I’m Not the Boss of This Level and I’m Not Your App

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Philip K. Dick, the visionary writer who penned “Minority Report”, wrote a story about the effects of games on children.  The protagonist and his team of inspectors examine goods imported from a hostile country.  They search for hidden bombs and poisons, but fail to screen out a seemingly harmless game.  The man gives it to his kids.  It’s a strategy game like chess: players move pieces across a board divided up into contested land masses.  The children love it and quickly master its underlying logic:  you win the game by giving up all your territory.

Now our children play computer games that feature progressive levels of difficulty.  A player moves forward by figuring out a set of challenges and defeating a level’s boss.  Strategies learned in one level do not always apply to the next.  And a highly successful player of one game may not develop transferable skills that deliver triumph in another.

Computers and electronic games have molded our children so that teaching has become a lot more difficult.  Students no longer give teachers respect even when teachers demonstrate mastery of their material. Students don’t apply information and skills learned in one lesson to ongoing exercises.  They appear to have an ingrained pattern of thinking: learn material long enough to satisfy the demands of a situation, make no connections between one skill and another, and forget skills and techniques as soon as they are no longer demanded.

This leads to a second difficulty:  students look at teachers as if they are apps or search engines or youtube instructional videos.  They think of an instructor as a button they can push when a problem arises.  They don’t understand that teachers are not computer programs, that their instructors resent having to repeat simple instructions over and over again.

A third difficulty arises when students think that their instructor is just one source among many.  One night I showed an example of a cross-contour drawing and drew a demonstration using the technique.  One student sat at his drawing board and refused to start.  He Google-searched for other examples of the technique instead.  I tossed him my drawing and said, “Here’s an example.”  He studied it briefly and went back to his phone.  I came over and saw that he had pulled up three images of cross-contour drawings.  One came closest to the exercise I had designed, so I told him to follow that one.  I came around to him five minutes later, and he still hadn’t begun.  I told him to start (we only had a half hour left in class), and he said, “But I’m just looking for another example.”  Things went downhill from there, and I advised him to find another instructor.

The fourth difficulty:  students think of courses as levels in the game of earning a degree.  Instructors are bosses to be outwitted and defeated. Then they can go onto another class and another until they claim their diplomas.  They earn a bonus at the end of the game when they find jobs in their field of study.

They don’t understand, until it’s too late, that the information and skills taught in their courses still apply.  (One cannot function as an engineer without mastery of physics and calculus.)  Courses aren’t temporary challenges; courses deliver resources that apply always.

I tell my students the following at the end of the second class in Drawing I:  “Remember how I want you to block in simple shapes, measure angles and proportions and then go for final lines and details?  I want you to do that for the rest of the semester.  And then I want you to do that for the rest of your life.  When you die and become one of the angels and progress far enough to become cocreators of the universe with God, I want you to block in new constellations and universes with simple shapes, use a cosmic pencil to check proportions, and then put on the finishing touches.”  Half of them smile and nod;  half stare at me blankly as they wait for me to shut up and go away.

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Art, the Offender?

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Does art find harmonies that soothe?  Do the harmonies suggest an underlying and reassuring order?  All is well?

Does art destroy smug tranquility?  Does the destruction open up new ways of seeing, hearing, living?  Or does it merely wipe away preconceptions without building a scaffold for new structures?

I read that James Joyce came across a few intelligible passages as he edited Finnegan’s Wake.  A reader might just be able to connect some dots.  Joyce immediately reworked the offending phrases until they seamlessly blended in with the seething babble of the rest of the book.

Picasso broke forms, twisted shapes, rendered the world in ways that surprised him.  Yet he missed having a set of rules by which he could judge the value of his work.  He realized that Cubism had undermined tradition, and that he couldn’t retrace his steps to regain the comfort of working in an enclosed system.

I used to use color as a weapon.  Reds and greens clashed and tore at each other.  Hot colors shouted at dull.  I wanted to wake everyone up to make them feel what I felt.  Now I know that they already did, that my emotions weren’t unique.  And now I like a little harmony as my days grow harder to manage and the world seems alien to me.

I sometimes visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York when I lived in Pennsylvania.  The lower floors started with James Ensor, and as I progressed upward I saw a progression of movements.  Fauvism jumped to Cubism skipped to Dadaism and Surrealism.  The tangled energy of Ab-Ex ran down and became supplanted by Pop Art and increasingly arid Minimalism.  The eighties section focused mostly on installation art.  Eccentricity seemed to be the only recognizable goal.  I fled around a corner into a quiet room with dimmer lights, sat on a bench and sighed.  A Monet water lily painting hung before me, and I felt like a thirsty traveler sipping cool water at an oasis.

