I Love Teaching.

I just thought you should know.

I’m going to be saying a lot of critical things on this blog. About everything, really: about people who don’t vaccinate their children, about people who think that money is speech and corporations are people, about animals that are mistreated and abandoned, farmed and eaten.

And I’m going to say a special lot of critical things about my profession. You see, I’m a teacher, and there’s something rotten in the state of education. A lot of things, in truth: because rot spreads.  My job — my calling, if I may be high-falutin’ — as a teacher, as a writer, as a blogger, is to point out the problems and try to advocate for solutions. You’ve seen the blogs and articles and open letters, I’m sure, from my fellow teachers, stating why they are retiring, why they have been driven out of the profession, and listing everything wrong with schools? Right. I’m going to write things like that, too.

But before I do, and because my brilliant wife’s only recommendation for this blog  was to make sure it isn’t too harsh, too angry, too negative, I want to make it clear: I love my job. Not everything about it, and there are some things that I hate so hard that it makes my bones crack, but it’s true: I love teaching.

Teaching is discovery. I have no idea, going into a new school year, what my students will be like. I know that some of them will be hilariously funny, and some of them will be inspiringly and awesomely talented, sometimes in surprising ways — there’s nothing like that moment when you hear the quiet kid sing. I know that the majority of them will want to learn (Even in the school district where I taught for ten years, in a rural blue-collar town where education was not the priority, it’s still true: most of my students want to learn). I know that almost all of them will be decent people, though sometimes they forget it. I know that all of them will have something to say. But what they will say, how they will make me laugh, when they will show their gifts — that I can never say before it happens.

The discovery isn’t only of students, either: I have learned more about my subject as a teacher than I ever did as a student. (Sure, some of that is because I was a crappy student: but more of it is because I’m a good teacher.) When I have to explain a book or a poem to my students, it makes me understand it better. When I have to make it interesting to them, it makes it more interesting to me. And then sometimes — often — they notice things I never would have thought of. One of my favorite things in the world is that Ray Bradbury named the hero in Fahrenheit 451 — one of my favorite books (partly because I have taught it more than any other) — after Guy Fawkes, one of my favorite historical figures, and the inspiration, too, for the hero in one of my favorite movies, V for Vendetta. It was a student that pointed that out to me.

I’m teaching Wuthering Heights right now, for the very first time; in preparation, I read the book a couple of months ago, for the very first time (Never been big on Victorian novels.). I didn’t like it. But yesterday, in reading it with my class, I realized: it’s actually funny. That Lockwood guy’s an idiot. If I wasn’t a teacher, I never would have read the book or enjoyed it — and the same goes for The Kite Runner, and The God of Small Things, and Things Fall Apart, and The Secret Life of Bees, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Shane, and Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, and The Crucible, and every play I’ve taught by William Shakespeare (I never really liked Shakespeare very much as a youth, and I never read the plays in college. Only in grad school. While I was studying to be a teacher.). Oh: and then there are the books and series (and movies and TV shows and restaurants and candy and amusement parks — but we’re talking about literature here) that have been recommended to me by students, notably including The Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin and The Kingkiller Chronicles of Patrick Rothfuss.

I love that my job is to create. Every year, I make new things: I change units when I discover new poems or books or strategies for teaching; I change assignments constantly; I change test and quiz questions as I realize the old ones are inaccurate or too tricky. I write essays and short stories to use as examples, and sometimes just so my students can see me doing the same things I ask them to do. I love doing this: I love coming up with test questions, especially true/false statements and answers for multiple choice questions — one of my vocabulary tests this year, for instance, had these four options for “poignant:” A) Fearful B)Tearful C) Cheerful D) Beer full.  That’s fun. Another test had seven “D” answers in a row. I love that I have been able to use some of my favorite songs as poem examples, to analyze with my students, and especially that I have used an industrial death metal song (“Die Eier von Satan” by Tool) to teach tone. And one of my favorite things I’ve ever written is my essay on corporal punishment in schools, “Mom, Apple Pie, and the Paddle.” I would never have written that if I hadn’t assigned a persuasive essay based on the Bill of Rights, and then, because I made the assignment up, found myself without a model essay to show my students — which is when I said to myself, “Hey — why don’t I just write one?”

Teaching is, not to put too fine a point on it, important. I don’t think that every job needs to be “important;” I was a janitor for five years in college, and while it certainly mattered to my employer whether the rugs were vacuumed or not, it didn’t shift the Earth off its axis or reduce man’s inhumanity to man. And I loved being a janitor. But though it isn’t a requirement for a good job or a good life, nonetheless, teaching is important, and the fact that I do it makes me feel good. I don’t really connect with most of my students; almost all of them like me, and almost all of them learn something from me, even if it’s just the longest non-technical term in the English language (floccinaucinihilipilification — one letter more than antidisestablishmentarianism) or the fact that “a lot” is two words; but I don’t have a whole lot in common with the majority of them, so while we get along, I don’t inspire them. But there are some students that I do inspire. There are some, thanks to luck and compassion both, that I save. And while I am teaching them, I teach them things they need to learn: I teach critical thinking. I teach compassion and empathy. I teach the importance of respecting others’ opinions, and the importance of presenting your own opinions respectfully. I teach them to love reading, to love poetry, to love mysteries and problem solving. I give them an opportunity to become better people, and by so doing, I help to make this a better world. And I am unabashedly proud of that. I have known for years, now, that even if I do nothing else of importance with my life — I did this. I taught. I did good. That is a wonderful feeling, and the more I teach, the more good I do, and the better it feels. How many jobs make you feel that way?

