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Archive for November, 2013

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When I first discovered Spartacus: Blood and Sand four years ago, I wasn’t sure I would like it.  The Starz series was marketed as a graphic and stylized telling of the world’s most famous gladiator when he was first taken into slavery and trained to kill and maim for sport.  But I was intrigued by the setting, a ludus (gladiator school) in the city of Capua that provided the backdrop for the adventures and romances of the slaves and gladiators down below and the Roman nobles upstairs.  Soap opera storylines with tons of violence, blood, sex, and gore.  Think Downton Abbey meets 300.

After only one episode, I was captivated by this show for one reason… Andy Whitfield.  I knew I was witnessing one of those rare moments when an actor so completely inhabits a character and plays him with such perfection that you feel blessed just to be watching.

Tragically, in 2010 Andy was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and was forced to abandon the role of Spartacus.  He lost his battle in September 2011.  The world lost an incredibly talented actor and the Spartacus series lost its heart and its anchor.

Starz was faced with the difficult decision of what to do next.  Many fans believed that they should have simply cancelled the show and not even attempted a recast.  I think maybe I agree.  The show limped along for two more seasons—Liam McIntyre doing his best to fill the late Andy Whitfield’s shoes—before concluding in April 2013.  I watched until the end, but it almost felt like I was watching a different show.  For me, season one—Blood and Sand—was like a moment frozen in time.  Perfect casting meets perfect storytelling.  I know I’ll never forget it, and I will likely re-watch that season many times over.

If you don’t mind wading through tons of violence, blood, sex, and gore to witness a truly compelling performance by a gifted actor, I recommend giving this a watch.

 

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Before the polls closed, we wanted to celebrate this Election Day by remembering TV series which had memorable “election-themed” episodes.Leslie Knope

The West Wing:  This series provided two election episodes.  Early in season 4, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was elected to a second term.  Shocker, I know.  However, the season 7 election, between Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Arnie Vinick (Alan Alda) wasn’t quite so easy to predict; a 2006 New York Times article claimed that the writers were planning on having Vinick win, but the death of actor John Spencer (who played Leo McGarry, the Democratic VP candidate) changed all that. In truth, the fictional America of The West Wing would have prospered under the leadership of either candidate, both of whom were intelligent, inspiring, and dedicated public servants.  (Just like in real life, right?)

Benson: Like everyone else in the world, I stopped watching after season 1– but apparently the show stretched on for seven whole seasons.  During that time, former butler Benson DuBois (Robert Guilluame) somehow moved up the ladder to become Lieutenant Governor.  Ultimately, season seven ended with an election-themed episode pitting Benson against his boss, the bumbling Eugene Gatling, for the position of Governor.  And the winner?  No one even found out.  The writers left it as a season-ending cliffhanger– not anticipating that NBC would cancel the show during the summer.

Seinfeld: As part of the ongoing “retirement condo intrigue” storyline, Morty Seinfeld– who had been previously impeached as condo president– now sees Kramer as his ticket back to the top; Kramer will run for president of Morty’s condo, but it will only be a “puppet regime”; Puppetmaster Morty will be pulling the strings behind the scenes.  Everything falls apart when the voters turn on Kramer, after he tries to bribe them with faulty tip calculators (some of which don’t even have numbers).

Mama’s Family: No, I wasn’t a fan. (Was anyone?)  But since it was on Saturday nights back when I was in junior high, I feel I ended up watching quite a few episodes, simply because I had nothing else to do. In any case, I vaguely remembered Mama (Vicki Lawrence) winning some sort of election.  A Google search confirmed it: in a special two-parter, Mama did, in fact, unseat the mayor.  (Why do I remember the details of a 30-year-old Mama’s Family episode but I can’t remember to stop at the store on the way home and get Tide, even though my wife reminded me just ten minutes prior?)

Cheers:  To make a point about lame-brained candidates, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) convinces Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson) to run for Boston City Council.  Of course, Woody wins– although the series came to an end before we got to see what that would mean for the city of Boston.

Parks and Recreation: In season 4, the indomitable Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) ran for City Council of Pawnee and narrowly beat out the impossibly stupid Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd).  The “underdog candidate” storyline provided so many great moments– for example, the use of Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” as Leslie’s campaign song.  But they let one moment slip: Why oh why did they include Bradley Whitford in an episode– and not put in a scene with Rob Lowe?

Of course, we’re sure left out a bunch of shows.  Let us know which ones.  And while you’re at it, let us know what is your favorite election-themed episode?  Vote now!

