Friday, November 10, 2017

Taylor Strays From Her "Reputation": Bland, Listless Record Ensues

Image result for taylor swift reputation album 
It's insufferable to quote one's self, but watch me as I do it anyway. After my first listen of Taylor Swift's newest album Reputation I went back and re-read my review of 1989, where I worried that she "sold off a bit of her Taylor-ness." I wrote that some of the tracks suffered from a "touch of anonymity" and hoped that "Swift hasn't settled for being Queen of the Pop Princesses."

Dammit so much.

Most of Reputation can be described as "aggressively mediocre." It's full of synth beats, drum loops, and auto-tune. Even the finger snaps are electronic precision. Swift left banjos behind after Red; now she's chosen to forgo actual musical instruments altogether.

As the album's title suggests, Swift seems preoccupied with how she's perceived. On the otherwise unmemorable "Delicate," she sings, "My reputation's never been worse/so you must like me for me." I want to give her a hug like Robin Williams did to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and assure her that we DO like her for her. She's one of her generation's greatest songwriters. She doesn't need to mold herself into something she's not.

Take, for instance, the album's second track, "End Game." It features rappers Future and Ed Sheeran. What's that? You didn't know Ed Sheeran was a rapper? Well, he gets his pasty ginger flow on, and it goes about how you'd expect. The song might as well be called "Generic 2017 Hip-Hop Chart-Topper." That's followed by the similarly awful "I Did Something Bad," and sometimes, folks, the jokes just write themselves, amiright?

Most of the songs aren't bad, but they're just sort of...there. I listened to the record three times through before sitting down to write this, and I still can't tell you anything about "So It Goes," "Don't Blame Me," "King of My Heart," or "Dancing With Our Hands Tied."  There are 15 songs on the album, and I'd characterize at least 1/3 as unequivocal filler.

Then there are a few tunes that qualify as "Fine, I guess?" I'd put "Call it What You Want," "Gorgeous," and "Dress" in this category. They'd all be among the worst songs on Taylor's better albums, but here they stand out from the colorless flotsam that makes up most of Reputation.

Thankfully, there are some highlights. The "Hard Knock Life" homage "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" makes for a certified banger. In addition to a Great Gatsby shout-out, it features a cackling Taylor breaking up in the midst of a faux apology that she "can't even say with a straight face." The Jack Antonoff influence is strong on what is probably the album's best song, "Getaway Car." It sounds like a really good Bleachers song sung by Swift, which is sort of ideal.

I've even leaned into "Look What You Made Me Do," even though I was horrified by it when it was released. It's a total disaster of a song, but at least it's a fun, campy disaster with a chorus that's delightful to chant when you've just done something naughty. And it's definitely on-brand Taylor- petty and directed at her haters.

You know what's off-brand and artificial? All the boozy references on Reputation. Does anyone really believe Swift enjoys "whiskey on ice," as she claims on "Gorgeous"? Or that she swills "beer out of plastic cups" ("King of My Heart") and frequents a "dive bar on the East Side" ("Delicate")? Plus, she drops her first recorded curse word, accusing some ex of "talking shit." I have to be careful about playing Taylor Frigging Swift in the car with my kids now? That's some fracking bullspit.

I dunno. Maybe this is who she is now. Perhaps it's an honest representation. But it sure feels like she's straining to prove that the old Taylor, as she claims on "LWYMMD," is dead.

Not until the album's final track does the wistful, winsome Swift appear with a spare piano ballad about helping a friend clean up empty bottles on "New Year's Day." It would be a pretty unremarkable tune on the rest of her catalogue, but here it stands out. It's like the old Taylor broke through for one song at the end, forcing her way through the over-produced electronic sheen of the rest of the album.

Taylor, we know you're still in there. If you can hear us, harken to the words of a legendary songwriter:

Come here.

Nolanometer Final Grade: C-

1989: B
Red: A
Speak Now: A-
Fearless: B+
Taylor Swift: IDK. I don't like country, never listened to it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Merchants of Death (Cigarettes, not Guns)

When I was growing up, you could smoke on airplanes.

How could it have possibly been permissible to allow passengers to exhale carcinogens inside an enclosed metal tube at 30,000 feet? Well, there were smoking and non-smoking sections. Duh.

My favorite childhood restaurant was El Charro in Lafayette, California: an affluent, mostly liberal suburb of the Bay Area. Whenever we'd go to dinner, I'd pull the levers of a machine in the lobby that looked like this:

When I attended high school in the '90s, there was controversy about a group of students known as the "backlotters." These were the misfits who met in an unoccupied lot behind the gym to smoke cigarettes. Smoking on campus was technically against the rules, but that location had tradition of lax enforcement. There was pretty significant support for the backlotters as oppressed victims in a civil rights struggle.
For almost the entirety of American history, cigarettes were inextricably woven into the fabric of this country's culture and economy. Since 1612, when the Jamestown colonists dropped the first tobacco seeds into the ground, firearms have been ever-present.

Wait, what? Did I just type "firearms" there? I meant cigarettes. This blog is about cigarettes.

Anyway, there were always people along the way decrying cigarettes as being, you know, a terrible pox on public health. "But who cares if I do it to myself?" the nicotine lovers bleated. Opponents pointed out that it wasn't just a matter of keeping it to oneself, since secondhand smoke led to roughly 11,000 homicide deaths by firearm each year.

Whoops! That makes no sense. Secondhand smoke isn't a gun! And that analogy doesn't even match up, because then people who kill themselves by smoking would be like the 21,000 who commit suicide by firearm every year. You can't kill yourself by smoking! Not instantly, anyway. It takes a while.

Also, smoking looks cool! You're gonna tell Americans they can't do something that looks this badass?
Wrong pic! Sorry about that. Got it mixed up with the other Heathers photo above.

The point is, Americans loved their cigarettes. Would never give up their cigarettes. Would die before they let the government take their guns cigarettes.

Then, about three decades ago, the (smoke-filled) winds of change began to blow. Smoking on airplanes was prohibited in 1990. Many states, including California, banned smoking in bars and restaurants. My high school students occasionally smell like weed; they almost never reek of cigarette smoke. I smelled it on one girl this year and asked her about it. She replied with a curled lip and an eye roll: "Ugh, I know. It's disgusting. My stepdad smokes. It's so gross."

What had formally been a badge of high school cool is now so gross.

In other words, this:
Has become this:

It's not like cigarettes are illegal. You can still buy them pretty much anywhere. So what happened? Basically, we, as a society, decided that guns were a public health nuisance, and we'd all be better off if people smoked a lot less of them. Dammit. I did it again. CIGARETTES. Not guns.

The most important shift was actually telling the truth about what cigarettes do. For years, tobacco companies claimed that not only were cigarettes not bad for you, but that they were actually healthy. I mean, look at this shit:

 You know what's a good way to lose weight? Acquire lung cancer!

 Which brand of cigs does YOUR dentist recommend?

Now, of course, this is the message we associate with cigarettes:
Even people who smoke admit it's no good for them. They just like smoking. They have fewer places to do so, it costs more, and they've largely become social pariahs in many areas. They know it's a vice; many of them try to quit, but ultimately it's their right to smoke as Americans. But none of them say stuff like, "The more cigarettes around, the safer everyone is." 

Much credit tor this generational change goes to good ol' fashioned American lawsuits. Consumers and former consumers sued the pants off Big Tobacco so badly that the companies had to pay for anti-smoking commercials themselves. The brand became so tarnished that America's largest tobacco manufacturer (Philip Morris) changed its name to distance itself from its own product.
Wouldn't it be crazy if that happened in some other industry? Just to pick one TOTALLY at random, what if, for example, after every mass shooting, all the victims and their families got together and sued Sig Sauer/Bushmaster/Intratec, etc? That can't work, though. Because cigarettes and guns are completely different.

You know how I know that's true?

