Posted in education, schools

My own educational experience, Part II (Junior year of high school onward)

I was really looking forward to my junior year of high school. After the disaster of sophomore year, I was determined to take much less challenging classes. I was also really excited because I’d be an upperclasswoman, which meant I could start taking electives instead of just required courses. Towards that end, I signed up for American history (not AP, as much as my boneheaded guidance counselor tried to persuade me!), Latin I, world literature, and either psychology or Africana studies (or both?), alongside Course III (trig) and Spanish III (my fifth year of Spanish). I don’t remember what I chose for science.

Sadly, my mother wouldn’t let me continue with art, despite my love for it. I’ve never pretended to be anywhere near the quality of a serious professional artist who draws and paints every single day, but that doesn’t mean I’m a talentless hack who can only draw stick figures or fling globs of paint at a canvas. My love of art and desire to create was badly hurt for many years on account of this. I’ve discovered my artistic calling and passion are for geometric and abstract art, and very colourful animals like tropical fish, tree frogs, and parrots.

Alas, my family made a disastrous mistake of a move back to Pennsylvania, a mistake which was obvious even before it happened. Those eleven months were among the darkest nights of my soul. I was enrolled in the same rural, smalltown high school my father attended, where I felt so profoundly unchallenged. Irina’s experience at her first high school in Dream Deferred is very strongly based on my year at that school, and her friend Rhonwen is based on one of the few people who was kind and welcoming to me.

I might as well have skipped eleventh grade or graduated early, since the academic standards were so far below what I was used to. Albany High wasn’t exactly Eton, but at least it had age-appropriate standards. I don’t think my new guidance counselor, or the school in general, knew what to do with me, since I came from such a radically different system.

Instead of reading classic world lit and Hamlet in English, I was forced into freaking research paper and public speaking classes (each running half the year). These kids were juniors and had never done research papers before! I’d been doing them since eighth grade! Why couldn’t they let me take an English class with seniors?

And instead of any history class, I had to take civics with sophomores. This teacher was an infamous nut, and apparently got even worse in the years afterwards. I kid you not, he had a unit on the political spectrum, and there was a test where we were supposed to assign one of the six classifications to people based on descriptions like “20-year-old waitress who smokes pot” and “Someone who says ‘You can’t trust a Russian as far as you can throw him.'”

I got to take Spanish IV with seniors, and another junior who started in a different school system. But it moved at a snail’s pace, and these kids were just learning things I’d already known since sophomore year. One time I politely asked the teacher if a verb tense shouldn’t be romparon (they broke), since it was in the preterite. She agreed, but said she didn’t want to confuse them with grammar they hadn’t learnt yet.

We never even read Don Quixote or any other classics of Spanish literature!

There was no Latin, so I had to take French I. At that time, I had a negative view of the French language on account of the Vichy French, and also considered it snobby and outdated. The only other languages they offered were German and Japanese, through distance learning by computer. Almost all of the other kids in my French class were ninth graders, and they didn’t exactly warm to this strange liberal Yankee in their midst.

The only classes that didn’t make me feel stupid, bored, and unchallenged were astronomy (taught by someone who got his Ph.D. at the end of the year) and psychology (which only ran for half the year). I was surrounded by hicks and hayseeds content to live in the same small rural town their entire lives, with only a few fellow cosmopolitan-minded nonconformists I knew of. They weren’t used to dealing with people from outside their little bubble, and that scared and threatened them.

Some of the boys in my “English” classes were particularly annoyed by how often I covered Russian history and culture, and even made audible noises of disgust and frustration when I started writing the Cyrillic alphabet on the blackboard. These same boys later gave a very homophobic, gay-bashing speech I’m shocked was permitted.

As much as I clashed with the school’s culture, I nevertheless decided to stay to finish the year after my parents and little brother moved to Massachusetts in April 1997. I figured I’d been screwed out of enough, and didn’t want the trauma of uprooting near the end of a school year. I even went through the motions of registering for senior year classes, including an integrated science seminar which consisted of lots of research papers.

My final high school was like night and day. I took AP English, Spanish V (which did include Don Quixote), Italian I (which I took to like lightning), physics, trig (the first math class I loved and excelled in since elementary school), U.S. history, and some kind of English-related elective that ran for the second half of the year.

