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I Got Another Puzzle For You*

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Software has been developed to assist school principals in policing the online behavior of students; online behavior outside of school facilities and hours that is. Pointing out the folly of such a pursuit or the obscene waste of resources of such an endeavor is disheartening. As our public education system is eroding in rigor and well roundedness, do we really need yet another distraction? At what point are we Willy Wonka warning of yet another bad decision with hushed weary intonations of; “No. Stop. Don’t”?

The notion that a child’s behavior outside of school is the school’s business/problem is absurd. Unless the school is part of an orphanage it is not the school’s problem. The very idea that there could ever be any software program that could police all the children, in all electronic realms is simply science fiction. Children do stupid stuff. Kids can be mean. How they do this stuff is beside the point. Generations ago principals did not police finished basements, railroad tracks, bowling alleys and soda fountains. No doubt some principals at some point have cleaned graffiti off a bathroom wall, but they didn’t crouch in a corner ready to pounce upon the scribe (or at least I hope they didn’t.) Most of us of voting age were either bullied, a bully or a mix of the two at one point or another. It’s what kids do. Siblings torment siblings, classmates tease classmates, and kids terrorize neighbors (Boo Radley anyone?) It’s not nice, it’s nothing any adult is proud of, but it is part of growing up.

The issue is how children and the adults around them respond to such goings on. Bullying and extreme response to bullying both come from the same place; insecurity. Children are trying to find their way in the world and to feel some sense of control. A bully feels better about him or herself when they lord over someone. Being bullied feels crappy but should not feel like the end of the world. It becomes the end of the world when the bullying is unrelenting and perpetrated by many OR when the bullied is fragile. Fragility can take many guises but should be recognizable to parents. A fragile child does not have close (age appropriate) friends, reacts disproportionately to disappointment, and demonstrates excessive anxiety or (inward or outward) rage. Children who have trouble connecting to their world around them can be devastated by the sense that their world hates them. Children, particularly fragile children, are best served by having their world expanded. Multiple social networks (e.g., scouts, dance class, religious school, relatives, etc.) are an insurance policy against ostracization. Feeling good about one area of his/her life can be the light at the end of the tunnel for a bullied child.

The very idea that a principal should spend money and time trying to police the (often elusive) behavior of children is absurd. If there is that kind of time and money available perhaps we could get the arts back into the school? For decades arts, particularly theater, has been used with vulnerable populations to explore issues of empathy and self-esteem. Prisons and juvenile detention centers have changed lives with their theater arts programs. Children engaged in writing or visual arts projects learn about each other and find common ground. A school experience not based on physical agility or extroversion creates a more realistic environment for children. (Few adults have to make their way through every weekday by being popular.) Bullying and extreme response to bullying is about a response to lack of control. Adding more external control (which has no hope of being effective) completely misses the mark. Strong children are not built with surveillance systems. Strong children are built by a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Schools can play a part in that but to do so they need to focus on education not on in loco parentis.

*Oompa Loompa Song (1971) – Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

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Posted by on October 29, 2013 in Childhood, Education

 

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Step Right Up And See The Show!

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Is there anyone so decent as to not enjoy watching the mighty slip and fall? Schadenfreude; it’s not just fun to say! There is nothing shameful in experience just the tiniest thrill when celebrities’ true colors are flown in full view. It’s not that we’ve been campaigning for their demise or even giving it a moment’s thought. It’s just that sooner or later we grow tired of the monsters we’ve created.

A celebrity is nothing more than someone who has orchestrated our interest. They could not exist were it not for our buy-in. Playing a sport well does not make you a celebrity (as anyone who’s played an obscure sport in the Olympics) nor does proficiency in the arts (quick: who’s the ‘2013 Face of Oboists’?) Being a celebrity means we know who you are. That’s all. Sometimes the phenomenon is accidental; say, the result of landing an airplane safely in the Hudson River. But statistically speaking far more celebrities are self-created.

Most of us, even while queuing up to see the latest blockbuster or buying the latest gizmo or gadget, mildly resent being manipulated. We don’t mind it enough to stop buying what’s being sold but on some level it rankles just a tad. Which is why it makes things a bit entertaining when they go awry. Our pleasure is less distasteful due to the fact that these people will rise from the (artfully placed) ashes. Anyone who has come from a blue-collar New Jersey town, or sold sandwiches or window treatments door to door is going to bounce back just fine. These are scrappy and ingenious self-promoters who will not go gently into obscurity. Sure they might put a Kmart contract at risk while in the slammer, but don’t you shed a tear. They will figure out how to get the biggest publicity bang out of the experience. That’s the beauty of celebrity. Who you are and what you can do are immaterial; it’s all about your barker skills. Placing gourds around your home in the fall, adding mayonnaise to every meal or using ‘really good vanilla’ are not unique or even mildly interesting techniques. But describing these endeavors with proper lighting, condescending tone or good-ole girl twang, is a great gimmick. (And you know, it really is best to get a gimmick.)

