Saturday, April 24, 2021

Saying Goodbye To My Virtual Classroom

This past week I got new marching orders. From now until the end of the school year I am going to be teaching face to face in the classroom five days a week, as opposed to two. This weekend it suddenly hit me: I have perhaps taught my last class from home.

I have used four different spaces in my home as a classroom in the past year, all depending on availability and who was at home at the time. When it's been warm I have preferred our screened-in back porch. When I am here and my kids are too I've used either my office nook at the top of the stairs, or the guest bedroom if it was especially loud in the house. On those rare days when I was home alone I would use the dining room table, with our beautiful glassed-in cherry wood bookcase as a background. 

Gone are the days of frantically preparing lunch for my children and desperately trying to keep them on task while I had my own work to do. Gone are the days as well of taking my laptop to the breakfast table at 7AM, the only hope I had of processing all of the mountains of work that needed to be done that day.

I will miss having a commute of one minute, and that is all I will miss. Parenting and teaching simultaneously is a nearly impossible task. It's also just really hard for me to concentrate on my work when I'm at home. Everything took more time to do, and while at home 11-12 hour work days were pretty regular. 

The blurring of work and personal life has also been giving me a headache. A little compartmentalization is a good thing. I remember back to this fall when I watched the webcast of my aunt's funeral in Texas between teaching classes on my back porch. I was bawling my eyes out with my kids nagging me for attention while checking the clock to see when I had to be back in the classroom. I should have taken a personal day, but that just seemed weird considering I was already at home.

Leaving the virtual classroom behind is a reminder to me of the sacrifices and adjustments I have been forced to make over the past year. I despair thinking of how many of them will be made permanent. Every day I powered through a ridiculous amount of work while being my children's cook, nurse, and teacher's aide was a victory for the bosses. They could be oh so pleased that their employees didn't abandon them. We do it for the kids and not for the money, and I worry that makes us suckers. 

So goodbye, virtual classroom. As exhausting as teaching hybrid is, I hope I can avoid you forever.


Saturday, April 17, 2021

On Gambling Movies

One thing I love about the Criterion Channel is how they gather films into special collections and series by theme, style, and genre. Right now I am really enjoying The Gamblers, a set of films about gambling and gamblers made from the 1940s to the 1990s. As is usual with these collections, some films are old favorites, some are ones I have wanted to explore, and some I've never heard of and am glad to have on my radar. 

This by the way is an argument for streaming services to do more curation. So many just shotgun blast content out there without offering viewers a chance for deeper engagement and new discoveries. But I digress...

I've always felt a little weird about gambling because I have personally seen how people can get addicted, and I tend to have a risk averse personality. I enjoy it, but only if the stakes are low. There is a real kind of thrill when one wins, it feels like you've managed to get one over on the universe. The losses, of course, just reinforce the cruel, capricious hand of fate's rule over our lives. And as in life, the game is rigged and you lose on more days than you win. Gambling is something that makes the reality of human existence a little too real. 

Of course, that makes it a great subject for movies. Here are some of my favorites:


I just rewatched this one, which I've seen a few times. I saw it first in an art theater back in my Chicago days and fell in love, then acquired a VHS tape when a local video store went out of business. It's the movie that put Clive Owen on the map, playing a struggling author who returns to being a casino dealer out of boredom and desperation. I don't want to give too much away, but the title character is someone who enjoys gambling without ever wanting to place a bet. He knows it's a loser's game, and sees gamblers' quest to get one over on the universe as a sign of delusion and selfishness. (It doesn't help that his dad was a gambler.) I love a good neo-noir and this is a great little hard gem of a film. 

The Hustler

I am a sucker for a certain kind of gritty 1960s movie shot in black and white with a jazzy score saturated in cigarette smoke. Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, and George C Scott is a helluva combo. 

California Split

Gambling seems to be a perfect subject for Robert Altman, whose films captured the small disappointments of life so well. What I love about this film is how well it captures the places where truly degenerate gamblers get their fix. It's not Rat Pack Vegas, it's smoke-filled poker rooms and racetracks with fifty layers of spilled beer and soda absorbed into their floors. There's a lesson here too, about how even when you come out ahead you never win because the true gambler can never be satisfied. This film also uses Altman's signature overlapping dialogue more effectively than any other since poker table talk lends itself to this method.

