Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Flick Lives!

    Around this time of year, when the temperature really starts to drop and mornings become frosty; when the leaf blowers finally go silent and the smell of chimney smoke begins to pervade the block; when most of the houses in the neighborhood dress themselves in lights and wreaths and the lawns fill up with reindeer, snowmen, sleds and Santas; it's right around now that in one bay window there invariably appears a strange sight:

   This is the notorious leg lamp, made famous in A Christmas Story, the popular holiday movie co-written and narrated by the legendary humorist Jean Shepherd, and based on the semi-autobiographical reminiscences he related in print, in his radio monologues, and in live performances.  Initially overlooked when it was released in 1983, the film now consistently ranks among the top holiday movies ever produced.  Many know it from TNT and TBSs "24 Hours of A Christmas Story", where it is shown 12 consecutive times, from 8 pm on Christmas Eve to 8 pm on Christmas Day.       

  Passing the house on my daily morning walks, I'm reminded of Jean, and the small part he played in my childhood and adolescence.  Jean (he was widely known as Shep, but to us he was always Jean) was friends with my best friend Mike's parents, and he could frequently be found visiting their house on Skyline Drive, where I was also a frequent visitor.  With the same last name as his erstwhile childhood best friend, we had an immediate connection.  I picture him sitting at their big kitchen table, chuckling "There's that Schwartz again," as I passed by on my way up to Mike's room.  He would often attend Mike's birthday parties; I remember one in particular when he accompanied us all to Shea Stadium to see the Mets play the Reds.  At first, I had no idea who he was, other than that he was some kind of special family friend.  But after piling into the back of Mike's family's puke green station wagon for a trip down to Princeton to see him perform at McCarter Theater, I was hooked.    

     Jean had a nightly radio show on WOR, where, after the opening theme (Eduard Strauss's Bahn Frei!), he would spin his incredible monologues, and occasionally read poetry, play the kazoo, and organize listener pranks and hoaxes.  I started tuning in.  Rushing to finish my homework in time, I would sit in my bedroom, listening to the sound of his distinctive voice coming through a little clock radio with the dial at AM 710, entranced by the way he would start out on one path and veer through numerous digressions, twists and turns.  With my eye on the clock, watching the digits click by and knowing that time was running out, I would try to guess how in the world he would tie everything together.  But like Coltrane coming back to earth after flying off into outer space at the end of My Favorite Things, he always did.  And every time one of the stories would refer back to his childhood and his friend Schwartz, as they often did, well, that was an extra special night.  The next day Mike and I would compare notes, because I knew he had listened, too.      

    Jean's books were also a constant presence, especially Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories.  (My original copy became so tattered that the pages started falling out, and I eventually had to get a new one.)  I read and reread the stories, and then read them aloud to my brother, sister, and parents.  Schwartz, Flick, Kissel, Grover Dill, Scut Farkas; they were all alive in our house.  We had next door neighbors who, for reasons that will go unstated here, we referred to as the Bumpeses.  The leg lamp?  We knew about that from Chapter 10 of In God We Trust: All Other Pay Cash  before we saw it in the movie.  Of course there was The Ferrari in the Bedroom, which was dedicated to Mike's parents, with Mike's dad being the inspiration behind the main character in the story Abercrombie's Bitch.      

     After his radio show ended in 1977, it got harder to find him on the air (remember, this was the cable stone age and way pre-internet), although he did write, direct, and edit a show called Shepherd's Pie on New Jersey Network for a time. Mike and I went away to college, his parents divorced, my parents moved to another town.  Jean moved to Florida and I never saw him again.  But I was really happy to see him find mainstream success and recognition with A Christmas Story.  Now, like Proust's madeleine, seeing the lamp in the window brings back a cascade of memories: my childhood bedroom, the WOR radio days (we loved Bob and Ray too), and of course my best friend Mike, who idolized Jean and who I believed Jean loved.  Mike, a journalist by trade, had plans to write his biography.  However it was not to be-- Mike was tragically taken from this world 18 years ago.  (Mike, I miss you every day.  Excelsior, you fathead!)  So if you're a fan of A Christmas Story, and that's all you know of him, do yourself a favor and google Jean and do a little research.  Read about how influential he was.  (Jerry Seinfeld has been quoted as saying, "I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.")  Listen to some of his recorded monologues.   (Think of them as podcasts.)  Watch him being interviewed by David Letterman in 1982 (where he explains his failures in Algebra class.)  And always remember: Flick Lives!


Jean Shepherd
July 26, 1921-October 16, 1999


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

"Count Be Wrong, They'll Mess You Up."

     One of the most unforgettable characters in David Simon's epic masterpiece The Wire is Wallace.

Wallace is portrayed by a young Michael B. Jordan.  Jordan, who grew up in Newark, NJ, has gone on to star in Fruitvale Station,  Fantastic Four,  Creed, Creed II and Black Panther.

   A low-level drug dealer in the Barksdale crime organization, the sensitive 14 year-old, not much more than a child himself, also acts as a "house dad" to a group of stray youngsters living in an abandoned Baltimore tenement.  He rousts them out of bed in the morning, makes sure they have something to eat, and sees them off to school.  In a scene that takes place late in Season One, he tries to provide some homework help to one of the children, Sarah.  She's having difficulty solving a word problem, which Wallace reads back to her from her textbook:

A bus traveling on Central Avenue begins its route by picking up eight passengers. At the next stop it picks up four more and an additional two at the third stop while discharging one. At the next to last stop, three passengers get off the bus and another two get on. How many passengers are still on the bus when the last stop is reached?

     "Just do it in your head," Wallace tells her.  Distracted by another conversation he's carrying on with a housemate, he impatiently dismisses her when she comes up with two wrong answers, first seven and then eight.  Finally, (and edited for language):

Wallace (focusing): Close your eyes.  You working a ground stash.  Twenty tall pinks.  Two fiends come up and ask for two each, another one cops three.  Then Bodie hands you ten more, but a white guy rolls up in a car, waves you down, and pays for eight.  How many vials you got left?
Sarah (without hesitation): Fifteen.
Wallace (dismayed): How can you keep the count right, but not do the book problem?
Sarah (matter-of-factly): Count be wrong, they'll mess you up.

     Here's Jemele Hill commenting on the scene on her (and Van Lathan's) excellent Wire rewatch podcast Way Down in the Hole:
I thought that was a great way to show how potential is being wasted.  A good reminder about testing 'cause we've all grown up having to take SAT tests, ACT tests, we had the MEAP test when I was in Michigan, the proficiency exams, and those tests and those problems they're so unrelatable to the kids who are actually taking the test.  And this was a very subtle way to make a statement about the cultural inequalities that these tests and the educational system present to children. 

