Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Hero's Journey

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to meet a professional actor. We only chatted briefly as we waited in a buffet line, but during the course of the brief conversation, it came out that I was a high school drama teacher. This actor smiled and said, "That's the work of a real hero." I smiled and thanked him, but inside, I have to confess I sort of rolled my eyes. Here's this guy who has worked with actors like Matthew Broderick, Michael J. Fox, and Keanu Reeves telling me that I'M a hero for spending my days trying to convince a bunch of teenagers to remember to cheat out and not mumble? Whatever!

Lately, though, I've been thinking a lot about that comment. While I may not be ready to call myself a "hero," I have definitely gained an appreciation for just how many challenges I have to face every day. Here's just a glimpse into the battles I've faced just this week.


1. The day started with my principal coming to me to tell me that one of the actors in my show (let's call him Adam) was not eligible to be in the play. Adam had been struggling with his grades all semester long. Several "deals" had been cut with Adam to keep him in the play -- including attending extra tutoring sessions after school. Adam failed to do what he had been required to do, and so I was left with no choice but to do as the principal directed and remove Adam from the play. Have I mentioned that the show opens in about 10 days? I spent the morning scurrying around the building. My first conversation was with a freshman in the show (let's call him Brian) who has a very small part. I asked Brian if he would consider playing the much larger part Adam was vacating. He agreed. I then had to find another freshman who had auditioned for the play but was not cast (let's call him Chad). I asked Chad if he would be willing to take Brian's part (which he had wanted in the first place). I also informed both Brian and Chad that they had 10 days to learn their new parts. Brian is in my 7th hour class and he came in that day and said, "Man, I went from having 8 lines in this play to having 80. What are you doing to me??" I should note that Brian said this with a smile. At yesterday's rehearsal, Brian appeared onstage with a script in his hand the first time we ran through the scene. He then went backstage and ran lines with his leading lady while he was not needed onstage. When we ran the scene again, Brian walked onstage with NO SCRIPT and only called for line ONCE.

2. There's a young freshman girl in my play (let's call her Melanie). Melanie impressed me with her audition. She was young and sweet and fresh and seemed to have a cute, perky energy that matched how I envisioned the character. Ever since that initial audition, Melanie has never seemed to have that same energy onstage again. In fact, at times, she's seemed downright bored. I kept trying and trying to get her to show that energy I'd seen all those weeks ago, but it just wasn't happening. I was beginning to think I'd made a big mistake by gambling on an unknown freshman rather than casting one of the sophomores who'd auditioned (and auditioned well but all seemed just a little too smart and mature for the role). Monday's rehearsal was disrupted because about 90% of my cast was gone to a conference chorus festival (don't even get me started on that one!). I called Melanie and the girl who shares the scene with her that was causing so much trouble. (The other girl -- we'll call her Katrina -- is a junior and very talented and very frustrated with what she's not getting from her "partner" in this scene. Katrina is the kind of girl who will email me after a rehearsal just to pick my brain on her character's motivation and what she can be doing to breath more life into her part.) Melanie, Katrina, and I ran this scene over and over and over, and slowly but surely, Melanie came to life. Suddenly, we had a lively, fun scene. The change was immediately apparent to my AD, who when she saw the scene run today, came rushing back to me to say, "Melanie's got it!! She got it!!!"


1. I had to deal with the fallout from Adam's removal from the show. The kids were sad to see Adam go (he's a very popular and well-respected senior, a Drama Club officer), but every single one of them said the same thing, "Well, he did it to himself." I did have one student try to convince me to postpone the show -- until I pointed out that in addition to posters and programs and such already being printed, that the next available weekend for us to perform would be spring once we factor in speech contests (about 80% of my cast is on the speech team), winter break, and the spring musical.

2. One of the biggest ongoing problems I've had during this show is with another senior who has had a real attendance problem -- to school and to rehearsal. We'll call him Ethan. Ethan is a talented young man, but he has some issues onstage. He has a hard time relaxing, sometimes struggles to find his character's voice, and struggles to memorize lines. He's also chronically late to rehearsals because he chooses to use the 15 minutes between the end of the day and the start of rehearsal to drive to Dairy Queen and get a Mr. Misty. It's incredibly frustrating. The kids joke that we need to get a Drama Club t-shirt that says, "Has anyone seen Ethan?" because I start just about every rehearsal saying that. Tuesday was our 8th to the last rehearsal. Ethan was in class that day. We were waiting for him to arrive so that I could go through general announcements (I wanted to explain the Adam situation, remind them to turn in their t-shirt money, and go over a couple other things) We waited and waited -- still no Ethan. We tried calling his cell phone. No answer. Finally, another student went to the office to page him (thinking maybe he was in the building) only to learn that his mother had just called the office to tell them that Ethan had come home after school and gotten sick. Have I mentioned Ethan has the lead? And that we only had 8 rehearsals left? And the last time I'd seen Ethan in rehearsal, his lines were still a mess? Yeah . . . .


1. I was out of the building today to attend a workshop (perhaps more on that later). Since my workshop wasn't until 8:30, I went into school to get some things ready for the kids to have rehearsal tonight (there was a chance I could be late) and to remind my AD (let's call her Rachel)to start rehearsal without me. I also told her that if Ethan was not in school today, she was to find another boy who is in the show (we'll call him Will) and tell him to come to rehearsal tonight. (He's only in the 2nd act, and we were running Act I) I was able to get out of my workshop a little early and was in the auditorium moving some furniture around when the bell rang and in walked Will. "Rachel said you wanted me to come tonight." I put a script in Will's hand and said, "You're playing Ethan's part for today. You're now officially his understudy." I hate to say it, but Will did a pretty kick ass job even with the script in his hand. That boy may have just "bought" himself a big part in the spring musical. Hell, he may have "bought" himself the lead in this play if Ethan doesn't get his shit together!

