Rest In Peace, Lily

I am a big believer that dogs often choose us more than we choose them. Lily came to our home when she was two years old as a rescue from the wonderful East CAN organization. We had already adopted one rescue from them, Clyde who is still with us. Before Lily came into our life she was not treated very well. When she was found she had a broken chain around her neck and East CAN is very certain she was being used for breeding and not loved the way she should have been. But that broken chain came to symbolize who Lily was for us.

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My Filmmaking Year Begins

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie, I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.

The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.

  • Roger Ebert, remarks when receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (June 23, 2005)
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Wonderful and Strange: My Life with Twin Peaks and David Lynch

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Twin Peaks wasn’t the first. I had seen Dune, broadcast on a local channel, the extended television cut. That is where I first remember Kyle MacLachlan from. The blue-eyed Paul Atreides, savior of the desert planet Arrakis. What I remember most though is the nightmarish Duke Vladimir Harkonnen brilliantly played by Kenneth MacMillan. These would come to be the two sides of David Lynch I would get to know: the staid hero and the dark evil beneath everything.

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Just People

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Dr. Dana Chamblee-Carpenter introduced me to the concept of confluence through the writing of Eudora Welty. This was Southern Lit or some similar class, time fogs my memory on the specifics. In Welty’s work, confluence was the coming together of themes and ideas through imagery and plot. As my life has gone on, I’ve grown to see confluence happening around me. A series of disparate and fragmented events all seem to randomly coalesce into something of greater meaning. In this moment of confluence, the protagonist of the story will have a sudden transcendent understanding of their condition or the world they inhabit.

This week my friend, Mark Diaz-Truman posted a blog about troubling behavior he saw in the  fractured tabletop roleplay community. He mentioned specific people by name in this post and it was met with a lot of blowback and anger. My personal opinion, and yes it is biased, is that I believe Mark’s intent was not to cause harm but came from a genuine place of caring about a community he’s a part of. It’s been pretty disheartening to see that same community go wildly on the defensive to justify behavior that they themselves call other out for.

*****

In Nashville, the school board elections are in full swing. And it is probably the dirtiest elections the city has ever had for school board. A record-setting amount of money has found it into the campaigns. Mailers are going out en masse declaring incumbent members of the board of being negligent or not having the students’ best interest in mind. I am friends with many of these incumbents and know for a fact these are false allegations, that the struggle in schools right now goes beyond a school system and has more to do with a society that is becoming more economically segregated as the years pass.

One of the challengers in this race, Jackson Miller has chosen to run his campaign on the platform that the incumbent, Will Pinkston, is rude in his online interactions. Yes, Will can be a tough pill to swallow but Will is also right most of the time, is incredibly passionate about the kids and is never rude. He is an incredibly direct guy and he sharpened his mind working for some pretty great Tennessee politicians like former Governor Phil Bredesen. Jackson Miller was recently confronted with multiple tweets going back to 2008 where he makes misogynistic and racist comments about people and groups in our city. These tweets gathered a lot of attention and were picked up by the local news who ran stories about the situation.

In addition, the head of a local non-profit that also operates a number of charter schools in Nashville had e-mails leaked where they were blatantly violating campaign laws attached to their non-profit status. Their reaction was almost a non-reaction. Online their defenders continue to cite their end goal of “helping the students be successful” as a reason why the violation of the law should be overlooked.

******

I was scrolling through Facebook and came across a meme that detailed how Hillary Clinton allegedly referred to a group of mentally disabled children on an Easter Egg Hunt during her husband’s term as “retards”. The purpose of this meme was to show how Clinton is unelectable. I assume the poster of this meme wants me to vote for Donald Trump instead. Trump, a man who has mocked a disabled news reporter, talked in horrifically misogynistic terms about women and been eager to draw up lines of division between people. Maybe Clinton really did say that during the easter egg hunt. I don’t see how that excuses Trump’s behavior and means I should endorse him. But in their own minds, people find ways to justify this bizarre line of thinking.

*****

I am not the best student of history that I should be. I know a little, I want to know more. But from what I do know, I think it’s right to say we are in a period of extreme division as a country and probably even worse as a planet. We live in a world of binaries with sub-binaries and sub-sub-binaries. You aren’t a Republican or Democrat. You can be a moderate Republican, an alt-right Republican, an independent Democrat, a neo-liberal, a neo-conservative, a yellow dog Democrat, a progressive Democrat, a RINO, a DINO, etc. The drilling down of divisions has brought me to a real crisis point. I have family members that are committed to voting for Trump. I cannot vote for him and I am not enthusiastic about voting for Clinton. I will because I see Trump as a clear and present danger to the United States.

I look on Twitter and see “punk dudes” cracking wise about the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party. They aren’t wrong. They are definitely right. I see “centipedes” on Reddit meme-ing their lives away promoting Trump to the point a parody subreddit is started to mock them. I see Clinton people angrily telling Bernie people to just stop and give up. I see Bernie people not realizing that they can fight in a different way even if Bernie didn’t get the nomination, in a way that doesn’t harm. Everyone is so on edge and ready to lash out at a moment’s notice. Everyone questions everyone else’s motives with such deep hateful cynicism. People aren’t people anymore, they are walking ideologies that I need to lash out at with my ideology. And if they aren’t in lockstep with my specific interpretation and system of beliefs then I, and other in my faction, need to dogpile them.

