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Monday, May 28, 2012

My View of Memorial Day

  Here in the United States we take the time to honor those Americans who fell in defense of our country on this last Monday in May.  War is never glorious.  War is never to be desired.  Yet war cannot always be avoided.  But sometimes, though we cannot always understand it, wars have been desired, wars have been glorious, and wars that could have been avoided have been fought.
  The American Civil War was one such war that many men desired despite the fact that it could have been avoided.  It is also a war that has been elevated to the status of a Glorious Struggle.  Great men have written great words to describe what was only a family argument that ended in the spilling of more American blood than all other American wars combined.  I do not take this moment to debate the rights and wrongs of that war.  I will confess that as a young man I loved to read about this war, visit the battlefields, and even dreamed of participating in it.  I have lived on both sides of the battle lines, and have lived among the descendants of both armies.  I can tell you that both camps take great pride in the events of that bloody conflict.  Many of them understand the importance of remembering in order to prevent such tragedy again.  Many do not.  But I am only taking this opportunity to remind us all what can happen when political division is taken too far.
  No, I don't believe our current disagreement over taxes will lead to a full-scale war.  But such a war occurred in 1776, and thousands of men died as a result.  No, I don't believe our argument over abortion will lead to combat in the streets of small towns all over the East Coast.  But such a war occurred in 1861 over the argument of slavery and hundreds of thousands of men died for it.
  By one account, there are seven civil wars presently being fought in the world.  A recent United Nations report found that since 1970, more deaths from civil war have occurred than deaths in all other wars fought in that period.  They are also lasting longer, from an average of two and a half years (pre-1970) to over three times that by the year 2000.  This kind of strife is horrific, tearing communities and families apart.  It leads to bitterness that can hardly be described. 
  The personal attacks that I have already begun to see during this political season in the United States saddens me.  I rarely hear anything close to actual debate about any issues.  Our ability to participate in rational discussion over emotional tirades seems to grow weaker each year.  I know that you can go back to the historical record and find plenty of emotional histrionics in the old campaigns.  But today, with our constant barrage of social interaction on the web, it would be prudent to pull back and look at how we treat each other.  Harsh words are easily tossed about when you do not have to look your victim in the eye.  But those words linger even longer on the web than if they were only said in person.  An attack on a social network can be read again and again, and passed around far more accurately than gossip.  And this kind of thing leads to serious conflict.
  If the only option you have to defend your position is to attack your opponent, you have already lost the debate.  Promote your position.  Do not tear down your opponent's position.  Otherwise, find something else to talk about since it is obvious you do not know enough about the subject at hand.
  The photographs are from Gettysburg National Military Park, from June of 2011.  My visits to such parks no longer inspire me.  While I respect those who sacrificed their lives for something they believed in, I am simply overcome by the sheer tragedy of it all.  I am baffled by the lack of rational conflict resolution.  Perhaps by living on both sides of the battle line I have learned to see both sides of the story.  And neither side fills me with pride.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Paris Quick View (Number Five)

  No one has yet told me they are tired of Paris photographs so I will continue to offer up a few every now and then.  If any of you do get tired of them just let me know.  Drop me a note, call me on the phone, send me a telegram.  (Come to think of it, I've never received a telegram.  That would be kind of cool.  Can you even still send telegrams?  If you know the answer to that last question, send me a telegram and let me know.)
  Maison Rosimond is the oldest house on Montmartre, built in 1680.  Almost 200 years later, Auguste Renoir lived here for a time, one of many painters who spent time on this lovely estate.  As can be seen in the photo, the house by itself is the perfect French Painting.  The land surrounding it, falling away behind it down the backside of Montmartre, as well as Rue Cortot which runs along the front of it, could not help but inspire painters like Renoir, Utrillo, and Valadon.  We could have stood outside the house and just soaked up its beauty save for the fact that this building houses the Musee Montmartre, and we had arrived late in the day.  One of the museum workers hurried us on, reminding us that we had very little time left to view the displays.  Our tour was brief but highly enjoyable.
  Inside the museum we found many posters by Toulouse Lautrec, Theophile Steinlen (including his famous Chat Noir poster), Jules Cheret as well as other items from the heyday of Montmartre in the early 1900's.
  One of the more arresting images was Jules Cheret's poster advertising Hugo's History of a Crime, his attack on Napoleon III.  I had never seen this before, and a quick image check on the web did not list any places that have this image.  Here we see a man laid out upon a broken stone with the words la loi chiseled into it.  The Law.  I have never read this, however I now have the opportunity, since I found a complete Victor Hugo collection for Kindle by Delphi Classics.  History of a Crime is in the collection.  What intrigues me is the fact that I came across a statue in Montmartre Cemetery a week after I saw this poster, which has the body of a young man sprawled across the crypt.  Upon the crypt are the words La Loi.  It is the image of Alphonse Baudin, a revolutionary who was killed upon the barricades in 1851.  Hugo's story came out 26 years after Baudin's death.  The odd bit of this is the fact that I did not realize the poster and the memorial were connected until a later examination of the photos.  A close up of the poster shows the dead man's face to be unmarred.  However, a close-up of Baudin's statue reveals a bullet hole in his forehead.  I am looking forward to reading the novel and learning more about this story.

