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.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On "Talk Like A Pirate Day," The Pen Is WAY Mightier Than The Sword

I was going to honor "Talk Like a Pirate Day" by writing a post filled with pirate puns and a whole lotta "blimeys," "me hearties," and "cats-o-nine-tails." But you know what? Everyone's going to be doing that.

So I decided to do something a little different: I'm going to celebrate "Talk Like a Pirate Day" by NOT talking like a pirate. Instead, I'm going to wax philosophic about the pirate-parlance phenomemon.

Now before you accuse me of being a poop-deck party pooper, let me assure the masses: I'm not trying to take the fun out of "Talk Like a Pirate Day." First of all, that would be impossible, since talking like a pirate is one of the simple pleasures of life. Secondly, I love "Talk Like a Pirate Day," and I have loved it for six years now.

Think about it: the one day out of the whole year when the letter R gets its due, when everyone's your matey, when you can pick up the phone and actually say "Ahoy!"-- what's not to love?

(Incidentally, according to Fred Worth's 1984 book Incredible Super Trivia, "Ahoy!" was, in fact, the original greeting for the telephone back in 1876, until inventor Thomas Edison very quickly instituted the rather bland-by-comparison "Hello." Who knew Edison was such a pirate-hater? )

And the jokes! My family and I have spent whole meals telling nothing but pirate jokes. ("Who's a pirate's favorite baseball player?" "Nomarrrrrrrr Garrrrrrrrciaparrrrrrrrra." "Where do all the Spanish-speaking pirates hail from?" "Arrrrrrrrrgentina.")

Finally, in terms of sheer entertainment value, “Talk Like a Pirate Day” absolutely eclipses almost all of its brethren in the “Talk Like a–” genre, including “Talk Like a Klingon Day,” “Talk Like Beaker Day,” and “Talk Like a Charlie Brown Teacher Day.” (Only “Talk Like Sean Connery Day” even comes remotely close.)

And yet, under the glitz, glamour and gutturalness of “Talk Like a Pirate Day” is a pretty inspiring story about the power of the written word.

I’m sure the TLAPD Faithful know the story, but for the newly-initiated, it bears repeating: many years ago, two friends, John Baur and Mark Summers were playing racquetball and, as they were wont to do, talking like pirates. They were having a jolly old time—so jolly, in fact, that they wanted everyone to have the opportunity to talk like pirates.

And just like that, "Talk Like a Pirate Day" was born. But, like a tattered treasure map, that only tells you half the story.

Indeed, the legend only truly grew after one of the two co-conspirators wrote a letter outlining the "Talk Like a Pirate Day" concept to syndicated columnist Dave Barry. Sufficiently hooked by the idea, Barry penned his now-famous column explaining "Talk Like a Pirate Day" to the land-lubbing masses.

So if we were chart the route of "Talk Like a Pirate Day": two guys come up with an idea in a racquetball court; they tell the idea to a columnist, who writes about it in a newspaper; that column sparks a revolution that spreads across the seven seas.

But you couldn’t have the revolution without the column. For as ingenious as Baur and Summers’ idea was, if it weren’t for Barry’s newspaper column, you and I wouldn’t be celebrating "Talk Like a Pirate Day" this September 19th.

Ultimately, the history of "Talk Like a Pirate Day" reminds us that just having a great idea isn’t enough. How many great ideas, after all, get locked up in our own private Davy Jones’ lockers, never seeing the light of day? You need to share your idea. You need to write it down and then send it out to the world, like one of those famed messages in a bottle.

And that’s perhaps the lasting lesson of "Talk Like a Pirate Day": that the pen really is mightier than the sword.

Or should I say: mightiarrrrrrrrr!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Allusions of Grandeur

I was thinking about how I was going to teach my students allusion, when suddenly an idea hit me like a blast from the gun of Optimus Prime himself: I would teach allusion by writing a short story filled with them. Top that, Socrates!

So I started typing up the sheet when suddenly I got stuck—like Augustus Gloop in the pipe. I just couldn’t think of a single allusion. I usually have the Midas touch when it comes to these kinds of stories, but this time, the well of inspiration was as empty as a theatre showing a double bill of Daddy Day Camp and Balls of Fury. (Oh, the horror, the horror.)

