Friday, December 26, 2008

Chrsitmas in Literature (Yeah, A Day Late)

Hey, lookee here: I'm typing this entry on my new laptop!

Yep, big Christmas present my my lovely wife. This will undoubtedly bring peace into our household, as sometimes my children at I are at cross-purposes when it comes to the computer. Can I tell you how many times I have geared up to write the Next Great American Novel only to find my sons are at the computer playing Club Penguin?

Anyway, the entry: for over a week now, I've been meaning to post some trivia questions regarding references to Christmas in literature. Obviously, this would have been more meaningful before Christmas, but... eh, got busy. So here we go. (Answers follow.)

  1. In O. Henry’s short story “Gift of the Magi,” what is the name of the woman who sold her hair to get a Christmas gift for her husband?

  2. In To Kill a Mockingbird, what is the name of Atticus Finch’s brother who visits Scout and Jem for Christmas?

  3. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, what gift from his dead father did Harry Potter get during his first Christmas at Hogwarts?

  4. What Shakespeare play is named after the religious feast that takes place on January 6th (which some believe was when the play was first performed?

  5. In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator describes how Owen Meany, during one holiday season, played a role in a Christmas pageant and a role in a version of A Christmas Carol. What were these two roles?

  6. I am an American poet who wrote a poem called "Christmas Trees (A Christmas Circular Letter)," but you probably know me better for that other wintry poem, the one about keeping promises on the darkest evening of the year. Who am I?

  7. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield spends the days leading up to Christmas wandering around what American city? (Too easy? Try this one on for size: In Catcher in the Rye, Phoebe Caulfield reports she is playing what historical figure in her school's Christmas play?)

  8. I’m an American writer famous for stories such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” but I also wrote five stories about old-fashioned Christmas customs. You may not know these stories, but they influenced Charles Dickens, who publicly said he owed a debt to me for the success of A Christmas Carol. Who am I?

  9. John Milton, author of “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” is better known for what other religious poem, about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden?

  10. Which now-classic Christmas movie—about a young boy, a BB gun, and unusual lamp—is based on a book of short stories called In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, written by Jean Shepherd?

  11. Joe Christmas is the main protagonist of what William Faulkner novel with a decidedly non-Christmas-y title?

  12. In what C.S. Lewis novel does Santa Claus give children named Peter, Susan and Lucy “tools, not toys”—including a sword and a red shield emblazoned with the picture of a lion?

  13. What is the official title of Clement C. Moore's “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”?

  14. Boris Karloff, who narrated the animated special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” famously played what famous movie monster, originally created by Mary Shelley?

  15. What Scottish poet wrote the poem “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788?

  16. What Yeats’ poem ends with the line, “Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born”?

  17. How many ghosts visited Scrooge in A Christmas Carol?

  18. This term originally referred to the feast which commemorates Visit of the Three Kings, but it could also, thanks largely to James Joyce, refer to a sudden realization of something. What’s the term?

  19. Dr. Seuss created an iconic Christmas character in 1957. What's Dr. Seuss' real name?

  20. What is the name of Scrooge’s former employer, the proprietor of a warehouse who would host Christmas balls?

  21. What Christmas ballet is based on an 1816 short story by M. T. A. Hoffman about a toy that comes to life?

  22. What Irish poet, famous for “Don’t go gently into that good night,” also wrote “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”?


1. Della

2. Uncle Jack Finch

3. Invisibility Cloak

4. Twelfth Night

5. Baby Jesus, Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

6. Robert Frost

7. New York (or Benedict Arnold)

8. Washington Irving

9. Paradise Lost

10. A Christmas Story

11. Light in August

12. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

13. "A Visit from St. Nicholas"

14. Frankenstein's monster

15. Robert Burns

16. "The Second Coming"

17. Four (Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come)

18. Epiphany

19. Theodore Giesel

20. Fezziwig

21. The Nutcracker

22. Dylan Thomas

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Secret Power of Pajamas

Note from author: Today, we had our first snow day of the year. To mark this momentous occasion, I thought I would post an article I wrote last January about "snow day rituals."

The article ran in the
Hartford Courant on January 20, 2008. Somehow, the piece was picked up by National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation." Two days later, I was interviewed live on the air by the venerable Neal Conan. You can still listen to the interview at

When I stop and think about, the story surrounding this piece really is a testament to the awesome power of the written word: two girls casually mention something to me one morning in a Connecticut high school; I write an article, which is published in a Connecticut newspaper; someone in Washington D.C. reads it and books me on a radio program, which is heard by people across the nation. Like I said, awesome.

Anyway, here's the piece...

I am a high school English teacher, which also makes me a learner. My students teach me quite a few things. Granted, they're usually things no man in his late 30s has any business knowing (new and illegal ways to download music or the term "fo' shizzle"). But recently, my students taught me to something I'll keep with me for the rest of my professional life: the Pajamas-Inside-Out, Spoon-Under-the-Pillow-Snow-Day Ritual.

I learned about this phenomenon in December, the morning after our first snow day. One of my students, still basking in the post-snow glow, said, "I was so sure we were going to school. I mean, I didn't even put my pajamas on inside out the night before!"

"Wait, what are you talking about?" I asked, with my typical air of cluelessness.

"On a night before there's a chance of snow," she explained, "you wear your pajamas inside out and put a spoon under your pillow. The next morning, you'll get a snow day."

"Really? This is a thing?"

"Oh, yeah!" her friend responded with giddy enthusiasm. (These were seniors in high school.) "See for yourself," the first girl said. "Look it up online."

I did, and my eyes were opened. This is not a passing fad, but a way of life. My Internet sleuthing revealed that students from Hillsborough, N.J., to Rochester, N.Y., and on to Fauquier County, Va., practice the Pajamas-Inside-Out, Spoon-Under-the-Pillow-Snow-Day Ritual, or what I will henceforth call PIOSUPSDR.

I discovered that people have done this for years. I uncovered a reference to a Tennessee schoolteacher who learned about the PIOSUPSDR during her first year of teaching, 25 years ago. Other teachers told her, which means the tradition goes back even further.

I also learned that the PIOSUPSDR has some variations. Some students eat an oatmeal cookie before putting on their pajamas inside out. Others lick the spoon before placing it under the pillow.

Even after my exhaustive research, one fundamental question remained: Why in the heck are people doing this in the first place? How could sleeping in inside-out pajamas with a spoon under your pillow possibly influence the weather?

The PJ thing I could sort of understand. Wearing clothes inside out has long been a sign of good luck. (Think rally caps.) But the spoon? I even skimmed through a book of old superstitions, trying to find something that links spoons with weather. I found one that advises couples hoping to conceive a girl to put a wooden spoon under their pillow. But I didn't see the connection to the PIOSUPSDR.

Because my research took me only so far, I went back to my students with my lingering questions. Here's what they had to say:

Question: "Do you wear the pajamas inside out, or inside out and backward?"

Answer: "Just inside out. Once I wore them inside out and backward and the big tag kept scratching my neck and chin all night. The next morning, I had school and a rash on my neck."

Question: "Can I do this in, like, May?"

Answer: "Sorry, but you can only do it when they are actually predicting snow."

Question: "While online, I read that some people throw ice cubes in the toilet in the hopes of getting a snow day. What do you think about that?"

Answer: "Well, that's just silly."

But when I asked if the pajamas/spoon combo works, I got several different answers. Some students squealed, "Yes, definitely!" and had anecdotal evidence to prove it. Others admitted, "Only sometimes" - but even those doubters still do it.

And therein, I think, lies the key. Think about it: we live in a world where multimillion-dollar geostationary weather satellites, orbiting 22,000 miles above our heads, can tell us the weather conditions anywhere on the planet.

All that technology should be enough for anyone, but especially for teenagers, who rely on technology for pretty much everything.

Consider, for a moment, your Typical Teen: When her ear isn't occupied by an iPod, she's got a cellphone up to it. And, when she isn't talking to her friends on her cell, she's IM-ing them about the new photos she uploaded to her Facebook page. While online, she may at some point click back over to her U.S. history term paper, which she can research and write without entering a library or opening a book. She is, in short, inextricably bound to technology.

And yet that same girl, when she hears about a potential nor'easter, will push aside all her electronics, grab a decidedly low-tech spoon and embrace the deliciously irrational possibility of magic and wonder. And there's something sweet about that. Don't get me wrong: The idea of an 18-year-old sleeping in inside-out pajamas with a spoon under her pillow is still kooky. But it's also sweet, and refreshingly innocent.

So yes, this winter my students taught me an important lesson - allow for more magic in your life. Next time they're predicting snow, I'm taking my chances with the spoon.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bah Humbug to Cupcake Ban!

Violence, drugs, too many students, not enough funding—so many problems besiege our schools, which one should we tackle first? Fortunately, a few years ago, the Connecticut State Department of Education came up with an answer.

It’s the cupcakes, see. Something has got to be done about the cupcakes.

You know the story: It’s a Winter Celebration (don't you dare call it a Christmas Party!) in Ms. Jenkins’ first-grade class, and Billy’s mom has whipped up some Funfetti cupcakes. So have Olivia’s mom, Joey’s mom, and Katie’s mom. In fact, seventeen mothers baked cupcakes for this one party—all but guaranteeing their children a spot in the Childhood Obesity Club of America, the membership of which currently swells at nine million-plus.

