Sunday, February 27, 2011

Demanding less

The other day it snowed again up north and, once again, school was closed. Apparently, most of the school systems are out of snow days, so the kids might have to go into the summer. On facebook, moms start writing in, saying they hope the governor swoops in and changes the law. In other words, they actually want their kids to have less school then what they are supposed to have.

This confuses me. Look, I get kids not loving the school year being extended, but when the parents are writing things like "If they make my kids go, I'll keep them home sick," I just don't get it. If the governor was going to cut the music program or one of the sports, I'm sure the parents would be going crazy, but the idea of keeping the mandated number of school days intact is somehow unacceptable. I actually asked some of them to explain and I got the usual "stop and smell the roses" responses. To which, I roll my eyes.

I'm not saying one day makes a difference, but kids interpret things in weird ways. You make a big fuss over a day of school (which is not an *extra* day, but the proper number of days) and the kid might start thinking that there's something acceptable about cutting corners. Or not doing what you're told. Why should they take out the garbage; mommy doesn't follow the rules either! Okay, that's a bit melodramatic and probably too far, but I think it's a bit far to ask the governor to change the law so that your kid gets to stay home an extra day.

When I was teaching, the chair of my department used to say that education was the only service where the consumer demands less. Kids want less homework, easier tests, but they're kids. I like to think that they don't really know better. I'd like to think that if we had it to do again we'd push ourselves more and appreciate the opportunities to learn. But I can see, it's probably not true. And that kind of makes me a bit sad.

Monday, February 21, 2011

You are misplacing your John Hughes love (here's why)

Let me start out by saying this is not about dissing John Hughes. I was a teenager in the '80s; these movies are right up my alley. I remember seeing "Sixteen Candles" with my whole family and we all loved it. To this day, it's one of my favorite John Hughes movies (although not my favorite: I'll tell you in a bit.) There are moments in many of his movies that we all can related to or that just simply make us laugh out loud. But seeing his tribute at the Oscars, I realize I have some issues with the whole "John-Hughes-is-a-god" thing.

Most of my issues with John Hughes come out of "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." I liked both of these movies when they came out, but I have big problems with both of them.

First, "Ferris Bueller." Yes, it's charming (but you have to put most of that with Matthew Broderick's performance rather than the story itself). Yes, it's funny (but, be honest, there are places in the movie that kind of drag.) It's really just an okay movie. It's got great moments but, overall: meh. Step back and really look at the movie as a whole. Don't give me a scene or a moment or a funny quote; look at the whole thing. For me, it's a pleasant little movie good for some laughs. And the 40-somethings who are still wanting to be Ferris: please stop. No, seriously. IBecause Ferris, he's a bit self-centered and spoiled. And sure he's fun for one day off on a beautiful spring day in high school, but he'd probably work your last nerve as a coworker.

And now "The Breakfast Club." Look, I know you love it. To you, this is the ultimate teen film; this was your high school. But hear me out for a few minutes. The big idea behind this movie is that we're classified in these boxes and everyone around us (especially the adults) has expectations/sterotypes based on the box we've been put in. And there's this feeling that at the end of the day, these kids learn to see past this. They are above it. And I could almost buy it. Well, except they have "The Brain" write the assigned composition for all of them. And they sell that idea by having the popular, pretty girl bat her eyes at him to do it. "The Criminal" gets "The Princess" to go out with him by convincing her it'll piss of her parents, not because he has something inside of him worth knowing. (And please don't get me started on how he abuses her throughout the film, and she is still somehow attracted to him.) Yes, "The Athlete" will date "The Headcase", but only after she converts herself to be like "The Princess." To me, that's not a very enlightened group of kids. It's not a group of kids I even really want to know.

And then there's the whole "Adults are Stoopid" storyline. This is, of course, in contrast to the enlightened teenagers. Sure, when I was a teenager, I was all "Parents just don't understand!" I get that. And the adults in this movie, as described by the kids, they really do suck. Vernon's awful, and the parents range from self-absorbed to abusive. We don't actually see much of any adult besides Vernon and the janitor (the one "cool" adult in the film), so are the teenagers any better at seeing beyond the surface than the adults are? "When you grow up, your heart dies." Do we really believe that? Do we really look at these kids and think that they are really living while adults are not? I don't see these kids having dreams or desires that they're not able to accomplish because the adults are holding them back.

