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Monday, December 12, 2011

What Occupy Means to Me

(Ed. note I previously published this as a response to a Letter to the Editor of a local paper)

While the press and punditry argue over how best to marginalize the Occupy movement, something real is going on. Something that is far, far more like the original Tea Party than the bland, mainstream effort that held sway during the last election cycle. While today's Tea Party movement found its roots on common ground with the Occupy protesters, their willingness to be led from behind by the same corporate puppeteers that they rail against forces one to recognize the divide between the two movements. There is real truth in the Occupy standpoint. Even those so unwilling to publicly admit these truths must, in their own minds, agree that they are beyond dispute.

Money, and the pursuit of it, is fundamental to the American way of life, but that pursuit has supplanted the ideals of fairness, equitable treatment and due process. The wealthiest among us buy the influence of our elected leaders, who then create laws and legislation that favor those contributors. This is contrary to our pursuit of the American Dream.

Aspects of American life that citizens have traditionally viewed as American Rights have been systematically legislated away, to be replaced with police in battle armor and arrests for participating in the very activities our founders died to give us by writing it into our nation's Constitution.

Citizens of these United States have allowed these transgressions. We have believed that our leaders have our best interests at heart, even while we encourage a political system that extols the mediocre over the brilliant and the faithful over the logical. When American citizens have been pushed to the brink and finally wake up, we are faced with the system we have created. That system, and those who profit from it, don't much care for ideas of liberation.

The Occupy protests are the first of this awakening. One that will reach us all eventually, when the masters of our money have finally picked the last pennies from our pockets. The protestors I've seen on the news are not the true representation of this movement. People of all ages, all nationalities and all faiths are waking up to the reality that the rules for obtaining the American Dream are not the same for everyone, as we had been promised. There are different rules for those who can pay to write the rules.

This is the underlying flaw in our system. Its not about tents, or drum circles or "dirty hippies". Its about realizing that the people we trusted to look after our nation have let us down. This is the basic undercurrent of every failed system of government in history. But, in America, it still belongs to us. We are still the shepherds of our Republic. Its high time we started acting like it. That is what the Occupiers really want.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Happy Holidays and the War on Christmas.

When I set out to write this, I had no intention of making it a shrill rant on the evils of society or its supposed protectors, the media. I had simply hoped to spell out the reasons that saying "Happy Holidays" is okay. Here are a few;

Its shorter than saying "Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanza, happy season for whatever you celebrate and a Happy New Year", (It also fits on a card much better than the above).

It includes everyone, regardless of faith, or lack thereof.

It doesn't diminish my faith, your faith or anyone else's faith or lack thereof.

Obvious, right? So, why is this such an issue?

There is no "War on Christmas". This is merely another tool in the tool chest of those who want you to be afraid.

People fear change. Change to their strongly-held beliefs, change to their way of life. This is understandable. Its very human to fear stuff. Like the dark, or ever-increasing nighttime. Much like the Pagans who celebrated on the longest night of the year because the nights would start to get shorter from that point on.

If someone on the "news" tells you about something and you fear that thing, you will tune in again, in the hopes that it has been resolved. If it hasn't, (or can't be because it isn't really a real thing), you will tune in to watch them commiserate with you over your fears.

The season of winter, the winter solstice, Saturnalia and all of the other longest-night-of-the-year celebrations took place hundreds and sometimes thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The Catholic Church placed this holiday on this time of year to help them in their efforts to convert the Pagans as the Roman army conquered the known world. A noble cause, some might suggest, and I won't argue that point here. That doesn't diminish, however, the laughable pious indignation over infusing the holiday with images of Santa or multicultural acceptance.

I just can't believe Jesus would be upset over someone wishing you a happy holiday.

Many of those same holier-than-thou individuals, when faced with this indisputable fact, will turn around to point out that the U.S. is a Christian nation, founded on Christian ideals. The pilgrims came here for religious freedom, so how dare you secular humanists try to take the "Christ" out of Christmas?

When you tell them that the Puritans who settled here for "religious freedom" came here because they didn't want to be ruled by the edicts of the Pope, and wanted to worship in a more stringent, Bible-based way, they nod smugly. When you add that the Pilgrims actually banned Christmas, made it a crime to decorate or celebrate the "holy day" and even levied a fine against those who uttered the words, "Merry Christmas", you can expect blank stares and charges of "liberal medis bias".

The point is, you can change someone's mind based on an idea. You can have your mind changed about something when faced with a better idea. Beliefs, however, are hard to shake. Too hard, for some. For some people, their beliefs are the glue that holds them together. If that sounds like you, its okay. There is nothing wrong with believing stuff, even in light of a contrary argument. The danger comes from allowing others to exploit those beliefs and convince you that your way of life is threatened by someone wishing you happiness.

Its not a code. Its not a subversive way to secularize the populace. Its just people who don't want to engage in the battle over figuring out who celebrates what day. Its just people wishing you and yours happiness.

Take it in the spirit that it is given. It would be rude not to do so.

So, to you and yours... Happy Harmonica!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Small Town Shopping - A Cautionary Tale

My son and I spent an evening in a big city for a sporting event. We truly don't watch much television in my house, and me, being of the pointy-headed liberal mindset, don't put much stock in sports in general. So, this event was a pretty big deal. We both had a great time.

When discussing the differences between living in a city vs. living in a small town, I crafted a scenario to try and illustrate the point, (and to try and make him laugh). The beginning is true. The rest is not. If you have a hard time finding the dividing line between truth and fiction, you probably live in a small town, too.

While shopping in our local supermarket for two boxes of cake mix for my daughter's cupcake decorating class, I entered the baking aisle, selected my items, and made for the other end of the corridor. At the end, was an older lady, reading the ingredients of something. Her cart was skewed at an angle, as if she had simply stopped while making the turn at the end of the aisle, to pick up said item. Not only was the cart completely blocking the baking row, but it also , by virtue of the fact that it was half in and half out of the aisle, blocked the traffic moving along the back corridor of the store.

Now, being that it was an older woman, I'm inclined to wait patiently. I may be old some day, and I hope younger people will be patient with me.

But, this idea led me to reflect on a woman's unique sense of entitlement when shopping. You'll forgive me if I choose to lump all women into this category. I'm sure there are some who don't share the following traits. I just haven't met them.

A woman will tilt her cart at an angle, blocking an aisle for almost any reason; to chat with a friend, read an item's description, gaze longingly at the Yodels, whatever. She will see me coming. I know she saw me coming because she looked right at me, before turning her attention back to her distraction of choice.

She will wait until I have stopped, being unable to progress any further, and have surmounted my need to avoid unnecessary chit chat with strangers. She will wait until I have said, "Pardon me," before looking at me with mock-surprise and saying, "Oh, sorry." after which she moves her cart just barely enough for me to pass, while returning to engage with whatever was more important than me.

She's not sorry, I think. I envision myself saying, "Don't say you're sorry! If you were sorry, you would have moved when you saw me coming! I know you saw me coming! You looked right at me!" But, I say none of these things, smile graciously and go about my business.

My son asks,"Why don't you say it?" My response is, "Two reasons. One, by saying it, I have now created the situation I had hoped to avoid in the first place: meaningless conversation with strangers. She'll say she's sorry, I'll say she's not, and then one of two things will happen. Either she'll reiterate that she is indeed sorry and be suitably embarrassed, or she'll berate me for my impatience and rudeness. Neither outcome is desirable, because you just know I'm going to see her again two aisles over, or at the milk case, or in the checkout line, etc.

Plus, we live in a small town. So, regardless of the outcome, you know she'll be telling her friends about it, (Men, take note - all women know each other. They have meetings while we sleep.) By the time she gets around to telling her husband, she'll have convinced herself and everyone that she knows that I hate women and small children, and train dogs to fight by feeding them kittens. The fact that she was accosted by such a reprobate will, undoubtedly, not sit well with her husband.

Given that we live in a small town, I will undoubtedly run across her again. Perhaps at the bank, the post office or the movies. She'll see me and whisper, "That's him! That's the guy from the supermarket". So, as I'm waiting pariently for the bored teenager to give me my popcorn, a mountain in a flannel shirt will roll up on me and say, loudly, "You got a problem with my wife? Now, I'm gonna kick your ass."

Not knowing this guy, I'll be understandably confused. "What?" I'll say. "Do I know you, pal?" My wife will then ask, "How do you know his wife?"

So, here I am, having just shelled out $50 to see "Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Squeakuel" and I have this guy, who is large enough to have his own zip code, wanting to punch my lights out.

"Really?" I'll say. "You want to hit me? You want to physically assault me? I don't even know you!" And then one of three things will happen: One, he'll hit me and it will hurt. Two, I will somehow evade the punch and hit him, and he'll be hurt, or Three, I'll somehow evade the punch, hit him, and he won't be hurt, (and now I'm really scared).

Meanwhile regardless of those possibilities, the bored teenager holding my popcorn will have already called the police.

