"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Friday, March 25, 2011

Meta-blogging with Robin Sparkles and Doctor Who

I've been writing this blog for just over two months and I've been obsessed for at least seven and a half of those eight weeks. However, I start teaching again next Monday and I ought to psych myself up. Plus, I need to read Pride and Prejudice; I can't let my students get ahead of me. Thus, I've decided that I'm going to take the next week or so away from the internetting.

Rico Suave for sci-fi geeks.
A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that instead of imagining songs out of the pithy, clever thoughts she has--like she used to--she now conjures up a FB status update. Similarly, I find myself thinking in terms of blog posts. I'm eating Dots and really love how the gooey, chewy candy feels when it gets stuck in my teeth. Blog post! I just finished watching all the David Tennant  Doctor Who specials and now I wait for the season 5 series to be available for streaming on Netflix. Blog post! Xander was on his tummy during his doctor's visit last week and turned onto his back all by his lonesome. Blog post! And how!

Lately this fixation has triggered insomnia. I can't sleep. In my mind, I'm revising my latest post. Or commenting on non-existent comments. Or formulating a brilliant new epistle to the world. I've known people who obsess over conversations they had. They come home from a party and wonder the rest of the night if they said too much or too little, or looked or did something stupid. The difference (problem) is that with a blog, your conversation never ends. What you said is out in the interweb ether, and anyone at anytime can stumble upon your words and criticize your every thought. If you looked stupid, you will forever look stupid, unless you purposefully set out to rectify it. I'm still coming to grips with that, and it's keeping me up nights.

In an effort to pull myself together, I thought I could use a little introspection. (At this point I should warn you that I get a little long-winded and possibly vain. I won't hold it against you if you forgo reading the rest of this post as long as you check out a back post that you missed. Anyway, stick around, read on, it'll be fun.)

So join me, won't you, on a trip through the mindscape of Building Castles on the Beach:

Tasty inspiration!
First, the title. Not that anyone ever asked, but "building castles on the beach" comes from something Aaron Sorkin said about how writing begins by taking your hands and mounting up sand. I commandeered the image because of the ephemeral nature of writing, especially on the internet. As a blogger, your writing is provisional; you can change your mind, edit anything you've written at any time. As I said above, the conversation never ends. This is why I've permanently attached the Chuck Klosterman quote from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs to the top of my blog: "Temporality is part of the truth."

Let's talk stats. Just before posting, this is where I stand: In two months, I've written 29 posts, accumulated 1765 pageviews and 160 comments, and 30 people out there have deigned to follow my blog. I honestly don't know how egotistical I might sound. I've read blogs that have 50,000 followers and blogs that have 2. And each of those writers has seemed equally contented with what they were doing. I'm going to content myself by acknowledging that at least a few others have taken pleasure in my writing enough to want to read more.

And so I thank those of you who return, who comment, who maintain the conversation with me. What would happen to my sandcastles in the sand if I didn't have you to hold back the tide?

Pause for a Robin Sparkels interlude:

Blog post roundup: I started this social networking with a critique of  my experience as a Facebook novice. Since then, I've come to terms with the ironic lack of intimacy Facebook produces, but I still don't really care what you ate for breakfast.

My second post was written on a whim after watching the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop. I included a commentary on two other documentaries about what makes art art. I know I was just a beginner, but the art post didn't seem to get much love. Originally, like my first post, it was text only, and at some point, I realized that a discussion of art should include some examples of art. I went back and added pictures and links. Still, not much love. A few weeks into all this, I affixed a "Link Within" gadget to the bottom of each post. As soon as I did that, "Three Art Docs" began rising up the pageview ladder. The only explanation I can fathom: people were curious about the British phone box that was bent in half with a pickaxe stuck in its belly. It is a pretty provocative piece of art, but I tend to doubt anyone actually read my post about it; they probably went in for the pictures and left after a quick browse. Nevertheless, that post has since become the third most popular post on this blog. And it's the only post I wrote that still has zero comments.

This photo alone will attract at least thirteen readers.
Fatherhood: From there, I began to write about my son, Xander, which was to be the main attraction from the get-go. I've since written nine missives about fathering an infant, and I've learned that when I promise photos, more people view the blog. The first writing was called "Fatherhood: A Manifesto" about how more fathers should take time off to parent their newborn child. Sadly, there's no pictures. (I should go back and insert pictures. Let "Link Within" will do its magic.)

Teaching: In the meantime, I had finished the book The Death and Life of the Great American Education System by Diane Ravitch and felt the need to talk about it with someone, meaning everyone. I planned a series of posts dealing with the education issues in America from a teacher's point of view, but I started with why I teach in the first place. Then I saw Diane Ravitch speak in Denver and wrote a post encapsulating what I heard.

Maybe I'm too late to dinner, or maybe I'm just no authority on the subject, but my views on education didn't seem to catch on until I wrote a review of the movie Waiting for "Superman" pointing out how the movie makes teachers out to be lazy, incompetent, greedy suckers who are against real change in education. A few people posted intriguing comments, but the most tantalizing conversation was on Facebook, where a friend of a friend called me a racist and my wife embarked on a three hour jag defending me and my views while I was out of the house. My one response to the Facebook thread was to say simply that I intended provocation but never racism and requested he comment on my blog. Obviously, he has yet to do so. Due to the controversy of this movie, one assumes, within six days this was the most-viewed post at 87 pageviews, edging out the popular "Back is Best" which prominently features Xander's distended belly button. (Update: The button has since reentered his belly as it should.)

