My Sarcastic Campaign For Superintendent

Looking through my journal this week, I found a printout of a letter that was printed in the January 20, 2000 issue of Las Vegas Weekly.  Checking their web site showed that issues that old are no longer online.  In the interest of preserving one of my first published letters, as well as adding some spunk to this droll little blog and ushering in summer vacation time in style, here it is.

First, some background.  In 2000, I was a senior in college and the Clark County School District, which had ballooned almost overnight into one of the largest in the nation, found itself without a superintendent.  Nobody around here was qualified or wanted to do it.  Seriously.  So a committee scoured the country looking for people.  Some of those seemed promising, but they dropped out of the running.  We ended up with a guy from California who ditched us a couple years ago for a textbook company.  His administration was, uh, less than universally loved.

Anyway, during the debacle of trying to give away a powerful job to somebody, anybody, I wrote in the following:

 

After months of standing by and doing nothing while our city’s educational establishment has been reduced to a quivering bowl of pink jelly, I’ve decided I must act!  I am shocked, even outraged, that this endless search for a new superintendent has produced so little satire, which it so richly deserves.  Accordingly, I am officially throwing my hat in the ring of candidates to be considered for the position.

Months of sitting idly by watching this committee has left me, like most Las Vegans, somewhere between morbidly offended and slightly bemused.  But fear not, for I shall accept my patriotic duty and save you from further embarrassment and costly ad campaigns. 

This process has become a bloated, pathetic farce, and nobody is more prepared to benefit from it than I am.  I volunteer to take the job that nobody wants; I will be superintendent of the Clark County School District.

Who am I?  I am an education major at UNLV.  How can I be qualified for this position, you ask?  I’m the most qualified candidate you’ve had so far!

1.  As a teacher-in-training, I’ve had literally weeks of experience being in the general vicinity of classrooms, which already puts me head and shoulders above most administrative professionals.  Also, my own career as a public school student is much more recent than any other candidate’s, giving me an edge in understanding the issues facing children today and in manipulating the public’s desire to have quirky young people in figurehead positions of authority.

2.  So critical to being an effective superintendent are the abilities of making yourself look good by doing whatever’s trendy in your field and by putting politics ahead of actual success.  I have had ample exposure to the best of the best doing just this.  I have spent the last four years at an American college.

3.  My college indoctrination has prepared me to be a quality leader in cutting edge curriculum and instruction: I can spout all the right buzzwords and quote all the fashionable experts.  Just listen to my mission statement: “Celebrate diversity and multicultural empowerment with a vision of inclusive awareness and raise test scores if there’s any time left over.”  As superintendent, I will spearhead dozens of pointless programs that will consistently disappoint everybody.  Will any other candidate make this bold promise?

4.  Much of the debate has centered on the salary issue.  Let me settle this right now: if chosen to be superintendent, I will sacrifice my entry-level wages as a teacher and work for a measly, piddling $100,000 a year, a mere fraction of what others have been offered.  No, don’t protest.  I’ll get by on bread and water.

5.  What about my career as a teacher?  After researching the superintendent’s position, I have found that he’s not actually required to do anything.  I will delegate paperwork to my army of underlings, make token appearances at social functions, and humbly continue my service as an educator of our youth if my golf schedule permits.

I can confidently assert that I am the best option as I appear to be the only person who’s actually applying for the job.  Let’s end this circus.  Choose me.  I’m a little bit better than nobody, and a whole lot better than the other yahoos you’ve looked at.  Please contact me anytime for a resume and an interview.

Eight and a half years later, I think this holds up pretty well!

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Paraders Of The Lost Art (Of Making Fun Movies)

I was 12 years old when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out.  Though I remembered my parents taking my little brother and I to go see Temple of Doom at southern Nevada’s last drive-in (the bug scene scared the daylights out of us–I was part of the crowd whose soiled drawers created the PG-13 rating!), Last Crusade opened a whole new vista to me.  All that nerdy knowledge, all that rugged machismo, all that adventure, all because he loved history!  I was in.  I even read the novelization that my teacher got for her classroom.

Granted, my childhood archaeology phase was no more lasting than my lawyer phase (thank you, L.A. Law) or my astronaut ambitions (courtesy of Star Trek), but when I went to the library to learn what ancient civilizations were the least understood–and therefore offered the greatest chances for “fortune and glory”–the undisputed winner was the oldest American tribes: the Olmec and the Inca.  I picked up some books on those, as well as the Maya and Aztec. 

And several years later I fell in love with the Book of Mormon.  Hmm.

