Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Disappearance of Childhood and an Easy Trick to Bring it Back

Bit of a short post today (stop slavering and scrabbling every couple of hours for updates; they'll be there and you'll enjoy them all the more if you endure a tiny period of delayed gratification).

I want talk about our unexamined tendency to regard children as unformed adults rather than creatures in their own right.  We see them as somehow soft and blobby--"on their way," "sprouting up and straightening,"  and talk blithely of how "they haven't reached that 'crucial' phase just yet"-- bit more maturing--or fermenting--as the case may be.  Always crouched horridly in the background, never far from the clanging gates wherein lie the tombs in rows and stacks splotched with gray-green mold, lurk the hairy mole-sprouting "grown-ups" with their withered genitals and droning mumbling "wisdom."

 Phrases like "when she matures," or "when he reaches full height," or "when his bones lenghthen,"  "you can see brain development daily--you really, really can! Can't you, Miggles!"--all this gives children the status of those novelty sponges you can spray with the garden hose and create an expanding giraffe or T-Rex whose size and scare potential are in hilarious inverse proportion to the advertising.   What I'd like to propose is that the child--age 4, 6 or 16 is a complete, fully-formed being--a slice of the spectrum to be sure, but all you can comprehend for the nonce without invoking cliches like "for a split second he could apprehend the powerful woman she would be when the clan finished gathering the robot mammoths,"  or "in those hard blue eyes the future leader of the galactic rebellion glinted like Rigelian steel forged in the smithies of Commodore Komodo himself."

I've a great deal of respect for Neil Postman's excellent book of media epistemology and historical and elegiac lament The Disapperance of Childhood.   Read the book and see what he was talking about next time you tune in to American Idol or Jersey Shore or see some 7 year-old being readied with all the meticulous  planning of a Jewish bar mitzvah for prison by his extended monkey clan of uncles, dumbfuck fathers and mothers, and unclassifiable grease pit and junk yard hangers-on sporting unwashable grease stains and permanent tattoos of 16 different sorts of Sheol on their filthy bodies.  Central to Postman's thesis was that modern media has obliterated any of the sense of necessary shame that separates adult secrets from childhood innocence, resulting in the shambling, demanding, cell-phone bellowers and complainers you see befouling the neighborhood parks and ruining civil public discourse.

However, Postman, with his media/historical approach--and the biologists who are almost certainly right that humans are wired for specific stages of development (much mystery and hair-pulling frustration has been dispelled by recent revelations that the adolescent brain doesn't become a truly rational decision maker--if there ever was such a thing--until the early 20s), aren't looking hard at children right now:  there, SNAPSHOT! of children loading a pile of rubber toy Santa Clauses into a catapult and launching them at the leaf fire Mr. Cironne has burning next door;  there--SNAPSHOT! of three little girls holding cardboard toy cameras decorated with fake plastic lenses up to their faces, following old Mrs. Takanyaka as she wheels out the recyclables using a paparazzi patois and crouching, crab-walk media gait: "There's Takayaka now as she makes her way toward the bin, doing her part to save the earth, she's nearing the bin now, getting ready to make the dump, she's unstoppable [Cue Mrs. Takanyaka: she SCREETCHES at the girls]; SNAPSHOT!--two boys dump the powder they've taken from 27 peeled toy rocket engines to gather enough explosive powder to disrupt the Easter party next door with a homemade bomb;  SNAPSHOT! Fat Billy Sporesman reads a science fiction novel for the 8th time and this reading plants the seeds of his future Nobel Prize.

But you're missing the point if you see any of this as preparation  for adulthood, the stage when the very existence of bloodpressure, cholestorol, and erectal disfunction drugs are klaxon alarms complete with barking dogs and barbed wire and Martian/Nazi towers stabbing down searchlights whose pitiless beams scream "life is over, nature doesn't need you and your dribbly sperm and aging eggs! pathetic carbon-based biped."   It needs kids trying to jump bicycles over ditches and seeing how many pieces of bubble gum they can fit in their mouths.    Kids aren't developing.  They're now. RIGHT NOW! IN THIS PRESENT MOMENT!

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a wonderful article about the evolution of Mickey Mouse from pointy long-nosed mischief maker in Steamboat Willy to the magic kingdom host we know today.  Gould writes in The Panda's Thumb, "As Mickey became increasingly well behaved over the years, his appearance became more youthful. Measurements of three stages in his development revealed a larger relative head size, larger eyes, and an enlarged cranium--all traits of juvenility. In addition, a suite of changes pervades the head itself during human growth. The brain grows very slowly after age three, and the bulbous cranium of a young child gives way to the more slanted, lower-browed configuration of adulthood. The eyes scarcely grow at all and relative eye size declines precipitously. But the jaw gets bigger and bigger. Children, compared with adults, have larger heads and eyes, smaller jaws, a more prominent, bulging cranium, and smaller, pudgier legs and feet. Adult heads are altogether more apish, I'm sorry to say."

Gould references animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz, who argues that humans use the characteristic differences in form between babies and adults as important behavioral cues. He believes that features of juvenility trigger "innate releasing mechanisms" for affection and nurturing in adult humans. When we see a living creature with babyish features, we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness. The adaptive value of this response can scarcely be questioned, for we must nurture our babies. Lorenz, by the way, lists among his releasers the very features of babyhood that Disney affixed progressively to Mickey: "a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements."   Surely, "cuteness"--that much over-used to the point of meaningless, word--is a complex of unconcious characteristics and neural cues which bind us to children.  Children draw us irresistibly because they need us at our most tender and nurturing.

My oldest big sister once observed that "our mother never forgave us for growing up."  True.  Another big sister answered simply to my puzzled query, "Why do unfit (translate "obese, stupid, boobs") parents keep having baby after baby? Sex can't be that strong, especially in this day and age with internet porn and contraception and other distractions.  What gives?'

"They want that cute baby stage to give them joy," she said, "They want it over and over until biology makes it impossible."   Once a little girl, 2nd or 3rd grader perhaps, approached me on the playground and shouted in  my face, "Know what I like about being a kid, teacher?"  


"None of your business!"  And she shot off toward the play structure where she sprang onto the hanging row of metal hoops and screeched, "I'm a monkey! I'm a monkey! Hooo!  Hooo! Hooo!"
She was the blessed inhabitant of another realm, untouchable, inviolate.

None of which detracts from my central point.  Pick a child, any child you see today, and what you see is surely a process, its separation from the environment surely an illusory quirk of our poorly-understood central nervous peceptual systems, but the creature is still  there, doing its funky child thing right there and nowhere else for your viewing delectation, just like Mickey and Donald (ever take a look at how long, how adult Donald's beak was in early cartoons?) are there forever, in a magic kingdom immune to biology.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Homeless Teacher's Amazon Kindle Review Sample Corner #4

 "Mission Statement: I review the sample of the book so you don't have to read either one."
--Homeless Teacher (By the way, I will reveal my name sometime in the near future, but employers are sensitive about people who live in shelters even though I shower every day, use deodorant, mouthwash, dress in descent clothes, and don't screech and mumble and windmill my arms, except when someone mentions "American Idol" or "Occupy" movements, among other things).  

I've been floating a great idea for an number of years about late-night TV sketch shows like Mad TV and Saturday Night Live.  Everyone knows that even a rare sketch with a funny premise peters out ofter 2 minutes, occasionally limping and wheezing into 3 minutes, but instead of whipping off the to next sketch they drag the whole thing out to an excruciating 10 or 12 minutes before the blessed commercial, jokes dribbling second by second down the drain.

Why not, I've suggested, have a Friday and Saturday night 15 minute screen scroll down the screen of the shows' premises --which are the funniest part anyway?  It may take  while to catch on, but it will, just like my brilliant Amazon kindle sample review idea.   Now you never have to feel guilty at parties or college "mixers" or late-night bull sessions with your dorm or frat chums whenever you haven't read the book under discussion.  After the 15 minutes or so reading my review corner in the bathroom or on the bus, you'll be able to quote passages, discuss main ideas and flaws, assert the way in which you would have effortlessly improved the book, and probably end up with a date for next weekend or even the next 24 hours.   Ready?  Let's Go!

A Universe From Nothing by Laurence Krauss.  Jerry Coyne read Krauss's book, which contains a fawning afterward by Richard Dawkins, who sees the book as the death nell of theism,  and was sorely disappointed.   Jerry authors one of the best, most rational, and entertaining blogs on the web, Why Evolution is True, which grew out of his knock-out book of the same name, and stands as just about the best defense of evolution currently available, possibly tied with Dawkins' Greatest Show on Earth.  Jerry--a geneticist at the university of Chicago, loves evolution, cats (kettahs and Ceiling cat--Feline God), nomming delish international food, clouds, cowboy boots, and many more wonderful hings--has a funny and grim post  up right now about what a vile, stupid book the Bible really is ( I could have told him that 3 decades ago when I read the fat thing in high school cover-to-cover and wondered by why God was such a psychopathic bully and was so stupid, exactly like the powerful but imbecilic aliens Kirk and Spock were always circuit-frying with elementary logic.  Jerry agrees with me that most of the beautiful diamonds of poetry and wisdom buried in this feculent, evil dung hill probably have more to do with the King James translation than any intrinsic worth.

