Thursday, December 19, 2013

Everything new is old again

Well, it happened.

It has happened to so many people over the years and I know that each person remembers exactly where he was when it happened to him. Now, with the advent of this here ol' computing machine, I can memorialize and eternalize that moment and share it with others like so much misery.

I was in a bad mood to begin with (starting approximately 40 years ago). I'm a middle aged guy who is working hard not to eat junk food, to watch quality television and to share special moments with my family. There is nothing on TV, the only movie we could all agree on is not available yet and I have been craving donuts for a while now. I decided to get some donuts. This is the beautiful thing about living here in scenic Teaneck -- I can get kosher Dunkin Donuts at relatively late hours (9:30 PM this evening). I was asked by my wife to pick up a latte (that's French for "not really coffee") and by my daughter for a hot chocolate so I went, ready to spend some cash and buy some calories. I even thought about getting a coffee for myself. This, I thought, was going to be epic. OK, so there is nothing on TV. OK so my family would rather watch reruns of test patterns than have a conversation with me. Donuts would make it all better. Don't they always?

I bundle up and I drive off, visions of custard, glazes and cookies in my head. I'm an adult, I figure, so I can buy whatever the heck I want and I don't have to explain myself away to anyone. Two words for you: E PIC.

In I go, the only customer. I scan the bins and realize that donut places are not really equipped to cater to the discerning chocolate palate this late at night. There are only 2 anemic cookies left in the chocolate family. But I figure I can rationalize some other flavor so I start planning my assault on Mt. Carb-Coma. In the meanwhile I place the order for the drinks. One decaf latte, skim milk, three sugars. Check. One small hot chocolate. Check. The cashier rings up the total and before I make my donut choice (possibly a dozen red velvet donut holes, both cookies and a chocolate chip muffin and, oh yeah, an entire coffee cake, but not blueberry; I'm not a pig, people) I take a look at the running total.

And there it is: the latte? $1.39. The cocoa? $1.74. But is the subtotal $3.73? Nope. It is $3.54. There is another line which reads

1 Senior 5% (0.19)

The woman at Dunkin Donuts, arguably the most important woman in my life, at least at that moment, has decided that I am a senior citizen and I should get a senior citizen discount.


I'm 43 years old. I wear jeans and t-shirts with sneakers. I sit on the floor and eat cold cereal with milk while I am too close to the TV. I read the comics. For heaven's sake, I laugh at toilet humor! I AM NOT A SENIOR CITIZEN.

So this is it. I am officially old. There is no category beyond this one besides "dead."

I still recall when I moved from the child category to the adult category when paying for admission to the Bronx Zoo (well worth it, by the should visit). I remember when I became old enough to watch R rated movies without a parent, and I realized that I couldn't watch them without a car, or money, or interest. I recall when I became old enough to drink and vote, and vote about drinking. My draft registration notice. My ability to rent a car, to become president. I remember all these moments. I remember when I changed demographic groups in terms of television watching and then, in terms of insurance rates. When my gums started receding, when my gut started having so much guts that it didn't only come out at night. I remember becoming a teenager, exiting into my 20's, then my 30's. I remember turning 40 but I thought there would be time before I moved into the next and last phase of my life. I was looking forward to the good natured joking with friends as we started getting mail from the AARP, started computing our retirement savings and started arguing about Social Security but not in the abstract.

I thought there would be time. But alas, Dunkin Donuts, the final arbiter of all that is meaningful has called me to the next step and I am powerless to object.

But I didn't give back the nineteen cents. This old man isn't an idiot.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I don't count and not just because I don't know how

I don't like statistics very much. This is, for me, not much of a problem though I don't know exactly how much of a non-problem it is. I also hear that statistics doesn't like me so I feel justified.

I read the news this morning. The hour was early (or late, depending on your schedule) and I recall reading something which made the following claim: "But the broad movement in support of immigration reform has already won the public debate. Two of three Americans support comprehensive and common sense change..." That may not have been the exact article but the sentiment was the same.

I did some mental math, so already I was angry. As of...right...NOW...there are about 314 million people in the United States. Including me. That means that someone had to ask all 314 million of them in order to ascertain who was in favor of immigration reform. Now I know that my memory isn't the greatest, but I really, really don't recall ever having been asked out it. Sure, I get phone calls from research firms asking me about recent movies I have seen or my intake of non-prescription pain medication, but no one has asked me about immigration reform. And you know what? I don't know what I think about it so had they asked me, the ultimate statistic would have to have been altered to reflect that I don't have a firm opinion instead of the Boolean "support" or "don't support." It should have read "Two out of almost three Americans...and then there is this other guy who just isn't sure yet..." But that's not what it said. Clearly, they don't value me and what I have to say. So I have been excluded from the research and this, to my mind, invalidates the study.

I went online to check on this and found no fewer than 10 other current articles making claims about the knowledge or opinions of all Americans. Apparently, they know how much I am aware of health care reform and Small Business Saturday, where I was when Mandela was freed and how I feel about the recent nuclear pact with Iran. All without talking to me? That's a bit presumptuous, don't you think? Well, you should. All those studies? Invalid.

I know what you are going to say -- the researchers identified a sample audience which is a representative microcosm of the whole and extrapolated data from it. Man, you are arrogant and smug. And wrong. These articles don't say that. They don't say "out of a group of random Americans, X% believe that..." or "100 people surveyed -- top 5 answers on the board." The article says that this is a truth about the American people. I'm an American people. I was neither asked nor consulted. My opinion was assigned and not requested.

This is wrong, wrong I say. If newspapers want to know my opinion (and who wouldn't, right?) they need to ask me. Otherwise they do not have my permission to represent my stance on issues of current import. I would suggest that you all change your Facebook statuses to "I officially declare my independence from being statistically abstracted and refuse to allow those with their fingers on the pulse of the nation to touch my privacy parts" in order to protect your autonomy of thought and not have yourself lumped in with some group of mere commoners. I think that you can do that, by law.

So if you see an article which reads "3 out of 4 Americans surveyed believe that a 'nutritious breakfast' is a financial burden" you should know that either I was asked or that somewhere at the end of the article there will be the statement, "Clarification: We did NOT ask Dan so we don't know where he stands on this one."

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How do I love thee? No really, how?

Recently, I saw the newest installment of the Hunger Games series. I'll try not to spoil anything during this discussion, but if you don't already know that the main character, Claptrap Evergreen remains hungry, then you aren't going to want to watch this movie anyway. So, during the movie, the chief bad guy, known as President Snow (this is symbolic because he is played by Donald Sutherland and he represents snow and college professors who sleep with Karen Allen...heady stuff, symbolism) is watching the dystopian version of television (known as "television") with his granddaughter. This humanizes him and reminds us that even the most vicious, hardened career politician can lose the remote. So his granddaughter, lovingly played by, well, I don't know, but I'm sure she will be in rehab and People magazine soon enough, looks at the screen even though she should be outside playing and getting some fresh air and we asked you to watch her while we ran errands and all you did was stick her in front of the television? We are not voting for you next time Grampa President. She sees two characters taking a break from the monotony of escaping certain death to share an embrace and probably, fleas and she says "someday, I want to love someone like that." I hope she doesn't refer to the fleas.

So, pop-pop Snow (I can't imaging she calls him President) says "You will." It is said with that knowing look which indicates that he wasn't really listening and if she would just shut up, he could remember where he put the remote so he can put CNBC back on or at least the History channel. Anything but this reality crap. How do these kids watch this stuff? Damn kids...errands my eye. They just want to dump this rugrat on me so that they can drink coffee and plan how they are going to spend my money. MY money.

I thought about that level of love and how you know that it is there. Then I took a walk (by then, I mean a day later) with my younger daughter. The child is 14. This isn't really a "baby" by most conventional standards but we both let the other operate under than illusion. She lets me hug her and I let her let me hug her. While we were walking, and we held hands (which is OK because no one was around to see), she stumbled a bit. Now I don't know if you have kids, but something I realized from way back when is that when I am holding my kids' hands, or at least one of them, and she stumbles, my hand tightens reflexively and I pull up. When they were little, this was useful because it saved them from falling on their faces. This would, in turn, cause crying and such and I would have to pick up my child and carry her, and this would hurt my back. This seems to me to be a profound expression of love which exists on a level beyond what we try for. By the way, a hurting back is no laughing matter unless it happens to someone else Can you imagine if I had to carry a grown child now because she won't stop crying about some stupid lollipop or whatever? My back hurts just thinking about. And so do my teeth. I hate lollipops. Now that she is older, you would figure that if she stumbles, I can be reassured that she will be able to right herself, or else, she will fall and get back up. I imagine that were I to walk with someone else to whom I am not related, and still, felt the need to holds hands with, were that person to stumble, I would act in a perfectly appropriate fashion and let go, thus saving myself, and giving us both something to laugh about. Or at least me something to laugh about and someone to laugh about So the net sum is still 2 laughs. That's gotta count for something.

