Monday, February 17, 2014

"Good Luck Charlie"

Children can make you do lots of things you wouldn't do normally. Crawling on the floor regularly. Eating chicken nuggets for dinner. Becoming way too familiar with picture books. Purchasing Neosporin every time you go grocery shopping.

Most of these things are done with some resistance, perhaps some groveling, maybe some embarrassment. As a 40-year-old adult, you sometimes sit there wondering, what the heck am I doing, like that line from the Talking Heads' song to 'Once in a Lifetime': "You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?" or "My God, What Have I Done?"

But kids also introduce experiences to the parent that they would never do, and it's not a bad thing. Watching your kid play in a youth basketball or baseball game. Teaching a child to ride a bike. Building a tree fort. Sharing a plate of macaroni and cheese. It is true: having children brings out the inner child in a parent. Which can actually be fun.

This brings me to 'Good Luck Charlie.' For a few years now, my kids, ages 6 and 8, have watched this show. We do not place big restrictions on TV viewing, though we're mindful of what our kids watch and how long they watch. We use our judgment to know when to turn if off, like when one of our kids does not respond to anything we say. (Then we issue loud, stern directives: "No TV for two days!")

"Good Luck Charlie" is a show we let our kids watch without concern. I probably started watching this alongside my children during a sick day. Disney doesn't have many good shows, but 'Good Luck Charlie' is certainly one. It chronicles a family of seven - which can only happen happily in fiction - living in suburban Denver and their day to day, mostly humorous, experiences, misunderstandings, and challenges. I wouldn't call them problems, because they don't qualify. The show, which ends each episode with the oldest daughter Teddy videotaping a tidbit of advice to her youngest sister Charlie, and where the show gets it name, is light, well casted, and surprisingly well acted.

And now it is apparently over.

I noticed this while flipping through the Channel Guide and saw the phrase "Series Finale" and the episode name "Good Bye Charlie."

This came up on me out of nowhere; I assumed the show would run for at least two or three more seasons. The eldest son is in college, Teddy is about to go to college, and then there's a middle school/high school kid named Gabe, Charlie who is about 3, and a baby whose name escapes me and I don't feel like Googling it.

My son has DVR'd the finale, and I will watch it, though I am kind of hesitant. I don't want it to be over, and by not watching it I am putting off the inevitable. It's a good thing that "Good Luck Charlie" is on all the time, and though the show lasted only four seasons, it seems like it's always current. It is true that we've seen a lot of milestones and changes in the characters, but for the most part they don't look too different than they did that first season.

"Good Luck Charlie" was one of the only shows that my entire family could watch and enjoy. (My son is still wondering what "Breaking Bad" is about.) Back when I was a kid in the 80s, it seemed that many shows were both kid and adult-appropriate. "Family Ties", "The Cosby Show", "Growing Pains" all come to mind. But there were also shows outside the "family" genre that my parents and I watched, including "Mork and Mindy", "ChiPs", "Knight Rider", and "The Greatest American Hero." While most of these shows were not Emmy-award worthy, they were examples of "safe" family programming, with a decent narrative story. Today, most network primetime shows are either too edgy or reality garbage.

"Good Luck Charlie" was neither of these. It was just soft enough to be a Disney show, but it had many of the right qualities for network TV: good characters, good writing, and credible storylines.

I don't know why the show ended its run. I would guess that some of the actors wanted more money than Disney wanted to pay. I would also guess that some of the actors wanted to branch off into more sophisticated work, especially the younger actors. It is probably easy to get pigeonholed as a 'Disney actor' and never do anything else.

But we -- hold on, I -- will miss the show. I will miss the experience of watching it with my kids, and laughing together. This is not to be minimized. There is something to be said for having a show that can appeal across generations, and it doesn't happen a lot.

"Good Luck Charlie" will live on in reruns - my kids have already discovered it on Netflix. And we will probably watch them again. It's a good lesson for kids to learn, that all good things come to an end, including TV shows.

Now I just have to find the strength the watch the last one.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Return of the Sunday Times

It is true that reading news on the web is convenient - and efficient.

These days, most news organizations have staffs that update breaking news, financial stories, and of course Internet readers' favorite: the news of the weird. For some reason, maybe because people associate the Internet with a lack of seriousness, a lot of web sites include features about people doing stupid things.

But the web (in my opinion) is not the best medium for serious, thought-provoking journalism, nor is it a place where people read for long periods of time. Web readers - mostly - want nuggets of news, in digest form, the headlines and maybe a little more, maybe two paragraphs.

Which is one of the reasons why I recently resubscribed to the Sunday New York Times.

I had subscribed to nytimes online for years but I've never held my ipad in my hand for two hours to flip through the sections of the website. Maybe others can, but reading on a screen is not that pleasurable.

