Saturday, March 25, 2017

More Stuff

"We'll be right back with more stuff."
That was the promise for which I sat still, in front of my parents' TV, waiting for The Gong Show to return from commercial break. I didn't want to miss a second. This was as real as television got back in the seventies, or at least for me. I watched singers, dancers, singing dancers, magicians and a steady stream of physical oddities that never ceased to amuse/nauseate. I watched them all, waiting for that moment when one of the celebrity judges would be moved to rise from their seat, with over-sized mallet in hand, and interrupt the act with the eponymous gong. 
Thanks to the Gong Show, I was introduced to such luminaries as Rip Taylor, Jaye P. Morgan, and Murray Langston. I know, I know: Who is Murray Langston? It is not surprising that you don't know him since he was the Unknown Comic. The Gong Show was also responsible for keeping the careers of Jamie Farr and Arte Johnson alive in between guest appearances on The Love Boat
And there was Milton DeLugg and the Band With a Thug. Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. And there was Chuck. Introduced once upon a time by Carol Burnett: "And now, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce a man with the charm of Cary Grant, good looks of Robert Redford, and the acting skills of Laurence Olivier. I'd like to meet that man, but until then, I'm stuck with Chuck Barris." I didn't mind being stuck with Chuck Barris. Even if all he had done was created The Newlywed Game. Even if he had only written Freddy Cannon's hit, "Palisades Park." Even if he had only been an assassin for the CIA. I wouldn't mind being stuck with Chuck Barris. 
Sure, you could say that Chuck helped lower our standards with his gonging and Treasure Hunts and $1.98 Beauty Show. I probably wouldn't argue, but Chuck Barris offered us a chance to see ourselves on television. He offered me a chance to see what it would be like if I hosted a game show. He also introduced me to The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo. And Paul Reubens before he was Pee Wee Herman. These are gifts enough. Thank you, Chuck. You stomped on the Terra, and brought me all even more stuff. Aloha. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Season

It's that time of year again: Standardized tests return. While others are noting the change in the season and the lengthening days, It is part of a cycle that has been impressed on me since the days when I was a student and I nervously awaited those newsprint booklets and the bubble sheets that accompanied them. Learning was to be measured, and the best way to do that was to pen us all in and have us fill in those bubbles as best we could for a seemingly endless stretch and precious little took place aside from this silent activity. We were a school of test-takers, and when we came out the other side, we would be prepared to move on to the next grade, ready to spend a week filling in bubbles to prove what we knew. Some of us, with older siblings, were able to see where this path was leading: the PSAT. The ACT. The something-something-T. That stands for Test. And trouble, right here in River City.
Just like back then, there are still those students who look at us slack-jawed when we tell them that there is a test coming. We have done our best by immersing them in assessments throughout the year that mirror the experience to prepare for the Big One. Back in the day there was no need to reveal your thinking. Some of us took the time to eliminate the answers and make logical choices from A, B, C or D. "None of the above" was always a pretty good guess. Then there were those who were simply making patterns, attempting to beat the system by creating their own.
Not so much anymore. These days we ask kids to explain their thinking. We have included, along with a healthy amount of bubble filling, big boxes in which we hope students will fill with their ideas. Rationalize their process and explain their thinking. In anticipation of this experience, I have given our third, fourth and fifth graders practice tests that I hope will make the test-taking experience less fraught with anxiety. When they come to those boxes, they stop. They stare. And they ask me this question: "How much do I have to write?"
I give them a pretty standard teacher answer, "Enough to explain your answer."
Because there is no absolute. I would love to be able to tell them that if they write six lines they will get that question right. If they include a compound sentence that they will get extra credit. Spelling counts. Punctuation counts. Don't leave the CAPS LOCK button on and leave us all wondering why you are yelling. How much do they really have to write? I wish I didn't have to answer that question, so I mostly don't. I do what teachers have done for all time before mine: I try and get them to write as much as they can. The bubbles aren't enough. To be successful we need to see how those bubbles came to be filled in. Now they get to do it on a computer, so hopefully the strain on their number two pencil fingers will be spread out onto their clicking and typing digits.
And here's the other thing I can tell them: This too shall pass, and hopefully so will you.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


