Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Funny Guy's Fear

My children are dramatic.

And talented.

Daring Daughter accepts plaudits in stride, acknowledging them as her due. But Super Son is suspicious of anyone who compliments him. When someone says he's done a great job, he thinks they're saying it out of pity. When, at a recent theatre showcase, schoolmates loudly applauded the announcement of his status as "Most Inspirational Actor," he later asked me "Do you think they did it to mock me?"

This wears me out.

His latest psychosis bizarre behavior concern is that people only view him as "The Funny Guy." This is exacerbated by the fact that various friends -
horrors! - comment that he is so funny. Others pile on when they post compilations of cartoon characters on their Facebook pages and then label the pictures with friends' names to attribute a given trait they believe the friend shares with the character. Super Son has been named "clown," "someone who makes you laugh till you hurt," "a boy that makes you laugh," "your wildest friend", "the sarcastic one," and "the funny friend."

I was going to share some marvelous quote about stereotyping with you, but none of them really addressed this sort of thing. So I looked for "pigeonholed" and found a nice one from director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road):

Actors get pigeonholed very quickly, particularly movie actors. In the theater, one is more used to casting people against type and trusting that their talent and skill will get them through.

The more I thought about it, "typecasting" really describes the problem my son is encountering
(or thinks he's encountering - more on that later). So I dutifully searched for "typecasting" and found an absolute beaut by Bert Lahr:
After The Wizard Of Oz I was typecast as a lion, and there aren't all that many parts for lions.
This is particularly appropriate because Super Son is auditioning for The Wizard of Oz. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for him, but since he had such a big role in the fall play, he may not receive a similarly juicy part this time.

I've got a lot more to say about this, but I'm going to feed it to you in bite-size pieces. Consider this your first piece of a multi-part rumination on my teen's angst.

You may wish to invest in a bottle of Tums to assist in its digestion.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Speechifying in Not-So-Secret Society

I've been neglecting you. I'm sorry. But I've been pretty busy. Super Son has decided to expand his repertoire of accomplishments by engaging in speech and debate, and I've gotten involved as a judge.

My Mom and I were on the phone tonight, and she was all excited about some sort of game with a guy named Favre. She mentioned the NFL. For me, the only NFL is the National Forensic League.

Back in the time of the dinosaurs, I was a high school debater. Some time I will dig out my old high school yearbooks to find the picture of a cocky teenaged me, leaning on a podium with one eyebrow raised in my best "why, yes, I DO know it all" expression.

Meanwhile, you'll have to just use your imagination and believe me when I say I was a debater.

A master debater.

Heh. That is a debate joke. Get it? We debaters are so risqué.

Anyhoo, Super Son attended a tournament last weekend to see what speech and debate events were all about, and the coach accepted my offer to serve as a judge. It's been a few decades since I've done it - I debated in college and often was hired as high school judge - but I felt very much at home in the setting of smart, well spoken, nervous, excited and opinionated young people. They do a slightly different type of debate than I did in the midwest. I was taught to do extensive research and debate a specific policy by examining a particular plan that served as an example of the policy area. We relied heavily upon quotes of experts and talked a mile a minute.

This area generally uses a less intense format. Lincoln-Douglas Debate is one on one and has shorter speeches and is more value-oriented. Instead of one topic for the year, they change topics every two months. Public Forum Debate topics change monthly, (characterized by National Forensic League as "ripped from newspaper headlines) and the format uses two person teams. The local high schools also offer Congress Debate - students serve as senators and speechify for or against proposed legislation.

Super Son chose the last type as his debut into this strange new world this Friday.

Meanwhile, I was once again busy judging a gazillion different events. I was impressed with how much effort the students put into their presentations. Every once in a while, there was someone who clearly stood out, or someone who choked. By and large, though, they were grouped closely in skill.

Which made it damned hard to judge.

Judges have to rank order competitors and assign speaker points to them. I tried to be as careful as possible, but it really is a subjective thing in many cases. Criterion such as "Persuasive" is an awfully personal measurement. You can easily assess someone's height as it relates to another person's with a ruler. But where is the persuasiveness tool?

