Monday, April 29, 2019

A Few Thoughts On "The Long Night" (SPOILERS)

Almost twenty years of fandom came down to one 80 minute episode of television. An episode that has had people gnawing fingernails and nervously fretting over the fates of their favorite characters since the episode was announced in early March. This was going to be THE episode. And I don't think it let down in the least. It wasn't perfect, but damn it was well executed and something of a masterpiece. It's the afternoon after now and I wrote the bulk of this in the morning, having separated myself from what I watched and read a few well-done reviews of the episode to add my two cents, which, let's be honest, it about what my thoughts are worth.

First, on Facebook last night, I made seven predictions. I'd love to say that was by design since we're dealing with the Seven Kingdoms, but it was nothing more than a lucky coincidence. Here were my predictions, which I'll deal with at the end:

  • I think the "dead are already here"/crypts concern is a feint. Something happens in the crypts, but I don't think it's what we're all think it is.
  • I don't think as many people are going to die as we think. I think they'll be a gratuitous death of Stark Soldier 1 or Eryie Soldier 2. 
  • Arya's up to something. 
  • I think Pod or Brienne die, but not both.
  • I can't help but feel like Melisandre plays a role in the battle. 
  • I can't help but feel like we get an unclean resolution to this plotline.
  • Cersei is involved somehow.
As for the episode itself (which I was 45 minutes behind on because my son wouldn't sleep...sorry Mara for shushing you via text meassage!), it was intense and brilliantly executed. I know that it was dark and difficult to see. I wound up turning off all the lights to watch it. But in the end, it didn't bother me at all. I think the lighting was a deliberate choice. We saw what was important when we needed to see it. Everything else was shown exactly the way we needed to see it: confusing chaos. It was actually pretty consistent with the way the show has approached other huge battles like this one. 

The writing, directing and editing were really good. Like I said, this wasn't flawless, but it was damn good. I'd love to see the script for this episode. Dialogue was sparse (30-40 lines, maybe?) but when there was dialogue, it was punctuated the importance of what was being said while more than occasionally offering us a respite from what was going on. Clegane's complete meltdown was terrific and a shout out to Hudson's "Game over man" and Sansa and Tyrion's conversation in the crypt were a sweet juxtaposition to the carnage happening above them. But as was a motif in this episode, Arya stole the dialogue cake with her "Stick them with the pointy end." I literally Horshacked when she said it.

Starting the episode from Sam's perspective was brilliant. In a lot of ways, he's our surrogate. We know where he's coming from. Most of us aren't soldiers or great fighters and I'd like to think most of us would stand in line to face the enemy. Sam is one of the best written characters on the show and John Bradley was made for the role. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Sam (for obvious reasons) and I still do now. 

The charge of the Dothraki with the fiery swords winking out one by one was just stellar. The whole scene was visually stunning. It was such an obvious choice and just ramped up the tension as each light winks out one by one until we are all just Jaime staring in disbelief. 

There's some justified criticism over the way the Dothraki and Unsullied were handled in this episode. It's bothersome to see the only characters of color sacrificed in the manner they were, especially considering the way they were treated by the Notherners in previous episodes. I suppose there's an argument to be made that it made sense for them to be where they were on the battlefield and the Unsullied were the only ones with any coherent battle plan that worked, but in the end they were little more than fodder and sacrificed for the sake of the "good" white people.

And to that end, Jon Snowgaryen is a SHIT general and he better find some help for the next 3 episodes. (What did Robb Stark say about winning battles but losing the war?)

The scenes with the dead wandering Winterfell were amazing. You go from this massive, epic fantasy battle scene of carnage and destruction to a quiet, delicate game of cat and mouse in the suddenly claustrophobic halls. The use of horror film conventions continued when the Night King raised the dead while stalking Bran. This was straight out of The Walking Dead or World War Z and it was creepy as hell as it extinguished all hope we may have been feeling. 