Six rehearsals left. Whether this hero's journey has a happy ending or not lies entirely in the hands of about 20 high school kids. They haven't let me down yet, but that somehow doesn't stop the fear from rising in my throat every time I say, "We open next Friday."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Holy F&%$! We Are Stupid!

Watching this from last night's Daily Show led me to this conclusion. Do people seriously believe this stuff? That Obama will get elected and immediately pull out a turban? That his election would mean the end of America as we know it? Seriously??!!?? And those of you who claim you "don't know enough about Obama," read a freakin' book. He's written two of them. I'm about 3/4 of the way through Dreams from My Father and I feel like I know Obama pretty darn well. I understand his reluctance to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, the man who reawakened his spirituality in a pretty profound manner. I know his family. (Those of you who've read the book -- didn't you just sob when you heard how ill Toot is?) I know this guy, and I am thrilled at the prospect of him being my president. Who would have thought this guy who had such a hard time motivating South Side housing project denizens to fight for better living conditions would someday be able to motivate millions of us to fight for change?

At least the stupidity is equal opportunity. I really don't care if McCain knows how to Twitter. I don't know how to Twitter either. I would like to think that my president has more important things to do than Twitter, watch YouTube, and blog. Leave the blogging to the rest of us. You go fix this country!

At least all this has led me to another positive to the election being so close. When it's over, all these morons can go back into their caves, scratching their heads, and watching According to Jim, and the rest of us can return to the delusion that this country is full of intelligent, reasonable people.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ready to Feel Old?

Today is Simon Le Bon's birthday.

He's 50.

Simon Le Bon is 50.

That's not right.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Change You Can, Like, Totally Believe In

This morning as I stood in front of my closets dealing with the daily agony of choosing what to wear, I came to an important decision. Tired of the same turtlenecks and skirts I've been wearing for years, I realized that the solution to my fashion ennui was right under my nose all along.

I need to run for Vice President!!

Apparently, in addition to getting to travel all over the country (well, at least to the Pro-American parts) inciting bigotry and fearmongering, you also get a $150,000 wardrobe budget to spend at Saks and Neiman Marcus. If you're criticized for such lavish expenditures, all you have to do is have your running mate claim need and you're good to go.

Now some of you out there might be saying, "Who needs a $150,000 wardrobe?" To you, I say, "Who are you?" Remember that a VP, in addition to being in charge of the US Senate (which I had no idea about either -- I guess I was a lousy political science major!), needs to look her best out there. No shopping on a budget. Pshaw! Leave that to first ladies . The VP is sharing the wealth in her own special way. Although I guess that since this is being paid for by the publicly-financed McCain campaign, it's actually spreading OUR wealth in her own special way.

My personal style as VP will be probably quite similar to my current personal style, just at a higher end. I'm keeping the turtlenecks. It'll give Tina Fey something iconic to wear when she's satirizing me on SNL and make it so people can tell her Mel impersonation apart from her Sarah Palin impersonation. (Well, that and the fact that I tend to speak proper English with all my consonants in place and am not given to folksy homilies about hockey moms and plumbers.) I just need to take my personal style and give it that VP spin that will show people that I deserve to be VP because I dress better than they do. I found the "look" shown here at Neiman Marcus and thought, "Hey, that would be the perfect VP Campaign Rally outfit for me!" It costs just under $4000. Never mind the fact that I've seen just about all of it at Target and could buy the whole look for probably just over $100. No, that's not what being VP is about. Any old Pro-American like me could budget and economize and shop at Target. I have to be a cut above. I have to spend that $4000 to show you all just how serious I am about savin' this great land of ours from the terrorists.

Yikes. Where did that come from? Perhaps this VP thing has some scary side effects I'm not ready for. Aw, hell, it's worth the loss of my intelligence if it means a $4000 outfit from Neiman Marcus. Joe the Plumber, save me a seat on the bus, my friend! I'm on my way just as soon as I load up my shopping cart with a couple more pairs of Jimmy Choos!

UPDATE: Holy cabooses! The incentives to run for VP just keep coming. Now I read in the New York Times that running for VP also brings you your own personal makeup artist that gets paid roughly $11,400 a week! Gosh knows I sure hate standing in front of the mirror every morning applying my own Cover Girl Lash Blast mascara. (Drew Barrymore is right -- that stuff really is great!!) Now, I can pay someone what it takes me months to bring home as a teacher to sit with me every day and apply the makeup for me. And somehow I suspect my days of Cover Girl and Maybelline would be sooooooo over. Seriously, dudes, sign me up!!! (And don't even get me started on the $5,000 hairdresser. Apparently, it takes WORK to rock the bun I've been trying to rock for so many years.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Who Let the Dogs Out?

So today was a pretty exciting day at work. It started out normally enough. I sat down in the teachers' lounge for my first hour prep period to begin working on a reading comprehension exercise for my English I class. About 20 minutes into the period, a voice comes over the school intercom announcing that the school was now on lockdown.

Yeah, lockdown.

For those of you not in the education game, what that means is that the dogs were on the way -- the drug dogs!