     Hill's analysis of Simon's point, which he will develop in depth in Season Four, is well taken.  (One disagreement: it's not very subtle.)  And it's one that has been discussed and argued about for at least as long as I've been in the field.  Questions and debates related to student engagement with mathematical content, pseudo-context and "real world" problems, true intellectual need vs "you need to know this because it's on the test", how we measure mathematical proficiency and intelligence, the implicit and explicit biases embedded in our curricula and our practice-- these are all encapsulated in this one small scene.
     The bus scenario from Sarah's math book is downright tame compared to others we've seen.  Consider Dan Meyer's classic dog bandana.  Or Cathy Yenca's diner sign:   

How about Geoff Krall's trail mix:

     They leave us shaking our heads in dismay.  And they'd be hilarious if the stakes weren't so high.
     But here I'd like to explore Hill's analysis further, because what's happening here goes beyond simply transcribing Wallace's problem and substituting it for the bus problem in Sarah's textbook to make it more relatable.  For one thing, the bus problem is not contrived, like the dog bandana, diner sign, and trail mix problems.  I mean, it's contrived for math class, but it's not that much of a stretch.  After all, buses do pick up and discharge passengers at bus stops.  Growing up in an urban environment, we can assume Sarah has a frame of reference for a city bus picking up and discharging passengers.  And for the sake of the discussion here, let's also assume that she can read, and that the issue is not one of comprehension.  So why would Sarah have so much trouble with the bus problem?  It's not the arithmetic.  Is the bus problem one she can't relate to?  Just because buses exist in the real world does it necessarily follow that the problem is real for Sarah?
     The reason Sarah gives Wallace for her ability to solve his alternate problem is "Count be wrong, they'll mess you up."  Sarah, whose after-school activity is running back and forth between a Barksdale drug stash and the customers, understands that an error on the count has very real, very dangerous consequences.  This is intellectual need in the extreme.  For her, the stakes of mentally adding and subtracting couldn't be higher, and the stakes of correctly solving the book problem pale in comparison.  She's got more things on her mind than buses.  Wallace, who throughout his time on the series shows real intelligence and curiosity, connects the bus problem to the ground stash problem in order to make it more meaningful.  He would excel in a school setting.  Sarah cannot make that connection.                       
     The math Sarah does outside of school, the math any of us do outside of school, arises organically from the situations we find ourselves in.  We may or may not recognize them as overtly mathematical, and their consequences may range from critical to trivial, but they're there: in the work we do in and around our homes, in our jobs, in what we choose to do with our leisure time.  For our students, especially our young ones, it most likely arises from simple play.  Let's call it "math in the wild."  But there's a wide gap between that math and the math that we encounter in school.  Good teachers try to bridge that gap as best they can, and some students (i.e. Wallace) can bridge that gap for themselves.  But the gap remains, especially on assessments, especially, as Hill notes, on high-stakes standardized assessments. Unfortunately, it's the performance on those measures that generate our grades and our scores, our opportunities for further educational advancement and, perhaps most important, our feelings of self-worth as learners and human beings.  Sarah will likely fail her next math test.  But it won't be because she can't add and subtract.  So what does her performance on the test really mean?  Wallace, who in an alternate universe would be in honors classes, no longer even attends school.   
     Sarah's situation, like so many others in the show, is a human tragedy.  Growing up amidst the violence, poverty, insecurity, systemic racism and trauma that is the Baltimore depicted in The Wire, she faces much bigger obstacles than a word problem in a math book.  It's just one small piece of Simon's complex tapestry.  But the "wasted potential" Hill is talking about in this particular scene is one that transcends Simon's Baltimore.  It happens everywhere students who are smart and capable are meant to feel "less than" in math class.       
     Fans of The Wire know what happened to Wallace.  Here's David Simon in Jonathan Abrams's oral history of the show All the Pieces Matter: 
People are going to remember Wallace.  Wallace is going to bother them for a long time after the whole show is forgotten.
     He's right.  Around for only one season, his impact is felt throughout the rest of the show's run.  But here's what I'd like to know: What happened to Sarah?

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

    To mark the 10th anniversary of the Common Core's publication, here are my capsule-length reviews of selected K-8 standards:
(All reviews stolen from movie listings posted daily in The New York Times.)

By the end of Grade 3, know from memory all products of two one-digit numbers.
 Curiously retrograde

Understand the meaning of the equal sign, and determine if equations involving addition and subtraction are true or false.  For example, which of the following equations are true and which are false?  
6 = 6,  7 = 8 - 1,  5 + 2 = 2 + 5,  4 + 1 = 5 + 2 
 Top notch existential confusion

Understand that attributes belonging to a category of two-dimensional figures also belongs to all subcategories of that category.  For example, all rectangles have four right angles and squares are rectangles, so all squares have four right angles.
 Laborious brainteaser

Develop a probability model (which may not be uniform) by observing frequencies in the data generated from a chance process.  For example, find the approximate probability that a spinning penny will land heads up or that a tossed paper cup will land open-end down.  Do the outcomes for the spinning penny appear to be equally likely based on the observed frequencies?
 Predictable but hard to hate 

Find all factor pairs for a whole number in the range 1-100.  Recognize that a whole number is a multiple of each of its factors.  Determine whether a given whole number in the range 1-100 is a multiple of a given one-digit number.  Determine whether a given whole number in the range 1-100 is prime or composite. 
 Disaster by the numbers

Analyze and solve pairs of simultaneous equations.
Zoom, crash, repeat

 Understand that integers can be divided, provided that the divisor is not zero, and every quotient of integers (with non-zero divisor) is a rational number.  If p and q are integers, then -(p/q) = (-p)/q = p/(-q).  Interpret quotients of rational numbers by describing real-world contexts. 
 Almost willful lack of fun

Convert among different-sized standard measurement units within a given measurement system (e.g., convert 5 cm to 0.05 m), and use these conversions in solving multi-step, real world problems. 
 Answers questions no one needed to ask

Use place value understanding to round multi-digit whole numbers to any place.
 Blunt and sadistic

Interpret and compute quotients of fractions, and solve word problems involving division of fractions by fractions, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem.  For example, create a story context for (2/3) ÷ (3/4) and use a visual fraction model to show the quotient; use the relationship between multiplication and division to explain that (2/3) ÷ (3/4) = 8/9 because 3/4 of 8/9 is 2/3.  (In general (a/b) ÷ (c/d) = ad/bc.)  How much chocolate will each person get if 3 people share 1/2 lb of chocolate equally?  How many 3/4-cup servings are in 2/3 of a cup of yogurt?  How wide is a rectangular strip of land with length 3/4 mi and area 1/2 square mi?
 Overstuffed spectacle

Solve word problems involving dollar bills, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies using $ and ¢ symbols appropriately.  For example, if you have 2 dimes and 3 pennies, how many cents do you have?
 Melancholy melodrama
Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch.  Show the data by making a line plot where the horizontal scale is marked off in appropriate units--whole numbers, halves, or quarters.
 Best when no one's talking 

Solve multi-step real life and mathematical problems posed with positive and negative rational numbers in any form (whole numbers, fractions, and decimals), using tools strategically.  Apply properties of operations to calculate with numbers in any form; convert between forms as appropriate; and assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies.  For example, if a woman making $25 an hour gets a 10% raise, she will make an additional 1/10 of her salary an hour, or $2.50, for a new salary of $27.50.  If you want to place a towel bar 9 3/4 inches long in the center of a door that is 27 1/2 inches wide, you will need to place the bar about 9 inches for each edge; this estimate can be used as a check on the exact computation.
 Turgid schedule filler