I also have to say, though I don’t think it is due to my particular profession, that I have met some of the kindest, loveliest, and best people on the planet, in this job. It is certainly possible that the people in teaching are so fantastic because of the responsibilities and the significance of the job; it may be that I am so well-suited to this work that I have much in common with other people in it – though I don’t think that’s it, because honestly, I don’t know how much I have in common with my fellow teachers. I mean, most of them have kids, most of them play video games only minimally; many of them are extroverts. But even though we may not mesh particularly well in terms of hobbies and interests and values (You should watch some of their eyes get wider when I curse. It’s pretty funny. And that right there shows the difference between us.) and such like, still: these are absolutely wonderful folk. Absolutely wonderful folk. I am utterly grateful that they welcomed me among them, and allowed me to be me, and be a teacher, too.

So thank you, to all of my fellow teachers, counselors, aides, and the administrators, everyone who wants to make school better. Thank you to my students, who listen to me even when I’m boring, even when I ramble, and who get quiet when they think I’m upset — partly because they don’t want to get in trouble, sure; but mainly because they feel bad for upsetting me. Thank you to Rocco MacDougall and Nick Roberts, the two best teachers I had and my inspirations; it means the world to me that I can think you gentlemen would be proud of me. And thank you, particularly (as always) to my wife, who, when I met her in college at the tender age of 20, asked me this question: “You want to be a writer, okay — but have you thought about what job you might want to have while you are building up your career, before you get on the bestseller list?” And then, when I sat there slack-jawed and mind-blanked, she said, “Have you ever thought about being a teacher?”

No. I hadn’t. But I am so glad that I did.

IT . . . BEGINS!

(The moment to which the title of this post refers is at 1:15.)

Here’s an article on the GOP candidates.

I plan to follow this Presidential election. I realize that in so doing, I am encouraging the misdirection that ensures the Republican party will continue taking far more small, local elections than either their popularity or their capacity to govern would warrant (The wrong-headed focus on Presidential elections, to the detriment of Congressional elections in off-years and local elections in every year; this means that people who traditionally vote Democrat do not vote in off-years, only voting in Presidential elections, while traditionally more conservative voters — angry older white people — vote in every election. This [along with gerrymandering in Congressional districts]  means there is permanent gridlock as we have right now: Democratic president, Republican congress.); but I hope to analyze the candidates, and maybe understand what it is people want, what they are looking for.

And why we can never seem to get it.

So the first issue seems to be encapsulated in the title of the article linked above: “GOP presidential candidates face delicate balancing act.” The balancing act referred to is the need to appeal to the “base” of the Republican party, the farther-right-leaning elements, while at the same time trying to achieve enough universal popularity to win a general election. This shouldn’t be a strategic decision. This shouldn’t be a matter of how one presents one’s self; it should be a matter of deciding whether or not to run, and perhaps which policies and positions to actually back. Because really, you should simply hold positions that are appealing to the right and yet universally acceptable; that’s the point of a single nationally-elected executive: they hold the middle ground, and negotiate compromise. But that’s not how we put it, of course: what we talk about is the appearances.

Tim Pawlenty gets it right:

“You have to know who you are, know why you’re running, know how to present your message and then not waver,” said Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 2012.

So when Chris Christie emphasizes his opposition to abortion, you have an example of the right way to run, but also one thing that’s wrong with the current state of affairs, particularly in the Republican party: he said what he actually thinks — and it does seem to be what he actually thinks; I’ll give the man credit for being clear and consistent on the issue — but it’s a social wedge issue, an issue that shouldn’t get anywhere near the focus that it does. People oppose abortion, sure; but the belief that this is a fundamental concern that should be addressed is nothing but a crowbar that conservatives use to get into office. Thomas Frank talks about this in his excellent book, What’s the Matter With Kansas, in which he explains how politicians have gotten elected despite having actively and repeatedly done harm to the very people who elected them: and it started with pro-life stances. The point Frank raises is this: people get themselves elected with pro-life stances, claiming that the most important issue in the election is the end of legal abortion — and yet, somehow, abortion is still legal, even in Kansas. While the same people voting pro-life lose their jobs and their social safety net as the conservatives they elected cut taxes and de-regulate businesses.

So Chris Christie: honest and solid — but seemingly using political savvy to get elected, rather than following Pawlenty’s advice. It should be noted, of course, that Pawlenty did not do very well when he ran for the nomination in 2012, but again: that points out the flaw in the system.

