Thursday, December 27, 2012

Is There Anything Else You'll Need Before I Go

Pennsylvania law requires that students complete a project to qualify for graduation. My guess is that this came about because the Department of Education is full of people with PhDs and EdDs. Typically a degree like that will require a thesis, and there's nothing like suffering through something to make it seem like a good idea for everyone else (see also: cults).

In Pennsylvania we tend to switch the political party of our governors every eight years and, in so doing, the entire direction of public education. Also, this governor can't even seem to agree with himself (see: here and here), so I'd better hurry up and finish this post before everything changes again.

The law isn't precise regarding the exact nature of the project, which leads to lots of variation among districts. Some schools count a freshman careers unit, others a community service journal. My school took this very seriously, and continues to take it very seriously. The teachers' contract includes a provision for keeping us after school to evaluate; the library becomes a complicated exchange depot where students submit projects and teachers go to get their own copy (students must produce three copies of the entire binder) several days before the presentation; and English classes spend considerable time on a research paper--not so strange, perhaps, in senior English--as well as discussing the myriad requirements and rehearsing the oral presentation. Almost every room in the school is used (and certainly every projector and SmartBoard), and members of the community volunteer to be additional evaluators. Most strikingly (for this particular district where they don't like to pay any extra curricular contracts), an employee is hired on a special contract to coordinate the whole thing.

Anything that consumes resources this way, and is given time and space to this degree, deserves careful analysis and reevaluation from time to time. Typically this means serving on a committee, but this blog has as much of a chance of making the whole thing work better (i.e. not much) as a committee, and can be done while I'm in my boxer shorts--very few school committees offer this option. Maybe someone would be kind enough to serve on the committee and just read this entire blog entry into the record.

First, a little history.

When it began, the "project" had to be something tangible. This led to some pretty goofy scenarios in which a student would do a scholarly analysis of George Washington's military strategies during the Revolutionary War, and then need to manufacture some wooden teeth to complete the project and graduate.

To fix this problem, a new scoring system was developed. Students were to enter into an intensive, multifaceted study of something of his or her choosing, and document this study in a portfolio, which included a log of time spent and conversations with experts on this topic. Standards of how many experts were to be contacted and how this was to be documented were developed. As is always the case, the scoring system became reality, so now the project is essentially a binder of forms and signatures as much as it could be considered is a study of something.

One problem with the whole thing is that the scoring is based on the belief that Conrad Weiser is just like Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. Two of those may be true, but it's not enough. In keeping with this worldview, we set out to devise a scoring system that would simultaneously encourage the strongest students to do their best, and on which even the weakest students (with no adaptations for special education students) can achieve 70%. By the way, the educational law of the land is also based on this concept.

The successes and failures of the Senior Graduation Project are testament to the power of a rubric, and the way this scoring tool attempts to numeratize (I made up that word) otherwise subjective criteria. The rubric is designed so that even the weakest student can pass, even with the most ball-busting teacher as an evaluator. It is also designed so that the best students should be able to achieve a perfect score, even with an extremely weak and/or distracted teacher evaluating. In order to meet these two extremes, however, it must be possible that an intelligent Slacker student can at least pass with minimal effort, and possibly fake the entire thing.

So here it is, the Slacker's Guide to Senior Projects (these techniques are useful in similar situations like master's theses and other major assignments, so you are not permitted to stop reading just because you're not a sophomore at Conrad Weiser):

