Theater Masks

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

End of Year Sum Up of entertainment

Last year, around this time, Caitie got me to form a spreadsheet to keep track of books read and movies seen. I set a goal - 25 books over the year (about two a month) and 100 movies watched. I'm happy to say I reached both goals successfully - barely, but I did it!.  So, here are the six best books I read and the ten best movies I saw.  Keep in mind, these just happen to be things I experienced this year (in the case of both, not necessarily for the first time either), but still my favorites in each category. These are in no particular order.


1. The Golem and the Jinni - a really interesting read with a great story that made me feel like I was reading a story from when I was a kid with an adult twist. I'm looking forward to more from this author.

2. The Princess Bride - yes, it's older, but it's one of my favorite books of all time and will be reread several more times.

3. Speak/The Impossible Knife of Memory - during the summer we went to LeakyCon and got to hear Laurie Halse Anderson speak. The woman is incredible, and her writing matches her personality. Her books are deep, moving, and extremely intelligent. Both of these were fantastic - definitely worth picking up.

4. The Magician's Land - We also got to see Lev Grossman at Leakycon. I loved the first two books. This third one was strange, for sure. The first half tells one story which he basically drops to finish the series in the second half. The first half is okay, but the second half is an epic and excellent conclusion to the series.

5. The Blade Itself: The First Law Series - first book in the series. I found Joe Abercrombie through a series of short stories and decided to try his novels. The book is very well written and, while not necessarily paced the best (it takes a while to get going), it's a very enjoyable read. I'm currently partway through the second book in the series.

1. Her - an incredibly thought-provoking sci-fi movie from last year. Brilliant story-telling with great performances.

2. Twelve Angry Men - it's a classic I've seen several times before, but it's always gripping and, incredibly, edge of your seat tense.

3. North by Northwest - another classic I've seen before, but, like the last movie, very tense and brilliantly acted. When I have the patience for Hitchcock, this is one of my favorites.

4. 22 Jump Street - surprisingly, just as funny as the original. We laughed through the whole film - definitely a classic in the making.  I hope there's a 23 Jump Street coming...

5. 12 Years a Slave - it took us till halfway through the year to watch this, but holy crap did it deserve that best movie Oscar!

6. 1776 - A yearly ritual for me and a perpetual favorite movie.

7. The World's End - surprisingly very funny (not the biggest fan of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz) - I really enjoyed this. WTF!

8. Big Hero Six - Disney's still got it! Baladaladalala

9, Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part One - For the third movie in a series, based on half a book, it was surprisingly gripping and smart. Looking forward to the last movie in the series.

10. Into the Woods - best movie of the year for me. Best movie musical in probably the last half century (barring Chicago). Absolutely worth seeing and I hope it doesn't get forgotten come Oscar time. Of course, I'm biased because, well, it's one of my favorite musicals of all time, but it could so easily have been so bad - and it wasn't. I dare you to watch Agony and not crack up. I dare you to watch James Corden during the "No More" moment and not tear up. I dare you not to love Meryl Streep and I dare you not to be thrilled during The Last Moment or not get chills during Stay With Me. I could go on, but it is a FANTASTIC movie. Totally worth seeing.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Into the Woods!

I've been a little heavy lately, so time to get back to entertainment (the situation in the American government and education system gets worse daily, and commening on it all the time, while undeniably important, is just too damn depressing to do on what's meant to be an entertainment oriented blog).

Earlier last week I received an email that I won tickets to an advanced screening of Into the Woods. Now, let me be clear. I've been eagerly waiting to see this movie since it was announced well over a year ago. I was counting down to Christmas day until we could go see it. Getting to see it early was a huge treat for me, and let me say, the movie did not disappoint in the least.  To anyone who knows me, they'll know this is not something I say lightly or, well, ever, about a new movie: it easily is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Meryl Streep disappears completely into the role of the witch. She's fascinating to watch - you can't take your eyes off her when she's on screen. Her voice has improved tremendously since Mamma Mia. She has some great line readings that I feel truly make her performance Oscar worthy. Stay With Me and Last Midnight are definite highlights of the movie, and I feel I need to watch them both again to get much of the nuances in her performance. She is brilliant in this role, plain and simple. 

An aside: I just read an article where Sondheim said she was destined to play the role because Streep is an anagram of Peters (as in Bernadette, who played the witch in the original cast). Literally - only Sondheim.

Back to the movie.

