Losing Friends

During Saturday Night Live’s round-number anniversaries, you’ll see lists of the greatest sketches and the greatest cast members. (Get ready, because Season 50 will be here soon.)

My own favorite sketches and performers vary depending on what day you ask me, but I do have an absolute, 100%, no-doubt-about-it favorite single frame of SNL. It’s this one, from the musical sketch for the song Lunch Lady Land, which aired on January 15, 1994:

sandler-farley

That’s Chris Farley on the left, and Adam Sandler on the right, by the way. And just look how happy they are.

At this point in the sketch, Sandler has launched into a power chord and Farley, after gyrating for a bit like a lingerie model in a late-80s heavy metal video trapped in the body of, well, Chris Farley, has joined in singing the next line of the song: “Sloppy joes, sloppy sloppy joes, yeah!” Farley is singing along so enthusiastically, Sandler’s mic picks him up. He’s dancing in character but singing in his own voice, as if he’s rocking out to the song in his own car with the windows up. 

In this frame, two friends at one of the first jobs in their young career are obviously having so much fun that it’s hard to call it “work.” There’s a mutual appreciation for each other’s talent.

They aren’t quite hitting their stride yet: This was more than a year before the releases of Tommy Boy and Billy Madison, the movies that would make them movie stars, and more than two years before Happy Gilmore would cement Sandler as a legit box office draw. There’s something raw, amateurish, and almost innocent here.

Anyone who has known the mixed blessing of a fun, early-career job that doubles as a social circle can appreciate this relationship. When you get older, the people you work with are people you work with. When you’re 23 and working with people of a similar age, the people you work with can wind up as your good friends, too.

Thankfully, I can relate a little bit to the bond Sandler, Farley, and others from that era of SNL must have shared; just as thankfully, I can’t relate to the loss Sandler must feel. But others can.

These two united again, in a manner of speaking for another musical sketch last weekend on Saturday Night Live. It came at the end of a show that “skipped” politics, in a traditional sense. But America also has an opioid problem, and a suicide problem — issues that don’t get dealt with while Alec Baldwin is grunting his way through his latest Donald Trump impersonation. As I wrote at Medium, I wonder how many people watched Sandler’s tribute thinking about the Chris Farleys in their own lives — or perhaps more accurately, the Chris Farleys who weren’t in their own lives anymore.

 

Go ahead and teach Shakespeare

Dana Dusbiber, a Sacramento high school English teacher, thinks teaching William Shakespeare to her students is a waste of time. She blogs her reasoning in the Washington Post.

I do not believe that I am “cheating” my students because we do not read Shakespeare. I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior…

Look, let’s put this right out here: Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t fly if he wrote them today. There are asides to the audience, soliloquies and monologues, and other conventions that just don’t work for modern viewers. If Hamlet debuted this weekend it wouldn’t go over at a dinner theater in the Poconos, much less Broadway. The language is in an centuries-old dialect of English. And the context for the stories are dated.

So yes, if your reason for studying literature is to learn about the “human condition,” there are easier and more relatable sources. Yet the study of the human condition is not the only reason for the study of literature – that’s a big reason we have sociology. Narrative structures, plot devices, and other technical aspects of a story are important too – not just for understanding one piece of literature, but to give students the tools they need to understand other pieces as needed. This is the reason we study so many works that weren’t written within the past ten years.

I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question.

Cheer up and think about this: Shakespeare’s works are among the most influential in all of literature. That decision wasn’t made by English teachers in 1920, but by the people creating content today. Look at the parallels between Macbeth and House of Cards, or between Hamlet and The Lion King. Have you ever teased a male friend who was popular with the ladies by calling him “Romeo”? Have you ever heard someone accused of having blood on their hands?

Incidentally, this is the same reason schools ought to study the Bible as a piece of literature: It is such a common source for cultural references that ignoring it leaves an awfully wide cognitive gap. (Heck, they can’t even make a Superman movie anymore without packing in imagery likening the Man of Steel to Jesus Christ.)

I am sad that we don’t reach beyond our own often narrow beliefs about how young people become literate to incorporate new research on how teenagers learn, and a belief that our students should be excited about what they read — and that may often mean that we need to find the time to let them choose their own literature.