I just don't like the kids in "The Breakfast Club." Brian and Allison are okay (although I kind of like her more when she's acting all crazy: stealing wallets and making up lies about her affair with her psychiatrist), but Claire and Andrew are jerks (although at least Claire is honest about being a jerk. She's given grief for it, but I always admired her for saying that, come Monday morning, she will probably be ignoring the kids that weren't in her circle.) And Bender is just an abusive asshole.

To me "The Breakfast Club" is a waste because John Hughes steps away from the thing he does the best: family dynamics. Let's go back to "Sixteen Candles." It's got all the stuff to make a great teen comedy: the geek, the good-looking guy who has a good heart as well, the pretty, shallow people, the kid with a vaguely dirty name, the "average" girl who gets the guy in the end: all good stuff. But what elevates it beyond a teen comedy is the family element of the movie. The bratty brother, the crazy grandparents, the self-centered older sister, these are the things that give the movie that added dimension. My favorite scene in "Sixteen Candles" comes near the end when Samantha's father comes to her as she is trying to sleep on the couch. He has realized that they have forgotten her birthday and he wants to apologize. But he also wants to tell her that he knows she's got a good head on her shoulders and how much he loves her. More than anything else he could have bought, this is the best gift she could get on her birthday. Even at the end, when she gets the guy, as she's walking off, she gets her dad's attention so he knows, yes, this is the guy.

Which brings me to my favorite John Hughes movie: "Uncle Buck." No, really. This is the movie that nails that family dynamic thing I love so much. John Candy is Uncle Buck who is called on to babysit for his two neices (16 and 6) and nephew (8, played by a pre-"Home Alone" Macaulay Culkin) when the parents are called away on a medical emergency. They've just moved and they know no one else, so they have to turn to Uncle Buck, despite their misgivings about him. John Candy plays that typical John Candy character: kind of a slob, kind of irresponsible, but, at the core, lovable and trying his hardest. He's not the babysitter that his sister-in-law wants, but she doesn't have any other choice.

The family is the story: a mom and a teenage daughter who are so angry at each other, they don't even remember all of the reasons, two younger siblings who are just trying to keep out of the way, a brother-in-law/uncle who knows that he's not really in anyone's favorite but he'll be trying his best, a father just trying to pull it together.

What elevates this movie above "oh-that-wacky-Uncle-Buck" is that every character has more going on then the surface. Uncle Buck may be the black sheep of the family, but he's trying to be a better guy. He's got a decent job and he's trying to decide what to do about his long-time girlfriend who is waiting for hi to grow up. Tia's not just an angry teenager but also an older sister, Maizy is the cute 6-year-old but she's struggling in school. There's a wonderful scene where the two younger kids wake up to find their parents gone and a strange, large man making something for breakfast. "He's cooking our garbage!" Macauley Caulkin gasps in horror. And Tia, instead of simply pouting and resenting her parents, resenting that they left her with this strange guy and two little kids, reaches for the cereal bowls and just starts to make them breakfast, the kind they know and want. Sure, she's pissed off but she knows how to take care of her siblings and she knows she had to be some sort of stabilizing force. Because that's how families are. We may be annoyed at each other, you might be pissing me off, but I know that you want ketchup with your eggs and you shouldn't be wearing that sweater but borrowing my red one instead.

Buck also sees things that someone in the middle of the family drama might ignore. He sees that Tia is about to make a Very Big Mistake with a boy (named Bug. No, really.) He defends Maizy's behavior at school, with this lovely little speech: "I don't think I want to know a six-year-old who isn't a dreamer, or a sillyheart. And I sure don't want to know one who takes their student career seriously. I don't have a college degree. I don't even have a job. But I know a good kid when I see one. Because they're ALL good kids, until dried-out, brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they're no good. You so much as scowl at my niece, or any other kid in this school, and I hear about it, and I'm coming looking for you!"

At the end of the movie, Buck's grown up a bit. He looks at the family he's been thrown into and starts to think, "hey, maybe I should get one of these for myself." The rest of the family has learned that despite their differences and conflicts, they're a family (including Buck) and that's enough. I realize that it's not much of a plot, but it doesn't matter. You've gotten to know this family, seen it change, and that's all you need. And these characters are real, as are the relationships between them.

John Hughes was a great story-teller, but I get frustrated when people point to his high school movies as evidence of his talent because his best stuff was about families. And that's where my John Hughes love is hanging.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday morning

This morning. It is not as quiet as you would expect: the weather is changing and the wind is blowing back. Maybe the wind doesn't want the weather to go back to winter, but the spring we had the past few days, it's too early. The spring needs to go back to where it belongs: a month or two from now. But the wind blows, causing the house to creak, occasionally hard enough that the kitty and I look at the windows in alarm. "It's not coming in here?" Murray asks. I reassure him and he goes back to sleep.

