Sunday, November 27, 2011

Une semaine de vacances

Tomorrow, I go back to class, after a week's vacation.

Despite the title, and the French movie trailer below, you will find no French in this post - at least not any good French.  This is simply because I don't speak any, although I wish I did.

I have under my belt three quarters of French I took at Berkeley, 1973-74, seated close beside my then-budding antagonist, who stars in the novel blogged below; that's it.  Didn't use it, lost it.  C'est dommage.

In spite of this fact, toward the end of this past week's vacation from teaching, I began dreaming in a kind-of French (I think it's French) that I don't understand.  Is it real French?  Peut etre!  I hope so.  Still, I don't understand it.

I think I may know why this is happening.

In 1980 or so, at the end of a perfect summer, I saw a French film with my first husband, "Une Semaine de Vacances."  That's the film's name, not my first husband's - curse of an English teacher, to notice those things.

He was a musician, a trumpet player, and had the most alarmingly deep green eyes flecked with hazel and blue any living woman has ever seen.  We were happy, my husband and I, in those brief days.  We were in LA for a while so he could play his horn, and we both taught school:  I junior high English and photography; and he elementary music, traveling from place to place like the Pied Piper, packing clarinets and saxophones and flutes and trombones as he went.

The sadness of it, that we didn't know how happy we were back then.

Anyway, we were coming on to the end of one of those long lazy summers that teachers enjoy when they still don't have the encumbrances of house payments or credit debt or bad health.  No summer school to worry about, just the endless summer and each other, year after year after year.

That summer we had spent a lot of time at the beach, and at the zoo taking photographs, and at Brand Library on the glorious front lawn thumbing through art books.  Brand Library is the legacy of Leslie C. Brand, built in his sprawling estate El Miradero, and features the most magnificent collection of arts materials, including monographs, I have seen anywhere, among other treasures.  A virtual paradise for a musician and his artist bride.

That summer in particular was a hard one to let go of, to go underground again for awhile, out of the sunshine, back to the here and now.  Maybe somewhere inside I knew what we had right then wouldn't last forever, that it wouldn't weather the dry steady wind of daily family living.

Somewhere around the last day of that summer, we wandered into a little French film at the multiplex cinema in the Encino Galleria.  There were no more than 50 chairs in the hall, and we were two of maybe ten people in the whole place, huddled together with our lattes and butter cookies, to go with the subtitles.  "Une Semaine de Vacances."

In the musty dank of the theater, Nathalie Baye was in the car with her husband, about to be dropped off at the junior high where she taught French (her equivalent of English, comme moi).  Real film, on the reel.  You could hear it.  Clickety-click.

With her through her car window, we could feel the familiar cacophany only made possible by the very young, bristling with their junior high-ness, bumping and slapping up against one another, creating heat ripples of naive life-blooded energy in the air as they passed.  Their gutteral Frenchisms gave them a certain extra-ness, sharpening their edge somehow, making them - more.

The warm pressure of his arm bolstered me, deep in our huddle against the AC.

Together with her, we made a break for it, jumped out of the car and ran for our lives.  Free!  A week's vacation - voila.  Almost to be equalled later by Albert Brooks quitting his job in "Lost in America," but not quite, since it was teachers.

God bless her husband.  He covered for her.

That ninety minutes or so, we hid in the French countryside with our heroine, wondering what it would be like to run off and change our names and travel the continent and never be seen or heard from again.  There was a bliss in this wondering that I can't quite conjure now in the practicality of my advancing age, even embracing the gentle rocking of welcome life changes I'll blog about sometime in the future.

In the end, she remembered who she was, our heroine.  Like resting on the beach after surfing, she was ready for the board again, her feet knowing exactly where to go, how to shift her weight to stay abreast for a long ride.  A natural.  She loved the white-hot brilliance of her students, just as I do mine.  Ils sont epatants, she said.  Oui.  Je suis d'accord.

So after this week, une semaine de vacances, I'm ready to roll, in love again, at least till Christmas.  Being a solitary soul for the time being, they are my only love, only second to my own grown babies and my dogs.  They have been the iron strand that has tied my life together through everything, always different, but always somehow the same.


Monday, November 21, 2011

The Astro-tude example: "Network" revisited

The entire nation was treated to a display of callow youthfulness last week when 15-year-old Astro (I thought he was twelve until somebody set me straight) threw a classic temper tantrum on the TV music contest "The X-Factor," after viewers placed him in the bottom two.