Really, think about it.  If you were the unimaginably powerful being responsible for 100 billion stars and 100 billion or more galaxies aside from ours, and uncountable worlds possibly supporting life and intelligence, would you reveal yourself to a group of sun-struck doltish iron-age nomads, who though they were living on a kind of platform with heaven right there above them, and who probably spent lots of time clearing sand out their undies and butt-cracks and then leave them with a bunch of fragmentary, incomprehensible, boring, contradictory (to me it's plausible and likely that Jesus was several preachers rubber stamped with the name Jesus) badly edited manuscripts (none of the originals are with us) that no one can agree on and over which people have killed and tortured hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children?   And God who created the universe  has a son?  A son?   Why the hell would he want one when he could have so many cooler things than a party pooper like Jesus who says things like, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.  For I am come to set a man at variance against his father and a the daughter against her mother." Matthew 10: 34-35  And lots of other weird, scary things. 

Didn't you love it when Bart Simpson used to make his Sunday school teacher pull her hair out trying to explain things like that in the first few seasons?

And then presumably God and his son traveled around really fast like Santa Clause on Christmas Eve to other trillions of other planets to burn bushes and get nailed to crosses.   Didn't you think about stuff like that when you were about 7 or 8 years old and experience some weird cognitive dissonance resulting in night-terrors?  In fact, I think that's what a lot of children's night terror comes from: trying to reconcile what they intuitively know is true with the garbage adults shove at them as true, like Noah's ark, walking on water, coming out of grave after you're dead, and biting into a piece of fruit and thereby introducing the bizarre, entirely superfluous, and poorly defined concept of "sin," and the idea there's some "Devil" guy whispering in your ear and making all kinds of mischief that God apparently can't control?   It's child abuse.  

All this digression fits in to the review (really!), and if it doesn't, I'll do a post hoc shoe-horning so skillful none of you will notice.  Jerry really wanted to like physicist Laurence's book because it seemed from advance word that the book and its afterward by Richard Dawkins supported one of Jerry's pet topics, the dead end of religion and the ascent of scientifically rigorous atheist thought and the refusal of stalwart scientists to have any truck with palid, liberal accommodationists who want science and religion to "dialog" and get along and form human daisy chains and all that dingle berry stuff.   Instead, Jerry found Krauss's book awkwardly written, badly organized, and not really clear about how the universe arose from a quantum vacuum of nothingness or even how that could be defined as nothingness. 

Jerry Coyne quotes physicist David Albert, who panned Krauss's book, and was especially critical of the Krauss's attempt to define nothing as a quantum field-theoretical vacuum: 

But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff.  

In other words, Krauss's book is just a mediocre bait and switch, goalpost moving, awkward repeat of stuff other physicists like Victor Stenger have said much more clearly.  The sample I got on my Kindle isn't much more than throat clearing and promises of dazzling revelations to come, but I think I trust Jerry and David and a bunch of others who've panned the book.  So I can't even state the Main Idea or my Best Part or give you and Also thought to ponder in bed tonight.

Actually that's not true.  I'm a big fan of Richard Dawkins, but I think the enthusiastic-gimme! gimme! gimme! way he and other atheists pounced on this book says something important.  Krauss's lecture on the universe from nothing on YouTube has had over a million views and is still going strong.   Let's be blunt: atheists and agnostics and seekers aren't being persuaded--in this particular case--let's be clear about that--I'm an agnostic-- by careful science; they're being codswalloped by their own emotions and insecure hopes.  They want the philosopher's stone to pound the final nail in theism's coffin, and their hungry tongue lolling and scrabbling is just a bit embarrassing.  

Not recommended.  Read Victor Stenger instead.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

Scottish? Irish? Genius? Clueless Windbag? Who Cares?

One of my new friendly acquaintances at the Mission (Joseph, my round rabbi-like avuncular Mexican/Jewish/Gangster adviser told me once to never, ever try to be "friends" with anyone at the Mission.  "Become a skillful skimmer of  the surface of friendly acquaintance.  Have many escape routes and excuses.  Only then will wisdom come to you"), is a swaggering, pontificating alcoholic windbag and pseudo-polymath who calls himself Colin.  We began talking one morning when he saw me in the breakfast line reading a book by religious scholar Elaine Pagels, The Origins of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics, a fine skeptical look at the invention of Satan and the use of this bogeyman for political oppression and general harassment.

Colin tottered up to me like a circus-trained bear, meal-sack belly swinging,  stared down at me (Look, I swear it's true--his eyes are "blue and twinkling, surrounded by wry crinkles."  Forgive me, Father for I have sinned), and said, " Well, young laddie, is he Jon Lovitz in red tights or the fellow who nailed Rosemary or is he entombed in ice at the center of Dante's playhouse?  Which is it?  Out with it, young buck!  I've been pondering the question myself since I was knee-high to a shalalie stick me-self!"

What the hell?  Not since Robert Shaw invented his own completely original and utterly bogus New England Fisherman Accent for Jaws (one of my top ten films), had I heard anything like that Disney-fied accent and diction, pouring out of his mouth as if he were a programmed animatronic diorama dummy.  It vaguely reminded me of how Sean Connery over the years defiantly kept his Scottish accent, even when playing an Irish beat cop in The Untouchables or a Russian sub commander in The Hunt for Red October and somehow got away with it time after time.

"Yes, Lad?"

"Well, she's certainly provocative and informative."

"Let me clue you in on Sister Elaine, boy-o.  She's a bloody feminist and no mistaking it!  Don't you ever forget it.  A fooking feminista if ever a one trod God's good green earth!  Have you got your grains of salt at the ready?  You'll be needing them, and plenty of them!"

"I try to be objective, I'm pretty skeptical of everything."  He'd instantly reduced me to bland cliche'.

He leaned toward me, put his hand on my shoulder (fooking? Touching me?!)  A fine mist of alcohol adhered to my face like a warm mask.  Johnny Walker Black, I thought.

"Just last week at the Highland Games [Highland Games? Isn't that Scottish?  Kilts and prancing about and throwing big logs and so on?], I was watching Brother Conner perform his miracle with the caber throw--you know it's a divine intervention, don't you, lad?--and I thought of what Father Socrates said: 'All I know is that I know nothing.'"

He nodded and smiled and breathed on me.  "Well," I said, "I've always thought that was kind of vacuous and circular, almost solipsistic, know what I mean?  Not really worthy of a philosopher of that caliber."

He gripped my shoulder.  My God, I thought, is anyone seeing this or listening?  "I can see you're a young fellow of discernment and wee bit o' taste.  We'll be talking again."

Then he barrelled his way into the cafeteria ahead of everyone, past the Disciple guarding the door, and bellowed at the kitchen staff, "Give me a sandwich!  I'm off!"  And they gave him a sandwich, one of the subs only the Disciples get.   It turned out he'd been doing this everyday.  He did it just this morning.  I hadn't noticed because I mostly read and listen to Beethoven in breakfast line, occasionally glancing around to see if anything interesting happens.  But I'd missed this.

My primary image of Colin until this point had been the nightly sight of him sitting on the sidewalk listening to baseball or football, carving away at a sack of raw vegetables with a "Crocodile Dundee" knife.  He often wore a big floppy-brimmed feather-decked hat and I'm pretty sure I'd heard him use the words "outback" and "mates" and "Foster's."  That hint of Aussie affectation combined with the vegetables and his incessant scripture quoting and Bible Belt bluster gave him back-burner status for me.  I filed him away as potentially interesting or useful, but definitely one to avoid for the time being.

One night he strode into the changing room upstairs--a tiny space with some low steel benches and moldy walls where dozens of sweaty, hairy, warty men are expected to undress, dry off, apply deodorant and lotions and pop their meds, all without killing each other.

"Ever seen the likes of that, me buckos?"(Long John Silver now?) Addressing the mostly Mexican crowd who were cooling their heels before going downstairs to chapel, he held up what looked like an ordinary supermarket green pepper--a serrano maybe.  "That's a variety of pepper found only in Peru. [Where the hell did he get it?  Surely you understand by now it would be blasphemous to point a skeptical poniard at Colin's personae?] "Only those blessed with an iron constitution like me self can ingest one and expect to continue walking God's Good Green Earth."

The exhausted, filthy men stared or grinned.  Colin continued, "But don't you go buying into the myth that the local constabulary likes to spread about you south 'o the border chappies:  You know the one about your near-mystical immunity to pepper spray on account of your liberal consumption of fire and brimstone spices in your 'wittles?"['wittles? So he's the convict in Dickens' Great Expectations now?]