Eat a cupcake, become a statistic—it’s that simple.

In response to the cupcake menace, back in January 2006, The Connecticut State Department of Education created The Action Guide for School Nutrition and Physical Activity Policies, a handbook for helping school districts develop “wellness” plans that meet state and federal mandates.

Fearing they would lose their funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, schools said goodbye to french fries and soda machines, and hello to Baked Cheetos and rice milk.

A fine first step, indeed, but what of those hedonistic romps we call classroom celebrations?

Now, don’t fret, Ms. Jenkins: the Connecticut Department of Education is not outlawing classroom parties all together (yet). The Action Guide merely says that “food and beverages served at school celebrations and parties must meet the district and nutrition standards.” To that end, the Action Guide provides “Ideas for Healthy Foods,” nutritional alternatives to those insidious cupcakes, such as ham, cheese, or turkey sandwiches (with low-fat condiments); carrots with peanut butter and raisins; or vegetable trays with low-fat dip.

Mmmmmmmmm! Veggies with low-fat dip! What first-grader could resist?

The Action Guide outlines other benefits that accompany the “de-cupcaking” of Connecticut classrooms. For example, in deference to children with special diets, the Action Guide recommends that school districts “discourage the sharing of food and beverages.” Thank goodness someone finally said it: there’s far too much sharing among our young people today. We must stop this incessant sharing, before it gets out of hand.

As I said, the Action Guide does not actually prohibit school celebrations—although certainly that would be ideal. In our country, schools were built to resemble factories, and in factories, we work. Enjoyment—even the fleeting enjoyment represented by a cupcake—has no place in our public schools. In this respect, schools must be like celery—bland and flavorless, perhaps, but something you must suffer through in order to become better, stronger citizens.

You may be wondering: "Why not just have some communication among the parents? Can't it be arranged so just one mom brings in the cupcakes, instead of seventeen moms? Can't we keep the classroom celebrations, but just tone it all down a little?"

Nice try... but those who think this obviously fail to see that cupcakes are gateway desserts. One cupcake will launch you into a lifetime battle with Chubby Hubby, Betty Crocker, and Sara Lee.

Of course, these classroom celebration restrictions will meet some initial resistance, as Billy, Olivia, and all the moms from Ms. Jenkins class long for the cupcake-ravaged parties of yesteryear. But they’ll soon come on board. After all, we’re talking about a program to fight childhood obesity… what kind of jerk would find fault with that?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Rattle and Hum and the Inevitable Backlash

Working with teenagers has taught me not to make any presumptions about the iconic-ness of pop culture icons. (See previous post detailing my disasterous name-dropping of "The Fonz.")

So I'll start by asking: Have you heard of the U2 album Rattle and Hum?

In case you haven't, the Rattle and Hum album...

  • ... came out in the fall of 1988, which makes it-- that's right-- twenty years old. (How's that for a little depression?)

  • ... was recorded during the tour promoting the mega-mega-successful The Joshua Tree album, which debuted on St. Patrick's Day 1987. (In fact, the name Rattle and Hum is borrowed from a line from the Joshua Tree's "Bullet the Blue Sky.")

  • ... includes live performances from the tour, of U2 staples (such as "Pride" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") as well as covers (e.g. Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and the Beatles' "Helter Skelter").

  • ... also includes new material, such as "Desire" and "Van Diemen's Land," which was sung not by Bono but by The Edge, and thus unlistenable. (Always unsettling when Edge takes the mic, isn't it? Sort of like when John Oates sang "Possession Obsession" back in the mid-80s.)

  • ... gives us a glimpse into Bono's now-mythic pomposity through throw-away lines such as "All I want is a red guitar, three chords, and the truth," and "Well, the God I believe in isn't short o' cash, Mister!" and-- my favorite-- "Am I bugging you? I don't mean to bug ya..."

  • ... was released in conjunction with a Major! Motion! Picture!, a "documentary" covering the Joshua Tree Tour and U2's journey across America.

  • ... was pretty much panned by critics.

    • I'd like to stick with those last two points for a minute, because they're actually related. Although many critics didn't love the album (a New York Times review called it an exercise in "pure egomania"), they really didn't like the movie. Or perhaps more accurately: they hated the media marketing blitz that came along with it.

      After all, for most of the 80s, U2 was this quaint, socially-conscious college-radio band. Now, not only were these four Irish blokes the biggest band in the world (thanks to The Joshua Tree), they were also taking up permanent residence at Hollywood and Vine with this movie.

      Whatever the case, the folks in the media who had always loved U2 turned on the band in the wake of the Rattle and Hum movie. Perhaps as a result of the critical bashing, the film ended up tanking.

      The rabid fans tried their best, coming out in droves for the November premier (earning the film a respectable $3.8 million for its opening weekend). But the problem was all the non-rabid-fans-- everyone else in mainstream America, basically, who were either not particularly interested to begin with or kept away by the poor reviews. And so, after the initial rush, ticket sales plummeted dramatically, the film was gone from most theatres by December.

      At the time, I remember many folks, fans and critics alike, interpreted the film's not-even-lukewarm reception as a sign that interest in the band had plateaued. Or maybe even worse than that: as a Rolling Stone reviewer said in 1989, "The U2 backlash has set in."

      History has not been kind to Rattle and Hum. To many fans, it occupies a place only slightly above 1993's Zooropa and 1997's Pop. And that's not fair.

      Except for "Stay (Faraway, So Close)," Zooropa is a lemon (that's a wink! wink! pun, by the way, in honor of a song on the album). At best, it's a loathsome amalgamation of dippy songs not good enough for 1991's Achtung Baby. And Pop is so nakedly awful that everyone associated with it should best pretend that it never happened.

      Especially compared to those two train-wrecks, Rattle and Hum looks pretty good. But even on its own merits, Rattle and Hum has a lot of great stuff going on.

      Don't believe me? Break out your old cassette player and listen to it again. The album has some good-bordering-on-great songs, including some legitimate hits: "Desire," "Angel of Harlem," and "All I Want Is You" (easily one of my Top Ten U2 song, which actually got even more popular in 1994, when it was used in the film Reality Bites.)

      And, while they may not have been "hits" necessarily, two other songs-- "When Love Comes to Town" and "God Part II"-- got some radio play back in the day. Bottom line: the album's not a bad listen, all things considered.

      And yet, the stink of the "U2 backlash" still lingers over Rattle and Hum, and that's actually what I want to talk about here. Why was there a backlash? Was it just because of the movie? Was it overexposure? Was it because the album came so soon after The Joshua Tree, making it seem like Joshua Tree Junior? (Or maybe Joshua Shrub? No? Joshua Bush?)

      Me, I wonder if the backlash over Rattle and Hum had more to do with its predecessor than with the album itself. Remember, The Joshua Tree made U2 the biggest band in the entire world. It was mega-mega-successful-- which may have been one "mega" too many. Maybe the general public-- including the fans who shepherded the band along the way to super-stardom-- wanted to see them brought down a few pegs.

      I'm likening it to the Red Sox. In 2004, when they were chasing the World Series championship, everyone loved them. Their "idiotic-underdog" chic captured everyone's imagination. They continued to coast on that goodwill in 2005, despite some serious post-World Series overexposure. But by the time they won the World Series in 2007, things changed somewhat.

      Oh, they're still crazy-popular. They still sell out Fenway. But you know what's changed? The phenomenon of playing in an opposing team's stadium and hearing half the fans cheer for the Red Sox-- that's changed. That showed, to me, that the Sox were no longer media darlings, no longer "America's" ballclub.

      And maybe their success had a lot to do with that: They loved the Sox when they were scratching their way to the top. When they got to the top... they moved on to something else. Even worse: they wanted to tear them down. Maybe the same can be said for U2 in the case of Rattle and Hum.

      So, yes, I understand that backlash happens, that in many ways it's inevitable, but I'm still not sure why it happens. Is it a product of overexposure? Are people disappointed? Bored? Ready to move on to something else? Or is it resentment? Do people resent when a band, team, friend, colleague makes it? Do we resent someone else's fame and success?

      I don't know... but the backlash phenomenon is powerful enough to make me wish this blog is never successful. My skin just isn't that thick.

      Sunday, November 30, 2008

      Society is the Spice of Life

      Many Thanksgivings ago, my father told me something that has stayed with me ever since.

      “Society,” he decreed, “is the spice of life.”

      First, some context: Dad made this declaration in response to a story I was relating, one of my “life as a teacher” chestnuts involving a pedagogical pet peeve of mine: the tendency of high school students to heap all worldly ills onto the hump of an amorphous entity known only as “society.”

      According to my students, “society” is the root of all evil. In their essays and during class discussions, they rail about how “society” dictates what we all wear or buy or listen to. (Don’t worry: teens still wear and buy and listen to these things. But some of them, at least, resent it.)

      Gender stereotyping, conformity, ozone depletion, telemarketers calling during dinner—my students pin it all on “society.”

      And sometimes it gets personal: as a student once ominously wrote, “I was betrayed by society.”