I became Ahab, obsessed with finding an allusion. I asked my wife, but she only said, “What am I a clown? Am I here to amuse you?” So, I called up one of my colleagues, but he said, “I’ll only give you one for the low price of one meeeelllion dollars. Deal or no deal?” I’ve never seen anyone who was such a Scrooge with his allusions.

With the speed of a Seeker during a Quidditch game, I called another one of my colleagues, even though talking to him is about as pleasant as giving Jabba the Hutt a sponge bath. He fancies himself as some all-powerful Oz, but he’s usually just full of sound and fury.

When I asked him for an allusion, he replied testily, “You want the truth about allusions? You can’t handle the truth about allusions!” I had to hang up, thinking to myself that I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Wanting to remove this albatross from around my neck, I called another teacher and asked for help. When I told him I wanted to write a story filled with allusions, he said, “Hey, not a bad idea! Do you mind if I use your allusions, too?”

Now he’s going to come up with his own allusion story! I couldn’t believe he could be such a Judas! “Et tu, Brute!” I muttered then hung up the phone.

Finally, feeling this Atlas-like burden weighing down on me, I simply sat down at my computer and typed: "Coming up with an allusion is harder than snagging the Golden Fleece from Jonah, the Prince of Demark."

There, that should do the trick.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Springsteen's "The Rising" and September 11th

For my money, Bruce Springsteen's song "The Rising," off the 2002 album of the same name, is one of the most significant works of art about the September 11th tragedy. Unfortunately, not many people seem to know this.

For one thing, I'm not sure how many people outside of Bruce's core fans actually know the song. Although released as a single in the summer of 2002, the song never enjoyed mainstream, "Born in the U.S.A." kind of success. In fact, although it won Bruce a Grammy for Best Rock Song, "The Rising" peaked at #52 on the Billboard charts.

Even Bruce's die-hard fans seem split regarding what the song means. A quick review of fans' comments at suggests this lack of concensus: although all posters seem to agree the song is a response to 9/11, some feel it's a song about a specific firefighter, while others feel it's a song about living with loss and still others feel it's a song about America as a whole "rising" up after the tragedy.

Bruce himself doesn't help matters much. When discussing the song during his VH1 Storytellers performance (in 2005), he makes no direct reference to September 11th (although he makes several oblique or subtle ones).

With that said, what follows is my own analysis of Springsteen's "The Rising." I've used two sources for this analysis: a Time Magazine article, from the July 27, 2002 edition, called "Re-Born in the U.S.A." and the aforementioned Storytellers broadcast. The rest comes from my own noggin.

As with all literary analyses, this is not the answer, but an answer-- just the interpretation of one man trying ot make his way in the galaxy.

Can't see nothin' in front of me

Can't see nothin' coming up behind

I make my way through this darkness

I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me

My interpretation proceeds from the idea that the "I" in the song is a firefighter climbing up one of the World Trade Center towers on the morning of September 11th. This premise is confirmed by the Time article which calls "The Rising" "one of two firefighter songs" on the album (the other being "Into the Fire.")

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to say that this initial verse describes a firefighter lost in the smoke-filled staircases of the doomed Twin Towers. This matches up with Bruce's description from the Storytellers performance, although Bruce gets a little more metaphoric, saying he begins the song in the "netherworld," a world that is "transformed" into an "unknown and unknowable place." That transformed "netherworld" could be the chaotic interior of the World Trade Center.

The "chain that binds me" could refer to the narrator's duty, his responsibility as a firefighter, what he calls later "the cross of my calling." The narrator undoubtedly knows he won't escape, that he's climbing to his death, but his duty compels him to keep climbing.

Lost track of how far I've gone

How far I've gone, how high I've climbed

On my back's a sixty pound stone

On my shoulder a half mile of line

This verse contains the song's first direct reference to firefighting (well, as direct as we're going to get, anyway): "on my shoulder half a mile of line," which could refer to the hose he's carrying.

Likewise, some listeners seem to think the "sixty pound stone" on the narrator's back is an oxygen tank or some other piece of equipment, but to me, it's more of a metaphorical weight-- once again, the burden of this man's impossible and inescapable duty.

Bruce himself, in the Storytellers performance, refers to the "sixty pound stone" and the "half a mile of line" as, respectively, "what I must do" and the "tools I need to do it."

Come on up for the rising

Come on up, lay your hands in mine

Come on up for the rising

Come on up for the rising tonight

I have a few things to say about the chorus, but I'm going to hold off until the end.