(My favorite quotation from the article: “The temptation will be to scratch the ideological itch of those in the room,” Matt Strawn, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman, said of events like the one here Saturday. “I would submit that those itches are best scratched in private, one-on-one conversations.” I can’t imagine a better invitation to innuendo. Jon Stewart should grab that one.)

Another flaw in the system: making such a big goddamn deal about Iowa.

The demands on candidates who come to Iowa can be almost never-ending, and candidates find it difficult to resist the urge to try to meet as many of those demands as possible. “Iowa is littered with shiny objects that are very tempting for presidential candidates,” said GOP strategist Phil Musser, who was part of the Pawlenty team in 2012. “A successful candidate has to have patience and understand you don’t need to chase every one.”

Okay. I get it. Iowa votes first. Winning the first vote means you get to be called the front-runner. It means you get to pretend that your victory is now inevitable, because you won the first one. But don’t we all know better? Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012. Mike Huckabee won in 2008. All right, the four elections before that, Iowa went to the nominee — but two of them were unopposed, the Bushes seeking their respective reelections. Iowa picked Bob Dole over George H.W. in ’88, and George H.W. over Ronald Reagan in ’80. So other than gimmes, Iowa has been a bellwether for only one in three elections.

Steve Schmidt — who might be the smartest Republican on the planet, and certainly the most reasonable (Why the hell doesn’t he run? Oh right: he’s too smart.) — said,

. . . running for the nomination is a character test of the candidates — a proving ground for delivering a message without being overly swayed by any particular audience or segment of the party.
Pointing to Saturday’s session in Iowa, he said: “These are events where you show your mettle. . . . The American people don’t evaluate candidates on an issue score card as much as they do on a strength and leadership basis.”

Which is somewhat true, in that wedge issues like abortion are used to show “strength and leadership.” But I disagree that people don’t evaluate candidates based on an issue score card; we do. Not consistently, logically, or predictably, but we do. A big reason I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 was that he opposed the war in Iraq and the prison in Guantanamo Bay, and that’s also why I’m still disappointed in the guy despite having done what I believe is a bang-up job in the big chair: because Gitmo is still open, and we are using drone strikes to kill people while seeking more authorization for even greater use of military force: this man is not the dove I thought he was, and I dislike it. Were he to run again, I would have serious concerns about that.

But to the point that Schmidt makes, that the entire nomination process is a way to show leadership and strength (and, I would argue, the consistency and rationality of one’s positions), explains why we are talking now about November of 2016 — and really, about the following January, two full years in the future. But it doesn’t explain why we care so damn much about Iowa. This is a national election, for a national seat; the candidates should go, as much as they can, everywhere. Not just one podunk state that cares more about pig farming than does an other state in the country. The candidates should go to Iowa — and they might as well go there first, since Iowa votes first — but they should go other places, too.

Except here. They shouldn’t go here.

As the speakers were testing their messages in Iowa, some candidates were heading for California for a weekend retreat hosted by billionaires Charles and David Koch, two of the most influential donors in the party.

Those are the candidates to watch out for.


Why do I do this?

I had a bout of insomnia last night; the kind that wakes you up at 3:30 in the morning with the thought, “I’m wasting my life.” I spend my time: on life, first — eating and sleeping and walking and bathing and talking and hugging, petting, kissing; on work, second — teaching and planning and correcting and meeting and sighing, muttering, cursing; and then: I write. I read. I play video games. Those last three, the smallest overall category or my hours, are in ascending order of time spent per day: and that’s what drove me out of sleep and out of bed, to cause anxiety to my poor semi-high-strung dog and crankiness with my students. The thought that I spend more time crushing candy and thefting grand autos than I do either reading or writing. Surely that is madness, I thought then. Surely this is an apocalyptic doom! It is the end! It is all for naught! I SPEND TIME PLAYING VIDEO GAMES!

With a little more sleep, a lot of coffee, and some perspective kindly provided by my brilliant artist of a wife, I realized: no, that’s just cause for some slight readjustment, a little more time spent reading, a little less time in front of a computer screen. I have already taken a good step with my writing with my resolution to write every day, which I have kept up with, so far — and which has me writing this even as I try to gulp my morning cereal and whistle back to Duncan the cockatiel, who wants attention.

But there was another question which came into my night-fevered brain: should I be doing this at all? Am I, in any way and by any reckoning, doing the right things with my life?

Should I be a teacher?

Should I be a writer?

To answer those, I have to answer the question posed at the very beginning: why do I do this? Why do I teach? Why do I write?

The first one’s pretty easy, really: I need a job, both for money and peace of mind; I want to do my job well; I teach well. If there is another job I can do as well and earn either more money or more peace of mind, I would rather be doing that; I haven’t found it yet. (I am looking.) I think I would rather spend all of my time working on writing, but in today’s society and with my particular situation, that isn’t possible. Not yet. I want to try.

But that leads back to the second question, which is more difficult. Why am I a writer?

