year), a Bebo (don’t even know what that is), and god help me I do.not.SnapChat.

Basically, I have a fairly visible digital footprint. Regardless of this, I still suck at social media. And I am totally fine with this because I think it is why I am able to use social media so prolifically without becoming angry and insane.

Here’s why: I do it wrong.

It turns out, I am just not really that “social”

I have always known this about blogging. I like to blog (look at me go!) but I don’t really read other blogs. I do occasionally come across blogs that I read because I am looking for something specific – like research for work or personal interests, and then I will read them, but in general, in the same way I look at my blog as a way to be hugely self-indulgent, I am not that interested in reading other people’s self indulgences. Unless they are about me or something uniquely related to me. The blogs I write that get attention get it from small niche populations. Thus it is no surprise that a blog I wrote about my cat remains to this day the blog that got the most hits out of anything I have ever done in any internet capacity. When I write about friends from home, my friends from home read it. When I write about being a teacher, my teacher friends read it. When I write about events and adventures, the people who shared the experiences read them. And there are a few exceptions here and there, a clever tag that gets others over to the page or something, but really the audience is terribly limited. And I am okay with that. I don’t interact with commenters (oh, I will get to them in a minute) and I don’t comment. I do very little to engender interaction or interest in my blog. I harbor no illusions that I am telling stories or illuminating ideas that no one has ever considered. In fact, mostly I feel like I am just adding validity to the reality that our shared human experience is far more similar than it is unique most of the time. And in its own way that is kind of cool.

I use Twitter for news. I love it and scroll through it regularly, occasionally retweet things, favorite things I want to come back to, and mostly leave it at that. I originally got it as a way to text for free from overseas, but now I use it primarily for information and as a way to measure the social temperature around said information. I like Twitter and it is very handy for my students to use as well.

I use Facebook (which I keep private, although I do not consider private in the way my personal Twitter is because there are people on my Facebook that I would not share certain things with because it would be weird and inappropriate) a lot. Although, it is getting harder to use it the way I would like. But again, it turns out I am not that “social” on FB. I post a lot of things. Things *I* think are interesting, important, funny, relevant, whatever. Again, I am under no illusion that these things are “interesting, important, funny, relevant, whatever” to other people. I am not posting for other people. I am posting for me. That is why I put the stuff on my Facebook page. If it is interesting to other people, that is cool – and I generally can predict with nearly perfect accuracy who will respond/comment/reply to the things I post. That is a benefit of having people who you actually know on your Facebook.

But I don’t get really interactive on other people’s Facebook pages. There are several reasons for this. First – Facebook is making this harder and harder as they only automatically show you the stuff posted by people you “interact” with regularly so it is easy to see how that circle gets inadvertantly smaller and smaller. Another reason I am not super active on Facebook is that there is a lot of stuff that people I really like post that I don’t wanna see. This does not mean I like them less, or do not want to be their friend in real life, or on the internets, it just means I am not into seeing stuff like that and so I don’t look at it. Going to the page of a person, like my friend D.M., a guy I have known since the first grade, and really like in a ton of ways, is not fun for me because we hold diametrically oppositional views on politics and a lot of social issues. Telling him how I disagree would be stupid – or having the audacity to tell him he is wrong or should not be posting something because it bothers me is just inappropriate. He is not posting that stuff for me – he is posting for him, so why do I want to go there and get all fired up – or worse, get involved in some comment battle where I am trying to convince someone that their opinion is “wrong”. Opinions – like feelings – cannot be wrong. They can be in disagreement with my opinions, and certainly wrong for me (or you), but telling someone their opinion is wrong is a waste of time, and really offensive. So instead I leave comments and “likes” on his Instagram where we have much more common ground.

I do believe there are times and places to help someone perhaps see that their opinion does not match data/history/science/facts or something, but I would suggest that would be like in a teaching situation, or as a parent, or an actual conversation among friends. Not really apropos for “social media.” I mean, it’s like the rules that govern polite conversation at dinner parties. People used to say ‘do not talk about politics and religion in mixed company.’ And this was not because people didn’t think about that stuff, or should not hold different opinions – it was because it was a “social” situation and being a dick by telling someone that their opinion is wrong is not very social. Remember when we were taught that if you didn’t have anything nice to say to not say anything at all? If social media is as it claims to be [social] – maybe that is a good rule…. I mean treat other people’s pages as their dinner party and use your own home(page) to say what you have to say. If people don’t want to hear your opinion they don’t have to come to your dinner party.