Left the house this morning

Bells ringing filled the air

Wearin' the cross of my calling

On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here

Again, some more overt clues that the narrator is a firefighter: "wheels of fire" and "bells ringing." (Bruce, on Storytellers, says the bells could be sirens, while also noting other possible connotations, including "church bells" and "tolling bells"-- both of which could be appropriate in the context of the song.)

As I said before, at no time during the Storytellers telecast does Bruce make any explicit reference to 9/11. But when describing the "cross of my calling" line, Bruce talks about the narrator's "uniform." Speaking in the narrator's voice, Bruce says, "my uniform fills me with the power and strength of my responsibility... who I am and what I must do."

One last thing: the "left the house this morning" line is so simple that it might seem like a throw-away line. But to me, it's one of the most poignant lines in the song, as the narrator is leaving behind, for the last time, everything and everyone he knows and loves.

Come on up for the rising

Come on up, lay your hands in mine

Come on up for the rising

Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

Not sure this gels at all with my interpretation, but for what it's worth: On Storytellers, Bruce says the "li, li, li"'s mean not only "sing with me" but also "stand along side of me." He later calls them reminiscent of a "prayer."

Spirits above and behind me

Faces gone, black eyes burnin' bright

May their precious blood forever bind me

Lord, as I stand before your fiery light

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

Several times throughout the Storytellers discussion of "The Rising," Bruce uses the word "transformation," and I think this verse begins the transformation of this narrator. To me, the narrator is in a liminal or in-between space. He's moving into the next world, the world of "spirits." He's preparing to stand before the "fiery light" of heaven.

And yet, even though he's not part of our world anymore ("faces gone"), he's still linked to it. He knows what he's giving up: the flesh and "precious blood" that we all share, that make us human. On Storytellers, Bruce sums up what the narrator is going to give up this way: "Life, life, life... on the edge of something else."

(Incidentally: I originally thought the second line of this verse was punctuated this way: "Faces gone black, eyes burning bright." But, which seems pretty authoritative, puts the comma before "black." Personally, I like my way better: it suggests the faces have died, but something inside-- their spirits, their souls-- is still "burning bright.")

I see you Mary in the garden

In the garden of a thousand sighs

There's holy pictures of our children

Dancin' in a sky filled with light

May I feel your arms around me

May I feel your blood mix with mine

A dream of life comes to me

Like a catfish dancin' on the end of the line

This begins what I consider the most moving section of the song. To me, the narrator is still in this in-between place-- this surreal, light-filled "garden" (with all its Edenic associations). But, even as he keeps rising into the next life, he's still clinging to his old life and to everything he will be leaving behind.

On Storytellers, Bruce says Mary could be a "wife" or "lover," but he also recognizes the connotations of "Jesus' Mary." I gravitate toward idea that Mary is the narrator's wife, especially since he mentions "holy pictures of our children" two lines later. (Bruce does seem to like the name "Mary," doesn't he? He uses it in "Thunder Road," "The River," and "Mary's Place," to name only a few.)

In terms of the references to "your arms" and "your blood mixed with mine," I'll let Bruce himself describe what he means: "This is what I need; I need your arms; I need your blood. This is what I am going to miss: your physicality. Your flesh and blood. My own physical-ness."

In that sense, the "catfish dancing on the end of my line" is another example of what he's going to miss: the simple pleasures of life. (I've read comments from readers who dismiss that line as trite, but I think it's one of the most vivid, compelling images in the song.)

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)

Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)

Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)

Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)

Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)

Your burnin' wind fills my arms tonight

Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)

Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

This powerful series of juxtapositions (love and tears, glory and sadness, mercy and fear) marks the culmination of the narrator's "transformation." His soul, his spirit has been rising up into this sky-- the sky which served as the backdrop of this terrible, terrible event. But he goes higher, above the painful emotions.

Throughout this journey, he's been "dreaming of life"-- that is, the physical life, the one he knows he's going to surrender. Finally, in that last line, his journey is complete. He leaves our physical world behind and moves completely into the next world-- the "sky of fullness, sky of blessed life."

Now, as for the chorus...

Come on up for the rising

Come on up, lay your hands in mine

So, after all my hard-hitting analysis, I bet you can't wait to hear what I have to say about the chorus. And, I have to tell you... well... this is the part that stymies me a little, to be honest.

