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Saturday, September 9, 2017

TV Review: Twin Peaks: The Return Finale – The Dreamer’s Nightmare

“To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.”
-William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

*This review contains spoilers.

Since seeing last Sunday’s season (or is it series?) two-part finale of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return, I have watched episodes 17 and 18 several more times and have come away with some understanding of director David Lynch’s denouement. I cautiously use the word “understanding” simply because, as is almost always the case with Lynch’s works, there is enough ambiguity for there to be multiple interpretations, so that mine is just one possibility.

I have had enough time to hear the reactions to the finale by fans and friends, and they range from surprise to shock to delight. I wonder how anyone could be surprised with the cliffhanger ending, when season one of Twin Peaks ended with Agent Dale Cooper (the outstanding Kyle MacLachlan) getting shot and season two ended with Cooper’s dopplegänger taking his place in the world possessed by the evil spirit Bob (the late Frank Silva). Obviously based on this history, Lynch is not concerned with giving us what we want but rather what he needs to tell the story and conclude it his way.

Back in episode 14 the luminous Monica Bellucci appears in a dream sequence experienced by Deputy FBI Director Gordon Cole (played hilariously by Lynch himself), and in it she tells him, “We are like the dreamer who dreams and lives inside the dream.” Of course, the most important thing she says is the question, “But who is the dreamer?” This left us to contemplate the depth of not only the inquiry itself in relation to Cole’s dream but to the entire series. Are all 48 episodes (30 of the original series and 18 this reboot) going to be like an entire season of Dallas that was really just a dream?

The dream aspect is intriguing because alternate realities are in play here – think of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) being in the Roadhouse one moment and in a stark white room the next. Audrey’s “dream” of being trapped in some dark office with Charlie (Clark Middelton) who may have been her husband, shrink, or warden seems unending.  At one point as Audrey is complaining about everything Charlie says that he can end her story, but eventually she makes it to the bar in her search for her lover Billy, does her Audrey dance, and then seems to be in a straight-jacket in some institution. This dream is the thing our nightmares are made of.

During the first part of the finale when the plot threads start coming together, Evil Cooper goes to the Twin Peaks sheriff’s department first. Even here Lynch taunts us – the reunion of Cooper and the gang we were hoping to see and expecting never happens. Evil Cooper gets in and refuses coffee (red flags should have been popping in everyone’s head) and then sits with Sherriff Frank Turman (the terrific Robert Forster) and chats until the real Coop calls on the phone asking if the coffee is on. As Truman prepares to go for his gun so does Evil Cooper, but he is taken out by ditzy Lucy (Kimmy Robertson nailing the scene) who now understands the reasons for cell phones since she got a call on one from the real Coop.

The prospect of a battle between Coop and Evil Cooper are shattered, but there is serendipity in Lucy being the one to kill Evil Cooper. At this point the burned woodsmen ghosts come into the room and start their routine with Evil Cooper’s dead body, and a dark orb emerges from inside with Bob’s face in it. Good Cooper has arrived with the gang from Las Vegas in tow, and they all watch in amazement as Freddie Sykes (Jake Wardle) and his super green glove pound Bob into little pieces.

At this point viewers have been lulled into thinking all is right, yet episode 17 isn’t over yet and we have another full hour to go. Cooper’s face suddenly is superimposed on the screen as he recognizes Naido (Nae), the woman with sewn up eyes, from his time in the White Lodge. The dream-like reunion becomes even more unreal as Naido transforms into Diane (Laura Dern) in a red wig. This is the real Diane and not her tulpa who had been manufactured to do Evil Cooper’s bidding.

The “ghost” of Cooper’s face shadowing these events seems to be more telling when Diane and Cooper notice the clock in Truman’s office is stuck at 2:53. The notion of time stopping in connection with Evil Cooper’s death and Diane’s emergence reminds viewers of the Bellucci dream, and we wonder if Cooper’s evanescent countenance means that he the is dreamer inside the dream.

Cooper, Diane, and Gordon suddenly appear in the basement of the Great Northern Hotel where James Hurley (James Marshall) had heard the powerful vibrations. Using the Room 315 key – Cooper’s old room in the hotel – Cooper unlocks the door to what seems to be some other dimension. He bids Diane and Gordon farewell and then enters.

Cooper appears in the woods on the night Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) was murdered – so this dream, as it were, includes time travel. The “what if” factor of how Laura’s death could have been avoided comes into play. This beautiful, tortured soul is with James Hurley in the woods. This is the lovely young Laura (in a scene from the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), who will argue with James and then go off for her rendezvous with death at the hands of her father Leland (Ray Wise) who is possessed by the evil Bob.