Music Mondays. I've written five posts about the music that influences me, timing it for a Monday publication, just for alliterative amusement. The most fun to write was "Auto-tuned" about how I love driving only because you can sing at the top of your lungs and no one cares. I don't know how many people care about the music I care about, but I get some enjoyable comments from readers and it's something that makes me happy so I'm going to keep doing it.

Right now I'm listening to M83, a great French band with long, droning harmonics mixed with pretty, succinct harmonies. It's as if Stereolab and Air had a love child back in the 80's. Listen along and enjoy.

So, I'll return in a week or ten days with parts two and three of "A Star is Born," a description of what it's like to return to work after so long, and an explanation as to why Doctor Who is the greatest hero the world has ever known. As long as I can figure out what to do at school after Spring Break. Also, I would appreciate if all the other bloggers would also refrain from posting anything new on your own blogs so that I won't have to much to catch up on when I reenter the fray. And don't forget to leave a comment.

P.S. Someone found my blog through the search keywords, "Jetsons sex." Awesomesauce.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Star is Born, part one: A Rupture of Membranes

(I plan to tell this story in three parts: Before, During, and After. This is Before.)

Mommy's water broke 11 weeks early. That night went something like this:

It was after ten p.m. and my wife and I had both gone to bed. I was conked, which is abnormal. I usually don't sleep well on Sunday nights before a regular school week. My mind races. But tonight, I was out cold. May, however, had gotten up three times in ten minutes, wondering how hard the baby had to kick her bladder to make her wet herself. She was leaking.

She: Brent, something's wrong. I need to call the doctor.

Me: (basically still asleep) Are you kidding? We go to the doctor every week for some new paranoia of yours. Just go to sleep, crazy woman.

But she didn't do as she was told by me. She called the doctor. Due to a variety of factors, the pregnancy was high risk, and we had enrolled in a special care clinic at the hospital just down the street. The doctor said she had better come in to make sure she wasn't losing amniotic fluid. I sleep-drove for five minutes while May kept saying she was sorry, and we'd be back home and asleep soon. I didn't say much because I was fuming at having been dragged out of bed in the middle of the night for the fifth or sixth false alarm in so many months, despite the fact that I knew very well that pregnant women should not leak.

At the hospital, all the appropriate people performed all the appropriate tests, and finally the doctor said, "It looks like your water did break. We'll get you taken care of." The doctor left without saying much more, and soon May and I were alone in the room. I leaned over her vexed visage and said, "From now on, the version of this story is going to include me saying: Aren't you glad I told you we should go to the hospital?"

It was clever of me because she laughed and whatever tension had built up because of my recalcitrance over the last two hours was gone. Then the nurse came back in and said, "Okay, lets get you admitted to the hospital." And we were like, "What? Admitted? For how long? What does this mean?" And she was like, "The doctor didn't tell you? You need to stay here until the baby's born." And we were like, "What? Admitted? For how long? What does this mean?" 

It turns out that when your water breaks, you don't leave the hospital again until after you've given birth. The baby isn't protected from infection any more. Statistics attest that you will give birth within 48 hours of prematurely rupturing your membranes. 

The next five weeks were a combination of delirious boredom and massive tension that could not be assuaged with free pudding from the nourishment room. May was fed three squares a day, but the limited hospital menu paled in comparison to a fresh Smashburger. I ended up eating way too much fast food, from Sonic breakfast croissants to Chipotle chicken burritos, and began a weight gain that has yet to subside.

Other than watching every single episode of The Office, we're not exactly sure how we passed most of that time. May was allowed to take wheelchair rides around the hospital but wasn't supposed to walk any farther than the bathroom. After taking the first two days off thinking the inevitable was sooner rather than later, I went to school every day but was at the hospital every night. Sometimes I went home to sleep, but most nights I stretched out on the couch by the big window. We had enough of a view that we watched Autumn turn the green leaves of Denver to gold and steal them away from the world.

It was a peculiar vortex in our lives where literally any minute the known universe maintained that May would go into labor and we'd have an extremely premature baby. That kind of pressure somehow doesn't leave time for much else. May can read about 350 words an hour, but she didn't even get through one book. Every day the medical professionals did their job and told us there was no sign of infection, and the baby looked great. But every time he slipped away from the monitor or wasn't moving with enough variability, May would worry, and I would wonder, "Is today the day?" And if it happened now, "Will everybody be okay?"
At first, he was crazy tiny.
I thought about ending this installation of the story with the sentence above, cliffhanger-style. But you all know everybody's okay. Four months later, Xander can now be off oxygen for an hour a day (or all night if someone accidentally forgets to turn it back on, but that didn't happen, and you didn't hear nothin'), and he's so fat that the doctor wanted to take him off his caloric supplement altogether. Anyway, stay tuned for...the rest of the story.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Sounds of Sunday

I'm a romantic when it comes to Sundays. The day of rest, not the 90's jangly pop band. But if you're interested, here's a great song by the Sundays called "Summertime" that pretty much fits the tone I'm aiming for. Sundays should involve lots of fruit.

Sunday. The kids jump on your bed to wake you up. You have orange juice and bacon for breakfast, reading Calvin and Hobbes in the paper. After church, you take the convertible Nash Rambler for a Sunday afternoon drive down the lane where the scent of the ocean meets the fragrance of the forest.

So what music sets the mood for such quixotic reveries?

Classical Sunday
I have an iPod playlist for anything I have labeled classical music. This includes movie soundtracks done in a classical style: from John Williams (Star Wars et.al.) to Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). I can't play this on Sundays, though, because every once in a while the 20th Century Fox Fanfare or battle music from Gladiator interrupts an otherwise tranquil afternoon. Then the wife gets irritated and nobody wants that.