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The Kindly Sinner: Great Aunt Mary

Wayne Avenue runs downhill from Belmont to downtown Dayton.  Great Aunt Mary lived in a building halfway down the slope in a neighborhood that had once been pleasant.  We three kids climbed vinyl treaded stairs to her second floor apartment, knocked gingerly and waited.  She opened the door with a big smile and invited us in.  She had snow white hair, laugh lines, and a hoarse, rasping voice.  She returned to a large oak table in her dining room, picked up a kitchen knife and cut dough into thin strips.  I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “Making egg noodles”.  She finished quickly, wiped the table and washed her hands.

Time for a tour.  I saw a painting hanging in her living room, a winter scene of a snowy lane, a haloed moon, and frost covered trees.  Beside it hung a still life of roses in a vase.  Aunt Mary saw me looking at them and said, “Those were painted by a nun who used to teach at St. Mary’s parochial school.  She came from Germany and spoke with a thick accent.”

Aunt Mary sat us down on a sofa and asked us questions:  how do you like school?  what do you like to watch on TV? what position do you play on your baseball team? She smiled and listened as we answered and never glanced sideways as if hoping we’d stop talking.  (My grandmother, Aunt Mary’s older sister, had limited patience for me and my brother.  We learned to keep our thoughts to ourselves in Grandma’s presence.)

Aunt Mary fed us supper, and we sat down in front of her black and white television after we finished.  She asked for suggestions and turned the dial to Channel 7.  The Sonny and Cher Show came on.  Aunt Mary seemed bewildered by the odd commotion of the program, but she beamed at us as we pointed at the screen and laughed.  She pretended to like it too.

We knew that Grandma carried a grudge against her sister, but no one explained how it started and why it was so one sided.  Aunt Mary shrugged off Grandma’s snubs and pointed remarks and never struck back.  I asked Aunt Mary one day if she felt hurt by that treatment.  I had been on the receiving end of my grandmother’s spite on a few occasions and feared doing anything that would make her wrath permanent.  But Aunt Mary said, “Oh, your grandmother doesn’t bother me.  She’s always been that way.”

Mom and Dad took us to our grandparents on Sunday nights to visit.  Talk inevitably turned to family history and gossip.  Aunt Mary became the main topic one night.  I heard that she had had an affair with a married man for years and years.  My great aunt and the man were Catholics, and the man refused to get a divorce even though his marriage had long grown cold.  Aunt Mary never made any demands.  She understood that she and “Bill” would get married if the estranged wife died.

Bill suffered a heart attack and exited this world well before his wife.  Aunt Mary never took up with another man, and years later remarked, “To hell with the Church.  I should have married him while I could.”

Homecoming

 

 

 

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Homecoming, graphite and colored pencil (in progress).

 

1989

I took a trip to visit a gallery in Wilmington, Delaware to show my dealer new work and discuss an upcoming show.  I sidetracked to visit a grad school friend and didn’t return home until sunset.  My wife Judy and daughter Annie happened to be outside when I pulled in.  Annie was about 18 months old.

She had fine golden brown hair, and the setting sun crowned her with a shimmering halo as she ran to greet me.  I knelt down, swept her into my arms and carried her back to Judy.

Judy always said that our girl was happy when she was with either of her parents, but loved having all three of us together.  Then all was well in her world.

Alan came along in 1990.  He was a happy baby who smiled and cooed when he woke up from a nap.  He began to explore as soon as he could crawl.  We would put him on the carpet in the living room while we ate supper, and after five or ten minutes I’d get up to find him in the bathroom.  He liked to lay under the sink and stare up at the shiny pipes.

1992

We bought a house in Winter Park in a working class neighborhood.  We’d been living in a tiny rental house in an iffy neighborhood on the south side of Orlando.  Judy and I gave the kids a tour, showed them their bedroom and an addition at the back designated as their play room.  They both looked excited as if they had discovered possibilities for new adventures, and Alan began to run from one end of the house to the other.  He had so much more space now and wanted to extend himself back and forth across it.

A few years later we took Annie and Alan out for a treat. Annie had recently turned six and had just performed in her first dance recital.  A drug store near an Italian ice stand sold toys, so we bought the kids ice cream and little stuffed animals.  Alan chose a panda bear,  and that night he held it tightly in his hand as he fell asleep.

1991

Judy and I slumped exhausted after a long day.  Annie chattered and chased fire flies. Alan, who was teething at the time, sat on a blanket on our front lawn.  He kept crawling to the edge to search for something to stick in his mouth, and I kept vigilant watch to prevent him from gnawing on a twig or a stray piece of gravel.