Facebook in all its deficiencies does allow for a couple great ways to deal with this. First, you can straight hide someone’s posts from your news feed (either by unfollowing them or selecting certain posts.) I have done this. A lot. If someone whose posts you enjoy following generally posts something you cannot deal with, you can had that specific post. A friend in HK who is super active in animal rights posted a super awful photo of an elephant, which I assume was attached to a story about how disgusting people are to elephants, and I could’t take it so I hid it, but not her. I hide all the silly fantasy sports stuff one of my former students posts – it is clutter and useless, but I love hearing about him and his family. I posted a misogynist rant that came out around the Isla Vista shooting on my page and one of my really good friends in HK who I discuss almost everything with, was like, ‘I can’t take this, I’m hiding it from my feed.’ And I totally get that. She didn’t feel the need to tell me how my posting it was wrong or that it was somehow not appropriate – she just said, I don’t want to look. That is what I would call solid use of the comments section.

Which brings me to the commenters. OH.MY.GOD. There is a seemingly growing population of people on the planet that have infinite amounts of time to dedicate to some sort of personal calling to comment on internet activity. These are trolls. I have had a few trolls. I know who one of them was, and I think I have finally blocked him enough that he cannot comment on my blog and Instagram (my only public pages) and his deal was just that he was (is?) a weird little man who thought I rebuffed him inappropriately. But it was still really annoying to get shitty comments from him. Another one I had was a former coworker who was convinced I was subliminally writing about him in my blog, which I was not, but his misunderstanding was illuminating. I am always surprised at how bad the (poor grammar and spelling aside) words of a total stranger or someone I could really not give two shits about can make me feel when it shows up on my stuff. Do the trolls have their own pages? Agendas? I have no idea, but they freaking should because that would be the right place to vent. Venting on the pages/posts/comments of total strangers just to spread vitriol is so bizarre. And it is like they get a certain kind of joy from just being awful.

Says a lot about society.

While I cannot even begin to grok why you would spend this sort of energy being a dick (and far worse) to total strangers, I am even more mystified by people who would do this to people they know – unless they just don’t want to be friends anymore, which is fine, but “breaking up” on Facebook/Instagram/blog seems pretty lame.

I am grateful for the ability to see what my friends – from near and far – are up to in their lives. It is really fun to see who has gone somewhere amazing, had a new baby, got a new job, and be able to be a spectator. I realize email could do the same thing, but that is a much different interface. Do I want a whole email every time for all these events? I think I prefer being able to look through the “news” feed. It works for me. I also have a growing appreciation for the vastly divergent attitudes and opinions my friends hold around religion, politics, social issues, and life in general. That I am friends with such a diverse group I think says a lot about me and my friends. I don’t need them to change for me, that they are who they are is what I love about them. And I do like having conversations with my friends about our thoughts, feelings, and opinions, but this does not happen in the comments. This happens in a pub in Hong Kong, at a secret diner party in SF, poolside in Vegas, on a phone call from Paris, or in email exchanges from Dubai.

In the end “social” suggests being with people and so while social media does endeavor to so this – it is not them same.

And I am okay with this.

The way I choose to use social media works for me. And if it doesn’t work for you, then there are lots of ways to handle that…. (like why are you reading this?) But whatever you do, if you want to remain hopeful for humanity and maintain your sanity… trust me on this: NEVER READ THE COMMENTS.

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[First image from HuffPo, cartoon from unknown source.]

 

Oops, I did it again.

…we have a deeply held anti-intellectual strain in our culture. It’s OK for schools to teach the basics or, even, vocational skills that lead directly to jobs. But studying history, literature or philosophy has always been suspect. Why would anyone want to study such subjects, goes thisunconscious logic, if not just to feel superior. They are not practical, not good for anything other than providing a sense of entitlement and elevation above the mob—except when they actually do train students to take places in the finance industry or advanced technology or any other area that promises immense financial gain. 

