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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Update: The Inquisition on Ross Avenue

This is a quick update on Onlooker Slowdown's earlier post about DISD teacher Elliott Monteverde-Torres, who was put on leave for accusations of unspecified misconduct after mailing a 12-page letter to the Texas Education Agency and DISD Interim Superintendent Alan King.

According to the Dallas Observer, Monteverde-Torres had received word that he would not be returning to the district in 2012-2013. He has been a probationary contract employee since his 2007 hire, which means that the district does not have to have cause to deny his renewal. Most districts, though, only use probationary contracts during an employee's first year. After that, the contracts are called "term" contracts, and districts have to go through a lengthy series of steps to fire a teacher.

It would be worth knowing why Mr. Monteverde-Torres was kept for so long on a series of probationary contracts. If a teacher is not performing well on a probationary contract, a district will generally simply non-renew. Was DISD just keeping its requirements for due process at a minimum? Or making it easier to get rid of employees for financial purposes?

As we know more, so will you.

Property Tax Refunds, Anyone?

If you live in Dallas, it seems like these people are the ones spending your property taxes.

If I lived in the boundaries of the Dallas Independent School District, I would start looking into ways to get my property taxes refunded to me -- at least the part that goes to fund the local school district. It's not like the low performance of the school district is anything new, but now the district has apparently turned into a place where teachers are punished for making their schools a better place.

It wasn't enough that Joseph Drake got briefly suspended for allegations of "misconduct" after emailing a district trustee about some comments that trustee made about the length of the teacher workday. The trustee implied that teachers were not giving their schools a full work day, and Mr. Drake took exception in an email. The next day, he found himself suspended. A few days later, the community and union pressure got Mr. Drake back into his classroom.

(Special note: if a teachers' union can sway district decision making in TEXAS, you know that the union had a case more ironclad than the Monitor and the Merrimac)

Now, DISD has suspended another teacher: this time, it is Elliot Monteverde-Torres, a teacher at Botello Elementary School in Oak Cliff. He sent Superintendent Alan King and the TEA a 12-page letter detailing a list of allegations against his principal, Angel McKoy. According to the list, the principal overlooked students bringing (and sharing) prescription drugs, and a student who brought a BB gun to school and shot another student. Because nothing happened, the student brought the BB gun again another day. Other allegations include the misuse of federal funds (which is not a new allegation in Dallas).

The state has ordered the district to investigate Mr. Monteverde-Torres' claims. According to a letter from the TEA, the teacher's letter raises "serious questions regarding the school administration at Botello Elementary."

This might seem obvious to you and me, but this is the same TEA that refuses to investigate claims of testing score irregularities at districts throughout the state, including 17 districts in North Texas alone. The agency recommends that districts investigate these issues, but does not mandate any scrutiny.

Because it's testing season, here's a question for you:

Upon receiving a letter from a teacher about alleged misconduct by a principal, DISD administration first:

A) announced an investigation of the principal and the campus
B) placed the principal on paid leave pending the results of the investigation
C) revisited the issue of the student with a BB gun and prepared a press release
D) suspended the teacher who filed the complaint and accused him of unspecified "misconduct"

Yes, the answer is D.

Joseph Drake was lucky enough to be a member of the American Federation of Teachers. If Mr. Monteverde-Torres is not, it's up to those of us who believe in the open sharing of information as a way of improving organizational culture to stand up for him. Superintendent King's office number is (972) 925-3700. The Human Resources department number is (972) 925-4200.

If it turns out that Mr. Monteverde-Torres was sending in fraudulent allegations, then he should be fired. Not suspended, but let go. De-certified. Banished from the profession. However, if what he says turns out to be true, then the same thing should happen to his principal.

And to everyone who signed off on his suspension. The district should take the time to figure out what happened before threatening anyone's livelihood.

Monday, March 26, 2012

No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't usually read books after I've seen the movie -- one of two things will happen. The depth of the book will cheapen the movie, or the movie will make the book sound like a screenplay. I saw Jane Austen's "Persuasion" (an underrated period piece) before I read the book, and I felt like I was reading what I had seen at the movies, so I just stopped. I read Stephen King's "It" after I'd seen the movie, and the book's rich description made the movie seem like a Nerf football trying to sneak in for use in an NFL game -- it just didn't stand up.

With "No Country for Old Men," I've probably seen the movie 20 times -- or at least parts of it. It comes on cable a lot, and I really enjoyed it in the theater. The ambiguous ending, which really irritated my stepfather, who wanted some closure to the store of Anton Chigurh, fits the moral ambiguity which seems to have taken over the "country" in question.