I attended community college after graduating high school, and then transferred to UMass–Amherst. Though I wish I’d gone to UMass all four years, I had many excellent classes and professors in community college, and it saved a lot of money. No one should ever be made to feel ashamed of attending community college.

However, had I been set up for high academic achievement from a very young age like the A.T. kids and gradually transitioned into advanced courses instead of thrown in without a lifeboat, I think I would’ve applied myself a lot more rigourously and taken more than just two APs. Perhaps I could’ve attended a school like Smith, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, or the University of Michigan. UMass was a default school which had a transfer compact with the community college.

After I make aliyah, I plan to attend graduate school at the University of Haifa’s International School (i.e., English-Language instruction), either Holocaust Studies or Jewish Studies, and damned if I don’t take it much more seriously than any of my previous academic experiences. Unlike the A.T. kids, I never had anything handed to me on a silver platter.

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, education, schools

My own educational experience, Part I (K-10)

Many depictions of my characters’ schools are strongly drawn from my own life—the layout of my elementary school, funny things that happened in class, the hot and cold cafeteria in my junior high, a sex-segregated hot cafeteria, specific teachers and classmates, the rude reception I got in the cafeteria my first day of junior year and how I ate lunch in the bathroom almost every day until the late spring, et al.

Though I had some fun times and more than a few great teachers, I knew deep down that I didn’t go to the best schools. Hence, I live vicariously through my characters by creating much better schools for them to attend, the kinds of schools and tracks I wish I could’ve had access to. This extends to higher education as well.

I was more than smart enough to have started kindergarten in 1984 instead of 1985, and my birthday was a few weeks before New York State’s cutoff of 31 December. However, because of my then-mystery issues, I was kept out. When I did begin kindergarten, I was kicked out of multiple schools in quick succession. My parents finally found a school willing to take me, but as I discovered while snooping through their file cabinets at nineteen, they had to write a letter every year to get renewed permission for me to attend a school out of our neighborhood.

The woman who was principal when I began didn’t think I’d graduate elementary school because of how serious my issues were. She passed away the next year, little suspecting I’d go all the way to university. Needless to say, I’m very proud of the fact that I learnt to pass for neurotypical, albeit a bit quirky and introverted.

It wasn’t easy being “that weird kid,” esp. in an era before my condition had a name, for all intents and purposes. My fourth grade teacher was the first who didn’t wash her hands of me. My entire life long, I’ll be beyond-words grateful to her for her tough love that forced me to get over the worst of my issues. She recognized how intelligent I am and that I have a gift for writing, and nurtured that.

My elementary school had a track called A.T. (Advanced and Talented) for grades 4–6. I was more than smart enough to qualify, but because of my then-unexplained issues, the school wouldn’t allow me into it, and lied about not doing well on the spelling portion of the qualifying test. They would never get away with that today, nor with separating students into two tracks and feeding a superiority complex among the A.T. students. It was no secret that many A.T. kids were only there because their parents were PTA bigwigs or had other clout.

My fourth grade teacher had taught A.T. the year before, and made a point of telling us she was doing everything exactly the same. But once we hit junior high, it was obvious the A.T. kids had been set up for advanced studies and academic success.

For all its many faults, at least my junior high let me skip right into English 8H in seventh grade. My classmates in English were at the same grade level, just learning material a year ahead of us.

Then came eighth grade, and I was initially put in earth science, a high school level course. Almost from the jump, I performed terribly, failing a class for the first time in my life. I’d struggled with algebra in seventh grade math, but at least I never failed. Within a month or so, I was switched to physical science.

Many of the A.T. kids meanwhile were taking Course I, the New York State equivalent of ninth grade algebra. Needless to say, my seventh grade math grades hadn’t qualified me for that class!

In sixth grade, my best friend and I toured Academy of the Holy Names. Though neither of us are Catholic or from class privilege, our parents were keen to avoid sending us to the public junior highs. The worst of my issues had also resolved by this point, so there was no worry I’d be seen as “that weird kid” at a new school. Alas, the tuition was too high for my parents to justify, and to this day, my mother regrets not doing more to make it work. Had I gone to Holy Names like my best friend, I would’ve been spared all the trauma I went through at Hackett, and the academic environment would’ve been so much more nurturing.