Police in a small town have less to do than one might think, and one will race to the scene. Upon his arrival, said peace officer will realize that his son plays football with Mr. Mountain's son, and me, being the pointy-headed liberal type, can't compete with that. "This jag-off insulted my wife, and I had to teach him a lesson. You'd do the same thing." he says to his friend, (who, it turns out, played high school football with Mr. Mountain all those years ago. Remember, it's a small town.)

I am subsequently hauled to the station to be placed in a cell with Benny the drunk guy, who has expressed an inappropriate affection for my shoes. When I call my wife to come and bail me out, she wants to know first how I know that man's wife.

Satisfied with the outcome, Mountain's wife goes home to happily call all of her friends, explaining how her manly-man of a husband took care of the town psychopath. Word will spread. My wife will hang her head in shame at church. My children will endure whispers of "Do you know who their father is?" Life as we know it becomes unbearable.

Our choices, then, will be simple. We'll just have to move away, start a new life, hoping that I can avoid disgracing my family in the future.

Or, I can just turn my cart around and go back up the aisle.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Families Come Out For a Good Idea

Carmel Community Recognizes a Serious Issue in a Fun New Way.

“A Caterpillar’s Tale”, a film that highlights the issue of bullying, played to a packed house at the Carmel Cinema on Route 6 in Carmel. With a cast of young actors from the Carmel area, the film takes a look at the causes and effects of bullying as seen through the eyes of its lead character, a giant mutant caterpillar faced with the choice of becoming a bully or doing what he knows to be right.

The film was created to introduce the concept of making good choices to students in the kindergarten through fourth grade age group. Funded in part by a grant secured through the Carmel Central School District, (CCSD), “A Caterpillar’s Tale” made its debut as a fundraiser for the district’s three elementary schools. Each school’s Parent Teacher Organization had the opportunity to sell tickets to the event, with a portion of the proceeds going toward the many programs and services each group provides.

With a cast comprised of 28 actors aged 8-16, many of whom are veteran performers with the Pied Piper Youth Theater in Stormville, N.Y. (www,pipertheater.org) the film is the realization of over four months worth of work by writer/director Jeff Davis and the crew of JD Savage Productions, (www.jdsavage.com).


“You can’t lecture kids if you want the message to take hold,” said Mr. Davis. “Even a message as important as this. To make it stick, they have to experience it in a fun way. The choices kids make at this age level influence them across their entire academic careers, so this is where a difference can be made.”

To make such a difference requires the support of the community, and Carmel residents and businesses are no stranger to lending a hand for a good cause. The Pied Piper Youth Theater, Cartwright and Daughters, the staff of the Kent Primary School and the Carmel Cinema all recognized the importance of this project, and didn’t hesitate to pitch in where they were needed during the film’s production and debut.

The families who joined in to share their laughter and applause did more than simply purchase tickets. Together, they acknowledged the idea that bullying is too important a topic to be ignored.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupy My Wallet

So, the interwebz are all ablaze with news of the occupy wall street/all streets activities. Following the media blackout for its first two weeks, the talking heads have weighed in, following their traditional approaches. The right wing media denounces it, as does the left. The left, though, will have folks on who try to make the case. Most get shouted down or marginalized by the other 23 hours and 54 minutes of coverage on a given day.

To no one's surprise, the tone goes something like this:

Reporter: Radical hipsters have taken to camping in parks meant for real Americans.

Anchor: Shocking! Roll the footage of the most far-out fringe elements you can find, and ignore the level-headed speakers, the veterans and the holders of worthless mortgages.

Reporter: (in voice over) Bongos and protest songs remind us of that other time in our history when people tried to influence their government in the only way that is Constitutionally protected. They smell.

I'm paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.

The leftier news like Current actually has the cujones to support the idea of Constitutionally-protected free speech and peaceful assembly. The nerve!
It is fun to watch Keith Obermann splutter, though.

I have seen in my content stream, (there has to be a better name for this), lots of pro-demonstrator info. Some of it actually makes sense. I have also seen, by both folks I don't know as well as folks with opinions I respect, anti-protestor opinions. These sound remarkably like what my grandparents said watching demonstrations in the '60s and '70s. "They should get a job." , "They're just selfish kids." etc., etc. To be fair, given the footage on T.V., that's really the only sane response.

I have read the 22 demands, (well, I watched K.O. read them). I have heard Glenn Beck's assertion that the protestors will come for us all and kill us in the night. We have many problems of our own creation here in the U.S. and none of them are insurmountable. The problems lies with one thing.

Money.

When I was a kid, I used to love "The Monkeys" T.V. show. As a pre-teen, I thought they were on par with the Beatles, and as such, paid close attention to what went on in that show. One of the things that stood out for my 9 year-old brain was a sign that hung on the wall in their house, and was visible in just about every episode. It said: Money is the root of all evil. I know, they didn't invent it, but that was my first introduction to the concept.

For an excellent primer on how our country engineered our current economic woes, go here...
http://vimeo.com/3261363

But, that's only part of the problem. The real culprit in this scenario is the rules and regs put in place to allow such a debacle. And, for that, fair readers, you have to look to our elected representatives, who allow themselves to be bought with... you guessed it... money.

They put the rules in place. It is our Congresspeople and Senators who should be held responsible. Corporate greed is a front for the real crime; the influence-buying of our government.

No one is immune. Republicans, Democrats, Independents - all children of the American dream. Now, I'm all for money. I kinda like having it, and I get a bit excited when I get paid. Being an American, I was brought up with the notion that if I work hard, and play by the rules, I could be a millionaire. All evidence to the contrary, I still believe that, in spite of the obvious.

So, why would I expect our elected officials to be better than me? Why would I expect them to be able to be virtuous in the face of HUGE amounts of cash being offered to them in exchange for a little influence? Why should I expect them to play by the rules if they get to write the rules?

Because they told me they would. Because they said so in every stump speech and every political ad. They said they would look out for us. And they can't when faced with all of that money coming at them from corporations who make tons of it based on the rules that their payouts influence.

Corporations are not people. Cash is not speech. We need to pony up, as taxpayers, an agreed-upon amount politicians can spend in elections, fund it, and make illegal a penny more being spent. We need to separate the corporations from out government.

If we can do that, then I'm confident that cooler heads will prevail. We'll get rules and laws that benefit everyone, and corporations will still be allowed to make as much as they can possibly hoard.

And if a million people read this, and then send me a dollar, I'll be rich... so get on that, ok?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Love Defined

The idea that I am qualified to define love may be ridiculous, considering that every human, ever, has tried at least once to take a stab at it. What, then, is the point? It would be redundant and obtrusive to even attempt to categorize something so universally felt, and undeniably personal.

Thanks. I think I will.

Love is the straight jacket worn by Fear.

Oh, relax your eyebrows! Stay with me.

There are only two basic emotions inherent in the human experience. The first is Joy. Pure Joy. Not the “For me? It’s just what I wanted!” brand of momentary pleasure that wells up when an expectation or desire is fulfilled. Pure joy is the default state we all start out with, before life pummels the human cylinder-shaped peg into gender-based, behavioral and societal square holes. Joy is how we enter this world, and leaving the State of Joy, as we all do, shapes our continuing desire to return, at all costs.

We may have lost the map, or have designated someone or something else as the navigator.

Everything else, every other emotion we have, comes from fear.

Fear comes in many forms. It’s like a family, really. A family of suicidal, homicidal, destructive little beasts, where each one is a cyclops, and they all carry those tree trunk-like clubs with a leaf or two sticking out of the end.

Anger, and his ugly little brothers Hate and Jealousy, embody the fear that we will lose control of our environment and the carefully constructed cage we build to keep us safe from the big bad world. When someone does or says something that threatens our perception of what is “right”, they are unleashed, ready to smash it to pieces. They will often smash anything in the vicinity, too, regardless of its involvement in their release.

Arrogance is really just Anger’s twin, albeit a sibling who has spent more time in front of a mirror. Not one for deep revelations, he relies on his perception of what’s right based on what he sees there.

And then, there is their big sister, Loss. She has many children, all of whom insidiously pervade everything we do. The most misunderstood of her offspring is Love.

Love! That noblest of all feelings, enshrined in story and song throughout the ages. What is love but the fear that the person we love will leave us? When we allow someone to fill that empty place in us, we will fight to the death, if need be, to keep them there. Love is trust that they will remain with you. Love is belief in what they say, and what they promise. Love is the fragile acceptance of living under the piano-being-hoisted-up-on-a-rope, glossing over the inevitability that the rope will someday snap.

Love makes us feel safe.

Oooh… see what I did there?

Love wraps around our biggest fear… fear of the unknown, sheltering us from its crushing doom. If Heaven is glorious, why do we lament a loved one’s passing? As a parent, no amount of Good Book readin’ would help me through the loss of one of my children. My biggest fear is not death, (or public speaking), but the loss of someone I love. Threaten me with that, and my Cyclops will lay waste to everything as far as the eye can see.

