Sunday, September 30, 2007

Back to School: Report #2

Not much has changed since my first time in college, but occasionally something happens that makes me feel 1,000 years older than most of the other students (though there is a person or two my age and older in all my classes, excepting the 101s). I don't feel much distance between my decrepit 30-year-old ass and their firm, luscious 20-year-old asses, but for whatever reason, many of these younger students' cultural references either don't extend past 1998 or are chronologically confused.
Example #1: In my post-Harlem Renaissance African-American lit class, I worked on a group project about blues music of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s and its relation to Zora Neale Hurston's prose. During a group meeting, a girl said, "Roberta Flack might be a good example. She was right around this time period, right? Or was she a little later?"
Example #2: In my American Lit class, we watched the first fifteen minutes of Peter Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller after reading the Henry James story. In the film, Daisy's little brother was played by Larry McMurtry's son James, who is currently an Austin singer-songwriter. The professor told us that the young actor grew up to be a musician and asked us if we knew who it was. One of my fellow students said, "Neil Young?" Keep in mind, he'd already told us the year of the movie's release, 1974.
Example #3: In my enormous 500-student psychology class, one of the two professors asked the lecture hall how many of us had seen A Clockwork Orange? Only about 30 people raised their hands.

I don't think it's necessary, or even that important, to have a rough estimate of when Roberta Flack's career began or how old Neil Young was in 1974, or to have seen the Kubrick film (his worst, in my opinion, though very appealing to people in their late teens and early twenties and extremely popular with that age bracket the last time I was in that age bracket, which I didn't think was that long ago but apparently some cultural shift has taken place and maybe these kids are all really into Barry Lyndon). I don't think knowing pop culture details and approximate dates makes anyone smart. I'm just surprised. Middle-aged co-workers at my last job were always saying things to me like, "You're probably too young to have ever heard of Jack Benny/Nina Simone/Paul Simon/Spiro Agnew, etc." and I was always taken aback by that. I always assume people are aware of at least a few things that predated their births. I mean, come on. By their logic, no one alive should have the slightest fucking clue who William Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln are. Civil War? Never heard of it. Who the fuck are The Beatles? Spare me your arcane minutiae, Pops. This is the nineties. But maybe my middle-aged coworkers were right to assume I'd never heard of anything that predated 1977. Maybe my friends and I are Paleolithic weirdos for being interested in things that happened prior to "Desperate Housewives." But in my culturally deprived small Midwestern hometown in the early 1990s in the adolescent world of immediate-present-only, we watched Cheech and Chong movies, listened to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and knew that Roberta Flack was not an early 20th century blues singer. It wasn't all Alice in Chains, Encino Man, Bell Biv Devoe, Lorena Bobbitt jokes, and Clearly Canadian. We didn't live in a total vacuum. Does anyone remember John Tesh? Is there anybody out there who remembers "Manimal"? I have been left behind. Kool and the Gang are contemporaries of Emily Dickinson in the world of today's youth. My beer gut grows larger as my capacity to learn new technologies diminishes. The Grim Reaper takes my hand, and I sing Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy" as I slowly shuffle toward my demise. Remember me as someone who experienced my pop culture firsthand, not through Peter Griffin. Fuck the police. Welcome to the jungle. Do you like pina coladas?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tortured Louis Black paragraph of the week