      And yet, teenagers aren’t the only ones guilty of slinging the “society-blame”; adults do it all the time. Last fall, for example, two Michigan teens, Jean Pierre Orlewicz (17) and Alexander James Letkemann (18), murdered, then burned, then beheaded a 26-year-old man named Daniel Sorenson. Responding to the brutality of the crime, prosecutor Kym Worthy said, “It makes us think and ask a lot of questions about our society.”

      Well, yes… but shouldn’t it first make us think and ask a lot of questions about Orlewicz and Letkemann?

      “Society-blaming” has become so pervasive, it even got parodied on NBC’s The Office. The show’s September 25th premier treated viewers to this exchange, between dumb boss Michael Scott and dumbfounded employee Jim Halpert:

      Michael: “We are here because there is something wrong with society.”
      Jim: “See, you’re always saying there’s something wrong with society, but… maybe there’s some wrong with you.”
      Michael: “If it’s me, then society made me that way.”

      Does an array of factors influence our actions and decisions? Absolutely. But using “society” as a fail-safe scapegoat for every aberrant behavior smacks of laziness. And even more insidious than that: society-blaming, to me, somehow exonerates the people who actually do bad things. No one person does anything wrong anymore, because seemingly everyone does everything wrong. And if we blame everyone, aren’t we effectively blaming no one?

      So, just what is “society,” anyway, and why does it always seem to cultivate such nasty behaviors? And who lives in “society”? Me? Do I live there? And if so, what does that say about me?

      I haven’t ironed out any real answers, but as far as I can tell, “society” is inhabited by “they”—you know, that ambiguous “they” who serve as the go-to source for all the day’s pressing issues. (“You know what they say about ‘Tag’? It ruins kids’ self-esteem.”)

      While living in this “society,” “they” seem to spend a lot of time doing “research” or conducting “studies,” which no one has actually read but everyone can reference (e.g. the “studies” that say bacon is good for you).

      Moreover, “society” seems to be run by the “government,” an untrustworthy, Big-Brotherly system that keeps us in the dark about bad guys in our midst or earth-devouring black holes.

      But even more powerful than the “government” is the “media,” an insidious network that basically forces the good citizens of “society” to buy products they don’t need and vote for candidates they never respected.

      Finally, what can’t be blamed on the “government,” the “media,” and all those “studies” can always be chalked up to “human nature”—a convenient card to play whenever you want to defend questionable behavior.

      Incidentally, even as I’m saying this, I am fully aware this diatribe against generalizations is sort of generalization in itself. And even a not-so-astute Dunder Mifflin employee could accurately point out that, by suggesting my students have picked up their society-condemning tendencies from adults, I’m blaming their fascination with “society” on (for lack of another term) society. Which brings me to two final points about society-blaming:

      (1) It’s scape-goating, an easy way to avoid asking hard questions; and

      (2) Like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving night, it’s really hard to resist. (Spice of life, indeed!)

      Wednesday, November 19, 2008

      No, Not That "Twilight"

      All this hubbub over the film version of Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" got me thinking about another book with the same name, a fascinating text I used to teach about eight or nine years ago: Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

      Smith's Twilight may not involve vampires, but its main topic is a dark one nonetheless: the Los Angeles riots from April 1992.

      In case you're unfamiliar with the L.A. riots, a little history lesson: in March 1991, four white L.A. police officers were caught on tape brutalizing a black motorist named Rodney King. A year later, the four police officers were tried-- and acquitted. That verdict ignited a literal and figurative firestorm, as rioters set fire to over twenty-five blocks of central L.A.

      The riots lasted for three days, from April 29th to May 1st-- three days of beatings and burning and looting that caused damage to more than 3,000 businesses. In the end, according to the Los Angeles Times, the uprising resulted in 12,111 arrests, 2,383 injuries, and 58 deaths.

      Not long after, Anna Deavere Smith-- an actress and playwright who was also, at the time, a drama professor at Stanford-- was commissioned to write a one-woman show about this frightening moment in time. To probe into the very heart of the cataclysm, Smith interviewed approximately two hundred people who actually experienced the riots. These interviews became the material for her show, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Or, more accurately, these interviews were the show.

      The play is comprised of approximately twenty-five different monologues, all performed by Smith, who would assume the identifies of her interviewees. Even more extraordinary: the material for these monologues were the verbatim words taken from her interviews.

      Because her characters are actual people whose actual words inform the script, Smith's work is sometimes "documentary theatre." The Laramie Project falls into the same category. The difference, of course, is that Anna Deavere Smith (an African-American woman) plays every single one of these "actual people" on the stage-- no matter if that person is male, female, white, black, Korean, Latino. The resulting performance was described in a June 28, 1993 Newsweek article as "an American materpiece."

      Now, I never saw Smith perform Twilight live, but I have seen the PBS-produced film version, which came out in 2000. And, of course, I read the print version, which Smith describes as a "companion to the theater experience."

      Obviously, watching Smith's performance-- witnessing the way she morphs into these differnt characters-- is critical to the experience; however, the book can still stand on its own. In fact, Twilight more than stands on its own as a work of literature.

      The book version provides the transcripts of all the interviews/ monologues she ever performed, along with additional interviews she never included in her stage versions. Some of the most compelling interviews (in my opinion, at least) include the following:

      • Daryl Gates, former chief of the L.A. Police Department, who voices, four times during his interview, his indignant dismay that he has become "the symbol of police oppression" in the United States, "just because some officers whacked Rodney King."

      • Elvira Evers, a pregnant Panamanian woman who was shot during the riots. Doctors had to remove the baby, who survived but was born with "the bullet in her elbow." This miraculously saved both their lives: Elvira said that if her baby "didn't caught it in her arm, me and her would be dead."

      • Maxine Waters, California congresswoman whose office was burned down during the riots. Waters, in possibly the most poignant line from the book, describes riots as "the voice of the unheard."

      • Walter Park, a Korean store ownder who was shot through the eye during the upheaval and had to have part of his frontal lobe removed.

      • Reginald Denny, a motorist who was famously pulled from his truck during the chaos and beaten to the point of unconsciousness; in an eerie echo of the Rodney King, Denny's attack was also catured on film and aired on the news. In his monologue, he says one day he's going to have "riot room" in his house, but it will be a "happy room"-- a place to put all the "funny notes and the ltters form faraway places" he received in the wake of his ordeal.

      • "Anonymous Young Woman," an affluent student at the University of Southern California who was worried that the riots would reach her neighborhood and that someone would throw a bottle at one of her father's antique cars. "One bottle," she says, "one shear from one bottle in my father's car, he will die. He will die!" (Naturally, the irony of those words are lost on her.)

      • Twilight Bey, an ex-gang member who delivers the last monologue in the book and whose name became the title of the play. Twilight is trying to organize a truce between gangs in L.A. but he realizes his ideas are not always accepted. He's called "Twilight" because, as a mediator between opposing forces, he's stuck in-between: "Limbo, I call it limbo... I'm in an area not many people exist."
      Obviously, this review is incomplete, but I wanted to give readers a taste of this provocative, thoroughly original, and oft-overlooked work. Check it out if you get a chance. And if you live in Arizona, you can see Anna Deavere Smith in a new one-woman show called The Arizona Project, which debuted November 5th. (You can also check out Smith on early episodes of The West Wing, playing National Security Advisor Nancy McNally. OK, no more plugs.)

      Sunday, November 16, 2008

      The Great Desk Debate

      Decisions, decisions-- teachers have to make them all the time, and they're often of the "behind-the-scenes" variety, the kinds of deliberations that non-teacher-folk would rarely even consider.

      Here's one of them: rows or circles? Or, in other words: Do you arrange the desks in rows or in a circle?

      It's a real issue. Traditionally (if we're to believe all those Norman Rockwell prints), it seems teachers have always set their classrooms in rows, and intertia, after all, is responsible for many decisions in big institutions like schools. (Why else do you think we’re still reading snoozers like Jane Eyre?)

      But is this arrangement the best way? What about all those kids who hide in the back of the room? Besides, configuring the classroom in this way reinforces this idea that the teacher is the one dispensing all the answers, and the students just passively take it all in.

      On the other hand, arranging the desks in a circle suggests community and equality. No one voice, not even the teacher’s, is more important than any other, and the circle (what Paschal called the perfect shape, with all points an equal distance from the center) reflects that idea.

      With the circular layout (or something like a circle-- a horseshoe, say), no one is sitting behind anyone else, which means students have an easier time actually “seeing” each other and thus talking to each other. Also, since no one can “hide” in the back, the circle encourages the more reserved students to participate.

      Morever, the circular arrangement, with the teacher as just another curious and interested voice in that circle, goes a long way to helping students see that not every idea has to be filtered, somehow, through the teacher. While not a guarantee, the circular set-up tends to allow for better, and more student-centered, discussions. (Certainly, more things go into an effective discussion—the choice of text, the enthusiasm of the students, the number of students who actually did their homework, etc.—but the circle configuration can definitely help.)

      And, I think students recognize all this. In fact, if you usually have your desks in a circle, and you put them back into rows for whatever reason, they notice. (You can even use this rearrangement to your advantage, as a "punishment" for the students, a reminder of what class could be like if they don't shape up.)

      However, the circular set-up isn’t completely perfect, despite what Paschal might say.

