To Drive or Not to Drive

No teen’s life is complete without a trip to the DMV office.   And that is where my son, Max, and I went recently for him to take the written driving test en route to his learner’s permit.

One of the requirements any potential California driver needs to meet is 25 hours of classroom instruction.  However, this instruction can be done at home on a computer.  Do you know how to spell f-r-a-u-d?  Anyone can illegally answer questions for the participant.  If there is any kind of education that should be taken in person it is driver’s education.  No wonder so many drivers drive poorly.

We waited three months for an appointment in Pasadena since Glendale’s office had none available due to overwhelming demand for the Real ID even though the law does not kick in until October of 2020.

The pressure was on Max to pass this test the first time since who knew when we would be able to schedule another appointment, adding to his anxiety despite taking several practice tests online.

Meanwhile, I had my own worries making sure that I was bringing all the requisite documentation for a learner’s permit, the poorly designed and written DMV website more a hindrance than an assistance.

While the appointment method is far superior to the walk-in option, it really only gets you past that first line, similar to a Disneyland Fastpass.  After the initial check-in, everyone, appointment or not, gets put into the same queue so I made sure that I brought along a book to pass the time.  A physical book.

As I sat there opening this heavy hardbound 600-page biography on Bing Crosby, I sensed I must have looked like a museum exhibit.  No one else in the crowded DMV office had a book.   And even if they had, I doubt anyone would have been reading one on Bing Crosby.  And how many in that room would even know who he was?

After being issued a letter and number (why simplify the ordeal?), you need to pay close attention to both a TV screen and a PA announcement.  God forbid you zone out and don’t see or hear your letter/number.  You quickly discover that logic has nothing to do with when you will be next because “H12” may be called before “F5”.  Since my concentration was frequently interrupted, I barely read a handful of pages.

Twenty minutes later his number was called.  He hesitated going up to the counter alone, but I encouraged him that he could handle it.  After a few minutes, he turned back and looked at me and I thought to myself, “Kid, you have to learn to do things on your own” until I realized why he was looking back at me:  for money.

Heads up—DMV does not accept debit or credit cards.  Luckily, I had enough cash for the $36 fee.

He then disappeared into the room in the back where his photo was taken and he sat at a computer station to take the test.

Thirty minutes later, Max appeared before me with a smile on his face telling me all I needed to know.

Now the real worry begins when he’s on the road among drivers who ignore everything he learned in his training, speeding and running red lights.

Maybe getting his driver’s license was not such a good idea.

 

“Good Boys,” Bad Filmmakers

Last year we had the #MeToo movement about respecting women and condemning sexual harassment of any kind.  Now it is time for a #KidsToo movement that calls for respecting children.

Adults, especially those whose products permeate our lives, need to be the guardians of the little ones.  Too much material is inappropriate for children to see and hear.

Recall the five-minute viral video last month where family members were shouting expletives and throwing punches in front of complete strangers at Disneyland?  That such barbaric behavior would occur in front of innocent youngsters at a place that is supposed to be a buffer to ugliness demonstrates something deeply troubling about people.

Just last weekend the film “Good Boys,” assigned an R rating “for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout—all involving tweens,” opened number one at the box office, proving once again that the bar for raunchiness keeps dropping lower.

Like e-cigarette companies who target young people with colors and scents to get them hooked into vaping, Universal marketed “Good Boys” at 12-year-olds who are the age of the characters.  One wonders how many tweens gained access to seeing it.

In his negative review of the film, The Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore said that “you may simply be no-laugh disgusted when a string of used anal beads are given to a 12-year-old girl to wear as a necklace.”

No thank you.  I don’t need to pay money to see that.

Knowing that the filmmakers’ resume includes “Superbad” and “Sausage Party” tells you all you need to know about the craft of these “artists.”

I wish writers would exercise more self-control.  Not every repulsive thought that enters one’s mind needs to be aired or shared.

Comedy doesn’t have to be filthy.  Jim Gaffigan and Jerry Seinfeld are two comics who have had successful careers without resorting to a tsunami of scatological references.

Personally I have always been bothered whenever I hear young actors say obscenities.  It immediately takes me out of the movie, my mind thinking about the kind of parents who would allow their children to say foul language just for the money and glory of being in a film or TV show.