So I might play Vivaldi's ode to the hotel industry (The Four Seasons--get it?) or a Bach violin concerto. Violins go well with a lazy Sunday. For a more modern take on the classical genre, I like Anne Dudley. She founded the genre-bending 80's band The Art of Noise, then in the 90's started doing soundtracks to movies like The Crying Game and American History X. She even won an Academy Award in 1998 for scoring The Full Monty. Her two albums Ancient and Modern and A Different Light are classical compositions, with some revisions of themes from her film scores (but no battle scenes), including an epic retelling of "Moments in Love" back from her Art of Noise days. (Below is the Anne Dudley solo version of the song, which, admittedly, strays from it's haunting classical beginning. Here is the original Art of Noise video.)

Mormon Sunday
Before church, I might need to spiritualize my family up, so we'll listen to some LDS music. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the obvious go-to team here, but usually I'd rather listen to some Gregorian Chants. Yet, I've found that the MoTab doesn't always sound like they dress (the women still sometimes wear those shapeless seafoam green gowns like they were Lawrence Welk backup dancers; the men mostly stick with the fashionless penguin suit). For instance, the CD Peace Like a River includes joyous traditional spirituals rather than the sometimes dour-sounding hymns. It's uplifting without being too monotonous.

One Mormon composer I like is Kurt Bestor. His album Seasons might seem like sticky, gooey New Age debris, but sometimes you need just that kind of pick-me-up. The Mormon classic Joyspring is nothing but agreeable piano and orchestra versions of LDS hymns. The strings soar and the winds unwind. Below is a song called "The Journey Begins," representative of the Kurt Bestor sound.

Ambient Sunday
I don't listen to ambient music just on Sunday. If it were up to me, I would never hear silence. (Not that John Cage's composition "4'33" isn't brilliant. If you've never heard it, you should.) Give me constructed ambiance instead. Specifically for relaxing Sunday music, two names stand out.

Harold Budd is a minimalist composer of beautiful melodies through piano and treated keyboards. His music washes over you quietly and completely. Robin Guthrie is possibly the greatest producer that ever lived. He was the guitarist for the band Cocteau Twins and was mainly responsible for their ethereally glorious sound. These days he's released several solo works arranged around his shimmering, soothing guitar. They are at once hypnotic and colossal.
Budd and Guthrie have released several works as a duo, combining Guthrie's guitar with Budd's piano for some of the most heavenly music ever recorded. If this doesn't suit the romantic daydream of Sunday, nothing will.

Pop Sunday
All this relaxation and leisure music making you sleepy? Then perhaps you need a shot of pop music to keep you awake and enjoying your wistful Sunday. All kinds of music might fit the bill here, but I have a few suggestions if you'd like to try something new or slightly different.

Air: A French electronica duo with great melodies and hooks that sound like you've known them since childhood.

Cibo Matto: Japanese American trip hop sung in thick accents, but with a prominent, fun loving beat. With a little help from John Lennon's son Sean, they sound both pensive and absentminded. Perfect for Sunday.

Emiliana Torrini: Icelandic singer with a distinctive delicate voice. She has three albums, each of which sounds nothing like the others. One trip hop, two folk guitar, and three indie pop. She also sang "Gollum's Song" over the final credits to The Two Towers.

Lots of links above, some stupid slideshows on YouTube that you can ignore if you just listen to the music while you read all this. Give it a try. I'm curious to know what your favorite Sunday music is. I'm off to enjoy the Sunday afternoon with my family. iTunes is randomizing my Sunday Best playlist as we drive into the sunset on the beach in the mountains of the woods over the waterfall of our lives. With lots of fruit.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Waiting for "Guffman"?

Waiting for "Superman" is clearly a one-sided production. It is produced by persons and groups who have agendas that are pro-corporate, anti-union, and as Diane Ravitch has said, are for the privatization and de-professionalization of education. (Check here for more specific names and information.) To discuss everything that is misleading or just incorrect in this film would take more time than I have, and others have already done it anyway. (Like this.)

Watch closely to see the problem.
Let's get the worst of the snark out of the way up top. Why does the title Waiting for "Superman" utilize both italics and quotation marks around the word "Superman"? In standard English, when I write out the title, I need to italicize the whole thing to indicate this is a title of a larger work, as I have done in the second sentence above. But when you make your own movie poster, you don't need to use italics because it's your work and we already know what the title is. So is the Superman this title indicates one of the many movies or television shows or comic books that go by that name? As in: I'm in line, waiting to get tickets to the movie Superman with Christopher Reeve. The quotation marks can indicate a couple of things. First, quotes indicate speech. As in: I'm waiting for someone to yell out the title of this superhero movie: "Superman!" Or quotes can indicate there's something idiosyncratic about the word or phrase it's setting off. As in: I'm sarcastically waiting around for some guy to save me, some "Superman" (air quotes and eye rolling included). So which is it? How am I supposed to accept what a film tells me if it equivocates on its title?

Seriously, the most bothersome aspect of this movie is the lip service paid to teachers. The director and narrator, Davis Guggenheim, talks about his favorite teacher and how important good teachers are. One DVD extra is basically an ad recruiting for teachers. ("Do something," they implore, as if pledging to see this movie is in and of itself "something.")

Yet, here's how the film characterizes teachers:

Jason Kamras won a national Teacher of the Year award in 2005. But instead of talking about what he's done to become the master teacher that all students need, Guggenheim asks Kamras about the process of teacher evaluation. Kamras describes a complex process for what is certainly a complex task, but Guggenheim is aghast and calls it a game. Kamras hems and haws and doesn't really explain anything. This film about what makes great education makes a teacher of the year look like an idiot.

