Wednesday, June 21, 2017

2017's Song of the Summer: "Feel It Still" - Portugal. The Man

Well, it's official. This year's song of the summer can be none other than the funky, groovy, hip sounds of "Feel It Still" by long-time indie band, Portugal. The Man

To quote a DJ on KTCL (93.3 Denver) this morning: "Just who do these guys think they are?" I mean, it's only June, and this song and album are so damn good that there's nothing left to look forward to in 2017. And, where did this band come from (they've been around for nearly 15 years), and what exactly are we to make of the name "Portugal. The Man"? What does the name mean, and what's the significance of period in the middle? Oh, well. Who cares.

This song has a groove that could land comfortably in so many decades that I'm not quite sure how to describe it. For some strange reason, the vibe reminds of Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction, and I think it's because that film could have been set in the 50s, 60s, 70s, or 90s, and there was no defining era except for a distinct feel of cool. This song is the same thing. Wide appeal with hipster credibility. The twangy little bass beat just oozes funkadelic, and if you're head isn't just bobbing to the sound, there is definitely something dead inside of you.

Check it out, and celebrate the solstice by getting your groove on.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Breaking Bad's Walter White was never any "good"

I'm a huge fan of pop culture criticism - in fact, at times I feel like I enjoy the criticism as much or more than the actual pop culture itself. The work of Gen X writer Chuck Klosterman is a perfect example of this feeling. Klosterman, who has written for Grantland, Esquire, GQ, and other publications, produces a large volume of sports and entertainment commentary that is at times a work of art unto itself. His most recent collection of essays - Chuck Klosterman X: a Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the 21st Century - has been engaging me recently, and I rarely find issues on which I disagree with Chuck. However, his views of the iconic TV show Breaking Bad are one area where we part ways, and it's his praise not only of the show but his interpretation of the character of Walter White that are so off. As I've noted before, the entire BB fan base as well as an endless run of critics are wrong about Walter White, and I am mystified by the miss. Walter White is not an anti-hero, and the show was not about a man who "breaks bad." Walter White was always evil, or at least pretty "bad," and unlike characters such as Michael Corleone or Tony Soprano, there is no redeeming quality of White.

Klosterman crafts a compelling view of contemporary crime drama with an assertion about the cultural significance and groundbreaking impact of four shows - The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. These are undoubtedly some of the best television of the last two decades. Klosterman analyzes the shows as he argues that Breaking Bad elevates above the rest because of the unique transformation of the character of Walter White. The true magic of the show, and the significance of WW, is that "At some point, he decided to become bad, and that's what matters." Klosterman believes White is set apart because his evil and his actions were guided by his choice to "break bad," an act that his reluctant partner Jesse told him he could never do. You can't just "break bad," or decide to become a different person. You can't choose to become evil. And this is where Jesse is in some ways right, and Klosterman (as well as the show's fans and other critics) is simply wrong.

Walter White is not an anti-hero, and he is not a good (or even simply average) man who chooses to "break bad" as a result of adversity (in this case, his diagnosis of cancer and desire to protect and provide for his family). From the beginning, Walter White is simply not a very good person. He comes across as a rather mediocre, if not downright inadequate, teacher. Obviously, later seasons reveal his contempt and seething regret over his decision to leave the science/businesss world and enter education. Yet, it seems like his partners don't regret his decision to withdraw from the business. I don't think they ever really liked him or even respected him as a person, and the reason is he was ... well, a bit of a tool. Walter White was always a pretty amoral sort of a dick, and the reason he didn't "break bad" or become "evil" earlier is simply because the opportunity never presented itself. People don't just become sociopaths, which is a fair description of his character by the middle seasons. He was always that way, and the cancer diagnosis and chance encounter with Jesse simply offered the opportunity for more socially destructive actions.

Characters like Tony Soprano and Don Draper are compelling and interesting because aspects of the individuals are appealing. We develop some degree of understanding and empathy for these men because of their circumstances, but the reason we do that is carefully crafted by the writers and directors. The characters always have in some way done something to "save the cat," an act which endears us or at least softens our suspicion and mistrust of them. We ironically root for Tony Soprano to get away with crime because we like him. We justify that he is only hurting other bad guys, or we care about the integrity of the close relationships he has - even if they are with other thugs. Yet, none of this is, or should be, true with Walter White. My sympathy was always with Jesse, a true anti-hero. But I never wanted WW to get away with anything. I wasn't hoping to prolong the show - I wanted him busted and the whole thing over. Because Walter White is no good, and he was never worth a damn.