  1. Swallow any remaining sense of dignity: "...you may feel a slight sting. That's pride f*&king with you. F%$k pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps." For example, you're required to meet with your "adviser" twice in your junior year and three times in your senior year. Yes it's pointless. Do it anyway, even if your adviser (who doesn't want to have this meeting any more than you do) doesn't have anything useful to contribute. There are lots of silly little marks to hit like this one, and your best bet is to not over-think and just do it. In a very literal sense, it's not pointless--the forms from these meetings result in points that can only be earned this way.
  2. Screw quality: There are a number of items on the rubric that require things to be present, but for which there is no quality assessment. For example, you get points for including a copy of your paper, even if your paper just says "Kill Flanders!" or "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over. 
  3. Mind the cleverness: I completely understand the motivation to do a project called The Senior Project: Why It Sucks. Fight that: A. Someone who works harder than you has already done it, and 2. Your judges won't be so charmed while they're missing their tee-time, or kid's soccer game, to evaluate this. If you are additionally motivated to use this blog as a reference, and me as an Expert Contact: yeah, fight that too (see also: #1.--above).
  4. Choose something that you know a lot about (and most people do not): Do you have an interest in pewter figurines from Dungeons & Dragons(r)? Enjoy ocarina music? Know how to make candles from beef tallow? Good--no one else does. This stuff is Senior Project gold because your judges will not come to the evaluation armed with a whole lot of difficult questions.
  5. Try literal song and dance: Judges are suckers for singing, dancing, gymnastics, horsemanship, and ping-pong. If you show up with a skill that they don't have, they will feel compelled to give inflated scores, lest they be asked to participate. Besides, if you feel things are going poorly, you could always ask them to participate.
  6. Video killed the radio star: Here's a tip: take a whole bunch of random footage from your phone and edit together over a Ke$ha song using MovieMaker or FinalCut. Most of your judges grew up in an era when we actually had to splice film together with tape, so the sort of crap that you would put on YouTube just for kicks and giggles will help distract them from your shoddy PowerPoint.
  7. Through their stomachs: Some of your judges may be squeamish about eating stuff that you prepare for them, but others (think: boy teachers) will unwittingly add elocution points to your score if they're eating brownies at the time. 
  8. Be known as a good kid: The cost/benefit on this may not really add up, but if you've already invested lots of time and effort in being known as a good kid, don't be afraid to cash in on that now. The kids who get away with falsifying their entire project are never the ones you think would even try it. 
  9. Just pass: Senior Projects must meet 70% of the required elements (there's a more complicated formula, but that's the gist of it). Slackers need to keep in mind that they will need to meet 70%, and make sure to pass on the first try--keep in mind, that's quite a bit lower than our typical goal of B-. Non-Slackers should keep in mind that they only need 70% to pass. Unless you're going for the Perfect Score Award (I think there is such a thing), achieving 94% on this is just a waste. You've never really had to think this way, but it's very sad to see great kids hyperventilate over whether they can achieve what amounts to a C-.
  10. Let your mother dress you: Lots of students dress not so much in business attire, but rather business attire as might be interpreted by a stripper. Some of your judges will be annoyed or offended by this, others may be intrigued--either way, you want no parts of it. There are points available for "thematic dress," however, so if your topic is My Job as a Hooters Waitress, I guess you have a decision to make (however, see 3.--above).
 High-stakes projects are like high-stakes tests (see also: here). The problem is that even good evaluation systems have trouble when scaled up for the masses. Eventually people figure out how to avoid the actual stuff you want them to know or do, and just work to beat the scoring. Then it become an arms race between students and educators (at the corporate level: Educational Testing Services vs. Kaplan). I don't know if it's possible to devise a project that  every student could conceivably pass, that every student would need to put effort into, and that any teacher at all teacher could grade fairly. Until we can, or until the next governor comes in and changes it all again, feel free to use my handy tips. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Words with Strangers

Dedicated Slacker Guide readers--both of you--have noticed that your blogger has been slacking even more than normal. If you are inclined to blame the baby (i.e. good parenting) or pre-concert syndrome (i.e. doing my job) please allow me to retort.

Well, okay, it is those things to some degree. However, part of it was an attempt to complete NaNoWriMo. I knew from the outset that I wouldn't "win," but it took longer to accept that I wouldn't get a B-. Even so, 40,000 words turned out to be quite a lot and didn't even pass with a D-. The experience will certainly return as a topic for a future post, but until then I figured I should offer up a warmed-over Facebook note.

This is an idea stolen from Jennifer, who stole it from our friend Scott who published his to his blog and also here. He stole it from Joslyn Hamilton who may have read Jen’s by now and may someday read this—such is the nature of social networking.

Words I like: 

Breakfast – soft on the edges, crispy in the middle, a great meal with a great name. I also like the name and the concept of “brunch,” but it turns out more in theory than in practice--pancakes and salad in the same meal just isn’t right.

Confounded – my father’s swear-word substitute: “I can’t find my confounded glasses.” Like many things my father says, I started using this word in gentle mockery, and now use it unaware, and without irony.

Thighs – I like many words for female body parts. This one just seemed relatively appropriate to this list.

Catholic – the word means “universal,” but common usage allows one denomination to claim it for themselves.  Like other words that lose their meaning with modifier in front of them (see also: perfect, silent, unique), I believe we should insist on using the more accurate Roman Catholic (which means universal, but in a specifically Vatican way). Here’s a secret: when Episcopalians are feeling particularly ornery, they just call them “Roman.”

Buttery – butter in all of its parts of speech is appealing, but as an adjective it has a connotation of excess that adds value. Can also be applied to non-food items such as leather, and thighs.

Liquor – I enjoy wine (in moderation) and beer (even in excess) but neither word has the onomatopoeic perfection of liquor. Even before I’d had any, I had some sense of the sweet/bitter/smooth/harsh/forbidden-yet-socially-acceptable qualities of the stuff.

Morendo – musical term for “dying away.” I like when composers give you more to go on than “rit. et dim.” I also felt compelled to have at least one musical term on here.

Ostensibly – we need lots of words in our culture to qualify a statement as possibly untrue. See also “allegedly”, “reportedly”, and , “said Michele Bachmann.”

Irony – especially as a lifestyle affectation. See Nick Hornby’s treatment in High Fidelity here.

