MEDITATIONS ON #$@&%

Some people curse to shock. Some curse because they don’t know any other way to express themselves. Some people just enjoy feeling the curl of the tongue and the brush of the teeth across the lips required to formulate those specially categorized words. I never really cursed much growing up. We called them wallpaper words because my parents never cursed, except that one time when putting up wallpaper. As I started to pay attention, I noticed that my grandparents cursed on occasion. I still remember my shock - shock I tell you - after hearing my grandmother refer to the woman in the checkout line as “asshole.” This moment solidified in my impressionable memory for two reasons: 1) it was the first time I ever heard that term referring to a female. I honestly thought it was a male-specific word. 2) And, of course, I didn’t understand how my cheerful, old-fashioned, house-dress-wearing Nana could transform into a double-crossed kingpin.

I remember the first time I ever used the F-word. I was playing in the dirt with cars in front of my house with the other neighborhood kids. As I recall, I cleverly disguised it with other nonsense syllables so I could let it “slip” - like I didn’t even realize it was a word. None of the other kiddies laughed. They all excused themselves at once, like a bunch of henchmen calmly abandoning their colleague with the mob boss so he can put the hammer down. Next thing I knew, I had a bar of soap in my mouth. It tasted fresh, like Irish Spring!

I faced an ongoing investigation of curiosity throughout my swear-ducation in grade school. Every time I asked the other kids what the word meant, instead of telling me, they would laugh and tell everyone I didn’t know what the word meant. Even after everyone was done laughing, I would persist – okay, it’s funny. I get the joke. How ridiculous that I don’t know what it means. Yes, yes. Now, what does it mean? More laughing would continue the vicious cycle. I only remember one time getting an honest answer, and for that, I thank Paul Flood and his careful, clinical explanation of the term bufu.

As I got older, I noticed cursing everywhere - kids, parents, teachers, politicians, even priests. They all cursed. Even the professionals of the world – the consultants, the lawyers, the bankers, and hedge fund rodents - I’ve seen them all indulge in the cursing sciences.

Then I joined the Outcast Jazz Band. Musicians in school did plenty of swearing, but nothing compared to the talents of Chicago’s very own OJB! Cursing seemed to be breathing, as well as a respectable placeholder for any space between words in a sentence. But, beyond cursing, everything about their conversation was adult, from tales of drunken intimidation of cops to casual copy machine theft – not to mention the detailed sex-capades. It was a sailor’s dream, without the claustrophobia or the nausea.

Bottom line - the majority of people I have met in life – from all walks of life – they all curse. All ages. All professions. All levels of society. They all curse. Go to any high school, or probably grade school for that matter, and they have to work hard to remind the kids not to curse in the classroom. If kids don’t do it in front of their cursing parents, they do it with their cursing friends. Meanwhile, their cursing parents are cursing with their cursing colleagues and cursing clients, not to mention their cursing siblings and cursing parents. Just not in front of the children. Actually, many parents curse in front of their children, and many tolerate cursing from their children.

And yet, adult-themed shows on network television remain censored. You can see their mouths move. You often hear the beginning of the word, so your brain essentially puts it together. We all know what they’re saying. And the small minority of little kids who have managed to stay sheltered from those words will start to notice these words, and assume they have magical powers. Maybe their parents should take the responsibility to prevent them from watching adult-oriented stories on television in the first place, and then we wouldn’t have to make these weird exceptions of the words you can’t say on TV.

So, what’s the point? Why do we still censor certain special words in certain places, when we essentially live our lives without censorship. Hell, many people SHOULD censor the words that come out of their mouths - not the swear words, but ignorance in general. “We’re not really a swear-free country, but we play one on TV!” We are a society in denial.

Ironically, I don’t feel comfortable swearing. I don’t mind hearing it. I don’t typically judge anyone in my head for using such language. I don’t feel shocked by anything in movies said or done. As a writer of comedy, I need to be open to all ways of thinking and talking to inhabit characters. I have cursed in my life. Plenty of times. But, when I do it, I honestly feel inauthentic.

I especially don’t like one particular word – the word I refer to as the “S” word. It gives me the creeps when I hear it. So, it’s even more awkward when I attempt to use the word. “BS” is less of a problem for some reason, but I’m not particularly fond of it overall. In case you’re interested, I don’t have any problems with any of the words for penis, but I avoid most of the words for any part of the female anatomy. I don’t even feel comfortable with the anatomically correct words. However, I do like the “F” word, and if used cleverly, I even like the “C” word (just the male version, please). I know. I don’t understand it either. The closest explanation would be the Monty Python sketch about “woody words.”