If you Google schools are failing you will get “about 49,300,000 results [in] (0.21 seconds)”. So, with all apologies to Britney Jean, here I am writing about work again. Oops. I cannot stop thinking about it – even on my vacation. And I don’t need to be thinking about it right now because I worked 16+ hour days for the three weeks heading up to vacation to ensure that I would not have work to do over this vacation. But it doesn’t really matter because as long as there is school to return to in January, even if I don’t have papers to grade, I certainly have work to do. It never really goes away…. even in summer, and oh, I love  hearing people talk about teachers and their summer vacations as they wax poetic about how nice it must be to have so much time off. Yeah. It takes about three and a half weeks to lift your head up again after the mad dash to the end of the year, and then when you are able to focus on the fact that you are not responsible for day-to-day presence at school it is time to revisit the entire last year and start making lists: what worked, what did not work, what you need to do better, what adjustments to be made, what materials will be required, what new books and articles you should read, what re-certification work needs to be done, what conferences to attend… Ahhh…. summer. And then school starts. And by the way, it starts in the summer. 

So, it is not that strange that as I sit and try to figure out the best way to help launch our brand new Interdisciplinary Project, one of the cornerstones of our Small School (within the large school) that combines the students English, Anatomy, and History classes for three weeks as they complete a major research project represented by a gallery worthy art installation, that I feel frustrated by the reality that no matter how hard I work, or how amazing the project that the group of people I am working with comes up with – we are still labeled as failing.

Failures.

That is so inspiring.

Right?

If schools are failing, there are a few painfully obvious questions that come to mind. 1) What does success look like in terms of our schools? 2) What does it actually mean when we hear and say that schools are failing? 3) Why are schools failing?

Continue reading

Trayvon.

Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away.

I hate to say I told you so (actually, that is not entirely true… but at the very least as I get older it generally makes me feel more sad than vindicated) but I really did tell you so about this one. As the Zimmerman trial got underway and no one took issue with the defense attorney cracking jokes, the freakishly homogeneous jury, and the abased treatment of victim Trayvon Martin’s friends and family, it seemed pretty clear to me what was going to go down.

Of course it could also be that I am a historian and I feel that the history I have studied and lived prepared me for what would be the eventual verdict that came out as I was sitting at a lovely dinner at dear friends’ wedding in Mendocino County.

The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.

This doesn’t make me any less saddened by the fact that a young man was killed for no other reason than he was a black teenager. The truth is teenagers make those not used to dealing with them very twitchy, and I know this from a plethora of experience – I always watch how people react here in the “liberal” Bay Area when I get on Bart with my Berkeley High (hardly threatening, although very diverse) students… and the reactions of the commuters on the train are always the same, ranging from discomfort to disgust to real concern. And the fact that he was black does matter.

Racial bias is real. Racial profiling is real. Racial inequity is real. Racial injustice is real. Don’t take my word for it read the science on racial “profiling.” Read the science around the study of “unconscious bias” at Harvard University.

Maybe we could look at some white kids who tend to wear hoodies… skaters and surfers – no less likely to be punk kids by the way – but I cannot remember the last time I heard of one of them being shot and killed for basically being in the wrong place at the wrong time (which skaters and surfers frequently are…) And as I watch the often swift hand of justice in America I have to play the mental game of wondering how things would have played out had Martin been white and Zimmerman black. Save for pro athletes (which is a rant for another time) I feel pretty confident in saying a black male shooter would have been immediately arrested (no weird 46-day delay) and incarcerated. And I seriously doubt Mark O’Mara and Don West would ever take a case of the everyday criminal of color. In fairness, I don’t know for sure, but it is a feeling I have. Just like the feeling I had when I said these things:

https://twitter.com/demandamanda/status/355174456169218048

It’s Florida Vince. No justice there. And in times of uncertainty like we are living in (economically, politically, ideologically, environmentally) people are desperate to have something tangible to be afraid of… and so they make a young black kid seem *that* scary. It is easier to be afraid of something concrete and tangible than to face the daunting reality that our collective survival is going to require a huge effort to come together and work shit out. As you know, very few people really want to do work in any context. Everyone just wants solutions and results. Sad. [FB, 10 July 2013]

