What Glee Got Right

What makes football players cry? Maybe losing a game, but I haven’t seen that…often. In fairness, that could be because my school’s team has more than their share of experience at dealing with loss.

No, the television show Glee got it right tonight, which is something I have only very rarely been able to say. Finn, the football player and Rachel’s boyfriend–his only two identities–doesn’t know what he wants to do after high school. He’s surrounded by people with dreams, but he just can’t figure out what his next step is. In a heart-rending speech, he admits to his teacher that he doesn’t want to graduate, that he believes he has little talent and that once high school is over, he’ll be lost in the crowd, destined to a mundane life watching others succeed as he lives on past semi-glory.

The actor playing Finn nailed the range of emotions, and the writers got the speech down almost exactly to how I hear it, every year, sometimes multiple times. They were basically right about the context, too–just the senior and the teacher, alone in a classroom, fairly certain that no one will wander in–it’s usually after school, or during lunch, a time it’s easy to predict who’s around.

The first few times I had these conversations, I was stymied; even kids who sit in classes enthusiastically counting down days till graduation with their friends have been among the ninjas who sneak in my confessional to unburden themselves.

I’ve taught 26 years. In that time, there have been very few years that I haven’t had the “I don’t really want to graduate” speech, sometimes from a kid who seems to have the world by the tail, sometimes from a kid who is sabotaging his/her graduation in amazingly passive-aggressive ways. The reasoning and emotions are nearly the same: the kid feels unprepared in some way (intellectually, socially, emotionally, financially) for life after high school–even if there’s evidence that he/she is ready to cope–and the kid feels that his/her high school years may be their peak. It may be the smartest, the most popular, the most talented that they will ever be.

I could whistle a happy tune and tap dance the platitudes that spout like dandelions in May throughout the school, attempting to “encourage” these kids. Instead, I listen, and just listen some more, often as they choke up and look for tissue to wipe their tears–and yes, the males cry in this conversation as often as the females. They cuss and get angry, too–they’re not ready to go on, and they’re pissed that they have to. And I admit to some of them that yes, they probably will remember high school as a golden time, and depending on how they handle the next few years, it could be downhill after they wear their cap and gown and walk across the stage to shake hands and get their diploma.

I have a lot of issues with Glee, and have gone through times of only half-watching because my daughter wanted me to. And I have plenty of comments to make about Rachael’s cover of “How Deep is Your Love” tonight–it was not a perfect show. And I don’t want to give spoilers, so I’ll just say that a couple later scenes with Finn have no ring of truth resonating. But the scene when Finn finally tells Mr. Shue how he feels–that was real.

I could prove it….I’ve had conversations in my room in the last month that the writers of Glee could have been scribing for that scene. Bravo for writing it right…for once.







When people write about Davy Jones’ death, “Daydream Believer” will probably be the song mentioned most. That’s a favorite song of mine, of course, but the one that impacted me most was  Shades of Grey. When this song came out, I was in elementary school–maybe junior high. I appreciate the irony of this being my favorite Monkees song; it begins “When the world and I were young, just yesterday–” I was young, and really, so were Davy and Co as they sang it. But something in the ambiguity of the lyrics and the starkness of the music called to me. A couple years later, when I learned a few guitar chords that I insisted on playing for everyone, “Shades of Grey” was one of the songs I figured out the chords to and played endlessly.

In one of those odd synchronicities that Jung says are crucial signs of God, or Allah, or Yogi Bear or something, I thought of this song for the first time in ages last Sunday. In my Sunday school class, I made some comment–I don’t remember what, now–and my teacher looked at me and said, “You see shades of grey everywhere, don’t you?” I nodded and admitted that there are very few black and white issues in my life. I hummed this song the rest of the day. Odd, huh?