Click on the photo to better see the detail of the bullet hole.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Three Reasons I am not Impressed with your School Award

  It's that time again: awards season.  Not the Academy Awards.  Not the Billboard Awards.  Not even the Darwin Awards.  I'm talking about the End-Of-School-Year Awards.  That rather silly attempt by school administrators to make every student feel good about the school year regardless of his or her underachievement.
  Okay, you teachers out there are gonna dislike this post.  You might just want to stop right here and scroll down and re-read one of my earlier posts on Paris.  You'll feel better, see a few great photographs, and then you can enjoy the coming summer and not worry about grading the same old papers.  I really think that's your best bet.
  The same can be said for you parents who really are proud of your child who was given an award because he signed up for and sometimes participated in the school's bingo club.  If you've already framed your child's certificate that the Bingo Club teacher printed out using a template from her 2003 version of Word (but only in black and white since the Xerox machine in the teacher's lounge won't print color), then you'd be better off scrolling down to read my review of the postcards that my good friend Gunther sent me.
  Did any of that sound harsh?  Because if it did, I could go back and delete some of it.
  So let's get on with the Awards Ceremony.
Proof that I did not have Perfect Attendance
1.  Perfect Attendance Award
  I won't get into the debate over whether or not your kid showed up sick at school to keep his perfect attendance award and transmitted his virus to my kid who now will not get the coveted Perfect Attendance Certificate.  After all, this is merely scientific conjecture, and we all know how easily such crazy science can be debunked.  I'm sure many years in the future we will sit back and shake our heads in wonder, even laugh out loud, at the fact that people once believed it was considerate of others to keep a child at home when he had a contagious condition such as the common cold, influenza, or lice.  I'm not being cruel, here.  Though we don't like to admit it, all kids come down with these ailments, most of which they pick up at school or Sunday school.
  But there are two really irksome factors to this award.
  The first is something I call the what-heck-were-you-doing-every-day-of-the-year factor.  As in, if you are being recognized for perfect attendance, but you had no other activities listed for the school year, and you did not even make honor roll...wait for it...what the heck were you doing every day of the year?  (Here is where a teacher can send me a nasty-gram and say we should be proud that some kids have cultivated the important skill of showing up.  After all, someone once said half of life is just showing up.  Or course, the other half is paying taxes and dying.  None of these activities are a virtue.)  Can it really be said the child attended school if he did not even bother to join the Frisbee club?  If showing up is her single accomplishment for one year, perhaps we shouldn't tell anyone.  I am of the opinion that it is actually a little embarrassing.  The only way this makes sense as an award is if an administrator is saying thanks to the kid for showing up, since his attendance has increased the money sent from the State to the school, and his lack of participation in anything kept his costs to a minimum.  But I'm sure there isn't one school official out there who would ever think this way.
  The second bit that irks me is simply this: while it is admittedly astounding that you have not missed a day since kindergarten, the only thought that runs through my head when I hear this is why not?  Do you mean to tell me that in the last nine years, you and your parents never had a reason to say you'd better stay home from school today.  That really just makes me sad.  Wasn't there any kind of special occasion that you just couldn't miss?  No visiting relatives from out-of-town?  No three-day-weekend vacation that your parents suddenly decided to take?  Didn't you ever take one day off from school just because?
  To paraphrase Droopy--that makes me sad.
2.  (Fill-In-The-Blank) (Sport or Club) Award
  You know what I'm talking about here.  I'm not saying the best hitter on the baseball team shouldn't get an award for being the best hitter.  But I see no point in telling everyone at the awards ceremony that Jimmy's baseball participation certificate is an award.  I've been going to these fiestas long enough to know that until just a few years ago participation was listed as such, and no one tried to make me think that Jimmy was getting an award.  He played baseball and he was given a frilly document that documented the fact.  Thanks for being apart of the team.  Your countless hours standing in left field did not go unnoticed.  Fist-bump, dude.  Jimmy's a good guy and we all know it.
  But wait a minute.  Not anymore.  Jimmy is taking home a Baseball Award!  At no time, during the entire seven game season, did anyone play Left Field as well as Jimmy!  He's like Robert Redford in that movie where the weird chick shoots him because he threw great fast balls--he's a natural.  Jimmy can take that award home and frame it, show it to grandma and grandpa, and begin to plan out his collegiate and major league careers based on the fact that he showed up for baseball.
  (Let me just stop here a minute and point out that I've been really positive and uplifting in the majority of the posts I offer up here at Room With No View.  From this fact alone we can pretty much assume that someone other than me has hacked into this blog and is posting this rather sarcastic look at the school awards process.  I suspect it is one of my children.  If so, I hope they get a Hacker's Award for showing up here today.)