But, if Love is Fear’s comfortable old coat, it has a secret in its pocket.

Hope.

Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for a glimpse of the Pure Joy we have so ardently been missing. Hope that the unknown will be okay, a place where we can be with the ones we love without fear.

So, there you have it. Love is… Hope for a life without Fear.
Or chocolate. Either one.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Who is This Guy?

Every blog author wants to be read. The problem I see when I read them, (and I read a lot of them), is that I have to try and figure out who is doing the writing based on what they say. Any good comedian will tell you that people like jokes, but people won't love you unless you share the "real you" with them. Otherwise, they think, "Who's this guy think he is?" and "Why do I care what he has to say?"

So, read this, and decide for yourself.

Ever since I was a kid, people asked me if I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I have always loved to draw, and later, paint, so I guess this was the natural thing for people to say. I never really wanted to be an "artist" per se. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a forest ranger, (I guess so I could be away from people telling me to be an artist).

As I grew up, I gravitated toward artistic work. I studied commercial art in school, played drums in a rock band, (badly), and tried to infuse some creativity into whatever I did.

After designing more menus and business cards than I could count, and doing a few portraits, (which I still love to do), my first real "art" job was as a designer of business reports for a major multinational conglomerate. Pie charts and graphs, mostly. But, in 1995, I had the opportunity to work on graphics for one of the first intranets.

I was hooked.

From there I moved into multimedia design, eventually rising to Art Director. I loved this job. I would design websites, kiosk apps AND get to pitch them to clients. I got to travel, meet CEOs and VPs of companies large and small, and then go back to my desk and create the coolest stuff. I worked with some of the smartest people I'll ever meet, and was constantly amazed by what they could do with code, (a discipline in which I still roundly suck). I also got to use video cameras. VHS video cameras.

One of the highpoints in that job was the chance to go to Wales, and film interviews for a kiosk that would sit outside a newly opened call center. I didn't know sh*t from shinola about lighting, framing or interviewing people, but I did it anyway. My footage was a small part of a much larger presentation, but I was thrilled beyond words.

When my division closed, I was offered the chance to make the big time. Madison Avenue, NYC. 7th floor office... with windows! My son was two, my daughter six months old. I had to choose between 12-15 hour days and miss my kids growing up, or stay at home, try to contribute, (my wife's job covered us sufficiently), and not lose my mind.

When my kids went to school, I followed them in, getting involved and volunteering. This, it turns out, was the best thing I could have done. After designing a parent group website, I was hired by other groups to do the same. When I designed a site for their school itself, the district office noticed. I was hired, (for real money) to design a website for each school in the district. Then the superintendent left, and the new one wanted a redesign, which I bid as a new job and I got that, too. Along the way, I continued to video tape school events, which got me noticed again, and helped me move into a regular bi-monthly gig filming district meetings.

My kids got into theater, so I began filming their shows, eventually working out a deal to film all of the shows and sell the DVDs to the audience. So, my continued opportunities to work with kids, surround myself with crazy, creative people and churn out creative work led me to start designing my own projects.

I pitched a TV series type project for pre schoolers, got the funding, shot it and did all of the graphics, sound, music etc. in 2009, Noodle Boosters made its debut. I was, and remain, really proud of that effort. I started writing ideas for an interview show, gathered up some great talented people, and began producing "Inside the Bubble" on JDTV in 2010. Also in 2010, I wrote and directed a short film about the dangers of cyber bullying called "RU Listening". That got funded, and it also opened the door to funding for my latest project, "A Caterpillar's Tale" which deals with bullying, and is geared for kids k-4. Custom graphics have always been a staple of my projects, but in this one, we also have custom puppets that I designed, and had some very talented, (and patient) people create for me.

"A Caterpillar's Tale" will be done in a few weeks. I have a few more "Inside the Bubble" episodes to edit, and I am trying to finish the first draft of a novel I've been writing for the past year, after snippets and chapters being written down for the past 5 years or so. I've also got two unfinished paintings sitting on my drawing table. Other than that, I'm open to ideas for my next project. Got a great idea? Let's make it happen!

So, that's me. Now, who are you?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

You Were Psyched Once

As a video editor/writer/producer/ all-around do everything myself guy, I read lots of stuff about how to create good video, great lighting, working with actors, etc. Along with all of the great information out there, I come across lots and lots of lists; checklists, to-do lists, don't forget lists... you get the idea.

Being knee-deep in a project right now, I've discovered a few things. Most, I'm sure are on other lists. Obviously, I didn't pay enough attention to them. So, for all of you, (like me), who think you know it all already, here is a real life short list that might help you stave off what I like to call the "Oh crap" moments.

(Full Disclosure - I actually used some more colorful words - a lot - when I discovered these things).

1.) Nobody Cares Like You Do
Nobody cares about your project the way you do. Stop shaking your head... you know its true. Clients care about budgets and deadlines. Actors care about how they look and perform, and - news flash! Your spouse doesn't really care if that key light has too much spill.

It's kind of like when one of your guy friends comes over with his girlfriend to see your new baby. The girls "ooh" and "ahh" but the guy looks at you like, "So, does this mean we aren't going to Vegas next month?"

2.) Quantity Does Not Equal Quality
On this project, I have about six hours of footage for a thirty minute program. While I was editing the first scene - the first scene! - I realized that I forgot to shoot a character saying a few lines. I could have fifty hours of footage, but without that thirty seconds that I need... well... see Full Disclosure above.

Make sure you get what you need. Then be creative and artsy to your heart's content.

Which brings me to...

3.) You Suck at Something.
Some people are great at lighting, but can't level a camera to save their souls. Others are excellent at coming up with innovative ways to capture a moment, but can't seem to remember that you're losing light while they craft the perfect whatever. For me, I suck at remembering the difference between what I've imagined and what I've actually shot.
I need another me, (better looking and about 40 pounds lighter), that can say, "Dude, don't forget page five!" or "We still need that close up - you know, the emotional heart of the whole thing?" or "Great idea - but, do we have a helicopter for that overhead shot?"

Find the people you need who are better at the things you suck at. Pay them if you have to, but get them on board.

4.) Remember the Good Times.
When you're on set or at the editing deck, try to remember how you felt when you were envisioning this train wreck. Before the makeup was melting under the lights, or the costume headpiece looked like, well, a costume headpiece, you were psyched! You had great ideas and cool new ways to show off your storytelling.

Try to remember how confident you were in the pitch meeting. Try to get that feeling back after a few attempts at fixing over-exposed footage.

Go ahead, try.

There you go. Practice these rules diligently and you'll be on your way to being a well-respected, award winning, uber-rich celebrity visionary... or not.
It's up to you.

Friday, August 26, 2011

How to Deserve Thousands of Followers

For many, social media is a way to connect, stay informed and follow the comings and goings of those people whose lives are more interesting than yours. But, who are those people? They are the humans among us who are more important, more together, more hipster than you.

Etiquette and accepted social mores? Nonsense. There are no words or feelings out of bounds. Grammar and punctuation? For amateurs. Spelling? Bah! Who needs it when we have numbers and symbols to guide the less enlightened to the proper path?
But, you cry, they are so cool! I want to be one of them!

Well, if you must... here's what you need to do, you sad, sad little gnome.

1.) Be Snarky
First and foremost among the rules for imposing your world view is to set up the basis of the conversation. Don't ask if Kim Kardashian is dumb. Say it! And then follow up with your assessment of her level of dumbness. Comparisons are good here, too. Bag of rocks, dumb as a stump, etc. It doesn't matter if she's beautiful, built like a brick sh*thouse or making a bajillion dollars, she's still a loser, right?
Don't be afraid to use your superior intellect to eviscerate a celebrity, politician or media personality. You don't know them, and they aren't really real people with feelings and families, so what's the harm? Everyone does it, but you can do it better!

2.) Don't Let People's Feelings Get in the Way
Nobody who crosses your path should be safe. The kid serving you over-priced and oh-so-trendy coffee, the driver in front of you at the light, or anyone who dares to take up what you think is an extra moment of your time are perfect targets. Question their parentage, their lack of breeding or their right to exist in the same world as someone as cool and hip as you. They don't even have iPads, (or worse, they have a model older than yours), so who cares how they feel? Besides, they aren't reading your posts, and you can safely tackle these and other earth-shattering dilemmas from the comfort of your futon, without having to face them after blasting them. Or, even better, you can see them tomorrow knowing that you ripped them a new one on Twitter last night.

3.) Treat the Language as Your Personal Punching Bag
All of those rules, common tenets and expectations of spelling, punctuation and grammar that you were forced to learn in school are worthless. You haven't held a pen in over a year, so don't let any of that other crap stand in the way of you expressing your greatness. To, too and two are now simply 2. Are, our, you and I? We have single letters that sound the same, don't we? Phonetic spelling is so hip anyway. "Those other people" who can't understand what you post... u n i bth no te don matta... haters.

