Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Death of TV

I'm old enough to remember the birth of television on our street.
That's not to say I was around in 1925 when John Logie Baird succeeded in making monochromatic silhouette images move on a screen.
But I recall the odd brown box that arrived in my parents' home one morning in the 1970s and the air of pioneer excitement and they fiddled with clunky dials and a picture fought its way out of a snow storm.
Back in those days there were just two channels, BBC 1 and BBC 2 and two colors, black and white, as well as the unedifying spectrum of greys in between. We could get ITV on a sunny day but my parents didn't approve because they were forced to watch adverts for commercial appliances, the latest transistor radios, twin tub washing machines or Cliff Richard spinning at 45 revolutions per minute.
Early TV provided a script for our childhood. We hid behind the sofa when we heard the alien theme tune of Doctor Who thumping through a vortex of time because we knew the Daleks were about to appear. We shared our early years with the avuncular presence of Ronnie Barker in Porridge and John Cleese strutting through the corridors of The Ministry of Silly Walks or beating up his Austin 1100 with a tree branch in Fawlty Towers.
And it sounds like a chiche, but some TV-less neighbors did come to our house to watch the wedding of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, although our mother was at pains to point out she didn't look like a fairytale princess; more like a horse.
Then there was adult TV, which meant something different in our childhood than it does now; the serious grown-up drama that my parents were addicted to such as When the Boat Comes In and Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven.
Color arrived in our home at some point in the 1970s. I can't remember when but I recall the characters from Dougal and the Magic Roundabout suddenly gaining the hallucinagenic hues of their LSD addled creators.
As we grew older TV ceased to lose its novelty and charm. It was just there in the corner of the room like a goldfish or picture, although I still have fond memories of the monotone voice that read out the football results on Grandstand and the game we played predicting what score came next based on its cadences.
At some time in the next decade I drifted away from TV. When I returned in the mid 1990s it was a curiously different creature from the one I had grown up with. The feeling was mildly disconcerting. It was as if I had been going into the garden to feed a reliable but unaminated pet rabbit every day for a decade, only to notice one day it had grown green tusks.
For me the green tusks of reality TV first arrived in the form of Changing Rooms. The plot was simple. Take two sets of neighbors who are good friends, add garish paint, some MDF, a ridiculous fop with a name like Llewelyn-Bowen and get them to decorate each other's homes, resulting in neighbors who weren't such good friends.
The other reality TV show that I first noticed was Airport, a fly-on-the wall about Heathrow airport. I was suspicious from the outset. I'd spent long enough hanging around Heathrow Airport waiting for delayed flights to not want to watch this kind of thing as a leisure activity.
My cynicism did little to arrest the forward march of reality TV.
About 10 years ago I attended a lecture by Peter Bazalgette a TV executive who outlined the vast popularity in Holland of a show in which random people were put in a house and eliminated by public vote. Bazalgette explained audience numbers peaked when two housemates had sex, which equated on the small screen to two grainy figures wriggling around in a sleeping bag.
The scene was set for Big Brother and the rest is history. I have lost track of how many tedious series of Big Brother have been filmed or the cast list of desperate wannabes the show has enabled. But by hanging on every action of these characters the media has transformed them into vacuous celebs who are famous for being famous.
Characters like Jade Goody made being talentless a talent. And they lived and died in the glare of tabloid TV.
Today I have more than 30 channels on a basic cable package in the US. I can surf them for hours without finding anything I have a remote interest in watching.
Reality TV is TV whether it's Wife Swap, the real housewives of whatever place you can think of, the Kardashians, The Osbournes, Hulk Hogan's daughter, men who catch crabs in cold places or men who force themselves to eat enough food to feed an African village for a week for a certificate.
And Bazalgette's monster has spawned in a way Frankenstein's never did. You can vote on America's best model, singer, dancer, cook. Surely America's top snail racer or sewage technician will soon be a mere lazy flick of a channel away.
Meanwhile I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of here is in its umpteeth series on British TV and the soiled underwear of dozens of minor celebrities we had forgotten about is being paraded across the tabloids. TV has surely reached a parlous state when the departure from the show of Jordan, a woman famous for her gravity defying breasts, and I can't think what else, causes the viewing figures to plummet by two million.
If this isn't bad enough plans are now afoot to make the bushtucker trials, the stomach churning tasks the D-listers endure in I'm A Celebrity, such as eating kangaroo testicles and witchetty grubs, the centrepiece of new prime-time series.
Stateside our obsession with celebrity shows few signs of abating. In Colorado a father apparently pretended his son had floated off in a hot air balloon to raise publicity for a reality TV show he had pitched named The Science Detectives.
Perhaps he should be rewarded with a few bushtucker trials.
In DC a couple up for consideration for The Real Housewives of DC crashed a state dinner at the White House.
The monster unleashed by TV executives more than a decade ago who realized they could save money by avoiding high quality productions and using members of the public instead of actors, is out of control and nobody's going to round it up any time soon.
And as TV increasingly becomes fragmented and rendered obsolete by the Internet, it's hard to escape the conclusion that TV's going to be voted off this challenge.
Years ago when I first saw those flickering shades of gray it seemed like the beginning of something. Little did I realize I was peering into a golden age and contemplating the beginning of the end.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Last Days of School

