Category Archives: education

Dr. Teeth

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Today I had to take my daughter to the dentist before dropping her off at school.  A simple teeth cleaning and an exam for future tooth work they are recommending resulted in a fifty dollar charge.  I could pay for it, but it comes out of the monthly food budget.  And I have no idea where the three times that amount that the future tooth work will cost is going to come from.  Let alone the property tax due at the end of the year which is now three times what it was in 2006.  I have lost control over my life because of increasing expenses and decreasing income.  And it makes me lament, “Why can’t I control ANYTHING?”

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You would think that having been a teacher for so many years I would know how to control practically everything, right?  I mean, if a teacher can control the ultimate chaos engines of the average junior high school classroom, he ought to be able control anything… while doing nuclear physics on the side.

DrteethMAHBut that, of course, is not how it works in real life… even without the nuclear physics which was an exaggeration for humorous effect.

The secret is, a good teacher doesn’t control the behavior of students.  The teacher manages behavior by adjusting what he is in control of, his own reactions and behavior.

To make a metaphor, it is like juggling handfuls of sand.  They will slip between your fingers, bounce, and fly apart completely before the first revolution is complete.  But if you are smart, and have a small ceramic bowl in each hand, and a convenient big bowl of sand to dip into for new handfuls, you can throw and catch and guide the handfuls of sand through their amazing performance, at least three handfuls.  Maybe as many as seven, though that would take some really fast hands and years of practice.

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The point is, I think in my stupid little head, that I should not be trying to control the chaos my life has become.  The art is to manage the opposing forces, guide them back into the over-all flow of it, and prevent any single thing from overwhelming me, interrupting or wrecking the music of existence.

So the lesson here is, even though this post started out being about dentists and cost control, that I can’t control anything in life but myself.  So I might as well keep playing my figurative banjo and get into a figurative Studebaker with figurative Fozzie just to see where the road song will take me.  I will play the music and try to keep it all in tune and following the beat, no matter how many wrong turns and hitchhikers happen along the way.

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Filed under commentary, education, humor, metaphor, music, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

Books are Life, and Life is Books

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I just finished reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, his novel from 2014.  Just, WOW!  I guess this post is technically a book review… but not really.  I have to talk about so much more than just the book.

You can see in my initial illustration that I read this book to pieces.  Literally.  (And I was an English Major in college, so I LITERALLY know what literally means!)

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Look at this face.  Can you stop looking at the beautiful eyes?  I can’t.

I discovered Mitchell as a writer when I happened onto the book and movie pair of Cloud Atlas.  It enthralled me.  I read the book, a complex fantasy about time and connections, about as deeply and intricately as any book that I have ever read.  I fell in love.  It was a love as deep and wide as my love of Dickens or my love of Twain… even my love of Terry Pratchett.

It is like the picture on the left.  I can’t stop looking into it and seeing more and more.  It is plotted and put together like a finely crafted jeweled timepiece.

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And this new book is almost exactly like that.  It is a first- person narrative in six parts with five different narrators.  Holly Sykes, the central character, is the narrator of the first and last parts, in the past in the 1980’s, and in the future in 2043.  The titular metaphor of the bone clocks is about the human body and how it measures time from youth to old age.  And it is pictured as a clock ticking in practically all it’s forms, from a child who is snuffed out at eight years of age to horologists who have lived for a thousand years by being reincarnated with past lives intact.

Fantasy and photographic realism intertwine and filigree this book like a vast kaleidoscope of many colors, peoples, societies, and places.  At one point David Mitchell even inserts himself into the narrative cleverly as the narrator of part four, Crispin Hershey, the popular English novelist struggling to stay on top of the literary world.  He even indulges every writer’s fantasy and murders himself in the course of the story.

David Mitchell is the reason I have to read voraciously and write endlessly.  His works seem to contain an entire universe of ideas and portraits and events and predictions and wisdoms. And he clearly shows me that his universe is not the only one that needs to be written before the world ends.  Books are life, and life is in books.  And when the world as we know it is indeed gone, then they will be the most important thing we ever did.  Even if no one is left to read them.

And so, I read this book until it fell into pieces, its spine broken and its back cover lost.  To be fair, I bought it at a used book store, and the paperback copy was obviously read by previous owners cover to cover.  The pages were already dog eared with some pages having their corners turned down to show where someone left off and picked up reading before me.  But that, too, is significant.  I am not the only one who devoured this book and its life-sustaining stories.  Know that, if you do decide to read and love this book, you are definitely not the only one.  I’d lend you my copy.  But… well, it’s already in pieces.

