Simple Saturday: Old School

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I sit on a flatbed pulled by a truck that has “Show Me The Twins” spelled out in large letters on its back liftgate. I am holding a euphonium.

All in another year of playing with the Pine Valley Royaltones Alumni Band. Band students from the history of the school make up the group, which play s in the annual Cherry Creek Independence Celebration parade down Main Street. We ride because marching would probably kill half of us.

I represent the Class of 2001. There are a couple guys still in the area who represent 2006. Everyone else is from the 1970s or back. We have no one who graduated from the ’80s or ’90s.

We play the same songs every year, which isn’t that bad since we only perform once per year. This time of year can get very repetitive, though. Yesterday I covered the same high school graduation ceremony I’ve been assigned to the past 5 years. I heard the same words. Saw the same processions. A one-time milestone for them; a reminder of my rut to me.

But sitting on the trailer, listening to the older members of the band as we waited for the parade to start, I watched the point to rundown, boarded up houses, describing how they were once vibrate homes and buildings. I haven’t seen much change around here, having stayed here through my life so far, but those who have left and come back, things have changed.

Things do change.

Why it’s hard to accept the Monty Hall Problem


(If you don’t know what I’m talking about…)

MONTY: Welcome back to Let’s Make a Deal! So here we are, Martha. Three doors in front of you. Behind two are the finest Kentuckian goats we could find but behind one, a brand new 1972 Dodge Dart! Can you just imagine your sweetie driving you to a Carpenters concert in that beauty?

MARTHA: Eeeee! [The crowd cheers.]

MONTY: So which door will it be, Martha: one, two or three?

MARTHA: I think I’ll go with… oh, dear… I’ll take door number one!

MONTY: Door number one it is! That means you did not pick door number three. Let’s open that now!

[Martha closes her eyes and winces as the door slides open to reveal… a goat next to a small mountain of tin cans. She opens her eyes again once the crowd cheers.]

MONTY: You’ve chosen wisely so far! We know where one of the goats is, but now is where it gets interesting. I will now give you the opportunity to switch to door number two if you so desire, or you could stay with your original choice, door number one!

MARTHA: Really? Eeee, what do I do!? I think… [she nervously wraps a curl of permed hair around a finger as she scans the audience for advice, finding a frenzied mix of bell-bottomed uselessness] I… I think I’ll switch, Monty! Door number t–

???: Whoa, whoa, Martha! What’re you doing to me?!

MARTHA: Who said that…?

MONTY: Er, said what? Probably just a crazed audience member. Let’s move along and open up–

???: It’s me, baby! Door number one!

MARTHA: What? The door?


DOOR ONE: Why are you breakin’ my heart like this, baby? You pick me then just flip me like that as soon as Mr. Slick gives you the chance?

MARTHA: I didn’t really mean to — I mean, I just though you were a door—

DOOR ONE: I’m your door, baby! You chose me for a reason, didn’t you?

DOOR TWO: Please, don’t listen to this knock-off beside me, my dear. The odds are better with me.

DOOR ONE: What’re you talking about, numbknob? There’s two of us left; it’s a 50/50 chance!

DOOR TWO: Aside from my well-demonstrated gift of maturity, I can assure you there is actually a two-out-of-three chance you will find the car behind me.

MARTHA: What? But how?

DOOR ONE: You had to ask…

MONTY: Can we cut to commercial?

DOOR TWO: When you originally picked my knotty little friend—

DOOR ONE: Hey! Don’t knock the mahogany!

DOOR TWO: There was a one-in-three chance you chose correctly. That means there was a two-out-of-three chance the car was behind myself or door number three. Our esteemed host, however, has already opened door three to reveal a goat. That means our combined better chance of housing the car now lies squarely with me.

MARTHA: That makes sense! I think…

DOOR ONE: Oh, come on! Don’t let all that stupid logic crap sway your heart, baby. You chose me out of fate! Something drew you to me; something neither of us can explain. Switching now is like saying that’s all wrong. That you are wrong!

MARTHA: Well, yeah, but…

DOOR ONE: Look, I know I’ve had my ins and outs with others in the past. They’ve all been public and ugly, but that’s the price of fame, baby! This time will be different, I promise.

DOOR TWO: He does this to everyone Martha. Do not be swayed by your inferior human emotions. Probability is on your side with me!

DOOR ONE: Shut your mouth like the rest of you, Two! This is between me and lady!

DOOR THREE: Everyone just SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP, OK?! At least the two of you still have chances to be chosen. I’ve already been exposed as a loser to the whole world — just some schmuck entryway with a goat who’s already piddled all over the floor! Who the hell wants a door with goat piddle behind it, huh? Huh?? No one! I’m ruined! There’s nothing left. Nothing! I’m going to unhinge myself! I SWEAR TO GOD I’M GOING TO UNHINGE MYSELF!!!

MONTY: We really need to get some curtains.

Local Writing: A taste of history


PROTIP: If your survival ever depends solely on eating what's in this tin, just choose death

Pine Valley Central School history teacher William Pylypciw made a promise that, when he was to retire, he would gather his students and open a rather innocuous-looking tin labeled “Civil Defense All Purpose Survival Cracker.”

