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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas School Shooting Survivors at Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ


in a land with more guns than people.

Sunday, February 25, I woke up in the dark and turned on 880 AM, the all-news station I listen to only in the morning and only for about a minute in order to get the time and weather. Amazingly, during that one minute, I heard that survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School shooting would be speaking at the Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ.

I shot out of bed and googled this temple. I wanted to phone immediately but waited till nine.

A lovely woman named Linda answered the phone.

It's hard to describe vestibular disorders, because they are invisible and relatively rare. If you saw me walking alone, in a straight line, you'd never think I have any mobility issues. In a crowd, though, and with no straight lines like fences or walls or sidewalks edges to visually orient myself, I am less stable.

I tried to explain to Linda why I was a bit worried about showing up in a big crowd. I phoned to ask her if the temple had a side entrance I could use so that I wouldn't fall over and turn into a warm-blooded speedbump.

I explained that I am a teacher and a long-time supporter of gun control and a comprehensive approach to school shootings. I don't attend violent movies, for example. And I try, as I am able, to talk about ethics with my students, while respecting their diverse spiritual traditions.

Linda said, "I'm going to send a driver for you."

Whoa! This just took my breath away. I tried to explain that that wasn't necessary, but Linda was so beautifully gracious I said yes.

Charly was born in Newark, of Sicilian parents. He can speak Italian, but, "They talk so fast!" He talked like a New Jersey chauffeur in a movie might talk. Salt of the earth. I was amazed by his car. No key! It started just by pressing a button, and he opened the door because he had something called a "fob" in his pocket.

I asked to sit up front. He moved his stuff from the front seat and pushed the seat back to accommodate me.

We talked.

At first Charly was very circumspect. He's a professional chauffeur. Jersey people are very direct, but a chauffeur must not reveal his opinions too rapidly. I let him know that he could speak his mind with me, and he did.

Charly was FURIOUS. He even let fly a few obscenities. His grandchildren attend school in Florida. In his very distinct Newark accent, he raged against the NRA idiocy that allows non-military to purchase and stockpile military weapons, weapons one would never use for hunting or self-protection, but only to massacre human beings – like his grandchildren.

It was Charly's daughter's birthday. There was a party at the house. His wife, who is a good cook, had made lasagna.

"I'm so sorry to take you from your daughter's birthday party," I said.

"No! I'd rather be doing this! I'd like to attend this event with you! I am so angry! This is all so stupid and it has got to stop!"

The temple was surrounded by press. Everyone was there. Radio stations, TV stations. There were kids with signs: "Guns don't die. Children do." There was a man giving out the Constitution. I took one. There was *a lot* of security. How sick are gun nuts? This sick: they are sending death threats to the MSD shooting survivors. There were different uniforms: local police, state police, private security.

I was stopped and told I could not bring in my backpack, a small one containing only a clipboard so I could take notes, and a camera. I wish I had been more feminine and brought a purse that could have stored the same items. I took the items out of the backpack, carried them in my hands, and folded the backpack flat.

The Temple was very spartan in design. No stained class. A couple of difficult-to-interpret wooden and metal sculptures on the "altar" (right word?)

The young man sitting next to me identified himself as a former employee of Senator Robert Menendez, who has been much in the news for alleged corruption. I asked about this. He said, "I'm aware of the accusations, but I have to say, he was an ideal boss not just to me but to us all, and his positions on policy matters were exactly what I agreed with."

We talked more. This young man, a local, was very smart, but he had some PC ideas that I found intellectually vapid. For example, he said, "The French tortured the world trying to impose Christianity on everyone." I look at him as if he were crazy. "I lived in a former French colony in Africa and what you just said is completely inaccurate." He rolled his eyes as if I were a benighted savage.

But we kept talking to pass the time. We were there for an hour before the presentation began.

Finally, a bit after five, the presentation began. David Hogg spoke first. He was immediate and unpolished.

What struck me most about him and the several other MSD high school students who spoke is this.

They are so average.

These are not the most handsome or beautiful high school students.

These are not the most profound or innovative high school students.