Why trust me? I have a bachelor's degree in creative writing. I am highly skilled in the realm of obfuscation and manipulation of words and phrases. I am not a scientists. To that end, I found myself as an undergraduate taking a course titled "Physics For Non-Science Majors." I tell you this in order to establish my distance from science, not out of any lack of respect. I maintain a great deal of respect for all the sciences: physical, life, earth. Science is cool
You don't have to take my word for it. You should believe real scientists like Bill Nye. Or maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson. Doctor Tyson doesn't know more than anyone else, but he does know a lot more than me. It is for that reason that I have decided to trust him when he says, "We all want to Make America Great Again. But that won't happen until we first Make America Smart Again." This was the initial shot in a Twitter barrage Neil set off over the past weekend. It was his reply to a budget released by the "President" that took great wide cuts from social and science programs that might have made it easier to achieve that smartness goal. He went on: "The fastest way to Make a America Weak Again: Cut science funds to our agencies that support it." And "The fastest way to Make America Sick Again: Cut funding to the National Institutes of Health." Of course, "The fastest way to Make America Stupid: Cut funds to programs that support education." And obviously, "The fastest way to thwart Earth's life-support systems for us all: Turn EPA into EDA -- the Environmental Destruction Agency." 
All of this was rounded out with a question: "We can all imagine a land that provides no support for Art. But is that a place you'd want to Live? To Visit? To Play?" 
It should be noted that, while Neil deGrasse Tyson is a very smart man with degrees in physics and astronomy with all kinds of astrophysics and space junk that go on for parsecs. But he is not an economist. Figuring out a way to pay for all of this art and science is not his responsibility. His job is to explain what happens to a station wagon travelling the speed of light and someone turns on the headlights. He is supposed to make science fun and available for us non-science majors. 
He wasn't supposed to make us think. 
Thanks a lot, science guys. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Historical Markers

The way things used to be: It's a conversation that has been taking place since the Graks moved in to the cave down the way and started smearing paint on the walls. I remember when we didn't need fancy "cave painting" to make a house a home. Remember when stories were something that were shared by word of mouth? We didn't have to have "books," right? Sooner or later, they're just going to be replaced by the electronic chip in the base of our spines that replaced the corneal implants that replaced the tablets we were dragging around that gave us access to that trickle of information we used to call "the super highway."
J.C. Penney is closing one hundred thirty-eight stores. That brick and mortar omnipresence is becoming less omni. Penney's is not disappearing, but it is shrinking. The place that once filled my Christmas wishlist left its location in Crossroads shopping center a long time ago. I bought some of my first stereo equipment from them. Much of what I came to understand about retail occurred to me through those doors. Now I shop and compare online. Thanks, Al Gore.
Goodyear will no longer be flying blimps, either. The Spirit of America was deflated last week. It was this moment in history that finally clued me into the difference between blimps and other airships. Goodyear will continue to fly airships, they won't look too terribly different from blimps. They will be semi-rigid dirigibles. Not just balloons filled with gas, but a structure that will hold its shape even when the helium is let out. Not hydrogen, though, since that would be looking back, Hindenburg-ish.
There was never a blimp among the tokens used to play Monopoly, but there was an iron. You remember irons. They came before permanent press. There was also a thimble and a shoe and a wheelbarrow. You remember wheelbarrows. They came before the Yardmax. Thimbles? We used them to measure drinks for mice. Now we're being asked to play with a penguin, a rubber ducky, and a T-Rex. How will this effect my play? Not much, since it's been at least a decade since I played Monopoly competitively. Or any other way. The closest I have come was a few years back when I got extra tokens from McDonald's when they were playing their version and I won a free order of french fries.
I still eat french fries, even if I don't find my way to McDonald's as much anymore. Things change. Sigh.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What's "In The News?"