However, Cooper stands in the way of Laura and her cruel destiny. He reaches out his hand as the only man who had never exploited her in some way. Cooper’s desire is pure and he wants to right a terrible wrong, and by preventing Laura from meeting her death he is not only saving her but knowingly erasing his future in the town of Twin Peaks. It feels sort of like in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) gets a chance to see what life would be like if he had never been born; but, of course, changing history has many implications as we see in that film and the same thing will happen to Cooper.

As he leads Laura to safety, she is pried from his hand somehow and disappears with a bloodcurdling scream that we last heard when she encounters Cooper in the Red Room of the Black Lodge in episode one. Cooper has saved her but lost her to time and space and the void that is the netherworld between asleep and awake.

We get another scene, this time from the original TV series, when Pete Martell (the late, great Jack Nance) goes out fishing and should be discovering Laura’s body. Her iconic corpse, wrapped in plastic on the pebbly beach, is seen briefly and disappears. Cooper has succeeded in erasing her murder, and Martell goes on fishing with no body to find.

While we foolishly may have thought that all was right with the world now, with Lynch at the helm we should have known better. Episode 18 takes all the good feelings from episode 17 and dumps a bucket of ice water reality on them. Cooper and Diane are driving in a very old car and they stop at a point where electric line wires vibrate and it seems to be a portal into yet another reality.

They drive on through the portal, and in this dimension they check into a motel and make ugly, disturbing love. Diane seems in agony as she rides Cooper’s body, looking up to the heavens for deliverance. Their joining may remind her of when Evil Cooper raped her so many years ago, and she uses her hands to cover up Cooper’s face as to block its view and almost smother him.

The next morning Cooper wakes in a different room and finds a note addressed to Richard from Linda – we then recall The Giant/Fireman (Carel Struycken) tells Cooper about “Richard and Linda” in episode one – and now Cooper remembers this too but is confused. Cooper also seems to be on a mission of some kind. He exits the motel room but the exterior shot indicates he is leaving a completely different motel and gets into a different car than the one he drove the night before. As Cooper begins his journey a signpost lets us know he is in Odessa, Texas.

Eventually Cooper arrives at the home of a woman who looks like an older Laura Palmer. She claims not to be Laura and calls herself Carrie Page. When she learns Cooper is from the FBI, Carrie is willing to go with him and leave her troubles (and a dead man who seems to be her ex-husband with a bullet in his head) behind.

A silent road trip occurs, repeating the frequent Lynchian road into the darkness that is foreboding and monotonous. The tension between Laura/Carrie and Cooper is palpable, cut only by ominous headlights coming up from behind in the night that makes for a tense but in the end harmless moment. Lynch excels at lingering in scenes like this, unafraid to let silence reign supreme when the audience is craving a moment between these two characters, wanting them to have the conversation that they have been waiting to happen for 25 years.

Finally, Cooper drives the car into Twin Peaks and passes the dark Double R Diner. Cooper couldn’t bring the young Laura home to her mother Sarah (Grace Zabriske) but he is determined to do so now, as if that act will erase the anguish that her death caused so long ago. This would be the ultimate happy ending, but Lynch does not do them, at least not the way we would define happy.

A strange woman named Alice Tremond (Mary Reber) opens the door to Laura Palmer’s childhood home. She has never heard of Sarah Palmer, her husband Leland, or their daughter. In Twin Peaks at one time everyone knew the name “Laura Palmer” – at least the Twin Peaks that existed before Cooper stopped Laura Palmer’s murder. Now it is as if Laura had never even been born, and the woman is adamant in her denials and Cooper realizes it is another dead end.

Laura/Carrie’s expression starts to change in a subtle way, as if some recognition begins to materialize for her. Cooper and she stand in the street in front of the house and he suddenly understands that time has shifted and asks, “What year is this?” Laura/Carrie lets out a heart wrenching scream like she did in the woods when Cooper tried to save her long ago, and we fade to black. The credit scene shows Cooper and Laura back in the Red Room, with Laura leaning over and whispering in his ear.

The One-Armed Man (Al Strobel) had said to Cooper in the Red Room, “Is it future or is it past?” Laura told him “I am dead, yet I live.” Now Cooper is returned to the Red Room where he is with Laura once again. Or is he? Is Cooper even really Cooper, or is he a guy named Richard who had this incredible dream about a girl who had been murdered whom an FBI agent wanted to save?