Not the star athletes. Not the glam bad boys and girls.

These are average kids. Stick skinny, probably just went through a growth spurt and not yet filled out, funny hair, pale, sometimes losing their train of thought and bursting into a giggle.

They reminded me of Jesus' apostles. Jesus didn't conduct an extensive candidate search and scan resumes. He chose average guys.

Like the apostles, the MSD kids have been touched by an exceptional experience, and they are *doing something about it.*

Hogg thanked the conspiracy theorists who are insisting that the shooting never happened, that he is a "crisis actor," that he is a thirty-year-old man who has had plastic surgery to make him look like a teen. Hogg said that these head-cases have helped to get word out about their work.

I've attended many meetings like this, including Solidarity meetings in Poland during the break-up of communism. I have *never* been at a meeting like this where *every* presentation was *superb.* Each speaker was as good as the last. Each speaker said something you wouldn't want to miss.

The temple was standing room only. News cameras lined the back wall. Press reports 2,000 attendees, who came at a moment's notice, with minimal publicity.

We were on our feet, standing ovations, from the first presentation to the last. I was trying so hard to take notes, but I couldn't. Had to jump up, every few minutes, to applaud.

I kept trying to subdue "Yeah!" and "Shame!" and other such comments. Finally, toward the end, I let 'er rip. I got some stares but I was tired of holding back.

Senator Robert Menendez delivered a terrific, spot-on speech. He said exactly what needs to be done.

A Rabbi whose name I could not jot down (because I had to jump up to join standing ovations so many times) gave a sermon that wowed me. It was very short, compact, and super. He harkened to this temple's previous rabbi, who had been a colleague of Martin Luther King, and had spoken before the "I have a dream" speech. Our speaker wove all these references together with the Bible and the Talmud to make a Jewish case for gun control. He made me cry.

We were in that room for about three hours. There was no rustling, no impatience. Everyone there was fired up, rising to standing o's from the fist speaker to the last.

I kept hearing, in my ear, Sam Cooke.

There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

Charly, as promised was outside waiting for me. He wanted to know everything. He really let himself go. He was so enraged by the crazy gun policies in this country. He wants change, for his children and grandchildren.

I promised him that that temple had been jam packed with people who will work for change.

As we drove under the exit sign to Paterson, the glowing, granite-and-sandstone Lambert Tower on Garret Mountain looming up on our left, we both fell silent for a moment. During the ride to Livingston, a moment of silence felt tense. Two strangers in a car. Now, the silence under the stars pulsed and warmed. We were sharing a dream of a better tomorrow, for our students, and our grandchildren.

Friday, February 16, 2018

February 14, 2018. St Valentine's Day. Ash Wednesday. School Shooting.

I spent my workday yesterday in an elementary school, accompanying university students observing elementary education.

We are guests and observers and it is our job to observe. We are not supposed to interact with the class or disrupt the routine.

The teacher I was observing is very good. On task, speaks clearly, gets results. I've observed her before. I never saw any need to interfere with her class. She's a good teacher.

By chance, I was seated, in my little kiddie chair, next to a boy who was not complying with instructions. The teacher had given very explicit instructions on the assignment. This boy was tossing items about, and, in this random mini kiddie category 3 maelstrom of activity, he was not performing, even just by chance, a single action that met any of the teacher's demands.

Hmph. Trouble maker. I found myself disliking the kid.

Then I said to myself, wait. Is there a reason all the other kids around him are performing on task and he is certainly active, but not doing a single thing this great teacher asked him to do?

and then I realized.

He. Can't. Read.

I watched more closely. My thought was verified. He was taking out his book and accompanying tools, as instructed, he just had *no idea* what to do with all this paraphernalia of reading: book, pages, pencil, etc.

I couldn't be passive. I tried, ever so subtly, beneath the teacher's radar, to help this boy.

My little nudges and prods and carefully rationed smiles and eye contact got him a bit on task.

He started doing as instructed -- writing letters -- and then I realized. He's dyslexic.

He couldn't obey lines, or maybe even see them. He couldn't distinguish "above the line" like an h, or below the line, like a p. He couldn't distinguish belly in front, like a b, or heinie in back, like a d.