Colin paused and surveyed the changing room.  "Racist is the last thing any of us can afford to be, now can we?  And if Richard Dawkins is correct, we are all Out of Africa!  Except that over-rated hussy Meryl Streep.  'Eye, I'd like to take her by her bony shoulders and give her a good rattling shaking. Quote me on it."

He was stupefying in his demented self-possession and seeming confidence, his willingness to approach anyone with a lecture, epigram, parable, scripture quote, limerick.

Another morning he approached me, struck an oratorical pose, and recited the following:

Tommy Loy, the cabin boy,
The dirty little nipper,
Filled his ass
With broken glass
And circumcised the Skipper!

Then he strode off into the morning without another word.

One night I sat together with him on the sidewalk and for the first time he offered me a choice of vegetable pieces from his bag.  Blithley fanning a thick stack of dollar bills he'd somehow obtained he stared into the middle distance, nodded at something in the air and said, "Remember your Sub Genius scriptures, young buck.  'They will pay to know what they already think.'  [I'm actually an ordained, dues-paying priest in the Church of the SubGenius and have been a devout follower of "Bob" for many years, but how did Colin know?] Do you understand the import of that statement?  Do you study the Word diligently?" he asked me.

"You know I do, Colin."

"Don't try to run anything past me, lad.  What did Bob tell us about the meaning of the name of our church?"

Aren't you a devout Christian? I wanted to ask.  What are you?  How are you?  What made you? Am I really here?

I said, "He told us that there's nothing "Sub" about us and nothing of "Genius" either."

"Good, lad.  And what does that teach us?"


"Far from it, boyo, far from it."  Then he munched some cauliflower and the lesson was over.

Just the other day he was lecturing group of ancient handicapped black gents who sit together in the breezeway foyer on low brick benches awaiting their early admission to breakfast about what Colin called "The Elijah Solution."

"Elijah was the originator of CPR.  It's quite clear from the scriptures and in the original Aramaic it's even more clear."  That's another thing Colin possessed--an Aramaic Bible.  But wasn't Aramaic  just the oral language the New Testament stories were told in and later written down in Greek?

"Elijah was in gifting us with CPR bestowing upon us a preview of the Resurrection.  Today instead of the Elijah Solution we have psychiatrists and Big Pharma.  So, Toby?"--here he addressed a half blind man with a walker, "Are you still taking the Seroquel and the Benedryl together?"

"Yeah," said Toby. "Helps me sleep some."

"See me at my bunk tonight, laddie, and we'll talk about adjusting your doses."

An episode still discussed and debated that has already become legend began with Colin staggering up the center aisle of chapel about 20 minutes before the invocation, wailing, "Defiled! Brothers I've been defiled!  Tainted!  Unclean!  Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph and all the blessed Saints!  I've been DEFILED!"   He staggered into the corridor leading to the stairs and the restroom.

The story emerged:  Colin had been sitting in his usual spot with his knife and vegetable bag and radio when a snaggle-toothed, nearly bald whore with a habit of flipping her skirt up and thrusting her alarmingly bushy pubis at anyone, approached Colin.  She fingered his bald, shiny head and tugged at her skirt and said, "Come on, honey."

"Bugger off, lassie, I'm eating me veggies and gettin' me dose of gamesmanship."

Onlookers describe what happened next as something that would be at home in an Alien-type horror film.  The whore sprang on Colin like a succubus, mounting his head, shrouding his entire upper body with her dirty skirt.  She wiggled and writhed and cackled, then dismounted and scuttled down the street.


He came downstairs a few minutes before chapel began, seemingly composed, and took his usual front row seat holding his signature Power Aide container filled with strong Green tea.  He sat staring ahead at the altar space and the front wall with its Las Vegas Mafia Glitter Mirror decor and cheesy Last Supper tapestry.  Then he stood, turned and addressed the still assembling guests.

"I've scalded me pate, brothers.  I've applied every known ablution technique and disinfectant and antiseptic measure the Mission can generously offer.  And offer you.  I beg you to forgive me my outburst.  Remember the story of Naaman cured of his leprosy by the holy prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 5?  I don't think I'll be so lucky.  But I beg you not to shun me.  Avoid me for a time if you must, but do not shun me or condemn me."

One night not long ago I witnessed something happen to Colin that happens to everyone at the Mission in one way or another, and it was terribly sad and especially disconcerting in his case.  People's masks get stripped off with shocking ease by this dreadful, blasphemous, Eldritch place.  People arrive here with nothing but a set of attitudes and affectations; they're all they have left, and would serve them better in prison than this porous place where you're always trembling against the membrane that divides the harsh mistresses of decrepit shelter and deathly cold.

Instead of eating his veggies or blustering about Colin lay groaning on a piece of cardboard twenty feet from his usual spot.  "I need to go to bed," he whimpered.  "I need to go to bed.  Please, brothers."

The Disciples who gathered around him told him, "That's your bed tonight, you fucking drunk.  You're not coming in the Lord's house like that,  motherfucker.  Get sobered up and come back tomorrow."

Kindly Disciple Reynaldo told everyone later that Colin had for some reason gone to the Japanese market across the way and bought nearly a gallon of rice wine and gulped it down in Tent City with a couple of whores.

"Rice wine--that's saki," said Reynaldo. "Drink it with sushi in a sushi bar.  It'll really mess you up, don't matter how tough you are.  He's gonna be a mess for a few days.  We'll give him a couple blankets, but don't the rest of you try that.  You won't be getting no blanket."

A few days later I saw Colin in breakfast line.  He nodded hello but didn't say anything.

Phony or not, he's convinced me I need to be more serious about some things and try harder to be human, whatever that is.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Homeless Teacher's Amazon Kindle Sample Review Corner #3

Warning: this set of reviews contains copious religion-bashing.  Christ, why am I warning you?  That implies I have a measure of respect and regard for the religious.  I have no respect for the religious because they assert unfounded, unjustified beliefs and in the same breath assert there are good reasons for having faith.  This silly contradiction is an embarrassing 4th grade level philosophical observation, and I am turning red just typing it and feel like apologizing again.  But fuck that. It can't be repeated often enough.  This is also a rush job.  I only have about 28 minutes to write this, then I have to catch a bus to the Mission to hear some loud Christian rock.  Dance, Baby Jesus! Dance!

Kindle Sample Reviews provide busy readers with three things.  A terse, admittedly ill-informed (because I don't read the whole book) summary of a tiny sample of a book including the Best Part; statement of the Main Idea that I get from reading (sometimes skimming) the sample; and a pithy and potent Also thought to ponder.  Ready?  Let's go! (Find your own links--I don't have time because I'm homeless)

Born Together, Raised Apart by Nancy Segal.  There isn't an actual Kindle Sample of this book as it was published by a snotty university press, which automatically makes it an inferior book.  Trust me on this.  I have written university press jacket and advertising copy for quite a few years, and even a Harvard University Press publication like this book almost guarantees it couldn't find a more mainstream Oprah-friendly publisher.  I could be wrong about this, but sheesh, university presses are the fetid bottom-lands for desperate bookmen and women.(Well, the actual science looks solid and would be too hard for Oprah-ites.)

Anyway, this book has a fascinating subject, the landmark Minnesota Twins Studies, where they studied about 100 sets of twins who were raised apart with no possibility of contact or exchange of information (where have we heard that one before, fellow skeptics and fans of nightclub magic and con-artistry?), and found that they independently developed identical behaviors like twirling rubber bands around their fingers when nervous, or pouring lemonade into their Froot Loops,  or sleeping with decapitated Teddy Bears.

Best Part:  Look, the only thing stingy Amazon provides is their huckster "LOOK INSIDE!" come-on which includes the introduction (pretty technical stuff on study methodology) and the index, so I guess the best part would be the assertion that genes--which are basically just bits of digital information which direct the building of  proteins which build organisms and their nervous systems--have a huge influence over personality and behavior, almost to the point of puppet-mastery in some cases.  Why this was ever controversial is a great mystery to me, but lots of people don't like it.

Main Idea: Identical Twins share all their genes and so they end up doing lots of things the same way, even if they don't see each other.  What's the big deal?  It's probably mostly true.  See "Also" below.

Also: As Bertrand Russell told us, we must beware of the seductions of eloquence, or the veneer of sophistication and solidity given by a Harvard University Press Book and impressive statistical and methodological weightiness.  Science writer John Horgan expressed some skepticism about the studies because twins are notorious for playing elaborate, insanely patient, years-long, poker faced jokes on people.  I've seen this over the years as a teacher, having dealt with lots of sets of twins.  They are diabolically clever and deliciously devious entities.   Also, Also, identical twins are one of those things in the world that make young children lie awake in bed  and wonder if the stuff their Sunday school teacher says about "souls" popping into and out of bodies is true.  Think about it.