A note on some of the deaths:
  • Dolorous Edd: Bummer but I wasn't shocked. Sam's reaction was perfect.
  • Lyanna Mormont: We all wanted this little spitfire to survive and she was the first real "Nooooo" of the night. She was such a revelation and a brilliant character. The story of Lyanna the Giantslayer will be told every night to the Briemund babies for generations to come. 
  • Jorah Mormont:Totally expected, even money bet. As Vanity Fair (!) pointed out, the Mormont words are "Here we stand." Both deaths fits that. 
  • Theon Greyjoy: In fitting with the theme of redemption that has become a prevalent part of the show at this point, Theon arc has been such and important part of the show, the ending was both sad and satisfying. 
So, my predictions? Let's see how I did:
  • I was wrong about the crypts, but it was cheesy. There was enough tension in the crypts and they accomplished enough with the sounds of the battle above and the soldiers pounding on the door telling them to open up was more than enough. 
  • I was dead on about character deaths. It was just a gut feeling that this was going to be intense enough without characters we love dying. 
  • Arya wasn't initially up to something, but she came up in the end, didn't she? (What are the odds that she winds up on the Throne with Gendry, a Baratheon, at her side?)
  • Pod and Brienne both made it. 
  • Let me come back to the resolution.
  • Okay, all Cersei wanted was elephants and even the Night King couldn't provide those!
As for the unclear resolution, I still think it's unclear. Sure, the previews seem to imply there's some rebuilding and celebrating, though Sansa seems to be doing a lot of glaring in the preview. There seems to be a remnant of sorts of the army (Maybe Jon is off recruiting help...the Dornish? The Ironborn? The Manderlys in White Harbor?) There has to be more to Bran's arc. We've spent so much time talking about the Three-Eyed Raven, why would we just abandon that? 

I was so jacked, that I didn't wind up going to bed until almost 2 this morning. I was literally shaking during portions of the episode. I also walked away pretty bummed. I fancy myself a writer of epic fantasy. There's no way I could write a battle that amazing. (I still have to finish Wheel of Time, where the final battle took 81k words to tell.) I've got time though. I can work on that skill, right?

Anyway, it was another iconic episode to an iconic show. It doesn't seem that long ago that talking about epic fantasy in public earned long side-eyes and people taking three steps back from you.

As for things I never thought you'd be able to talk about in public without scorn, I'm going to see Endgame Tuesday, so I'll have thoughts about that then.

In the mean time, there's only 3 episodes left. And I think I know the title of one of them...THE CLEGANE BOWL!

Friday, April 26, 2019

My Students Think I'm A Serial Killer

Too many times when I write about school it's negative. Part of it is that writing is a form of on-the-fly therapy for me. It's easier and cheaper than paying someone, that's for sure. Writing gives me a chance to reflect and react to what's happened while helping me "clear the chamber." I thought I'd change that around a little bit today and talk about something that happened in my class that was pretty positive.

I have a pretty good rapport with my students despite myself. I'm big. I'm loud. I'm abrasive. To some, I'm remarkably (and inexplicably) intimidating. I can be overly demanding. I preach a degree of independence that many of them aren't prepared for. I praise begrudgingly, a product of my own upbringing that I'm working hard at changing for the sake of my own children, who respond vastly better to positive reinforcement than negative. However, once they "get me," they are almost always all in with what I'm doing. Sure, I still frustrate them, but as time goes on it is more of an amused frustration on their part at my own foibles and my exasperation at their's. I've joked with one administrator that I'm an acquired taste that isn't usually appreciated until a year or two later. This week that connection felt really strong.

We're doing a second research paper in class. My students need the practice, especially considering so many of them intend to go to college in the fall. Their first research projects were mostly mediocre, occasionally good and largely horrendous. (At least the ones that were actually submitted...what were you DOING in the library? Wait, that's another blog!) Inspired by the story behind Jeff Pearlman's brilliant FOOTBALL FOR A BUCK, students are allowed to research whatever the want, however they want. Yes, I'm opening a Pandora's box, but I think the students need the help.