Oh my God. He's just like me. When I was his age, I was dyslexic. I couldn't read. I goofed off. Teachers hated me.

And more. Something about his hair suggested to me that he was nobody's priority. An attentive parent would not send a boy to school with that hair.

Not just he's dyslexic, but he needs positive feedback. So I began to make longer eye contact, and smile, and make little approving sounds, all the while trying not to be noticed, trying not to rouse complaint.

Within the very brief amount of time I was in this boy's life, I became someone he turned to, over and over, to receive positive feedback through eye contact. He looked at me, as if wringing my eyes for attention and approval.

We were found out. The teacher came over. "Thanks," she said. "for the help. He's new and he's a real challenge."

In a poor city, transience is as much of a burden for these kids as the frequent gunfire in the streets. Not living in one place for too long stunts their progress.

God created us in His image. God is in each one of us. God is in these school kids, and so are we. Enter any class and see yourself in a magical mirror. Here's the smart girl, who answers every question at top speed, and whom nobody likes. Here's the flirtatious boy. Here's the jock. Here's the future gazillionaire inventor, now just a quiet nerd.

Some walk into schools and see nothing but targets.

We don't have to be passive.

I donate to a group called Every Town for Gun Safety. Find your own group and donate today.

Oh, and don't buy tickets to, or watch on TV, violent entertainment. I haven't done that for years, and I don't miss it. It's like cutting salt out of your diet. If you eat something salty by mistake, something you used to enjoy, it takes like crap. You spit it out.

Thank you.

Friday, January 26, 2018

"Phantom Thread" Hollow, Pretentious, Desperate

"Phantom Thread" is a pretentious, cynical, empty exercise in design and absurd plot detail. Paul Thomas Anderson is trying to say something profound about difficult people in relationships, but his film is one of the most hollow I have ever seen. I witnessed very little truth onscreen. All I saw was Paul Thomas Anderson laboring over his script, struggling so very, very hard, and ending by saying nothing at all.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) is a very successful fashion designer. He picks up Alma (Vicki Krieps), a much younger waitress. He brings her home to live with him and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When Alma butters her toast, the noise, Woodcock says, is like a horse galloping through the room. Woodcock is very sensitive and he insults and bullies those around him so that he can live an untouched life, devoted only to designing dresses.

There are many long scenes of poor women sewing dresses with the utmost care, and rich women wearing the dresses, sometimes getting drunk while wearing them.

Read no further if you don't want to know the absurd and desperate lengths this movie goes to before it ends.

Alma senses that Woodcock is losing interest in her, so she poisons him with mushrooms. The first time she poisons him, he does not realize what's going on, but the second time he sees Alma, in plain sight, consult a mushroom guide and put poison mushrooms into his omelet. Alma places the omelet before Woodcock and the two of them stare at each other for a long time, perhaps waiting for Paul Thomas Anderson to write a better, or at least more plausible, script. I suspect that Anderson had taken a break to consult a copy of "Masterplots."

Alma, in her vague German accent (such a cliché) finally says, "These mushrooms will make you sick, but they won't kill you. You may wish you would die, but you won't. And I'll take care of you." And Woodcock swallows down the poison mushrooms.

We later see a tender, erotic scene in a toilet where Woodcock is throwing up, and Alma is ministering to him. And that's the end of the movie.

This movie is criminal crap with a capital K. Daniel Day Lewis says it will be his last film. I understand. He should have gone out on "Lincoln."

"Call Me By Your Name" A Documentary on Falling in Love

"Call Me By Your Name" is a documentary record of two beautiful, privileged young people falling in love during an idyllic summer in a seventeenth-century villa in out-of-the-way Crema, Italy. There are lots of slow, quiet scenes of eyes peeking above a book, furtive attempts to make fingers touch flesh, kids playing volleyball, riding bikes and swimming, and an old man showing up with a freshly caught fish for dinner.