“It was easy then to tell right from wrong,

it was easy then to tell weak from strong…

It was easy then to tell truth from lies

Selling out from compromise…”

Right now especially, heading into the festivities of next week, those lines really call to me. I’m old enough now that I can remember “when the world and I were young,” and mourn the passing not just of Davy, but of the innocence, hope and belief that seemed to surround me years back.

So I could tell about baking cookies for Davy when he appeared in Toledo, or playing pool with him and him kissing me–all important events–or even that I’m possibly the pop culture hound that I am because of devouring 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat to learn all about Davy, then later Bobby and David Cassidy and Donny….but tonight, I’m drinking a bottle of wine and listening to this song, remembering when the world and I were young, and Davy’s death was decades away.

“Scarborough Fair/Canticle”

Note: I taught a class called Literature for Musicians, and one of their projects was to create a playlist of their life. I limited it to 10 or 15 songs, and they had to write about each song and why it is on their playlist. This is one of the samples I wrote for them.

Musically, this song is the most complex thus far (on the playlist I gave my Lit for Musicians class), although it begins deceptively simply. After the introduction of the main melody, one voice splits off into the counterpoint, a simple song that makes a political point about the human side of war. Juxtaposing this against the folk melody is lyrically jarring, but also ironic in the context of the lush tight harmonies and nearly archaic harpsichord and guitar background.

This also was the first time I was aware of overdubbing. Paul Simon is singing both counterpoint and melody, which confused me when I first heard it, then lead to a lot of experimenting with my guitar and a tape recorder with me singing harmony with myself. It was fascinating and challenging.

I’m intensely political. There’s a decent chance that this song is part of the reason. As an pre-teen, hearing them personalize war, with the obvious implications about the Vietnam war, also lead me to questioning and thinking. Even now, about 4 decades later, I find myself thinking about the imagery and ideas.

I’ve seen Simon and Garfunkel in person, and I was disappointed that although they sang “Scarborough Fair,” they didn’t do the “Canticle.” I haven’t heard them sing that for years, and I suspect that the reason is that the time has passed for those gentle images and sounds to resonant with audiences; the politcal rhetoric now is loud and confrontational, not thought-provokingly metaphoric.

Like The Beatles, Simon and Gar are musicians who could show up in my playlist multiple times. They are fundamental, foundational parts of the soundtrack running in my brain. And like The Beatles, their sound morphs and changes, so this song is only representative of one phase of their careers, both as a duo and solo.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand”

Note: I taught a class called Literature for Musicians, and one of their projects was to create a playlist of their life. I limited it to 10 or 15 songs, and they had to write about each song and why it is on their playlist. This is one of the samples I wrote for them.

This could also be titled, “My Life as a Fangirl, Chapter One.” I was just about in kindergarten when the Beatles came to America, and I remember being allowed to stay up and watch them on The Ed Sullivan Show–that’s the only time I remember being allowed to stay up for anything television related, by the way. Epic moment.

The Beatles were sooooo cute, and the music sooooo fun. That’s what I knew as a little kid, to the best of my remembrance. My parents did not especially like the music, but they tolerated my bopping around the house singing it, and in fact took me to the drive-in to see Hard Day’s Night the summer before kindergarten. I didn’t understand much of the movie, but I loved it. And yes, I own it now.

Most of the pop music I’d been exposed to before this was smooth, polished, restrained–Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli, Pat Boone; my mom didn’t listen to much pop music, but what I did hear was of that variety. The beginning of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”–the jarring electric chord, followed by raw near-shouting was a clarion call to kids. It said “We’re going to have fun now!” The beat was stronger and more driving than anything I heard on the radio before (note: I had heard orchestral music and opera that emotional and percussive, but not pop music). The vocal style was eons away from Pat Boone. The Beatles nearly shouted, were sometimes just slightly out of tune, slightly discordant. This song and “She Loves You” were the first music I remember hearing that made me want to get up and dance around, shouting and singing. It was an emotional and energetic. (As a caveat, I think my dad liked Elvis, but mom didn’t I don’t think we had a record player, so all I heard was on the radio and mom apparently chose the channels, meaning don’t think I was exposed to Elvis till a bit after the Beatles. I love Elvis, too.)