Anyway, back to Indiana Jones, my point with this anecdote is to introduce my connection to this series: unlike most men my age, I care more about Indiana Jones than I do about Star Wars (Has it struck anyone else that the wait between Return of the Jedi and the first prequel–16 years–produced people camping in lines for weeks, but that the wait between Last Crusade and Crystal Skull–three years longer at 19–hasn’t produced anywhere near that level of hysteria?  What gives?) .  Not surprisingly, then, as I drove to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull this afternoon, I couldn’t shake off all the lukewarm reviews I’d read, and the nagging voice in the back of my mind chanting, Phantom Menace, Phantom Menace, Phantom Menace

Please let me buck the trend and proclaim that Crystal Kingdom may well be the best of the four. 

First, I was overjoyed to see that after three movies dealing with mysterious artifacts of the Eastern Hemisphere, this one delved into that enchanted world I intended to explore when I was 12–Mesoamerica.  The movie uses this background quite competently.  It even incorporated some, uh, modern American mythology.

Indiana Jones was never meant to be taken literally–the series is an homage to the melodramatic serials of Spielberg’s childhood.  Think Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs.   So it’s perfectly natural that this movie should be a take-off of 50’s B-movies.  It does this with a delightful tongue in cheek; this movie perfectly balances the boyish appeal of silly excitement with the need for Indy to actually be 20 years older.  Magic.

The movie also had tasteful imagery that conjured vague allusions to all three of the previous films (as well as overt references to the Ark, and to incidents from the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles).  One friend of mine caught shades of the X Files, another points to Close Encounters of the Third Kind; those are both solid inspirations here, though I’m partial to using Stargate as a metaphor, myself. 

Incidentally, [WARNING: minor spoiler alert] the bit with the ants, though exaggerated, is essentially realistic.  Actually, mass ant migrations can be much, much larger than implied in the film, and plenty destructive.  This gets trotted out in sci-fi and horror films every now and then (such as Charlton Heston’s The Naked Jungle and, as I recall, an episode of MacGyver), and was a worthy entry in Indy’s pest-antagonist roll. 

Also, the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull that Indy says he and Oxley were obsessed with as kids is likewise real, and one of the weirdest things I’ve ever read about.  Give yourself some goosebumps and look it up: http://www.mitchell-hedges.com/.

Some critics say that computer animation was too heavy here, especially given the painstaking realism of the first three movies.  Over-use of CGI is the bane of this decade–the late 20th and early 21st century-era will be remembered as an awkward adolescence in the use of computer animation in movies.  The end of The Mummy Returns (which is a very appropriate comparison here, for those of you who have seen Crystal Skull), almost ruins its climax with so much CGI that it looks like a cartoon.  I’m happy to report that CGI in Crystal Skull is responsible and used sparingly. 

Before I go on too much more, let me say that I don’t just remember Last Crusade, I remember the vicious nit-picking it suffered for everything from its perceived resemblance to Raiders to its allegedly lame humor…both views that have been corrected by the light of hindsight.  I rest easy knowing that all the nay-sayers of Crystal Skull will likewise come around and, in another twenty years, acknowledge that this entry in the series is equal to any other, and might even be better.

Two New Poetry Collections, One Of Which Is Excellent

At the library recently, I scanned the new release shelf on my way to check out.  Two poetry titles caught my eye, and I grabbed them as I passed. 

The first was The Best American Poetry 2007.  Oh, how I should have known better.  Pretentious junk like this is what turns people off to poetry.  Admittedly, I didn’t read the whole thing because, after opening to about a dozen works at random, all but one were infuriatingly bad.  They were full of pointless images that jumped around for the sole purpose of distracting you from any coherent thought.  The only one I liked was a sprite of a little piece that made a few clever puns on the prefix “be-“; it wasn’t brilliant, only mildly amusing.  But at least there was one poem that didn’t think it was God’s Ultimate Gift To English. 

Remember in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when a poet recites some Vogon poetry (the third worst in the universe), and his own internal organs crawl up and choke his brain, just to make it stop?  OK, the poems in this book are worse than that. 

What’s really sad is that there is some wonderful poetry being written out there today that the establishment here seems to ignore.  Three examples come to mind:

  • Sometimes, The New Yorker will reproduce translations of foreign poets.  Their work tends to be much more elemental than the grad school-wannabe meandering that passes for poetry in the U.S.
  • A few years ago, reading an issue of a science fiction magazine (Analog or Isaac Asimov’s), I came across a poem that used reduced gravity on an alien planet as a metaphor for escaping the crushing weight of one’s reality with the power of dreams.  It might sound silly, but it was genuinely touching.  In fact, I’ve found a lot of good poetry in science fiction magazines.
  • On my honeymoon five years ago, my bride and I spent some time in the mountains of Virginia.  One roadside diner didn’t have a tacky souvenir stand, they had a small library (next to a case of fresh pies, as I recall).  I picked up a couple volumes of local folklore and poetry.  Those poems–earnest, simple, and still ethereal, drove more power into their words than a hundred MFA candidates at NYU ever will. 