4.) Narrow Your Focus, Widen Your Expectations
Whole Foods out of your favorite soy-based, gluten-free pasta substitute? Bastards! Complain about it online. Everyone can afford to shop there, so you are providing a valuable service. Well, everyone who is anyone shops there. Make sure your post tells them how stupid, inane or unfair you think it is to inconvenience you, right after remarking on the situation in the Sudan.

Don't worry, being hip automatically qualifies you to comment on any issue that manages to encroach on your fish-eyed viewpoint. People starving in a war-torn region deserve your pity, unless they come here and drive the cab you find yourself in after three too many apple-tinis. Then, their lack of ability to manage a language as simple as English is worthy of a flaming, albeit posted, retort.

And, don't forget to speak in your own sphere-of-influence jargon. If someone doesn't understand, too bad. They would if they were as cool as you.

5.) Make With the Charitable Outlook
Bono thinks starving kids in third-world countries are important, and so should you. Take a stand, join a march and make sure your followers know just how altruistic you are. How magnanimous you can be is tempered only by how many questions on specifics you can dodge. There's always Google, so you don't really need to know anything about your favorite cause-du-jour, anyway. The important thing is that you care. Or, appear to care. Or, whatever.

There you have it. Follow these rules and you'll be well on your way to thousands of friends, followers and circlings. Just remember, you are, and always will be, so much more together than they are. As long as you can have your half fat, half latte mocha frappichino... all is right with the world.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Volunteering for a Good Cause

While I find it hard to say "no" to my wife for anything, it would have been unthinkable this weekend. After all the help she has provided with my latest production, (scheduler, costumer, mom-wrangler, puppeteer, seamstress... the list goes on), I would have really felt like an ungrateful slob had I refused to help out with the event she had arranged.

Our local Applebee's provides non-profit groups with a great way to raise funds by allowing us to arrange a Pancake Breakfast. My wife Gina scheduled one for our church, and today was the day. That meant being up, showered, dressed and in the car by 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I know for some of you, that doesn't sound like a big deal, but for someone who rarely falls into bed before 2 a.m., there is really only one word for it... $@#@^%&@*@!

Still, having worked in the restaurant business for over a dozen years served me well. It didn't take long before I felt right at home plating food, washing dishes and making sure our "servers", (the children of our adult volunteers, pressed into service), were moving along and doing their jobs.



Granted, we had one dish on the menu, and a house full of folks who were ready to be pleasant and patient, (this was a charity effort for our church, after all), so it wasn't the hard-charging fast pace of a real restaurant on a Friday evening. Nobody ever fell "into the weeds", and we didn't have to "86" anything. We got all of the adrenaline and the feeling of 'making it happen' without all of the downsides to serving other people food.

It was kinda fun watching the pre-teens grumble over having to wrap silverware, ("We have to do ALL of these?"). The kind of fun one has as an adult, watching kids get the barest glimpse of real work.

I don't want to post pics of other people's kids here without their permission, so it'll have to suffice to say that all of the volunteers, adults and kids, did a great job! Tom at the coffee machine, Gina and I on the line and Margo making sure everything was as good as it could be. All of the kids who served and smiled, even though they were tired and out of their element... you made it special.




We pulled in a good chunk of $$$ as a donation to the good works that our local church does, (and they really do some great things for the community), and we all walked away feeling that we did something of value today. It was fun, it was hectic and no, I wouldn't trade my present life for my past life in this business, but, I have to say... it was worth getting up today.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Caterpillar's Tale production notes VI

Last minute script changes, shuffling the characters around and one really cool camera angle later, today's scenes shot for "A Caterpillar's Tale" are destined for the editing deck.




While the actors looked at me with blank stares, I explained how we would be shooting things out of sequence, in order to adhere to our hard-stop time. Being stage actors, they are used to starting a scene and plowing through to the end. This is, no doubt, a strange and disconnected way to perform.




Being kids, they have parents who expect to pick them up at the time that I said we would be done. So, in order to make that happen, I needed to shoot in groups of segments, guaranteeing that no one but me knew what was going on.




And, as a side note... I shot everything I needed and was still finished ten minutes before the hard-stop time! Yay me!



But as a director, I know what I want in the way of shots, and as an editor, I know that more is always better. So, to the all-too-familiar sound of me saying, "Great! That was terrific... let's do it again," we bounced around our script.
We have one actor scene left, two more scenes with the puppets, and this thing will be solely the province of the editor, (me). I know, I know... I'm a geek, but I find that to be pretty exciting!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Caterpillar's Tale Production notes vol. V

We’re getting there! After today’s shoot, I’m even more psyched than ever about putting this project together.




Today we shot two scenes. One with the bats, and one with the owl.
The bats were so cute and wicked, they are sure to be stand out characters in our project. Our bats performed in the perfect blend of scary/cute/fun. My head was full of ideas about sound and light effects I’m going to use for this scene. I’m looking forward to editing it!




The owl was great, too. Our actress was spot on in her delivery, attitude and motherly-ness. It was a real treat to capture.




I have a few days until our next scenes, so I’m going to try and catch up on some other work. But, after today, it’ll be hard to focus on anything other than this project!




Just as a recap, this project is part of an anti-bullying effort for a local school district. Its intended audience is the students of the district in grades K-4, so it has to be fun, funny and still get the message across. It’s my hope that we can make it memorable enough so that the message sinks in while the kids enjoy watching it. With such great actors, craft work and creativity behind it, I think we’re going to make it happen!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Caterpillar's Tale vol IV

Today we shot the final scene of “A Caterpillar’s Tale”. Not the last scene I have to shoot, just the last scene in the program. It was, by far, the most complicated, involving actors interacting with a puppet that has most of the lines, a dozen ensemble actors, a dance number and character make-up.




The thing that kept me awake at night leading up to this shoot was the amount of actors in the scene, and how I was going to manage making sure they hit their marks, delivered their lines and kept the energy up through multiple takes. It turns out that it was the actors themselves that made it such a great experience.



The ability to stand and deliver a line, and their willingness to do it well, made all the difference. Many of the actors in this production learned their craft under the tutelage of Bonnie and John Ryerson of the Pied Piper Youth Theater, www.pipertheater.org , and Bonnie and John have taught them well. Some even came from rehearsals of a PPYT production, to lend their talents to our show. To them I say, “Well done… now get some sleep.”




One of the cool things that brought it all together was the chance to work with Kayla Hamilton, a young choreographer who is definitely on her way to big things. She pulled a group of kids together into a simple dance routine that is going to look so great as an ending… I couldn’t be happier with the result. It was slick, it was creepy… very, very cool.




Another scene tomorrow, featuring costumes by Cyndi Davern, www.cdavern-lifeseasoning@blogspot.com , three more next week, and then pick-ups, B-roll, environmentals…, and then I spend the rest of August editing. I love summer projects!


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Caterpillar's Tale Production notes vol. III

Three things that I never thought I would ever say to my children:

1: Don't play with the rats
2: Now, I want all of the sweetness and light gone from you
3: Become one with the caterpillar

Well, I said all of that and more today as my daughter joined two other fine young actors to play the Three Witches in "A Caterpillar's Tale".



After transforming my living room into a cross between a hidden corner of Wes Craven's mind and Liberace's breakfast nook, we waited for our actors to arrive. The wonderful Geri Hamilton, who also provides the voice of the Crabapple in another scene, arrived with our actors in tow. She set to work immediately, handling hair and make-up chores, transforming three lovely young ladies into three gorgeous gypsies. Add to that the costumes Gina Davis and I collaborated on choosing for each, along with her work on our daughter's styling, and we were ready to film a pivotal scene.



Cue the caterpillar!

Gina and I were up late the night before, (again) putting the final touches on the custom caterpillar puppet that will serve as the star of our production. We brought him out for his debut, much to the surprise and awe of those gathered. He's creepy, he's cool, and... just a bit sad, which is exactly what I was hoping for in a star.
The shoot began as so many do, with manic discussions and explanations of lines, blocking and motivations amidst the curling irons, eyeliner and glitter spray, (why is there always glitter spray?).



We progressed smoothly through the script, with just a few bumps and tangles. At one point, I thought we wouldn't be able to do the song. I received a very cool song a few days before, but there just wasn't time to produce it and no one would have had a chance to learn it before shoot day. So, I pulled together some lyrics to fit the mood of the day. But then, and this is the coolest thing about working with ultra-talented young actors, we bounced a few ideas around and came up with an idea to shoot it that actually turned out better than what I had originally planned. By placing the camera lower than the actors, and shooting upward, they could read the lyrics and appear to be looking at the caterpillar, which, essentially provided a caterpillar's point of view shot for a pivotal segment in the scene... bonus!



If today's work is any indication, this is going to be a terrific production.

By the way, when you have kids on the set, and rubber rats as props scattered around, someone's going to pick one up... that's just a given, I guess.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Caterpillar's Tale Production Notes vol. II

It was 93 degrees f today, and I had a half dozen kids marching up and down my driveway, screaming their heads off. Why? Because they were the "villagers" storming the castle of the Evil Scientist in our production. Good sports all, they dutifully hit their marks and created a scene that, most likely, lead to a few head-scratching moments among my neighbors.

