Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #3: Test Wisely

Idiom, sir?
Many teachers resent giving tests, not because they are onerous to make and grade, but because they have to give so many evaluations in general. Any teacher worth his salt knows exactly the capabilities of all of his students all the time with relatively few and simple evaluations. It's not even that hard to know even a roomful of students, if you pay attention. There has been much-deserved pushing back against excessive testing, but so much that pedagogical trends have gone in the opposite direction and to an equally foolish degree. Reasonable tests and testing accomplish three things.

First, they give otherwise unmotivated students the impetus to commit skills and facts to memory. Second, they make the teacher accountable for progress and objectivity. Third, they show you what a student can do with only his own abilities under reasonable time constraints. Many students and teachers strenuously try to circumvent these features, often ingeniously, because they wish to conceal what is often the truth: that there is no learning going on in the class. In a world of ideal students and teachers, then, tests would not be necessary, but utopia is a fantasy.

The following little list of advice regarding tests clusters around balancing two ideas: what is right generally and what is suitable for your particular class.

First, be consistent about everything test-related, especially: how many per marking period, how many points certain types of questions are worth, how many points tests are worth, and how questions are to be answered. Consider also length, difficulty, how long students have to complete it, whether you review beforehand and afterward, whether they get review materials beforehand, at what intervals in the text and course you give tests, and of course how you grade. Quite fairly, students are bewildered when these factors vary far and wide.

Second, you have to finish teaching the material before giving a test. This means you need to give back homework and quizzes, for example, before the test! This also means you shouldn't give a test on one chapter when you've already started the next one. The class is cumulative, but moving forward.

Third, don't be the teacher whose attention to tests consists of slapping the publisher's book of test masters onto the copy machine and hitting, "Start."

Aside from the consistently poor quality of pre-made tests, no one teaches exactly the way any book does. Students get thrown off–and fairly so–when some test in a completely different style is thrown at them. You need to make your own tests, adapt tests, or diligently search for ones that suit your teaching idiom.

Fourth, make evaluations useful. Don't give tests in which students can work around the task by memorization, repeating the exact questions you've given before, or by giving you vaguely the type of information they know you typically want. (The lazy, students and teachers alike, secretly prefer vague questions because it means many answers can be construed as correct.)

Fifth, you have to accentuate the negative, but kindly. Students love to put the A+ grades on the refrigerator, but it's the failures that they need to work on, and those tests go in the garbage or get buried at the bottom of the schoolbag. You need to reinforce the good while attending to weaknesses.

Sixth, update your tests right after you grade them. Was one question unclear? Did even good students bomb out on one section? Was it too long? Did it have to much new or old content?

If you don't review your tests, next year's students will suffer the same fates as those of last year. If you wait until too long to update the test, you won't remember what you needed to change.

Seventh, take your test, and even if you don't take every test, take one regularly. You may only realize you made a few typographical errors, but more importantly you'll realize that physically writing out the responses wearies your hands and eyes. It is easy to get wrapped up in the intellectual business and forget what it feels like to be as physically confined as schoolroom students.

You may also realize one of the hardest things for a teacher to notice, namely that you are answering the questions with knowledge and experience you have but which they have yet to learn.

Finally, write precise directions and don't answer too many questions while administering the test. Some students possess a genius for swindling information from teachers. If you made a mistake in making the test, tell them not to waste their time in confusion but to do what seems best to them. Then deal with the issue fairly and generously when you grade.

Remember that whatever new directions you issue will confuse some and be ignored by others. Even simple impromptu directions may prove confusing.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Movie Review: The Founder

Directed by John Lee Hancock (2016)

There is something satisfying about a simple character piece. No complex plot obscures the crisp lines of the arc and no subplots complicate the drama. In the case of John Lee Hancock’s The Founder, not even any style or spectacle attempts to amp up the drama: the movie is all plot and character. The character is Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, and the plot is of his ambition to raise to greatness the California burger joint of the cautious McDonald brothers and in doing so raise himself.

The manner in which the script plunges us into the plot without lengthy introduction and backstory is a reminder–and a needed one given Hollywood’s obsession with the origin stories–that detail can sometimes be disposed of without loss. We don’t need fifteen minutes of 1950’s nostalgia a la Happy Days, nor do we need the backdrop of the Cold War against which our capitalist drama can unfold, nor do we need the whole life story of the protagonist. We need to know that Ray Kroc was having a lousy time hocking his wares and that in 1954 he saw that the ingenious efficiency and homely charm of the McDonald brothers’ restaurant was a river of gold that only need to be un-dammed.