The other book I got at the library was the polar opposite–one of those things you find that instantly raises the whole quality of your life.  Actor John Lithgow–yes, the crazy alien from Third Rock From The Sun–has edited a collection called The Poet’s Corner: The One-And-Only Poetry Book For The Whole Family

Truer words were never written.

Lithgow’s introduction–based on his memories of his grandmother–takes us back into another generation where poetry was common, loved, and understood.  From there, Lithgow gives us works from fifty English-language greats.  They’re all standard textbook anthology stuff, but I’ve never seen them arranged like this, with the kind of loving commentary Lithgow gives: here, Dorothy Parker sits with Walt Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks with Shakespeare.  Sweet.

Lithgow’s love of these classics even prompts him to include lots of Internet references so we can hear the authors themselves reciting when possible.  These are teriffic resources.

And then there’s the audio CD.  The main poems presented in the book by each of the fifty authors are performed exquisitely by Lithgow’s celebrity friends, and a fine assortment of voice talents they are: Gary Sinise reads work by Ginsberg, Morgan Freeman reads “The Weary Blues,” Jodie Foster recites “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Sam Waterston channels Poe on “Annabel Lee,” and Lithgow himself revels in his oration of Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.”  Frankly, any time you get a chance to hear Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky” out loud, you should go for it.

I’ll be getting a copy of this.  You should, too.  I only wish schools could afford to get a copy for every student (hopefully it comes out in paperback).  As it is, you can bet my personal copy will get heavy rotation in my classroom next year.

Posts On Gay Marriage

In the wake of California’s decision to re-define marriage for trendy political expediency, two of the blogs I list on my blogroll have put up serious posts on the topic.  I’ve chimed in at #18 and #21 here, and then at #192 here

Clearly, I’m addressing this issue as someone who, because of his religious beliefs, finds gay relationships to be an undesirable alternative to the traditional nuclear family unit as enshrined by God through prophets (though much sociological research supports this).  It is no more and no less harmful to that institution than infidelity, pornography, divorce, or zero population growth.  However, nobody involved in any of these lifestyles or situations is to be scorned or treated rudely because of it; to paraphrase Dr. King, we all deserve to be judged by the content of our character.

After all this sound and fury, it occurs to me that we might look at our treatment of homosexuals as a justice/mercy conflict.  How do we balance our need to stand up for the family and morality, as well as to extend love to all those who differ from us? 

When justice and mercy collide, mercy should win.  But what would that look like here?  Extending heartfelt friendship and support is laudable, but accommodation is not.  Do we introduce gay men living next door to our children as a couple?  Do we have them over for dinner?  Would we go to their wedding (in California)?  I honestly don’t know that there is a cut and dried standard for such scenarios (though my instinct would be to say no to the last one).  I can only say for sure that any such interaction would probably occur after an understanding exists between us and our gay friends that we do not approve of any sex outside of straight marriage, and that we would discourage anything that might harm that institution.  Such conversations might be dead ends for some associations.  But at some point we have to stick to our guns and say, so be it.

That would seem to be the ideal position at this point: gay people knowing that religious conservatives oppose their relationships, but genuinely welcome them as decent human beings in every respect, and our gay neighbors not assuming that we’re secretly boiling with intolerant indignation, looking down our noses at them.  After all, isn’t this the same standard we’d endorse for fellowshipping anyone who lived outside of our values, be they cohabitating heterosexuals, abortion advocates, or any such neighbor?

Such understandings may not be perfect, but they might be the best we can do.  I ponder if the Savior would follow such an approach, and I feel good about it.  On this issue as with so many others, the best improvement we could make in our discourse would be to accept that those who disagree with us are acting out of good will.

1000 Masterpieces, A-D

I need to take Sister Wendy’s 1000 Matserpieces back to the library tomorrow.  I’ve renewed it three times, and they won’t let me do it again.  Serves me right.  In two whole months, I’ve only made it through about a third of the massive 500-page tome, or to put it another way, the artists with last names starting with A-D. 

Sister Wendy–an ascetic, reclusive nun who looks like a kindly if somewhat backward extra from Sister Act–makes an unusual art guide, but her credentials are bona fide.  I highly recommend her books and PBS specials (especially since she decided several years ago that her vocation just isn’t consistent with making any more–what we’ve got now is all we’re gonna get). 

