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A Day Late and a Dollar Short
by Thom Fowler

The lore of the playground is a uniquely child-driven enculturation process. There are no educational consultants brought in, no marketing data gathered, no parental supervision. The playground takes care of itself like a separate entity from the children who play there. It is the spirit of the playground, like the Spirit of Christmas – a god of sorts, who stays alive because there is a playground and there are second graders. And this god whispers into the ears of itself so it doesn’t forget its own songs, its own stories.

(To the tune of “This Land Is My Land”)

This land is my land
And only my land
I gotta shotgun
And you don’t got one
If you don’t get off
I’ll blow your head off
This land was made for only me

I learned that song in the second grade from a third grader. And then when I was in third grade, I taught it to a second grader. The song is part of the oral tradition of the playground – a fearsome place that maintains itself in spite of the changes in the world.

My friend, who unabashedly calls herself a witch, says that she doesn’t have to hide anything from people who have no experience outside of the Judeo/Christian/Muslim metaphysical paradigm, the secrets keep themselves. There is certain knowledge that only reveals itself to second graders and only on the playground. Like an actor who does Hamlet or Medea. When you embody the role, you learn something about theatre you can’t get in a book. Doing Hamlet is a milestone in the development of the actor because it’s as much about theatre as it is about the Prince of Denmark.

And when you become a fourth grader – the secret games you played to stay one step ahead of the grown-ups, become irrelevant because you are now moving closer to becoming one of “them”, you want to be accepted by “them” and valued by “them.”

That innocent time of childhood is anything but. If there is an innocence at all, it is a black-hearted, morally ambiguous innocence rather than the “innocence of not having known sexual love” which seems to me to be the running definition. Their approach to their world and the space they have to navigate is not just sophisticated, it perpetuates itself. Kids are little subversive rebels creating a wall between them and those who would control them. They are acutely aware of their lack of freedom and the expectations placed on them. They have to run interference, tell lies, sabotage, spread disinformation – they are the most successful and ruthless black operatives in the intelligence organization of life.

Remember how you got away with everything you did, what you had to do to carve a space where you could act on your simple desires? And how those lessons served you well as a teenager and as a careerist adult? Kids cut a direct path to the cookie jar and woe to the adult who tries to stand in her way. They are going to get that cookie and they’ll pay any price for it. Which is why I think punishment is a waste of time. Unless you are prepared to simply kill your children so they don’t “misbehave,” the best you can do is model responsibility and wise, balanced thinking. Most people don’t have “values”, really. They don’t understand the principals underlying their own behavior. Everything you do is communication and kids get the message loud and clear. The connection between action and intention can be very subtle. How else do you explain, “I did it because I love you.” At the same time, Kids see hypocrisy and the smarter ones find ways to go around you rather than through you if you have irrational or arbitrary “rules”, if you are acting from your ego rather than out of love, if you are torturing or abusing your kids by engaging them in a power play (where you will always win, “I am bigger, and I am faster and I will always win. ALWAYS!” – Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest.)

Kids need to eat their spinach, yes. Sometimes you just can’t make what’s good for you taste good. There is a lot iron in oatmeal. Baby spinach salad with grated carrots and raisins in a honey/vinegar dressing may be a lot more appealing than the green muck that comes in a can. You see what I’m getting at? Don’t get so hung up on doing it “your way.” Think about what you are actually trying to accomplish and look at all the possibilities. “I want my child to be healthy” is a vastly different statement than “I want my child to do what I say.”

Raising children is a bitch. You never get it right, you just fumble along like everyone.

And still they will pit themselves against you and begin to create privacy at a very early age.

(to the tune of “God Bless America”)

God bless my underwear
My only pair
When I wear them
I tear them
And my butt sticks up in the air

I learned that song on the church bus. As near as I can tell, it’s a hymn. It has God in it so it must be religious. I was poor growing up. A different kind of poor than I am now – the kind of debilitating poverty that turns you into a special charity case, sends you off to special classes, makes you misunderstood and rejected by your classmates. On Sunday, I wore my “holy” underwear.