If it’s the same reason — I do it well and it brings me some peace of mind — then that doesn’t seem enough. Because isn’t it then as exchangeable as teaching is to me? If I find some other artistic endeavor that I do as well and which makes me happy, should I switch to that? I suppose the answer to that is, I have tried: I carve wood; I sing and perform; I tried both acting and dance when I was younger. Nothing spoke to me. I like singing, I like woodcarving (Don’t like acting or dancing, really), but they don’t burn in me the same way as this does: I need to find the right word to complete — finish? — this sentence. I need to. I should stop and continue on with my morning, but I want to get these thoughts down, first. If it were guitar strings under my fingertips, I already would have stopped.

So there’s something more to writing than to other things, for me. That’s why I do it.

Is that all? More importantly: is that enough?

No: those aren’t the questions. The question is still: why?

Why do I do this? Why do I keep coming back to it? I’m closer to 41 than I am to 40, and I am entirely unpublished except for what I have self-published, and that didn’t sell well. (I suppose my blogs have earned some response, since they nearly got me fired and all, and people seem to be reading this. Which I do appreciate, by the way: very much. Which point I will get to.) I keep coming back to writing; I have given up on everything else — quit dancing, quit acting, quit singing in public; there are songs I have never finished learning and books I have put down or given away unread, video games I have discarded unwon; and there are units I have stopped teaching, sometimes right in the middle, if the students were uninspired and I was uninspiring. But writing, I just keep on doing it. I have a need that writing fulfills.

And I think I know what it is.

Writing allows me to explain why. My idea of why, at least.

This is the question, for me. It’s the only one that matters. How has some purpose to it, of course; but knowing how is just a shortcut, and can generally be supplanted by knowing someone else who knows how; this is why I do not cook well, and cannot fix my own car. If I had to do things for myself, I could take the time to learn. So how doesn’t make or break me. As for what, who, when, where, I am interested in all of them; I like learning things, I like knowing things. But I don’t burn to know something that nobody else knows, so I’m not compelled to discover.

No: I want to know why. I want to understand. Ask my students: I have been known to ask Why until they want to tear out their hair — or maybe mine — and run screaming from the room. I am endlessly fascinated by the complexities of the human psyche, both individually and en masse; this is why I am interested in both politics and, to some extent, popular culture, though with a lot of popular culture, my own differing tastes lead me to a certain amount of contempt for my fellow man. Actually, that’s true with politics, too. I also want to know why the world is the way it is, and so I enjoy learning the science that gives explanations, such as biology or ecology. I am less interested in the mechanistic sciences, your physics, your chemistry, your engineering; I feel like those are mostly How answers. Which, again, are good, but not as good as Why.

Why is literature. History, too, but literature has infinite possibilities, which history does not; history has the advantage of being grounded in observable reality, but I don’t really care about that; philosophy has given me the opportunity to question even basic empirical facts (Thank you, M. Descartes), and so anything I dream could be as real as anything you’ve seen. (Here’s one of my favorite ones, which I throw at my students at least once a year: according to legend, when one is dying, one’s life flashes before one’s eyes; we know from dreams that this sort of mental cinema can happen at a much faster pace than genuine experience — a dream that lasts but moments of sleeping time can feel much longer. What if, as the body is slowing down, that recapitulation of every experience grows more and more detailed, the closer one approaches that final limit of life, until at the last moment, it feels as though one is experiencing it directly, instead of in memory? What if that’s where you are right now?) And there are things I can dream that nobody has ever seen.

So literature is the thing. Literature allows for hypothetical situations, vicarious experiences, imagined responses; and those things can tell us why. That’s why I write. I want to try to offer a possible explanation for — well, everything. For life (I have a book idea that will offer my concept of what a divine creation would actually look like), for good and for evil (Two of my completed novels have good characters; the third is an evil protagonist; all of them struggle with understanding why they are the way they are — and through those struggles offer my ideas about these questions), for politics and history and art and — anything I think I can explain, down to why pirates are better than ninjas and why Megan Fox is an idiot.

I wonder, writing this, if the key to my being a writer is simply arrogance: I think I’m right all the time. And there’s some truth there; it’s probably also why I am a teacher, in part, because I like being the guy with the answers, I like being the authority. But that isn’t entirely true, because I am not afraid of being proved wrong in class, and I don’t believe my books are the greatest; nor are my truths. I suppose that literature also allows me to offer possible explanations without knowing them for fact, which the fact-based endeavors don’t have as much freedom for. I do think my explanations are at least plausible; and if not plausible, interesting.

And that’s enough.

It’ll have to be enough. I have to go feed the dog.

But I’ll come back.

And as a postscript, let me thank you, any of you, who read what I write, and keep coming back to read more. Explanations without someone to listen to them are — well, not pointless, because they help me to figure out what I think and what I believe; but without readers, writing is fairly empty as an endeavor. So it means quite a lot to me that, even though I can’t get a literary agent to even read what I write beyond scanning a query and sending back a form rejection, somewhere people are listening to me. Let me ask you (Please respond in the comment section): why?

The Corporation That Ate My Profession

So guess what today was!

Today was in-service day.