You’re the teacher. If students were equipped to “choose their own literature” and understand the context and what to look for, English class would be a waste of time and they could spend more time getting those math scores up where they need to be.

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions. Why do our students not deserve to study these “other” literatures with equal time and value?

The obvious response would be, “Because it’s English class.” But that’s not the right answer, because Dusbiber is onto something here. Why not include those things? It’s more of a comparative lit track than something you’d see in a high school English class, but that’s just nitpicking. There’s no reason to exclude the works she’s talking about, and if it means a little less Shakespeare, it’s ok. What might be especially relevant are the similarities between themes. Without knowing much about the oral traditions in the places she cites, it’s still a pretty fair bet that they include stories about corruption, ambition, greed, envy, and all the other delightful corners of humanity that Shakespeare liked to explore.

Exploring those similarities might make Shakespeare’s work even more familiar and relevant to students. After all, what better way to show the universal themes of the human condition than to point to similar subject matter explored in plays from Elizabethan England and stories passed down through generations in southeast Asia?

Ignoring the Bard puts students at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding modern cultural references and context, the same way ignoring long division might put students at a disadvantage when they try to understand higher forms of math. Hopefully for Dusbiber’s students, she can find a blend of old and new which does right by her students.

What does burying Richard III mean?

Late last week, England laid to rest King Richard III, whose legacy was, shall we say, mixed.

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee was intensely displeased (with typical British understatement, she called him a “child-killing, wife-slaughtering tyrant who would be on trial if he weren’t 500 years dead”). Most of the current monarchy stayed away, since they officially call him a fraud. It seems Shakespeare did enough bad PR for the guy to keep him controversial. Having an average of one rebellion against your rule per year, even in a small sample size, doesn’t help with the sabermetricians, either.

Why did England turned out to watch? Are they that consumed by their monarchy? Maybe that’s not the whole story.

The bones exhumed from a parking lot belonged to a historically relevant human whom most of England had at least heard of. We also know that he was struck down in battle, so his last moments were probably fraught with anguish – and maybe the burden of regret, if half the stories about him are true.

There’s certainly a fascination with history, and burying Richard allows modern England to reach back and touch a part of their distant past. Of course there is a human element too: Richard was known, which forges a connection that isn’t there for the discovery of most other remains.

Regardless of what one thinks of Richard himself, no one wants the weight of their sins pulling them down across centuries. And certainly no one wants to be buried under a parking lot and forgotten. 

Burying Richard is a show of respect for the dead and for history, but really it’s for the English people; funerals are always for the comfort of living.

Mike Pence might have something here

There’s some understandable bristling at Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s announcement of a “state-run” news service. called “Just IN.” It sounds like an memo from Vladimir Putin’s desk, not an initiative launch by a erstwhile darling of the conservative movement. The idea of government feeding the media, rather than the institutions having a healthy and mutual skepticism, doesn’t sit well.

But maybe this is where media is going. The other night, I watched reruns of Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary Baseball. It originally aired on PBS, but now it’s home is, appropriately enough, the MLB Network. Last Saturday, the NFL Network aired highlight shows for each Super Bowl up to this year. (I tuned in just as Plaxico Burress was scoring a game winner and not shooting himself in the leg.) The New York Yankees, the NBA, the NHL, and several major college sports conferences have staked out their own spot on the dial; Disney and Oprah Winfrey have done the same. Netflix, Amazon, heck even Overstock produce their own entertainment programming. More and more, those who produce the content want to control the delivery channels as well.

Additionally, Just IN gives Pence a direct conduit to the people outside of the filter of any bias from reporters, producers, or media outlets.

Creating a state-run news agency immediately conjures images of Soviet-style Propaganda. In reality, Pence may simply be ahead of the times in an evolving media landscape.

A Winter’s Tale, as told by Emails from Fairfax County Public Schools

“Now this could only happen …in a town like this.” – Frank Sinatra. 

Fairfax County’s Public Schools (FCPS) have had the kind of week usually reserved for an embattled politician who sticks his foot in his mouth. Poor decisions have led to explanations, and then to further explanations, over-corrections, still more explanations, and apologies. In three days, parents of Fairfax County schoolchildren received nine emails.

The first missive came bright and early on January 6, at 7:49 a.m. The simple message, in its entirety:

The inclement weather may result in your child’s bus being delayed this morning. Please be patient and safe if you are driving this morning.