The movie is really the story of Anton Chigurh, but the book is the story of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, whose grandfather was a sheriff before him, and who carries the ghosts of a Bronze Star that he received in World War II without really having deserved it -- at least in his own opinion. He returned from the war determined to be the sort of sheriff that takes care of everyone in his county -- in his words, he feels he should be the "first one to die" if violence breaks out. Because he failed his combat group, he never wants to fail again. He has committed to a life of integrity.

Into his county spills the chaos of a drug war -- in a valley, Llewellyn Moss happens upon a scene of mass slaughter -- a truck with brown heroin in the back, several other trucks with people in them who have been shot. Llewellyn finds one man still alive who just asks him for water. Because he has no water, Llewellyn leaves, looking for the man who escaped. He finds him some distance away, having died of his own wounds -- with an oxbox next to him with over $1 million inside. Llewelyn grabs the money and runs.

That night, Llewellyn feels guilty for leaving the man behind to dehydrate, so he takes a jug of water and drives back out there, despite his wife's protests. He realizes that what he's doing is foolish, but his guilt drives him.

Of course, people are looking for the missing money; when he goes down to give water to the man (who has since died), he looks up to see others around his truck, and he realizes that his life has become one of unending flight. Anton Chigurh, a mysterious "freelancer" in the world of assassinations and recovery of large sums of money, uses the information on the truck to find where Llewellyn lives and then breaks in to read Llewellyn's phone bill, to guess his destination. There are two choices -- Del Rio and Odessa, and Chigurh chooses Del Rio. This choice mirrors the coin that Chigurh carries with him, to allow his potential victims to, possibly, avoid their fates. Because Chigurh chose correctly (and because the money case has a transponder in it), he is able to track down Llewellyn.

Sheriff Bell sees the violence that is headed for Llewellyn and tries to reach him, through his wife, Carla Jean. However, the ruthlessness of Chigurh and the Acosta gang, both of whom are outraged at the theft of their drugs and their money, are more than a match for Llewellyn's determination. While the movie follows the strangely amoral advance of the assassin, the novel follows the sheriff's growing frustration with the fact that he can no longer protect the people in his county, with the notion that right and wrong have been muddied beyond recognition for too many in the world. The notion behind the title is the idea that old men look scared and helpless in modern times, because the ethical compass with which they navigated the world has lost the source of its magnetic attraction. Sheriff Bell ascribes it to the disappearance of "Sir" and "Ma'am" from the speech of the young, but that again is just a symptom of something larger, of an individualism that no longer heeds ethics in its pursuit of what it wants.

The story unfolds with the same unyielding intensity that the Coen Brothers used to render it in their film version, although it is interspersed with more ruminations from Sheriff Bell, and a lot of the questions that go unanswered in the movie are resolved in the book. The most important one, though, which concerns the future of a society with no ethical foundation, remains open, because we do not yet know where this will take us.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gregg Williams and Pete Rose

In an earlier post, Onlooker Slowdown reported on the case of Gregg Williams, currently the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator but also an alleged creator of a bounty system with the New Orleans Saints, and possibly with other teams as well, that rewarded defensive players at different financial levels, going as high as $1500, for hits that injured opponents (with bonuses if the medical personnel had to take the player off with a cart).

As has been widely reported, the NFL has come down with extremely firm penalties for the personnel involved. Williams has been banned for at least a year but is currently under indefinite suspension. Saints head coach Sean Payton has also been suspended for the entire 2012 season, because he was told about the program, was told to stop it, and did not. General manager Mickey Loomis has been suspended for a half-season. The team has been fined $500,000 and has lost draft choices in 2012 and 2013.

There is some ambiguity about the appeals process. Commissioner Goodell believes that he will be the one to whom appeals go, even though he handed down the punishment, based on the new conduct policy. There is a loophole that may push the appeals to a special master.

As long as Pete Rose is kept far away from baseball, Gregg Williams should not get back on a football field. It was wrong for Pete Rose to gamble on his team's games. It did affect the integrity of the games.

However, Rose never ordered any of his players to injure opponents. Football is an aggressive sport. Malicious injuries, though, should never be part of this aggression. This malice affects the integrity of the games, and the disregard that Coach Williams showed for his opponents shows such poor character that he should find another profession. Immediately.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Is One of Your Neighbors a Terrorist?

The Impossible DeadThe Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The police thriller has many fine practitioners that have filled bookshelves with compelling stories -- Ed McBain's richly noir world in Isola, and the Los Angeles of Harry Bosch that Michael Connelly has created are two fictitious realities that stay with the reader long after putting the book down.

