Archive for October, 2013

Bad Plans for Mythological Goals

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

You will think, poets, performers and non-breeders, that this post has nothing to do with you, but I think it does. If you want to know why America can hardly contain its disdain for our way-of-life, you can just spend your morning the way I spent mine. Jaw clenched and fists curled, I just walked out of a curriculum meeting at my son’s school where they discussed the local, state and federal approach to educating my kids.

We begin with the assumption that we are falling behind other Westernized nations and are no longer competitively creating the scientists and computer wizards that will compete in the Future Global Economy. This Assumption has become a Proof, if you don’t mind my high school geometry allusion, because it’s a constant part of our news intake. Do a google search on “U.S. is falling behind…” and the auto-fill gives you “in education” as your first option.

So what does this mean?

1) 50% of reading should be non-fiction. Because a biography about someone who actually did live is far more important than historical fiction, in competing globally. Reading about the Peloponnesian War is totally good and reading The Lord Of The Rings is totally bad.

2) We can’t do math that has no real world applications. This has led my son to come home with homework that says, “We can divide apples into bags of one, bags of ten and bags of a hundred…” Which, OF COURSE, led my son to say, “why would you put one apple in a bag by itself?” and then, a short time later, “How could you lift a bag with a hundred apples in it? Wouldn’t the handle break?”

3) Social Studies is non-narrative. There is deep discussion of the vague responsibilities we have as community members, but no celebration of any one person.

4) Science is hands-on, actual real-world applications. Lots of stuff about how animals behave, or experiments that can be replicated.

Jesus, it just went on and on. Take your kids to the store and time the walk, have them figure out the prices of stuff. Have your kids read the PTA bulletins we send home and have them tell you the information. Have them fill out their Citizenship homework.

I thought my head was gonna friggin’ splode.

Couple things –


We’re just not. We’re not. Go look at the scores, we’re fine. The scores are all so close together that saying “we’re number 11 in math in the westernized world” is like saying “we’re fourth in the world in shoe ownership.” WE ALL HAVE MORE SHOES THAN ANYONE HAS EVER HAD IN THE HISTORY OF THE GODDAM WORLD.

Plus, we’ve never scored any better than we’re scoring now. There’s this ridiculous assumption, permeating ALL of our collective self-understandings, that there was a time when America was just *killing it* and we need to get back there. For conservatives it was the 50s and the 80s, for liberals it was the 60s and the 70s, and for assholes in my generation it was 1993 when flannel was awesome… But it doesn’t matter, that’s all a myth. IT WAS NEVER BETTER THAN IT IS NOW.

2) Math and Science are beautiful outside their real-world applications. My son came home with a post-it note of the number 27. He had two rows of ten and seven boxes. I said, “Oh man, I love 27,” and he asked me why.

It’s three cubed. It’s nine times three and, like every other number multiplied by nine, the digits in the sum add up to nine. It’s right in the middle of a stretch of numbers (5×5, 13×2, 7×4) that are all so strange and beautiful. Also, it’s the last breath of every month, it’s the age I was divorced and thought my life was over, it’s a hundred personal things.

It’s not two bags of ten apples and seven bags on one apple. That’s just… It’s just goddam stupid.

Social Studies is the story of individual people making decisions, struggling and changing the world. Even the robber-barons were people who made decisions. And if you think baking-soda and vinegar eruptions are more beautiful than the behavior of sub-atomic particles, then you’ve never met my kid and his friends. They get the beauty of an element, of an atom. They don’t need to know the life cycle of a squirrel just because they live in New York.

3) They’re preparing our kids for a future world, assuming it’s gonna be like this now, when it never has been. There were search engines before Google, there were social media sites before Facebook, but there wasn’t any *there* there yet. The people who made the earlier sites weren’t dumb, their sites weren’t bad, their timing was off. They weren’t *lucky*.

What if my kid becomes a plumber? And then… Holy shit, fracking actually changes the chemical make-up of the water and every single pipe and drain in the North East has to be replaced. My kid’s suddenly sitting on an empire of 200 plumbers and there are waiting lists two years long to get his services.

