Yesterday, I wrote a review within a rant about Ken Robinson’s book, Creative Schools. I should have known I’d have more to say.

A few years ago, I met Robinson at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual conference. I didn’t mention this yesterday because I didn’t think it was relevant, but I was reminded of a few interesting economic details.

The conference is costly: a hefty registration fee, round trip airline tickets, two to three nights of lodging. I was fortunate enough to have my textbook publisher, EMC, sponsor me and coauthor, Gary Anderson, pictured above on the right. Every year, though, a handful of other English teachers also want to attend because they get to meet some of the best English teachers in the country and share ideas. This is true professional development, not the forced “institute days” that school administrators sponsor, where they dictate the agenda and waste precious time—and taxpayers’ dollars—over nonsense. I can’t think of a single institute-day task in my 32 years of teaching that directly benefited students. I might be exaggerating a bit here, but not much.

These English teachers who wanted to attend the national conference, my colleagues, they were willing to foot their entire bill. All the district would have to do is hire a $90 substitute. These substitute expenditures add up, sure, but the figures are peanuts when compared to the exorbitant fees districts hire for so-called expert speakers to enlighten us during institute days. Some are better than others, some are worthwhile, but I always felt that the resources immediately around us—other teachers—could have provided equal value, at zero cost.

One last thing to consider. For now. Companies are making a boatload of money in the testing business. Do you think these companies care about students’ lives, their goals and interests? They don’t even care about students’ bubbled answers on the tests, only that states keep nodding and asking for more, more tests, more paper, more profits.

For more details on standardized tests, you have to watch this, the brilliant John Oliver. Warning: you will become infuriated, but you’ll understand. And if you have kids in school, you might just join the quiet rebellion against standardization.

John Oliver Clip
17 May 2015 headline in Chicago Tribune: “Suburban district urges students to take test.” The article reports that 90% of students at Rolling Meadows High School in District 214, did not take the newly installed PARCC tests, based on the Common Core. That’s a capital Common, which strikes me as ironic. The Illinois Board of Education is not happy and could, according to authorities at District 214, take away IHSA eligibility. Not sure if this is a real threat from Illinois or if the district is huffing and puffing.

I happened to be at Rolling Meadows High School last week, speaking to their creative writing classes. I talked to one of the teachers there, who explained that students did not ditch on the big testing day. Instead, all of them showed up on time, marched to the testing center, waited to be handed a test, then 90% of them politely returned the test, saying something along the lines of, “I prefer not to.” They waited to be dismissed, and when they were, they filed out in an orderly manner.

Someone teach me how to do a backflip right now. I’ve been waiting decades for this sort of rebellion. I’ve been rebelling quietly for years, mostly in the form of not paying attention at meetings that hyped new district or state testing standards, or something like that. If I’d paid more attention, I could be more specific. I knew that the meeting agenda would be replaced by a different agenda in a few years, with a new set of revolving administrators, who would spout the importance of new data points and aims.

Here’s an example of the absurdity. One year, every teacher in every discipline was supposed to highlight math. As in, how many times does Huck Finn board his raft? We all nodded, hid away in our classrooms, and shut the door.

I always had the urge after these meetings to stroll the neighborhoods around the school and shout to the taxpayers, “Do you know how your money was spent today?” When we could have been in classrooms, teaching, we instead integrated objectives for the 17th time, discussed data, listened to some highly paid expert telling us the worth of things we were already doing. Then we’d have to write down how we were going to implement the practices that we were already doing.

More absurdity. On the first day of school, teachers meet in the auditorium to learn about new tardy regulations and how we must use pink slips this year and not yellow ones for discipline referrals, and on and on. This is usually followed by a pep talk, which we all need by then. One year, the principal pulled out a note from a former student. The student wanted everyone to know how well the school had prepared him for, well, for so many things. A glowing letter full of gratitude and praise. In the next breath, the letter put aside, the principal outlined the changes we needed to implement in the upcoming year. Whoa, hold on a sec…the letter, that kid, what we did, ten years ago, it was, it changed his life, maybe what we’ve been doing is okay, better than okay, maybe we’re on the right track.