So when these celebrities who have cultivated a brand of ‘don’t you wish you were me?” have their underbelly exposed it’s just a tiny bit satisfying. We are not disappointed and distressed as we are when elected officials or society folks show their worst selves. Instead we have just a nanosecond of ‘no, I really don’t wish I were you.’ We still buy the junk they’re selling of course. But for at least a moment we will be aware of the ingredients. And being aware of what we consume, even if it’s only for a moment, is never a bad thing.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Let The Punishment Fit The Crime*

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When is a person simply too old to pull off a prison jumpsuit? Is an orange onesie, or perhaps a stenciled; “Property Of” best left to the young? When did older age become synonymous with harmless or pitiful? Age does matter of course. It is a biological fact that our reflexes, cognition and general health tend to decline as we age. But how does our responsibly for past acts diminish?

This week both a 94-year old and 89-year old man are facing prison time, and the reports of this fact are tinged with a hint of public shaming. Do decent people really lock up men who look like great-grandpas? (This thought by a culture whose predominate infrastructure for the elderly are nursing homes.) This perspective might make sense if our penal system was designed to prevent further criminal activity, but it’s not. In fact one could argue that a stint in prison is equal to a graduate education in crime. The intent of prison is punishment, and in a perfect world, rehabilitation.

Of course it’s always crucial that the punishment fit the crime. If an elderly person has committed a victimless crime or a crime of compassion, prison probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But if a 94-year old man is (allegedly) an SS commander and has gotten away with his crimes for 60 years? Well, for starters shame on us (and doesn’t it make all this current talk on immigration seem like child’s play?! Seriously! In the late 1940s and 1950s wouldn’t you think that there was some sort of heightened screening/security?!) By all reports this man is quite robust and has been living in Minnesota after not declaring that he was an SS officer upon entering the country. No kidding. That’s the reason given for his unencumbered pursuit of the American Dream: he didn’t say that he was in the SS. (Where are you when we need you Mel Brooks?) In case there are any hair splitters out there; it is alleged that he was a commander. That is, he was issuing orders to kill. I think we can agree that there is no amount of jail time that would be sufficient punishment but surely anything is better than nothing.

Probably the only thing that would make an 89-year old man who abused, neglected and robbed his centenarian mother seem not so bad is a Nazi officer. But that’s not fair; no one can really compete at that level. The 89-year old spent years fleecing and orchestrating his mother’s neglect. His resources and the legal system itself have delayed his punishment. What’s most relevant in his story is that he committed his crimes at great-granddaddy age. He was way past the discount movie ticket age when he embarked on his mustache-twisting plan.

So why is it exactly that we are supposed to be overcome with compassion for a man who committed some of the worst atrocities of our time and got away with it for 60+ years, and a man who committed his wretched crimes in old age? Which is it we’re to be rewarding exactly? Is it laudable to get away with something (let alone doing so for 6 decades)? Or is it that we’re impressed that anyone past retirement age can perpetuate a complex and brutal crime? There are a lot of people in prison who are not physically or mentally up to the challenges. If we really believe that prison is only for the strong and vital we have a lot of rethinking to do. If instead we believe that after a fair trial criminals should serve time, than that is what they should do.

*The Mikado – (1885) Gilbert & Sullivan

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2013 in Childhood

 

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The Anarchist – Review

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The Anarchist is a brief (in length and run) new play by David Mamet. It features two characters on stage for an uninterrupted 70 minutes. Cathy (played by Patti LuPone) is a convict serving her 35th year and Ann (played by Debra Winger) is a wardenesque woman serving her last day at the penitentiary. They are together performing the dance of “I’d like to be released now please.” And the dance is not well choreographed.

Cathy proclaims her interest in Christianity as an indication of her worthiness of release. This device is a bit blurry. She was born and raised by Jews (who it would appear gave her the name Catherine) and has discovered the New Testament in prison. Does she speak with the fervor of a tent preacher to impress the cross wearing Ann? If not, why work so much of the theology into the dialogue?  A sense of urgency is implied with the device of Ann’s last day, but why? Ann is not particularly lenient or empathetic. Maybe Cathy’s chances for being sprung will improve with a new administrator. If there is dramatic tension it’s buried too deeply to detect.

Mamet’s dialogue seems to have undergone a conversion as well. A Sunday school teacher would be pleased. However the rhythm is still quintessential Mamet. Ms. Lupone is comfortably at home in this musicality. She is at complete ease and utterly graceful with the dialogue. Ms. Winger is much less so and is not served well by Mr. Mamet’s direction. He has created a wooden and opaque portrayal in her Ann.

There are certainly interesting ideas conveyed throughout the play. Cathy’s (Weather Underground) crimes promise to evoke mixed feelings in audiences of a certain age. The psycho/social scholar will be intrigued with the debate over rehabilitation. There is also much to gain from watching Ms. LuPone stripped of song and embracing her dramatic roots. But watching The Anarchist is more akin to watching a (good) poetry reading than a play. Inserting dramatic tension into the script, recasting the role of Ann, and not having the playwright as director might result in a nice little play.

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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