Friday, June 16, 2017

"1979" & growing up Gen X

Generation X, while not inclined to be defined by anything or anyone, was certainly crafted by coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s. There was a frivolous apathy and detached bemusement associated with life in years like 1979. And this ironic spirit is captured oh so poetically in one of my favorite Smashing Pumpkins songs, "1979" from the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The song's distinct and innovative sound with its funky 70s bass lines and trippy reverb refrains and rhythms just oozes with the 70's suburban ennui that is captured so beautifully in the video. Corgan is reflecting the feel of 1979 when he was just twelve years old and coming into consciousness.

Justine never knew the rules
Hung down with the freaks and the ghouls
No apologies ever need be made
I know you better than you fake it, to see
And I don't even care to shake these zipper blues
And we don't know just where our bones will rest
To dust I guess
Forgotten and absorbed into the earth below
The street heats the urgency of sound
As you can see there's no one around

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Are TED Talks Helping Anyone?

If you've been a student or attended any sort of professional conference or training (or even spent any time on Facebook) in the past decade or so, you have watched a TED Talk. TED Talks are the brainchild of a man named Richard Wurman, but they really came into prominence as a cultural media phenomenon through the hard work and vision of online curator and media entrepreneur Chris Anderson. Anderson turned TED into a huge foundation of idea promotion, and now the ubiquitous nature of TED Talks are an accepted part of media and learning. I can't tell you the number of times I've experienced or heard about someone else experience a "fantastic presentation" that clarifies an issue or poses an interesting question or solution. Inevitably, speakers and teachers will introduce an idea for pondering and then deftly shift to someone else's work by saying "Watch this TED talk, and then let's talk about what you think."

If you are an ideas-oriented person, then you love TED Talks. In fact, you probably have dreams of giving one yourself someday. And maybe you should. You probably share them regularly on social media, and you can easily get lost on the website for hours - or even days - clicking on one presentation after another. It's easy to get wrapped up in the neatly synthesized wisdom of a TED Talk. The answers just seem so obvious and clear and easy. The world would be a much better place if everyone just listened to TED. But I'm wondering if that is true. Is the TED phenomenon actually helping us, or is the distilled wisdom of a 20-minute presentation just pacifying us and distracting us from the real work to be done. Are the soundbites and slogans of TED Talks actually oversimplifying the issues. And, here's a question:  Why do so many teachers and presenters rely on TED Talks as a key component of their content and instruction?  Shouldn't the class or conference itself be a TED Talk? Or, is the TED Talk just another form of content like a book or poem or piece of data that teachers and speakers have always used.

There is even a cottage publishing industry of books on how to be more like TED. The prime example of this is a book that promises to help you Talk Like TED.

What do you think? Do you like TED Talks? Is TED helping anyone?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

For Gen Xers, Reality Bites was a terrible film

As Generation X settles casually into middle age, I need to share an observation:  Reality Bites was a terrible movie.

When this movie came out in 1994, I was a few years out of college and living in Southeast Asia. The economy was still somewhat sucky for people in their twenties, and by that point the term Generation X had actually become a thing, having been established by Douglas Coupland's seminal novel and capitalized upon by marketing agencies seeking to identify, explain, market to, and manipulate the Twentysomethings previously known as the Slacker Generation. The movie Reality Bites did not help the perception of our demographic. Let's face it, the movie spotlights and caricatures a rather whiny group of losers .... or, as writer Lindy West pointed out a few years ago, a bunch of "shitheads."  The movie wasn't really made for actual members of Generation X, a group of somewhat disaffected young adults who were critical of and suspicious toward most of the traditional institutions in society that had long grounded adulthood in contemporary American - marriage, careers, education, politics, consumerism. It was simply made to capitalize on a moment in time and a marketing term.

None of the people I knew in the early and mid-nineties looked at the world with an entitled sense of desire for the lives of the Baby Boomers or the Silent Generation in front of us. Having grown up in the waning days of the Cold War with a casual acceptance of divorce and disappointing job markets, Generation X simply went about its life, aloof to the self-absorbed yearnings and ponderings of characters like Lelaina and Troy Dyer. Let's face it, the character of Troy was simply a dick, and not in any interesting or noble way. While the backstory of his father is supposed to generate some understanding and empathy for his cold, keep-love-at-a-distance-to-protect-myself demeanor, it is not remotely endearing or appealing. He's just a tool. And Lelaina's interest in him is alternately not at all believable and truly pathetic. The two of them just exemplify terrible decision-making, and they reveal a serious disdain from the filmmakers for the very audience many believed they were portraying honestly. This movie was a big studio release meant to appeal to the masses - but Generation X has never been about "the masses."