And yet, for this 14 year old, I held on for dear life. And I have noticed the same thing when I hold hands with my wife or my older daughter. Imagine that kind of deep seated love that I must have on an instinctual level, that, without thinking, I tense up and move to protect that thing which means so much. So, to you, young Snow grad daughter, here is my blessing for you -- when you grow up, and when you have gotten over the trauma of learning how much of a jerk your grandfather is (and what's with that beard?), that you find someone you want to share your life with. And, as you age, you never forget that there is a deep mutual reliance and therefore urge to protect that thing that makes you stand tall and feel a sense of pride and happiness -- so when you are walking with your grown child and you hold her hand and she stumbles, your love bubbles up without any effort and you do what ever it takes to protect the well being of your back.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Seven simple rules for being a grown up

Dear the young people,

I am speaking to you know from the future. Actually, the present, but your future. I am here to tell you about what we in the real world like to call "the real world." This is life, the one you live, so go and suck it up (with apologies to you, Ms. Romano). So many books exist which tell you about the rules of life and being an adult and they, well, they sugar coat it so being an adult seems like a reasonable and fun thing to do. Sure, I can set my own bedtime. And yet I keep falling asleep at 8:30, often while driving. Sure, I can eat whatever I want. But also have to pay for it (monetarily and digestively). I can watch R rated movies. But I have to pay for the tickets so I start to evaluate if the movie is worth the hours of my day and I usually decide that it isn't.

So in the pursuit of full disclosure (which I can do because I'm an adult) I present some real rules about life as a big person. Start taking notes because this is the good stuff, bucky.

1. Doing your best isn't good enough. I know, we have been telling you that all that matters is that you try your hardest and we'll be proud of you. Lies. Insidious, damned lies. Mostly because this allows you to do less than your best and claim that you couldn't do any better. But we watch you play with your phone or load up a movie and say "I'm done" and we know that it isn't really your best so we don't need to be proud of you. And let's say that you really did work really hard on something and still came up short. Should we pat you on the back and say "well, you tried and that's what matters"? Will that heal me? Will I feel comfy driving my car as long as the mechanic tried his best. Sorry to be mean about it but the world expects you to get things right, not right-esque. There is no A for effort. There is an E and it is perilously close to F.

2. The world doesn't care. That doesn't mean that no one in the world cares but that the world will keep on spinning even if you have a splinter. Whatever your excuse about not having stuff done, the world will keep on moving. If your boss needs work done and you don't get it done, he will find someone else who can do it. As a wise man once told me, "the cemetery is full of irreplaceable people." Get it right, get it done and move on. Stories don't get you out of what is the only commodity that matters: results.

3. Everything has to be top priority. Don't tell me that's illogical sport-o. That's the way life is. Everything is on the front burner all the time. This is why we call it stress and not "that relaxed feeling of knowing that you can take care of things on a comfy set of rolling deadlines." We want it all and we want it now. No apologies to Queen. So you have to work more hours than exist? Welcome to the world.

4. Life isn't here to be easy or amuse you. The world isn't going to cater to what you want and what you expect. You are here to cater to it. So what if that other guy didn't do his part. More work for you? Deal with it. You say your job is no fun? Can you pay your bills? Not being able to pay your bills is 'not fun.' Being able to afford to keep living in your house is a fricking laugh riot. You can't have steak every night, or every week, or sometimes, every year. The exception? If you win the lottery (literally or metaphorically) and trust me, that isn't happening. Why? Because I know you and I don't know anyone that lucky that I can sponge off him. So sorry sad sack. Set that alarm, pack your brief case and get back to the grind of the rest of your life.

5. You don't get a trophy just for participating. You get a social security number and a set of bills. Someone else has a trophy and you are going to have to pummel him with a shovel and pry it our of his cold, dead fingers, and then be on the constant lookout for the next guy hiding a shovel behind his back.

6. It doesn't get better, you just, in some way and to some degree get used to it. More starts to hurt. Less works the way it used to. Things stop being the kind of simple fun that you remember from the sanitized memory of what was, in reality, a pretty crappy youth. You begin to realize that things never were particularly good. People were always mean and flying was never really safe. You just want to lock the doors to your house, curl up in a ball and never move again. Guess what? The guy at he bank doesn't care. He dragged his sorry self in to work that day so when he comes to repossess your dentures and he sees you hiding from the world, he's going to be doubly annoyed.

7. Life IS work. Nice guys finish first or last depending on so many things that they can't always control. Be nice simply because you think it is the right thing to do regardless of life. Don't think that you get rewarded for being a good person. If you are a good person then you act that way because you don't know any other way to live. And then you work your butt off to go above and beyond what anything thinks is required or even a bit impressive. You spend every waking moment wondering how you can do whatever it is better than anyone else, and you worry constantly that you haven't pushed hard enough.

Old Man Rosen

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Snicker snicker

Tonight I post from the heart of NYC. I am the chauffeur for a gaggle of screaming teenies who just HAVE to see their idol in concert in Times Square. But instead of sending them on their own, or driving, dropping them off and then coming back in, I have decided to stay in TS and relax while I wait for them to come out. This experience should be enough to inspire an angry post. About the traffic, the car accident right in front of me which made turning from 46th onto Broadway difficult, or the pedestrian traffic which made turning back onto 45th almost impossible. I saw 2 naked cowboys, an Elmo, a Minnie Mouse, a Spider Man, a Statue of Liberty and also some people dressed up as characters. There were tourists galore taking pictures of each other standing in traffic because when you get back to wherever it is you have come from, you want to show your friends how you stood in traffic and didn't get killed. Unless you got killed. Then that's gotta be embarrassing. The parking lot I was looking for simply does not exist. There are 2 others on the same block but not the one the internet promised me. But I have my coffee and am on the 8th floor of the Marriott in the lobby on my computer being very much the cool guy writing on his blog about how he is above being impressed by Times Square and the real NY is a bunch of blocks away where no one really goes because it is too cool. Yeah. I'm that guy.

But that's not what I wanted to write about. I needed to discuss a serious issue which arose this afternoon as I read the circulars. Admit it -- you read the circulars also, sometimes to check prices and other times just to get a sense of all the cool stuff that the world has to offer. So anyhoo, I was working my way through the Target circular (I am not getting paid for mentioning them. I wish I was, but apparently, they don't work like that. Jerks.) and I see this candy bar. Take a look.

Now, let's review, shall we? Snickers bar. Got it. And, no, they aren't paying me either. What is up with this world? Here I am, dropping brand names left and right and delivering a consistent 20 sets of eyes and I get nothing for my trouble. This is dumb, and quite possibly, not fair. I'll have to check. So, Snickers. I love Snickers bars. If you see me, give me one and watch my face light up. And then break out in acne, but whatever. They're really good.

Size? One pound. Think about that -- a ONE POUND Snickers bar. Your standard bar is 2.07 ounces. This is bigger than that, I checked. A pound, according to my sources, is 16 ounces. So that's almost 8 bars in one. Those miniatures bother me but this is perfect over compensation. One pound. Snickers. I am right there.

Then I see it: "Slice and Share."

What? Let's review THAT, shall we?

First off, who in the world slices candy bars. It just isn't done. I once saw a television show about a finishing school where the hoity toity people learn to use all sorts of cutlery. Salad fork, soup spoon, custard tongs. Whatever. THERE WAS NO CANDY KNIFE. No candy knife, indeed. One simply does not slice a Snickers bar. I'm sorry but that's a real truth. The accepted ways of divvying up a candy bar are-

What? That sounds wrong. Oh year, the other problem besides "slice" is "share." Who the hell are you to tell me that I have to share this thing. I bought it and I'm gonna eat it. Share a candy bar? Maybe a Twix which has 2 distinct pieces. Maybe maybe a Kit Kat that can be snapped apart. I always thought that that was just a convenience for the one person who was going to eat the whole thing so he could save a discrete piece for later but, hey, I am willing to accept that once, somewhere, someone thought that after eating 12 Kit Kats he could celebrate his anniversary by breaking one piece off for his significant other. It might have happened. I don't approve but I can concede the hypothetical.

But a Snickers bar? There is no scoring in it to allow disassembly. There is no other piece (a la the 100 Grand bar so that while you are spending half an hour working on the first piece, you can bribe a security guard with the other piece). The Snickers bar is a singular unit. I buy it, I eat it. I will not be bullied into sharing my candy with anyone. You want some, go buy some.

Anyway, I'm going to finish my coffee and go to the M+M's store and have a couple of pounds of M+M's. If you see me, don't even ask.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Help, not just anybody

I know that a few years ago, I wrestled with a question of the "offer to help." At that point, I was trying to offer it and realized how little I had to provide, were my offer accepted. Today, the tables were turned. I will speak to you now of inverted tables.

This morning, I was walking down the hallway, holding 18 copies of the Merchant of Venice (the Folger edition) and a Spanish textbook. Actually, the textbook was printed in Evanston, IL I think, but it is a textbook for a Spanish class, which I guess would be a 'clase'. As I made my way to the room in which I intended to drop the books, a 10th grade student said "Do you need any help?" I paused for a moment, precariously balancing the books in my arms while I struck a pose.

[INTERRUPTION -- please, please, oh please, do not take what I write as anything demeaning the seemingly altruistic offer to help. I truly appreciate that people, on their own, ask if they can help. What I am about to write should not be taken as any sort of condemnation or mockery of the innate good in people as they attempt to ease the burden of others.]

What a stupid thing to ask, I thought.

