» Posts from May, 2011
May 26, 2011
My novel DWEEB, silly as it is, touches on some weighty issues regarding education. Specifically, the role of standardized tests in the lives of the squeaky-voiced, acne-plagued future of our fair land. Look at the cover, for crying out loud. It’s a scantron sheet! I’ve never claimed to have any answers, however. Because I’m far from an expert. I only know that the anxiety surrounding tests can affect administrators, teachers and students alike, and undoubtedly shapes the lives of most of the people who walk through the front doors of our school houses these days.
Last week I walked through the doors of Manhattan Charter School on the Lower East Side of New York City. It was my first experience with a charter school, aside from watching Waiting For Superman and 60 Minutes. What I found there was what an author hopes to find in any school:
Welcoming, bright and hard-working teachers and staff, as well as enthusiastic, curious and friendly young readers. I was especially honored to meet Ms. Bennett’s 4th grade class. They had all read DWEEB but had held off on reading the last chapter until my arrival. I sat down and read it to them, then we talked about it book club style. Their questions were both astute and flattering. Many were curious about the possibility of a movie (Hear that, Hollywood? I personally think the talky, nerdy hi-jinks might be a good fit for Richard Linklater). They were all bummed to hear they’d have to wait until September for The Only Ones. To top it all off, they had drawn life-size pictures of each of the main characters from DWEEB, and those fantastic works of art are displayed in the hall of their school. Some of the pictures might have even have been larger than life-size. I believe the term is heroic-size.
I didn’t come away from the day with the answers to our educational woes, nor did I formulate a rock-hard opinion on the importance of standardized tests. But I did walk out of that building knowing that 9-12 year-old kids who get excited about books–ones they’ve read, ones they want to read–are kids who care deeply about their education, even if they’re not quick to admit it.
The Manhattan Charter School likes to “celebrate curious minds,” and I can’t think of a better thing to celebrate. Don’t listen to the old adage. Curiosity doesn’t kill cats. Cars, old-age and rabid raccoons do. And don’t ever think that success, in the traditional mold of wealth and prestige, means anything without a healthy diet of curiosity. You can’t possibly be happy and you can’t possibly change the lives of others for the better if you aren’t curious. The teachers and kids of Manhattan Charter School reminded me of that.
It’s my job to keep myself curious. I can’t fall into the trap of complacency. My writing will suffer and kids, curious and clever, will toss the books aside and say “well, if this is as good as education gets, then lobotomize me and book me a train to Lazytown, because I’m out.” Well, maybe they won’t say that, but they might put a check-mark in the “reading is lame” column of their brain and their curiosity will dim just a little, and to me, that’s much worse then them dropping a few percentiles on a test. That’s a stand I’m more than willing to take.
May 14, 2011
I don’t pay a mortgage. I rent. Always have. Some people have told me that renting is unwise financially, but it’s worked out well for me. Too many foreclosures out there, too many shrieking morons from HGTV and TLC that I might come across in the real estate game.
The internet, however, is desperate to sell me a mortgage. And some life insurance. And gold. And some other big ticket purchases, the types of which most people discuss with their families and their financial advisors before committing the ducats. The internet used to try to rope me in with dancing silhouettes. I am immune to such clever ploys.
But now they’ve taken it to a whole new level. I’m not sure how many of you have come across the irresistible ads that feature not much more than portraits of people, just regular people like you and me and our post man and our butcher and our haberdasher and our mongers – of the fish and war and hate varieties, of course. Common folk, in other words. And while most financial indicators seem to be telling us that markets are still on a downward slide, I can’t help but be tempted to click through these ads and get in on some wild adjustable rates and overpriced premiums. The marketing is that good. I give you the following evidence.
Let’s start with this guy. When I see this guy, I think, “okay, kinda creepy, but also kinda Tolkeiny.” Any hobbit hobbyest will tell you that property values in Middle Earth are strongly affected by the migration of orcs and that gentrification is almost always wizard dependent. Not only do wizards enjoy fashionable robe shops and potion bars, but they employ and/or smite aimless orcs. Racist? Perhaps. But to me, the assurance that the gentleman above is purchasing a mortgage is an assurance that a neighborhood is on the rise, even if it is in East Mordor.
Now check out the fellow with the slanted eyebrows. He’s all, “You despicable louse. You mangy cur. I’ve not only seen the film Boiler Room, I’ve lived it. And if Giovanni Ribisi has taught me one thing, it’s that his performance in Avatar was a bit one-note. If he’s taught me two things, it’s that if you don’t buy these stocks right now then you are a loser, A triple-A rated loser. Buy it, turd! Buy it!” And I’m all, “I was already convinced by your powerful collar.”
Some people might think this woman looks a bit like Rachel Ray. I think she looks a bit like a woman who just witnessed a gruesome triple murder. In either case, we’re scared. And fear is a big motivating factor when it comes to purchases. If it wasn’t for fear, we wouldn’t buy seat-belts for our cars or cages for our polar bears. I’m not sure what the screaming woman is selling (maybe she’s consolidating our loans), but I want in on it because I’m afraid that if I don’t get in, I may be snatched up by a pterodactyl or be sawn in half by a rogue magician or become the recipient of a less than ideal credit score.