Purchased at a garage sale about a decade ago for a quarter, the sealed tin was dated November 1962, just a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis when the country was at a peak of Cold War paranoia. If the Russians decided to nuke your peacefully patriotic suburbia, these crackers were offered by the government for your bunker-dining pleasure. Really; it was serious business: dozens of these tins were discovered in 2006, hidden within an emergency cache in the Brooklyn Bridge. Most remained intact.

The teacher’s tin looked in great shape as well and, following a brief reminder of the item’s historical surroundings, they began to cut into the top with a crank-operated can opener. A couple minutes — and some supporting stabs with a multi-purpose tool — later, the tin yielded its wax paper-wrapped contents.

There was no ghostly sigh of escaping air or cloud of ancient dust, but the musty, almost metallic odor of the crackers substantially screamed “We are old!” and kept some onlookers away. They still looked non-lethal, however, and the chance to literally taste history was enough for those either curious or foolish enough to venture a try.

Unfortunately, journalists are often both curious and foolish. It didn’t help that Superintendent Peter Morgante, the first guinea pig, has a poker face that could fool even himself if he looked in the mirror.

Trying to ignore the smell was insufficient, as the crackers tasted only a smidge better than their aroma warned. But to say I wasn’t tasting history would certainly be a lie, for as this unholy communion wafer died upon my taste buds, I could distinctly identify the decades-stewed flavors of fear, regret and Joe McCarthy’s gym socks. Somehow, the crackers still managed to break with a crisp snap; like the faint echo of Death’s finely-honed scythe severing the cord that binds you to this mortal coil.

Others among the initiates shared similar reviews.

“It’s like rotten cheese and cardboard,” student Kyle Ortel said. He later concluded, “I think I’d rather just die than survive on these.”

It may appear to be end-of-year tomfoolery on the surface, but Pylypciw, who began teaching at Pine Valley in 1982, has always favored elements of exploration and involvement in his classroom, which has more often than not doubled as an informal historical exhibit. That involvement has not only been reserved for the past but for the new history that unfolds each day. Classes lucky enough to hit on a presidential year (mine included) will remember late-night election parties, but discussion of current events was an important part of broadening views beyond the isolating aspects of small-community life.

“If you can just get them interested in something that comes on the news — that they want to talk about Obama or talk about the oil spill — they’re interested in something beyond themselves,” Pylypciw said.

Upon retiring at the end of the school year, Pylypciw plans to move east to the Finger Lakes region, but then travel west to visit friends and family around September — give him something to do when the next school year begins, he says.

It’s doubtful, however, that Pylypciw will ever stray too far from his love of history or trying to cultivate that spark in others. He has hopes that it will become an easier battle for teachers in the future.

“I would hope to see the day the state would get rid of standardized testing and allow us to teach history more for the pleasure of it,” he said, “so the kids would actually learn to enjoy it instead of learn for the tests.”

The “survival crackers” can’t be filed under the enjoyable part of history education, but I doubt anyone who tasted them that day will forget those retched flatbreads or the Cold War implications that created them. It’s a vital lesson that might just save the world someday: those who do not learn from history may be doomed to re-eat it.

Milking oil

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When there’s an ongoing story of great interest, such as the oil disaster in the Gulf, journalism wants to keep its inky finger on the pulse of that problem until the post-mortem report comes out. If people want to hear about it, the news can only profit by giving it to them.

There always comes a time, however, when the interest is still high yet there’s nothing really new to report. This is when journalism finally admits it’s time to step back a little and concentrate on something else, even though people aren’t talking about it yet.

Ha! Just kidding. Instead, journalism finds “new angles” to report upon the problem, by which is meant “any stupid means necessary to keep the headlines rolling.” It is through one of these angles which we receive the following AP feature: ‘Journalist dives into Gulf, can see only oil.’ If you think you’ve already learned about all you’re going to out of this story from the headline, you’re right. It begins with this nugget of intrepid observation:

Some 40 miles out into the Gulf Of Mexico, I jump off the boat into the thickest patch of red oil I’ve ever seen. I open my eyes and realize my mask is already smeared. I can’t see anything and we’re just five seconds into the dive.

Whereas normal, untrained people would take weeks or months to discover this fact upon themselves, it takes less than five seconds for we journalists to inform you that oil is opaque. This is why you still need us.

The reporter goes on to tell us of a few deaths beneath the slick, including small fish and a jellyfish. A friend brought up the reasonable point of how you can tell a jellyfish is dead when they aren’t that inclined to move much on their own accord when alive. But journalists are taught how to conduct such astute observations: we poke the jellyfish. And then we poke it again. That’s what we call “vetting your information.”

So after verifying that oil is not water and that it has been killing animals like all the ones that have been washing up on beaches for the past several weeks, the reporter gets to his real purpose; to get “people to see the spill in a new way, a way they haven’t yet.” He takes photos of the spill from underwater, which end up looking a lot like photos taken from above the water, but just… wavier. Now your eyes and soul have been opened to just horrifying this spill is, because you surely haven’t had the weight of this situation pounded into you enough already. We will show you every glistening molecule until you’re overflowing with emotion.  