Poverty is awful enough but when you can’t turn it into some kind of bohemian romance or social statement (a nice of enough way of redeeming the experience), it’s a nightmare.

When I was in school, nobody knew if I was a smart kid or a dumb kid, if I was a stable kid or a maladjusted kid. I kept getting sent to specialists and resource workers, all trying to “help” me. How about a decent dinner and some clean clothes? It doesn’t take much. I wasn’t inherently fucked up, not more so than just about anyone. I was just poor.

“Was”. Still … and no matter how successful I become or how much money I have in the bank, I’ll always be a poor kid. I’ll always be acutely aware of how I have to leverage every tiny thing to my advantage to open a door a crack since privilege and opportunity have not been conveniently laid before me. I had no concept of what people did “at the office” since my mother never worked.

I have a hard time processing the values of a commercial culture since money and the things it could obtain were non-existent in my life at that age when you get baptized into society. That goes a long way to explain why I have spiritual values and get more pleasure out of a conversation or time spent with someone than say … a diamond ring. Shiny metal, shiny rock … ooooh. Shiny. Which also explains why I have such a difficult time when asked to create strictly commercial work, why I deconstruct advertising rather than create it, why I’m interested in exploring the cultural value of people and things, rather than their commercial value.

Luckily, I escaped most of the things that plague the underclass – ignorance, lack of education, provinciality, alcoholism, abuse, crime, dysfunction. Or is that the middle class? I have said again and again that I admire the honesty of the working class and the aristocracy – they know where they stand and there is a kind of freedom in that. It’s the duplicitousness and arrogant posturing of the managerial class that sends me off my rocker. Malls in upper middle class subdivisions are the closest thing to Hell that I can imagine.

There is no real conversation about class in America. We like to think (those of us who are aware of the world outside our borders) that classism is a pernicious European affliction (England and France, mostly – certainly not Germany, Spain or Sweden) but class divide is the insidious pervasive story of American capitalism. We shouldn’t be afraid to look at what is and talk about it, rather than around it. I’ve been watching the Bloomberg channel, I’m a financial news junkie and I love the boardroom speak of keeping morale high by heavily coloring the truth. What it comes down to is “don’t worry, we’ve got it all under control” while the chickens are being sacrificed in the basement. See, they are trying to keep your fairly uneducated day-trader trying to make sense of her 401K feeling good about their investment decisions and encouraging them to keep their money in the market. Its those big funds that are keeping the brokers employed, not individual high net worth clients.

It is also those small investors with an enormous collective worth that are getting screwed in today’s suddenly scandalized corporate environment. Its not that anything is changed, just all of a sudden, someone has to take the fall for business as usual. That’s what happens when professional grade white folks lose their life savings. The system they’ve sacrificed their lives to protect has suddenly twisted itself around and sank its fangs deep, delivering a paralyzing poison. Please God, let this election be the one where there is a serious third party presence. If America is only limited by the imagination of its citizens, then what the hell is holding us back?

The director of a soon to be released United Artists film, a Hamptons rebel, told me recently that he knows people who live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who never venture below 50th street and people who live in SoHo who never venture about Houston (or maybe 14th street, to be fair). And to him, the great tragedy of his film was that there were two characters who would never develop a relationship because of their class difference. The Prince and the Pauper is hardly the metaphor I’m going for. I don’t think SoHo is suffering because it lacks trust fund children as guiding lights, but I do think the Hamptons are suffering because of their investment in “the system”, whose drive to protect their own capital create the conditions of unemployment, whose efforts to control markets have enabled them to buy up Congress and sabotage the democratic process.