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Lessons From Tchaikovsky

I used to be a classroom storyteller.  As an English teacher for middle school kids, I often would give brief biographical insights into famous people we were talking about at the time.  I told them about Crazy Horse of the Sioux tribe, Roger Bacon the alchemist and inventor of chemistry as a science, Mark Twain in Gold Rush California, and many other people I have found fascinating through my life as a reader and writer of English.

One bright boy in my gifted class remarked, “Mr. B, you always tell us these stories about people who did something amazing, and then you end it with they eventually died a horrible death.”

Yep.  That’s about right.  In its simplest form life consists of, “You are born, stuff happens, and then you die.”  And it does often seem to me that true genius and great heroism are punished terribly in the end.  Achilles destroys Hector, but his heel is his undoing.  Socrates taught Plato, and was forced to drink poison for being too good at teaching.  Custer was a vain imbecile and got what he deserved at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Crazy Horse, who made it happen, was pursued for the rest of his short life for it until he was finally captured and murdered.  Roger Bacon contributed immensely to science by experimenting with chemicals, but because he blew up his lab too often, and because one of his students blew himself up in a duel with another student, he ended his days in prison for practicing sorcery.

But if you have listened to any of the music I have added to this post, the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, then you recognized it, unless you have lived your whole life under a rock in Nomusikvetchistan.  And why is that?  Because even though it is all classical music written in the 1800’s, it’s basic genius and appeal is immortal.  It will outlive all of us.  Some of it, having been placed on a record on the Voyager space craft may get played and appreciated a million years from now in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.  It will still be a work of pure genius.

And, of course, the horrible life and terrible death thing is a part of it too.  Tchaikovsky’s work took an incredibly difficult path to success.  He was criticized by Russians for being too Western and not Russian enough.  He was criticized in the West for being too exotic and basically “too Russian”.  He railed against critics and suffered horribly at their hands.  Then, too, his private life was far less private than it had any right to be.  He was a bachelor most of his life, except for a two year marriage of pure misery that ended in divorce.  And everybody, with the possibility of Pyotr himself, knew it was because he was a homosexual.  He probably did have that orientation, but in a time and a career where it was deemed an illegal abomination.  So whether he ever practiced the lifestyle at great risk to himself, or he repressed it his entire life, we will never know for sure.

But the music is immortal.  And by being immortal, the music makes Tchaikovsky immortal too.  Despite the fact that he died tragically at the age of 53, possibly by suicide.

So, this is the great lesson of Tchaikovsky.  The higher you fly, the farther you fall, and you will fall… guaranteed, but that will never make the actual flight not worth taking.  Some things in life are more important than life itself.  As I near the end myself, I cling to that truth daily.

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Filed under classical music, education, empathy, humor, insight, inspiration, music, strange and wonderful ideas about life

Why Do You Think That? (Part One)

I believe myself capable of rational thought.  It is that irrational and over-emotional conclusion that leads me to write a self-reflective post full of over-blown thinking about thinking like this one.

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The little Midwestern town of Rowan, Iowa, the place where I grew up, is probably the center of my soul and biggest reason for why I am who I am.

I was a public school teacher for 31 years.  It really seems more like 131 years for all the kids I got to know and lessons I got to teach.  I have lots and lots of experience on which to draw for the drawing of conclusions about education.  Here is a conclusion I drew (literally);

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All kids are good kids.

I can hear the debate from the teachers’ lounge already.  “What kind of an idiot thinks something as stupid as that?”  “It’s true that there are a lot of good kids, but what about Psycho Melvin or Rebel Maria?”  “Some kids are stupid.  I have test data to prove it.”

But I not only believe all kids are good, I think all people are good, even the bad ones.  I have large numbers of memories filed away of times I got to the bottom of problems with kids acting out in class.  Invariably the reasons for their bad behaviors would either make me laugh, or make me cry.  Edwin rammed the drinking fountain with his head because he was socially inept and starved for attention from the other kids.  El Goofy could make his whole head turn bright purple on command because it made the girls squeal and laugh and he had learned to manipulate facial muscles to make it happen because he liked the result.  Lucy yelled at me in front of the whole class because she was thinking about committing suicide like her mother had before her, and she needed me to stop her.  (I don’t use these kids’ real names for some very good reasons, but rest assured, Lucy made it to adulthood.)  (Sorry, I had to stop at this point and cry for 15 minutes again.) My experiences as a teacher have basically taught me that all people need love, and all people are worthy of love.  Someone even loved Adolf Hitler.