Fluently multiply multi-digit whole numbers using the standard algorithm.
 Incredibly tedious

Fluently add and subtract multi-digit whole numbers using the standard algorithm.
 Strictly formulaic

Solve unit rate problems including those involving unit pricing and constant speed.  For example, if it took 7 hours to mow 4 lawns, then at that rate how many lawns could be mowed in 35 hours?  At what rate were lawns being mowed?
 Hack work
Model shapes in the world by building shapes from components (i.e. sticks and clay balls) and drawing shapes.
 Broad, freewheeling fun


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

A Requiem For Twitter Math Camp

    Five years ago this month I boarded a plane in Newark, NJ and, after a layover in San Francisco, flew into the small airport in Ontario, CA.  I had traveled across the country to attend something called Twitter Math Camp, which in the summer of 2015 was being held on the campus of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA.  It was difficult to explain to my family, friends and co-workers exactly what it was, or what I was going to be doing there, because I didn't really know myself.  Was it a camp?  Was it a conference?  What does twitter have to do with it?  How is it all organized?  What I did know was that I was going to get to see some of the MTBoS people who had inspired me to explore new ways to teach math and who had supported and encouraged my attempts to blog about my experiences.  I had never met any of them, and was more than a little apprehensive about what they would be like in person, and how welcoming the community in general would be.  I had struck up an online friendship with Graham Fletcher, and he agreed to share a room with me and split what turned out to be a very small rental car.  He was standing outside the terminal when I walked out with my bag, and we recognized each other immediately.  I reached out my hand, but he shook his head, opened his arms, and gave me a giant bear hug that nearly crushed me to death.  
     TMC '15 was everything I could have hoped for, and much, much more.  Beyond the amazing sessions, it was an opportunity to meet people from all over the country, all over the world, actually.  People who were involved in math education in all kinds of different ways: elementary school teachers and district administrators, university professors and math coaches; private school, public school and home school; urban, suburban, rural; big, small, and in between.  We were all there, on our own time and on our own dime, because we were passionate about what we did and eager to learn from each other.  During the day we went to sessions, interspersed with keynotes and quick hit "My Favorites".   After, we hung out in the courtyard of the hotel till all hours of the night.  I couldn't sleep, my head was spinning at 100 miles per hour.  I kept Graham up all night, blabbering away non-stop about who I had met, what we had talked about and what I was going to do when I got back to the world.  He told me I was drinking from a firehose.  He also told me to stop talking and go back to sleep.  By Sunday morning's final assembly I was emotionally exhausted.  When a group of participants stood up and sang a goodbye song, I started to tear up.  And when Lisa Henry announced the date and location of next year's TMC, I immediately phoned my wife and told her to block it out on the calendar.
     When I got back home everyone asked: "What was it like?"  
     All I could think of was something that Christopher Danielson had said: "It's like being in the faculty lounge of your dreams."  Like baseball fantasy camp, except with math teachers.  

      I went back to Twitter Math Camp in 2016, 2017, and 2018.  Each time I was afraid that the magic would be gone, that I would be disappointed, that it wouldn't live up to my expectations.  Each time I was wrong.  Part of it was the different locations--it was fun to explore a new city each summer.  Part of it was reconnecting with old friends.  Part was the fact that each time I went back I connected with new people, widening my network of friends and colleagues, which made our virtual interactions during the rest of the year richer.  Part of it was my own increasing confidence presenting sessions.  Although I knew that attendance was capped and I wasn't guaranteed a spot, I began to count on it to recharge my batteries for the coming school year. 
     More than the venues, more than the cities, more than the sessions, more than the keynotes, more than the math, for me TMC was a place where, for four brief days, 200 lives intersected in a very intimate way.  Shared breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  Early morning coffees and late nights in hotel courtyards and lobbies and, on one special occasion, in a college dorm.  Clusters in the corners of classrooms.  On stairwells and in hallways, on Ubers and in airports.  I couldn't even begin to count all the different conversations I had with all the different people I met along the way.  They challenged me, informed me, encouraged me.  They agreed and pushed back.  They listened, and no matter how crazy I sounded they made me feel like I had something worthwhile to say.  For me, it was different than the big, industrial NCTM conferences.  Nobody was selling anything, nobody was angling for a deal or working the room, or trying to impress anybody.  It wasn't institutional.  It was t-shirts and shorts.  It was, as we would say in Yiddish, haimish.
     In 2018 I convinced a former work colleague to join me.  Now I was the old hand and she was the nervous newbie.  I was curious to see her reaction and to look at something I had begun to take for granted through her eyes.  How would she would find the experience?  I told her that I'd always be around for her, that I wouldn't leave her without someone to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner with, or to hang out with after the day's sessions were through.  There had been talk that things had gotten cliquey, that newcomers weren't being made to feel especially welcome.  I knew that people experienced TMC in different ways, and that the leadership had made attempts to make people feel more included.  I knew that not everyone felt the same way about it that I did.  Turns out I had nothing to worry about: after the first day she had met a bunch of people and made her own friends, some of whom became my new friends.  She talked about going back.  I started making plans with Brian Miller to submit a proposal to co-present a session at TMC '19 in Berkeley.

      I didn't see it coming.  One day the acceptances came out, and then, suddenly, it imploded.   I've worked through the stages of grief, and I think I've finally arrived at acceptance.  Looking back these last few weeks at my pictures, revisiting the archives and the old tweets, my heart is filled with gratitude for all those who worked so hard to make it happen.  I'm sorry if I didn't let you know just how thankful I am.  I know I was blessed to be able to experience those 16 special days in the summers of 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.  It's not my intention to reopen any wounds or reignite any debates.   It's just I never got the chance to say goodbye.



Wednesday, July 1, 2020

And Then They Came For the Statisticians

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- The world's largest statisticians group added to a chorus of criticism this week against the recent hiring of two political appointees at the U.S. Census Bureau.  The American Statistical Association says the appointments earlier this week of Nathan Cogley and Adam Korzeniewski to top posts even though they have little experience at the agency "are in direct conflict with the bureau's mission to ensure proper, accurate, and timely delivery of statistical information to the public." Cogley is a political science professor who wrote a series of opinion pieces against the impeachment of Donald Trump.  Korzeniewski is a former campaign consultant to the pro-Trump YouTube personality known as "Joey Salads."

Mike Schneider
Associated Press
June 26, 2020 


...the suppression of its findings and the murder of those who organized it was nothing less than the obliteration of the capacity for self-analysis.  An authoritarian society, however, that is unable to form an idea of itself, whatever social engineering its leadership may have in mind, is doomed to the blind exercise of state violence.