Even this Laplander bought some of this gold. He’s up there in Lapland, skipping across the permafrost, piling up all his precious metals and waiting for the Euro to crash. You never thought a Laplander would be one step ahead of you, but that’s the way this thing is shaping up. And when it finally becomes like The Road out there, and the best moments of your cannibal-dodging life will involve sipping warm soda pop in a mildewy basement, this reindeer herder will be your king.
Your headstone will be blank. Your future daughter’s jean shorts will be too short. We don’t care if you’re only 13 years old. You need life insurance.
Now this picture was actually a mix-up. It was supposed to be used in a Metamucil banner, but it accidentally found its way into a pop-up for Roth-IRAs. Then the advertisers discovered a curious thing. It’s more effective at selling retirement accounts than it is at convincing you that constipation ain’t all the rage. Why? Because this man is gorgeous. Plain and simple. Carved out of stone, hot to the touch. Even the fellas can appreciate the swoon-worthiness of this guy. And I know what you’re thinking. Is that Paul Newman?Actually, Paul Newman had a heart attack and died when he saw this man. He’s that good looking.
Hmmm, clicking through this link may lead to any or all of the following things: Zaniness. Hilarity. Electrocution. Refinancing. Questionable blazer/t-shirt choices. Kiss karaoke. George Carlin look-a-likes. LOL cats (always that chance). Reverse mortgages. Herpes. Why wouldn’t you click?
May 4, 2011
Hoboken, the humble and fantastically corrupt city in which I live is trumpeted as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and baseball. The first birth is indisputable, the second is contentiously debated. There’s little doubt that The Cake Boss is filmed here, as evidenced by the hordes of salivating families who stand in line outside of Carlos Bakery for hours on end, just to get their pictures taken with a cannoli. For the most cynical of hipsters, Hoboken represents the type of gentrification they despise: in other words, the type of gentrification that doesn’t incorporate whimsical facial hair, fixed-gear bikes and artisan pickles. So it really gets their goats when they have to schlepp across the Hudson and mingle with us rubes, because Hoboken also happens to be home to Maxwell’s, one of the most intimate and celebrated music venues in the New York City metropolitan era.
The story of Maxwell’s, named after the old Maxwell House coffee factory that once dotted our shores, is well known to fans of the rock and roll music. In the 80s, an impressive slate of indie bands and up-and-comers graced its tiny stage–Nirvana, REM, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, etc. Local pioneers the Feelies and Yo La Tengo made their names here. Bruce Springsteen filmed his Glory Days video at the bar. Rock star investors saved it when it ran into troubles in 90s. And so on.
These days, the hot tickets are the kids on the cusp of breaking big. For instance, Titus Andronicus, everyone’s favorite anthemic Civil War appropriating rockers, played a few nights ago. There’s something to be said for seeing a band with everything to prove playing a tiny room that holds a couple hundred folks at best. I tend to miss these shows because my ear isn’t to the wall anymore. However, I do pop into Maxwell’s for some of the nostalgia acts that swing through regularly. Last week I caught a Lemonheads show, as I’m wont to do.
Most people know the Lemonheads from their early 90s cover of Mrs. Robinson (which they’ve basically disowned) and their alt-rock hit Into Your Arms. The bouncy, neo-hippieish videos for both begot unfair comparisons to bands like the Gin Blossoms and lead singer Evan Dando’s good looks made most think the band was more marketing than substance, an accusation echoed by the kids from Boston who preferred the Lemonheads scuzzy (and, frankly, undistinguished) punk adolescence and hated the addition of Blake Baby Juliana Hatfield. It’s a shame really, because Dando, essentially the only real member of the Lemonheads since the early 90s, is a warm-voiced singer and a born songwriter who crafts hooks and melodies better than 99.99% of his contemporaries.
And he’s also a bit of a prick. I’ve seen him walk out on shows halfway through a set. His stage presence fluctuates between annoyed, detached and bemused. Drugs are partly to blame. He’s a well documented enthusiast. But it’s also part of the mythology he’s built around himself. Underrated and largely forgotten, he exudes a couldn’t-care-less attitude that he’s honed for a decade and a half. The live shows sometimes suffer because of this–the one last week was merely average. But it also serves to add an unexpected punch to the moments when he lets emotion slip through (e.g. on a bittersweet masterpiece like My Drug Buddy).
I implore all you folks under 25 to pick up a copy of 1992’s It’s a Shame About Ray. Sure, it borrows from tons of power pop and jangle pop and folk pop that preceded it, but it’s a concise and near perfect distillation of all that pop goodness, something even the Pitchfork curmudgeons conceded after 15 years. It holds up. And older folks, who remember the Lemonheads heyday but abandoned them with their Doc Martens, should give a listen to their 2006 self titled album. It’s an overlooked rocker that out-classes the recent output by most of Dando’s 40-something peers (save, perhaps, Dinosaur Jr.) who are struggling to invigorate their career while staying true to their strengths and sound. Yes, others people like me have made this argument, but not enough have.
It all brings me back to Hoboken. I’d love to apply the Lemonheads metaphor to Hoboken and its last 30 years: scuzzy beginnings, a 1990s onslaught of prettification, a vocal backlash, a cult following. But that’s reaching a bit. A lot, actually. The main reason I wrote this post was to introduce you all to somewhere I live and something I like, because as much as I fill this blog and my books with silliness and strangeness, I want you to come away with a bit of knowledge about what I’m putting into my brain. Maybe it will add some insight into what’s coming out of it. Or, at least, you might find some links to enjoy.