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god-complexTitle: God Complex

Musician: Monk Turner (songwriter) and various singers and performers.

Where to Find: Free download on bandcamp and FMA; Youtube playlist.

Recommended if you like: Allen Touissant, Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks, Randy Newman, modern retelling of Greek myths

Summary: Charming  suburban rock opera with mythical overtones

Monk Turner is a talented and prolific songwriter who has glommed onto the “concept album” genre (producing about 25 concept albums so far). I wrote a long profile of Monk Turner a few years ago and have followed his recent releases over the years. A few years ago the concept was “Emergency” (imagining disaster in Los Angeles). More recently the concept was colors; each song was about a different color — and that includes a lot of obscure colors like fuchsia, cerulean,  Zymenchlora (yes, it’s a color — I checked). (Check out my 6 word review of it).  A central aspect to the concept album is that it lets the artist  explore a variety of moods and styles within a certain theme. Turner mashes a lot of retro pop styles with contemporary instruments and idioms.  All the albums have elements of 50s  rock and 60s folk and funk, but they still feel “new.”

For this concept album, each song is sung by a different Greek god or goddess (but transplanted into an era of modern suburban angst).

My questions when approaching a Monk Turner concept is to ask: will individual songs stand out more than the concept itself?  Is the melody decorating the lyrics or vice versa? Also, how much do the songs abide by    traditional pop song formats (in terms of catchiness and production values)?

For this album, I feel that the overall concept stands out more than individual songs, that the lyrics drive  the melodies (PS, they’re also hilarious!) and that the songs are quintessentially anti-pop; I don’t even think it would fall into the category of alternative (though there are certainly rock elements on the edges). In fact, the songs strike me as very theatrical — something which belongs  onstage or (heaven forbid!)   a Disney animation movie. To invent a category for this album, the first thing which comes to mind is    offbeat suburban rock opera.

Turner wants to make the Greek gods recognizable to modern audiences, so he depicts them with  modern personalities. We are supposed to sympathize with their perspectives and  see a little bit of ourselves in them.

I had a lot of fun trying  to recognize  the essence of each Greek god in the song bearing their name. Sometimes the musical  connection  is tenuous though never forced. The Hermes song is about delivering a message from the gods; The Poseidon song adopts the stance of a young adult who feels that he has “missed the boat” in growing up and missing the opportunities of life. (This contrasts to the Artemis song which is about a woman who is a “lone hunter” who “would rather be stuck with Hades than tied down with a crying baby.”)    Not only do the singers really capture the archetypal emotion of each god, both  lyrics and the instrumentation  capture the mythological essence with humor and sympathy.

In “Bad Luck”,    Hephaestus sings with remorse. The song (performed by Chris Warrior) begins as a plaintive country song, then transforms into a kind of soul duet with organ backing (where a distant female voice — Aphrodite coos light retorts). In “But then I got Married” (sung with a humorous touch by Christine Gengaro),  Hera laments how being married was much less glamorous than she expected:

My life was full of smiles
Until I walked down the aisle
Now all I want to do is die
Ohh I used to be so carefree
Sipping wine with the bourgeoisie
But then I got married

Athena’s song “A strong foundation” is a warm and gentle ballad about the benefits of moderation and having realistic dreams. (It has the warmth of a James Taylor or Carol King song). Hades’ “It’s a wicked life” (my personal fave) is a slow/moody song reminsicent of Leonard Cohen. Probably the most provocative and fascinating  song is the Hermes song “You Won’t Go with a God”about spiritual abandonment:

Do you think I deceive you?
Do you think this is all a myth?
Are you having a break through?
Or are you falling into an abyss?
You won’t go with a god
Go with a god

In general the melodies remain upbeat and fast even though the lyrics themselves are pretty cynical. This is particularly true about the Ares song (“I’ll destroy everything”). Melodically this song seems less dark than bombastic — like a cartoon villian in a Broadway musical (ably sung  by Jacke Karashae who also sang that brilliant and gleeful song “The Illuminated Self” on Kaleidoscope“).  All the performances are strong and the singers all give a unique take on each god’s personality.  If I could single out two incredible  performances, it would be the elegiac Hermes song (sung by Princess Frank)  and Athena’s song about “A  Strong Foundation” (sung with warmth and care by Malynda Hale).

It’s a little unusual that a songwriter like Monk Turner would lead a collaborative studio project like this, especially one  with so many outstanding performers.    (Allen Touissant and Gamble and Huff are two examples which came to mind).

Another very unusual thing about this album is that there are “video liner notes” on youtube about each individual song (View the playlist). I resisted watching them before writing this review, but after the review was essentially finished, my curiosity got the better of me and I ended up watching them  all.   Nowadays artists are expected to expose the creativity process to the online audience (so it can be retweeted and linked to on social media to generate interest). But Turner takes it one step further and puts together   funny vids which describe the making of each song from inception to production. We get to hear how Monk Turner circulated demos of his music to friends and used their feedback to improve the songs. We also are treated to  “melodic re-enactments”  where Turner returns to the locale where he received musical inspiration or overcame a creative roadblock. In a few cases Turner reveals obscure  aspects of the Greek myths that inspired him to write the song.  These video liner notes also include cameos from  performers who talk about how they  helped shape final production.  I guess these video liner notes add to the album and help the audience appreciate the lyrics. They certainly helped me to notice and appreciate certain aspects to individual songs.  On the other hand  I’d hate to imagine a future where every produced song needs to have  a “making of” video associated with it in order to become more widely known. I recommend that listeners give the “making of” videos a look only after you’ve had ample time to process the song on your own so your impressions of the song won’t be shaped (and limited)  too strongly by the artist’s conceptions.

Except for maybe the Hades song, none of the songs grabbed me at first, but each listen brings additional rewards (appreciating the subtleties both of lyrics and the musical arrangements). All the songs (even the deep ones)  make  for fun and light-hearted listening; they  sound good on a playlist (and stand out perfectly well on their own). But  they might shine even more in some kind of theatrical setting where the audience  pays more attention to character and lyrics.  Songs like  “Let Me Heal You (Apollo’s Song)” are obvious candidates for  musical theatre —  taking advantage of all the funny lyrics — and to certain extent, the video liner notes seem almost to anticipate this possibility (with humorous cutaways).

It’s unusual for a pop music album to focus on portraying different characters  (you’d probably have to go back to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to find  a successful example).  It’s definitely pushing boundaries.  Like Persephone’s partial  betrayal of her family by eating pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, I have to wonder  whether  Turner’s instincts are pulling him away from the bright world of pop music and dragging him down into the fiery  underworld of musical theatre.

 

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TITASPEED: A new acronym for chat

TITASPEED is an acronym which means: “Texting is too awkward; speaking produces easy effective decisions.” It is useful in chat and email.

TITASPEED: Acronym for “Texting is too awkward; speaking produces easy effective decisions.” When used in a text conversation it can mean

  1. I recommend speaking over the telephone to discuss this matter.
  2. I feel that answering the original question as a text message oversimplifies the matter considerably and may provide misleading information.
  3. I am way too busy to provide a detailed answer now. A telephone call is more convenient for me.

Here is the context when it is needed.

I have noticed the tendency of some people to try to ask  questions via text which requires complex answers.   Sometimes a person will text this complex question because they know that answering it fully is impossible; perhaps they honestly fail to appreciate the effort involved to give an adequate answer. The asking of this complex or open-ended question thus places a burden on the recipient to either oversimplify or to spend a lot of time writing an answer.

But this is an unfair burden on the recipient. In rare cases, it may be necessary, but more often  complex thoughts, directions and nuances can be more effectively communicated over the phone. (Yes, I realize that face-2-face is even better, but that is rarely practical).

I faced this question often in email communication as a technical writer.  When you ask a question via email, you are placing a burden on the recipient. Sometimes this burden is necessary and useful, but sometimes it asks the recipient to do more work. Recipients sometimes assume that emailed questions are better because the recipient can answer them asynchronously, but actually the opposite is the case because when writing, you have to give a complete answer to take into account every possible nuance.