Karl Schlögel 

     For one 24 hour period, from midnight January 6, 1937 to the following midnight, life in the entire breadth of the Soviet Union, one-sixth of the world, came to a stop.  On that day, after weeks of extensive training, one million enumerators (census takers) with a list of fourteen questions spread out over the entire country.  Their mission was to collect the information that, when analyzed and pieced together, would form a detailed picture of what Soviet society looked like twenty years after the Bolshevik Revolution.  The enumerators knocked on the doors of apartment blocks in Moscow, skied across the Arctic tundra to remote villages, and rode with passengers on the Trans-Siberian Express.  As Karl Schlögel describes in his book Moscow 1937:   

     Whether in the cities or on a river steamer, in a yurt in Kazakhstan or in a hotel in Leningrad... from different districts of the capital, from the capitals of the republics, from Kiev, from Ashbagat, from the Taiga and the Pacific ports, from the newly built suburbs.  The armada of enumerators ...not only penetrated the furthest corners of the Soviet Union; it systematically explored the social landscape...(and) discovered a Soviet Union in miniature.
     The populace was ready.  The census protocol had been highly publicized in workplaces and shops and over state media outlets.  The questions submitted to the Party leadership by the Census Board were edited by Party leader and supreme ruler of the USSR Joseph Stalin personally (he had removed eight and added one) and had been released in advance so citizens knew exactly what to expect when an enumerator showed up on their doorstep.  It was a remarkable achievement, one that required careful planning, tremendous resources and a nationwide mobilization.  What makes it even more astonishing is that, according to Schlögel, historians and demographers with access to the formerly suppressed results--made available in the 1990s after the Soviet Union's collapse--have calculated the margin of error at a low 0.5 to 0.6 percent.  
Information poster

It was Stalin who had ordered the census, and he had a lot riding on its outcome.  It had been eleven years since the last one, a time of rapid industrialization and societal upheaval.  A program of forced agricultural collectivization and two Five-Year Plans had run their course.  Stalin believed that the demographic figures would prove that the Soviet Union had built a vibrant, happy and healthy society.  High growth rates were predicted, outstripping those of rival capitalist countries.  Officially, a population figure of 170-172 million was expected (a number extrapolated from the 1926 census); Stalin was hoping for something closer to 180 million. 

Census data being processed
     They knew they were in trouble almost immediately.  Preliminary results indicated that average growth, while surpassing Germany, England, and France, was exceeded by both the United States and Japan.  Stalin's added question was about religious affiliation; he expected the state's anti-religion policies to reflect a high number of non-believers.  Yet close to 60% of the adult population identified themselves as believers.  Most alarming, the final count would be somewhere around 162 million, 8 million people shy of the official pronouncement.  I.A. Kraval, the Census Bureau Chief, ordered a recount, but only several thousand unenumerated persons were found.  In late January, the provisional results were presented to the Party leadership, and a further report in March confirmed the original figures.  Kraval and his team of demographers and statisticians, fighting for what they knew were their lives,  did their best to excuse the results, but the difference between the final count and the publicly stated number of 170 million was too great to explain away.
     Where were the missing 8 million?  And who was to blame?  The biggest discrepancies between the expected numbers and the actual count were in the regions hardest hit by the devastating 1932-1933 famine caused by Stalin's policy of forced collectivization.   Historians are still debating the actual death toll--estimates range up to 7 million--and also to what extent anyone at the time had an accurate fatality count.  (Ironically Kraval was sending false reports to Stalin, downplaying the numbers.)  In any case, the famine had been officially denied, and anyone who talked about it risked imprisonment and death.  The census data, which reflected the tragic consequences of Stalin's policy, had to be suppressed.  So did those involved with the data collection.  
     The arrests began in March.  No one was safe; from the members of the central Census Bureau to the chiefs of the regional census centers, right down to administrators at the local level.  Statisticians assigned to replace the imprisoned were soon imprisoned themselves. The statisticians and demographers were accused of sabotage and "wrecking", and labeled "Trotskyite-Bukharinite spies" and "enemies of the people".  Many of those imprisoned were eventually executed.  Kraval himself was condemned to death in August and shot.  A new census was planned for 1939.  Schlögel links this to the Great Terror:  

...having destroyed the analytical matrix which disclosed the contours of the nation and its people, and having sacrificed the very instrument that would enable them to interpret these things, the leadership... (was) overcome by a blind flight into terror, an intensification of violence whose excesses would surpass the very disasters that the census had just diagnosed.  As a result, for the catastrophe that followed there were no longer any instruments that might have diagnosed what was to come.     

      Not surprisingly, the new census resulted in a population count of 170.6 million people.  Just what Stalin had ordered.  The question about religious affiliation was eliminated.  There would not be another census until 1959.      

     Suppression of truth and truth-tellers isn't exclusive to the former Soviet Union.  It's not hard to come up with examples of our own.  The data linking smoking to cancer and the cover-up of abuses by clergy in the Catholic Church are two that come to mind.  We know stories of individual whistleblowers coming to bad ends (see Karen Silkwood) and we also know of consumer advocates forcing changes to promote public safety (see Ralph Nader).  Thankfully, we have avenues to access information, mechanisms to uncover truths, protections for those who would speak truth to power and independent media outlets to publicize those truths that would be unthinkable in the Soviet Union under Stalin.  Our system of government is based on checks and balances, and while it may not always work the way we want it to, it does provide a measure of protection against the worst autocratic tendencies of an executive, protections that, again, would have been unthinkable to Stalin.
     Consider the case of our census, currently in progress.  When the Trump administration tried to add a question related to citizenship, it was met with resistance and criticism, not only from progressives, but from statisticians and demographers, who argued it would threaten its integrity, estimating that inclusion of the question could lead to an undercount of 9 million people.  The pretext for adding the question was seen as strictly political; it was a way to depress the count in heavily Democratic areas, which would have consequences for proportional representation in Congress, how many electoral votes a state receives, and how and where some $1.5 trillion in federal money is allocated. A lawsuit challenging the question made its way to the Supreme Court.  In a fractured and complicated 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the justification for adding the question was invalid.  Unable to delay the implementation of the constitutionally mandated decennial census, the administration threw in the towel.  
     However the recent appointments of Cogley, a frequent radio commentator and former head of the department of government, legal studies and philosophy at Tarleton State University and Korzeniewski, who once worked as a consultant for the failed Staten Island congressional run of Joey "Joey Salads" Saladino, a YouTuber famous for racist pranks, and whose primary qualification seems to have been that he once worked in a census bureau field office, to top positions at the U.S. Census Bureau should be cause for alarm.  It certainly is to Kenneth Prewitt, a former Bureau director.  "These are two people ill equipped to actually manage the census," he said in a Politico report:
They're very well equipped to advance political interests, especially those of the Republican Party.  That's their background and their career goals.  It's unprecedented for two political appointees to be added to the bureau in the middle of a census count in the recent history of the Census Bureau.

     What influence will they exert on the counting and reporting of the census figures?  Will they be guided by best statistical and demographic practices?  Do they even know (or care) what those practices are?  Were they put there to do the bidding of the administration that appointed them?  Will the final census be an accurate reflection of America in the year 2020?  And if it isn't, will we even know?

    All this is to say that our community has a very important role to play.  Math helps build the models, math looks at the data, math runs the statistical analysis.  It's our job to call bullshit when we see it...