      If a plus of the circle is that it gets students talking, a minus us that it gets students talking—when they’re supposed to be listening. Obviously, sitting right next to a peer, or in between two peers, intensifies the temptation to chat. For some, the undercurrent of chatting might outweigh the benefits of the rich discussions. As one of my colleagues once said, after she gave the circle arrangement a try: “There were just too many Chatty Cathies.”

      Also, the circle configuration may not be the best for tests and quizzes; for some, just knowing the right answer might be just a few inches away may be too much.

      So what's the answer to the "row vs. circle" debate? Ultimately, the idealist in me knows that arranging the desks in a circle contributes to important discussions. On the other hand, the realist in me knows some practical considerations get in the way. For example...

      If you are sharing a room with colleagues (which I do), you both have to be on the same page as far as the desk arrangement. If not, that means you have to move the desks every time you want to have a discussion—and move them back at the end.

      Taking a minute out of class to rearrange the desks into a circle-- not a big deal, especially since you're enlisting the students' help. Getting the desks back into rows for the next guy who's coming in after you-- that's where things het hairy.

      At the end of class, you’re trying to collect homework, this student has a question, that student needs you to sign something. Then the bell rings, and everyone bolts. Meanwhile you’re left trying to put twenty-desks back into rows before the next period. And it's not like you don't have things you need to do before youre next class.

      As always, it comes down to the issue of time. My school, Glastonbury High, has 45-minute periods; as it is, we have hardly any time to waste. To take up time at the beginning and at the end to move desks may not be the most effective use of instructional time.

      Me, I compromise. I have my A.P. English classes get themselves into a circle every day; other classes, I only have them get into a circle on days when I know we're going to have what I like to call a "Life-Altering Discussion of Literature" (that's for another column).

      Ideally, I wish I could have the desks permanently in a circle. I think arranging desks in a circle is excellent in theory and often in practice; unfortunately,as with virtually everything in education, we do have to attend to practical issues. What do you folks think?

      Wednesday, November 12, 2008

      Back to Reality

      I just got back from a family trip to Walt Disney World. Truly the great American pilgrimage. And if there's a better way to feel like a kid again, I don't know what that is.

      They call the park the "Magic Kingdom," and it really is-- if only because of its ability to yank back to the surface all of that childhood innocence laying dormant in the depths your jaded adult soul. I mean, when you're there, you actually fall into believing that Chip and Dale are legitimate celebrities, not some guys in fuzzy suits. Talk about magic.

      Unfortunately, that time-transcending magic ran out at about 1:17 on the Tuesday I came back to school. Not because I was back at work, but because of a tragicomic exchange I had with a group of students.

      Here's the deal: I was talking to a student right after class. Now, this student is definitely Big Man on Campus: the star quarterback, varsity lacrosse player, brilliant student. Amazingly, he's also just about the humblest guy you'll ever meet.

      So, he and I talking in the doorway, and I notice that two female students are waiting in the hallway. When I asked my student if these two girls were waiting for him, he confirmed that they were. So I say, as a joke, "What are you, the Fonz or something?"

      Blank stares.

      "You've heard of the Fonz, right?" I ask all three of them.

      "I think so," one girl hazards. "He was on that 70's show, right?"

      "Well, yeah," I say, thankful that this pop culture icon is not lost on the youth. "It was on during the 70's..."

      "No," the girl corrects me. "I mean the show called 'That 70's Show.' Wasn't there a character called Fonz?"

      "No, that's Fez!" I'm crushed at this point. "The Fonz was on 'Happy Days.' It was like, the number one show for years. Please tell me you've heard of it!"

      "Well, when was it on, again?" the other girl asks me.

      "Late 70's, early 80's," I answer. And this is where the magic officially stops.

      "Are you kidding me?" both girls answer. "We were born in 1991!"

      That's the rub with teaching high school kids, I guess: you're getting older, but the kids keep getting younger.

      Wednesday, November 5, 2008

      Simile and Metaphor Lyric Game!

      Obviously, I want to comment on the historic election of Barack Obama, and if I weren't so pressed for time, I would. But for now, I guess I'll just say the following:

      Yes we did.

      Now then...

      I see myself being too busy to post anything for the next few days, but I wanted to get something up here. (This blogging stuff is all inertia, I'm discovering; once you go a few days without posting, it becomes way too easy to keep not posting.) So, I'm offering up to cyberspace, completely free of charge, my Simile and Metaphor Song Lyric Game. Woo-hoo!

      Here's the deal: each song title below contains a simile or metaphor. Either the song title is actually a simile or metaphor (e.g. Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number” or Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock”). Or the title is excerpted from a line in the song that includes a simile or metaphor (e.g. the title of Bon Jovi’s song is “Bad Medicine,” from the lyric “your love is like bad medicine”; the Hall and Oates song is “Maneater,” but the lyric is “She’s a maneater”). Got it?

      Song and artist, please. Answers follow. (Hint: For some reason, there are more simile answers than metaphor ones. I was in a simile mood, I guess…)

      1. “I’m on the hunt, I’m after you”

      2. “Through all these cities and all these towns, it’s in my blood and it’s all around”

      3. “So what is wrong with a night of sin?”

      4. “Believe me, believe me, I can’t tell you why, but I’m trapped by your love, and I’m chained to your side”

      5. “I’m high as a kite, I just might stop to check you out”

      6. “I’m a consecrated boy, a singer in a Sunday choir”

      7. “You’re looking for gold, you’re turning away a fortune in feelings but someday you’ll pay”

      8. “Here we are now, entertain us”

      9. “At night I wake up with my sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head”

      10. “Just a fool to believe I am anything she needs”

      11. “You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal”

      12. “And I stood arrow straight unencumbered by the weight of all these hustlers and their schemes”

      13. “Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky”

      14. “Just like a muse to me, you are a mystery”

      15. “Your love thawed out what was scared and cold”

      16. “I had to stop in my tracks for fear of walking on the mines that lay”

      17. “Who’s to say they way a man should spend his days? Do you let them smolder?”

      18. “Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future”

      19. “I found myself alone, alone, alone above a raging sea that stole the only girl I loved and drowned her deep inside of me”

      20. “All I know is that to me you look like you’re lots of fun”

      21. “There comes a time when you heed a certain call”

      22. “They set you on the treadmill, and they made you change your name”

      23. “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now”

      24. “No dark sarcasm in the classroom”

      25. “I took it all for granted but how was I to know that you’d be letting go?”


      1. "Hungry LIke The Wolf," Duran Duran
      2. "Life is a Highway," Tom Cochrane (or Rascal Flatts)
      3. "Rock You Like a Hurricane," Scorpions
      4. "Love is a Battlefield," Pat Benetar
      5. "Blister in the Sun," Violent Femmes
      6. "Loves Me Like a Rock," Paul Simon
      7. "Cold as Ice," Foreigner
      8. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana
      9. "I'm on Fire," Bruce Springsteen
      10. "She's Like the Wind," Patrick Swayze
      11. "Like a Rolling Stone," Bob Dylan
      12. "LIke a Rock," Bob Seger
      13. "Dust in the Wind," Kansas
      14. "Like a Prayer," Madonna
      15. "Like a Virgin," Madonna
      16. "Fortress Around Your Heart," Sting
      17. "Paper in Fire," John Mellencamp
      18. "Fly Like an Eagle," Steve Miller Band
      19. "Just Like Heaven," The Cure
      20. "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)," Dead or Alive
      21. "We Are the World," USA for Africa
      22. "Candle in the Wind," Elton John
      23. "Stairway to Heaven," Led Zeppelin
      24. "Another Brick in the Wall," Pink Floyd
      25. "Cuts Like a Knife," Bryan Adams

      Monday, November 3, 2008

      You're Not Really a Teacher Unless...

      Last week, Native-American author Sherman Alexie appeared on Stephen Colbert-- which got me thinking about Alexie's novel Reservation Blues, which got me thinking about this line that has stuck with me for the past nine years.

      In the book, Alexie has one of his characters, a Native-American woman named Chess Warm Water, say, “You ain’t really Indian unless there was some point in your life that you didn’t want to be.”

      Well, I've come to put my own spin on it: you’re not really a teacher unless at some point in your life you didn’t want to be.

      Personally, those “points in your life” happened to me all the time-- daily, maybe even hourly-- during my first year of teaching high school.

      You have to know a few things: I have been teaching English for twelve years; I’ve taught college, adult ed, and high school; I regard teaching as perhaps the most important and most noble profession that exists; and my first year teaching high school, I absolutely hated it.

      Hated everything about it, as a matter of fact. Hated the hours: waking up inhumanly early after staying up late preparing the night before. Hated the never-ending paperload. Really hated seeing how quickly the essays I spent a weekend correcting would end up in the trash can.

      I hated the breakneck pace, how things never seemed to let up. I hated “re-creating the wheel” every day, trying to come up with ways to fill up the interminable forty-five minute class period. I hated watching a “can’t miss” activity, one that I painstakingly created, bomb before my eyes.

      And while I won't go so far to say "hate," I think it's safe to say that, for most of that first year, a really, really big part of me couldn't stand the kids. Pretty much everything they did drove me up the wall: how they wouldn’t stop complaining about everything we did; how they kept asking when we could watch a movie; how they complained about my choice of movie when we actually got around to watching one. (“Why can’t we watch ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’”)

      I couldn't stand how they wouldn't shut up, how I couldn’t get them to respect me, how I had no classroom management, and how every one in the room knew it.