I suffered through two years at the marginally better of Albany’s two junior highs and continued on to Albany High, which had an awful reputation even before they installed metal detectors.

My most challenging freshwoman courses were Course I and biology, but I managed to pass both. Then came sophomore year, and everything fell apart, thanks to the orchestrations of a boneheaded guidance counselor who was all about the freaking Regents diploma and taking as many APs as possible. He signed me up for AP European History and Regents chemistry and Course II (geometry).

Because I had no prior experience with such advanced coursework (college-level!) or taking three challenging classes at once, I began failing all three almost immediately. It might seem shocking that I’d fail a class in my favourite and strongest subject, history, but it was so far above my academic capabilities at that age, and it was combined with two classes in my weakest subjects. My joke of a guidance counselor refused to allow me to switch to grade-level or school-level classes in math and science or a regular Regents class in history.

I was thrown into freezing, choppy water without a lifeboat and forced to watch the former A.T. kids breezing through the same rigourous coursework. They were gradually transitioned into this level of academia from a young age instead of going from regular classes to challenging material overnight.

I passed Course II by the skin of my teeth, with an 84 on the Regents and an overall class average of 65. My final grade in chemistry was an F, with a 64 on the Regents. I had to repeat it in summer school, where I got an 84 on the Regents. Miraculously, I managed to pull up quite a bit in history, though I only got a 3 on the AP and had to repeat World Civ as a history major at uni.

To be continued.

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, holidays, Music

Happy Duran Duran Appreciation Day!—Celebrating my fave music videos

Since I spotlighted my fave songs the last two years (for a total of twenty), I thought I’d continue the theme by featuring music videos this year. To make it clear, these are only official music videos, not fan-made videos.

1. The long version of “Wild Boys.” Amazingly, I thought this video was too weird even for me the first few times I saw it! I’m glad I gave it another chance, since I grew to absolutely adore it. This video is so deliciously macabre, and I love most things weird, spooky, and macabre. I attribute this to the huge subconscious influence of Grimms’ Fairytales being the first book I ever read (though not all the way through), at the impressionable age of three. I had hyperlexia, which is advanced, full-blown reading at a young age, and that book was the first thing I gravitated towards!

2. “Out of My Mind,” another video after my own macabre heart. It takes the lyrics in such a deliciously dark direction and makes them even better.

3. The long version of “Falling Down.” I love how it tells an entire story instead of just sticking to the lyrics, and blends the story with the song so seamlessly. Some music videos which attempt this awkwardly bring the action to a halt when non-music bits are inserted, and add absolutely nothing to the performance.

Warning: NSFW or under 18!

4. “The Chauffeur,” a classic example of how a sexy, sensual video doesn’t need to feature nearly-naked women to convey its message. There’s a big difference between erotic and pornographic, celebrating sexuality and sensuality instead of looking like a vulgar, exploitative peepshow.

5. “Friends of Mine.” I love the dark mood set by the music and the gritty, snarly, acid-edged vocals. The uniforms are also awesome.

6. “All She Wants Is,” one of those songs I really disliked till I saw the music video. Having images to go along with the lyrics made all the difference. They complement one another perfectly, so much so the song feels kind of empty by itself. And of course I love all the weird visuals!

Warning: NSFW or under 18!

7. The long, uncensored version of “Girls on Film.” While many of the scenes are more explicit than those of “The Chauffeur,” and while I have returned to my original anti-porn stance (after uncharacteristically getting into it thanks to my ex’s toxic influence, but that’s a whole other story), I still wouldn’t classify this as anywhere near the league of modern-day music videos. It’s racy and sexy without being one long parade of nudity and suggestive antics. I also love how, while there’s no real full frontal, we can see the women have pubic hair. Not all that long ago, pubic hair was considered sexy and desirable instead of grotesque and unnatural.

8. “Is There Something I Should Know?” I love all the surrealistic imagery, like paintings come to life. It’s also sobering to think of how the baby is now an adult, only a few years younger than I am.

9. “Lonely in Your Nightmare.” It’s so beautiful, sensual, tender, and romantic.