The Good News Club,  The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children by Katherine Stewart.   Now this is more like it.  A decent sample that really gets its point across and needs only a quick skim to prove that Christians, especially evangelical "Christian Nationalists" or "Dominion Christians" are really bad for America.  The very title almost does the job.  Look, dummies, as far back as 1979 you had Jerry Fallwell saying "I hope to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we don't have public schools.  The churches will have taken over them again and Christians will be running them."

 Stewart discovered one day that her daughter's public elementary school in Santa Barbara, California had something in its after-school roster of activities called the Good News Club.   Ostensibly a non-denominational "bible-study" program for kids which required parental consent, it was instead a sleazy sectarian con..   This scam, asserts Stewart, turns out to be a massive, nation-wide, well-funded end run around the 1st amendment which uses brain-washed kids (See Jesus Camp) as stealth bombers to recruit other kids, bully them about being the "wrong kind" of Christian, get them scared of Mr. Splitfoot and give them the screaming meemies about the Lake of Fire.  If this sounds paranoid and extreme, I can assure you of two things.  First,  this book is well-written and researched, measured and calm, but seethes with a well-earned fury at what these cowardly ghouls are doing with and to kids.  Second, I have witnessed this stuff myself for 15 years in elementary schools and it gets worse every day.

Best Part:  Katherine Stewart's praise of the "collective wisdom of the American people" responsible for the secularization of schools and her condemnation of activist conservative judges "who are in large measure responsible for, in effect, legislating the mandatory inclusion of religious programming in the schools."

Main Idea:  Realizing they can't get Jesus into the classroom (why would anybody invite that guy to a party?),  large numbers of Christian activists are turning to lies and massive con jobs.

Also: Thomas Jefferson, who essentially breathed America into existence with his Words, felt that no child should ever be exposed to the Bible until age 17, and only after being well-steeped in science, history, mathematics, languages, logic, and only with the greatest supervision by skeptical, watchful adults.   And now people are denying that too, and telling lies like "Jefferson edited his version of the Bible [Jefferson rejected all supernatural elements in the Book and rejected the divinity of Christ] to help the simple redskins come to Jesus."   And none of this bothers you?

"The Location of the Welfare Office." A Drama in One Act

Here's an after lights-out conversation I recently overheard in the Mission dormitory.  The subject is the location of the welfare office where the homeless apply for General Relief (Mission residents can get 28 dollars cash each month if they document 50 work applications every two weeks) and Food Stamps. As I'm sure you've noticed, the needy and homeless no longer need shuffle through actual stamps to buy state specified staples like apple juice, sugar, and flour.  Now they have a nifty ATM style card that allows them to buy just about anything except alcohol or hot items like a rotisserie chicken--I imagine the concern is that heat equals weaponry equals potential violence. You can buy all the candy and ice cream and pastry you want, but in most stores you can't buy vitamin supplements or some varieties of protein or ''health bars."

Generally, a thoughtful homeless person with a 200 dollar per month card allowance--street cash value 75 dollars if you want a few hits of crack or some meth--can buy a healthier, tastier range of food than the average middle to lower middle class family struggling with household bills, car and credit card payments and worrying about medical insurance.   Homeless people get free medical care as long as they don't mind waiting 8 hours or more in crowded waiting rooms and using up their cell phone minutes on hold for 9 hours with the clinic "operators"--actually a single harried bilingual girl named Rosa.

Back to "The Location of the Welfare Office."

Dramatis Personae:

Raymond, a Mission old-timer, sixty-ish, heavily muscled, ultra street smart, steeped in arcane welfare bureaucratic lore.

Wayne, a newbie, bipolar parolee with several D.U.I.s, S.S.I benefits pending.(About 700 to 800 dollars a month if it goes through; he'll spend it each month on gambling, motels, whores, drugs, and electronics)  Earnest, jittery, late 20s.

Connie, the Mission's beloved but spectacularly scattered and annoying village idiot, lover of nature and animals, show tunes, jingles, Tai Chi, Singing in the Rain, struggling with his relationship to Jesus,  bottomless repository of movie trivia, all of it dead wrong.  Typical Example: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds starred Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, who was sued for cruelty to birds.

Scene: Men's Mission Dormitory after lights-out.  Only the silhouettes of men prone in their metal racks can be discerned.

Raymond:  Like I be telling you, youngster, you fill out that form before, I said BEFORE! you goes down to the office--everybody else can't get no form until they get in the building, that's why I always grab a bunch of those motherfuckers for motherfuckers like you don't know better.  Just giving you a boost, right? And you don't even think about taking that early morning 30 bus.   Tell me what I said.

Wayne: I don't have a pen.

Connie: Many will tell you that a pencil is not acceptable, but I say unto you if you have faith . . .

Raymond: Shut the fuck up, Connie!

Connie: They put it in the computer so as long as you use a sharp pencil and press hard . . .

Raymond: Don't you listen to nothing that dumbass white boy says.  He crazy!  I'll get you a motherfucking pen.  If that's your problem you got really BIG problems!  Don't have a pen!  And what did I say about the bus?

Wayne: It's a really long walk.  What about breakfast?

Connie: Tomorrow is biscuits and gravy.

Raymond: You won't be eating nothing without your teeth, Connie!  You gotta walk to get there at least by 5:30 or you ain't gonna get in.  And get up early and fill out that fucking form!   If you past the Ralley Burger you gone too far.  Repeat that for me.  And the street!

Wayne: G street?

Raymond:  We on G street right now.  My God. . . Mother . . .We on Ground Zero G street here at the Mission.  If the office was on G street you could just lean out the motherfucking window!

Connie: The office is right next to the Mexican restaurant.

Wayne: The Mexican restaurant?

Raymond:  Fools!  You fucking fool, Connie!  Shut the fuck up!  Mexican restaurant?  Here I am trying to give a brother EXACT COORDINATES to sink the Battleship and you talking about Mexican restaurants.  You forget where we living?  This is fucking Fresno!  Mexican restaurants up the fucking ass!

Connie: There is a beautiful senorita there.

Wayne: The Ralley Burger is by the Mexican restaurant, I think know where that is . . .

Connie: I like Chile Verde--Verde means "green" in Spanish--Pork.  Pork is forbidden, though.

Wayne: That's Muslim shit, Bin Laden shit . . .

Raymond [sitting bolt upright in his rack]:  HOLY SHIT!

Connie: I don't know her name but I think of her as my Mexican Rose . . .ah, Senorita . . .

Raymond: Listen to me, motherfucker.  You can blindfold this brother, give him a donkey tail spin his fucking ass around and point him anywhere you want in FUCKING FRESNO MEXI-FUCKING-FORNIA!  and he'll pin the tail on that fat fucking Senoritas ass every time!

Connie: She is slender and willowy . . .swaying in the wind . . . eyes like a sea otter's.

Wayne: They got that adult sex toy store down there!  Shit, I know where all that is!

Raymond:  Game. Fucking. Over.  You all on your own.  You all in the valley of the shadow of mother fucking Death from now on!


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lean on Me, George

A couple of weeks ago George Clooney flew me over to his villa in Laglio, Italy on beautiful Lake Como.  I've fielded a lot of late night sobbing, sniffling calls from George ever since he didn't win Best Actor for The Descendants Now, George owes me a lot because the only reason he got that People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive cover is because I turned it down.  We never talk about it, but sometimes when he looks at me out of the corner of his eye I can see the resentment smoldering.

Well, it turns out things were way worse than I had imagined when I got to the villa and found out how George had really been dealing with his Oscar disappointment.  It's bad.  During our phone chats I used to say any upbeat thing that came to mind when he whined about turning 50 or worried about the five pounds he couldn't lose or the Big Kahuna of his problems, the Oscar thing and his fear he'll never get nominated again.

"Look, George," I'd say. "At your age you can't expect to just change instantly and get the looks and confidence and charisma you want.  You've got to focus on what you have.  And that's a lot, buddy."

"You wouldn't lie to me?" he'd whisper hoarsely.  In the background I could always hear the Sesame Street CD he finds comforting.

"I'm not capable of that with you, George.   Maybe with Johnny or Brad because they're so needy."

Well, if you've seen the movie in question, you know it takes place in Hawaii, specifically beautiful Kauai island and the film has all kinds of Hawaiian authenticity and Hawaiian music and singing and quirky details about the culture.  George plays a sort of schlumpy badly-dressed and nerdy lawyer (boy, did all that eat up my cell phone minutes!) whose wife's in a coma and he has to deal with two bratty daughters and some real-estate thing that was really kind of boring. .

Okay, here goes:  George does okay in the role.  B+ but no better.  He has to look grief-stricken too often and it doesn't always ring true.   If only the director could have used some kind of time displacement equipment to snatch his close-ups from the period I saw him at the villa.  Things might have turned out different.

