Wednesday, August 15, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Ellen Oh

Title: Flying Lessons & Other Stories
Editor: Ellen Oh
This collection of short stories was our students' summer reading book.   As noted in Monday's post (see here), our community is working hard to confront racism and Flying Lessons was no coincidental choice.  Editor Ellen Oh is co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit organization with a mission to promote diversity in children's literature.  The story authors are Black, Asian, Latino, Latina, Native American and White.

The selections are all good though, of course, some are better than others.  "Flying Lessons" gets top billing for a reason.  Soman Chainani tells of young Santosh who goes on a big trip to Europe with his larger-than-life grandmother.  The narrative is awkward, touching and humorous, just as early adolescence truly is for many of us.  It provides some poignant insight into love, platonic and otherwise, posing the question: are we drawn to people because we like them or because we want to be them?  I can say for myself that love is often tinged with envy.  Do we not expand our life experience by living vicariously through others?

There is a fable element to many of the stories, as well, mostly along the lines of self-actualization.  I'm not on board with all of the choices made.  Matt de la Peña's offering is written in second-person, future tense.   Odd.  Tim Federle describes scarfing down lunch in 22 minutes as a marathon session which seems the wrong metaphor - more an editing issue?  On the other hand, Tim Tingle's non-linear Choctaw tall tale is delightful as is Kwame Alexander's story-in-verse.

Overall, the book is a lot of fun and certainly a quick read.  I hope our students enjoy it, too.  I look forward to discussing it with them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Food for the Occasion: Championship Sunday

This year, momentous events in each of my two favorite sports happened on the same day: the Wimbledon men's singles final and the World Cup final.  In fact, they overlapped a bit, the tennis beginning two hours earlier and not quite finishing in time for the soccer to begin.  I planned and prepared our mid-day meal with the two events as theme.  First, strawberries and cream for Wimbledon, then a Continental lunch platter in honor of France and Croatia.

The only part of the meal I technically "made" was the cream for the strawberries.  My wife found a recipe for Mock Devonshire Clotted Cream at RecipeSource.  Thankfully, it's a simple concoction easily thrown together in a few minutes.  The real deal is a multi-step process over multiple days.  It tasted yummy - in fact, too good to remember to take a photo before it was all gone.
I did remember a photo for the lunch platter (above): salami, baguette, sardines, crackers, gherkins (unfortunately sweet rather than dill) and more strawberries.

For the record, my rooting interests lost in both events.  The food was nice, though.

Monday, August 13, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Glenn E. Singleton

Title: Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools
Author: Glenn E. Singleton
Courageous Conversations about Race is our assigned professional summer reading for work.  For unfortunate reasons, our school district has been forced to confront racial issues head on over the past 15 months.  In truth, the conversation is long overdue.  The minority population in our northwest Vermont exurb is small which creates its own problems for our few students of color.  Singleton's book encourages educators to consider race in isolation rather than in combination with economic and linguistic factors.  He argues, convincingly, that schools too easily shy away from blunt conversations of race, preferring to hide behind easier topics.  The fact is, the achievement gap for students of color is dramatic even when controlling for income or parents' education level.

While the topic is undeniably worthwhile, I do have a few issues with the book.  As with Daniel Goleman's Working with Emotional Intelligence (reflection here), there is a slightly uncomfortable commercial element.  What Singleton would truly like is for you to hire him to lead workshops.  However, unlike Goleman, Singleton offers plenty of how-to material to do it on your own.  One of the agreements of his process is to accept non-closure.  He promises no particular outcomes, stressing the importance of the conversation itself in all its uncomfortable glory.

The material is frequently dry but the best parts are the personal reflections at the end of each chapter.  Various contributors, including the author himself, wrote essays on their own racial experience.  As part of the process, Singleton encourages participants to do the same.  And so, my own humble offering:

I am White - deeply White.  My own olive-skinned wife calls me The Alabaster Kid.  All of my ancestry is northern European: Danish, English, German, Scottish, Welsh.  Most of the time, I don't give much thought to my own race which is, of course, the very essence of White Privilege.  Most of the time, I don't think about it whereas people of color rarely if ever have that luxury in American or European society.  I have nearly always been more aware of other people's races than my own.
The one period in my life when I was hyper-aware of my own race was the two years of my young adulthood spent in Japan.  Being a White American in Japan feels a bit like I imagine being a celebrity would.  You can't go anywhere without being noticed.  While certain parts of Tokyo are international enough to provide adequate camouflage, I stood no chance of blending into the crowd in my quiet Yokohama neighborhood.  Reactions from strangers on the street ran the gamut: fascination, curiosity, admiration, astonishment, fear and occasional hostility from those who knew enough to resent the American military presence in the area.  In the beginning of my stay, it was fun, even amusing.  By the end, it was tiresome.  I would long for time in Harajuku or Roppongi where I could enjoy relative anonymity. 
I know better than to believe my experience was remotely equivalent to that of a Black man in the United States - or even a Black man in Japan, for that matter.    Often, foreign men in Japan (gaijin) would compare notes upon meeting each other.  The Black guys would report a lot more fear in people's reactions than I ever saw.  To be sure, prejudice crosses borders and oceans effortlessly.
Here, I just don't think about it most of the time.  But Singleton's book forces me to look back on my life to times when I undoubtedly benefited from White Privilege in ways I wouldn't have considered before.  There were times when I struggled in school growing up, years when the grades weren't so great.  Everyone around me assumed I would bounce back even when I didn't believe it myself.  I realize now that may not have been the case if I had been a person of color.  The struggles might have suited the stereotype and the system might well have handled me differently.
For my students, I need to listen and be more aware of their challenges.  It can't be easy to walk into a school everyday where none of the teachers and few of the students look like you.  It's more than sticking out and people saying mean things, though that really does happen frighteningly often.  People's expectations for you are different.  Do you internalize those expectations?  Rebel against them?  A little of both?  Something else entirely?  I won't know until I listen and, as Singleton stresses in the beginning of his book, believe what they tell me.
I don't believe in "woke."  I fear it implies that awareness of racism is enough.  If I am woke to anything, it is to how much I have to learn.  
I do know I'm ready to listen.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Window Above: Open Arms

