Arts

The Arts section of Orient Lodge

Learning About Bullying - Trumbull RENT

OK, and so one of the expressions I learned at Electronic Arts, which I love, which pertains to this, is experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And I think that’s absolutely lovely. And the other thing about football is we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake, or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it’s really nice that I have a wonderful three-point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff. But we send our kids out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etcetera, etcetera. And these kinds of head fake learning are absolutely important. And you should keep your eye out for them because they’re everywhere.

These words from Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture often come to me when I read about school administrations seemingly getting in the way of education. The latest debacle in Trumbull is a great example of this.

The short version is that the principal canceled the production of the high school version of the musical RENT because of the sensitive issues that it raises. When he received pushback, he said that more time was needed to talk with students about the topics. After the story went national and theatre companies across Connecticut offered to assist, he backed down a little bit, but still had to try and get the last word in by moving the date to one that conflicts with other school events.

On one level, he is to be applauded for his efforts to make sure there is a meaningful discussion around the play, if that is his true intent. He has spoken about having the Anti Defamation League help with these discussions. This got me curious. Why the Anti Defamation League?

Yes, there are lessons to be learned about homophobia and bullying, but there are so many more lessons to be learned as well. As a health care activist, I’m especially interested in discussions about HIV/AIDS. I’ve written before about HIV/AIDS in the area around Trumbull High School and have spoken with other health care advocates in the area.

One health care worker in the Trumbull area I wrote to replied, “As you may know, I've been working in the area of HIV for aprox. 21 years, as we are in the 32rd year of the epidemic, I don't think we have done a good job with addressing the stigmas that is associated with the disease….Trumbull is part of my catchment area. I have not been able to make any inroads in that community.”

Yes, let’s have a serious discussion about the issues RENT brings up. Let’s make sure we have an open, honest, and frank discussion about HIV/AIDS around Trumbull and how stigmatizing the disease only makes things worse.

But back to the Anti Defamation League. I wondered why they were involved. A search online about the Anti Defamation League and the high school musical RENT turned up this article:

ACLU Announces Settlement of Suit Tied to Corona del Mar High's Production of "Rent"

Apparently, another high school tried cancelling RENT. In this case, football students bullied a student who had expressed her disappointment about the school cancelling RENT and soon after “received honors from their school for their athletic prowess.” The ADL became involved in part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought against the school district.

I hope, for the sake of Trumbull that the school does not get sued, and that there won’t be negative repercussions for the schools football team.

This was four years ago, so I wondered if there was something more recent I should know about. So, I contacted the director of the Anti Defamation League in Connecticut to talk about what was going on there. He wrote, “Although we have not formally heard from the High School at this point, we have seen the press reports and a press release from Trumbull High confirming that it will get us involved in this matter.”

He also wrote about how the ADL already has “a pretty deep and long relationship with Trumbull High School. For a number of years now, we have been providing the school with training that fights bigotry, promotes respect for difference and counters bullying.”

One would think that if the principal of Trumbull High School was so concerned the educational opportunities around RENT, he would have contacted them already, instead of having them rely on news reports and press releases about the controversy.

This takes me back to my opening. There is a lot to be learned from producing high school musicals. Some of it is indirect learning. The student who spoke up in favor of RENT has demonstrated amazing poise. The principal who refused to appear on camera is demonstrating that he is a petty bureaucrat most likely propped up by other petty bureaucrats, more interested in demonstrating what bullying is by trying to make things difficult for others when he can’t get his way.

Let’s hope that the students in Trumbull, as well as their parents and voters find more ways to stop bullying.

Trumbull for Rent and World AIDS Day

Over the past week, there have been several stories that I’ve been following that all fit together in an unexpected larger theme. The first was the release of John Jorge’s Music Video, Lovin’. For those who don’t recognized the name yet, I think the first time I was him perform was in the Amity High School’s production of Rent.

I believe this was the day before Thanksgiving, which is the second story to pay some attention. Every year, we stop to give thanks for all that has been given us. As a New Englander who can trace his genealogy back to the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, this is an important day for me. Part of what I’m thankful for is the freedoms my ancestors came to this country in search of.

Another big story for me of the past few days is my completion of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. I finished the first 50,000 word draft of my second novel on Saturday. There is something very empowering to set out to create something challenging and complete it. I will see if I will go through the editing and revisions necessary to get it to be presentable for publication, either through traditional channels or through self publication.