Responding  to emails is cumbersome; that is why it is good for the asker always to give the recipient the choice to answer by text or by phone. 9 Times out of 10, it is easier to communicate by phone; the reason people avoid doing so is that they usually fear getting sucked up in a longer social conversation.  The problem is, texting or emailing a series of questions can be extremely awkward and confusing; when you talk, you can check for understanding or clarify something right then rather than having to write something in reply.  Often the responder has no idea what the asker doesn’t understand. But when you are actually talking, it is easier to pinpoint the source of the misunderstanding.

I have written before that  texting messages is an inefficient method of communicating — and should be limited to a small number of contexts. Alas, people are relying more on their phone and voice-activated dictation to communicate. This has a cost; it can sometimes take forever to arrive at a thought, and it can be tedious for the recipient to engage in such a strung-out conversation.  Asynchronous and abbreviated conversation can be useful when you seeking a specific bit of information (the room number, the cost, the flight number) and the matter is  not terribly urgent.  Also, it can be useful when you are sure that the person is actively checking messages. But often that isn’t the case.

The TITASPEED acronym is a short way to communicate your belief that having a text chat is an inferior way to have a conversation.  More generally it can make people ask themselves what is the best way to seek information and advice.

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Update, Plans, Etc

Hi, there. It’s been a while since I’ve posted updates. I’ve been busy with many things, but I wanted to throw out some news.

First, I have been reading a ton of books recently — the majority of them are related to pedagogical methods. I plan to post one or two batches of brief book reviews on education books eventually. I just posted a lengthy book review about a math book.

Speaking of book reviews, I published a long book review of a recently published Jack Matthews Note: this is not one of the books my Personville Press has been publishing.

I think this year I will be reading Chinese literary classics mostly. Also, fiction for pre-teens and teens.

In 2015 I never got around to posting a list of things read and movies watched. In 2016 though I plan to maintain a 2016 list (and include some of the major finds from 2015).

I have been listening to a ton of music and posting a list of my recent emusic purchases here.  I’ve also been contributing a lot of posts to the emusic forum and finding some great stuff. The list is presented in chronological order, and it’s worth skipping down to the SXSW section (between March and April 2015) to see the latest albums which have struck me.   In addition, I’ve started to post on Google Docs a list of capsule music reviews of new and old albums (which are either used purchases or library CDs). So far I’ve posted 154 album reviews and have given my highest rating to about 30-40 of them. (I tend to be picky about what I review). When I get around to it, I’ll create a link to these reviews which is easier to read.

I’m in the middle of publishing a Jack Matthews fiction title (probably his best).  I was going to produce a drupal 8 site for my Personville Press, but plans for that were derailed somewhat. I’ll get back to that when I get the chance.

I’ve mentioned before that despite the dearth of blog posts, I post lots of meaty posts on Facebook and Google Plus. I post identical content on both social networks. About a year ago I explained the technical difficulties of syndicating my blog posts to different social networks. I’ll take another stab at it when I get the chance. I really hate ignoring my blog so much.

Last year I maintained a blog for my creative writing class. It had a lot of fun stuff, but at the end of the semester I wrote a letter to my middle school students about writing.

Oh, yes, it occurs to me that I should repost my “Best of 2015” list I emailed my friends. I’ll do that very soon. Speaking of end of the year, I recently celebrated my 50th birthday and decided that at the end of each year I will compose a list of lessons learned from the past year. As exhibitionist as I am,  I won’t be sharing this list online  (not soon anyway). But I’m sure over the years it will be interesting to see how my perspectives and lessons changed.

A few days ago I was amazed to learn that my 15 year old nephew and 16 year old nephew take about 30 photos of themselves each week.  I doubt that when I was that age I took that many photos (and certainly not selfies!). Recently even I haven’t had any reason to pose for pictures. But here’s a pic from my 50th birthday dinner with my sister and mother.

Robert Nagle at 50

What I’ve posted here hardly scratches the surface of what I’ve been into or writing. I think in 2016 my blog will return to normal again.

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Making Sense of Algebra (Book Review)

making-sense-algebraTitle:  Making Sense of Algebra: Developing Students’ Mathematical Habits of Mind

Author:  E. Paul Goldenberg, EDC, Inc., June Mark, EDC, Inc., Jane M. Kang, EDC, Inc., Mary Fries, EDC, Inc., Cynthia J. Carter, The Rashi School, Tracy Cordner, EDC, Inc.

Publisher: Heinemann,  (Download Sample Chapter)

ISBN:  978-0325053011

Publishing Date: April 2015

Where to Buy: Publisher’s Web Site. Amazon.com, BN

Price: $22.50 for print book (no ebook is available)

Summary: Excellent CC-oriented guide for getting students to adopt the “algebraic” habit of mind with a particularly strong chapter on using puzzles in the classroom.

I’m a first year middle school math teacher  trying to broaden my pedagogical understanding of the subject. I have come across many impressive math  education books by  Jo Boaler, Cathy Seeley, Marilyn Burns and  John A. Van de Walle. I’ve also picked a few recent titles which are “Common Core” aware (such as Cathy Humphreys’ Making Number Talks Matter, Building Powerful Numeracy for Middle and High School Students by Pamela Weber Harris and finally Making Sense of Algebra by  E. Paul Goldenberg and others). All are excellent in their own way. “Making Sense of Algebra” selects a small number of topics and covers them in depth; the problems and puzzles it presents  would fit perfectly well in high school algebra as well as a class for advanced middle school students. At the same time, the book covers some fundamental topics which properly should be taught at the middle school level (or  earlier).

Making Sense of Algebra  does not contain lesson plans or activity worksheets. While the book alludes frequently to CC math standards, it doesn’t try to review these standards or at least provide a reference to them (that might have helped). Although the book has multiple names in the byline,  it has a good logical flow and certainly doesn’t read like an education textbook (it’s much better!)  With an important  exception noted below, the book doesn’t really cover geometry, nor does it refer to trigonometry or calculus in any in-depth way. Still, the general principles of solving math problems elucidated here do apply to all kinds of higher math.

Rather than trying to plan a class or curriculum, the book covers the development of mathematical habits of mind.

The first chapter introduces the concept of “algebraic habits of mind” and how it relates to the Common Core’s Standards for mathematical practice. Chapter 2 discusses problems in contemporary math education and the special challenges facing certain kinds of struggling learners. Chapter 3 covers how puzzles can be used in class to promote algebraic habits of mind. Chapter 4 talks about how  teachers can help students to  investigate problems and formulate solutions. Chapter 5 talks about the importance of revising certain mental models commonly used in lower grades to illustrate multiplication and negative numbers. It shows why  using number lines to illustrate addition and subtraction obviate the need to teach certain rote rules (like “multiplying two negatives cancels each other out”) and that using the metaphor of area  to illustrate multiplication lays the groundwork for explaining how to multiply polynomials.The last chapter covers how a teacher can monitor and tighten  language used in the classroom to best facilitate learning. It also provides insights into how a teacher can overcome a student’s reluctance to  talk in math class.

I found the chapter on puzzles to be the most remarkable and helpful to me as a teacher. It can be a challenge though to use them in class. Some  puzzles that are too hard (or too dependent on non-mathematical skills) can end up segregating the class into those willing to try hard puzzles and those who don’t even bother. For example, I — like many other math teachers — introduced the infamous Cheryl’s birthday math problem to  my middle school students. My top students found it challenging but  perplexing while a good  chunk of my students didn’t even try (despite some pre-teaching about how to systematically record guesses, etc).  The puzzle chapter makes a case about the pedagogical value of having students experience frustration and  try a variety of approaches to solve something. It covers lots of different puzzle types which are more specifically about math (unlike the Cheryl’s birthday problem),  more inviting to students and apt to lead  students down algebraic paths. The book discusses the  learning opportunities of various puzzle types and the advantage of using puzzle types which are easy for a teacher (or student) to  create on their own. The idea of students creating math puzzles was  intriguing  to me, but it makes perfect sense; it helps students with  “posing interesting problems” which is another  habit of mind which  the book believes to be important.