So, this brings me to a quick warning about my next episode, in which I purposely take cursing to the extreme. I will have 2 versions: a NSFW version and a bleeped version, so you can make your own choice. I want to emphasize that I still think cursing is unnecessary. It may help drive home an emotion, or get extra attention, but it’s still the lazy man’s way of emphasizing a strong point of view. Certainly a “I hope you wake up in a pool blood from your own severed head” is a bit more interesting than “F U!” Although the latter wins with a more efficient word-count.

However, the point of the sketch imbedded in Episode 3 is two-fold: 1) Make fun of our obsession with bleeping curse words by replacing every meaningful word in a conversation with a curse word. 2) Satirize how we rely too much on curse words to express ourselves.

The emotion from the characters shows that they have a deep relationship with a long history of friendship, built around a deep dysfunctional pattern. They don’t know how to express themselves without making things worse, even though they both just want to be loved. So, I guess I’m making fun of that human pattern in all of us. And the cursing simply symbolizes our own ignorance in the repetition.

Or, if you prefer not to overanalyze comedy, think of Episode 3 as a David Mamet parody.

THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF COOL FOR SCHOOL

“One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.” ~Maria Montessori

I yam what I yam. Ack ack ack ack! ~Popeye

I intended to discuss my opinions about the state of education in our country in connection with this week’s episode, since it features a mother buying test answers from an ex-principal. However, I waited until the last minute to do my homework. It turns out education as a topic would require reading, like, a ga-jillion books in order to scratch the surface. What to do? Do I cram with hopes to formulate ramblings into a blog of substance? Or, do I find a clever way to put a unique spin on the assignment, while really avoiding the assignment all together? Yes. That option always worked when I was in school. Instead of building a case with well-supported research, I will explore my own personal journey through education.

Park View Junior High (District 70)

I went to the public grade school system in Morton Grove, IL. Aside from my preoccupation with hating cliques and avoiding the usual bullies (see Blog #13), I managed to learn the basics of math, science, literature, history, and even some jazz improvisation during lunch. I felt a drive to succeed, but that drive was inspired mostly by a desire to make my parents happy.

Notre Dame High School for Boys

My entrance test scores for high school were uneven – high in math, but low in English. So, I started in the remedial classes, and they excluded me from Latin class! I was outraged. All the smart kids learned Latin, but I was stuck with Spanish. When would that ever be useful? As a result of my placement, I sailed through freshman classes, such that I felt peer pressure about doing too well. I felt embarrassed when I scored high on homework or tests, especially in front of my friends who were struggling. I felt the need to pretend I got lucky. They figured out they better move me to honors classes, but it was too late for Latin. You know what they say. Carpe Diem? Is that what they say? I have no idea, because they wouldn’t let me into Latin class ☹

I can’t complain, though. I had fun in high school – mostly in band and the other extra-curricular activities like the play and band. Plus, I was in the band. Despite my tendency to avoid my all-boys high school in order to hang out at the local all-girl schools, I learned enough to get me into the #3-rated Engineering university in the country.

“Looks like it’s the University of Illinois”

I actually felt excited by the idea of going to an Ivy League or a more Liberal Artsy kind of school. I dreamed of going to Bucknell or Brown. I’m not sure why these schools enticed me so much. Maybe they gave us kick-ass brochures. But, my parents quickly discouraged it. Tuition was a factor. Plus, my parents had no idea how I would get back and forth during summers and holidays. They didn’t have the money for flights, and I guess they never heard of a long car trip. Regardless, the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana provided an excellent college experience, mostly due to the Marching Illini. Yes, it helped finalize my identity once and for all as a band geek.