Chris Pine is the MVP of this cast. Seriously - he steals every single scene he's in. Agony is literally the funniest three minutes of screen time I can remember seeing in any movie since Borat. Some people might find it ridiculous, but the scene is brilliantly staged and deserves the roaring laughter it got in my theater (and, I might add, the only full out applause the movie got until the end). I know he won't get it, but he deserves a best supporting nod for this film.

James Cordon is a natural, meaning you can't see him act. He just feels so right in his role as the Baker.

Emily Blunt makes for a strong Baker's Wife. I'll admit I couldn't get Joanna Gleason's performance out of my mind for her, but she is more than suitable for the role. Her Moments in the Woods is excellent, even if I feel the end is a bit unnecessarily padded (on stage, it was done for applause, in the movie it feels like about fifteen seconds of dead space - sorry about the pun).

Anna Kendrick is similarly great as Cinderella, though again Kim Crosby's performance and line readings reverberated throughout. This doesn't mean Kendrick was bad casting, she was wonderful, but she didn't erase the performance from the original cast in quite the way Streep or Pine were able to.

The rest of the cast is very strong as well - there really isn't a weak link amongst them. 
The cut songs were missed (especially the second Agony but more because of how great the first one was). No More is only there instrumentally. They couldn't have done the song as it's written given the way the movie is done, and arguments can be made for its inclusion, but I think it worked really well the way that it was done here as it is. 

There is a surprise for Sondheim fans at the first night of the ball (I think it was the first night). Not telling what it is, but it made my wife and I grin like fools. 

The only thing I would really criticize is the change-over between acts. That's always tough in stage to screen adaptions, and I don't think they quite pulled it off here. The end of act one/opening of act two are played instrumentally, but the scene in the show where the witch comes into the baker's house to tell them about the giant is really missed. When the action of act two gets going (when they face the giant for the first time), characters literally just APPEAR - they're just -- THERE. It's strange. 

That's a minor point, though. Marshall's direction is mostly pitch perfect (again, sorry) throughout. He makes some fascinating choices, and even the small amounts of cleaning up to earn the PG rating aren't all that distracting. 

That said, I'd love to know where the song written for Streep was supposed to be - and what it sounds like. Guess I have to wait for the DVD on that one.

It really is a fantastic movie. I was grinning through most of the first act's material, and choked up a bit at the end. It's certainly something I plan to see again. 

Rob Marshall definitely knew what he was doing with this one.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Comment on the country I live in

I am a very disappointed and upset American.

I grew up believing America was "the land of the free and home of the brave." As a teacher for the past twelve and a half years I've stood while my students recite the pledge: "...with liberty and justice for all."

Last year, I stopped saying the pledge because I didn't believe liberty for all exists in a world where LGBT people are not allowed to get married.

This year, while that situation has improved (though is still not truly equal in liberty, it IS better and getting steadily, inevitably better), I no longer believe in justice for all either.

Eric Garner did not have justice served when he was choked to death by a policeman with no impetus.  He did not have justice when that police officer was not indicted.

Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, apparently without inciting the policeman who killed him to shoot. Whether or not the police officer was justified in killing, he absolutely should have been indicted in the case.

I read a statistic that in 2013, out of 160,000 cases brought before a grand jury, only ELEVEN were not indicted. How could the Michael Brown case, which at the very minimum had conflicting witness testimony, NOT be brought to trial?  How could the Eric Garner case, where we have a man strangled to death on the street ON VIDEO, not be brought to trial?

And what about Tamir Rice, the kid in Cleveland shot with a toy gun in hand?  The police wouldn't even allow a nearby nurse to come help him and prevent his death. Where is the justice there?

Something is very wrong in the country I live in. The right to marry should, must, and will be allowed everywhere in the country. Saying otherwise is ignorant and shows a clear bias (probably caused by religion, though I don't want to get into that now). The right to have cops "protect and serve" us, and be brought up on charges when they act "above the law" should be a no-brainer. I'm disappointed and disheartened that what I'm seeing on the news is the opposite.

There is really something wrong in this country, and I hope things get better before they get any worse.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Follow-up to my PARCC post

Well, I have to say, I'm pretty surprised by how that last post blew up. I think more people read that than any other post I've had on here. I think that speaks to just how frightning a thing this PARCC testing is going to be.  A couple of other minor points I wanted to make that I didn't in that intial post:

1) In the LA section, I forgot to mention that the kids are facing double jeopardy questions. If they get the vocabulary question wrong, the next question becomes almost impossible to answer correctly.
2) The answers given on the LA test are VERY close together to each other in meaning. On one question,  I'm not at all sure what they're going for in the second question, and I know for a fact that if you get the first one wrong, the best you've got is a 25% at getting the second one right.