Actually it needed a new course plotted too, and the path needed to be cut and dredged, and the boats on the river needed to be captained and then managed. The whole project needed to be financed too. The movie’s introduction is then not perfunctory preface but Ray’s struggle to wrest just enough control from the McDonald brothers to franchise the restaurants. The script draws fine lines between the different types of creators. We have the inventor, Dick McDonald (played by Nick Offerman), who created the systematization that introduced the world to the 30-second hamburger, shown distinct from the manager (Mac McDonald), who runs the brothers restaurant like clockwork. In contrast to both we have Ray (Michael Keaton), who has the tenacity and most of all the unbridled desire to turn McDonald’s into a national chain. No one plays all the parts well.

To the fussy, conservative brothers Ray brings guts and a vision for greatness. While Dick and Mac pour over minutiae like fry-time, Ray is out breaking ground on new restaurants and hustling to find the best managers for new franchises. Yet as Ray’s success grows so does his ego, no longer obscured behind failed sales pitches for mixers and folding kitchen tables. So grow both until at list his egotism gives way to hubris when he identifies himself as the founder of McDonald's, beginning his moral decline.

The faithful wife (played by Laura Dern), who endured his failed salesmanship, spent months alone while he traveled, supported his efforts to franchise McDonald’s to clients, and even scouted for potential couple-owners with him, he divorces–and for the wife of one of his franchisees. The contract, which the McDonald brothers signed in good faith that they would be able to uphold the standards of the restaurant they founded, Kroc flagrantly disregards, declaring that they don’t have the legal muscle to enforce their claim. Kroc's fall culminates in a full end-run around the brothers, buying them out and then fleecing them out of their royalties.

Yet intertwined with Kroc’s tragic moral fall is his heroic climb to the top. He overcomes the stifling conservatism of the brothers, whose restaurant employed only a few dozen, to franchise McDonald’s into a company that let thousands, who had been scraping by just barely paying the bills, grow and prosper as franchise owners. Kroc walked into a new McDonald’s not to cries of disdain for his galling deception, but rather to a hero’s honor with the newly employed cheering him triumphant.

It is this juxtaposition that creates the tension of The Founder: we both admire and deplore Ray. If his chicanery were not intermixed with good and if he had not overcome great adversity, we would judge him a terrible man without exemption. Yet greatness complicates our moral vision, and Kroc’s triumph intertwined with tragedy refuses to resolve in a neat verdict. The sentiments of Ray's speech are lifted right from the same cheesy self-help records he played when he was a failing salesman, but has he not ennobled and vindicated them by his success? When we see Ray emblazon "founder" upon his business card and proceed to humiliate the McDonald brothers by running their original restaurant out of business, we see something unjust and wrong, but his empire and the people it serves are no less real.

It is moral all the more striking because the film is so slender, that often the good and evil men do are inseparable.

A Humble Return

A few months after the birth of my daughter in March 2016, I resigned my position teaching high school Latin, and a few months after that, my wife and I moved from my hometown of the Bronx, NY to her hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. During the day she works and I care for our toddling bundle of joy and mind our home.

I certainly expected to take a hiatus from writing after those changes, though I did not intend it to be so long. I waited to return to the blog for intertwined reasons: the less I wrote, the weaker my powers of writing, and the weaker my powers, the longer the next essay would take. Absent the time to write, I fell silent.

My delay was also extended, unexpectedly for me, by my advances in reading Latin. So much has the language worked its way into my head that I have not yet assimilated it into my style, such as it is. I have grown, but require pruning.

On the flip-side of style, though, I have much to say, especially about my education as a husband and father. In particular I hope to live up to the name of this blog, which I stubbornly refuse to change although I am sure it is a source of confusion and keeps the blog in relative obscurity. Some plants, however, grow in the shade.

Oddly, I feel myself in a better position to live and reflect on a vita literati than I was eight years ago when Mr. Tyrell Northcutt invited me to this curious blogging project. Obligations have since taken him from the halls of this blog, and while he may return here at any moment, you may likewise seek him at the Philosophical Farmer.)

For my part, I intend to write often, but briefly. It will likely be the case that ideas spread unplanned over various and disparate reflections rather than in systematic articles.