Then, there was the story in the Washington Post of a teacher resigning because of what is happening in education.

All of this leads up to World AIDS Day and an incredible article in the New Yorker, What Young Gay Men Don’t Know About Aids. I work at a Federally Qualified Health Center that treats people with AIDS. I am a Health Leadership Fellow of the Connecticut Health Foundation working with others to address health disparities in our state.

AIDS is a very important topic we need to have open and honest discussions about, which leads me to the final story I want to focus on.

An article in the Hartford Courant put it this way.

Student representatives from Trumbull High's theater department were told last Monday that the show they planned to perform next spring covered topics too "sensitive" or "controversial" for a high school.

Originally, I was planning to write an open letter to the Trumbull High School administration, pointing out how not allowing the production of Rent was incredibly short sighted. I would talk about depriving students of opportunities for prepare for their careers, as the Amity production of Rent helped John Jorge on his career. How not allowing the production went against the freedoms that our forefathers came to this country for. How not allowing the production was an affront to all people seeking to improve the lot of mankind through creativity. How not allowing the production would damage the school district by showing a heavy handed administration that doesn’t allow educators to challenge their students. How not allowing the production was an insult to the people of Trumbull by saying that students at Amity and in Greenwich where Rent has been produced are more capable of handling “sensitive” or “controversial” subjects.

But the most important topic to me was the health topic. According to The Connecticut Department of Health there were nearly 700 case of HIV infection reported in Bridgeport, the city next to Trumbull during the years 2002-2011. Yes, the rate of new infections has been going down, but every new infection with HIV is one infection too many.

HIV/AIDS is not too “sensitive” or “controversial”. HIV/AIDS is an infection which we can stop the spread of. We can do this by talking openly and honestly about the infection, about the stigma. If we care about the children in our schools, we need to have these discussions.

I am tempted to wax polemic adopting the voice of preachers I know that would point out that by preventing these discussions, there is blood on our hands. Yet I’m not sure that is effective. It isn’t really my style.

But, this evening, I went to a World AIDS Day event where another section of the quilt was unveiled. It commemorated people in Connecticut how had died as a result of AIDS. It was attended by people who were living successful lives knowing that they were HIV positive. These were people who have confronted the stigma, found out their status and were getting the treatment so that an HIV infection for them was a chronic disease, not a death sentence. These were people who knew their status and because of their knowledge, were not spreading the infection.

I wept with them as we mourned the death of loved ones.

In my heart, I prayed for those who indirectly contribute to the ongoing spread of HIV by thwarting opportunities for discussion. I wished they could have stood with me at the unveiling of this latest section of the quilt and I pray that these words might cause some to stop and think about what their decisions mean for freedom, for education, and most importantly, for health.

Don't Buy Crap, Just Make Memories

It’s been a little over a year since my mother died. Last year, I was mostly in shock and hadn’t really processed all that went on, but this year, I’m finding more opportunities to reflect on what I learned.

This spring, my daughter Miranda published her book, Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something.

Now, we are being bombarded by Black Friday ads, or even worse, Black Friday Eve. It all made me think, here I am in my mid fifties. My mother is dead, and I’m pouring over my childhood memories in my heart. What do I remember?

I remember getting those knitted socks that she didn’t have time to finish. They were in a shoebox with the knitting needles still in them. They were a couple different shades of red which almost matched. She had run out of yarn, and bought some more in a color as close as she could get to the original.

I remember the days leading up to the holidays, helping my mother bake. I remember one year, getting a broken alarm clock and a set of screwdrivers. I often talk about that is one of the best gifts I ever received. I remember the construction paper silhouette of my face pasted to a larger piece of white paper cut in the shape of a heart which I scrawled my name on. I must have given that to here as a gift when I was six or seven, and nearly half a century later, I took it down from my mother’s linen closet and brought it to my house.

It was a different time back then. We didn’t have a lot of money, there was probably a lot less plastic crap on the market and we certainly didn’t go to any Black Friday Eve sales. Yet the commercialization of the holidays had already started long before my childhood and I’m sure I got my share of plastic crap that made me happy for a day and a half before it broke.