The book suggests that puzzles be used as  “stand-alone investigations” rather than introducing them during units when a specific topic is studied. The book defends this practice by saying: “Life’s real problems arrive at any time, not just when you are conveniently studying how to solve them. We investigate when we don’t know how to solve a problem. We must not start out by thinking, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to factor because that’s what we’re studying now.'”  The book argues that cultivation of  “stamina” is important when when trying to solve math problems and that  “problems which are too short or too scaffolded don’t increase students’ investigation skills or stamina.” For this reason, it’s helpful to give students problems with a “low threshold, high ceiling” (translation: problems which are easy to play with, but might involve concepts beyond their zone of proximal development).

The book offers several strategies for helping to cultivate student’s investigative skills. First, it emphasizes the importance of gaining experience about the problem itself before trying to formalize a solution. This can involve plugging in a few haphazard numbers or  using experimental aids.   Second, the teacher can give “tail-less” or “headless” problems whereby students are given a set of facts without an actual question being asked and must  write a list of assumptions implied by this set of facts (or conversely,  the student is given a problem and asked to speculate about what data is needed to solve it). What a good idea! Often  failing to recognize the implications of a mathematical statement can prevent the student from reaching a solution. Third, presenting students with redundant quantitative  information  in a problem can make it easier for  struggling students to make connections. Fourth, providing additional questions (i.e., “have you found ALL  the solutions?”) can  be a challenging and interesting way to extend the assignment for advanced students.

While the first half of the book did a great job of explaining how students think mathematically and how to make them think more productively, I was beginning to think that the book offered little real insight about how to run a math class and organize students effectively. Some questions spring to mind: 1)how do you do assessments of puzzle solving or habits of mind? 2)what kinds of topics lend themselves better to small group activities and what kinds require more teacher-prodding? 3)How do you  integrate the need to teach habits of mind with the need to teach mandated objectives?

The second half of the book  tackles these kinds of questions. The investigations chapter ends with a fairly good discussion of how to structure whole class discussions of investigations after students have collaborated on clarifying examples. The subject of the last chapter “Thinking Out Loud” is about the best ways how  to teach students  to discuss mathematical ideas in the classroom. The book stresses the importance of encouraging students to “think first, then talk,” but argues that discussions are a way to “vary the texture of the class.” I recently finished Cathy Humphreys Making Number Talks Matter and feel that this book provides a exhaustive treatment of the value of a more communicative approach to math and how to implement it. The  chapter in Thinking Algebraically covers some of the same ground (without as many examples), but it makes several important new points. First, the teacher should encourage and model precision in speech. For example, when discussing a cube, using the word “side” invites misunderstanding; if you use “vertices,” “edges”, “faces”, that reduces the possibility of confusion. (Of course, it is impossible for students to avoid using “sloppy” language, but it is possible to make students aware of the need for precision). It’s important to choose topics which are actually discussable and to give the student enough time to formulate an answer (the book says “counting to 20 in your head….is not unreasonable”).

The book analyzes in great detail the various reasons why students prefer not to talk in a math class. Perhaps the question seems too trivial, or the student may lack confidence in their own math skills to express their ideas. It offers ways that teachers can encourage productive discussions. For example, instead of saying “close” or “you are getting warmer,” the teacher can respond to a wrong answer with supportive    statements like “the answer needs to be even” or “were you thinking that 7×7= 49?” The book offers ways for the teacher to make the student feel empowered in the classroom and links the ability to solve puzzles appropriate to their level as a confidence-builder. One  recommended technique  is to present written fictional  “math dialogues” about a math situation, and have students read along and critique the approaches of the fictional students. Although these dialogues may sound corny, “the student reading it can imagine — even without knowing this is fiction — how characters who are never told what to do or how to do it can believe and demonstrate that they can figure out mathematical ideas for themselves using what they already know. This invests mathematical authority in these characters, repeatedly giving the message that mathematical knowledge can be built logically rather than from some external source.”

This is a brilliant insight and a great way to model student conversations  and habits of mind. The book provides one extended example of a fictional dialogue and references to other books which contain additional dialogues.  (I would have liked the book to have a second example, but this is fine).

My only complaint is that I wish the book had covered how technology and videogames can be incorporated in class. In Texas, all middle schoolers are expected to follow self-guided online lessons and videogames called Think Through Math. I have recently been wowwed by the Dragonbox Algebra 12+ mobile app/game (described in detail in Greg Toppo’s book The Game Believes in You). For various organizational and budgetary reasons, math departments are having to use these kinds of courses and modules, and  teachers could benefit from guidance about whether these methods can be academically rigorous and easily integrated into the classroom. I suspect that the book’s authors would  be skeptical of algebra via videogames. At the same time, students have lots of access to math resources via the web; are these “cheats” pedagogically useful? Or should the teacher make some attempt to discourage students from finding the answer online so they may arrive at their own insights?

OVERALL this compact book is a pretty dense read, but full of insights  and really fun to read. (I enjoyed trying out many of the puzzles myself).   This book  showed an awareness of existing scholarship and provided an ample bibliography, making it invaluable for the novice teacher (though the experienced math teacher will find useful insights here as well). I fear that the book will be known mainly for exploring the use of puzzles in the classroom. But the book covers a lot more ground than that.

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Here’s a message I sent via email (and Twitter)  to the PBS Newshour:

Dear PBS Newshour:

I have been watching your news show for more than 25 years. It is a fantastic source of news and commentary.

Recently you changed the look of your show. Nothing wrong with that.

However, on today’s program (July 29) I noticed that you have a chyron on the bottom left of the screen which rotates nonstop during the entire program. It shows two things: #pbsnews (the twitter hashtag) and pbsnews.org/newshour (the URL).

In theory I don’t have a problem with the display of either thing. But it is extremely distracting — so much that I cannot concentrate on anything else.

Actually you already have the newshour logo above these things, so either thing is actually unnecessary.

Also, do you you really worry that people don’t know the URL? You don’t even need to show that!

From your viewpoint, you may wish to publicize these things, but a lot can be said for keeping the screen clear of unnecessary information. Generally I have always appreciated the visuals for your stories and how un-glitzy your presentation is. Now with those rotating chyrons, though I am afraid I cannot look at the TV screen for any more than a minute before I want to throw a sneaker at it.

Let me stress that I don’t have a problem with captions or even the logo itself. But the URL and hashtag add nothing to the presentation.

Perhaps my reaction is atypical. I don’t know.

Here are some solutions:

  1. Show these things during the first minute of the story and then hide them after that.
  2. Lengthen the rotation time. Currently you seem to rotating every 10 seconds between the hashtag, the URL and nothing. It would help to put everything on a 30 second rotation instead of a 10 second rotation.

Please consider my feedback when you plan the visuals for the Newshour. Thanks.

Robert

P.S. Thanks for beefing up your climate change coverage. About 2 years ago it was fairly skimpy and you really didn’t choose good guests. Now it’s much better.

P.S.S.  I greatly enjoy the regular features (Art Beat, Paul Solman, Mark Shields, Education coverage, Ask the Headhunter). The Website rocks!

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It needs to be said: books, books, books!

I am aware of how my sparse my blog posts have been recently. But I have been reading lots of good stuff. (Ironically I began a lot of stuff last summer which I didn’t get around to finishing until recently). Also, I’ve been reading lots of books about teaching and education which are worth mentioning. I may not get around to posting a lot on my blog for a while, but you will surely be seeing some reviews pronto.

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First Post from my Galaxy Tab Pro

I’m creating this test post to verify that I can post from my TABLET. Check out my Jack Matthews author page for more fun..

UPDATE: The wp client for android doesn’t seem to sync with desktop updates. THAT IS GOING TO BE A PROBLEM.

OTHER USABILITY ISSUES:  the tablet guide will save your update only after you have backed out of the new screen. NOT SMOOTH EITHER. I constantly am searching for a nonexistent save button when I just need to click the Go Back button on the tablet.

Update 2: I guess I can live with a tablet wp client which publishes only one way….

Also, I am absolutely hating having to type from the onscreen keyboard. The android is particularly bad about guessing what I want to say.

Update 3. Well, it seems that the android client does refresh/update the post’s content, but it does it quietly so you never know for sure whether it has done it or not.

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Bringing the blog back to life

I have been furiously busy with my teaching job — and as of yesterday now have time to reclaim my writing projects. I plan to do a facelift on this blog within the week. Stay tuned!