All teachers know in-service day. If any of the rest of them feel like I do about it, they tell themselves, “Hey, it won’t be so bad; at least I don’t have to plan or teach or deal with students.” To my students, who actually express sympathy for me because they get a four-day weekend and I had to work today, I’ve been saying, “Hey, without students here, this is pretty much the easiest job in the world.” Lest they get too saddened — I have no doubt they would use the phrase “butt-hurt” — about my apparent eagerness to remove them from my daily equation, I have also added, “Of course, it would be pretty much the most pointless job in the world, too.” Then they feel better. Then I say, “But still: really, really easy.”

But then I actually show up for in-service. And suddenly, it isn’t so easy.

In-service is when the teachers learn what we need to learn in order to become better teachers. In one day. Often in about 45 minutes, the way they usually schedule these things. The decent in-services are based on teacher requests as to what we would like to learn; the better in-services are when the teachers are given an opportunity to collaborate, in departments or by grade level; the best in-services are workdays, when teachers can go to their classrooms — or work at home! — and get caught up on grading and planning. That is the one thing that, more than anything else, actually allows us to teach better: time to prepare, time to give genuine feedback to student work, and the reduction of stress that follows after feeling like some of the piles looming over you have shrunk a little.

The worst in-services, and by far the most common, are the ones where the administrators decide what the teachers need to learn based on some esoteric formula associated with AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress — the idiotic and reductive numerical rating that was the basis of the “accountability” of the No Child Left Behind Act) and closely tied to the hottest trends in pedagogy. This is when we learn about Marzano’s nine secret strategies to teach in order to improve learning (Want to know what #1 is? Summarizing and note-taking. No shit. #2 is using graphic organizers like worksheets. I think Marzano unearthed a syllabus from a secretarial school in the 1910’s, and treated it the way the Renaissance treated ancient Greek wisdom. Like freaking alchemy.), or, as I did today, the Seven Secrets of Success, which are the skills that all students must master in order to prosper in life. #1 is critical thinking. Another one — #5, maybe? — is good oral and written communication skills. My God in Heaven, I wish I had thought of that! If only there was some subject matter I could have studied for five years in college, in order to make it my one area of focus in this profession, that would relate to good oral and written communication. If only.

But there was something else about this particular in-service, resulting from the new school district I am now a part of, in the new state: my school is not a school. It is a business. It is a corporation. And the more I see of the effect this has on my job, the more frightened I get.

It starts with the little things: the language, for one.

We don’t have a superintendent; we have a CEO. He doesn’t have assistant or deputy superintendents; he has a COO, a CFO, and a CAO (Chief Academic Officer). After a breakfast (Which, I admit, was far better than what I’ve been fed for the last seven or eight years in Oregon, ever since the economy tanked and they stopped catering the in-service days at the beginning of every school year) and a speech, we had an icebreaker activity; then we watched a TED talk, from a Harvard professor from the School of Business, about those seven skills. And then we had individual classes, taught — thankfully — by other teachers in my distri — I mean, from within the corporate — do I say “family” here? Maybe “hegemony?” But they weren’t small group lessons, or expert trainings; they were “breakout sessions.” Lunch wasn’t just lunch, it was a “networking lunch.”

Most of which I spent grading homework.

But. This was only one day, and I don’t want to make too much out of it. After all, I’ve had in-services as long as I’ve been a teacher, and it’s not like obnoxious buzzwords are new to education — I remember my peers having a sort of “drinking game” (Actually based on eating Reese’s Pieces) every time our administrator used the term “piece,” as in, “And these rubrics will help to bring in the assessment piece, and then you can individualize them for your subject, which covers the content piece.” That would be two candies.

But this, unlike pretty much every other trend in education, doesn’t seem to be going away. It seems to be getting worse.

The corporations are eating my profession.

There will be much more on this, in days to come. For now, I’m going to wrap this up and go watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Enjoy your weekend, everyone.

I’m Still Charlie.

One of my friends, after reading my piece on Charlie Hebdo, sent me a link to this:

I Am Not #Charlie (by Josh Healey)

and asked me what I thought of it. So here’s what I think of it.

This is a good piece — better than mine, certainly, in terms of the writing. All of it should be read, but I’d like to respond directly to this:

In a country (France) and an era (post-9/11) where Muslims face rampant discrimination and often violent exclusion, Charlie Hebdo’s cheap shots at Islam added fuel to the racist fire. I understand the desire to make fun of organized religion in all its absurdities, but it’s possible to do that without graphic cartoons of Muhammad being sodomized. That’s not brilliant satire, that’s pornographic hate speech. And I don’t know about you, but I prefer my porn without violent hatred.

Of course, the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo didn’t deserve to be killed for their drawings. Not in a million years. But that doesn’t mean that what they drew or published was worth defending in its own right. I love free speech as much as anyone, but I can separate the right of people to have free speech with my support for their actual speech. When the ACLU supported the right of neo-Nazis to march through the suburban shtetl of Skokie, IL, they didn’t go around saying #IAmHitler.