Every single person you meet has suffered. It’s not a contest and it’s near impossible to truly compare suffering. If that’s something you do, then you’re sick. There are two levels you have to operate at: The larger global level is to acknowledge the societal and cultural structures in place. You have to acknowledge that black men and women are getting brutalized and killed by police officers in America at a rate that is beyond horrific. You have to acknowledge that me, a white guy, does have more privilege than a lot of other demographics in America. There is a lot of sociological turmoil right now in this moment, but a lot of progress too. I never imagined LGBTQ people would have the right to marry in America in my lifetime. That’s huge, lots of progress still to go, though.

But while we were living in the larger global sphere of thinking we forgot we have to live somewhere else at the same time. We have to be individual humans to each other. Every person you meet has suffered. You don’t need to know how and you will likely never know how. Even the people you think you hate, they have suffered too. People you love die. People you love betray you. People you don’t even know hate you. People you know hate you. People judge you and talk about you and annoy you and harass you. People hurt you. No one should ever excuse them or let them get away with that. But those people you direct your anger at because of perceived ideological divides are probably suffering in their own ways right now, today.

They are dealing with crippling financial instability. They got kicked out of their house. Their dad died today who they never really got to know. Their partner is in and out of the hospital without hope in sight. They miscarried. The feel like a failure. They can’t concentrate because of anxiety. They wake up in the night from nightmares that force them to remember something they want to forget. They don’t know what to do with their life. They live every moment thinking they are fat or ugly or unloved or unimportant. They spent decades in a loveless marriage only to be abandoned. They got the shit beat out of them when they were a kid. They had their trust in someone they loved violated. They had a stranger violate them.

And then you get online and call them “a piece of shit motherfucking loser”. Or they get online and call you the same. And then it erupts and everyone makes their digs and they are a piece of shit for voting for Clinton and you are a fucking asshole for voting for Trump and you are shitlord and they are an asshole and on and on and on and on and on…

Everyone is hurting. People you don’t know are hurting. People you *think* are your enemies are hurting. There is evil in this world and it preys on this shit. It grows stronger on our hate for each other. This isn’t about compromising your principles. This is about adding a principle to that list and living by it, no matter how hard it is, and it is going to be hard. I know it will be.

*******

I have every reason to hate my father. He treated my mom and the kids like garbage. He kept it mostly emotional abuse and when I was around fourteen he physically beat me. After a year of working in AmeriCorps, I came home, spent another year substitute teaching. Before I went down to see Ariana in Puerto Rico there was a big blow-up fight. I left and while I was there he called me to tell me all my belongings had been moved to a storage shelter, he would e-mail me the address. I was not allowed to come back to his house. Earlier that day, Ariana’s father had died. We cried together.

Years later he would call, leaving sobbing voicemails saying he wanted me to come to the house for Christmas. One year he told my siblings to not go see me at Christmas so that way I would be forced to come see him. That same Christmas, he got angry at my mom for spending money on a Kindle for HIM. All my childhood I was taught to fear spending money to the point that when I was about to rent my first house with my wife I had a panic attack, afraid that suddenly spending that money meant something bad was going to happen to me. I lived in fear of confrontation because everyone was him. If I made someone too angry they would abandon me like he did.

I had every reason to hate him. And I did. I hated him with the core of my being. I wished he was dead. And then one day I realized that hate was not making me better. Living as a hateful person was killing me inside. I forgive him. Doesn’t mean I want him in my life or I want to have him over for Christmas. He’s still a toxic person to me. But I forgive him. His dad beat him. I honestly believe he has some level of untreated bipolar disorder when I reflect on my childhood. But I can’t hate him. I can’t resent him. Not as some form of release of responsibility for his actions, but for me. I still let my emotions and my anger override my humanity and I struggle all the time with that.

*******

The reason why Mark or someone else might get very specific and public in a post about people’s behavior is because he loves them. You want better for them. You don’t want people to see them and think all they do is mire themselves in hate. You want people to see in them what makes you love what is essentially your family. And confronting family is a hard thing to do. Often family members trying to uncover ulterior motives and assume the person just wants something from them. But I stand by Mark and truly believe he spoke with love. He doesn’t want his family to live with growing hate in their hearts. He loves them too much to let them live like that.

You may read this and roll your eyes and think I’m being a naive idiot. I’m sorry you think that way. I don’t know what pain you have felt in your life, but know that you can’t let the hate swallow you up. Be passionate. Be motivated. Be protective of yourself. Don’t let others harm you. But don’t give away your humanity in place of hate.