Update 1: Ok, I’ve going to be doing a lot of bug fixing and design tweaks. (What the heck is up with those navigation menus?) At least now the comments display properly.

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I am way too busy with teaching now to do anything about it, but I just noticed that my default Thesis wordpress theme somehow doesn’t show comments anymore. My database still has the comments; they just don’t appear!

I think it’s now time to move to a more modern and generic theme. That’s an afternoon project, and I expect I’ll be able to fix everything next week. Actually I might look at enabling some other design features while I’m at it.

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I have been away from blogging for a long while — stay tuned!  (though I have been blogging here for the new creative writing class I’m teaching — That’s right, I teach creative writing at an Houston middle school).

It’s an obvious point really, but even though I haven’t had time for blogging in the last year, I do check my blog often — all the time, in fact. Mostly I use my blog to keep track of stuff. Links usually (like my ever-expanding music collection), but also things I have already written. I like to update/correct my old stuff; I have planned a major addition to an important blog post from about a year ago.

Sometimes I just read my old stuff to reminisce and remind myself what a brilliant guy I am/was. Call it vanity,   I always am delighted  to rediscover a phrase I used several years ago or how something I said a long while back still holds true today. Actually the world is always changing — accelerating — and you almost assume that anything written more than a second ago has to be  irrelevant. I am not irrelevant! — not now at least…

This time of my life  is probably something I will describe at great length in a year or two. (It reminds me of the experience of watching Michael Apted’s Up Series and realizing that you don’t find out what had REALLY been going on that person’s head   until the next episode 7 or 14 years later. Have patience, my friend.

Three other random notes. 1.  Drupal 8 is slowly crawling into a beta. AFT.  The final release is probably just going to be one big anticlimax, although I’m eager to climb onto that platform.  2. I am at a loss to explain why, but 99% of this blog’s  comment spam arrives at one rambling and inconsequential post. (Akismet successfully swallows up so none of it shows up — thanks, Matt!)  I realize that comment spam assaults web applications relentlessly and indiscriminately, but if someone can explain what’s so awesome about this  particular post, I’m all ears.  3. Looking back, I am so glad I didn’t embed my youtube links into posts. It is always a bummer to see the embedded youtube player  in old posts linking  to nothing — especially when the video is usually still up on youtube — except at another URL. (Google, get working on that one please!).

That’s all folks, and I’ll report back in half a century. In the meantime, you can watch one of my favorite What’s My Line episodes.

 

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Messages to My Dog

I love my dog AJ, but I just wish for 5 minutes we could speak the same language so I can give him a piece of my mind. Here is a list of the things I would say:

  • Just because I am entering my kitchen does NOT mean I will be fetching you a dog treat.
  • Aluminum foil is NOT interesting!
  • Our primary reason for going out to a walk is for you to poo and pee, not so you can dig up chicken legs and find poo from other dogs.
  • I wouldn’t come close to stepping on you so often if you didn’t take naps 3 inches from my desk chair.
  • Please don’t lick my ears when I am doing pushups. They ruin my concentration.
  • The main reason I leave the house is 1)to buy food and 2)to earn money to buy food. I don’t like staying away from you any more than I do, but I do it because I have to….think of the extra bones and dog treats!
  • There is no need to drink from puddles outside. I got unlimited supplies of water at home!
  • I wish you’d bark at strangers coming into my house more. That’s the “good kind of barking.”
  • Thank you for not being a prima donna about the bathtub.
  • When we go on a walk, I don’t mind your eagerness to run around. But I do mind when you stubbornly refuse to go anywhere besides the direction you want.
  • If I thought I could hold you in my lap and still get work down on my computer, believe me, I’d let you stay there. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
  • I like meeting new dogs almost as much as you do.
  • Why do you not get excited when you meet other wiener dogs? You know you are a wiener dog …. don’t you?
  • I think about you all the time when I am away or at work.
  • Truthfully, I really enjoy bringing you to the dog sitter and not having to walk you all the time. I need a vacation too. But I’m glad that you don’t get sick of me.
  • I’m happy as hell that I don’t have fleas.
  • Humans won’t let you inside their home  unless they  invite you first!
  • I feel guilty for not taking you to the dog park more often, but frankly, it’s a relief when you are content to take a normal walk around the block.
  • I like surprising you.

Unfortunately, this tongue-in-cheek blog post  has a rather sad ending. Last September or October, my dog AJ hurt his back. I knew that wiener dogs had this tendency, so I took some preventative measures. Unfortunately, I should have taken even stricter measures. Initially the vet was hopeful that AJ could recover through rest and relaxation and limiting of his movement. It definitely worked for a while — even though AJ had his pain points which we had to be extremely careful about. (I was on the second floor and had to carry him up and down the stairs — which was hard for both of us).

After persistent begging to join me on my recliner chair, I finally relented and carried him into my lap, holding him tightly. The problem was not jumping up but jumping down, and after about 15 minutes of lying comfortably,  AJ unexpectedly leapt off the chair and fell in a really bad way. At first he seemed ok, but then his hind legs were utterly paralyzed, pretty much making him incapable of normal life. I ended up bringing  him to the vet on Monday and having him put to sleep. I knew it was for the best, but it was still very sad.

Besides being the perfect companion, AJ also enjoyed sitting on my lap while I watched TV.  It felt perfectly natural to both of us — and regrettably, this probably was a factor in facilitating his fatal injury. I didn’t feed him much people food, but I fairly often fed him leftover sweet potatoes and peas. He loved that, and so did I.

AJ enjoyed many human friends — almost more than other dogs sometimes. One of the great things about walking a dog is that you meet other dog owners and get to see which people are comfortable interacting with dogs. Dogs learn very quickly which humans are the most friendly.  For some reason in the last year or two AJ would cry with excitement whenever a recognizable human appeared. It was both amusing and touching. On Sunday before I put AJ to sleep, my neighbor visited my home to offer comfort. AJ had been suffering all day in silence, but when my neighbor and friend John appeared at the door, AJ started whining uncontrollably. This whining was a combination of things: it was genuine joy that John had come to see him, combined with a desire to make John aware of how much he was suffering and how helpless he felt before everything. At the vet the next day, my vet explained that for evolutionary reasons,  animals hid their pain very well to avoid being easy prey for a predator. But in this case, AJ was vocalizing his pain  to John because he knew John was part of his family.  Inside that apartment, we were three creatures who were joined by a common fear of mortality and a desire to help one another.

I thought back to this blog post and realized that I had an awful lot of things I wanted to say to him during those last 24 hours:

  • Sometimes I have to limit your activity not because I want to but because I have to. This is a burden for any parent or caregiver.
  • I feel your pain almost as much as you do.
  • Sickness and injury always seem incomprehensible and makes you feel helpless. It also makes people around you feel helpless as well.  Humans and money can’t solve all problems.
  • Our time on this planet is very short, and circumstances change more quickly than we ever thought possible.
  • The difference between pets and humans is that pets have to deal only with the here-and-now while humans must plan for the future and understand the long term implications of everything.
  • Even after you are gone, I think about how  the smallest things used to puzzle or frighten you.
  • I still wonder what you must think about normal human devices like the microwave, the telephone, the iPad.

One of AJ’s claim to fame is that in the first year I owned him, I entered him in a wiener dog race in Buda, Texas. I enrolled him as a joke (and as an outing for my nephews), but as luck would have it, AJ raced very fast. He won 3 races in a row, and out of 600+ dogs, he placed in the top 20. My nieces and nephews loved AJ and they loved to do pretend races. They would hold his leash while I walked 50 feet away. At the count of three, one of them would let go of his leash and AJ would rush towards me at the same time that one of my nephews tried to beat him. AJ always won. I’m sorry to say that he had gained a few pounds in his last year or two, but he still managed to win every race.

Here’s a video I took of AJ with his best doggie friend (whom he played with at the babysitter). I was all too aware that pets leave our lives pretty quickly and so tried to take as many pictures and videos as possible.   As a pet owner, you are aware that these memorials mean a lot more to the owner than to anybody else; a dog is just a dog (except to its owner).

Finally, I guess I really haven’t sketched my dog in very much detail. As a human who spent a lot of time with him, I got to notice a lot of his eccentricities, and he got to see mine. So how would I describe his personality?