There are really two kinds of teachers.  There is the kind who teaches because they love kids and will literally sacrifice anything to benefit them.  The Sandy Hook incident proved that those teachers exist in every school.  There is also the kind who hate kids with a passion and believe themselves to be experts at classroom discipline.  Don’t get me wrong, teachers like that mold young people into upstanding citizens or championship-winning football or basketball players on a regular basis.  But they do it by polishing out the flaws in kids through punishment and rigorous efforts to remove every flaw because they actually detest the flaws in themselves that they see mirrored in students.  I could never be that kind of teacher myself, but I know they are just as necessary as the other kind. After all, all people are good people, even the bad ones.

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Doctor Doom really doesn’t like to be around me.  Still, he’s a good person too, even though he’s fictional.

After more than 500 words worth of this nonsense, and I realize I still have a lot more to say about this goofy topic, I must draw to a close.  And I know I haven’t convinced anyone of anything yet.  But let me threaten you with the prospect that I will pursue this topic again sooner than you would like.  I just can’t seem to stop thinking about why I think what I think, and why I am always thinking.

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Filed under education, goofy thoughts, high school, humor, insight, Paffooney, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

The Art of Being Stupid

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My title today may prompt you to think, “Apparently, when Mickey does art it is stupid art.”  If my title didn’t make you think that, then my first sentence certainly did.  I am literally putting stupid ideas into your head.  And this is a problem because the people currently at the top of the people pile that is our modern society are  shoveling great smelly heaps of stupidity directly into our brains.

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I know stupid.  I was a public school teacher for thirty-one years.  No one survives the mine-field of stupid bombs in the classroom without being able to recognize the incoming booby-head missiles.  Years worth of lame homework excuses have made stupidity easily recognizable.  Being stupid is easy.  Countering it is hard.

So how does one be stupid?  I nearly found out yesterday as I was driving on an access road for I-35.  I was going the 40-mile-per-hour speed limit and got a phone call on my cell phone.  All I did was look at my phone to see who was calling in case another school child was calling because  pollen season was killing them again and they wanted to come home from school… again.  My son shouted a warning of imminent death and I looked back at the road in time to see the car dealer had left a car-carrier trailer in the road with the ramp down.  Wow!  That was almost an epic Evel Knievel stunt.

But being epically stupid is simply a matter of not paying attention well enough.  It is easy to achieve.  Note how often President Cheeto-head achieves it.

I have also found it to be a remarkably easy thing to be stupid on Facebook and Twitter.  All you have to do is post and repost stuff, or tweet and retweet stuff, that speaks to your own prejudices and ignores what is factual and what is not.  I have seen very elaborate anti-climate change graphs that seem to show a correlation between sun activity and periods of warming and cooling climate.  The biggest problem with this frequently debunked “take-that-and-stuff-it!” evidence is that it was created by a pair of propagandists with oil-company ties who were only masquerading as climate scientists.

When you vet that source and introduce evidence to your conservative Facebook friend you will get back a horrified speculation about the depths of your own stupidity for believing that Snopes.com is not also propaganda and you can’t believe everything NASA says because their funding is at stake.  And I end up having to admit I do say similar things about their cherished sources like Infowars, Breitbart, and Fox News.  Truth is apparently more the product of faith than it is the province of science.

Besides not knowing what facts are, it is fairly easy to be monumentally stupid by having no empathy at all.  Iowegians who would bend over backwards and feed their own liver to a hungry Iowan, will routinely cry about the dangers of Sharia law and talk about wall building at the sight of Syrian widows and orphans.   And don’t even get me started about shoot-first Texans.  Not after they just shot and killed another unarmed black teenager in Balch Springs.

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So how do you make an Art out of Stupid?