Media have been awash with play-by-plays of the meltdown, as if what he had done were only a few cuts below a game-losing play in the Super Bowl, or a national disaster.

He's fifteen, for Pete's sake.  Cut the kid some slack.  Or maybe you think we should take him out back and beat the crap out of him.  Obviously I'm kidding.  Are you?

We have gotten way too entitled in what we believe we have a right to see on television.  Not too long ago, there WAS no reality TV - only the 1976 movie "Network," starring Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway.  Consider "Network" to be something like Orwell's "1984," only for the future course of television instead of for the whole world.

When my compatriots and I first saw "Network" in our callow youth, some 35 years ago, we were dead certain it could never happen here.  The sheer outrageousness of it all - only in the movies could such a thing happen.

Most of my main characters, if you have been reading my novel "Corners" (blogged below), would have felt the same way.  On the other hand, the "alternative" ones would have expected it, even embraced it and participated in it, if given the chance.  But I digress.

In "Network," one of the major affiliates decides to program a new series starring a fading newscaster (Finch) who is beginning to lose his mind, making him out to be some kind of soothsayer.  He makes predictions on his own national show and systematically melts down week by week, in front of the viewing audience, as his mind reaches the breaking point.
In the fictitious world of the movie, this makes for awesome ratings.  He whips the nation into a shared frenzy with his ranting, inspiring millions to hang out their front windows and scream, "I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANY MORE!" (which is a boomer mantra to this day, by the way).  To the Network, this simply means everybody's watching!  Good sign, says the Network.

In the movie, advertising commitments go through the roof.  Viewership is at an all time high.  Then, disaster strikes - Finch's diatribes go too far even for his smarm-drunk audience, and ratings drop precipitously.  The Network has to "take him out" by hiring revolutionaries to assassinate him on camera (newsmakers!), thereby restoring a winning lineup.  

In 1976, "Network" was considered a cautionary tale.  Not so today.  Today, minus the revolutionary assassins, it's reality.  Reality television, that is.

Consider Russell Armstrong, husband to Taylor Armstrong, of the "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."  In the wake of nationally televised accusations of spousal abuse combined with financial strife, he killed himself.  Killed himself - that's right.  Even after his death, the episodes depicting the real-life events that precipitated his demise, already in the can as the tragedy occurred, are being aired weekly as we speak.

Also consider "Bad Girls' Club," a literal blow-by-blow aired weekly on the Oxygen channel, which is supposed to be the women's network.

On "Bad Girl's Club," young ladies with obvious mental illnesses and/or addictions - or whom I am guessing have been raised  in extreme poverty, or with incest, abuse, or neglect - live out their dysfunctions before us, trapped together in a network-funded house.  They beat the hell out of one another; engage in alcoholic binges, orgies, and other gratuitous sex; mortally insult one another; steal each others' boyfriends - and the beat goes on, so to speak.  In other words, the suffering and shame which have been visited upon each of their hearts and souls through their saddest life experiences is exploited for our viewing pleasure.  Heinous.

What poor Astro went through in front of us was at least a relatively run-of-the-mill, albeit less than perfect, childish episode.  Being a child, he did not deserve to be exposed in his spoiled and callow glory in front of us all.  He deserved simply to be severely scolded by his beloved mother and sent to bed early, grounded with no cell phone or computer for a week.

So how is it he came to be so exposed?

In a massive brain fart of bad judgment, the Network recently amended its policy to allow children under the age of sixteen to strut the reality stage, right alongside 21 and 30 and 40 and even 60 year-olds, on the field of competition.

Why?  Because they're just so doggone FASCINATING and exotic, these kids, to be that GOOD and that young at the same time.

Sick.  This is just plain unvarnished bad policy, not to mention bad for the very kids the Network purports to help.

To know that this is deliberately exploitative, all you have to do is watch the Network announce the surviving X-Factor contestants each week, "in no particular order."

They hold the results of the very youngest contestants - 13 and 14 and 15 years old - until the bitter end.  As each one is grandly announced, their result is held dangling and twisting over a chasm of silence as the audience waits and quivers in shared terror with them.  Then, the names are read, one at a time.

Watch as 13-year-old Rachel collapses in breathless sobs on Simon Cowell's breast, barely able to stand.  The heartless Simon, moved to tenderness, strokes her back and holds her till she gathers herself enough to walk off stage.

Watch as 15-year-old Drew chokes on her own tears, clutching her shirt as she staggers off in a combination of shock and relief, not yet sure of her joy in it all, moaning.