Lost in America

This one is cheating a little because the entire film isn't about gambling, but it's most famous scenes certainly are. This is the tale of an 80s yuppie couple played by Albert Brooks (also the filmmaker) and Julie Hagerty to decide to leave their corporate LA life and go cross country in an RV. Their first stop is Vegas, where they lose all of their travel money in one night due to the Hagerty character falling into a gambling frenzy. The scene where Brooks tries to convince the casino boss to give him his money back is hilarious as well as a great satire on affluent types who think the consequences don't apply to them. For the first time he can't get out of it because in a casino the house always wins. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

New Podcast on Reinventions

I have kept my promise to keep the podcast episodes coming, and I have to say it's been quite enjoyable to put them together. This fortnight's episode of Old Dad's Records is all about reinventions. I realized the other day that it's ten years to the month that I made my first steps at leaving academia and entering the private school world, so that's where the theme came from. I talk Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," Bob Seger's Night Moves, and Lana Del Rey's latest. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Back to the Trenches

Today was my first day back at my job after spring break and I don't think I've ever had a more difficult return to work after break. I reached a state of blissful normality during my two weeks off, feeling more relaxed than I have at any time since the start of the pandemic. I spent the summer in a constant state of anxiety over what awaited me this year, the holiday break had plenty of stress as well as the former president trying to subvert democracy. 

Spring break reminded me of the scenes in All Quiet on the Western Front when Paul goes home from the trenches on leave. It seems as if he has entered a completely different world. Well today I was back in the trenches, and it was a rude awakening. I liked seeing my students again, but I was so tired and worn out, not just in my body, but in my soul.

Today was one of the days when I had to be my daughters' teaching assistant, janitor, and cook all while trying to do my own full-time teacher job. (My wife's school requires her to be at school every day.) In terms of my own job teaching via Zoom is like swimming with twenty pound weights on your ankles. (Doing hybrid is like forty pound weights.) 

This just isn't sustainable. I had been in the trenches so long that I guess I had adapted to the insanity of my daily routine. Now that I have had a break I wonder if I am capable of seeing this through to the finish line. The end is within sight, but I am just out of gas.

I feel the fatigue in my soul because others just haven't bothered to help, which is just flat out demoralizing. As my wife said the other day, we have been working so hard that we've done as much work already this year as we normally did in a whole school year. My body and soul know this, and think that means it's time to shut down. The thing that's hard to take is that all of this work and all of this difficulty will not result in any reward. No raise, no promotion, no thanks beyond lip service. 

And so I shoulder my pack and go back to the trenches and grimly go about my duty. I am resigned to that for the time being, but hoping like hell the Armistice comes before I lose my grip completely. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Are We Still in Nixonland?

A prime example of Nixon's wedge-driving

Rick Perlstein's Nixonland might be my favorite entry in his mammoth four volume history of the conservative movement's rise from the days of Goldwater to the Reagan Dawn. His key insight is that Nixon intentionally made pre-existing divisions in America even starker, then won elections by making sure that the bigger chunk of the divided nation was on his side. Until Watergate, this strategy worked remarkably well, propelling him to a massive landslide in 1972.

The point of the book was that our politics have been stuck in Nixonland ever since. It came out in 2008, at the end of the Bush years. Karl Rove had used the Nixon strategy very well, incorporating homophobia to make gay marriage a wedge issue in 2004 and portraying anyone opposed to the invasion of Iraq as a hater of America. Those same tactics served Republicans well when they unleashed the Tea Party in 2010, effectively hobbling the Obama administration for its last six years. 

Nowadays, however, it seems that Republicans can only win by gaming the system and suppressing the vote. Bush's win in 2004 was the only time a Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote since his pappy won back in 1988. That certainly explains efforts to manipulate elections in Georgia. 

However, it also emerged this week that the Republicans are planning a political strategy based on the culture war, as opposed to policy. Some have mocked this, but I see it merely as the continuation of the one reliable strategy Republicans have had for the past fifty years. Some are puzzled that they are calling themselves a "working class party" while failing to do anything to materially improve people's lives. They forget that the Nixon strategy depends on resentment, on saying Republicans are protecting good people against the elites. They don't mean the economic elite, whom they wish to shower with tax breaks, but the "cultural elite." Anti-university, anti-trans, anti-environmentalism, and anti-anti-racism all fit into this. 

I do not scoff at this gambit because it has worked in the past and also because it represents to much potential harm to vulnerable people in this country. The question I keep asking is whether it can still work after all these years. Will this be the time that Republicans intentionally drive the wedge, only to find themselves stuck with the lesser part? 

Demographic and political shifts seem to indicate that ground has shifted enough that Republicans just might play themselves. This is not the late 20th century anymore. Church attendance is dropping, making appeals to "traditional values" less effective. Younger people are far more progressive now than when I was young. The attacks on 1/6 have made it impossible for conservative reactionaries to pretend that opposition to democracy itself is not at their core. 

And that's what scares me, since the wedge-driving isn't happening in a vacuum. Republicans might be grabbing the smaller half of the population, but gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the electoral college mean that they don't actually need to win over the majority. In that sense we are no longer living in Nixonland, but in a place somehow far worse.