AJ was very friendly, especially to children. He was a very calming presence at almost any time.  It was very rare that he growled or reacted negatively to anyone. I still can’t figure out why some dogs growl or act overly aggressive towards strangers. Perhaps it has to do with the way they were raised, but from the very beginning, AJ wanted nothing more than to find another friend.  I think it had to do with his small size and the fact that he didn’t bark. AJ was treated very well sometime. In my first apartment, I lived next to a giant park that was ideal for walking dogs. I would let him off his leash frequently, and he had a lot of freedom to roam around and occasionally socialize with other dogs. But he was always very human-focused; it was almost funny how he sometimes paid no attention to the other dog and instead try to get the attention of its owner. I didn’t actively try to train AJ — I just didn’t feel like it, although I saw how quickly AJ picked up some things about what was off limits and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, AJ didn’t like being in a crate — it was torture to him. I tried to use a bike trailer to bring AJ to a park which was a mile away. AJ thought it was bloody murder.4504699026_8a45ac95f1_z

AJ loved taking walks, but you couldn’t get much exercise while walking him. He smelled things carefully and deliberately. He had an amazing memory for smells. In apartment complexes the big danger was chicken bones all over the grounds. I suspect that squirrels and cats had dug them out of the garbage and were dropping them at random places. As a pet owner you were warned about not giving your dog chicken bones, and however much I tried, AJ always managed to find one before I could yank him away.  One night I walked him and steered him away from a chicken bone; the next day I had completely forgotten about the bone, but AJ darted right to it and snatched the bone too quickly for me to stop him.  Perhaps it was less memory than smell; the thing was, immediately when he started on the walk, he knew exactly where to dart — hundreds of feet before he would come close enough to smell anything.086

AJ and I watched a ton of TV together. During that time I was underemployed a lot and addicted to various TV shows coming available on Netflix. I think it was AJ’s definition of bliss to be lying on my lap while we watched TV.  I didn’t feed him human food, but every so often I would give him leftovers from my vegetables — sweet potatoes and peas. Occasionally AJ got into some food he shouldn’t have — for example, he never went into my trashcan, though he could have easily done so, but generally he respected boundaries between my food and his. Anything which fell on the ground was fair play though. When watching TV, I was really careful to avoid shows showing animals getting hurt, but to be honest, I doubt that AJ would have noticed it anyway. Sometimes I would try to direct his attention to a dog on the TV, but most of the time he didn’t notice or show any interest.

It was strange to sleep in a bed with a dog companion. I had some doggie steps which made it easy for him to get onto the bed. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t let him on my bed at all. First, he would scratch himself at strange hours and keep me awake sometimes. Second, when I later learned about the back problems, I realized how hard it would be to take away a privilege I had already given.  That said, sleeping with him wasn’t really a problem — even enjoyable at times. I always found it amusing how he liked to go under the covers. I really wished I could have set up a webcam while at work to see what he did to occupy the day; I’m sure it was nothing unusual, but still I would have liked to know.

AJ was  fussy about bones, preferring the small rawhide bones to the larger meat bones. I think the most recent batch of rawhide must be sprayed with some kind of smell which dogs must love. Whenever I gave him one of these bones, for an hour or so AJ would stop paying attention to everything about the world and just focus on unraveling one of those rawhide bones. I enjoyed watching him when he was just being a dog.

I had a careful route for giving walks. AJ knew it, and yet would put all kinds of pressure to diverge from it. On the other side of the apartment was a fenced apartment community just like ours — there was nothing special about it really, and AJ absolutely wanted to go exploring over there. At first, I just refused, but once or twice I was able to sneak in when the gate was already open. As I said it was nothing special, but for AJ it was one of these forbidden thrills, and I enjoyed indulging him once in a while.  I lived in a dense neighborhood with lots of cars and very few sidewalks.  AJ just loved to go the longer path around the block; I generally avoided doing it because it was out of the way, but sometime I went along. In Houston we have a lot of heat even at night and you had to be very careful not to exert the dog too much. Sometimes he just couldn’t walk any more from exhaustion. Sometimes I would need to carry him or bring a supply of water.  So he could enthusiastically embark on a long trip, but he just lacked the energy to complete the journey.

AJ had doggie friends; I suspect he must have found the thought of  meeting the same dog every few days must have been relaxing and fun.

Dog owners who live in houses may not realize this, but you end up having to be physically present for every poop the dog takes. I couldn’t just open the door and let AJ do his business outside. As a result, my schedule seemed to revolve around his walking schedule. Often it meant not being able to stay late at a social function  or never being to bring home take out food (because I would need to factor in 30 minutes to walk AJ). Even if I had already walked him, being away from home  2 or 3 hours meant that AJ expected a walk immediately; he was restless and not just because of his bodily functions. AJ’s presence definitely calmed me down and distracted me and reminded me to take a nap (somebody once said that dogs functioned to remind their owners to take more naps!)  Naps are wonderful. Unfortunately AJ ruined the exercise regime which I had established pretty firmly in 2008 and 2009. On the other hand I was engaging in more low intensity activity and was out of doors  a lot more often (and soaking in that Vitamin  D). Also I got to know a lot of people, and not just the pet owners around the neighborhood. I was no longer that scary stranger — I was the man with the dog.

I was rather amused at how assiduously AJ avoided rainy weather. What a baby!  Sometimes if he so much as sniffed rain, he would refuse to go any further.

AJ passed away fairly early in his dog life; I still live with the guilt of it. On the other hand, I know I took care of him better than most dogs and certainly gave him lots of attention. I shall remember the days I spent with him as days of joy and amusement. 5212617067_1cec866eb0_z

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Education Book Reviews

Over the past few months I have been pursuing  a teacher’s public school certification for Texas. One important step in that endeavor has been reading the latest books on education policy, curriculum and classroom management. I have been collecting lots of books and learning new things. I haven’t begun to finish these books, but I have skimmed a lot and learned a lot of important things.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. By Diane Ravitch . Eye-opening analysis of education reform by one of America's education experts. Ravitch makes the case that a test-centered approach to teaching and learning has done significant harm to students. Significantly Ravitch pins much of the blame on charter schools and the push by foundations (like Gates and others) to privatize learning. One of the most eye-opening facts was how performance of US students on NAEP (a fairly reliable test used for comparing education progress)has been steadily rising, belying the idea that public schools are "failing" the kids. At heart Ravitch believes that public schools are doing as good a job as they can under the circumstances and don't need private entrepreneurship to upend the system. Highly recommended.
Teach Like a Champion. Doug Lemov . This is a very impressive set of practices and guidelines for ensuring that learning actually takes place inside the classroom and that the classroom is managed properly. This is a very clever book and probably most new and experienced teachers could learn a thing or two from it. This helpful book also includes video excerpts on the enclosed DVD to illustrate the principles when put in practice. To my delight, I later learned that Lemov did some teacher training at HISD, and so this book is influencing schools already.
Lies My Teacher Told Me. James W. Loewen . This very famous and respected critique of high school history classes shows the danger of an approach to social studies which skims the surface of historical events. Lowen highlights some howlers which are nonetheless taught in class (and most of which I remember learning about). Although I applaud the aim of this book, in fact I think the process of producing and approving textbooks is what ensures its bland inoffensiveness. I'm guessing that a lot of these misperceptions are quickly dispelled in college history classes, so I have to wonder what Loewen wants here. Does he want history teachers to focus on less material in more depth. Or more class time in general? Also, I'm sure it would be ideal to have high school teachers who know some of these historical old wives' tales. I guess the book's reputation (and catchy title) ensures that all history teachers will have to read it and tailor their lessons accordingly.
Brain Gain. By Marc Prensky .
Power of Mindful Learning. By Ellen Langer .
Essential 55. By Ron Clark.
Case Against Homework by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. (Website ).This book argues that schools harm children and family life by assigning too much homework. Most of the book consists of anecdotal evidence, quotes by psychology professors and harried parents. I'm sure there is a grain of truth here, but I felt that the case wasn't made fairly. For example, are some kinds of homework worse than others? What about long term project work rather than daily assignments? The book successfully conveys the fact that huge amounts of homework interferes with family life and participation in extracurriculars. That is certainly important. One Amazon commenter (and school administrator) mentioned that teachers often assign too much homework because they didn't have time to finish their lesson in class (or students didn't have the interest to do their work in class). Having too much homework might be a symptom of a dysfunctional classroom than a teacher with unreasonable expectations. Interesting to read, but I wish it went into more detail about what kinds of homework actually are worthwhile (other than throwaway advice for students to avoid doing more than 5 math problems a night).