 

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Friday, November 1st, was the “early application” deadline for many colleges and universities.   And do I know this because I was applying to college myself?  No, sir.  But as a high school teacher, I had been thoroughly immersed in the college application process over the month of October.

With that in mind, I’d like to say a few words about the college essay, a topic about which I feel I can speak quite knowledgeably.  No, I haven’t read as many essays as, say, a college admissions officer, but over my dozen years teaching high school, I have read enough of them– enough to recognize essays which are out-of-the-park amazing and ones which are, shall we say, formulaic.

By “formula,” I mean that certain essays follow a kind of blueprint.  No teacher has ever taught this formula or given these blueprints to students, but somehow they all know about them.

Now, I need to acknowledge at the outset that, as of this year, the Common Application (“Common App” to its buddies) has made it a little harder to hand in a “formula” essay; instead of letting students write about whatever they’d like, applicants must now respond to one of the following five prompts:

  • Option #1: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Option #2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Option #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Option #4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Option #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

These new prompts do, in theory, help thwart the “formula” essays– although I’m confident that the particularly wily students could shoehorn any existing essay into any one of these topics.

In my experience, the topics that tend to be the most popular for students to pursue also tend to produce the most formulaic, least effective essays.  (I can’t tell if it’s ironic that the most popular topics tend to result in the least effective essays, or if it’s not ironic at all, since the very fact that these topics have been done three billion times before is part of what makes them so hard to pull off.)   There are probably many well-worn topics, but I’m going to limit myself to three:

Formula #1: My Grandmother/ Grandfather is Awesome!  This sounds harsh, and I don’t mean it to be.  (Hey, I loved my grandparents, too.)  But here’s the thing: often the student ends up saying so many amazing things about the grandparent that he forgets to talk about himself.  So the college admissions officer is left saying, “Well, I didn’t learn anything about the applicant.. but Grandma sure sounds great!  Can we admit her?”

Formula #2: Big Game Victory!  “We were down by two at the half.  Coach gives us a pep-talk.  Then with two minutes left, the ball is passed to me.  I go left, I go right, I go left again. GOOOOOOOOAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!  And I realized that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”  I have read that essay many, many, many times over the past dozen years– and I  don’t know if I’ve read one that I feel really knocked it out of the park.

I’m not saying this is the students’ fault, necessarily; it’s almost impossible, after all, to capture on the page the intensity of a nail-biting sporting event.  Nor am I saying a person can’t learn something valuable from winning; it’s just that we tend to learn MORE from losing.  (I have a sneaking suspicion that’s why the Common App folks added the “share a time when you experienced failure” prompt.)

Formula #3: “Habitat for Humanity Changed My Life!” I want to stress that the students I teach consistently amaze me.  They are constantly volunteering, reaching out, helping the less fortunate.  Truly, they put me to shame with some of the extraordinary things they have done.  But then they write about these extraordinary things in ordinary ways.

The “volunteering” essays tend to follow this pattern: “I was a jerk, then I volunteered, and now I’m not a jerk any more.” Whether or not that is actually what happened is immaterial,  The essay, then, ends up not being about their experience but about what they think other people want to hear about their experience.  Students have a notion of what the essay is “supposed” to be– when in fact the essay isn’t supposed to be anything but authentic and interesting and personal.

One more thing about this: volunteering is fantastic, and I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  As I said, I am in awe, honestly, of some of the things my students have done for others.  However, I wonder if some students write about their mission trip not because it’s a good story but because they really want the college folks to know they went on a mission trip.  The fact is… they do know.  They read the application, after all.  So my advice to students:  maybe it would be better to write about a topic that shows something else about you, some aspect of you not reflected in the rest of the application?

Final word on this: I am not saying you can’t write a great essay about grandparents, or about the big game victory, or about Habitat for Humanity.  You absolutely can.  But it’s hard– not only because these essays tend to follow a pattern but because so many students have written them before.

On the other hand, if you wrote an essay about doing Habitat for Humanity with your grandmother, who then assembled all the volunteers into a team that went on to win the Big Game… well, now you may be on to something!

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I like words, and I like stories.  Ergo, it makes sense that I like stories about words.

I fancy myself an amateur etymologist (even though I’m not sure what it takes to be a professional etymologist).  I get a charge out of finding out where words come from, trying to connect the dots between the origin of a word and its meaning.

Here’s one of my favorites examples of etymology:  apparently, there once was a fairy tale about three princes from modern-day Sri Lanka; in this story, the heroes were always discovering fortunate things they were not seeking.  Upon reading the story, English author Horace Walpole coined a term that means, basically, the experience of finding something wonderful completely by accident.