Burgeoning nature is omnipresent. The fish, though caught, is still alive. The air is full of the sounds of birdsong, songs that will be evocative to anyone who has spent a summer in Europe when young. The grass is lush. The water is clear and blue green. Clouds are puffy. Everyone, from the young to the old, is half naked. The men are bare chested much of the time. Days stretch forever and the highlight of a day might be pondering the meaning of a quote from a knight in a medieval poem.

I did start becoming a bit bored, but at the end of the movie I felt pressure in my chest, churning in my gut, and moisture in my eyes, and I was rethinking my own lost youth. Give this film the time and patience it demands. It will sneak up on you.

One of the two young, beautiful, privileged people who fall in love is Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old virgin, and the cosmopolitan and multilingual son of Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his beautiful wife. The other half of the couple is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old American graduate student who is rooming at the Perlman's villa.

When Oliver first arrives, he is arrogant and pedantic yet casual and Elio is snotty – Oliver is taking over his room for the summer. He, Elio, must sleep in a smaller, adjacent storage room. Elio is put off by Oliver's arrogance, and he continues to pursue his attempt to seduce a local, Mariza (Esther Garrel). Eventually Elio and Mariza do have sex.

Almost imperceptively, attraction builds between Elio and Oliver. Finally, one day, during a bike ride, Elio kisses Oliver. Oliver says, no, we shouldn't do this. Later, though, Oliver and Elio kiss and more. Read further only if you want to know how the movie ends.

Oliver and Elio become lovers. Before Oliver returns to America, they take a hike in the Alps. Oliver boards a train and Elio returns to Crema. There his father tells him that he is very lucky, and that few experience the kind of bond he has experienced with Oliver. The father also appears to come out to Elio, announcing either that he is gay or that he is unhappily married. "Does mom know?" Elio asks. No, dad replies.

Later, the villa is surrounded by snow. The Perlman family has returned to celebrate Chanukah. The phone rings. It is Oliver. He announces that he is engaged to be married. "I remember everything," he tells Elio. Elio goes and sits in front of the fire, his eyes brimming with tears, a fly crawling around on his shirt.

Both Elio and Oliver lead on girls whose feelings they could never reciprocate. The girls are tossed aside by the movie just as Elio and Oliver toss them aside in real life. After Elio has sex with Mariza, he shouts, "That felt so good." "That." She's a thing. Later, on the same mattress he used when having sex with Mariza, he has sex with a peach. A peach, a woman, both things to be tossed aside. Even Elio's mother, who is given very little to do in the movie, is made to be cluelessly living a lie.

More importantly, I resented the film trying to force me, in the father's speech scene and in the final seven minutes of Elio staring at the fire and crying while a fly crawled around on his shirt, to believe that the movie was about something other than what it was really about. I just don't believe, based on what I saw, that Elio and Oliver are a love affair for the ages. These are two gorgeous, horny young men in an idyllic setting, privileged enough that getting up and going to work every day is not an issue. Rather, they get up and loll in the grass while thinking erotic thoughts. Nice work if you can get it.

If these two had truly loved each other, they would not have tossed each other aside at the end of the summer. With the fly on Elio's shirt, and an infected cut Oliver sustained while bike riding, the film seems to be telling us that decay is the enemy of love. Some people love each other even as they age, sicken, and even after they die. *That's* love for the ages.

Some object to this film because it depicts a homosexual relationship. There's no talking to such people. Others object because Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24. The actors were 21 and 30 when the film was made. But Chalamet looks about 16 in the movie. He is very thin and pale with no chest hair. Armie Hammer is 6'5" with the body of an Aryan god. In their scenes, Hammer does look very much the older man. We know, though, that some of the folks who object to this relationship were entirely supportive of Judge Roy Moore, when he was a district attorney in his 30s, abusing young teen girls in powerless positions.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

January 2018 Big Freeze Grey Skies and Mood

The other day was very gray. My mood was gray as well. President Trump had made a disparaging comment about "s---hole countries." As a child of Polish and Slovak immigrants, as someone who once lived in Africa, and as a teacher of new immigrants, this comment troubled me a lot. 

