Sunday, May 3, 2015

Schmuck! That's how you write a blog post!

Today I will deconstruct the creation of a blog post so you all can see how the magic happens.

First, I will devise a topic which will appeal to a small number of people but will do so by asserting my expertise over something you never thought of so even those not intended will be suckered into reading it. Notice, I already started with a reference that most people won't get.

"Artists whose music is better performed by others"

Then, in order to establish my expertise, I will start with a broad statement about history that might be true, but I say it with such confidence that you will not question me.

"Back in the day, a song existed in various forms, as performed by any number of bands. When you liked a song, you prefered a version over another -- the notion of a song belonging to one particular writer/performer was alien."

Then I will move to a transitional sentence, inevitably tying it to some specific example/fact that you wouldn't dare question.

"Now, songs are closely associated with the specific performer of that song, a trend which finds as its source, the Beatles."

Next up, my thesis -- revolutionary and revelatory, and controversial, but because I'm an expert, you are wrong.

"Some bands, though, should leave the performance of their songs to others as the ostensible cover versions are unequivocally better than the writers' performances of the music."

Now, the examples, cherry picked to support my contention. I will ignore counter-claims, others' subjective responses or anything which doesn't conform to what I will establish as the truth. I might throw in some smarm so as to deflate any other opinions before they happen. I will also put in details you didn't know so you will feel dumb.

"Springsteen. Come on, you know this is true. His forced delivery and amateurish band butcher his work while others, rescuing diamonds from coal make songs like Blinded by the Light, Light of Day and Fire into genius. The fact that no one important has tried to get famous covering Tunnel of Love should show you that even Bruce's writing skill is a crap shoot.

Bob Dylan. The Byrds made an entire career out of being better Dylans than Dylan. My Back Pages and Mr. Tambourine Man turn into real songs. Even Manfred Mann made Quinn the Eskimo sound good...Dylan is just that bad. Except when he covered Band of the Hand. That song was so good that even he couldn't ruin it.

Johnny Cash. Here is a list of songs of his that others covered. I haven't heard of most them, but because I am citing an authority and I'm never wrong, you should assume that this list is great. Thing is, I actually like some covers of his songs (Like Social Distortion's Ring of Fire) but he didn't actually write all the songs he is known for, or even perform them first, and he has covered so many others' songs that it is a wash.

I'm not even discussing Kris Kristofferson.

A few artists are on the bubble because they have some songs of their own that are brilliant and some that others do better:

Stevie Wonder. Yes, he's lovely and wonderful on many songs, but don't look me in the eye and say that his version of Superstition or Higher Ground is the best one out there.

Some artists write stuff made popular by others but whose "original" version, even if recorded after the famous version, is superior, such as Mellencamp's I need a Lover and Palmer's You're Gonna Get What's Coming."

Throw in some gratuitous links to things unrelated but which I like and show the authority of my judgment.

"If you appreciate the subtleties in music which I have pointed out, you should also read this book and this one."

Finally, solicit feedback which I will never read.

"If you have other artists which you think should go on this list, please leave a comment."


And there you have it. Condescending and arrogant, irrelevant and irreverent, useless. A perfect blog post.

Monday, April 6, 2015

To a Student who died too young

I write this as a form of catharsis. I need to write this. So I want to apologize right off the bat if you don't like it. It isn't meant for you.

That having been said, I'll start with all the expected and right stuff:

I just got back for a funeral of a former student. She was in my 12th grade AP class only 4 years ago (she earned a 96 or so) and now she's gone. I'll tell you about her. You know all those good things you say perfunctorily whenever someone passes? Yeah, that, only sincerely. Brilliant, motivated, caring, sincere, selfless and like that. She had a smile that could, and often did, light up an entire building, and an attitude which buoyed a community. She put her family, friends and strangers ahead of herself as a matter of her personal code. She studied her world because she could not imagine doing otherwise. She shared with others and was fearless in her pursuit of all things new and different. She came back, even after she fell ill, and visited my class. I even put her on the spot more than once and asked her to speak to my class off the cuff. And she did, transfixing the students with her literary insight and her personal anecdotes. As a scientist, she could tell you exactly what was wrong with her and what the medicines were that were being tried to treat her. She even pronounced them right. As a fervent Jew she never lost that spiritual side which drove her to see God's hand even in her darkest days. Like I said, all those things we wish we could say honestly about others, we complain are not evocative enough when it came to her.

So now, I'd like to write a goodbye letter to her, so that she (I hope would be nice to think that the hereafter has wifi and she has my blog bookmarked) knows the impact that she had. But please understand, and here's where the apology kicks in, I will be writing this in a very personal way -- full of the affect which she and I shared, and the sensibility which she would truly appreciate. So if you find it inappropriate, I am sorry, but I assure you, she would think it entertaining.