Each of those young people wanted to be the best. Or maybe they were just enjoying the opportunity to participate. That was certainly the case for my boy. He didn't expect to win anything. After all, it was his first time.

He had an opportunity to compose and give a speech about a piece of legislation related to third term abortions. Heavy stuff. It's only been about a year since he even knew what an abortion is; we'd talked about it when he heard a reference on the news. He'd hoped to deliver a speech he'd written about gun control, but the Senate got bogged down in something else and they ran out of time. It was a good lesson; heavens knows the real legislatures sometimes endlessly talk about issues and don't make progress.

He's going back for more in two weeks, this time as a Public Forum debater. The topic is
Resolved: In the United States, organized political lobbying does more harm than good.

I'm eager to hear what he thinks.

The circle is now complete.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Formula For Success?

Congratulations to Kathy Amen of Hometown Tourist, winner of twenty points in the competition to identify the man in the photograph in my previous post.

Although she didn't reveal the secret of her methods in making a spot on "random guess," I have my suspicions. You see, Kathy is a government information librarian, and I believe her brain is extra well developed to take a simple hint (a logical subject to explore for my upcoming American Dream class) and rifle through her mental card catalog of people who might relate to this topic. Though we've never met, I imagine Kathy is a match for the wonderful Katherine Hepburn character in Desk Set. A researcher extraordinaire, with a vast range of knowledge, able to make connections and understand how things relate.

The subject in the photo was Horatio Alger, Jr. His connection with the concept of the American Dream is found by examining the dominant theme of the novel series he wrote in the late 1800's. Columbia University Encyclopedia defines his work thusly: By leading exemplary lives, struggling valiantly against poverty and adversity, Alger's heroes gain wealth and honor. Wikipedia elaborates:

Many of Alger's works have been described as rags to riches stories, illustrating how down-and-out boys might be able to achieve the American Dream of wealth and success through hard work, courage, determination, and concern for others. This widely held view involves Alger's characters achieving extreme wealth and the subsequent remediation of their "old ghosts." Alger is noted as a significant figure in the history of American cultural and social ideals.

His first popular novel, Ragged Dick, was serialized in 1867. In the intervening 143 years, Alger's work has become synonymous with the concept of someone who achieves the American Dream. The term "He's a real Horatio Alger story" is frequently applied to anyone who makes it big from modest beginnings.

Numerous sources on the internet and in print repeat a few basic phrases in defining a formulaic Horatio Alger story: rags to riches, a rise from poverty to wealth through sheer determination and good works. But the truth is that there's a key element that's left out of these definitions. Stephan Kanfer notes in Horatio Alger: The Moral of the Story:

Virtually all the narratives followed the template of his earlier efforts: a youth is beset by destitution and the temptations of the wicked city. Soon he is betrayed by a trusted associate. But with the help of a wise mentor he picks himself up, dusts himself off, and, with honesty and diligence, ultimately triumphs over circumstance. That was what Alger's public demanded, and he saw no reason to disappoint them.
Wikipedia explains the "mentor" factor:
In fact, the theme became synonymous with Alger, whose formula for success was based on luck, pluck, and virtue.

Essentially, all of Alger's early novels are the same: a young boy struggles to escape poverty through hard work and clean living. However, it is not the hard work and clean living that rescue the boy from his situation, but rather a wealthy older gentleman, who admires the boy as a result of some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty that the boy has performed. For example, the boy might rescue a child from an overturned carriage or find and return the man's stolen watch. Often the older man takes the boy into his home as a ward or companion.

Why is this "helping hand" usually ignored? It's a critical factor, and should help to guide public policy. Instead, the dominant perspective is that if you are honest and hardworking, you'll get ahead.

I was, naturally, curious to know if this mirrored Alger's own life. Was his life a rags to riches story?

What I read surprised the heck out of me. I'd never heard it before. Professor X, who often seems to know everything, was totally ignorant. Even my Mom, who was well familiar with the term Horatio Alger story, didn't know this explosive tidbit.