About once a year, the local police show up with a K-9 unit that sniffs its way through the school in a search for drugs. During this time, students are not permitted to leave the classroom while the dogs go up and down the hall sniffing lockers. Every other year this has happened, I've been in my classroom with students. Since it was my prep period, I was expected to assist in this whole thing. Within a couple minutes of the announcement, the police walked in with their dogs -- big, scary looking things (although they actually seemed quite sweet when they weren't on the hunt for drugs). I followed quietly along behind a police officer and his dog as the dog frantically sniffed his way down the hall where my classroom is. When a suspicious smell was discovered, the dog would just sit down. They don't bark! The police officer would then urge the dog up and take him down the row again (sometimes a couple times) to see if he would sit each time. If he didn't sit every time, another dog would be brought through to see if that dog sat. Once a locker was confirmed as suspect, a plastic tie was put through the lock so that it was not openable as well as through the locks of the locker on either side of the suspect locker. We had a book that listed every student and his/her locker number, so when a locker was "tagged" we would look up who used that locker. After the dogs were finished, the teachers were sent to round up the students with tagged lockers and bring them to the auditorium where they waited until they were taken individually to their lockers to submit to a search. I witnessed several locker searches and is it bad to say I was a little disappointed that nothing was found? I guess I wanted a little more excitement for this story (because as soon as the lockdown announcement was made, my first thought was, "Oh, good! Something to blog about!!")

While the lockers were being searched, the dogs moved out to the parking lot and sniffed cars. That led to the creation of yet another list of students whose cars had been "tagged." I was sent to fetch yet another student who I then accompanied out to the parking lot where her truck was about to be searched -- a truck belonging to her parents, frequently driven by her older brother -- an older brother she informed the police smokes pot. A search of her car produced a seed. To the best of my knowledge, that's all that was found. All I know for sure is that she did not return to her classes and her truck was towed from the parking lot later this morning.

As far as I know, this search turned up just that one seed. After over an hour of "lockdown" and five dogs and countless officers off the streets, the only discovery was a lone seed. No meth, no pills, no buds. Just a seed.

I think I'm just going to leave the story at that.

The whole thing reminded me of this skit from SNL this past weekend. So I'll actually just leave the story at that.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I'm a Real American -- Oh, Wait. I Guess Not.

Over the past several days, I've been asking myself a very important question: Am I pro-America or anti-America? I mean, apparently, according to Sarah Palin and Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann , this country is full of people who are NOT pro-America. I mean, I guess I'd always thought of myself as being pretty patriotic, but all this talk and accusations thrown at people I would consider as being pretty fond of this country got me to wondering if maybe I could be one of those villainous anti-America Americans.

Well, thank goodness Jon Stewart and the folks at The Daily Show came up with this quiz to help us all figure out just where we stand on this issue of such vital national importance.

Well, according to the math, I just might be pro-America after all. While I live in a larger town (35,000) and the average cup of coffee around here can get pretty pricey, there are no art house theatres here nor are there any streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. But once Jon moved into the second part of the quiz, it became clear that I am anti-America. I believe in the first amendment. I know what broccoli rabe is. Worst of all, I'm voting for Barack Obama.

Can you all ever forgive me? I guess I should be getting to work to pack up my belongings and head somewhere that will welcome an anti-America American like me. Where might that be? Russia? China? France? Canada? New York City?

While the above is meant largely as a joke (I'm not planning to move any time soon), it does bring up something that I think is cause for real concern amongst us all. The GOP seems to be adopting this "with us or against us" mentality that I find shocking. There's a culture war emerging as a result of this election -- pitting Americans against each other in an incredibly disturbing way. There's this idea that living in a small town or in certain parts of the country automatically create higher levels of patriotism -- and that those who live in cities don't care about the country. Why does where you live determine your patriotism? I've seen just as many flags and yellow ribbon bumper magnets in Chicago as I have in the small town where I teach. I've heard just as many people criticizing the government in that same small town as I have in the city.

What's going on here is the attempt to create this pathos of fear to terrorize people into voting for John McCain. While McCain himself has not seemed to engage in this as much as his running mate and his surrogates, the fact is that he's done nothing to shut it down. He's letting robocalls be made in his name, he's defending the "good people" who come to his rallies, and he's not telling his fembot running mate to shut the hell up and stop fearmongering. It's a cheap and dirty way to win an election, and if it works, we should all be ashamed for allowing it to happen.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

How We're Setting Our Schools Up to Fail

Whenever candidates start talking about education (which is, sadly, pretty rare), my ears perk up. As a teacher, I'm always interested in hearing what candidates have in mind for my profession, and I'm wary since the last time a candidate made education a priority, we were stuck with No Child Left Behind.

In theory, No Child Left Behind sounds beautiful. Who wouldn't want to make sure that our kids are being educated? What's my problem, then? Well, the real problem is that laws like NCLB are typically envisioned, created, and enacted by people with no teaching experience and who don't have a real understanding about how schools work, how teachers work, and how kids work. They tend to rely on measuring devices that those within the educational community recognize as being faulty or biased. They tend to carry an idealism that people in the profession know is most likely impossible. In the end, these types of laws tend to make impossible demands on people who are already working as hard as they can in an underfunded, underappreciated, overwhelmed profession.

Since its passage, NCLB has made the lives of teachers and students exceptionally more challenging. Put simply, NCLB requires students to go through a series of standardized tests throughout their educational career. Of those students, a certain percentage must meet or exceed a score which is considered acceptable. Each year, the percentage of students meeting those expectations must increase with the idea being that eventually, 100% of the students will meet those expectations.

In Illinois, high schools are evaluated on the basis of tests that all juniors take over the course of two days during the spring of their junior year. On day one, students take the Prairie State Acheivement Exam. On day two, they take the ACT. You read that correctly. In Illinois, part of what determines a school's "success" is the ACT, the same ACT you and I sweated over as we prayed for that magic score that would get us into the college of our choice. It was a rite of passage for the college bound student. It was tough. It was stressful. And now, it's taken by every single high school junior in the state of Illinois, whether they're college bound or not. It's a great idea to want every high school junior to be able to get a "passing" score on the ACT, but I think we all realize the impossibility of that -- particularly when you consider that we are talking about students with learning disabilities, students for whom English is not their first language (who take the test in English), and students who just aren't all that interested in going to college.