Because if this adorable little girl were holding a lit cigarette, you'd be shocked and appalled. Because cigarettes are not toys. Because they're deadly. Because you shouldn't use them around kids, and you sure as hell shouldn't teach your kids that smoking is cool or for God's sake show them how to smoke as children.
At least today you wouldn't. When I was growing up, people smoked on airplanes, and that was totally normal. Things change.

Some things do.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Taylor Swift: Destroyer of Worlds

Like many of my generation, I have a drawer full of concert ticket stubs. Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Radiohead, U2, Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt. You'll probably notice a theme. Mostly, my previous show-going experiences have been limited to alt-rock performers. I'm used to a lead singer who stands in one place, staring at his shoes, while the guitarists occasionally criss-cross each other on stage while bouncing around. Sometimes the house lights flash in time with the music. Maybe a couple flames here or there.

Thus, walking into Levi's stadium with my wife last Friday night to behold the reigning queen of the music scene, I really had no idea what to expect. I just knew that 50,000 people all paid over $100 a ticket (I'm sure there were tickets sold in the thousand-dollar range), so the pressure was on Taylor Swift to deliver. For the most part, she did not disappoint.

First, a word about Levi's. My sister and I are lifelong 49ers fans:

It's pretty ironic that my first visit to their new home (and our brick) was not to watch my team; on the other hand, I have a lot more love for Tay-Tay these days than Niners owner Jed York, who could be the topic of a much meaner blog entry. The stadium is completely generic. No character at all. Even the font on the concession stands is boring. It's a nightmare to get into and out of. Draught beer costs $11, and every swallow is slightly bitter because it helps to line Jed's pockets. But hey, it's nice and clean! For now.

We got to our seats and found translucent rubber bracelets taped to the back of them, like t-shirts at a Warriors' playoff game. We also encountered a precocious, blonde-braided nine-year-old in the row in front of us named Bailey. Bailey and her family had driven down from Williams, about three hours to the north. She was impressed that I had been to France, but one-upped me by having once traveled to Utah.

Bailey represents a fraction of the broad tapestry that is T-Swift fandom these days. In the row in front of her were a group of four 20-somethings chugging Coors Light and hugging often. On either side of us were middle-aged mothers with tween girls. Behind us were some mixed pairs in their 30s. Sure, the demo still skews about 80% female (which has its advantages: ZERO line for the men's restroom), but Swifties are legion in age and appearance.

Just as Bailey began to grow impatient (her bedtime was 9:00, and Swift's set didn't kick off until 8:45), the sounds of a subway station became audible, and soon Taylor emerged through the stage floor to the synth keys of "Welcome to New York," 1989's opening track, sporting her signature shades:

All those glowing white lights visible in the crowd are the bracelets, which lit up and pulsed with the beat. It's hard to overstate how cool this was. The wristbands changed color and varied not only by section but by seat, which delighted Bailey, who had scavenged an extra and had one on each wrist:

 The effect was much like one of those card tricks that the crowd does at a football game halftime show, but for two straight hours. I'm old enough to remember when people still held up lighters, but this was way more fun (and certainly much better than holding up cell phones). On the subject of lighters, this was also the first concert I've ever been to where I never caught even a whiff of weed. We did see a particularly drunk lady get ejected; accounting for how long the concession lines were pre-show, that was actually a pretty impressive feat.

Taylor proceeded to run through a couple of the more upbeat 1989 tracks before mixing in a blistering version of "I Knew You Were Trouble," replete with smoke blasts on the chorus hooks:

There were frequent breaks between songs so she could change costumes, which is something else I'm unfamiliar with. Eddie Vedder shedding his flannel is about the closest comp. During these times, the video screens would display testimonials from Taylor's cadre of BFF's, such as Selena Gomez, Haim, Cara Delevingne, her cats, and Abigail Anderson, of "red-headed Abigail" fame on Swift's early hit, "Fifteen."

Speaking of older tunes, they were noticeably lacking. She played nearly every song off 1989, but perhaps only six or seven others. Even those were given a 1989 sound. There was nary a banjo to be heard on "Love Story," which was coated with an electronic, glossy sheen. For "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," Taylor channeled her inner Joan Jett, snarling her way through the tune while shredding on electric guitar:

Personally, I was a tad bummed by the set list. I like 1989, but it's not my favorite Taylor album. As with any touring act, you know going in that the focus will mainly be on the newest album, but I gladly would've traded special guest Fifth Harmony's performance of "Worth It" for an old-fashioned rendition of "You Belong With Me." I loves me some Taylor ballads, and the only one she really did was the album's closer, "Clean."

There were also times when the energy in the building flagged a bit. Taylor fancies herself a storyteller a la Bruce Springsteen, and there were moments during her girl power motivationals that had some of us hoping she'd get on with it and play a song already. In those instances, she creeps right up to being a caricature of herself, doling out generic platitudes about self esteem and not worrying about other people's opinions of you. If only there were a song in her oeuvre that covers all that in an insanely catchy, upbeat fashion...

Near the end of the show, a worn-out Bailey turned back to me and asked how much longer I thought this was gonna go. I explained how encores work and that we hadn't even heard 1989's signature tune yet. Not placated, she went over to curl up in her mom's lap, head against her chest. As the strains of "Out of the Woods" faded out and the place went dark briefly, I wondered if she would be able overcome her weariness and...
wait for it
wait for it
wait for it

"Shake it Off"?

I needn't have worried.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

1989- Taylor Swift Goes All In With All Pop, All the Time

Two salient, if seemingly paradoxical points:

1. I adore Taylor Swift.
2. I despise contemporary country music.

As to the first point, I realize that's it's not...ahem..."normal" for a 38-year-old husband and father to have so much love for the musical stylings of a 24-year-old whose core demographic is teen girls. What can I say?  Shame and I parted ways long ago.  Her music fills me with joy.  It makes about as much sense to fight that as it does to resist playing with a newborn puppy or to refuse to celebrate a walk-off home run.

Of course, the second point would seem to contradict the first.  Swift has long been classified a country music star, with the Nashville-launched career to back it up.  But the music industry's worst-kept secret is that her music has gotten steadily more poppy since her unremarkable debut album.  Think of the songs that rocketed her into the stratosphere: "Love Story," "You Belong With Me," "Back to December," etc. Yeah, there's a banjo here or there, but those are pop/rock tunes.

How do I measure that?  Well, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, et al. make me nauseous.  I can't stand that nasal twang, the discordant jangle, or the lyrics that appeal to the absolute lowest American common denominator ("trucks," "boots," "jeans," "chicks," "beer," etc.).  

Starting with Fearless and continuing with Speak Now, Swift gradually disassociated herself from the mainstream country rabble, even as she showed up to accept her CMA awards.  Still, her country roots crept in around the edges or even came to the fore on occasional tunes such as "Mean."  When done well, country music showcases the struggle and soul of the American heartland.  Swift isn't Johnny Cash, but there is an authenticity to her music that makes her unique amongst her pop starlet peers.  Say what you want about her, but she writes her own songs, and they're deeply personal.  In fact, that's usually the most frequent criticism of her catalog: "Another song about an ex?"  

She left almost any semblance of traditional country sound behind in her last album, Red.  Its three biggest hits ("We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," "22," and "I Knew You Were Trouble") aren't country in the slightest.  Thus, it made sense when she announced that 1989 would be her first completely pop album.

Is it ever.  1989 positively shimmers.  There's not a single clunker contained within the album's 13 glossy tracks.  It showcases the best production values money can buy.  I'm not being hyperbolic when I write that literally every track is a potential hit single, although my money's on the insanely catchy "All You Had to Do Was Stay" to be the album's signature single, after the already colossal "Shake it Off."  Other strong contenders are the sunny "How You Get the Girl" and the cheeky "Blank Space," where Swift asserts "I could make the bad guys good for a weekend."  