On each page, she gives us a beautifully reproduced image of a classic of Western art, arranged alphabetically by artist, so you might have a simple medieval Nativity on a page facing an excruciatingly abstract postmodern experiment on the next.  Cool.

Wendy is a wonderful teacher, and a gifted writer.  After giving us some background on Caillebotte’s Rue de Paris, Wet Weather, she tells us that he “convinces us that this is what it was like on that particular afternoon in 1877, at a certain time of day, on a certain street in Paris, when the light was cool and bright, the streets were quiet, and the rain fell in a fine drizzle.”  This prose is clean and simple, as a utilitarian didactic text should be, but still fresh enough to interest us. 

My only complain is that, while she constantly highlights aspects of paintings that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise and can now see are clearly critical truths that she has observed about the works, she sometimes seems to slip into a bit of psychic psychologizing that reaches too far.  Sometimes she’ll even admit that her interpretations are speculative but, even though they’re easy to see and ignore if we’re so inclined, they can be distracting. 

For example, commenting on two works by David Cox, she writes, “This blind courage, doomed and noble, may well have a personal significance for Cox,” and then, “it is impossible not to believe that Cox dashed out this watercolor there and then.”  These guesses may well be true, but is it necessary to include such guesses in educational commentaries that are limited to a single paragraph per masterpiece? 

Still, this work is comprehensive, breathtakingly outlined, and, for the most part, engagingly elucidated.  Oh yes, I will check this out again soon and finish it.

I’ve learned a lot and been introduced to some deeply stunning paintings with this book–enough to convince me that I’ve only scratched the surface.  Here are my favorite works so far, some of the ones I’ve really connected with:

  • Federico Barocci, The Birth
  • Frederic Bazille, Self-Portrait (pictured–I love a good, dramatic portrait)
  • Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Wilderness
  • Gerrit Berkheyde, The Market Place
  • Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley (I love this artist’s body of work)
  • Arnold Bocklin, The Isle of the Dead (pictured–this could have been a scene from Lord of the Rings!)
  • Gustave Caillebotte, Rue de Paris, Wet Weather
  • Theodore Chasseriau, Pere Lacordaire
  • Giogio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street
  • Frederick Edwin Church, Cotopaxi
  • John Constable, Weymouth Bay (pictured–clearly, I have a thing for evocative landscapes)
  • Lovis Corinth, Samson Blinded
  • John Robert Cozens, Sepulchral Remains in the Campagna
  • John Crome, Norwich River: Afternoon
  • Honore Daumier, The Print Collector (pictured–this could be me…*sigh*)
  • Edgar Degas, The Tub

Recommended Reading

Last week, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a couple articles about recommended reading lists, here and here.  They aren’t bad, but what’s the point of suggesting books that most everybody has already heard of, to people who are likely to have already read them?

Here’s another list, perfect for summer reading.  They aren’t necessarily my favorites, though some are, nor do I think they’re the very best out there, though some are; they’re just great books that interested readers may have overlooked, or titles too quirky to have made a blip on the radar.

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. Yes, that’s how his name is spelled. Hilarious literary-fantasy nerdiness, e.g. a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III as if it’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Please tell me you like it.

 

Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, by Mark Leyner. His cutting-edge style blends a med school/Shakespearean lexicon with lots of violence, satire, and improbable observation.

 

How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton. How can self help-oriented literary criticism about the world’s longest, most dense French novel be so funny and down-to-earth?

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers. The title’s meant to be ironic. Or is it? This story is weird, true, hilarious, and genuinely touching.

 

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Fat, philosophizing loser somehow has trouble making it in the real world. Ha! What’s not to like?

 

Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane. Every murder mystery he writes is a powerful, dark, achingly beautiful vision of humanity’s wrecked moral compass.

 

The Razor’s Edge, by W. Sommerset Maugham. Inspiring literary story of a young playboy, traumatized by WWI, who roams the world searching for enlightenment.

 

The Best American Non-Required Reading. This annual anthology collects some of the previous year’s best humor, reporting, stories, comics, and weird, random stuff…

 

Run With the Hunted, by Charles Bukowski. This collection of his stories and poetry chronicle the life of an American original: Bukowski was a tragic loser with a largely wasted life before it was cool.

 

The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, by Bill Watterson. Just as incredible as the comics themselves are the artist’s ruminations on their origin, meaning, and legacy. Truly, contemporary art at its best.

 

The Know-It-All, by A.J. Jacobs. Another true story that’s both hilarious and insightful, this one’s about a snarky man’s quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. A thousand times better than The Da Vinci Code, this literary historical mystery is set at Princeton and celebrates erudite nerdiness. Read it before the movie comes out.