As part of my introduction to the unit, I talked about two things that I'd recently researched: knives and how to tie knots.  My first period, a relatively quiet, intelligent and kind of nerdy group, said nothing, but certainly side-eyed me. My next class, a more vocal, rambunctious group, didn't hesitate.

"Yo, Z, that's super creepy," one announced alongside a chorus of affirmations concerning my sudden interest in knives and knots.

"No,no," I said, more nervous than I would've liked as the realization dawned on me. "It's only because I was cleaning out my shed over break."

"Z, you just made it creepier," another student said to uproarious laughter. I lost the room. And I was okay with that. There was a joy in listening to the students detail how they now had it in their mind that I was some kind of serial killer. They proceeded to ask really good questions, which I've been told is the sign of good teaching.

"What's in your shed that you need a knife for?"
"Z, who's watching your kids while this is happening?"
"What do you need to tie up in your shed?"
"Why knots?"
"Where is your wife?"

I only made it worse while explaining that I needed a new knife because I hid my previous pocket knife from my niece, who had found it in the basement, and couldn't find it. I needed it because I had several "person-sized" cardboard boxes in my shed that needed breaking down. Questions turned to good-natured but harsh ribbing about me potentially being a serial killer. (I mean look at my white board, for crying out loud):

All that's missing is a cipher....

Moments like there are part of teaching. What did my students learn? I'm not sure, but for a few moments, we were bonding, laughing and talking about how funny language can be. Three days later, students are still asking me if my new knife came (it did) and was I having any luck taking care of my "boxes" or if I'd learned any new knots. I smiled. Maybe I'm getting through. I mean it's almost May.

For now, this is Zodiac speaking.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Implication of Explicit Contrarianism

I lost my temper with a student today.

This isn't so unusual, though when you work at a place where you are told to suck a dick or eat an ass on a regular basis it becomes harder to do than it used to. It happened during an unnecessary classroom discussion and there is a part of me that feels guilty that I lost control. Another part of me is just bone weary at this point.

We are reading The Great Gatsby. It's the first time I've taught it in a few years and, in addition to being one of my favorite books of all time, it's one of my favorite books to teach. As part of today's lesson, students were required to read The Samuel Vimes "Boots" Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness the write a response to it and discuss whether they agreed or disagreed. There really isn't an argument for disagreeing with the theory, especially considering the context of the lesson. But that didn't stop one student from raising his hand with a question, though it was more of a comment than a question. He didn't agree saying that there was nothing in the text saying that Sam couldn't afford the boots except for his own unwillingness to save in order to buy them. I then attempted to explain that it's implied in the text. He turned it around to make completely unrelated, made up and absurd implications about the text. ("But her emails!") I further explained that one of the difficulties his generations has (get off my damn lawn) is that they are unable or unwilling to understand implication and subtext. There is a necessity for everything to be explicit. (See the ongoing debate over The Last Jedi.) The discussion wound up slowly eating itself like a verbal Worm Ouroboros. Exasperated, I explained that he was just being a contrarian. He looked at me with a puzzled look and I explained that he was just arguing for the sake of arguing. In other words, he was just being a dick. He took offense to this though I think it was more about being told he needed everything in a text spelled out for him.

Cleverly, he turned that around on me saying that the sign someone has lost a debate is when one person insult's the other's character. From a certain perspective, he may have been right. Class time was bleeding away and I was taking far too much time away from the needs of other students to engage in this roundabout that was going no where. I'm all for vigorous discussion in my classroom, but this wasn't the time to play devil's advocate for the sake of playing devil's advocate, especially when there is an obvious disingenuousness to it. Having been the person that will throw a verbal hand grenade for the sole person of agitating a situation, I eventually saw what he was doing. And I walked right into it.

I usually don't allow this to happen but it certainly felt like this kid was just trying to poke the bear. And waste time. I'm a tangent taking type of teacher and said student took full advantage of it to spend a chunk of writing time to run around in circles to overcomplicate a simple concept just to go against the grain. And I lost my temper.