Louis Black's column this week, "Knocked Out, Loaded," contained many of his usual flaws: awkward sentence construction; bizarre, paranoid, megalomaniacal attacks on those who dare to criticize the Chronicle; precious stirrings of his oh-so-poetic heart; status quo journalistic cliches presented as deep thought (example: "(Movies directed by actors) don't really work, and when they do, their obsession is clearly about the actorly, not the cinematic," a conventional film-crit opinion I largely disagree with, but I digress); and celeb name-dropping. The latter clearly presses my annoyance button the most. He really stretches himself this time, though, writing about the new Ethan Hawke-directed film, The Hottest State: "In my world, the first 15 minutes were perfect. Not perfect as in a nice job by a friend of a friend (emphasis mine) or a surprising achievement by an actor directing but in the most visceral way: The pleasures of the viewing experience were more sensual and physical than intellectual." What a convoluted and unnecessary way of bragging about being two degrees of separation from Ethan Hawke. What a sad thing for a grown (middle-aged!) man to do. That was merely the appetizer for this week's shameless entree:
"Years ago, my friends Maggie Renzi and John Sayles came to town for a car trip to West Texas. When they arrived, I excitedly exclaimed to John, '... and we can visit my friend Robert Rodriguez's set, where he is shooting his new movie, Desperado, in Acuna, Mexico!'"

Maybe I'm picking on a guy who may be just fine in person? No. I've been the unfortunate victim of three public speeches by Black, and he is his column. Before a screening of Terminal Island, he bloviated for 15 minutes about his friendship with Jonathan Demme, apropos of nothing. Before a Manny Farber art exhibition, he spent 15 minutes rattling on about his friendship with Leonard Maltin (or "Len," as Black called him). At an Austin Film Society event, he dribbled on and on about his friendship with Richard Linklater, which embarrassed me, in part, because Linklater was standing next to him waiting to speak. I was much more interested in what he had to say about AFS, but I had to wait a long, long time to hear it. Black's not the only member of the Chronicle to suck the air out of the room. If you are ever at an event in which Chronicle music critic Raoul Hernandez is about to speak, flee from the room immediately. If fleeing is not an option, find the easiest way to commit suicide. Hernandez gave a 20+ minute speech before a screening of Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait that included a seven-minute vignette about buying the laserdisc of Otto Preminger's Laura. I wanted to tear my eyeballs out and shove them in my ears. Black not only bloviates with the best of them, he hires master bloviators. He has assembled an unholy bloviating army of the damned! Get away! As fast as you can! For the love of God!

Religious Week continues

Born-again and fundamentalist Christians often mention a particular phrase, always worded the same way, that really grates on my nerves: "my personal relationship with Christ." What, are you fucking him?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Saturday, September 22, 2007


Goddamn, if reggae doesn't get a bad rap. When people say they're into reggae, it usually only means that they own Bob Marley's "Legend," a pet iguana and a beer-stained pool table too close to the wall, have a seashell-necklace, a blonde ponytail, and some ditch weed, and are pissed off that the night has turned into a "sausage party." However, much like soul music, every reggae song from the 1960s and 1970s is good.

The following post has been brought to you by 4:17 a.m.

Our idiot-in-chief...

... is afraid of horses and thinks Nelson Mandela is dead.

Also, the house in Maryland where Frederick Douglass's slave master lived is currently occupied by Donald Rumsfeld.

And, Alanis Morissette lives in the former estate of Hitler.*

*I made this one up.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tortured Louis Black paragraph of the week

What a sad little man. The namedropping is cloyingly thick in this week's column, "Personalizing the Mythic." For some reason, Black attended the Toronto International Film Festival instead of sending his film critics there and decided to write a whole column about how he's "friends" with Jonathan Demme and John Sayles under the thin guise of recommending their latest films. In the first paragraph, he writes, "This year, even though any number of exciting films were being screened, for a variety of reasons, I only saw a bare handful. Two of the best of them (both by friends), Man from Plains and Honeydripper, are not only great movies that people should be excited about; both also have direct connections to Austin."
Both by friends? What a twat. That really makes me puke. Also, saying that two films out of a handful were the best is not really a colossal recommendation.
He continues in the pathetic, weaselly tones of someone who thinks that standing next to famous people makes him more interesting than, and superior to, a cabdriver or a cook or any non-famous human being.
"Characterizing these films as two of the best at Toronto actually underplays my enthusiasm. Friends were involved in making both films, as I've noted - but I have lots of friends who are filmmakers, so I'm very conscious about trying very hard not to confuse my critical sensibilities with the polluting effects of personal affection. These unique and powerful films blew me away."
I think what really blew you away was the hot air coming out of your mouth, carrying your corpulent husk all over Stupid Town and Jerkville. He goes into hysterics every time a John Sayles and/or Jonathan Demme film is released, piling up the adjectives and effusive gush. I like most of Jonathan Demme's films myself, and I think John Sayles is occasionally interesting, but what is the point of wetting yourself every time they release a film? What good does it do? And why does he have to mention Jonathan Demme in one out of three columns? And please have an editor look over your columns, I beg you. Using "very" twice in one sentence is very, very amateurish and very sloppy. Very. My blog isn't exactly slop-free, but I'm not dropping it off at every kiosk in town.