Haydn, accompanist, tympani, rhythm – these are words that I can spell that not everyone can. Notice, there are not so many of them and that they are somewhat limited in scope and usage.

Fricative – I use this for all consonants produced through friction of air through your mouth (for a better definition, and some examples of Welsh IPA, see the Wikipedia entry here). It sounds vaguely improper, but not as bad as "labiodentals" (see here), which I would never try to say at school.

Malaise – I heard this word in a This American Life story, and now use it for any out-of-sorts feeling that lasts more than a day or so.


Words I Do Not Like:

Just – used ostensibly to moderate or nullify the severity or magnitude of something. Especially bad when paired with “every time,” as in “If you want to lose weight, just make sure to _____ every time you eat out.”

Freedom – I’m not so sure that people who use "freedom" as a synonym for "patriotism" are actually thinking about what the word means. Freedom requires tolerance of other people's religion, sexual preferences, political views, manner of dress, country of origin, native tongue, intelligence, housekeeping habits, bumper-stickers, culinary needs/preferences, lawn-care standards... It's not freedom if they have to do it your way.

Colic – first, it was part of the accusation that I was a difficult baby, then it was (incorrectly, it seems) the reason that my hair would never lie flat. Now it’s a very bad day (if you’re lucky) or death (if you’re not) for horses. Plus, it’s an unattractive word.

Thighs – as a word for a male body part, it is not such a happy topic for me. Neither is it so good as a part of a chicken, as they are so difficult to cook properly.

Mandatory – professionally I am guilty of using this word a lot, but I am aware of the fact that it is something you tag onto a policy when you don’t want to actually discuss its merits. For a perfect treatment of the word “policy,” see Scott’s list here.

Fair-and-balanced – Fairness is rarely achieved through balance. If it were, we could just take from anyone above the middle and give it to anyone below. This is in fact proof that you don’t really believe in it either. You just want your most batshit-insane ideas to get 50% representation in the conversation.

Hard – not a bad word, and quite necessary in many circumstances. As a schoolteacher, though, you learn to remove certain words from your normal vocabulary. See also: "shaft," "lubricate," "eat," "tongue," “69,” “finger,” and most unfortunately for music teachers, "pianist."

Assessment – insert rant about standardized testing and the methodical ruin of creative thought, aesthetic awareness, and the downfall of the liberal arts here: _____ (see also: here). My other objection is that I’m very likely to substitute the plural noun "asses" when using it as a verb in written communication, which makes for awkward spots in memos, syllabi, and grading policy postings.

There it is. I do request that you consider posting your own list either in the comments or as a link in the comments. You know you have one.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Answers to Unanswerable Questions

Governor Romney recently mused about one of those big, big questions questions: why don't airplane manufacturers put operable windows in planes? It brings to mind other unanswerable questions like: if God can do anything, can he make a rock so heavy that he can't lift it? and: why does anyone care about what Sarah Palin has to say anymore?

While I can't answer either of those last two, and therefore must assume that no one can, I did recently receive  lots of others in an email forward from a friend. For those who don't know, before Facebook we sent and received funny, inspirational, or irritating content through email. Before that we had chain letters, and before that people went to church. 

The ability and inclination to answer questions of this type is quite valuable in school teaching. As my wife said in her This I Believe, "I believe that there absolutely is such a thing as a stupid question," and "I believe that if you disagree, you probably ask a lot of them." (My This I Believe is here, if you're interested.) Since a teacher is never really sure which stupid questions are intended ironically, and since teachers and students both know that delving into this stuff can consume a vast amount of time, it is best to deal with them all at face value.

I've provided just the questions first, just as I received them. These are followed by the questions with my answers. That way you can try out the questions yourself, and/or SPAM your own friends. If you're not interested in playing, just scroll down and no one ever needs to know.