Within my rigorous rehearsal schedule, I managed to find some time to attend some engineering classes. My instincts for problem solving helped me, but I wasn’t ultimately interested in the details. I wanted immediate results. I didn’t want to have to understand the electron process in order to design a circuit, in order to process some sort of computation to solve some practical problem. I wanted to goof around. I wanted attention, and my mind was always wandering creatively, such that I spoke only in run-on sentences that jumped from topic to topic, until at a certain point, I realized I didn’t really have a point, and I didn’t quite know how to finish my thought, and eventually forgot what I was… Uh…

The Education Payoff: Andersen Consulting

With my degree, I started right away with a very respectable job in computer consulting. Everyone treated each other as professionals. We worked hard and played hard. But, still, what were we doing, really? We were helping them setup a database for keeping accounting records? Or, designing some way for e-mail to travel most quickly through a network? Part of me enjoyed geeky aspects of the process, but my attention span was always so distracted. Did that mean I never learned to concentrate? Did it mean that my capacity for complex thought was limited by my A.D.D.? Or, did it just mean that I was capable, but not passionate?

Back to School: Columbia College Chicago

After all my efforts to study and get good grades, and my determination to capitalize on my college education by embracing a professional career in a respectable, stable field like computers, I ultimately could not continue on that path. I could not force myself to pursue what seemed most prudent. In the end, I went back to college and studied film – a subject that put the butterflies back in my gut.

Lessons Learned

Now that I can reflect on my educational history, I wonder if embracing my passion for the arts earlier would have benefited me. Or, will all the distractions and tangents in my career pay off in the types of stories I tell? Did I receive an excellent education? Was it just good enough? Would I be better positioned for success in life if my parents were wealthy with connections to Harvard? Or, would an easier path have led me into some comfortable position at a law firm with no drive left to go after my passion?

When I think about it, I found so many subjects boring. Does it even matter that I spent time in those classes when I learned nothing? Do we need children to be passionate about every subject? My nephew has a passion for Japan, it’s language and it’s culture. He’s obsessed. It’s a good thing. He’s learning to speak Japanese and Korean. If we made that a required subject in school like History and Algebra, I guarantee you that some of the kids would never learn it – not because they aren’t capable, but because it doesn’t interest them. I’m also sure some kids just require a different learning style.

Ultimately, something doesn’t seem right in our current education system, but I don’t have the skills to analyze the system in depth, nor the capacity to draw proper conclusions. Therefore, I have proven that something is not right with our current education system. It has even failed to give me the skills to prove it has failed.

Perhaps the solution is simple. Create a class that teaches you one key learning skill that gives you access to all other learning opportunities. If such a class existed, I think it might be called “Google it.”

The Cheesing of Superman

In my teens, my cousins and I travelled to Wisconsin out of sheer boredom. We drove randomly towards strange-named small towns – our favorite was Muckwonago - and then video taped our misguided attempts to be funny in each town. We interviewed store clerks and pretended we worked for A&E. We thought we were so clever and mischievous! In reality, the result was more of a travelling Lawrence Welk show compared to the shocking stunts on YouTube coming from today’s youth. But, how could we dare treat these very welcoming Wisconsinites with anything less than respect? It would be unconscionable in the face of their unabashed kindness! Plus, we have relatives in Fondulac, and we couldn’t risk the embarrassment to the family name.

I lived a very sheltered childhood. We pictured ourselves as true rebels in this journey to all the “M” towns of Wisconsin, at least when we compared the trip to our day-to-day life of growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. For the most part, life was stable. Our parents stayed married. Our schools were safe. The only gang at our high school, was a group of geeky writers who wrote about a pretend gang – I know because I was a proud member of The Marauders. The only excesses at our high school parties consisted of shooting up too many chocolate chip cookies and dropping our inhibitions with streams of sugar-fueled sexual innuendos. But, my parents stayed involved in our lives, even when we did not want them there. They found a good balance of work and family time that was required for raising a family. I will not apologize for my luck at being adopted into a loving family with enough tenacity to stay in the game for twenty years consistently - to build our character and self-confidence enough to get through college and out into the world.

Unfortunately, a majority of today’s kids arrive in pre-school and kindergarten already behind in development. According to my favorite research book about children, “The Irreducible Needs of Children:” from the very start of life, children require sensitive, nurturing care to build capacities for trust, empathy and compassion. These interactions with care-givers teach communication and thinking, concepts of time and space, compassion and caring. Then, as they continue to develop, experiences must be tailored to the individual differences of each child. Each stage of development requires certain experiences – like interactive play and negotiations for social cues, and pretend play, opinion-oriented discussions and debates for creative and logical thinking.

 

But, these days, who has the time for all that?

