Seeing John Malkovich (at LA Farmers Market)

FullSizeRender (14)During the summer of 1992, I saw the actor John Malkovich. In person. He’s the actor who plays one of the old guys in the movie, Red. The weirdest old guy in the movie, if that helps you place him. He’s also the actor who played Lenny in Of Mice and Men alongside Gary Sinise. He also played the presidential assassin of In the Line of Fire who was eventually hunted down by Clint Eastwood. He played himself in Being John Malkovich, a photojournalist in Cambodia in The Killing Fields and a downright, really bad, despicable man in Dangerous Liaisons. Nearly all of Malkovich’s movies contain unique characters that the actor is able to pull off in the most believable way. He has been in loads of other films, but these are the ones that to me exemplify his ability to capture idiosyncratic characters believably.

Notice that I say I saw John Malkovich. I did not approach him. I did not speak to him. I merely leered. My husband and I and another couple were having coffee at the Farmer’s Market on a cool, sparkling morning in Los Angeles. There were probably foodstuffs and produce to purchase somewhere in the market, but we were just there to hang out. As we sat there, I noticed a scruffy, shabbily-dressed man hastily walk by. I immediately recognized him.

“That was John Malkovich,” I quietly told my friends. They discreetly and slowly turned to confirm it, and yes, oh my gosh, that is him, they said. He continued walking into an open-air newspaper stand/bookstore next to the scattering of tables and chairs that we occupied. I followed, surprising myself with my sense of daring and willingness to annoy. He looked at some magazines or newspapers in the bookstore and gathered no attention.

Based on the characters he so effectively portrayed in films, I was a little scared of him. Sure, he had only been acting when he shot the two men point-blank in In the Line of Fire, but my only exposure to the actor at that point had been in seeing him play characters fit to be feared. Even in Of Mice and Men, Lenny is sweet and unknowing; however, he is also, in the end, a murderer.

In addition, it was clearly obvious Malkovich did not want to be bothered. He didn’t want to be recognized. His incognito dress seemed to indicate that: wrinkled beige cotton or linen tunic and loose-fitting painter’s pants, a doo rag, sunglasses. It seems he was also carrying a satchel or bag slung across his body like a shield to protect him from those pesky and annoying star-crazed fans. What would I say to him anyway? Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?

My fear kept me from asking for the obligatory photograph. I had left my camera at the table with my friends so going to get it after asking for a photo would, I speculated, turn the casual encounter into more of an event than Malkovich would tolerate. True, I could have retrieved the camera before asking for a photograph, but I didn’t consider that because, as an annoying, star-crazed fan, I wasn’t thinking clearly. Besides, he might have that plastic gun on him that he made by hand in his seedy apartment back when he was trying to murder the president.

So I just eyed him from about twelve feet away, pretending to scan the headlines on a carousel rack of newspapers at the store’s edge. It was enough. I had seen “the” John Malkovich, a big-time celebrity in the flesh. It was my own personal brush with someone else’s fame.

Now, whenever I see Malkovich in a movie, I think about our near encounter. Pretty famous guy. Well-respected. Should have asked for a photograph. He probably would have acquiesced and been an interesting person to have what would most likely have been an uninteresting conversation with. Oh, well. Usually now when I see him in a movie, I say to my husband,“Hey, there’s my friend, John Malkovich.” And then without lifting our eyes from the screen, we chuckle, and continue watching the movie.

In middle school research, pictures are winning

FullSizeRender (11) In the game of middle school student research, pictures are winning and words are losing. I have noticed increasingly that students, when they are researching a topic for a writing assignment, spend a lot of time not reading articles. Many spend their time looking at pictures. Or watching videos. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve noticed students scrolling down full screens of thumbprint images. Here’s a typical conversation we would have as I walked around the room and noticed students doing their research with Google Images.

Me: “What are you doing?”

Student: “I’m doing my research.”

Me: “What are you trying to find out?”

Student: “What grey squirrels look like.”

Me: “So why don’t you google grey squirrels?”

Student: “I did.”

Me: “But google it in web search and find articles.”

Student: “But I googled it here instead and now I’m just looking at the pictures to find out what they look like.”

And that got me thinking, because the student had a point. I think. It made me wonder whether perusing images could be more authentic research than reading. So I had a debate with myselves: my old school/gut and my new media self.