  Don't get me wrong.  I'm glad said child signed up for the A/V Club.  And I think we can all agree that recognizing his willingness to be labeled a geek should not go unnoticed.  Let's just not make an award out of it, okay?
3.  Six-Sport Trophy Presentation
  (Man, the athletes in my family are going to give me h-e-double-hockey-stick over this one.)
  Let's be honest, athletes have not traditionally been known for their academics.  And I get that.  Not everyone is given the same measure in academics or athletics.  However, both of these disciplines can be improved by repetition and hard work.  That is without a doubt.  So here's where I get a tightness in my chest when the coaches step up to the platform: I have actually heard coaches say that the following students who participated in x number of sports are to be commended because this essentially means they were at practice, for whatever sport was in season, every day after school, for nearly the entire school year.  And you know, that is pretty impressive.  It is like Perfect Attendance at the playground.  You really have to be motivated to show up and play a game or practice for a game every day.  But am I the only one who notices that with only a few exceptions that I have seen over the years, these students consistently cannot even make the Honor Roll, let alone any other academic achievements?  This does not seem to be something I would crow about.  As a teacher, or a Principal, I would feel as if we had let down this student.  After all, the point of school is to educate, not to athletically train.  Sports are an extracurricular activity, or at least they once were.  (Let's not even talk about the fact that students can spend every year in high school taking a full hour of Cheerleading, Flags, or Football.)
I'm not complaining because my straight A's went
unrecognized.  As you can see, I did not have
any such animal.
  What I wonder about is why these kids are given tangible trophy's for this accomplishment while the kids who have two or three academic achievements under their belt get the cheap Word-template certificates?  How about a trophy that celebrates their success at reaching straight A's in each subject, along with their participation in Quiz Bowl and their test scores that rank in the upper percentiles of the country?  Maybe the three-pronged trophy would consist of a giant A, next to a big Question Mark, which in turn is next to a sharpened Number Two Pencil.  Makes even more sense than the trophy with the three little figures on it that look like a five-year-old playing ball in the back yard.
  When I really think about it, I can't help but believe that we have become a bit twisted in our thinking.  Somewhere along the line, we began to try to protect the kids who don't have academic honors, since they might feel bad about their performance.  There is a sort of prejudice at work here, that says kids who achieve academic success have an unfair advantage: they're just smart.  It just comes natural to them.  Some of this might be true, but this very same truth, when applied to athletes, is celebrated.  They're great because they just have it.  Whatever it may be.  They are fast, they have great aim with a basketball, they have killer instincts as a tackler.  But this is just as insulting to athletes as it is to academic achievers.  There might be some innate talent there, but they work so very hard to improve what they have.  Spend time at home with the smart kids.  They read voraciously.  They work hard at the projects that produce high grades.  They memorize, drill, then memorize more.  Larry Bird was the same when it came to shooting baskets.  He did it all the time, even after practice as a professional.  A recent college graduate told me he was still working with his professor on something even though he was technically finished and had been given his diploma.  These are the kinds of activities that might deserve an award.
  I'm really not trying to take cheap shots at athletes.  I love watching sports, and am very impressed at the work ethic and amazing feats they demonstrate.  My bigger concern here, however, is what happens to these kids when school is over.  Our school systems have to care enough about a child to say "you're really good at this sport, but you would be better off spending time in the library.  Your future depends on it."
  So I'll stop here as the band begins to play the exit music.  I have a funny feeling I'm gonna regret this post when I finally decide to run for the School Board.   (And I just can't wait to get my grammar graded by a teacher who will see a chance to nail me for harshly judging teachers and their homemade awards.  Well, they won't be the first one to give me poor grammar marks.  That honor was bestowed upon Mrs. Denault at Limestone Elementary.  Which, oddly enough, sounds like I was educated in the Flintstone's Universe.)
As a last bid to keep you from thinking I am deserving of your wrath for this post, I add this last proof that I too have had my problems in school.  I came across this document while digging through old photos.  I had completely forgotten that I had taken a speech class in second grade to correct a problem I had with the letter 's'.  Proof positive how much we need to thank our teachers for all their hard work.  (Anybody think this last bit keeps the teachers who read this from sending me any nasty-grams?)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Paris Quick View (Number Four)