Aside from a sad face or two when it was discovered that I only had one pitchfork among the rakes and shovels they carried, these kids took a small scene in the script and gave it life... as only kids can.

While their moms looked on from the top of the hill, they performed well, even as I sent them back to their starting places with a cry of "Great! That was terrific! Let's do it again!"

Production Manager Gina Davis brought it all together, as she and Margo Mueller put the finishing touches to the costumes, walking a fine line between poor, angry villagers and flat out hobos.

A special shout out to Bonnie Ryerson of the Pied Piper Youth Theater for the girls' costumes, straight out of last year's production of Annie Jr. And, a big thanks to Deborah Elk for delivering them to us, just in time!

You can find out more about PPYT on their website at www.pipertheater.org

Aside from today's shooting, we also had a costume fitting for some of our youngest actors, who will be performing in the production's final scene. We are scheduled to shoot that next week. That will be the biggest scene, and one that will require the most work for all involved.

After our initial read-through, it became obvious that it would make the scene stronger to flesh it out a bit, and give each actor at least one line to deliver. Along with the added benefit of happier actors, (who doesn't want the chance to stand and deliver a line?), I'm confident that the scene itself will benefit from the different styles and deliveries I'm sure to get on camera.

We'll post more photos next week, as some of the more involved scenes are shot. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Caterpillar's Tale

After five months of pitching, cajoling, lining up resources and generally annoying many people around me, I finally secured funding for a video project.

Having done an anti-bullying video aimed at mid/high school aged kids last year, I wanted to do one for the younger students. After all, habits and beliefs about what is and is not socially acceptable begin early. They are usually learned by absorbing attitudes toward bullying, ("Boys will be boys", "Girls are just mean," or "When I was a kid, you just..."), and those ideas begin to form a child's core beliefs about the world in which they are expected to fit in and get along.

So, I wanted to help.

Having created a few video programs centered around the winter holidays, my first thought was to go back to that well. As I began to explore options, I realized that my mindset was simply to rehash all of those things I had seen and watched many, many times over the years. Yawn. Then, I decided to point my efforts at the most underserved "holiday", Halloween. Kids of all ages love Halloween, (settle down, religious fervorists), and it's second only to Christmas as a holiday chock full of "no-explanation-needed" icons.

I had my moral. I had my theme. Now, what to write?

I began pitching it to my family at the dinner table. With two kids under the age of twelve, I figured I'd toss the idea to them, and my wife and I would get an understanding of what they wanted to see in a video program like this. We would discuss it, and I would begin to build a story that I could eventually write and produce. I was not disappointed, nor did I have to wait very long.

After batting around some ideas that kept going back to what I had done already, (musical numbers driven by puppets and dialog), my kids began to get bored of the topic. In an effort to be silly, my oldest child barked out something about a giant, ferocious caterpillar.

The lights in my head went on, and the wheels started turning. Over the next few weeks, I kept driving the discussion back to what happens to the caterpillar. Where does he come from? What does he do? Who shares this world with him? I got some great, fun, silly, fantastic ideas from each of my family members, and I was off and running.

By January, I had a script, but not much else. I set my sights on the folks that funded my last project, and arranged my pitch meeting. The idea was well-received... and that's where it lay. Budgets, meetings, cancelled meetings, postponed meetings, other funding option meetings and a general sense that this wasn't going to happen began to wear on me. Finally, I dug in my heels and decided that I was going to give this one last push. If I didn't get the funds I needed, it wouldn't be done by October. I would still work on it, but I would have to make it for the following year, and that just bummed me out.

I set a few influential people on the case, to push for the idea from different angles on the folks that I knew would fund this project if they were convinced in the right way, and then...
One more meeting. I told myself that if it didn't fly, it was going to the back burner. I had other work to do. Two minutes into the meeting, the project was green-lighted and I could barely contain myself. "Will you have enough time to deliver it?" "Absolutely!"

As I was driving away, I began to wonder, "Did I have enough time to do this?" I had two months before one of the lead actors I wanted for this was gone for a month. Those two months happened to be June and July, which are notoriously hard to pin people down for work. Add to that the fact that I wanted to use an all child actor cast, and the fact that the youth theater company I would tap for the cast members was mounting a summer production, and I was starting to sweat.

Realizing that I had to bite down on my ego and ask for help, I turned to my wife.
An executive organizer with years of corporate project management experience, my wife is a consummate professional. Along with her innate skills for not only gathering people together, but getting them to do their jobs, she is also a mom. Which means that she is a practiced psychologist, social engineer and hands-on creative dynamo with a knack for making sure stuff gets done. Once she decided to be involved, the project took off.

We started with our dream cast list, drawing from the many creative kids and families we associate with on a regular basis. The next thing I know, she and I are having meetings, discussing casting, costuming, props and shoot dates. She arranged a meeting/script read with fifteen cast members and their moms... and everyone showed up.

I could not have pulled that off myself.

So, this project is a "go". I've already shot some of the exteriors, and our first cast shoot is coming up this week. I am beyond excited. More as things develop...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

You Talk Bad

a few examples

Age is a funny thing. My youthful idealism is still intact. My belief that people should help others when they can is sound. Live and let live, don’t judge a book by its cover, everyone deserves a second chance… these and many other ideals continue to help guide my daily life. But, one virtue that I have never had an over-abundance of has been on the wane for a few years now.

I have lost patience with language abusers.

The normal annoyances afflict me, as they do many others. Like people who don’t know the difference, or don’t care about the difference between “your” and “you’re”. I realize we’re all busy, but, when did it become so hard to understand where and when an apostrophe is to be used? Or, those who use words like “irregardless”, or people who use the term “at the end of the day” more than once in a conversation when describing a time when all dialogue has been exhausted. Things like this make me yell at my TV or computer screen.

But, what really makes my head swim is more insidious than these rather benign examples of linguistic fluffery. What really makes me want to palm people on the forehead is turning nouns into verbs, or vice-versa. This is mostly a kid thing, and I have to check myself quite often to avoid the much-deserved passive-aggressive retort.

Let me set the record straight. “Solution” is not a verb. You cannot “solution” a problem. Saying,“that’s a fail.”, That’s “beast” or “that’s epic” MAKES NO SENSE. I know what you mean, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear. Everything is not “awesome”. Does that song really make your mouth hang open, speechless and in awe? No? Then, shut up. Referring to someone as having “mad skills” also makes no damn sense. And, I’m quite certain the word “amazing” has taken the top spot in being the most over-used descriptive term we have in our language. Very few things amaze me, certainly not fifteen things I see every day, which is about how often I hear it.

I long for the days when everything was “cool”. Men, women, children, the elderly… all were referred to as “man”. Not knowing the difference between a shizzle and a hizzy doesn’t really affect my daily life, so don’t hurl those terms at me like I’m supposed to be okay with it.

Now, get off my lawn.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Body Mass and You

BMI article

In the district where my children go to school, a new rule was instituted a few years ago. They were to be weighed and their BMI, (Body Mass Index) was to be recorded. I was told by the school nurse, (a really nice woman with a long history of doing her job and doing it well), that the rule was required by the state, and it was little more than a formality.

Which got me thinking. Could it be that, at the state level, someone was really, genuinely concerned about childhood obesity, and instituted this rule so as to gather data, and then do something about it? As much as I would like to believe that… uh, no. Sorry. Can’t.

I know first-hand that the folks in charge of food service in our school district do care, and have instituted policies to help make the transition to healthier choices available to my kids. I know they are working hard to exceed the guidelines set forth for them by the state and federal government. There is still a long way to go, but they are working on it. Because of those guidelines, I was wondering why, then, do we need to send the BMI data on our children to some database where who-knows-who can utilize it?

The paragraph below is complete conjecture and conspiracy-minded theory. I have absolutely no proof of this. Consider yourself warned.

Here’s my guess. Insurance companies will have access to that data. As more and more diseases and afflictions are claimed to be rooted in our American Obesity Lifestyle, insurance companies will be able to use this data for two main reasons. 1.) To boost premiums based on a family’s or individual’s obesity level, and 2.) To be able to deny claims using a childhood BMI rating as sufficient information to declare just about any ailment as a pre-existing condition, because almost every affliction known to humans will eventually be traced to obesity as its cause.

There. I said it.

I was a fat kid, with all of the teasing and being picked last that comes with it. Currently, my triglycerides level is double what is “normal” for a human, (just not one from my family). When I asked my doctor about this, she told me that with levels like mine, it is most likely genetic. I can work out like crazy and eat right, and I’ll still have crazy-high levels.