I collected myself and looked the student in the eye and asked "And what exactly do you think that you would do to help? You have to go to class. Your class is here and I am headed somewhere else. I was doing fine carrying these until you stepped in my way to ask me to help. You don't know where I am going with these or what resources (if any) I lack -- what are you bringing to the table with your offer. Do I look like I am struggling because I feel fine, but thanks for the vote of no confidence. Seriously, really, what were you thinking when you made that offer?"

The student looked at me, smiled, and said "Huh?" That seemed about right, so I kept walking.

I do really like when people ask if they can help, but offering a favor only buys you credit when it is a reasonable offer that makes sense. You don't get the brownie points if you volunteer to eat my lunch, even though you are volunteering for something. A student asking if I need help carrying some books, unless that student has a cart or knows which door I need opened and can anticipate the need, is offering me nothing.

[INTERRUPTION -- remember...for the love of God, remember, I was deeply touched by the unsolicited offer of help from a student who, wrapped in that student's own life, could have ignored me and not stepped forward to try and make my life easier. I honestly and sincerely am proud of that student and, though I didn't need help at that moment, admire that student more because of the attempt.]

Dumb kid.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Read all about it

This, I have come to realize, is a blog. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was a blog, but I could never be really sure. Now wait, you say, how could you not know that it was a blog. You NAMED it a blog. Well, that's true, but you are missing the point. I knew it was a "blog" but not a blog. The difference you ask? (ask it, dammit) The difference was provided by an old friend, Judah Holstein, who commented on Facebook that he was going to ask me what I have been up to, but he doesn't feel the need because he has been following this blog.

Side note -- someone reads this? Holy cow! OK, we're back.

The "blog," an exercise in personal expression is actually a log of my development as a sociopath and is used by others to keep track of who I am and how I repeatedly fail to think. This is, it seems, a personal newspaper. Well, monthly newsmagazine maybe. This is how people can read about me in long-form (smarmy Facebook quotes are the Readers' Digest version I guess) and this eliminates the need for me to interact with anyone on a personal basis. I can publish these updates and people will say "he is just too unbalanced to speak with. I'll read this and be comforted that I don't have to have him over for a meal."

So, anyway, this is the most recent issue of The New Dan Times. The comics are dark, the sports section is sparse but the op eds are flowing. Subscriptions are worth the paper this is printed on.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Food for Thought

Apologies in advance. I'm not in a joking mood. These thoughts are more on the serious side.

We have been blessed by whatever creative force we believe in with a brain and the ability to think. It is a weighty responsibility and too often, we either take it for granted or simply shirk it. Maybe we are possessed of an uncertainty -- when should I think? I would like to present some advice about when to think (besides "always," as that doesn't seem to work for everyone, IBM employees notwithstanding).

The fact is, we are split in two. Religiously, we call the tendency to go against the urge to go against our moral code the yetzer harah or "evil inclination." A more secular mind might just call it a lack of conscience. This idea, that people have two parts which strive is not new. In fact, one could look in Genesis 25:23. Rebecca was told that she had 2 nations in her womb and that 2 regimes which would split off were vying within her. In the next verse, she prepares to birth "and behold! twins!" Why would the text have to say "behold"? Because the prophecy regarding the two nations and two different natures could have applied to a single child, racked with a mature sense -- a positive inclination, and a less mature one, an evil inclination and the two polar opposites would be constantly fighting for dominance within the individual. Imagine how tortured she must have felt until that moment of birth, thinking that her singular child would ultimately lose this battle of conscience and the younger, less mature sense would ultimately win out. At least when she had twins she knew that they would be separate and not have the incessant internal struggle for dominance. It must have been a relief and a frightening thought at the same time.

But we are not twins (except those of you who are). We have those two nations within each of us all the time. We have the capacity for incredible goodness, to create a world, a regime, a nation based in kindness and propriety. We also have the inverse potential for evil. Aside from those few truly righteous or truly evil people, we are constantly torn. If knowing this resolved when to think, then all would be fine and no one would ever be able to claim "I didn't think about the consequences." But that isn't the case.

As a separate issue, we also make connections to other people and we invest some of our identity in how others deal with and think of us. We aren't hermits. We, to varying degrees, allow ourselves to be completed by people whom we respect or fear or whose judgment means something to us. When that person is disappointed, it matters. When someone else is disappointed, we couldn't care less.

When we lie, we are creating a mask, a second self. In the moment when we choose to hide something we create a false front because we want people to think one thing even when we know that the truth is elsewhere. We have established the inwards and exterior man and we hope that we keep the two separate.

So here's the bit of advice: when you are faced with any decision which would require the creation of a false you -- any choice you have to make which will split your identity into a secret one and a public one think about how you would feel if someone you respect or fear were to find out about the secret one. That's your moment of thought. It isn't driven by theological machinations but by your own personal sense of how someone whose opinion of you, you value. Does this mean that this person will certainly find out? No but that isn't the question. Decide how you would feel IF that person found out. Think about that potential -- THAT is when you think. And don't think about the "consequences" of the behavior -- we justify things by saying "no one will get hurt" or "the punishment won't be that bad." That thinking won't help. Instead, think about that person you respect, whose view of you matters.

If you come to the conclusion that IF that person found out, you would be unhappy with that consequence then you should have enough sense to stop. If you truly care about that other person's opinion then knowing that the creation of a separate, hidden identity should be avoided. If, instead you continue the act then your decision to continue, even after that thinking, signals a real problem inside you. You do care and yet you don't. You need to get that fixed. That would be like knowing before the fact that putting your hand in a meat grinder will hurt but doing it anyway because you want to. You are an idiot - if that external judgment of your character doesn't sway you then it never really did and you are cutting yourself off. You deserve whatever consequence you get.

If, after thinking about it, you decide NOT to act, then you are protected. You have used thinking to drive your behavior and to stay safe. If you think about it and realize that that other person would not be troubled by the behavior (and you are being brutally honest with yourself about it...lying to yourself is a horrible thing to do) then your decision to act is perfectly reasonable and have a good time.

But remember, this is only for behaviors that would require that you hide something. If eating a sammich isn't a matter of hiding anything or lying about it, then go right ahead. But if the action will require any sort of subterfuge, you have only a moment to think. You have a brief window to stop yourself and simply think about the way someone else would react if he or she found out about the behavior. Sure, it would be nice to think about the behavior itself and use good judgment to decide how to act, but if that isn't working, then THINK about how someone else would react if he knew you lied or his some behavior.

So clearly, this isn't about having to think all the time about every action and decision. It is about identifying key moments when your choice to hide something or lie about something would be looked at unfavorably by someone whose voice you find important, and it starts with "to thine own self be true."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Connecting, please wait

A dear colleague and friend of mind recently posted on Facebook that he wanted connection. I won't give his name. Not because I don't know it, but because it isn't important. You can go search Facebook for anyone who wants connection and figure it out.

I guess that that is part of the entire experience of life (and the underlying plea of Facebook users), to want connection. And I fear that the basic flaw is in the belief that everyone else HAS it and we are in some way missing out. The fact is (as far as I can see it and proclaim my personal read on life as fact) we all, or at least most of us crave connection. We are social animals. And while some of us are content to seclude ourselves in the woods and live on our own terms, we still want to connect. Think of everything you have read about individualism and self-reliance. Why was that even written? Because the Emersons and Thoreaus of the world wanted to feel that they connected with a reader to communicate an essential understanding. If someone really didn't want to connect, he wouldn't write.

And we don't just write because we have ideas that spill onto paper. Sure, some is like that. I have a shoebox in my closet with all sorts of stuff I have written and while I claim that my collection of poems, jokes and angry paragraphs is just so much venting, I secretly hope that my heirs discover it and I become the next Emily Dickinson. Dash, so there. In fact, I have made the printing of my collected works a requirement in my will so it isn't as much a secret hope as much as an overt attempt to force myself on the world.

Outside of writing (which I am doing right now, and hoping for readers so I will self-promote, all in an effort to connect with people), we all also want to connect. And we look at others and assume that they connect often because they have the trappings of connection. It could be a membership in a club, a spouse, a position as a nexus in a community, a poker game, siblings. Whatever it is, they have and I don't. But even those positions and what appear to be natural connections are all illusory. I know plenty of married people who are cripplingly lonely, plenty of sociable folks who always have a plan who feel isolated. Donne, as much as he was right, was also wrong. Every man is an island, constantly drifting (well, islands don't drift, but the image of every man being a dinghy isn't nearly as evocative) and constantly reaching out to latch on, however temporarily to other island/dinghies. [I don't think that before this, in my 44 years of life, I ever wrote the word "dinghies."]

As I see it, no one has connections. People only make connections and then remake them on a daily basis. I lived with a roommate in college -- same room and all that. Did we have a connection? Only in that we saw each other every day. When we didn't there was nothing. That isn't a criticism. That isn't a complaint. It is a fact. How many people are we ridiculously close with because we work with them or live next to them, and then we distance intervenes, we drift apart. This is life. People don't simply stay in love -- they have to fall back into love every day. That's why relationships are hard work. Friendships are exactly the same. If you don't hit F5 daily, the page grows stale, weary and flat.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't bemoan not recognizing connections. Most of us don't. we don't see the effect we have on others when we aren't there. We don't hear when they quote us when we aren't around or tell a story about us. We don't keep track of how much they miss us when we don't show up some where. But it all happens. We have more connections than we know and have to make more connections than we often have energy for. So we spend our lives often empty, but filling up the lives of others.