Here is the tortured Louis Black paragraph of the week (drinking game version). Take a tequila shot every time an adjective appears in this paragraph about Demme's new Jimmy Carter documentary. Call 911:
"Carter's continually understated decency is what absolutely electrifies the screen, especially when considered in the context of the overcharged partisanship of most others involved in this discussion [conflict in the Middle East]. Add in the insane, irrational, myopic nationalism championed by the current administration, and Man from Plains seems like a brilliant haiku rising above a mass of Edwardian English poetry. In fact, the biggest presence in the film is that of President Bush, though he is hardly ever mentioned. Carter's intelligent, deeply felt, and morally centered concerns serve as the most resoundingly deep and meaningful rebukes of this administration's intuitive, happily ignorant, inherently racist, unbelievably naive, self-righteous world-view. This film is so unbelievably loud and ringingly resonant because it is so quiet."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Back to school: report #1

This back-to-school thing is pretty weird. It would be less weird if I was a graduate student, but getting another undergrad degree is weird-beard TNT. Here's where it's OK: My teaching classes are full of people my age, older, and slightly younger, so that's not weird at all. It's nice having an age range of 19-50 in one classroom. My English classes are good. I get to read a lot of stuff I would probably have read anyway, or not read but wanted to, or not thought to have read, or hadn't heard of, or already read but wouldn't have re-read. My previous degree took care of the beginning English classes, so I'm only taking upper-class stuff. People in their early twenties are fine. I don't feel too far removed from them, and they seem okay. Here's where I'm struggling and feeling angry, stupid, sad, bored, and exasperated: the handful of generals I'm forced to take. I'm finding the 101 classes to be about the most difficult things I've ever done. I think something happens to your brain around age 25 that makes it harder to engage in rote memorization and test-taking. I'm having trouble memorizing things I don't care about. I always had that problem, but I could do it if I had to and crammed enough. Now, it's a goddamn insurmountable hurdle. I already paid these dues, motherfucker. And now my decrepit 30-year-old brain can only memorize facts I actually give a shit about. And I think I hate 18- and 19-year-olds more than any group of people on the planet. That may sound funny coming from someone who is planning on teaching high school, but there is a huge difference between a high school senior and a college freshman. Goofy, awkward teenager turns, overnight, into goofy, awkward teenager with responsibilities. Somehow, adult freedom turns these teenagers into jerks. And not just jerks. Stupid jerks. And these 101 teachers gear their lessons to these stupid jerks, and not the 30-year-old jerks like me, who really should have figured out what the fuck to do with their lives several years ago so they wouldn't be sitting in the same seat they were sitting in 12 years ago. For chrissakes, OJ Simpson is involved in another criminal imbroglio. It's 1995 all over again, and I have progressed exactly one inch since I graduated from high school. If Candlebox puts out a new album, I will commit suicide.