Dear Rachel,

I was at the funeral. Your funeral. Heckuva time but I won't (I can't, really) get into how emotionally draining it was. Suffice to say it had what you might expect -- crying, speeches, a few laughs, but I thought you should know something else that went on so that you can see that no where is immune from the kind of frustration that we often spoke of. The parking situation was inexcusable.

As I'm sure you know by now, you were not the first person to be buried in that cemetery. And though you really packed them in (it was a very well attended event) I can't imagine that you were the top box office draw that that venue has ever hosted. But they still haven't figured out what to do with cars that come in for the funeral. The line extends out into the intersection, and then, once you come in, there is no one telling you where you should park, no signs directing you anywhere. I drove around, and after circling the facility, I found a little out of the way spot about three miles from the main building where everyone was assembled. I got my hiking gear on, packed rations and made my way towards the throngs. When I arrived, I heard someone from the funeral home announce that everyone should now get back into cars so that we could drive to the area of the cemetery near the grave site. So I turned around, found my sherpa and started back. When I looked at the map, I realized that where I was parked was only a short train ride to the site so I figured I should just keep walking. So I did, and got to the grave well before most anyone else. People kept filing in, having dutifully gotten into their cars, assembled in a line, driven 5 feet only to park again for lack of space. There must be a better way.

Then we waited. People just kept coming. And just when we thought that there was no room for anyone else, the same guy from the funeral home announced that anyone who walked over and left a car parked back by the central building had to go move it because there were other funerals and the volume of cars had effectively shut down the entire cemetery. It was like Woodstock all over again, except with more funerals and less Wavy Gravy. Not none, mind you, just less. There is nothing to get a funeral off to a rollicking start like a threat from a big guy telling you to move your car. So I ignored him. I assumed he wasn't in the kind of shape necessary to make it all the way to my car and ticket me.

As much as the parking situation was complete chaos, the funeral itself was too. Were certain people supposed to stand in a particular place? Who needed to get access to what and where is it proper or improper to step? There are no signs or directions. But it was a nice day and I do believe that I noticed the planes flying overhead dip their wings out of respect.

There were Sea Scouts and Venture Scouts and probably other scouts also. If I ever had a need to tie a knot, this was the time to do it. There were grown men and women in uniform. There were black hats and wigs, and bald heads and baseball hats. There were children and adults, students and teachers. There was an ambulance with reps from your Volunteer Ambulance Corps (good thing, also, as during the funeral someone felt faint and the guys had to run to the rig to get the stretcher and help the person out), there were college friends, high school friends and others. There was, and I say this as a testimony to you, an air of class and dignity. There was a hope that you brought to any situation. There was inspiration and a sense that we can all do better because you showed us that we always must try to do better. So thank you for that.

Your skipper had the bosun ring 8 bells and secure from the watch. All is well on your ship. Sail well, Rachel.

Rabbi R

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hawaii is the promised land

Ever since I was a boy I understood that there was a connection between life in Hawaii and the ancient Israelites. I think we all knew that. How many of us have made the joke about the "Big Kahuna" and the Kohen Gadol, the high priest. I started rteading about the "kahuna" as a Hawaiian word/concept. This website does a nice job tracing the etymology to 1865 (other sites say 1875...I sense a conspiracy) but it totally ignores the Jewish angle. Other sites not only see the connection between the words Kahuna and Kehuna (the Hawaiian big man and the Hebrew word for priesthood) but drag in the notion of the High Priest's clothes, the Bigdey Kehuna (thus making "Big Kahuna" even more connected).

While it is true that the Kahuna and the Kohen dress a little differently

there certainly are similarities.

Then I noticed this yesterday in synagogue: the standard well-wishing sign in Hawaii is the "hang loose" sign. The sign is made by pulling in the middle 3 fingers and extending the pinkie and thumb.

The priest, when offering a meal sacrifice, placed his hand in the container of flour-oil and filled up his hand, shaking off the excess. This was called kemitzah. In case you didn't click that link and just want to see a picture of how a priest holds his hand when he performs this ritual, here you go:

So the names are similar, the roles are similar, the clothes are similar and the hand shape is similar. What more do I have to do to get you to move to Hawaii? Do I have to point out that the name of the state shares letters and vague pronunciation with the 4 letter name of God?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

You are not special

My anger runs deep this morning. Over your head deep. I guess I am just sick of a particular trait I see all around me -- one that I try to fight against in myself and yet others seems to wallow in.