Which brings to mind this remarkable truth: teachers are never asked by school administrators what they think. As in, How do you think we could raise test scores? What are we already doing to encourage curiosity? What are the most effective ways to engage students? Do you think we should keep the yellow referral slips?

I’m kidding of course about the yellow slips. Pink are better. But I’m not kidding. Teachers should be consulted also about the mundane day-to-day procedures. We know which rules will rankle students. We know the stupidity of banning Halloween costumes because two or three students the previous year went too far. We know that students will not value a “Pride” award if it’s not linked to some particular behavior. We know we know we know, yet we’re never consulted. Everything is decided top down, which is especially true of the latest round of government tests.

If you want to know how we got to now, read Ken Robinson’s latest book, Creative Schools. Not only does he trace the path of standardization from Reagan to Bush II to Obama, arguing convincingly that all the tests have not achieved their intended results, but he offers solid, particular, evidence-based alternative methods that schools can follow to inspire reflection and curiosity, and in turn, achieve higher scores.

My fifth-grade nephew, once terrified by the prospect of days of testing—this in just third grade; why are we doing this to kids?—recently came home and joked that he and a friend would soon have to take the PARCC tests. But no longer cowed by the pressure of a meaningless test, he and the friend reversed the acronym. They would not opt out of the test, as those high-schoolers at Rolling Meadows did last week. But they would be taking, they said, the CCRAP tests.

Danny Collins

I was reluctant to see this movie because the previews looked, as young people say, lame. And given the premise, I already knew the ending. A famous singer, Danny Collins, known for his schmaltzy pop songs, receives a letter from John Lennon, but he receives it 40 years after it was sent. Insufficient postage? With the encouraging letter in hand, Collins has to reexamine his entire career and his strained family ties. (It’s my understanding that such a letter was actually sent by Lennon to some musician. The rest of the film strays from this simple fact.)

So yes, the plot is predictable, with a few surprises thrown in here and there, but the story unfolds convincingly, and the writing is smart and crisp and rarely hits a false note. The acting is superb, especially a shambling Al Pacino in the lead. And the Lennon songs sprinkled throughout add a layer of emotion that’s hard to deny, especially if you’re a big John fan.

I really enjoyed this movie.  Touching and sincere.       
                                  3 & 3/8 stars. 

Ex Machina

Biggest obstacle to seeing this movie: how to pronounce the title when buying a ticket. I just said, “Ex.” I was pretty sure it was EX MOCK EE NUH, as one would say it in Italian. Without reservation, the guy in front of me said he wanted a ticket for Ex Machine-uh. They let both of us buy tickets and enter.

In contrast, the previews for this movie were enticing, but the movie itself was a bit of a letdown. It reminds me of the movie, Her, that also centers around the link between humans and machines. With Her, an interesting cultural angle is developed. The entire society has become dehumanized to an extent by its reliance on technology. Sound familiar? The alluring voice of an app mesmerizes the lonely, main character, and we come to understand why he’s drawn in. The entire movie feels prophetic, like a funhouse mirror of what’s happening all around us today.

In Ex Machina, the machines are artificial intelligence robots, created in an isolated pocket, far from society. The threat here is the old Asimov idea that machines will “evolve” and do away with humans, who age and become ill and die, and who are inferior, from a machine point of view—and that’s the premise here, that machines can have a viewpoint, a consciousness.

The movie is sleek, a pleasure to watch. The writing is fine, with a few hitches here and there. The acting is good. The pace is slow but engaging. But in the end, I wanted to like this movie more than I did. Though I’m not sure what I’d change. I suspect that I won’t feel haunted by this movie, as I felt for days after seeing Her.

Overall, though, I think this is worth seeing.      

                        2 & 1/4 stars. 

(By the way, it took me 15 minutes to figure out how to insert actual stars, but when I pasted those stars here, they turned into letters. I'm going to figure this out!)
As I was leaving the gym today, an old guy with a cane came trudging in. The cane, along with the bright sun that greeted me on this crisp morning, reminded me of my old man. He loved these kinds of days.

Next week he would have turned 95. To witness his reaction to that big number would have been something. He loved to make people laugh and would have whistled and pointed at himself with mock pride to hide the real pride he felt for his resilience.