I still listen to the Beatles. They did something interesting, something that many musical groups don’t do: they evolved and grew, and took their audience with them. When I was considering which Beatles to include on my playlist, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was not in the first five Beatles’ songs I considered. Some of their later work is lyrically and musically more interesting–but this and “She Loves You” are the first Beatles’ tunes I heard, so this seems more appropriate on the soundtrack.

Related to the issue of their growing and evolving is a point I’m not as comfortable thinking about: Paul is old. The visual I get when I hear the name “The Beatles” is of all four of them in the mid-60s. They were all in their 20s. Two of them have died, two are alive. Ringo has always been somewhat quirky looking, and he’s almost less odd as an old man, but Paul was my first fangirl crush. Seeing Paul now reminds me not only of his mortality, but of my own. I’m not the young, fun little girl that danced and shouted to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and he’s not the young, virile man with a long future ahead of him that I first idolized. He’s done great work since then, as did the others post-Beatles, but there’s a part of my mind that wants Paul to be 25, waiting for me to be 25, and we’ll live in England and visit the Queen on holidays…see the logic there?

The Beatles were great, and are great, but they’re only representative of one piece of my musical soundtrack. They helped form my tastes, but–like them–I grew and evolved, too.

My Reading Life: Little Black Sambo

My earliest memories involve books. I remember both of my parents reading to me, Mom reading kids’ books to me, Dad reading…..well, whatever he was reading when I climbed on his lap, I think. Probably everyone my age knows the books Captain Kangaroo read on his show–Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel jumps out at me, and I have gauzy visions of Mom reading that to me, too. Reading was part of the warp and weft of my childhood.

But there’s one story that I probably shouldn’t talk about Mom reading me, a story that is reviled in children’s lit; in a college children’s lit class I took, the prof actually lowered her voice as she mentioned the volume, and admitted she had never seen it. Little Black Sambo was the story of a child who tricked some tigers into chasing each other around a tree until the tigers all melted into butter, with illustrations that were later considered overwrought and racially demeaning.  Poet Langston Hughes called the book “a typical ‘pickaninny’ storybook which was hurtful to black children,” and slowly,  publishers and the public, in a growing awareness of racism, quit buying and reading the story.There’s more to that part of Sambo’s saga, but that’s not what makes this part of my reading life.

A couple years ago, in one of my Senior English classes, I was trying to explain “trickster” figures. Along with Bugs Bunny, I mentioned Sambo–totally forgetting that my students have been raised in a politically correct, racially sensitive era. The class was almost entirely African-American, like many of my classes are, and I had to make a split-second decision when I saw they didn’t understand the allusion: shrug it off and go on, or stop, explain and discuss. Which option was more likely to result in phone calls? Which stood a better chance of getting my name in the paper…..in a context I really wanted to avoid? Stopping to talk about Little Black Sambo sounded like a bad idea, but…of course that’s exactly what I did.

There’s a part I didn’t anticipate when I tried to briefly (and politically correctly) describe Sambo’s story: cell phones. Students who couldn’t do research for their senior research papers unless I stood behind their shoulder all the sudden had their cell phones in their hands, the version of the book from my childhood on the tiny screens. In a matter of seconds, three students had found the book, and another couple were scanning the wikipedia entry about the book.As “racial” material, the virtual book couldn’t get past the school internet filters, but like good rebels, we had access anyway.

We had a two day conversation about what racism is and how attitudes have changed over the years. Many of the kids were baffled by why the book was considered racist; they even pointed out that Sambo is Indian, according to the story, not African, yet curiously, the pictures were reminiscent of an Aunt Jemima bottle. Questions about censorship, especially commercial v. governmental, were raised, too. My lesson plan was shot for those days–but the degree of research, engagement, and deep discussion that came out of it was incredible. And, because I had to wrap it up and carry on, there was a writing prompt giving the kids a chance to assimilate and process our discussion.