Granted, there are some interesting aspects of the movie that were certainly an appropriate sui generis view into the lives and challenges of Gen X. Issues like divorce, drug use, and the dangers of casual sex were addressed in a reasonably honest way. Looking back after decades, the portrayals of "Vickie's AIDS test and Sammy's coming out to his mother" were handled with a candid approach that matched the times and revealed the necessary societal progress that has been a hallmark of Generation X's maturity. And the natural infusion of consumer and popular culture into every conversation was actually an authentic portrayal of the first generation to be acutely aware of the hype with an ability to discount it and embrace it at the same time. Yet, far too often it became as cliche as the jingoistic bromides that Troy regularly tries to pass off as cool, hipster wisdom. The gas station convenience store dance to "My Sharona" was a treat for the creators of movie trailers, and it lives on as a nauseating reminder of why Gen X hates marketing.

There is a fair amount of thoughtful art that actually captures the identity and ethos of Generation X, not the least of which is the novel that named it. In fact, a much better Gen X movie preceded Reality Bites, coming out at roughly the same time as Coupland's novel. Set in the early days of emerging Seattle sound, Cameron Crowe's ensemble piece Singles is the true portrayal of Generation X's rise into adulthood in the early 90s. If I want my generation to be remembered through a film, it's no question that Singles is Generation X's film. Amidst all the sappy commercialized portrayals of Gen X, it's scenes like this one that exemplify who we were ... and are.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Writing Well Matters

Never has the world had so many forms of communication, yet produced so little understanding - Neil Postman

Being able to write well is, in many ways, a gift. There is an art form to written communication, and fluency of thought is so important at a time when it seems so much can be easily misunerstood. At the same time, writing well is a craft that can be learned and refined and developed continually. Often there are simple tricks of the trade. I was recently intrigued to learn that Amazon chief Jeff Bezos maintains a regular practice that his execs provide clear well-developed paragraphs of explanation for ideas and proposals in meetings. He's not a fan of bullet points and quick Power Point-oriented explanations. To that end, reading about writing is a good practice, and I am always interested in new resources for writing. That's why I am planning to read a new offering from Sir Harold Evans called Do I Make Myself Clear: Why Writing Well Matters. In this review from the New York Times, Jim Holt describes "The Value and Virture of Good Writing."

One might observe that Evans’s own guide to writing well is nearly four times the length of its classic counterpart on this side of the Atlantic, Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” But that would be a cheap irony. Besides, the precepts Evans offers are both edifying and entertaining. In his “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear,” for instance, No. 7 is “Don’t Be a Bore.” This may sound like an empty injunction, but Evans elaborates it into a discussion of different sentence structures available to a writer — “loose,” “periodic,” “balanced” — explaining how their varied deployment can avert monotony and even, in the hands of expert prose writers (he cites Roger Angell, Richard Cohen, David Foster Wallace and Barbara Demick), achieve a sort of music.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Are We Really Teaching Anything?

A few questions as the school year closes, and both teachers and students casually retreat from the ideas of content and curriculum:  Do we really know what indespensible, or at least highly relevant, information and skills we should be teaching and students should be learning? Do we know what we really need to know? And, perhaps most importantly, what is being "taught" in our classrooms that any student couldn't learn or figure out by just reading the book or watching a video? I'm reflecting on the concepts of teaching and learning after a couple days conferencing on professional development and the establishment of PLC's, or professional learning communities. That experience has dovetailed with my delving into a wonderfully thoughtful book of cultural criticism from a true Gen X voice, Chuck Klosterman.

Klosterman is a pop culture writer and critic who has been researching and publishing for years now in a voice guided by Generation X's inherent distrust of institutions and an instinctive quest for authenticity. One of his latest works poses a simple but valuable question related to my pondering above: But What If We're Wrong. It is absolutely not, in his words, "a book of essays," even though it reads like one. Instead it is the penned ponderings of an honest thinker who sought out expert answers to questions about gravity and the literary canon. And that's just in the first 40 pages. The issue of the canon resonated with me, as I continue to ponder why we do what we do in schools, and how do we address the seemingly arbitrary nature of content and curriculum. As our English department has long acknowledged, there is no sacred book. There is nothing going on in our classes that students can't either do without, or look up on their own.

Yet we continue to do what we do because it produces results - in areas like ACT scores and college admissions and students' future career success - that we can hang our hat on and convince ourselves and our community that we really taught these kids something .... and they learned.

But what if we're wrong?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Clash - the "only band that mattered"

So .... this was published today:

The Clash. That name. That band. That sound. That look. The Clash just meant so much. And The Clash meant so much at a time and to a people that seemed to mean nothing at all. I remember the first sounds of The Clash coming from a cassette deck in the basement of a friend. It was "Spanish Bombs" and "London Calling" if I'm not mistaken, and it had to be around 1981 maybe. It was certainly pre-Combat Rock because I remember waiting for that release. The Clash felt edgy and important in rural-suburban southern Illinois when the term punk was catching our attention, and music became about more than whatever Casey Kasem was playing on the Top 40. The Clash had guts. And now we have a collection of writers capturing for us that early and long-term impact and giving words to those feelings we couldn't really describe or articulate but that we knew mattered.