I am sick of selfishness. Here's a screed aimed at those stupid people around me who seem to think the world revolves around them.

Cut it out. Just grow up. You aren't alone on this planet, you are part of a community. We have rules but more than that, we have common decency and common sense. You lack those and it is really irritating. Please stop doing the following:
1. pushing your shopping cart, walking in a narrow aisle or otherwise moving in a constricted space and stopping whenever you want
2. driving as if there are no other cars or the other drivers will be extra careful so you don't have to be
3. speaking as if no one else matters and what you have to say is most important (demanding instead of asking, interrupting, assuming others know what you are talking about without explaining)
4. asking for special accommodations because you think your circumstances are somehow different
5. assuming you are special so rules shouldn't apply to you (especially when you forget that there are other equally selfish people who will be coming to the same conclusion)
6. leaving your stuff all around and expecting it will get cleaned up and/or making a scene when you clean up something of someone else's
7. ignoring any consequences of your actions that might impact anyone else
8. demanding that your logic overwhelms anyone else's understanding or logic by default
9. lashing out because you feel a certain way and forgetting that the rest of the world has feelings
10. acting like you are the first and only person ever to think/act/feel a certain way

So please, realize that others work hard to try and erase these practices but not so that you can indulge in them and everyone else will enable your inanity. Grow up and realize that your place in a society is as an equal, not as a better.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

My Secret Identity

I'm 45. That's not really much of a secret; it is a fact that can be discovered through some basic research into readily accessible documents, or by asking me. I'm 45 and I have decided that maybe I'm just getting too old for secrets.

There is a major recurring theme in much art, that of the hidden truth. Billy Joel sang of the "face that we hide away for ever", our superheroes have secret identities and our breakfast cereals hide "a smooth chocolate center." Shakespeare wrote of the tension between what we show the world and what we are and Woody Allen asked many of the same questions about appearance and reality in plays like "Death." I just feel like I, squarely in very early middle age, am sick and tired of having to carry around the secrets and skeletons which make me who I am. I want to come to terms with my real identity, and stop harboring all the little confidences I keep with myself. I want to do away with the lies I have to tell to maintain the version of myself that any person sees and I want to be accepted for who I really am. I want to send out emails telling people what I really think and challenging them to accept me for who I am. I want to look at myself in the mirror and be OK with all the things I hide from even myself.

So why don't I? Is it because I know that there isn't a single context in which the real and raw me would fit in? It is because I understand that we all play this little game, showing what we want people to see about us in our public personas and adapting our facade to each context, subtly and silently shape shifting as the situation demands? Is it because the social contract requires that we adopt a code of rules and etiquette in order not to descend into sheer anarchy? Maybe it is because I'm afraid. Maybe I'm afraid that deep down inside, there is no deep down inside. Maybe I am like a parfait or an onion (h/t Shrek) but when you peel back all the layers, there is nothing there. So I would go around, being blunt and brutally honest with each and everyone, and then find that even that exercise was simply another artifice in order to create another false front of "me." And maybe I can't handle that any more than anyone can handle the absolute truth from anyone else.

One of the freakiest bits of TV I recall seeing during my childhood was in an episode of The Muppet Show. In it, Kermit has a conversation with Peter Sellers. Here is the clip -- the scary part is between 38 seconds and 1:15. Its not what I'm afraid I'll find, but that I won't find anything.

So I go on smiling and nodding, with thoughts swirling around my head and being kept inside. I walk around doing what I should, not always what I want. I say the right things (most of the time...the other times, I try but mess up) because that's what I am supposed to say. I play at this game of being human, protecting the world from what is beneath the surface and protecting myself from what might not be beneath that.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Am I my brother's keeper?

This is one of those more serious posts -- not driven by any agenda in particular, just the result of my actual thinking abut stuff. I promise, it won't happen often.

I just finished watching The Quarrel (one of my favorite movies) for the umpteenth time and, as happens with good movies, I got something more out of it this time, an insight which I hadn't thought about before. The movie's central argument isn't about the choice to be driven by faith or reason, or about seeing the best in man or the worst, but about something else: the central argument is about man's responsibility to another man.

In the movie, two survivors of the Holocaust reconnect in Montreal. Before the war they were very close until one moved away from religion and the other stuck with it. Those pre-war attitudes were then nurtured by life in the camps and in Siberia with each man facing parallel life and death struggles and personal loss and coming away having confirmed what he developed as a personal ideology earlier in life. The men argue about God and man and the relationship between the two, and also about how each dealt with the rift over religion which developed all those years ago. At one point, the man who has embraced rationality and the secular world rails against his friend that the friend never accepted him for who he became. The friend (either at that moment or at some other time in the argument) says basically that he wanted to save the secular man from the non-religious life. That is the crux of it -- does the religious man know what's right for the other man better than the other man knows about himself? And conversely, should the secular man be trying to "fix" the irrational religious belief in his friend because he sees things with his own version of clarity and he 'knows' that adherence to religion is unnecessary.