There is no way to look at this like a regular narrative that we find elsewhere on television. Lynch (and partner in crime co-writer Mark Frost) crafted this work like an extended symphony, the beauty of which cannot possibly be assessed by standards used for other composers. Beside the rich texture, the at times painfully slow pace, and the deliberate bewildering complexity of the story, Frost and Lynch are convinced that beginnings and middles and ends are malleable; in fact, they could be saying who needs any structure to the narrative at all?

Lynch’s work has always taken the American landscape and turned it upside down in order to shake loose the assorted nuts and bolts. In Twin Peaks the beautiful, seemingly perfect homecoming queen is murdered, and then the whole town discovers her secrets and realizes everything they thought about her was a lie. 

Laura is an exquisite beauty yet a tortured soul, but we recall that the Log Lady (the late Catherine Coulson) claimed that Laura was the one, and we know the Giant sent her to earth for a purpose, but was this to suffer evil or to almost absorb it, pushing her into a situation where she set herself up to die because she will take that evil with her?

The Cooper we used to know – the chipper, coffee loving, pie eating FBI guy with a unbreakable code of honor – is gone forever. In the end he tries to complete the mission but is not truly aware of what that mission is about. Cooper does not realize that saving Laura or bringing her home doesn’t matter anymore. Death can never be cheated and, even if it can be, his desire to do good is subsumed by the fact that nothing he believed in still exists, and perhaps even he is not who he thought himself to be.

The end of Twin Peaks cannot get any bleaker on the surface than what we get in the finale – Laura Palmer’s piercing scream is like a needle that punctures the night like a black balloon that blots out the world – and with a resounding “pop” we know that she is never going home again and in essence neither are we.

Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return is an 18-hour majestic and powerful work of art, and taken as a whole it is filmmaking (and yes, let’s face it that it is a very long film broken up into TV episodes) at its finest. The series makes me think of how Picasso said that art is the lie that tells the truth, and Lynch has shaken us up with this world he’s crafted, and therein Cooper, Audrey, Laura and the rest live in a dream that is a recurring nightmare where they discover everything they know and believe is a lie, and that is the most uncomfortable truth of all.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Labor of Love: A Short Story by Victor Lana
















By the spring of 1897, things were looking up for our family. We moved from Baxter Street to a new tenement building on Cherry Street. Now we had a kitchen, a parlor, and two bedrooms and there was a toilet down the hall instead of outside in the yard. Even though we had to share it with three other families on the floor, we all thought we had moved up in the world.

Papa came home from another hard day working as a longshoreman and smiled as Mama filled a big pot with water. “Now we have a proper kitchen,” Papa said. In our old flat we had no running water or stove.

I was doing homework at the table. Papa put his hand on my shoulder. “What grade are you in now, Davey?”

I looked up at him and saw how weary his eyes were. “Third grade.”

He kissed my forehead and said, “You stay in school and get smart and a job where you don’t have to break your back all day.”

“Yes, Papa,” I said.

After dinner Papa sat with his pipe and a glass of wine, watching Mama put my sisters to bed. The three girls slept in a bed in the parlor; our baby brother Nicky slept in a crib in my parents’ room.

“Julia, when does Tessie start school?” he asked.

Mama said, “Tessie starts in September, Tony. You already know that.”

“I want them all to go to school and get smart.” Papa got up, took the toilet seat from the hook near the door to the hallway, and said, “I hope Mr. Lasky isn’t asleep on the bowl again.”

“Be nice, Tony,” Mama said.

I had finished my homework and went into the bedroom that I shared with my older brothers Sonny and Louie. They were tough on me and made me sleep in the middle. Sonny was already snoring in bed, and Louie stood looking out the window smoking a cigarette. 

“I’m starting a job over in Brooklyn tomorrow.”

I put down my notebook and said, “That’s great, Louie, but what about school?”

Louie flicked the cigarette into the darkness beyond the window and mumbled, “No more school. This place costs ten bucks a month. Someone’s got to help Papa. Sonny’s going to quit too.”

“I didn’t know it was so much more than Baxter Street,” I said.

Louie sat down and took off his worn old shoes. “It’s six bucks more a month. That used to buy food.”

“Oh, boy, I better quit too.”

Louie grabbed me by the arms and squeezed tightly. “No, Sonny and I are doing this so you and the girls can go to school. You can become something then. You stay in school. Understand?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

*

The next day after school I decided to visit Papa at work. I liked going down to the docks and seeing all the ships and imagining them coming into New York from all over the world. I saw Stretch, the tall guy with no teeth who was Papa’s best friend. Stretch pointed to where Papa was working, and I went and watched him drenched in sweat carrying a heavy satchel.