      Most of all, I hated what the job was doing to me and my relationships. I hated hearing myself unload, once again, another “woe is me” speech on my wife. I hated seeing my general “Mr. Optimist Prime” personality rot away, as I slowly became someone I didn’t recognize, Sir Cynicism, complete with a new philosophy of “Why am I working harder than anyone else? Screw it!” I hated that guy.

      You get the idea. Basically, hundreds of times that first year, I thought about quitting. And if I didn’t have two small children to support, I probably would have.

      That was then. Now, it's a thousand times better, obviously-- especially in terms of my feelings about the students. Now they make the job, when they used to break it.

      But some things-- the unrelenting pace, the crazy hours, and especially, the astronomical paperload-- have remained the essentially same.

      This past weekend, I probably spent sixteen hours correcting papers; I was still correcting at 9 pm Saturday night. I'm still not done.

      You think, during that marathon correcting spree, I didn't experience a few of those points when I didn't want to be a teacher?

      Of course, there's another side, too. Just last night, I was thumbing through Alexie's Reservation Blues, and I came across another great line, also said by Chess Warm Water: "Can't you handle it? You want the good stuff of being an Indian without all the bad stuff?"

      Well, that's the other side, isn't it? The interactions with the kids, the rush of seeing learning happen, the thrill of learning something new yourself, the laughter, the hugs at graduation, the sense of amazement you feel when somehow it all seems worth it-- yeah, that's the good stuff. (And summers aren't bad either.)

      How can anyone expect the good stuff of being a teacher without the bad stuff too?

      Saturday, October 25, 2008

      It's Been a Hard Day's Night... And I've Been Working Like a Dog

      Man, I've been so busy... I never sent my fan letter to Ringo Starr before the deadline! What's a man to do?

      Don't know what I'm talking about? Well, a few weeks ago, the former Beatle made it known, via a short video on his website, that he would not be answering any more fan mail after October 20th. Here's the complete transcript of this blockbuster announcement:

      "This is a serious message to everybody watching my update right now. Peace and love, peace and love. I want to tell you, please, after the 20th of October, do not send fan mail to any address that you have. Nothing will be signed after the 20th of October. If that has a date on the envelope, it's gonna be tossed. I'm warning you with peace and love, but I have too much to do. So no more fan mail. Thank you, thank you. And no objects to be signed. Nothing. Uh... anyway, peace and love, peace and love."

      This raises a few questions:

      (1) How much fan mail are you actually getting, Ringo?

      (2) Aren't you rich and famous? Don't you have, like, people who could answer your fan mail for you? And if you don't have people... hire some! Have you never heard of this concept?

      (3) Why October 20th? What was so special about that day?

      (4) Don't you think that your "peace and love" comments somewhat conflict with your insistence that we collectively buzz off and leave you alone?

      (5) I mean, honestly: you're Ringo freakin' Starr! How much fan mail could you possibly be getting nowadays?

      Ringo unleashed his "I have too much to do" message just about the same time I was getting slammed with stuff to do at work. Notice I haven't written any posts in the past week? Oh, I've been writing, all right: in fact, I'm up to the tippity top of my balding head in requests to write college recommendations letters.

      Now, understand: I don't mind writing these letters. My students need them, and I'll do whatever I can to help my students. And so, even though writing these letters isn't something any teacher is contractually obligated to do, I nonetheless consider it part of my job.

      But it takes time. This week, I wrote tweleve letters; I still have maybe eight more. Each one takes forty-five minutes to an hour for me to write. (I'm convinced the college admissions people probably spend about a minute skimming each letter over, maybe less. But that's a rant for another time.)

      Of course, no school will give the teacher time to write these letters. Normal life still goes on. You still have to teach your classes, create your lessons, try to make a dent into your ever-expanding mound of papers.

      At some point, you'll try to spend some time with your family. And maybe you'll devote a smidgen of time on your own personal creative pursuits... like that blog you haven't touched in a week. But don't count on it.

      Amazingly, you do it. You do it all. As Joe the High School Teacher (no relation to Joe the Plumber), you write those letters. And meet with kids outside of class to talk about their college essays. And coach sports. And direct plays. And advise the Robotics club. (No, I'm no longer talking about myself here. The "you" here is Joe the High School Teacher, remember. I'm not saying I coach a sport or direct plays or advise the Robotics club. I'm just talking about the kinds of extra stuff that high school teachers do beyond their actual jobs. Get it?)

      Again, I hope this doesn't come off as "Woe is I." (Yes, that's grammatically correct.) I think teaching is the noblest, most rewarding job in the world, and I'm glad it found me. And I don't mind writing the letters or reading the essays or doing anything else for my students, because they have given me so much in return.

      But I am saying this: Who the hell do you think you are, Ringo Starr?

      How can you honestly look into cyberspace and tell your fans-- the people who gave you your livelihood-- that you can't answer their letters? And give as your reason that you "have too much to do"? "Too much to do"... are you kidding me, Ringo? What exactly are you doing that's so time-consuming, anyway? You're Ringo, after all, not Bono.

      So, here's my appeal to Ringo Starr: Spend one week-- just one week-- as a high school teacher. Or at any real-- i.e. non-Elder-Statesman-of-Rock-- job. Then re-evaluate what it means to have "too much to do."

      Peace and love, peace and love-- except I actually mean it.

      Wednesday, October 15, 2008

      She's Baaack... But Why?

      This has nothing to do with teaching... but it has to be said.

      I watched a lot of Red Sox on TBS over the past week, and I saw the same creepy commercial about twelve times. And I don't mean the Viagra commercial with the randy old guy dancing around his house.

      No, I'm talking about the Direct TV commercial based on the 1982 film Poltergeist. By now, you probably know the deal with these commercials: the Direct TV folks, using their way-cool CGI wizardry, can take actors and put them back into some of their familiar roles.

      So they insert new footage of Sigourney Weaver into 1987 Aliens scenes, or they take a modern Robert Patrick and have him reprise his role as the evil-liquid-metal-guy from Terminator 2.

      Most recently, Craig T. (which stands for "The Guy from Coach") Nelson filmed a Direct TV ad in which he finds himself in the same haunted house from over 25 years ago.

      The commercial also reunites Mr. Nelson with that little girl from Poltergeist, Heather O'Rourke, the one who said those iconic words, "They're here."

      Brinigng the two back together would be kinda sweet, except for one thing: Heather O'Rourke died 20 years ago, at the age of 12.

      Somehow, putting Heather O'Rourke in this commercial strikes me as all kinds of wrong, even though I can't exactly explain why. I didn't mind when Tom Hanks shook hands with JFK or sat next to John Lennon in Forrest Gump. When Celine Dion sang with Elvis on that American Idol special, I was impressed. And I wasn't creeped out when Natalie Cole sang "Unforgettable" with her dead dad. (OK, I'm lying: that was pretty creepy.)

      But at least John Lennon and Elvis and Nat King Cole had careers; maybe Lennon and JFK and Elvis died too young, but not as young as Heather O'Rourke. The girl was twelve years old when she died. Twelve. Her career, her life had just begun. (Then again, she was on the last year of Happy Days. Do you think she got to meet Anson Williams?)

      I know someone will say I'm making too big a deal out of this, but to me, using the image of a dead child in this way seems so irresponsible, on the part of everyone involved. Yes, in some sense, it's cool that the technology exists to resurrect a person who has been dead for twenty years. But, as always, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

      It's just spooky.

      Thursday, October 9, 2008

      "So Help Me Me"; The God-Complex and the American President

      Why would anyone want to be President of the United States?

      It's a legitimate question, this election year more than ever. Whomever we elect is going to inherit an unpopular war, an economy as stable as a 90's-era Robert Downey Jr, a heathcare crisis, and hey, those polar ice caps aren't going to fix themselves. But even in the best of circumstances, you're pretty much guaranteed that half of the populace is going to think you're doing a lousy job.

      So I ask again: what would drive a reasonable person to heap-- willingly, voluntarily-- all this abuse onto himself (or herself)?

      Oh, sure, you can say something about civic duty and love of country. But I have another theory, one that was inspired by one of my favorite TV shows: NBC's "The West Wing."

      For all you non-Wing-nuts out there: "The West Wing" followed the often-tumultuous two terms of President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet (brilliantly played by Martin Sheen). Why "tumultuous"? Well, let's see... over his two terms, President Bartlet got shot; was censured by Congress for not telling the American people about his multiple sclerosis; actually had several MS episodes that left him physically incapacitated; had to find a new vice-president after the first one got caught up in a sex scandal; and stepped down for a short time after his daughter got kidnaped. Plus, he was the butt of a lot of short-guy jokes.

      But you have to say one thing about President Bartlet: he knew how to make an entrance.

      On the very first episode of "The West Wing" (airdate: September 29, 1999), President Bartlet doesn't appear until the last act, when he dramatically interrupts a conversation between his staffers and some members of the religious right. When one of the religious righters says, "The First Commandment is 'honor thy father," communications director Toby Ziegler corrects her, explaining "Honor thy father" is actually the Third Commandment. (It's actually the Fourth Commandment, but hey...)