I intend to make some use of Twitter, with, I hope, great restraint. The sight of many respectable people making fools of themselves has been a great caution to me and, frankly, I find the platform's arbitrary restrictions to be quite insulting. I would sooner bend my ideas to fit into hexameters than tweets.

Finally, if you are a long time reader, please accept my thanks and apologies. I hope that my future work here will redeem my absence and prove a small help or pleasure to you!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Left, Right, and Chicken

Yesterday afternoon I made a deal with my wife. We agreed that if we would leave the Democratic Convention on the television, for broadness of mind, then for the fullness of my stomach I would grill chicken. It seemed to me an awful waste of a big TV and I still feel the need somehow to cleanse the screen of liberal effusions, but I got to eat two dinners in one day. I also must confess that, amidst basting of the delicious foods, I was overcome with another appetite: democratic blood lust. Whether it was the public shaming of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the confused warbling of Paul Simon, the colic gassing of the Bernie Sanders crowd, or Elizabeth Warren's endless clucking about Donald Trump, I could not turn my eyes away. So much was I enraptured by the spectacle--here swooning there screeching--that I burned some of my delicious food. The Democratic affair didn't just afford me an excuse to eat, though, but confirmed three suspicions I've held for some time.

First, I find the liberal sell is a tough one. The liberal always has to persuade that he simultaneously loves America, its values, traditions and so on, but also wants to change it. Now if there were only a few changes this would not be so challenging, but when you have a laundry list of complaints, it's hard to sell the patriotic vibe. The old line, "If you love America, then make it better," is not an unreasonable or inherently unpersuasive one, but it requires moderation both for logical coherence and rhetorical efficacy.

Second, the left is immoderate. No amount of reform has ever been enough, nor it seems will it ever be. There are always new industries to be regulated, new groups to be protected, new rights emanating from the Constitution, new funds needing feeding from the tax trough, and on and on. Obama's desire to "fundamentally transform" did not even satisfy the liberal lust for change and new things through one administration, let alone one generation. I'm starting to think that the liberal impulse is rooted somewhere unhealthy in the psyche.

Finally, the left doesn't understand it is precisely its progressivism–its relentless tide of change–that most makes conservatives look askance at the changes. Immaturely and imprudently, they took Obama's relatively thin margin of victory in 2008 as a mandate for widespread change instead of a cautionary reminder to be moderate. The left refused to be content with the Affordable Care Act, but pushed more and more throughout the tenure of the Obama Administration, at whose end we now find a whole new list of grievances needing immediate redress.

The right, especially in America, will abide change and even embrace it, but no conservative anywhere will brook an unbridled gallop toward utopia. The left, however, expects the conservative to continue pouring moderates into the DC slaughterhouse just so we can be hamstrung by our increasingly irrational faith in the process which fails even to restrain liberalism, let alone conserve anything. The left will be astounded when it is the conservatives who either stop playing or change the rules of the game.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lessons for Teachers #2: The Tortoise and the Hare

Two types will be familiar to experienced teachers: the teacher who is still at Chapter 3 because "the students aren't ready to move on" and the teacher nine chapters ahead with a class that doesn't know anything. Each has erred and the extremes demonstrate a need for moderation.

The tortoise stops for every question, pauses for every uncertainty, and completes every exercise in full. This is an exhaustive, exhausting style of teaching. Students quickly learn that they can delay tests by feigning ignorance, but at the same time they, without realizing it, get bored. The class falls into a slump. In catering too closely to the demands of students, the tortoise loses sight of and confidence in the legitimacy of his curriculum--that it is wisely ordered--and the students dictate the pace of the class. Student competence, judged wisely by the teacher against reasonable goals supported by the administration, not student whim or pressure from parents, determines the pace of the course.

The hare, on the other hand, plows ahead with too little regard for the progress of his students. The hare teaches the same class with the same material from the same notes year after year without regard for variety in the students. He holds too tight to his curriculum, forgetting that it is designed to help the students and has little value as a mere prescription.

There is no such thing as a curriculum independent from students. If I design a Latin I course, I would not design the same one for high school students, college students, graduate students, and adults. There are, of course, finite topics, but no course teaches a topic in toto. 