Swift's critics will be surprised at the lack of breakup drama on 1989.  She's apparently spent the last year-and-a-half enjoying the Big Apple and staying out of the tabloids by completely neglecting a love life.  Indeed, she wallows knowingly in her public perception.  On "Shake it Off" she acknowledges the haters: "I go on too many dates/But I can't make 'em stay/That's what people say."  She's even more playful on "Blank Space" when she coos, "Got a long list of ex-lovers/They'll tell you I'm insane/Cause you know I love the players/And you love the game."

Got a long list of ex-lovers
They'll tell you I'm insane
Cause you know I love the players
And you love
The departure from banjos and fiddles to the electronic sound of the album has its benefits.  The vocal effects effectively hide that Swift isn't a world-class singer (that's perhaps putting it mildly) while utilizing her bouncy lilt on sweetly repetitive tracks like "Out of the Woods"  Most thankfully of all, 1989 doesn't fall prey to the dubstep trend.  I was worried after the success of dubstep-lite "I Knew You Were Trouble" that this new album would be full of "waiting for the drop," like so much of current Top-40 radio airplay.  The fact that it doesn't succumb to the latest fad means it has a much better chance at timelessness.

However, there's a trade off to be made for this much sweet pop goodness.  Swift has sold off a bit of her Taylor-ness to make a record this clean and pretty.  For instance, my favorite tune on Red is the ballad "All Too Well."  It's set to a lone piano and a soft guitar and features the devastating couplet "You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest."  There's real pain in Swift's tortured wail.

There's simply nothing like that on 1989.  The closest Swift comes is on "I Wish You Would" when she sings, "You always knew how to push my buttons/You give me everything and nothing."  She should sound angry, but the smoothly pulsing synth robs the song of any real torment.

Additionally, there's a touch of anonymity to some of the tracks.  For instance, the opener "Welcome to New York" could just as easily be a Katy Perry tune.  Ditto for "Style" and "Bad Blood," which would sound more or less the same if sung by Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez. 

1989 isn't a disappointment, but let's hope that Swift hasn't settled for being Queen of the Pop Princesses.  I've come the realization that I prefer my Swift poppy with just a touch of country soul.

Now I just have to listen to it 50 more times to be sure.  

Nolanometer Final Grade: B

Monday, June 10, 2013

The 10 Most Essential "Teen" Movies: Then and Now

It's hard to be a teenager.  As adults, lots of us forget that.  Careers, financial responsibility, and child-rearing make prom preparations and math quizzes seem insignificant in retrospect.  At the time, however, that's all we knew.  Our hormones were racing, our emotions were swinging wildly, and our skin was a mess.  Worst of all, no one understood.

Thank Hughes, we had auteurs to tell our tales.   Those who came of age when I did were blessed with the defining films of the genre.  Oh, I know.  Before Ferris Bueller there was Danny Zuko and whoever James Dean played in Rebel Without a Cause.  Still, the '80s were the Golden Age of teen film.

Unlike most of my peers, I didn't leave teendom behind when I entered the real world.  I'm still witness to teen drama on a daily basis, in all its hyperbolic glory.  What's fulfilling about teaching English is introducing young people to the great stories that came before their existence.  Half of this entry is dedicated to making sure the younger generation doesn't miss out on all the great teen flicks that came out before they were born.  These films are mandatory viewing for today's youth.  The best news?  None of them are in black and white.  Trust me; that's huge for them.

The other half is for folks my age and above.  Perhaps you haven't watched movies that focus on teen turmoil since you left the demographic yourself, figuring that as you grow up you must put away childish things. Maybe you don't think you can access those same emotions anymore.  But that's what great art does.  It taps into deeply buried feelings and makes them present.  If you haven't seen any of these new classics, rest assured: They'll bring back all that old angst... in the best possible way.  Remember, you're just visiting for a couple hours; adolescents are stuck there for what seems like eternity.

For the distinction between "then" and "now," I'm drawing the line at 1996, the year I turned 20.  It's my blog, and them's my rules.  Oh, and they're presented in no particular order.


The Breakfast Club (1985)

The grandaddy of the genre.  It wasn't the first, but it's the most oft-referenced.  Wanna start getting a whole bunch of allusions you've been missing?  Watch this ode to cliques, friendship, and Saturday school.  Did we ever figure out if Emilio Estevez breaking the glass with his scream was supposed to be real, a metaphor, or a marijuana-induced hallucination?  Admittedly a pretty lame moment amidst an otherwise perfect blend of anti-authority laughs and tender bonding. 

Best line: "Can you describe the ruckus, sir?"
Signature song: "Don't You Forget About Me" (Simple Minds)
Post viewing question: "So...what have these actors been in recently?  They must be huge stars, right?"

 Sixteen Candles (1984) 

John Hughes' (and Molly Ringwald's, and Anthony Michael Hall's) warmup to The Breakfast Club is less poignant but funnier, at least in my book.  It's also the precursor to another Hughes film: The packed house full of annoying relatives who ignore the film's protagonist is the inspiration for Home Alone.  Special bonus points for non-p.c. humor in the form of Chinese foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong, which mostly comes at the expense of bewildered elderly white people.

Best line: "No more yankie my wankie.  The Donger need food!"
Signature song: "If You Were Here" (Thompson Twins)
Post viewing question: "Wait.  So in the '80s you could show a high school girl showering, with other girls ogling her bare breasts, and it would be rated PG?  What happened?"

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

When you think about it, John Hughes' run of these three movies in three years is about as unbelievable as a teenager in 1986 being able to hack into his school computer system and lower his absence count.  Most people would kill to make one movie that good in their lifetimes, and Hughes made one iconic, timeless film per year three years in a row.  Plus a whole bunch of other ones that are pretty good as well (see Honorable Mentions).  People keep telling me there's a God, but John Hughes is dead and Michael Bay's making Transformers 4.  Point, atheists.  Anyway, if the kids who cut my class were half as adventurous or full of life as Ferris is, I wouldn't mind them skipping.  Hell, I'd encourage it. 

Best line: "The question isn't what are we going to do today; it's what aren't we going to do today?"
Signature song: "Twist and Shout" (The Beatles)
Post viewing question: "What happened when the real 'Sausage King of Chicago' showed up to claim his reservation?"

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Out of all the films on this list, I think this is the one that today's teens would be most surprised by.  A high school girl has sex with an older guy, has an abortion...and that's not even what people remember about this film.  We remember Judge Reinhold telling off the annoying customer, Mr. Hand "sharing" Spicoli's pizza, Damone's dating advice, and of course this.  This times a million.

Best line: "I've been thinking about this, Mr. Hand. If I'm here and you're here, doesn't that make it our time? Certainly, there's nothing wrong with a little feast on our time."
Signature song: "Moving in Stereo" (The Cars, and no, I'm not linking to that scene; this is a family blog). 
Post viewing question: "Why is Spicoli so serious now?  Because he and Madonna got a divorce?"

Say Anything... (1989)

Sure, pretty much everybody recognizes the uber romantic "boom box over the head" gesture.  I prefer the less grandiose moments: When Lloyd teaches Diane to drive a stick shift, when he kicks glass out of her path, the guts he musters to call her in the first place.  It's simply impossible not to root for John Cusack's lovable everyman.  There's also the splendid monologue about not wanting to "buy, sell, or process anything" for a living, an awesome party scene, and some of the best teen songwriting ever. "Joe lies...Joe lies...Joe liiiiiiiiiies...when he cries...when he cries" wails Lloyd's heart-stricken gal pal.  Perhaps the most underrated film of the genre.

Best line: "What I really want to do with my life - what I want to do for a living - is I want to be with your daughter. I'm good at it."
Signature song: "In Your Eyes" (Peter Gabriel) 
Post viewing question: "Why don't more people sing 'The Greatest Love of All' at their graduations?"