What’s shocking is when you see a movie which has little to no profanity such as “Yesterday,” one of the best films I’ve seen this year.  A fantasy film that depicts life without the music of the Beatles, this sweet-natured and well-acted tale retains its charm without the foul language.

The New York Times recently reported on lewd display ads on the New York Subway trains including one for the “At Home with Amy Sedaris” TV show picturing her holding two piping bags right where her breasts are, squeezing them with an expression of orgasmic delight.

Another ad depicts an erect cactus that promotes, you guessed it, an erectile dysfunction product.  Think of the young children riding the subways through the New York city boroughs and having no choice but to see this barrage of inappropriate material.

Parents and teachers have a tough enough time as it is modeling proper language and behavior.

Not all consumers have sophomoric mentalities.  If a person chooses to make money in the public marketplace, that individual has a civic responsibility for the material that is published.   People used to be cognizant whenever children were around, toning down their actions and words.  Create work that is sublime, not subhuman.

 

 

 

Moon landing unity is needed today

While the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing by Apollo 11 occurred a few weeks ago, I didn’t want that momentous time to pass without comment.

Around 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, July 20, 1969, my family watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, all five of us huddled around our 19” Emerson black and white TV set.  I vividly remember running outside, looking up at the moon, and feeling amazed that men were on that orb.

It remains the most significant historical event I have ever witnessed in my life.

Which is why the main TV networks—ABC, CBS, NBC—missed a golden opportunity to jointly re-air the video feed from the moon at the exact same time when it originally happened.

Only the NASA channel did so.

Imagine how special of an event that could have been, providing a glimpse of what it must have been like to have seen it live in 1969. at a time when Americans no longer watch TV shows at the same time.  Only sporting events and breaking news stories provide that bond today.

Nowadays we are sharing fewer and fewer common experiences that connect us.  Too many of us float away on our own individual islands where our cell phones provide whatever entertainment we want whenever we want.

A remarkable thing about the whole space program is how it galvanized the nation.  Oh sure, life in the late 1960’s was not ideal.   There was the generation gap, protests against the Vietnam War, fears that the USSR would start a nuclear conflict, political assassinations.

And yet, when Armstrong descended down the steps from the lunar module to place man’s first footprints on the moon, all troubles paused.

In his telephone call to the astronauts, President Nixon earnestly stated that “for one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.”

The recent theatrical documentary “Apollo 11” using only archival footage offers viewers a chance to relive a period of time when people were proud to be Americans.

Of course, you would have to be 55 years old or older to have witnessed this history first-hand and have that primal exuberance reawakened with the anniversary remembrances.

It is hard to believe a half of century has passed since that time.  If would be like commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War I in 1968.

The sad truth about the human condition is that we are all trapped in the era in which we are born:  life on earth begins the day of our birth.  Unless you actually lived through historical milestones, the best you can do to get a feel of what the experience was like is to watch documentaries and read biographies.

Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon on Dec. 14, 1972, eloquently summarized the poetry of what he experienced.

“When you look at this Earth and all its beauty, and all its logic, and all its purpose . . . there’s too much purpose to have happened by accident. . . .

It doesn’t make any difference what your God is… somebody up there who put together the most beautiful spectacle a human being can ever conceive, much less have the opportunity to see in real life… that’s our home, that’s our Earth.”

At a time when it seems there are more differences than similarities, when we appear more like strangers than neighbors, let us hope we will soon find common ground in the pursuit of a noble goal that unites our collective identity, healing the ruptures in our culture’s DNA.  If it was done before, it can be done again.

 

Mishaps in Italy

Last time I wrote about how wonderful my family vacation to Italy was.  As with all trips, there are bound to be mishaps.  Ours occurred in a taxi and at a train station.

After visiting Vatican City, we planned to have dinner at a restaurant recommended by my in-laws.  Its location was about 10 miles away.  We had no trouble hailing a taxi driver who upon finding out our destination decided to charge us a flat rate instead of using the meter:  45 euros.  That was my first mistake.  But after a whole day of sightseeing at nearly 100-degree temperatures, we just wanted to eat.