In any conversation about great police thrillers, you have to include Ian Rankin, whose "The Impossible Dead" is a sequel to "The Complaints." His main character, Malcolm Fox, continues a tradition of Rankin detectives that internalize the mayhem that they experience, both in their personal and professional lives, and exude a quiet anger at the injustices in the reality around them. While Rankin's first major character, John Rebus, would likely take a bat to anyone in the Complaints Division, the teetotaling Fox is Rebus after rehab, in a number of ways.

"The Impossible Dead" involves Malcolm Fox's Complaints Division (the Scottish equivalent to what police departments here call "Internal Affairs" is looking into a coverup of a sexual harassment complaint against Paul Carter. Naturally, his colleagues have all dummied up. When Paul Carter's uncle Alan, who turned in his nephew and caused the investigation in the first place, turns up dead, and his nephew was the last person to see him alive, the wheels start turning faster and faster.

The further Fox digs into this haggis of intrigue, Fox finds so much to deal with, in addition to turning up mysterious nationalist terrorists from the 1960's, that what is a thematically rich novel founders a bit on plot. The musings in the story about the pride that backed the Scottish nationalists in their rage against the British government; the sadness that comes with caring for one's parents, after they can't take care of themselves; the difficulties of dealing with siblings that resent your success and their own failings; all of these weave richly through the story.

However, it would have just taken a swift trip through Google Images for any intrepid reporter to keep some of these shadowy figures from the terrorist past in Scotland from inhabiting their current lives (I won't say more, because it's central to the plot). Just know that the twists and turns in the narrative, which Rankin generally has conducted so masterfully, seem a bit contrived at the end. A compelling read, but one which leaves you shaking your head at the end.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Hail to the Comedian-in-Chief: Dithering about Oil

As most of us know, it's easier to make jokes about problems than it is to solve them. It's a lot easier to make jokes about your rivals' ideas about problems than it is to solve them, too. So yesterday, when President Obama got behind a podium at Prince George's Community College in Maryland to discuss energy, I was curious to see what he would have to say. The text is here, and the all-important talking point is here:

Apparently, there is no quick fix that will bring down gas prices immediately. There was a lot of talk about biofuels, alternative sources, and conservation. If this sounds familiar to you, and you're old enough to remember the gas crisis in the late 1970's, when there were shortages at many gas stations, and President Carter put on Mr. Rogers' cardigan sweater and asked us all to turn down the thermostat, then you know that We the People have a hard time with conservation.

Back in the 1970's, though, the Chinese and Indian economies weren't booming, thirsty for oil themselves. So, demand for oil is going to shoot up globally. And we're not the only ones who have a hard time switching from gas guzzlers to alternative-energy vehicles: even the Chinese are having a difficult time convincing consumers to purchase electric cars.

But guess who is pushing electric cars in China? The electric utilities -- in addition to the government. Why don't TXU or Reliant Energy jump on this issue and start putting in those special outlets everywhere? Wouldn't their profits just go up? Why doesn't Green Mountain Energy start running some ads with Nissan Leafs plugged into outlets next to a wind turbine? Why isn't President Obama pushing the utilities to market this?

We need to start considering electric vehicles seriously -- and we need to start today, not "someday."

Two more questions -- while it's great that we finally stopped subsidizing corn ethanol, why is there still a tariff on sugarcane ethanol from Brazil will burn more cleanly and more efficiently? The Brazilians import our corn ethanol without a tariff, and we should do the same. I didn't hear anything about that from President Obama, who was busy making jokes about Newt Gingrich and President Hayes to tell us what he's actually doing.

And finally, if unrest in the Middle East is really causing prices to spike, who's setting the prices? Speculators -- and according to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has sponsored the End Excessive Oil Speculation Now Act. This law doesn't actually create any new regulations (which may be why President Obama opposes it). Instead, it asks Congress to make the Commodity Futures Trading Commission enforce existing law putting limits on speculative oil positions that match those in place for the past 11 years on the New York Mercantile Exchange and force speculators to follow margin requirements of 12 percent on their oil trading speculation -- that way, if prices don't follow the speculators' projections, the speculators lose money. As Senator Sanders put it: "I can tell you, in every district — whether it's a red or blue state — members of Congress are getting calls from constituents who are getting sick and tired of being ripped off at the pump," he says. "They want action. I hope occasionally, maybe we can do something for the people rather than for speculators and Wall Street."

This didn't get any attention from President Obama, either.  He did have time to reference the Flat Earth Society, though. At least his speechwriters can use Wikipedia.

Would either step drive down the prices of gas? It's hard to say what the immediate effects would be. They would have been more effective, though, than making jokes about drilling for oil on the National Mall.