Honorable Mentions (Really, you should see all of these, too):

Weird Science (1985)
Better Off Dead (1985)
Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
Heathers (1988)
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Clueless (1995)


  10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

There's no way this movie should work.  A teen flick based on a Shakespeare play (The Taming of the Shrew) set at a palatial high school where obvious stereotypes abound?  Yet it does work, in spades.  There's nothing terribly original here, but the dialogue is clever, the soundtrack is fun '90s cheese, and most importantly, the film showcases two tremendous young talents in Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Julia Stiles is also fantastic as "The Shrew," and Larry Miller steals every scene he's in as the protective father who's also an obstetrician, terrified that his teen daughters will meet the same fate as so many he's encountered in his career.

Best line: "Kissing? That's what you think happens? I've got news for you. Kissing isn't what keeps me up to my elbows in placenta all day long."
Signature song: "I Can't Keep My Eyes Off of You" (Heath Ledger)
Post viewing question: "Did Robin know he was enlisting the help of The Joker?"

 Easy A (2010)

Like 10 Things, Easy A takes something old (The Scarlet Letter) and makes it pop.  It features a career-making performance by Emma Stone, who is sassy, smart, and sexy as a teen who does the unthinkable: She intentionally tarnishes her own reputation.  What starts as a noble favor to a gay friend looking to stay in the closet turns crushing when she turns into the town harlot (by word of mouth only), even covering for her guidance counselor's (Lisa Kudrow) illicit affair.  The film's greatest power might be that it encouraged an interest in the source material.  Several of my students chose to read it for their American history book report.  The interest was fleeting once they actually read Hawthorne's dry, rigid prose, but still.

Best line: "After we watch 'The Bucket List,' remember to cross 'watch "The Bucket List'" off our bucket list."
Signature song: "Pocketful of Sunshine" (Natasha Bedingfield)
Post viewing question: "So, did Amanda Bynes take her paycheck from this movie and go straight to her meth dealer, or did she stop for In n' Out first?"

Rushmore (1998) 

Wes Anderson's most complete and comprehensible film.  No, shut up.  It's not that other one.  This.  There's no movie version of The Catcher in the Rye, yet something about this film embodies that book's spirit.  As a teacher, I've known kids a lot like Max Fischer.  They're intelligent, mature, creative...and completely bored by academia.  He finds a "mentor" of sorts in Bill Murray's character (who has twin boys he can't tell apart and despises), and the rest is cinema gold.  So many good lines, from the dismissive ("I like your nurse's uniform, guy." "These are O.R. scrubs."  "Oh. Are they?") to the wistful ("I saved Latin.  What did you ever do?") and finally, the boastful ("My top schools where I want to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne. My safety's Harvard.").  If Say Anything is the eighties' most underrated film, this surely is the nineties' version.

Best line: "Tell that stupid Mick he just made my list of things to do today."
Signature song: "A Quick One While He's Away" (The Who) 
Post viewing question: "Why don't all Wes Anderson's films make this much sense?   

Mean Girls (2004)

Otherwise known as the moment we collectively realized that Tina Fey is, in fact, completely awesome.  She wrote this razor-sharp satire of teen cliques and the ruthless pack behavior they inspire.  If it were made a decade before, Winona Ryder would've played the lead.  Instead, it went to Lindsay Lohan, who of course is...amazing.  Seriously.  Watching her performance now is awe-inspiring but also sad.  It's a snapshot of what might've been (perhaps still could be?  Robert Downey Jr. was a total mess for most of his 20s and 30s, after all).  Rachel McAdams is wonderful as well, so much so that I often refer to villainous Abigail Williams from The Crucible as Adams' ruthless Regina George. 

Best line: "Gretchen, stop trying to make 'fetch' happen! It's not going to happen!"
Signature Song: "Jingle Bell Rock" (The Mean Girls)
Post viewing question: "Did Lindsey Lohan refer Amanda Bynes to her meth dealer, or does she not like to share?"

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

I haven't read the book, and from what I understand there was a touch of dissension amongst those who were fans of the novel because the film took certain liberties (as most adaptions do).  To me, the movie's nearly perfect.  It's not often I claim to be "touched," but this one got me.  It's funny, sweet, relatable, and best of all, set during the time I was in high school- the early 90s (despite the scene where Emma Watson and Ezra Miller perform a joyous dance routine to '80s anthem "Come on, Eileen").  It's the only film on this list that I've seen just once, and I knew right away it was a classic.  I can't wait to watch it on cable, 25 minutes at a time, for the rest of my life, like I have the rest of these films.

Best line: "We accept the love we think we deserve."
Signature Song: "Heroes" (David Bowie)
Post viewing question: "Is there any way we, as a society, can get a restraining order on behalf of Emma Watson that keeps Lindsey Lohan and Amanda Bynes three states away from her at all times?"

Honorable Mentions:

American Pie (1999)
Election (1999)
Bring it On (2000)
Donnie Darko (2001)
Superbad (2007)
Juno (2007)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An English Teacher Reviews The Great Gatsby

Like many a high school English teacher across the dark fields of the Republic, I've taught F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel to hundreds (thousands?) of students, and this is mostly for them.  However, I don't mind taking the rest of you for a ride in this circus wagon.  Nobody needs an invitation; just come with a simplicity of heart that is its own ticket of admission.

As you may be able to tell from the three allusions I dropped in the intro there, I love Fitzgerald's prose and had little hope that noted "Look at ME!" director Baz Luhrmann would do any better job than the myriad other filmmakers who have taken a stab at it, most notably Jack Clayton's dreary, schmaltzy 1974 version starring Robert Redford, which is the one I've shown in class every year so far.  Really, I was just hoping that this new flick would just be marginally better than the Redford version.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Baz's take on Gatsby isn't merely slightly superior to the old one but leagues better.  It's not a perfect film by any stretch.  There's plenty to quibble with, and I'll get to that.  But it gets enough right that I feel confident about showing this updated version to my junior classes from now on.

The Good:

-This guy:
He's not going to win any awards for it, but there aren't many actors who could carry the role the way he does.  Hell, Redford's a great actor, but even he seems to slump under the weight of the character.  Leo plays him exactly right.  He's ambitious, duplicitous, charming, and insecure.  Look at that smile.  It's a major facet of the book, and Leo nails it.  Bottom line: It's a role for a movie star, and Leo's one of the biggest and brightest ones we've got.

-Nick as a broken-down alcoholic writer during the stock market crash. It's the film's biggest risk, and the likeliest to ruffle traditionalist feathers, but I liked it.  Basically, the movie turns Nick into Fitzgerald, who died broke and alone, despite the success of Gatsby.  This allows Fitzgerald's transcendent language to appear and be heard, despite the fact that the Nick of the book never mentions being a writer of any sort.  Maguire even looks like the troubled-but-gifted author, especially with the haircut he sports during his scenes at the clinic.  It's no secret that Nick is a version of Fitzgerald himself; both come from the Midwest to New York and are appalled yet drawn to the lifestyles they experience there.  I've always argued that Fitzgerald was trying to warn not only America but also himself of what the ravages of excess would wreak upon each, although the downfall of both was inevitable.

-This scene:
Gatsby and Daisy's reunion is perfect.  It's awkwardly funny, dramatic, and well-staged.  It's a fine example of what Luhrmann can do when he slows down for a moment and stops swooping the damn camera all over the place.  It also reinforces the awkward position of Nick; he narrates the film yet is not present for some of its most central action.  He is both "within and without" as he stands outside in the rain while Gatsby and Daisy get reacquainted in Nick's bungalow. 

 -The best film adaptations stick to the story without being slaves to them.  In addition to the major framing device of Nick writing the book from rehab, Luhrmann changes a few things, and most work well.  For instance, I didn't miss Gatsby's dad ("My name is Gatz") showing up at the end, as he does in the novel.  It's pure falling action, and too much of that sucks a film's ending dry.  I also didn't mind accelerating George Wilson's hunt for Gatsby by having Tom give up his rival's name and address to the grieving husband immediately after the accident, rather than letting Wilson seek Tom out the next day, as he does in the book.