Another challenge with this testing situation is that, for the student, there are no incentives to do well. Even the college bound students go into it with sort of a shrug with plans to take the ACT again if they have to since this crack at it is free. I know many students who view this as their "practice run," figuring they'll retake it in the fall when it will "count." There is no grade attached to the test, so students feel no pressure to excel. For most of them, they just want the test to be over. While some students do understand that the test results affect the school, they either don't care, lacking the pride in their school to want their school to perform well, or they figure whatever repercussions come as a result of their low scores won't affect them since they'll be graduating in a year. (And yes, I have heard students say that.) Their worldview is so limited to that "it's all about me" philosophy that it's hard to convince them to look beyond that and consider the future. Of course, I'm not saying that all students are so selfishly motivated. There certainly are students who have the drive and self-incentive to do well, but the problem is that they are lumped in with the students who don't have that drive and those scores are the ones that can keep a school from meeting goals. Remember, that percentage has to keep going up until it reaches 100%, meaning that at some point, 100% of the kids taking the test have to care enough to do well. When it is ever possible to get 100% of a group of kids to do or agree with the same thing?
Remember, too, that it's a different group of kids taking the test every single year. As odd as this may sound to non-teachers, there are years when you have a particularly strong group of juniors only to be followed by a group that struggles more. I've found in my years of teaching that each class tends to have a definite personality. Right now at my school, we have a group of pretty apathetic seniors (who took the test last year), a group of pretty strong juniors (so high hopes for this year's testing!), a group of sophomores who are exceptionally low, and a group of freshmen who seem to be thugs. (We've had such an increase in fights this year -- almost all stemming from our freshmen and sophomores)
So a school fails to meet the goals -- what happens then? Well, initially, there is an increase in funding that comes with the stipulation that tutoring and other remediation be put into place to get those numbers up. At some point, though, when a school continues to fail, that money goes away and students get the option to go elsewhere for an education. Guess who's going to exercise that option to leave -- the students who excel. So we're taking these schools that are struggling (and it is rarely from a lack of effort on the part of the faculty) and stripping them of the students who could be instrumental in helping the school succeed. Do you think that school is going to have a chance in hell now of ever meeting those ridiculously unrealistic goals now?
I'm not saying here that there shouldn't be some sort of accountability for schools. I'm not saying we shouldn't be creating incentives for our schools to strive to make all of our students successful, but I also think we need to understand that the definition of success may be different for different students. It would be great if every student could get a 25 on the ACT, but it's not a realistic goal and it takes away the sense of pride and accomplishment that a special ed kid might feel in that hard fought for and earned 20.
I don't have the answers to helping our kids succeed. I do everything I can every single day to try to help my students become better readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers, but I also know that there are kids in my room who don't see the slightest bit of value in those skills I'm trying to sell them. I applauded Barack Obama's call Wednesday night for increased parental involvement in a child's education because I do think that is a huge factor in a child's success. I only have 49 minutes a day with my classes -- 49 minutes to share with them my passion for literature and to try to get them to wonder in the magic we get to share in when an author shares his/her creativity with us. If they go home, though, and spend 12+ hours with no access to books (you'd be shocked how many students tell me they live in houses with no books) and hearing messages that reading is stupid and pointless, whose message wins -- my 49-minute sales pitch or the 12+ hour immersion? Instead of no child being left behind, maybe we need to worry about making sure no family is left behind.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why I Could Never Run for President

I've talked before about why I could never run for president. There are some skeletons (and photographic evidence of said skeletons) that would come back to haunt me and destroy my candidacy. In addition, I'm just not smart enough to be president. I mean, trying to follow this economic crisis over the past several weeks has left me feeling like a first grader trying to read Anna Karenina. I would not be the person to make these crucial decisions about our economy. I can't even balance my freakin' check book.

Last night, though, I realized the most important reason why I could never be president. See, here's the thing. If I had been debating John McCain last night, I would probably be in jail today because I don't know if I could have refrained from punching McCain in the face. I'm not a particularly violent person, but McCain so riled me last night that at one point I yelled at Obama through my tv screen to punch McCain for me. He was so smug and dismissive and frankly offensive that I was enraged. Whether it was the air quotes around "health of the woman" when he talked about abortion policy or his continued push for school vouchers, I was just disgusted.

(Just one thing about school vouchers: I have a serious problem with the idea. The answer to a struggling school is not to pull students from said school and send them to the "better" schools. The answer is to help those schools to stop struggling by investing some money and recruiting teachers, providing resources, and breathing new life into these schools. At a later date, I'll share with you an "insider's" view to No Child Left Behind and the damage it's done to our schools and our students. Oh! And one other thing -- if Joe the Plumber is pulling in more than $250,000 a year, I have a hard time feeling a lot of sympathy for him when I'm struggling to make ends meet with the paltry sum I bring home every two weeks as a teacher.)

I was impressed by Obama's restraint last night. I was impressed by his cool and his intelligence. I was impressed that he didn't clean McCain's clock. Any guy who can keep his cool when faced with that kind of arrogance and condescension is a far better person than I am and is far better qualified to lead this country.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Friends Don't Let Friends . . .

Y'all, I'm having a crisis. I'm beginning to think I've made a huge mistake by making the choice not to watch Gossip Girl. I thought I was too old. I thought I wasn't hip enough. But this week, I'm not so sure.

First, there was this post from Mike that literally had me gasping aloud at the twist and turns of a show I've never watched.

Then, there was this .

I suspect my Monday DVR queue is about to become a lot more crowded.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Weapon of Campaign Destruction

A lot has been made about Barack Obama's alleged "relationship" with former Weatherman Bill Ayers. Sarah Palin and other McCain surrogates have argued that since Obama and Ayers were acquainted and Ayers has a "terrorist" history, that makes Obama a friend/supporter of terrorism.