Rolling Dice and Shaping Minds: Systems of Play and Teaching – Part One

Dungeons--Dragons-dice-010I was a teacher before I ever picked up a roleplaying manual. In 2009, after completing my Master’s in Teaching and Learning I was struggling to find a job. In the meantime my wife, then fiance, suggested I try running the latest iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. She had experience in her youth with tabletop roleplaying and I had always been curious about the TSR advertisements that popped up in the comic books I read over the years. So I got a copy of 4th edition and read through it. The very first thing I did was try to make my own character. I reasoned that I wouldn’t know how to run a game if I didn’t know how characters worked. It didn’t seem too hard. In a few weeks, I had slapped together some ideas and ran an online session with some friends. We enjoyed it and I decided to keep it going. This was the beginning of my education in tabletop roleplay.

Dungeons & Lesson Plans

It was Sunday and I sat going back and forth in a number of PDFs and web pages trying to assemble some monsters, dungeons, and assorted NPCs for my players. I don’t care for the pre-planned lessons in the state-sanctioned curriculum, at the time I felt the same about using a module. From my limited experience as a GM, I saw it as limiting me and my players’ choices about where they wanted to the story to go. If the module didn’t gel with the style of characters they’d rolled up it might not be enjoyable. So instead I spent hours making scenarios that went along with character information fed to me during previous sessions.

I think my dislike of using a module comes from my dislike of the direct instruction model of teaching. This is essentially passive learning, where students take part in seminars, observations, and demonstrations. Direct instruction was formally developed throughout the 1960s by Professor Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker to help disadvantaged students due to poverty or by being minorities, students who historically have not had the resources and privileges of others. This model of learning focuses on explicitly defining key terms, ability grouping students, and regular assessment to determine how much progress a student has made.

When you say the word “school” this is probably what most of us imagine. There are a lot of benefits to this way of teaching. You make key concepts very clear to the learners and you model skills step by step. If a student is paying attention they will definitely understand the basics. But it is not a very engaging way of learning. As I mentioned above, it’s known as “passive learning”. If a student is truly struggling or has no interest in the concepts they likely won’t get much. So the tug of war begins between in the learning process: is this about the teacher finding ways to engage the student or is it the student’s responsibility to find their hook?

Let’s come back to the module based tabletop roleplay. Using a pre-planned, adventure with most of the gaps filled in can be very disengaging for some players. But just like you would find in a classroom, some players/students like being led down a very clear path so they get the most out of the experience. Some of my favorite professors in college were notorious for being a little digressive. I enjoyed that, but other students had a different expectation of what they should get from a class.

In education, the Direct instruction model has come under a lot of fire lately. When the modern academic reform movement was getting started in the late 1980s, psychologist Robert Slavin released Success For All. This program heavily emphasized explicit direct instruction and was originally rolled out in Baltimore with a focus on children living in impoverished communities. SFA has become a major building block on which a lot of public school districts and charter schools have built their foundations on. The major criticism of the program is that it focuses on “drill & kill” instruction, some of the lowest level of thinking and learning on Bloom’s Taxonomy. It also pushes for a very authoritarian view of discipline. Students must not just follow a very clear path in terms of their learning but also behavior, with incidences of demerits in schools being given out over picking a pencil up for a classmate or not standing perfectly in line.

I personally don’t like telling children what they should want to learn. As a teacher, I know there is always content they are going to have to learn. And that gets taught in my classroom, but how they learn it can be made into an engaging, enjoyable experience. As a teacher, I’m always walking this tightrope between addressing the standards my students are expected to master and making learning an experience they want to continue for the rest of their lives. As a GM, I have expectations of what I want to get across to my players, whether that be certain plot beats, NPCs, a mood or atmosphere. But I also have to be mindful of what will keep my players engaged. If the game becomes me sitting there and simply reading some fiction I wrote with an occasional dice roll then I wouldn’t blame a player for completely breaking off.

There’s also a contingent of students/players who don’t like the idea of a structure that’s too loose. These stakeholders want assurance that they will be experiencing a complete narrative in a game and a purposeful lesson in education. They need concepts laid out concretely so they can feel that their investment of time was worthwhile. So adventures modules and direct instruction models are guarantees that there will be a direct thru line in the experience. From an educational point of view, I have been that student, sitting in a class with way too many professorial digressions and wanting to get to the point. I also believe my mood was affected by my relationship with individual teachers. The teachers I loved I could listen to digressing for hours. The teachers whose classes I barely tolerated I wanted to be super direct and get us to the end of the hour as fast as possible.

So, we come back to that Sunday afternoon. I have planned out around three hours worth of content and begin thinking about how my players will want to diverge from my path and so I end up inevitably making things up off the cuff and all these “plans” get tossed aside. So why am I making all these intricate detailed plans? That was probably the moment I gave up on D&D and haven’t really gone back to it, or any other OSR style of tabletop game, since. I don’t think I dislike those games, I know I don’t have an urge to run them anytime soon, but have always been open to playing them and seeing if I can find a GM who can make them shine for me.

But in that moment,  I began searching for something new and different. My search would lead me to discover a bounty of new games and in turn, would lead me to sit at this desk and writing this very post.

Next: Fiasco! And Inquiry-Based Learning!