I was more bothered by the film's omission of Nick's final conversation with Daisy and Tom, where it becomes clear that Daisy has never told Tom that she, in fact, is the one driving the car which kills Myrtle Wilson.  This detail helps to get across the notion that Tom isn't the "bad guy" keeping Daisy from true love.  Daisy chooses Tom's pearls over Gatsby's letter early in the story, then she again chooses the stability of Tom's inherent wealth over Gatsby's hard-earned but ill-gotten gains.  Fitzgerald's point is that Daisy is an attractive but false goal, like so much of what what we hold in esteem in America, and lots of readers miss that.  However, I'll cut Baz some slack.  The scene near the end where Daisy won't take Nick's call and doesn't even acknowledge Gatsby's funeral is an adequate substitute. 

Most importantly, lots of Fitzgerald's words make it into the film.  They're the real stars, after all.  Any version of Gatsby absolutely must have those beautiful, poignant final lines ("boats against the current," and all that), but the Redford version doesn't, amazingly enough.  Even when the lines are altered a bit, it's no travesty.  For instance, Nick's line about "reserving judgement is a matter of infinite hope" becomes "I look for the best in people," which is almost exactly the way I translate it in class.  Major demerit for no "Her voice is full of money," though. 

The Baz

Because I'm an English teacher, I've also seen Luhrmann's other notable literary adaptation, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (also starring a much younger DiCaprio) dozens of times, which is the main reason I was skeptical about what he'd do with Gatsby.  The actors literally yell lines at each other, in order to create tension, I suppose.  The tone is all over the place, from silly to surreal to melodramatic.  It's a completely frenetic experience.  Perhaps Baz has matured and mellowed a bit, as he managed to dial it down a bit for Gatsby.  Still, all of his greatest hits are present:

-The anachronistic music.
This has been the most frequent complaint from students who've seen Gatsby.  Ironically, teens are the ones who seem offended that Baz likes to insert today's pop music into historic settings.  I think they feel pandered to.  Anyway, they wanted "The Charleston" and got Kanye and Lana Del Rey instead.  I actually don't mind this trademark of his.  I liked Jay Z's score, and Romeo + Juliet's soundtrack is one of the few redeemable things about that messy film.

-The swooping camera.  Meh.  He uses it a bunch to give a sense of setting, showing where Gatsby's mansion is in relation to the Buchanans' manor.  Yes, it's overdramatic.  But it really didn't bother me like the...

When Gatsby comes to pick Nick up for lunch, he does donuts around Nick's place for awhile first.  Why?  It certainly doesn't fit with his carefully manicured character.  But his fancy yellow car makes a great VROOOOOM, so you gotta have it, I guess.  Then Gatsby proceeds with the exposition of his (fake) early life on their way to New York, but you can't really concentrate on it because he's driving like he's in the Indy 500.  Fast, fast, loud, loud.  That's Baz, to the core.

-Baz apparently also thinks drug-addled fever dreams are an effective storytelling device.  The scene in Myrtle's apartment is like watching when Leo meets Claire Danes in R+J in a cracked mirror.  Substitute the dude playing the sax on the balcony for Mercutio's inexplicable drag show, and you're there.  Just a diaspora of absurd facial expressions, outsized reactions, loud music, and a constantly spinning camera.  Note: I'm pretty sure this description covers the entirety of Luhrmann's other famous film, Moulin Rouge, but I only saw that once, over a decade ago, so I'm no expert. 

Nolanometer Final Grade: B

For perspective,
Redford's Great Gatsby: C-
Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet: D+

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Great Claycord Kerfuffle

I've put off writing this for a long time. 

Partly, I just didn't know how to begin.  Partly, I'm worried about how long it's going to get (and if anyone would care enough to read to the end). 

But mostly, I think the wounds were still too fresh.  Not enough time had passed; not enough distance had been created.  I thought about writing about it when it all blew up back in May, but I really needed to let the whole thing die down.  Although it was very difficult for me to do so, I didn't enter the online tempest because I didn't want to inflame the situation.  I think that was wise. 

But it's time to tell the story, at least my side of it.  Even amongst people who know me pretty well, there's still a great deal of misunderstanding about what the hell happened, exactly.  How did I get myself into such a hot, stupid mess?  (In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a mirror on SF Gate of a blog originally posted May 30 on; the original post has been removed).

Well, let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Believe it or not, I think we need to go back to the first day of school in order to gain the context I want you to have.  Actually, I think we have to go back further than that.  According to my Facebook timeline, I joined up in March of 2008.  I could write a whole separate blog on how much looking up that date shocked me.  It's amazing how quickly new technology becomes part of our lives.  Is it really only four years that I've been posting snarky status updates, arguing with conservatives, and kvetching about the Giants?  It feels like I bitched about Aaron Rowand for six years alone. 

Anyway, when I first joined, I didn't allow current students as "friends" on Facebook.  Not because there was a school rule against it, but mostly because I didn't need them snooping into my personal life and seeing a side of me that I didn't present at school.  This mostly amounted to photos of me after a few cocktails that my friends would tag.  So I told kids to wait until they graduated, and then I'd accept them. 

What changed my mind?  Well, I hope you're ready for some really sweet irony, because here it comes. 

After being a citizen of Earth in the 21st century for a while, I came to an understanding: If you post something online (or allow someone to "tag" something on your behalf), you'd better be prepared for anyone in the world to see it, not just the audience for which it is intended.  See?  Irony.  Told you it was a comin'.  

In other words, I shouldn't have ANYTHING on my Facebook page that I didn't want students to see, because the reality is that if they really wanted to view it, they could find a way.  Lots of these graduate kids I was friending had younger siblings still at CP.  It seemed like a pretty silly wall of protection.  Yes, I could always say, "But I'm not friends with my current students!" if somebody wanted to make an issue out of something, but that seemed like an artificial restriction.

I deleted a few photos and became more careful with the language I used in statuses, etc.  I'll still drop the occasional curse word, but I won't go on any obscenity-filled rants.  I also made certain topics verboten.  It helps a lot that I've gotten pretty domesticated by this point in my life.  I'm married with two kids and own a townhouse.  There's not as much potentially embarrassing material as there would've been 10 years ago (or god forbid, 15 years ago...yikes). 

Back to that first day of school.  My syllabus ends with my contact information.  After I'm done reading it over, I always add (orally) that I do have a Facebook, and I will accept students if they friend request me.  I will never go looking for them- that feels creepy to me.  I warn them, though, that there can be repercussions.  I'll correct their grammar/spelling.  I'll gently chastise them for silly/drunken photo poses.  I'll mock their overly dramatic statuses.  I'll keep track of their relationships.  

Basically, I'll do all the same stuff I do to them in class as I get to know them over the course of the year.  I tend to get a dozen or so friend requests that first day, and by the time the year ends, probably 75% of them or so have befriended me.  Keep in mind, I get 160 new kids every year, which is the biggest reason I have 1,100+ Facebook friends.  Although being really, ridiculously good-looking is probably a close second. 

One advantage of allowing them as friends is that even though I give them my personal email on my syllabus, and my work email is readily accessible through the school website, kids find it a lot easier to enter my name into Facebook and message me if they have questions about an assignment.  It's just the way their generation operates. 

The other advantage is less tangible, and it totally depends on the type of teacher you are.  There are some in my profession who just want to show up, do their job, and go home.  They don't need nor want a connection with the kids, and that's fine.  You can still be a really good teacher conducting yourself that way.  But one of the main reasons I'm a high school teacher is that I actually like the kids.  Oh sure, sometimes they drive me nuts with their apathy/sloth/self-involvement, as teenagers will.  And there's usually one or two every year that I really can't stand (the feeling's mutual, I'm sure).  But by and large, the connections that I make with my students are some of the best parts of the job. 