Below are books I have been accumulating and haven’t read enough of to formulate an opinion about:

  • Teach like your hair is on fire. by Rafe Esquith.
  • Power of Poems by Margriet Ruurs.
  • Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner.
  • Activating the Desire to Learn. By Bob Sullo.
  • Art of Thinking by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero.
  • Strategies that work. By Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.
  • Myth of Laziness. By Mel Levine, MD
  • Dramatic Literacy: Using Drama and Literature to Teach Middle-Level Content.  By J. Lea Smith & J Daniel Herring.
  • Engaging Minds: Motivating & Learning in America’s Schools by David A. Goslin.
  • Anti-Education Era by James Paul Gee.
  • Unschooled Mind: How Children Learn and how schools should teach.  by Howard Gardener.
  • Live Wires: Neuro-Parenting to Ignite your teen’s brain. By Judith Widener Muir MD
  • Dramatic Literacy: Using Drama and Literature to Teach Middle-Level Content by J. Lea Smith & J. Daniel Herring.
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Cool new hair stylist in Houston

I just wanted to recommend a Houston hair stylist named Dori .  She lives and  works around the Houston area. She has done jobs on friends and yes even on my own hair. She performs a variety of personal services  and can even do these things in the privacy of your home. And yes, that is my photo on her home page!

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A very odd thing about me and Houston

While coming home I realized a very curious thing: in the 2000+ posts I have made here, next to none have been about Houston, the city where I live. I have lots of opinions about Houston and know a lot of people here from all wakes of life; how surprising that it would never occur to me to write about them!

In a way it is not surprising; I have always  viewed Houston as a generic kind of  city and besides this blog is better at recording random observations and cogitations. But perhaps that is not true at all. After all, a large metropolitan city can be viewed in millions of different ways. It is also always changing;  anything you say about the city will go almost immediately out of date. I know that photo-bloggers and arts critics often captured the spirit of a city better than the local newspapers do. Anyway, the depressing thing about the local paper (the Houston Chronicle) is that it is really an international media property (of which the Chronicle is one prize jewel).  I jokingly have threatened to write a screenplay to vent my rage about Houston, and I still vow to do so, though it is still officially a back burner project.

So I will try to write about the other Houston, the Houston that rarely makes it into the newspaper because it is simply the Houston that envelopes my life.

Stay tuned. And p.s. don’t eat tortillas which are made of both flour and corn. What a monstrosity to the tastebuds!

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Remembrance of Thomas F. Nagle (my uncle)

(About my uncle who passed away earlier this year).

Boy, Uncle Thomas was  the world’s greatest uncle!

While growing up in Houston, Texas, I didn’t get to see him except on special occasions.    Uncle Thomas was  good about visiting our family in Houston, but it’s hard (and expensive!) to keep in touch over such long distances.  While I was growing up,  my dad told me stories about Thomas and Ginnie and Eileen; it was clear that my dad and Thomas had a deep  and caring relationship and had been through a lot together.   As someone who grew up as the oldest among 4 kids, I guess I can appreciate the everchanging dynamics of  a household with 4 children.  To borrow an image from my dad’s imagination, I could imagine all four  Nagle siblings on opposite corners  of a boxing ring  at Madison Square Garden. At the bell, Aunt Ginnie rushes forward to get the first punch but ends up  tripping over her feet;  Aunt Eileen resolutely  stays in her corner  to protest the rules; My dad comes out “dancing like a butterfly’ but fakes being knocked out in order to win a bet, and Uncle Thomas tries valiantly to play referee and convince everyone to end the fight until Ginnie swings a wild punch at him and brings him down good.  Now that’s an  event I’d pay good money to see.

As luck would have it, I ended up visiting New York a lot during the 90s. For the first two times, it was for work-related reasons, but later I took multiple trips overseas and made it a point to stay an extra 2 days or so in NY so I could visit  Uncle Thomas and Aunt Eileen.

Uncle Thomas, me on Uncle Bill’s boat on Long Island (Uncle Bill is in the back). 1998

The first trip was in 1993. I had no idea what to expect, but Uncle Thomas met me at the train stop and went out of his way to take me around town.  We did the usual touristy stuff —  visiting the Cloisters, the Brooklyn Zoo  and the Empire State Building and taking the ferry around the island (I’m sure that was not the first time for him!).  Thomas also made sure to show me the neighborhood where he and my dad grew up and other important landmarks. We visited  St Patrick’s Cathedral (where my dad proposed to my mom, for example). Thomas  talked about  their youthful  summers and Uncle Curley and the  practical jokes the kids played on one another. Of course, my dad had told stories with the same cast of characters, but Uncle Thomas had different stories and a memory which seemed inexhaustible.

Surprisingly, I learned from him  that my grandfather was an excellent cook. In contrast my dad could hardly cook anything except steak and hamburgers —  Uncle Thomas never seemed to  cook either; he struck me as the type who would rather invite invite someone over for sandwiches or have seafood at a nearby restaurant. But I was certainly a good cook, and my brother Tommy was an outstanding cook, so this led me to speculate that the  Nagle cooking gene must always skip a generation in the males.

Donald Nagle (my dad) and Thomas Nagle, San Antonio, TX

Donald Nagle (my dad) and Thomas Nagle, San Antonio, TX, 2005

Both my dad and Uncle Thomas were great at telling stories, but their styles couldn’t have been different.  My  dad liked to be outrageous and embellish at the edges –anything for a laugh.  Uncle Thomas told stories earnestly and almost as if he were under oath. At the same time, Thomas always felt compelled to tell everybody’s backstory, causing some of the stories to go on and on.  But I never minded. My dad talked about wacko  clients from his law practice, while Thomas  talked about crazy things which King Kullen workers were trying to pull behind management’s back.   Thomas’s stories   were  funny too, but there would usually  be an insight or lesson at the end.

Like Uncle Thomas  I spent a lot of time at supermarkets.   Having worked as a supermarket cashier  for seven years during school, I regarded supermarkets as familiar territory. Every time  Thomas visited Houston, he made sure to visit the same supermarket I worked at — partly for professional reasons, but also just to walk around  and talk with people and find out how people  did things in Texas.  For some reason, I’ve shared this fascination with supermarkets and often thought that you can tell a lot about a society by what goes on inside its supermarkets.  When I travel anywhere, I always enjoy visiting the local supermarkets to get a feel for what the people were like. I’m sure Thomas would approve.

Before I started visiting New York,  dad and Uncle Thomas once visited me in Baltimore for graduation ceremonies. That was 1989.   I was never really  into sports, but that year my school (Johns Hopkins) had a phenomenal men’s lacrosse team. I suggested that we go see the finals (which was in College Park, Maryland, about an hour away). Dad and I took one car, while Uncle Thomas tagged along in his rental car. This was in the days before cell phones and GPS;  as  luck would have it, I took a wrong turn on the freeway, and it took about 45 minutes to recover from that mistake (mainly because we had to make sure that Uncle Thomas was following us when we retraced our steps). As a result, the rest of the ride was hellish.  Dad was furious and berated me nonstop  for not paying attention to road signs.  For dad, being late to  a sporting event  was like being late to church.  But once we arrived at the stadium, I remember Uncle Thomas’ expression; he was actually chuckling at my dad for giving me such a hard time over something so trivial. There is no more welcome sight to a young man being yelled at by his dad than the eyes of a sympathetic uncle.

(By the way, the lacrosse finals were great. My school’s team won, and we all had a great time).