With my oldest son in front, my wife, youngest son and I in the back, off we went in a real-life version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.   It didn’t help that the back of the backseat was so upright that it felt as if someone’s hands were pressed up against me to lean forward.

Suddenly, the man is talking and I thought, “What is he saying to my son?”  It turned out he was having a private conversation; speaking Italian, he probably thought we couldn’t understand a word (he was right).  Then, he starts smoking.  We found out later that drivers are forbidden to do that while transporting passengers.  But with this man, laws do not apply as he would change lanes into the opposing direction in order to get around traffic.   Forget eating dinner, my life was about to end in a head-on collision. I quickly thought about our dog back home and how he would feel if we never came back from Rome.

However, we did arrive in one piece, ate dinner, then had a different taxi take us back to our hotel.  Cab fare:  15 euros.  And the man obeyed traffic laws.

Two days later, we went to the main train station in Rome to travel to Florence.  My wife smartly purchased tickets months in advance, able to upgrade to business class due to the early bird discount.

Walking into the Roma Termini is quite disorienting.  A visual onslaught of giant TV screens blinds you, only showing ads.  Good luck finding the smaller screens displaying the needed information travelers seek such as trains departing and arriving.

Just then, my son spotted a young lady in an official-looking vest coming over to help us.  “What terrific public service” I thought to myself as she took us to a wall with a printed schedule and told us to go to Platform 3.  As soon as I thanked her and was turning away, she put out her arm, palm raised, expecting a gratuity.  And then it hit me—she wasn’t an employee but a scam artist.

Before we traveled, my wife sent me an article about the schemes to watch out for overseas such as pickpockets distracting you with jewelry or babies.  Not on that list was people masquerading as train officials.

After giving her the smallest coin I had (1/2 a euro), we hustled to Platform 3.  Strangely, no one else was in that area.  I tried asking for assistance from employees, but I received cold responses.  My son, using Google Translate, was able to find out from one helpful person that the platform number for arriving trains is not posted until minutes before arrival.

Quickly, we found that information just as we heard an announcement that the train we needed was about to depart.  With two bags in tow, I ran and found that train only to see it whoosh out of existence like a scene from a Chuck Jones cartoon.

So we had to purchase new train tickets costing us $225 in U.S. dollars.  Unlike the business class tickets we originally purchased, these were second class seats.  And arriving an hour later.

The one part of our entire 10-day adventure to Italy that concerned me the most was the getaway day which entailed two taxis, one bus, one train, two planes, and lots of perspiration.  To be continued.

Trip to Italy Provides Amazing Chance Meeting

When my wife and I first traveled to Europe in 1997 visiting London and Paris for our belated honeymoon, it was before dogs, children and hair loss.

Not a lover of traveling long distances (I prefer car trips), I promised my wife that one day we would go to Italy.  And so we did, just a couple of weeks ago, 10 days sightseeing in Rome, Florence and Venice, this time with our children.

Seeing manmade structures centuries old dating back to the B.C. era is incredible.  Here in L.A. “since 1959” is considered an achievement.

We walked around the awe-inspiring Colosseum and other ancient sites, climbed the final claustrophobic 320 steps inside the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica to a spectacular view of Rome, and marveled at Michelangelo’s genius in the “La Pieta,” the Sistine Chapel and the 14-foot high statue of David.

The food in Italy is as delicious as advertised.   Pizza, pasta, pastries and gelato unlike you have ever eaten.  If you ever go to Florence, the fourth-generation owned Vivoli is the gelato to get.  In Venice, run not walk to the Pasticceria Rosa Salva for the pistachio cream puff.

In addition to the major landmarks, there were two other places on my list of must-sees.

Since I teach Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I had to see where he was assassinated and where his body was cremated.   I also wanted to visit the old Jewish ghetto since I just finished a Holocaust unit last month.

While the cremation site was clearly marked, locating the exact spot where Caesar was killed was another matter.

Most sources reference an archaeological area called Largo di Torre Argentina.  It is a place where every March 15 (ides of March) there is a reenactment of the murder.  However, one tour guide took us to the real site, an apartment building several yards away without any signage.