I'm not saying you need to be Facebook friends with the kids in order to form a bond with them, either.  You can chaperone dances, go to plays, fundraisers, concerts, and sporting events, or just shoot the bull with them before/during/after class.  Many of my colleagues confine themselves to just those things, and that's great.  I do all that stuff, too.  But I've found social media an especially effective tool in showing the kids that I do care about what's going on in their lives and inviting them to be part of mine-with boundaries, of course.

Part of what my partner teacher Joel Swett and I preach on the first day to our American Threads classes is that we're trying to build a sense of family.  We even joke that he's the "Mom," and I'm the "Dad" because he tends to be a tad more nurturing and earnest while I can be sarcastic and gruff.  Actually, I think I make that joke when he's not in the room.  It occurs to me he may not be in on that joke.  Oops.  Sorry, man. 

At the end of the year, it's uncanny how many kids write to us that they didn't believe a familial relationship amongst 65 kids was possible, but they really do feel that way as they leave for summer break.  Facebook is just one part of that equation, but I've found it to be a useful tool.  Do students try harder on their Great Gatsby study guides because I "like" their status?  Do they pay more attention to a dry grammar lesson because I tag them about something funny that happened in class that day?  Do they try harder to get to class on time because I'm a angry Giants fan who posted his rage about last night's game just like they did? 

There's no way of knowing for certain, but I'd venture a pretty emphatic "yes."  Again, I don't do these things because I'm looking for some edge in the classroom.  I do them because I'm genuinely interested in their lives and enjoy interacting with them.  That's what's most absurd about the outrage over the "babysitting society's mistakes" line on my profile.  To anyone who knows me, it's so obviously a joke.  When I mentioned it to my sophomore pre-honors class (basically, the best-of-the-best) after the blog came out, they all laughed.  The entire room.  A couple of them even said, "Now, that's funny."  They know that's not how I actually feel about my career and that it's clearly an example of my sense of humor.  

I can understand how parents and community members who read that and don't know me could get indignant.  Here's the thing: It's not intended for people who don't know me.  It's on my Facebook page with a whole bunch of other things that aren't meant to be taken seriously.  I had no idea that when I signed up to this relatively new site in 2008 and created a profile page with my tongue implanted firmly in cheek, it would be used to determine the quality of my character four years later.  

To clear up any future confusion, I have added parenthetical notes since the piece came out to make explicitly clear the humor intended.  I haven't changed anything else, though.  My "favorite" quotes are all lame cliches.  My "about myself" is a quote from a movie I love, and it's basically gibberish.  I also have listed that I am "interested in men" (which results in tons of gay cruise ads on my sidebar) and that one of my favorite movies is Beaches.  I am more likely to go on a gay cruise than to ever see Beaches.  

Hell, the silliest thing about the outcry over the "society's mistakes" thing is geography.  I live five minutes from College Park.  I am a member of the community.  I have two kids.  If we don't move by the time they go to high school, my own wonderful little "mistakes" will go to CP themselves where they will be well-instructed by a mostly outstanding faculty.  I'm proud of my school.  I'm proud of the kids who pass through there, for the most part.  I've devoted my entire professional life (13 years and counting) to the place.  There's the context that Claycord's post was missing.

Poop.  I meant to do this chronologically, and now I'm getting ahead of myself.  Lemme try to refocus. 

All right, so how did I get myself into this very public predicament?  Well, it's pretty simple, really.  I was grading some essays at home, where I have access to Facebook (it's blocked at school).  Grading essays is one of the least favorite parts of my job.  It's typically incredibly frustrating.  Part of it is that you're reading 130 papers about the exact same subject.  But mostly, it's that you've spent all this time with them going over exactly what's required and how to do it, and then you find yourself reading stuff that feels like they not only completely ignored all your instructions, they ignored them while putting in roughly 20 minutes of work.  

Anyway, the first one I read started...well, I don't quite have the vocabulary to explain it.  And I'm not going to rehash it here.  Let's just say the first sentence was almost magnificent in its unreadability.  If you'd like to see it, it's still up on my Facebook page.  I didn't delete or edit anything because I knew that would be seen as an admission of guilt.  

Before I go further, allow me an addendum here.  Normally in this space I'm as honest and inclusive of details as possible.  It's my life, and I share it.  But this story involves a student, and he has already been put through public scrutiny through no fault of his own.  I (and others) have already caused him enough duress, so I'm going to mitigate his involvement in this tale as much as possible.  I will say this: He is not a poor student nor a problem kid.  He was one of my favorites this year, actually.  Otherwise, I wouldn't have posted what I did.  It's the same way I am in the classroom.  If I'm teasing you, it means I like you.  It's the kids I don't feel connected to whom I leave alone.  And yes, he was, and still is, a Facebook friend. 

I felt the opening sentence was notable enough that others might find it amazing as well.  One of Facebook's main functions is for people to vent about their jobs, and I'm certainly not above that.  I've published "from the mouths of babes" conversations I've had with students, observations from campus, and even praised kids when they've done something that's impressed me or made me laugh.  With this particular post, I thought people would marvel at the syntax and sympathize with what we, as teachers, must deal with at times.  My main point with the commentary about teaching being a hard job was, how do you go about fixing something like that?

As far as I can recall, it was the first time I posted an excerpt from student work, although I've more generally referenced things like it before.  Because of what came next, I won't be doing it again. 

Right now, you're probably saying, "Well, of course not, you idiot.  You shouldn't have done it in the first place, you big meanie.  How dare you humiliate a student!"  Well, you're saying that if you're an adult.  If you're a teenager, you're saying "Not kool 2 put smbdy on blast like dat!  SMH."

Here's where context comes into play again.  I made the post on a Wednesday, May 23.  I had just started grading that class period's essays.  It typically takes me about a week to finish one class set.  I read every word and circle every mistake, with plenty of commentary.  Papers I grade often look like they've been at a crime scene; they're splattered with red ink.  When I published the nameless excerpt, I knew that nobody except me could possibly know whose paper it was because I had it in my hands.  Furthermore, I wouldn't be returning them for another week- plenty of time for that post to roll well down the page and get forgotten like everything else does in social media.  Their lifespans are short, unless someone resuscitates them. 

My naivete came in believing the post would stay where I intended it- on my Facebook page, viewable to only those whom I was "friends" with.  If I had ever, for one minute, thought that anyone, including the student himself, would identify whose work it was, I wouldn't have clicked "enter."  Again, I know you might be saying, "But couldn't the student go check the post once he got his paper back?"  Trust me; you don't know teenagers.  I wish they cared that much about the feedback they get.  There was approximately .001% chance that the kid would get his paper back and check it against a Facebook post from a week ago.

Still, what I did was wrong.  It wasn't intended to be mean-spirited, but it could easily be perceived that way.  It wasn't fair to put a young person's work on display like that, even anonymously.  When the whole thing broke, I tried to justify it by saying that if my own kid wrote something that garbled and handed it in, I wouldn't mind him or her being made an example of, as long as it was done with humor and good will.  I still think that's true.  But this wasn't my kid.  Plus, there's no one I look up to more than my mom, and she told me I shouldn't have done it.  So, that's that.  I'll own my mistake. 

But let's also be perfectly clear: Without what came next, which I had no part in nor power over, that student would have never known that his work was being exposed to scrutiny.  The biggest misconception I'd like cleared up from the Claycord post is that the student or his parents complained, and that's how it became news.  The blog is intentionally unclear about how and from whom Claycord obtained my original post and the subsequent comments it engendered, so people were left to assume it was brought to light by an aggrieved party, namely the student or his parents.  This is flatly untrue.  