If it helps, you have made many connections, and ones which won't disappear even after they stop giving you the sense of wholeness that we all need and feed off of every day.

God, I hope someone reads this.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Forget me yes

I used to think that the worst thing in the world was to be forgotten. I used to feel crushed when I ran into a former student and he didn't recognize me or remember my name. Gosh, I thought, I had 25 students in your class last year/five years ago/fifteen years ago, and yet I remember you (to some degree) and at the time, you seemed to enjoy my class. How could you forget me?

I was walking through the hallway this morning next to another teacher and a knot of students approached us, all smiles. I recognized the group -- we had had a really successful class last year, full of laughter, rigorous thinking and innovation. A great year; they all performed well and were proud of themselves and the class. One spoke up and said, "You are my favorite class!" To a teacher, that makes sense. I was about to say something when I realized that the student was talking to the teacher next to me. My heart fell. I thought I was the best. I thought my class would be the one which left that indelible mark. And here I am, replaced by October.

My gut says to lash out. Frailty, thy name is student! O heavens! There isn't hope a great teacher's memory may outlive his class half a year. [wow...that Hamlet play is really useful.]

But then I pushed ego aside. I tried to grow up. This schooling thing isn't about me. It is about a student's positive experience. I don't WANT him to remember me because I want him to be so overwhelmed with great teachers who inspire and entertain, teach and guide that I want it to be impossible to remember me amidst the throng of fabulous educators. If I am the favorite then that means that all the other teachers don't match up and I know that that isn't true. I want students to move ahead and make connections with new people, to get excited by other classes and not to be stuck in their old experiences. I think the best thing I can see is a student whose eyes light up when other teachers walk by and who, when they see me, smile and nod politely.

Sure, it is nice when a student from years ago says "I have had 50 teachers since you but still, you are the tops" but when it doesn't happen I won't see it as a failure for me, but a success for the educational system and that student.

Monday, September 30, 2013

On the wings of thought

This morning, as I drove to work along a quiet suburban street, I had to tap on the brakes at an unexpected moment. As I cruised down the road, I saw a bird crossing the street. It was not a chicken and I was uninterested in its motives so I kept driving. I had, what I suspected, was a reasonable thought process going. I figured that he (or she, I don't wish to run a fowl of any gender issues) would choose to fly away as my car approach. If the bird chose to stand there and challenge me, I would be like a tank in Tiananman Square circa 1989 and drive around him, and then embrace capitalism. Maybe I would just smoosh him.

So what did the bird do? And I remind you, this was not a duckling waddling behind a mommy duck, headed on a pilgrimage to the Boston Garden to watch the Bruins. This was a pigeon. Maybe a quail or a grouse. But not a duck. I wouldn't even like to buy a duck. This bird kept walking across the street. He picked up the pace a bit, but he kept walking.

Before you say anything, he, after getting to the curb, flew away.

He knew he had wings. He consciously chose to walk across the street. Now, I know that I often get angry too easily but I think this situation merits my ire. That bird knew he could fly whenever he wanted to and he decided that, at that moment, with a minivan bearing down on him, walking was his best option. I have composed a series of possibilities:

1. He is the ultimate lazy slacker, unappreciative of his natural gifts, letting them fust in him, unused. I see in this the criticism I have of many of the young people -- they can do so much more but they choose not to. Very frustrating. Even some squirrels who can't fly still try to fly. The least this bird could do would be to try.

2. He is not that smart and didn't realize either that he could fly (until he reconsidered the situation at the curb and said "maybe I could have handled that differently...let's see if these wings are of any use") or that flight was his best option at the moment. Maybe he wanted to fly but the message moved too slowly from his bird-brain to his wings and by the time he took off, he actually had no interest in flying. Then we should have a sign that says "Caution, slow birds."

3. He is a spiteful little flying rat who knew this would drive me into a rage.

People ask me why I am not a vegetarian and I tell them that I think that the animals deserve to be eaten.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

I wish I was Donne

I heard recently about a tragedy last week. A young girl and her mother were hit by a car. The mom died. The girl was in surgery -- we hope she will pull through but she still lost her mother. As a community, various schools, synagogues and communal organizations banded together to raise money and pray for her.

Prayer. That's an important part of our response. We have faith. Sure it makes no sense to outsiders (how can prayer change a future if God has already ordained it? how can words have any effect on the divine? why would MY prayers have anything to do with this girl?) but praying on behalf of named parties is a consistent part of our practice. I also heard that a former teacher of mine was diagnosed with leukemia. Her name, along with the name of her mother [needed as part of the formula for invoking God's mercy and healing] was sent out and people were asked to recite psalms and pray for her recovery. Prayer.

So in synagogue, the next day, everyone quieted down and we recited a psalm (130 or 121, I forget which) and the person in charge said a special request for God's help in healing the girl. She was mentioned by name. We gave charity. We spoke in hushed tones. Then we moved on.

The next day, we said nothing.

That bothered me. The girl is still in the hospital. She has not miraculously and completely healed. My teacher is still sick. Why do we feel less today than we did yesterday? Why STOP praying? In fact, I know that when names are passed around to be added to lists recited during prayers, names often stay on for days and weeks and people either take them off after a given amount of time (say, a month) if no one asks to keep them on, or they stay on until someone is notified that the person has healed or died.

But we stopped.

I asked a local Rabbi about it. A smart man, one who leads his own congregation. He was skeptical about the practice on the whole, what with names passed across the internet and this notion that a group's prayer in one state for a stranger elsewhere has any efficacy at all in God's eyes. When I asked about why, if we thought it had value, we would stop, he spoke about how people become inured to it and that cheapens the prayers. We should save them for when we have the passion to infuse in the wishes a true and connected sincerity. In his community, a girl has cancer and they say prayers daily, because she is of the community and there is a constant connection. But here? In New Jersey? For a girl in Florida? People don't have a reason to feel like it matters so the prayers are useless.

I thought about this. It seemed more a concession to a large and communal failure than a reasonable reaction liturgically to the facts of life. Why don't we care? He said "People are sick everyday. Are we supposed to pray for everyone all the time?" I thought (very loudly, verging on speech), "YES!" We are supposed to care so deeply and intensely that we can't do anything BUT pray for others. We should have to be torn away from prayer if we truly think that prayer is effective at petitioning the Almighty and we really believe that we are all responsible for each other as brother in the house of Israel. He said "People can't do that."

So I asked about John Donne. He wasn't so familiar. I have a passing knowledge of a few of Donne's works so I quoted Meditation 17, the famous one.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me..."

Donne's point is that we have to feel that everyone in our extended cultural or religious family is an integral part and the loss of any individual MUST sadden us in a profound way, as much as if a friend or relative suffered. We have to feel the sickness and death all the time. Depressing, but necessary. In the same way that we celebrate communally, we must have concern communally. We cannot simply say that so-and-so wasn't close enough to care about. We throw our hands up and then wash them (no doubt, then, dripping self-pity on our heads) of any moral emotional investment. But Donne says that any man's death diminishes him. He feels the pain all the time. It is part of his being alive and a member of the group called humanity.

The rabbi paused, and finally said "That Donne is a tzaddik (pious sage)."

I don't know if anyone has ever called Donne a tzaddik before but his attitude, to me bears consideration. I'm not saying he was completely right. In fact, to my mind, he ruins the moment in the next line. He says that that bell which tolls (yes, it comes from this. Hemingway didn't invent it) to tell of a tragedy and a death doesn't toll for the victim, but for the hearer. He says that it reminds us of our own mortality and our own sense of loss. It tolls as if we were dying so that we are stirred to sadness. I think that it tolls to stir us to remember our responsibility towards each other. It tolls to remind us that all is not always wonderful. It is the constant stepping on the glass from a Jewish wedding. When we think it tolls for another town, another community or another synagogue's members then we stop caring and that's the danger.

I know that in Judaism, the naming of an individual is important. Trust me, I know. I know that the talmud says that one who quotes something in the name of its source brings salvation to the world. And we learn that praying on behalf of someone else, a specific person, is powerful and merits the requests of the individual praying be answered first (read this for more, or pretty much, the same). But if we wait until we know the name, if we wait until we can make that connection, we have waited too long.

In college, I had a friend who would go to services during finals. It mattered then that he gave charity and prayed. I have met others who say certain prayers with more fervor when they finally make sense. "I have a test today, so the prayer for intelligence and wisdom is relevant, so I will focus on it this morning." That's a fine start but what about on another day. Is that prayer suddenly less important? Shouldn't we recognize that others still need that prayer said (our prayers are in the plural. We as for all, not just for ourselves), and that we have it as a request even if we don't overtly know it?

I believe not that we just, as a matter of religious compulsion, or even compunction, add in the saying of psalms on behalf of everyone, at every prayer. I believe that we should refine ourselves until we realize that we WANT to add in the prayers because we feel it is the most important thing we can do. Our religious fervor has its height when it inspires us to feel driven to do certain things without being commanded to, simply because they make the most sense to us (even, yes, in an illogical, faith based system).

I remember being taught some of the intricacies of the afterlife when I was a younger man. The question was asked, "Rebbi, will there be basketball in heaven?" I didn't ask it. I hate basketball. The Rebbi's answer was "Sure...but no one will want to play it. Given a choice of how to spend your time, you will want to learn in the presence of God."