3) I've talked to numerous teachers over the past few days about what we experienced on Monday. I've heard words like "scary" "failure" "upset" "impossible" and "ridiculous" tossed about. What haven't I heard? Any sense of confidence in our kids doing well on this test. One colleague said she estimates that our failure rate will be around 80%.  I think she might be generous.

4) I fear that the vocabulary is simply too difficult for my kids. Yes, the kids can use context clues, but we all know that even then it isn't always to figure out what a word means. I haven't come to a final decision on my thoughts on this yet, and relatively speaking I know it's picky, but it's still a potential problem.

5) On the math section, aside from the problems inherent in taking a computer test, we noticed another failing of the test.  Despite common core insistence on showing work in math, the test doesn't allow the kids to show their work!  So, four digit by four digit multiplication - one little mistake, and the whole problem is wrong.  (Not to mention, really, EVERYONE has a calculator on them all the time now.  I understand the importance of basic facts without a calculator, but I couldn't tell you the last time I did multiplication like that without one before this practice test).

6) On an indirectly related note, another colleague realized that with the test given to half a grade level at a time (due to shortage of computers) and each kid needing to take the test twice, we will have a minimum of SIX weeks when the kids are testing - which means classes aren't going to be happening.  Not counting the time practicing, look at how much time is lost from real education to take these ridiculous tests!

Nothing has assuaged my fears of what these tests are bringing. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


     I don't usually use this space to write about school, but yesterday was so disturbing and scary to me, that I feel I hvae no real choice. I need to write about it, and I need to make this as public as I am able. I don't have a wide audience right now, but every person who learns a little more about this test is another person who can possibly stand up to it.
     Yesterday we had a professional development day. In the morning we had a doctor come in to speak to us about dyslexia. It wasn't the most interesting speech, to be sure, but one detail from it stuck with me: 20% of people have some form of dyslexia.  This is important as we move into the PARCC testing samples later in the day.
     Before I start, I am saying that I am NOT giving away any questions here. I'm not sure I legally can (as ridiculous as that is) but I'm going to outline the problems with the test that I saw below. 

     First, we got to sample the math portion of the test. Content-wise, I didn't see many problems with the questions the kids are being asked. There was one question on the sample that could have been worded far more clearly than it was, but all in all the questions were reasonable. What wasn't reasonable was the means for entering the questions into the system. For example, one answer came out as d x 1/4, or the value d times one quarter. As you can see, here, it is difficult to write this CLEARLY.  On the test, there's a fraction button, where you can type the numerator and denominator, but then placing the d becomes tricky. If you don't space it out, the d ends up in the denominator. Is typing *1/4 space d* correct? Do you need a multiplication sign in there? How about a dot? Does the test know that the two next to each other is correct? We're not sure. Another question asked the kids to take a series of twenty numbers and show them on a bar graph by raising or lowering the bars on a pre-existing graph. That's all well and good, but there's no way to cross out the numbers you used already so it's VERY easy for the students to miss one, thereby causing them to get the problem wrong. It took me about 4 minutes to move the bars, check my answer, realize I missed one number and go back and figure out what I missed. They say that you should triple the time it takes you to answer any given question for the kids. How are they going to do this in time?
      A third problem. One question asked you to look at a selection of answers (true, false, not enough information) and move the correct answer into the provided boxes. I purposely put an answer I knew was wrong to see what would happen when I wanted to change it. Turned out, I needed to call over three different people to figure out how to change a wrong answer.  
     I teach sixth graders. While yes, we should have the ability to help the kids with this stuff, each QUESTION type is different and has a different set of ways to answer them. I don't know how we're going to get the kids to do this work on the computer and still focus on the actual MATH they're being asked to do.

