Down with Homework!

Homework-MignanelliHomework: bad idea or really bad idea?

That’s a trick question. Homework is an awful idea.

Not only have take-home assignments been proven useless (here’s where I’d cite the appropriate studies if I weren’t in Rolling Stone mode), they’re contributing to the breakdown of the family. At least of my family.

Get within a five-mile radius of our place on most weeknights and listen for an indignant howl. That’s the sound of our eighth-grader railing against his teachers and the American education system in general. (His weekend rants center more on The Man.)

“They’re not in there!” he’ll yell, flinging his history textbook on the couch and slamming his spiral closed. “None of the words are in the book! This is so stupid!” Crumpled alongside him, invariably, is a handout entitled “Terms You Absolutely, Positively WILL Find in the Book.”

My son has a wee bit of trouble focusing. But still. He makes a valid point. This is stupid.

Parents have a tacit understanding with the school system: You keep our kids out of our hair for eight hours a day, and we won’t ask any questions. Common Core? Sure, whatever. Standardized testing? As long as my children don’t come home early.

Reams of meaningless activities designed to “reinforce skills” that must be completed once we’ve all clocked out for the evening? J’accuse, Frederick County Public Schools. J’accuse!

Now, if you’re one of those lucky moms or dads with kids who love all things classroom-related so much that they actually play school, move along. There’s nothing to see here.

If, on the other hand, you birthed the Omen, you understand.

When 9 p.m. rolls around, the only place I want to be is on the couch with a book. In a perfect world, the kids would be in bed asleep. In my world, at least one of them is frantically Googling the noble gases while shrieking about the tyranny of middle school.

It’s usually a minute or two later that he mentions the foam board and stencils required to complete the assignment. (By this point, I’m keying “retroactive birth control” into Bing.)

Now, some experts still insist that homework plays a vital role—that it compels students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to tasks done outside of school; that it nudges them toward a deeper understanding of the material being taught and promotes self-reliance.

There’s a reason nobody invites experts to dinner.

There’s also a reason why the concept of homework is fundamentally flawed. Think about it. Do waiters practice reciting the day’s specials after they punch out? Do actuaries spend their free hours handicapping the neighbors’ chances of being eaten by Pomeranians? Methinks not.

So give kids a break. (And by “give kids a break,” I mean, “give parents a break.”) Abolish the worksheets. Just say no to mind-numbing, off-duty tasks.

And if you hear anything about that retroactive birth control? You know where to find me.

[Illustration by Matt Mignanelli.]

Share Button

Oh, the Injustice

Gorilla-Wine-MattOf all life’s unanswerable questions—how many stars in the sky; how much beta-carotene in a serving of John Boehner—none is as perplexing as this: Why can’t Marylanders buy beer and wine in the damn grocery store?

Did we defeat communism just to have Free-Staters forced into making multiple stops on their way home from work?

Apparently.

I’m from Ohio, and say what you will about the Buckeye State’s shortcomings—our casserole-based economy; the Cleveland Browns—we know that hardworking people deserve to buy their pinot and Pringles in the same place. (And presumably serve them at the same meal.)

It’s in the Constitution. Or so I assume.

But here in Maryland? That’s another story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the idea of wandering into the neighborhood wine shop—here’s looking at you, Viniferous—and chatting up the owner about the perfect Riesling to accompany tonight’s wilted greens and goat cheese salad. But that’s hardly how most of us do things.

If you’re a parent like me, your evenings go something like this. It’s a Tuesday night, and you’re having Froot Loops for dinner. Again. And you’re out of cat litter. Again. You can’t not go to the store (see “out of cat litter”), but you also can’t not get a bottle of wine to make life more bearable (see “Froot Loops”).

And you know what else you can’t do? Take care of it all in one place.

It’s like the terrorists have already won.

If Maryland’s lawmakers want to give back to us, the poor, over-taxed citizenry, all it needs to do is take its antiquated liquor-purchasing laws, slip them a roofie, and put them on a train back to the 19th century where they belong.

Speaking of the 1800s, many years ago my husband, Ben, our preschooler, and I went to Deep Creek Lake for a spur-of-the-moment overnight. Our tactical error? Going on a Sunday. Because of Garrett County’s draconian blue laws, the Sabbath-day sale of alcohol was verboten.

During what can only be described as a despondent meal at our hotel, the waiter explained the horrifying situation to us, and then proceeded to set up a booze-buying scheme worthy of “The Wire.”

