Motown Remembered

Since the holidays, I have been on Motown Memory Lane.   My wife and I were in the San Diego area after Christmas and saw “Motown the Musical” which premiered on Broadway in 2013.

The play takes place in 1983 when a TV extravaganza celebrating 25 years of the record label was being assembled.   As the story of Motown founder Barry Gordy unfolds, flashbacks of the singers and groups are played out with vintage arrangements, costumes, and choreography of over 40 hit songs.

If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s listening to this music, or are familiar with it from movies, TV shows, and commercials, it is remarkable to realize how magical was Hitsville, USA.

Seeing the musical inspired me to watch the Motown special for the first time since it aired in May of 1983.

Taped at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, “Motown 25:  Yesterday, Today, Forever” won a Peabody Award and an Emmy.  Hard to believe that it has been 35 years since the special was produced.

It is worth watching again mainly to see a unique event:   most of the headliner artists on stage singing together at the end of the show.

The number one moment most recall is Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk for the very first time.  However, there are other special moments such as when Marvin Gaye sits at the piano playing extemporaneously as he talks about the history of black music before doing an emotional rendition of “What’s Going On.”

There’s the reunion of the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, and the Supremes with Diana Ross.   And the battle of the boy choirs, the Four Tops vs. the Temptations.

Dennis Edwards, Temptations’ lead singer at the time, died last week at age 74.   While not an original member (over the years there have been dozens of personnel changes), he was viewed as the most vibrant of the lead singers.

Incredibly, the Four Tops remained together from 1953 to 1997, with the same four men.  Today, only Abdul Fakir is still alive while Otis Williams is the only original Temptation left.

When researching the history of Motown, it is tragic to learn how many artists died before their time:  Michael Jackson (50), Mary Wells (49), Marvin Gaye (44), Temptations’ Elbridge “Al” Bryant (36) and Paul Williams (34), Supremes’ Florence Ballard (32), Tammi Terrell (24).

If you have time on Valentine’s Day, consider paying tribute to Motown by listening to some of the songs:

The Temptations’ “Get Ready”

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street”

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Shop Around”

Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”

Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life’

Mary Wells’ “My Guy”

Diana Ross and The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go”

The Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving”

The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”

With the passage of time, it is worth noting that all these talented musicians did not use one obscenity in any of their songs.  And they dressed to the nines, women in dresses, men in suits.

B.B. King once said that it was important for him to wear three-piece suits while performing, and not wear street clothes on stage.

Today’s artists could learn from these masters on how to elevate their work through their language and appearance.

 

 

A S-Hole in One

Two weeks ago I rolled out my pre-reading lessons for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird which includes sharing motivational stories about unknown heroes such as Edward Thomas, Houston’s pioneering African American police officer.

Thomas, who worked on the force for 63 years, died two weeks following the dedication ceremony renaming the department’s office building after him, a man who while in college was drafted into the Army during World War Two, fighting on D-Day and at the Battle of the Bulge.

His country asked him to sacrifice his life yet did not treat him equally; even in the military he was placed in a segregated unit.

Due to his color, he was not allowed to enter the front of the police department building (he had to use the back door), not allowed to be in the roll call room (he had to stay in the hallway), and was on his own during his patrol (white officers would not back him up).   Still, he persevered.

The final job he held was at the security desk where staff checked in which had now been moved to the rear of the building.    Quite ironic that all officers now enter the only door Thomas was allowed through.

We then analyze a poem, “Incident” by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, describing a heartbreaking moment of racism for a young boy when the only memory that stayed with him during eight months in Baltimore was when another boy called him the n-word.

That leads to a discussion about the n-word and its use in literature.  We went over which words for African Americans would be permissible and which were not.

Hours after having a sensitive talk about racial epithets, President Trump obliterates the point I was trying to make by using ugly language to discuss certain immigrants.

In a meeting on immigration with lawmakers, Trump said, “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? Why do we want all these people from s—hole countries?”

The language was raw, the racism an open sore. Did our Commander-in-Chief actually say those ugly things?

And then the second part of the story unraveled.

The news media decided to spell the whole expletive out.  There it was in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Not only that, when I turned on CNN, in the lower-thirds of the screen, there was Trump’s quote with each letter of the fully spelled out word in all its glory—no asterisk or hyphen substituted.

For further shock value, moderator Anderson Cooper and nearly all of his guests actually said the word on the air repeatedly in their conversations.

What’s baffling is when former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci gave obscenity-laden responses to a reporter last July, the media refrained from spelling out the words or saying them on the air.   So why have the standards and practices of the media changed?  Has the bar lowered even further on what words can be in print and on TV? If so, what about the n-word and other racially charged language?

The next day, news broke about a porn star being paid $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair with Trump years ago when his wife was pregnant with their child.

