Monday, March 29, 2010

TRagic Disappointment

One of the things on my list to do in DC was to visit the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial. It was not until I was reading through Frommer's DC guide that I even knew about the Teddy Roosevelt Memorial, but sure enough, he has one. Being my favorite president, I have been looking forward to seeing his memorial for months (because I am dorky like that that these are the things I look forward to). Teddy Roosevelt's Memorial is an island situated on the Potomac set apart as a nature preserve--which TR would have loved-- with nature trails and a large bronze statue of the president in the middle. To visit the island, you can take a little boat or a footbridge. We did not have time to fit this into our schedule this summer so I was determined to make it happen when I had a whole day to myself in DC.

I found my way there and navigated my way to the footbridge. My anticipation was building and I was totally channeling Teddy as I approached. I was so ready to commune with nature and Roosevelt. Sure enough, it was closed--flooding on the Potomac.

Oh well, I will have to save it for next time.

Fun Facts about Frederick Douglass

For Spring Break this year, I got to spend a couple of days in Washington D.C. Although I have been several times now, there were just a few things that I really wanted to do and had not gotten to yet. One of them was visiting Frederick Douglass' House in Anacostia. Every year, I look forward to rereading Douglass' narrative with my eighth graders; it is one of my favorites books of all time. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it; it may be the best 100 pages you have read in a while. I was surprised how many things about Douglass I did not yet know. Here are just a few:

- Frederick Douglass was 6 ft. 4 in.--as tall as Abraham Lincoln.
- After publishing his autobiography, Douglass had to flee the United States because he was a runaway slave and therefore a refugee from the law. He spent two years abroad in Ireland and called them some of the best years of his life. In Ireland, he felt free from all prejudice--a freedom he never fully felt in the US.
- Frederick Douglass' first wife helped him escape from slavery. After she passed away, he remarried a white women 20 years his junior--I had no idea. Somewhat ironically, he had a portrait from Othello over his fireplace while he was alive.
- Douglass amassed a large personal fortune public speaking.

- There was a laundry room addition to the Douglass home which was quite unusual for the time. Dress was very important to Douglass. He knew he would always be judged on his appearance so he was always sure to cleanly pressed and immaculately fashionable. When he was gone on long speaking engagements (weeks at a time), his wife would send clean pressed shirts ahead of him so he would always have clean laundry waiting for him when he arrived.
- Frederick Douglass was a huge supporter of the women's rights movement. His home has portraits of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
- Douglass' favorite author's were Shakespeare and...yes, you guessed it...Charles Dickens. I knew we had something in common.
- Douglass was very physically active and could be seen working out in front of his house every day with hand weights--even on the day he died. (Below you can see the weights next to his shoes in the bedroom.) He had two speaking engagements scheduled on the day he died; he had a heart attack on the way there.

For humor's sake, I must add that, other than the tour guide, I was the only white person there, but I am proud to be Frederick Douglass' biggest Caucasian fan. He was a great writer, an eloquent speaker, an excellent politician, and a truly energetic and courageous man.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Battle of the Sports Movies

Invictus and The Damned United are both recently released sports movies but that take very different approaches.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, Invictus is a relatively straight forward sports movie telling the classic underdog story but in the very political climate of South African apartheid. The movie is very well acted; Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon do a great job. Eastwood uses the rugby story to showcase the brilliant political leadership of Nelson Mandela making Invictus a very interesting movie. I loved the scenes with Mandela’s bodyguards and watching the way that the black and white policemen had to learn to work together to protect their leader.

The style of the movie is very classic and straightforward. At times, the story-telling can be clich├ęd: the “ghost” of Mandela that Matt Damon sees in the prison cell lacked subtlety. The only other thing that could have made the movie better was the music. Some of the lyric were cheesy, and so much more dramatic climax could have been achieved with more nuance.

The Damned United was a much smaller release telling the story of losing manager rather than a winning team. Brian Clough, played by Michael Sheen (Frost in Frost/Nixon), who rose to become one of England’s greatest coaches and his fall from grace after a short 44-day stint as the coach of Leeds United, England’s best team. Clough and his right-hand man, Peter Taylor, have shown that they can rise from the bottom of the heap to greatness,but Clough approaches his new team with a righteous contempt for their “dirty” tactics. Clough’s hatred actually comes from Leeds’ former coach, Don Revie, who treated Clough arrogantly many years in the past. As the plot unfolds, Clough begins feed off his own arrogance, and his relationship with Taylor deteriorates. Clough soon finds himself without a job, and is forced to return to Taylor on his knees.

The Damned United is a very interesting sports movie in that it illustrates how losing reveals a person’s true character. The cinematography and style of the movie are modern and interesting. The acting in this movie is superb, and the writing and character development are excellent. As the title suggests, the movie does contain a lot of explicit language.

I highly recommend The Damned United—8.5 out of 10.

Julie and Julia

After having this movie recommended to me several times, I finally sat down to watch Julie and Julia.

I loved all of the scenes with Meryl Streep; she definitely deserved the Oscar nomination for this role. She is lovable and dynamic. Julia Child’s relationship with her husband is such a pleasure to watch. Their love, playfulness, and authenticity are rarely seen in screen marriages. The film tells the story of the rise of Julia Child and how a woman finds her true calling and passion in life. This side of the movie, I really liked.

The other part of the movie tells the story of modern day Julie who sets a goal for herself in order to give her life meaning and achieve a sense of success. There is a fabulous scene when Julie is having lunch with her corporate career friends. Their snobbiness and material definition of success is disgusting. At that moment, I sympathized with Julie. But as her story develops, Julie becomes obsessed with this somewhat arbitrary goal of cooking through Julia Child’s cookbook in one year makes her narcissistic and her idolatry of Julia Child annoying. Her sweet husband puts up with a lot, and I am not sure that she ever truly realizes how blessed she is. I love Amy Adams but not Julie.