 

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. Incredibly inspiring and well-written true story about a persecuted college professor in Iran who has to meet with her students in hiding in order to discuss Western literature. Bliss.

 

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. Not only is this a wonderful philosophical meditation, but it has, quite possibly, the most masterfully inventive use of English since Shakespeare.

 

Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Gibson wrote this cyberpunk novel about a techno-mercenary battling an Internet monolith in virtual reality ten years before the Internet was popular and fifteen years before The Matrix.

 

America Alone, by Mark Steyn. The funniest and most insightful political book I’ve read in years, Steyn uses endless puns and pop culture references to make a compelling case that demographic change lies at the heart of civilization’s major challenges this century. Agree or disagree, it’s a roller coaster of a read.

 

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy. The most sublime, most realistic and moving “search for the meaning of life” story I’ve ever read. And it’s under 100 pages long!

 

The Exodus Pattern In Scripture And History

Here’s a chart I’ve been working on for scripture study that illustrates a pattern that seems to repeat itself fairly frequently in the history of God’s people:

 


Exodus Jeremiah 35 1st Maccabees 2 Dead Sea Scrolls 1 Nephi 2 2 Nephi 5 Omni 1 Mosiah 23-24 Alma 27 Ether LDS Pioneers


–Rechabites –(apocryphal) –Essenes





Truth Restored
1- Righteous










minority 2:23-25 35:3,18-19 2:20,28 CD I: 6-10 2:4 5:6 X X X 1:41-42 pg. 90-92












2- Wicked










society 3:19-20 35:14-16 2:6-7 CD I:1-10 2:1 5:1 1:10 X 27:2 1:33 pg. 97












3- Saints










persecuted 1:10-14 35:11 2:17-19,31-32 CD I:21-II:2 2:1 5:2 X 23:1 27:2 X pg. 97












4- Commanded










by Lord 3:8 X X CD I:11-13 2:2 5:5 1:12,16 23:1; 24:23 27:12 1:41-42 pg. 85










2:5-6
5- Led by a










prophet 3:10 X X 1QpHab II:2-3 2:2 5:5 1:12 23:1 27:5 1:42 pg. 88












6- Depart into










wilderness 13:17-20 35:7,9-11 2:27-29 1 QH XII:6-9 (?) 2:2,4 5:5 1:12,16 23:3; 24:20,24 27:14 2:5 pg. 87












7- Take few










provisions 12:39 35:7-9 2:28 X 2:4-5 5:7 X 23:1; 24:18 27:14 1:41-42 pg. 87












8- Practice










religion strictly 19:5-6; 24:3 35:18 2:19-22 1QS I:16-20 2:7 5:10,27 1:13 23:5; 24:21-22 27:27 X pg. 101-103












9- Temple










worship










important 25:1-30:38 35:19, NIV note 2:8,12,23-25 11Q19 XXIX:7-9 2:7-”altar” 5:16 X X X X pg. 131-134

 

(Hopefully, the formatting works here!)

My interest here is that the exodus occurs so often in ancient history but, in modern history, only among the early Latter-day Saints.  (Of course, this pattern could be applied to several periods of early LDS history, but I’ve chosen to focus on the most famous event–the pioneer companies of Brigham Young.)

Of course, this pattern can easily be seen as a metaphor for our own spiritual condition in the 21st century.  As we have been counseled to live “in the world but not of the world,” we need to be spiritually disconnected from our surroundings so that we may follow the prophet, live strictly, and work in the temple (as Elder L. Tom Perry teaches here).

Exodus and Jeremiah are, of course, from the Bible.  1 Maccabees is easily found online, such as here.  My Dead Sea Scrolls quotes are from Vermes’s The Dead Sea Scrolls In English, which you would do well to add to your library (though some good excerpts, including some I use in my chart, are found here).  Rather than arrange the books chronologically, as per my instinct, I’ve grouped the Book of Mormon texts together, which makes more sense logically.  As it is, this sequence provides a vivid visual lesson on the subject: the strongest examples of the pattern occur at the beginning of Biblical history (Exodus), the beginning of Book of Mormon history (1 and 2 Nephi), and the beginning of LDS history. 

Once again, let me add that I am an amateur, and this chart is a work in progress, meaning it may well have errors.  Corrective feedback is welcome.

Recommended Viewing: Rio Bravo

I recently read this excellent essay from Dissent, about the humanizing, community-oriented aspect of the old John Wayne movie, Rio Bravo: http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=996.  In my ongoing efforts to become as much of an old-fashioned, out-of-touch iconoclast as possible, I’ve been wanting to get into some John Wayne movies for a while, never having seen one.  After reading this intriguing essay, I checked it out of the library.