So, I'm pretty much going to have to drop my biology class because I'm a fucking idiot and not a visual learner and I'm too fucking old to be there, but I had my first classroom observation last week and I loved it. That made me feel good. Maybe I'm on the right track, even if I have to take three science classes, and Psychology 101, and an online Texas government whoop-di-do, and my old college roommates are well on their ways to Ph.D.'s while I sit in fucking Biology 101, completely lost. What fucking balderdash. Folderol! Fuck! Anyway, I observed a fourth-grade class, and will observe this class for nine more weeks, and it's nice to actually be reminded why I made this rough, tough, and undignified decision to play 18-year-old for the first three years of my thirties. (Although I have spent the last six years drinking beer, buying records, and going to movies while they worked their asses off.) A Reader's Digest condensed version of my first classroom observation.
Boy in John Cena shirt and girl with frizzy, curly hair staring at me in the office of the school.
Girl: We're half cousins.
They lead me to the classroom. I notice that we leave the school and are walking toward some kind of weird back entrance that doesn't look like where we are supposed to be.
Boy: We like going this way but lately they've been locking the doors.
The door is locked. The boy and the girl stand in front of the door for 30 seconds.
Me: Is there another way in?
Boy: Yeah, this way.
He leads me through doors that put us right where we were to begin with, and then to the classroom, which is just down the hall.
The teacher introduces me to the class, I tell them some things about myself. They introduce themselves to me. About half of them are shy and embarrassed, the other half outgoing and happy. One boy pumps his fist in the air and says the following: My name is Kevin. Yodelay-yi! Yodelay-yi! Yodelay-yi-hoo!
The whole class laughs, except for one surly young man with his arms crossed. He says: Yeah, he's funny. He's funny. He's funny. He's not funny.
Girl: He is too funny.
Boy: Shut up.
They discuss a short story they read the previous week. The teacher reads a passage describing a boy dressing for winter. When she reads the words "long underwear," the class explodes in laughter.
I like these kids.

Campus report: Current indie-rock fashion may be changing, if UT trends can be believed. I thought campus would be overrun with asexual anorexics in tight, ill-fitting, multi-colored clothes, sneering at everyone while sharing a single Ramen noodle. I've only seen two of these butt-nuts in 4 weeks. Oddly, everyone looks the same at the University of Texas as they did at the University of Nebraska 8 years ago, except that shoes are much more colorful, nobody wears flannel, and, of course, iPods are everywhere. Cell phones seem to be less omnipresent than I feared. Everyone carries one, but there's less constant chattering than there was the last time I ventured onto UT premises. That's a good sign. I'm still confused about how the craziest lunatics in town--I'm talking the craziest, the guys who can't figure out how to stop confusing Jesus with Mickey Rooney or stop talking to themselves or stop carrying around 68 plastic bags--can always seem to find a campus student union. If you think bugs are crawling on your skin and your name is 56 Galactitroid, how the fuck do you get it together enough to find the food court at the student union of the university?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Tortured Louis Black paragraph of the week

Louis Black didn't write his column this week, so I've been forced to Google-search the archives and present a Louis Black blast from the past. Here's one from July 2003:

"For me, it's usually a bit disconcerting talking to people about (Robert) Rodriguez's films. Most viewers approach each film as an independent entity, while I see all the films as part of an ongoing process. As much as From Dusk Till Dawn, Desperado, or Spy Kids knock me out, as Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over truly dazzles, and as I eagerly await Once Upon a Time in Mexico, these seem like early chapters in what I'm betting is going to be an extraordinary body of work. The quality of what the Rodriguez/Avellán team has already produced just deepens my excitement and anticipation of what will be coming."