My kids are built just like me. Low-waisted, thick around the middle, with quick minds and a predilection for sitting down. Their levels will most likely be high as well. My wife and I have been instituting better eating habits in our house, like no starch course at dinner and double, (and sometimes triple), vegetables. But, as the saying goes, you can lead a kid to broccoli, but you may have to sit there a while, cajoling and threatening, to make them eat it. As it stands, their BMIs are not at the level that some council somewhere has set as “normal”. Are they to be penalized as adults? If my predictions are true, they and so many others will be.

Why, then, don’t the people in charge of such things put their efforts into stopping federal corn subsidies, which are the main factor in cheap, abundant corn? With so much corn, farmers don’t know what to do with it all, so they sell it to other companies who process it into… say it with me… high fructose corn syrup. Which is basically sugar, and is in just about EVERYTHING we have available to us in the way of processed foods. That is why we are the only country in the world with fat poor people. It’s cheap, it makes everything taste good, and can be found in every single aisle of the supermarket. The healthier food is in the outer ring. Once you go down an aisle, you’re screwed.

So, to recap… Our government makes the production of highly fattening foods massively cheaper than healthy food. Our airwaves are constantly bombarded with ads for such foods, many of the worst kinds targeted directly at children. Our economic system is hopelessly slanted in favor of wealthy people getting wealthier while poorer people get poorer, forcing them to survive on cheaper, processed foods. And then our kids are admonished for not having a healthier lifestyle and penalized, (in the future, if my predictions come true… come on, you know I’m right), for being “obese” based on the BMI data that was collected when they were young.

How long will it be before that information becomes part of the standardized test data? Will our kids have to worry about being accepted by the college of their choice because of their weight?

I’m getting tired just thinking about all of this. Maybe I need a Snickers. The peanuts and nougat will energize me.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Ad Dad

Advertisers know who buys stuff. I don’t know the exact percentage, but I’m pretty sure that women handle most of the purchasing in our culture. What makes me say that? Just look at the ads.

Whenever you see an ad on TV that features a family element, (food and travel are real stand-outs here), it’s always the Dad who is the knucklehead, the clown or the hapless loser. Mom sweeps in to put right whatever he has destroyed or messed up, usually with that look of knowing wisdom that I saw on my mother’s face more often than I care to remember while growing up. Men are just big children, the ad seems to say, and women are the sensible ones.

Right. Because men will buy six shirts, four pairs of pants and three pairs of shoes with the absolute certainty that most of this stuff is to be returned to the store. Men know that when you buy something on sale, even if you didn’t really want it, it’s still a bargain and you’ve saved money on it. And, men always flick through every piece of clothing on a rack without the slightest target in mind. Really?

Men don’t do these things. Why? Because they don’t make any sense whatsoever. These practices are illogical, and companies know this. Only someone who can view consumerism through such an illogical lense can be influenced to believe that it’s a virtue. Ads are masterful at playing to this idea that it’s okay to be completely illogical, as long as you buy something… preferable spending more than your gift card has on it.

This, to me, is blatant pandering to the female consumer, but it goes beyond the simple, “Dad’s a jerk but Mom will save us” mindset. The ads we and our children see are playing, not to the strengths of the women in our lives, but to their fears. Ads still objectify women and their bodies, but they do it to stoke the fires of a woman’s fear of being alone. Right after the ad that shows the Mom smirking at the camera while Dad falls down in the background, an ad for lacy bras over flat tummies comes on to push the message that says, “Hey, at least you have a man. Wanna keep him? Well, you better look this good to do so!” The twenty-something slacker with his two-day shadow is fine, but the woman needs to be polished and perfect in order to be worthy of this moron.

Then there are the ads that show Dad not as an idiot, but as a hero. Interestingly enough, Dad is usually alone in these ads. Power tools, cars and lawn tractors extol the virtues of being in command of the elements and bending them to your will. They play to Dad’s fear of being lost in his own environment, and having no control of his surroundings.

The bridge between these two extremes is the beer ad.

Beer ads are simple in their message. Young men who couldn’t tuck in a shirt to save their lives want to have sex with women, and they know that women want them, as long as they are in the right place at the right time. Preferably drinking a Miller Light, (served, of course, by the all-knowing female bartender). What these ads allude to is the fact that once you find a woman who will have you, you can go on being the hapless dork you are, because she will take care of everything, being the wise one in the family.

These themes carry over into sitcoms as well, where the Dad provides comic relief, (often with his adolescent-minded buddies), to great hilarity. Then, Mom comes in and straightens everything out in the end, giving the Dad some measure of credit to assuage his ego and allowing him to save face before the children. But the kids know this. When Mom says “No”, they go and ask Dad. Dad will let us do it… he’s an idiot. The only time Dads on TV make a good call on parenting is when they express a fear of their wives…, “I can’t let you do this… your Mom will kill me!”

I relate all of this in the hope that you will do a simple test each time you see one of these ads or shows. Switch them around. When you see the ad where Dad says or does something really stupid, and Mom saves the family, imagine the dialogue being swapped. In your mind, have the Mom do the stupid thing and have Dad tell the world that you can be as smart as him, even if you have to put up with this ridiculous female in your house. Would such an ad invoke the hue and cry that the media would raise from all corners decrying the deplorable “women-bashing” of this ad or show? Of course it would, but you don’t hear that kind of outrage from men.

That’s okay. We Dads plod on, changing light bulbs, mowing the lawn and serving as your stud-puppets. It’s fine. We know the truth. The battle of the sexes is over. We all lost. Now go buy something that makes you feel better about it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Bravery of Kids

As someone who has stood in boardrooms and conferences and spoken on topics where my expertise ranged from extensive to non-existent, I can sympathize with those who fear public speaking. I've often thought that it takes a certain level of distain for the audience in order to calm those fears. How wrong I was in that notion. While that attitude may work for some, I've discovered what really makes for a good public presentation.

Bravery... where you acknowledge your fear and do your job anyway... is what it takes. Preparation, confidence, being able to read an audience, all of these things are important and necessary, but bravery will get you through like nothing else.

I had the opportunity to videotape an elementary school talent show recently, and as with all events of this caliber, one can see them in a variety of ways. You can view it as a "celebration of mediocrity", or you can find the beauty in the simplicity of it. I’ve run a few of these shows when my kids were in those school years, and I can say, first hand, that it’s a ton of work for the adults. You manage time and schedules for 30+ acts, arrange for the performance space, sound crew, programs, get teachers involved, deal with parents and school administrators… the list is endless. But, for the kids, the event begins and ends with their three minutes on stage.

I’ve seen kids who can sing like birds, dance with talent far beyond their years, and work a room like a Catskill veteran, alongside kids who couldn’t carry a tune if it had a handle. I’ve seen kids perform who obviously never made the connection between success and rehearsal, who felt that their parents’ praise would be universal, and who viewed their slot as a way to justify all of those extra after-school dance classes. The single, unifying point among them, though, is that no matter their talent level, their comfort level, or what brought them to this point, they performed. They go out there and do it. To see an eight year old stand on a stage in front of 600 people and belt out an a cappella version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is a stirring sight. It transcends their individual ability. It goes far beyond self-consciousness and youthful embarrassment. You gotta give it to them… they did it.

In my opening remarks of one show I helmed a few years ago, I reminded the audience that these are kids who were braver than many of the adults present. “How many of you, “ I asked, “would like to get up here and sing a song just because you like it? Stand up here and belt one out without fear of embarrassment, your only preparation being singing in the car or around the house?” Not a hand went up.

Later, one mom offered an aside about a kid’s ability to do such a thing. “They don’t know enough to be scared yet.” Not true, I thought. Kids live between two worlds… one populated with knees and elbows at eye-level, where they are always the smallest person in the discussion… if they are even included in the discussion. The other world is one of peers, who always have more, or less than they do… both in material things and in ideas. And they aren’t always shy about expressing their point of view. Fear of not “fitting in” or “being weird” starts early. What adults might view as “little fears” are shadows that follow many kids around each day. They know what fear is.

And yet, they do it. They get out there on the stage and dance and sing their hearts out, letting the chips fall where they may. That, to me, is a life lesson and a life skill that will serve them well for years to come. I wish more of us could carry that into adulthood, where life tends to beat the snot out of that particular brand of bravery.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Teacher merits

This is just a small part of the debate about teachers, administrations and school districts budgets. More to come as the season rolls on. - JD

Quite a bit of debate in these days of belt-tightening and budget slashing is focused on teachers' salaries.  The conservative view would be that teachers are highly paid, without tangible, measurable results. After all, how can one measure how much a teacher cares about their students' achievement? The Bush administration tried to combat that view with No Child Left Behind, which, while there are many intricacies and trade-offs, roughly amounted to using student test scores to judge teacher effectiveness.  This method of evaluation lacks common sense in so many ways that it just makes me shake my head, but, at the very least... somebody tried something!

You can find many arguments, both pro and con, on NCLB... so go do some homework.