QUESTIONS THAT HAUNT ME!
  1. Can you cry under water?  
  2. How important does a person have to be before they are considered assassinated instead of just murdered?
  3. Once you're in heaven, do you get stuck wearing the clothes you were buried in for eternity?
  4. Why does a round pizza come in a square box? 
  5. What disease did cured ham actually have?  
  6. How is it that we put man on the moon before we figured out it would be a good idea to put wheels on luggage?
  7. Why is it that people say they 'slept like a baby' when babies wake up like every two hours? 
  8. Why are you IN a movie, but you're ON TV?
  9. Why do people pay to go up tall buildings and then put money in binoculars to look at things on the ground? 
  10. Why do doctors leave the room while you change? They're going to see you naked anyway...
  11. Why is 'bra' singular and 'panties' plural?
  12. Why do toasters always have a setting that burns the toast to a horrible crisp, which no decent human being would eat?
  13. If Jimmy cracks corn and no one cares, why is there a stupid song about him? 
  14. Why does Goofy stand erect while Pluto remains on all fours? They're both dogs!
  15. If corn oil is made from corn, and vegetable oil is made from vegetables, what is baby oil made from?
  16. Do the Alphabet song and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star have the same tune?
  17. Why did you just try singing the two songs above?
  18. Did you ever notice that when you blow in a dog's face, he gets mad at you, but when you take him for a car ride, he sticks his head out the window?
  19. Why, Why, Why do we press harder on a remote control when we know the batteries are getting dead? 
  20. Why do banks charge a fee on 'insufficient funds' when they know there is not enough money?
  21. Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?
  22. Why do they use sterilized needles for death by lethal injection?
  23. Why doesn't Tarzan have a beard?
  24. Why does Superman stop bullets with his chest, but ducks when you throw a revolver at him?
  25. Why do Kamikaze pilots wear helmets?
  26. If people evolved from apes, why are there still apes?
  27. Why is it that no matter what colour bubble bath you use the bubbles are always white?
  28. Is there ever a day that mattresses are not on sale?
  29. Why do people constantly return to the refrigerator with hopes that something new to eat will have materialized?
  30. Why do people keep running over a thread a dozen times with their vacuum cleaner, then reach down, pick it up, examine it, then put it down to give the vacuum one more chance? 
  31. Why is it that no plastic bag will open from the end on your first try?
  32. How do those dead bugs get into those enclosed light fixtures?
  33. Why is it that whenever you attempt to catch something that's falling off the table you always manage to knock something else over? 
  34. In winter why do we try to keep the house as warm as it was in summer when we complained about the heat?
  35. How come you never hear father-in-law jokes?

And my FAVORITE.........