Couldn’t possibly happen, right? Just like the people today who wrote jokey emails to each other and goofed around with photoshop couldn’t *possibly* be making a fortune providing smart content for corporate twitter feeds and graphic designs for thousands of start-ups.


Look, I know… School sucks. I get it. In fact, screw you, I get it way better than you. It was literally insufferable for me – I had to stop going, I couldn’t bear it.

But then let’s all just admit that this is bullshit, and quit trying to pretend that we’re doing it better now. Don’t ask me to give to the PTA to bring in a teaching artist once a month to get all 1400 kids at my school to do a twenty minute sing-along, it’s NOT DOING ANYTHING.

We’re not doing it any better. When my kids are thirty, they’re all gonna give each other wry smiles and mock “Common Core”, it’s gonna be a joke about endless testing, endless word problems and real-world applications and… they’re not gonna feel any *worse* for it. They’re gonna be fine, the new world will *barely resemble* this world.

But I’m calling shenanigans. They can talk STEM all they want, they can panic about the tests, they can “suggest” we push our kids to “45 minutes of reading every night by April”, but I’m just gonna nod and smile.

And then I’m gonna tell my kids what makes a photon so amazing to me. I’m gonna let my kids watch My Little Pony instead of reading “Grover Cleveland, A Life”. I’m gonna give them legos and say, “See if you can build something that doesn’t make any sense at all.”

All year, they’ve asked the students to write one sentence per spelling word, to use it in a sentence. Barnaby decided instead to write a story about Rogerdt, an astronaut, who has visited a dozen or so planets at this point and met a wide array of aliens. He uses sometimes two or three spelling words in a sentence instead of one sentence each.

His teachers give him bonus points every time, and I can’t help but feel like part of that is just them being grateful that someone is doing *something* that isn’t in Lockstep. A moment away from this breathless, real-world Science, Technology And Math prep. Because as much as I might hate all this, I bet you a thousand bucks that the teachers hate it even more.


Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

This morning, as I was throwing away an entire batch of truly crappy cookies, I realized that by simply trying a thing you can get a reputation for being good at it. I’m not necessarily a good cook, I’m just a guy who tries to cook *at all* and a lot of times it ends up being somewhere between good and great. Because it’s *food*, all it needs is some salt and fat and it’s probably gonna be just fine.

Everyone who has kids knows they’re on borrowed time. There are some parents who are actively involved in the day-to-day of their kids’ lives as adults, but those are very, very rare. There’s a period of a dozen years or so when we’ll still be trying to communicate with them as they slowly decide not to communicate with us. The years when we matter are numbered. After this it’s gonna be love affairs and chess matches or basketball games… we’re not gonna be what’s important.

I have no secret to parenting, some people think I’m a good father but that’s almost totally because I do it *at all*, which separates me from the vast swath of shitty fathers out there. I probably throw out more than my share of cookies, to extend the metaphor, and the rest of the time it’s just the basic stew or soup – something you can’t really screw up even if it’s not extraordinary.

But my son talks to me a lot. So does my daughter. And I’ve found that if I ask a question and then shut up for as long as possible – if I literally bite my tongue – then they’ll keep talking. No clarifications on my part, no follow-ups, nothing. The less I say, the more they talk.

And yes, the jokes, the jokes. My blog isn’t called “Seanrants” because I’m *very good at being silent*. I have almost no unexpressed thoughts, the louder and larger the audience, the better.

But this, the being-a-father, is something that’s really hard to explain. My blog was silent for about two years while I tried to wrap my head around having two children under four. My life has been rehearsal and performance, since I was very, very young, and that leads to a level of discipline and adjudication that’s almost military. I work towards a production, a thing is produced and then we look back and marvel or cringe at what we made. With kids, it’s not that. The show never actually *opens*.

And right now, it’s a tough patch because it feels like… Like all the cookies are crap. My kids are less happy now than they were three months ago, that’s a simple fact. And people go through periods where they are unhappy, periods of growth or struggle make almost everyone unhappy when they are in them. But I’m not doing anything to make it better.