Now we are faced with the aftermath. People are angry. and I don’t think it will be long-lived or effective. People have short attention spans and the media at the very least is banking on that. Frustration will incarnate as destruction and there will be greater alienation and divides. And the reality that Trayvon Martin did absolutely nothing that warranted the sort of outcome that Zimmerman had in store for him will be lost among the fall out, resentment, and intentional effort to justify the outcome of our modern justice system. Continue reading

“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”

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“Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.”

I finally saw Baz Luhrmann’s production of The Great Gatsby today. Not a new film anymore, I realize, but as is the nature of my life, I tend to get caught up on my celluloid fix during the summers, and a grey San Francisco June day is the perfect time to take in a matinée. For better or for worse, when it takes so long to get around to seeing movies it is impossible to not hear the critiques, and for an American classic of this stature, you can be sure there was an abundance. First, there were the “I haven’t seen the thing and I never will” critiques. These derived from a mix of folks ranging from those who stand on principle that, in fact, you not only cannot repeat the past you should be goddamned barred from trying. Also in this group are the people who categorically find something wrong with Baz Luhrmann, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Jay Z. Another element of this group would be the lit crit snobs, who I think are basing their critique on someone else’s review, which makes them too derivative to really even consider here. Next there were the literary aficionados. This group saw the film, and is largely comprised of teachers (heavily weighted towards English), readers of the New Yorker (or NYT Book Review), Fitzgerald experts, and “Americanists” (yes, that is a thing.) The criticism from this group was heavy on nostalgia and loyalty to the book. Many of them talked about how it was insulting to have the symbolism so directly explained [Um, yes. Americans don’t really read anymore and so I would say that in fact they DO need this explanation.] Some of them talked about how it was too literal, other said it took to many figurative liberties. I also heard complaints about the Luhrmann’s general misunderstanding of Fitzgerald’s primary theme in the novel (arguably the corrosion/degeneration/decay/ruination/failure of the “American Dream”). Associated with the latter was the notion that the irony of the novel would be lost in a Luhrmann-like celebration of the visual and aesthetic grandeur of the time period. How can he make a pretty movie about a fucked up thing like this? 

Ummm… I think you might have missed the irony there, professor.

“I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.” 

Anyhow, I went in with my own biases. I have read the novel probably ten times. I read it as a high school student (mostly), and then as a more responsible university student trying to actually e as well read as I said I was, and then as a high school teacher – yes, I too “taught” the novel. In addition to my self-professed familiarity with the book, I also believe that Leo DiCaprio may be one of the most underrated actors of my generation. I mean, forgive the guy Titanic, already, will you? What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, Blood Diamond, Basketball Diaries, and D’Jango Unchained? Please, that is a list of fantastic films, roles, and work. Anyhow, I suppose I am either preaching to the choir here or wasting time on deaf ears. Beyond that, I also love Baz Luhrmann. Visually, his work is amazing, even if you don’t like the movies, and I would suggest even if you don’t like his aesthetic, it should still be categorized as amazing work. Strictly Ballroom  will forever be a favorite, and judge me how you like, but I liked Moulin Rouge. So, there you have my biases. Oh, and Prada dresses & accessories for the parties? Yeah, I’m in.

“For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

 We have a deep-seated fascination with the “Roaring Twenties” in America. I know this as a U.S. History teacher, as well as a relatively observant human. There is something eternally compelling about a decade of such transition, tumultuous as it was. America came out of WWI looking as dapper as ever, and with the booming markets, new access to popular culture via radio, and huge cultural transitions like women’s rights (women’s suffrage, the Flapper movement, co-ed colleges) and the influence of black culture made more accessible, if not wholly acceptable, through the Harlem Renaissance, and then there was the emerging marriage of music, movies, fashion through the first generation of real American celebrities. People hold on to all these glamorous images tightly, going so far as to stylize even the worst elements of our culture, crime (organized or otherwise), racism, witch hunts (political and economic), in a way that offers pretty and sterile memories; always so much more fun to recollect. The resulting (yes, it was consequential) economic collapse even seems to be romanticized as some sort of retrospective Faustian morality tale – from which we all learned such valuable lessons. Oh. Wait….

