Posts Tagged ‘wizards’

Just Us

Monday, December 5th, 2016

The Magician

The Magician (Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company) ©2016  David Jouris / Motion Pictures

“In 1978, Proposition 13 passed with almost 65% of those who voted in favor and with the participation of nearly 70% of registered voters. After passage, Proposition 13 became article XIII A of the California Constitution.” Wikipedia

We’ve been picking up our neighbor’s Press Democrat while he is away in Idaho hunting elk. The headline article of the Sunday edition is about the shortage of rental properties in Mendocino and all over California and America due to so many people choosing to go the Air B&B route with their rental units rather than rent long term to locals.

What does that have to do with the famous Proposition 13? In my view, the Airbnb phenomenon is the grandchild of Proposition 13, and the election of Donald Trump is a sibling of Airbnb.

There once was a concept known as the Greater Good, otherwise known as our community. Before the passage of Proposition 13, California had excellent schools, universities, parks, healthcare, mental healthcare, and public libraries, along with many other public goodies, too. Ten years later, those public systems were collapsing as the wealthy fled the public sector for private systems only they could afford—to hell with the middle and lower classes.

I recently fell into conversation with a woman who, upon finding out I owned a house in Mendocino, asked if I had a cottage to rent? “Or even a garage that doesn’t leak?”

She was expensively dressed and driving a new BMW, so I doubted she was looking to rent something diminutive for herself. “We decided to go Air B&B with our cottage,” she explained. “So now we have to kick our renter out and I’m hoping she can find another place around here so she doesn’t have to relocate. She’s the greatest person. I hate to do it, but we need the money. She’s paying twelve hundred a month. We can make five thousand a month doing the Air B&B thing.”

“Lot of work,” I said, smiling wanly. “Sheets to wash, cleaning up after…”

“With the money we’ll be making, we’ll get someone else to do that,” she said, shrugging. “Really hurts. She’s the best renter we’ve ever had.”

Yes, for some people doing the Air B&B thing is a necessity, but for many people doing the Air B&B thing is simply a way to make more money than they were previously making. And making more money at the expense of a vibrant community and great people is precisely what people did when they passed Proposition 13. In the short term, property owners got to keep more of their money for themselves. In the long term, they wrecked our society.

The great appeal of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton and the Georges Bush and Ronald Reagan, who might be called the Uncle of Proposition 13, was the message: you affluent folks can have anything you want and need not worry about the less fortunate people we destroy here and abroad so you can have your anything.

The appeal of Bernie Sanders was that he reminded people who remembered or had heard about that Other Time, the time of The Greater Good. And he suggested we could have another such time if we designed our systems of governance and taxation so everyone paid their fair share of the cost of a system benefiting everyone.

Alas, too much time had passed since the days of fair taxation, since the days of banks being banks instead of gambling dens, since the days of stock markets reflecting the actual worth of companies and commodities, since the days of high school graduates knowing how to read and write, since the days of superb public libraries, since the days when, truly, there were no homeless people—so in this last election most of those who voted opted for a continuation of privatization, voted for continuing to deny what is really happening to our world and our society, voted for a fantasy that capitalism can bring prosperity to more than a fraction of the population.

Now there is a movement afoot to recount the votes from the Presidential election and prove, some people hope, Trump didn’t win and Hillary did. And I marvel at the outpouring of money and support for this ultimately futile process, as if the system as it is now constituted would allow for a reversal of a national process predicated on the fantasy of fairness.

Fantasy. My hobby of monitoring movie trailers and ensuing box office results show that the most successful movies of the last two decades are fantasies about wizards and super heroes and invulnerable strong people (mostly men) battling the forces of evil. The public can’t seem to get enough of Harry Potter and the aftershocks of that pre-adolescent fantasy of kids using magical powers to conquer the nasty meanies of life, magical powers gained not through practice and wisdom and insight, but just because, you know, wizards are, like, granted magical powers because, you know, because they’re, like, chosen.

This pre-adolescent fantasy stuff is profoundly related to the election of Trump, for if we grow up believing important things only happen because of magic (luck) and not through clear intentions and hard work, we cannot possibly understand how things actually happen in this reality, nor do we know how to make things happen. And we grow up believing wizards or Super People will save us, save society, make things better.

I think we, the people, are now so passive and misinformed and entrained to stare at screens projecting fantasies, the spectacle of Trump versus Hillary was the best we could hope for. Bernie Sanders was too down to earth (and I don’t mean Middle Earth) and what he envisioned would have required us to share, to be part of a larger community, a society of equals. No wizards. No waving of wands for the easy fix. Just us working together and sacrificing together for the greater good.

Genuine Praise

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Carl Jung

My recent essay on the shams of mockeries of travesties that masquerade as Creative Writing programs in America’s universities inspired a wide range of responses, including miniature treatises on the disintegration of American education, the impact of mass media and real-seeming special effects on human psyches, the validity of vampires as cultural metaphors, and a general theory of mediocrity. To wit:

“From a systems analyst’s point of view we can see that vampire novels turned into movies or boy-wizard novels turned into movies inspire similar art formats in that systems follow the myriad paths of least resistance; and so whenever there is a popular something on TV, movies, theatre, books, music, etc. the purveyors of those things will copy that something ad nauseum. Thus our cultural reality, from a systems perspective, is that the more consumers of system output there are, the more influence those consumers have on what is purveyed, and if you accept that what is purveyed is driven by the most common of popular culture, i.e. what has the broadest appeal, then all successful art forms can only become more and more common as population increases.”