Where would Lisa Simpson be without her teacher?
Back in 1991 a student brought a hidden camera into a Milwaukee school and caught teachers behaving badly. The superintendent at the time fired several of the teachers in the video, but then had to rehire them with back pay because he violated the contract. This is Guggenheim's excuse to discuss why teacher tenure doesn't allow teachers to ever be fired. The film then uses funny (or just plain satirical) clips from The Simpsons and the Jack Black film School of Rock to back up the claim that schools can't fire teachers who don't care. Not only does it seem like the "Superman" producers don't have any clue as to the context of these clips, but if you haven't seen these shows yourself, what would you think the point was? It's bad and manipulative film making. (Upon retrospect, perhaps the film makers completely understand School of Rock. In the film, Jack Black does, in fact, teach the kids life lessons and changes their lives. It's boiled-down de-professionalization; this proves that anyone can teach, right? Do I underestimate the evil here?)

My point is that Guggenheim uses three-second examples from one random video (the introduction of this video was given by the Milwaukee superintendent himself, saying "They gave a camera to a student..." Who? You know, "They.") taken 20 years ago to show that teachers are lazy, students are out of control, and it's all tenure's fault. Because you just can't fire these awful teachers. But isn't this exactly what tenure and contracts are for? Is it really fair of the superintendent to fire a teacher based on what an out of context student video shows? It makes me extremely wary of what I say and do in my classroom, thinking that, without the protection of tenure contracts, I could be fired for what I may or may not have said or done just because some student claims something. This actually happened in my fair city last year. A teacher was fired because he used the N-word during a lesson about race relations. One student was offended, and the teacher was fired. The teacher taught at a (rather prestigious) private school and was considered a "master teacher." Yet he had no recourse because he had no tenure, no contract ensuring him due process.

So, does "Superman" elaborate on what makes a great teacher, since this is what every student needs and every charter school has them? Of course. There's one scene that explains how KIPP charter school founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg got ideas for their groundbreaking teaching practices. A math teacher they knew noticed (and here I quote the narration word for word because I can't really make a joke out of something already so awfully sincere that it's ridiculous to any teacher and should be to anyone with any education at all) "that her kids had trouble learning math terms, but could memorize a rap song. So she turned her multiplication tables into a song. For Levin and Feinberg, it was nothing short of a revelation."

...and pause for effect...

The font of Best Practices.
Ask any teacher. Any teacher at all. Go ahead, do it right now. Ask any teacher if it is a revelation in teaching practices to use rap music to teach their students facts they need to know. (If it wasn't done before, LouAnne Johnson showed a generation of bright-eyed, idealistic teachers how to do this in 1992 with My Posse Don't Do Homework.)

But wait, there's more. After revealing to the world something that no other teacher apparently ever knew, the film shows classrooms of teachers and kids from KIPP charter schools performing rote memorization. In fact, it's call-and-response, like students in the one-room school house in Little House on the Prairie chanting, "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." I can't deny that KIPP schools might be successful with these practices, but it's utterly ironic that most teachers today are criticized for teaching in this manner. If I were to do this in my classroom, I would lose my tenure like that (Snap!).
This is where real learning occurs.

If the statistics presented in this movie haven't manipulated you enough, the ending is designed to make you so angry at the state of education today that you'll do something crazy, like text a word to some number. (This is what you're asked to do while the credits roll; it's not explained what texting this word to this number will do. It's like someone asking you to follow his blog.) "Superman" tracks five children in their bid for acceptance into charter schools through the required lottery. In the end only one of the five children actually wins the lottery they must endure. The one accepted is the rich, white girl, while the three poor black children and one poor Hispanic girl don't get in. Guggenheim and the producers can't help that and, sure, it's sad that they don't get in.

What's sadder, though, is that they believe, the movie believes, the corporate reformers believe, they all want you to believe that this was the only hope, their Obi Won Kenobe. Now they will be subject to those awful public schools that don't know how to teach because of the unions and tenure and lazy teachers who care less about young minds than cashing their big, fat paychecks. (Now, there's an apropos Simpsons reference.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grape Diet Dr Pepper

Chanel over at Fabulously Neurotic has lobbed the Versatile Blogger award my way. This is very kind and I don't deserve to win any more than the others who were also nominated, but still, I blush. I'm not sure what to do with this, since Bryan at nuclearheadache came up with ideas for all kinds of blog awards but this one.
Enough with the in-jokes. I'm supposed to tell you seven things about me, so in order to show how versatile I am, I tender the following information. See if you can count seven fun facts about yours truly.

I love a soda with a fruity filling. Not literally, because no one wants to chug a Coke and suck down a couple of blueberries into their esophagus. But I enjoy the sweet candy flavors that resemble fruit juice. Every one of the seasonal varieties of Mountain Dew is liquid sunshine. Voltage. Supernova. Revolution. I get energized just seeing a new strain on the shelf and I die little inside when it's gone.

He doesn''t drink diet.
Nevertheless, I'm primarily partial to anything offering a cherry taste. A friend says Code Red Mountain Dew is laced with crack, so I've had to turn to Diet Dew in recent years. Otherwise I'm afraid my waist line would expand so far I'd be wearing muumuus. Drinking mostly diet soda only makes me wonder if I'm giving myself cancer.

Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi is decent; however, I don't really like Diet Cherry Coke. (Regular Cherry Coke is great, but I only drink it at the movies.) I was especially keen on the Cherry Vanilla Diet Dr Pepper, but it's now merely cherry minus the vanilla. I still drink it, even though at first it tasted like cough syrup. Like the lack of sugar, you get used to it. For the best non-diet, non-caffeine flavor out there, try Cherry Crush. It's like catnip...laced with crack. Only it doesn't come in a diet variety, so I have to will myself to limit intake.