If these questions have made you want to contact your congressional representative, as thousands are already doing about high gas prices, you can find out how to do it by entering your ZIP code into this link.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's funny what we try to do to banish certain memories from our consciousness. One of the reasons that narcotics and alcohol are so compelling to so many is that they bring the promise of forgetfulness, even if just for a short time, of those thoughts that plague us. Once the dissipation passes, though, those memories have returned, a legion of ravens perched atop wisdom, despite all of our best efforts to the contrary.

But what if memory faded each morning, and you could start again? With a clean slate? Yes, this was the premise behind the Adam Sandler movie "30 First Dates," in which Drew Barrymore woke up every morning with a cleaned-out memory bank.

It's also the premise behind S.J. Watson's "Before I Go to Sleep." Christine Lucas wakes up every morning not knowing where she is, thinking she is in her twenties, next to a strange man. Over the next few minutes, she goes from confusion to terror to acceptance, as each morning she finds a series of photographs in the bathroom that are of her and the man in her bed. She also sees her fifty-year-old skin in the mirror, and on her hands. Once her husband finds her, he explains what has happened.

This happens. Every day.

A neurologist learns about her case and tries to help her, but her husband won't allow it: she's been through too many quack labs as it is, and the stress of new treatment might be too much. The neurologist is intrepid enough, though, to wait outside for her to take one of her daily walks, and he ends up meeting with her, helping her recover her memory. After all, her case is so unusual that it would make a great academic paper.

He gives her a journal and encourages her to write things in it before bed each night, and he calls her in the morning to remind her to look in her journal, to catch up on who she is. As time goes by, she learns more and more. Even there are no pictures of this person in her house, she and her husband apparently had a son -- Adam. Who died. She had a best friend -- Claire. Who moved to New Zealand. At least as far as her husband told her.

And who else can she ask?

To tell you much more about the plot would give away a marvelous series of twists and turns that is as close as you can get to riding a roller coaster without getting out of your chair. The great Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone) called this book "Memento on crystal meth." If you've seen "Memento," you might be wondering if that plot could move any faster, or with any more insanity. It can.

The most powerful part to this story is the way in which the author creates an amnesiac narrator. The attention to the details that would be involved in picking up the pieces of your mind (forget about your life -- your mind is in shards) each day is what resonated with me. And so when the end comes, the feelings that you and I would feel, as people with normal memories, are multipled by a million. To call this book a pageturner would insult it with cliche -- this book yanked my attention, strapped it into a seat, and pushed the button. Only when the ride was over did I even think to look up.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

The Dilemma of Identification

If I'm going to cash a check at my bank, I need to provide photo identification. If I'm going to drive a car, I need to provide photo identification (after I sit in line all day to get that license). If I'm going to use my debit card at a retailer, I need to provide photo identification.

So why shouldn't I need photo identification to vote? In a democracy, voting is one of the most sacred rights that I have. Why shouldn't I have to prove that I'm eligible to do it?

Of course, if voters had had to provide photo identification in the past, President Nixon would have come into office in 1960 instead of 1968. Would he still have been as paranoid, if the dead voters in Illinois hadn't taken the election? Would Camelot still be the home of King Arthur, instead of the euphemism we give to a philandering family? (I'm wandering off topic here. Sorry).

The Justice Department recently objected to a new Texas law requiring that all voters provide photo identification. The Voting Rights Act, Section 5, requires that states show that their new provisions do not discriminate against minority groups.

According to data the state provided to the Justice Department, between 29 and 38 percent of all eligible voters in Texas who do not have photo identification are Hispanics. According to Tom Perez, the head of the civil rights division, this means that Hispanics are at least 48 percent more likely than a non-Hispanic voter to have this documentation.

The state did offer to provide low-cost election identification certificates available to voters without any existing state ID, but Perez responded that this requirement creates the additional burden of traveling to a driver's license office, undergoing an application process that includes fingerprinting and finding supporting documentation to prove one's identity.

Does anyone else want to find Tom Perez's office and ask him what color the sky is in his world? I know people who have had their identities completely hacked. To get a social security card, or a passport, as one of the early steps to getting a new license or ID, they had to pull together items like yearbook photos, newspaper clippings, birth certificates, pay stubs, medical insurance cards, and other forms.

But even if you haven't had your identity stolen, or lost your license, sometimes taking part in society means that you have to make an effort to fulfill the requirements of society. Just because I will probably have to take a full day off work to renew my driver's license every six years doesn't mean that I'm not going to do it. I won't like it, but I will do it. And if I want to renew my passport, and I've let it expire, I have to search around for my birth certificate and....let's say it

Do you want to vote? Excellent. Go get your ID so you can prove who you say you are. It doesn't matter to me what color you are, or what your background is. If proving your identity at the voting booth is too much of a hassle, then you don't need to vote in the first place. Want to learn a little more about Tom Perez? Watch this.