All right: it’s a good essay, but this is a stupid point. No, people did not go around saying #IAmHitler. Because the city authorities who blocked the neo-Nazi march did not do it with AK47s. The neo-Nazis did not die, and so there was not the same desire to express support for them as there was for human beings murdered for their ideas; there was not the same sorrow simply because their march was disallowed in Skokie, because that isn’t the same thing as being shot. Silence, as terrible as it is, is not as bad as death. Don’t equate the two.

But let’s address the main point: can one support the freedom of speech, the right of Charlie Hebdo to print offensive cartoons, but not support their decision to actually do so? Can you love the freedom of speech but not condone the actual speech?

No. You really can’t.

First, let me say this: it’s only hate speech if it was done for the sake of hate (And it’s only pornography if it’s meant to titillate, and I really doubt the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were meant to do that, either. But hey — maybe. Hentai is a thing. Which I also don’t get.). And more importantly, even if it was done for the sake of hate, it’s still speech, it still should be free, it still should be defended. You cannot, in fact, make distinctions between the right to free speech and defending their actual speech. You don’t have to agree with it — but you do have to defend it. (Maybe I’m making too big a deal of the distinction between “not supporting” and “not defending.” But that’s too many layers of abstraction. So blithely on we go!)

No one is saying that the terrorists were right, or even that they had a point, in murdering twelve people at Charlie Hebdo and four more at a kosher market. I will also say that today’s headline, stating that the Belgian police shot and killed two terror suspects as part of a massive anti-terrorism sweep, is also profoundly disturbing to me: as disturbing as were the murders in Ferguson and Coney Island committed by police officers. Because all murders are equivalent, and all are wrong. Those are my principles: no conflict, no rationale, makes the killing of another human being acceptable. It happens, and in some circumstances it is understandable — self-defense, for instance — but that doesn’t make it acceptable. Not ever. I don’t want to die, and I’ll try not to, but I do not have the right to kill someone else to defend my life. Nobody does. It’s an absolute: any line you try to draw leads to finer and finer distinctions, until you’re just making things up, and contradicting yourself. Doesn’t work. So there it is: murder is wrong.

By the same token, all speech — except for the one exception of speech that actively causes harm, meaning the yelling of “fire!” in a crowded theater — is not only acceptable, but defensible. No, the cartoonists should not have been murdered, and I don’t think that Mr. Healey is saying, or hinting, that they deserved it. But neither should they be condemned or chastised for what they said simply because you think they weren’t funny. Or because you think they were racist and hateful, and encouraged more of the same. While I believe strongly that the pen is mightier than the sword, and also that propaganda has been used as a weapon far more often and to greater effect than any metal tool, there is still a distinction to be made between the use of speech to offend (or influence) others and the use of weaponry to harm others. Offense is not harm, and words are not actions. Words by themselves do not cause actions, no matter what those words are, and those who choose to respond to words in violent ways — whether they attack the speaker or the speaker’s target, the “enemy” or the “enemy of my enemy” — they are responsible for their own acts, not the speaker. Charlie Hebdo never hurt anyone, because they only spoke, never acted. And only one of those should be condemned.

Speech, even offensive speech, should be free, always, and that means it should be encouraged even when we don’t like it. Not just allowed: encouraged. Defended. Always. Because offense is as abstract and individual as — well, as faith. You cannot draw a line between this speech as “obnoxious but acceptable” and that speech as “offensive and wrong.” Those distinctions are too individual, too amorphous — too changeable. What is offensive today won’t be offensive tomorrow, and so what seems like a logical distinction today — Jon Stewart is acceptable, but Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher are not — may become an illogical distinction in a very short while. (That is not to say that Rush Limbaugh is not an idiot. He’s an idiot. Who should be on the radio as long as he has something to say. The giant idiot.)

If we are to have free speech — and we must — there can never be a rule against some speech, or against certain kinds of speech. Never. You like this, you don’t like that — sure, say it all you want. But don’t cross the line between opinions and rules: there is no speech that should be blocked or removed or discouraged. None. Ever. One of the worst things I do as a teacher in public schools is tell students “You shouldn’t say that” or “That’s not appropriate to write about.” I do it as little as I can, and I hate it, every time I do it. It must not be done. Speech is who we are, as human beings. It is what we do. Take it away, and there is nothing left but pigs on two legs. Not that I have any problem with pigs (We just got our Esther The Wonder Pig calendar! Check it out!). But I admit it: I like humans more than pigs. I like words better than no words — and that’s the same thing. I believe words are necessary, that humans must be able to speak and to write, in order to be human. I will explain why at greater length some other time, but for now, I’ll say this: the two things that humans do that set us apart from animals, that make us better than animals, are: make art, and seek truth. Both of those require communication. If there is anything that is worth defending, it is free speech: That is what we are: without it, there is no “we.” There is no humanity. And if you end that — what are you protecting?