In spite of my preference for all things cherry, the other day I asked my wife to pick up some grape soda. I like to make a purple cow, mixing in the vanilla ice cream. She brought home some off brand kind that must have been on sale, and while I'm not bemoaning the fact she got what I asked for, I cursed myself for not specifying that I needed Welch's Sparkling Grape soda. (I also only drink Sunkist Orange soda, okay?)

All the next day, a twelve-pack of grape soda sat on the kitchen table taunting me. I only had a few (regular) Diet Dr Peppers left in the fridge. And brainstorm: Combine the two to extend the life of all the soda. It's quite remarkable, I've found, how many other flavors grape blends nicely with. Grape-cherry. Grape-lemon. Grape-lime. And now, it's been going in and out of style. It's guaranteed to raise a smile. So may I introduce to you: Grape Diet Dr Pepper.

(If I were at all versatile for reals, I'd be able to draw an arrow or some cartoon graphic demonstrating the need to mix these two cans of liquid to make one splendorific taste explosion.)

I've never been sure exactly what flavor Dr Pepper is supposed to be, and I suspect that's part of it's appeal. But at least now we know grape only complements it. Next maybe I'll try a Grape Pepsi. Or Grape Code Red Mountian Dew. Or Grape Guarana. As if Guarana needed any improvement at all.
Best soda ever.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Legacy of Teletunes

Watch this video:
It's a European band called Hypothetical Prophets from 1982. YouTube calls this song "Person to Person," but I knew it as "Personal Announcements," featuring lyrics taken from personal ads. This critique of the non-personal nature of modern relationships concludes with a wicked last line (if you can make it that far). The music is minimalist electronica and suffers from the fairly common poor production of the time. And the video images date it even more. But oh, how cool this was for me as an impressionable young lad trying to find himself through music.
Back in the 80's and into the 90's, one of Denver's local public broadcast stations (formerly KBDI Channel 12, now Colorado Public Television 12) aired a video show called Teletunes, actually predating MTV's first broadcast. It ran until the late nineties, but by then I was no longer a viewer. It had done it's work on me throughout most of the 80's and I didn't need it any more. (You can learn more about the show's history in a Westword article from 1999.)

Like so many great things, I discovered Teletunes by accident. For those geezers out there who remember, television was a different animal back then. PBS stations were actually a viable entertainment choice for a teenager, if only because on Saturday mornings, once you were too old for He-Man and Smurfs, you might look for something different. As you turned the dial past the crap offered on ABC, NBC, CBS and the two other local stations on the air, you might come across something a bit interesting on PBS. I came across Talking Heads "Once in a Lifetime."
I hadn't seen many music videos before then. We didn't have cable, and my only experience seeing MTV was a few times at a friend's house after school. So when I came across David Byrne's skinny nerd dancing like an epileptic in front of a green screen, I was hooked on Teletunes. Every Saturday morning, when I didn't have an early soccer game, I would usurp the television and watch two hours of music videos. Then, when we got our first VCR, I taught myself to set the recording timer and started recording the show every Saturday and Sunday morning. When I had the time, and when none of my siblings was bugging me to watch the My Little Pony or Ghostbusters cartoons, I would sit and record videos. I filled many a blank video cassette this way, but sadly have only been able to hold onto one of them over the years.

Teletunes didn't show the big production videos by Michael Jackson and Madonna. They played what they called "progressive alternative" music. Videos by REM and Depeche Mode and The Cure were staples. They once claimed that Devo's "Beautiful World" was the best video ever. Ironic lyrics sung over juxtaposed images of beauty and destruction: What would Kanye have said about that?

Devo-Beautiful World by adiis

Eventually I realized that I didn't care much for the videos themselves. Most of them were produced on a shoestring budget and even the ones that were technically proficient (say, Peter Gabriel's claymation "Sledgehammer") were still just boring. I especially couldn't stand any video with the band on stage lip-syncing and fake-playing their instruments while the crowd screamed at them. I blame MTV. What started as ground-breaking didn't take long to turn stale. Like everyone else, I was entertained by the huge concept videos; who doesn't get a kick out of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" video? But most videos were not like this. And everybody knows that MTV quickly lost any interest in music. This resulted in bad music being hyped by brainless videos.

Thus, I watched Teletunes not for the videos but to discover cool music.

There were the Hypothetical Prophets (who, admittedly, were not the greatest band), but I also encountered some exceedingly non-traditional stuff like the Residents and the Art of Noise and Tom Waits. Proto-goth Kommunity FK and early no-wave Sonic Youth. Or cool dance music they'd never play on the radio like Cabaret Voltaire or Moev. This isn't the music that is today associated with 80's alternative. But it helped form the person I am today.

Now watch this video:

It's a passable 80's synthy-poppy song, but if I ever meet Bill Paxton, I have my opening line: "I loved you in Martini Ranch." Watch this video closely and see if you can recognize a couple of other middling sex symbols from the 80's.

Without Teletunes, I never would know this information. I've recently come across The Teletunes Nostalgia Blog. Most of the songs posted are from the nineties, which is after I'd gone to college and found other ways to get in touch with swell new music, but it's still a great trip down memory lane.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Baby's Day Out

Yesterday was Xander's first excursion out of the house since he's been home. We've taken him to monthly doctor appointments, but that just means a return to the hospital from whence he came, so they don't count. This escapade has Xander exploring the interior of Office Depots heretofore unknown, and searching the wild continents of Smashburger for midday sustenance.

