Saturday, October 24, 2009

Oh My God! I'm Part of the Problem!!

A couple days ago, I was on a bookworm cloud nine. I had discovered in my Internet travels that was offering Barbara Kingsolver's soon-to-be-released new novel for $8.99 with free shipping. Hardcover.... brand new .... $9. Needless to say, I quickly went to the Target website and put in my order for that as well as the upcoming John Grisham short story collection. I bought both books for less than $20 total. I was ecstatic.

Then yesterday, my happy book bubble was burst when I read this article in the New York Times. In short, the American Booksellers Association is charging Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon with destroying the book industry -- and I am their accomplice!

Or am I?

The gist of what the ABA is claiming is that this "predatory pricing" is devaluing books by selling them at bargain basement prices, at a rather significant loss to the retailers. The ABA's real concern, of course, is that people are flocking to Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon to get their books rather than independent booksellers who cannot afford to take that loss and instead charge full (or very close to full) price for these books. As a supporter of independent booksellers, I was wracked with guilt over the damage I was potentially doing to my favorite (and only) local bookstore Stone Alley Books.

Here's the thing -- chances are highly likely that, had these books not been so deeply discounted, I wouldn't have bought them anywhere -- not at Target, not on Amazon, and not at Stone Alley. I would have waited until they came out in paperback at a significanly cheaper price, or I would have waited to stumble across them used at Stone Alley, or I would have just bought the Kingsolver book and not the Grisham book. Regardless, both authors made a sale that they may not have made.

And because I was able to get the books for such a good price, I have a little extra in my monthly "book budget" (yes, I have a book budget....I'm geeky like that) to go to Stone Alley and spend a little more than maybe I would have. So my local bookseller will make an additional sale that he may not have had I not discovered the cheap prices.

Of course, I realize that not everyone is like me. I realize that not everyone is as obsessive about books as I am and that plenty of local booksellers have lost business thanks to Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Target. I don't think, however, that what has happened is criminal or merits a Justice Department investigation. What this shows is that there is a market for books out there, but that the market needs cheaper pricing in order to keep going and that publishers need to start finding ways to make it easier for local booksellers to compete and offer the kinds of discounts that will keep the market thriving. Keep books alive -- but keep them affordable.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reality Bites Back

I missed out on most of the fun surrounding Bubble Boy last week. When the balloon supposedly containing six-year-old Falcon Heene was soaring over Colorado, I was in the midst of rehearsals with the cast of Twelve Angry People with no internet access to fill me in. I learned about it only when I got home and saw a ton of tweets providing a nearly blow-by-blow account of what had been going on all afternoon. The whole thing seemed too fantastic to be true, and it turns out that that is probably the case. The local sheriff investigating the whole situation has reportedly found that the whole thing was a hoax, cooked up by dad Richard Heene (a veteran of that reality-tv gem Wife Swap) to facilitate getting his own extraterrestrial-themed reality show.

In theory, Heene had a great idea. How many times have we seen people turn a media frenzy into reality fame? Pop out a couple dozen babies, and it's a matter of time before TLC is knocking at your door, right? Be stupid enough to make (AND KEEP) a sex tape, and E! will fall all over itself to help keep your fame alive. So who can blame Heene for thinking that creating his own media frenzy would be his path to superstardom?

Heene made a couple crucial mistakes that may ultimately land him in jail if the felony charges the sheriff is seeking stick.
1. He should have put the kid in the balloon. First of all, it would have made for a better story -- the kid who survived the balloon journey and lived to tell the tale. Once word got out that little Falcon was never in the balloon, the talk began that the whole thing had been a hoax.

2. He trusted in the media's willingness to be duped. Heene was right in thinking that the media would jump all over the tale of the little boy stuck inside the balloon and the heroic efforts to rescue him. Hours of cable news coverage was devoted to Falcon's flight over Colorado. Once it was revealed to have all been for naught, that little Falcon had been safely at home the entire time, the media turned vicious. They had been betrayed, deceived, and, worst of all, made to look foolish. As they fed on each other in accusation, they turned on the person responsible, Heene, and became determined to prove their innocence at his devious hands. They gunned for Heene and now seem to be reveling in dancing their victory dance at his fall.