So while Mr. Healey is right, that I wrote and posted “Je suis Charlie” without knowing what I was defending — because I have never looked at the magazine, never bought it; never even seen the offensive cartoons — I meant it. I still mean it. They were speaking. They were communicating an intention through art: they were performing the highest function, the defining act, of humanity. They were right to do it. Those who murdered them were performing the lowest act humanity is capable of. They were wrong to do it. And I’ll say the same thing for the neo Nazis, the most radical Islamic caliph or mullah there is, and anyone else that speaks — even Rush Limbaugh — so long as he draws a line between speaking and acting.

Killing is wrong. Speaking is right. That’s it.

New State, New Governor — Same Old Crap.

My new home state of Arizona elected a new governor, a chap named Doug Ducey (No, all right? No, I can’t resist calling him Douchey. I’m not proud of it. I’m not happy about it. BUT I CAN’T HELP MYSELF!), who took office just last week, and yesterday gave his very first State of the State address. (Can we please not call it that? “State of the Union” has a nice, official ring to it; “State of the State” sounds like a bad joke. Maybe an indie band that’s trying too hard to be hip. And the new Republican governor of a state full of retirees and snowbirds [People who flock here in the winter to escape the snow.] is definitely not hip.)

He started off by saying that he believed that a new and innovative perspective was needed in order to solve the problems of this state. (Problem one: a $1 billion budget deficit. Problem two: a government and an educational system that are so at odds that the government refused to pay $317 million owed to the schools, based on their own laws, because they didn’t want to pay the schools the money; they are now being forced to do it by the courts, and are still dragging their heels. At the same time, they passed a law banning ethnic studies classes in Arizona public schools — claiming it was intended to reduce the budget shortfalls in schools [One would think that coughing up the $317 million would go some way to filling that hole; probably more so than would ending the courses in Mexican-American studies and African-American studies in Arizona high schools. Oh: Ducey also stated that his administration would go after deadbeat dads. You know, guys who won’t pay money they legally owe for the care of their children. You can’t buy this kind of material, which is why I simply have to get into at least some light political blogging. I mean, come on. I’m only human. And liberal. And a smartass. And really off topic.] and the teachers sued the government for infringement of free speech. Problem three: the newly elected governor, the former CEO of Coldstone Creamery, was backed by the Koch brothers. But hey, let’s not be cynical; maybe that won’t be a problem. Go on. What did Governor Ducey see as the solution to all of these problems? You know, the innovative, nothing-like-the-tired-old-political-thinking perspective?) First of all, he absolutely refused to even consider contemplating a discussion of the possibility that one might peradventure raise a tax or two. He seemed very certain about that. He brought up the various points that could be laid out in favor of tax increases — something about a $1 billion deficit and a $317 million bad debt; and maybe some talk of rolling back some tax “reforms” (read: tax breaks”) passed by the last legislature, which are just now taking effect. All of these thoughts were annihilated by the bon mot: “Not on my watch!” Which I swear I’ve heard before once or twice (per election cycle for the last 25 years or so.)

So all right, good, the Republican Koch-brother-backed governor has the innovative perspective that tax increases are bad. His next plan? Eliminate that absurdity, the DC lobbyist who represents the state of Arizona. Actually, this one I am in agreement with, but what bothered me about the argument is that the former CEO of Coldstone Creamery, backed by the Koch Brothers, acted like the very existence of a lobbyist was not only incomprehensible, but offensive. I find his outrage and confusion dubious. But sure, let’s cut the bureaucracy some. What will we do with those savings? Apply it to that $1 billion? Or maybe the $317 million?

Nope: we’re going to create a new bureaucratic office. This one is going to look for new places to save money (I thought that was the governor’s job. Don’t you propose the budget? Or maybe it’s the legislature’s job since they pass it. Then again, apparently neither of you can add. Sure, hire a new guy.) He is also going to “shine a light” on corruption wherever he finds it, using the shiny new badge the governor will issue him (Presumably as a reflector.). So yeah: careful scrutiny of government spending somehow yielding enough new money to balance a budget badly bloated with tax breaks? (I swear that alliteration was unintentional. I only realized it halfway through, and then I just couldn’t stop.) Claim that the vanishing money isn’t going to corporations, but rather is being lost to government waste and corruption (Again: coming from the dude backed by the Koch brothers, who put large amounts of dark money into his campaign, I somehow don’t feel that “ironic” is a strong enough term.) which can be ended by — government appointees answering to elected government officials? Somehow that sounds familiar, too.

It all sounds familiar. The business of government is jobs and economic growth (not ensuring the wellbeing of their constituents; not obeying the will of the people; not even to protect the inalienable rights that is the sole purpose for which government is instituted, according to the Declaration of Independence.), and way to do that is trickle-down tax cuts and the rapid elimination of any and all regulatory system in place. Small businesses (Like Coldstone Creamery or the Koch brothers) need to be raised above God almighty as the source of all good things here in America. (My favorite part of this speech element was the statement that Ducey dictated a moratorium on regulations for the executive branch. Uh — aren’t you the executive branch? Couldn’t you just, y’know, not do the stuff you don’t like? Without the official memo ordering you to do what you want?) Schools can be fixed with yet another test. The answer to any other education problem is school choice — now, in this state that already has too many charter schools, and is already an anti-union “right to work” state (And as a teacher in one of those charter schools, I may have something to say about how well that system works. Some other time.), the problem is apparently that the best charter schools have waiting lists, with the strong implication that those waiting lists are really smokescreens used to keep out the poor and unwanted students, against the will of their hard-working, tax-paying, God-fearing, Republican-voting parents, and by cracky, Doug Ducey will put a stop to that kind of nonsense! The key to good education is parent choice! Don’t you see? Parents would choose the best school! And then all the kids could go to the best school! PROBLEM SOLVED!