My daughter has night-terrors, although I’m not exactly sure what that is so I’m not actually sure that’s what she has. She screams in her sleep a few times a night, sometimes more. And while there are nights when she doesn’t, odds are she will.

During the day, she’s gotten more and more likely to fall apart and throw a fit when something doesn’t go her way. It’s gotten to the point where her screaming and crying has ceased to mean anything to any of us, but it has a low-level impact of simply filling our day with expressed misery. All day, at any point, there’s a terrorist in our house willing to hold us all hostage with 110 dbs of screaming.

And my son is just unhappy. School is crap. It just is, it’s garbage – I can say that here because BELIEVE ME I would never say it in front of him. He goes to one of the best rated, highest scoring schools in the entire state of New York, and *none* of his teachers are gonna let the scores go down on their watch.

So every day, every kid in his class is on the verge of being in trouble. Just a constant stream of corrections and disciplinary measures, a constant harrangue of everything the kids are doing wrong. Yeah, we’ve talked to the teachers, yeah we’ve done what we could to help him feel good when he’s not at school, yeah we’ve organized super fun stuff for the weekends and after school. But even during the fun stuff, he’s thinking about the kids who get in trouble at school. It’s not even *him*, it’s other kids, but he has to constantly be around it.

I mean, this is not necessarily the New Normal, and that might be the only actual advice I’d have for parents with kids younger than mine. The shit they’re going through now *might* be who they’re becoming, but more than likely it’s just who they are *right now*, and it’s all gonna change in a month, six months, a year.

But… those cookies I threw away? I actually thought I was doing it right. I creamed the sugars and the butter, I added butterscotch chips and oatmeal, I KNOW HOW TO MAKE COOKIES fer chrissakes. And when they were done, everyone ate one… and a week later the other two and a half dozen were still sitting there.

When my kids talk about how unhappy they are with what they’re doing, I hold my tongue and then I say, “you gotta get through this and it’ll all work out. Believe me, you’ll get better at the stuff you’re struggling with and it’ll all work out.”

I just can’t feel that way as a dad. I can’t just let it happen. It feels like I’m just shrugging away the most important job I’ve ever had and I want to do something, I want to press, I want to run interference and change the world to be better *for them*.

But for now, in the same way that I bite my tongue when they talk, I sit on my hands. I ask them both, after I’ve been silent for as long as I can, “do you want me to try to help you fix this, or can you do it?” and they always say the same thing. “I can do it.”

With everything else in my life, if I just try a little harder it always works out better. But with this, I have to do what I’ve been barely able to do for most of my life. I have to do the most difficult thing, and probably the most important thing, that I can do as a dad. I have to trust in the strength of my babies.

Rose-Colored, Looking In

Monday, October 21st, 2013

My niece Lucy got glasses to better see the blackboard. I remember the moment so clearly, I remember walking out of the dark doctor’s room and looking out the window and being *slammed* with the visual articulation of every leaf on every tree. It was epiphantic, like getting ESP after years of hearing muffled voices.

But I think my brother is understandably troubled. We have a stack of average-to-bad traits we’re passing down to our kids and any time we dodge a bullet it feels like a miracle. Every time we saddle our kids with a bit of genetic baggage it feels like we’ve failed them.

I wish I could help my brother understand what glasses are to me. The same time I got my first pair (probably three years too late for it to have any impact on my abilities as a student) I began this relationship with the world *outside* my glasses. There was a world that existed on the far side of the lenses and a world that existed on this side – my world.

I would sit in class and look down at my hand holding a pencil. Then I would slip my glasses off and look down at my hand, the skin and baby hairs standing out, the paper and desk out of focus. And I realized that those lenses brought everything into focus, but also made everything smaller and further away. And on that side of the glasses, I was failing – I hadn’t copied the homework, hadn’t finished my test, was daydreaming… But on this side, because I was blind to those expectations, my daydreams were all that mattered.

I went years without any stage fright, without even understanding what my fellow actors were talking about when they said they were nervous. Because when I was on stage, without my glasses, I could see roughly where the other actors were and not a single face of the people in the audience. And when I could get close, when I could look in another actor’s face, then even the scenery disappeared. They were in my world.