First of all, what a ridiculous leap in logic. Disregard for a moment that the link between Obama and Ayers is maybe one step above "casual acquaintance" -- they served on a committee together and Ayers hosted a fundraising party for Obama. Even if their relationship was friendlier than that, the idea that Obama in any way supports or stands for what Ayers once did is completely faulty. First of all, Ayers committed these acts of "terrorism" nearly 40 years ago, decades before he even met Obama. Obama himself was a child when the Weathermen were at their height. Secondly, since when do the actions of our friends reflect on us? I have Republican friends, but I don't vote Republican. I have friends who practice different religions, root for different sports teams, and generally believe in things I don't believe in. Their choices don't reflect my personal beliefs just as my choices don't reflect theirs.

I also have a problem with the way Bill Ayers's name has been dragged through the mud by this campaign. Yes, he was involved in some pretty nasty business back in the 60's and 70's. His actions, though, stemmed from a belief that the government was involved in morally bankrupt practices and needed to be stopped. Ayers and his colleagues saw their actions as revolutionary -- just as a bunch of "terrorists" did back in 1776. When the Weathermen bombed buildings, they sent warnings that included evacuation notices, identification of the protest being stated, and gave details that would spare lives. They didn't fly airplanes into buildings. Their protests were violent but focused and stemmed from beliefs that were shared by a large number of people in this country at the time.

In the years since the Weathermen disbanded, Ayers has gone on to be a productive member of society. He is a professor at the University of Chicago, one of the top universities in the nation. He is involved in numerous charities throughout the Chicago area. Do the actions of the man not get to outweigh at some point the mistakes of the boy? Doesn't a lifetime of responsibility get to erase a few years of poor choices? The fact of the matter is that this man who has spent decades educating and giving to others and now has been turned into a weapon of campaign destruction.

The fact of the matter is that the McCain campaign has become convinced that the only way to win this election is to ignore the issues that plague the hearts and minds of America and is attempting to appeal to our fears by painting Obama as dangerous and evil. McCain had that moment where he tried to assure voters that there was nothing to fear where Obama is concerned, but he's done little to stop his supporters from shouting racial epithets or crying out for Obama to be killed. The nastiness that is being fostered by the McCain campaign is shameful and the fact that this seems to be backfiring on him in the polls gives me hope that American elections can become civil someday.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Baby and Me

Well, I'm back from my birthday weekend in Chicago. Talk about shaking off a funk! I had a wonderful birthday spent with great friends, great shopping, great food, great sangria, and more.
My sis and I caught the train Saturday afternoon and were in Naperville around 2:45. On the train, I finally had the uninterrupted reading time to read Dennis Letts's amazing August Osage County. You know, sometimes you read a script everyone is raving about and you're like, "Meh." The hype can kill the script because your expectations are so incredibly high. But then you get your hands on a script like this one and it's just like, "The praise isn't enough!" It was also the first time in a long time that I didn't read a script and think how I would direct it or think about how much I'd love to play a certain part. All I could think was, "I need to freakin' SEE this play!" It really is an American classic. Amazing.
After my friend Deb picked me up from the train and we dropped off my stuff and I changed from train clothes into theatre-going clothes, we headed into the city where we met up with my friends Pete and Bart and headed for some tapas. I'd never experienced tapas before, so let me just say, "YOWZA!" That stuff was incredible. We ate so much and drank so much sangria. I'm actually surprised I was able to handle seeing a play after drinking and eating so much.
But I was. Dirty Dancing was a lot of fun. It was a little different than I expected. I thought it would be more of a traditional music with the characters singing and maybe with the storyline even tweaked and streamlined for the stage, but it wasn't like that. A lot of the music simply provided a score for the action, and about 98% of the stuff on stage was right from the movie -- every scene was there with a few added that we wondered if maybe had been cut from the movie but a part of the original script. The show was a technical marvel with its use of projection and turntables. The dancing was incredible. Plus, for the uber-geek in me, it was cool to see Dr. Houseman played by John Bolger who has appeared on two different episodes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, an episode of Sex and the City, and has done plenty of time on soaps -- Guiding Light (he was a Phillip!), Another World, and One Life to Live. (Mike, I KNOW you know who this guy is!)
It did have its flaws. Sometimes, the score was a little too loud. The guy playing Johnny was really, how do I put this? . . . not good. His acting was very stiff and "acting-y" and it didn't help that he hadn't completely shaken his Australian accent. I'm sure that accent was fine in Toronto or London where they probably marveled over his "American" accent, but here in America, we know what Johnny Castle is supposed to sound like, and it's not like Crocodile Dundee's younger brother. Sorry, dude. You dance well, but keep working on that accent.
Johnny's deficiencies were more than made up for by the actress playing Baby. Recognizing that people seeing the musical pretty much wanted their memories of the film relived, Amanda Lee Cobb essentially channeled Jennifer Grey. She was the whole package -- the hair, the voice, the wardrobe. And her performance reminded me why this movie had such an impact on me when I sat in a downtown movie theatre on my 16th birthday seeing a movie I'd basically rolled my eyes about when I had first heard about it.
For me, Dirty Dancing had nothing to do with dancing or Patrick Swayze or the music. It was about Baby Houseman. Let's take a moment to go back and meet 16-year-old Mel. I was awkward and unsure of myself. It didn't help probably that two of my closest friends had moved away within the first two years of high school and the friend I had left was super smart and super beautiful and super talented (artistically and musically). I was smart and deeply into politics -- and just about the only person I knew like that.
For my 16th birthday, Caity (the super perfect best friend mentioned above) and I decided for a lowkey celebration. We decided to go see Dirty Dancing even though we'd both groaned aloud when we had first seen the preview. I thought (and honestly still do) Patrick Swayze was icky, and the whole thing just had seemed lame. When it opened in August, it was a definite "pass." By October, though, the phenomenon was growing, the movie had been playing downtown for months, and I'd heard enough about it that I thought maybe I wouldn't mind seeing it. Plus, there was nothing else playing that we wanted to see. (This was before a multiplex hit town.)
Sitting in that theatre, I suddenly saw "myself" on screen. Here was this awkward "daddy's girl", not what people would call "conventionally pretty" (although I would have killed to look like Jennifer Grey back then -- pre-nose job), politically idealistic, and completely real. Baby wasn't sure how to act in some situations (the whole watermelon scene is indicative of that). She can't control her giggles during the more sensual moments of her dance with Johnny. When Johnny rescued Baby from the corner, it sent my soul soaring, and again, it wasn't about Patrick Swayze. It was about this notion of breaking free to discover who you really are. Baby Houseman became an icon to a generation of awkward girls who were smarter than their peers, who wanted to make a difference in the world, and who wanted to break free. Baby made it okay to be different and told us that even if we were different, someone would find us special.
This weekend, all those feelings came flooding back to me as I watched this new Baby find her voice and her courage and follow her heart. And I have a feeling I wasn't the only person who cried just a little when she flew into her triumphant lift during the finale -- that symbolic moment where Baby breaks free and soars. It still moves me to this day.
The rest of the weekend went well -- good shopping, good times. And I came home from the weekend feeling particularly recharged -- and I think a lot of it had to do with reconnecting with the Baby Houseman I was, still am, and will always be.