When I became a teacher (MA, Teachers College Columbia, 1995), my whole vision was to educate the aesthetic of the underclass, kind of like Manchester England on steroids – with political clout, intellectual acumen, and the ability to interface with a market economy to move capital and power around and create a broad, diversified public conversation that could affect the legislative body, rather than the largest corporate donor.
I quit in disgust after winding my way through a couple of disappointing years in the public school system. Private schools wanted me to help their kids get into Harvard so they could be shuffled into the job market with some ease, public schools wanted me to be a mindless gear in an overburdened, outdated, unoiled, machine. After explaining to a principal that I couldn’t teach 8th grade science because I was in fact, a high school English teacher and I would be doing nothing more than babysitting, I just stopped altogether. I got a job in Silicon Valley, made a great living, went insane being in a cube all day and moved to LA to be a journalist, screenwriter, novelist … whatever it is that I do. Walk somewhere between fantasy and reality.

I love Showbiz. Its not difficult at all for me to get swept up in the party, to look at the machine driving the industry and find a way to tell my stories inside a rather narrowly defined corridor in a highly competitive industry. I love arrogant rock stars, posturing starlets, studio hype. I think its all bloody, bollocky brilliant. I love performance, theatre, sound and light, smoke and mirrors. I love that you can live somewhere in between who you are and who you want to be.

I don’t regret the choices I made and looking back, I think teaching was the wrong choice for me. I’m too rock star, too much of a rebel, I have no respect for authority, hierarchy, conformity. My ideal classroom is the street, is conversation (as John Cage once said – the most important educational experiences happen in the context of a conversation – not as a side effect of a delivery of information.) I would let my students leave the classroom when they couldn’t handle it any more. I had to think about their lives outside of the class, down in the Lower East Side, in the Hood. I’m not a hero, just a concerned thinker. I am far too foppish to be anyone’s role model. I’m irresponsible and at times reprehensible. But I sure do love solving those wicked problems that keeps MIT in business. I once gave someone an A because by the end of the semester, he had lost his attitude and was actually applying himself because I took the time to let him know that I valued his input, that what he was doing was important. I had lots of little success like that. I had to do it my way. I had to think about what I was really trying to accomplish. “I want my children to be healthy” rather than “do what I tell you to do.”

I have always called High School a conformity factory. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I was just crazy enough to spend all those years trying to change it, rather than complain about it.

But, like an alcoholic who doesn’t think she has a problem, the school system wasn’t ready to change.

I know there is some meaningful connection between broad comedy and social responsibility – that change doesn’t always happen in overt, direct ways, but often all you have to do is push over a domino and then walk away, knowing that down the line, the one you really want to fall over, will. That entertainment doesn’t have to be about distracting you from “reality” but can enrich the experience of your own life. Trouble is, sponsors want you to keep watching and you never get around to going out and creating the dream life those shows in part help inspire.

So I hope I finish my novel sometime soon. LESSONS FROM THE WORLD AT THE END OF HISTORY about three people in their early thirties who come together through the Art Scene, the Hacker Underground and the world of Adult Entertainment in Manhattan to work through the challenges of their life and move on to the next phase without too much scarring. They revisit themselves as self-created people, come to terms with their roots, process their disappointments, and strategize for the future while living their dangerous, on the edge, outlaw lives with plenty of nefarious threats to their health and well-being. The story takes place in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York City and London. I’m hoping to eventually adapt it into a screenplay, but only if it’s going to be done well and see the light of the day.

It’s been compared to Thomas Wolfe, at least in spirit, but its definitely coming from and going out the Gen X generation (please forgive me, comrades, for using that phrase.)The most difficult thing is keeping the timelessness of the tale while still making it interesting with a detailed, idiosyncratic portrait of sometime now. And then I have to find an agent to sell it. “First time novelists are a hard sell” I’ve been told by a very successful lit agent. Then perfect your pitch, Mr. Agent. This thing needs to get out there. I need an advance.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=605
originally posted: 08/06/02 17:41:42
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