And now there are only two times I take my glasses off. Every night before I get in bed, the very last thing I do is slip them off and set them on the nightstand before I wrap myself around my wife. She’s the only person who sees me without them on, she’s the only one who’s face I see clearly, but without being stretched and distorted away from me.

Or rather, she’s almost the only one – because my close vision has started to go too. I don’t need reading glasses yet, but I can’t see things up close with my glasses on. So now, when my little girl sits on my lap and puts her face right up to mine to tell me something, I slip my glasses up on my head. Or when my son is sad and wants to bury his head in my neck, I slip my glasses off and set them to the side so when he looks up at me I don’t have to lean back to see him.

I have always had this world that I was happily inside of, a place where I couldn’t see well enough to compare my clothes or catch a ball or even see the assignments on the blackboard. It was for me, it was a source of my real self. And I didn’t mean for it to happen, but now the three people who put their faces next to my face are the three people who live there with me. When I’m on stage and when I’m with them, it’s the only time I take the glasses off and I can be my real self.

I’m not a big believer in making the best of stuff, I’m not a big believer that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or something good can come of something bad. But I know what my glasses have always meant to me, I know why I didn’t get Lasik when the rest of my family did. I have an easy, secret place where I’m not *blind*, but where the lines are a little softer, where the colors blend in to one another, where I can be true to myself. And if I know Lucy, I’m sure she has it too.

A Child Trashes My City

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

Oh, I’m sure from the title of this blog, you think this will be all about one of my kids, or one of my friends’ kids. But it isn’t. It’s about a 26 year old who gave up on New York after one year and then published a blog listing 40 reasons why you shouldn’t move here.

Trashing New York is click-bait. And also lists! Make a list and it’s click bait. But if the internet has taught me anything it’s that Point-Counterpoint online is impossible, so I’m not going to refute his list of infantile complaints that include the kind of assumptions that nobody I know, not even those who no longer live in New York, would make.

I’m just gonna tell you about my month.

My son started second grade in a public school with 1400 students. It’s been a harder adjustment for him than first grade or kindergarten and he missed the friends he left behind. He still misses them. He misses Dua and Gulam, Labeeb and Christopher, Vincent and Hutch and Monsour. He misses the kids who’s names are currently underlined by wordpress because they seem to be misspelled.

Since he was struggling, we called the school. The operator transferred me to the principal. The first time this happened I was shocked, now I take it for granted that when a parent calls, the principal comes to the nearest phone and talks to them.

Three weeks later, he was named Student of the Week. After our call, his teachers had worked out a better system for inspiring him, and he lit up like a Christmas Tree.

I once told him that letting him grow up in New York was one of the greatest gifts I could give him. We go to MOMA in LIC. We go to children’s theater at divey 99-seat theaters. His friends are white, black, east-indian, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Christian… even Jewish (which is how he self-identifies). The world, the whole world, is being given to him.

But what about me? I was just playing one of the leads in Candida by George Bernard Shaw and we closed on Sunday. On our nights off, I saw three other plays – not as many as I usually do over a four week span but I *was* doing another show.

One play, “Something, Something Uber Alles” was directed by the reviewer David Cote. Because a theater reviewer with a national reputation still has to show his shit in New York to maintain our respect. And MYGOD the show was an utter tight-rope of brilliance.

The other two were new shows. In one show, “Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go Betweens”, I was friends with every single member of the 10 person cast and the playwright, and am very *good* friends with the producer and director. I am that guy, because I live here, because I stayed, because it was worth it to me. And it was gorgeous, breath-taking, an absolute masterpiece.

The other show was also a new show, called “Why We Left Brooklyn”. I didn’t know every single person in the cast, only five of the 9 person cast (and the writer, and the director) would I call good friends. It’s the story of a couple who can’t live in New York any more. They’re in their mid-30s. It was written by a guy who hasn’t left, produced by a company that isn’t leaving, featuring nine actors who aren’t gonna go. I loved it. I missed huge stretches because I was laughing so hard. And the playwright and I talked afterwards about the ideas – and about how neither of us was tempted to leave, but it’s fun to talk about.