In the process of discussing with my students, I learned something else. Well, I knew it, but it was vividly reinforced. Few of my students were read to as children. For many, the first memory of someone reading to them was HeadStart. There were exceptions, of course, but fewer than I hoped. I can’t imagine not having Sambo and Mike Mulligan and all the animals from Over in the Meadow, and the Little Lost Dolly and Laughing Allegra, and Make Way for Ducklings, and….all of them, bouncing around in the dark recesses of my mind. My reading life started before I could read. Woven through my life are the stories and people that I’ve only encountered on the page (since I got my Kindle, on the screen, too). Maybe it’s not a wonder that my students so often label things “boring;” their imaginations aren’t peopled with ideas and places outside of their experience, anxious to be brought to life as only an imaginative reader can.

Talking about what I’ve read is a cornerstone of most of my relationships. My older kids are more likely to call me if they have read a good book than if they have the flu. The students who I’ve stayed close to after graduation are all readers, and frequently email or text to share something they’ve read. I’ve discovered–or rediscovered–great writers because of they assume I want to know what they’re reading.

So my students, who don’t read for fun, who very often come from homes where reading is “work” or “boring,” where no one ever read to them for fun–or argued that that book is always better than the movie– they miss a world of interaction and connection not just with ideas, but with other people.

Little Black Sambo reminded me of all that.

….and the match goes to…….Sigmund! Thoughts About Wrestling & Stripping

Epiphany #20437: WWE wrestling and strip clubs are essentially the same thing. Obvious differences, I’ll concede, but at a primal level, they function the same way. Maybe.

Beyond the obvious trait the two share (waxing–lots and lots of waxing),  both are vicarious proofs of Freudian principles. In Civilization and Its DiscontentsFreud claims that men have certain immutable drives, and that sex and violence were two of the strongest.  (yes, I know I’m simplifying, but I still think my theory works).   Wrestling and stripping  allow modern man, constrained by the morals and laws of civilized society, to feed those urges to some degree within a framework that doesn’t violate social norms…..at least too much.

In both cases, the human body is the center of the experience. In wrestling, the idealized male form is hyper-muscular and commanding; in stripping, toned and at least somewhat buxom–and highly flexible–is the ideal. The puritan Judeo-Christian heritage in this country is morally judgmental about the celebration of the body and the glorification of the carnal, and both wrestling and stripping are colored in mainstream America’s minds because of this bias–although admittedly, stripping is even more stigmatized in large part because puritanical America rejects sex as good, clean fun–strippers are either victims or sluts, neither good connotations; I don’t think wrestlers have the same moral condemnation overlaying their image in the covered-dish-dinner crowd, but neither stripping nor wrestling fans tend to champion their passion at the church potluck.

In fact, the celebration of brains over brawn as the hallmark of a “civilized” society resonants through Western culture. St. Paul talks about overcoming the flesh more than once, and Pythagoras admonished people: “Choose rather to be strong of soul than strong of body.”  Often, people who take “too much” pride in their body are viewed as superficial; both strippers and wrestlers make their living by reveling in their bodies–in our culture, that’s easy to dismiss as vain and shallow.

Both entertainments are highly profitable–in a capitalistic society, that matters. Even in this economy, wrestling is showing a solid profit. Larry Flynt, sex business mogul, claims about $500 million a year profit--and less than $9 million of that is from his publishing. Flynt’s strip clubs are the anchor of his business–and like wrestling, there’s a solid market for what he’s selling even in these tough economic times.

The reason is simple, if Freud is right: his audience craves power/aggression and sex, especially when times are rough.  Watching a wrestler or a stripper both offer ramification-free escapism: no cops involved for really punching whatever needs punched; no nagging about taking out the garbage or bills that need paid when sitting in a strip club watching an idealized female.