The Water-Method ManThe Water-Method Man by John Irving

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When R.E.M. recently broke up, it occurred to me that I hadn't bought one of their CD's (or downloaded any of their songs for my iPod, now that CD's are passe), since "Automatic for the People" -- which was released in 1992. Everything else was from "Out of Time," "Green," "Document," or "Life's Rich Pageant" -- all released between 1986 and 1991. That means that their last seven albums never made it onto my radar.

Some of this has to do with the fact that I adopted many of my favorite songs between 1988 and 1994. But I've heard R.E.M.'s later work, now and then, on the radio, and it just doesn't resonate with me. I used to listen to "Pop Song 89" every day after school during my senior year of high school, blaring it on my (yes) cassette deck as I tore out of the parking lot, headed over to pick up my girlfriend from her school. I made a really crappy recording of "The One I Love" using my friend Leo as a fake DJ to try and seal the deal with a different girl, a year earlier (let's just say editing is a lot more seamless today). "I Am Superman" was my sign-off song during my brief career as a DJ on KSMU Radio, which had the giant broadcast area of the Hughes-Trigg Student Center -- and no further.

The newer R.E.M. stuff, to me, goes in two directions: the weird ("What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" has a quirky title and is loud and catchy, but so did "Sliver," and we all know how that turned out) and the vapid (yes, "Reveal," I'm talking to you -- the whole disc). R.E.M. had an amazing sound, but they didn't figure out how to keep it -- or success made the karma blow away.

My first encounter with a John Irving novel happened in a hotel near Orly Airport in Paris. I was on my way back to the U.S. after six weeks in Europe -- four in a study program and two traveling around with friends -- and I'd just gotten off a long train ride from Heidelberg to the capital of France. It was late, my flight left the next morning, and I saw "The World According to Garp" in a store in the Paris train station. I remembered the movie title (I hadn't seen it), so I grabbed it on a whim. I checked into my hotel, laid my clothes out for my plane ride the next morning, and got in bed with the book.

Six hours later, I finally put the book down -- done. The whirlwind that T.S. Garp and his mother, Jenny Fields, created, and the toll it took on them both, that brought Garp to a tragic end at the Christlike age of 33, swirled around in my mind. The next day, when my flight was delayed for six hours because of a faulty engine, I didn't even mind that much, because I was busy reading the book again.

And so, when I got home, I rented "The World According to Garp" and watched it. Like I would discover about all of the adaptations of Irving's books, the movies have to leave so much out that it's like watching a marionette play of the book. The closest that any movie gets to its Irving original, in my opinion, is "The Door in the Floor" -- but to get that close to Irving's grandeur in scope, it has to leave out a full half of the novel that inspired it ("A Widow for One Year").

So, instead, I decided to read everything else that Irving had written, from the beginning. "Setting Free the Bears" and "The 158-Pound Marriage" didn't do much for me, but "The Water-Method Man" did. It's about Bogus Trumper, who is having a really hard time making the leap from adolescence to manhood. He got his first wife, Biggie, pregnant right after they met, which led to a marriage far earlier in his life than he probably would have planned. Weighed down in Iowa by the poverty of life as a grad student, his young son, and his wife's expectations, he philanders and then just runs away to Europe, looking for his lost youth, symbolized by the nebulous character Merrill Overturf, who used to try to hook up with girls through such odd rituals as swimming out into the Danube and showing them a tank that had crashed down through the river.

Of course, there is no such tank, and when Bogus returns to Europe, he can't even find Merrill. By the time he gets back, his wife has divorced him and moved on to his best friend. He takes a job in New York City with his old friend, Ralph Packer, editing the sound for his films. He meets a new girl, has a baby with her, but then runs back to Iowa to finish his graduate degree.

In short, Bogus' life is disjointed. The structure of the novel, a wonderful mishmash of letters, diary entries, newspaper reviews, told in an order that more resembles a view through a kaleidoscope than chronological narration, suits the main character perfectly. We even get an allusion to Moby-Dick at the end.

The endings to most of Irving's early novels are glorious things, with explanations of what happened to everyone and, in general, these explanations are stories of purpose and power.

Somewhere, though, John Irving has lost his way. The whimsy that dances through "The Water-Method Man" and the powerful themes that run through "The Hotel New Hampshire" (the power of family despite a blind, befuddled father), "The Cider House Rules" (the right of a woman to choose) and "A Prayer for Owen Meany" (if Christ really were the Messiah, what would it be like to witness his coming, and to believe?) have faded, replaced by navel-gazing.