Likewise and contra current wisdom, there is no such thing as a student driven class. The teacher prudently drives the class, through a planned curriculum, informed by the students, and supported by the administration.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Modest Proposal for Professional Philosophers

Peter Levine had an article in Aeon a few weeks ago calling out philosophy for being, "a remarkably un-diverse discipline." I don't want to go down the path of debating the virtues of diversity, but rather would like to expand on one issue Levine raises. He writes,

We broaden our store of such ideas by looking into the past and out to other parts of the world, and also by engaging people who haven’t had a voice in professional philosophy.
Not at all unreasonable, to which I would rather cheekily reply that perhaps, then, universities are not the best places for the majority of professional philosophers. Maybe some philosophers need to forego the tenured world of publishing articles and grading papers in air-conditioned offices and seek out the people who would never seek them. Maybe philosophers need to stand on street corners or fly to hot spots of violence and there dare to quarrel with people who might do more to them than fill out a nasty evaluation at the end of the semester. Maybe philosophers should disappear for decades to remote parts of the world as missionaries of philosophy.

Sounds like a great sacrifice. If only philosophy had an example of someone who valued principle more than self-preservation.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Lessons for Teachers: #1: Love the Calendar

So I've retired from teaching, at least insofar as a man of 30 years can be said to have retired from anything. Maybe I ought to say that I've quit teaching and I don't know if or when I'll  return. In commemoration of this turnabout I would humbly like to share some of the lessons I learned through my brief teaching tenure from 2011-2016.

Each was a tough lesson no one is likely to teach you, let alone, with bitter irony, in your own schooling about the craft. I cannot say I learned all of these lessons in time to implement them to perfection, but I had enough time to realize they were, at least, reasonable guidelines that when prudently followed, did little harm and at least some good.

#1. Love the Calendar

In some way, shape, or form, you need to plan for the whole year before it starts. As soon as you know what course you are teaching and have the school calendar for the year, sit down and plan. This may sound excessively ordered to some, but there is no alternative. Planning-as-you-go is an impossible task, stressful for teachers and disorienting for students. Students know when you're rushing, so don't be the teacher that tries to cover five chapters in one week at the end of the semester. 

Students also know when you've tried to plan and failed, so don't be the teacher who tells students to teach themselves certain chapters.

Students even know when you're wasting their time, so also don't be the teacher who rushes through material and with three extra weeks at the end of the semester doesn't know how to fill the time.

Plan and pace.

There are degrees of planning, but at least make a few considerations.

First, list your topics and space them out among the months. If you have experience teaching the course you will already know which will take longer than others so you can accordingly adjust, but if you don't, don't panic. Just realize that you need to learn the pace and that without that knowledge you'll be at a disadvantage, alternatively–and stressfully–seeming ahead or behind. Start by equally spacing things out and then adjust each time around until you learn the rhythm.

Second, work around vacations. Try to finish topics before long breaks and plan to use the day on which you return to re-center the class.

Third, plan around one-off holidays and long weekends. These days throw everybody--students and teachers alike--for a loop. You lose momentum, everything you planned gets bumped around, and your rhythm for the week is out of kilter. Minimally, you should account for the day so you don't plan anything for it, but preferably you should shape around the day, teaching a one-off lesson on a solitary day or adapting so that you can more easily resume the lesson when you return. The same applies to your absences.

Fourth, don't treat all days as if they are the same. Mondays and Fridays are not like other weekdays: Mondays need extra spice and Fridays need to be mellowed out. Days before and after vacations and days with modified schedules are notoriously hard to plan, but be creative. Consecutive days are not equivalent to days spaced out, e.g. teaching a lesson through Monday and Tuesday is not the same as teaching it through Friday and Monday. The week before Christmas is not the same as a plain week in October and a rainy November day is not the same as a sunny May one. Adapt. On that note...

Finally, it is all well and good to plan, but the more finely you plan, the more fragile your structure. You need to be able to gain and lose days without freaking out. Plan you class, but not too well. The whole week can't collapse because you lost a day to inclement weather or because a guest speaker cancelled and you need to teach when you didn't expect to.

Yes, sometimes it will seem like the administration and weather delight in pelting you with unexpected calendar changes. It's not unique to your school. It's not unique to teaching. It's life. Adapt.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Directed by David Lean. 1957.

"There is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth." –The Ballad of East and West

Face to face in the Burmese rain forest in late winter of 1943 during the Second World War, two men square off in defense of honor. Honor, not the Bushido code, drives Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the proud commander of a Japanese prison camp. Honor for Saito is absolute control of his camp, which he maintains until the unmovable, indefatigable British Colonel Nicholson marches his captured battalion into the camp whistling Colonel Bogey's March. It is one of the great cinematic moments.