Old school/gut self: No, reading is better.

New media self: But couldn’t the result of reading simply be ingesting and recording what someone else has written about what grey squirrels look like?

Old school/gut self: Yes, true, but don’t forget that in looking at all these images, you are just looking at what someone else has decided for whatever reason is a grey squirrel.What if some of them you’re looking at aren’t actually grey squirrels? How do you know they’re grey squirrels?

New media self: Well, in an article, how do we know the author actually knew what he was writing about?

Old school self: That’s why we choose authoritative sources. “National Geographic,” for example, instead of answers.com. 

Authoritative sources. There’s really the issue. It seems kids don’t know how to locate authoritative sources. Looking at images is easier. And then they get stuck. Scrolling endlessly through mind-numbing screenfuls of tiny images.

True, an exhausting variety of visual information, whether it’s the printed word, the image, or the video, simply comes with the Internet territory. So why not use it all to benefit our research? Perhaps.

The thing is this: I’m just afraid students will take the path of least resistance and over-rely on images for the bulk of their research every time they need to do research.

Your thoughts? Am I over-reacting or noticing a troublesome trend?

You’re a Good Mother: It means more coming from a stranger

FullSizeRender (10)I know I’m a good mother because a stranger told me so. And that’s why I know it’s true. Granted, it’s nice to hear it from someone close to you, such as your spouse or a parent or friend. In fact, it’s the unspoken need that all women have but never vocalize: to know we’re doing at least an “okay” job at the toughest job we’ll ever have. Furthermore, the compliment carries more weight when an impartial, unbiased observer witnesses you in the act of good mothering and calls you on it.

This happened to me in downtown Baltimore in July 1999. We had travelled there from our home in a small, mostly white, southern Missouri town. I, my four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son were heading back to our minivan from the convention center where my husband was showing his ceramic art in a wholesale show. It was a hot, sultry day and we were returning to our hotel for an afternoon nap in the air conditioning. My daughter skipped along beside me while I pushed the stroller. Suddenly, she tripped on a slab of concrete that had buckled slightly, scraped her knee, and immediately started crying. I locked the wheels on the stroller, and kneeled down to inspect the damage. A thin trail of blood driveled from her knee and down her shin.

Nearby on the busy corner, a petite, elderly black woman asked me if I needed a Kleenex. Then, without waiting for my reply, she reached into her purse, starting her own search. She, no doubt, had been in this situation before with her own now-grown children. Maybe she was still mothering grandchildren and possibly even great-grandchildren. Because really, when does motherhood end?

I smiled up at her and said, “No, I should have one, but thanks.” I was right. I found a wrinkled up Kleenex and dabbed at the bloodied knee.

“You’re a good mother,” the woman solidly pronounced, looking down at me. I laughed lightly at her comment, and averted my eyes, shrugging it off as if I shouldn’t need to hear the compliment. Then I dug further into my bag for a baby wipe to clean off the scrape. Found that, too. I decided to push my luck. I dug again for a Band-aid, and — cue the trumpets — found one. It was glorious. For one brief moment, I possessed everything I truly needed in my bag, which I had habitually maintained with all the little ancillary items that one might need for “just in case” moments like these. The moments that seemed to never occur. Until then. And this time, wonder of wonders, a complete stranger had witnessed it. She repeated herself, slowly and with meaning: “You’re a good mother.”

I gathered up the dirtied Kleenex, Band-aid wrapper, and baby wipe and stuffed it all hurriedly back into the bag. I stood up, took my daughter’s hand, and quickly checked on my son in the stroller.

Before leaving, I looked into the woman’s eyes, realizing this moment was pivotal to my sense of self and that this perfect stranger perfectly understood how important her approving words were to me. While two very different people, with dissimilar backgrounds and life stories, we were remarkably alike in that we both understood the frightening, yet satisfying, responsibilities of motherhood and our quiet need for the assurance that we both were doing at least an “okay” job. She had given me a gift. I replied, simply and truthfully, “Thank you.”