Coincidentally, I also introduced a semester-long assignment called The Decency Project which asks students to come up with ways that they can help others.   Some will be collecting items for underprivileged people, while others will be working at hospitals, animal shelters, and homeless shelters.

Teenagers working at a higher moral plane than the President.  Who would have ever thought that day would come.

Thank you, President Trump, for continuing to provide teachable moments for educators.

 

Words of Wisdom from Teens

Going back to work this week reminds me of how much I still enjoy my job after 29 years of teaching.

As a teacher, there are two beginnings to one’s work year:  the kickoff in August and the return in January.  It is one of the things that makes teaching different from other occupations.

The two-week holiday in December and the extended layoff in summer takes adjusting to, though each has its own feel.

While the very start to school requires a reserve of energy including mental acuity in getting to know up to nearly 200 new faces and names, the second start in January feels more like getting reacquainted with old friends.

As a way to get the students re-focused on their goals after New Year’s, I like to open with a reflective lesson, one that uses an essay by Edmund N. Carpenter II which received wide circulation when he passed away in 2008.

Published in the Wall Street Journal in 1938, Carpenter contemplates about all the experiences he wishes to have, both good and bad, before he dies.  What is remarkable about the piece is that he was only 17 years old when he wrote it, a fact that I purposely withhold from my students until the end of our discussion.

I then have the students follow Carpenter’s structure, writing about what they want to do before they graduate high school.

A majority mention getting good grades, volunteering in the community, joining clubs, attending school events, getting their driver’s licenses and that first job. And a few wish to experience boyfriend/girlfriend love for the first time.

Here are some of their thoughts.

“High school is a one of a kind story that everyone makes.”

“Having a couple of friends that support you and respect you is exactly what every high school student needs in order to get through high school peacefully and easily.”

“This is where I hopefully discover myself.”

“Knowing that I worked hard and that my job as a student was well worth the late nights full of tears, stress, and my Starbucks Mocha Chilled coffees.”

“Cherishing the moments where the only responsibility I have is to keep my room clean, and the biggest problem I face is having to write an essay.”

“I hope to forgive myself like I can forgive others, accept my flaws, and kindle sparks of passion and joy into roaring flames.”

“High school is a love letter to my youth, a final goodbye on my childhood years.”

“I want to learn to be independent and to provide for myself.  I do not want to trouble my parents with having to pay for me any longer; they do not deserve that tiresome task.”

“I want to change a life; I want to know how it feels to give someone hope.”

“The fear of making a mistake is the biggest mistake of all; it is the mistake of denying oneself of a valuable life lesson that cannot be learned from books.”

“I want to accomplish something so monumental that everyone is aware of my achievement and that I somehow inspire them to set higher goals.”

“I want to make my parents proud of everything I did.  Out of all my goals for high school, this is the most important and most valuable.”

“I will apologize to someone I treated poorly.  I will make amends with anyone whom I neglected, insulted, or hurt.”

Looking over what they wrote reminded me of why I still feel fortunate to be working with such inspirational young people.  We will be in good hands.

 

 

It’s the Most Busiest Time of the Year

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is unlike any other of the 52 in the year.

Even if you don’t have to work, there is so much to do that you don’t feel like you have had time off.

First, every speck of seasonal sparkle needs to be put away.  Nothing is more depressing than Christmas decorations still up after the first of the year.

Now it is time to take down the tree.  Remember to put each ornament back into its correct compartment of each cardboard box.

Saw off the larger branches so that the heart of the tree can fit through the door on its way to the green garbage bin.

Vacuum the fallen needles.  Sweep them off the porch and driveway.

Remove all of the delicate Christmas knickknacks decorated throughout the house and re-pack each one back into its own container until next year.

Get the ladder out and retrieve the giant plastic red boxes that store everything.

Keep the ladder out to take down the outdoor lights; you don’t want to be that one house on the block with them still attached to the eaves in March.

No matter how one tries to carefully fill each box with the same contents in the same position, it seems that you still need one more box to fit all of the Christmas decorations.

Then it’s off to the after-Christmas sales. You buy wrapping paper and greeting cards, not because you need them, but because you fell in love with the candy cane pattern or the old-fashioned Santa face.  You also buy because in some way you want to continue the good feeling of buying gifts that has just concluded with Christmas.

Once arriving back home, time to reward yourself with a ham sandwich, leftovers of the Honeybaked ham.  Once the pre-sliced ham is gone, give up carving the remaining meat around the bone, so throw the rest of it away (unless you like to make soup).

And the sugar.  The See’s candies, the Lindt chocolates, the tin of caramel and cheese corn, the red and green M&M’s, and the hazelnut (fill-in-the-blank).   There is a part of me that wants to get rid of it all.  No worries; my students will enjoy them.  In the midst of a sugar high I try to figure out the last time I ate vegetables.

