"I'm Mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it anymore..."

1976 seems to be on my mind lately. Here's a speech from one of the best films of that year, or any year, Network, in which Howard Beale (imagine any news "personality" with a conscience) assails the very instrument that has brought him popularity and power, the tube. Add the little worlds we create for ourselves with the internet and phones and his criticism is even more perspicacious and pertinent to the reality show we find ourselves in 40 years after the film's debut.

"..... the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn't come out of this tube. This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation! This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, god-damn force in the whole godless world.....So, you listen to me. Listen to me! Television is not the truth. Television's a god-damned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We're in the boredom-killing business. So if you want the Truth, go to God! Go to your gurus. Go to yourselves! Because that's the only place you're ever gonna find any real truth. But, man, you're never gonna get any truth from us. We'll tell you anything you wanna hear. We lie like hell. We'll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer and that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker's house. And no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don't worry. Just look at your watch. At the end of the hour, he's gonna win. We'll tell you any s--t you want to hear.

We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness. You maniacs. In God's name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion. So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I am speaking to you now. Turn them off!

Sorry, I'm Being a Little Political

    I teach at the same public high school from which I graduated in America’s bicentennial year; only it’s not the same high school at all. Like our country, the suburban Richmond, Virginia school may be the same piece of real estate, but its occupants bear little resemblance to my 400 classmates who were 99% white and the remaining four were black. Now, nearly thirty-seven languages are spoken and the black population is close to equal to the white, with Asians and Latinos filling in about 20% of the pie chart.  Even still, I remember being shocked to see on election night in 2008 a CNN reporter just three miles from my school to cover Virginia’s historic shift from red to blue.  No doubt, then as now, this flip has been quite disorienting for many who were used to being in the majority, had lived here forever, and hadn’t been exposed to too many people who weren’t like them.  This is the South after all. (An unforgettable newspaper article once described an old Richmonder’s anxiety about having a dinner guest from a neighborhood across the river. “What ever will we talk about?”)

       I can relate.  When I first stepped back on to the very familiar, beautiful outdoor campus of my youth and saw face after face of a United Nations of a student body hustle past me to class, it was equally disorienting.  I was suddenly very aware of how old and white I was. I guess I could have been tempted to complain and start whining about wanting my high school back.   Or I could have gone further and fancied myself a savior from the 70s who needed to get in that classroom and make my high school great again. Instead, I was a little chastised. 

       While I had been raising my three sons about five miles away in a very homogenous neighborhood, I was oblivious to the influx of international families filling the apartment complexes all along Broad Street near the Costco where I shopped with every other pink and green suburban mother, sometimes in a tennis skirt. My school is one stoplight away from the Costco, so I must have seen some of these new and strange people around, but I have no memory of them. They didn’t register in my city, my life, my kids’ school.   It was like I lived in a big gold Tower sheltered from this new reality.  The word around my neighborhood was that the one surrounding my alma mater had turned kind of “ghetto.”  

   At the time, I was still an evangelical Christian with a growing sense of unease at the unquestioned conservatism and insularity of that “worldview.”  Returning to teaching among this crazily diverse group of students ended up sending me into a kind of apostasy, but it reawakened the best part of my teenaged, 70s self, the part that strove to see each person as an individual and to fight against attitudes of prejudice, while coming to terms with the racism, hypocrisy, and inequality of opportunity in my Southern heritage.  On that same campus where those feelings had been ignited so long ago, they were now being fanned by a full-blown social experiment of sorts. How could all of these kids get along coming from so many ethnic and racial backgrounds? I kept looking for the tension and the cliques, but instead saw countless examples of what on the surface may have seemed like unlikely friendships. The very first week on the job, a black girl was having a heated conversation with a white boy. I assumed one or the other had said something insulting and they were going to go at it. Instead, she was saying how she really wished he had called her and her friends last Friday instead of going off with some other group without them. 

    That was thirteen years ago. Since then, so many scenarios have warmed my admittedly more grandmotherly heart with a beauty marked by a tribe-defying composition of humanity: a slight Chinese boy with big glasses and bigger ears playfully jumping on the back of his tall handsome Egyptian buddy; the preppy, Ralph Lauren model looking, black, ardently Republican young man, arguing vehemently in my debate club against affirmative action with big-hearted Bubbles, a six-foot two, every bit of 250 pounds, proudly biracial, camouflage-wearing hunter dude (“man, you gotta’ walk in someone else’s shoes to feel their pain”); and just to complete the series from an endless list, let’s pick the Saudi Arabian boy in fifth period who joked endlessly with his Iranian friend, usually to catch the attention of a smart and sassy, beautiful Costa Rican girl. With all of this, have come relationships with the many parents who I sometimes see at Costco, and actually see them. 

So now, the very same room where I watched the Watergate trial with all of my mostly blue-eyed friends, is my classroom. And the world showed up at its door. I could resent the influx and pine away for the good old days and tell stories about walking five miles in the snow and how it was so great back in the day and slowly become really irrelevant, which is what I hope happens to someone very soon, like November 9th.  Or I can open my door and try to teach these kids a little history, the American way.

Sole (Soul?) Proprietor

Just how small can a small business be? 
As small as mine, since it's only me? 
It sounds much better to say entrepreneur,
But in my case that seems like a pile of manure. 
I just make stuff in my basement that came from my head;
I'll probably be down there when they find me dead.
Creativity may be the motivating drive, 
But sometimes it seems just a way to survive
Until I find an old note from lovers of grammar, 
Strangers from Michigan, New York, Alabammer,
Who thank me for making it fun to be smarter
Than the rest of the world who needs to try harder
To know that it's "its" on the Arugula package
That Trader Joe's sells*, pretty uncharacteristic slackage. 
So despite that my payroll boils down to just one,
I'll carry on in the basement since it's still pretty fun.