Friday, October 10, 2008

I Carried a Watermelon!

I'm feeling very "blah" today. A lot of ennui. Maybe it's the quickly approaching birthday with which I am grappling and the constant questions that plague me around this time of year about what I'm doing with my life and whether I've done what I think I should have done by now. Maybe it's just my growing disillusionment with the direction this campaign has taken. The negativity in both the McCain camp and its supporters is just downright scary. When people in the audience are screaming "Kill him" about the opponent (particularly when it's in the face of lies and false allegations), it makes me more than just a little sick. Maybe it's that fall weariness that tends to set in right about now at work -- overwhelmed with the teaching and the lack of enthusiasm my students bring to the classroom. This week, I faced a group of incredibly apathetic seniors who see no value in reading the short stories we're reading in class, caught two plagiarists in my freshmen English class as I graded book reports, and dealt with a lead in the play who has skipped two rehearsals this week with no notification (and shaky cause). No doubt about it -- I'm in a bit of a funk.

I'm headed to Chicago this weekend to celebrate my 37th birthday in much the same way I celebrated my 16th birthday -- by seeing Dirty Dancing. However, while my high school best friend Caity and I merely walked to the downtown movie theatre to see Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze strut their stuff, I'm joining my dear friend Deb from college to see Dirty Dancing LIVE AND ONSTAGE! Yes, I'm seeing the musical inspired by the classic film that shaped my remaining two years of high school so clearly. I'm excited for the chance to shake off this funk and rejoice in the simple story of a brainy Jew who discovers love, sex, and back alley abortions while vacationing in the Catskills. If anything will make me forget aging, Sarah Palin, and apathetic teens for a few hours, it's Baby Houseman and the gang at Kellerman's.

Woo hoo!!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Debate This!

Like many of you, I tuned in nervously to last night's debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. With the McCain camp becoming more and more negative in the past several days, I wasn't really sure how nasty McCain would get when Obama was standing right there.

Fortunately, outside of the "that one" bit which didn't really register with me as offensive in the moment, McCain kept the bile a little under control, but he still came across as a grumpy, petulant old man who was pissed to have to go through this. I don't get a sense of joy or passion from McCain -- and that's troubling. I don't want a President who doesn't have a passion for the job. We've all seen (or even worked with) people who hate their jobs. It's not pleasant -- the bitching and moaning and lackluster effort that often results makes everyone feeling lousy, even the people who DO like their jobs. Is that the guy we want leading us? The guy who'd rather be on the golf course than working on the big presentation? Or the guy who brings an intensity and excitement to the job and keeps striving to be better -- and encouraging us to be better, too.

I pick option #2.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Don't Know Much About History?

Last week at the debate, Sarah Palin tried to take a couple jabs at Joe Biden about his repeated references to history, particularly his repeated references to the failures of the Bush II administration. Biden's response was that "The past is prologue," a response I'm sure Palin didn't quite get. On Meet the Press Sunday, Peggy Noonan expressed her concern (and frustration) that all this focus on history and the past was clouding the real issues of this election -- namely the economic crisis and the TWO wars we're fighting. For a lot of us amateur politicos and the trained pundits, it does often seem a little counterproductive to hammer away on the mistakes of a past administration in an attempt to sell your own administration. I thought that way, too, until last night.

While flipping through the channels, I came across an installment of American Experience on PBS that dealt with the Carter administration. Considering the fact that I was 5 when he was elected and 9 when he left office, I admit I wasn't all that familiar with the Carter years. I knew some rough things; I remembered the Iran hostage crisis and Billy Beer and Amy and peanut farming and that was about it. I learned a lot last night, a lot that made me grab onto this notion of the past being prologue and hope that people in both the Obama and McCain camps were paying a little attention.

Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976 by one of the slimmest margins in American electoral history. It was an election that wasn't called until 3 in the morning -- that's how close it was. He came into office following eight years of a corrupt, paranoid Republican administration that resorted to any dirty tricks it thought it could get away with to secure victory. Carter, a pretty total unknown prior to his out-of-nowhere victory in the Iowa caucus, ran as an agent of change, a folksy populist who was a Washington outsider and was going to ride into town and clean things up. He brought with him to Washington a smart, independent wife (who would sit in on staff meetings and just listen) and a cute, school-aged daughter who would attend public schools and become best friends with the daughter of the cook at the Chilean embassy. He inherited a battered economy, an energy crisis, and emerging powers in the Middle East that would not go ignored.