How to win a spelling bee: always ask for the definition

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It’s almost — no, it is — annoying. If there’s a misspelled word out there, I see it, groan, and usually point it out to my husband, Mitch, who is accustomed to my persnicketiness (yes, it’s spelled correctly; I looked it up). Now I’m not talking about truly obscure, rarely seen words. I would probably have to grab a dictionary to look those up, but when it comes to the words we occasionally see misspelled in our daily lives, such as judgment, believable, conceive, I always notice them. It’s similar to when I walk into a room and immediately spot a tiny spider up high on a wall. I have a gift for that, too. But the spelling gift is not really a gift; it’s a curse. That’s because I’m seeing words misspelled more and more, especially on my USA Today app and in those news messages that crawl across the bottom of the t.v. screen. People, proofread. Please. Three times.

When I was in eighth grade I went to the Kansas State Spelling Bee in Topeka, Kansas and competed for the state title with one student from every county in Kansas. There are 105, believe it or not. On about the fourth round, I went out on the word velveteen. Didn’t ask for a definition. I was so unnerved by being given a word that I hadn’t heard before that I simply forgot that asking for a definition is one sure-fire way to buy yourself some time to think it through. After all, I had heard of velvet, and if I had known my word was the actual full name of the luxurious fabric, then I would have known to spell it v-e-l-v-e-t-e-e-n and not  v-e-l-v-a-t-e-e-n.

And there went my dreams of spelling fame. No trip to Washington, DC. No monetary prize. But then again, no more lunches poring over a dictionary with Mrs. Mayberry, my English teacher, while everyone else played dodgeball and socialized in the gym. No more nerves thinking about the upcoming bee, where the rules are many, and the rule-watching parents are more. But I would have loved to have won because I have a crush on words. I really do. And, of course, I was able to spell the word that won the bee: silhouette, which isn’t a word I see often… but if I do see it someday and it’s misspelled, well, I’ll catch it. And groan.

 

So this is what a snow day feels like

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I’m not sure why my school district called off school again today, but then again the district is about twenty minutes away from my home, so it could be icy over there. But that’s okay, because I’ve used the two preceding snow days to get caught up on a couple of projects that will affect my teaching eventually, but not right now. You know, those projects that I just can’t get done at school, no matter how hard I try. Here they are: an eighth grade unit on “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass” and a grant application for an international travel opportunity for rural teachers. Both of these projects, which have been gnawing at the back of my mind for quite some time now, are done. Or at least they are as complete as I can make them at this point. Whenever we get back to school, I will send both to my principal for her thoughts and ideas.

So I’m feeling pretty good right now. And that’s why I am creating a blog as I sit in the chair-and-a-half (love this thing) with my laptop, a fire nearby, and a bubonic plague documentary, (sounds awful, but it’s actually pretty fascinating), whispering in the background.

Old motel signs

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I photographed many old motel signs on our Southwest trip. This one was near Grand Canyon. I’ve always had a thing for metal tins, and I guess that has transferred to old metal signs. If you really look for them, these signs are ubiquitous, although I’m sure not like they used to be. You do have to drive through all the little towns. And I mean through them. You can’t really stay on the bypass or interstate and see these gems of design and typography and neon. That’s why a vacation is the perfect time to take the extra half hour to photograph these. And most of my pictures were taken from the car, so don’t think I’m a photography purist and felt the need to do a real set-up. I’m not that crazy, which is a sad thing because these signs are going away. They’re exposed to the elements, and you don’t see people out preserving them.

There used to a really fantastic neon sign on the Strip in Branson, where I live. It had a cowboy shooting a pistol and the bullet sped across the sign. I think the motel was called J.R.’s Motor Inn, but it’s long gone. I wonder where that sign wound up. Sad to think it’s probably corroding away in a landfill somewhere.

I would love to own about twenty acres to have a drive-through vintage neon sign park.

Favorite place on Earth

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Monument Valley, Utah

Well, it happened again. I travelled someplace new and I am forever changed. This time: Monument Valley, Arizona. There is nothing quite like spotting something on the horizon that appears surreal, other-worldly and truly unknown. And then it is something that changes you and makes you feel small, insignificant, yet important to the world.

Those spires. Those ledges. Those behemoths of weight and mass, rising from the high desert floor with quiet heft and bulk.

The space between them is as much a part of the experience as the monuments themselves. A disintegration of perspective coexists with an awe that overwhelms. There is no way to determine: how far is that from me? How far apart are those mittens?

Silence. True silence. Other than the distant, nearly imperceptible rumbling of cars travelling the dusty red roads, there is nothing. The breeze is even silent, its sound swallowed around the folding gowns of sienna curtain walls.