Maybe our resolution for this year should be to try and bring some heaven to our earth and recognize that some things are worth doing, without being reminded by the bell that they are suddenly necessary. Maybe we should stop passing around names to say while we pray -- maybe their inclusion signals the exclusion of all the unnamed parties. Maybe we should start praying for everyone all the time, but not as a matter of rote or because it is part of the liturgy, but because, the same way we feel that we can make the difference in the life of one girl in Florida, we can make a difference in the lives of all the people, known and not known, who are suffering through their own tragedies daily.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

In the write frame of mind

I was asked recently to speak to a bunch of students about the nexus of literature and spirituality. I thought about it and actually developed a couple of ideas. Then no students signed up for the workshop so I was at once, relieved and burdened. While I avoided the need to speak in front of a group of students, I now had all these thoughts whirling in my head. Notice, I was not at all concerned that my speech inspired absolutely no interest from students. I'm used to that. I'm a teacher.

But I was thinking about the whole question and so I figured, if I want no one to hear it, I might as well blog about it. Privacy is at a premium and it is nice to know that I have a small, very private corner of the internet where I can rant or pontificate.

My first reaction was that by reading we often open ourselves up to other paths to the divine. We look beyond the individual and into the life of the words and we let them touch us in a way that is uniquely personal and internal. We read when we are alone and the author cannot judge us. We read in our heads and fill ourselves up with ideas without appearing any different. Donne's Holy Sonnets and Adams' The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul both force the reader to ask questions and come to terms with perspectives. They explore avenues towards the infinite, captured and frozen and retold form a particular angle. Knowing how to read a text in the secular world informs our interaction with religious text. Rhyme and meter, often the anchors of the secular poem, is present in religious writing. Historical content, allusion, figures of speech etc are all part of good writing and literary analysis and help us see beyond the surface when experiencing liturgy or religious canon.

Then I thought about the activity of writing as well. As much as reading is a solitary and private activity, writing is even more. Writing is about crafting your own path to God, and that, dear reader, is scary. Reading gives you an anchor. You work your way into a text and float from idea to idea. Writing dumps you right into the middle of an ocean and you have to create your own anchor. You even have to make your own ocean. You have to create a universe. You have to be a god on a small scale, and your universe will succeed or fall based on you. And through this responsibility one can begin to have a percentage of an inkling of the divine. This is also scary. The idea that your writing represents you, alone, is scary. Facing the notion that you have to have something to say and you have to say it is daunting. You can't rely on others or else your writing ends up being a review, a rehashing, a recap of stale thoughts. New writing means that you stand up and come to terms with who you are and what you have to add to the body of knowledge and understanding in the word.

Like in prayer, we stand alone. We don't wait for God to write our name in a book of life or death. We have to face the task of writing our own fate for God through our expression of who it is we are on the deepest level. When we pray, we open up our hearts and express. When we write, we have to do the same thing, spilling our soul onto the page and owning up to our own identity. Even as we say the words written by others over the millennia, it is in how we express them, much like how we combine the pre-existing vocabulary to tell our own stories, which draws us nearer to heaven. Writing, like reading, is a lonely and meditative act. When we write in a group, we end up with a text mashed together in committee with no soul of its own. When we abdicate personal responsibility to create, we are letting others pray on our behalf and hope that they can communicate our needs effectively. Donne's sonnets might have been written to inspire me, as a reader, but the religious act came to the fore through the process of Donne's writing.

So take some time, find a corner, close your eyes and write. Admit things you otherwise wouldn't, allow yourself to see what you usually don't. Control and command words to allow you to touch the uncontrollable. Understand what it feels like to bring things into being, starting with the calling into existence of your self.

Friday, August 30, 2013

In 50 years, people will study this

I do not write this as mockery. I am not trying to demean or in any way reduce the greatness of the original. I write this because it is true and because it highlights the difference between greatness and me.

I too had a dream.

I dreamt that I was clean shaven. I looked at myself for a while and I knew I shouldn't be clean shaven, but I was.

I dreamt that I stayed at a time-share and had to listen to the sales pitch.

I dreamt that people of all colors ran by holding automatic weapons, to go hunting early in the morning.

I dreamt that a man was flying in a personal helicopter and in that dream, that man, he swooped down in that personal helicopter and I thought he was going to crash but he landed in the lake. And he was safe.

I had a dream that the room I was in could be subdivided by expanding walls which were highly flexible so the room could be reset into myriad configurations, and yet each subdivision would still have access to the bathroom. Suddenly, there was no furniture.

Yes, I had a dream in which I chaperoned many students to this time-share village. There were villas on a hill above where I stayed and one would have to drive up a winding road to get to them. And yet, some people just climbed directly up the hill. And the students misbehaved often.

In that dream the edge of the lake was shallow but as I walked through it, it was surprisingly deep and there was no way around it.

And there was some sort of goose or duck or something.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

What did I do?

We are deep in the month of Elul, a time in the Jewish calendar when we should be similarly deep in introspection. We should be enmeshed in the process of tshuva -- repentance, or literally, returning. By inspecting our behavior, confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness from each other and from God, we hope to secure for ourselves a successful upcoming year. I would like to refocus the discussion though. I think that the process as such is incomplete.

For years, I have been going through the repentance and confessional liturgy in the same way. I take some time and think about my myriad sins. I feel bad about them. I try to own them and accept the responsibility and blame and make whatever recompense is possible while I try to change my behavior so as not to repeat them. On Yom Kippur, I go through the litany of sins and have one of three reactions as I klop my chest:

1. Yup, I did that. Klop a bit harder
2. Well, I considered that or know someone who did that. Still klop with some force
3. I never did that but I'm saying that someone must have so I'll klop.

I have worked at not having the 4th reaction: "What the heck even IS that? I'll klop to keep the rhythm but, come on!"

But I think I have been missing the point. I have to start asking the central question, what did I do?

Tshuva is about returning. The assumption is that I was in a good place, or even, call it the clean slate-home position at the end of last Yom Kippur. Net sum zero. And over the year, I got dragged into negative territory by my sins so I need to return to zero by saying "sorry" and meaning it. But then I'm still a zero. I need to ask not what did I do wrong, but what did I do?

I also have to know that "doing" isn't about me. Sure, I prayed. Sure, I ate kosher, kept the Sabbath etc. I did a bunch of things which should count in my favor. But did I cut myself off from others in a way that my behavior had no real power or impact? Sure, I need to be for myself because no one else can be for me, but was I only for myself? Is that what I did?

As a parent, did I inspire my children not just to perform ritual but to have understanding? Did I help them access meaning and significance so that they wouldn't be going through the motions but expressing a sincere love in their practice of Judaism? Kids don't always ask questions, and often aren't even persuaded by word-based answers. Did I demonstrate a sincerity which helped the bridge the gap from cold, technical study into inspired and warm living? Did I make them do stuff or help them look forward to doing stuff? As a teacher, did I show my students that religion isn't a compartmentalized set of beliefs and texts but is a way of interacting with the world on all levels which enriches even non-religious intellectual investigation? As a member of a community, did I support other people in their pursuit of improvement in their spirituality?

Did I work hard to be the role model of the person comfortable with the demands of his religion and not only ready to, but excited to have the chance to fulfill them? Did I approach my performance of the mitzvot with a zeal that others could see? Did I give others a reason to think that maybe the choice to be observant might make sense because someone who made that choice can still be a person that others want to be like, all around? I once tried to inspre a bunch of 12th graders simply by saying "I can't convince you to have faith, but I hope you see that I have faith and am a reasonably educated guy who leads a full life. Maybe there is no contradiction so you shouldn't shy away from the possibility." Did I, in my more private moments, still feel what I was doing was more than good, or right, or even necessary, but interesting and special? Did I invite my kids to share it with me so we could discover and explore together or did I make it just what they had to do, like a chore -- something for them to say "when I grow up, there is no way..."?

I hate to say it, but the words of "losing my religion" by R.E.M. are beginning to make sense (I'm not a fan of the song, and if I could find a way of citing Driver 8 as a tool to inspire religious fervor, I would). As a parent and teacher, I am in the corner, separate and apart and yet also in the spotlight. And am I losing my religion (not in the personal sense, but maybe "missing the point of religion" or "contributing to a communal loss of religion") because I said too much and yet I haven't said enough. There might be a second verse but I generally turn the song off well before that.

Now, in the month of Elul, I should be looking at what I have done that requires confession and change. But I also need to look at how I can do more, not just less. How I can show my kids, my students and my peers that I am happy being who I am and doing what I do, and that my connection to my Judaism is neither a burden, nor a simple fact of life, like breathing, but a boon, a prize that I am lucky to have and eager to share.