Now, I left out one critical piece of information: the former name of Sri Lanka is “Serendip.”  And thus was born the word… “serendipity.”  How cool is that?

(Incidentally, the etymology of “etymology” is also illuminating: it derives from the Greek words “etymos” meaning “true” and “logos” meaning “word.” So etymology helps one understand the “true sense” of a word.)

And now I present the etymologies of words related to school (and thank the Online Etymology Dictionary for its assistance):

  • Cafeteria: from the Spanish “café,” meaning “coffee,” and “teria,” meaning “a place where something is done.”  (“Pizzeria” probably uses the same ending; the “t” fell away over time.
  • Education: From the Latin “e,” meaning “out,” and “ducare,” meaning “to lead.”  Thus, “education” literally means to “lead out”—an empowering concept for teachers and students. As teachers, we are not shoving information in; we are leading out what they already know.
  • Encyclopedia:  The term comes from two Greek words for “circular” (“cyc”) and “education” (“pedia” ).  Although “circular education” seems strange, replace “circular” with “well-rounded” and it makes more sense; studying the varied entries in the encyclopedia makes you a well-rounded student. (The root “cyc” is also found in “cycle,” “cyclone” and even “Cyclops,” while “pedia,” which has the connotation of educating children, is also found in the word pediatrician.)
  • Essay: From the French word “essai,” meaning “a try, an attempt.”  So an essay is an attempt to figure something out, to work through an idea.
  • Gymnasium: For ancient Greeks and for modern English speakers, a gymnasium was a place to train or exercise, but the word comes from the Greek “gymnos,” which means “naked.” So, a “gymnasium” was a place for Greek men to train naked.
  • Library: The Latin word “liber” (“book” or “parchment”) came from a word that meant “to peel off the bark of a tree.”  The earliest books were created from the inner bark of trees.  (The word “leprosy” also comes from the same original root.)
  • Pedagogue:  Although now the word means “teacher” or “schoolmaster,” the word originally referred to a person, usually a slave, who escorted the male children to school. The word “pedagogue” comes from the Greek words “ped,” meaning “child” (see “encyclopedia”), and “agogos,” meaning “to lead.”
  • Wikipedia—This an example of a portmanteau, a word made by combining parts of other words. The “pedia” part is obviously borrowed from “encyclopedia” (see above).  “Wiki,” on the other hand, was first used in 1994 by a man named Ward Cunningham, who heard the term while visiting the Honolulu International Airport.  In Hawaiian, the word “wiki” means “quick”; in the airport, the “Wiki” shuttle bus brought travelers to the various terminals.  Cunningham liked the sound of it, so he called his website, the first website that could be edited by anyone who accesses it, “WikiWikiWeb”; this was a forerunner to everyone’s favorite resource, Wikipedia.

Hope you learned something,   If not… well, it was a good essai!

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Last week, I gave my Composition students an assignment related to poem “Tensions,” by the Modern Master, Billy Collins. Not familiar with the poem?  Here it is, with the all-important opening epigram…

“Tensions,” Billy Collins

Billy Collins

“Never use the word ‘suddenly’ just to create tension.”
— Writing Fiction

Suddenly, you were planting some yellow petunias
outside in the garden,
and suddenly I was in the study
looking up the word oligarchy for the thirty-seventh time.

When suddenly, without warning,
you planted the last petunia in the flat,
and I suddenly closed the dictionary
now that I was reminded of that vile form of governance.

A moment later, we found ourselves
standing suddenly in the kitchen

where you suddenly opened a can of cat food
and I just as suddenly watched you doing that.

I observed a window of leafy activity
and, beyond that, a bird perched on the edge
of the stone birdbath
when suddenly you announced you were leaving

to pick up a few things at the market
and I stunned you by impulsively
pointing out that we were getting low on butter
and another case of wine would not be a bad idea.

Who could tell what the next moment would hold?
Another drip from the faucet?
Another little spasm of the second hand?
Would the painting of a bowl of pears continue

to hang on the wall from that nail?
Would the heavy anthologies remain on their shelves?
Would the stove hold its position?
Suddenly, it was anyone’s guess.

The sun rose ever higher.
The state capitals remained motionless on the wall map
when suddenly I found myself lying on a couch
where I closed my eyes and without any warning
began to picture the Andes, of all places,

and a path that led over the mountain to another country
with strange customs and eye-catching hats
suddenly fringed with little colorful, dangling balls.