You can't tell me that isn't staged to deliberately squeeze and wring the softness of their youthful hearts, bruising them just enough to entertain us.

Astro stumbled, God bless him.  He needs an afternoon reading the book of James, not to face his own shame on national television.

We and the FCC and LA Reid and Simon Cowell, and every other grownup within reach, deserve a horsewhipping for allowing a Network to do him that way, for allowing him to stand there in the first place.

But not Astro.  Astro simply deserves the gift of time with his mom, another couple of years to grow.   Most important, he deserves to be GUARANTEED, by the very industry that tried to eat him alive, that he will have a place among their brightest stars one day - when he's old enough.  And when that happens, we need to be standing there, forgiving him.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On being a free radical: thoughts from a Teen Mania mom

I am a former Teen Mania mom.  I shall preface my further thoughts on that with a few musings.

First, I missed you all last week.  I failed to blog because I was busy working on losing my home, a very 21st century boomer thing to be working on, I'm afraid.  This, too, will be a blessing.

As a result of and in spite of losing my home, I'm free today, thank you Jesus.  I will now not have the encumbrances of crushing financial obligation, heavy repairs, yard maintenance, refurbishment, or other such earthly chains on me when I retire in two years.  I can very simply go back to my roots in the San Francisco Bay Area, if I time my lease right.

That's the free part.  And yes, I'm still a radical in many ways, too, albeit lost temporarily in the Great Central Valley of California.  Like free radicals which are found in the wild, my nature is to drive processes, regulate them, or flip them on their ear till they're free-wheeling in black space.  Sometimes, I get trapped in a box.

I'm a mom.  I'm a born again Christian.  I'm a hippie.  I'm a pro-lifer.  I have run for office.  I'm a Democrat, sometimes.  I support PFLAG.  Nuff said.

If you have any further questions, link up with my main character, who lives in my novel Corners, blogged in full below, from bottom to top.

Back to business.  As a former Teen Mania mom, I was dismayed when I found I had missed last week's MSNBC special, "Mind Over Mania," especially now that it has been pulled down from You Tube.  My daughter saw it, though, and she had a few things to say about it.  From what I have heard, the special reviles Teen Mania without mercy.  I will have to see it one day to decide for myself what it does.

My daughter was class of 2006 from Teen Mania's Honor Academy, the focus of the MSNBC documentary.  My son was almost, within two weeks, class of 2007.  They had very different experiences, my daughter and son.  In the end, I believe both benefited from it greatly, in radically different ways.  My son may tell you different, but the best part of him has Mania written all over it.

The Honor Academy (HA) is the youth-driven engine behind the traveling teen revival, "Acquire the Fire," and the worldwide missions program "Global Expeditions."  Run virtually exclusively by kids between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four (there are usually no more than two people older than 24 on the 400-student campus at any given time, and those two are nearly impossible to reach), the isolated HA campus possesses an aura, even an undergirding value system, of radical youth, much like the communes of the '70's that my cohorts and I frequented in our younger days.  And these kids are radical, know it - souled out believers in Jesus Christ, and they are as youthfully human as the day is long.

We learned of the HA at a packed Acquire the Fire (ATF) event at Sacramento's Arco Arena, on one of those junkets my church used to roll out to in the '90's and early 2000's, my Sequoia stuffed to the gills with youth of every stripe.  ATF is designed, staged, recruited and put on the road by teams of youth, your kids and mine, who have signed on for a one-year stint or more at the HA.  My daughter was ATF Call Center when she was there, my son Global Expeditions (GE) Call Center.  HA interns do everything from recruiting and deploying missionaries and youth pastors, to booking speakers and musicians, to rolling out buses filled with intern cast and crew.  They stage hand it, act it, clean it up, fundraise it, train it, acquire passports and visas for it, you name it.

They have a Teen Mania Board and donor list studded with the greats in modern Christian leadership to back them up every step of the way, too.  Endorsements come from the likes of Jack Hayford (Former President of the International Church of the Four Square Gospel and now President of The Kings University), Josh McDowell, TD Jakes, Randy Phillips (Promise Keepers, President), Mike Bickle (Director, International House of Prayer), Joyce Meyers, George Barna.  And the list goes on.

The Honor Academy campus is located in pretty doggone deep East Texas, about forty minutes east of Tyler between Van and Lindale, out in the land of unannounced hot August T-storms.  It is the former home of legendary worship musician Keith Green, a man known to many as the daddy of modern worship.  Green was killed there on his own airstrip in a small plane crash, still young and at the peak of his career.  The Vineyard Church which he helped inspire, now a denomination found in places across the country, remains a Sunday morning destination for HA interns to this day.