The soldiers enter tracked in one of David Lean's famous pans, followed by the camera first from behind the camp cemetery and then from behind the infirmary. There the sick silently sit up with limp limbs and turn round to see the swagger of the British soldiers brazenly pitching arms to their defiant little tune. The contrast is immediate and palpable: the sick are ready to die and the entering men, though captured, are somehow free. The only question remaining is whether what those entering soldiers bring can survive in the brutal heat of the Burmese jungle and the grip of Colonel Saito.

What they bring is their deference to their commander, Colonel Nicholson, and what he brings is unswerving commitment to their orders. By that obedience, to the rules of the British military and to the rules of war, they maintain their honor. While Saito derives his honor from the obedience of others, Nicholson finds his honor in his own obedience to the law.

This contrast is subtly established when the two men face-off in front of their troops. Against the rules of the Geneva Convention, Saito has ordered that that all officers must work manual labor along with the enlisted men, and when Nicholson hands the colonel a copy of the laws and begins to cite from it, Saito strikes the British colonel's face, tosses his book aside, and bends his swagger stick. It seems at first a glib cinematic gesture to demonstrate the fealty of the British men, who stop forward in uproar, but Nicholson's response is the genius of the gentleman: first he disciplines his own men, then retrieves his book of law, and ignoring his own bleeding face, only then defies his captor.

The punishment which comes for him and his officers, day after day in a sun-scorched, tin-roofed hot-box, is abuse, but it is not dishonor. In fact, it is Saito who incurs dishonor after days of futile, embarrassing attempts to complete the bridge over the Kwai without the cooperation of Nicholson.

First, Saito sends to Nicholson the British doctor, who pleads that already the American prisoner Shears (William Holden), Jennings, and Weaver are dead, killed trying to escape. To that he adds how the cruel colonel has cut rations to the men and will make the sick work to death on the bridge. These entreaties do not move Nicholson, who replies, "If we give in now, there will be no end to it." Nicholson knows that once he is cowed he will no longer command his battalion and after that the men of it will no longer be his soldiers but Saito's slaves. Once he is cowed, they will all be cowed, and after that they will all die as slaves. The doctor, though, sees the situation as a dilemma between principle and death, and presents Nicholson with a seemingly logical answer: because no one will know of their duty if they die, they ought to live. Nicholson is adamant. There is no dilemma for the colonel, for whom thought of British officers working as coolies, as grunts, and British enlisted dying as slaves, is so appalling as to be unworthy of consideration.

Next, Saito tries to earn the favor of the British enlisted by shifting blame to his engineer, whom he removes from overseeing the project. He even goes so far as to try and curry favor by giving the men their confiscated Red Cross parcels. Again, though, in the shadow of the caged Colonel Nicholson, Saito gains not their respect and thus not their effort. As a result, the bridge falls further behind. Finally, he brings Nicholson himself into his quarters.

Saito offers him fine liquor and sumptuous food. He identifies himself as a Western man, preferring Scottish whisky, speaking fondly of his three years at the London Polytechnic, and slicing English corned beef for dinner. Nicholson senses the angle and, refusing the food and drink, flatly replies that he intends to make a full report of Saito, who then offers him another cheap, but logical, way out, just as the doctor did. He tells Nicholson that camps up and down the railway are using officers as soldiers, to which Nicholson, stubborn as ever, replies, "I'm not responsible for the actions of other commanding officers." Increasingly desperate, Saito offers a compromise: only junior officers will have to work. Again Nicholson refuses.

The turn of the tide is neatly set by the following shot. Nicholson waxes a little philosophical on the topic of leadership and as he, a self-disciplined leader with nothing to learn from Saito, looks past him to study the problem of the bridge model, Saito, unable to build the bridge, intently studies Nicholson, from whom he has much to learn about command.

After Saito agrees with Nicholson first that a commander must have the respect of the men in order to have them work and then that the bridge is not completed because the men to not work, he flies into a rage as he realizes that he lacks the respect of the camp. "I hate the British!" he fumes, "You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn, but have no pride. You endure, but you have no courage." What we hear, though, is, "You are defeated, but you retain your honor. You are stubborn, but keep your dignity. You endure, and you do not fear." To Nicholson, he retains his honor by upholding the law, his punishment as an officer is less than the suffering of a slave, and his fear of death in punishment is less than the disgrace of indignity.