He dropped it on a pile with others like it. As he turned Papa saw me, a big smile lighting up his face. “Davey, what are you doing here?”

“I just came to see you,” I said.

Papa wiped his face with a rag and pointed to a ship. “You see that one? It’s from Genova!”
“Oh, where Nonno came from?”

“We come from a long line of sailors,” Papa said.

“But Nonno's an organ grinder,” I said.

“He’s too old now, but he once sailed the seven seas.” A man yelled at Papa and he looked at me. “I have to get back to work.”

“Okay, bye, Papa!”

*

Papa never came home that night, so Mama sent Louie to find him. Mama had put the girls to bed and sat in the kitchen looking at me with sullen eyes as I tried to do my homework.
Louie came back with tears streaming down his face. He stood there twisting his cap with both hands. “I’m sorry, Mama, but Papa…”

Mama jumped up from her chair and started crying. She grabbed Louie by the arms saying, “No, it can’t be….”

“He collapsed on the dock, Mama.”

I wanted to cry but stopped myself as not to upset Mama more.

Mama looked at Papa’s place at the table where a covered plate and glass of wine awaited him. She wiped her face with the backs of her hands and stared at us in a way that frightened me like nothing ever before or since.

*

Papa lay in the plain wooden coffin in our parlor for three days. Nonno came with Teo, his monkey in the little bellhop uniform and kept saying, “My boy; oh, my boy.” Aunts and uncles and cousins came and went, bringing bowls of food and jugs of wine. Everyone was crying and Mama, who hadn’t cried since she learned the news, kept staring into an oblivion beyond the walls of our flat.

Papa’s three brothers, Stretch, and Sonny and Louie carried the coffin down the stairs after the service. We all came home from the cemetery and sat quietly in the parlor, the smell of Papa still hanging in the room after those three long days.

The next day Mama took me to Heinz the milkman and got me a job, thus ending my schooling. I worked hard each day and hoped that my sisters and little Nicky would be able to go to school one day.

Mama sewed, cooked, and cleaned for other people all day long, and each night sat at the kitchen table almost too tired to eat.

One night I touched her hand and said, “Mama, I feel so bad how much you work.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said touching my cheek with a rough hand, “it’s a labor of love.”


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Buying School Supplies – The Saddest Happy Family Ritual

Each year my family and countless other ones participate in a time-consuming and expensive process – the search for and purchase of school supplies for the academic year ahead. No matter how many times I’ve gone through it, I find it never gets easier.

Each year the supply lists seem to get longer. Years ago when my teenage daughter was in elementary school, the list seemed doable and usually consisted of reasonable items such as marble notebooks, pencils, crayons, glue sticks, and erasers. Now as my son heads into third grade we are buying all of that plus boxes of Kleenex, cleaning supplies, Ziploc bags, and paper towels as well.

Getting to the store with kids in tow and searching for the items on our school supply lists is about as welcome as a colonoscopy prep. It never fails that seemingly hundreds of other people are looking for the same items at the same time (no matter what day and time we go shopping). It is amazing how quickly parents can navigate the aisles and load up the shopping cart with things that we need on our lists, making it necessary to get back into the car and head to another store.

After years of suffering during the last week of August on this journey into the heart of retail darkness, this year my wife and I decided to go on our supply quest a week early – what a shock to discover other parents had the same brilliant idea.

I recall years ago when my daughter needed a specific calculator that could not be found even online. Apparently, teachers everywhere participated in a nefarious plot to require the same damn calculator for fifth grade math. This year my challenge was on my son’s list – green pens. Red, black, and blue pens are available in copious supply in a variety of packages containing two pens at a reasonable price. I discovered after searching several stores that green pens are only found in large (and expensive) packages that contains 20 pens of various colors.

This year as we maneuvered the treacherous aisles of our local Target – made so mostly because of dropped packages of supplies on the floors and fellow shoppers blocking the way – my children’s faces looked more solemn than when they hear school is open on what they thought would be a snow day. It made me recall the classic Staples commercial with the hysterically happy father gleefully putting supplies into the shopping cart as his kids look at him with sad faces.


While the commercial is still very amusing, it does not capture how I really feel now. In one way I am happy to see the kids starting a new school year and moving forward in their lives, but I also share their solemnity because during the last ten weeks we have shared wonderful times together and I am going to miss that.