“There’s an old phone booth down the road about a block away from here,” he explained under his breath, his eyes darting nervously. “If you give me some money, I can take a six-pack from the bar and leave it for you under the seat inside.”

Ben and I looked at each other, wondering at what point our impromptu getaway had turned into a drug buy.

Skeptical, but wary of spending a beer-free night holed up in a cramped room with our feral 3-year-old, we gave the waiter 10 bucks and then quickly exited before the feds descended.

An hour later, Ben walked to the appointed drop spot, and there was the stash. Er, Heineken. It was even chilled. He looked around before heading back to our hotel, half expecting to spot Stringer Bell in the shadows.

Which brings me back to today. The year 2015. Are we any closer to enjoying basic beer-and-wine-shopping conveniences here in the Free State?

Nope.

See that ad for Two-Buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s or that pallet of pinot on sale at Costco? Not here you don’t. In Maryland, we buy our drinks the old-fashioned way: by driving all over town and stopping at whichever liquor store doesn’t have our bad checks taped to the register.

Either that, or by flagging down a waiter from the Barksdale crew who can hook us up.

[This piece originally appeared in the Frederick Gorilla; illustration by Matt Mignanelli.]

Share Button

“Coyote” by Colin Winnette

coyoteI’ve told the same story over and over again, to the police, to the reporters, to the prep-interviewers and interviewers and celebrity guests and you name it. I tell them the same story every time: we put her to bed, and when we woke up she was gone.

So begins Coyote, Colin Winnette’s jarring novella about a missing girl, a family’s despair over losing her, and a mother’s relentless descent into madness. At 96 pages (many of them nearly blank), the story’s size is dwarfed by its heft. Weeks after finishing, I still can’t shake it.

WHAT WAS SHE LIKE?

This question, from a disembodied voice, gets put forth throughout the tale. Sometimes the mother answers, sometimes the father. Sometimes no one. We never learn who’s asking, just as we never learn the parents’ names, the vanished child’s name, or the specifics of place or time. There aren’t even any quotation marks.

What there is, though, is a mounting sense of dread as the man and woman lash out at themselves and each other, drawing ever tauter and snapping strand by strand as the days go by.

Then a different missing child is found months after disappearing. Suddenly, there’s hope.

I dragged him into the living room and pointed at the television. There sat a family: mother, father, and daughter. The daughter was in blue and white like the Virgin Mary. She sat atop her mother’s lap.
He watched for a moment. His anger seemed to leave him like a flock of birds.
What am I doing here? he asked.
They found a girl, I told him.
He nodded, watched the TV.
They’re finding girls, I said.

But not their girl. At least not yet. Fractured weeks continue to pass, but she stays gone. The man grows ever more resigned; the woman, clawing with ragged fingernails, continues losing her grip. Each time their world erupts, the lava scorches them both.

He throws a hammer at the TV. They remain perpetually in limbo.

We slept on the couch together that night, her Dad and I. Or, truthfully, he slept with his arms around me and I stared for hours at the broken television. I looked out the window too, but I could only see a reflection of myself. There is…nothing worse than your own reflection where the rest of the world should be.

Nothing better than a short tale with the power to linger — and haunt — long after it’s put back on the shelf. Colin Winnette’s Coyote is one of them.

We had another bad night together. A particularly bad one. The kind of bad I couldn’t ignore…Some kinds of bad can’t be undone.

And some kinds of stories can’t be forgotten.

[This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.]

 

Share Button

“Twilight of the Eastern Gods” by Ismail Kadare

twilightThere’s a moment at the end of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz when the reader is left with a wandering, unfinished feeling — the very emotion the tormented title protagonist experiences. Ismail Kadare’s slim Twilight of the Eastern Gods evokes a similar sensation. By its conclusion, readers are left not with any great insights, but instead with a sense of slow-motion, Kafkaesque torpor.

I suspect that’s the point.

Set in Moscow in 1958, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a fictionalized first-person account of the Albanian Kadare’s own time at the Gorky Institute for World Literature, a prestigious graduate school where writers from across the Soviet Union are brought together and, ahem, strongly encouraged to produce stories, plays, and poems with a socialist bent. Big Brother isn’t officially the dean of students, but he might as well be.

Opening at a summer writers’ retreat on the Baltic Sea, the novel’s first few pages set the tone for what is to come. Although the days pass pleasantly, if prosaically, enough, nighttime brings nothing but a chill dullness, broken up — or made worse — by endless games of table tennis.