So my resolution for this year? Don't just stay out of the negative and don't just be happy accentuating the positive. Make ever moment an opportunity to show that engaging in the process is itself something I hold on to for dear life. Not just to be a Jew, but to live as a Jew all the time so that others see that living as a Jew is a pretty darned cool thing.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Dark Side of the Celebrity

As I have said before, I am not a political person by nature, and as I have said before, I am a Zionist and find the BDS movement a crock. I also think a lot about the influence of celebrity on our culture. I do try, though, to separate my appreciation for culture and my limited and often private political views. So, yes, I find Mel Gibson's behavior and personal views abhorrent (though simple minded and amusing) but I still enjoy some of his work in film -- his roles and his acting of those roles. So the recent flap over Roger Waters and his views on Israel has got me thinking. Not about me, mind you. I still will listen to my old Pink Floyd albums. If I had any. I liquidated most of my vinyl collection years ago, my cassettes before that. I survive on radio and MP3's. Occasionally, I look at my CD's.

I still enjoy listening to some Syd Barrett tracks even though in 1975 he espoused shaving of eyebrows, a political position I cannot endorse.

Will I go to a Roger Waters concert? No, but I wasn't planning to, anyway. In the rift between Gilmour and Waters, I favor Gilmour so this was never a question. But, while reading through scads of websites and commentary, I have been struck by the number of people who are seemingly influenced by Roger Waters and his call for other artists to boycott Israel. (By the way, kudos to Bar Rafaeli in asking Waters to remove her picture from his video presentation as she is also a product of Israel.) Are people really that dumb? Sometimes I have hope for humanity -- I see flashes of true thought among people. And sometimes, the idiots drag me down. Today, I feel dragged.

I feel this same sense of frustration when people attack Israel and cite Noam Chomsky. Chomsky is a genius, no question. His work on linguistics is so advanced and intense that I long for the day when I understand even a small percentage of it. But why does that make him an expert on Middle East politics? Why does it confer authority on him and let people view his positions as not being influenced by his own agenda or erroneous presumptions? So the same holds true of Waters. He puts a 6 pointed star (usually associated with Judaism) on his inflatable pig. He is making an association between Jews/Judaism/Israel (already a dangerous conflation on his inflation) and a pig. One could extrapolate from that about a view on other stuff related to pigs or something but the bottom line is, if there is anyone in the audience who suddenly is persuaded to form or reform political views of the Middle East conflict based on seeing that prop, I expect that person to be killed on the way home while trying to kiss the grille of an oncoming car because he is asked "don't you love that new Chrysler?"

Roger Waters is not a bad musician. But he isn't a political pundit and I have no reason to believe that he is well informed about any political situation at all. Why would I let a musician, any musician, influence anything other than my views on his music? I barely let the talking heads on cable news influence my politics, and I don't want to see a professional football player give me dental advice. Would anyone defer on issues of French cuisine to a helicopter pilot simply because he is loud or well known? Do people really want to avoid the effort of learning and thinking, or want to adore celebrity so much that they let an actor make up their minds for them, or a musician lead them towards a political stance?

Don't get me wrong -- I understand that celebrities are individuals and have their own feelings about things and more to them for wanting to be involved (just watching Matt Damon speak on behalf of teachers, or Patrick Stewart discuss the problem of domestic abuse makes me want to send them signed, blank checks), but they should be role models in that they stand up for something and encourage others to do the research to develop (theoretically) nuanced views of the world capable of being passionately and intelligently defended. Not that because they stand up for something and are famous, their position is necessarily given more credence and weight or adopted wholesale.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Blenderized Learning

A short discourse on how I understand the concept of "blended learning."

For a while, now, experts in the field have been touting this advance in pedagogy called "blended learning." I have done some reading and come to terms with how I understand it and what my concerns with it are. I thought I'd commit them to writing so I can both self-critique by reviewing my thoughts, and invite explanation and commentary.

Blended learning, in its simplest form, is the shifting of the presentation of material from the classroom teacher to another mode. Sounds fancy, but it isn't. It also isn't new. Remember when your history teacher assigned chapters for you to read at home so he could discuss them? Blended learning. When your gemara rebbe told you to make a laining on the next 4 lines at home? Blended learning. When your English teacher told you to listen to the audio of Dylan Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle" before the next class's discussion? Blended learning. Worksheets which introduced the next topic in Physics or the vocabulary for the next Spanish story? Blended.

It has been a while since the classroom teacher felt that he or she needed pure frontal lecture to convey all the foundational knowledge. Blended learning has always been (sans the fancy name) a way of introducing other voices into that frontal presentation. Then, during classroom time, the teacher can assume that the material has been presented (and acquired...more on this later) and can engage in "guided practice," that is, the repetition and application of skills under the watchful eye of the teacher.

The newest incarnation of blended learning is called "blended online learning" in which the teacher has the students receive the material not from a textbook or a worksheet, but from a computerized source. The student often watches a video (which puts this on par with presenting a VHS to each student) or watches an app-rich presentation and often takes formative assessments which check for understanding (depending on the app). The extension to this is the "flipped classroom" in which the teacher, himself, creates the presentational content so the outside viewing is a displaced in-class presentation (just without the give-and-take of an actual classroom).

First the positives. We all do it at times because it is very useful. Certain disciplines, certain topics and certain alternate presentations work really well for certain students. Some students can be given the text book and told "see you in June" and they will fly high. Some won't even need the textbook.

Now my concerns:

1. shifting a unilateral presentation from the teacher to the internet is no less a lecture.
2. a student watching a video or a presentation cannot stop to ask question, investigate an unexpected tangent more deeply or ask for a different presentation of material.
3. the formative assessments are static
4. misunderstanding externally prepared material can lead (in the math area, specifically) to engrained mistakes which then have to be unlearned
5. this method assumes mastery outside and then moves to practice. A traditional teacher might see that students aren't "getting it" and change delivery, change the content or otherwise better prepare students for practice.
6. class time ends up being fragmented as distinctions in ability and understanding are highlighted by practice, so the teacher differentiates not in instruction or even content, but in the reviewing, after the distinctions are exacerbated
7. turning the teacher into a roving monitor means that a substantial number of students are not being guided at any one time. Any teacher who has assigned group work and has moved from group to group understands what this means.
8. external delivery systems set the agenda. If a teacher creates content then he does set the agenda but cannot change it based on student response.
9. in the liberal arts, group exploration and meaning(s) development is a foundational group activity, not a solitary one, and should be guided [I have discussed that]
10. instruction stops being about establishing relationships with students to inspire passion because it is the function of an outside resource.

Is this model more time and cost efficient? Yes and no. Theoretically, if I could be sure that every student "got it" by watching an outside presentation, I could leverage class time more effectively as a means for deep discussion or I could assess performance via review and move to the next topic more quickly. The curriculum could be covered either more thoroughly or more analytically. Sounds good. But this presumes that a single mode of external presentation will be more effective than standard instruction (which is NOT lecture based, mentioned tangentially here). This also assumes that practice and true understanding will follow closely and allow me to move to more advanced discussion instead of having to retread what I figured would have been gained at home. Not every student learns well in any particular mode -- there are learning styles out there and some don't favor the internet's presentation.

This also assumes an access to technology at home, and the time to devote to that technology. How many students do their homework at school or on the bus, or at a busy dining room table as they help care for siblings? How many don't do it at all for one reason or another? This flipped model puts the responsibility for focus and complete acquisition on the student while he or she is not under the watchful eye of the instructor. The costs to make all technology available in school and at home (including subscriptions to services, apps purchases, hardware etc.) are daunting and while grants exist, federal funding is still geared towards textbooks.

Blended learning isn't evil or wrong. Neither is lecture. And neither is group discussion or fishbowl or any other method. We assign our students topics to prepare so that we can hold a classroom debate. We tell our students to forge ahead in the textbook, or even, to use supplementary technology to help flesh out understanding. We realize, as teachers, that our voices should not be the only ones students hear. But we have a job to do, and that is to guide instruction from the ground up and create a classroom cohesiveness and a group identity while we are sympathetic to the individual needs (educational and not) of each student. But, as I have said before, each method is a single arrow in a full quiver. To base a course (let alone school) on any one method is dangerous because it forgets that students crave variety and a class must be dynamic and engaging, and human. So go and use some blended learning (either electronically infused or not) and use some frontal teaching, and some guided exercises and later guided application and practice. But don't assume that we can subcontract our future to the virtual voices because somehow, that will work better than actual interaction.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Things I have learned about Les Mis

As the summer winds down, I have had the chance to see the fruits of my younger daughter's labor. In her drama camp this summer, she worked with co-campers to put on a musical production -- Les Mis. The Black Box camp here in Teaneck is a fabulous resource for kids and adults. They put on incredible shows with lights, music, and a sense of professionalism which impresses. They have put on a wide variety of shows, from classics like 1776 to original pieces written by local playwrights. So, super to them and all that.

I have gone through my life with a few hard and fast rules. One is that with the exception of The Blues Brothers, The Muppet Movie and Singing in the Rain, I avoid musicals. I have made exceptions for The Music Man and that one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I enjoy the musical numbers sprinkled into The Simpsons and Family Guy, but that's about it. And I also avoid huge French novels about the underclass. That's also a thing. So up till now, I have had little experience with Les Mis. My knowledge of the story has come from a single scene which I saw from the recent movie and the cultural bits which everyone is supposed to know (a guy named John, Val, John, and a cop who chases after him because he owes him some bread or something). So now that I have seen the teen production twice, I feel like an expert and I would like to share what I have learned.

[Kids, if you stumbled on this looking for an erudite and expansive plot synopsis of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo because you don't want to read the whole thing and this site came up higher on Google than, say, Wikipedia, then you came to the right place. Begin writing your paper........NOW!]