      In the midst of all this, another religious-guy asks, "So what is the First Commandment?"-- a somewhat unrealistic but nonetheless effective way to introduce President Bartlet, whose authoritative voice booms from the doorway off-screen: "I am the Lord thy God," Bartlet intones. "Thou shalt worship no other God before me."

      Now, President Bartlet is, of course, quoting the First Commandment when he says, "I am the Lord your God." But he is speaking in the first-person, so in a way, he is telling the people in that room that he-- i.e. President Bartlet-- is God.

      This wasn't the last time the Big Guy's name came up in "The West Wing" (and by "Big Guy," I mean God, not Bartlet-- only in this case, the blurring may be appropriate). For at least the first four seasons-- the ones written by Aaron Sorkin-- Bartlet's Catholicism was mentioned repeatedly.

      In the first season, for example, Bartlet grasped rosary beads as he agonized over whether to commute the death sentence of a murderer. He often quoted biblical passages, chapter and verse-- a talent he once used to give a verbal shellacking to a right-wing talk show host who used the Bible as ammunition in her war against homosexuality. ("Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7," Bartlet countered. "If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football?") In the second season, we learn Bartlet, while a student at Notre Dame, had even planned on becoming a priest, until he met his wife Abbey.

      Instead of becoming a priest, Bartlet cuts out the middleman and becomes God-- or at least, the next best thing. Indeed, throughout the first two seasons especially, we see evidence of Bartlet's "God-complex." For example, in the second episode, after an American plane is shot down, a steeled Bartlet promises to attack the perpetrators "with the fury of God's own thunder." In the next episode, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) talks Bartlet down, warning him against "using American military strength as the arm of the Lord."

      And in the second season's finale, "Two Cathedrals," President Bartlet actually calls out God in the National Cathedral, calling Him a "son of a bitch" and putting out his cigarette on the marble floor.

      "To hell with Your punishments," Bartlet hisses. "I was Your servant here on Earth. And I spread Your word and did Your work. To hell with Your punishments. To hell with You." (Incidentally, he said this in Latin; writer Aaron Sorkin claimed he wanted Bartlet to talk to God in God's own language.)

      Even the other characters treat Bartlet as if he were divinity. For example, in the two-part opener for Season 2, we see a flashback detailing how Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) initially joined the Bartlet campaign. Sam was going to be made partner at a major New York law firm, but when his friend and Bartlet convert Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) showed up at his office, he literally dropped everything to come aboard. Is this or is this not an echo of the biblical story of Jesus convincing his apostles to leave their nets-- and basically their livelihood-- and become "fishers of men"?

      Now, Aaron Sorkin never used the term "God-complex" during his tenure as "The West Wing" head scribe. But it should be noted that he did use the term in the movie, Malice (for which Sorkin wrote the screenplay). In the movie, Alec Baldwin's character makes a memorable speech which concludes with the following: "You ask me if I have a God-complex. Let me tell you something. I am God." The name of Baldwin's character: Dr. JED Hill.

      Yes, Sorkin does famously recycle names. (Over the course of the series, Josh Lyman saw two psychiatrists named Stanley-- what are the odds?) But the fact that Sorkin had already created a character named Jed who boasted "I am God" could lend credence to the argument that President Jed Bartlet also have a deep-rooted God-complex. After all, doesn't the president have more power than a single doctor?

      So, to get back to my thesis: for at least the first two seasons, Aaron Sorkin made the case that the President of the United States-- not his fictional president one, but the actual commander in chief-- may not only have a "God complex," he (or she) may very well want to BE God.

      If you think about it, what else but a compelling desire to be the most important person on the planet (in theory) could drive someone to take on such stress, such anxiety, such unparalleled headaches?

      So we're left with this comundrum: We want our presidents to be smart, level-headed, and reasonable, but the very desire to be president suggests that this person must have something wrong with him (or her).

      Presidential paradox, indeed.

      (By the way, the divine Bartlet was resurrected a few weeks ago, when Aaron Sorkin wrote a piece for the New York Times detailing a meeting between Bartlet and Barack Obama. Always good to see President Bartlet again. How come our real candidates can't be more like him?)

      Monday, October 6, 2008

      Last Person on Earth

      There’s a pseudo-famous short story, usually called something like “The World’s Shortest Short Story" or even “The World’s Shortest Horror Story,” that is so short that I can re-print it here in its entirety:

      “The last person on earth sat alone in a room.
      There was a knock at the door.”

      No one knows the writer, but I wish I did, because I would pay this person some seriously righteous homage. I love this story. How can you not? The ambiguity allows for so many questions, so many interpretations.

      Why is this person the last man on earth? Was there some nuclear apocalypse? Who’s coming to the door? Is this person coming to save him? Kill him? Is there even another person at the door, or has the guy gone insane, after being alone for so long?

      Me, I prefer a more optimistic interpretation—namely, that the story is about making human connections. I always believed the guy in the story wasn’t really the last person on earth; he just felt so lonely and isolated that he believed he was all alone in the world. But now someone else is knocking at his door, reaching out to him, breaking his isolation.

      I show my students this story every year, to illustrate not only ambiguity but also reading strategies, such as inferencing, questioning, and even connecting. In fact, I can connect personally to this story.

      The “World’s Shortest Short Story,” you see, reminds me of my first year teaching high school. Why? Because basically, for about six months of that first year, I was that man from the story, the last man on earth, all alone.

      Oh, I wasn’t really alone, naturally. But teaching, by its very nature, can be a very isolating job. Some try to put a positive spin on it, say you have a lot of “autonomy.” But really the job can be very insulated and isolated.

      “Now, hold on!” the non-teacher might counter. “How can you complain about large class sizes and then turn around and say you’re too ‘isolated’?” Ah, touché…but when I say “isolated,” I’m not talking about a complete lack of human contact. I’m talking about the lack of meaningful interaction with peers, other adults, folks who actually share your pain and can help you get through it.

      Don’t get me wrong: my first year teaching high school, I had some great colleagues, and when I went to them for help, I always got it. But they couldn’t help me every minute of every day. Most of the time, just dealing with their own classes, their own separate universes, took up all of their energies.

      And all I knew about these other universes is that good things seemed to be happening there. Meanwhile, my own universe seemed ready to collapse in on itself any second and form a black hole.

      So, take the natural isolation that comes with the teaching territory, and heap on the feelings of anxiety from believing you’re not only the worst teacher in the building, but quite possibly the worst that’s ever lived—and, yeah, you might feel like the last person on earth, too.
      So what sustained me during that first year? What brought me some small degree of comfort, made it possible to keep showing up? Simple: stories.

      And no, by “stories,” I don’t mean To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye (even though they did buoy me up plenty of times). I’m talking about the stories other teachers told me about their first years.

      I’m not sure when or why I decided to ask other teachers about their own first-year experiences, but I talked to pretty much every teacher I knew that year. Not for advice, necessarily, but for anecdotes. And the more people I asked, the clearer two truths became:

      (1) “Man, some of these teachers have some really crappy first years!” and

      (2) “They want to tell me these stories. Even the really bad stories. And they’re laughing as they tell them. Somehow, they’re proud of these stories.”

      Ultimately, their stories eased my mind. And it’s not just because “misery loves company,” although that probably had something to do with it. And it wasn’t just this egocentric schadenfreudic reaction, where I found comfort in knowing someone else had it worse—although, who are we kidding?, that didn’t hurt, either. But I think it was something else: these stories helped me so much because they were my knock at the door.

      That’s right: the knock. The knock that told me I wasn’t alone in the universe. The knock that made me realize, “You mean someone else has felt what I’m feeling? Someone else has been overwhelmed by the work, the students, the doubt?” The knock that convinced me, almost against my better judgment, to keep going with this crazy teaching thing. The knock that ultimately saved my career.

      You know, I’ve seen some websites made up entirely of rejection letters—the premise being that if you’re an aspiring writer discouraged by all the rejection letters you’ve received, and you see that everyone gets rejection letters, maybe you won’t feel so discouraged any more. In fact, maybe you’ll feel a sense of community with all of these people.

      I have yet to find a place like that on the Internet for first-year teachers—a place where they could retreat to when they’re feeling low and read stories from people who have lived to tell the tale. Maybe this can be that place.

      So, to any teachers out there who might read this: Why not send in a few of your stories from the trenches? Maybe some new teacher will read them. Maybe you’ll inspire that new teacher to go to work the next day. But mostly, maybe you'll help him realize he’s not alone in the universe.

      Knock, knock.

      Saturday, October 4, 2008

      More Lines with Thorny Rhymes

      Last summer, I posted some musings about popular songs that contained what I call "thorny rhymes"-- also known as slant rhymes or misrhymes or even just bad rhymes.

      I christened them "thorny rhymes" in honor of the song which contains possibly the best (worst?) example of such ridiculous rhyming: Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." You do remember the chorus, don't you?

      Every rose has its thorn
      Just like every night has its dawn
      Just like every cowboy sings its sad, sad song
      Every rose has its thorn

      Now, maybe back in the 80s, people thought the words "thorn," "dawn," and "song" rhymed. Of course, back then, people also considered Lionel Richie a sex symbol. Now we know better.