A fiftyish woman and her husband passed by on their evening stroll. We didn’t know them and exchanged perfunctory greetings.  Folks in the neighborhood held back from getting acquainted as the four of us lived in a rental in a college town–we wouldn’t be there for long.  The couple nearly reached the next yard, but the woman turned back to study our little family.  Her expression turned rueful, perhaps bitter, and she said, “Some day you’re going to look back and realize that these are the best days of your lives.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Football at Cape Howl: Blame It on the Band

 

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TV station vans parked near the football field at Cape Howl High School twice in October 2005.  I saw them when I took my son to marching band meetings before football games.  On the first occasion, a reserve linebacker had died that morning in an accident near the school.  He had been riding a motorcycle, and a collision cost him his life.  Mini-cam journalists hoped to coerce heart tugging statements from teammates, cheerleaders, teachers…The second news infestation occurred after police arrested the football team’s head coach for having sex with a sixteen year old girl, a student in one of his classes.  Deputies found a memory stick loaded with pictures of their liaisons.

The team limped through the rest of the year under the guidance of a school dean.  The pool of in-house coaches had been drained earlier in May when an officer walked into a park’s men’s room and discovered an assistant coach gratifying another man with his mouth.  My son reported that opposing fans catcalled the band and the team during away games.  The abuse focused on Cape Howl’s apparent culture of perversion.

A coach hired a few years later decided to turn the program around.  The football team, even when not distracted by hovering news crews, leaned hard toward ineptitude on special teams.  It had become something of a tradition for Cape Howl to allow opposing teams to run back opening kicks for  touchdowns.  They lost a game in the fourth quarter when the Cape Howl long snapper bounced erratic two-hoppers to a kicker on a punt and to a holder on a point after attempt.  Both screw-ups lead to touchdowns for the other team.

The new guy had to come up with a plan to unite his team, to revive flagging spirits.  He didn’t quote military heroes, didn’t call on players to summon their inner fortitude, didn’t shame or threaten them into trying harder, didn’t profess his deep allegiance to higher moral standards.  Instead, he encouraged players to blame the marching band.

His players fumbled, failed to cover kicks, couldn’t protect the quarterback, seldom ran the football for more than two yards, and rarely stopped an opponent with a goal line stand.  Most years they managed to win one or two games.  But none of that was their fault.  The geeks with the instruments were the real culprits.

The band received orders to quit playing music in the stands when Cape Howl had the football.  The coach singled out band members in his classes for humiliation…The first bold steps on the path to victory had been taken…

The team won half of their games that year and qualified for a play off tournament.  No news crews appeared in the parking lot near the football field, and the band no longer played “My Girl” when Cape Howl threatened to score.

Win!  Win!  Win!

 

The Call Came From Inside the House!

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Our caller ID has helped us filter out sales, political and scam calls.  The lying bastards have adopted a new strategy:  they use numbers in our area code.  We’ve learned to ignore unfamiliar numbers, but a new wrinkle has presented itself over the last two days.  Now someone is calling us from our land line number to our land line number.  I’m listed on caller ID as the caller.

This morning I picked up to see if I was placing a call from the future (perhaps I had stumbled into a warp in the space/time continuum while trudging to the bathroom for my morning pee), but it turned out to be a robot woman.  She told me in peeved mechanical tones that she had been trying to contact me as Microsoft was about to close my account.

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I had two thoughts:  1. What Microsoft account? 2. Did I undergo a gender transition in the future right before I joined the Singularity and my hybrid computer/human mind was inserted into a call center robot scammer?

I got a second such call, and a likelier possibility occurred to me:  our personal space had been invaded.  I cried out to Judy, “The Microsoft robot is calling from inside the house!  Hide all the computers! She’s gonna erase Word!”

Every Dog…

We played touch football in gym class in eighth grade, and I usually served as center.  I  was slow of foot and posed no offensive threat as a runner or receiver.  But I could consistently hike the ball and was sneaky good at holding up pass rushers.

One day near the end of a close game, our quarterback, Chris Cochran, waited too long to get rid of the ball.  Two guys got past me.  I turned back to see if Cochran had been sacked and saw him backpedaling away from his tormentors.  He yelled my name and flipped the ball to me.  I bobbled and caught it and ran down field.

All my teammates besides Chris were still running pass routes, and their defenders remained glued to them.  They turned to look back in shock as they saw me heading toward them.  One defender, the fastest boy in our grade, saw the ball tucked in the crook of my arm.  His eyes widened with disbelief, and he finally tore himself away from his man and veered into my path.  I cut to the left and let two other players get into his way.  I assumed that he would catch me from behind and continued to zigzag my way through scatterings of players.

My route cleared completely the last twenty yards, and I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been downed yet.  I made one more cut to the left when I neared the goal line and scored.

My teammates didn’t celebrate my 50 yard touchdown.  Instead they laughed, pointed at the other side, and mocked them for their ineptitude.  “You let Schmalstig score!” they jeered.

When we returned to our classroom, one of my guys came up to me and said, “Hey, you sure got lucky.”  I smiled and said nothing.  He added, “Because you suck at football.  And you were so surprised when Chris threw that ball to you, you almost dropped it.”

Almost.