When we visited the former Jewish ghetto, we learned that once Mussolini welcomed Hitler’s troops into Italy in the fall of 1943, the Nazis demanded 50 kilograms of gold within 36 hours not to deport Jews, yet after Romans assisted the Jews upon meeting that demand, the Nazis reneged on their promise, deporting over 1,000, several sent to Auschwitz; only 16 survived.

Berlin-born artist Gunter Demnig is known for commemorating victims of the Holocaust by placing gold plaques in the ground at the last known residences of those taken from their homes and killed.   Several can be seen here.

However, the most serendipitous moment on the entire trip was meeting Eleonora Baldwin, our guide in a private food tour of Rome.  Born in the U.S. but raised in Italy, she has a popular website about the Italian lifestyle.

One of the tastings was in the ghetto area where we sampled Jewish pizza (like fruitcake) and the Jewish-style artichoke (like potato chips).   When I told her that I had just finished teaching about the Holocaust, she told me that her grandfather made a film about an aristocratic Jewish family who ignores what’s happening in Italy during World War II.  Called “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” she asked if I knew who Vittorio De Sica was.

It was one of the few times in my life when I was speechless.  Of course, I knew who De Sica was, arguably the most influential Italian filmmaker in history, the director of classics such as “Shoeshine,” “The Bicycle Thief” and “Umberto D.”

Eleonora said that her grandfather also helped hide Jewish people during the War.

Even more amazing was that she wasn’t even supposed to be our tour guide that day; the assigned guide became ill.  It was if it was fated for her and I to meet at the moment.  What are the chances?

So far I have focused on only positive aspects of my trip.  Next time, I will describe my version of  “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

 

Don’t be fooled by high school graduation rate

One of the things that bothers me as a teacher at this time of year is senioritis, a disease which goes untreated by schools.

Over the course of several weeks, even months, 12th graders recklessly start not coming to school with the high-achievers tending to be the worst offenders.

In the fall, these kids are model pupils, but come spring, all bets are off.

Some teachers enable this behavior by not counting their absences as part of their grade.  Often a student may have 20 or 30 absences yet still get an ‘A’ on their report card.

These are the students who months earlier asked me to write college recommendations, extolling their virtues.   Now, with their mounting absences both physical and intellectual, I am embarrassed that I wrote those glowing remarks.

These are the same students who work in tandem with school officials agreeing on a date for their unofficial Senior Ditch Day, who get pulled out of class to rehearse their own awards ceremony, who will be lauded and applauded come graduation night, who earned admittance into top colleges and thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Say “hello” to tomorrow’s leaders.

Absenteeism is not limited to seniors.  Currently, 15% of my 10th grade honors students have double-digit absences for a 98-day semester, three have more than 20.  Since each class lasts one hour, that’s equivalent to missing 2 full days of work in a 2 ½ week period, a level of absenteeism unacceptable at a real job.

One time I had a student with 33 absences and the parent complained that her child was not receiving credit.

The Washington Post just published a story about severe absenteeism in Maryland schools.  One student missed English class 47 times in one semester, yet still graduated.   Retired teacher Russell Rushton stated that “the accountability piece for student attendance is gone.”

What fuels such lack of accountability is a shared motivation among all parties to pass kids along even when they are not passing the class:  kids want to graduate, schools want to move them along and teachers don’t want to be the bad guys or deal with hostile parents.

Graduation rates are viewed as evidence of a school’s quality, but not all high school diplomas are equal.

You have to wonder how the honest students feel knowing that they did all the right things during their academic career, yet the person to either side of them didn’t spend as much time in school, yet will receive the same piece of paper.  That is one kind of diversity that is not right.

What happens when they go to college where attendance doesn’t matter as much?  How watered down will their college degrees be?

All of us need to be concerned about this because once kids understand how to manipulate the education system to their advantage, that lack of ethics will plague the workplace.

College-educated people will not be as knowledgeable as those in the past.  If they can get a paycheck by not showing up for work regularly, all of us will suffer.

Will future engineers, attorneys and doctors use YouTube videos to fill in the gaps of their education?

So, hold off the celebrations when reading headlines that high school graduation rates are at an all-time high.

The moral:  don’t judge a school by its graduation rate.