Irving's newest novel, "In One Person," will certainly be a best-seller, simply based on the author's name. Irving belongs in any discussion of the top five American novelists since 1930. But his latest efforts, "Until I Find You" and "Last Night in Twisted River," made me feel caught in an eddy that swirled around and around the hole the author feels within himself. His earlier novels were about missing fathers, which made for an almost mystical aura. All of his novels teem with lust and sensuality, but they have always had a purpose in reaching a bigger theme. In his last two novels, these elements have become virtually gratuitous. In interviews, Irving (and his publicists) promise us a novel more political than any he has written in recent years. He is at his best when he writes either with the passion of a conviction or the whimsy of a jester. We'll see whether either one of these made it this time.

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Digging in the Dirt: The Corrosive Effect of The Hunger Games

When it comes to the genre of film, the 1980's stands out for two types of movies: the John Hughes portfolio that includes such teen classics as "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," and "Say Anything," and the adventure genre that included the beginnings of the Indiana Jones franchise, the end of the first (and better) round of "Star Wars," as well as the gamer classic "WarGames." In most of these movies, the characters went through experiences that their audiences were either going through at the time, or could identify with. In the movies that featured teens as the heroes, many of the adults were either villains (hello, Mr. Rooney) or absent (see Lloyd Dobler's parents); however, there were enough with understanding to bring matters to a good ending (even Dr. Stephen Falken).

The desperate, dystopian movies that portrayed a futuristic world without hope in the 1980's did have their own following: "Logan's Run," "The Running Man," and "Blade Runner" all showed how, in the future, authority would force the individual to escape to avoid forced assimilation (notice the key word in all three titles). However, these movies did not hit the main stream: Harrison Ford would not enter iconic status as a film hero for his portrayal of Decker, and while Richard Dawson was never more entertaining than he was while running his real-life fatality/reality show, he is much more well known for kissing every woman who came on "Family Feud." Check him out here in "The Running Man," and then below in "the Feud."

When these types of movies came out, the people who lined up to see them were disaffected high school seniors, college students and those types who found flaws in the way the world worked. These movies confirmed their beliefs in corrupt government, bad endings, and a secret agenda against those who, in "The Fisher King," Jack Lucas would call "the bungled and the botched" -- those not quite suitable to fit into the mainstream of success, into the pictures in catalogs.

So, if you heard that a movie coming out featured a girl who chose to enter a grisly contest in which only one of the twenty entrants would survive; that this contest was actually an enforced ritual put in place by the government to hold its populace in fear; that her mentor would be a washed-up alcoholic; that the government would be led by a brutal, if fearful, dictator, then you would expect to see this in a midnight showing at an arthouse.

But this isn't the 1980's anymore. Now, dystopian film about horrible governments and brutal murder and hopeless situations are what we show our tweens. Anthony Michael Hall being fascinated by a girl's briefs is no longer a groundbreaking image, because kids have seen jokes about underwear on "Family Guy" since they were in kindergarten, and iCarly and all of those ABC "Family" shows have made our tweens aware of so much that "Sixteen Candles" would only elicit a yawn.

And so we need more shock value. Dystopia is only too happy to oblige -- after all, who would really believe that a government would use the death of its own citizens as a device of entertainment and the maintenance of order? Who would have thought that people would watch fellow humans fight each other to the death?

Here's the problem with using shock value as your primary method of entertaining -- it wears off. And you have to follow up with something even more intense. The effect is also cumulative, though: the more dystopia you watch, the more you're willing to believe that the events you're watching could actually happen -- and that those events would be OK. Your willingness to resist evil that is real wears away.

Don't believe me? The telescreens in 1984 aren't all that different from the knowledge that Google and Facebook gather about you every time you log on, if you think about it. We stop trusting those who lead us, but rather than insist that our leaders be worthy of that trust, we shrug, go out to eat, and buy a movie ticket. After all, our ability to be distracted from involvement by "bread and circuses" dates back to ancient Rome.

Meanwhile, during that day on our planet, 26,000 children died of starvation. What was that, you say? More butter on your popcorn?

Monday, March 5, 2012

In the Shadows of Ebenezer Scrooge

The Night InspectorThe Night Inspector by Frederick Busch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you think about it, it doesn't take very long for Ebenezer Scrooge to mend his ways. True, he does have four ghosts visit him, but he's already crying after the first vision that the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him (no, that's not a pimple, even though he says it is), and while it is true that Christmas Yet to Come threatens him with the grave, there's none of that quintessentially human trait of weakened repentance when the consequence retreats.