Well, the CBS Morning News has started running down the key events in the news with snippets quoted from late-night TV hosts and comedians like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah, and James Corden.  You defeat stupidity by aping it, imitating it, and making people laugh at it.  It is really defeated when you make someone laugh about their own stupidity, like the story about me and the I-35 launch ramp.  Comedians seem to be the only ones effectively reporting on the current Presidential situation, and even CNN and MSNBC news anchors have begun making jokes in their reporting.  I have become a lover of political cartoons like never before.

downloadYou may not be able to rescue other people’s minds from being stupid.  But what you can do and be artful about is… make them laugh.

 

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Fact or Opinion (It’s a Teacher Thing)

“Climate change is a hoax by the Chinese.” 

That, unfortunately, is not an opinion.  It is a fact.  It is a FALSE FACT.

Facts are statements that can be proven or disproven.  There are studies by government agencies and university science departments all over the world that provide evidence to back up the theory that the climate is drastically changing in ways that threaten our existence.  The studies are repeatable, peer reviewed, and thoroughly “vetted”, to use the new word that Republicans embrace so deeply and lovingly for immigration issues.  On the other side of the question, you have scoffing congressmen who bring snowballs into the capitol and say, “See?  The science is not proven.”   That is not a fact.   Where is the evidence which is not anecdotal and based on a misunderstanding of the difference between “climate change” and “weather change”?  That is by definition an opinion.  And it is not even an informed opinion.  Opinions are not equal to facts.  Comparing the two is like comparing apples to onions.  No, that is not even correct.  You can eat both of those things.  It is more like comparing apples to planetary moons.

After a long and heated Facebook debate about immigration between me, a Texas teacher, and an Iowa Republican Trump supporter I went to high school with who doesn’t even know if he ever met an illegal immigrant, I have pretty well proven to myself that a big share of the divide between liberals and conservatives stems from the unwillingness of one side to avoid equating facts and opinions.  Apples and moons.

So give me a moment to do what teachers do.

Here is a non-political lesson in Fact versus Opinion.

Who do you prefer?  Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny?  The answer doesn’t matter to me.

I can give you a quick and dirty lesson on fact and opinion using these two cartoon characters.  And it doesn’t even matter who you like more.

Here are some obvious facts about the two of them.

They are both cartoon characters.  They are both anthropomorphic animals.  They both wear gloves most of the time.  They both have a thumb and three fingers on each hand.

These things are observably true.  You can prove them by looking at the illustrations I have already provided.

Other things may not be as readily apparent, but no less provable.

Both of them are heterosexual and both of them have one main love interest.  Neither of them have ever been married, but neither of them really are playboys and even though there are no legitimate bits of evidence that either one has ever had sex with their respective girlfriends, Bugs has kissed Lola on more than one occasion and Mickey has kept company with Minnie for longer than most old married couples.

These things are provable by watching the cartoons and observing a preponderance of evidence.  There is no contradictory evidence.  But the possibility of contradictory evidence doesn’t change these things into opinions.  A disproven fact is still a fact.  It is merely a false fact.  Over time the relationship between Bugs and Daffy Duck may become clearer and the fact that Bugs is gay may pop out of the cartoon closet.  It does however, require proof, so it is a fact, not an opinion.

Here’s another fact you know the evidence supports.  Bugs Bunny is a nudist.  He almost always appears in cartoons naked.  Mickey, however, believes in wearing clothes.  Even when he gets out of the bath tub, he clutches the nearest towel, and you never get a look at whether he has cartoon genitals or not.  Mickey does hang out a lot with a duck who wears no pants, but that’s an irrelevant fact.

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The notion that Mickey and Bugs are very different personalities because they had very different creators, is an opinion.  It is a opinion offered by people who have studied the characters and their creators, and therefore can give you an informed opinion.  But it still can’t be proven.

Walt Disney made Mickey into more or less of an every-man sort of character whom audiences can identify with.  Things happen to Mickey Mouse, and the comedy comes from him trying to deal with those external forces, be they wind storms during music concerts, Donald Duck’s raging temper, or the evil plots of Black Pete.  Walt never said this was so to prove it, but it is not unreasonable to think it.

Bugs Bunny, on the other hand, was created by several great animators like Robert McKimson, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett.  And Bugs tends to make things happen to other characters.  Think of how he plays Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and even his pal Daffy for laughs.  He is more of a Groucho Marx type character than an every-man.  We don’t identify with him.  We only laugh at his victims (because they always deserve what he gives them).  That too is an opinion.  And even if one of his creators were to say that this was the intent, it still is not proven until all of them agree.  And they all had very different ways of doing things.