I see how "The Rising" can have two meanings: the firefighter climbing the stairs, and then the firefighter's soul ascending into heaven. And I can even see how the "lay your hands in mine" line could refer to another soul welcoming this man into heaven (or even this man welcoming another soul that comes after him).

But one word trips me up: "tonight." Why is it tonight, when the attacks happened in the morning?

All I can say is perhaps the point of view shifts in the chorus. Perhaps the chorus describes a group of people coming together at a memorial service, holding hands and remembering their loved ones. Does that work? (Any help out there?)

I hope some people find this analysis thought-provoking or even enlightening, although I know full well some will say I'm over-thinking things, that I'm taking "all the fun" out of listening to music. (I'm an English teacher, after all. You think that's the first time I've heard that?)

And so, I thought I would end this post with a brilliant line from Bruce himself, from the Storytellers session. Describing the creative process that went into "The Rising," Bruce says the following: "Did I think of any of this prior to writing the song? No. But I felt all of it when I was writing the song."

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Better Mousetrap

Talk about building a better mousetrap.

Over a week ago now, I spotted a mouse in our garage. Or I spotted half of a mouse, the back half, as it scampered out of my sight. I then made the mistake of telling my wife, who promptly sprung into lockdown procedure.

“If that mouse gets into the house,” she announced, “we’re moving.”

First, she opened the two garage doors open and kept them open, hoping that the mouse would skedaddle out.

Then she sent me out to buy mousetraps. When I returned home, I saw that she had affixed a sign on the door that leads from the garage to the house. The sign read: “Do Not Open! Use Front Door!”

Now I don’t know if anyone out there has ever tried to set a mousetrap, but it requires a precision usually reserved for heart surgeons. You have to pull back this rod while simultaneously holding down a cheese-shaped platform—which in itself is not so hard, but the whole thing is so ridiculously sensitive that the moment you move your finger away, it snaps. On said finger.

At least a dozen times I tried to set just one of the mousetraps. And a dozen times it snapped, either on my hands or out of them, as if alive. I just couldn’t do it. Plus, my fingers were coated in peanut butter, which I had dutifully spread on the platform-thing to attract the critter.

The whole experience soon went beyond frustrating into humiliating. As I finally closed our garage doors for the evening, I truly felt the mouse had beaten me.

Next morning: I was leaving for work, and I went out the front door to get to the garage. (Remember, per my wife’s sign, we were forbidden to go right into the garage from the house.)

So I’m standing at the garage door, and I’m about the press the buttons on the keypad to open it when I notice something. Something brown against the white garage door, like a leaf or something.

I took a closer look. Then I went back inside to wake up my wife.

“I found the mouse,” I told her. Or more accurately: I found half the mouse.

To get the full sense of this, you need to picture in your mind a garage door. You know how garage doors appear flat, but they’re made up of several panels? And these panels separate slightly when the garage door rolls upward or downward? Are you picturing this?

Now picture a dead mouse trapped between two of those panels. Or more accurately: picture half a dead mouse, the front half, including the head and two front legs. The back half, meanwhile, has been crushed in between two panels.

(I realize it’s hard to describe this in words. In fact, I was contemplating taking an actual picture of the dead mouse, stuck in the garage door. I know posting the picture along with the story probably would have generated some hits. But I somehow thought PETA wouldn’t look too kindly on me plastering on the Internet a picture of half a dead mouse.)

I’ve tried to do the CSI thing and piece together what happened. The best I can imagine is this:

Remember, we had kept the garage doors open for several hours, in the hopes the mouse would run out. Somehow, during that time, the little guy made its way to the top of the garage door while it was open.

Now, I don’t know much about mice, but getting up to the ceiling of a garage is pretty impressive, right? I mean, did he scale walls? Is this Spider-Mouse or something? Beat that, Stuart Little! As I said: pretty impressive.

In the smarts department, though—not quite as impressive. Because when I closed the garage doors for the night, and the ground started moving under its feet, Spider-Mouse didn’t move.

And keep in mind: I have automatic garage doors, which don’t exactly move with the speed of a guillotine. But for some reason, the mouse didn’t move, even as the panels beneath its feet opened up. And then closed again, trapping and then crushing him.

There you have it: the world’s tallest and slowest mousetrap.

So, to all the people in Internet-land, the next time you find a mouse in your garage, don’t waste your time buying ineffective (and painful) mousetraps. Instead, just wait for the mouse to kill itself by getting itself caught in the flaps of your slow-as-molasses garage door.

Works every time.