The question remains... do teachers make too much money?
As I have stated before, this question is really only half of the question.  Do teachers make too much compared to X would be the way to ask it in order to get an answer.  Of course, that is predicated on the notion that you want facts as opposed to simply emotional table-pounding.
So, if the question is; Do teachers in my district make too much compared to other states?- 

teacher portal or
payscale

... you can judge for yourself if your district pays teachers comparably to other states.

If you base the question on comparable business standards, which I think is flawed on it's face, (how can you compare a middle management worker who oversees adults to someone with the immeasurable task of teaching our kids to be ready to compete in a global economy?), you can easily see that nobody seems to agree on this, and the arguments swing wildly, depending on your political bent.

politifact
OC Register
6 reasons

The above links are just examples... not intended to be an exhaustive list.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that teachers aren't paid based on merit.  Good teachers make the same as great teachers, who make the same as crappy teachers. The seniority rules and tenure system are the basis for the plight we are faced with these days.  Who would deny a teacher a high five- or low six figure salary if they were producing high achieving students on a consistent basis?  The answer, I admit, eludes me.  How do you measure a good teacher?

Teachers fresh out of school often take jobs in urban or low-income districts to shore up their credentials, help pay off loans and for a variety of other reasons.  These are the teachers who are well-versed in up-to-the-minute tech and research advances in the educational field.  They are also the teachers who are charging forward, the fervent gleam in their eyes, ready to change the world and make a difference in a kid's life. (That's not to say that all teachers who have remained in the field have lost that desire, or that all teachers fresh out of college have it, but... well, you know what I mean...).  These are also the teachers who are the first to see the dreaded pink slip when budget season comes around, or their union negotiates a particularly aggressive contract necessitating layoffs.  This creates a revolving door of teachers in these hard-hit areas... something districts that are better off economically try to avoid with higher pay scales and beefier contract benefits. Often those policies result in more drastic belt-tightening every 6 or 7 years as the economic indicators swing back and forth.  None of this helps our kids.

So, we need to first find a way to measure the effectiveness of a teacher, and then base our salary and district employee retention models on that. Then we will have the data necessary for debating teacher salaries.

One of my clients happens to be the local school district, and I am the guy standing behind the camera at every school board meeting, capturing the evening for local broadcast. Consequently, I not only attend every meeting, but I actually have to pay attention, and listen to what is going on. So, while I don't profess to be an expert of any sort on school budgets, I do have the opportunity to hear the rationale behind the decisions made by the group of volunteers who sit on our school board.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Our Kids Are Worth It

This is just a small part of the debate about teachers, administrations and school districts budgets. More to come as the season rolls on. - JD

I live in what is termed a "bedroom" community, which means a community where people leave each day to go to work elsewhere. There are plenty of dry cleaners, pizza places and nail salons, but no real industry or retail base to speak of. No factories or industries. It's beautiful here, surrounded by woodlands and waterways, old stone walls and neighbors who wave as you go by. The problem is... dun, dun, duhhhhhn... taxes.

Our taxes are high. Higher than this mix of blue collar and white collar working families can stomach. People often feel powerless when state-level politicians give lip service to addressing their concerns by attacking the whipping post du jure. The only real effect people have is at the ballot, which, no matter how much vitriol is expressed, still remains woefully under used. So, when school budget time rolls around, it is seen as a chance to make a difference, without digging too deeply into the hopeless morass of politics. This is local. This is a fight that's manageable, after homework and dinner. One can jump on the bandwagon of grassroots disgust and be heard. The local school board meeting is where the sane argument is given the same level of respect as the crazies, the uninformed and those who feel the need to be seen on local TV. Even if one speaker's plea conflicts directly with the next person to step up to the microphone.

When arguments of teachers' salaries being too high are expressed, the question that always pops into my head is, "Compared to what?'. Other states' teachers? Test scores? Student achievement? These are answers that no one offers because there is no corrolating absolute. "Too high" is a value judgement, based on a personal opinion. The only quantifiable answer is , "too high for us to pay". That answer, I understand. Median incomes vs. tax level vs. long-term outlooks, etc. I get that. It makes sense. It can be measured with math. If you can figure it out, thank a teacher.

After weeding through all of the expressed outrage, constructive critisims and utter nonsense, the choice becomes to either lower expenditures by the school district, (a HUGE chunk of the school budget goes toward salaries and benefits of its employees, so attacking salary levels makes bumper-sticker political sense), or increase the resident tax payers ability to pay. For everyone in the area to get a 25% increase in pay seems unlikely, (duh). And, even if this fantasy did occur, we, as Americans, would bristle fiercely at the prospect of turning such an increase over to the tax collector. The obvious choice, then, is to lower salaries. The effects of such a move can be debated, with as many good arguments as bad, but the bottom line is simply that we have to pay for teachers to teach our kids. To achieve a budget that will pass the local electorate's scrutiny, then, means cuts to programs and services.

But, wait, you say. Isn't there another option... one where my kids don't have to suffer because of the budget cuts, layoffs and general morale-lowering antagonisms between labor and management? There is, but it won't be easy, nor quick. It would certainly be a better use of effort than barking at the volunteers who give up their time to preside over the school board. The Board of Education members aren't the foxes guarding the henhouse. They are the watch dogs. We are the farmers, blindly firing off rounds into the darkness, hoping to scare the foxes away. It is the legislators, both at local and state levels, who are the foxes in this admittedly abused scenario.

Our efforts should be focused on the people who make the rules. Not those who, like our school boards, have to find creative ways to operate within the increasingly idiotic rules imposed upon them. It is at the town, county and state levels that we find residents arguing against this or that commercial development. It is there that we find the special interests writing the laws that force our local schools to bend the taxpayer to the breaking point. And, it is there that we find the same foxes telling us that they are working for us, while marching in lock step with their party bosses regardless of what we really need.The voice of the concerned parent is under-represented at this level.  This is where the ire needs to be focused.

I welcome the day when parents who have banded together focus their efforts on truly advocating for our kids by marching on the Town Board, the County Executive's office and the Statehouse, (just as our Board of Education members do), to let them know that we need industry and responsible commercial development to add to the tax base and assist us in making sure our schools provide our kids with everything they can need to succeed in a global marketplace. We should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the school board and the adminsitration, advocating with them for saner rules governing development, tax levies and rules for dealing with unions. Then we can say we stand up for our kids. Then we can stand up at a school board meeting and relate that we care enough to do so. Anything less is simply that... less.

One of my clients happens to be the local school district, and I am the guy standing behind the camera at every school board meeting, capturing the evening for local broadcast. Consequently, I not only attend every meeting, but I actually have to pay attention, and listen to what is going on. So, while I don't profess to be an expert of any sort on school budgets, I do have the opportunity to hear the rationale behind the decisions made by the group of volunteers who sit on our school board.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

FOMO? nope

http://nyti.ms/enZrBB

In my mind's eye, I'm still 25 years old.  Comfortable in the fact that I am at my physical and intellectual, (or so I thought at the time), best.  While I was never truly happy, I didn't miss out on much back then.  I was a bartender, so nightlife was my life.  If I wasn't greasing the wheels for others in pursuit of a good night, I was imbibing myself, enjoying the dark side at my leisure.

Age and maturity descended upon me at my own bidding, as I chose to remove myself from that lifestyle, get a "real" job and find my way in the world of adults, leaving the head-pounding days and giddy, selfish nights behind.

The beast within rears it's egotistical head from time to time, but this is easily put down as I am reminded that those days and nights belong to the next generation of party-goers and social malcontents. I'm okay with that.  Really.

Social media seems like a great way to bring the world into the bubble that I live in, affording me views of the world and all of its happenings. "Traditional" media, news on TV and print, can only scratch the surface of the human response to the world, try as they might to include it in their efforts. But, with this influx of humanity into my safe, little world comes the events in the lives of others, and the feelings of disconnect from the larger world party. I was never so glad to be disconnected as I am now.

"FOMO", or fear of missing out, seems to be a syndrome people are experiencing due to the constant, up-to-the-minute exploits of friends and strangers in their social circles.  That others are having a good time while I am home on the couch doesn't faze me at all.  I consistently turn down "event requests" and "invitations" on Facebook to occasions that I'm sure will offer 10 minutes of interest within two or three hours of boredom. Likewise, photos of vacations, rock climbing, bungee jumping, et al. have only a momentary effect, as I remain comfortable in the knowledge that I can do such things if and when I choose.  I feel no remorse about not doing them at that moment.

For such a syndrome to cause real changes in someone's behavior, either through the choices they make or the interactions with others they embrace or disregard, seems foreign to me.  I cannot imagine allowing myself to be pulled in many directions in pursuit of fun or leisure.  Work, sure.  But fun? Nah.  That would seem too much like those days and nights when I lived selfishly, with little regard for anything beyond my own pleasure center.