For a moment, I felt bad about it. Until said student, with a straight face and no irony, asked if he could be excused from the assignment because he didn't have time to finish it. I made sure I was explicit this time.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The Return of the NAFL, Part 2: The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

A few months back, I made a post about how Jeff Pearlman's brilliant FOOTBALL FOR A BUCK inspired me to revive an old pastime I had involving a fake football league I used to run. I reorganized and started up the old league, then set it aside, until this past week after finishing an interesting book that's got me thinking about it again.

I found Robert Coover's THE UNIVERSAL BASEBALL ASSOCIATION, INC., J. HENRY WAUGH, PROP by accident. (Isn't that usually the case?) I was looking up Fictional Sports Teams on Wikipedia, (yes, Friday nights aren't what they used to be) and I came across an entry for Universal Baseball Association. I'd never heard of it and went immediately to Google. The book was hard to find and thankfully the New York Public Library had a Kindle version available. (If you live in NY and don't have a NYPL card, go get Seriously, I'll wait.) It was a riveting read that I couldn't put down and had me thinking about it when I was forced to put it down for reasons beyond my control. In some ways it was a bizarre parallel to the novel's main character. To him the real world was nothing more than an inconvenience to the imaginary world that he had created on his kitchen table with some laminated charts, a notebook and a few sets of dice.

Henry is an aging accountant that lives alone in an unnamed city. (My head canon has it as the same city as the movie SEVEN.) He spends his day trudging away as an accountant for the ominously named Dunkelman, Zauber and Zifferblatt firm while his free time is occupied by the Universal Baseball Association. Based on a self-created, complex Strat-o-matic-esque paper and dice game, Henry runs the entire eight team league by himself. Based loosely on teams from the earliest, pre-integration days of baseball, the league is the focal point of a massive, elaborate universe that rivals any epic fantasy world I've experienced.

Layered, complex and vivid, Henry's world is more than just numbers of paper. The scope is massive, fifty-six years of baseball, from the Hot Stove (Blue Season) to the championship all collected in a narrative he calls the "Book," a collection of everything from league documents to newspaper stories and features. He's created dozens and dozens and dozens of well-rounded characters with complicated backstories that we follow as the narrative weaves in and out of some kind of Walter Mitty-esque reality. I found the story of the UBA more riveting than the one Henry was experiencing as he descends into madness over something that happens in the game. One of the players, a promising rookie pitcher with pedigree and personality is killed on the field in a freak accident that Henry rolls. He knows it's going to happen and doesn't alter the results, even though as the creator of the game he could. The death of this player slowly erodes Henry's sanity.

It's easy to dismiss. Who would be that affected by the death of a fictional character? I present Ned Stark, Charlotte, Lenny Small, Artax, Sturm Brightblade, Old Yeller, Leslie Burke...I'll stop. You get my meaning. Now imagine that you had the ability to stop that death from happening and chose not to because you are a stickler to the rules. (There's a Ned Stark's honor parallel here that I could make, but don't feel like it.) There's also some intense religious/creationism motifs going on. Henry is God to his world and you can't help but wonder is there a guy at a kitchen table playing a dice game about our world somewhere. The book was really good, especially if you are a sports fan and I think it's a must for a baseball fan.

Baseball always lends itself to the written word It could be the sport's longevity and its reliance on words to express the story of the game, both verbally or written. Even now, in what could be best described as the twilight of baseball, books about the sport are still popular. Whether that's because of some sense of nostalgia or the mythic nature of the sport's past, I don't know if I'm smart enough to say.

As for the NAFL, I've been playing with a revived version the last few months with an eye for using it for something, though I couldn't say what. I don't have a game, I just sort of make up the results. I never had the attention span for Strat-o-matic. I'm not clever enough to create a game of my own. I'm not much of a video gamer. I like the power of controlling the narrative, so that's what I'm doing for now. I'll have to come up with an alternative at some point but for now, it has been a great way to avoid my social networks, so if nothing else it's worth it. For now, it's for some weird entertainment, though I'm seriously thinking about ways to turn this into something...I just don't know what to call it.