I would have driven to his house today, surprised him. We wouldn’t have done anything. Just sat around in his living room making small talk. He’d mention a light bulb that needed to be changed or a bill that had to be paid, and I’d gladly oblige. Even though I’d arrive hours before lunch, my mom would already be scurrying to prepare that small feast. The meals were spectacular, I admit, but it’s the moments before that I miss most.

Sometimes, on days like this one, I’d arrive to find my old man in the backyard by himself. I loved the recognition that lit his face when he saw me. He’d ready himself to stand, to call my mother, but I’d wave this off. That flurry of Mama could wait. I just wanted a few minutes of leisurely give and take with my dad. Today, we would have talked about the sun, the planting of tomatoes and cucumbers and beans that would come soon, how he wished my mom would not devote so much effort toward that backbreaking work. We would talk about the news, and he’d shake his head in despair over the earthquake in Nepal. Those poor people, he would say, visibly upset. I’d ask him about Italy, what he missed. And in his unhurried way, he’d come up with a story or two. About his apprenticeship with a tailor in town that took him away from his family at a young age. About his father, who was murdered during the war. About living in a village without plumbing or electricity. About how he met my mom. He’d become wistful, the memories vivid and moving, as if he were there. And there’d always be a trace of gratitude about being asked to remember.

My old man lived a long life, made it almost to 92. I’m grateful for the time we had, but this morning I’m greedy for more.


Pop waiting outside Walgreens as I get a prescription filled for him. The pharmacist knew him well.

If you ask people why they read, most will tell you they want to be transported to some other locale or time. In the past two weeks or so, I’ve had a pleasant time in four vastly different locales.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

I can never remember this writer’s name, and I know I’ll forget it soon after typing this. I’m sure social psychologists have a name for this kind of forgetting. But the world Murakami creates won’t be forgotten as easily. The story takes place in several metropolitan areas in Japan, and while you get a vivid picture of daily life, the book reads more like mythology or parable. I usually hate that kind of book, but this story is grounded in the details of awakening and eating and working, which serve as a backdrop to the central mystery: why does Tsukuru’s circle of tightknit friends suddenly abandon him without explanation? (That’s another name I’ll never remember.)

It’s a small book, literally, a pleasure to hold for all you digital readers, but it includes big ideas. As with any book that takes on myth-like proportions, you feel as if you’re being fed great truths. The writing is often ordinary, which makes for a fast read, but always gripping. I would have gladly read hundreds more pages.

The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene

Greene takes us to England, then to Panama. But the shadowy Captain is a bigger-than-life character, and we feel as if we’re seeing the entire world (and parts of the underworld) through his eyes.

I’d never read any Graham Greene before this, but I love the movie The Third Man, written by Greene and adapted from one of his books. But all I had to do was read the first paragraph (sent to me by my wise son-in-law) to be hooked. The language bristles with British formality; it paints a picture of repressiveness, from which young Victor, the main character, yearns to escape; and it sets up the quirky premise that the Captain has won the boy from his father in a game of backgammon.

The book is compelling and well worth the time, but here’s the problem. Greene has written about 40 other books I now need to read! It’s a good problem. I’m not complaining. But where to begin?

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

Doerr soon became one of my favorite writers after I read his book, All the Light We Cannot See. Here, he takes us to Rome, though not through fiction. He was awarded a one-year fellowship with no strings attached. He was granted a writing studio, a stipend, and time. What the American Academy of Arts and Letters didn’t factor in was the birth of his twin boys. Much of Doerr’s time is spent taking care of the infant boys, especially when his wife turns ill suddenly and needs emergency care. He also explores Rome, navigating its streets, gleaning its character, marveling at its treasures. During his year, he reads, researches, keeps a journal, and ultimately writes this brilliant account of what it’s like to live in Italy. This is a warm and wonderful book that makes me want to return to my native land.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Tyler explores a different kind of continent, one closer to home, the interior worlds of the Whitshank family in Baltimore. I’ve read Tyler off and on for many years. I’m not sure how to explain the “off” part because I’ve never been disappointed by any of her books. In fact, Spool, her latest, is deeply satisfying. Not much happens, but the disappointments and daily joys this family encounters create a vivid tapestry of what it’s like to be alive. That’s right, tapestry. Layered, intricately weaved, and full of dark beauty.