...and it's our job to give our students not only the tools they need to be discriminating and critical consumers of information, but the confidence to use their voices to speak out when they see data being used to deliberately manipulate and confuse; whether it's related to: 
something as innocuous, like how many people attend an inauguration, 
something important, like a census count, 
something serious, like the death toll from the coronavirus, or 
something that threatens the very existence of life on the planet, like climate change.  
So whether you're in kindergarten teaching kids how to count with one-to one correspondence or in high school teaching AP Stats, or anywhere else above, below, in between or sideways, please keep your shoulder to the wheel.    


Friday, June 12, 2020


     So it turns out that police unions are bad actors.  (Yes, I am way late to this.)   Will Bunche, in a recent opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, likens police unions to "A protection racket, sounding more like the Mafia than anything 'benevolent.'"  As difficult as it is for me to watch the videos and hear the accounts of police murder and brutality, it's almost as hard to watch the displays of solidarity from police unions as they circle the wagons.  And as I learn about the role they've played, and continue to play, in perpetuating the institutionalized racism that exists in the law enforcement community today, I have to admit to a moment of extreme cognitive dissonance, because for me union has always equaled good.
     There's more.   According to a June 7 news article, Public Integrity contacted the leaders of ten major unions and labor groups:
None were willing to talk about police unions.  Trumka, of the AFL-CIO, was too busy to chat.  The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union couldn't fit a call into his schedule.  Teamsters President James Hoffa declined to comment.
     Silence from the Service Employees Union, The American Federation  of State, County, and Municipal Employees, United Auto Workers, Communication Workers of America, Unite Here and the American Federation of Teachers.
     My union, the NEA, and its state affiliate NJEA, have posted strong statements in support of racial justice, and called for a federal push to overhaul police practices.  But, at least as of the time I write this, they have been quiet on the matter of police unions and the role they have played in protecting members that have absolutely no business carrying a shield and a gun.  Maybe that will change.  But that change will be difficult, because it will require some serious self-reflection and soul-searching.               

     I was a proud, dues paying member of the teacher's union my entire career.  I knew that the only reason I earned the wage I did, and enjoyed the benefits and working conditions I did, was because of union solidarity.  Same goes for the benefits I now enjoy in retirement.  (I also know what it feels like to be a member of a union under siege, because I was a teacher during the reign of Chris Christie.  Christie made his reputation by making the NJEA his personal punching bag.  He bullied us on air and in person.  He told us we were turning our students into "drug mules."  He encouraged newspaper editorial writers and talk show hosts and callers on NJ 101.5 as they vilified us: we were greedy, selfish, and lazy.  We didn't deserve our health care or our pensions.  We were the reason New Jersey was in such dire financial straits.  We were the reason the education system was failing.  It was all our fault.)  I knew that in 1984, just two years before I started, teachers in the district had gone on strike.  They walked a picket line, were fined, and some had even been arrested and served jail time.  Those teachers, and others before them, helped win me those benefits, and I saw it as my responsibility to make sure they were there for the next generation of teachers.  I served many years as a building rep, with all the responsibilities that position entails.  And though we never went out on strike, I participated in plenty of job actions: writing letters, wearing buttons and shirts, working "to the contract" by entering and/or leaving the building not a minute before/after the negotiated start/end time, showing up and speaking out at Board of Ed meetings, rallying outside central office during negotiation sessions.  I knew those negotiations were extremely important; they would affect our salaries, benefits, working conditions, and job protections.  
     Job protections.  Lord knows, I knew good teachers, great teachers, who were the target of extremely unfair smear campaigns from vindictive administrators and unhappy parents.  In many of those cases, a union rep or a union lawyer was the only thing standing between them and career oblivion.  That could've been me.  And as I rose ever higher on the salary guide, and the district could afford to hire two teachers for my one salary, who was to say that I might be the next one with a target on my back?  Knowing that I had the union behind me was no small comfort.  And who knew what laws the government might enact that would curtail those benefits and protections?  As one of our union lobbyists put it, "I'm the guy you pay to protect you from the guys you elect."  
     How far did those job protections extend?  I mean, I've also known teachers who've had no business being in front of a class.  I had one or two as a student myself (so did my kids) and as colleagues.  The no-patience serial screamers and sarcastic insulters.  The burned out and jaded, phoning-it-in morale killers.  The ones whose classroom no parent who was in-the-know wanted their kid in.  The ones who make kids cry.  They got harassed with bad evaluations and transferred from grade to grade and school to school in the hopes that they'd just give up and quit.  Some did, but other hung on.  Did the contract make it too difficult to fire them? Did the union protect them, too?  What did that make me, as an active union supporter?  It's true, we're not allowed to exercise state-sanctioned acts of physical violence like the police. (In New Jersey, anyway.  There are nineteen states that allow corporal punishment in schools.)  However what kind of state sanctioned emotional violence are we allowed to commit?  What is our responsibility when we witness that kind of violence?  Do we have a "duty to intervene"?  What is our union's responsibility?  Is our silence complicity?


     In 1931, during the bloody miners strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, armed deputies hired by the coal company were enlisted to root out union leaders and their sympathizers, many of whom were beaten, jailed, and even killed.  One night, in an attempt at intimidation, Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men illegally entered union leader Sam Reece's house and conducted a search.  Reece, warned in advance, had fled.  His wife Florence, home alone with their seven children, watched in terror as the sheriff and his deputized thugs ransacked the house and kept watch outside, ready to shoot him if he returned.  
     Later, she tore a sheet off an old wall calendar and composed the lyrics to what would become one of the most haunting and inspiring union songs ever written.  It's a desperate plea and a rallying cry, comprised of six verses and set to the tune of what is either an old Baptist hymn or a British ballad.  She titled it after the one simple question repeated in the chorus.  It was a question directed at working men and women, commanding them to choose: you're either with us or against us.  And it's a question echoing from those coal mines right back at us at this very moment: 

Which side are you on?

     I still believe in the union.  Without it, we're powerless to control our working conditions and the economic terms under which we ply our trade.  But as I look outward and try to understand what is going right now in our country and the changes that need to take place, I'm looking inward too.  At my own preconceptions and beliefs, my own action and inaction, and my own blind spots.  And I want my union to do the same.   