As we approached the checkout counter with a cart overflowing with supplies, I felt trepidation and almost wanted to grab my kids by their hands and rush out the door without the supplies hoping that would prevent time from moving forward, but we ended up going up to the cashier and paying for everything – a different kind of feeling overwhelmed me as I looked at the bags filled with supplies and realized what they all cost.

After leaving Target we all seemed exhausted; as we got into the car it felt as if we all survived The Battle of Green Pen Mountain. A quick trip to the ice cream shop rewarded the kids (and us) with a sweet, cold treat that we enjoyed – even though we realized that the dripping ice cream cones we held in our hands represented one of the last gasps of a summer that was almost gone.

Once again, we participated in and survived the quest for school supplies. It is a ritual all families must go through, and the sadness mixed with happiness involved is always bittersweet. Still, when they hoist those new backpacks on their shoulders and walk out the door on the day after Labor Day, a new adventure will begin, and I can be confident they have every supply they need for success.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Major League Baseball Has No Plans for Robot Umpires – At Least Not Yet


Recently there has been a rise in ugly incidents between players, managers, and umpires regarding close calls made by umpires. Disputes about umpires’ calls are as old as Major League Baseball itself; however, in this era of increasing prevalence of technology the idea of using robot umpires keeps rearing its ugly head.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has come out and clearly stated that MLB will not being using robot umpires or automated strike zones (as has been suggested by some of the disgruntled players such as Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs) anytime soon. Manfred claims he is a “traditionalist” who believes that the umpires make right calls “90% of the time.”

Interestingly, this comes from the man who wants to speed up games with a pitch clock and limiting coach or manager visits to the mound. He also has initiated research into baseball bats as the reason for this year’s surge in home runs, even though many players believe it is the baseballs that are the culprits.

Over the course of many years of watching MLB, I have to say that the interactions between players, managers, and umpires have seemed mostly civilized. Of course, when a bad call is made – or at least one that a player or manager perceives as a bad one – sometimes fireworks occur and they can range from entertaining to disturbing moments.

Managers such as “Sweet” Lou Piniella and Billy Martin could lose their cool very quickly. Their antics, while sometimes bordering on the hilarious, also sometimes reached a point where the umpires involved could feel threatened. Nevertheless, this human factor provides drama that fans enjoy in some respects more than the game itself.


As a lifelong fan of the New York Mets, I have seen calls go against my team more often than go its way (or so it seems to me). The introduction of the instant replay review has helped reverse some bad calls (excluding balls and strikes), but at the heart of the conflict is the strike zone and an electronic one is appealing to those players who feel umpires have individual strike zones that are far from equitable.

I personally like the idea of human umpires only because I have played baseball games with them and without them. Games without umpires – when the players and both sides either agree or disagree on a call – are like driving without traffic lights. These contests are accidents waiting to happen. Umpires provide a sense of balance that both teams need, and the good ones merit respect and likewise treat players and managers respectfully.

MLB’s umpires are human beings but many times are treated as if they are not there – until they make a call that rubs someone the wrong way. Then the players, the manager, and then the crowd will let them know how they all feel.
I recall watching baseball games with my grandfather and, when the umpire made what he felt was a bad call, he would scream all sorts of unprintable words. Pop was not the only person I know who enjoyed yelling (and cursing) at umpires – but I wonder how they will direct their anger if the umpire is a robot. You cannot argue with a machine – one that is supposed to be infallible.

All around us the human factor seems to be disappearing. I used to know tellers in my bank by name. Now most of them are gone and the lines are incredibly long, forcing me to use the ATM most of the time. In my drugstore, there is usually one cashier with another long line that forces me to use the automated checkout, and a similar situation forces me to do so in the supermarket as well. On the highway toll booths are being eradicated and the E-Z Pass is the only way to go.

Basically, human interaction is being subsumed by automated alternatives everywhere we go.  Consider how driverless cars and buses are no doubt going to rule the roads sooner rather than later. The regular pleasure of getting behind the wheel to drive will be taken away from us, and a creepy feeling of powerlessness and fear comes with thinking our freedom to drive and go wherever we want may be taken away.

Progress is always a wonderful thing if it increases the quality of human life. Unfortunately, all of this automation has led to people losing jobs and limits our opportunities for interaction with other members of our species. The idea of robot umpires is just another example of moving forward without any regard for what is being left behind.