I am catching up on email, facebook, the sort of thing you do on a Saturday morning. I am typing an email and I keep making the same typo, three, four times. "'of' not 'if'!" I hiss to the keyboard, as if it's his fault. He looks at me smugly. I'm sure it's thinking, "Learn how to type and stop hitting me so hard."

I drink my coffee, I flit between websites. I have three windows open -- I lack the patience to type in each site and wait for it to load. Flit, flit, write, flit. I suppose you've just learn a bit about how my mind works: it jumps around, looking for something to grab its attention, but then on to the next sparkly thing. I am trying to clean out my inbox: catching up on Writer's Almanac, placing orders before the emailed promotion codes expire (although there's always another one, isn't there?)

The sky is so blue this morning. The wind keeps setting off the light with the motion detector. There are two fat doves on my deck, cleaning each other, but the kitty doesn't have the energy to disturb them. He has his eyes on them, but he's too comfortable to go to the window and greet them.

Perfect Saturday.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dorking out in DC

When I drive to the airport (Reagan National), I pass the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. And every single time, I catch my breath and go, "Wow!" Every single time. I have to fight the impulse to stop the car and take a picture, like some crazy tourist. "Look, it's the Washington Monument, kids! Take in all that history!" You're probably cooler than me, but I love that I live in a place where stuff like this is all around.

About 20 years ago, shortly after I moved to the Philadelphia area, I went with a friend to a movie downtown. He had grown up in the Philadelphia area, and he drove. We parked on the street, and it turned out we had parked right in front of Independence Hall! Independence Hall! I started completely dorking out, and he just didn't get it. "Independence Hall!" I declared, pointing. He was still confused. I explained further. "Independence Hall!" He shrugged, so I just whispered to myself. "Independence Hall! Wow!"

I thought this excitement would go away. I thought I'd get used to seeing places that some people travel to visit, but it's never gone away. I've lived in the DC area for over 2 years (not to mention the many visits I had before I moved down), and I still want to take a picture every time I see the White House or one of the monuments. Because, you know, they change a lot. And nothing says "I will torture you with pictures" than having the same shot 371 times. ("That's the Washington Monument in, let's see, oh, yes, October 2010. Or maybe June 1998.") So, I fight that impulse, but inside, I am am swooning. Because, guys, it's the Washington Monument!

Note to readers: I've posted twice today, so please scroll down. It's a crazy day!

How to report story on NPR

I used to listen to NPR all the time when I had to drive to work, but now, with walking to work and no commute in the car, I only catch it now and again. Is it me, or does every non-US-based NPR story sound the same? Maybe because I've been away, I'm noticing this more, but it's really bothering me.

Here's a the story on NPR:

  • Brief introduction by host of show. 
  • Taped story begins with an introduction by feature reporter: usually a sentence about someone specifically affected by events. Pause in the talking.
  • Some "atmospheric" sound: gates clanking shut, people at the market, etc. (An aside: when I'm listening in the car and they have those traffic sounds with sirens, it really freaks me out. Does it occur to anyway at NPR that some of us are listening while driving and when we hear a siren, our first reaction is not "wow, that is really adding a lot to this segment on strife in India!"?)
  • Reporter starts discussing the actual story.
  • Reporter introduces someone actually affected by story.
  • The affected person starts talking. This person rarely speaks English. I'm not being an ugly American here. I get that not everyone speaks English. But, really, do I need to hear this guy go on for a while before the translator kicks in? And can't we just have the translator? 
  • Reporter continues the story. Unfortunately, as so much time has been spent with "atmosphere", the story is often incomplete. 
  • Story ends with no resolution.

I love NPR, I really do. It would be a shame if it went away or if the funding was significantly cut. And maybe it's just me. Maybe other people like when they hear horns honking and a guy going on and on in Egyptian. Maybe they feel it adds flavor. But I just wish they didn't all follow this pattern. I feel like they are spending too much time with style and not enough with the actual news. If you're reporting from the farmer's market in a small town in Africa, I can imagine the sounds and it's a pretty safe bet that anyone being interviewed is talking through a translator. Let's get to the story. And maybe then we'll have time for more information.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Bear with me here

I get that advertising is supposed to get your attention and make you want to act, whether you buy a new car or try a different brand of toothpaste. And, although I never want a webpage plastered with a bunch of ads, I know they need to pay the bills, and the box on the side where yahoo puts an ad when I go to is just about right. Big enough that I don't miss it but, generally, not in the way or bothersome. It often taps into what I've been up to (I get the ebags ads for a few days after I've been on that site trying to find that perfect purse; I get the DC Living Social ads which always feature cupcakes and spa treatments -- smart moves.) However, the other day one popped up that just really got me upset.