   I had heard about a little cafe at the Hotel d'Aubusson in a little tourist guide book I'd downloaded onto my Kindle.  Cafe Laurent had jazz offerings on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.  I went the first night by myself, and walked in to the great sounds of a trio playing Dancing Cheek to Cheek.  Led by Pierre Christophe, they played standards through the evening, and I could not have been happier.  I took Jennifer back the second night, and they were playing a bit of a more contemporary set, with a guest guitarist whose name I never did catch.  Here is just a brief clip from that night.  I did not capture much of it, except in my memory, which I will treasure for a very long time.

Pierre Christophe at the Piano.
The Cafe was quite comfortable.  I could have stayed all night.  The bartender was polite and helpful, the floor waiter was German, and was just a bit fussy, though he made every attempt to be witty, which was lost on me since I did not understand most of what he said.  A retired American couple sat a few tables over from us.  She was obviously not a jazz fan, and was only there for her husband.  He was a huge jazz fan, and could hardly sit still as he swayed back and forth to the music, occasionally shouting out an encouragement.  It was a great atmosphere.

I have a video clip of what I did capture and I hope you enjoy it.  And if you get to Paris, stop in at the Cafe Laurent on Rue Dauphine. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Paris Quick View (Number Three)

   In Paris, there are many differences between the Right Bank and the Left Bank of the Seine.  But there is one thing that is exactly the same: the Bouquinistes.  Since the 16th century, used-book sellers have plied their trade in this city, and the accepted practice for doing so became the bookstalls along the Seine.  Since 1859, there has been concessions granted by the city of Paris to booksellers in these fixed stalls.  Much like the now displaced vegetable and meat sellers with their booths at Les Halles, these traders have their own boxes along a three kilometer stretch of the river, on both sides.  Here you will find old leather bound editions of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Dumas, and Voltaire.  In the very same stall you might find paperbacks of Max Brand, Agatha Christie, and Isaac Asimov--all translated into French of course.  Some of the editions have been recently published, and are there for the tourists to buy cheaply.  Others are editions from the Seventies, Sixties, Fifties, and even earlier decades.  Many old editions of Parisian newspapers and magazines can also be found, including French editions of Life, Playboy, Match, and Vogue.
   I have read that the waiting list to get a book stall is somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 years.  The operators of these stalls have a pretty loose schedule.  On some days they are open all day and late into the night.  But there are many days they do not open their box.  It seems to be a simple matter of personal preference.  I would have thought that the bad weather kept them closed but I observed just the opposite.  On a rainy day, as I came hurrying out of the Latin Quarter looking for a place to shelter from a sudden downpour, I found a line of bouquinistes that were open, and ducked under one of their overhanging doors.  The books are usually individually wrapped in plastic, and the booksellers seemed unconcerned about the rain.  They might move a display in out of the direct rain, but that was the extent of their efforts.  It was during this chance to shelter from the rain that I found a French science fiction book from the Sixties that I thought might make a nice gift for one of my sons.  It had great retro art on the cover and looked perfectly cheesy.  I grabbed it, along with a French edition of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal for Jennifer, and tossed in two new French X-Men comic books for the kids.
   Not all of the offerings are charming older books.  Many common souvenirs are offered, along with the standard posters, postcards, and replica retro metal signs.  I did notice the occasionally odd, and often disturbing authentic older--shall we say French?--publications that would not normally be found on a sidewalk bookseller's cart in the more puritan United States.