1. It works a lot better if you have already seen it. If this is your first time seeing Les Mis, don't. See it the second time first so the first time, you will understand it. I'm not sure of the mechanism which will allow that, but I'm just the advice guy.

2. There are lots of little characters. Don't worry about learning their names. They all die. And there are no small parts. Just small parts covered in a lot of fake blood.

3. Don't be surprised that there is no dialogue. How could there be? These guys didn't speak English.

4. There are only 4 songs in the show. They just repeat. They are catchy songs and reminded me of such musical themes as "Let it Grow" by Clapton and the Oompa-Loompa song. Among others.

5. Life lesson -- if you decide to break your parole by running away and reinventing yourself, run away. Don't hang around and hope no one recognizes you.

6. Cops are mean and untrustworthy and hate you even after you are let out of jail having supposedly paid for your crime, but don't worry. Eventually they feel bad if you are nice enough to them and they end up living happily every after.

7. Coincidences abound in war time. If you just hang around a city of millions long enough, you meet the same people over and over again.

8. Kids shoot the darndest things.

9. If you are pining away for the boy of your dreams, just be his best friend while he courts another. That usually works out fine. And the best time to pursue a love affair? During turbulent times. We all need that anchor of a solid relationship to keep us grounded when all around us is covered in fake blood.

10. The story is timeless but somehow they attached "three+ hours" to it.

11. Never pass up an opportunity to carry a wounded person through the sewers. If you haven't done that, you haven't earned any street cred.

I honestly enjoyed myself (more during the second show because I had an inkling of what was going on) and I look forward to tonight's show because I believe there is more to learn (I have to cement my theory that death is actually a series of duets).

Monday, August 12, 2013

Get your nose out of the internet

I have been peppering this blog with a number of rather serious minded posts and I feel bad about that. I run the risk of establishing a reputation as something more than an idiot. And then, people start expecting things. I can't have that. In that vein, I would like to return to a musing about a sociological ill that, on the surface looks ridiculous, but when you think about it, you begin to realize how astute and accurate it is, and then you think about it more and decide that, no, that's just stupid.

We are teaching our kids to read too much.

Look, I like reading. Some of my best friends are words. Many, in fact. Not many of my friends, but the word "many." I like that word. It isn't quite "all" but it is more than "some" and doesn't demand the statistical exactitude of "half" or even "most." Anyway, I find that my kids are spending huge amounts of time looking at their phones and reading texts, articles, comments and fan fiction. Not blog posts, though. Why is that?

When I was a boy, I learned to pay attention to the world around me. I kept my head up and I really tried to focus on everything going on. I learned to anticipate behaviors by watching people and accounting for the myriad variables. I developed not only good eyesight, but a good memory for what I saw. And I learned to turn on and off my more acute hearing so I could focus on the added dimension of sound. Now, I see my kids walking through traffic with their eyes glued to a mini screen of some sort. They don't hear when someone is talking to them and they have no clue as to what the world has to offer.

This becomes even more problematic when we get to the topic of driving. I love to drive. Driving is a constant chess match, except that the chess pieces weigh thousands of pounds and they are always all moving and rearranging themselves. But good driving requires intense focus and the mental gymnastics of balancing which car is where and when and how is its driver behaving. Defensive driving is all about guessing what someone else is going to do not only before he does it, but before he even knows he is going to do it. So when I drive with a child in the car, I ask said child to watch the road. To pick up on the subtleties which abound on the open road. Instead, the kids keep staring at their phones. It is great that they are interacting with others and with the written word (and with the snapchats which all demand, by law, that one makes duck lips, stick his or her tongue out or do something else dumb looking) but I want them to be prepared as drivers. Our adult population is already plagued by the distraction of texting and emailing while driving and we have all come to the technological party relatively recently. The next generation of drivers will be so used to texting constantly that they won't know how to drive well. They won't be able to separate themselves from the online experience.

So what's the solution. One person out there is probably smirking and saying "yes, but the wave of the future will be cars that drive themselves." Wow, how insightful of you. Yes driverless cars might very well be the next big thing, but if you are stuck at that level of thinking then you aren't seeing the big picture. What company is at the forefront of the driverless car wave?

Google. The same company that is working to enslave our children's eyes with phones and web content. See? They make the problem, then invent the solution and get us to buy their product at either end! They make us dependent on the crutch of social interaction and then invent google glass so we never have to be without it.

It is nefarious -- a word which the young people will have to look up in their online dictionaries.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Why my friend Senja is so S-M-R-T

I have been hearing lately that I'm a failure so I decided to investigate these claims. I figured if I am going to be a failure, at least I should know why I am a failure and how I can be the best failure ever. In what sense am I failure? Well, apparently, the American education system is in a shambles and I, as a teacher, am to blame. I will skip a whole lot of the intermediate stuff like how anyone quantifies that I am a failure, how anyone creates expectations against which to measure, what can be attributed to the classroom teacher etc. I won't wade into questions of value added teacher quantification, or mention the poverty gap in public education as it correlates to performance. I'll ignore issues of common core and standardized testing and I won't touch the question of selected populations, teacher salaries and ineffective professional education which devalues teachers. I figured if enough people decided I was a failure then they must know, right? But instead of waiting to hear how anyone measured my failure, I decided to go to the google and ask it who are the successes. And I found Finland.

So I did a whole bunch of reading about Finland. Nice place, apparently. Cold. Lots of schools and lots of students who do well in school. Do they do well in life? I'd like to think so. They seem like such an industrious people. I only know one Finn and she's American. I met her dad once. Nice guy. Too thin. Articles like this one helped me understand how the Finnish education system is rolling along so merrily. I enjoyed reading the comments on it which both defended and attacked the system as that fleshed out the debate and showed that even a statistical slam dunk is up for angry web-based argument.

I figured if I wanted to be a success, then I should emulate what went on in a Finnish school. I realized that that would require my teaching Lutheranism and learning Swedish so I demurred. But I also know that the Next Big Thing in education is "blended learning." I figured that if Finland has a successful school system and blended learning is the cutting edge of successful teaching, then the two should coincide somehow. Back to the google. I found this title but I don't have the article and it is from 1998 which is, I believe, before there were computers and thinking and stuff, so I ignored it. I kept looking and I found this -- and I read the whole durned thing. Neat stuff. It points out how blended learning (the combination of face-to-face teaching along with online resources for pre- and post- "teaching") has been really useful in enhancing reflection and collaboration. So THIS must be how they do it in Finland. Well, apparently, it is, in Finnish universities. The entire report was on implementation in higher education and the iteration of blended learning here is not about the differentiated and tailored delivery of content, but about the presentation of background material and the availability of technologically mediated cross talk and cooperation among students outside of traditional class time. Just control-f the document for the word "lecture." It is in there. And the words "computer" and "blended" are not in the Smithsonian article. It isn't that Smithsonian doesn't know about blended learning. They wrote this article (2 years later, true) but if Finland is that far ahead of us that we are trying blended learning in an effort to catch up, you'd think that it would have played some part in their successful system. It seems that it didn't. Somehow, they got there mostly unplugged. The article actually says that on the high school level, the expectation is that "blended learning" will be one in which schools "operate a self-blend model, where a student takes one or two online courses—often Advanced Placement or credit recovery courses—to supplement their in-class education." Strangely enough, many high schools do this already and have for a while, and yet we are still failures.

I wasn't giving up on Finland, though, so I kept reading. I came upon this which gave me more information about the use of blended learning and computer instruction in...oh...higher education. My google search also pointed to an article which is entitled "What does Finland claim is the secret to its educational success?" According to my search, this also mentioned "blended learning," so I figured that that had to be part of the secret. Then I read the article. The author decided to throw in, at the end, the following: "Many American educators are giving a closer look at some Finnish education values. For one, blended learning, which incorporates a variety of teaching mediums into educational theory, is also right in line with Finland’s progressive ideals approach." So, no they don't do it, but this guy thinks that they would approve. Then I watched a video about the Finnish system. I figured that I would see classrooms rife with technology and stress on student driven courses of study. I saw some computers at 4:14. Is that their blended learning? It didn't much look like it. I also saw many classrooms jammed with students listening to a teacher at the front. Some kids even had (gasp) pens and paper. I decided to give up on Finland. No offense, guys, but all you seem to be stressing is teacher professionalism and student engagement. How is that going to help me succeed. I try that all the time and apparently, I am not succeeding.

So I started trying to read up on blended learning sans Finland. First, I read about a school in Yuma, Arizona which is using a hybrid model of blended learning. A hybrid model combines aspects of computer instruction with continued teacher interaction. This is similar to (though not identical with) the rotational model. The article does mention that there are critiques of the system by educators who say that the system does not foster critical thinking skills, but what do educators know about, um, education. It isn't like they are Finnish educators, or anything. And how is the blended system different from, say, letting students watch videos on a VCR at home, or read the textbook on their own, at their own pace? Clearly this is superior because it allows students to take multiple choice quizzes so the student, the teacher and the computer know how much the student gained from the video/online presentation. This will allow the teacher to use classroom time to move between students and answer specific questions about material. You can see how this would be effective in a debate over the merits of the Articles of Confederation. Watch the video, and wait for the teacher to move to you and answer what is probably a simple question with a short answer before the teacher moves on to someone else. Perfect. Now you know all there is to know about the pre-Constitutional American government.