No, it just takes one (very busy) night to turn what his colleagues called Old Scratch into one of the finest men "that the old city knew." And so when Charles Dickens turns up reading at the end of Frederick Busch's "The Night Inspector," the main character, William Bartholomew, is skeptical at the speed of Scrooge's transformation.

Of course, the darkness in Bartholomew's heart has more layers than Scrooge's. A sniper for the Union in the Civil War, who occasionally had to kill dogs, horses and other animals while sneaking up on unsuspecting targets, most of whom still walk the halls of his memory. A mishap with his last target gets most of Bartholomew's lower face shot off, and as a result, he spends his days behind a paperboard mask (or a silk veil when eating).

An investment speculator after the war, Bartholomew is entranced by the beautifully tattooed prostitute, Jessie, who entices him out of his mask and seems to love him, although the more slowly building affections of his laundress, Chun Ho, also intrigue him. Jessie and Bartholomew are hatching a plot that requires the assistance of someone in the New York City Customs office, and Bartholomew meets Herman Melville, currently in the declining years of his self-esteem (and his writing career), having done little after Moby-Dick, which did quite little for him during his life.

This plot only reveals itself slowly, but what at first seems to be a plot to rescue African-American children in the South from the cruelties that still went on, even after Emancipation and Surrender becomes a whirlwind that confirms the cynicism with which Bartholomew and the Anti-Transcendentalist Melville viewed the world.

Busch masterfully hops back and forth from Civil War memories to the narrative's present day, even in the middle of a paragraph, as one imagines must have happened in the mind of this physically and emotionally maimed sniper. The ending is not as neatly tied together as those for which Dickens became famous, but this disfigured soldier will make you wonder about the usefulness of any war, at any time.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

When the Saints Go Marching In...Watch Your Knees

One of our sixth-grade sons dreams of playing for the Dallas Cowboys someday. He says he would also play for the Patriots or the Lions, if he couldn't play for the Cowboys, because he knows the Cowboys might not need him right when he comes out of college.

Of course, he's as skinny as a rail. If he plays a college sport, it will probably be cross country, or golf, or maybe soccer, but I'll let him find that out in the teaching process that is middle school football.

There's a lot of press out there about the dangers of life in the NFL right now. You know, the wrongful death lawsuit that Dave Duerson's family filed against the league, because his team's doctors made him play right after concussions and overlooked symptoms of trouble. You know, the concussion problems in the league right now, with the players getting stronger and bigger and faster each year, leading to collisions that are more and more painful. You know, the fact that 352 players (an average of more than 11 for each team) went on injured reserve in 2010.

You know, the fact that the average career in the NFL lasts 3.5 seasons. But it takes 4 seasons of active service to qualify for a pension.

But this isn't about the dangers of fair play. Football players know what is facing them, and they still do it, thinking that they will beat the odds. As adults, that's their decision.

But what about teams that have coaches paying players to injure opponents? With different rewards for knockouts and for trips on the cart that carries off players who are unable to walk?

This is what the New Orleans Saints have been doing. In fact, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who now works for the Rams but who apparently set up this plan for the Saints and ran it, did it when he worked for the Redskins too. Saints owner Tom Benson has issued a public apology for the "findings" and says the Saints want to move past this as quickly as possible.

Most news reports indicate that Williams has also apologized, even though he has now done this with two teams. Likely punishments indicate that suspensions and fines are likely.

Saints coach Sean Payton apparently knew about this and did nothing to stop it. The Saints' general manager and others in the front office did too.

Here's a question. Why do these people still have jobs?

Pete Rose is banned from baseball FOR LIFE for betting on his own team. It is true that this could have affected his decision-making, and was clearly taboo.

What about bounties? They certainly affect player decision-making. They constitute premeditation -- which, in the investigation of crimes, adds to prison time. With murder, it adds the possibility of the death penalty.

So betting gets you kicked out for life. Offering people money to possibly end the careers of their colleagues, though, doesn't mean anything. Even if Gregg Williams is suspended, he's apologized, right?

Why are the St. Louis Rams even waiting five minutes to fire Gregg Williams? Why isn't this conduct grounds for termination? Why does Sean Payton still have a job? Why does anyone in the Saints' front office still have a job, if they knew about this?

Where is the outrage from the Saints' competition? Brett Favre, who was the likely target of many of the bounties, just shrugged the whole story off.

The only explanation that makes sense to Onlooker Slowdown is that every team has bounties, that payouts are part of the deal in every locker room. If it weren't, then the outcry would be harsh, and the firings would be swift.