The statistics on sanity is that one out of every four persons is suffering from some sort of mental illness. Think of your three best friends -- if they're okay, then it's you.

~~~ Now send this on to your friends and make them smile too! ~~~


Unanswerable questions, with answers.


Can you cry under water?
Yes I can. Most people who have swum competitively can do this.

How important does a person have to be before they are considered assassinated instead of just murdered?
If one wishes to be considered assassinated, we're just going to have to agree to be okay with that. He/she's had a pretty tough time already; let's not split hairs on this one.

Once you're in heaven, do you get stuck wearing the clothes you were buried in for eternity?
No, they immediate issue you jeans that fit. That's why you go to all of the trouble to get into heaven in the first place.

Why does a round pizza come in a square box?
Because folding round stuff is hard, and forming dough into a square is hard, and people are pretty lazy.

What disease did cured ham actually have?
Swine Flu. And botulism--before curing we used to just scrape all of the nasty stuff from our pork. Thank you, salt.

How is it that we put man on the moon before we figured out it would be a good idea to put wheels on luggage?
The President told us to. He had a guy whose job it was to carry his luggage, so it was probably a matter of priorities.

Why is it that people say they 'slept like a baby' when babies wake up like every two hours?
 

Some babies sleep rather well. Now that I have one of those, I'd be glad to tell you all of my secrets. Last time around, we must have been doing it wrong. (See also: here)

Why are you IN a movie, but you're ON TV?
I am neither of these things. Am I?

Why do people pay to go up tall buildings and then put money in binoculars to look at things on the ground?
Tourism or voyeurism, take your pick.

Why do doctors leave the room while you change? They're going to see you naked anyway...
Dignity. Thirty seconds of dignity, then all bets are off.

Why is 'bra' singular and 'panties' plural?
Uhm. Wait, did you say something?

Why do toasters always have a setting that burns the toast to a horrible crisp, which no decent human being would eat?
My mother. She is an entirely decent human being, but does eats toast this way. Then she "offers it up." Something about St. Francis putting ashes on his food.

If Jimmy cracks corn and no one cares, why is there a stupid song about him?
Slavery.

Why does Goofy stand erect while Pluto remains on all fours? They're both dogs!
Clothes. Disney characters with clothes (regardless of species, or genus for that matter) are considered people, while those without are considered pets. Except for the nudist nymphs in Fantasia--they're people.

If corn oil is made from corn, and vegetable oil is made from vegetables, what is baby oil made from?
Johnson & Johnson won't say. In fact, we only have Monsanto's word on the first two--bon appetit!

Do the alphabet song and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star have the same tune?
Yes. Also, Paul Simon's American Tune is the same as a chorale in Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion, itself a reworking of an earlier secular song, Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret, composed by Hans Hassler. Plagiarism used to be quite a bit easier.

Why did you just try singing the two songs above?
I didn't, but I have a couple of college degrees in this stuff. Fair question.

Did you ever notice that when you blow in a dog's face, he gets mad at you, but when you take him for a car ride, he sticks his head out the window?
Dogs shouldn't put their heads out the window. I dries out their eyes.
Sorry, I know--fun killer.

Why, Why, Why do we press harder on a remote control when we know the batteries are getting dead?
It worked that one time, and besides the batteries are all the way over there. If I wanted to get up, why would I be holding this remote?

Why do banks charge a fee on 'insufficient funds' when they know there is not enough money?
Deregulation--in other words, because they can. Nothing a little unfunded mandate couldn't fix.

Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?
Wet paint isn't in textbooks. If it's in a textbook, it must be true.

Why do they use sterilized needles for death by lethal injection?
The same reason as all of our other "humane" treatment of death row inmates: we're hypocrites.

Why doesn't Tarzan have a beard?
Jane.

Why does Superman stop bullets with his chest, but ducks when you throw a revolver at him?
 Does he? I've never tried this.

Why do Kamikaze pilots wear helmets?
A combination of hypocrisy and dignity (see above).

If people evolved from apes, why are there still apes?
For the same reason that my little brother and his children continue to exist despite our common ancestry. We're talking about evolution, not metamorphosis.

Why is it that no matter what colour bubble bath you use the bubbles are always white?
I don't use bubble bath.

Is there ever a day that mattresses are not on sale?
The day you need to buy one.

Why do people constantly return to the refrigerator with hopes that something new to eat will have materialized?
Childhood. The same reason I leave my cereal bowl on the table when I'm finished.

Why do people keep running over a thread a dozen times with their vacuum cleaner, then reach down, pick it up, examine it, then put it down to give the vacuum one more chance?
Better living through machines.

Why is it that no plastic bag will open from the end on your first try?
There's an alternate universe where this works out every time. The universes have a way of evening things out.

How do those dead bugs get into those enclosed light fixtures?
They do it while they're alive.

Why is it that whenever you attempt to catch something that's falling off the table you always manage to knock something else over?
I'm clumsy. That's how I knocked the thing over in the first place.

In winter why do we try to keep the house as warm as it was in summer when we complained about the heat?
My wife
believes that since the insides of our bodies are happiest at 98 degrees, the outsides should be very close to that as well. I wear shorts all winter and put more wood in the fire.

How come you never hear father-in-law jokes?
Have you met her father?! No thanks.

And my
FAVORITE.........


The statistics on sanity is that one out of every four persons is suffering from some sort of mental illness. Think of your three best friends -- if they're okay, then it's you.
Wow, am I ever fine.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Worship the Flagpole

There is a bit of a debate these days about whether the right to free speech should apply to religion. Actually, freedom of speech for religious leaders is firmly rooted in the First Amendment, the only limitation being that if churches choose to double as political organizations we may be entitled to collect taxes accordingly--though this is also a matter for debate. Rather, there is some question on whether the freedom of speech should apply to criticism of religion.

