Thursday, January 21, 2016

Where The Wild Things Are
Reading deals with real-life scary 
things that TV doesn’t.

I don’t watch any TV series except when sometimes I’ll see an old 'Seinfeld.' Frequently I can go all day and night without turning on the television.  This might be why:

I met a friend maybe 12 years ago for a lunch at a place on Third Avenue that had just opened, Blue 9 Burger.  It was supposed to be a big deal, burgers like you get in California. We sat by the window in front. We were going to the movies almost next door within the hour. It was Memorial Day. We talked about the girls going by on the sidewalk, sports, our kids. We were both divorced.  About halfway through our burgers, a young Latino guy came in and walked past our table with a noticeable intensity. You sensed he was honked-off about something.  Enough that I kept looking at him as he headed toward where you ordered your food. He didn’t stop there. He went to the right, into the kitchen, and soon you could hear pots and pans banging off the floor and off the wall. He must have been called in to work on his day off and he was pissed. It made our hearts pound. It was scary. We couldn’t eat. We couldn’t hear what was being said, but you could hear angry intensity in the voices. You can get scared over things like that. Squealing tires can scare you. A guy running through traffic in midday to get away from something can scare you, make your heart go. 

TV doesn’t give you that. Pots and pans banging? Intense voices? Disgruntled employee without a gun? That’s more the stuff of comedy on TV. You need a gun pushed between someone’s eyebrows to scare you on TV, or piano wire around someone’s neck, and even that doesn’t really scare you, not like the noises in the kitchen scared my buddy and me sitting in the window in a new burger place on a sunny day.  So what’s the point of TV, I thought, and its crime shows and its ’gritty’ shows, if it can’t capture real-life fear? It seemed a waste of time. What could you be learning? You need books for that.

What then about kids and adults who can’t read well enough to turn the TV off and read something that’s more real, scary even? Imagine if you were stuck with no alternative to TV. Life would be different if you had no escape from the tube. You’d be restless. You’d eat more junk. TV makes you hungry for junk food. You couldn’t even sit with a game on and look at the newspaper or a magazine. If you couldn’t read well, you wouldn’t buy a paper or get a magazine in the mail. You’d have to just sit there staring at timeouts and commercials, or talk on the phone, or text all night, or play a game on your phone, or listen to tunes. Nothing deeply quiet like reading to go to. Nothing orderly in front of you like comfortably-layered lines of type on a white background.

You couldn’t live that way, without things to read around you.  You’d want more.
Most of the graduates of the city’s schools won’t live with books and magazines and newspapers around them. They don’t read at a high enough level to be able to be to read well enough to read a book. Too many kids here graduate without the ability to read well.  What are they going to do with their lives? Watch TV all the time? Netflix? Play phone games?

I did see a TV program last week.  It was on that channel that shows City Council meetings and the Mayor’s press conferences. The one I saw showed the Mayor at a school in Queens that had higher than normal graduation rates. The Chancellor was there and the school’s principal, and some students and some other adults. The Mayor talked about hopeful changes he’s made to the system.  Reading was mentioned.  But not emphasized above everything else.  It almost never is. The Times doesn’t emphasize reading like you’d think it would when it’s writing about the schools.  The biggest failure of the schools is not teaching every school kid to read well.  How can that not be the topic on the table every day at the Department of Education? TheTimes should have a reading writer. They have food writers galore. They have a ‘Frugal Travel’ writer. Aren’t the kids and their future, which I believe and so do you, will be determined by how well they learn to read, worthy of as much space as one-day’s TV listings a week? The TV listings get a whole page every day.  

What else is there but reading really? I almost don’t remember one thing I learned in school.  Whatever state capitals I remember came from staring at a paper placemat at a Howard Johnson’s. Reading on your own is what brings about learning during the school years. In sports pages and magazines, library books, ‘MAD' magazine, backs of baseball cards, even catalogs.

Here’s a poem by Jane Shore. I’ve liked her work when I’ve come across it over the last 20 years. I just bought three used books o f her poems.

The Sound of Sense

Through the heat register I can hear
my daughter reading in the room below,
eating breakfast in her usual chair
at the kitchen table, two white pages
of her open book throwing the blinding
pan of sunlight back at her downcast face.
I hear her chirping up and down the scale
but I can’t decipher a single word
as Emma learns to read. She’s in first grade
and has to read a new book every day,
a weight she carries between school
and home in her backpack, in a Ziploc
baggie, with her lunch—a nibbled sandwich
squashed into an aluminum foil ball
she’s crumpled hard as a chunk of pyrite.
She unzips the baggie and out falls
“The Farm,” eight pages long, more pamphlet
than book. Not much happens in the plot.
A farm, a barn, a boy, a cow that moos a lot.
The words are hard, but Emma sounds them out
one at a time, the O’s both long and short—
Cheerios bobbing in a lake of milk
in which her spoon trails like a drunken oar.
This morning her father, coaching her,
clears his throat, knocking his cup against what?
--I hear it clatter but can’t make it out.
“Hurry up,” he shouts “or you’ll miss the bus!”
I hear his imperative clearly enough,
but in the raised volume of her reply
the words are lost, garbled, caught in the throat
of the register’s winding ducts and vents.
In an hour or so, when the sunlight moves on,
a film will glaze the soured milk, like frost,
where the sodden O’s float, life preservers.
Now, over muffled clinks of silverware,
clattered plates, running water, morning din,
the sound of sense resumes its little dance.
I hear my daughter turn the title page,
then silence, then a spurt of words, false start,
hesitation, a spondee of some sort,
then an iamb, then an anapest, then
a pause, another iamb—that’s The End.
Then the scrape of wood on tile as Emma
pushes her chair away and clomps upstairs
to change from her pajamas into clothes.

Outside The Box
A more vivid look at the big world than TV gives you.

Anthony Bourdain takes you places. Even if sometimes you aren’t packed  to go. You walk in the room where your TV is and turn on CNN to see some real news on the weekend and there you are in Peru again while Bourdain oohs and aahs over some exotic  local dish at a big table.  It almost works.  (His now-classic book Kitchen Confidential worked very well.)

What really works well if you want to go places is Outside magazine.  I’ve hyped it to you before.  The writing is top-notch. The photography is worth the price of a subscription.  Mountains. Rivers. Lakes that look like they’ve been photo-shopped, they look so other-worldly. Snowboarders, hikers, missionaries. There’s a lot in each issue. Good ads too. Right in your lap. 

TIME and Again
Rediscovering an old standby

 I’ve been getting TIME in the mail every week for a year now.  I impulsively subscribed, not having seen it much since my father read it religiously when I was a kid. It used to be in friends’ houses too. And in the doctor’s office where I’d go regularly to get an allergy shot around fifth grade. I’m enjoying it. Sometimes I slip it in my back pocket and take it with me to the new pizza joint on the corner. There’s good light there. You learn more from it than from TV news.

We think we have to be on top of all the breaking news now.  I suppose that’s natural.  But there’s also a natural  rhythm to, and reason for, a weekly magazine like TIME. I recommend it, still.

Brent Staples praised this book in the Times enough to make me buy it. I just got it. Haven’t read anything but the dust jacket. It’s the story of a black newspaper in Chicago that’s been going since 1905. It’s over 600 pages. Imagine the history.