      (Incidentally, in the category of the Thorniest Rhymes of All-Time, Steve Miller Band's "Take The Money and Run" can actually give Poison a run for that aforementioned money, thanks to following lyrical wizardry:

      Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas
      You know he knows just exactly what the facts is
      He's not gonna let those two escape justice
      He makes his living off other people's taxes

      Maybe not as egregious as the "thorn"/"dawn"/"song" combo... but pretty close.)

      And now, to the clamor of exactly no one, I present... a whole new batch of thorny rhymes!

      Miley Cryus, "See You Again"

      I've got a way of knowin' when something is right
      I feel like I must have known you in another life
      'Cause I felt this deep connection when you looked in my eyes
      Now I can't wait to see you again

      Now, I like this song. I do. I fully admit it. I like the "Sunglasses at Night"-esque tune. I like the shout-out to her best friend Lesley. I even like the st-st-stutter line (which cost her millions, I'm sure, in potential endorsements from the National Stuttering Association).

      But trying to pass of "right," "life" and "eyes" as rhymes? What kind of shoddy lyric-writing is that? Come on, Miley-- what are you, sixteen or something? (Oh, wait...)

      Huey Lewis and the News, "I Know What I Like"

      I like things that don't change
      Because the more something changes, the more it stays the same
      I might be simple, take it easy sometimes
      But I can be stubborn when I've made up my mind

      Here, Zen-Master Huey was probably hoping he had bent your brain so profoundly that you wouldn't notice the lyrics didn't actually rhyme.

      Now, stay with me: first, he says he likes things that don't change. Then he qualifies that statement with the oft-quoted truism that the more things change, the more it stays the same.

      So, if we return to the first statement with that qualifier in mind, he's actually saying he likes things that don't stay the same. Ergo, he likes change.

      So when he says that he likes things that don't change, he's actually saying he likes change.

      How's your mind, unsuspecting blog-reader-- blown?

      Alanis Morrisette, "Ironic"

      It's like rain on your wedding day
      It's a free ride when you've already paid
      It's the good advice that you just didn't take
      And who would've thought, it figures

      While everyone was so busy gleefully pointing out how this song contains no actual examples of irony, Alanis snuck under the rhyming radar with "day," "paid," and "take." (And, no, that's not ironic, either... just sneaky.)

      While we're on the subject... something has always bothered me about the Alanis song "Hand in My Pocket," which contains the following:

      What it all comes down to
      is that everything's gonna be quite all right
      I've got one hand in my pocket
      And the other one is flicking a cigarette

      What it all comes down to
      Is that I haven't got it all figured out just yet
      I've got one hand in my pocket
      And the other one is giving a peace sign

      Now, these lines don't rhyme... which is fine, since nothing in the entire song rhymes. Hey, no crime there, if that's what she's going for. But why not simply switch the "cigarette" line with the "peace sign" line, to rhyme "cigarette" with "yet"? It seems such an easy and logical rhyme to make.

      (Maybe this was an overlong set-up for a small point, but this has bugged me for the last thirteen years. Thanks for letting me get this off my chest. I feel better.)

      Don McLean, "American Pie"

      Bad news on the doorstep
      I couldn't take one more step

      Ah, one of my favorite Rhyme-Crimes: Rhyming a Word with Itself and Hoping No One Will Notice.

      You can find other great examples of this in Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" ("It's plain to see we're over/ And I hate when things are over"), in Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" ("You don't have to read my mind/ To know what I have in mind"), and even in the great Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" ("I could have another you in a minute/ Matter fact, he'll be here in a minute").

      And yet, maybe we can give Don McLean a pass on this one, because (a) the song is nearly-eight minutes and about six billion lines long, so one off-rhyme is no so bad; (b) it's one of those great Deeper Meaning songs, even if no one exactly knows what that Deeper Meaning is; and (c) let's face it: "American Pie" and "Vincent" are really all the guy's got. I say, let's not ruin Don's one shot at immortality by quibbling over a thorny rhyme.

      Neil Diamond's "I Am... I Said"

      "I am"... I said
      To no one there
      And no one heard at all
      Not even the chair

      "Now, hold on," the astute reader may say, "these lyrics do rhyme. So what are they doing on this here list?"

      Of course, you're right: these lyrics do, in fact, rhyme. But I wanted to include them because they're just patently absurd.

      Hey, I like Neil Diamond, and I like the song. But... "not even the chair"?? Not even the chair??? Inexcusable. What does that even mean? What chair? Why are you talking to it? And why do you think this chair would be able to hear you?

      Consider this a Thorny Rhyme subset: when an artist achieves a rhyme, but does it in such a completely goofy and non-sensical way, he would have been better off not rhyming.

      Still, the "not even the chair" rhyme looks Longfellow-ian when compared to Van Morrison's "And It Stoned Me," which-- in addition to rhyming "backs" with "fence" and "poles" with "road"-- contains possible the worst simile in the history of music:

      And it stoned me to my soul
      Stoned me just like jelly roll
      And it stoned me

      "Stoned me just like jelly roll," huh? Hey, unless Irish folks put something in their jelly rolls that I don't know about, that's just some pretty awful lyric-writing right there.

      OK, that's all I have for now... but there are more thorny rhymes out there. Many, many more. If anyone out there in hears more examples of thorny rhymes, please send 'em in. Together, we'll help expose this lyrical corruption!

      (For more example of misrhymes, see the folks at Am I Right.)

      Wednesday, October 1, 2008

      Wizard of "Ozymandias"

      Last week, I had my A. P. kids read Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias." You know it, right? The poem about the prideful king who thought he was all that and a goblet of mead, but hundreds of years later all that's left of his legacy is a broken statue? Not ringing any bells? Well, here it is, anyway:

      I met a traveller from an antique land
      Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
      Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
      Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
      And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
      Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
      Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
      The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
      And on the pedestal these words appear:
      'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
      Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
      Nothing beside remains: round the decay
      Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
      The lone and level sands stretch far away."

      You have to love the poem's core paradox. Ozymanidas, the self-proclaimed "King of Kings," commissions a statue of himself-- not only as a testament to his great and sustaining power but also to guarantee his immortality. Of course, hundreds of years later, all that's left of this statute-- and, by extension, of Ozymandias himself-- are shattered fragments: the head, the legs, and the pedestal. Literally and figuratively, the King of Kings has been swallowed up by the sands of time.

      Basically: not so much with the immortality thing for King Ozzy.

      Ah, but here's the paradoxical rub: by writing this poem, Shelley is immortalizing him, but as symbol of mortality. The statue didn't remain, but the poem does.

      Now, I'm not saying I came up with that; it's a pretty obvious paradox, after all. But I have a few other cool, semi-unobvious observations, too, about the poem. And so I present...

      Dursin's Five Cool, Semi-Unobvious Observations about "Ozymandias," for Teachers, Students, and Folks Who Want to Look Smart at Cocktail Parties.

      (1) You notice how much distance Shelley is trying to put between the reader and Ozymandias? Instead of just talking directly about this fallen king, he starts the poem with a narrator, who is relating a story he heard from a traveler, who tells the story about a sculptor who made a statue of a king.

      When I brought Shelley's funky set-up up to my students, one young man said that, by putting this much distance between the reader and the subject of the poem, Shelley is reflecting the content of the poem in its form; Shelley basically reinforces how lost and forgotten Ozymandias by burying him underneath all these layers (the reader, the narrator, the traveler, the sculptor, the king). Good stuff.

      But another student disagreed, suggesting that organizing the poem in this way showed how this king was not completely forgotten, because at least one person, the traveler, knows the story. So, in a way, the structure contradicts the fundamental message. Also good stuff.

      They're both right, of course. That's one of the great ancillary benefits about teaching English-- learning to coexist with irreconcilable contraries.

      (2) Just today, another student came up to me after class with an "Ozymandias" story. (We all have them.) Apparently, she was visiting Hamilton College, and she sat in on a class where the students were reading Robert Frost's poem "Directive." (Too long for me to re-print here; kindly follow the link.) And one of the students remarked something like, "You know, this poem reminds me of 'Ozymandias.'"

      Color me definitely intrigued-- there's probably a grad school thesis somewhere in that connection-- but also tragically inequipped to comment on it. I've read "Directive" before and always found it impenetrable. I can see a few surface connections between the two (e.g. Frost's description of "a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm/ And in a town that is no more a town"), but I don't know enough about "Directive" to go deeper. Any help out there?

      (3) Maybe it's just me (and I know it's not, because after I thought of this, I found this same comparison elsewhere on the Web), but Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" seems to explore exactly-- I mean, exactly-- the same tensions that Shelley does in "Ozymandias."

      Think about it: both the song and the poem describe the fall of a prideful king. ("I used to rule the world," the song's narrator says in the first verse, but now "I sleep alone/ Sweep the streets that I used to own.") Yes, the king of the song falls during his lifetime, and there's no evidence in Shelley's poem that his king is ever aware of his ironic fall from grace.

      Still, both texts deal with the elusiveness of earthly power. (Compare Shelley's crumbled statue to the song's castles that were built on "pillars of salt, pillars of sand.")