Wow.

The author of that essay was right, but only came up short in that he didn’t go far enough in praising this brawny, brainy masterpiece.  I’ve long felt that older movies have more heart and guts than most current movies, and now I’ve found the epitome of that argument.

Rio Bravo is more than just “humanizing.”  It’s a thoughtful, intense morality tale of self-sacrifice, honor, and redemption.  Dean Martin as a drunk deputy is more believable than most any other role I’ve ever seen any actor play.  (And he even gets to drawl out a mellow cowboy tune near the end!)

Martin’s character is just one example of the sympathetic yet firm psychology of this film.  When Martin’s deputy seems about to relapse, Wayne’s sheriff character gets curt with him.  Another character takes him to task for it, and Wayne can only impatiently head for the door and mutter, “Be nice and he’ll just fall apart in small pieces.” 

Just as much as Casablanca (or an episode of Gilmore Girls), Rio Bravo is built on a foundation of sharp dialogue (in fact, one of the surprises of this film for those of us new to classic Westerns is how much more narrative, character development, and good old fashioned dialogue there is than action; the effect is to make the action all the more startling).  In particular, the frequent battles of wits between Wayne and slightly-bad girl Angie Dickinson are worthy of anything Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were ever in together, only twice as good. 

Next on my to-do list: The Alamo, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers

There is one problem with going back to enjoy the classics, though.  Once you have, you realize just how weak everything that you’ve been raised by the media to appreciate for the last twenty years truly is.  Oh well.  Give me Rio Bravo over the latest testosterone fantasy any day.

Final Grade: A+

Book Of Mormon In New York Times Crossword!

In yesterday’s (5/21/08) New York Times crossword, the clue for 18-across was “Book of Mormon book,” four letters.  That would make three possible answers.  Which was it?

This is especially exciting because about a million people do this crossword each day, and a Wednesday puzzle is supposed to be relatively easy; or, at least, the answers shouldn’t be too obscure.  Thus, the editors at the Times feel that the Book of Mormon is mainstream enough that its global readers will understand the clue and either know the answer or be able to find it out quickly. 

And so the influence of this amazing work grows…

The answer was “Omni,” by the way.

“Music Box Dancer” And The Rathskeller

Listening to “Wedding Day At Troldhaugen” last week reminded me of a great little instrumental pop tune I hadn’t heard in years: Frank Mills’ enchanting “Music Box Dancer.”  Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably heard it.

Here’s a cute video someone made set to the music:

And hearing “Music Box Dancer” again reminded me of where I’d first heard it: the Rathskeller at Alpine Inn.

My parents took us to dinner at the Rathskeller all the time when I was a kid.  It was literally in the basement of a nice place called The Alpine Inn.  Both places are long since closed, more casualties of hyper-evolution in Las Vegas. 

The Rathskeller was done up in a cheesy Swiss/German theme, with enough corny accessories around and above you to make Applebee’s look like a sterile operating room.  Employees looked like they just stepped out of an oompah band at Oktoberfest.  It was dark and you were encouraged to throw peanut shells on the floor (I don’t think any place is allowed to be like that anymore).  A pianist was on duty taking requests and occasionally announcing to all the guests that we would now sing a song together, which every one cheerfully did.  In fact, I think my little brother and I once got some candy from the pianist for trying to sing along with a song we didn’t yet know.

Whenever we went, my dad would ask to hear “Music Box Dancer.”  Near the end of the Rathskeller’s run, a newer pianist said it was too hard, but the main musician that I remember would slickly tickle it out and my dad would smile and clap like a kid.  So I love that song. 

 

While we’re on the subject of memories of Vegas made all the more sentimental because the places involved are now vanished, my friend Steve wrote a terrific post on that very subject recently: http://thehouseofmilo.blogspot.com/2008/04/ripmylv.html

Teachers And The Sword Of Damocles

From the Wikipedia entry for “Damocles”:

Damocles …. was an excessively flattering courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a fourth century BC tyrant of Syracuse. He exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority, Dionysius was truly fortunate. Dionysius offered to switch places with him for a day, so he could taste first hand that fortune. In the evening a banquet was held, where Damocles very much enjoyed being waited upon like a king. Only at the end of the meal did he look up and notice a sharpened sword hanging by a single piece of horsehair directly above his head. Immediately, he lost all taste for the fine foods and beautiful boys and asked leave of the tyrant, saying he no longer wanted to be so fortunate.

Dionysius had successfully conveyed a sense of the constant fear in which the great man lives….Cicero asks, “Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?”