We were in the grip of a record-breaking freeze. I went for a walk and saw gray skies and not much else. The Passaic River was frozen from bank to bank. 

Today is totally different. It's predicted to go up to fifty. Just stepping outside I hear red-tailed hawk, blue jays, crows, and tufted titmice, and the steady trickle and drip of melting snow and ice. It's a new day. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"I, Tonya" Funny, Heartbreaking, Revelatory

Do you want to be shocked? Here goes: "I, Tonya" is a great movie. That's right. A film about a tabloid scandal in the world of women's figure skating is not just a good movie, it's a great one. I cannot think of any other film that made me laugh out loud and cry so hard, and to do both at once, in reaction to the same scene.

"I, Tonya" is as frightening and heartbreaking a depiction of child abuse as I have ever seen. It is as profound a meditation on class. Its depiction of "white trash, redneck, trailer trash" loves, lifestyles, dreams, delusions, smeared kitchens, underdone bedrooms, and dimly-lit living rooms ripped my heart right out of my chest. If you love movies and you care about social class in America, and how the 24/7 news cycle brainwashes gullible audiences and destroys lives, you owe it to yourself to see "I, Tonya."

Allison Janney just won the Golden Globe for her portrayal of LaVona Fay "Sandy" Golden, Tonya Harding's mother. Janney's performance is one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen in any movie. When Janney is onscreen, you can't take your eyes off her. There is something very compelling about a mother who abuses her own daughter. You want to understand. You want to find the mechanism that runs this monster. You search for some sign of humanity, of redemption, of love. Though "I, Tonya," is sometimes a campy movie, Janney is never campy. She is a force of nature, like a scorpion or Bubonic plague. There is a scene in "I, Tonya," where Tonya's mother performs an act of betrayal of her daughter so severe that it took my breath away. This betrayal, the real Tonya Harding says, took place in real life. What a lousy "mother."

There is a special hatred for white trash in America. This hatred has no easy name like "racism." We all know that racism is evil, but Americans are always eager to mock and denigrate working-class whites, especially poor white women. The 24/7 tabloid news cycle bashed Tonya Harding far harder, and for far longer, than Gillooly's goons bashed Nancy Kerrigan's knee.

Tabloids told gullible audiences too lazy to think for themselves that Tonya Harding herself planned the attack. The legal record, and the film "I, Tonya," tell a different story. Teenaged Tonya married the first man she dated. He beat her, as did her mom. It was he, and his delusional friend Shawn Eckhardt, court records say, who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan. Tonya learned of this after the attack and did not turn him in. She was punished for that. Though she had no means of earning a livelihood outside of skating, she was forced out of skating for life.

In fact, the world of women's figure skating never much liked Tonya Harding. She was a superior athletic skater, but she wasn't pretty, patrician and ethereal as the judges preferred. Tonya Harding has been screwed over by many for a long time, and for all the wrong reasons. I'm glad she has this film to tell another side to her story.

"I, Tonya" does not whitewash or glamorize her. She is shown fighting and breaking up with Gillooly, and then going back to this man she knows is bad for her. Tonya is foul-mouthed and she gets angry at judges who cheat her on scores. She sabotages her own training by drinking, smoking, and partying. Margot Robbie is terrific. She does almost all of her own skating, after months of training. The had to CGI the triple axel, because only Tonya Harding, and a handful of other women, could do that.

"I, Tonya"'s depiction of Jeff Gillooly and his bizarre goons is both hysterically funny and dreadful. Sebastian Stan plays Gillooly. Though he is repeatedly shown beating Tonya, I never lost sympathy for him. I loathed him as a loser, but I could see his skewed humanity. He acknowledges, with regret, destroying his wife's exceptional skating career. The real Jeff Gillooly acknowledged the same thing, and also expressed regret.

Shawn Eckhardt, who was happy to identify himself as the attack mastermind, may have been mentally ill. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he claimed to be a terrorism expert. In fact, he was a loser who lived at home with his parents. He died young. Both Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt changed their names after the attack. Gillooly, now Jeff Stone, has had repeated run-ins with the law. His second wife committed suicide.