I'm at, and up pops this picture of a bear. With a hook in its lip. A hook in its lip! It was not pretty. In fact, it turned my stomach (it didn't help I was reading over lunch). No surprise, it was an ad for an animal rights group (WSPA, to be specific.) Now this is not to say we shouldn't protect our furry friends, but this is not the way to do it. I felt assaulted. It was too far. It was "if you don't buy Girl Scout cookies, you must hate all children!" Which, no, I just don't need to see a gross-out picture of a bear with a hook when I go to check my news and email.

On a purely esthetic point of view, it just was gross. Obviously, yahoo knows a bit about me as the ads are specific on some level, so they know I am an adult, but what if I was letting my nephew use my computer for a bit? This was not appropriate for kids (I know if I had seen this image when I was 7, well, you'd be looking at a week of nightmares.) is my homepage, so I see it all the time. I don't want the bear!

The thing is, that ad kept popping up. I finally wrote in and said that I thought this ad was offensive and that I would never send this group (WSPA, just to remind you) a dime. (I do believe in supporting animal causes: see the bottom of this post for details.) It still pops up and I write in every time. I'm sure I'm on some "Hater of Animals" list, but, for now, this is the battle I'm fighting. No more bear!

I have to say, I'm not sure the bears are helping. I get using puppies and kittens. I actually cry over those commercials with Sarah McLachlan singing. (I know, you're wondering how this is different? In some ways it's not, but maybe I except a certain amount of assault on my senses when I watch tv, and I can always close my eyes until Sarah is done singing.) But bears? Apparently, the WSPA is known for bears (something called bear baiting? Yeah, it's a thing. Henry the Eighth was into it, so right there, you already know it's a bit off.) I'm not saying we shouldn't protect the bears, but I am saying that there's animals closer to home that need our help.

I'm not sure my point in all this. How's this: if you have a few bucks for animals, don't support WSPA but rather, support your local animal shelter. If you don't want to throw the money locally, I have it from a good source that this place does good work:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The desperation in the back of the pantry

Sometimes you just want something sweet. I try to keep the sweets I have in the house to a minimum because, yes, I will eat them. Is a stack of graham crackers the healthiest dinner? No, of course, not, but sometimes it's what a body wants. I have found that only one thing will trump the sugar craving: laziness. I generally will not leave the house, even for a sugary treat, which leads to the following pattern:
Tummy: Sugar, please!
Brain: No.
Tummy: Please pleaseplease please
Brain: I said, no.
Tummy: Sugar sugar sugar sugar sugarsugar
Brain (disgusted): Fine, go get some sugar!
After a few moments of searching: Tummy (whining): No sugar in the house!
Brain harrumphs in triumph.

Then I remembered: I had some Poptarts. At least I was pretty sure I did. I'd have to check. Yes! in the back of the cupboard. It wasn't perfection: these were whole grain and not a chocolate variety, but they would do. Into the toaster and time to snack! Tummy says, I win!

The Poptart was oddly unsatisfying. Yes, I do understand that it's just a Poptart, therefore the bar is already pretty low. Even by this standard, the Poptart was not pleasing me. But at least Tummy has stopped shouting for sugar, and now Brain has the extra argument that, clearly, Tummy doesn't really know what it wants. But it still bothered me. Poptart, why did you let me down? There had to be more to this lack of snack satisfaction. Tummy couldn't stand to have Brain win so easily. Let's check the box.

I see the expiration date: "Better by Dec 04 09." No that's not a typo. 09! I didn't think they'd be near that old. For a moment I panicked: I thought that the date was later then when I had moved. Had I actually moved out-of-date Poptarts? No, I moved in August 2009; these were still good when I moved. No, they were "better." I wondered about the use of "better'? Were they really any better a year and a half ago? I doubt it. There's a reason they've lasted this long with Tummy in the house. Nonetheless, we're not going back in time to have that taste test.

I suppose the lesson in all of this is this: if you're getting Poptarts, you should always get the chocolate ones.