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* I did not see the offending grammar on my recent bag of TJ arugula; although it is organic arugula, so it may know better. 

A Brand, New Me

This picture has nothing to do with my idea for a new post. Except that he is the cutest baby in the world. Am i right?  One contorted connection could be that my first grandson is brand new to this world, which reminds me of,  and gets me irritated all over again about, the pervasive notion that we human beings must cultivate not our humanity, but something known as our personal brand. I suppose this application of cultural trends on to the mysterious essence of life is not new: the Enlightenment created the Clockmaker god; the Industrial Revolution saw man as a machine; the Digital Age made our brains into computers. We talked about this in my class of seniors last year, a most precocious and fabulous group, after viewing the first hour of the enlightening documentary, "Century of the Self," about Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays who used his uncle's theories to tie our very identities to consumer goods.  We all realized how the commercialized culture had duped us by associating our unique personalities with some corporate marketing ploy.  Students admitted their silly tendency to label others based on the label inside or on the shirt they were wearing. 

The following week the director of my program brought in a guest speaker to that class. I sat at my desk listening to this young woman, a former, very local, beauty queen, talk about the importance of developing "your personal brand" as college applications loomed. "You know, like if you, like, went on a mission trip or something, play that up. That's part of your brand, like your brand is service."  I was a very bad teacher that day. I was behind the young woman and the director so they could not see me rolling my eyes as dramatically as Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. My class kept looking at me, then back at her, back at me, all the while trying to keep the smirks off their faces and protect me. As soon as they left, we had a huge inside joke laugh. 

Yet here I am, blogging away to the ether, to get the word out about my little doodads, my contribution to the marketplace. I admit it. I'm a hypocrite. Maybe it's a family trait. During his senior year in high school, my middle son was voted Most School Spirited. A few weeks later he wrote a contrarian editorial about how lame it was for alumni to come back to high school parties and football games, and that once he's out, he ain't never coming back. So a few of his buddies took to calling him, Mr. School Spirit I Hate School.  So perhaps my brand should be Miss Anti-Branding, Do You LIke Me?  And if you do, push that little thumbs up thing so I can feel good about myself today. 

We all feel the beauty of the blank slate when we hold a teeny baby. The purity and potential of a new life. We ask ourselves the big questions: "Will he be a J. Crew baby, because as their site admonishes us, "babies love cashmere, too?" Or will he be more or a Badmouth Baby, where he can express his inner redneck with an "I Heart Boobies" or "I Drink 'til I Pass Out, Just Like Daddy" T-shirt?  I guess there's no escaping the commercial and technological onslaught of our postmodern culture.  But I've been at this "making stuff" thing for a really long time, like rotary phone long time, and really just want others to like it enough so I can find my way across the country to see this little baby keep growing into a beautiful, unique person.  

Escribitionism

I've been pretty resistant to doing this.  It's such a silly word, so easily imagined as an onomatopoeia of the sound one makes when vomiting: BLOG.  This may be an especially appropriate analogy, depending on the blogger. However, its origin had a classier, more English major than techie sound: "online journal" or "online diary," so I'm going to follow the current retro modern trend and call mine an eDiary, which makes me feel much less ridiculous.  

A long time ago, by which I mean the way-back 1990s, a few early diarists acknowledged by a wry moniker that to overshare on the worldwide web was a lot like standing on a busy street corner wearing nothing but a trench coat and flashing total strangers for kicks; they called themselves "escribitionists."  Indeed, diaries, at least the little blue one I got in fifth grade in the way-WAY-back 1960s, used to come with a brass lock and tiny key. Certain things were just meant to be private; and others were meant to drive traffic to your website, increase your SEO, and boost your click through rate, or so I read on some techie marketing blog. 

So what to write about? The answer may lie in a shocking observation my mother made about me in the last months of her life.  I guess it shocked me because it was about me and not my miscreant brother who had gotten the lion's share of attention- the negative variety- for the last five decades of my life in which I had been her therapist. (This tragic triadic dynamic is what fills hundreds of pages of floral cloth covered paper journals from my earlier adulthood, unfortunately.) We were sitting on the sidewalk of the circular driveway at the third of four nursing homes she would grace in 2013. (She was, in essence, kicked out of the first one for being a little difficult.) It was a gorgeous late afternoon in May in Virginia with all of the rose bushes and lilacs in bloom.  I locked the brakes on her wheelchair and then sat next to her on a bench. A light breeze, strong enough to actually move her hair-sprayed white curls, met us there. Always the charming conversationalist, she asked me how the business was going. Then she stunned me by summing up my life at the end of hers. "You know, your grammar things represent everything you've done." Counting on her fingers, she continued, "They are your art, with ceramics and using the kiln.  But then they have to do with your writing. And, they are related to teaching school."  

This was an epiphany. Besides showing her awareness of who I was besides her daughter, her observation gave some kind of gestalt to what otherwise had seemed completely separate and random money making schemes. Her maternal vantage point reminded me that my entrepreneurial and literary and teaching careers do have a connection.  In all three, I am driven by ideas that seem to originate in a moment of private joy and flourish in untempered absurdity.  They are little private jokes with myself that end up, after appropriate censorship,  being voiced out loud as a product, a story, or part of an increasingly daffy persona in class. In fact, every year, one ninth-grader or another points out a sad by-product of this habit. "Miznap, you always laugh at your own jokes." To which I reply, "Well, somebody has to."  I guess I'll launch into the blogosphere, examining art, writing, and teaching, in that same spirit. 

 

Best entry in this old diary that spans, very sporadically, 1968 to 1973:

January 20, 1969 - We were so caught up in the inauguration of RIchard Nixon we forgot to go to music.