The only question I have is, if this is what the NFL is, then why would my son even want to play? Give me Contador's tainted meat, Rose's betting slips, even Kermit Washington's punch. Don't give me a meat grinder in which players either get hurt too quickly to make their preparation worthwhile, or in which players "make it," only to retire with injuries that make the rest of their lives too painful, or too short, for them and their families to bear.

Friday, March 2, 2012

What if China Really Foreclosed on us? Would Love Survive?

Super Sad True Love StorySuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There was a point in time when the vast majority of the arts were made to decorate the homes of patrons, and literature was supposed to edify. Whether the form was a painting, a sculpture, a play, or a novel, the purpose was generally to bring honor or reverence to the subject, or to provide moral instruction to the viewer/reader.

The rock that shattered the placid calm of this idea was thrown by Jonathan Swift. His essay "A Modest Proposal" and novel "Gulliver's Travels" took the propriety that had been associated with writing and turned it on its head. Showing the greed of the upper classes and the government of Great Britain for what it was by writing the first sarcastic essay to reach wide publication, Swift showed that cultivating the infants of the poor for a year and then feeding them to the rich may not have been as cruel as the fate that awaited those children in an unjust society.

Writing out of anger still remained the exception rather than the rule for several centuries after Swift, but it emerged with a roar in the aftermath of the two world wars in the twentieth century. The years between 1915 and 1945 brought the world mustard gas, trench warfare, a global influenza epidemic, a worldwide economic depression, the slaughter of millions at the hands of Hitler and Stalin, both of whom used their governmental structures to create networks of terror in which people lost the ability to trust one another, and (if all of that weren't enough), nuclear holocaust.

Many of the world's writers split into one of two camps during this time period: a lifestyle of dissipation (see: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, and the rest of the Lost Generation) or a belief in despair (see: Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, and their imitators). The second group converted dystopia from a vehicle for shock value into the backdrop for modern society.

The power of "1984" comes from the fact that there is absolutely nothing that Winston can do to escape his situation. The beautiful red diary, the gorgeous woman, the enticing Brotherhood -- all were placed before him by the government, to trap him. They had anticipated his every move.

Once the media stopped serving as a public relations arm of the government and took a more adversarial role after the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Nixon, stories came out about our own government: secret testing programs, monitoring of citizens, and so on, that made "1984" seem less like fantasy and more like reality. Even now, as Facebook and Google tell us that they can track everything we do on our computers, we glibly keep posting status updates and accepting cookies, left and right.

And so we can rise up, or we can bitterly laugh and move on. Because a world of constant monitoring no longer provides shock value, today's dystopian writers must add humor to the situation. Michael Chabon is one gifted writer in this genre (see: The Yiddish Policeman's Union); another is Gary Shteyngart, whose first two novels, Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook, take on the disintegration happening on the other side of the planet.

Super Sad True Love Story, though, takes us about, oh, four years into the future and imagines what would happen if the debt actually did cripple our economy. Imagine being forced to carry a smartphone (we don't feel forced now, of course -- we feel privileged instead) that would broadcast your up-to-the-second credit score on nearby poles when you walked by them. These phones would broadcast information about you, including a "sustainability" score to those around you, based on your looks and economic prospects.

If you think that it's kind of silly now, when you go to the bowling alley or the baseball game or your child's recital and see everyone playing with their iPhones and iPads and Androids instead of interacting with the people inches from them, imagine a world in which people walk along, constantly punching their next status update, ignoring the world around them. (Maybe that's not so hard).

Now imagine the prospect of China's impending foreclosure on all of the United States. In the middle of this, 39-year-old Len Abramov, the last believer in real, printed books, the last owner of a diary, is fighting for his job in a nebulous marketing company while wooing 24-year-old Eunice Park. He still believes in love that lasts forever, despite the country crumbling around him; she believes that nothing lasts longer than a status posting on Facebook. As much as the story is about the wobbly American Empire, it is also about their love. If Len is Orwell's Winston, brought forward through time, Eunice would be Orwell's Julia, confident in things sensual but skeptical of stability.

The best parts about this story are the comic touches -- the unforeseen destruction of a corner store, told wryly rather than graphically -- and the shifts in format, from narration to email to text message to posting. Shteyngart has nailed the way that we communicate now -- and will be communicating soon, when we no longer look at each other. The shabby future, through Len Abramov's eyes, is far too easy to visualize.

The best sign that dystopian novels were serving their purpose would be that the world would move away from the trends that they prophesy. It would be wonderful if more of the real-world stories that fascinate us ended like, say, Elizabeth Bennet's and Ebenezer Scrooge's. Instead, our channels bombard us with our own time's Ahabs, Winstons and Handmaids.


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