“And don't forget, when I say wiretapping, those words were in quotes,” the "President" said. “That really covers, because wiretapping is pretty old fashioned stuff. But that really covers surveillance and many other things. And nobody ever talks about the fact that it was in quotes, but that's a very important thing.”
See, when you put things in "quotes" it means we shouldn't take them seriously. Like those "alleged ties to Russia." See what I did there? I was letting you all know that there is nothing to worry about. Or "worry" about. It becomes difficult at times to understand just exactly what we "mean" when we use quotation marks. This bit of punctuation generally used in pairs in various writing systems to set off direct speech, a quotation, or a phrase is now being used for less direct purposes. Think about air quotes for a moment. The White House press secretary uses them. Those scratchy little gestures that hover around words or phrases that are meant to set them apart, and not in a good way. Those words are no longer "useful" but rather "suspect." What do we really "mean" when we use quotes these days?
I tend to use quotes when I want to give direct credit for a thought or phrase to an individual. This often happens when I am shocked or surprised by a particular sentiment and want to transfer it intact from one setting to another. For instance: "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!" When those single quotation marks show up, by the way, it sets off a quote within a quote. It could be that the "President" was looking to add a little colloquialism into the message, since that is yet another of the myriad uses for quotation marks. Single or double. Or perhaps it is meant as some sort of double entendre or innuendo inserted so as to make us all wonder about the true nature of the relationship between presidents forty-four and forty-five. You know, "special." 
If that last bit served to make you just the tiniest bit squeamish, then I consider this time well spent. If all this talk about "quotation marks" and what the "President" really "meant" makes your head hurt, then imagine what challenges await us as we move forward. That same press secretary who has battled facts and tweets and a room full of reporters filled with a rage for blood was asked when we could trust the "President." His answer? “If he's not joking.” Make of that quote what you will.
Mic drop. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Sometimes I feel bad when I call a customer service representative. I am calling because I have an issue with the makers or supporters or advertisers or company that put its name on or near the product that has so recently begun to dissatisfy me. I am not calling to say, "Hey, nice job on this vacuum guys. It really sucks! In a good way." The reason for picking up the phone in the first place was to exact some sort of satisfaction from the nitwits who forgot to put the bag of screws in the box in the first place. Or raised the price of the service I have been using for years without bothering to notify me. Or sold me something that was defective, ineffective, or just plain useless.
I know that when I hear a voice on the other end of that line that they are wincing in anticipation of whatever it is that I have to say because that is why they were hired. This the job for which they have trained. They have the manual, the big binder of calm and rational explanations. They come equipped with soothing tones and concern for my well-being and self-esteem. The customer service person is there to bear the brunt of my dissatisfaction and to try and steer me back out of the rut that has me hating their company and all they stand for.
Which is why I generally open with something along the lines of, "I understand that none of what we are about to talk about is pretty much out of your personal control. You're going to have to listen to me rant and rave about something for which you have no responsibility other than your job which is to make me feel better." That being said, I launch into the previously announce rant and rave. When it's all over and the smoke clears, if this person has made a dent in my ire, or even managed to talk me off the consumer cliff on which I found myself in the first place, I feel better. I thank them for the catharsis and take quiet satisfaction in the time we spent hanging on the telephone.
This is why I feel a little bit bad for Sean Spicer. When he was growing up Rhode Island, he probably didn't harbor dreams of standing in front of a group of angry journalists looking for any angle to take the road too often traveled. He might have expected to take his bachelor's degree in government and go out to change the world. Instead of holding it at bay. When I watch Sean's face get all twisted up as yet another reporter asks, "What did the president mean when he said," or "Could you explain how this will actually work?" None of this was his idea.
He's just the customer service guy. And maybe, just maybe, under the circumstances he's doing the best he can with what he's got to work with. Does he deserve a break?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Johnny Bye-Bye

I saw Chuck Berry perform once. Okay, not entirely accurate, since I saw plenty of Chuck on video and film, but seeing the man live was somewhat transcendent. Admittedly, I was part of that unfortunate generation whose first contact with Chuck was "My Ding-A-Ling." It was a few years after that that I heard "Johnny B. Goode" in the background of a scene in American Graffiti. It was at this moment that I began to understand what rock and roll was. It wasn't Elvis. It wasn't event he Beatles. These guys weren't rocking anything if not for Chuck Berry.
That's what I took away from that evening at Mile High Stadium. Saying something like Chuck Berry was the godfather of rock and roll would be short-changing the guy who played a guitar like he was ringing a bell. He was in his sixties at the time, but he was duck-walking and strutting across the stage like he owned the place. Because he did. It was the attitude and the aura that came off this guy in the lemon yellow jumpsuit who was just daring you to say something about the lemon yellow jumpsuit he was wearing. The life he lived set a standard that Mick and Keith spent their lives trying to emulate, but the Rolling Stones themselves seemed so much more calculated and careful compared to the fast lane convertible ride Chuck was on. Without Chuck Berry, there is no Elvis.Without Chuck Berry, there is no Beatles.Without Chuck Berry, there is no Rolling Stones.Without Chuck Berry, there is no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And no Bruce Springsteen.
The idea that there would be a guy in his sixties, racing around the stage, playing guitar behind his back and whipping a crowd into a tumultuous uproar might never have occurred to The Boss without Chuck. Living a life of late nights and hot licks in one town and then another was pioneered by that man in the lemon yellow jumpsuit.
Pioneer? Did I say pioneer? How else would you explain Chuck's inclusion on the Golden Record sent out into the galaxy on the Voyager probe by NASA back in 1977. Along with a bunch of Bach and Beethoven was that sound that Marty McFly brought back from the future: Johnny B. Goode. Which is why we back here on earth expect our first contact with extraterrestrials to be a message in reply which says, "Send more Chuck Berry."
Now Chuck is part of the heavens, where he will continue to duck-walk and stomp on the extra-terra. Aloha, Chuck. You B Good.