We know that Saito has finally admitted defeat when he seizes the occasion of the anniversary of Japan's 1905 victory over the Russians as an opportunity to grant amnesty to Nicholson and the soldiers, releasing them not only from their confinement but also from his command that they stoop to manual labor. There is poignant contrast between tragedy and triumph as Saito weeps defeated and every British man pours out in triumphant celebration as Nicholson greets the his newly liberated officers before being himself hoisted up like a victorious commander. Of course not one of them is free as a man is by right, but the tenor of the moment is a sure vindication that by retaining command of his men he has freed them from dishonor.

It now remains to save them from despair, toward which end Nicholson insists not only that the bridge be built, but that it be built with such speed and exemplary organization and execution that it does lasting honor to the British Army. Medical Officer Clipton, however, wonders whether such cooperation is treasonous, to which Nicholson again finds recourse in the rules of civilization, by which prisoners have no right to refuse work. It is no more proper, he argues with the doctor, that the British soldiers work with deliberate inefficiency than if a surgeon such as he were to operate without the intent of saving his patient. Nicholson is equally appalled by the thoughts of appearing lawless or incompetent. He concludes,

I hope the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it: not a gang of slaves, but soldiers. British soldiers even in captivity.
The subsequent and successful bridge-building is satisfying and it pleases to watch Nicholson and his officers humble the Japanese with their scrupulous efforts and precision, but these scenes pale somewhat before the drama of the preceding act. Moreover, the tension dissipates as Saito recedes from the drama and the film splits its attention between Nicholson's efforts to build the Japanese bridge and the efforts of Commander Shears (William Holden), who in fact survived his escape and was brought safely back to the British base at Ceylon, to make his way back to the camp and under British orders, destroy it.

The first times I saw Kwai, these scenes with Holden puzzled me. How do Shears' smart mouth and skirt chasing fit into place after the contest between Saito and Nicholson? Well, I still find them long and off-tone from the rest of the picture, but one parallel intrigues me. At the British base the higher-ups ask Shears, because of his knowledge of the area, to destroy the incipient bridge over the Kwai so the Allies can impede the Japanese efforts and, preferably, knock out a train which is soon due to cross the river on the bridge. When faced with the prospects of returning, Shears discloses the fact that he is not a commander, but merely took up the guise upon capture, so as to get better treatment at the camp. He hopes by this admission to be found unsuitable for the risky mission.

This is in sharp contrast to Nicholson, who goes out of his way to be treated according to rank even when that means undergoing punishment. Nicholson could have allowed his officers to work like enlisted men, essentially disregarding their honorable ranks, but instead he elected to suffer to maintain their dignity. Faced with the same risk, Shears immediately throws down his rank and its accompanying honor, albeit assumed, aside. Worse than dropping the pretense when costly, Shears keeps it up when it mean points with the leggy nurse on the beach and fancier quarters at the hospital ward.

When the British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) tells Shears that both the Americans and British know his story already, and that his own side, faced with the dilemma of dealing with a man deserving both punishment for impersonating an officer and praise for escaping a prison camp, merely tossed him over to the British, Shears pragmatically concludes, "As long as I'm hooked, I might as well volunteer." It's as blunt as but antithetical to Nicholson's, "It's a matter of principle."

This contrast is satisfying, but Shears' reticence is insufficiently developed–neither with dialogue, although some does dance around the issue, nor with style–to feel like a proper, significant, contrast to Nicholson's efforts at the camp. In back-to-back scenes we have Nicholson earning the respect of Saito by rousing injured men to volunteer and Shears getting his hair washed by a native girl. The scenes of Shears and his party making their way back to the bridge, save one chase in which Warden and an untested young soldier must track down a fleeing sentry, do less to heighten the drama than to distend the film and dilute the conclusion. Worse, Warden becomes a foil for Shears, in place of Nicholson, merely out of convenience. Here too I wearied, feeling the length of those talky scenes at the Ceylon hospital. At least we enjoy some fine cinematography, with wide pans over the marvelous landscapes dotted by the tiny figures of our characters.

It is impossible, though, to overlook Alec Guinness' bridge-top monologue, a miniature masterpiece, which begins the finale. Colonel Nicholson's bittersweet rumination on his life of service is exactly the sort of unexpected, unexpectedly honest, reflection that creeps up on us amidst success. Guinness' pitch-perfect tone is that of a man tempted to regret, bearing the burden of that temptation. There's also a subtle reversal only suggested in the staging. Nicholson first walks the bridge, leaning on a thin stick, slowly surveying the marvelous handiwork of his men. Saito then does the same from the other side, approaching the front of the frame.