You can see a video of him reading the poem here.  (In this reading, however, he inexplicably changes “dangling balls” at the end to “dangling tassels.”  Perhaps he read the audience and figured they couldn’t handle a poem that ends with “dangling balls”?)

I don’t know if I’d call this “quintessential,” but it definitely has everything I want in a Billy Collins poem.   First, it’s funny.  (Best part: the pause in between “suddenly you announced you were leaving” and “to pick up a few things at the market.”  Probably the most effective use of a line break in any poem ever.)

Next, it’s accessible: I bet even my dad could get this poem.  But there’s also more going on than just the obvious humor: the stanza that begins “Who could tell what the next moment would hold?” really gives a whole new dimension to the poem. Think about it: we all just accept that, for example, the painting of the bowl of pears won’t tumble off the wall, but really every single second is the possibility for something extraordinary to happen.  Maybe something extraordinarily good, maybe something extraordinarily good– but something.  Of course, more than likely, it won’t.  But the point is, your life can change quite…well, suddenly.   And I think the poem, once you dig just underneath the humor, does a great job reminding us of that.

(As an aside: I have often compared to Billy Collins to Norman Rockwell; like all the greatest of Rockwell’s prints, Collins’s poems are relatively easy to understand– accessible, as I said– but deceptively so; there’s always a larger story going on.)

According to Collins, he was inspired to write this poem after perusing through a “how to” book called Writing Fiction.  He found a particular nugget of advice– “Never use the word ‘suddenly’ just to create tension”– and decided to have a little fun with it.

And that bit of inspiration in turn inspired the assignment I gave to my students: Identify a rule of writing (and there are a lot of ’em), and use that as the basis for an original poem.  I may even try to do the assignment myself.  And maybe you in cyberland can do the same.

That’s right: I first give this assignment to my students.  And then, SUDDENLY, I pass it on to you!

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World Series - St Louis Cardinals v Boston Red Sox - Game SixIt’s 11:26 pm on Wednesday night, October 30, 2013.  Just a few minutes before, the Boston Red Sox had beaten the St. Louis Cardinals to become World Series Champions.  My friend Jeremy sends me a text that sums up everything I’m feeling at that moment.  And he does it in just four words:  “What a freakin’ season.”

Of course, he doesn’t say “freakin’,” but he’s right: the 2013 season was amazing and inspiring and glorious.    But what made it even sweeter is the fact that the 2012 season– and the last month of the 2011 season– was so very, very the opposite of all the those things.

As I reflect on the 2013 season, I thought about something I wrote over a year ago, for my former blog.  I re-read it and realized it’s not only eerily appropriate but it has a lot to do with story-telling.  So I’d like to re-post it here, with some additional comments following:

Red Sox and Silver Linings (originally posted at teachertrenches,blogspot.com, September 28, 2012)

As the 2012 Red Sox go gently (or maybe “limp shamefully”?) into that good night, fans are left trying to salvage something positive out of this season.  It’s not easy.   In fact, I had to rely on Aristotle to do it. 

Here goes: the 2012 season is part of a larger story.  It’s a low and humbling and soul-crushing part of the story, sure… but it’s also an essential part.

To get what I mean, we have to go back eight years ago, to the waning minutes of October 17, 2004.  Red Sox vs. Yankees. Game Four of the seven-game American League Championship. The team that wins this series goes on to the World Series.  And it looks like that team’s going to be the Yankees. They just needed three more outs.

The Red Sox had entered ALCS five days before, on October 12, full of swagger and fire. But they ended up losing Games One and Two. Then came Game Three, on October 16th, which they didn’t just lose; they got decimated, 19-8.
 
Former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein called it a “colossal defeat.” The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy said that in Game Three the Yankees “stripped the Red Sox of all dignity.” Every reporter covering the series made it a point to remind Red Sox Nation that no team in baseball history had ever been down 3-0 in a postseason series and came back to win.

For a Sox fan, Game Three was the pits. And that’s not a colloquialism; I mean it was like being in a pit— a deep, dark, seemingly inescapable pit. The rockiest of rock bottoms. A nadir. The belly of the whale.
Then came the next night, October 17th. It’s Game Four, bottom of the ninth, and the Sox are trailing 4-3. They have only one half-inning to keep the series alive. If they don’t, they go home.

But then Kevin Millar draws a walk off Mariano Rivera—and everything changes.  Pinch-runner Dave Roberts steals second; a Bill Mueller single gets Roberts home to tie the game; and two hours later, at 1:30 am, David Ortiz clobbers a walk-off homerun in the twelfth. Final score: 6-4, Sox.
 