The average 21st century family with the same social status as my family faces a much tougher battle for survival and success. Statistically, salaries for middle class have remained stagnant while the cost of living has continued to rise. And if you’re poor, every day poses an uphill battle. How can we expect a parent to work multiple jobs and still have enough time to provide much needed direct emotional contact with their kids? My parents didn’t really understand all our homework, but they were around to help us maneuver through the social struggles and emotional battles required to learn how to be a person, as well as the valuable skills of polka dancing.

Today’s society has all but made that sort of support a luxury item. Then, they get to school, and wonder why they cannot grasp the basics. Teachers must steer classrooms as big as 40 kids around icebergs of emotional issues dragged from home and language barriers. And the school system sets up standards for learning without the appropriate resources to accomplish the learning goals effectively. By the time kids reach high school, many believe that society has given up on them. It’s no surprise that children are failing in record numbers, and we all know the most effective way to solve problems in America: find a scapegoat!

I was fortunate enough to see WAITING FOR SUPERMAN as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival last year. I became enraged by one premise of the film: if only we could fire the bad teachers, everyone would start graduating! At the same time, my wife had just been let go by her public school due to cuts in arts spending in the district. At one point, they offered to keep her at the school, with her same paycheck, but not as a music teacher. That plan would put her in various tasks from shuffling papers to sweeping, but NO MUSIC FOR THE KIDS. God forbid she be caught whistling. Clearly our school system is broken. And the dysfunctional aspects of the unions have not helped.

I wanted to tie together my feelings about the premise of bad teachers in WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, and the attack on unions in Wisconsin. But, I failed several attempts. Ironically, I don’t have the education or mental capacity to complete that thesis effectively, mostly because it would require research, which would mean reading.

I’m conivnced I hvae dyslxeia (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). I’ve never been properly tested, but I do see letters switched all the time, and I often type letters and even thoughts out of order. When I’m editing my writing, it’s almost comical how I can cut and paste paragraphs in a different order, and suddenly the thoughts flow much more effectively. I can read, but only with time and concentration. I’m not one of those people who can sit in a talky café and relax with a good book, unless I’m using that book to shut up the opinionated trust fund baby next to me with a good swipe to the head.

I’m not complaining. I’m astonished to realize how my struggles with reading have impacted my choices in life. I believe it was my need to switch letters around that helped my brain adjust quickly to math, which led to my degree in Electrical Engineering. It was my instinctive switching of letters that made me piece together ideas and thoughts that don’t normally go together in a funny way, which led to my study of comedy at Second City. And finally, it was the pain with reading that drove me to make up my own stories, build my creative thinking muscles, and pursue the visual medium of film.

So, I proposed some ideas to my wife, a wonderfully brilliant teacher of music, to show how ridiculous the discussion of firing more teachers.

My theory: arguments to blame bad teachers changes the subject and prevents us from tackling the big issues. Don’t get me wrong – we’ve all experienced our own Mrs. Crabapple who happily let Ralph teach the class from time to time. But, labeling teachers as cartoon characters dismisses the reality that most people become teachers because they want to teach. They want to help kids learn. I doubt that anyone spends the time and energy to get a teacher certificate thinking “I can’t wait to be a teacher! Think of the luxury of an exuberant average salary of $45,000 while I coast through the system and eventually blow-off all classroom preparation. Suck it tax payer bitches!”

To my surprise, she actually thought that more teachers should be fired. If the administration followed the process of evaluation correctly, I wouldn’t have to worry about her job, since she’s already outshined her coworkers in so many ways – and I’m not just saying that because I need her to walk my special needs dog once in a while. But, she quickly spotted the real issue that I had been dancing around – namely, this argument is a waste of time. It’s like the computer in WAR GAMES, except this war involves Fox News fans with talking points. The only way to win is not to play.

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning highlights a real concern: the possibility that years of emphasis on national testing has prevented a large majority of Americans from developing critical thinking skills — so much so, that people believe corporate-funded propaganda as absolute fact without asking questions or thinking for themselves.

If that’s the reality of our current discourse, then reasonable people should not waste any energy discussing politics at all. Whether we wait for Superman, or we try to be Superman as a collective societal force, we face some serious kryptonite in the form of hypocrisy driven by greed. And those average, working Americans who feel cheated by the Wisconsin unions don’t even recognize how badly they are being cheesed. A very smart and strategic group of people have effectively hijacked the emotions of these patriots and fed them with little Dairy-based cubes of misinformation, thus tainting the dialog. Believe me, I’ve tried a few conversations via Facebook with my conservative acquaintances, but they always end painfully. I can only hope that some day reason and perspective enlightens them before their minds melt into a complete fondue. 