Uhm, yeah it should. While I will strenuously defend your right to worship as you choose, I will just as strenuously defend my right to analyze, critique, and to provide mockery where I deem appropriate. Except, of course, for Islam--they're perfectly fine in every way.

Last week, American high school students celebrated the annual Christian high feast day, See You at the Pole. I wouldn't be so much aware of this event if didn't conflict with my before-school chamber choir rehearsal. Depending on the reliability, fervor, and baseline punctuality of my students in a given year, this can have a significant effect on my day. You work through a rehearsal with a third of your group missing and you're going to have a thought or two.

I make no claim to know the individual motivations of the students involved, most of which I'll even assume are entirely righteous. I do, however, feel it is fair to analyze the ritual itself. Ritual is action infused with meaning, and the actions we see here tell us a lot (including some things they haven't set out to say):
  • It's public - If it were about prayer, it could be done anywhere. If it were about group prayer, it could be done anywhere large enough to contain all of the faithful. 
  • It's done as people are arriving for the day -  If it must be outside--as it must be for Pagans, Wiccans, and Druids--it could be done after school, when mostly everyone has left. 
  • It's done with their backs turned toward the infidels - Positioning matters. Pre-Vatican II the Eucharistic Prayer was said with the priest turned away from the congregation. Though the official spin on this was that the priest should be on the same side of the altar as everyone else, the inevitable sensation from the pews must have been that the priest was turning his back on the unworthy to get down to the serious work of Consecration. In the end, the Council rearranged the furniture to correct the optics.
  • It's done at school, and not at church - It's not as if there aren't any faith communities for students to indulge religious impulses--the town where school district is has so many houses of worship that there are two just for Lutherans.
Given this, I think it's safe to say that it isn't about worship, which can be done at home or in church, and it isn't about a faith-based fellowship with schoolmates, which can be done at weekly meetings of the FCA
(where they gather the rest of the year within the shelter of the school). Therefore, the real purpose of the Sacrament of the Pole must be either grandstanding, or protest.

For the most part, I see nothing wrong with grandstanding in religion. My church built a little turret on top of its bell tower so that it would be the highest structure in town at the time. We also have no drywall or plaster in the sanctuary--just ornate stone and elaborately carved wood. We have some stained glass windows that are larger than even the biggest TVs at Best Buy. As a professional choral musician, amateur artisan, and dedicated epicurean I am thrilled with the ways in which churches have always tried to out-sing, out-build, and out-cook all of the others. Churches remain one of the best patrons of the arts in an era when the state and the wealthy are no longer interested in doing their share. At times, we miss the Holy Roman Empire, the Esterhazys, and the Medicis.

It's not that kind of grandstanding, though is it? They're not commissioning multi-movement cantatas for chorus and orchestra, they don't raise funds for the building of organs, or hire stone masons and wood carvers at union scale. They don't even dispense doughnuts at the end. It's more like tramping through the flower beds to play the role of Luke's Pharisee, thanking God that they're not like other men. Maybe, then, it's actually better if they're protesting the lack of prayer in schools.

I have no objection to prayer in the schools. I'm a Slacker; prayer, along with some moderate levels of superstition, made up a significant portion of my test preparation. I don't object to organized prayer either. I went to Catholic school, and we prayed all the time--heck, for a while they had us say the Angelus every day at noon. At some point in elementary school they took us through the little passageway to the convent, to the nuns' chapel for Benediction and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We used to go over to the church on Fridays during Lent for Stations. We set up hundreds of chairs in the gym and learned special trumpet descants for hymns every time the Bishop came to say mass.

Organized prayer in public schools? Okay, now we have a problem.

A number of problems:
  1. Christian? - Advocates of putting prayer in school are assuming, I guess, Christian prayers. Given that they're already comfortable ignoring the rights of non-believers and agnostics, they just want a little Lord's Prayer from everyone, be they Christian, Jew, or Miscellaneous.
  2. Still, whose prayers? - Catholics stop at "evil," protestants go on to "for Thine is the kingdom," and that's in a prayer Christians mostly agree on. What about the Confeteor ("I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin...") or BCP, pg 370 ("...and this fragile earth, our island home") or an old prayer from Good Friday for conversion of the "perfidious Jews"? There really isn't any such thing as non-denominational.
  3. Sweat the small stuff? - Linus had to choose from "peace to men on whom his favor rests" vs. "and on earth peace, good will toward men," and this is one of the nicer verses. The differences are subtle, and yet entirely change what we learn about the "appalling strangeness of the mercy of God. " If you don't see a difference, you could probably found a faith system all your own based on that.
  4. To what end? - Changing hearts takes more than forced recitation. Geoff Nunberg says of the Pledge of Allegiance (a profession of faith that we permit because the holy relic involved represents freedom--in other words, a mandated pledge to a device that objectifies freedom): "In theory, the pledge could do most of the same work if we had children say it in Anglo-Saxon or Arapaho, or if we replaced it with the lyrics to 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.' They're going to turn the words into jabberwocky anyway: 'I led a pigeon to the flag,' 'one Asian under guard.'" The same process could easily apply to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and that might be just as well.
All of this ranting about prayer in schools may be somewhat confusing to anyone who knows that I spend my days teaching Elijah Rock, O Vos Omnes, and By the Waters of Babylon to public school kids. I have a 2000-word defense of this that I may share in the future, but it boils down to engaging in scholarship rather than worship. In fact, I would be entirely in favor of a comparative religions or church history course--provided it didn't shy away from Henry the VIIIth, the Inquisition, or Islamic extremists. I would even offer to teach it, except that the rest of my day is spent teaching Margaritaville, so I'm pretty swamped.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Life Lessons from a Nine-Week-Old