This same correspondent, a successful Internet Technology consultant, said there are hundreds of jobs available in the Bay Area for people with decent computer skills and competence in Word and Excel, two programs found on nearly everybody’s computer. But these jobs go unfilled by Americans and necessitate outsourcing and/or the importation of foreign labor. This seems crazy in the face of millions of unemployed and the ease with which any moderately intelligent and literate person can become proficient at Word and Excel. So what’s up? The key word here is literate. For the past thirty years our high schools have churned out tens of millions of graduates who cannot write well enough to be of much use to any but the lowest tech employers. Our youth may send forth billions of impromptu text messages at lightning speed, but most of these same youth cannot construct coherent sentences, let alone useful paragraphs. In short, our public schools don’t work. Why not? Is it because teaching has devolved to crowd control and forced memorization? And if so, what caused this devolution?

One correspondent suggested that the ethos of non-criticism underlies the demise of our educational system. “Circa 1975 and for decades thereafter it was verboten in public elementary schools to correct kids’ grammar and spelling for fear of injuring their self-esteem. Furthermore, children were praised for anything they did, even if what they were doing was wrong. You can see the results today. It isn’t that our young people aren’t intelligent, it’s that they are essentially illiterate and incapable of critical thinking, and so don’t even have the option of educating themselves.”

Which would leave out learning how to use Word and Excel.

When I lived in Berkeley, I tutored a Berkeley High School senior, a brilliant young woman who, at the outset of our working together, could not construct the aforementioned proper sentences. And verily she said unto me of her regular English class at one of the better public schools in the Bay Area, “If you show up most of the time and don’t cause any trouble, you’ll get a C. If you try to do some of the assignments, you’ll get a B. And if you do all the assignments and run them through spell check, you’re golden.”

A Special Education teacher had this to say about praise. “Praise is a primary tool teachers use to engage their students, assuming the praise is authentic and specific. As long as teachers are also passing along foundation skills as well as some rationale for doing good in the world, I see no problem with praise in that context.”

Another teacher wrote, “Far more important than praise is engagement. My best response is one that ignites or continues discussion. Otherwise, I’m just patting people on the head for knowing the right answers. Answers are only valuable if they further investigation, and learning to investigate, to uncover the intricacies of a subject, that’s the essence of learning. And, of course, nothing meaningful can take place if a class is out of control or the students have tuned out.”

A high school English teacher wrote, “I teach five classes a day, thirty-five students in each class. If I assign one short essay per week, which isn’t nearly enough to provide sufficient writing practice, that makes one hundred and seventy-five essays I have to read and correct and grade. Every week. Where would I possibly find the time to do that even remotely well? And remember, most of these students, this is regular English, not remedial, haven’t mastered even the most basic writing skills. What they were doing in elementary school and junior high, I don’t know, but they come to me with terrible skills. And people wonder why English teachers burn out so quickly. It’s an impossible task. We should be refining their skills at this point, working one-on-one, not teaching basic grammar. As for praise, I don’t have time to praise anybody.”

Some years ago I was hired to teach a one-week course of creative writing at a GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) elementary school in Sacramento. I worked with seven different classes, kindergarten through sixth grade, twenty kids in a class, and each day I spent an hour with each class. I suggested to the folks who hired me that it would be better for all involved if we spread the work out over several weeks, but that didn’t fit the school’s learning schedule, so I endeavored to do my best under those rather concentrated circumstances.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the shocking revelation of the decimation of individuality and creative thinking that intensifies with each step up the educational ladder. My kindergarteners did not yet know how to write, but their inventiveness was remarkable and their lack of creative inhibition thrilling. Sparks of such inventiveness remained in some of the first and second graders, but most of these youngsters already exhibited profound symptoms of numbness and stress from being penned up in classrooms for months on end and having to know answers to irrelevant questions hour after hour under fluorescent lights. By the third grade, the grapes, if you will, were thoroughly crushed. Conform or be ridiculed (by the teacher or your peers) had become the fully operational default setting for the group mind; and this governing ordinance would only strengthen thereafter, so that by the fifth and sixth grades I might as well have been talking to child soldiers trained to only reveal their names, ranks, serial numbers, fart jokes, and the plots of popular television shows about morons.

And though it was tempting to blame the individual teachers, the sameness of their styles and techniques made it clear they were only following the dictates of wholly inadequate teacher training for people who are not necessarily themselves well educated. And therein, I think, is a primary source of the decline and fall of our educational system: poorly educated teachers trained by misguided educators to be behaviorist drill sergeants otherwise incapable of actually teaching anything.

Consider your own education. Can you not recall a moment in fifth or seventh or tenth grade when it dawned on your benumbed consciousness that the older person standing in front of the class was not very bright and might possibly be a moron? Sure you can. And trust me, you didn’t think this person was an idiot simply because you were a surly, disenchanted teenager. No. You thought this person was an idiot because he really didn’t know what he was talking about.

When I was in my late twenties I attended a New Year’s Eve party at the home of my high school Drama teacher, one of two excellent teachers I was fortunate to have in high school and with whom, not coincidentally, I developed a lifelong friendship. Attending this party was another of my former teachers, an English teacher I labored under for two of my four years in high school. In the course of my conversations with her that evening, as she grew drunker and drunker, she confessed that she found teaching so stressful she frequently resorted to alcohol and/or valium on the job, she was addicted to pornography, she fantasized constantly about having sex with her teen charges, and she felt like an utter failure.

And I said to her in all honesty, “What I most appreciated about your teaching was how you encouraged us to engage in lengthy discussions, and how you only intervened to keep us on topic.”

To which she responded by bursting into tears and saying that in her twenty-five years of teaching no student had ever sincerely praised her for anything.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com. Praise, flattery, or MacArthur Genius Grants may be sent to him there.