Thursday, May 21, 2020

Greetings From the Planet Tralfamadore

1.  The Soldier 

     At approximately noon on Wednesday, February 14, 1945, a group of American POWs climbed out of an underground meat locker in the middle of Dresden, Germany.  It was a break in the middle of a two day, combined British and American aerial attack that would drop nearly 4,000 tons of high explosive bombs and incendiary devices on and around the city, known as "Florence on the Elbe".  The war was nearing its end, and Dresden had thus far escaped the fiery destruction that many other German cities, including Berlin and Hamburg, had already seen.  But time had run out.  The bombing and resulting firestorm destroyed over 1,600 acres and killed approximately 25,000, most of whom were civilians.
     Among the POWs emerging from the meat locker that Valentine's Day was a 22 year old private from Indianapolis, Indiana.  He had enlisted in March, 1943 after leaving Cornell, where he was majoring in bio-chemistry while writing for and editing the university's independent newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun. Trained as an intelligence scout, he was shipped overseas with the 106th Infantry Division in time for the Battle of the Bulge, part of the final German offensive of the war.  His sector was overrun, and on December 19, 1944 he was captured somewhere in Luxembourg.  He joined a collection of other prisoners, and together they were marched sixty miles before being crammed into small, unheated, unventilated boxcars, part of a train slowly making its way to a large POW camp near Berlin.  On January 10, 1945 he was one of 150 prisoners shipped to Dresden, where by day he labored in a factory that produced vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women and at night ate and slept locked in an abattoir that had been converted into a barracks.
     When the bombs began to drop on the night of February 13, he, his fellow prisoners and their six German guards took shelter in a meat locker three stories underground.  There, cool amid the dressed cadavers of cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses, they told jokes and listened to the sound of what he would later describe as, "The footsteps of giants marching across the earth."  The prisoners and their guards suffered nothing worse than a light dusting of paint chips falling from the ceiling.  "When we came up the city was gone," he recalled.  "They burnt the whole damn town down."
     Unsure of what to do next, the guards held the prisoners at attention for several hours before leading them on a trek across the rubble to an innkeeper's stable on the outskirts of town.  Two days later the prisoners were marched back into the ruins and put to work.
     "We walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure," he later wrote.  "When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who'd simultaneously had heart failure.  Just people sitting there in chairs, all dead.  ...We brought the dead out.  They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large open areas in the city which weren't filled with rubble.  The Germans got funeral pyres going...  It was a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt."
     Less than three months after the Dresden bombing, Germany surrendered.
     Twenty-five years later, in March, 1969, the former POW from Indianapolis, Indiana published a book, a book in which he tried to come to terms with the horror of what he had seen, a book that took its title from the abattoir, the one whose meat locker had kept him safe, the one from which he had emerged to witness the aftermath of the destruction of the city called "Florence on the Elbe", the one the Germans called Schlachtof-funf.
     The soldier's name was Kurt Vonnegut.
     The book he wrote was  Slaughterhouse-Five.

2.  The Professor
     Less than three miles away, in the city center at Zeughausstrasse Number 1, in a so-called Jews' House, another former journalist, this one a 63 year old professor of Romance language and literature, was having quite a different experience.  Born to a Jewish family in Landsberg an der Warthe, in the eastern part of the Prussian province of Brandenburg, he had converted to Christianity, married a Protestant musicologist and pianist, served at the front in World War One and, in 1920, secured a teaching post at Dresden Technical University.  However his conversion, marriage, position, and war record were of little consequence when the Nazis came to power.  Starting in 1933, and continuing through the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, he was stripped of his citizenship rights, job, pension, house, access to his bank account, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and even his beloved pet cat.  His status as Jew in a mixed marriage with a Christian woman had thus far enabled him to avoid being sent to a concentration camp, but by the beginning of February, 1945 there were less than 200 registered Jews left in the city, and plans for the final liquidation of the ghetto were in motion.  All Jews capable of physical labor were to report for deportation on the morning of Friday, February 16.  It was a death sentence.  For the professor, time had run out.
     When the bombs started falling on the night of Tuesday, February 13, there was no meat locker sixty feet underground in which to find safe haven.  The makeshift air raid shelters in the "Jews' cellars" of Zeughausstrasse Numbers 1-3 were immediately turned into death traps.  Separated from his wife, out in the open and nursing an eye injury caused by the shattering of the cellar window, he threw himself into a bomb crater, then climbed out and sought safety in a telephone kiosk.  Knapsack on his back, carrying a bag with manuscripts and jewelry, he followed a group of people making their way to a promenade high over the Elbe called Bruhl's Terrace--(forbidden to Jews--but did it matter anymore?)-- where, in shock, he spent the night watching the city burn.
     "To the right and left buildings were ablaze, he wrote a week later in his diary, "the Belvedere and--probably--the Art Academy.  Whenever the showers of sparks became too much for me on one side, I dodged to the other.  Within a wider radius nothing but fires.  Standing out like a torch on this side of the Elbe, the tall building at Pirnaischer Platz, glowing white; on the other side, the roof of the Finance Ministry."

     It started to rain.  The city continued to burn.  By seven the next morning the terrace began to empty.  As he began the walk down to the Elbe he found his wife sitting on a suitcase.  She had been pulled into the block's "Aryan cellar", crawled out a broken window, and survived the night in two separate basements, the first in the Albertinum, an art museum, then in the Belvedere Hotel.  Now reunited, they wandered through the hellscape.

     "We walked slowly, because I was now carrying both bags and my limbs hurt, along the riverbank... Above us, building after building was a burned-out ruin.  Down here by the river... masses of empty, rectangular cases of the stick incendiary bombs protruding from the churned up earth... the corpses and smashed vehicles...burned out sheds...fires, at times small, and no more than a bundle of clothes... past the corpses up and down the Elbe.  Every house a burned out ruin... Again and again fires still burning.  Nowhere a sign of attempts to extinguish them."

     After an unsuccessful attempt to find a physician to tend to his injured eye, they made their way to the square in front of Zeughausstrasse.  Their building, the third Jews' House they had lived in since being evicted from their home in the Dresden suburb of Dolzschen in 1940, had been reduced to rubble.
     Although there were no warning sirens, the second wave of bombing that afternoon did somewhat less damage to the city center.  Back at the outer wall of the Bruhl Terrace, the professor and his wife were again separated.  Starving and exhausted, they met back in the basement of the Albertinum, where, amid the wounded and traumatized survivors, they waited out the bombardment, sharing their experiences and trying to sleep.  The next morning they were evacuated to a nearby air base, where they received food and medical attention.  A few days later, carrying the suitcase, bag and knapsack containing all their earthly possessions, they walked five miles to the small town of Piskowitz, where they were welcomed into the home of their former housekeeper, and where the professor wrote down, while it was still fresh in his mind, his nightmarish experience of the firebombing in his diary.
     The professor had been keeping a diary since 1918.  To continue writing during the Third Reich was an act of bravery; discovery meant certain death for him, his wife (who due to her Aryan status was afforded freedom of movement and thus had the ability to smuggle pages out) and their gentile friend on the outskirts of the city who was keeping the ever-growing document hidden.  But he continued.  "I shall go on writing,"  he entered in the diary on May 27, 1942.  "That is my heroism.  I will bear witness, precise witness!"  
     In 1995, 35 years after his death, the professor's diaries were published to universal acclaim.  In its pages he tries to come to terms with how to live his life in a country he loved but no longer recognized, a country that stripped him of everything he had, a country that was murdering members of a tribe to which he no longer belonged, a country that was now coming to murder him.
    The professor's name was Victor Klemperer.
    The book he wrote was I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1945.