I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

Now, off of my teacher soap box and into the theater. The costumes did not disappoint, the work in that area was divine. And the party scenes were just as I would hope from a Luhrmann vehicle: palpable texture. However, the scene that got me from the start was the moment Nick walks into the Buchanan’s home. From the first time I read the book I have loved that scene; the billowing curtains veiling Daisy and Jordan, the whiteness of the space… all of it, and I loved how it was done in this film. Nick’s first party is also fabulous. The way that Gatsby was a man of mystery at once so obvious and so invisible (as Jordan said, “…I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy…”) was, if not totally original, very well done. And anyhow, it is hard to imagine that anyone who was seeing this movie would be without an idea who Gatsby was being played by, so the element of surprise was based more in style than purpose.

Beyond the little things – including wildly overdone settings – which worked by the way (the Valley of Ashes was a crazy zone of transition) I found the movie to be an effective reminder of what I remember being most compelling about the book in the first place: the simultaneous enchantment and repulsion of humanity. The amazing wealth (which was actually available to so many people during the decade Fitzgerald aimed to unveil) is tantalizing, and the way Luhrmann capitalized on Fitzgerald’s descriptions of decadence made the veneer of this wealth viscerally clear. The commodification of everything has become a way of life for modern America, but maybe at one point in time that was not the case.

The scene when Gatsby finally gets to show his home to Daisy, to demonstrate his worth to her, is also exceptionally well done in the film. Daisy’s clear intoxication by the context rather than the  characters of the home is obvious, and her consideration of Gatsby is sad. But the part that got me was when they all went swimming. For some reason the way that Lurhmann brought this scene to life made me so hugely and immediately grateful to be with someone because of the someone they are rather than the somethings they may or may not have. I am unsure why this scene made me think that, but it was immediate and in spite of luxury I could well imagine loving, I was so glad to not be those people. It was weird.

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”

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It reminded me of all the people I see working so hard to be Someone or Something, worried evermore that they will never be enough if they don’t go to all the right places, eat all the right food, like all the right things. You know this guy; the guy who measures his worth by Twitter followers or something, who talks about how much he likes the things that Robin Leach told us we should like back in the day because that will make him higher quality, who talks about how amazing s/he is and how much they love their life telling everyone how they “live the dream”… while they are so totally alone… at the restaurant, at the concert, at the bar… “table for 1”. That irony, being totally alone in the proverbial crowded room was the fate of Gatsby, who believed that Daisy would solve his loneliness.

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Ultimately, it is hard to say if the good guys win this one. I never liked Nick in the book, I found his odd humility and warped self-image far too distracting as a narrator, and clearly the rest of the characters were loathsome, and he is pretty meh in this version as well. All my gay male friends really hate Tobey McGuire for some reason and they blame him for Nick being so lame, but I think Tobey was pretty spot on in terms of suckage, I mean, Nick is the biggest drag in the book – at least the really awful people are not conflicted by their hideous natures. Being self-conscious about it is even more annoying.

“They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

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But there was always Gatsby, perhaps the last bastion of the failing American Dream – the eternal optimist in the face of certain defeat, and someone who was honest enough to understand that the measure of a man would never again be made from his character in this modern world, but only in the correctly constructed facade, regardless of the means of acquisition. Pretty things are more important I guess.

That Gatsby remained hopeful was lovely, and I like to think that he dies believing Daisy did call. I like to think this is because I too am an eternal optimist. And I left this newest version of The Great Gatsby feeling like they got it. It is different from the other versions, but the reminder that we continue to live in a world that increasingly rewards people not for the people they are, or how they have contributed to humanity, but for the spectacle they can make of themselves irrespective of the attendant costs to others or society, is both timely and important.

And maybe we should just call this movie a reminder, not a remake, and then everyone could be less of a critic and take a look at how prophetic the story actually is.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Oh – and ps: Jay Z killed it on the soundtrack. Real talk.