The shot is a reversal of the one we examined earlier. Here, though, Saito is front, examining the bridge that was before beyond his comprehension. He has learned from Nicholson, who now in the background, looks not at Saito or the bridge, but beyond in self-reflection.

At the apex of its masterful slow-burn finale, Holden's character falls just short of greatness. Shears' sacrifice, running across enemy fire to tell Nicholson that the bridge needs to be destroyed, seems meaningful because he is sacrificing himself, but because the plot hasn't been building him up for any change of heart, it doesn't feel dramatically important for his character. We have little inclination as to what he would do in any given situation, so what does happen is neither expected nor unexpected. Still there is a satisfying reversal if we recall that earlier in the film his buddy inmate says to him, tongue-in-cheek, "You're neither an officer nor a gentleman." Now he has died an honorary officer and an unexpected gentleman. In contrast, Nicholson's fate is complex and rich with pathos. His final heroic moments draw together both plot and character in a concentrated few seconds which arouse in us great pity and fear.

Fist, remembering his speech atop the bridge, we feel pity for Nicholson because, when he learns that Shears' team has been sent to destroy the bridge, we see him denied the satisfaction of what he thought to be his life's great achievement. We sympathize with Nicholson because his virtue deserves reward and because it is a situation, albeit often less grave and grievous, in which anyone may find himself. We feel this pity all the more acutely, though, because of the reversal that has taken place. Heretofore Nicholson's stubborn insistence on building the bridge has been a virtue, giving purpose to the men, and now it is a vice, in its extremity about to contribute to the enemy cause. This creates fear in us, for we anguish in the uncertainty of whether he will destroy the bridge and whether it will be destroyed at all, on which are predicated not only the mission of the Allies, but Nicholson's legacy.

As he takes his last steps toward the detonator, his wounded, injured gait reminds us of his tortured walk from the hot-box, and as he dusts off his officer's cap and replaces it atop his head, we remember his principle, and as he falls on the plunger, we remember the sacrifice, not only of his bridge, but of his whole service. We may even be tempted to exclaim, watching the burnt dedication plaque of the bridge float down the Kwai, "For he's a jolly good fellow. And so say all of us." Or are we like the doctor, who looks on the scene and sees not the price of principle but only, "Madness. Madness."

Monday, June 27, 2016

How to New York

Greetings and welcome to the Big Apple! For whatever reason you've come–a new career, social aspirations, or a pathological rejection of your upbringing–we're happy to help you transition from them to us, from Joe or Jane Q. American to a denizen of the capital of the world. Now before we get started with practical advice there is one super important premise that should guide your every waking moment: living in New York City is not about living well, but about being seen living like New Yorkers. Now wait just a moment!

Eager friend, you're about to commit the most common mistake among aspiring urban elites. So grave a mistake, in fact, that you'll be re-packing for Tulsa before you've had a chance to sip that organic, artisanal, gluten-free smoothie. So listen up! You–we, I think I can say we now right?–We don't take our social cues from actual New Yorkers. Crazy right? Let me explain.

You see actual New Yorkers are busy living in New York. Most of them are even part of these burdensome tribes called "families," which come with all sorts of obligations and traditions. More importantly to us, they don't care how people see them because they're too busy living in New York. They're weird like that because they're liberal, and yet not. We don't get it either. In fact they're creepily like the rest of America. Now if we imitated them, what fun would that be? We might as well be back home!

So where do we get our lifestyle cues if we don't get them from actual New Yorkers? From trendsetters. Who are they? It doesn't matter. It could be anyone–even you–at any moment. That's the thrill of the city. All that matters are the trend and the difference: that something is just catching on and that something is different from what came before it. You just need to spot it and hop on. That said, there are some do's and don'ts.