Oh, boy.  You know those little springy wiggly Hawaiian Hula Girl thingies you can mount on your dashboard or just stick to your desk and they jiggle and do their grass-skirty thing?  George had somehow got hold of thousands--literally thousands--of the little hula girls and had been spending all his time thinking up creative ways to destroy them, most involving combustion or dangerous weaponry of one sort or another.

Now a psychologist might say this was a perfectly fine way of using a thematic/symbolic method of dealing with his Hawaiian disappointment.  I thought it was a wee bit daft, but George is fragile and I had to go along with him.  Besides, the villa is beautiful and the wine and women were plentiful.  George's current squeeze was off doing some kind of shoot in Portugal, so he was entirely focused on blowing up and disintegrating mini hula girls.

We used lighter fluid, magnifying glasses to focus the sun and make them smoke (I warned him about the danger of the toxic plastic fumes, but he shot me such a foul look I clammed up), pistols, torches, slingshots, flaming arrows, and a terrifying sniper rifle--the real kind you blow up terrorist's heads with!--that I at first refused to fire, but George told me in icy tones that I wouldn't get any of his special pizza that night if I didn't hit at least three hula girls with the super weapon.  I managed, finally, after about 10 tries.   I think the problem was he didn't have the scope calibrated properly, but again I clammed up.

Well it turns out that George's special pizza is something he whips up himself, spinning the dough in a not terribly competent fashion and making corny jokes in a really fakey and borderline offensive Italian accent.  He insisted I call him "Luigi." He makes plain cheese and tomato sauce pizzas and then "decorates" them--that's how he sees it--with broccoli florets and red M&Ms.  He says it gives the pizza a "Christmas" feeling that reminds him of childhood.

I made another big mistake while I was choking down a slice and timidly asked him how he'd gotten all the hula girl toys.  He closed his eyes tight for a really long time.  His shoulders started shaking.   I tentatively reached out and touched his shoulder, and then he was bawling, head nearly bashing into a pizza pie.

"George, George . . ."  What else could I do?

He pulled himself together and said, "You know I still have contacts, people who will do me favors just because I'm Georgie and not fucking George "ER" Clooney!"

"I know that, Georgie."  We spent the rest of the evening watching old Italian movies like The Bicycle Thief and drinking red wine.  In the morning, I found a thank you note from George weighted to the marble kitchen table with a melted hula girl.

Signage and Signification; or, a Fresno Fantasia

In grad school I dutifully read all the French-Eurotrash-words-are-the-only-reality-dumbass-postmodern-literary nitwits I was supposed to--Derrida', Lacan, Foucault, Lyotard--that whole ghoulish dead-wrong crowd.  I also reveled in Camille Paglia's spectacular demolition of the whole edifice of word-drenched academia at its 1990s worst (See her essay "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.You might have to pay for it or check out her first book of essays from the library.  Also check out The Postmodernism Generator for a great parody site where you can create your own critical theory masterpiece.

The Achilles heel of all language-is the-only-reality assertions is modern neuroscience and its long-established and rather ho-hum empirical, testable fact that the brain has numerous non-linguistic ways of filtering and constructing experience.  Simply put, science kicks literary theory's ass, which is why most liberal arts types hate science and piss on the Enlightenment.  Academia has never recovered from physicist Alan Sokal's brilliant hoax article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," which proposed that gravity was a linguistic construct.  Big Dog Journal "Social Text" took it seriously and preened and strutted about its publication for six months before Sokal revealed the gag.  What a bunch of marooooons!

I actually wrote papers using this crap to get A's from French-ass-kissing professors, possibly the most evil thing I've ever done, except for some mean things I said and wrote to loved ones, something no one can ever   erase from time/space.  

 Well, language is powerful and mysterious, and words really can do more damage than sticks and stones (don't ever drink and e-mail), but magic isn't really real and you can't fill your gas tank with distilled water from Whole Foods, call it "petrol," and expect your car to run.  Still, there's a part of me that agrees with Stephen King, who once asserted that he simply knew that somehow, someway, Frodo and Sam really were in some reality somewhere actually toiling up Mount Doom to destroy the dreadful Ring.   

Winging it one day with a group of 4th graders at a "talent" magnet school (we had 20 minutes to kill before lunch, which is an eternity in a kid classroom if you're not well-armed or have some seasoning), we began fantasizing about the kind of stores--I taught them the word "emporium"--they would like to see in the strip malls and their neighborhoods if there were no limits: "Anything Goes!" I declared.  Aside from a few duds like a Justin Beiber store or a Lady Gaga emporium/eatery, the kids came up with some pretty cool ideas:

--An ice cream and milkshake shop staffed by intelligent cows whose udders gave out any flavor or consistency of creamy confection you could imagine.
--A Venomous Pet Emporium, where the creatures never bite or sting their owners, only burglars.
--A kid's Homework Hangout and Hamburger House where "Fairy Tutors" helped you with assignments.
--Be an Animal Emporium, where Avatar--style technology allows you to be a lion or a giraffe or an eagle for an hour. .
--A luxury spa/retreat for the Homeless.  Price of admission: recite the Declaration of Independence from memory without mistakes.

One foggy night, wandering about in the cold because I'd arrived at the Mission after chapel and the bastards wouldn't let me in and I had no where else to go, I wound up in the parking lot of my favorite strip mall.  It's my favorite because it has a wonderful branch library right next to the hardware store and the kickboxing academy and close to the liquor warehouse.  It's also close to a friend's apartment, but he wasn't home that night.  So I walked.

At these malls I've always been struck by the big displays of narrow slotted signs in rows and columns that let you know what's currently available on the strip.  In the post-apocalyptic future these malls will seem a horrible blight, a memory of a bad dream, but on this misty wet night a magical possibility began to glimmer.  What if words really could change reality?

In Fresno after one foggy night, many people remember seeing a large number of unmarked white vans cruising the streets and avenues.  In the daylight people are plagued by a vague sense of change when they visit their neighborhood strip malls.   First they notice, almost subliminally, that the displays of signs signifying the mall contents seem changed; the more attentive are certain the signs have been shuffled about like cascading lemons and moneybags on slot machines.  Surely, think young housewives, the salon was always in the southwest corner, not tucked in between the corn dog shack and the empty store that never comes alive.   Others wonder, Why has the liquor store been moved?  Why did the barber shop trade places with the Subway?  

That night the white vans are noted again, but slip strangely out of consciousness like elusive dreams.  In the morning, a low-level city-wide confusion emerges as people can't find their favorite shops or listen incredulously to a friend who tells them that the Power Gym has moved to the other side of town or that the Thai Hut is where the library used to be.   The strip mall library has moved into the space formerly occupied by the Pet Warehouse, and is three times larger.   By the end of the day the confusion again fades and most are sanguine about the city's contents.   One 13 year-old blogger posts a paranoid conspiracy warning about white vans and sinister sign companies, possibly of an alien or Eldritch nature, but no one pays any attention.

One morning people across the length and breadth of the Fresno sprawl begin to read in full consciousness, fear, and wonder signs in the displays of their neighborhood strips unlike any they've seen before:  May May's Mushroom and Alkaloid Emporium.   Mr. Chang's Nude Aromatherapeutic Massage Parlor.  Sam's Sperm World.   Great White Shark Swim-Along.   All Starbucks formerly residing in strip malls are now named Ahab's or McGillicuddy's.  Exotic Brothels with racial or combat or science fictiony Queen of the Solar Federation themes appear.  Non-addictive Drug and Alcohol Emporiums and Ecstasy Booths pop up everywhere, but the police seem vague and distracted when asked about them.  

Soon Fresno residents begin finding stacks of flexible self-adhering signs on their lawns in the morning and discover to their joy and terror that they can fling them against the walls and doors of their homes or neighborhood eye-sores and with a fleeting, unbidden thought transform the structure into the Safest Day Care Center In the Universe or Self-Service Barber and New Joke Generator Shop or the Church of Mutual Masturbation.

Fresno residents live for the next month in a swirling intoxicating cloud of life possibilities and pleasures both bodily and mental.  

Then one night the vans return and over the ensuing week or so a gradual fade begins.  Residents feel their minds are scraped and prickly, and sleep comes with difficulty or visits upon the slumbering bizarre dreams of drains, half-empty swimming pools, mouths with missing teeth.   Fresno fades back into its squalid sprawling stupor and residents bat vaguely at the air as if trying to penetrate something.  The vans never reappear.  The 13 year old blogger is half-way through a novel explaining the whole thing.   Everyone grasps at wisps and whispers of something wonderful that may have happened long ago, or might happen again someday.