When you finally get to the end of the day to pick up the new biography of Ulysses S. Grant or the latest Jack Reacher novel by Lee Childs, you find yourself too exhausted to get past 10 pages.  Maybe you can wake up before anybody else tomorrow morning and find some golden time to absorb all of the joy you have just experienced.

Outings need to be arranged with out-of-town guests.  It’s not that the visits are obligations, it’s just that you would like time to watch that new DVD.

Don’t forget to take down the 2017 calendar and replace it with the 2018 one—but not before significant birthdays have been written in the squares for each month.

You blink and New Year’s Eve arrives.  Can you enjoy yourself at home or must you join the throngs at the Queen Mary celebration?   Make a reservation and don’t look at the credit card statement.   Drive yourself or take Uber?   Watch out for those driving while intoxicated.   You want to be around for all of 2018.

On New Year’s Day, TV viewing is essential for either the Rose Parade or the football bowl games.   Too bad that resolutions begin on Jan. 1 and not Jan. 2 because it is difficult to plant one’s self passively in front of a screen without overeating.

One final task remains:  to plan a real vacation months down the road so you can truly relax.

 

Dreaming of a not-so-hot Christmas

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful.”   That’s how the 1945 Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne “Let it Snow!  Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” song begins.   For those of us in Los Angeles, “frightful” has taken on a new meaning.

Ever since the 92-degree day on Thanksgiving, rarely have we had normal weather for this time of year.  It seems that the average temperature for weeks now has been 82 degrees—in December.  For the past several months, we have had record highs set so often that having hotter temperatures have become the new normal.  Remember the 103-degree day on October 24 for game one of the World Series?

When you live in the Los Angeles area, especially the San Fernando Valley, it is expected that most of the year will be summery which is why I look forward to late fall when we have cooler temperatures.  This year I feel cheated.

Raise your hand if you have worn a sweater lately.  Or built a fire in the fireplace.  Or sipped on a cup of cocoa.

For those of us who like variety in our weather, last year was a treat with all the rain and cooler than normal temperatures.  In fact, I bought new sweaters since I didn’t want to keep wearing the same ones.  About a week ago, I forced myself to take one out of my anti-moth protected storage bin when it dipped down to a frosty 69 degrees for about an hour. I did not want December to pass without wearing a sweater even once.

It’s depressing to check the 7-day or 21-day forecast to see 83-, 85-, 78-, 82-, and 83-degree days approaching as winter officially kicks off.

My students make me laugh when they arrive in my classroom in the morning and complain about how cold it is.   Then I have to inform them that if they lived anywhere in Wisconsin it would be nineteen degrees on a warm day.

Oh sure, if you wake up early enough, there is a chill in the air though not low enough to generate frost warnings (keep your flora covered).  But don’t fret because by 10:00 a.m. the temperature outside will already be at 70 degrees and rising.

I wonder if the Gas Company is going to raise rates since people aren’t using their heaters that much.

I also wonder what lyrics to Christmas songs would change in order to more accurately match our weather:

  • from “baby, it’s cold outside” to “baby, it’s hot outside”
  • “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” becomes “chestnuts roasting where there is no fire”
  • “I’ve got my love to keep me warm” becomes “I’ve got my love to make me sweat” (though that line could give off a different connotation)
  • “walking in a winter wonderland” becomes “walking in a sweltering wonderland”
  • “Jack Frost nipping at your nose” becomes “Jack Flame burning on your neck”

Of course, some people don’t believe in climate change.   I’m no scientist, but I have lived here my entire life and I know that the weather is getting warmer with fewer days of rain.

Meanwhile, keep wearing those t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.  Of course, so many people already wear this attire 365 days a year, whether attending a play or eating at an upscale restaurant, why should any day be different from the rest?  For me, to borrow from Irving Berlin, “I’m dreaming of a below-eighty Christmas.”

 

 

A Thanksgiving Pie a la Mad

Have you ever had one of those days which does not go as planned?

That happened to me the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

My sister hosts our family’s get together and does most of the cooking.  My contribution is to bring pies (no, not made by me).

There used to be Marie Callender restaurants all over the place. Glendale, Burbank, and Toluca Lake all had one.  Now, the closest one is in Sherman Oaks.

When I called to buy my pies, I was told that there were two ways of ordering:  online or in person—not over the phone.

So, I filled out the online form, paid with a credit card, selected the time, 7:00 a.m., and waited until the 22nd.

It was a wonderful cruise on the 134 West that early in the morning since traffic was light.  I got there under 15 minutes.

When I walked up to the door, I was surprised to notice that it was locked.  Then I noticed the hours—it opened at 8:30 a.m.   Yet I was given a 7:00 a.m. option for pick-up.  Oh well.