The dark spot means you're breathing wrong.
In order to tell the story correctly, I will set the backdrop. For fear of raging infection, and due to the run-of-the-mill first-time-parent paranoia of my wife, we declared early on that, excluding doctor visits, Xander wouldn't leave the house until RSV season was over, which is sometime after his seventeenth birthday, I think. Despite this edict, last week Xander came down with a cold anyway. The doctor called it bronchiolitis, which is the infant form of "I can't breath due to the mucus-gunk building up in my airway."

A cough advanced gradually, and he sneezed more often as the days marched by. His wee sneezes are quiet and cute. I call them "sneezels," perhaps unfortunately. My sneezes, by comparison, are explosive. They cannot be contained. I don't feel like I'm much of a sneezer. No allergies, and I'm pretty healthy, not prone to flu or infections. But when I do sneeze when I happen to get a cold--because that's exactly what happened; my daughter brought it home, my wife kept it here, Xander grabbed hold for a week, then he stuck it right in front of me like a handoff in front of an open lane and I had to run with it. Anyway, that sentence got away from me. Let's bypass my sneezing and move on.

Xander had one bad night where he didn't sleep much, and by the time we got him to the doctor, he was over the worst of it and was going to be just dandy. That's when I got it, and when I sneeze--wait, sorry. Never mind. The point is to notice the irony that we had done everything we could to protect Xander from any infirmity and he still got sick.

The other development that precipitated Xander's day out was May's new job. The short explanation is that she was granted leave from teaching the rest of the year and all of next year in order to be at home with the boy. (I've been waiting fifteen years to be able to refer to my own son that way; Hank Hill and Homer Simpson are such role models.) Her last day at school was Friday even though my paternity leave doesn't end until April. The reason for this is that, in order to facilitate our lives financially, she obtained employment with a company she used to work for years ago because they would allow her to work from home. Earlier this week, this company shipped her a computer she will use in this new position, and we decided she needed a tidy workspace. The only way to make that happen was to purchase a computer desk and cram it into the corner by the piano.

So, with the necessity of new furniture looming, and the realization that in spite of our best efforts Xander still managed to catch a cold, we suited up for our journey, zipped Xander into a jacket he's worn once and which is already too small, prepared a diaper bag, changed Xander's oxygen tank to the portable one, strapped him into his car seat, wrapped a thick plastic bubble around the entire car, and were on our way to freedom. Driving carefully, we rolled along, like a hamster or an American Gladiator. Adventure awaited.

Where's my flying car?
The first stop on our grand tour of the wide world: Office Depot. We found a swell, futuristic-looking desk, like something out of the Jetsons, see. I had to build it later at home. No cursing involved, unless you count, "Stupid, Stupid, Stupid," as a curse word.

Xander does not like his car seat. Being strapped in, minus the s, cannot be comfortable. He already has little control over his limbs, and the strait jacket effect of the car seat contraption limits his movement so much that he rails against it. Nevertheless, the seat conveniently attaches to a stroller, so instead of taking him out of the thing, we just left him trapped in there and propelled him around the store. We only walked away from the stroller once to look at floor mats down an aisle and it was only a few minutes before we realized neither of us had the stroller. Don't worry. The stroller was there when we got back.
Strapped in? Anxiety face.

Unbuckled? Do a jig.
Xander seemed a little surprised at his surroundings. The bright florescence of the lighting. The exotic voices from the mysterious people. It wasn't until we had to wait for the store guy to go find the chair we wanted that Xander got too anxious. May picked him up and noticed that he had a full diaper at the same time that the store guy returned with our merchandise. That's how May was able to perform her first open air diaper surgery. While I played Tetris with the desk-in-a-box and the already-assembled swivel chair in order to get them into the back of our Mazda 5 that always seems quite spacious until I actually have to put something in it, May put Xander in the back seat and displayed his nakedness to the world. Actually, she was very discreet. Nobody saw nothin'.

May then had to fax a document to her new employer, so I dropped her off at the UPS Store and I drove across the plaza to the gas station. Xander was again uncomfortable in his car seat, but he remained quiet as I pulled into the station. I proceeded to pump the gasoline and wipe the windshield clean. Then I noticed Xander through the side window. He was silently screaming. Mouth wide, eyes tight, arms akimbo. May usually sits in the back seat with him, but here he was, belted into accommodations more constricting than coach on a Southwest flight, Mom and Dad not within smelling distance, hungry...what would you do? Xander isn't really a loud crier, so from the outside looking in it seemed much worse than it sounded when I opened the car door to reassure him I was there. Still, he was pretty upset.

If there's one surefire way to sooth a crying baby, it's driving. It never failed me with my older girls. I quickly completed my transaction and drove. I was prepared to go to Kansas if that's what it took. It was a short distance back to the UPS store where May was waiting, and gratefully he calmed down quickly. What's more, by the time we drove to another section of the commercial district, he was fast asleep.

Shameless shill. Best burgers.
We were able to partake of the gustatory genius that is Smashburger without incident. Xander slept. We ate Smashburger. Everybody wins.

Important Addendum: Please don't take our momentary lack of reason as an invitation to bring your sticky-fingered children over to visit. We're not taking Xander out again any time soon. It's a big bad world out there. Only bearable in small doses.

Monday, March 7, 2011


One of my favorite activities in life is driving. But it's not about the car. I couldn't care less about what the make and model is or how fast I'm going or how sleek the interior is or whether there's a racing stripe on the side. I just want a decent stereo.