Let's start with what you should leave behind. This foremost means pesky domestic obligations and what is more obligatory than that old time religion? Yes, I know almost seven million New Yorkers identify as religious, but remember: New Yorkers are living in New York, we are New Yorking! Actually, you don't really have to disbelieve anything, you just can't openly approve of anything religious or any religion in particular. Except Judaism, which is fine. And Islam. And Hinduism. And Buddhism. Actually it's just Christianity that's kinda taboo right now, but if you belong to one of those denominations where you don't actually have to believe or do anything in particular, identifying with it will be just fine. Anything Catholic, however, is way off limits and to be avoided at all costs. There are two exceptions, namely that you're allowed into St. Patrick's (just don't say cathedral!) provided you bring tourists and comment sarcastically, and that you are allowed to attend church festivals provided they are sufficiently ethnic. (Favoring local cultures beats mocking Christianity. For more, see Hierarchy Table 4.2.) Otherwise, avoid the Catholic thing! It sounds easy, but on Ash Wednesday you'll be dodging sooty foreheads like potholes on 1st Avenue.

Actually, speaking of cars, it's preferable that you don't have one. This is not a hard and fast rule, and if you can find something suitably small, cute, dilapidated, or lacking in horsepower, it may pass muster, otherwise avoid. Why? Cars usually send the wrong signal. Luxury cars spell privilege, midrange ones spell bourgeois pragmatism, minivans ooze family, and any truck of any kind will drip so much blue-collar sap all over your New Balances that you'll be sprinting a brisk barefoot run to reclaim a new vintage pair before your next 5k. True, almost half of NYC households may own cars, but remember that we're New Yorking here. Getting it yet? Taxis are of course fine and services like Uber and Lyft are covered by the Silicon Valley Exception. If this is too complicated and you want a car just remember the Annie Hall Rule: buy a used Volkswagen Beetle and casually advocate that cars be banned from the city. (You'll probably want to check out Addendum #4 for the list of approved vacation destinations.)

Trust me, though, you don't want to drive in the city because you'll be advocating for every road-closing event you can find. Marathon, bike-a-thon, walk-a-thon, crawl-a-thon, they're all good. Farmers' markets are preferred weekly and cultural parades are Sundays between May and October. Protests are relatively rare these days, but never pass one up. If you find yourself in a position to occupy something, put on your Pampers and sit in, down, or on it! In short, if there is any slow-moving or preferably immobile vehicle or person we can plop in the middle of a road, we're for it.

That brings us to our last topic: causes. Since you won't be busy with bourgeois responsibilities like tending to your family and your community, you'll need something to fill what remains of your mind and time. The good news–not that good news, newbie, so put that  bible down!–is that you don't need a family or community in order to take care of people. In fact, taking care of people that you know is totally passé now. That's where causes come in. What's a cause, you ask? A cause is exactly like a responsibility, but you're not actually responsible for anything. By having a cause you get all the praise that responsible people get, but there's no accountability whatsoever.

For example, taking care of your ailing grandmother is a responsibility. It's time-consuming and risky. If you flake on driving granny to her doctor's appointment and she breaks a hip, then you bet you're responsible. So why take care of granny way out in Wilkes-Barre when you can take care of, "the elderly." Are you with me? Don't help your disabled neighbor mow his lawn, but take care of, "the environment." Now don't think you actually have to do anything significant here. We're not moving mountains, we're...that's right, we're New Yorking! Yeah, sure, you can recycle a few bottles and wheel a few meals around, but all you really have to do is advocate for your cause.

Why? Because advocacy is an activity and we identify ourselves by our activities. For this reason, though, you can never be at rest. Rest happens at home, and home breeds all sorts of pesky things. You only need a place, where you can occasionally show off cultural totems like expensive cooking equipment, transgressive art, or whatever your thing is. You, however, have to be out and about!

Sharklike you must ever swim the avenues of the city seeking experiences,

but more importantly you must be seen. Attend screenings, showings, tapings, viewings, fundraisings, samplings, readings, gatherings, signings, openings, closings, Q&A's, debuts, last performances and any other culturally-sensitive, preferably exclusive, pop-up activity that your keen eye may discern. While the native proles are taking care of their homes and raising their families in their oh-so-American manner, you'll finally be New Yorking. Have fun and welcome to the Big Apple!

Back to Writing...

I just wrote several essays. The first was short, but I didn't know what I wanted to say until the end so most of it was insubstantial. For the second essay I took the last sentence of the first and started with that. Unfortunately, in it I tried to say way too much. Now I realize I have two things, roughly, to say.

First, I'm sorry, dear readers, that I haven't posted in so long. Second, my wife gave birth to our first child in March and we've been quite happily busy.

I have much new to write and many back articles to publish, so thanks for your patience. Oh, and I like to post a picture with every post because it looks so much better in the "Popular Posts" section of the sidebar, therefore Bob Ross.