But these are only informed opinions.  You cannot be proven wrong whether you agree or disagree with them.  You are entitled to your own interpretations and opinions because they are not provable facts.  There is no one way to view any opinion.

Opinions, even un-informed opinions and religious beliefs are never either wrong or right.  You don’t make a mistake when you have an opinion.  It only becomes a mistake when you try to use it as a fact, or mistakenly believe it is a fact.

So, there is my lesson for those Facebook arguers who never seem to know the difference.  It’s all color-coded and everything.  So try using this new knowledge when arguing with me, rather than calling me stupid, or making your point IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS!

 

 

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Filed under angry rant, artists I admire, cartoons, commentary, education, Mickey, strange and wonderful ideas about life, teaching

Wisdom From a Writer’s Life

Don’t get too excited.  I searched every box, trunk, bag of tricks, safe, closet, and jelly bean jar that I have in my rusty old memory.  I didn’t find much.  In fact, the old saying is rather applicable, “The beginning of wisdom is recognizing just how much of a fool you really are.”  The little pile of bottle caps and marshmallows that represent the sum total of my wisdom is infinitely tiny compared to the vast universe of things I will never know and never understand.  I am a fool.  I probably have no more wisdom than you do.  But I have a different point of view.  It comes from years worth of turning my ideas inside out, of wearing my mental underwear on the outside of my mental pants just to get a laugh, of stringing images and stupid-headed notions together in long pointless strings like this one.

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Mason City, Iowa… where I was born.  River City in the musical “The Music Man“.

One thing I can say with certainty, nothing makes you understand “home”, the place you grew up in and think of as where you come from, better than leaving it and going somewhere else.  Federal Avenue in Mason City looks nothing now like it did when I was a boy in the 1960’s going shopping downtown and spending hours in department stores waiting for the ten minutes at the end in the toy section you were promised for being good.  You have to look at the places and people of your youth through the lenses of history and distance and context and knowing now what you didn’t know then.

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Grandpa Aldrich’s farm in Iowa is now Mom and Dad’s house.  It has been in the family for over 100 years, a Century Farm.

The only thing that stays the same is that everything changes.  If I look back at the arc of my life, growing up in Iowa with crazy story-telling skills inherited from Grandpa Aldrich, to going to Iowa State “Cow College” and studying English, to going to University of Iowa for a remedial teaching degree because English majors can’t get jobs reading books, to teaching in distant South Texas more than a thousand miles away, to learning all the classroom cuss words in Spanish the hard way, by being called that, to moving to Dallas/Fort Worth to get fired from one teaching job and taking another that involved teaching English to non-English speakers, to retiring and spending time writing foolish reflections like this one because I am old and mostly home-bound with ill health.  I have come a long way from childhood to second childhood.

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If “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is really true, I should be Superman now.  I look like I’ve seen a lot of Kryptonite, don’t I?

Six incurable diseases and being a cancer survivor since 1983 have left their marks upon me.  Literally.  Little pink bleedy spots all over me are the mark of psoriasis.  The fuzzy-bad photo of me spares you some of the gory details.  The point is, I guess, that life is both fleeting and fragile.  If you never stop and think about what it all means then you are a fool.  If you don’t try to understand it in terms of sentences and paragraphs with main ideas, you are an even bigger fool.  You must write down the fruit of your examinations and ruminations.  But if you reach a point that you are actually satisfied that you know what it all means, that makes you the biggest fool of all.

If I have any wisdom at all to share in this post about wisdom, it can be summed up like this;

  • Writing helps you with knowing, and knowing leads to wisdom.  So take some time to write about what you know.
  • Writing every day makes you more coherent and easier to understand.  Stringing pearls of wisdom into a necklace comes with practice.
  • Writing is worth doing.  Everyone should do it.  Even if you don’t think you can do it well.
  • You should read and understand other people’s wisdom too, as often as possible.  You are not the only person in the world who knows stuff.  And some of their stuff is better than your stuff.
  • The stuff you write can outlive you.  So make the ghost of you that you leave behind as pretty as you can.  Someone may love you for it.  And you can never be sure who that someone will be.

So by now you are probably wondering, where is all that wisdom he promised us in the title?  Look around carefully in this essay.  If you don’t see it there, then you are probably right in thinking, just as I warned you about at the outset, “Gosh darn that Mickey!  He is a really big fool.”

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