Mission Pastorale and Arcadian Philanthropy

The transformative power of music on one's life and perception needs no comment from a musical dullard like myself (My dreams are often accompanied by frantic scores apparently composed by my subconscious, and which sound like something Andrew Lloyd Weber, Phillip Glass and John Cage might create together after messing with a monster stash of crank and animal tranquilizers), but I never really grasped its power to alter personal space and one's larger mental world map until a friend gave me an iPod.  He was upgrading or something so the 'Pod (See how tech-noir hip I am?) came preloaded with close to 15,000 selections.  Really!  Every damn artist and group you can think of from every genre.  It's so packed that I'm paradoxically furious with my buddy when an occasional old chestnut is missing. The cheap, lazy bastard! I rage.   This thing is positively skeletal, the iPod from Auschwitz! Goddammit!    Then I calm down and enjoy Beethoven or The Band or some gooey but soothing piece of Ambient rambling

Everyone knows that without John Williams Jaws and Star Wars would have been dead flounders and Speilberg and Lucas would be filming industrial documentaries about bubble wrap manufacture or safety videos for school crossing guards.  An experiment I recommend is re-scoring a favorite movie scene to something really insipid, like covering the helicopter battle in Apocalypse Now with "Dancing Queen" or a Neil Diamond song (actually, thousands of people do this daily on YouTube, without any trace of irony.  And that's really funny).  It's very instructive, and demonstrates the absolutely essential and symbiotic relationship between cinematic imagery and the right music.  Stanley Kubrick forever changed the nature of cinema itself with his combined baleful eye and unerring musical sharp-shooting.  My favorite score of all time is Jerry Goldsmith's avant garde 1968 Planet of the Apes.  It's great with or without Charlton and Cornelius.  

Of late I've been editing and scoring the morning wake-up sequence at the Mission to the first movement of Beethoven's 6th symphony, the Pastorale, using the iPod and a bunch of cliche'd camera moves swiped from various directors.  First I tried Scorsese, but he's bit too jittery and frantic for this job, so I melded Disney (Fantasia, which I'll get to shortly, is inextricably tied to the Pastorale, just as Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd can't be separated from Wagner), with a bunch of generic hacks and came up with an acceptable style.  

Beethoven's 6th is one of his few explicitly narrative pieces, depicting a visit to the country, which the musician loved.  The first movement, which is literally an account of Beethoven's arrival in a peaceful rural landscape--with its gradual, swirling, sprightly uplift, ever-rising, ever-brightening, ever-renewing flutes and oboes and clarinets--transforms the Mission morning wake-up call, breakfast line-up, carbo-chomp, and final diaspora of stooping, limping men across the moonscape railway yard into a magical phantasmagoria. 

Lights switch on by some sorcery.  Awakening guests fling themselves out of beds, rear on hind legs, and expand their chests like centaurs.  A Disciple fleet as winged Pegasus swoops down the aisles, the wind of his passage empowering the feeblest and most exhausted.  Cherubic cage attendants cheerfully distribute milk crates cradling precious goods.  Men slowly descend the stairway to the breakfast line with heraldic dignity.  Gliding trays laden with nature's bounty flit and drift about the vaulted cafeteria, skim over the fruit bins, glance off  the thermoses, settling feather soft in glowing yellowish rows upon the tables.  The Guests smile and nod and pray to the Gods, partaking of libation, exchanging wisdom, giving oracular advice about the Welfare office and that fucking bitch food stamp Goddess Raedawn.

Outside, as the music becomes ever more majestic, the Guests head north toward the moonscape in the orange light of morning.  Each man must pass the green grassy field--an ancient Arcadian realm, flowered and  landscaped with care, set apart and bordered by outward curving ironwork and curls of barbed wire atop the northern wall.  Beyond the green field, the tops of the money-changers' buildings rear up to Olympian heights.  This is the part of the mission no Guest is allowed to enter.  The penalties are severe.  Occasionally Disciples can be seen tossing Frisbees or taking a bit of exercise on the green rectangle, nearly the size of a football field.  The first movement of the masterful 6th ends (with the help of the iPod repeat function) about the time I reach Mondo, sitting on his overturned shopping cart and shrieking at the sun. 

One night a group of beautiful high school students (check out this shocking centaur scene from Disney's  Fantasia , nearly pornographic in its sensuality, to get a sense of these kids and their terrible, unearned youth and sexual power) were invited to camp on the lawn in tents, chaperoned by adults and a news crew.  A line of port-o-potties marred the serenity a bit ("Those kind of people don't ever take shits!" said my friend Joseph), but the kids laughed and squealed, tossed their hair and footballs, ate breakfast burritos wrapped in shiny foil, and in the morning helped ladle out food in the breakfast line.   In an interview with a reporter on the scene a pretty girl in pigtails and shining braces said, "The experience gave me a new insight into how the homeless live, what they have to go through." 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Let's Have a Little Language Hook-Up, Baby

When I was teaching college it was a sure bet that 98 percent of any new group of students arrived in the classroom with the following set of interlocking beliefs:  All cultures are equally good and no one has the right or ability to pass judgement on a culture's practices, no matter how repugnant they might seem; everyone is entitled to an opinion; all opinions are equally valid because truth is just whatever you mean when you point to something and call it true; science in earlier times was just as valid and effective as modern science; everyone should think for themselves even if they haven't read anything or don't have anything to think about; if you want to know about something you can just "research" it on Google; and everyone is now a genius because they have a HAL 9000 computer in their palm.   These beliefs, once up and running in a vacuum were like a perpetual motion machine with spinning blades and spikes that chopped up every lecture into steaming gobbets.

It was a bloody uphill battle to get these kids to understand that it takes a long time to develop a set of epistemological filters--grasp of basic logic, realization that knowledge is a process of  accretion, acceptance of positive scientific progress, ability to recognize fallacies and specious arguments--before you get to open your big dumb yap.

One more belief that bedevils kids is the notion that they can use words any old way they want, that "my definition is just as good as yours because it works for me and I like to use it that way."

Well, somebody needs to sic Orwell's ghost on the "Occupy" movement.  Here in Fresno--where the "movement" boasts the longest life-span of any "occupy" manifestation--the word seems to mean "to erect very ugly tents and shanty-like buildings and chalk vague stick-it-to-the-man slogans on the sidewalk."

There's a funny moment in The Big Lebowski (actually, all the moments in that movie are funny) when Jeff Bridges' "Dude" character talks about his college career along these lines: "Actually, I don't remember too much of it.  I smoked a lot of Thai stick and occupied various administration buildings."

Now, I've got some sympathy for people's rage against Wall Street's shady dealings and other financial injustices in America, but it says something significant when The Dude knows how to use a word precisely and the nice folk in the shanty towns don't.

Eternal High Noon

Recently at the Mission, dropping into blessed sleep, I was jolted awake by the unmistakable sounds of a prison-style in-your-face altercation brewing in the bathroom.  In my bunk, hearing "bring it on, fucker!" and "step off, shithead!" it was easy to picture the two men facing off, thrusting tattooed chests out, swinging arms and fists downward and outward at the same time, an animal aggression trick humans use unconsciously like a cat raising its fur to intimidate attackers.  

Around me people sat up, edged toward the bathroom if already standing, but everyone relied on sound and imagination for the moment to anticipate the violence.  No Disciple or security member seemed present as the yelling and verbal darts ratcheted up to fusillade level: "Back off! fuckhead!" "Gonna be in a universe of fucking pain, dude!"  Etc.

In gunslinger movies generally no one faces anyone down on a dusty street, the townsfolk cowering behind the false front wooden buildings, concealing an unfair advantage like a deadlier weapon or a hidden sniper; both combatants are pretty evenly matched, hands poised above holstered revolvers as crumpled handbills skitter by in the wind and the music does a rattlesnake rumba.  All that matters are nerves and speed.  But that night an extraordinary thing happened, out of sight, within hearing--a soft, velvety, instant diffusion of the face-off.

"Look down at your fucking ankle, dude," said one combatant, his voice so altered from combat mode it startled, hooked you, nailed you.  "No, I'm not talking about that pussy rose or ivy or whatever stupid tattoo you got there.  I'm looking at that thing you got strapped around your pathetic pussy chicken bone ankle, you piece of dog shit."

We all could see it: the two felons standing in front of the long mirror over the four cruddy sinks that serve up to 200 men nightly for shaving, tooth and armpit scrubbing.  One was doing time in the Mission for theft or drug use or maybe his wife just wanted him out of the house until he cleaned up.   The other, likely a sex-offender, had been released from  county lock-up with a satellite GPS ankle monitor under the demented and insanely misguided get religion at the Mission at night, seek your righteous fortune during the day, just don't stray out of the proscribed areas or get too close to children or you'll be taised,  billy-clubbed, pepper-sprayed, boot-stomped, pistol-whipped and tossed back in a cell like a broken scarecrow Program.