I’m watching the Cubs play the Cincinnati Reds. It’s the bottom of the fourth inning. The last pitch was 83 mph, which seems like useful information if you’re following the game closely, which I am not. The balls and strikes are also displayed, of course, along with the score. Again, useful. But after each pitch, the pitch count flashes. I hate that. How does that tally help me enjoy the game? If the count is high, do I root for the manager to yank the pitcher? Do I text the manager? Do I call my Cubs friends? Post it on Facebook? Besides, these guys are making tens of millions of dollars. Let ’em throw 300 pitches and get our money’s worth.

I know, I know, managers have to pace pitchers so they last the season, but this is the manager’s job. I don’t need to know the reasons why a pitcher is yanked.

What I hate even more is when they flash the pitch count of a pitcher who comes in, let’s say, in the 9th for one or two batters. Really? We need to know this?

I miss the old Jack Brickhouse days, when the score on WGN was displayed in hopscotch-like grids, when pitchers typically hurled nine, sometimes ten innings, worrying more about the score that day than the number of pitches thrown. Did anyone even count back then?

Brickhouse, by the way, was the legendary announcer for WGN. Hey, hey.

Question. How many days do you have to roam around West Hollywood before you run into a celebrity?

Answer. Apparently, about five days. That is, if you don’t count Will Ferrell’s mountainous profile plastered everywhere to promote his new flick. The bigger and more plentiful the signs, I concluded, the worse the movie. I think Einstein wrote an equation for this.

Last week, we spent spring break in the LA area, and while strolling through an upscale outdoor mall, we came upon a flurry of buzz at one end. Chevy was giving away t-shirts—all x-large for some odd reason. Chevy was sponsoring a free concert. Chevy was chauffering some big star and her entourage in two black Chevy SUV’s to a newly constructed stage. And Chevy would later give away a Chevy to some lucky shopper.

Shoppers were herded into a small area stage front, probably to make the modest space seem more cavernous for what would likely turn out to be a commercial. We were invited to be part of the audience, but we Midwesterners were a little skeptical about this spectacle. (Say that fast.)

The singer? Kelly Clarkson. But before she could take to the stage, an emcee had to prep the crowd. He told the crowd that Chevy was trying to make this the best day ever. I wanted to interrupt and ask him to define best. He said the show was dedicated to moms (because market research shows Moms are the car buyers?). He had to teach the crowd how to clap for Clarkson’s entrance. Then he ran through a practice clap. All with a straight face.

Aside from her bedazzled microphone, Clarkson was about the only genuine one amid all the commotion. She was personable, modestly dressed, and she didn’t seem fazed by all the attention directed her way. Sure, she had to play a part, she had to adopt a stage persona, but we all do that. On smaller stages maybe, without the dazzle, which is probably for the best. Though it would be nice to hear applause every so often when we entered a room. At times, we deserve that. For the chocolate cake we baked as a surprise, for the kindness we showed to someone in line at the grocery store, for working 40 hours without complaint. How easy that would be. How little effort that would take. So when your mom or dad or sister or roommate comes home today, put your hands together. Make some noise. You don’t even need to practice.

I wish I’d known this guy. 
He was my Nonno Leone, and he died at the age of 100. We left him and came to America shortly after I was born, which must have broken his heart. He is whittling away here at a bamboo shoot to form a whistle for me, his grandson. I was in my mid-twenties when I shot the photograph, well beyond the age of prizing whistles, but I was glad to have it. He was 90 at the time, the last time I saw him. I still have the whistle.

When we left that early morning, we had to wake him in his bed. He raised his arms to embrace me, weeping like a baby, knowing he wouldn’t see me again.

We had visited only one other time, when I was seven. He sliced farm fresh peaches and steeped these in a glass of wine. I ate the peaches and sipped the wine and soon became drowsy. He had to carry me up to the bedroom, one of the few memories I have of him, vague as it is.

I do clearly remember watching him chase a circle of squawking chickens. He had on these unlaced, scuffed black boots that he used to work the fields. He finally pounced on one of the chickens and calmly bled it out, not worrying at all about what his young grandson from America might think.

