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Staging an “Invincible Summer”

January 24, 2017

And now for some good news.  This happened back in October, but I seemed to have difficulty finding the time to write about it.  The wait is over…

On October 9, 2016, at the DeSotelle Theater in Manhattan, I experienced the very first staged reading of my play “Invincible Summer.”  It was a great to have a play that had been rattling around in my head for a year and half finally performed on stage by actors, under the tutelage of a veteran New York theater director.  I learned a great deal from the process, and I am so grateful to have gone through it.

It all started last January, when a friend of mine named Larry Leinoff (who is also an excellent playwright) expressed admiration for my play and encouraged me to stage a reading.  He felt it was ready, and it also happened that Larry runs a company (Stage Dot Org) that puts on staged readings!  We talked back and forth for months while I worked on the play, received feedback from Larry and others (including a dear friend and another great playwright, Lezley Steele).  By early summer, I was happy with the play and ready to begin organizing my reading.

invincible

Larry recommended a director that he knew and thought highly of:  Tom Herman.  We met for lunch in August, and I was grateful that Tom liked my play and was very interested in directing the project.  After some discussion, we agreed upon a date, and worked hard on making the reading happen.

One of the first things I learned was that staging a reading is a complicated process.  It takes time to find the right performance space, the right actors, and to agree on rehearsal times, all within the budget you have chosen to work with.  Of course, whenever you have smart individuals with strong opinions working together, you are going to have disagreements.  That is inevitable.  There were times when it looked like the reading might not happen; there were times when it seemed as smooth and as effortless as painting a polar bear in a snowstorm.

By late September, we had a venue, a cast (Rob Skolits, Marca Leigh, Brian Henry, Adrian Naccari, and Tamara Daley–I also recruited my colleague Emily Blanchard to come and play piano), and an official program designed by Melissa Nosal, a former student.  We had a reading!

Happily, it went very well.  The cast worked extremely hard, and put on an entertaining and professional performance.  It was exhilarating to discover how much of my play worked and also to get a sense of what didn’t work.  There were about 25 people in the audience, 15-20 of whom had come down from Connecticut to see the reading.  I was very grateful to all of my friends who were willing to make that trip.  They all gave me great feedback–much of it positive, but also some very helpful critical feedback that I know has made the play better.

Lezley is now helping me get the play into the hands of other professionals who can get it produced.  When I expressed my gratitude to Lezley, she wrote this in an email:

You don’t have to be grateful to me.  I believe in your play. Not just that it is a well written play but also because it is topical, and dare I say,  commercial.  I also believe in you.   Having a play produced is a nightmare.  You have to have the right personality to get through the process.  I believe you do….I forgot to mention that I was moved to tears twice while reading the script.

It appears I have reason to be hopeful.

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Trump: What to Expect

January 24, 2017

Given we have inaugurated a new President, one who is likely to have a significant effect on the direction of education policy, I thought it appropriate that I comment upon him.  I was recently asked through email the following question, so I thought I would share it and my response:

Do you think that Trump and his (horrifying) cabinet will be moving to give states more control over their laws? How will that affect the way things are governed? Surely poor states will be really hurt?

Given that  Donald Trump really doesn’t care about policy, his philosophy of governance is really Mike Pence’s.  I think Trump basically ran for three reasons:  1) to feed his enormous ego 2) to improve his business portfolio and c) to eliminate and reduce taxes and regulations he didn’t like.  Anything else he doesn’t care about.  So, if it’s Pence’s philosophy, I think we can expect this:

An administration that cares about states’ rights as long as it comes to things like a) not paying health care costs for poor people b) privatizing education c) eliminating business taxes d) reducing regulations that protect citizens and the environment e) gerrymandering congressional districts and f) making it harder for black, poor, and older people to vote.  Essentially, the right wing-American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-Koch Brothers hit list.