There was no official delay, since the weather didn’t look like it was going to be that bad early in the day.

But as Beltway denizens know, the storm was stronger than expected. What was supposed to be a dusting of snow ended up as a couple of inches. Buses couldn’t get around. Neither could teachers. Outrage had its snow tires on, though, and it managed to reach the school district’s Facebook page. Because Fairfax County rests in the shadow of Your Nation’s Capital, the school district naturally had to reply with a public statement, which came via email at 10:15 a.m.:

Dear Parents:

We apologize for the difficulties the weather caused this morning. Please know that significant area government entities were coordinating at a very early hour. The decision was made with the best information we had very early this morning. Needless to say, the conditions were far worse than anticipated.

Weather conditions are expected to improve around midday. At this time, we are planning to dismiss schools at their normal dismissal time, however, we are continuing to closely monitor the situation and will keep parents apprised.

Just over an hour later, a follow-up email declared all evening activities and afternoon pre-school cancelled. (A neighbor whose child is in the afternoon preschool broke that news to a Fairfax County school bus driver, who had not been clued in.)

That must not have been enough for some parents. Just before 2:00 p.m. came a fourth email, entitled “Weather Update.” It was a second apology for the decision to open schools:

It is clear that our decision to keep schools open today was the wrong call given the intensity of this weather system. We are very sorry for that. We have heard from many of our families and we are listening. We thank you for your patience and working with us through this very difficult circumstance… Our focus now is to get our students and staff home safely this afternoon. Students who were unable to get to school today will be given excused absences.

Please know we will be going over our procedures and processes to make every improvement possible to avoid the situation we encountered this morning. We are closely monitoring the weather conditions and will make a decision with regard to schools opening tomorrow and will let families know, through our normal communication processes, as soon as possible.

“Going over our procedures” is, of course, complete bull meant to sound like deep introspection. “As soon as possible” was, predictably, quick. The follow-up email came at 6:12 p.m. As expected, there would be a two-hour delay on Wednesday.

For those in “real” America, Fairfax County surrounds Washington, D.C. and Arlington to the south and west. It covers lots of area, and it is common for one side of the county to have different weather from the other side. The school district covers all these areas, from communities around Alexandria banded with major roads to the more bucolic neighborhoods hugging the Potomac out by great falls. There were plenty of roads untreated; school buses would have had a hard time getting around on Wednesday.

Fairfax’s snow and ice removal system is solar-powered: they just let the stuff melt. While environmentally friendly, nasty side effects include re-frozen black ice spots lurking in the neighborhoods. As the sun set on Wednesday, FCPS sent out what was their only email of the day, alerting parents that the following day would see a second consecutive two-hour delay.

Less that 15 hours later – at 7:22 a.m. – Fairfax sent yet another email, cancelling school for Thursday. In the 48 hours since the surprise winter weather, Fairfax County had gone from a regularly scheduled day, to a two-hour delay, to a full-blown snow day. To explain their backward, bizarro reaction, FCPS made yet another statement. For the second time in three days, the email subject read, “Today’s Weather Decision”:

The decision to change from a two hour delayed opening to an all day closing for schools was made today because, as our bus drivers reported to work, it was evident that many of our buses would not start in this morning’s cold weather… In addition, the refreeze of snow and ice on residential streets and sidewalks also made walking and travel treacherous.

Not to pile on to what has been a week full of criticism for FCPS, but while it’s cold here this week, it has been colder in the past. School buses have surely survived worse. Also, why are the “treacherous” sidewalks and their safety implication afterthought to buses running on time? The snow day was either an obvious over-correction to Tuesday’s criticism or a subtle middle finger to the critics.

At least, in a show of progress, FCPS only had to apologize once for yesterday’s snow day. Their final email of the week (to date) announced today’s two-hour delay. If you’re scoring at home, that’s nine emails in 72 hours, with all the message discipline and conviction of Trent Lott’s ill-advised BET interview after he was accused of wishing Strom Thurmond a happy birthday.

Look on the bright side, Fairfax County Public Schools: The next chance of wintry weather is coming up on Monday. You might just get a do-over!