Ron Luce, a born-again believer who grew up raised by Jesus with no earthly father figure, acquired Green's property and converted it into the HA, which features brick buildings constructed to withstand the rural East Texas winters, and a miraculous monster pool featuring a towering water slide and recreation area.  The "Back Forty" is acreage on the property using for trainings and exercise, as well as for meditation.  The Back Forty is where ESOAL (Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime), the activity now made infamous by the MSNBC special, takes place each year.

ESOAL is something like boot camp - REAL boot camp, without the bullets. There is mud. There are blisters.  There are teams charged with surviving together and pulling buses out of the mud with nothing but boards and ropes and each other.  In ESOAL, they become prepared to be missionaries in the field, to find their way home with no direction, to literally carry their crosses beside one another, to be humble.  In ESOAL, they know exactly who has their back and exactly who holds them accountable.  It is only one of the many stretching experiences interns sign on for when they enroll.  My daughter made it most of the way through ESOAL, but rang out at the disgusting food opportunity.  My son had to opt out of the whole thing for health reasons, and his reasons were honored.

During my daughter's ESOAL experience, Hurricane Rita hooked northeast right into their event and dumped buckets of rain, then fizzled.  I remember watching the white whorl on the Weather Channel and praying.  They marched on.

This is one of the times when the grownups show up, and there they stay for the duration.

At the HA, you commit to a code of honor.  You promise purity while you are there.  No smoking.  No drinking or drugs.  No inappropriate fraternizing with the opposite sex.  No lying, cheating, stealing.  No internet.  If you fall, you are honor bound to confess first to God and then to the Honor Council - the Council is kids, true - who will make a recommendation on your behalf about what is best for you.  These recommendations can be harsh, no question.

I have grieved over many of the recommendations - precious young men and women sent home for kissing.  A downtrodden street child who had paid his own way and now glowed from head to toe with the Holy Spirit, sent home for sneaking a cigarette.  A boy almost at the end of his year, sent home for reading his lessons from the forbidden internet instead of from the book.  Still, all of these young people had ridden the edge before.  Many more were forgiven and given study activities or work detail to help reset their habits.

During my son's year, he struck out on a driving trip to Arkansas with a fellow intern, keeping a promise to visit a childhood friend who also had wanted to attend the HA.  The only problem was, there was a tornado watch in effect.  Somewhere around Texarkana, his car spun out along with about three other cars, fishtailing and whipping around 180 degrees, then sliding sideways and slamming into a road sign against the passenger door.  As he told it to me from his cell phone at the roadside, his door had simply popped open and he was standing on the road, absolutely safe, he knew not how, beside his car when it was over.  And so was his friend Oscar, somehow.  Saved by grace?  I believe so, as does he.

My daughter believes she was similarly blessed while out there.  A big rig apparently passed through their car from its right to its left as they rode in the left lane on Highway 20 back from Dallas in the rain, three little girls crammed in the back seat reading their Bibles.  They were sure they would die.  They are convinced of what they saw instead, all five of them.

Is Teen Mania a cult?  I have several rules for declaring something a cult.  In a cult, the leader declares himself Lord. He stops at nothing to keep you tied to him - lies, theft, denial of your basic human needs.  Nothing is voluntary.  The leader wants your very life, forever.  A cult never ends.  In a cult, you can't go home, because they will find you.  In a cult, even your parents can't get you out without a paid kidnapper and a de-programmer.

Does Teen Mania engage in these practices?  Absolutely not.  Are the young people highly zealous in their pursuit of recruits, and highly zealous in holding them accountable once they are there?  To be sure. Highly.

Anyone signing up for the HA or an overseas mission who is younger than twenty-one should in no uncertain terms have a parent on deck who is prepared to step up and BE A GROWNUP; a parent who is ready to stay tight with the two grownups on campus, if you can find them (be ready to HUNT if necessary); a parent who is ready to send a car if possible, to send care packages, to send cash for sundries, to make sure the minimal monthly payments for food and lodging are attended to.  Your child will need a parent who is ready to be there on the phone in the wee hours of the morning when your child's determination begins to flag, to assure him that he has your earthly love as well as the love of Jesus.

Yes, I am a former Teen Mania mom.  I will be the first to tell you that Teen Mania is not perfect, because nothing earthly is perfect.  It is a radical experience, no doubt.  But then, that's how we roll, my babies and I.  That's how we roll.  Radical to the bone.