They will not be interested in states’ rights when it comes to women controlling their own bodies; making it harder for businesses to refuse to serve gay people; preventing discrimination against transgender individuals;  preventing the racial profiling of blacks, Latinos, south Asians, or middle easterners; stopping the growth of charter schools; limiting the purchase of assault weapons and instituting thorough background checks; and selling medical or recreational pot.  All of these are things that a Trump/Pence administration would not be able to tolerate, and we will find their “pro states’ rights” ideology will suddenly disappear when it comes to these issues.  I think it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Pence is kept awake at night with the thought that he knows there are people doing these things and he has no way to control their behavior.  This is, after all, the governor who signed an anti-abortion law so stringent that a woman was sentenced to twenty years in prison for…having a miscarriage.

Add that to a secretary of education nominee that doesn’t believe in public education and doesn’t know anything about it; an energy secretary who doesn’t believe in the department of energy (when he’s able to remember that, at least), and doesn’t understand the department’s responsibility; and a secretary of housing and urban development who thinks the Egyptian pyramids were hollow and used as granaries. I suppose he does live in a house, which is the subtotal of the entire experience in his new area of expertise.  What we therefore have to look forward to is a troubling combination of ideologues and incompetence.

There will be some nuance to this, of course.  Marijuana has turned into big business, so the Trump/Pence administration may have to leave that alone.  Also, they’re going to find it really hard to fuck with Jerry Brown, because he governs such a huge percentage of the American economy.  There will be citizen and interest group push back, and some of it will be successful.  But overall, things are about to get very dark.

Rock Steady Boxing

August 28, 2016

There are a number of tools I use in my “fighting Parkinson’s” tool box–yoga, massage, resistance bands, twice daily walks, medication, and a careful diet.  I have just added a new one: boxing.  Rock Steady Boxing is a program designed to use the techniques of boxer training to help fight the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

You may be reading this and thinking “wait–Parkinson’s patients are boxing each other?”  If so, not to worry.  We don’t get into the ring and and go mano a mano.   I think I could make a case that a boxing match between two Parkinson’s patients would be the worse thing ever.  Our training is centered around “working the bag.”

When I arrived the first day, I was assisted by a young Latina named Rihanna (no, not that one).  Rihanna works at the Bare Bones Boxing gym in East Hartford, Connecticut, and is herself a boxer.  Indeed, she wore a t-shirt that loudly proclaimed “I FIGHT LIKE A GIRL!”  She was very kind and helpful, and wrapped my hands in no time at all.  It would have taken me the better part of the day to do what she did in about four minutes.

Then, I was introduced to Stan, my boxing coach. Stan is a professional, who has coached boxers for years.  He was trained in the techniques of Rock Steady Boxing, which are designed to improve balance, coordination, and cognitive function.  Stan is a very nice guy and an excellent coach.  After two decades in a classroom, I know a good teacher when I see one.

rocksteady

Stan got me hooked up with some gloves, and helped me fasten them in place.  In the center of the gym are rows of bags (probably between 25-30 of them).  This is where the class would take place.  We worked on warm ups that focused on our balance, and stretched out our arms, shoulders, and legs.  During the class, we would follow specific punching sequences (left twice, right twice, left once) that require us to also move our feet.  We would sometimes pause to lean into the bag, then do push-ups against the bag, and then leg lifts while pushing the bag.  We would also jog through the rows of bags, hitting each one with our opposite hands.  All of these exercises require balance, careful breathing, and specific focus on the sequences.  In short, everything that is good for me to exercise.

The class was also great fun.  Stan doesn’t like the hip hop/rap music many of the professional boxers prefer to train with.  The good news is when Stan’s teaching, he gets to pick the music and he loves classic rock.  So do several members of the class, as it turns out.  Want to see an awesome sight?  Then stop by the gym some time and see a dozen Parkinson’s patients punching bags while loudly singing along to the Beach Boys.

Stan is also great at making us laugh while encouraging us to keep pushing.  During the first class he shouted “This bag is Parkinson’s!  You don’t bitch slap Parkinson’s!  You punch it!”

I was also touched by how encouraging the professional boxers are towards the members of the class.  Many come up and talk to us, clearly aware of who we are and what we are doing, offering us encouragement and showing us great respect.  I never thought a boxing gym would be such a positive, supportive environment, but this one is.