Although, I’m not sure I want to be in the vicinity on that day. You think they’re angry now?

Homework

I spent some time tonight re-formatting Jackie’s master’s thesis paper. I’m thrilled that she sits on the edge of graduation, after years of grueling work - with only the unpredictable whims of her professor standing between her and freedom. But, it gave me a flavor of being in school again. And, of course, a flash to the future of working through every grade level all over again with my question mark of a child. Initially, I thought, “well, that’s the end of that.” But, then I realized I should probably explore the subject a little bit before turning in my final grade. Let’s break it down into the various subjects…

HISTORY

My parents used to ask me to help my brother with his homework. I held certain strong opinions about the best way to provide help - namely, to guide him into learning and understanding the material without giving him the answers. Unfortunately, his concept of how we should proceed seemed to be slightly different - perhaps even in direct conflict - namely, he just wanted the answers. And so, I have many memories of the typical for older brothers like me - the threatening, screaming, beating, chasing and choking required to get through that process. And once my parents made my brother stop his violence, he eventually learned.

History: D -

MATH

I hear that the volume and complexity of homework load has increased over the past 20 years. Judging by my nephew and nieces, I may have to brush up on my high school math just to get my child through grade school. And with the higher standards, you would think that children should be learning more, but in reality, it really seems to stress them out more than anything else. Not to mention the cost of education. If you want a halfway decent education, plan on spending big bucks on grade school and high school, and then get in deep debt for college.

Math: D +

POLITICAL SCIENCE

The current state of education in this country s-u-x that mirrors our class system. Poor and middle class settle for public school where resources force large class sizes and federal money is rewarded to schools based on unrealistic test scores. One of Jackie’s schools is failing this NCLB because many of the kids are ESL (English Second Language). Those kids are not at the level they should be from the very start. Some upper middle class and rich then have an option to find a quality private school with better resources and a better education. A negative side effect of membership in this luxurious educated club: either lifelong depression from realizing how the world really works, or lifelong blind ambition to take over the world in the name of Jesus Christ. Some believe (including me) that the educational system has been altered so that middle class and poor kids are taught just enough to get them a middle manager or low income job, which keeps the status quo. As a result, the majority of Americans who get through school can work a job that keeps them busy enough that they don’t have time to challenge the corporations running our country, and only comfortable enough to think they are happy.

Poli Sci: C

PHILOSOPHY

And when I dig deep into my thoughts on school, I eventually bump up head to head with my complete disrespect for the philosophy branded on American children in every grade - the concept of competition . It’s a system that supposedly uses human nature’s need to “win” as the engine to create progress, growth and innovation. The only problem is that winning often involves preventing the other person from winning more than they are preventing you from winning. It’s a flawed system. I’ve seen far too many examples of collaboration that result in the kind of progress, growth and innovation that blows competition’s model into the dust - leaving “competition” crying for it’s mommy, begging collaboration to show mercy.

Philosophy: F -

LITERATURE

Maybe it’s time for me to create a new story for myself. Maybe it’s time to become a hero in my own life’s journey and cross the threshold into the adventure. Maybe I should train my kid to think differently. Take them off the grid. Go live in the woods. Become some kind of liberal rebel mumbling over my tree branch and berry soup about my hate for the ‘state.’ Of course, that approach will leave my child no choice but to rebel, and how do you rebel when you’re bathing in a stream and feasting on squirrel? You become a hard-lined conservative.

Literature: C+

MUSIC

Next year, the arts program will be eliminated from all California public schools. No more music.

Music: F - - -

FINAL ASSESSMENT

It looks like the topic of education is getting a solid “D.” I guess we’ll have to send it back through the same grade again. Maybe it has learned a lesson.

Bottom line, I conclude that homework makes you hate thinking, which makes you hate growing, and ultimately leads to a robot life drinking the Kool Aid. In fact, I probably shouldn’t be creating new children, but eliminating them. It might help the bottom line, and then maybe California will reinstitute an arts program, and maybe Jackie will have a job after all next year. I guess I better polish my gun, and head down to the local school. But, which kids to get rid of first? I know, I’ll start with the rich bastards.