I’ve been teaching prefixes and we started easy with un- and dis-. I asked kids to brainstorm words that began with both and someone said unlike. I asked, What does it mean to like something? And the kid said, “It means… y’know, you like it.” But what does it mean to like something? If he couldn’t use the word like, he couldn’t do it. Other kids that day couldn’t explain what it means to be stuck or to be happy. “To be happy means… y’know to be… happy.” Round and round we go.
I call it sixth grade tautology when sixth graders use a word to prove itself. Why is that movie awesome? Because it’s awesome. A fun rhetorical flourish, but does it help you prove your point? My mantra as an English teacher is that you need lots of in your paragraphs. What specific things from the book make you think what you’re claiming? What specific things make that movie awesome?
When kids wrote movie reviews, they struggled to move beyond book reports. Most reviews would be a plot summary followed by proclamations of extreme love, sometimes in grandiose terms. I’d ask, Why did you like it? Was it the jokes? The story? The way it looks? The acting? The writing? No thesis to their movie reviews, just what it’s about and then that it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life, I like it more than a money printing machine that’s made out of candy and is purple (my fave color!!).
Of course, in our current post-truth political hellscape, this is not a culture feeling so strong about evidence. Is it really so different to rail against “I hate hats, I hate them so much, they’re the absolute worst, I HATE THEM”? No need to explain why you hate hats, or who these millions of illegal voters were. For a page and a half, his thesis boiled down to, He hates hats because he hates hats. It is what it is. I pray for our futures.
The Urban Blah
Back in 2009-11 I collaborated with the brilliant Vee to make a webcomic that failed to become syndicated across the globe. I am pro-recycling.
This was not a collaboration, this was just Vee making something wonderful, having fun with the Onion imagining the first signs of spring. And she nailed it. That bird looks not unlike the American robin who built a nest on my porch last year. Although it’s more likely a Canadian robin. Vee has her own substack, you should subscribe!
Jam of the Week
Super into the Møtrik album MØØN: The Cosmic Electrics of Møtrik. I heard their excellent recent single, “Koan,” backed with a fab Devo cover, and I tried their 2021 album. Indeed cosmic, and electric but in a drone guitar kind of way. Driving, repetitive, noisy, gives me Moon Duo vibes, a little early Hookworms. They sit one note in rhythm for actual minutes, and I’m in heaven.
My Back Pages
For a 2017 sixth grade unit on narrative writing, my exemplar was about a memorable day kayaking. I rewrote it in 2020 while sabotaging our covid identity unit, inadvertently turning it into narrative writing. The 2017 one was good, but the second time sung. From “Final Identity Piece,” Nov 20, 2020:
Once upon a time, I fell in the water. I wish it was more complicated than that, but that’s kind of the whole story: I went kayaking, and I fell in. Is it any surprise my wife thinks that I’m a cartoon character? D’oh!
It was still early in the year and I was still trying to let them know who I was as a teacher and a person. I haven’t watched a new episode of The Simpsons in 20 years, but I still deeply relate to early Homer. Can’t we agree on cartoons?
It was Labor Day weekend before the start of school, one last gasp of summer before 180 days in the sixth grade. It was unusually warm, like the sun using a hair dryer, so the wife and I consulted our summer to-do list and discovered we had not been kayaking. We drove into Boston and got a pair of kayaks, one for each of us. The people at the desk seemed like they were clinging to the last days of summer vacation, too. When we got to the docks, there was nobody there to help us into the kayaks. I was shaky getting in, and the kayak wobbled. But I made it, and we set off through the Charles. I wondered what it would be like getting back.
Foreshadowing! In the original, I detailed my poor luck operating boats, like the time the canoe I was piloting hit a bridge on BOTH sides.
Once we were on the water, we started to kayak. It was a beautiful day, and I could feel the wind and the sun baking my skin. I could smell the trees that lined the water, and I felt my troubles melting away. The green of the trees and the blue of the water set a gorgeous scene for our explorations along the Charles River.
This kind of description was definitely designed for sixth grade audiences. I rarely indulge, a hole in my game. Maybe that’s why I’m bad at it.
I felt calm and relaxed, but there was also a nagging feeling deep down. I kept remembering the process of getting in. Nobody had helped us in, and I wondered if anyone would help us out? I was a little worried, but I kept stuffing that feeling down and focusing on how great I felt being out on the water in a tiny boat.
You see where this is headed.
When we pulled up to the dock at the end, I developed a plan. I knew exactly what I would do to get out of the kayak. And that was exactly what I did, and exactly how I landed in the water. I threw my phone and sunglasses on the dock, then tried to get out. A woman came by and offered her hand, but when I pulled to get out, I nearly pulled her in, too. Eventually my wife put her kayak away (without falling out) and she got me out, and we had a soggy walk back to the car. I was not just sopping wet, I was pretty embarrassed. Everyone else we saw leaving was much more dry.
I guess this would have been a very different kind of story if I’d pulled that random woman in with me. My Awesome Wife couldn’t help but giggle as she rescued me.
The Charles River is not super clean, and we read online that you should keep an eye on your health for a couple of days to make sure nothing bad happens. This was two days before school started, so I briefly panicked that I was going to miss the first day of school. Because I fell out of my kayak.
My wife couldn’t stop laughing.
Apparently she told this story to one of her stylists and they laughed to the point of tears. It seems I spread joy wherever I go, even place I haven’t been.
And I have to admit, falling in the Charles River was a very me thing to do. I tend to be clumsy, and it always seems like I’m on the verge of wiping out like Tom chasing Jerry off a cliff. Ridiculous things happen to me, over and over. So of course when I went kayaking, I fell in. I’m just that kind of guy. The kind of guy who randomly falls in the water during an activity everyone does without a problem. I’m a klutz.
Luckily, I never got sick, and I had my first day of school without any problem. But I wasn’t in a hurry to tell this story... until now.
This was my attempt at turning this story into something about my identity. In a video in college, the place had set up an impossible billiards shot with a series of caroms to knock in the 8-ball. Not only did I miss the eight ball entirely, but the cueball caromed all around the table and directly into the pocket. Scratching on the eight ball, my signature move, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I am always a cartoon character. D’oh!
I would also fall in the water.