If I saw you holding a gun to your head, would I have a responsibility to walk over and stop you from harming yourself? If I saw you about to eat something poisonous accidentally, must I stop you? What about if I saw you smoking cigarettes? What if I saw you walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk? At what point do I impose my sense of right/wrong or safe on to you? When do I stop?

We give shots to little kids because we feel we know better than a baby about how to prevent disease. We tell our growing children not to eat so many sweets, to watch less television and to cross at the green and not in between. We know better. What about your emotional growth? Can I tell you when you are acting like a jerk because I know better than you how to behave? And then, what about your spiritual existence -- if I see you making a decision that puts your immortal soul at risk, what rights do I have in terms of stepping in and even just telling you that you are wrong or deciding that you can't be trusted to make decisions for yourself so I should make them for you? When is someone no longer a possessor of a sound mind and/or body and who gets to decide?

And is any decision to step in, on any level for any reason, driven by responsibility in that we are all mutually tied to ensure the protection and success of every member of our species? Is it a choice or an imperative? If I don't do it am I actively doing something wrong or am I just missing an opportunity to do something right? Was the religious man required to say something to his secular friend? Was the secular man obligated to persuade the religious man of his "folly"? Is the friendship about acceptance or about saving each other?

Just some questions. I have no answers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Pay's the Thing, of nothing

I want to speak with you a bit about culture. I often shy away from discussions of culture because I pretty much have none. I affect a cultured demeanor when it suits me, but mostly I'm just a slob with a job. I guess you could say I appreciate aspects of low culture, but I do like some items higher up on a culture ladder. Thing is, I mostly just like being left alone so any culture runs the risk of getting on my nerves.

But I teach English and part of teaching English is the acceptance that people need some sort of culture. There is such a thing as cultural literacy but that doesn't quite capture everything because it stops at expecting my students to be familiar with their world as it is. Knowing culture means appreciating the world as it was, as it could be and as it is, but on a deeper level. So I strive for that. Part of bringing culture to the still growing teen aged mind is exposing them to pieces of great literature, so I try to do that. One piece that I have used in the past is a wonderful play by Eugene Ionesco, entitled "Rhinoceros." It is silly, it is difficult, it challenges and troubles while it amuses. I find that reading it sometimes misses an aspect of the story, the visual, especially in the directorial choices surrounding the (non)presentation of the titular beasts. However, I lack the ability to act the whole thing out for the class every year. So I rely on performances readily available to the public.

There are, on Youtube, a couple of versions of the play, lovingly performed by some college or local acting groups. They aren't bad per se, but the sound is inconsistent, the staging is clunky and the acting is often overdone. So, OK, they are bad (IMHO, baby, IMHO...chill). There is a film version which I often show. It stars Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, so you'd think that it would be a home run. I mean, I LOVE Gene Wilder (in a totally platonic way, mind you) and I use another of his films (The Frisco Kid) with another class of mine. And Zero Mostel? Hilarious! But the film is from the early 70's so the scenery shows it, the music is horrid and Karen Black is, well, not my favorite part of the movie. I try to resist showing this version because it becomes so surreal towards the end that even Ionesco would view it and say, "what the hell was that? Did I even write that?" So I troll the interwebz looking for another version.

Yesterday, while comparing opening scenes for my class, I saw a link to a version of Rhinoceros starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The video shown was an interview with Mr. Cumberbatch in which he discussed his character, Berenger. In the middle, the image shifted to 5 seconds from the version in which he performed. It was good -- really good. I thought to myself that if I had access to that, I could retire Messers Wilder and Mostel and let Mr. Cumberbatch carry the rhinocer-torch. So I looked online. I found no links to it. I found reviews but no visual content. I was stumped. Finally, I stumbled on a listing for a museum/library in London which had a video from 2007 starring Mr. C. Success! I almost shouted. Until I kept reading. Apparently the version they have must be viewed on their premises.

That struck me as weird. Remember, this is about disseminating high culture. Wouldn't they want more people to share in this experience? Wouldn't it be desirable to have a larger audience aware of this and able to celebrate something of brilliance instead of hiding it away ON VIDEOCASSETTE? So I emailed them. I mentioned that I teach the play. I pointed out that I wanted it for educational purposes. I made the case that flying 22 teenagers to London might prove impractical. And then I waited. The website cautioned me that responses take up to 10 days. Museum life must be very busy.