No need to thank us. That’s what we’re here for.

Press and prestige


The quickly-enacted retirement of White House correspondent Helen Thomas is definitely sad; I know that for sure. What I’m still working over, however, is whether it’s sad that the career of a prominent journalist has ended or that what good she had brought the media is tarnished by her latter years on the job.

There’s no doubt that it’s sad the 89-year-old Thomas, with half a decade of experience at the White House, is ending her career shortly after making remarks that can be construed as racially disparaging. Those words arguably should never have been said in public; especially to a group wearing yamulkes. Sure, she’s free as all of us are to have opinions, but journalists should know better the power of words and where they are said.

Or should we? Why was it that Thomas, who spent her whole life performing the job of an observant spectator, was in front of a camera in the  first place? There are columns and blogs for a journalist to give his or her opinion, but to be sought out in such a way shouldn’t happen. That’s making the news, not reporting it, and the effects are rarely beneficial, as Thomas now knows all too well.

It seems that, while Thomas definitely earned her high status among the White House press, it gradually turned her into more of an icon than a more elite journalist. She became punchlines and focuses of skits — even at the White House’s own correspondence dinners — and her questions gained more of an opinionated edge as though she was seeing herself as a figurehead for something.

Some have argued that Thomas should be given a break because her “brain filters” might not work as well as they did in her younger days and that she didn’t think well enough before speaking. If that is the case, though, why was it perfectly fine for her to continue holding on to a crucial political media position? Why did she seem willing to remain in her seat with the press corps even past 90? I don’t wish to travel too far into conjecture — perhaps she simply loved her job that much — but I have creeping worries of reasons that are much too subjective for journalists to have.

Whatever the truth is, it is still sad to see Helen Thomas’s career end this way.

Betty White ascends to Highlander status


Betty White, the world's loving-yet-sometimes-psychotic grandmother, will eternally live as the physical manifestation of perfect television.

With the unfortunate passing of Rue McLanahan, resurging celebrity phenomenon Betty White has secured her standing with the gods as the immortal figurehead of classic television’s The Golden Girls.

The gods have been in deliberation for some time, forced to choose between four pure icons of winter-years goodness and hilarity. The painful elimination process began in 2008, when Estelle Getty was whisked away by valkyries to her seat of honor in retirement Valhalla. Bea Arthur was similarly-yet-controversially removed from the mortal coil in 2009, leaving “the kindhearted-yet-ditzy” and “skanky Southern belle” archtypes in play.

It is impossible to know why the gods passed judgment as they did, but some believe it may have had to do with the uncovering of McLanahan’s performance as a stripper in Walk the Angry Beach, aka Hollywood After Dark, recently ridiculed by the guys from Mystery Science Theater 3000. However, this should not be a judgment of the refinement of McLanahan in her later years, many argue, and that, after all, White has played a bat-crap insane murderess in approximately a bazillion movies and television series since her greatest moments.

White will forever carry the spirits of those who left before her and remain with us as the incarnation of good friends, good lives and good cheesecake, from a show that no one can admit despising regardless of age, race, gender, religion or sexual preference–until either the gods jealously decide to keep her for themselves or some evil being succeeds in slicing off her head.

The cast of Sex and the City approached the gods asking whether they would be similarly honored in their old age. The gods’ laughter can still be heard thundering over the globe at the time of this publication.

Shreks and the City


The latest box office reports are in, and it looks the latest Shrek film significantly beat out Sex and the City 2 over Memorial Day weekend. As a matter of fact, the spry estrogen romp was also edged out by Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, marking the first time anything based on video games has beaten out anything to do with sex in a sample group that doesn’t primarily live in its parents’ basement.

So why are people choosing the fourth in a now-tired series over what was slated as the next installment in a cult chick flick sensation?  Well, it’s true that critics are hating Sex and the City 2 — Rotten Tomatoes currently shows it at 17% — yet Shrek Forever After isn’t quite their darling either, showing  just a hair above “meh” at 51%. Even so, with such a successful series and first movie to build upon, you should see bigger numbers on a holiday, shouldn’t you?

I’m not a film and culture expert by any means, but if you please allow me to entertain a theory: I think the atmosphere has changed enough that the lifestyle displayed in Sex and the City isn’t as appealing anymore. Perhaps many of the women who wanted to relate to the Prada-laden posse of conceited Manhattanites who so often blindly and ill-advisedly smash their ways through a materialistic high life only to link up into a girl-powered Voltron in the end and sashay off into the sunset with their heads held high, ready to do it all over again… just can’t anymore. Maybe they’ve experienced more of the real world, with its recession and wide range of conflicts, and now see the characters for the tired caricatures they are instead of “OMG I’m Charlotte and Viv is so totally that skank  Samantha! Let’s get appletinis! …What do you mean you can’t afford to tonight…?”

Sure, it’s a family movie and many went for the kids, but is it possible that more and more people are relating to the less-than-world class underdogs who end up just wanting to lead a satisfying life with the ones they love in a hut outside the castle walls? With ogre women who exhibit “girl power” in a more humanitarian way than… human women?

Maybe I’m caught up in a fantasy here, but am I the only one?