That was just a start, of course.  But that start led to a Sox victory in Game Five.  And Game Six.  And Game Seven. And so, the Red Sox, after being down 3-0, won the ALCS and headed to the World Series—where they reversed an eighty-six-year “curse” by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in four games.

So what does this have to do with the 2012 Red Sox?  Simple: it’s all about the story.  You see, to me, the story of the Red Sox 2004 postseason is not just about a team clawing its way out of a pit; it’s about the pit itself.
 
Say if the Red Sox weren’t down those first three games? Say if they didn’t suffer the “colossal defeat” of Game Three, the one they lost by eleven runs?  Would the Game Four victory, and the three wins that came after it, be as sweet?

Sure, “a win’s a win.”  But a win snatched from certain defeat, right from the hands of your most hated rival—that’s a WIN.

Here’s where Aristotle comes in. The concept of the “dialectic” says that you can’t fully understand something unless you also know its opposite. You know good by knowing evil. You need darkness to see light. You need to comprehend defeat before you can truly appreciate victory.

Compare the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees to the 2004 World Series against the Cardinals, who went down in four straight games. No pit, no adversity, no whale belly, no seemingly unconquerable obstacle… and consequently, no compelling story.
Sox fans have endless stream of words to describe the feeling of finally winning a World Series after eighty-six years: unforgettable, historic, redemptive. But when describing the actual 2004 World Series itself, one term keeps coming up: “anti-climactic.”
Or how about their next visit to the World Series? Let’s face it: the Red Sox’s 2007 season and postseason didn’t have anywhere near the drama of 2004. For most of the season, they were in first place. Hard to get a story out of that, you know?
Once again, what does this have to do with 2012?  Basically, the 2012 season, taken as a whole, is like Game Three of the 2004 ALCS, with innings 1-8 of Game Four thrown in. In other words, it was the pits. 

We landed in the pit at the end of 2011, when the Red Sox flitted away their comfortable lead in the standings and failed to make the play-offs, and never left.  The 2012 season introduced us to a much-maligned new manager. On his watch, old friends left, and then new friends left—to the point that the team currently crawling to the finish line hardly resembles at all the one that took the field in April.  And for the first time in fifteen years, the Red Sox will end the season with a losing record.

The season that started out with all the “Fenway Turns 100” hoopla didn’t live up to the hype. Not by a long shot.  Instead, we had an entire season in the belly of the whale.   

But this is just part of the story.  A heart-breaking but necessary part.

If this season looks like Game Three of the 2004 ALCS, then we have to remember that from the “colossal defeat” of Game Three came the miraculous, one-for-the-ages Game Four.  And we will have another Game Four. Maybe it will be next year, maybe it will be the year after.  But it will come.  Boston will surge back, someday, and when it does we’ll appreciate the accomplishment all the more.

Since we didn’t have too many walk-off victories this season, Sox fans may have forgotten how those games make for great stories.  But you can’t have the “come-from-behind” victory unless you were first behind.  You have to have eight lousy innings before you can have a redemptive ninth.  You have to lose all hope before you can get it back.

The story of the Red Sox isn’t finished.  Yeah, they’re still in the pit, but they’ll crawl out.  And when they do, we’ll love them all the more because of it.  Aristotle, after all, said so… and I’m pretty sure he was a Sox fan.

I wrote that a year ago.  Over the past year, the Sox climbed out of the mud and swill and raw sewage of last place to become the Best in the World.  And that is obviously “can’t-keep-a-thought-in-my-head” fantastic.  But riddle me this: would it be as fantastic if it didn’t come after the Lost Season of 2012 and the Monumental Collapse of 2011?  No way.  In order to go from “worst to first,” you first have to be “worst.”

And I’m not even taking into account the Boston Marathon bombings from last April, when the season was only a few weeks old. Now, in a real way, the tragedy of the bombings and the glory of the Red Sox victory aren’t really connected. Except they absolutely are.  They’re connected through the city of Boston.  They’re connected through the Red Sox and all the charity work they did over the past six months.  They’re connected through the story of the 2013 season.

Bottom line: you have to be coated with mud and swill and raw sewage in order to appreciate fully the healing champagne cascade.  (Incidentally, I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but some time in my life, I want to be in a room where everyone is getting so doused with champagne that people have to wear goggles and rain coats.  Looks like fun.)

What a freakin’ season.  What a freakin’ story.

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