This isn’t the whole picture, and there are some crucial differences, too. Because I’m not a regular patron of either, there are important angles I’m sure I just don’t get. And as much as I want to wave a feminist banner and write a screed about why these appeal to men for vicarious release, I suspect that I’m going to have Epiphany #20438 when I realize what the female equivalent of these two entertainments are. I’m sure there’s something, but I’m not sure what….yet. Reality TV? Shopping? Lifetime movies? I hope not….still thinking.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Disclaimer: I’m a fan of media. When I finish writing this, I’m heading to watch a couple episodes of Buffy. I own an impressive collection of dvd’s and cd’s–although not as good as my daughter’s. I raised her right, I think. I have oodles and oodles of music on my Amazon cloud, which has some but not all of the same music as my iPod, which still only has part of my collection. I use streaming Netflix and Hulu Plus pretty much daily. I like media.

BUT…..the Mexican restaurant I like now has television screens everywhere I look. So does Applebees and the Beer Barrel. And McDonalds and Burger King. And WalMart. In fact, WalMart has small screens at the end of some aisles, just in case you get bored making your way between the big screens, I guess.

AND….now my high school has random huge screens in hallways. We have enough trouble with kids blocking the intersections between classes; now there’s a constant stream of…I’m not sure what they will play….to distract the human roadblocks even more.

Then I went to put gas in my car today, and the pump was blaring country music at me.

When did America become allergic to silence? When did people become so boring that any entertainment is better than conversation? Recently, I went to a popular restaurant in Lima–one big room–with 8 televisions all on different programs, all with subtitles and sound, AND music was playing as well. Major sensory overload–and impossible to talk. I didn’t even attempt to stop my daughter when she pulled a book out of her purse to read as she ate; conversation was impossible. I sat there reading twitter and RSS feeds; yes, I see the irony in that: more media saturation, when that’s what I’m grousing about.

I didn’t say I’m holier than anyone else in this case. If I could find a Sy-Fy/Alt Bar, playing Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Buffy, and other favs, I’d be there. Especially if they had amazing nachos like Applebees used to have.  But, if my hypothetical bar existed, I promise I’d be there arguing Kirk v. Picard, and counting the times Luke whined–not just sitting there comatose, senses too overloaded to function.

My Patron Saint

2020 Note: I no longer am Methodist or want to turn Quaker, but St Clare is still my patron saint.

Ok, so a Methodist who wants to turn Quaker probably shouldn’t have a patron saint. I understand that. But when I discovered St Clare, there was no choice. As a saint, she’s got impeccable creditials. She was one of St Francis of Assisi’s first followers, and was noted for her disdain and disinterest in worldly possessions and events. She is described as having a “radical commitment to poverty,” (wikipedia) meaning she did not believe in personal or even communal ownership of anything. She is the founder of the order of nuns nicknamed the Poor Clares, who are among the strictest about not having personal property. She lived from 1194-1253.

So far, typical nun. No doubt holy and awesome, but…ho hum. BUT, in 1958, Pope Pius XII surrendered to a massive fit of irony and named Clare the Patron Saint of Television. Pius was obviously an insightful man, to realize as early as 1958 that television would need a patron saint, so I applaud his choice. St. Clare, the saint of poverty, also the saint of conspicuous consumption, culture-altering advertising, and total shifting of the societal zeitgeist? I need a T shirt for her. Or him. Using irony to make the point about how television would impact post-modern sensibilities, as a statement about the commodity-driven paradigm shifts that would occur because of the flickering influence of Lucy, Mike Wallace, AlkaSelser ads, Disney channel, and Saturday Night Live–the pope was a prescient genius.

I know that the cynical amoung you will suggest that the pope didn’t anticipate all that, couldn’t have guessed that TV would turn our population cynical, selfish, and sedentary–that’s the impact of television you’re feeling, you know! Yippee for St Clare! August 12th is my new Feast Day. I’m writing the ceremony now!