3. He entrusted an essential part of the plan to a six-year-old child. As angry as the media was over their betrayal, they may have had no choice but to sit and pout for a few weeks and put together self-flagellating stories about themselves had it not been for one little boy. Thursday night, little Falcon Heene joined his family on CNN's Larry King Live. When asked about the whole ordeal and why he had hid and not responded to his parents' frantic cries, Falcon responded, “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.” You could almost hear the collective "d'ohs" across the country. What parent didn't empathize, thinking of their own tales of secrets revealed by a confused child? Of course, most parents aren't engaged in a huge media scam, and so those moment of empathy quickly gave way to smug moments of triumph as everyone became convinced that Falcon's story was a hoax, and the charge was led by the media. Falcon's throwing up on two morning shows the next day only added fuel to the fire as it became sure "evidence" of his nervousness and guilt. Heene's fatal flaw was that he trusted a child to keep silent and keep a secret. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Wild Rumpus Full of Existential Angst

When I was a kid, there were few places I loved more than the children's room at the local public library. My mother and I would frequently walk from our home to the library where I would spend hours pouring the shelves to find a new assortment of delights to take home. Of course, there were several "standbys" that were checked out by me so many times I'm shocked the librarian didn't just GIVE them to me -- Eloise, Tilly Witch, The Lorax, and, of course, Where the Wild Things Are. What kid didn't identify with Max, the rambunctious young protagonist who is sent to his room for being rowdy and sails away in his imagination to a land where his rowdiness is cherished and rewarded? Who didn't want to preside over a wild rumpus?

A few years ago, word got out that Spike Jonze would be tackling what seemed to be an impossible task -- turning Maurice Sendak's slim, 45-page book (many of them wordless illustrations) into a feature-length film. Initially, I had visions of some CGI monstrosity ala The Polar Express or Shrek where the heart that lies at the center of the film would be lost in creepy animation or fart jokes. And then I reminded myself that it was Spike Jonze who is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers. His two previous films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, are two of the best films I've seen in the past decade or so -- films that were funny and thoughtprovoking, messing with your mind in a way no other films have before. When you take Jonze's neo-aburdist take and mix it with screenwriter Dave Eggers's deft touch, you are certainly guaranteed something good, right?

Thankfully, the answer is "right." The result of this collaboration is truly masterful. What Jonze and Eggers have done is find the dark underbelly of Where the Wild Things Are, allowing the book to grow up with the thirtysomethings who grew up with the book while still creating a film that will appeal to the new generation of potential rumpusers. They have found in Max (Max Records) a boy filled with existential angst seemingly fueled by an absent father, a thoughtless sister, and a mother (Catherine Keener) who's trying her darndest to keep it all together. Max's world is filled with typical childhood heartbreaks, like the destruction of his igloo, as well as the pain of a more adult world, like the "discovery" that the world is doomed to collapse in the face of uncontrollable natural disasters. He seems to stand in that odd world between childhood innocence and adult cynicism, and his realization of that status fills him with alternately with grief and rage. He can't seem to express his confusion verbally so that frustration becomes physical -- tearing apart his sister's room or throwing a tantrum as his mother prepares dinner. That his pre-dinner tantrum seems to be rooted in the presence of a man (Mark Ruffalo) in his home who does not seem to be his father makes his actions both understandable and sad.

After fleeing from his mother, Max ends up in a land populated by a community of wild things that seems to mirror the fractured home from which Max has fled. Wild Thing Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is destroying their nests in a fit of rage, fueled by the absence of KW (Lauren Ambrose). KW has apparently abandoned her friends to spend time with her new friends, Bob and Terry, sending her community into despair as they wish things would go back to the way they used to be. KW and Carol become stand-ins for Max's own parents, giving us clues as to the cause of Max's own grief and rage and perhaps even letting us know why things in Max's family back in the real world seem so fraught with tension. At the same time, the wild things become representatives of sorts of Max's fractured id and ego. Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is frequently snarky and passive aggressive, just as Max is when he tells his mother he prefers real corn to frozen corn. Her companion Ira (Forest Whitaker) is clingy and desperate for approval and attention, just like Max frequently is with his mother and sister. Like Max, Alexander (Paul Dano) frequently feels ignored. Max attempts to help the wild things build a community in which only what you want to have happen happens, where people who are unwelcomed are punished for their trespass by having their brains explode, but he soon learns that such dreams are impossible, that there are some fractures that can't be fixed. No matter how much he wishes it to be so, there is no fixing the relationship between KW and Carol, but Max also seems to realize that being apart may be better for KW, Carol, and the community in the long run. As hard as you may try, there are some things that just can't be fixed.