One day soon we may have an umpire version of the Terminator calling the plays. No one is going to argue with something like that, and that will be an incalculable loss. For the time being MLB games will continue to have those men in black on the field. Most of them do their best to make the game fair and one that fans can enjoy watching. Players, managers, and fans should try to enjoy the game the way it is played now – the one we know and love – before it is too late.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Teachers Having Sex with Students - An American Tragedy

New reports seem to come at us on an almost daily basis – yet another teacher is being accused of having sex with a student (who is also under the age of consent). Based on reports from across the country, the numbers seem staggering. According to Professor Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University, author of the report “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” an estimated 4.5 million American students have been subjected to some kind of sexual misconduct (ranging from verbal abuse to actual sexual contact) between Kindergarten and 12th grade.

As an educator and parent, I am shocked and disturbed by these numbers; how can this be happening in our schools? The seeming epidemic of cases of educator sexual abuse of students is an ongoing tragedy for our country, ruining the lives of so many children.

There is obviously something inherently wrong with our education system, but it goes even deeper than that – college and graduate school courses for future teachers are saliently deficient since some new teachers are obviously coming out of teacher preparation programs totally unaware that this kind of behavior is wrong. Something has to be done to alter the pattern because it has been going on far too long now.

If we recall one of the most famous cases of teacher sexual abuse from 20 years ago – teacher Mary Kay Letourneau (34 at the time) and her 13-year-old student Vili Fualaau – the media sensationalized the case and invariably painted Mary Kay as a “victim” of falling in love with the boy (who fathered two children with her). Mary Kay became something of a celebrity by writing a book – Only One Crime, Love – and having a movie made about her life – All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story.

Incredulously, this sordid tale is a microcosm of the forbidden love aspect of teacher-student relationships. Instead of recognizing the horrendous and unforgivable behavior of someone who is supposed to be a professional acting in a totally unprofessional manner, the angle is always to show the sensational and lurid aspects of these incidents and cite the fact that teacher and student truly love one another as if it should temper our reaction to what happened.

Now with social media we can get a steady stream of these stories anytime we want, with graphic details of how teacher and student copulated in cars, in classrooms, and so on. There is a subtle permissiveness that sneaks into these stories because it seems to be suggested that two things are usually at work here: the teacher couldn’t control his or her desires and the student was complicit in the situation and therefore this somehow negates the teacher’s culpability.



Popular culture only adds salt to the wounds concerning this matter. Think of all the TV shows, films, and music videos that suggest that teacher-student sexual attraction is somehow part of a normal school experience. Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” is an excellent example of this glorification of the inappropriate behavior of educators and the joys of being the student who got “lucky” with the object of other students’ affection.

Going back to Miss Crabtree in The Little Rascals and probably well beyond, students have had feelings about their teachers. It is understandable that students look up their teachers, admire them, and maybe even have some affection for them. Young children especially feel bonds to their teachers because they become surrogate parents during the school day, but no matter how the student feels it is the teacher who is the professional. It is the teacher who must set appropriate boundaries and enforce them.

During the school day the concept of in loco parentis is in place in a school building. This means that every person in that building from the janitor to the principal has the legal responsibility to care for the students “in place of the parents” who are not present. This is a monumental and sacred trust that educators must adhere to, and this seeming epidemic of teachers having affairs with their students is not only breaking the law but violating that sacred trust.

It is time for school districts across the country to provide training about professional and personal conduct. There must be a clear delineation of boundaries for educators. They should also be taught to be front line advocates for children, learning how to recognize when a colleague is about to step over the line or is doing so. One of the strongest methods of stopping this epidemic is to have teachers and administrators become fluent in advocacy for students’ safety and well being, hopefully preventing violators before they can act.

Having been a teacher and a school administrator, over the years I have seen so many fine men and women who become educators for all the right reasons. They go into the field with aspirations to make a difference in their students’ lives, and that has always inspired me. Still, no one can ignore what is happening in schools across America and something has to be done about it – not tomorrow or next week or month but right now.

The best way to approach this situation is to think of consequences. Teachers who are guilty of these reprehensible actions will lose their licenses, destroy their own families, and go to prison for years. Unfortunately, the consequences for the students are even more daunting.
Students who become sexually involved with their teachers are victims and they face trauma that is enduring and overwhelming. Even in cases where the student may have willingly participated or even initiated the affair, the student is a minor and incapable of emotionally understanding the ramifications of his or her actions. Consequences for the student may be incalculable initially and devastating over many years to come.

Something has to change and it has to happen sooner rather than later. Teachers need to know that they are expected to always act in a professional manner – which means not sharing cell phone numbers, not being friends with the student through social media, and not exchanging personal email because all of those actions are steps down a lurid road of no return.