The Sword of Damocles is frequently used in allusion to this tale, epitomizing the imminent and ever-present peril faced by those in positions of power. More generally, it is used to denote the sense of foreboding engendered by the precarious situation, especially one in which the onset of tragedy is restrained only by a delicate trigger or chance. Moreover, it can be seen as a lesson in the importance of fully understanding another person’s situation or experience.

Teachers may not be “great men,” but we certainly know what it’s like to work in a position of authority and have the constant threat of random doom hanging over us, like a sword suspended by a single hair.

I think of Damocles every time some innocuous, spontaneous remark is wildly misinterpreted by a student and some poor teacher winds up in the office explaining themselves to a committee.  I think of Damocles and the contorted world of legalistic torture endured by protagonists in Kafka’s surreal nightmares any time I hear of another teacher trying to do their job professionally yet creatively, and in an instant their world is turned upside down because someone ignored context and good will and blindsided them with a frivolous complaint, a melodramatic meeting, or even a lawsuit.

I’ve seen good, earnest teachers tear their hair out after a single word or gesture balloons into an “incident” that needs to be investigated and recorded in their personnel file.  It’s not unusual for administrative supervisors to instruct teachers to screen everything they do to make sure they never say anything that might be used as ammunition against them.  Like parents warn their trusting young children to beware of strangers, leaders on any campus must be careful to train their teachers that humor and compassion are major liabilities.

I’ve made some honest mistakes in my classroom over the years, but I’ve also seen myself subject to what I can only call persecution because, on a capricious whim, some teenager or parent decided not to be tolerant or, heaven forbid, give the benefit of the doubt.  Luckily, nothing has yet done permanent damage to my career, but I have seen it happen to others.  When such tragedies drive a disgusted teacher forever out of their classroom, I can only murmur with Mark Twain, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Police, doctors, and, yes, teachers: the more we strive to invest ourselves in our professions and become more than average, the more we open ourselves to arbitrary opposition.  No good deed goes unpunished.  Truly, the sword of Damocles hangs over us all.

Two Liberals Disillusioned With Liberalism Become Real Liberals

“Liberal” should be a good word.  A “liberal education” is a deep, rigorous training in civilization’s best traditions.  “Classical liberalism” is the sharply logical brand of libertarian philosophy that produced the Enlightenment and saturated the thinking of our Founding Fathers. 

Of course, current political jargon has abused the term until it has devolved into a label for the wildest juvenile strains of leftist trends. 

Two months ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet shocked the world with this scathing indictment of America’s self-righteous sheep mentality that had produced the hopelessly stagnant viewpoint that he was now ready to reject; in his own words, he was no longer a “brain dead liberal”: http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0811,why-i-am-no-longer-a-brain-dead-liberal,374064,1.html/full.  In short, Mamet describes his intellectual graduation to a position of respecting free trade and individual liberty enough to champion that consistent set of political beliefs that let them safeguard our world.

Mamet’s brilliant essay reminded me of a similar piece I read a few years ago, also by a writer in a bastion of leftist sanctimony (San Francisco this time, rather than New York), who also confesses to having casually assented to the counter-culture’s mass indoctrination without scrutinizing it.  The author details in crystalline clarity just how surreally hypocritical the left’s narrow-minded pontificating has become, and how he came to realize it: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/05/22/INGUNCQHKJ1.DTL

It’s become fashionable to complain about the “red state / blue state” polarizing of America, but I think it’s healthy.  We need tension, and we need opposing views to keep us on our toes; but mostly, in a world where entropy has taken a firm hold and “things fall apart” faster than we ever could have imagined, it’s necessary to separate those who will stand up for what America has always truly been from those who will ignorantly plunge it into irreparable chaos. 

I’m not saying that everybody in one party is good or that everybody in another party is bad–far from it!–but there is an ideology out there that is pretty popular and that has spelled doom for every society that has ever flirted with it. 

So I’m glad these two smart men woke up.  Both essays are worth your time, regardless of which side of the aisle you prefer to sit on.  We’re always glad to welcome people over to the side of reason and responsibility.  The world needs more classical liberals, or, in other words…conservatives.

Recommended Eating: Chicago Hot Dogs

Is it strange that in my last post I panned a fabulous, swanky eatery at an upscale location on the famous Las Vegas Strip, and now I’m singing the praises of a dumpy shack in the middle of a run-down neighborhood?

Here’s a hint: the answer is yes.  But so what?  It’s the food that counts.

Rancho and Washington is indeed in an older, less savory part of Las Vegas these days.  But I grew up around there.  When my parents moved here in the mid-70’s, it was practically the edge of town. 