One of the more memorable NY  visits came when I returned from Peace Corps in 1997. My country Albania  had actually experienced a kind of civil war, and so all the volunteers had to return home in a rush.    When Uncle Thomas met me at the airport, I was still in shock. I had lost most of my belongings and barely had more than the clothes on my back.  After that misadventure,  Uncle Thomas was literally the first recognizable face I saw in the United States.  The first thing he  did was bring me to a department store to buy me socks and underwear and maybe an extra shirt. “Just go ahead,” he said, “Buy anything you want.”  Later he brought me to an Italian restaurant for a sumptuous dinner.  It was so surreal. One day I was living in a country threatened by anarchy and civil war; the next I was wearing awesome American underwear and eating delicious fettuccine with my fantastic uncle. At such a moment, I felt  on top of the world.

During this and subsequent visits,  Uncle Thomas and I  did other touristy things. We visited a Dr. Seuss art exhibit,  saw a great Broadway musical, did dim sum in Chinatown  and visited the TV & Radio museum. All great and fun things. But what insanity!   For an out-of-towner it seemed incredibly stressful and expensive.  The signs,  the traffic,  the noise!  Perhaps these things might be less likely to bother a native New Yorker, but Uncle Thomas had a knack for going with the flow — refusing to be bothered by  $12 an hour parking  or waiters who took forever to bring your sodas or traffic lanes which inexplicably   closed.

Even though I was born in New York and my spent half his life there, ironically all of my New York memories were spent with Uncle Thomas rather than my dad.   Perhaps it would have been better to visit New York with my own  dad; my dad would have shown me all his personal landmarks, as well as any important place which had  importance in baseball or boxing history. But as we all know, my dad moved to Texas, while Uncle Thomas stayed put. One Nagle brother wanted a change of scenery (and profession), so he moved to a place where Yankees were vilified.  Don’t get me wrong, Dad was a proud Yankee — he never touched a jalapeno or went to a rodeo of his own free will. But Uncle Thomas became for me a symbol of a man who was content to stay in one geographic area and soak up its rich history and culture. Uncle Thomas certainly loved to go places — and it’s good he had multiple opportunities to do so over his many years. Certainly having children …. and grandchildren … gave him plenty of excuses. But  I always got the sense that Uncle Thomas was perfectly happy retiring in the same place he grew up in, close to his family, surrounded by great  sports teams, phenomenal bagels and supermarket chains which almost seemed like home.

 

Mildred Nagle (grandma) with her two boys Donald and Thomas, 1934-5?

Mildred Nagle (grandma) with her two boys Donald and Thomas, 1934-5?

Teresa and Donald Nagle, Bill Farrell and Eileen Farrell, Thomas Nagle, 2005. San Antonio

Teresa and Donald Nagle, Bill Farrell and Eileen (Nagle) Farrell, Thomas Nagle, 2005. San Antonio

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From the official obituary:

GUILDERLAND – The family of Thomas F. Nagle issued the following information following his passing on January 31, 2014. As a business executive and community leader, Nagle’s work touched the lives of many and his contributions left a positive mark.

Thomas F. Nagle was born in Brooklyn in 1928, raised in Jamaica, Queens and spent most of his life in Hicksville, until he moved to Guilderland in October 2012. He graduated from Fordham University with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1951. Nagle enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1950, was drafted in 1952 and completed his training on Parris Island, distinguishing himself as an Expert Marksman. He served in Nara, Japan during the Korean War. Nagle moved to a Levitt home on Blueberry Lane, Hicksville with his wife and infant daughter in December 1954. Nagle welcomed four more children, two girls and two boys, later becoming a grandfather nine times and a great-grandfather twice. He was a leader in the community. His life ended on January 31 in Guilderland, New York at age 85. He was preceded by his parents Thomas W. E. and Mildred, his brother Donald and sister Virginia. He leaves behind his sister Eileen Farrell (William) and sister-in-law, Terry Nagle, five children:Norine Nagle (Kerry Johnson) Roberta Spinosa (Dan), Ellen Hughes (James), Steve Nagle, Michael Nagle (Diane); nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews and their children.

Nagle had polio as a child and was not expected to live, but in typical fashion, he beat the odds and his slightly weaker leg never slowed him down. He competed on organized football and bowling teams, and was always up for a pick-up game of basketball. Even after he stopped playing sports, he continued as a fan. He would bring his children and grandkids to Mets games, and despite their dismal history, he remained a fan. Watching a game with him at home made you feel like you were at the ballpark cheering the Mets, and learned about his insights on the players.

Nagle worked in supermarkets. He started as a store manager for First National Stores (Finast) in 1956 and worked his way up to Director of Labor Relations in the late 1960s. He eventually left Finast to return to King Kullen Supermarkets, in 1979 as Director of Personnel and Labor Relations. King Kullen was where he had his first job at 16 that had continued through his college years. He retired in 2004 and continued to consult and advise for a few more years.

Nagle remained committed to giving back to his community. He was first elected to the Hicksville School Board in 1968 and served for two decades in various capacities until the mid-1980s. In 1969, he helped found H.A.D. – Help-Aid-Direction, Inc. – a program committed to educating Hicksville residents about drug abuse and helping those with problems. He was an active member of Holy Family Church (Hicksville) where he volunteered as a church usher, lector, and member of the booster club. Within the church, Nagle was involved with the Nocturnal Adoration Society, Legion of Mary, and Holy Name Society. He was also a member of the Holy Family School Board.

A phrase you could always hear him say was, “You meet the same people on your way down that you meet on your way up.” It was truly the phrase which defined his life. He treated others with respect and dignity no matter their walk in life, and looked for ways to quietly help others. He never wanted accolades, and worked to make the lives of others better, a true reflection of the Jesuit values he held. Without a doubt, Nagle’s kindness, generosity, and hard work left a mark on the world. He will be dearly missed by his family, friends, and neighbors.

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The Man Who Needs No Introduction

A few years ago I was on a  panel at a conference, and someone asked how  I ought to be introduced. “Just say I am a Houston writer.”

I wasn’t being coy; I genuinely hate introductions – giving them, receiving them and having to sit through them. They are as annoying as the warnings at the front of DVDs.

There are many reasons to hate introductions. They are  too long.  They mention unnecessary details. In this Internet age, most of us could look this information up if interested. In many instances, the biographical sketch is already on the program or  panel description, so you are simply repeating  well-known information.

A less important complaint is that these introductions dwell on accomplishments and pedigrees. At one point in my life  I found it interesting that someone got a degree  from Harvard or Stanford, but now I no longer do.  Going through a prestigious academic  program makes it more likely that the speaker has been exposed to the latest research; on the other hand, it also means that the person has probably absorbed certain ideas about education and entitlement and probably had little difficulty pursuing an academic career. Successful academics got tenure because they  already received these distinctions.  When you attend a lecture, you don’t need to be persuaded that the speaker will be interesting or important  — you are already there!

Other people have started businesses or charities, written books, started Internet trends, written  new web applications. I don’t mean to dismiss those kinds of accomplishments. They seem to point to external signs of success or  external validation. To be honest, I have no way of knowing whether these accomplishments are truly impressive or just routine milestones along a certain career path. Most of the time, I don’t care because  the only thing important to me is what will be said during the talk.  Even if I did care about these accomplishments, I want to hear the speaker describe them in his own words.  The talk is all that matters.

I work in writing and publishing; I am aware of how many perfectly interesting and gifted people are ignored or overlooked because of happenstance (indeed, I count myself in that category). Perhaps I haven’t achieved my “true” potential (whatever that means), but I have embarked on some interesting projects. Some of these projects  have succeeded; some have failed; some are ongoing or deferred, so there is no way to judge the value of these projects right now.  There are some projects which I never fully realize for practical reasons. Either I lacked the time or money to execute it or was distracted by another project or some personal crisis  prevented me from dedicating the necessary time to it. Sometimes in the middle of doing something, I realize that the project was not worth finishing; perhaps someone had already done it (and done it better), or perhaps some part of the project was outside my level of talent or interest.  The biggest constraint for a writer is time and money; how do you work on your projects without bankrupting yourself in the process?  How do you balance the day job with the outside projects? Logically, it makes sense to work on projects one at a time, but practically  that almost never happens – especially if you keep stumbling on new subjects of interest.  Alas, nobody said the writer’s life was going to be easy.