Sound familiar?

The Carter administration, which could be labeled as anything from a disappointment to an outright failure, can teach us many lessons, lessons which the Obama and McCain camps might want to note.

You can't govern this nation without participating in the actual government. Carter was an outsider and brought with him to the White House a staff of loyal but stubborn outsiders. These people had no clue how Washington worked, and as a result, they were eaten alive by a powerful and increasingly hostile Democratic Congress. Had Carter had some advisers who were familiar with the machinery of Washington politics, perhaps he could have navigated the shark-infested waters a little more competently and seen some of his policies enjoy more success. So while Sarah Palin continues to preach the gospel of the evils of "Washington Insiders," she may want to consider the fact that she may need those Washington Insiders someday.

Don't bite off more than you can chew. The first months of the Carter administration saw a flurry of attempted policies be put out there and rejected. Carter seemed to realize almost immediately that his administration would only last one term, and so he tried to cram as much as he could into those four years he had. It made his administration seem manic and unfocused. Good ideas were lost in all the noise.

The sad thing is that Jimmy Carter clearly had his heart in the right place and could have been a great president had he been more open to some compromise and adjustment. (One comment that was made last night was that although Carter was a man who typically relished any opportunity to learn, he stubbornly refused to learn how to play the Washington game.) He was perhaps our first green president -- encouraging people to take measures to save energy at home, canceling magazine subscriptions to reduce paper waste, riding in more fuel efficient cars than limos, and refusing to turn the air conditioning on in the White House. (Walter Mondale's comments on the summer heat of the White House were priceless.) He brought a good heart to the White House, a rarity then and now. Looking at Carter's life post-White House shows what a decent, visionary man he really was. The humanitarian he has become has overshadowed the disappointment he was as president.

Let's just hope we learn the lessons of that sad administration 30 years ago and don't end up with another disappointment after a campaign filled with such hope and promise.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Well, I Guess I'm Going to Hell . . .

. . . and apparently so are many of you.

According to this post on the Huffington Post, Sarah Palin announced to a gathered throng that "There's a place reserved in hell for women who don't support other women." She claimed that she was quoting Madeline Albright, but it turns out she was (surprise, surprise) MISQUOTING Albright, who had actually said, "There's a place in hell reserved for women who don't help other women." A slight semantic difference, but a difference nonethless.

Anyway, it's nice to know that Governor Palin has damned many of us to hell for our failure to support her and her "maverick" ways. Oddly enough, on Thursday, she told Joe Biden that his wife Jill, who is a teacher, would find her reward in heaven for her work. So apparently, Jill Biden's (and my) reward is a one-way ticket to hell. Well, Jill, save me a seat in the cool "Anti-Palin" room with you and Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi and Claire McCaskill and all of my friends who have been setting my email on fire with their disdain for Iditerod Barbie and her homespun homilies. If my ticket to heaven is voting for McCain-Palin (and giving my tacit approval to the filthy politics they've decided to pursue for the remainder of this campaign -- judging from Palin's recent attempt to once again link Obama with William Ayers), then I'll take hell any day!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Another Year, Another Disappointment

I once had a professor in college who said, "I don't need anyone to teach me about pain and suffering. I'm a Cubs fan."

Once again, the Cubs have managed to pull off a staggering heartbreak -- coasting into the playoffs with the best record in the National League, only to fall in three games (out of three) to the Dodgers. Not only did they lose, but they lost spectacularly -- according to what I've heard. I wouldn't know personally since I didn't watch a single game.

See, here's the thing. I love the Cubs. I really do. I grew up watching them, rooting for them, and being disappointed by them time and time again. When the Cubs went to the playoffs five years ago, I spent hours camped in front of the television, often listening to the game simultaneously on WGN radio so I could listen to Ron Santo call the game. And then they lost. I still remember that moment of turning off the television and walking towards my bedroom, only to stop halfway there, doubled over in tears so full of grief and agony it's almost embarrassing to recall. In that moment, I knew pain and suffering like I'd perhaps never felt before. And I made a decision then and there -- I could not be in a relationship that caused me so much pain. I couldn't put myself through this again.

So I didn't. I kind of think of myself as being divorced from the Cubs. It's a pretty amicable divorce. I wish them nothing but success and love, and I do think back on the 30+ years I spent with them as good times despite the heartbreak. When I hear about their success, I smile wistfully and express my good wishes. When I hear about their failures, I smile wistfully and express my sympathies. But I know in my heart of hearts that as much as I love them, I can't go back. I almost gave in this year. Watching their successful season from afar, I have to confess those thoughts crept into my head -- "What if . . .?" What if they made it to the World Series? What would I do? What if they WON the World Series? What would I do? The Cubs and I were closer to a reconciliation than they probably knew. I'd decided that I would go back if they made it to the Series. In the slim chance that they won, I knew that I had to be there -- for me, for my dad, for the sake of history. Luckily, the Cubs did the noble thing and put an end to the reconciliation, saving me from making a mistake I would regret.

But I walk away full of melancholy, knowing that this is a relationship that may never be truly over, that this love runs much deeper than I care to admit and all they have to do is say the word (or win the freakin' game!) and I'm back in their embrace once more.

There's always next year.

Friday, October 3, 2008

There's Good News and Bad News

First, I guess, the bad news. She didn't suck. She didn't commit any huge gaffes that would reveal that this particular empress wears no clothes. She was . . . . competent. She was personable and perky and charming in that gratingly folksy way she has. As I said to my sis last night as we were watching, "Whoever prepped her for this debate deserves a big, fat bonus check -- and a month's vacation."