I want paper.

So now my Sundays consist of coffee, food of some kind, and reading 10 or 12 articles, columns, essays,and features. The Times has arguably the smartest writers on its staff, and, even if you don't agree with them, they arouse thought.

Our local Sunday paper, the Hartford Courant, just isn't cutting it. While the potential is there to report on interesting Connecticut stories, there is no edge to the paper's writing, and the story selection is boring. The writing is tired, except for a few reporters. This is probably the case at many mid-size daily and Sunday papers.

The Sunday Times reports on science and psychology, has great, thoughtful sports features, insightful columnists, and - you can tell - editors and writers who spend a lot of time thinking about angles to stories, and each sentence they will write.

This is what I want in a paper. In a 'paper' paper, not the online version.

Since I don't have the time to read it every day, the Sunday paper will suffice. It usually takes a few days to get through it anyway.

For 4 dollars a week, not a bad deal to have this delivered to your driveway.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Jacoby Ellsbury becomes a Yankee

Red Sox fans, it's happened again. Another beloved player is headed to play in the Bronx.

Jacoby Ellsbury reportedly has agreed to a 7-year, $153 million deal to be a Yankee.

Ellsbury's leaving is not unexpected. He is an amazing, though injury-prone, player, whose contract was ending, and his speed and batting average are marketable. He is one of the game's best leadoff hitters. If he had gone to many of the other teams that were courting him, it wouldn't stir the anger that many Sox fans feel.

But Ellsbury's signing for the Yankees makes me feel like all those years rooting for him have been wasted.

His poster is hanging on the wall of my son's room. We will have to do something about that.

Once upon a time, there was widespread loyalty among Sox players. But this time has long passed. Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon - all of them former Sox stars who later proudly wore pinstripes.

Ellsbury, fresh off winning a World Series, is next. Surely, he was probably not pleased with the Sox initial offer. And the Yankees need to put together a winning team. Money is a handsome motivator.

 has long passed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Jazz Singer - one star?

It must have been a retro weeknight feature for the movie network Encore recently, when I tuned in and happened to catch The Jazz Singer - Neil Diamond's 1980 version - and then noticed that Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie, followed.

It was late so I DVR'd The Jazz Singer, which I watched in installments over the last three nights. I wrapped it up tonight, saving the last half hour, when Neil Diamond's character, a New York City Jewish cantor turned pop-rock star, returned to California to reunite with the mother of his child and meet his son for the first time.

The Jazz Singer made its debut when I was 7, and it must have been a staple on HBO shortly after that. I remember watching it repeatedly while my mother hummed the songs, some of Neil Diamond's classics: 'Hello Again', 'Love On The Rocks,' and 'America', to name a few. The movie always had a positive association in my mind, which may have been the reason why, after all these years, I decided to reserve parts of three weeknights, to savor the film.

Which I did. Even though I hadn't seen the movie in its entirety in probably 30 years or so, I remembered it well, from Diamond's character Jess Robinovich leaving his wife and cantor father in NYC, to his efforts at disguising himself by painting his skin to play at a black nightclub.

There are more classic moments, such as when Diamond's father, played by Lawrence Olivier, comes out to California, and breaks down because he realizes his son is not returning to New York, and then Diamond taking off and playing country bars on the road in an effort to find himself.

I don't know - maybe my standards are just not that high. Or maybe too much of my opinion of the film is influenced by the nostalgia from when I first saw it. But I have always  liked the movie. It was not a complex film, and Diamond was not a trained actor, but I was a bit surprised to read of the widely negative reviews of the movie.

Top critics of that time were scathing. Roger Ebert, who rated it one star, said, "The Jazz Singer" has so many things wrong with it that a review threatens to become a list

Janet Maslin of The New York Times said, ' Mr. Diamond, looking glum, and seldom making eye contact with anyone, Isn't enough of a focus for this outdated story." She also complained that the film's score, now legendary, was 'nondescript.'

I thought that Diamond's glum affect fit the movie perfectly. And the soundtrack was, in my opinion, pretty damn good.

But everyone is entitled to his opinion. On the movie review site, despite the 15% percent Tomatometer rating, based on professional reviews, 75 % of more than 4800 raters liked it.

I would happen to agree. Maybe some of those people are locked in a mindset of another time. Maybe they have poor taste in movies. Or maybe they saw something emotionally riveting in the story, the music, and acting. Whatever the case, there are many fans of the movie.

I was happy to have taken a trip down memory lane recently to watch it again. While it didn't win an Oscar, its story still resonates with fans, and its music, more than 30 years later, is almost timeless.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Just An Observation

I've never seen an ant go into an ant trap...