"I'm out," the velvety-voiced instant alpha male continued.  "Nothing's gonna happen to me, maybe a write-up or suspension.  You got Big Daddy's Hand on your little chicken bone and Big Daddy's Eye in the Sky on you, pussy-boy."

And just like that it was over.  I tried to read the mood of the dormitory as the "winner" of the duel sauntered out of the bathroom and made for his bunk in the darkness.  A bit of murmuring but that's all.  Anticlimax, I guess.

But I lay awake for quite a while thinking of how often over the years as a teacher I've automatically, gratefully, cravenly, and perhaps conscientiously used the accoutrements of administrative authority to tame an unruly student.  Every school and classroom provides slightly different weapons and tools for this purpose, but they all involve badges, ominous write-up forms, escalating color threat levels, pizza party point removals, threats to sic Vice Principal Corborubius and his pet snake in the silver cage on you, and sheer I'm-the-teacher-you're-the-student-so-close-your-little-yapping-mouth-bravado.

Whenever I've expressed my misgivings about how easy it is to put the Psychic Mojo Meltdown on elementary school kids, people say reassuring things like, "Kids need to learn to mind.  They make bad choices, they get the consequences."  "You want chaos or order?  Don't feel guilty."  However, it gets more complicated the older the students get.  Once a high school student who'd taken a disliking to me (I'd asked him to stop throwing marbles and do his assignment) said, "I'm going to kick your ass after school."  I chuckled at the hammy playground cliche', had him escorted out by security, and forgot about it until after school, when the kid, about 17 and 6 feet tall and quite well-muscled actually confronted me about a block away from campus as I walked to the bus stop.

"You ain't nothing without that badge or that security radio they give you."  I still had my identity badge clipped to my breast pocket.  He stood in the middle of sidewalk.  To get past him I'd have to step on some one's lawn or off the curb.

I unclipped the badge, slipped it into my trouser pocket and said, "Look, you're a minor, you're going to have to take the first swing so I can claim self-defense when I pull your arm out of its socket.  But no matter what happens, I'm the one who's going to lose. Big time.  So the fact that you're a kid and I'm a grown-up subject to laws means you're cheating just as much as I was when I called security. But I wasn't cheating.  I was doing my job."

I brushed past him, staying on the sidewalk.  Our shoulders bumped.   Once on the bus, it took me nearly 15 minutes of deep breathing to calm down even slightly.

As my breathing slowed, I thought back to 8th grade and an evil bully named Clyde who tormented me and several other wimps unmercifully in a Boy's Cooking class we ended up in because Wood shop was full.  Clyde used to come up behind me when I was reading a science fiction novel, waiting for my bread dough to rise or for the muffins to be done, and whack me hard with a billiard ball he'd somehow attached to a heavy handle.  The pain was unbelievable.  He did this to other kids, too, but our principal didn't give a damn about bullies.  In fact, he'd stand by and watch with an eager greedy grin any time a fight developed on the playground.

My father had recently died, and my mother, hobbled with grief and money woes, couldn't help, so one day I--a chubby, pimply, fearful, grief and anger-filled mass of confusion and rage attacked Clyde with a heavy cast iron frying pan.  Mind you this was directly after one of Clyde's billiard ball attacks and I was blind and teary with pain.  I'd say we were evenly matched gunslingers.

I bashed him about five times over the head with the pan before Mr. Mendoza, a maintenance man who did occasional double-duty as a security sweeper and just happened to be in the cooking room, pulled me away and got the frying pan out my hand.  

The only thing that saved Clyde from brain damage or death that day was his very standard for the times monster-mushroom cloud Afro blooming over his evil face.  Today, decades after my father's death and that unbearably sad and fearful year of 1975, when I see a playground injustice or take a sneering bully out with a referral form or witness a rich young thug abuse an overworked waitress,   I have the unbidden, unavoidable wish that Clyde's goddamn Afro hadn't been so 1970s big and cushy.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Little House in the Post-Apocalyptic Landscape

One day I was teaching at a country school in a 5th grade class composed mostly of Hmong girls, for whatever reason.  Hmong culture is deeply mysterious, even to people who've studied it closely (see Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down for a brilliant, tragic story of a Hmong family's clash with Western culture over their sick daughter's medical treatment), but Hmong children's home lives seem to produce unusually well-behaved, hard working students.  I admit to breathing a sigh of relief as I scanned the roster long before the children arrived and saw a preponderance of Xiongs, Vangs, and Yangs along with startling first names like Lucky Charms and SugarNixon comprising the classroom population.

One of the morning activities involved an unusually long "teacher read-aloud" from Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Most people remember the somewhat sappy show from the 70s with Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, but that day, reading aloud from this nearly alien text of frontier life (one of Wilder's stated goals was to show 20th century children just how different life had been for young people when she was growing up), I felt an immensely powerful throbbing in the room, very low register, a thrumming life engine that emerged from the interplay of the book, my voice, and the rapt attention of the students, who followed along in their own copies.

The passage described the Ingalls family's first night on the prairie after leaving their cabin in the Big Woods.  With only their wagon as shelter they cook with meticulous care, dress appropriately for bed, listen to the mournful howls of wolves, and fall asleep to the sound of the stars "singing," even though the rational explanation for the music is Pa's fiddle.  A spooky encounter with a pair of glowing green eyes creeping toward the family turns out to be a reunion with their brindle bulldog, thought drowned during a harrowing river crossing.  During the day, the children help their Ma clean their clothes and bedding and must observe proper behavior, not talking loudly or singing during meals.  Nature practically explodes off the page despite the spare prose--a profusion of rabbits, flowers, birds, gophers, and grasshoppers.  Somehow, all this upwelling beauty combined with the stern, nearly puritanical spirit of the family works on page after page.  And it should not work.  Why it shouldn't is what I'm coming around to before the end of this post. 

Now, the life I've been living for the last few months with its bizarro 12/12 hour split between Mission fundie Jesus craziness and sub teaching, careening hellish bus rides, and sidewalk stomping has been a mite stressful and may have addled my literary judgement, but it seems to me that Wilder, when not indulging in sugary hearth and home goofiness (everyone stands around in the midst of horrific events giving thanks for each other and praising potatoes and hidden stashes of wheat, and it all becomes risible after a while) is a writer at least the equal of Willa Cather, and often approaches Hemingway in simplicity and understated power to evoke profound themes of life and death. 

Here is young Laura, a strange, dark-haired naughty child of nature in contrast to golden haired, celestially obedient older sister Mary, contemplating an early frost, a foreshadowing of an horrific seven month- long blast of blizzards the family must endure in The Long Winter:

"Laura loved the beautiful world.  She knew that the bitter frost had killed the hay and the garden. The tangled tomato vines with their red and green tomatoes, and the pumpkin vines holding their broad leaves over the green young pumpkins, were all glittering bright in frost over the broken, frosty sod.  The sod corn's stalks and long leaves were white.  The frost had killed them.  It would leave every living green thing dead.  But the frost was beautiful."

In another passage Baby Grace is lost. The prairie, which looks flat and endless,  is actually humped and curvy over long distances so objects disappear very quickly as they move further from your line of sight.  The family searches for her desperately.  In a flash of intuition, Laura discovers the child sitting peacefully in a perfectly circular depression filled with hundreds of thousands of sweet-smelling violets.  Laura feels the circle must be a fairy ring created  to save her baby sister.  Pa, in his inimitable style (too often, his eyes are described as "twinkling"), tells Laura that indeed the violet circle was not created by human hands.  Instead it is an ancient buffalo wallow where generations of beasts have dug and scraped.  "Why did they do it, Pa?"  It's a  mystery, one of many fully earned moments of the numinous in these books.

In all of the "Little House" books the family must endure deprivations and harum-scarum encounters with nature's furies--blindness from scarlet fever, wolf attacks, blizzards, and frostbite-- and work like demons just to be able to eat and sleep, but their appreciation of simple bounties (kings' ransoms to their psyches) like a piece of Christmas candy, a doll made from a corn cob, a new pair of suspenders, or an extra bit of salt--all this makes for an unavoidable, embarrassingly easy contrast with Mission life and its grasping, gaping inhabitants.  Yes, these men have endured the loss of their families and much else, and all shows of bravado are a pathetic cover for a deep, complex sadness, but too often hardship involves not getting an extra slice of baloney in the sack lunch.

After that luminous day when I was privileged to read to the Hmong girls,  I decided I needed some sort of tranquilizer in lieu of Xanax or booze, so I started checking the books out of the public library.  Every branch has stacks of these popular books, and I always pick out the editions illustrated by Garth Williams--evocative, charming, warm, and scary.  For some odd reason more recent editions have omitted his work.   Now a real problem emerged for me during the hour or so of reading time before lights out.  It's bad enough to have to fend off queries about my kindle (can't afford an iPad, dammit, and my free laptop from generous friends just quit working.  Why me, God?  Why!?), but now I have to explain why I'm reading these books with pictures of girls in sunbonnets and kiddie time covers and slightly goofy titles.   I finally settled on "I used to read these books to my nieces and my step kids, and I'm taking a trip down memory lane."  Not really a lie, but not the reason I'm reading them now, along with Dickens and all the other stuff I gobble down indiscriminately. 