For those of us watching hoping to witness a blood bath, hoping to see Joe rip into Barbie like a rabid dog, we were disappointed. She held her own, and while Joe debated like the pro he is, he never went for the cheap shot, never tried to humiliate or annihilate her. He debated the way you're supposed to -- supported by research and facts and with respect for his opponent. That's what I teach my kids in Debate class anyway. A debate isn't a fight -- it's an intellectual discussion between two opposing ideas. (You would not believe how hard it is to get teenagers to buy that. Okay, you probably would.)

And now for the good news: Joe did his supporters proud, and I think that he may have gone a long way towards wooing some of those mythic, all-powerful undecided voters, at least according to the CNN voter response graph. (Am I the only one who finds myself watching that more than the debaters? I find it absolutely fascinating!) He hit all the right notes and hammered home the points that will be key to winning this election for the Dems -- continuing to push that link between Bush and McCain, reminding voters of the failure of the GOP during their years of control in the White House and Congress, laying out an agenda that offers hope for the struggling middle class and hope for those concerned about what's going on overseas. In reality, Biden was really debating John McCain as he continually hammered his colleague for misguided votes and policy proposals. With Palin, he was respectful without being deferential, tough without being condescending. This was the Joe Biden I fell in love with in Iowa a year ago -- tough, intelligent, thoughtful, and insightful. This was the Joe Biden I wanted to fill that VP slot starting back in January when Iowans' inability to cut through the glitz and glamor of his more polished opponents ended his campaign the night of the Iowa caucus. He is nothing but an asset to the Obama campaign, and he will be nothing but an asset to an Obama administration.

While Palin did not implode or maybe even provide a ton of fodder for Tina Fey's appearance on SNL tomorrow night (surely they'll do a debate skit!), she also did not hit the sort of grand slam she probably needed to help stop the voter erosion the McCain campaign seems to be suffering. If there is any silver lining to the grey cloud that is this financial meltdown, it's that it is forcing people to really take a look at McCain and realize that he may not be the best person to shepherd the nation through this crisis. When you add Iditarod Barbie to the mix, voter confidence is even more shaken. (Man, you KNOW McCain has to be wishing he'd picked Mitt Romney as his vp right now.) What's even more encouraging is that Obama is making some progress in those key battleground states (like Michigan -- where his lead has become significant enough that McCain is pulling his campaign from the state) -- and even starting to make some noise in states once thought to be GOP locks (like Indiana). The McCain campaign is starting to look like it's having a meltdown of its own with the embarrassment of the Palin-Couric interview, McCain's ridiculous "campaign suspension" (that lasted what? 20 minutes?), and the shifting realization of the electorate that McCain does not represent change.

I'm not popping open the champaign yet, but I'm putting it on ice -- just in case.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Set the Gearshift for the High Gear of Your Soul . . . Again

For a good decade of my life, the majority of my 20s and into my 30s, my life was pretty much devoted to one thing -- Phish. I spent untold amounts of money to follow them around the country, ultimately seeing them play live almost 50 times in over 10 different states. I did things in the name of Phish that I never thought I would do -- sleeping in a tent, getting caked in mud and not caring, eating food sold out of the back of a VW van or from a greasy cardboard box. I did it out of love, in anticipation of those moments of pure, transcendental joy that would come in the middle of a really thick jam about halfway through set II.
Phish provided the soundtrack to my youth. Every song comes attached with a memory. I hear "Sparkle" and I am instantly back in my senior year apartment, sitting around a circle with my friends, all of us laughing hysterically. I hear "Piper" and I am transported to Deer Creek Ampitheatre in Indiana where, after leaving my friend Peter on the lawn in search of a desperately needed bathroom, I returned to where I THOUGHT I'd left Peter and realized I had no idea where he was in the crowd of thousands of happy hippies. "My Soul" brings me to that moment when I saw Peter through the crowd and we were reunited in a moment of pure joy and relief. "Fluffhead" always makes me think of my best friend, Danielle. "Gotta Jibboo" is all about my sister.
Four years ago, Phish called it quits. Through pure serendipity, I found myself on that muddy field in Vermont bidding the band farewell, crying, knowing that the closing of this chapter for them was also the closing of a chapter for me. I came home from Coventry and started a new Phish-free chapter. I packed up the camping gear. I put away the hemp necklaces I'd made and the patchwork skirts I'd spent hours hunched over a sewing machine to make. I even pretty much stopped listening to the music. It made me cry to listen to it. It was just too painful to know that that moment in my life was gone and wouldn't be back again. The end of Phish was the end of my youth, and I took a deep breath and faced adulthood and every now and then would think back whistfully to those days spent noodledancing under the stars with tens of thousands of people who were strangers yet still "phamily."
I don't know how to describe the emotions I felt this afternoon when I received the first emails telling me that Phish is back . There was the flash of joy but also a flash of, "Oh, crap!" There was that moment of wondering if I'm too old for this shit - traveling around, camping out, dancing until I don't think I can dance any more -- and then dancing some more. Okay, so Phish is back. The question is: Am I? When I got in my car today to drive home, I did something I hadn't done in a really long time -- I put in a Phish CD. (Yeah, there's still ALWAYS one in my car) It took me back to that way I used to feel when the lights would dance across the crowd and I'd feel completely at one with the groove, like I was home. And in that moment when the smile spread across my face as the band steered its way into a particularly tasty "Wolfman's Brother," I knew the answer to my question, knew there probably never even was a question. If Phish is back, well then, so am I. I may be older and wiser, but when the music starts, I know I want to be in the room and sharing in that groove one more time.
Who's with me?