I feel lucky to live now, without such a dilemma facing those lacking the self-regard it takes to avoid the "Everyone is having more fun than me" feeling.  So, I offer up a side note to those who undergo such a feeling; While your friends are having all of this fun without you, they are also checking their phones, lamenting the fact that others are having more fun than they are.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Insight from the Garage Up

It's Springtime in the Northeast, and that means clean, clean, clean.  As my wife set about cleaning out the refrigerator, trying to find the culprit behind that smell attacking the senses every time the door was opened, I set out upon the unenviable task of cleaning out the garage.  No mean feat, considering our two-car garage hasn't had a car in it in quite a while, and has become home to everything we absolutely need, just not right now.

Spring also means taking the plow off and storing it in the garage until next year, which is the main reason why today was garage cleaning day. Everything has to come out of the garage in order to put the plow in, and then everything has to be put back. Fun!

Our house sits up on a hill, and at 2100 square feet, my driveway affords me the thrill of blasting out onto the street like Batman, (if Batman drove a minivan). All well and good, until it snows.  It once took me eight hours to shovel my driveway,(on my birthday, no less), in order for family members to congregate at my house when Christmas day got snowed out. So, I now have a plow for my little SUV.
When I emerged from bed on this bright and sunny Saturday morning, I informed my kids that today was the day, and they had 30 minutes to wrap their minds around the fact that they couldn't play video games all day. After much grumbling and kvetching, (which I tried to ignore), 30 minutes had passed, and I insisted that they get dressed and join me outside.

Their little minds scrambling for a way out, the youngest announced, "I'm hungry!", which of course is a show stopper.  As their mom turned on a dime from her task to attend to the all-important act of feeding her offspring, (complete with smug smiles from the children in response to my exasperated sigh), I announced that they were not to hurry eating, (so they don't choke - which would be all my fault should it happen), but they were to join me when they had finished. It was then that the phone rang.

Of course, one of my children's friends called, inviting one over to play.  Large, round, doe-like eyes asked permission to go. "When we're done." I replied.  Well, that sparked a fire under my oldest, who proceded to attack the chore at hand with the usual attempt at "helping Daddy".

When everything was out of the garage and spread out over the driveway as if the contents had been washed out in a flood and the water had just receded, the inevitable, "Can I go now?" chorus began. My youngest had not yet joined us, so I said, "Sure, you did some good work." My plan was to have my youngest help put it all back.  Unbeknowst to me, two things were occuring inside the house that would change this perfect plan.  The first was that the refrigerator cleaning had somehow become more important than my little "job" and I was to drive my child to the friend's house.  Fine.  I did that, covered in dust and sweat.  Upon my return, I found my other child on the phone with a friend. Knowing that I was now alone in finishing this task, my wife leans out through the garage door to ask if I had been asked to drive the youngest to the other friend's house.

"No"
"Can you?" which really meant, "and so you shall."

More dust, more sweat, and this time I have to get out and share small talk with the friend's parents before heading back to finish the job.

I finish.  I shower.  I sit down to write this when the familiar chime of a text message sounds from my phone.  Of course, I'm alerted to the fact that it is time to pick up the first kid.  I'm convinced the other will call as soon as I return home and sit down.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Corporal Punishment

http://huff.to/hixQdT
I read this. And so I then I read this.
http://ti.me/nP2LZ
And then, because I couldn't believe that I was getting the full story, I went here: http://bit.ly/3f9KbM

Growing up and living in the Northeast, U.S., I have never been hit by a teacher in school. I'm quite sure that my mother, even as I pushed her toward the brink of her sanity time and time again during my educational years, would never have allowed it.  Raising my children now in the Northeast means that, while I have certainly heard of the practice of corporal punishment, I was under the assumption that it was a thing of the past, buried away with those times of air raid drills, segregated schools and doctors doing cigarette commercials on TV.

So, you can imagine my shame-faced surprise when I discovered that 19 states in our nation still allow, condone and in some places encourage corporal punishment in schools. And, as if that isn't enough to get the blood boiling, perhaps the fact that many instances of said punishments are carried out on special needs children, as a means to better condition them to "behave", will shake up your complacency. It shook mine to its core.

I didn't know this.  When I've seen instances of this on the news, I thought it was just that... news.  So rare in its occurence that it warrants mention in the national media. Not so, it seems.  As I read more about this topic, I was less surprised to find that the proponents of corporal punishment primarily use the Bible as justification for such policies.

Now, while I am no stranger to theological debates, (admittedly poorly informed as I am), I again, thought such arguments to be a thing of the past.

Rather than open that debate here, I put forth the following statement;
I abhor the very idea of someone, anyone, striking my child.  No matter where I may choose to live, no one is allowed, in my eyes, to inflict corporal punishment on my children.  You do so at your own peril. Should any school administrator or instructor ever find themselves in the position to carry out this practice on my offspring, I guarantee that when I have finished with you, you will wish for a long and painful court proceding against the ACLU, because it will be far, far more pleasurable than your one and only meeting with me.
Governors of those 19 states, (and you know who you are), stop this practice now.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A View from the Back of the Room

This article originally published a few years ago on a parent organization website

As a father of two children, ages six and five, it often seems like my life began little more than six years ago. My wife and I, like many parents, have decided to put our children first in our lives. Devoting ourselves, as our parents did, to ensuring that our kids are ready for life outside the nest, when that time comes. This involves many areas, some easy to manage, some more difficult, but tantamount through it all is our focus on the education our kids receive.

Homework comes before TV or computer games. Strengths are celebrated vigorously and weaknesses are treated as challenges to be overcome.  Our home is full of learning tools, educational games and books, books, books. We have, hopefully, created an environment that promotes a love of learning.

And then, we put them on the bus.

Not content to simply hope for the best, we have sought out the opportunities available to us to be involved in the school life of our kids. Granted, my children are in kindergarten and first grade, where parental involvement is encouraged as a necessary part of the transition from sheltered home life to social interaction with new authority figures. This happy fact has provided our family the good fortune of getting to know many of the educators in this school, and I can honestly say that we are confident in their abilities to expand the young minds in their care every day. The teachers our children have make sure we feel welcome, and acknowledge the role that we play in their hearts and minds.  I have never had a question sidestepped, nor have I experienced anything but an open and honest assessment of any situation that I have felt important enough to discuss. The teachers and staff are truly professionals, and have put to rest the natural worries and insecurities that we, as parents of young children, harbored that first time the bus stopped at the corner of our street.

On those occasions when I have the opportunity to be in the classroom, I am afforded a sense of how much my kids have grown, as they demonstrate a capability that I hadn't known they yet possessed, or achieve some mastery of a task they hadn't learned from me. It fills me with pride to see it, because I know that, in their minds, this new skill belongs solely to them. It's theirs, because they learned it in school. My role in their lives is not diminished by this, but simply changed to suit the surroundings. I go from omnipotent caregiver to JJ's Dad, videotaping the painting of paper plates. Underneath it, though, is the understanding that my involvement brings value to the students, and that comes only from a teacher confident in their own abilities. The kids can sense it, and, in my experiences, it seems to be a natural occurrence.

But, just as at home, boundaries are important.  When they are in the classroom, it is important for kids to know that, even though Mom or Dad is there for the party, the teacher is still in charge, and when he or she delivers an instruction, it is to be followed.  To circumvent that authority would serve only a parent's ego, and is, at best, a point of confusion for a child. A teacher strong in their ability to be in charge makes light work of such situations by assigning tasks to parents that contribute to the success of the event. Quality educators handle this with aplomb, making it clear that to be a value-add means allowing them to do that which they have been trained to do...teach your children.

It can be difficult to see my children learn something that I couldn't have taught them, or to see them look up to someone other than me, but to try to restrain them from those growth experiences by riding shotgun with them every day does no more than delay the inevitable. We are supposed to be preparing them for life without us, as hard as that seems. I often have to step back and ask myself if what I am doing is for them, or simply to protect me from the feeling that they will someday be out on their own without needing me there every minute.

As my children progress to higher grades, what is expected of them in terms of workload and knowledge retained will grow, but the day doesn't get any longer.  They must absorb more and more during the course of a school day. Their teachers will have more to teach them in order to prepare them for middle school. So, as their life changes, we, as parents must change, too. Teachers have to teach, and the way to help them may not always include passing out paper cups or stuffing backpacks. Committees and parent/teacher groups involved in projects that contribute to the student body as a whole become the way to stay connected and "in the loop" when it comes to my kids' education. Involvement in these groups also provides the necessary benefit of allowing school administrators the opportunity to know who is coming and going in the hallways.
Again, the staff and administrators have welcomed my inclusion into these groups, encouraging me to make suggestions, voice opinions and lend a hand when it's needed. Even though it's been a few years since I sat at a desk facing a blackboard, I still get the same feeling when a teacher takes the time to tell me that what I have done is appreciated, and has contributed in a valuable way to what they are doing every day.

So, if you happen to be at my kids’ school and you see some guy standing behind a video camera, drawing washable tattoos on kids during an event or hauling watermelons outside for Field Day, you can be sure that there is a place for parents in our school. There are quite a few of us around.  Feel free to stop and say, "Hi". And maybe carry a few watermelons...these things are heavy.