      The sad thing is the math section is relatively easy compared to the language arts section of the test.  I will say this, the actual MECHANIC is fairly easy to use. I didn't have much difficulty with that - crossing off answers, using a line reader - none of that was particularly difficult. What frightens me about the LA section of this test is how incredibly difficult it is.  
      For each section of the test, the kids have to read two passages (or two passages and watch a video) and then answer questions. To begin, two of the four passages I read were written in the 1800s.  The language is going to sound foreign to the kids - they do not have the education (nor should they) to be able to figure out writing by the likes of Kate Chopin yet. This is WAY above a sixth graders ability developmentally.
      The first question in each section asks the kids about a word and, according to the selection, give a definition of it. No problem there - kids have been asked questions like that for years.  The followup question on the other hand is to give evidence of the word from a sentence in the passage. The answer choices are sentences from the passage completely unrelated to the word - you have to guess what the test maker was thinking might somehow relate to the word -- somehow. I wasn't really clear on the directions, and I certainly had no idea what the answers were. The connections made were tenuous at best, and I'd be willing to bet without too much trouble that kids could come up with rationales for multiple answers - that is if they understand the question to begin with.
     Later questions ask students to pick out a supposed conflict in a passage and then from a list of seven or eight choices choose the three that are sequential evidence of that conflict. This is difficult work. Given enough time, sure, some of the kids can do this. Given time pressure, the necessities of using a computer, and the difficulty of the question itself, I worry that most kids will not be able to do this.  Again, I teach sixth graders.
     The final question in each section is an essay. Note, there is no longer a separate writing piece, thereby completely devaluing writing as an important, useful skill. Questions include things like write an essay on the theme of _______, use evidence from the two passages to compare and contrast them. These are the types of questions I give my students for three week long assignments - not 1/2 hour writes after they've read two passages and already answered another 4-6 difficult questions about the selections. 
      Oh, and did I mention that we don't know how long the kids will have to do these tests? We were told 40-80 minutes (a MASSIVE difference - one is way too short, the other is FAR too long to expect sixth graders to be able to focus) but we don't really know yet.
       I am predicting that there are going to be massive failures across the state. Christie's proclamations that schools are failing (despite our being ranked number one or number two in every ranking of schools nationwide in the last year) will appear to be true. Plain and simple, my kids CANNOT do this test. It is way too difficult and too iffy on the computer. There will be lots of tears and lots of frustration over this test (not to mention we have to give the test TWICE). 
       I am very upset by what I saw yesterday. There is nothing good about this test (oh, did I mention that we as teachers never actually get to see the results of the test?  No, well, I still have no idea how my students did last year on the NJASK - those results are spread out all over the school with individual teachers - I'd have to go track them all down - who has that kind of time?)  and, come next summer, you're going to see a rash of ineffective teachers being blamed for the kids' unfortunate failures.
      Don't be fooled - these tests are designed to do just that.
      Given the speech we heard in the morning regarding dyslexics, the difficulties these tests are going to present is frightening. 
      I'm disappointed in what I saw on these samples. My hope is that they can be improved significantly before they are put in front of the kids, but I know that is probably a pipe dream.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Well it's been a long time...

It's certainly been a while since I've written on here.  I think life just gets complicated sometimes and things get in the way. Hopefully I'll be back more regularly. Perhaps I need to set myself a schedule to keep me more focused on writing on here.

Not a whole lot has changed since my last entry in my writing life. Two small things: we submitted my Midsummer book to editors about two months ago and got six/seven editors requesting to read it. That cetainly excited me - now we're just waiting to hear from. Hopefully soon!  Second, I found a crit partner who's awesome. She's got great insight and has been a huge help on my latest book so far.

Caitie got a new job since the last time I wrote on here. She LOVES LOVES LOVES it. She is an assistant agent and did I mention she loves it?  Hopefully she's on her way to big things at this place. I can't wait to meet her boss sometime - I'm just so happy that she's finally got what she wanted for so long.

My nieces are adorable and I wish I got to see them more. They're almost four and almost two.

We've started going to trivia night at the Ground Round every Monday. It's so much fun - hopefully that will continue for the future. We've also joined a monthly bowling league. We stink, but at least it's fun. That's what matters, right?

Everything else is pretty much same ol' same ol' - at least that I can think of for now.

At any rate, this is my semi-announcement for a return to writing on here. We'll see where we go from here.

Monday, March 24, 2014

At the bookstore this past weekend I bought a book of writing prompts to keep me writing while I'm between books. Here's one I whipped up tonight to the prompt: "Write a story that starts with a ransom note." 

                                                     Who Is At the Yellow Tomb?     

                                              Carol has been taken.
                                              Her home was broken into
                                              And she is being held for
                                              One hundred
                                              Thousand dollars at
                                              The Yellow Tomb at midnight tomorrow in 
                                              Englewood Park. Come alone.
                                              Do not call the police or
                                              I will be forced to take actions I
                                              Do not wish to take.
                                              If you do not do this
                                              Then I will kill Carol.