In either a little postscript to my previous baby post, or the second in an ongoing series (it would be unwise for the author of The Slacker's Guide to School to make predictions about the pace or content of future posts), I return to the subject of Catherine. She continues to be a source of new revelations and of things remembered from last time around. If this continues, I should be fairly smart by the time she's old enough to assume that I don't know anything.

Once again, in no particular order (if it weren't for "no particular order" I'd have no organizational scheme at all):
  • Breast feeding is fraught- Breast feeding is is the third rail of American parenting (I apologize for mental image this may conjure). In fact, I hesitate to tell you just exactly what we're doing with this, but take comfort in the fact that whatever your views, we're probably defying you on some level. Of course the most famous example of a man who chose to wager his testicles on this issue was Mayor Bloomberg in part of his grand plan to change the "N" in NYC to "nanny" (see also: soda). Sadly, somewhere in the mess he made was a fairly reasonable point that:
  • Corporations are sneaky  - No one (except maybe my mother) loves babies quite like corporations. They are very interested in your baby and will work very hard to find out if you are pregnant, even if you don't tell them, even if you don't know yourself. Our baby is brought to you by Pampers®, Soothie®, Sleep Sack®, Medela®, and Desitin®--all because these were the brands that the hospital started us with and we haven't gotten around to switching. The hospital also sent us home with lots of swag--diaper bags, samples, etc.--from other companies, not unlike parting gifts from game shows (gifts for people who lost game shows, come to think of it). Included in this haul were some convenient little bottles of pre-mixed formula, designed that you can screw a nipple and ring (the mental images from these words are probably indicative of whether or not you have kids) to them directly. Having trouble breastfeeding? Enfamil's got you covered before you give it too much thought. Further proof of Corporate America's infiltration is lots of brand names that everyone assumes are just names for stuff, like Nuk®, Onesie®, and Butt Paste®.
  • Skin-to-skin is important- It makes sense that a little baby who previously spent its entire life completely surrounded by its mother's body, especially those who are born early, needs to frequently be in as much human contact as possible (also called kangaroo care). It also makes sense that fathers have a distinct advantage in this realm, given the topography and relatively lax societal coverage requirements of the male chest. Fine except for:
  • Spit happens - All babies spit up, it's just a question of whether it ends up outside or inside. At that point, it's just a matter of laundry. Unless you're engaging in skin-to-skin, in which case, not so much a  matter of laundry. In fact, I've found that a lack of sufficient expendable textiles is a very good predictor of how much spitting is going to be going on.
  •  Boobs are funny - Replacing the word "breast" with "boob" and "nursing" or "lactation" with "boob-feeding" is an endless source of cheap humor. Notice how quickly I've forgotten the first lesson, above.
  • Baby talk is bad - We're told not to use baby talk, because babies are developing their language skills from the very beginning. Yeah, okay, you try to say, "You're such a good little baby!!!" without a little lisp, or drastic pitch contour, or distortion of vowel colors. Many of the baby-talk habits we have developed for the dogs--for example: add a diminutive "y" to any word and double it--poochy-poochy, chewy-chewy, stabby-stabby, zappy-zappy, etc.--creep into our conversations with the baby (though the words are sucky-sucky, poopy-poopy, and fussy-fussy).
  • Good babies? - Despite what may sometimes come out of my mouth in the form of baby talk, I do realize that there is no such thing as a good or bad baby, because they are not acting with intent. Still, there are certainly easy babies and challenging babies. The current baby is, so far at least, one of the easy kind. So much so she may have turned us into the kind of parents to give out advice like: "Have you tried just letting your little one hang out in her crib? Sometimes babies just like to look up at the ceiling and contemplate the universe." Lucky for everyone who may have fallen victim to this nonsense, her older sister taught us otherwise, to the extent that we haven't forgotten 15 years later. 
  • Parental leave is crucial - Because I'm a teacher, and we had the good fortune to have both of our children in early summer, I have enjoyed +-6 weeks of paternity leave. My wife is a freelancer, which means that her leave extends until she chooses to take on work again--this will sound very appealing to you until you figure out that when she doesn't have a book to edit she's essentially unemployed (the unemployed get lots of parental leave). There are couples for whom neither parent gets as much leave as I enjoyed, never mind what Jen can take. How they manage this, I have no idea. It's not only a matter of having enough staff around (we still felt shorthanded much of the time); there are lots of skills that take time to develop. Diapering newborns isn't that difficult, comparatively. Yes, they are very fragile, which is terrifying, but they also lack the requisite strength and mass to fling the diaper across the room. Eventually these capabilities develop, and you'd better have gotten some practice in first.
Tune in next time for more in the continuing saga of Life Lessons. In the mean time, though, I'm going to need to work on something about the insanity of the PA Department of Education's balls-up of the Keystone Exams, mock PDE for their lame excuse for lower PSSA scores, and dissect the fact that even Democrats suddenly hate teachers.

Notice how long I kept from making predictions about the content of future posts.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fifty Shades of Gay

I'm a choir teacher for a living, and a tenor in my free time for fun. I don't really follow sports, especially the big three--football, basketball, and baseball. I have an earring and hair that could reasonably be described as fabulous--well, at least on the four days a year when I haven't just gotten it cut, or desperately need to have it cut. Coincidentally, lots of people incorrectly assume that I'm gay. If I dressed better, or could remember that chartreuse isn't some sort of red-ish color, it's possible that I could be actively copulating with a woman and still not be able to convince her otherwise.