   Sadly, my luggage limits were such that I passed up many great books I'd found: a French edition of Marcel Ayme's collection of short stories that included The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls, many more retro sci-fi books, as well as a good number of Zola, Dumas, and Verne works that would have been great to pick up in their original forms.  While I don't read French, I'm not above buying a book I can't read.  I'm that kind of bookworm.  Besides, these looked so alluring, that I believe I might have taken the time to learn to read French if I could have brought a dozen of them back with me.
   Here is a cover shot from the sci-fi book I found.  It is simply awesome.  It is still wrapped in the plastic and you can see the price written with a marker pen in the corner (Six Euros!).  The book is from 1966, and is part of a collection entitled "Anticipation".  My son carefully unwrapped it and read a few pages of the first chapter.  His years in French class were sufficient for him to read it.  He then wrapped it back up, eager to preserve its condition.  Oddly enough, on the back of it, is an advertisement for a romance novel.  Not something you would have seen on the back of an Andre Norton pulp novel from the same time period.  We tend to keep our genres segregated on this side of the ocean.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Paris View of the Montmartre Dead

   On a rainy afternoon, we arrived at the Montmartre Cemetery with a daunting task.  We were there to search for a particular crypt in the vast, stepped expanse of this ancient burial ground.  The immediate obstacle to this mission was our uncertainty of the name on the crypt.  However, we had both seen a photo of it, and we felt we just might get lucky and recognize it.
   Some memories hold on tightly, and we can simply call them up when they are needed.  Other memories die as easily as a fragile man and can only be recalled as a ghost of what we actually remember.  These are memories never to be trusted--they are always distorted, deceiving, and often completely false.  Such was the case with our collective memory of the crypt for which we were searching.  We never found it.  And we returned home and dug out the original photo and found our memory of it was completely in error.

   The rain fell more steadily there than it had previously anywhere in Paris during our visit.  There was no wind.  We were not cold.  But we could not escape the damp clinging to our jackets and our hats.  It seemed appropriate as we passed up and down the hauntingly beautiful pathways amongst those stone and copper memorials to those men and women who had once passed up and down the pathways of the past.  These same dead, perhaps, might have once passed up and down these same hauntingly beautiful pathways upon which we were presently passing.  Though they would never join us that day on our search, it was easy to be reminded of the fact that one day we would join them and be counted among those men and women who had once passed up and down the pathways of the past, though not all of that past has yet been written.  It is always this humbling thought that arises as we pass among the dead.  Though we are alive and they are no more, we cannot arrogantly claim supremacy over them by virtue of our beating hearts.  They lived just as vividly, just as honestly, just as treacherously, and just as cleverly as we.  The only distinction that separates us is the fact that they have already faced eternity while we can only wait to do so when that moment finally arrives.

   And so our search was eventually abandoned amidst the wet array of crosses, names, dates, crows, and cats.  Tears streamed down the mildewed faces of mourners frozen in stone.  A lone grave digger used a noisy air compressor to hoist buckets of white clay out of a heavily used plot, preparing the way for yet another convert to eternity.  A couple from California stopped us and asked for directions.  We did the best we could to help them.  We made an attempt to leave by way of a gate that was not the one we had entered but found it chained and locked.  We could only leave by finding and using the only gate that had allowed us entry into this ancient gathering place.  Perhaps they do not allow short cuts there.  Or at least they discourage them, as we discourage short cuts to eternity.  You cannot choose how you enter this world just as you cannot choose how you leave it.  But you can, for a time, enjoy its beauty, help those you meet along the way, and remember those who passed ahead of us.