I have a lot of regrets about my pathetically short career as a teacher.
But not parting with $29.95 to buy The First Days of School isn't one of them.
The book by Harry and Rosemary Wong is the bible for new teachers. You see them showing up during the new teachers induction, its perky green font sticking out of their shiny, new tote bags. If they ever forgot it you saw them turn pale and give the kind of look reserved for the first passenger on the Titanic who does a lifeboat count.
For the uninitiated the Wongs write about how being a teacher is the best career in the world. Turn to page 106 and there's Harry dressed for success resplendent in a waistcoat in the door of his classroom, his hand outstretched to connect with those of his students, radiating Oriental efficiency from every pore.
"I love to stand at the door on the first day with a giant smile on my face, hand stuck out in an invitational pose, waiting for those 'little darlings' to come down the hall," the caption reads.
I don't want to shatter any illusions here, but I tried a similar thing and gave up after the second spurned handshake. The sight of a tsumani of 12th graders rolling my way convinced me I would be crushed into a pulp on the first day of school unless I retreated.
It didn't end as suddenly as that but I was crushed over the next few weeks.
I can't pinpoint exactly how and why I failed but I found it hard to act like a teacher at times.
It takes a few semesters to click into the mindset of a teacher which is similar to that of a prison guard. Always be suspicious and assume the little darlings are lying or on the make unless you have evidence to the contrary in the form of a pass, an email or something else official.
I had some effective teaching moments but I failed to be a classroom cop.
And at the final reckoning I realized two months in I was already beginning to hate the humorless automotan I knew I had to become to keep order. It was hard to switch off at times. I was barking orders at my daughter across the supermarket aisle and middle aged ladies were giving me funny looks.
As Wong correctly points out, the most important factor governing learning is classroom management. On many afternoons the words of the great classroom Confuscius would come back to haunt me at the end of another 90 minutes of hell under artificial lighting when I sat in the middle of a maelstrom of paper balls and mangled desks.
My head of department took a dim view and rightly so. Desks out of line and books thrown around were tantamount to an invitation to riot. From then on I was fastidious about lined up desks and paper on the floor, although they didn't always listen.
And my thoughts were out of line with my departent head on one key area. I felt the uneven desks and papers thrown around were a symptom of a general lack of respect, rather than the cause of the chaos.
Wong says humans have a success instict. I'm not sure this was the case with all of my 10th graders. Indeed some seemed to have a failure instict and told me they saw their future in shoplifting. This leads me to conclude either Wong is wrong or some of them weren't human.
With this in mind I spent 10 minutes of one of my lessons looking to see if any of my students had small antenna pointing out of their heads.
It broke up the lesson and wasn't any more useless than some of the activities suggsted in the local authority's curriculum guide; jigsaw activities; fishbone maps; sequential episode maps; thematic maps etc.
I considered doing a sequential episode map with my kids and changed my mind. This was, afterall, a class that took 15 minutes to sort themselves into four groups.
But they were good at some group activities. Fighting for one. With no effective prior direction and little preparatory work two of my 10th graders successfully managed to beat each other to a pulp, while I hopefully pressed the red panic button.
"Why didn't you break it up? You played rugby back in Britain," one student asked me afterward.
Those exaggerations always come back to bite you.
So now my teaching career is practically over and although I'll miss the prospect of working without pay next year, it's not all bad. For one thing I have more time to read Wong's tome.
Wong said schools should organize a first day of school celebration where the teachers should stand at the bus stop and welcome them. "Wave and smile like it's aunt Mabel whom you have not seen in 14 years and the airplane has just pulled up to the jetway."
Hmmm. I feel I need to contact Wong or find him on Twitter. I actually had an aunt called Mabel. She was objectionable and flatulent and last cracked a smile the day Prince Albert died.
My family never failed to crack open the champagne at the sight of her oversized backside waddling away to the bus stop.
On the subject of flatulence, Wong doesn't tell you what to do when someone breaks wind and the whole class runs screaming to the door.
I suppose if I'd had the classroom management thing down to pat they would have remained glued to their undersized chairs, their nostrils twitching, fearing my withering gaze more than the odor.
My kids weren't really like that but my fellow teachers told me it took time to get it right. Nobody listened to Lenin and Trotsky much at first. It took a civil war and a lot of upheavals before Stalin came in to impose some heavy duty classroom management.
Nor does Wong devote any lines to insects which, to my mind, is a grave omission in The First Days of Schools.
It only took an oversized fly to reduce my best class to chaos. Just when they were calming down the infernal creature would reappear to torment me. When one student tried to swat it on a girl's head, the victim wanted to see me outside to press charges.
They don't tell you how to deal with that kind of thing on the training course.
My fellow teachers told me there's a lot that you learn on the job. I have nothing but admiration for these heroes of the education system, who go into a war zone every day without complaint.
That's not strictly true. There was a guy I met sometimes at the photocopier who reminded me of Travis Bicker, the De Niro character in Taxi Driver.
He told me the conditions were getting worse, the kids were getting worse; nobody wanted to learn.
"I gotta get out of teaching," he told me in a New York drawl.
He was drawn and on edge. I wondered what he would do next.
The day I realized he was six years younger than me my mind went on a loop and those words kept circulating in my head. "I gotta get out of teaching."

On Blog PTSD

Now then. What the heck. It seems I had forgotten about my blog completely rather than just neglecting it this time. To return after so long...