Before I continue, I must define some terms, and invoke some disclaimers. First, I haven't yet read the book that I reference in the title. It's not a prude thing (I just finished Portnoy's Complaint and Sacré Bleu) or a macho thing (I'm currently reading I Don't Know How Se Does It), I just haven't been able to get it from the library, maybe because of this. Also, I will be using the word "gay" at times to refer not only to actual homosexuality, but larger aspects of what I perceive to be gay culture. However, I never use the word "gay" to mean "bad," though my students do, even as I consistently scold them for it. By the way, my clever title yields 119,000 hits on Google, so my plagiarism is blatant, but also spread out a bit.

All of that said, I do believe that while gay and straight are pretty clearly definable, most people fall somewhere along a spectrum, at least with regards to the cultural stuff.  So, I submit to you: Fifty Shades of Gay (Slacker edition, so you know, like, twelve):

Gay - Prefers to have sex with someone of the same gender.

Gay, but bigoted  - These people are just awful and there are far too many examples (see also: here) of the phenomenon for it to be merely coincidence. My guess is that sometimes when people are gay by inclination, but refuse to be so in life, they assume that the rest of us are harboring the same sorts of confusion. It starts as self-righteousness--look how straight I'm being, everyone else should be so upstanding--and too often descends into raw cynicism--since I can't openly enjoy the fulfillment of my desires, I'll fulfill them in private and make sure that everyone else must do the same. Note to these people: some of us are straight, and it is no effort whatsoever. Don't give us so much credit--if things were reversed and homosexuality were the norm, we would have the alternative lifestyle.

Big gay priest - We all know about the priest sex-abuse scandal, but I'm not talking about that. Pedophilia is not correlated to homosexuality, and the Church's claim that it is is either obtuse, or intentionally evil. However, since the Church requires its homosexuals to be celibate (don't hate the sinner, hate the sin, they say) and requires its priests and religious to be celibate, it doesn't take a genius to start to see this as vocational counseling.

Gay at midlife - These are some of the saddest stories on the continuum. Marrying a beautiful girl, having some kids with her, and then suddenly discovering that you need to be with men is a great way to destroy lots of lives. It's really no better than marrying a beautiful girl, having some kids with her, and then deciding that you need to be with a 25-year-old Hooters waitress. If this was an impulse you were able to keep under control in your twenties, maybe you should hold on until, you know, death like you promised.

Gay for a while - Traditionally college, but I guess any dramatic lifestyle change could bring it on, or bring it to an end. It takes a while, I guess, to distinguish which direction these folks are heading, and whether they will maintain that trajectory. When you're young and playing the field, it seems that sometimes you want to check out all of your options.

Gay while drunk - I've heard <cough> that at some parties everyone gets drunk enough that they try to get the pretty girls to kiss each other. Okay, I've actually seen that. I've heard that this also applies to guys at some point, but either our parties were more tame by comparison, or we were more closed-minded.

Non-practicing homosexual - This one comes from John Irving, in A Prayer for Owen Meany. These may be the guys that the Catholic Church is picturing when they insist on a celibate priesthood. In my experience they are competent, kind, industrious, intelligent, and knowledgeable--maybe this is what all men would be like if sex weren't always getting in the way. Some argue that the proper term for this is asexual, but I think this misses an important element of denial inherit in the type. They don't seem to be tortured by it, but neither does it seem that they are just devoid of any sexuality at all.

Bisexual -  It is argued (yes, by my students--the GSA meets in my room, and my non-GSA students and I end up talking about this sort of stuff on those days because we lack access to the piano for twenty minutes in a row) that these people are somehow more promiscuous or selfish than the rest of us. While it is true that a truly bisexual person has 100% more options available, nothing says that they indulge those options more freely. If you do indulge more freely, we have words for that too, but it's not "bisexual."

Straight except for athletics - As a non-sports guy, I don't really get this one, but there seems to be a lot of ass-grabbing among guys and girls in sport. Personally, I preferred co-ed sports and activities, hoping for similar action, but was mostly disappointed.

Straight except for... - Hugh Jackman, Johny Depp, Natalie Portman, Helen Hunt, Apollo, Starbuck. Come on, there's someone of your own gender who gives you a moment's pause. Right? No?? Uhm, forget I mentioned it.

Metrosexuals - Not gay, but choose to take on some of the grooming and taste habits nonetheless. Good for them, but it seems to give away some of the advantage that men have enjoyed that help keep women oppressed (see also: shoes).

Straight for religious college - probably straight for other colleges as well, but there are lots of guys who attend some nearby schools, which will remain nameless, who present as gay to my admittedly very clumsy gaydar, yet choose to live straight lifestyles. This is perfectly fine, unless it persists too long (see: Gay at midlife, above).

Straight for high school - It turns out that lots of the guys that I competed with for the general affection and companionship of girls in high school (and college) are actually gay--no one likes hanging out with girls quite as much as girls, me, and gay men, or so it appears. In the '80s and '90s we were brutally cruel to gay people, on the assumption that there were no such thing as gay people, and besides, that's gross (very evolved, I know). However, even in our more enlightened age, I do think some high schoolers stay deeply in the closet waiting for a more civilized age--chronological or geological, whatever it takes.

Beta males - Not gay, but somewhat spared the testosterone poisoning of our alpha male brethren.. I've discussed them here, but the whole concept is plagiarized from Christopher Moore, so check out Bloodsucking Fiends and A Dirty Job. Condensed version: we, like alpha males, like women very much, thank you, but instead of clubbing them over the head and dragging them to our cave, we tended to cook for them, watch their kids, and sing them songs. It seems a losing strategy, I know, but we're still around, which may be proof that it worked out just fine.

Straight -Prefers to have sex with someone of the opposite gender.

Okay, so fifty shades may have been a bit ambitious, but I do believe that gay is a spectrum, and this is merely a terribly shallow analysis of some highlights along the spectrum as I perceive them. If I managed not to offend you, I've probably missed your specific type. Please feel free to correct me in comments.