I know this because as soon as the blog was posted and it started to become "news," I pulled the student aside and told him about it.  I'm going to leave most of what we talked about private, except to say that he had remembered seeing my post and thought nothing of it, unaware it was from his paper, and that I have apologized to him for my part in causing this public dissection of his work.  

The other misconception is that my Facebook page was set to public, so that anyone could have seen my post.  It wasn't.  It was set to private and always has been.  Again, the Claycord post conveniently left out that someone, either a Facebook friend of mine or someone with access to a friend, screen grabbed the post and comments and sent them to Claycord where they could be carefully edited to make me look like as big a monster as possible.  

To this day, I have no idea who that "someone" was.  But if you're that someone and happen to be reading this, allow me to speak to you directly: You are a coward.  I have no idea what your motivation was.  I'd love for you to explain it to me.  You could let me know who you are and why you had such a problem with what I wrote that you'd send it to a local gossip site, presumably hoping that a negative story would come of it.  But let's face it; that won't happen.  Because you hid behind your wall of anonymity while my reputation suffered, as did my family, as did the student whom your actions called attention to.  That's what cowards do.  Thus, I'm guessing the conversation will remain one-sided, unless you grow a spine.

Got angry there for a minute.  Stop.  Breathe.  Continue:

Two days after my post, I received the following email to my work address.  The return address read "" :

Mr. Nolan,
I recently received the text from a post on your facebook page, and was wondering if I could ask you a couple of questions.
1.       Do you think it’s appropriate for a teacher to create a post on facebook criticizing an 11th grade student the way you did?
2.       Why did you do that?
3.       Do you believe calling a former student an “asshole” was appropriate?
Thanks for your time,

I knew what Claycord was.  If you live in the area I do, and you smell smoke, see helicopters, or hear a loud boom, it's pretty much your first stop.  People from the community will hook you up with the 411.  Of course, I also knew what Claycord was not, which is an official news-gathering organization that plays by the standard rules of journalism.  It traffics in unconfirmed rumors and anonymous sources and serves as a hub for people in the community to anonymously vent in the comments sections about whatever issues they perceive to be afflicting society.  I had no idea who "The Mayor" was, but apparently he's the guy who runs the whole site.  Anonymously.  Sensing a trend with that word?  

All those factors made it an easy decision not to respond.  This wasn't The New York Times asking for comment.  These were incredibly leading questions from an anonymous blogger.  What good could come of any answers I gave?  It was pretty clear from the questions and the content of the site that a good, ol' fashioned hit piece on Yours Truly was being crafted.  I didn't want to fuel the fire. 

That was Friday.  On Tuesday, I got two more emails.  One was from my principal.  It was a request to meet with me to discuss an email he received from Claycord.  The one to him was signed "Kevin Cunningham" instead of "Mayor."  I guess authority figures merit an actual identity in correspondence.  Since the email was forwarded to me by my principal, and I haven't asked his permission, I won't re-post the whole thing here.  But The Mayor stated that I "posted a student's paper" and, as if the questions couldn't get any more biased, he asked my principal if he "condoned this behavior by a man who is supposed to be a leader...not calling our children 'society's mistakes.'"    

At the meeting, I told my boss exactly what I'd written and asked him if I'd broken any rules.  He told me that he didn't think so.  After the thing broke I met with him again, since he had gotten a few emails from parents.  Although he clearly wasn't thrilled to be dealing with an annoying situation like this, he couldn't really chastise me.  He had checked with the district, and they had determined that I hadn't violated education code, my contract, etc.  They determined that what I had done fell under personal "freedom of speech."  I wouldn't be officially disciplined in any way. 

The Mayor also emailed me again.  Clearly, he'd been "investigating" me.  Well, what he could get off my Facebook profile page, anyway:

Following up: Also, why did you post on facebook that your job title is “babysitting society’s mistakes”? Do you think that’s appropriate for a teacher to write? 

I've addressed this and The Mayor's other questions already.  As to the "asshole" query, my answer is "Yes, absolutely."  It's not exactly my finest hour, but calling a grown man a naughty name on the internet is perfectly within my rights.  What, because he once took up a chair in my room, I can never treat him like I'd treat any other adult?  It's especially funny that anyone would worry about me hurting that particular guy's feelings.  The dude's a college graduate and a U.S. Marine.  I think he's been through worse.  If you go back and look at the thread, he "likes" my comment and then we "lol" together in the next couple spaces.  Crisis averted.   

The Claycord post came out Wednesday morning, a week after my original post.  Since I knew that something was in the wind, I had been checking the site periodically.  Still, even though I was prepared for something, it's hard to put into words how shocking it was to see pictures of me and snippets of my Facebook page (with my name all over them...anonymity is reserved for the site's creator and the cadre of regular commentators) plastered all over someone else's blog.  All the old cliches were true: My heart leapt into my throat, the blood drained from my face, my pulse raced, etc.  

I was the talk of the faculty lounge at break.  At the end of the next class period, anxious students were coming up to me, asking me if I knew about "the thing on the internet," no doubt tipped off on their smart phones by their friends or family.  I wrote to my immediate family to warn them of the post before they heard about it from somebody else.  I spent lunch with my regular crew of a half-dozen teacher friends, who were all supportive of me and angry at what they perceived to be yet another example of petty teacher bashing.   

Mostly, I hit "refresh."  

The story doesn't end with the original post, you see.  Claycord revels in its community of commentators, nearly all of whom use nicknames or other vaguely descriptive monickers, such as "Pinky" or "me me me."  The next two days became a ceaseless ritual of checking every ten minutes (or even five, if I had time) what people were saying about me on the internet.  In the time the story was up, it was very hard to concentrate on anything else.  I had trouble sleeping.  I couldn't focus on the stack of essays I had to grade before the end of the school year.  I had little appetite.  

Actually, that was a nice fringe benefit; I can stand to lose 10 pounds.  Ok, 25.  I'm working on it!  All right, that's a lie, too.  

The only time the whole thing completely left my head was when I was "on stage" in the classroom, reading part of a story or engaging in class discussion.  

One specific memory I have of the day when the story came out was going to buy a new tire at Firestone and waiting for it to be installed while grading papers and sipping a beer at BJ's next door.  The whole time I was interacting with tire people/waiters, I was wondering, "Have they seen it?  Do they think I'm a huge jerk?"  

I don't possess the writing skill to adequately communicate the feeling of being publicly analyzed and eviscerated.  People I didn't know were writing emphatic opinions of my character, teaching ability, and attitude, based on a carefully crafted blog post by another person whom I've never met.  It's an incredibly odd and discomfiting feeling to stand by and watch people form strong, knowing conclusions of you based on a few snippets of your life presented out of context.  

It actually made me re-assess the way I feel about people in the public eye: politicians, celebrities, athletes.  You hear them say things like, "I don't read what people write about me.  I don't care what people who don't know me have to say."  Trust me; they care.  Everybody does.  It's human nature.  Even if they themselves don't read it, people who know them will, and it can hurt them more so.  It sure did for my wife and mother. 

On to the comments...

First, there's thing with the pictures.  There were people who had zero problem with anything but lost their minds over the fact that I had photos of students on my Facebook page, as if I just grabbed a bunch of screen shots of their yearbook photos and filed them in an album (the title of which is so obviously a joke I won't even bother to defend it).  Most of what's in that album are junior prom pictures from three or four years ago.  The kids posed for pictures with me.  My wife took most of the shots.  Truth is, I have photos of CP kids that aren't in that album because they were taken by students, and I was tagged in them.  For instance, Joel and I take a big group photo with both of our Threads classes on the last day of school every year, and the kids all tag each other in it.  The horror.    
Predictably, some called for me to be fired.  Others speculated that I was "burned out" on teaching and should retire or find a new career.  There was name calling: ("dick" and "idiot," amongst others).  Many harangued MDUSD for being so dysfunctional as to let someone like me remain employed there.  A few folks applauded me for not being "PC" and "telling it like it is."