About an hour later (which, because of the time difference means that they sent it before I made the request), I got a response. Huzzah. It was very nice and proper and explained that the archives are for research done on site. In other words, they said "no." Strange. They want to keep this to themselves. Well, actually, in their words,

Regrettably, the recordings in our Video Archive are not available online or for purchase. We have a strict agreement with the British entertainments unions and are only allowed to make recordings if those recordings are viewed on V&A premises.

​We are sorry not be of more help.

And yes, they typo is theirs, not mine. Look carefully at what they said -- they "make recordings" but they assure the artists who get recorded that NO ONE can see the performance outside of that building. That limits audience, not what would think an artist would want. Note that they also say that they don't even sell the recording. So no payment can go to anyone. They have it but I can't see it or pay for the chance to see it. Think about that. I want to throw money at them for this but apparently, my cash isn't green enough for them. Or blue. I don't know what color money is in London.

I went to the librarian at school, Mrs. Geller. She's wonderful. She can look up anything and find most anything. I sent her the link because I thought there might be honor among libraries and maybe there was some sort of loan program. There isn't. She couldn't find anything. Now our collective honor was at stake so I decided to take matters to the next level. I figured if anyone had a copy, it would be the star of the production so I decided to contact Benedict Cumberbatch. Swing for the fences, that's what I always say (which is awkward when the question is "do you want fries with that?"). I did my research and found the name of the agency which represents him (you generally are represented either by an agent or a lawyer. I am without representation. There is a political joke in there if you want to go look for it and report back to me) and decided to contact him through them. I eschews the expected course of emailing his specific department and figured I should go through the "front Desk" as that is where all real power resides.

So I emailed them and explained my situation and the relative dearth of culture experienced by my neanderthal students. I pointed out that flying the class to England to watch a videotape might not be feasible. All my co-workers laughed at me, insisting that I would never hear anything about this and telling me that I was tilting at English windmills. I persevered because nothing ventured, nothing gained. Or lost, like dignity, but whatever. A few hours later, I received a response. It read, "Sadly we don’t have a copy of this performance nor access to it. I believe that it would have only been taped for archival purposes and not for distribution I’m afraid." It appears to be case that Mr. Cumberbatch and his people (I have no people. I want people) simply have no copy of this recording. I told the author, a wonderful person by the name of Nicholas Gall (I asked for his permission to mention him by name and he graciously granted the permission. In return, I believe that the masses who read this should send him all sorts of good stuff. Hi Nick) that I would probably then have to find a way to get all of my students archived so that they could be stored near the videocassette. The joke crossed the ocean and earned a virtual giggle so I'm feeling pretty good on that front.

My next alternative was to find the only English person in my workplace and present her with the following request: could she please ask her parents to make an appointment time, go to the museum wearing Google Glasses or carrying a video camera, and watch the performance so it could be recorded. Interestingly she said that she thought that her parents might not want to be involved in this. Something about criminal charges and such. The details are fuzzy; I stopped listening after "No." I then figured that my best bet is to hire a computer hacker who could break into the computer system and get access to the recording. It works on TV so it must be true, right? Except for one thing -- the recording was on a cassette, not uploaded as a digital file, as far as I could tell. So I widened my net and decided to hire a crack team of mercenaries who could break in, replace the tape with a fake, and spirit the performance away. I would watch it and then mail it back anonymously. It would be wrong to make an unauthorized copy so I wouldn't, but I would tell the thieves that I would need their services next year, same time.

Eventually, I gave up that plan when I realized that I don't know how to hire a crack team of mercenaries.

I decided to give it the old college try once more (England has many old colleges). I went down the list of actors affiliated with the performance and saw a name I recognized -- Zawe Ashton. It just so happens that I show another class of mine a performance of Othello and she is in that and is great. But do I track down her agency and go the same route? NO! I decided to go a different route and I found her Twitter account.

I hate Twitter. I have had 2 different accounts and I stopped using both of them. I have lost my passwords and I don't mind because I hate Twitter. That would prove to be a problem. So I found the school tech guy and had to explain to him why I wanted to co-opt the school Twitter account to send an unsolicited tweet to Zawe Ashton asking if she had in her possession a videotape from 2007. Once he stopped laughing at me, he agreed. I typed up the tweet and sent it via email to him. Yes, I emailed the a tweet. He reworded a bit and sent it out.

At this point, I have started showing my class the 1974 version but I await good news at every moment.

And if you are reading this, Mr. Cumberbatch, you might want to reassure the good people at the V&A that you are ok with a larger, paying audience. And give Nick a raise.