10. “Come Undone,” the song and video that made me come undone on Valentine’s Day 2011. This was what flipped the switch after several months of increasing interest and made me realise I’d fallen in love. I cannot believe I marked my tenth Duraniversary this year! How did an entire decade fly by so fast?

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, holidays, Music

Happy Duran Duran Appreciation Day!—Celebrating my fave songs, Part II

To mark DDAD 2020, I decided to do a Part II of last year’s celebration of my personal Top 10 faves. The songs in the second half of my Top 20 are in no particular order. I can hardly believe Valentine’s Day 2021 will mark ten years since I became a Duranie! Where did all that time go already?

11. “The Edge of America,” eleventh track on Big Thing (1988). So many lovely, deep, thought-provoking lyrics. I particularly love the refrain, “Learn to love your anger now, anger here is all you possess.” This is the kind of political song I like, intelligently and respectfully making a point without angrily, one-sidedly ranting and condemning anyone who doesn’t think that way.

My 34-year-old little brother just disowned me, in a fit of rage, because I support J.K. Rowling and don’t share his toxic woke ideology, so this is a very relevant subject now. So many people, particularly the younger ones, have forgotten, or never learnt, how to have dialogue and state their case without a torrent of insults and ignoring anything that contradicts their ideology.

12. “Do You Believe in Shame?,” sixth track on Big Thing. This tribute to Andy Warhol, record producer Alex Sadkin, and Simon’s childhood friend David Miles has such beautiful, poetic lyrics. The music video is also great.

13. “Last Chance on the Stairway,” seventh track on Rio (1982). Once again, such lovely lyrics, pure poetry in motion. So many people criminally underestimate this wonderful band because of the stigma of throngs of screaming teenyboppers in the Eighties. Some bands who get really popular really quickly and are heavily marketed to teenyboppers have substance below the prettyboy image.

14. “New Religion,” sixth track on Rio. This is a quintessential example of a song with a very long intro done right. There’s over a minute of instrumentation before the first note is sung, but it’s more than worth the wait. It builds anticipation beautifully.

I love the haunting lyrics and vocal tracking. They work so well with the music. The title of my future sixth book with my Russian characters (to be set 1957–64) will be Seagulls Gathered on the Wind, after a line from this song.

15. “Khanada,” B-side of “Careless Memories.” I named my eleventh journal after this song (pronounced Ka-NAY-da, not like the country). The lyrics are like surrealistic poetry, and very evocative of a dream or fairytale.

16. “Serious,” fourth track on Liberty (1990). One of the two standout gems from an awful album that bombed for a reason. Even if the record company had promoted it a lot better, most of the songs are terrible. How did beautiful songs like “Serious” and “My Antarctica” end up among so many bottom of the barrel scrapings!

Warning: Video NSFW or under 18!

17. “The Chauffeur,” final track on Rio. Like “Khanada,” the lyrics are rather trippy and surrealistic, and like poetry in motion. At least twenty other artists have covered it, and it’s been sampled in several other songs. The music video is a prime example of how to be sexy without being smutty.

18. “Breath After Breath,” seventh track on The Wedding Album (1993). I love how part of it is in Portuguese (sung by Milton Nascimento). Romance languages have a natural poetry built into them. Though I’ve never studied Portuguese, either formally or independently, I usually understand a fair amount because it’s so close to Spanish, which I studied for seven years.

19. “Too Much Information,” first track on The Wedding Album. The message about a constant barrage of capitalist advertising and over-commercialized music industry is still relevant over 25 years later.

20. “Tel Aviv” with lyrics, bonus track on their eponymous début (1981). The instrumental version is the final track on the album, but this powerful song somehow went unreleased for 30 years. Though I want to live in the Lower Galilee (preferably Tiberias, right on the lake) when I make aliyah, Tel Aviv is also awesome. Hearing this song makes me wish I could visit Israel again soon!

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, Music

A double album full of eclectic goodies

Image used solely to illustrate subject for an album review, and consistent with fair use doctrine

Released autumn 2001, Scoop 3 is the last of Pete’s double albums in this series, unless he decides to surprise us with a fourth installment after all these years. Owing to its fairly recent vintage, most of the material dates from the late Seventies through 2001 instead of mining the deep vault. Most of the songs are also from Pete’s solo career instead of Who demos or later revisitings of Who songs, and many are instrumentals.