Eric Metaxas missed the mark, but Lawrence Krauss missed the dartboard

As the world shakes off the dust of the Holiday Break and gets into 2015, here’s something to catch up on from the last week of last year. On Christmas, Eric Metaxas wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed (here’s the Google search) claiming, in its headline, that scientific findings bolster the evidence that God exists.

Specifically, he cites the fact that, despite constantly finding new planets, our astronomers aren’t finding any new life (Area 51 rumors notwithstanding). Predictably, atheists bristled; Arizona State University Professor Lawrence Krauss wrote an unpublished letter to the editor that sought to debunk Metaxes’s claim.

Krauss correctly answers Metaxas’s first main point – that the known conditions for life to exist on Earth are not the same as the conditions that might give rise to other life forms. (Heck, are we even looking for life forms based on silicon or boron? They found some on Star Trek.) The fact that we haven’t found little green persons is a poor point and Metaxas should have left it alone.

Krauss doesn’t mention it, but even Metaxas’s points about the numerically unlikely evolution of life on Earth don’t hold up well. Those who believe in infinite universes with infinitely various timelines would suggest that, if every single possible outcome is represented, then there would have to be a universe were Earth existed as it does today.

Krauss misses Metaxas’s best point – and, since he buries it so deep, maybe he missed it too:

[T]he odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here… Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? [Emphasis added.]

The key phrase is “talking about existing.” As our scientists explore the universe, they find that things make sense. Early mathematicians discovered that every single circle has the same ratio of its circumference to its diameter (pi). Before he put figs in cookies, Sir Isaac Newton discovered laws of physics. The gravitational force between any two objects in the universe is determined using a constant value, which physicists just pinned down this year (though approximations have been around for centuries). It’s not just that the universe developed as it did, but that it develops according to laws and rules which is somewhat amazing.

Krauss replies that the appearance of design is not design, and he’s right. There’s nothing there to prove that a cosmic Creator wrote the laws. Yet it’s undeniable the laws are there. There’s a parallel there from the Book of Genesis (1:2), too:

[T]he earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

This is what makes the supposed divide between religion and science so fascinating: The themes of the scripture don’t contradict scientific discoveries, nor vice versa. (The literal words may be a different story, but it’s hard to be overly concerned about that when factoring in the difficulty of translation, changes in humanity’s frame of reference, and linguistic changes over multiple millenia.)

Krauss and I may agree that Metaxas didn’t make the strongest case he could have in his Christmas op-ed, but it seems we are coming from different points. The snide derision of “Christian apologists,” implies that anyone who points out the similarity between scientific findings and Christian teachings, or who believes in intelligent design, is some kind of Lyle Lanley huckster peddling a bill of goods rather than someone looking for common ground with secular scientists.

One might call that type of opposition fanatical, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re just devout.

Ice Cream Trucks Bring Racism to America

A story on NPR this week tells us that a song commonly used as the siren call for ice cream trucks combing through suburbia  was released in 1916 under the title, “N***** Love a Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha.”

Shock! Horror! And interesting to note, as the author of the piece does, that minstrel music was the original soundtrack for ice cream parlors. The tunes made the leap to ice cream trucks out of tradition.

Since it’s been a while since I traded CD’s with Donald Sterling, I didn’t recognize the song.  How did they find this vile ditty and put it in an ice cream truck?

For his creation, [Songwriter Harry] Browne simply used the well-known melody of the early 19th-century song “Turkey in the Straw,” which dates back to the even older and traditional British song “The (Old) Rose Tree.” The tune was brought to America’s colonies by Scots-Irish immigrants who settled along the Appalachian Trail and added lyrics that mirrored their new lifestyle.

Well, now wait a second.

Turkey in the Straw” is a pretty common tune. It’s programmed into many of the electronic toys my daughters have played with in infancy and toddlerhood – maybe not as ubiquitous as the ABC’s, but in the mix with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Good Humor and Fisher Price probably use the song for the same reason: since it’s in the public domain, there are no copyright fees.

But author Theodore Johnson brings up the interesting point that the tune gained popularity through minstrel songs. Does the song’s significance really go beyond interesting history?

There are probably thousands of songs lost to the ages, so why does “Turkey in the Straw” still get played today? Is it lingering racism? Or is it just a bouncy, free tune whose origins are largely forgotten?

I’ll go with the latter. Otherwise, we have some problems with Steamboat Willie.