Just north of that intersection, you’ll find a decrepit hovel with a barely-visible sign that simply says Chicago Hot Dogs.  I drove by it a few years ago and stopped for a bite.  It was, simply put, the best dog I’ve ever had.  Our family drove by again last night and I had another perfect hot dog.  My wife got some onion rings and when I tried those–no surprise–they were the best onion rings I’d ever had. 

The guys I’ve seen working there are so laid back and friendly, you’d think you were at a Phish concert.  Perhaps they enjoy the satisfaction of knowing their backward little corner of the world is secretly home to some of the best cuisine around, a haven of exquisite Americana.  I say secret because I’ve never seen anyone else there.  How do they stay in business?

It’s probably out of your way to get there, but it’s worth it.  For more motivation, check out their web site, which is just as much fun as eating there itself: http://www.chicagodogs.com/articles.htm

Whatever size dog you get, remember, it’s Chicago Hot Dogs–be sure to get relish and onions. 

Final Grade: A

Dining Review: Samba’s at the Mirage

Courtesy of my in-laws, my wife and I got to enjoy dinner at Samba’s Brazilian Steakhouse a few days ago. 

First, the atmosphere.  I can’t understand why anybody would place a fine dining establishment next to the floor of a Vegas casino.  We couldn’t even hear each other over the roar of the crowds, machines, and piped-in rock music.  The restaurant is laid out to offer every seat a view of…the gaming tables….oh boy! 

The service was acceptable, but hardly impressive.  The most important thing, the food, of course, was very good, but also far short of breathtaking.  For the prices you pay and the expectations raised by the hype (it’s in the Mirage, after all), you’re not getting a meal any better than what you might expect in any average steakhouse.  Yes, there was plenty of great meats, but I got their signature dish–the Rodizio–and they bring you so much meat so quickly, you simply can’t linger on the different tastes, much less appreciate them all. 

If there’s any kind of meat you like, they’ll have it, but you’ll also be served a kabob full of something you probably don’t like.  Of course, you can turn it down when it’s offered, but I found that inconvenient.  The side dishes they serve on a lazy susan–fried bananas, beans and rice, steamed spinach, a small variety of breads–are a fine complement to the meal; I only wish I could have focused less on the pounds of flesh I was served and more on them. 

Visiting Samba’s is worthwhile, especially if you saw something here that appealed to you, but I doubt you’ll like everything about it, or that it will become anybody’s favorite.

Ironically, when I got to work Monday morning, a coupon  for another Brazilian steakhouse was in my mailbox, this time courtesy of the school district.  I’ll go try that one out soon, and I have a hunch I’ll enjoy it more than Samba’s. 

http://www.mirage.com/dining/fine_dining_samba.aspx

Final Grade: B-

Here’s a wonderful dining establishment which I heartily recommend, without reservations (ha!): http://gentlyhewstone.wordpress.com/2008/04/19/recommended-dining-yassou-greek-grill-cafe/

 

Recommended Listening: Grieg’s “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen”

On the way to work Thursday morning, I heard this little peice on the radio.  I wasn’t paying much attention to the DJ’s introduction, so when the music started and I was into it right away, I tried to remember what he’d said about it.  The words “Grieg,” “piano,” “wife,” and “anniversary” came to mind.  Googling those terms that afternoon told me that the song I’d heard was “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen.” 

I picked up the first CD I found at the library that had that track on it.  It was Grieg: Lyric Pieces (Performed On Grieg’s Piano),performed by Leif Ove Andsnes. 

This isn’t the dark romance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata;” Grieg gives us a sprightly march that wraps us up in the ongoing fun of a relationship that’s as comfortable as it is exciting.  As with the heroic marches that we might expect to hear over the end credits of an action movie, there’s even a lilting slow section in the middle before the familiar melody bubbles back up to carry us to the tune’s satisfying conclusion.

Of ocurse, this is only one of 24 pieces on this album and, so far, the rest seem just as effectively accomplished. 

Read more reviews and listen to some excerpts at its Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Grieg-Lyric-Pieces-Performed-Griegs/dp/B00005UUOC/ref=pd_bbs_sr_5?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1211046529&sr=8-5

Recommended for listening to while:

  • transitioning from the hectic pace of real life at the start of a date night
  • waiting for the commercials to finish when you’re really listening to talk radio
  • getting up enough motivation and optimism to last one more day as you drive to work (especially between April and August)
  • trying to think of a positive entry for your surprisingly somber blog
  • eating candy
  • more pleasantly passing the time as you do grunt work around the house
  • connecting to the subtle, sublime joy that permeates daily life, just under the surface of it all

 

Also, if you haven’t read it, you might go back and read my previous music review, of Hilary Hahn: http://gentlyhewstone.wordpress.com/2008/04/10/recommended-music-the-essential-hilary-hahn/