As Pete explains in his liner notes, he wrote fewer songs with lyrics as of 2001, owning to not being under contract for either The Who or his own solo career. Thus, he had complete freedom to pursue a more experimental type of music, and different types of music than he had when he was obligated to produce albums.

He didn’t entirely stop writing lyrical songs, though. He simply chose to keep them unpublished in case he recorded with The Who or as a solo artist again. (To date, I’ve not listened to either of the albums Pete and Roger made after John’s passing, and have no desire to ever do so.)

Pete also started doing a lot more piano and keyboard music because he seriously hurt his wrist in a 1991 bicycle accident, and using those instruments was wonderful physiotherapy.

Amazingly, at least 27 of the 34 tracks were made in my lifetime!

Disc One:

“Can You See the Real Me” (1973)
“Dirty Water” (1979)
“Commonwealth Boys” (1984; later became closing track “Come to Mama” on White City)
“Theme 015” (1987)
“Marty Robbins” (1984)
“I Like It the Way It Is” (1978)
“Theme 016” (1987)
“No Way Out (However Much I Booze)” (1975)
“Collings” (2000)
“Parvardigar” (German version) (1971)
“Sea and Sand” (1972)
“971104 Arpeggio Piano” (1997)
“Theme 017” (probably 1983, given it was intended for the aborted final Who album Siege)
“I Am Afraid” (1990)
“Maxims for Lunch” (1983)
“Wistful” (1991)
“Eminence Front” (1995; obviously not the demo version!)
“Lonely Words” (1985)

Disc Two:

“Prelude 970519” (1997)
“Iron Man Recitative” (1993)
“Tough Boys” (1979; later became “Rough Boys”)
“Did You Steal My Money?” (1980 or 1981) (“The true story behind this doesn’t make anyone look good—especially me. It is not the time to tell it.”)

“Can You Really Dance?” (1988)
“Variations on ‘Dirty Jobs'” (recorded 1997, fully orchestrated 2001)
“All Lovers Are Deranged” (1983)
“Elephants” (1984)
“Wired to the Moon, Pt. 2” (recorded on piano 1997; strings and vocals added in 2001)

“How Can You Do It Alone” (1980) (“I quite liked The Who’s rendering of this song. Roger sang it really well. But it is probably one of those songs that needed my acidic tone to work without awkwardness. Whichever version is your favourite [and you may hate both of them] it’s good to be able to compare.”)

“Poem Disturbed” (1994) (“You can hear my phone ring. I knew who it was: my then girlfriend. These were strange times for me.”)

“Squirm Squirm” (1990)  (“At last, a song with a happy inspiration. One day I was holding my new-born son Joseph and singing him to sleep. It came into my mind that seen from high above we humans must look just like insects, or worms. As he wriggled in my arms I sang to him about the messages we all believe we get sometimes from above. At the time I was gathering material for Psychoderelict, which was—among other things—about the loneliness and collapse of a once famous and beloved rock star. The song seemed to contain and reflect both the peace and safety of this child in my arms, and the chaos and danger that surrounded us out there in the crazy world.”)

“Outlive the Dinosaur” (1990) (“The word dinosaur was of course first used to describe ageing rock stars with vicious irony and I use it here with vicious irony redoubled.”)
“Teresa” (1980; later became opening track “Athena” on It’s Hard)
“Man and Machines” (1985)

“It’s in Ya” (1981) (“Not much to say about this song. A woman I vaguely knew sent me a letter rightly complaining I was getting self-indulgent [after the release of the Who Are You album] and it later sparked this song about what makes the magic of rock ‘n’ roll. It isn’t the musician—it’s the listener.”)

I only listened to this album for the first time in 2019, on Spotify, despite how long it’d been out. I personally would recommend the first two Scoop albums to a new fan first, since a lot of these songs seem more geared to longtime, serious fans.

While I’ve not listened to Scoop 3 nearly enough to be familiar with all the songs, I’d count “Lonely Words,” “I Like It the Way It Is,” and the German “Parvardigar” among my favorite tracks.