“Only every so often, in short, rebellious bursts, would I manage to break free from my enslavement to the little white sphere,” says the unnamed narrator. In those instances, “I would jerk my head towards the shore, and every time I turned, like a sleepwalker, towards the water’s edge I hoped to spy in the far distance, at long last, something different from what I had seen the day before. But the seashore at dusk was merciless. It had nothing to offer but a view it had probably been rehearsing since the dawn of time.”

Things aren’t much peppier back in Moscow, where the students reassemble after a holiday. Walking the echoing sixth-floor corridor of the institute’s colorless residence hall, the narrator takes silent stock of his comrades, hardly concealing his disdain for the many vodka-pounding, obscure-language-speaking, churlish martinets from every corner of the U.S.S.R.

“Some were chairs of the Writers’ Union in the Autonomous Republic or Region and had been obliged by the burdensome duties of their position or by insidious plots to give up their studies,” the narrator observes.

“At long last, after overcoming their adversaries, having accused them of Stalinism, liberalism, bourgeois nationalism, Russophobia, petty nationalism, Zionism, modernism, folklorism, etc., having crushed their literary careers and banned the publication of their works, having hounded them into alcoholism or suicide, or, more simply, having had them deported, that is to say, having done what had to be done, they had been inspired to come to the Gorky Institute to complete their literary education.”

Ouch.

Although the book’s foreword reveals that Kadare’s years at the institute weren’t all bad — coming from an Albanian backwater to the much more cosmopolitan Moscow was exciting for the ambitious young man — the author never lost his contempt for the Soviet system and the ways in which artists like himself were expected to champion it.

When Albania was expelled from the Warsaw Pact in the 1960s, Kadare’s creativity was effectively unmuzzled. It wasn’t until 1978, though, that Twilight of the Eastern Gods was completed and published (first in Albanian, later in French, and finally, this fall, in English). And while the book hardly provides an exhaustive look at Cold War society, it does offer a spare glimpse of one budding scribe’s attempts to navigate it.

This sparseness leaves the story maddeningly skeletal in places. For every bit of action that piques readers’ interest — from the narrator’s attempts to alternately woo and discard his girlfriend, Lida Snegina, to the real-life furor over Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago winning the Nobel Prize in Literature — there are stretches of inaction and ennui.

Mercifully, these stretches are punctuated by dry wit, such as when the narrator observes two students from far-flung Eastern Bloc countries dissecting a classmate’s disappointing writing style: “‘Stulpanc, you really don’t know what you’re saying,’ Nutfulla Shakenov broke in. ‘You’re trying to tell me about that decadent Procrustes, or whatever his name is, but do you realise that in all the tundra and the taiga put together, in an area of three million square kilometres and then some, there is one, and only one, writer and that’s Kyuzengesh? Do we really need a literary theory just for him?’”

And do we really need this meandering account of a moment in time behind the Iron Curtain? Yes. Despite its shortcomings, readers will come away from Twilight of the Eastern Gods with a better understanding of what it was like for one writer to trudge along under Nikita Khrushchev’s thumb. They may end up feeling unsatisfied and flustered, but then, so does the narrator.

Jacques Austerlitz would understand.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Share Button

In Defense of Scary Stories

Sometimes an ax murdererscary is just an ax murderer. But you wouldn’t know it by reading many of the titles on “scariest books” lists haunting the internet this time of year.

When asked to name the most frightening tales they’ve ever read, cultural critics inevitably feel compelled to go all highfalutin and throw in a few that illuminate man’s inhumanity toward man, the hollowness of existentialism, or worst of all, the Tea Party.

“Ghost stories are fine,” says Erudite Author X, “but the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read is 18th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s Monadology. Its positions on the nature of the universe and occasionalism are truly chilling.”

Well.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, just once, the learned among us stopped being so insufferable? Imagine George Will naming his five favorite horror stories and somehow doing it in under 60,000 words. Or Charles Krauthammer rattling off the world’s most fearful monsters without once mentioning President Obama.

There’s a thrill to wrapping up in a blanket, clutching an eerie tale, and tucking your feet in so the thing under the bed can’t get them. It’s primal, and it doesn’t need to be defended.

So this Halloween, don’t renounce your love of unabashedly scary reads. Proclaim it! Life’s too short to keep Pet Sematary hidden inside a Brave New World book jacket, don’t you think?

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Share Button