      To all English teachers out there, I say play "Viva la Vida" for your students when you teach "Ozymandias." You can show the students how cool you are. Oh, yeah, and the juxtaposition of the two will reinforce the twin themes of the transcient nature of power and the impossibility of material possessions to withstand the onslaught of the passage of time. That too.

      (4) If you're not familiar with the movie The Emperor's Club (and you're probably not, because, for some reason, that's one of those Great Movies That No One Has Seen. Why that is, I have no idea. Everyone has seen Dead Poets Society, and The Emperor's Club is far superior. I might even have to devote a whole post to this grave oversight someday. Where was I? Oh, yeah...), one of the initial scenes of the movie contains an indirect echo of "Ozymandias."

      Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline) is a brilliant, slightly-stodgy, and (of course) inspirational high school teacher of Greek and Roman history at an all-boys private school. On the first day of the year, he traditionally has a student read a plaque that says the following:

      "I am Shutruk-Nahunte, king of Anshand and Susa, sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshushinak, I destroyed Sippar and took the stele of Niran-Sin and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god. Shuktruk Nahunte, 1158 B.C."

      Mr. Hundert then asks the class who Shutruk Nahunte is, saying that they can even use their textbooks. "But you won't find it there," he says, for indeed, "his accomplsihments won't be found in any history book."

      Shutruk Nahunte, according to Mr. Hundert, is utterly forgotten by history because he didn't make a lasting difference in the world. Says Mr. Hundert: "Great ambition and conquest, without contribution, is without significance."

      Sound like anyone else we might know? (Hint: it rhymes with "Fozzymandias"...)

      I was so proud of myself for coming up with this connection. But here's the icing on the connection-cake: I didn't come up with this connection! The writer of the story on which the movie was based did.

      The film was inspired by Ethan Canin's short story, "The Palace Thief." The first chapter of the story introduces Mr. Hundert and his Shutruk Nahunte bit (spelled "Nahhunte" in the story). Then Mr. Hundert (the narrator) reveals something else he does as part of his first-day ritual:

      "... I had one of them recite, from the wall where it hangs above my desk, Shelley's 'Ozymandias.' It is critical for any man of import to understand his own insignificance before the sands of time, and this is what my classroom has always showed my boys." (Italics mine.)

      Part of my was exhilirated that my connection had textual precedence, part of me bummed out I didn't think of it first. (Foiled again!)

      (5) This last one might be my favorite thing I learned about "Ozymandias" over the past week. Apparently, Shelley had a contest with his friend Horace Smith over who could write the better poem about this king. So they both wrote sonnets, and they both submitted them to the same magazine, The Examiner.

      Now considering Shelley's poem is a widely-known staple of English literature, and pretty much no one has ever read or even heard of Horace Smith, I guess you can figure out who won the bet. Still, I think Horace got the fuzzy end of the legacy-lollipop. To be honest, I didn't find Horace's poem that bad. Check it out for yourself:

      In Egypts sandy silence, all alone,
      Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
      The only shadow that the Desert knows.
      "I am great Ozymandias," saith the stone,
      "The King of kings: this mighty city shows
      The wonders of my hand." The city's gone!
      Naught but the leg remaining to disclose
      The sight of that forgotten Babylon.
      We wonder, and some hunter may express
      Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness
      Where London stood, holding the wolf in chase,
      He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
      What wonderful, but unrecorded, race
      Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

      How did it all fall apart for Horace Smith? Two factors, I think:

      (a) Shelley beat him to it. Shelley's poem was published in The Examiner on January 11, 1818; Smith's was published on February 1, 1818. (Remember when Armageddon came out a few months before Deep Impact? Just like that!)

      (b) Writer Guy Davenport summed up the difference between Percy and Horace by (allegedly) saying, "Genius may also be knowing how to title a poem." And indeed, Shelley's knack for titles have helped him in the long run.

      What do I mean by that? Well, while Shelley called his poem "Ozymandias," ol' Horace called his "On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below."

      Not bad, as far as titles go... but lacking a little panache, you know?

      Saturday, September 27, 2008

      Dabbling in “Dibs Not!”

      The rules of “Dibs Not” are as simple as they are unforgiving.

      First, a group is confronted with a task, which the group finds distasteful or otherwise unpleasant. In order to avoid said task, all members of the group immediately shout out the words “Dibs Not!” while simultaneously putting their index fingers on or next to their noses. The last person to complete the “Dibs Not!”/ finger-on-nose combo must essentially “take one for the team” and do the unpleasant task.

      And there you have it: the glorious exercise in adolescent avoidance that is “Dibs Not.”

      Of course, you probably won’t find these rules written out anywhere else. It’s not exactly something a person sits down and explains to someone. But I outlined the rules here for the sake of parents everywhere. Believe me, Mom and Dad: you’re going to want to know about this.

      Fortunately, the premise of “Dibs Not” is probably not completely unfamiliar to you. After all, Americans have calling “dibs” on things they want (“Dibs chair!” “Dibs the last brownie!”) for a long time—since at least the 1930s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If you can “dibs” something desirable, it only follows you can “dibs not” something undesirable.

      And the “finger-on-the-nose” thing? That, apparently, is the insurance policy. In the case of a “Dibs Not” photo finish, the person who last applies digit to nose is the loser.

      Some folks may dismiss “Dibs Not” as a rip-off of “Not It,” that great battle cry from Tag, but in fact, “Dibs Not” trumps “Not It” in several key areas.

      For one thing, you’ve got the versatility factor. While “Not It” only holds dominion over the playground, “Dibs Not” reigns over the entire school. In the cafeteria, for example, students might yell, “Dibs not cleaning up the table!” Or the classroom teacher who asks for volunteers to write on the board might find herself serenaded by an entire chorus of “Dibs Not!”

      Then there’s the sheer longevity of “Dibs Not.” While a definite ceiling looms over “Not It” (which effectively dies when kids stop playing Tag), students play “Dibs Not” throughout elementary school, well into middle school, and beyond.

      In fact, I first learned about “Dibs Not” when I started teaching high school. All of my students were doing it—including the seniors. That’s right: the ones on the verge of college, the ones at or near voting age, who can legally buy the “Rated M for Mature” videogames they’ve already been playing for years… they too indulged in the Dibs Not Dance.

      Why do they do it, and how do they all know about it? No one can say for sure, not even the students themselves. They could only assure me that it isn’t peculiar to my school; no, “Dibs Not” thrives in communities across the nation— in spirit, at least, if not exactly in name.

      For example, one student told me at her friend’s school they do “Shotty Not” instead of “Dibs Not.”

      “Shotty Not?” I asked.

      “Yeah, short for ‘shotgun.’ You know, what you yell when you want the front seat of a car?” She then paused and, remembering she was talking to a teacher, asked, “You have heard of ‘shotgun,’ right?”

      Now, for those who think that “Dibs Not” only reinforces the long-standing belief that “kids these days” are always trying to get out of work and shirk responsibility… well, I’d have a hard time refuting that. They are trying to get out of work when they play “Dibs Not”; that’s the whole point of the game. But consider this: somehow, the work does get done, and virtually without incident.

      In fact, over the past seven years, never once did any of the “Dibs not!” duels I’ve witnessed result in an argument, because the stragglers—the last ones to say the magic words—ultimately do their parts without fussing about it. They know the score; they understand the system, and they know they lost fair and square.

      Then it hit me: the most remarkable thing about “Dibs Not” is not that all teenagers do it, but that they all abide by it. That, to me, takes honor.

      Tricky concept, honor. Maybe it means respecting people. Maybe it means doing what’s right even if it’s inconvenient or unpopular. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

      And in my job, as a high school teacher, I see examples of honor all the time: teens starting fundraisers, or traveling to Florida over spring break to build houses for the poor, or just generally supporting one another. Oh, I’m not letting them off the hook here. They don’t always clean up after themselves, they may plagiarize their Toni Morrison essays, and they can drive you absolutely batty on occasion. But overall, and especially in terms of their personal interactions, they show great loyalty and compassion and honor

      And that, my dear parents, brings me to why you need to know about “Dibs Not” in the first place: your child’s intrinsic sense of honor and nobility is something you can exploit.

      At a loss about what to do about that son of yours who never does any chores? Simple: rope him against his will into a “Dibs Not” session.

      Let’s say, for example, you’re finishing up dinner, and you casually say to the table, “Who’s going to clear the dishes?” Then, without pausing even a nanosecond, shout out “Dibs Not!” and place your finger on your nose.

      Or better yet: walk into a room and say, “Who wants to clean the cat box? Dibs Not!”

      In both instances, you’ll catch your lazy-boned son completely off-guard. Plus, he’ll have to do the task. Those are the rules of “Dibs Not,” after all. Your son knows that, and his pesky sense of honor won’t allow him to refuse. It’s a virtually water-tight plan.

      The way I see it, you can complain about what the “Dibs Not” phenomenon says about “kids these days,” or you can use your child’s own avoidance tactic to your advantage. But before you spring a “Dibs Not!” on your unsuspecting offspring, remember the following:

      One: make sure you put your index finger on or next to your nose as you say “Dibs Not!”—or run the risk of looking foolish.

      And two: Practice the “Dibs Not!”/nose combination in front of the mirror before hand, to make sure you got your timing down. After all, in addition to being honorable, kids these days are pretty darn quick.