All of Arizona’s problems will be solved. All we have to do is — the same things that Republicans always claim will work, which never, ever work.


My wife Toni and I just got back from seeing the last installment of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It was our first time in a movie theater here in Tucson; my first time in a cineplex that boasts twenty — twenty! — full size screens. This was the last time I will see a Peter Jackson version of a Tolkien novel — one assumes. Actually, one hopes. I love Tolkien. I love Peter Jackson. The Lord of the Rings series is, bar none, the best movie interpretation of a novel that I have ever seen. But I’ve read Tolkien’s other works: The Children of Hurin, The Silmarillion, the short pieces in the Tolkien Reader and a volume or two of lost tales — and I do hope this is the last Tolkien piece they try to make into a feature film. Anything else will lose something that it can’t afford to lose. This series almost did, mainly because they took one book and tried to turn it into three movies. I hope they don’t do it again.

So how was this last movie? It was good. It was entirely satisfying as the conclusion of an epic fantasy trilogy (Warning to Ye Hardcore Geeks: I like all six Star Wars movies.): there were heroic deaths and mighty battles, and plenty of just-in-the-nick-of-time rescues, and plenty of foe-vanquishing. There was some pungently aromatic cheese — Evangeline Lilly with tears in her eyes crying out, “Why must it hurt so much?” You could slice that and put it on a burger — and some great funny moments, particularly the surprise arrival of Billy Connolly’s voice. I liked that, just as with the LOTR movies, there was not even an attempt to make the battles quote-unquote “realistic;” I enjoy the fact that these movies have dwarves fighting while standing atop barrels rolling — well, floating while remaining perfectly upright, as if they had magic gyroscopes on the bottoms and grip tape on the rims — down a raging river while orcs leap at them from the shore, and yet their timing is perfect and nobody falls down, except the orcs as they get smited with dwarven ax-blows. I enjoy that the massive orcish armor, which looks like they yanked it off a WWII-era Soviet tank and then bolted it straight to their sternums, can somehow be pierced by a 3’6″ hobbit swinging a short sword; he’s running and dodging and ducking and spinning, and yet his backhand blow can go right through that solid mass of metal and drop an orc with but a single blow. I like that. Why? Because realism has no business in these movies. What the hell is the point of making a battle between a dwarf and an orc realistic? I am happy that Peter Jackson recognized that logical contradiction and stayed true to the intent of the books: Epic. Fantasy. I wish we had gotten to see the final apocalyptic destruction of the orcs, as we did in LOTR when  Barad-Dur fell and all the evil was devoured by the earth, but this was the right way to end this particular battle: LOTR is the story of a world, but The Hobbit is the story of a hobbit; and Bilbo was, quite appropriately, the focus of the final scenes.

So yeah: good movie. I’d like to get the extended DVDs and watch them all again, though I won’t watch them as often as I watch Lord of the Rings.

But if the movie was good, you ask, why that title for this post? Why CineMeh?

Because of everything else.

Because the previews and commercials went on for a full forty minutes before the movie actually started.

Because my goddamn popcorn cost $7.75, and the “small” soda (Which was still 20 ounces) was $6.

Because Toni got “pretzel bites” that came with a cheese dipping sauce that was more akin to — I’m going to go with badger vomit — than it was to actual cheese.

Because the seat next to me was empty until the very last people to come into the theater. I hate that.

Because the seat next to Toni was occupied by a young pre-teen who spent the entire time not only talking to the smaller child beside her, but waving a white paper bag from the concession stand as if it had the words “VISUAL DISTRACTION!” written on it, and also spoiling every single scene for Toni, who had not seen this movie twice before as the child had. “Oh! This is the part where the dwarf sneaks up on the elf!” “Oh, this part is sad — he dies.” “Watch this: the orc is about to come up right behind him.”

Parents, please: I beg of you. Tell your children not to make noise in the movie theater. Insist that they not speak. And you sit in the middle of them, not at the end of a string of four kids with an innocent stranger on the other end; with you in the middle you can reach all of them and smack them when they spoil the movie. I understand, you’re guarding the aisle — tell them not to run up and down the aisle, either, and smack the one on the end if he tries to make a break for it. Sure, I have no doubt that your own movie experience will be rotten, as you’ll have to spend the entire time trying to make a whole group of goblins sit still despite all the sugar you bought for them. But that’s the price you pay.

Me? I paid $7.75 for popcorn. Frankly, I’m tapped out.