3.  The City

    4.   The Meeting

      I want to believe that somewhere in the bombed out ruins of Dresden, on Valentine's Day, 1945, Kurt Vonnegut and Victor Klemperer crossed paths.  It would be highly unlikely, but not impossible.  We know that Vonnegut and his fellow POWs left the city on the afternoon of February 14.  Klemperer, reunited with his wife after having spent Tuesday night on Bruhl's Terrace, and spent the 14th making his way first to the Jewish cemetery, then to Borsburgstrasse in search of his doctor, then to Zeughausstrasse, before heading back to Bruhl's Terrace and the basement of the Albertinum.   It's true Klemperer makes no mention in his diary of an encounter with a detachment of American POWs; he's a meticulous observer and it's unlikely he'd leave out a detail like that.  And while I'm not sure where the innkeeper's stable was located, I doubt the route taken by the prisoners as they fled the bombing's aftermath would have taken them through the city center.  But like I said, I want to believe. 
     Klemperer passes Vonnegut, and right at that moment their eyes meet.  They sense something, some kind of connection; they're both writers after all.  And maybe that's it.  But I want to believe there's more.
     Vonnegut was a fourth generation German-American, and both his parents spoke German.  Vonnegut wasn't fluent, but he did speak the language--he became de facto leader of the prisoner group due to his ability to communicate with the guards.  Klemperer spoke a little English; he records in his diary that he began taking lessons from an English speaking friend on the off-chance he could find a way to emigrate to America.  They have a conversation.  KV and VK.

5.  "All Moments, Past, Present, and Future..."

     Slaughterhouse-Five (subtitled The Children's Crusade), Vonnegut's sixth book, is the one that made him famous-- an anti-war book published at the height of the social unrest caused by America's involvement in Vietnam.  Impressionistic and episodic; disorienting and disturbing; equal parts science fiction, satire, reportage, and black comedy; a meditation on war and its costs, morality, free will, time, and the nature of humanity; it's a book that leaves an indelible impression--for me a much different one as an adult than it did as a teenager.  The main character, Billy Pilgrim, is an American soldier who has a World War Two experience very similar to Vonnegut's.  (The first chapter, narrated by Vonnegut in the first person, describes the book's origin story.  "All this happened, more or less,"  he explains in the very first line. "The war parts anyway, are pretty much true.")
     Pilgrim becomes "unstuck in time", which means he experiences his life not in a linear fashion, but in free-floating flashbacks and flashforwards, traveling back and forth across moments in an already predetermined life.  One moment he's being captured by Germans, next he's a successful optometrist.  He's a 12 year old boy on a trip out west with his family.  He's in a boxcar in Germany.  He attends a Lions Club Luncheon.  He's abducted by two-foot tall green aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and placed on display under a geodesic dome.  He gets married.  He's one of two survivors of small plane crash in Vermont.  He's in an underground meat locker during the Dresden firebombing.  He's assassinated while giving a speech at an optometrist's convention.  The war ends.  He hears a birdsong. 
     Early on in the book, Billy writes a series of letters to the local newspaper detailing his experience on Tralfamadore, whose inhabitants experience time in four dimensions:

    The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die.  He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.  All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.  The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance.  They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them.  It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

6.  "Everything Is Infinitely Long Ago, Everything Is Infinitely Long in Coming..."

     I've spent the last two months sheltering-in-place with four people: my wife, my son, my daughter, and Victor Klemperer.  My kids spend a lot of time in their rooms, my wife in a makeshift office in the basement.  But I haven't been alone.  Through two volumes of over 1,000 small print, densely packed pages ranging over 13 years of his life, Klemperer has been my constant companion.  I've been awed by his courage and persistence, infuriated by his indecision, intellectual pretension, and naïveté, and confused by his ambivalent attitude towards Judaism and outright hostility towards Zionism.  I've laughed at his comical attempts at learning how to drive, and rolled my eyes at his constant health complaints.  I saw the city through his eyes, first driving in his car, then riding in a tram when he was forced to give up his car, then on foot when he was no longer permitted to ride public transportation.  I attended funerals with him at the Jewish cemetery, shoveled snow and assembled cardboard boxes with him on forced labor details, stood in food lines with him, spent a week in solitary confinement with him in a Dresden jail cell, and stood by helplessly while his apartment was searched by the Gestapo.  I watched Eva sew a yellow star on his jacket, saw former friends and colleagues cross to the other side of the street when he walked by.  I heard the humiliating taunts and slurs, and the wailing and the crying as, first one at a time, then in large groups, the Jewish residents of the Dresden ghetto disappeared.  Then I heard the air-raid siren.
     Real news was hard to come by in the Dresden ghetto, in all Germany for that matter.  The Nazi propaganda machine saw to that.  And rumors were rampant, many of them false.  (One, for example, was that Churchill's aunt was buried in Dresden and as such the city would be spared destruction.)  Hard to come by, but not impossible.  Klemperer records in his diary (September 14, 1944) an evening in which a friend finds a copy of an old newspaper with a page summarizing events of the previous year.  They are wonderstruck by the tumultuous sweep of the world history they had so recently lived through, and find themselves overcome with a strange sensation:

     ...something else made a greater impression on us--it was the same for both Neumark and myself: the impotence of memory to fix all that we had so painfully experienced in time.  When--insofar as we remembered it at all--had this or that happened, when had it been?  Only a few facts stick in the mind, dates not at all.  One is overwhelmed by the present, time is not divided up, everything is infinitely long ago, everything is infinitely long in coming; there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, only an eternity.  

7.  "One Long Mobius Strip of Time..."

     Among the many casualties of Covid-19 is our perception of time.  Without jobs or classes, weekdays and weekends blur into one long Mobius strip of time, spent in gym clothes we no longer wear to the gym.  Unable to make plans (travel plans, business plans, wedding plans, even lunch plans), we are forced to live in a continuous present.  And yet, some days we feel we've been transported to a world imagined in a futuristic novel-- ...other days, we find ourselves in a time warp defined by old movies, old TV series...and reruns of classic sports games.
  Michiko Kakutani
The New York Times Book Review
May 17, 2020

   All this happened, more or less.  In the summer of 1989 I worked as a head counselor at a day camp out on the east end of Long Island.  I was still single, three years into my teaching career, spending another summer at my parents beach house picking up some extra money.  There were a bunch famous people's kids there.  Chris Jennings (son of the late ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings) was in my group, as was Kurt Vonnegut's daughter, Lily.  She had been adopted as an infant by Vonnegut (then sixty years old) and his second wife, photographer and author Jill Krementz.  She must have been nine or ten that summer, which would put Vonnegut around 70.
      I was a Vonnegut fan.  Reading him had been a formative adolescent experience, and although in adulthood I'd kind of put him aside, his books had always maintained a special place on my shelf and in my heart.  So when I learned that his daughter would be in my group, I was excited.  He'd show up maybe once or twice a week to pick her up, unmistakable with his thick moustache and bushy head of hair.  Early on in the summer I had gone back to my townhouse in New Jersey to pick up my first edition copy of Breakfast of Champions, with the intention of asking him to sign it.  I kept the book in my car, waiting for the opportunity, but every time I saw him I chickened out.
     It wasn't until mid-August, the last week of camp, that I got up the nerve to approach him.  Time was running out.  One afternoon during pick-up, book in hand, I asked him politely if he might sign it for me.  Without comment he took it and began to walk away, maybe 30 or 40 yards or so, to a bench under the shade of big tree near the camp's main building.  He motioned for me to follow.  We sat together on the bench, just a few feet apart.  He declined my pen, took out one of his own from a jacket pocket, opened the book, and began to write.  He sat there writing for what seemed like a long time, anyway much longer than it would take to just sign his name.  I studied his face, not daring to look at the book.  What was he doing?  I couldn't imagine.
     After what seemed like an eternity he got up, smiled, and handed the book back to me.  I stammered a nervous thank you.  He collected Lily, and the two of them went on their way.  Camp ended, and I never saw him again.
     I'm looking at the book now, a soon-to-be 59 year old man in the Covid-19 spring of 2020, trying to remember exactly what I did yesterday, and trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing today, tomorrow, and all the days after that.  And I'm also thinking back to that August afternoon in 1989.  I was 28 years old then, six years older than Kurt Vonnegut was when he climbed out of the meat locker in Dresden, Germany on that Valentine's Day in 1945; only four years younger than Victor Klemperer was on that same day, a day when, wandering around a city in flames, on a continent in ruin, he met a man who would forever capture the moment in a strange kind of amber, a man who, like him, would bear witness.
     A continuous present, a future world imagined, a time warp into the past.
     I bring you greetings from the planet Tralfamadore.