I traced the information back from that article to the Hechinger Report. They claim the data which will prove the efficacy of the blended system. Oh goodie. Data! Wrong data. The article is about how many schools in California use some sort of computer/technology in instruction and how this relates to the author's predictions (the titular "theory") about how blended learning will be implemented. Much seems to be in the hybrid form -- that's the form that has teachers using some technology as they continue with traditional teaching forms as well. This seemed familiar to me, so I looked in the mirror. Oh, yeah. That's what we are all already doing. Pity we are failing. The author by the way seems to be a real serious journalist. Educator, not so much but hey, who writes best about educational trends, and who makes the most accurate prediction about future success of various models? That's right: investment bankers. I looked at another piece on the site to learn about Next Generation teaching. This article was in Forbes so I figured it had all the answers. Not so much. To wit: "despite what we’re starting to see in the field as some consistent models of blended learning that can bolster student learning, we’ve yet to see anyone create “the solution”—and we’re unlikely to ever see that I suspect." Oh, ok. Not even in Finland? So I went to the website of the innovators in the filed of disruptive innovation. In truth, I suspected that my students were already innovators in disruption but I am willing to learn. The Clayton Christensen Institute provided me with lots of links and taught me all about non-consumers and hybrids and like that. I looked in their media room to see how the news outlets are spreading this gospel and I found a really neat blog post in Education Week. Education Week! that's by educators! I read through it. It really pointed out to me how blended learning will allow students to respond to their teachers after reflection and private consideration and not under the time pressure of the classroom. It mentioned how "forums and wikis replace raising hands in a classroom. More students can contribute to a discussion - with deeper thought. The structure allows for students to respond to each other and to the teacher as well." So that is the blended learning that is so great? We use wikis. We use blogs. And we still fail?

Then I thought, maybe I'm not a failure as an English teacher in a private high school. Maybe I am just a failure in my institution's inability to inculcate a love of religion and a sense of spirituality in students. I know that when I left 8th grade and when I left high school, many of my friends lacked this same love. I guess schools have been failing for a while. I'm looking now for a model school system which takes 13 year-olds, demands rigorous study in secular fields, and complements it with the demand of adherence to (before, during and after the education about) religious dogma, ideas and ideals. I need to pattern myself after another school system that tries to teach students about their world as a whole and also gets them to love their pervasive religious obligations. Remember, this has to be the job of the school. We are the ones responsible to teach a love of religious practice, right? So if you know of a system I can study, please let me know. I do so hate being a failure.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Everything Changed

I know that I'm both early for this year's commemoration and late for the rest of them but I felt the need to discuss something about 9/11. I won't be making any jokes about it and I won't be meta-analyzing it. I just had a revelation and I needed to put it somewhere. Red if you want, don't if you don't, but I have to say this.

One of the overused sentiments regarding 9/11 is that "9/11 changed everything." We hear that and we half laugh, half cringe. Life has gone on and, though we are sad, angry or some other emotion because of the events of September eleventh, ultimately, it seems that not a lot has changed. But today, I realized something that has changed.

Me. Yup. I do feel that for me, everything did change on 9/11 and it has taken 12 years for that to sink in. I guess I stated realizing a change shortly after the event. I found myself choked up by something...who knows what. But something I was watching on television gave me that lump in my throat and feeling of tears welling up in my eyes. No doubt it was something mundane, and I was never one to cry so much (at least after I finished elementary school) so it came as a shock to me that I felt this feeling. My lovely bride was often wont to cry at commercials for pregnancy tests. I didn't quite go that far, but I felt that upsurge of raw emotion significantly more often after 9/11. [full disclosure -- I got choked up at the end of Soul Surfer this afternoon]

Since then, I often find myself feeling that same feeling. But what was it about 9/11 which changed my entire emotional outlook so markedly? What was it that made me feel the world in an entirely different way? So here's what I figured out -- it wasn't the sadness of the event, or the tragedy of lives lost. It was the realization of a simple truth about people.

Sometimes, people, even when no one is demanding it, can be nice.

What will stay with me is the revelation that people can choose not to be horrible to each other. People can rise above challenges and be heroic, even in mundane terms. I'm a sucker now for stories in which people are simply nicer than they have to be. Regular people. It isn't that I didn't appreciate heroism in the past, but now I see heroism as a reaffirmation of the potential for goodness in all people. In a strange way, 9/11 helped rekindle in me a respect for humanity and an ability to see the best in all people.

And if that isn't changing everything then I don't know what is.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Maybe we can't be both

For a long time, Judaism survived because it was comfortable defining itself by its differences -- by its distinction from dominant culture. The myriad laws constraining interaction with the outside world, whom we may eat with and drink with, when we are allowed to do what kind of business with whom and how we must behave, how we must dress in a distinct fashion and not follow societal trends. All these rules helped keep us separate, as we were separate in Egypt and throughout history. We weren't always put in ghettoes; we often put ourselves in them because they insured the insular community which we craved by law. The eiruvs that we established reminded us that our religious identity and community have borders and we shouldn't stray too far. The rules for travel in general, limiting when we go, where we go and why we go. The fact that Jewish identity is so deeply interfused into every aspect of our being was a way of our keeping tabs on ourselves as Jews constantly. We are and always have been a distinct nation -- visible and different.

Today's watchword, though, is integration. We are modern Orthodox Jews who claim to be able to live in both worlds (that of our tradition and heritage and that of the modern Western culture) simultaneously. We can compartmentalize our beliefs so we can learn about and reconcile with what might otherwise be troubling and challenging secular ideas. We can be fully up-to-date on mass culture and yet somehow, be living lives completely in concert with the practices of our ancestors. And then we wonder about assimilation and intermarriage.

How, we wonder, can we get our children to love their religion and hold tight to its principles and practices? We ask this as we drive them to a party pumping the latest secular music. How, we fret, can we help our children stay in touch with their traditions and abide by religious law? We ponder this as we drop them off at the mall with a skimpy outfit and a credit card and say "see you in a few hours. Be good."

As I grow older I realize that, as admirable as the goal of having integrated, modern Orthodox children is, it might be unattainable. Maybe, the exact nature of what we are trying to do flies in the face of what has kept us "us" for so long. We didn't Hellenize in ancient Maccabean times and we didn't try to find a way to be sort of like the Greeks and yet still expect to be like the Jews. In Shushan, we were punished for fraternizing (in fact, most of our holidays are celebrations of different-ness, marked by rituals which separate us and pointing out in our prayers that we are not like anyone else and should be happy with that).

The tension which we create by trying to be two things at once may be what ultimately tears us apart. Instead of celebrating this friction and saying that it represents the best of the Jewish experience, being of the world but not losing ourselves in the world, maybe we should be saying that we appreciate the world and will enter into it when it is necessary but we are NOT of the world. We are a light to the nations exactly because we don't feel the need to be of the world.

I know. I'm a dinosaur. I sound like I am yearning for a new ghetto and a lifestyle much like shtetl living. But haven't many of us already proven that? I chose to live in a city with a large Jewish population. I chose to live within walking distance of 4 or 5 synagogues. I like having my kosher restaurants within reach. I send my kids to Jewish schools so that they can be surrounded by their religious identity all the time. I am in a ghetto and I like it and even within this relatively insulated bubble, our children are so inundated with modern ideas that they stray and we lose them. Maybe we should stop apologizing for wanting to live in little gated communities, and stop laughing at the groups who separate themselves and sneer at us for our openness and permissiveness. Maybe they aren't all wrong. Maybe there is a happy medium in which we can watch some TV, and walk the streets wearing t-shirts with smarmy sayings but not feel like we have to watch all the TV or compromise any element of what we believe and who we are. That we don't have to change our laws (under the guise of "adapting them to new realities") but we don't have to look and act like we are stuck in the 18th century.

We are an ancient religion and pay homage to our history in so many ways; we talk about how our old practices aren't outmoded and our time honored theology is still vital and relevant. But we say that out of one side of our mouth while out of the other we talk about how much we are integrated into the world around us. And then we can't figure out why things seem so unsatisfying. One could even say (and if I am not in trouble for all these opinions already, this should put me over the top) that the modern state of Israel is the epitome of this problem. The state wants to be both a Jewish bastion and a modern integrated non-religious state at the same time. Maybe it just can't be. Yes, that is depressing and not the message anyone wants to hear, but it is a bit more honest than the self-delusion we are perpetrating and perpetuating when we try to hold on to the past while using both hands to embrace the future.

Maybe, the more we allow the outside world in, the more we have to compensate by having even stronger visible links to our religion. Maybe if we know we will eventually work in the secular world, instead of "preparing" our children but showing them the outside world at a young age, we should be tightening up our religious expectations and schooling for our children until they get to the point where they have to integrate. Maybe for every experience where we are so well mixed with the world, we should work at an equally extreme act of separation to remind ourselves that we aren't like anyone else.

I don't have all the answers but we have, for too long, been unwilling to ask the question. We have shied away from demanding honesty from ourselves regarding what we expect and what is a fair expectation of this experiment we are conducting on our families and religion. So do I want to live behind a wall, surrounded only by people like me? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But I can't expect the same efficient continuity of transmission or consistency of lineage when I say no.