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Great Graduation Speech

Many commencement speakers say the same thing - take risks!, pursue our passions! and other similar messages - and this one isn't remarkably different inits message, but it is very different in tone. Author George Saunders, whose short stories appear often in The New Yorker, spoke this year at Syracuse's commencement. It's a good read.

George Saunders’s Advice to Graduates

It’s long past graduation season, but we recently learned that George Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013, and George was kind enough to send it our way and allow us to reprint it here. The speech touches on some of the moments in his life and larger themes (in his life and work) that George spoke about in the profile we ran back in January — the need for kindness and all the things working against our actually achieving it, the risk in focusing too much on “success,” the trouble with swimming in a river full of monkey feces.
George SaundersDamon Winter/The New York TimesGeorge Saunders
The entire speech, graduation season or not, is well worth reading, and is included below.
Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition.
Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”  And they’ll tell you.  Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked.  Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.
So: What do I regret?  Being poor from time to time?  Not really.  Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?”  (And don’t even ASK what that entails.)  No.  I don’t regret that.  Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked?  And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months?  Not so much.  Do I regret the occasional humiliation?  Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl?  No.  I don’t even regret that.
But here’s something I do regret:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?
Here’s what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).
Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
So, the second million-dollar question:  How might we DO this?  How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?
Well, yes, good question.
Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.
So let me just say this.  There are ways.  You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.  Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well,everything.
One thing in our favor:  some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age.  It might be a simple matter of attrition:  as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really.  We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.  We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.  We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now).  Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.  I think this is true.  The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.  YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.   If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment.  You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit.  That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today.  One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.
Congratulations, by the way.
When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes.  Can we succeed?  Can we build a viable life for ourselves?  But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition.  You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….
And this is actually O.K.  If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers.  We have to do that, to be our best selves.
Still, accomplishment is unreliable.  “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up.  Speed it along.  Start right now.  There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really:selfishness.  But there’s also a cure.  So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been.  I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.
Congratulations, Class of 2013.
I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Study Habits Matter (Really)

It's easy to say, as a teacher or parent, "go study!" to a child, but kids need to be shown what to do.

I came across this blog from psychologist Art Markman who gives helpful, research-based suggestions explaining exactly what to do when studying and what to avoid.

Tip no. 1: Review material well in advance of being tested on it.

Avoid: Studying late at night.

Here's the text of a recent blog. A lot of common sense, but obviously kids don't put it into practice that well.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Developing good study habits really works

Knowledge is the essence of smart thinking.  No matter how much raw intelligence you have, you are not going to succeed at solving complex problems without knowing a lot.  That’s why we spend the first 20 (or more) years of our lives in school. 

Robert Bjork and fellow PT blogger Nate Kornell have explored some of the study habits of college students in a 2007 paper inPsychonomic Bulletin & Review.  Research on memory provides a number of important suggestions about the most effective ways to study. One of the most important tips is that students should study by testing themselves rather than just reading over the material.  It is also important to study over a period of days rather waiting until the last minute to study.  Kornell and Bjork’s studies suggest that only about 2/3 of college students routinely quiz themselves, and a majority of students study only one time for upcoming exams.

Of course, guidelines from memory research come from studies in idealized circumstances.  Researchers bring participants (many of whom are college students) into a lab and ask them to learn material. Perhaps the recommendations drawn from these studies are not that helpful for real students dealing with real courses.

To address this question, Marissa Hartwig and John Dunlosky related the study habits of college students to their grade point average (GPA) in a 2012 paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.  They asked students about a number of study behaviors.  They also had students report their current GPA.

The students with the highest GPA were more likely to study by testing themselves than the students with lower GPAs.  What is the most effective way to test yourself, though?  It turns out that most students report using flashcards, and the use of flashcards does not predict a student’s grades.  However, flash cards usually allow people to learn basic aspects of a domain like key vocabulary. Really understanding something new requires practice with explaining it.  So, self-testing needs to involve deeper questions than the ones that are usually written on flash cards.

All college students tend to focus their study on upcoming assignments.  That is no surprise, because college is a busy time. The most successful students, though, also schedule time to study for classes even before the exam is coming up.  The students who make a schedule and stick with it tend to get better grades than those who just work on whatever is coming up.

Finally, the time of day that students study also matters.  College students are notorious night owls.  Indeed, few students reported studying in the morning, or even in the afternoon.  Most students study in the evening and late at night.  One of the interesting results of this research, though, is that the students who study late at night tend to get worse grades than those who study in the evening. 

It is always nice when studies of real-world behavior mesh with recommendations from basic research.  In the case of studying, though, it seems particularly important to ensure that basic research influences behavior.  People invest several years and thousands of dollars in a college education.  That education has an enormous effect on their future productivity.  Cognitive science can ensure that students maximize the value of that experience.