My yoga teacher/massage therapist giggles every time I mention the class to her.  I assume it’s because she’s trying to picture me boxing, and that image makes her laugh.  To that, all I can say is…yeah, okay.  Point taken.  She will have plenty more chances to laugh at me, though–I’m a regular now.

 

If you are interested, her are three earlier posts relating to Parkinson’s:

Coping with Parkinson’s, Warding off Depression

Yes, I Am Grateful

Observing World Parkinson’s Day

Twenty Years of Teaching

July 5, 2016

This school year marked by 20th as a teacher.  I estimate that in those two decades, I have taught between 1600-1700 students.  Many of them I remember, and some I do not (which is embarrassing when I cross paths with them at the grocery store).   Some have become teaching colleagues, at least one went on to win an Emmy Award for computer animation, and others turn up in a number of surprising places.  For instance, one that turned out to be a very helpful police dispatcher when my dog went missing, and another worked at my favorite ice cream stand and insisted my money was no good there.  It was a fat and happy summer.

I started my career in 1996, which was a very different world than the one we currently inhabit.  Bill Clinton was about to run for reelection, Hillary was First Lady and still four years removed from her election to the United States Senate.  A charming and talented rapper turned actor named Will Smith was just on the verge of becoming a bankable superstar.  This new invention called the internet was very exciting—or, we hoped it was, because to try to use it usually took three hours to log on via phone line.  And just as you were about to reach your first World Wide Web page, someone would pick up the phone and there went your connection.  Certainly, the idea that we would carry the internet in our pockets was a technological advance deemed unthinkable just twenty years ago.

Cake20 lg

When I walked into a school for the first time in August 1996, it was not at the tiny, rural school I have taught at the last 19 years.  I was interning at an inner city school in New Haven.  This school had 900 students, and probably 800 were African-American.  Others were African immigrants, some were Hispanic, and maybe a half-dozen were white.  The school, like many underfunded schools in impoverished neighborhoods, had problems.  Certainly not “Joe Clark with a baseball bat” problems, but there were issues nonetheless.  The building was old and in decay.  Many of the classrooms were outdated.   A number of the teachers were burned out, and running out the clock to retirement.  There were students living in shelters, others haunted by broken families, some coping with the gunshot or stabbing deaths of family members.  One student was reportedly the local drug dealer—his rare presence in school and the fact that he drove a brand new Acura only fueled that speculation.

But there was hope as well.  There were a number of students who wanted to learn, and viewed education as (Jamie Escalante once put it) “The Great Equalizer.”  Some of them wanted to return to the neighborhood after graduation and make it better, to be good role models for the young.  There were a number of teachers who were not burned out—many worked very hard to give their best to their students, and the students knew it.  It was a great environment to learn to be a teacher, because students didn’t wait to see if you were worthy of respect—they presumed you were not and then you had to prove otherwise.  If you had failed to do so, they would let you know in no uncertain terms.  I had failures, of course, but I also had successes.  At the end of my year, I was certain I wanted to be a teacher.  It therefore may have been the most important year of my career.

I have stories and even a scar from my time in New Haven.  I once broke up a fight between two female students and one of the combatants’ fake fingernails ended up lodged in my arm.  The story I remember the most, though, involved an aspiring DJ named Laurence.  Laurence didn’t care much for school, but he was popular, and loved to make people laugh. He certainly had the passion for music and the personal charisma to be a good DJ.  He already had business cards at age 16, which he loved to share with his teachers.

My year in New Haven was a challenge in a number of ways.  I was going through a divorce, and the stress of that combined with learning a new career, taking night classes at a nearby university, and a two-hour daily commute began to wear on me.  I know it was starting to show, even though I was doing my best not to let it.  It was during one particularly bad day that Laurence sauntered up to me in the hallway.

“Hey, Mr. Brodie.  I gotta question for you.”

“Sure.  What’s up?”

“Hey, what does DNA stand for?”

I was very excited.  This was going to be one of the very first teachable moments of my young career, and I was ready with an answer.  “It stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  It’s a molecule that carries all of our genetic information—“

“No, man,” he said, in mock impatience. “That’s not what it stands for. You want me to tell you what it really stands for?”

I wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but how else could I respond?  “Sure.  Tell me!”

“It stands for… Dis Nigga’s Attractive!!!”

Extremely pleased with himself, Laurence strolled away. I stood in the hallway, and could not stop laughing.  I did my best to stay focused the rest of the day, but I couldn’t.  Each time I thought about Laurence’s joke, I giggled.  And I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It kept me tickled all day.

I don’t know if Laurence perceived my mood, and thought I needed a laugh, or I was just conveniently in front of him, but it was just what I needed that day. It’s funny to think that he’s now in his mid-thirties.  I don’t know what happened to him—I’d like to think he made it as a DJ, but mostly I just hope he’s happy.  I doubt he remembers that day.

All I know is I’ll never forget it.  And when I think of the year I spent at the high school in New Haven, it’s still the first thing I think of.

 

 

Hell is Other People, Part Two

October 17, 2015

In the midst of the lengthy and tedious email exchange over protecting the civil rights of my students, my principal arrived at my door to tell me he had received a phone call from a parent regarding a sticker in my classroom observed during open house.  I assumed that the parent with whom I had been corresponding grew tired of making poor arguments to me, and chose to now make them to my principal.  This was not the case, as it became immediately clear that this was another parent who had a different concern well beyond safe space stickers and rainbows.

“The parent,” the principal offered, “says he was concerned about a sticker in your room that appeared to be pro-ISIS.”

Um…what?

“Do you know what sticker he’s talking about?”

So now I have a parent who thinks I have pro-ISIS decorations.  I heart the Islamic State.  Guns don’t kill people, the Islamic State in the Levant kills people. My other car is a Daesh-owned Tacoma.

So, I’m either filling my classroom with pro-gay propaganda, or pro-Islamic State propaganda.  We need to get our stories together, people.  I clearly can’t be doing both.

To be fair, when he said ISIS, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  There is a bumper sticker that reads “Isis” in my classroom.  However, it does not refer to the band of Sunnis desperately trying to establish an 8th century caliphate near the Euphrates.  It is instead a reference to how the word has been used for most of the last 2500 years: the Egyptian goddess. This is the bumper sticker that frightened my parent so:

EBISI

This was a gift from a student I received nearly fifteen years ago. I was teaching world history, and anyone who’s ever had me in class knows I adore puns.  So what do you get for your pun happy world history teacher?  You get him a bumper sticker that has the names of two Egyptian Gods (“Ra” being the second) and arranges their names to sound like a cheer! Of course, it never occurred to me that I would one day need to explain how the bumper sticker meant I wasn’t a terrorist.

My principal clarified this to the father, who accepted the explanation with the caveat that the sticker “was still awfully close.” Close?  Close to what?  That the name Isis is close to the acronym ISIS? Yes, that’s true, but lots of words in our language are close to others.  For example,  I am close enough to close the door. In spite of this absurd attempt to save face, I took the matter to be over and done with.

A few days later, one of my students approached me after class.

“Are my parents giving you a hard time?”

I explained that there was a phone call to the principal, but it was just a misunderstanding and it’s all been resolved.  The student sighed heavily and said “I’m sorry. I tried to explain to them what the sticker meant, but they wouldn’t listen to me.” I told her no apology was necessary, and reiterated it was a misunderstanding.  I did appreciate the fact that the student felt comfortable enough to speak to me about it, and I was grateful for the chance to reassure her that I didn’t hold any of it against her.

There are several ironies here.  One being that this came during a unit on the stereotyping and racial profiling of Arabs, South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims.  Another being that Isis was the goddess of health, marriage…and wisdom.

Hell is Other People, Part One

October 12, 2015

See?  I told you I was back.  Only had to wait one day for my next post…

On my way to open house this year, I calculated that this is my 19th one.  In short, I’ve been teaching a while.  I have already had my first two second generation students, and a few others with parents who graduated the June before I started teaching. In all of those years, I have worked hard to cultivate strong relationships with my student’s parents.  That is not to say that they are always happy with me.  Sometimes we have disagreements of how best to address a student’s needs in the classroom.  Any differences, though, I am usually able to work out through communication and compromise. Any veteran teacher will tell you, though, that sometimes you get a parent with whom you just cannot reason.  What follows are two stories that happened recently that fit this model perfectly.