I give Julie and Julia a 6. The scenes with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci were enjoyable, but the rest of the movie was lacking.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Up in the Air

In the aftermath of the Oscars, I am on a campaign to see some of the most nominated Oscars picks. First on my list: Up in the Air.

This movie tells the story of Ryan Bingham, a professional firer--one who fires people-- and successful motivational speaker preaching the liberty of a lack of commitment. Homeless is the sense that he lives in airports, planes, hotels, and in rental cars, Bingham's life goal is to rack up as many rewards miles as humanly possible and achieve gold/platinum status wherever he can. Ryan seems very content with his situation until something rocks his personal and professional boats. First, he meets a fun, engaging woman, Alex, with a similar career and gold/platinum status; then, his company decides to take him off the road and begin firing via web-cam. But when he finally reaches his career "high," he begins to realize that the life he has chosen for himself is not all that it cracked up to be.

What I liked: The movies was very well written. Any script that uses the word "hubris" in a normal conversation passes my test. The conversations are real and engaging. The script definitely deserved the Oscar nomination. Also, it was very well acted. George Clooney especially was very believable and added great dimension to the characters. While I thought the girl that played Natalie overacted at times, she had several great scenes. I also like the editing and style of the film. There are some great sequences that are almost soldier -like as Bingham packs his bag, checks in, and goes through security with machine-like precision. Then in the scene at the family wedding, the director uses a series of fun, hand held close-ups with only the soundtrack behind it (no talking). This does a great job of getting the audience emotionally engaged at this event--very effective. The other family scenes are very funny and sweet when against his better judgment, Ryan begins to regret his lack of involvment with his sisters over the years.

I also really like how cohesive and clear the message of the movie was. From breaking up over text message to a heartbreaking scene where a man is fired via web-cam in the next room, the movie brilliantly uses the plot to reveal all of the ways our tech-centric culture reduces and eliminates true human interaction leading to an entire break down of relationships. The juxtaposition of Bingham's finesse in letting faithful employees go with the sterile process of the web-cam firing is effective and hilarious. Everything from the solitary shots of Bingham, to his not so motivational back-pack analogy, to the family wedding, the message of the movie is that while relationships are very hard work requiring responsibility and sacrifice without them, life is empty.

There were a few points where I felt the message lost steam. Primarily that while all of the characters could identify why relationships, family, and home are important, no one could explain why. Of course without a Christian worldview where people are made in the image of a relational God and are looking forward to eternity, there really is no reason why.

Spoiler Alert--If you don't want to know what happens at the end, do not read this part.
I was also very disappointed with the twist concerning Alex's character at the end. It felt like a plot device, and I have a hard time believing that a woman would have seemingly no qualms about leading that kind of double life. More than that, the film seemed to have no qualms with her double life either as if to say, "Well sure she is unfaithful to her family and a liar, but at least she has a family." The movie also seems to offer little hope for Bingham and those that have shut themselves off "in a cocoon of self-abandonment" (to quote Natalie in the movie) as if to say that Bingham-types and our culture are a lost cause.

Overall, Up in the Air tells an interesting story very effectively. There are a lot of really funny and poignant moments in this movie, and it is a really good commentary on the effects that technology and our business-driven culture have on relationships and family. I give it an 8 out of 10.

Middle School Moment

Today, my eighth graders did presentations on Gilded Age reformers. After hearing from one student about W. E. B. DuBois and the founding of Fisk University, another student asked the girl presenting Ida B. Wells, "Did Ida go to Frisky University?"

I have no response to that.

Monday, March 1, 2010

All play and no work make Jack a dull boy

One of the topics that I feel like I am constantly addressing in my classroom is the idea that there is time and a place for everything. I tell all of my kids on the first day of school that it is a mark of great maturity to be able to transition smoothly and seamlessly from a funny moment to a serious moment. In the classroom this comes up a lot. I love to laugh and my kids love to laugh and to crack jokes. The problem comes when all they want to do is crack jokes. No matter how many times we establish that when we are in the classroom, it is time to get down to business, a select few decide that every class period is their chance to crack their little inside jokes and carry on private conversations. I have had this conversation countless times yet was making no progress. Other than the selfishness of only thinking only of their own pleasure rather than the purpose in the classroom, this constant joviality was making them very boring. Balance is needed in every aspect of life especially in the relationship between work and play. They were all play and no work, not to mention that their jokes were getting really old.

One day last week, I had finally had enough. The circumstances were as follows: I had to step out of the classroom for about 5 minutes, and upon returning, my teacher's sixth sense for find trouble told me that they were up to some mischief. If I had had my coffee, I probably would have found it earlier, but in my non-caffeinated state, it took some 7th graders to point out the mischief the next class period. The mischief: an addition to my wall of presidents. Sure enough, right next to Barack Obama was Chestah--a made up cartoon character very loosely based on Chester Allen Arthur (the real 21st President) that resembles the Planters Peanut cartoon. It was the last straw. I gave them one shot to fess up; they did, and I sent the culprit to the principal. She came in to witness the stupidity of the crime and gave him and his cohorts a stern talking-to reiterating that they only have a few short months left of school and that they need to focus and finish strong. Miraculously, those words from the principal opened their eyes to the seriousness of the occasion, and the rest of the day was very productive.

I spoke with the hoodlums afterward, and they were genuinely contrite. It was actually a beautiful picture of how truly restorative discipline can be when done right--timely, fitting, and from the heart. They all apologized and have made a real effort to buckle down and concentrate when we are in class. After a few days, one even thanked the principal for talking to them admitting that they needed it. We all need reminders from time to time to keep our lives in the appropriate balance.

Stupid--I know