The apartments in my neighborhood are about $2500 for a two bedroom. It’s expensive, if that’s your metric. But we do live next to subsidized housing, our school is roughly 55% kids who are eligible for free lunch, and I’m not surprised when I walk down the street and hear Not English.

Because of course there’s Not English. This is America, nobody speaks English when they get here, and getting here is all anybody does. And when they came, it was through Ellis Island, like Barnaby’s great-great grandfather on one side, or JFK, like his grandfather on the other. Maybe there are small towns all over America where English isn’t expected, where Spanish or Hindi or Swahili are perfectly acceptable languages, but it doesn’t *seem* like it. Of course, I’m not there – and Not Being There means I really oughtn’t make assumptions.

I was walking down the street in Astoria and the gay guy behind me was genuinely frustrated as he half-hollered into his phone, “I swear to God, if I don’t find a more straight way of talking, I’m gonna be stuck playing best friends and moustache-twirling bad guys for the rest of my *life*.”

The gay guys here worry about type casting. What do they worry about in your idyllic southern small town?

If you think you know New York then let me tell you about Avonte Oquendo. A young autistic boy – non-verbal and just over 5 feet tall – ran out the front door of his school on October 4th. We haven’t found him yet, it’s been eleven days and we haven’t found him. He doesn’t know how to say he’s hungry or cold, and we don’t know where he’s sleeping or how he’s surviving.

But every telephone pole has his picture on it. Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers have been combing the streets looking for him. They shut down the MTA to scour the tunnels because his mom said he loves trains. He’s somewhere in the city and we’re not gonna give up until we find him.  And when we talk about him, he’s ours.

I saw a woman faint out in front of a grocery store once and she didn’t hit the ground, two men caught her. Then a cab took her home for free.

So, when you say you saw a homeless man get hit by a car and nobody cared, I don’t buy it. 270 pedestrians died last year in car accidents, out of a city of 8.4 million. Maybe you saw it, I can’t prove that you didn’t, but you’d be far more likely to see it in Los Angeles – and if you did, there’s a 48% chance it would be a hit-and-run (compared to the 11% in NYC).

When you complain about sprawl, that people often have to go to Brooklyn! or Queens!, you reveal yourself to be utterly ignorant of the way the city works. If only because you fail to understand that all five buroughs are part of NYC.

When you say Breakfast costs you $38… then I don’t know what to say. If you literally CANNOT FIND a place to get breakfast with a friend for $15, then I suppose I would suggest you hook up the selfsame computer you used to peck out your article and try The Google. Or ask a friend. Or live here long enough to have friends to ask.

See, there’s a new story being written about New York, and it’s being written by my friends. There’s a playwright in Astoria who not only writes her own theater pieces and produces them in living rooms, but who’s baby was placed for open adoption (with a gay couple, who get to live and adopt openly here in New York), an action beyond my comprehension of bravery.

There’s a woman who rented a loft space on the fifth floor of a building in LIC so that theater companies could build, store and rehearse in the same space. She might lose her shirt, but more than likely…not. She’ll make a new kind of New York.

There’s a woman who started a storytelling series where people get ten minutes to tell a story inspired by songs from their past. There’s a guy working at Fractured Atlas who spends all his time at poetry jams. There’s a guy who makes art out of discarded piano keys.

If you couldn’t find it during your one year here, I don’t know what to tell you.

But I will say this – the internet has made it hard for us to swallow our immaturity and ignorance. Some day, you’ll be thirty. Sometime after that, you’ll be thirty-five. And then forty and then forty-seven and so on. And more than likely, you’ll look back on an utterly vapid piece you wrote and cringe.

But… your piece was fun. It was fun for people to post on Facebook and fun for people who don’t want to spend the time to invest in this city, who would give so much back to you if you just try. And *this* post will most likely be read by a couple hundred people (because it’s not a list, because it doesn’t actually make any kind of sweeping general argument and because it’s not trashing anything). I guess I’ll just have to suffer through another year of living this life and hope that folks with a strong constitution keep looking for the things that my city offers.