I tried making the best of one and a half hours in Sherman Oaks by walking the neighborhood.  I was amazed at how many homeless people were sleeping on the sidewalk on Ventura Blvd.

I headed over to Gelson’s to have a cup of coffee.  Even though the day hadn’t gone as planned, I was trying to enjoy the adventure of it all.

In this market, tables and chairs are located immediately near the front entrance on the right, adjacent to the salad bar.

No one was around.  Soon, an older couple in their late 60’s sat down. The wife told the husband that she would set up the table with napkins while he went to get coffee and Danish.  I thought it pleasant the interplay between the two.  Maybe that could be my wife and I in a few years.

All of a sudden, the woman went over to the salad bar and deposited a scoopful of bacon bits into her hand and ate them.

I could not believe what I had just witnessed.   While I was the only person in the sitting area, there were Gelson employees around.  Surely one of them must have seen her do it.

The man came back with their food and beverages.  Then the woman returned to the salad bar and helped herself to another scoopful of bacon bits—free of charge.

Now my morning peacefulness was shattered with inner turmoil over what I should do about this woman’s thievery.   Locate the manager and tell him about it?   Confront the woman myself with something along the lines of “you shouldn’t do that”?

What amazed me was the brazenness of her actions more than the theft itself.   Even though I was two tables away and workers were close by, she still stole the food.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen people “graze” through the market.  You know those plastic containers which contain nuts and raisins with scoops inside?   There are people who put their naked hands in those areas and steal food, contaminating the rest of the contents.

Twice I have notified the managers about these incidents.   But this morning, a morning which already felt a little off the axis for me, I remained silent.

If only the strangeness of the day ended there, for when I returned at 8:30 a.m. to pick up my pies, the employee told me that since I had pre-paid, I would have to return at 11:00 a.m.  Meanwhile, there was another line at the counter with people who had not pre-paid for pies who were buying pies right off the shelf.

This time, I was not mute.   I asked for my money back unless I was able to get the pies.  After talking with her manager, the pies were no longer held hostage and I was able to leave Sherman Oaks by 8:40 a.m.

Next year, I plan on baking the pies.

High School Classes are not College Prep

Over the years that I have been an English teacher, there has been a steady decline in students’ writing skills.

Every time I assign a major piece of writing, one that is multiple pages in length, I brace myself for the avalanche of papers about to be turned in.   It’s not the sheer volume of 100 plus essays submitted in one day that blows me back; it’s the poor quality that is troubling.

It can be quite disheartening to read student writing from advanced students and realize that these young people, the best in their class, struggle to organize their thoughts, unable to form a clear argument.

Reasons for this decline does not require a Brookings Institute study.  Kids are reading less and teachers are assigning less writing.

In the most recent round of essays I graded, one-third of the papers did not mention the literature being written about in the introduction, and when they did, these 15-year-olds did not properly punctuate the book title.

Like turning a car engine on and off, their papers began, ended and began again in just two paragraphs, each paragraph reading as a new beginning, lacking transitions or threads to the thesis.

They often bounced back and forth between present and past tense, singular and plural pronoun forms in the same sentence.

And some students decided to analyze the film version, not the book itself, perhaps because they did not read it.

I teach my students that the best mistake prevention tool when writing is to read their paper out loud; few did it as evidenced by the scores of typos not caught by a spellchecker.  What else explains not capitalizing names of characters or misspelling the names altogether.

I asked my students how many of their teachers (other than me) require them to write an expository essay:  53 percent said one, 14 percent said none.

Of course, students don’t have to write full-fledged essays to practice writing.   Students can show their thinking by writing multiple sentence answers to test questions.  So, I queried my students on this.

While 40 percent replied that they have two or more teachers who administer these type of tests, 32 percent have just one teacher who does so, while 28 percent have none.   That means, for the majority of the time, students are taking multiple choice tests which require no writing beyond a fill in the blank.

Remember, these students are taking other advanced placement classes, the most rigorous courses the school has to offer.   Think about how little writing must be happening in the regular classes.

The teachers at the secondary level, especially those who don’t teach English, need to have students read critically and write analytically as often as they can.   With so little writing being practiced, students enter college with a huge handicap.

My freshman son volunteered that only a couple of his high school classes prepared him for the level of writing and the amount of reading required in college; this coming from someone who took several Advanced Placement classes.  Even though all the courses were labeled “college prep,” few deserved that distinction.

If one of the missions of high school is to prepare students for university-level work, we are doing a miserable job.

Could this partially explain why only 21 percent of Cal State University freshmen finish college in four years?

Finding a student paper that isn’t riddled with errors is as rare as finding a parking space at the Glendale Galleria on Black Friday.   And when there is a crisply written paper with an eye-catching opening, a strong argument, and quotes which support astute observations, a teacher wants to shout “hallelujah,” with hope in America’s youth restored.

Until the next paper on the pile.