This all sounds really deep and dark, I know, and you may be wondering how this could be appealing to kids. The thing is that it is. The matinee audience with which I saw the film was filled with children who giggled and cheered and roared throughout the film. The subtext went right over their heads, I'm sure, but that didn't mean that they couldn't find joy in Max's adventures. Like those of us who read the book as a child and found more depth when we revisited it as adults, I'm sure these children will revisit the film in a few years and see the deeper meaning here, too. They will surely revel in the moving performance of young Max Records who instills Max with heart, intelligence, and angst with single looks. They will marvel at the intelligence and realism that fills the faces of the wild things. They will embrace the artistry with which Jonze captured this world, never once resorting to cheesy gimickry to give us a world that is at once real and imaginary, earthy and out-of-this-world. They will laugh as I did and cry as I did and walk away thinking how lucky they were to have spent that time at a beautiful, glorious, and truly wild rumpus.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

But What's My Motivation?

One of the reasons I've been not as productive on the blog front lately is that I have been swamped with work this fall. With the addition of a smartboard to my classroom, I've spent many afternoons and evenings working to put class lessons, discussion, lectures, and even reading material into smartboard format. Another big reason is that it is fall play season where I spend a couple hours every afternoon holed up in our school auditorium helping guide teenagers through this thing we call acting. Our production this fall is Twelve Angry People (yes, we're gender inclusive here if only because the eleven girls playing jurors would probably mutiny if I asked them to perform in Twelve Angry Men).

As I began working on the show this summer, I realized how difficult it could end up being. I was essentially asking 13 high school students to be onstage for an entire show -- no entrances, no exits, not a ton of lines in some cases. I was asking 13 high school students to commit to attending every single rehearsal. I was asking 13 high school students to play these blank slates of characters, characters with little background information that they could latch onto as characters to drive their performances. Could we do it? Could *I* do it?

The requirement that students attend every rehearsal was the first key to sort of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Of the 35 or so kids who expressed an interest in auditioning, only about 20 actually showed up. I know that a few kids were miffed at the "mandatory rehearsals" requirement, but the script sort of tied me to that. I did make an agreement that I wouldn't hold auditions every day after school until tech week. I'm not a TOTAL tyrant!

I managed to put together a cast of 13 pretty strong kids -- 2 freshmen, 2 sophomores, 4 juniors, and 5 seniors. Of those 13, we have two boys. Two. For our first read thru, I gathered the kids together and we talked a lot about character development. I have them all the assignment to create histories for their characters -- names, education, family, careers, et cetera. Many of the kids took to this almost to an extreme, but their choices are rooted in the script. The young woman playing Juror #8 (the Henry Fonda part) decided early in the process that her character, whom she named Julia, was pregnant and that provided her with the inspiration to "protect" the young man on trial. The actor playing Juror #5 (who talks about growing up in the slums like the kid on trial) decided that her character had turned to stripping to help her escape from the slums. The actor playing Juror #9 (the elderly juror) has created a detailed, tragic backstory full of sons killed in a war, suicide, and murder. It's been revelatory to see the kids attack this task with such zeal.

Of course, such zeal can present problems during notes. More than once I've given "jury notes" -- notes intended for the cast as a whole that deal primarily with reactions or filling silence with ad libbed chatter. Inevitably, an actor will raise a hand and explain why THAT note doesn't fit with the character he or she has devised. It's a challenge sometimes to bite my tongue and keep myself from screaming, "JUST TAKE THE FREAKIN' NOTE!" but I do. I don't want to squash their creativity -- until I have to.

The other nice thing about this rehearsal process has been the comaraderie that has developed amongst the cast. Because they're all there every day, they have really become a "company" that works well together. Even those with diva tendencies seem to have gotten it under control for the good of the company. We've done some company building exercises, some improv games to develop unity, and they seem to have worked. Yes, we still have some work to do -- we have some projection issues and we have one dear girl who just constantly looks like she's just waiting for her line to come and until it does, she's just going to fix her hair and twiddle her thumbs -- literally. Don't worry, faithful readers, we'll get her where she needs to be....or die trying!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Peace Out!

So Barrack Obama is this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. I have to admit that when I woke up to that news last week, I scratched my head in bewilderment. I mean, we all know I'm a fan of the man (a conservative friend of mine has referred to me as an Obambie -- like it rhymes with zombie), but this one left me very puzzled. I mean, the guy's only been in office for nine months, a time during which he has been accused by both sides of the political spectrum as seemingly stalled and lacking in any real accomplishment, particularly on the "peace" front. My real fear was that Obama was awarded this prize simply because he was the first black president, and I stifled a groan as I'm sure even he is tired of carrying that weight around. When NPR reported that the nomination would have come within the first weeks or so of the Obama administration, I was even more annoyed. Do conservative pundits really need any more ammunition in their attacks on Obama? I could already picture Glenn Beck crying his eyes out over this one.