It’s hard for many to pretend that social position doesn’t matter when it comes to exchanging ideas. A few years ago I attended a TED talk in Houston. It wasn’t awful or anything, but the speakers were profoundly unexciting. The speakers were  competent academics, most of whom had boring and predictable (but well-researched) ideas (See note at bottom). One was a medical researcher pontificating about science.  I wouldn’t say his presentation was awful, but it really didn’t go anywhere; the audience applauded wildly (I have never seen this kind of fervor  for a speaker). It reminded me of the phenomenon where people who normally have no love for classical music suddenly fall in love with a movie about classical music. In that case, you don’t really love classical music; you are simply expressing appreciation for the idea of  classical music by saying you like the movie. All the speakers were applauded by the audience not for the content of their presentation, but because they had achieved some level of distinction in  their field.   It is basically the celebration of academic success.  Horray, success!

I’ve run a few panels and given a few talks; though I’ve given some good ones, I’m always surprised at how many  remarkable people turn up in  the audience — some of whom never manage to ask a question.  Some of the unconference techniques are better at facilitating the exchange and dissemination of ideas among these types.  I attended an energy conference two years ago; the  best part was a catered lunch  where everyone sat at the round table and had a chance to ask questions of 2 experts assigned to that table.   Attendees could just float from one table to another and discover on their own who was talking about subjects they found interesting. Sure, sometimes it is necessary or even ideal  to sit through an hour long talk because of the subject matter; for some subjects, you need almost 30 or 40 minutes just to lay the foundation for what you are about to talk about.    In that case, the introduction just further delays the main point of a talk.

For various reasons, I have stopped attending workshops or panels in person. Instead, I  watch a lot of lectures on Youtube or listen to  podcasts.  I’ve always found it easy to skip speaker introductions — just cue Youtube to the right place. One of the most mind-blowing lectures I have ever seen was a one hour talk about climate change solutions by  atmospheric scientist Marc Jacobson.  (I must have watched it three times).  Unfortunately before he speaks,  Jacobson is given 18 minutes of introduction by two people who are dull speakers and have practically nothing interesting to say. But who needs people to prepare you for what Professor Jacobson has to say?

Yesterday, at an environmental justice conference, the introducer to an well-known investigative journalist departed from routine by relating a charming anecdote about being arrested together with this same journalist at an environmental protest.  I love offbeat and personal introductions; writers and artists often do such things.  Something 3 to 5 minutes is perfectly adequate — the shorter, the better.

At the same environmental  conference,  the keynote speaker received a long and adulatory introduction from one of his department underlings.  That isn’t necessarily a problem,  but unfortunately the underling (a noted scholar himself) went into excruciating detail about this speaker’s accomplishments and bibliography — all of which could easily be found on wikipedia. In fact, the keynote speaker gave an outstanding talk — he surely deserved those  accolades — but ultimately what mattered was not  that Book X  won an award or that the speaker met Bill Clinton but that his presentation had compelling points to make.

I mentioned elsewhere that panels can have a  more interesting dynamic than single-person lectures.  You are exposed to multiple  perspectives,  and  audience members  are less deferential to a panel than to  a single speaker. If you think about it, a single speaker wields way too much power; he towers behind the podium and determines with the clicker which Power Point bullet points will be seared into  everybody’s  retinas. Sure, with panels you have people jostling to make remarks and that is frustrating, but rowdiness can be part of the fun.   Often after a talk, I chase down an  audience member  who said  something unusual or  ask a panel member a follow up. I   find such encounters enormously  rewarding — note that I did not  need a  formal introduction to decide that a particular audience member  was interesting or worth listening to.

Here are three reasons why introductions can be so appalling.

First, intros often feel compelled to acknowledge their funding source.  This lecture was made possible by a grant from the Blubbertibubb Foundations, with hotel accommodations at the Hilton Hotel. It is part of a Distinguished Visiting Curmudgeon Lecture series which was created in 2002 under the auspices of the Archeology department in conjunction with the American Society for Jugglers under the leadership of department chair William H. Tralfaz who came up the idea for the series during a university-wide inititiative to have more stuffy eggheads visit this  campus. Who cares! Who cares! Who cares! Who Cares!

I realize that sometimes an introduction needs to contain something about the funding source (especially if the benefactor is a 90 year old philanthropist sitting in the front row of the lecture hall).  Hey, it’s ok to give the occasional shout-out — as long as it’s no more than 10 words long! You can easily convey this same information on promotional flyers, handouts and even the opening slide.

I mentioned this in another piece that ” If you cause 100 people to wait an extra five minutes, that means you are destroying 500 minutes of human time.” Every minute of the talk better count, and unfortunately intros never do.  Think about it — how many times do you reminisce about a gloriously long-winded introduction to  a talk  and not the talk itself?  My guess is you never do — although maybe you recall the annoying sensation of having to wait for the speaker actually to start speaking.

Second, for high-profile speakers, often the dean (or even the university president!) will  insist on sharing the stage. My general rule is that almost anything that a university president has to say as an introduction is  ceremonial and mainly geared towards providing a good photo-op for  students and parents. Let me rewrite every single introductory speech so that it accomplishes that purpose in as painless manner as possible:

Hi, I’m President Nagle of Pendelton State University. I can’t wait to hear this talk. It’s gonna be great! I asked  PSU prof Vincent Strudwick to say some  words before the talk begins. See ya!

The Dean can give a variation of the same speech. Here’s another idea. If you’re sitting onstage just for the sake of appearances, try to have enough courage to refrain from talking.   Making an appearance does NOT mean you are obligated to make a speech.

Third, another rationalization for making long intros is  that it reduces the need for the featured speaker to spend time  plugging his books.   Presumably it seems gauche for the featured speaker to do a sales pitch, and so the person making the  introduction can take care of the crassly commercial sales pitches.  As  sympathetic as I am  to this motive, good speakers already know how to insert casual and non-irritating  mentions of their latest books. Yes, I as an audience member probably would like to hear the title of the speaker’s latest (or most important) book, but often it suffices  to see the title listed on a slide.   Actually, if  a speaker is engaging enough,  I’m probably going to look up his books anyway.

Finally, I want to express admiration for what is called the “cold open” in show business. It can work tremendously well. My favorite example of this was a joint presentation by Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow at 2002 South by Southwest (summarized here).  My memory of the event may be a little foggy (and I sat in the back of the room), but remember no intros at all — two  cool and well-informed people just started jabbering  away on topics of interest. It blew my mind because 1)both guys were talking fast and extemporizing, 2)clearly their thoughts were original and interesting (and well-thought out), and 3)neither person seemed to care about selling their personal  brand or pimping their book-like projects. They were just having fun.  And the audience was having fun too.

I wish more people would do that. Imagine that Socrates were going to speak at your university. Which kind of opening would engage you more:

OPTION 1: INTRODUCER

Socrates is a controversial philosopher who has been gaining a lot of fame in intellectual circles. The Athens Times wrote that “Socrates is a bold and impressive thinker who has devised a new method for testing the validity of philosophical ideas” and the oracle at Delphi said there was no man who was wiser than Socrates. But Socrates is best known for being portrayed satirically in the comic  plays of Aristophanes.  Recognized for his heroism in saving the life of Alcibiades, Socrates is also a war hero and  is best known for a philosophic method of inquiry called  the “Socratic method.”  Socrates has a reputation for asking unusual questions and has been in heavy demand as a speaker and teacher.  Indeed he has already attracted a lot of intellectual disciples and has at times been accused of corrupting the youth. So far, Socrates has not written any books, but books are already being written about him.  Thinker, rabble-rouser, provocateur or buffoon — you can decide. So now I present to you….Socrates — making his first appearance at Pendelton State University.

 

Or maybe we can skip the formalities and let Socrates do a cold open:

OPTION 2: SOCRATES

“Is it always better to tell the truth to someone close to you even if you know it causes pain?”

 

So I ask you: Which kind of beginning    would engage you more?

 

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A funny thing. After giving a lukewarm assessment about TEDX Houston, I later learned that one of the talks by Brene Brown, (a  UH Professor  for Social Work) had become extremely popular. That’s good because really it was the only talk with a memorable idea as the thesis. Of course, she speaks from the Ivory Tower (news flash: all professors come up with interesting ideas!), but fundamentally I enjoyed the talk because of what she said, not because of the academic credentials she had accumulated.

 

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