Interestingly, neither of these events had anything to do with any content in my class, nor any perceived slight in the way I spoke to a student.  They both had to do with the decorations in my classroom observed by parents during open house. Anyone who has seen my classroom knows that it is fully decorated with a number of posters and bumper stickers of a historical or inspirational nature (and in the case of my Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I Woman” poster–both).  Many of them were gifts from former and current students.  I also have displayed several examples of student work.  In short, there are many interesting things to look at in my classroom.  This is as it should be, because otherwise the most interesting aesthetic would be stacked concrete block.

A few days after open house, I got an email from a parent expressing concern about the “political bent” of some of my classroom decorations, and a concern that he felt it may have been making it difficult for students to comfortably express their point of view.  He wouldn’t say exactly what messages he was concerned about, but I had feeling I knew.  I didn’t think he was complaining about a Republican bias regarding my “I Like Ike” poster from the 1950s, nor excessive Protestantism due to my “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply” sign, my pro-Monarchist sympathies due to my “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, my strident Catholicism due to my Mother Theresa quote, nor even the ardent feminism expressed in my Rosie the Riveter poster. I decided to convey to him that I was sorry he felt that way, but I observed no such bias in my classroom decorations.  I wasn’t going to ask him what bothered him so–if he responded, then, he was going to have to be specific.

In his next email, he made it clear what it was he found objectionable: my GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) “Safe Space” posters and stickers.  He thought their presence created an environment where students (i.e., his son) wouldn’t be free to express their objections to homosexuality.  I calmly explained that I have a moral and legal responsibility to protect the civil rights of all of my students–and indeed, the state interprets Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as including protections towards LGBT students.  By creating a safe space, I am carrying out those guidelines.  I also added that he may consider it a political issue, but that it is not–it is a human rights issue.

Some people have a very different interpretation of the word

Some people have a very different interpretation of the word “safe.”

After this, his responses grew more irrational–he claimed that if i was going to have “rainbows everywhere” as he put it, I should also have symbols for all of the major religions.  I then explained the difference between civil rights (rights that protect you for who you are) and civil liberties (rights that protect you for what you believe), and that he was erroneously conflating the two.  He replied by arguing  that it was impossible to protect civil rights and civil liberties simultaneously. In other words, he felt that his freedom to express his disdain for LGBT people was more important than their right to be protected from discrimination.

This, of course, reflects a common misunderstanding about civil liberties (and freedom of expression in particular).  Your right to express yourself freely does not mean you can say whatever you want, however you want to, in any context you choose without consequence.  It just means one of those consequences can’t be prison.  Given that many of our leading politicians don’t seem to understand this very basic concept, it’s no surprise that this parent doesn’t seem to understand this difference.  Being a public school teacher, he really shouldn’t need to have this idea explained to him by a colleague–nor should he be clinging to the notion that protecting his students’ civil rights is somehow limiting his freedom. The irony is, after taking my class, his son will have a clearer understanding of this than he will.

After that,  I informed him that we were at an impasse, and that I would pursue the conversation no further.  He did respond, but I deleted the email without reading it.  That was enough, thank you.

As sad and absurd as this was, it was nothing compared to the ludicrous episode that followed a few days later: the concern that one of my wall decorations seemed to endorse the Islamic State.

I am not making that up.  And that will be for next time.

The Turing Test, Part Two

October 12, 2015

Preface:  A long layoff, I know.  For those of you who know me personally, you are aware of the rather intense transition my life has endured over the last few months.  If you don’t know me, and our curious…you can send an inquiry by email.  I’m not going to bother with it here. I do wish to return to blogging, and will begin by returning to this story from March 8.