Teachers play an awesome and crucial role in the lives of children and must remember the golden rule of in loco parentis – during that school day teachers are acting as parents would and not as friends or paramours. There are boundaries and they must be upheld and honored because their professional responsibilities must outweigh any personal issues or desires.

We owe it to the children of this country to find answers quickly and protect them. School districts, educators, and parents must all come together and work to find an antidote to this sordid epidemic, which is an American tragedy that is destroying lives, and the time to act is now.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming – Spidey's Back Where He Belongs


What has always drawn me to the Spider-Man comics and films is that Spider-Man is a New Yorker who goes to a NYC high school just as I did. The essence of “Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man” is that he is of the city, of its streets, and looks out for its people – the good citizens of town while fighting its bad guys.

Director John Watts has crafted Spider-Man: Homecoming as an homage to the city that Peter Parker calls home, and the story written by Watts (and seven other writers) seems to bring us much closer to Stan Lee (who once again has a cameo) and Steve Ditko’s comic book version of the character.

In the previous films both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield appeared to be much older than the high school kid Peter was supposed to be. Tom Holland seems much younger than his age (21) and does a terrific job of making Parker seem like a real high school kid who is nervous around the beautiful Liz (Laura Harrier) and tries to do well in his classes, but has to hide his alter ego from his friends and his Aunt May (a lovely performance by Marisa Tomei).

The story also presents a compelling villain in Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton) who is not all evil and has his own compelling back story. Watching Keaton inhabit this role is a true joy, and the thought of him in two Batman films becomes subsumed by his work in Birdman with that character being most compellingly similar to Vulture in this film.

Keaton’s Toomes is as much of a New Yorker as Holland’s Parker, and what compels Peter to want to protect his city is far different than what motivates Toomes to go rogue after the Department of Damage Control takes over a salvage operation involving Manhattan buildings damaged by the Avengers in battle. Toomes is enraged that the wealthy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can wield his power and take away work from him and his men, and this leads him to walk on the dark side.

Toomes has uncovered some powerful alien weaponry from the wreckage and decides not to give it back. He and his men start selling the weapons on the black market, and Toomes directs Phineas (Michael Chernus), one of his henchmen who has advanced technological skills, to develop the technology and create the Vulture suit that gives Toomes super strength and the ability to fly.

After Spidey stops the sale of some of these weapons, that event puts him and Vulture on a collision course throughout the rest of the film. There are some terrific battle sequences between them, and the most stunning takes place in New York harbor on the Staten Island Ferry. During this ferocious fight Toomes/Vulture shows his complete disdain for his fellow New Yorkers, while Parker/Spider-Man displays his total dedication to a mission to save human lives.

At this point we reach spoiler territory, but I have no qualms about telling you that the rest of the way is a thrilling ride. Salvatore Totino’s cinematography gives new meaning to breathtaking, and shots high above New York and atop the Washington Monument will amaze while also making those with acrophobia squirm in their seats. Michael Giacchino’s score enhances the action without ever being overwhelming, and Watts displays a fine ability of giving a scene the right amount of time to evolve without stretching it beyond dramatic intensity.

It is also welcome to see Spider-Man fully accepted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe here, so unlike in Captain America: Civil War where Holland’s Spidey is given a somewhat short end of the stick. Tony Stark/Iron Man has enough appearances throughout to make the connection stronger, but he also becomes a mentor and something of a father figure for Parker, though much to Stark's chagrin. It is also always delightful to have Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan around for some comic relief.

What also stands out is how Watts gets the high school scenes right, with enough tension between Peter and the others like Zendaya’s acerbic Michelle and Tony Revolori’s annoying Flash questioning why Peter is always disappearing at important moments. Jacob Batalon does an outstanding job as Peter’s best friend Ned, a Lego building/tech wiz who discovers Peter’s secret identity and cannot contain his enthusiasm. Ned also has the single funniest line in the film when he gets confronted by a teacher while using a school computer to help Peter. The entire audience erupted in laughter, and I rarely see that happen anymore.

Overall, Spider-Man: Homecoming is nothing like previous Spidey films and everything that they should have been. It feels fresh, exciting, and invigorates the character, much of this having to do with Holland’s inspired performance.

This film is highly recommended to be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate its majestic panoramas and awesome battle sequences. Oh, and stay on through the credits because there is a little scene squeezed in there that you won’t want to miss.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Major League Baseball’s Homer Surge – Bats in the Belfry?