Song: "Open Arms"
Writers: Steve Perry and Jonathan Cain
Original Release: July 31, 1981
Band: Journey
Album: Escape

It is the power ballad to end all power ballads.  For Journey, the gate to immortality is "Don't Stop Believin'" (see this post) and for good reason.  However, "Open Arms" was actually the band's highest charting single, climbing to #2.  It's a perfect match between singer and song.  The big leaps and soaring melody are perfectly suited to Steve Perry.  If ever there were a tune that cried out for an a cappella cover, this is it.  And yet, none of the ones I could find were quite right.  Boyz II Men and EXO, two of the most successful vocal groups ever have both covered it and despite admirable efforts, Steve Perry still wins.  

Judge for yourself.  First, the original:

I think I'd pick EXO as a close second:

That said, I'll happily listen to these guys harmonize anytime, and they're way better without all of the production garbage behind them:

Naturally, the Eastman kids are pretty good:

Thursday, August 9, 2018

On the Coffee Table: The Lives of Christopher Chant

Title: The Lives of Christopher Chant
Author: Diana Wynne Jones

The Lives of Christopher Chant is the second book of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, according to the recommended reading order of the author.  This books actually serves as prequel to the first, Charmed Life (reflection here).  We get the boyhood story of the much-neglected Christopher who travels between parallel worlds in his sleep.  These are no mere dreams as Christopher is able to bring physical mementos back from his wanderings.  This ability proves useful to those with nefarious purpose.  Christopher, though the son of powerful musicians, believes he has no magical ability during his waking hours.  Somewhat predictably, he finds the truth to be quite different.  Shades of Xanth here.

All of Jones's usual charm is on offer here.  She's a wonderful world builder and with her, it's nearly always multiple worlds in the same story.  Christopher's visit to our own dimension is brief and terrifying.  He nearly gets run over by a bus. 

One can always count on Diane Wynne Jones for creating likeable characters, even among the baddies.  My favorite this time is Tacroy, Christopher's morally ambiguous, cricket loving traveling companion.  In fact, I've already cast him should there ever be a movie: Richard Ayoade, best known for The IT Crowd.

Great book.  Great series.  Great author.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

On the Coffee Table: Tony Isabella

Title: 1000 Comic Books You Must Read
Author: Tony Isabella
I have an inscribed copy of this book, gifted to me by Mock and Drama Guy for my birthday five years ago - just for a glimpse into how deep my TBR shelves run these days.  Isabella has been working in comics, mostly as writer and critic, for decades.  His proudest creation is the DC superhero Black Lightning, intended to address the lack of positive Black characters in the comics of the late '70s.  He was inspired, in part, by television's Welcome Back, Kotter, also a comic series for which Isabella had written.

I doubt this book will turn me into a collector.  Having dabbled in the genre for a few years now, I've got a pretty good idea of what I like.  That said, the history presented here is excellent and a lot of it new to me.  The titles are categorized by decade and each chapter begins with the historical context.  The first book listed is Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, June 1938.  While Isabella acknowledges the existence of sequential art for millennia preceding, he submits Superman as the launch point of the industry as most American consumers know it.  The most recent publication featured is Bruce the Little Bruce Spruce, December 2008.

There's a decent variety on Isabella's list, though a more Squid-friendly selection would have featured more international titles, especially Japanese.  I have read several in his compilation and have a couple more on the shelves waiting for me.  I expect the book will be a good reference and will also be good for ideas should I decide to expand my horizons. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Squid Mixes: Vodka and Tonic

Sometime, it might be meaningful to taste a vodka tonic and a gin and tonic side by side.  The quinine flavor of the tonic water is so dominant that the base liquor hardly matters.  Mind you, both are lovely, refreshing beverages.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Quinine came into prominent use as a preventative against malaria.  It is potently bitter so in the 19th century, British officials in India and other tropical outposts started mixing it with soda water.  What we know as tonic was born.  Adding alcohol was the next logical step: first gin, later vodka.

Vodka and tonics feature prominently in this Elton John classic:

Friday, August 3, 2018

A Window Above: Heroes and Villains

Song: "Heroes and Villains"
Writers: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
Original Release: July 24, 1967
Band: The Beach Boys

In truth, I've never been much of a Beach Boys fan.  I own Pet Sounds - practically obligatory - and willingly acknowledge that "Good Vibrations" is a masterpiece.  But as for their old school surf music, it just doesn't do it for me.  I know, practically un-American!

So, perhaps it's not surprising that my favorite among their songs is out of character.  "Heroes and Villains" was intended as a follow-up on the success of "Good Vibrations."  While it enjoyed moderate commercial success - #12 on the charts - it was widely panned by critics.  Jimi Hendrix famously referred to it as a "psychedelic barbershop quartet."  While that sounds awesome to me, Jimi didn't mean it as a compliment.

I will admit that from a production standpoint, the song's kind of a mess.  But I think it represents a nice mix of the group's older vocal harmony charm and their late-sixties trippy frolics.