To continue:  I had worked constantly, desperate to complete the Turing Machine, and pass the class.  Every time I thought I had solved the problem, it turned out I had failed.  I was becoming desperate, but there was no internet to help me, and I didn’t know the other students in class well enough to request their assistance.  Part of it was hubris:  I didn’t think I should need that help.  I had already spent all of Professor Otte’s office hours having him re-teach me the class.  I wanted to show that I could do this on my own.

The problem was…it didn’t seem like I could.

In spite of all of my efforts, the last day of the quarter arrived, and I still hadn’t solved it.  I worked on it all night, and it was now 8 a.m., and the assignment was due in two hours. With a non-functional Turing Machine, I would not pass the class. My second quarter as a transfer student, and I will have failed one of my courses. In my major.  This was not good.

When my final attempt failed, I simply rose from the desk and headed into the shower.  I’d turn the assignment in, and hope the professor would take pity on me.  Maybe he’d give me an extension. Maybe he’d give me an incomplete. Maybe he’d let me change my grade to “audit.”  I didn’t have any reason to think he would, but it was this hope that I clung to. I had to in order to avoid the humiliation I was feeling due to trying so desperately hard to succeed and having utterly failed.  I took what I could only describe as the “Shower of Failure”: I leaned against the shower wall as the water bounced off of me.  I did nothing else.

And perhaps it was because this was the first time in five weeks I hadn’t been thinking about the god damn Turing Machine, I was suddenly struck by an idea.  Wait, could that…that might…oh my god!  That might work!! Yes!! That might work!! No…that will work!!!

I leaped from the shower and raced over the computer and punched in the program pattern. I didn’t want to wait–I was terrified if I did, I’d forget my idea.  The pattern looked good.  I tried a configuration of numbers.  It worked.  I tried a  different number combination.  It also worked!  Another–success!  I altered the configuration, because it had to apply to different variables.  Yes.  A different number combination.  Yes.   Another combination.  Yes.  A different configuration. Yes!

I think I sat at the computer a half an hour typing every variation I could think of.  The machine passed every one.  It worked.  It worked!  It finally worked!

I began shouting the phrase “IT WORKS!” over and over again as I indulged in a spontaneous,  purely caffeine and adrenaline fueled Spontaneous Energetic Happy Dance of Victory.  I shrieked “IT WORKS.” at everything–plants, furniture, the food in the refrigerator, the spider in the corner of the bedroom.  I screamed at Zorro, my pet tortoise. He was singularly unimpressed, but I didn’t care.   I had done it!  I had created a successful Turing Machine.  I was going to pass. I wasn’t a failure.  I was the logic God!

Alan Turing, whose machine became the bane of my existence for five weeks in college. None of which compares to what he endured.

Alan Turing, whose machine became the bane of my existence for five weeks in college. None of which compares to what he endured.

The only thing that paused my revelry was a strange sensation underneath my feet and between my toes. Why were my feet wet?  Why was…the entire floor wet?  It was then that I realized that when I raced from the shower I had forgotten two very important things:  one being I never shut off the water, and now the apartment was nearly flooded.

The second thing I had chosen not to do was actually get dressed.  I had been solving the Turing Machine and celebrating my success completely naked.  With all of the windows in my apartment opened.  On all sides, which allowed several of my neighbors a front row seat to my victory dance.  Not exactly Magic Mike, but they were all staring at me.

I stared back at them a moment.  I’m certain a silly grin crossed my face, as I instinctively began to hide myself. I scanned the room for something to cover myself before meeting my neighbors persistent gaze.  I then impulsively raced over to the window, stuck my head out and shouted “I SOLVED THE FUCKING TURING MACHINE!” and continued my celebration. The neighbors watched, still confused and intrigued by the insane white man.

A few minutes later I was dressed and outside.  I leaped onto my motorcycle, and as I pulled out of the apartment parking lot, I glanced behind me. The neighbors continued to stare.  I laughed out loud as I raced up toward campus. I continued to giggle as I handed to the computer disc to a confused Professor Otte, and giggled all the way home.

There are a number of lessons one can derive from this story.  I think perhaps the most important one is this:  Don’t ever take Advanced Symbolic Logic.

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