When I was just a lad, my dad would play two tapes over and over in the station wagon so that the whole family could sing along. The first was Kenny Rogers The Gambler. The only song we listened to was the title track and my whole family knew every word, every note, every country twang by heart. The other was the Bee Gees tape Spirits Having Flown, and we only knew the first three tracks, but especially the first song, "Tragedy." This was when I learned the wholesome delight derived from singing in the car at the top of your lungs. Plus, it brought the family together to sing about when the feeling is gone and you can't go on.

My older brother bought a car just after he got his license. Some fat, red, muscle car that had an engine the size of the Geo Metro I bought in college. It was pretty powerful, but the only thing I cared about was the stereophonic sound spectacular. The tape deck didn't work and the volume and tuning knobs were long gone, but it was LOUD. It needed to be to drown out the rumbling, gas-guzzling engine. My brother would turn up KBPI as it Rocked the Rockies and the speakers would crackle away like they were made of cellophane. I think he got the tape deck working at one point, and U2 Under a Blood Red Sky was stuck on the Repeat Forever setting.

Babe magnet!
A buddy in high school bought an even more impractical car, an orange Datsun 280Z. We would cruise Smoky Hill Road out east of Denver where nothing was built yet and bellow every song from Slippery When Wet out the open windows. I didn't even like Bon Jovi; I was too punk rock for top 40 hair bands. But howling along to "Livin' on a Prayer" at top speeds east of suburbia is a natural high unto itself and I couldn't help it.

Not until college did I buy my own car. For a few hundred bucks I purchased a 1980 VW Rabbit, affixed a Siouxsie and the Banshees bumper sticker, then added a brand new stereo and speakers. The back speakers were too large for the hatchback and they kept coming unplugged, but when they worked it was worth the trouble. There were road trips crooning to New Model Army, and, though the actual driving was secondary, making out on Blueberry Hill to "I Wear Your Ring" by the Cocteau Twins was bliss.

The Rabbit died quickly. Enter the Geo. It was the first time I owned an in-dash CD player. For twelve years, two hundred and forty thousand miles, and two engines, this stereo served me well. Eventually I started commuting over two hours every day. One year, beginning in January, I listened to every CD I owned, in order, alphabetically. From ABC to Zwan. This ambitious project wasn't complete until October. I think I might still be at it if I weren't in a car for so much of that time.

These days I commute from Denver to Greeley (a college town about an hour north of Denver) every couple of weeks. For half of the drive I'm alone in the car and I can turn the stereo up to eleven. I can replay and sing the crescendo in the Abandoned Pools song "Blood" where it goes "This can't be what you're waiting for" as many times as I like. It gives me chills just thinking about it. (I tried to find a link to this song and could only find this kinda lame acoustic cover by some guy. Abandoned Pools is pretty unsung, I guess, but I dig 'em. They're a bit like Smashing Pumpkins but with a vocalist you can understand.)

The second half of the drive I have my girls with me. They're partial to croon along with U2 "Beautiful Day," Frasier Chorus "Bye Bye Bird," and The Boo Radleys "Wake Up Boo!" Last summer we liked to sing  the Glee soundtracks. I especially got into Amber Riley's version of "And I am Telling You I'm Not Going." It makes Jennifer Hudson's Oscar winning version sound like she's trying to give birth. Seriously. It's pure joy to turn it up and belt out those vocal calisthenics with your daughters. (I probably won't be trying this one with Xander. We'll soon be singing some manly "Sweet Child O' Mine"...that or John Mayer.)

I don't watch Glee anymore, but go ahead and compare. It's "Tragedy" for a new generation.

So what is your favorite sing-along tune in the car?

In related news:

For Music Monday, I want to point out the new sidebar listing some of the greatest music ever recorded. I've added my three cents, so if you hover your cursor over the album, you can see a comment from me. I don't really like this particular widget, though, because I can't figure out how to edit it without just deleting it and adding a new one. Anyone know how to manipulate these widgets through Amazon?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Saving the World

As of today, I have one month left of my paternity leave. Just four weeks more to accomplish all the great things I had planned. You know, paint the house, fix the plumbing, publish a novel, raise a child, save the world. They're little things, really.

It seems like I've done hardly anything with my time. And it's not the kind of time-wasting that happens on a good mental health day away from work where you sleep in and wear pajamas all day and watch daytime TV and nap on the couch and order pizza at three in the afternoon. When I tried to watch a movie during the day, I had to watch it in increments. It took me three days to watch Where the Wild Things Are. And that's a problem for me because I'm a film snob. Even at home, I like the real movie experience with the loud surround sound on the giant screen TV. And no interruptions. If you can't watch a movie all the way through, you're not feeling it the way it should be felt.

This, of course, doesn't work when you have a baby in your arms. And I accept that. I can not watch the Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist DVD I got for Christmas. I can even put off watching episodes of The Office or 30 Rock because I know I'll just buy the DVDs later. And later Xander will sleep at night and I will not be so tired and I will find more time for the entertainment I got used to before the boy entered the picture. Maybe in a few years.

There are other things that shouldn't really be put on hold, though. For instance, I've hardly been outside these past few weeks. Literally, I will go days without exiting or even opening the doors to my house. And not only is that sad because Colorado seems to be having the most mild tail end of winter ever, but last autumn's leaves still cover my lawn. My wife went into the hospital in the middle of October last year, and even though Xander wasn't born until November, and even though he didn't come home until December, I haven't done anything with the yard since last summer.