Friday, April 10, 2020

How One Experiences History

August 11, Sunday (1935)
     The feeling stronger every day for weeks now, it cannot go on like this much longer.  And yet it does go on and on.


     When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, Victor Klemperer was a professor of Romance Languages at the Technical University of Dresden.  Born in 1881 to a Jewish family, he converted to Christianity, married an Aryan woman, and served in the German Army in World War I.  He considered himself fully and completely German in every way.  Didn't matter.  According to the Nuremberg Laws he was Jewish, and now a state subject with no citizenship rights.


March 30, Thursday (1933)
   In fact I feel shame more than fear, shame for Germany.  I have truly always felt German.  I have always imagined: The twentieth century and Mitteleuropa was different from the fourteenth century and Romania.  Mistake.

     Klemperer (first cousin of the conductor Otto Klemperer) was a writer and a diarist, and his journals were published in 1995.  The ones covering the Nazi years are now standard primary sources for historians researching daily life in the Third Reich.  In the first volume, which covers the years 1935-1941, Klemperer recounts in excruciating detail the incremental erosion of his way of life: the loss of his job and the drastic reduction of his pension, the confiscation of his house and the move to the Dresden ghetto, the loss of his car and his phone, the loss of Jewish friends to emigration, deportation, jail, and suicide and gentile friends to fear of association, the loss of his freedom of movement, even the loss of his typewriter.  The curfews.  The stores where he can no longer shop.  The doctors he can no longer see.  The ration coupons.  The taunts on the streets.  The ever increasing restrictions, indignities, and humiliations.  The tightening of the noose around his neck. 


June 13, Wednesday (1934)
    And on every side consistent reports about the tremendous lack of money.  ...In addition, the constant rumors of war.  Everywhere uncertainty, ferment, secrets.  We live from day to day.  


    The two volume set of Klemperer's diaries has sat unread on my shelf for at least ten years, probably more like fifteen.  I bought them used ($6.00 each) at book sale.  Two reasons compelled me to pick Volume One up a few weeks ago: 1) I'm working on a project involving a diary from the year 1926 that my grandmother kept when she was 17 and I wanted to read a diary, and 2) the coronavirus.  What's it like to live through a time of uncertainty, fear, and societal disruption?  I thought, maybe a little perspective will help.  I mean, what we're living through now can't possibly be worse than living through the rise of the Third Reich.


December 2 (1935)
   Today it occurred to me: Never has the tension between human power and powerlessness, human knowledge and human stupidity been so overwhelmingly great as now.  

    Reading Klemperer's diary is like watching the replay of a train wreck, but in slow motion.  It's painful to read because he's recording in real time what we already know has happened, and speculating on what we already know will happen.  (Although he has reasons for staying in Germany,  I frequently found myself yelling at him, "Get out!  Now!")  He debates emigrating, but by the time he decides to leave it's too late.  The conversations he has with his friends and acquaintances, especially in those first years of the Third Reich, are heartbreaking.  They alternately look for any reason to feel optimistic (he tries tracking popular sentiment by keeping count of how many people greet each other with "Heil Hitler" and/or the Sieg Heil salute vs. how many with just "good morning" or "good day") and then descend into depression and fatalism.  They remind me of the conversations we've had, and are still having today, about the uncertainty of our future.  And I find myself thinking: What will someone in the future reading a diary that details what's going on now think?  That we were naive?  Brave?  Smart?  Doomed?  Delusional?  Will they be yelling at us?  Will they be proud of what we did or ashamed and embarrassed?  Are we headed for a train wreck and we just don't know it?  Or have we averted disaster in time?            


September 11, Sunday (1938)
    If I talk to the butcher or the butter man here in Dresden, then there will certainly be peace, but if (as the day before yesterday) I listen to Wolf, the car man, then, "Things are coming to a head now!"  If I read the newspaper, see and hear the film reports, then we're doing sooo well, we love the Fuhrer soo much and sooo unanimously---what is real, what is happening?  That's how one experiences history.  We know even less about today than about yesterday and no more than about tomorrow.


      Although I've yet to start Volume Two, I know what happens to Klemperer.  Two of only a handful left in the Dresden ghetto, he and his wife Eva flee the city during the Allied firebombing in February, 1945.  They join a refugee column and escape to American controlled territory.  He remains in what becomes East Germany, and continues his career as a respected and honored academic until his death in 1960.  He was one of the very few who made it through the inferno.  Europe, and the world, changed forever.  
   What about us?  Most immediately, how many of us won't make it?  How many will be permanently scarred?  What will the economic consequences be?  And: How does it end?  How do we know when it's over?  What will our world be like after?  What will we have learned about ourselves? What about next time?
   A few weeks ago my daughter asked if this was going to be in the history books.
   "It's going to be its own chapter!"  I told her.  "You're going to be telling your grandchildren about this."

July 9, toward evening (1941)
   Perhaps, probably, it is the greatest good fortune to experience so much world history.  But shall we survive it?


  I thought I knew a lot about this history.  Most Jews grow up learning about what happened in Germany when the Nazis took over.  Turns out there was a lot of stuff I didn't know.  Little details.  Like you weren't allowed to own pets.  (Klemperer goes to a vet to have their tomcat Muschel euthanized.)   Like when you were relocated to the ghetto and your house was turned over to someone else, you still had to pay the property taxes as well as for repairs and improvements.  (The greengrocer is given Klemperer's house and he has to cover the cost of a new roof.)  Like when the Nazis ordered you to wear the yellow star, when you went to pick it up you had to pay for it yourself.


  September 18 (1941), Thursday evening
     The "Jewish star," black on yellow cloth, at the center in Hebrew-like lettering "Jew," to be worn on the left breast, large as the palm of a hand, issued to us yesterday for 10 pfennigs, to be worn from tomorrow.   ...For the time being at least Eva will take over all the shopping, I shall breathe in a little fresh air only under the shelter of darkness.
   Today we were outside together in daylight for the last time.

May we all see daylight again soon.  

Eva and Victor Klemperer, 1940.