When asked about the recent power surge by hitters this season, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred indicated that he believes that bats – baseball ones and not the vampire kind – are responsible. This was in response to the accusations of a “juiced ball” being used (the contention of MLB Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark), which always comes up as a reason in those years when balls are zipping out of the park like crazy. Since MLB is responsible for the manufacturing of those bats, it seems like an odd accusation from Manfred.

Besides, MLB has always been in love with the home run but acts like the school kid who has a crush on the little girl with freckles yet denies his feelings to his friends. Manfred (and all the commissioners who have come before him) knows this to be true but is in denial like all the rest, and now he is suggesting that it is baseball players’ bats that have caused this homer glut. Yeah, it’s the bats, Rob – bats in the belfry.

I have heard all these kinds of things before whenever there is a surge in home runs. Just think of the 1990s when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa looked like two Michelin men swatting all those homers. MLB knew the fans loved it and thus loved it too, even though it was obvious that these guys had done something way beyond hitting the gym every day to get more pumped up than Hans and Franz from SNLAccusations of juiced balls or enhanced bats were brought up, but the truth about steroids wouldn’t be addressed until much later.

In the past homer surges always aroused suspicions that the baseball itself was the culprit for a so many homers. One thing is for certain, when you see that ball hit today it seems as if it is out of the park faster than a kid who hears the three o’clock bell runs out of school. When a batter hits a ball to the warning track it bounces high over that outfield wall, lending credence to the juiced ball stories.

The history of the baseball has seen it change over the years since the ones made of melted shoe rubber in the 1840s; however, those many changes have taken us all the way from the so called “dead ball” era to the current extremely lively ball.

If you are looking for other reasons for copious home run balls, consider the prevailing conditions in the ballpark and its location (like Denver where hit balls seem as light as the air itself). Even when we were kids we knew hot weather seemed to make the ball go farther; it was just a given. Conversely, on extremely cold days like those that can be experienced in April and October, the ball sometimes seems weighed down and not going anywhere. It should all even out, right? Or does it?

Of course, despite the Manfred’s zany bats reference, the importance of baseball bats cannot be discounted either. Just like baseballs, the history of bats has seen many different designs over the years. Bats can be extremely diverse, but must adhere to the MLB rulebook standard – not more than 2.61 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. What Manfred is concerned about is the concept of bats manufactured to enhance the hitter’s prowess to the maximum. Those of us of a certain age can remember the “corked bat” incidents of not too long ago, so bats may be indeed part of the problem here.

What problem, you may ask? Did you watch the All-Star Home Run Derby – which is still infinitely more exciting to watch than the actual All-Star Game. New York Yankee Aaron Judge (admittedly a big guy) was banging them off the roof at Marlins Park in Miami like they were ping-pong balls. But he wasn’t the only one – many others were knocking that ball way out of the park (if there were no roof on that stadium some of those balls would have been hitting the International Space Station).

But, you say, come on, the balls are being soft pitched to these guys during the Home Run Derby. Okay, fair enough, but this is happening in regular season games across the sport. According to the ESPN, as of today 3,342 home runs have been hit (2.52 per game) this year. That puts MLB on pace to shatter the record of 5,693 home runs (2.34 per game) set in 2000, so the numbers indicate that something big is happening.

So, if you don’t like the idea of juiced balls or enhanced bats, we can turn to look at the players like Judge (who is like Paul Bunyan) and others who are larger and incredibly stronger than players from the past. The conditioning (some would say over-conditioning) has reached incredible levels, and it could just be that these players are in the best shape any generation of baseball players has ever been in. If you take that into account, perhaps we have another answer and maybe it is more palatable for those who keep scratching their heads as each homer leaves the ballpark like a comet.

Baseball fans love the home run as much or even more than MLB secretly does. Baseball’s love affair with the homer goes way back to Babe Ruth who became famous hitting them and made the game even bigger because of it. The home run will always be the big attraction, and right now it is bigger than ever.

Manfred can blame the bats and Clark can blame the balls, but the fans are not complaining, so as long as the customer is satisfied things will continue as they are going. The players themselves seem to be enjoying being sultans of swat, perhaps only to the chagrin of the pitchers who are stuck serving up these dingers.

The 2017 season will no doubt go down as the year of the homer, but all indications are that 2018 will be an even better year for the long ball. Bigger, stronger, faster players are just going to keep hitting more homers no matter what kinds of balls or bats they are using.

The day of the 100-homer season is just around the corner, and record after record will be shattered. We should all embrace this exciting new era rather than fear it. After all, aren’t records made to be broken?