As I read more throughout the day, it became apparent that the prize was awarded not for Obama's accomplishments (of which there are, admittedly, few) but for the promise he seems to hold. The idea was that giving him the award was about shedding light on the issue of peace (and more specifically, nuclear disarmament) and creating an incentive for Obama to pursue peaceful conclusions to our current skirmishes. By awarding Obama with this prize, he suddenly faces even greater expectations than before. Within seconds of his election in November, supporters expected him to instantly bring about change -- fix the economy, fix our health care system, save our schools, end racism. Now, he has to create world peace, too?


Here's where I have to ask the same question that my sister asked when she was hired as a speech coach at a nearby high school -- "Seriously? There was no one else more qualified for this?"

Don't get me wrong: I admire Obama's position on diplomacy. I believe that we should try talking to our enemies before we blow them up. But I also believe that we should reward people for their good acts not their good intentions. I'm not knocking the notion of good intentions. They're important to have, no doubt about it. It's admirable to enter any situation with the intention of doing something good. There is, however, a big difference between intending to do good and actually doing good. A student in my English class can INTEND to do his or her book report, but if he or she doesn't actually do it, I don't give him or her an A for the intention. An actor in one of my plays can INTEND to learn lines, but if he or she doesn't actually do it, the play is going to suck (or I have to find a new actor). The same holds true here -- President Obama can INTEND to initiate policies of peace, but if he doesn't actually do it, should he still be awarded a peace prize? Why not let the guy get his feet wet, give him a couple years to actually put his policies into action and see what happens rather than add one more boulder to the guy's shoulders?

Lastly, let's also remember that winning this award was not something Obama chose or pursued. It was not something that the Democratic party necessarily chose or pursued. And it's not Al Gore's fault either. Ultimately, the choice rested on the shoulders of the presumed non-partisan shoulders of the selection committee. (I say non-partisan because they are not American and therefore not a part of our party system, regardless of their personal political philosophies.) If Obama's choice is premature or, as some have claimed, a mockery of the prize itself, it is their fault and not President Obama's. For once, Glenn Beck, there is something that is NOT Barrack Obama's fault.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

It's My Day, So Pony Up With the Prizes, Bitches

According to my friend Danielle, tomorrow (Monday) is World Teachers' Day, a day supposedly designed to recognize the hard work teachers put into educating the children of the world and the impact their involvement has upon the lives of those children.

Blah blah blah.....

My big question is where's my gift?

But seriously, we certainly spend a lot of time talking a good talk where teachers are concerned, but when it comes time to actually backing it up, we're a little less generous. The paychecks teachers take home rarely seems to truly compensate them for the hours they put in. It's a rare day when I don't leave school with work to do at home, meaning I am often working 10 or more hours a day. When we have issues with students, it is unusual to find much support from parents. We are constantly challenged, criticized, and called on the carpet for trying to do our job in the face of increased hostility and apathy. A few weeks ago, someone commenting on an article in the local paper actually had the audacity to say that teaching wasn't an intellectually challenging profession and therefore shouldn't be paid more in compensation for the additional hours many teachers put in.

If it sounds like I'm complaining, please ignore it because the truth of the matter is that I love my job even if I sometimes feel underpaid and underappreciated. For all of those moments when I get discouraged, there are so many more moments filled with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Maybe it's the sight of a group of freshmen lighting up when they realize that the prediction they made about the story is about to come true. Maybe it's having a group of students arguing over whether or not Hamlet is insane (and regardless of his sanity, he's a douchebag for the way he treats Ophelia). Or maybe it's having a student in speech class come to you for help in answering a reporter's questions after a tough volleyball loss. Or maybe it's the glee a cast of kids finds in learning about the ecphonesis "O" . Or maybe it's staying a little later than anticipated on a Friday afternoon because a senior needs some college advice....or having a student you helped find the right school last year e-mail to thank you for leading him to his dream school where he now has a leading role in a college production.

When I chose teaching as my career path, I knew I wouldn' t be pulling down big bucks. I knew I was kissing my dreams of a BMW good-bye. But I also knew that I was accepting a whole new dream -- one in which I get to help change the world by teaching our future how to read, write, act, speak, and think. It is worth a mountain of BMW's to hear a student just say "thank you" or tell you that, of all the teachers in the building, you are the one she'll miss the most. Who could ask for anything more?

But seriously...... I wouldn't turn down a BMW.