If we had never left him, these farm scenes would have been commonplace for me.

This is my father, who also grew up on a farm.

He realized early on that he didn’t want to chase chickens and so became an apprentice for a tailor in town, taking him away from his family for months at a time. He was only eleven when he began. As skilled as he was, he couldn’t make a living in Giao, his small village in Italia, which is why at age 37, he left for America to find work and then sent for his family.

Instead of being outside, like Nonno, Papa sits in his living room in Chicago, probably just resting his eyes. But the way he holds his head has always summed up for me the weight he felt about being the provider. Though we always had plenty on our small table, he worried that it wouldn’t be enough. He never schemed to strike it big, as some men might under this pressure. Instead, he trudged ahead steadily, never missing a day of work, never giving his boss reason to send him home, never upsetting the safe, little world he’d created for us.

And this is me a few months ago.

I am also inside. Not whittling. Not chasing chickens. I think about the crushing strength of Nonno’s hands, how they belied his gentleness. I think also about the intelligence in my father’s hands, the grace of those fingers as he chalked patterns and scissored them into pieces that would become a woolen skirt for my mother. I still have the gray, pinstriped suit he designed and made for me when I graduated from college. Oh, to still fit into that vest.

In my hand is a pen. I have spent years poised like this. Curled over, thinking, waiting. A world apart from Nonno and Papa. 

I can’t understand why Radio Shack had to file for bankruptcy. I have been a loyal customer for years, spending about $3.81 every three months on some cord or splitter or funky battery. I assumed they would always be there for me, eagerly waiting to address my current crisis. I need this plug to fit into an outlet that looks, sort of, like this.

I loved the flash of recognition on the clerk’s face, who understood precisely what I needed. Right over here, the clerk would announce. I’d follow behind sheepishly, confident and hopeful, knowing I was in good hands.

The other day, I wanted to plug my headphones into an amp that accepted only ¼ inch cords. I knew I had an adaptor buried somewhere, but the one I found didn’t quite fit snugly and didn’t work. (Why wouldn’t such an adaptor be universal?) I searched further, but didn’t get too frustrated because I was already calculating the cost of the adaptor I needed…surely under $4.00.

But then I remembered. Radio Shack was no more. Where the hell do I go now? Who’s going to solve my audiovisual emergencies? I was a little devastated. I felt cold and abandoned.

And I knew I couldn’t be the only one.

Have you had your Radio Shack moment yet?

About halfway through watching the Academy Awards last night, I couldn’t help but categorize my reactions into a variety of my own awards. I think this could become a tradition.

Most Eloquent Acceptance Speech
John Legend and Common, Selma. They did Martin Luther King, Jr. proud.

Most Heartfelt Acceptance
Graham Moore, Imitation Game.

Most Stirring Moments
A. Glory sung before backdrop of bridge in Selma.
B. Sound of Music tribute

Most Striking Tone-Deaf Moments—Twice
A. Neal Patrick Harris. After a winner bared her soul about her son’s suicide, Harris made a raunchy joke about her dress. Maybe he wasn’t listening?
B. Harris again. After Glory sung, many in tears. Harris, smiling: “Great song.”

Most Disappointing
No phone call from my three daughters after JK Simmons urged people to call their parents...right now, he said.

Most Awkward Moment
John Travolta kneading his co-presenter’s face.

Funniest Moment
John Travolta being a good sport about mangling the same co-presenter’s name the previous year.

Most Amusing Moment
Winner (from Budapest? Design?) who spoke through orchestra crescendo—and kept talking after.

Stiffest Presenter
Eddie Murphy. Why so sour, Eddie? I miss you.

Biggest Paradox
Eddie Redmayne’s performance is excellent. So how can the movie, The Theory of Everything, still be mediocre?

Best Phrase
Birdman director Inarritu (I think it was him): “That little prick called ego.”

Nicest Dress
Just kidding. Oh, I have my opinions, but I have no credentials/expertise to evaluate. I am tired of the JLo look, those two vertical sails designed to shock—ten years ago.

Least Flattering Mustache
Now mustaches I know. Hands down, Sean Penn.