Have I built up suspense enough? Are you dying of curiosity? Never fear; I am here to titillate enlighten and astound educate you.

Horatio Alger Jr. was the son of a Unitarian minister. He graduated from Harvard and had mediocre success as a book and magazine writer, so he went back to school - Harvard Divinity School - and was hired as a minister on Cape Cod for a Unitarian Church. Then some of his young (13 year old) male parishioners accused him of molestation. An investigation yielded charges of "the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys," and Alger was permitted to resign, with the stipulation that he leave town and never serve as a minister again.


Kind of makes you wonder about the title of his first novel. Admit it, you snickered when you read the title on the illustration above.

This sure puts a sinister spin on the whole wealthy older man mentor thing, don't you think?

Alger moved to NYC and spent a great deal of time with impoverished young men (hmmm) and began writing for journals of moral literature for children. Although his work was wildly successful (think Stephen King's sales of his day), Alger never became rich. He died in 1899 at the age of 67. Upon his death, his sister destroyed all his personal papers. (hmmm)

I'll bet you that 99% of the journalists and writers who employ the term "Horatio Alger story" have no clue about these aspects of his life.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wow. Just....WOW.

Twenty points if you can name this man. I was researching my course materials for the upcoming American Dream class and he was a logical subject to explore. He's obviously from a period before my time, so I used the Google machine and read a bit.


I discovered that he was accused of acts that shed a totally different light on his work. The common popular culture references to him that I've seen never mentioned this behavior. Maybe I lead a sheltered life. But I'd be curious to know if any of you knew about his background.

Mystified? I'll give you a few days to see if you can figure it out. Then I'll post the details. I can't wait to find out if my students are aware of this.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Defining the American Dream

I am excited to announce that I've succeeded in my quest to get a course proposal accepted! It will be offered this February, and I'm busy collecting all kinds of good things to share and discuss.

Here's a peek at the basic idea, subject to minor alterations.
As always, I welcome your suggestions.

The American Dream: How Has It Changed?

We'll engage in a bit of "dream analysis" as we examine this question. David Kamp's essay, Rethinking the American Dream, suggests there's been a shift in our national aspirations from “a set of deeply held ideals rather than a checklist of goals or entitlements.” Kamp, an editor at
Vanity Fair, noted in April:
As a people, we Americans are unique in having such a thing, a more or less Official National Dream. (There is no correspondingly stirring Canadian Dream or Slovakian Dream.) It is part of our charter—as articulated in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, in the famous bit about “certain unalienable Rights” that include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—and it is what makes our country and our way of life attractive and magnetic to people in other lands.

We'll use several short readings to stimulate discussion about The American Dream, including passages from John Kenneth Galbraith's 1958 book The Affluent Society and Henry Luce's 1941 essay “The American Century” in Life. The class will also watch the Academy Award-winning documentary American Dream, and some popular culture films which depict the issue such as the classic Depression tale Grapes of Wrath, to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Honeymooners to Hollywood documentary Frank Capra's American Dream to the contemporary The Namesake about immigrants from India seeking a better life in the US.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Resolution Inspiration

I've got a new role model.

This guy has a ton of talent.

He's a great storyteller.

His work is phenomenally popular.

Don't recognize him? That would be because he's been successful at dropping 70 pounds.

I'd like to do that, too.

I know I can do it. My friend Mama Milton has offered to share her Zumba magic with me, and I am ready to make food changes.

Even the smallest heaviest person can change the course of the future.

This post is prompted by my membership in Club HASAY. Go check it out!

Peter Jackson is a great inspiration to me on another count as well; he has achieved great creative things. Yes, I know King Kong was not the best movie ever, but Lord of the Rings was wonderful. If I can write something 1/1,000,000th as good, I'll be happy even if I then write a flop. So today, I am waving goodbye to the family and going off to write for several hours. Tomorrow, I'll do it again. And the next day, and the next..... One bit at a time, right?

2010 is going to be big, I tell you, BIG! And I'll be getting smaller.