It's simply this:  Every generation thinks it's going to be the last, that things are finally going to fall apart, that the rust and empty buildings and bedraggled legions prone in the streets and drug-addled howlers and brain parasitised faith-head killers and science deniers and slime-slug politicians will finally do it ("You maniacs!  You blew it up!  Goddamn you!  Oh, Goddamn you all to hell!"), but this time it's really real.  The end of the world is a really real place, as Dorothy pleads piteously at the end of The Wizard of Oz.   So you better find a well-built little house somewhere or some when.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Graduation Affectation

Yesterday was graduation day at the rather nice-spirited school to which I was assigned for my last day until school resumes in August or until I take up string collecting.  The 5th/6th combo teacher had to be gone for some reason so, as her note to me said in slightly apologetic tones, "Your main job today will be crowd control as you'll be engaged with two other classes in "Float Up"--Root beer floats for the good kids--prize relay races, yearbook signing . . . and the last hour is yours to fill up as you please."

Earlier that morning in the Mission breakfast breezeway some cursed son of a jackal felon with meth holes burned in his already under-sized brain deliberately stomped on my outstretched leg as I sat on the ass-freezing floor reading--along with a few others-- instead of observing the normal etiquette of stepping over and moving into his own spot.  He really hurt me.  My shin feels splintered.   

Instead of  apologizing, he started doing an all-too-common hyena on hind legs laugh interspersed with ejaculations like, "Did you see that?  Fucked him up! Hee, hee, heh heh heh, heh, hee, hee!  Fucked him up.  Stupid fuck!"  Then he lit up a cigarette. (Lately, the Mission has been stunningly lax about formerly iron-clad rules; this means we're scheduled for a comically stern crack-down, then another eruption of even more flagrant and creative rule-flouting).

A few fellows came to my defense: "What's the matter with you?Step over!  That's what's you're supposed to do!"  But it didn't matter much, and I just sat there and took it, rubbing my leg.

Hee, Hee, Hee!"  A few other jackals and hyenas and weasels joined in: "Fucked him up, way to go!"  

I could have challenged the brute after breakfast outside the gate on the street, but seriously, the world and the system are going to chew him up in a few--very few--years time. He'll end up with some mutated form of AIDs and a druggy brain disorder that makes him unable to tell left from right or eat anything but strained peas and beets.  

 So I spent 5th/6th last day graduation or whatever it was limping and grimacing and getting plenty of unearned sympathy from girls who had me sign their yearbooks  (The yearbooks, by the way, were just stapled together packets of binder paper with stiff red construction paper covers and celebrity stickers).   So the girls, who are naturally affectionate, shed many tears, and gave trembly hugs and generally had a wail-fest while the boys got signatures and tried to look cool and do homie rapper stomp and brag stuff regardless of race.  But here's the question:  how much of this is affectation?  And why is that important?  

Now, here's something everyone knows, but mustn't dare say in the faculty lounge:  Most kids's education stops at 4th grade, no matter what anyone does or says or prays,  and that's one big reason why the the last two or three generations of high-school age students are about as prepared as sloths to rob Fort Knox  as they are for the 9th grade and why "community" college students can't read or write.  I know this because I spent 25 years trying to teach people from age 18 to 85 how to write, and every colleague I taught with knows, even if they won't admit it, that the success rate is about 3.2 percent. 

In addition every teacher knows after the first 2 to 3 weeks of class exactly who the A students are, who the nice B students are, who will remain stuck at C level no matter how much effort is expended, and who will sink in the D/F mire. (Don't tell me true story of Billy the sullen F student who rose to National Magnetron Mondo Scholar because his teacher (played by Lindsay Lohan in her comeback role) never gave up and discerned the genius within.  Exceptions prove the rule, yadda, yadda, yadda. 

Earlier I wrote that it's the parents' fault, and it largely is, but even after 60 years of "media theory" and its mostly ponderous, sometimes spritely and brilliant analysis of what mediating technology does to kid's brains, we're still squalling infants with appalling rashes when it comes to figuring out what the bloody hell went wrong with education.

Now how do we pull together hyenas and jackels and weasels on their hind legs stomping on my shin with 5th and 6th grade kids performing and adopting personas they mostly got from TV, a weird prep ritual to enter a societal tomb of Gorgon and Medusa frozen people (think Housewives) hell-bent on living in a 24/7 "reality" show or, especially in the case of the boys, a career in prison.  

Seriously, boys come up to me all the time in their Kidz Korner Gangsta Gimme All the Candy in Yo Bag or I Cap Yo ASS Costumes and brag . . . BRAG!  about how tough they're going to be in prison and how they're going to have the best crew.  Bipedal hyenas and jackals in the making, and we've got to do something about it that doesn't involve TV sociologists or Oprah, for God's sake! The girls don't want to go to prison quite so much, but more of them than you might care to think about will kill their own babies, even the ones who get good jobs or think they can sing or dance. 

What to do, what to do?  I'm going to be doing some hard thinking and reading and watching in the next 6 months.  I've got to read more about child brain development, genetic expression, evolution and economics.  Mind you, I care about the kids, but I'm not trying to solve the problem. 

Here's how my day ended:  I stopped outside the office prior to turning in my keys and daily report to fill my water bottle from a long, low white fountain with six spigots activated by those big silver buttons you've seen--about the size of a casino chip or so.  A solumn kid in glasses and a Family Guy shirt standing next to me pointed to each water button in turn and said  "That one's cyanide, that one's arsenic, that one's strychnine, that one's a mixture of meth by-products, that one's hemlock, and that one's municipal water.  He paused and so did I.  "The problem is," he continued, "they change them all the time.  So the question is, do you feel lucky?"

Friday, June 15, 2012

What Are the Homeless Reading This Week?

Lots and lots of Star Trek novels.  How anyone can be interested in the "lost years" of dull as year-old snot Riker (Riker?  A whole raft of novels about Riker?) from Next Generation is a profound mystery.  (My attorney called my attention to a scene in Wayne's World where Wayne opines that as cheesy as it was, somehow the old Shatner/Nimoy version was way better.  True as anything ever gets).

Victor Hugo--one guy is reading all of them in big fat unabridged editions.

Avengers stuff

Alien stuff, because of Prometheus, which I haven't seen yet, but in an interview Ridley Scott made himself sound like a real dim bulb by referring to Erik VonDaniken, that Swiss or Danish nit-wit who said aliens built the pyramids and Mayans built spaceships . . . even the most gullible SF fan knew he was worse than a hack back in the 70s, for Jebus's sake, so I'm pretty leery of the film and very sad, because I had high hopes.

Dickens (This is me, on my kindle; working my way through his whole oeuvre, as we sophisticated lit types say)

Sniper/Special ops books.  Kill Shot, total cantaloupe effect, dude.  Slide your K-Bar knife into the medulla and instant rag doll!

Books by people who've been to heaven, including that clearly fraudulent one by that pastor, Burpo, Heaven is for Real.  Shouldn't he be in jail or something?   It's really that bad and that evil.

Chick tracts.   If you aren't familiar with these, check them out.  Naked hatred beyond comprehension.  People dig them and pass them around at the Mission and burble and drool over them and have "discussions" about them.

Laura Ingalls Wilder .  (This is me again.  Look for a future post about this great American writer (Yeah, that Little House on the Prairie stuff.  Shut your mouth). 

The sports page.

End of the world stuff.  2012 stuff.

How to Win Friends and Influence People. by Dale Carnegie

An unauthorized biography of Lucille Ball


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Henry David Thoreau, Great American Media Theorist

Just as Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis declared, with some heavy-firepower justification, that the search for the Great American Novel ended in 1949 with the publication of Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, I proclaim the search for the Great American Media Epistemologist  Theorist ended with Henry David Thoreau's Walden back in Transcendental New England, in 1854.

Your long search is over.  It ended in Concord when the telegraph and railroad irrevocably changed the media sphere--the Videodrome as filmmaker David Cronenberg would later balefully term it.  Our man Henry was on the scene, armed with everything he needed to make Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Walter Ong, Camille Paglia and all the skating/surfing digital skimmers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and zombies like Ray Kurzweil look like prancing posers.

Over the next few months I'm going to attempt to prove this thesis, returning often to HDT's solemn, silly, profound, hilarious masterpiece, not just for his passionate and ultimately sad ruminations on Man and his machines, but for the stuff every school child needs to hear and mostly never will.

Ponder this from Henry as your head hits the pillow tonight--just for starters--"The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!"

Eat your hearts out, SETI.  Stay tuned.