                The note was one of those pasted together jobs with magazine headlines clipped out letter by letter and attached to a piece of notebook paper. I held the paper in my trembling hand and read it again.
“What is it?” Sarah asked.
I handed the paper to her. I knew my face was ashen and my hand was shaking. She read it to herself and covered her mouth in horror.
“Carol?” Sarah said. “She’s in her room. Carol! Carol!” She called to our daughter, her hand on the bannister, the red of her nails contrasting sharply against the mahogany railing.
Of course she didn’t come.
“Who could have done this? Who could have taken her?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I rubbed a hand through my beard. My hand would not stop shaking.
“I have to see,” Sarah said, climbing the stairs.
“Her room. Maybe…maybe she’s just upstairs asleep and it’s all a joke.”
“Sick joke,” I muttered, but I followed behind her half-hoping it was true. I knew when we reached the door it wouldn’t be. Carol was seven years old. She loved the blue dress her mother had bought for her last year, and she had worn it every day for the past two weeks.
The dress lay on the bed, clean from the last time Sarah had had it washed. Charlotte, our maid, was dusting the shelves. “Hello, sir. Ma’am. Where’s Carol today?”
Sarah handed the note to Charlotte, shaking her head, unable to speak. Charlotte threw her hand to her mouth in the exact way Sarah had. “Oh no! Who could have done this?”
“We don’t know.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked, her dusting duties forgotten for the moment.
“Pay, I guess. What else can we do?” I felt like such a wimp. But it was Carol.
Charlotte nodded sadly. “Have you told the rest of the staff?”
Sarah shook her head. “No, not yet. Could you?”
We had seven people on staff. It was something of a shock that the kidnapper had asked for only a hundred thousand dollars. That was a drop in the bucket. I would have paid millions and been hardly the worse for it.
Charlotte nodded. “Of course, ma’am.” She curtsied and hurried out of the room.
Sarah sat on Carol’s bed and buried her face in her hands. I put a hand on her back between her shoulder blades. “We’ll get her back, Sarah.”
“You don’t know that.”
“We’ll get her back.”
                We sat in the car, Sarah beside me. “I’ll give the kidnapper the money and Carol will be returned to us. It will be okay,” I said.
                “You don’t know,” she answered.
                “No, I don’t.”
                “We’re going to make him pay,” Sarah said.
                “Make who pay?”
                “The kidnapper, of course.”
                “I don’t know. We will. That’s all.”
                Eleven fifty, Englewood Park.
                The Yellow Tomb was not a grave as the name indicated, but a statue representing some general or other from the Civil War. I stood with a bag in my hand, scared, praying that Carol would be returned to me. Sarah waited in the car, watching me, I’m sure nervous as hell.
                The park was empty. I had followed the kidnappers instructors. I didn’t want to risk Carol’s life, and I was already terrified.
                In the distance, I saw two figures approaching. One wore a cloak with a raised hood. Whoever it was looked small. It was a woman. The other was my little girl.
                They approached me. The figure in the cloak held Carol’s hand. I could see a white mask on the woman in the cloak.
                “Are you all right?” I asked her.
                “Yes, Daddy.”
                “Good.” I turned to face the figure. “Here’s the money,” I said.
                A hand reached out and took the bag. The figure didn’t say a word. She opened the bag singlehandedly and looked down. She nodded, and let go of Carol’s hand.
                My little girl ran into my open arms. Before I could even look up to attempt to see who had taken Carol, the woman had vanished.
                The next day, as we sat and ate breakfast, Sarah rang a bell to call for Charlotte.
                No one answered.
                She rang again. Jim, our butler, came into the kitchen. “Sir, madam.”
                “Where is Charlotte?” Sarah asked.
                “I do not know, ma’am. I will check her quarters to see if she is there.”
                She did have a tendency to oversleep.
                A few moments later, Jim returned to the kitchen with a note. “This was on her bed, sir.”
                I took the note, read it, and nearly fell out of my chair. "I know who did it."
                “Shawn, what is it?” Sarah asked.
                I handed the note to Sarah. As she read out loud, I went to the stationary drawer and removed the kidnapper’s letter. “Sir, Madam. I have enough to send my daughter to Downside Academy. I quit. Charlotte. Shawn, I don’t understand. What does it mean?”
                I gave Sarah the kidnapper’s ransom note. “It's so obvious, Sarah. Downside Academy. It was right there in front of us the whole time.  It was right there.”