I just want to repeat one phrase from that paragraph, for emphasis: "... as Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over truly dazzles ..."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Talkin' the retinal scan pamphleteering blues, or left-wingers are jerks, too

One of the disadvantages of being a non-traditional student taking a second tour of duty at Operation: Enduring University is that I have to hear a lot of class discussions I already wore out in those drunken, THC-fueled days of Talk Much, Think Little. One unfortunate byproduct of attending college is realizing that the neo-cons actually read their worthless manifestos and believe in them, while the supposed "good guys," the liberal students, just skim a couple of pamphlets and spout off a lot of ill-conceived nonsense that has nothing to do with actual human experience and mostly comes from a place of sheltered privilege. When I was visiting friends in Madison, Wisconsin last month, we saw a flier for a liberal youth group giving us the low-down on Bush's foreign policy, and also about the alternative policies, and unfortunate oppression, of that fantastic hero Hugo Chavez. Yep. These are the same people who've made a folk hero out of Fidel Castro. Just go to Cuba and ask the first gay man you meet how great Fidel Castro is. He could tell you some things you didn't skim in your pamphlet. That's just for starters. Unfortunately, this short-sighted stupidity is not just an American phenomenon. In my Adolescent Development class yesterday, we were discussing where we were on 9/11 and what our reactions were. We were paired off in two-person groups, and I was paired with a Panamanian woman. She told me, or, more accurately, lectured me that she had no interest in 9/11. She said we got what we deserved, that the United States fucked Panama over, that she and her friends and family took delight in that day, and that she didn't care at all about 9/11. I tried to tell her that the people being murdered that day were not the same people who were making U.S. foreign policy decisions, that those people never get what's coming to them, that a lot of people who were just trying to go to work got killed for no reason, that I agreed with her that most of the decisions my government made and makes are destructive, that Americans are too often xenophobic and/or apathetic, that we were finally seeing what it was like to live how most of the rest of the world lives, but that her callous attitude toward a massive loss of life was kind of fucked up and kind of a put-on to be shocking, but she didn't buy it. She was apparently unaware of the irony of her moving to the U.S. to attend a U.S. institution and reap the benefits of a U.S. education, so I sheepishly let her continue to be unaware of it. I myself was embarrassed and didn't want to sound like Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh or Lee Greenwood. But confusing the citizens of foreign countries for their government is supposed to be something we do. Isn't she supposed to know better? Quit stealing our short-sightedness, Panama.

"Panama" is also a great song by Van Halen. For more information, consult your local library.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I had completely forgotten...

...that I hate school. Why didn't I remember that?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Overheard on campus

I have finished my first week and a half as a second-time college student. Here's some stuff I overheard.

Girl on her cell phone, very loudly and desperately, on the bus: "I want to sleep with you tonight." Every single person on the crowded bus looked at her after she said this.

English professor to a student in the hallway: "Saul Bellow doesn't make my stomach move."

For more information on college life, see Teen Wolf Too.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Tortured Louis Black Paragraph of the Week

Black's column this week, "Wild and Delirious," was fairly coherent compared to his usual overstuffed style, but he did manage to slip in a few of his ridiculous tendencies. The unnecessary celebrity name-drop: "Years back, I was lucky enough to spend time hanging out with the king of softcore filmmaking, Russ Meyer... Film Comment ran an interview with him by Ed Lowry and me; I talked to him for the Chronicle; there were also times when we just hung out." The poor-sport attack on Chronicle readers who happen to disagree with him: "The gaggle of geese that regularly write in assaulting me and the paper are quite mistakenly convinced that their honking sounds pass for some kind of snide wit rather than just annoying noise." And, of course, the precious poet of the soul, who gives us the tortured Louis Black paragraph, or honking sound, of the week:
"Eyes closed. Involuntarily, I felt the flushing of all breath being pushed out of my body; like the characters in the cartoon 'Balloon Land,' I deflated. This occurred not physically but in almost every other way: My spirit gushed out like rushing, raging water from a 10-day storm slicing through a dam. It wasn't the writing but the thinking. I had nothing to say and no desire to say it. You, the readers, disappeared, while the flames of my passion went out and even the embers grew cold."

You're not writing the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Black. You're just farting out some ramblings in a local alternative weekly. Try to relax. Your "buddy" Russ Meyer didn't worry about embers growing cold. He liked big breasts and made a lot of movies about them. And they were good.