Basically, the entire thing became an ink-blot test, which is likely how The Mayor intended it.  Whatever people's feelings were toward public education in general and teachers more specifically came out in their comments about me.  As is typical in today's hyper-partisan environment, several commenters took the opportunity to voice their opposition to the scourge of unions.  I think the quote that best expresses just how ludicrous things got had to do with the fact that I was (formerly) the head representative for the teachers' union at CP.  "College Park Dad" claimed:

Union guys use union tactics. As Mr. Nolan is the teachers union rep at College Park, expect that many of these comments have been solicited by Nolan and his sympathizers. They’re not regular Claycord readers who just happened to want to voice an opinion. This same sort of thing happens in Chicago elections.

Then there were those who took it a bit further.  Ever had anyone imply in a public forum that you're a sexual predator?

"Anon": Did anyone notice how many female students he has as friends?

"Shiloh": Do you think all pedophiles are on record as being pedophiles?

"Don't Censor Me Bro": Ex-teacher Julie Correa was well liked too…read the Sun & Mon Times for details…(Correa is an ex-teacher convicted of raping one of her female students)

How about being linked with a serial killer?

"Nice Doesn't Mean Anything": REMEMBER: Everyone thought Ted Bundy was a really nice and cool guy too….just sayin’

I actually found a degree of humor and poignance in just what a nutty age we live in, where people can anonymously fling sordid semi-accusations about a private citizen from an object smaller than George Costanza's wallet.  What a golden era!  Unfortunately, those comments did make my mom cry.  Small price to pay for progress, though. 

Of course, all comments are moderated by a site administrator, whom I can only assume is The Mayor.  I won't deign to commit the same sort of character assassination he perpetrated against me (how can I?  I don't know who he is!), but I will point out a few things and let you be the judge of what kind of man he is and what kind of site he's running.

Claycord purports to be a "news and information" site, and as I mentioned before, it seems to do a pretty good job with local stuff like ceremonies, fires, and traffic accidents.  But it does not practice "journalism."  Heck, the "Terms of Use" page makes that clear: The content that is published on contains rumors, speculation, assumptions, opinions and factual information. Postings may contain erroneous or inaccurate information. The owner of this site does not ensure the accurateness of any content presented on

Simply put, a "real" news organization would not have run the story Claycord did.  It would have revealed where it got its information, and it wouldn't have cut things up into a context-less attack piece the way The Mayor did.  The "investigating" also would've been conducted in different fashion, as real journalists are trained to ask questions in a non-biased, non-leading fashion.  The reality is that this only became "news" because Claycord made it so.  There was no aggrieved, underrepresented party petitioning for justice.  I'd never received a single parent nor student complaint about my Facebook profile before. 

Then there's the accountability issue.  There's no byline on the story.  No editor-in-chief with whom to register feedback.  No contact info other than the nameless email, no journalistic credentials.  I wrote a few years back about the likely/inevitable death of journalism as amateur bloggers took over, and a couple excerpts from that entry proved prescient: 

What will happen if all the newspapers go out of business? I shudder at the thought. Will there be any more journalism, or just "news organizations," both television and online, broadcasting their own biased talking points? 

I closed with this: 

People already have enough trouble obtaining information without a filter. I'm terrified of a time when we won't even realize the filter's there. 

Claycord, especially its comments section, operates with a very heavy filter.  While comments comparing me to serial killers and pedophiles were allowed through, dozens of others defending me (and challenging Claycord's reporting) were never allowed to see the light of day.  

My friend and colleague Josh Coito pointed out many of the same issues I've raised in this blog and called out The Mayor. He tried as many as seven or eight times to publish his views from three different computers.  None ever made it through.  Criticisms were also deleted from Claycord's Facebook page, where they can't be moderated beforehand.  In the next few weeks, I heard from perhaps two dozen ex-students (both in person and online) that they had attempted to post and been denied, and many of them said they knew friends who had tried as well and were also turned away. 

Essentially, The Mayor completely controls the conversation.  He only allows viewpoints to appear on his site that further his agenda, whatever that may be.  He claims all the privileges and status of a journalist with none of that pesky responsibility.  Hey, it's working for him.  I don't know if putting me and me family through what he did caused him to lose any sleep.  I also don't know what caused him to take the post down in the middle of the night just 40 hours after publishing it. 

But I have a guess. 

In many ways, this became a Tale of Two Cities situation for me.  You know, "It was the best of times, it was..." shoot, I can't remember the rest.  Anyway, while this certainly had to be considered a low point in my professional career, it produced an unexpected blessing.  

You see, after the first wave of initial, largely negative comments were posted, people who knew me began coming to my defense.  Current students, ex-students, even parents spoke their good opinions of my character and abilities.  Kids I hadn't heard from in years chimed in that I had made a positive difference in their lives.  Many claimed that they were still using skills and critical thinking abilities I'd imparted on them.  A couple even suggested that I was one of the main reasons they'd decided to attend college.  

I was incredibly humbled by their kind words and vociferous protests.  There was another thing that made them valuable: The vast majority of these comments had names attached.  Out of all the people who bashed me, I counted one who used a real name, a 2012 graduate who claimed I "regularly acted unprofessionally."  Here's the thing: I didn't even know that kid.  Never had him.  Had to look him up.  Everyone else who used his or her real name was apparently on my side.  

Maybe The Mayor realized that he'd slandered someone most people seemed to regard as a beneficial member of the community.  Maybe he felt bad about what he'd done.  Maybe he was just tired of moderating the scads of comments from the pool of thousands (I'm getting old!) of students I've had in the course of my 13 years at College Park.  

Without explanation, he removed the post sometime after I went to bed that Thursday night and before I woke up that Friday morning.  I clicked "refresh" and got a 504 notice, which meant now I also did not have access to all the nice (and not-so-nice) things people had written about me.  Fortunately, I had left the page open on my school computer and was able to copy and paste the story and most of the comments into an email, thus my ability to quote them in this post.

If you'd like to peruse them yourself, shoot me an email, and I'll forward them to you.  It's the least I can do for anybody who's read this far.  Which may be exactly nobody, at this point.  I mean, sheesh.  I wanted to tell the whole story all at once, but could I be any more verbose?  Sorry.  We're almost done, I promise.  

There's one last thing to do here.  

The day the blog posted, I knew enough to stay out of it.  My friend and colleague Lance Johnson rendered me a huge service by posting a blog and writing several comments on Claycord that showed a different side to the story.  I was able to direct concerned parties toward his work without entering the fray myself.  He ended up taking a bunch of flack for his efforts and got lumped in with me (one commenter, curiously, wrote that Lance did so because I was his "boss," which shows an alarming lack of knowledge of faculty hierarchy).  For that, I am indebted to him. 

The rest of my friends and family were uniformly supportive as well.  I owe them my thanks and apologies; it can be difficult to be married/related to me at times.  Like, a lot of the time.  However, those people are supposed to have your back, even when you're wrong.  

Therefore, it was mainly the kids (many of whom are now adults) I had in mind when I wrote my only public response to this incident before what you're reading right now:

(I want) to thank everyone who had my back today. I am truly humbled by the number of people, especially students and ex-students, who took the time to stand up for me, and with such passion and eloquence. You'll never know how much I appreciate it.

Those words are more true today than ever.  This could've been one of the great crisis of my life.  Instead, because so many of you who sat in my classroom at some point in the past 13 years went out of your way to comment on the post itself, write to me on Facebook, or offer words of support in person, I feel a tremendous sense of affirmation.  I owe a special debt of gratitude to the countless number of this year's students who wrote variations of, "Keep being yourself.  Don't let people who don't know you change how you do things" in their end-of-year journal entries.  

I even feel kinda fortunate that this all happened, in a way.  After all, most people have to die in order to have such nice things said about them.

Thanks for reading.