Tonya Harding has worked hard to keep her head above water. That, after all she'd been through, she did not become a criminal, is testimony to her inner strength. That so many people gave in to bread-and-circuses demonization of her, without knowing all the facts of the case, says nothing good about people's eagerness to hate, and the tabloid press' eagerness to profit from hate. 

"The Post" 2017: Excellent in Every Respect

"The Post" is so darn good I cried tears of joy and applauded as the film ended. I didn't much want to go to "The Post." I knew how The Post's publishing of the Pentagon Papers played out and I assumed the film would create no suspense. Post editor Katherine Graham, played in the film by Meryl Streep, lived in a different world from my own. She was a wealthy heiress who, until her mentally ill and unfaithful husband committed suicide, had never had to work a day in her life. When I used to see Graham on TV, her silk-and-pearls, hoity toity airs and la-dee-da accent, along with her flat affect, repelled me.

Post editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, always struck me as an arrogant, swaggering newspaperman, and I didn't want to sit through a movie with him as the lead. Bradlee, like Graham, was also born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was a Boston Brahmin and descendent of royalty. Bradlee's middle name was "Crowninshield."

I thought "The Post" would be one of those fluffy Hollywood exercises in self-congratulation. Aren't we so politically correct. But I loved this movie. My eyes were glued to the screen from the first second to the last. I came to care about and invest in each character. Testimony to the power of Steven Spielberg's filmmaking.

"The Post" is a rich recreation of 1971 America – the cars, the clothes, the music, the speeches. Each character, no matter how minor, is created as three-dimensional. Each significant action, no matter how small, receives focus. One example: The Pentagon Papers were 7000 pages long. How did Daniel Ellsberg, in 1971, manage to smuggle 7000 pages to the press? The film shows the workings of a 1971-era photocopy machine. Copying all the pages took Ellsberg and two friends all night. Later, Post reporters must struggle to piece together these thousands of pages that are not numbered and are not in order.

Personnel at the New York Times have criticized "The Post" as focusing too much on the role of the Washington Post in releasing the Pentagon Papers. The Times was the more important paper, they say. The criticism is unfounded. "The Post" acknowledges that the New York Times was the first to carry the story. It was only after the government stopped the Times' publication of the Papers that the Post picked up the baton.

Rather, "The Post" is Katherine Graham's story. She was a shy and insecure woman who was faced with a decision that rocked her world. She was personal friends with Robert McNamara, mastermind of the Vietnam War. Similarly, Ben Bradlee was friendly with John F. Kennedy, a president who escalated the war. Katherine Graham's son Donald served in Vietnam. Streep's intimate and fully realized performance and Spielberg's virtuosic filmmaking made me feel Graham's turmoil as she contemplated whether or not to publish papers that would change her life in several ways.

The Washington Post had just had an IPO. How would investors react? Given that the court had already shut down the NYT, would she be a felon, and would she be sent to prison? Would she lose the company she had inherited from her father and hoped to pass on to her children? How could she publish such damning material about her personal friend, Robert McNamara? How could her personal friend, McNamara, allow her son to risk his life serving in a war that McNamara knew was unwinnable? Streep's performance allowed me to feel as Graham probably felt, and to care about her.

Every role is excellently cast. Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a Post editor and survivor of the Armenian Holocaust, is every bit as compelling as the major stars. Sarah Paulson is onscreen only briefly as Bradlee's wife Toni, but she is given a key speech where she articulates for Bradlee – and the viewer – exactly how heroic Graham is being.

I love smart movies and "The Post" bristles with intelligence. I love movies that focus, not on fast cars, explosions, or superheroes, but on people, and "The Post" is one of the most human-centric movies I've seen in a while. "The Post" focuses on people, primarily Katherine Graham, but also Ellsberg, Bradlee, Bagdikian and others. It depicts those people not as plaster saints but warts-and-all. It allows the viewer to get close to those people and to see what they see and to care about what they care about.

It goes without saying that a film that celebrates the search for truth and the freedom of the press, and the heroism of a woman who had been told that she wasn't as good as a man for the job she held, is very timely.