It's not a huge deal, but I'm a yard snob. I'm a healthy, capable man, and my yard should reflect that. The lawn should be lush and the bushes should be sheared and that takes a little work. The roses should be trimmed and the lilacs cut back and the leaves should be raked up. Not this year. I was lucky to find the time to turn the sprinklers off and close up the swamp cooler. Otherwise we'd be in for a heap of trouble come springtime. At least the things that are not getting done outside are merely cosmetic.

So many other little things don't get done inside. Sweeping and vacuuming. Folding laundry. Sorting mail. In the middle of the TV room downstairs, where we haven't been for weeks, a stack of CDs and DVDs has toppled over and created an Olympus Mons of entertainment options. It's a good thing the baby doesn't sleep in his crib yet, because he'd be smothered by all the bedding and clothing that has just been tossed in there all higgledy-piggledy. And by higgledy-piggledy, I mean a big mess.

I suppose I could stop typing right now and get to work around the house. The only way I'm getting this writing done in the first place is because Xander is asleep in his swing. As I type, he stirs, and I need to get a bottle prepared for him.
Now that's what I'm talking 'bout.

I don't mean for this to become a rant against being a stay-at-home parent. Just the opposite, in fact. I don't want to change what I'm doing. I'm raising my son. He smiles when he sees me, laughs when I tickle him. I soothe him when he's frustrated, comfort him when he's sick. And on that sappy note, I'll restate:

As of today, I have one month left of my paternity leave. Just four weeks left to accomplish all the great things I had planned. You know, raise a child, save the world. They're little things, really.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Am I bleeding? Because I just got tagged.

I feel violated.

I don't live in the most savory neighborhood. But I do have a pretty great house. My wife and I obtained a deal through the Teacher Next Door Program--you can't sneeze at a house for half price. That arrangement was supposed to result in heaps of equity and the chance to move to a better land after just three years. Of course, the housing market sank and we're still here almost six years later, but that's another story and the point is that we were glad to have the opportunity to move into this house, in spite of its location.

If this isn't feng shui, I don't know what is.
The inside is just the right size for us, and we were able to fix it up right. Refinished hardwood floors. Paint paint paint. New appliances. Completely new bathrooms. The living room has cool rounded doorways, and the ceiling has this swell molding that looks, I don't know, Victorian or something. Outside, we've got a decent yard with mature trees, a covered back porch convenient for year-round grilling, and a huge detached two-car garage. The garage driveway backs up to an alley, one of the few paved alleyways in our area.

Get away from our little plot of paradise, though, and the rest of the neighborhood is--what's the right word?--unpleasant? Let me use two outsider points of view to try to explain.

Not long after we had moved in, some coworkers and I were having a discussion at lunch about the run-down apartment complex that resides behind our school. Someone said some shady things went down back there, and someone else said it probably wasn't as bad as people think. Then an older gentleman who knows his way around town interjected, "You want to see a bad neighborhood, you should go over to..." and he proceeded to relate the exact cross streets of the block I live on. I said something like, "Hey, that's where I live," and we laughed, then looked sidelong at each other for a moment because we all knew what he said was basically true.

And just last week, I had a play date with a friend I hadn't seen in a long time. He drove in from the south part of town, and around here that means he was slumming it by coming to my house. We talked about my new son for a few hours, then, not five minutes after he left, he called to tell me he was following a dog that looked like a stray in need of sustenance. He had stopped and checked for tags, finding none. He gave it some food and water he had in his car. But not knowing what else to do, he left, called me just to let me know, and asked if I would keep my eyes open for the dog. Now, you animal people probably find this a reasonable course of action. But around here a stray is a stray is a stray. I see cats and dogs--and squirrels and raccoons; we live in a veritable urban wildlife preserve--on the streets and especially in the alley all the time. That's the kind of neighborhood I live in.

Yesterday, my wife wanted a milkshake and I hadn't left the house all weekend, so away I went, excited to get myself a Route 44 sized squishy from Sonic. But as I pulled out of the driveway and the garage door came down in front of me, this what I saw:
What my garage door currently looks like. Major uncool.
My squishy trip was ruined, and ever since then I've been trying to figure out why the tagging bothers me so much. I mean, I'm sure it would bother anyone. But all we need to do is call the city, and they come clean it off or paint over it. Since we've lived here, someone broke a window in our car one of the few times we had to leave it out of the garage. Our garage has been broken into. (Gee, without a garage, would I have any problems at all?) So why does it matter that our garage door has been tagged twice now?

There's a couple of deals that are big. The first one is practical and small in scope. To me, there's an inherent threat behind any tagging. (And I hope you understand I'm not talking about the street art kind of graffiti. If Banksy were to come along and paint a rat on my garage, I'd put up a velvet rope and charge admission to the alleyway.) But tagging is a person coming along and saying, "I was here, and I'll be back." Whether it's gang related or just an idiot child with nothing else to do at night, when someone puts their mark on your possession, it's as if they're calling you out, challenging you to a duel. You think you're so big? You don't own this big metal doorway. Not while I'm around. There's nothing you can do about it, really. The city can paint over it thirty times, and the tagger can come back the next night and do it again.

The second deal is social and large in scope. When you live in a community, you enter into a social contract. I try to talk to my students about this at the beginning of each school year. Each class is a community. We might or might not even like each other, but we have to live here for nine months, so let's agree on a few things. If you're being a nuisance, it's going to affect the people in the room. As a community, you trust each other to do what's right for each other as much as what's right for yourself. I'm not going to throw garbage into my neighbor's yard because that makes my yard look junkie by association. My neighbor won't have outdoor parties late at night with the bass thumping and the motors running because he's conscientious that other people would be disturbed by it.

But with the graffiti, tagging, or whatever you call it, someone's not following the Golden Rule. My trust has been breached. And I feel violated.