So as you sit down at the Thanksgiving Day table, think about how you want to be remembered. Do you want to make a brief impression with the latest gadget bought on sale on Thursday evening, or do you want to be remembered for what you made, an incomplete set of socks or some other lasting memory made by warm hands held during grace over the dinner table.

Don’t let fears of your own inadequacies at making stuff stop you. That’s the message of Miranda’s book. By making something, anything, you are making important memories.

Don’t Buy Crap, Just Make Memories.

#NaNoWriMo - Breaking the Transhuman Apocalyptic Singularity Filter Bubble

We are less than two weeks away from the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, #NaNoWriMo. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Just straight through writing. You can save the editing for later.

The first year I did NaNoWriMo, I wrote a mystery in Second Life, and made the goal of 50,000 words. Subsequent years, I've started off on story ideas that were not clearly thought out enough, were too close to home, or I just didn't have the time. I've tried various variations on NaNoWriMo and am preparing for this year's attempt.

I've been thinking of writing some sort of psychological political philosophical treatise pulling together thoughts on aesthetics, politics, the genome, the biome, great awakenings, transcendentalism, transhumanism, the apocalypse, the singularity, social constructs and social contracts, neural networks, group therapy, attachment therapy, filter bubbles and a bunch of other ideas.

The starting point I've settled on is a campaign for State Representative. I will draw from my experiences running for State Representative last year, as well as experiences with other political campaigns, but I need to remind everyone that what I'll be writing is fiction, trying to weave together a lot of different ideas. If you find that a character sounds a lot like you, attribute it to good writing and not being a commentary on you. If you have ideas you want to share, make them about ideas and not your thoughts about different people.

With that, here is the general idea: In a fictional district, based loosely on the area I am from, there is a long time incumbent State Rep. His twin brother is a mayor in one of the towns in the district. His father was a Congressman. No one wants to run against the incumbent, so a political philosopher decides to run, but a completely different kind of campaign. No lawn signs, door knocking, palm cards,, advertisements, or any of that sort of stuff. Just discussions. Discussions about anything and everything. Discussions aimed at bring people with different viewpoints together, modeled on Chicago dinners, and aimed at breaking filter bubbles.

One of the towns in the district is a suburb where many college professors live, so there are lots of chances to talk about the genome, the biome, social contracts and social constructs.

I have a lot more ideas built into this, but I'll save some of them for November. Now, here's my ask: what sort of things would you like to talk about at a filter breaking dinner discussion organized by a long shot candidate for state representative? What points would you like to see gotten across? What conflicts would you expect?

As you can see by my comments about transhumanism, singularity, and the apocalypse, this is wide open. Let me know your thoughts!

Deliberate

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

It struck me last night, how difficult this is, as we enter day eight of the U.S. Government hostage crisis. Social media and the traditional news media remain focus on the crisis and negativity abounds. There are the spin-offs of mentally ill people acting out and getting killed and of others immolating themselves.

Yesterday, I read a blog post, Does Reading Popular Fiction Make You a Dunce?. It referred to an article in the Atlantic Wire Now We Have Proof Reading Literary Fiction Makes You a Better Person , which in turn refers to an article in Science, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind

The abstract for the Science article says,

Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.

Years ago, I spent a bit of time studying artificial neural networks, and this still shapes a bit of my thinking. The inputs we receive help shape the way our brains work. The old saying about computers applies, "Garbage in, Garbage out".

So what if we spent more of our time contemplating things of beauty, a masterful painting or a well turned phrase? What if we spent more time trying to comprehend fascinating complicated characters and multifaceted ambiguous plot lines instead of two dimensional characters facing simple, predictable outcomes?

What if we stopped and listened and looked at beauty, for half an hour, for fifteen minutes, or even just a few minutes a day?

I have returned to the article I started reading sometime ago, “The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Essayists and Poets” by Kathryn VanSpanckeren, (2008). I still have Blithedale Romance on my smartphone, and read sections of it from time to time, but it is slow going right now, so I added Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

I've thought more about Walden and Innisfree. How deliberately do we construct our lives? How much deliberation do we put into our lives? How do we balance deliberation and spontaneity? Can we live our lives as if they are an artistic creation we are working on?

Can we curate our social media feeds to assist us in this creation, spending more time on posts with a higher artistic value?

I was planning on review more of my Facebook feed, but that should wait for another day.

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