Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ghosts of Presents Past

There actually are such things as professional historians. I don’t happen to be one of them despite a degree in history from George Washington University. Nevertheless, my interest persists and sometimes leaks into other activities. The project mentioned in an earlier blog of working through the DVDs that have been collecting dust on my shelves (see On Dust and Disks) experienced just such a leak. The value of these movies for a historian is hard to miss.

Historians specializing in the 20th and 21st centuries have a huge advantage over those studying earlier eras, and it’s not just that first-hand witnesses are still alive. Even after all those witnesses have died, the movies will continue provide vivid images of past everyday life down to very small details. The movies sometimes reveal just as much by what they leave out, such as diversity in early-60s beach party movies or kisses longer than three seconds (a Hays Code limit) in movies of the 1940s.

Below are the most recently viewed baker’s dozen of dusted-off DVDs. Each film is very much of its time, yet each also is in some way timeless – and it is the latter way that makes them more than archaeological artifacts.

The Plastic Age (1925) – In this 1920s college drama, innocent young athlete Hugh starts off well at the fictional Prescott College, but soon is corrupted by party girl Cynthia (Clara Bow). Realizing that she is destroying him, she gives him up for his own good. He gets back on his feet and plays as quarterback in a big football game which Cynthia, of course, watches anonymously from the stands. (Speaking of football, the nasty rumors still repeated about Clara Bow and the USC team are untrue; she was a fan and did invite the team among other guests to her house for a party, but that’s all there was to it.) Hugh and Cynthia reconcile on graduation day.

Wings (1927) – More Clara Bow in the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Clara joins the Women’s Motor Corps in World War 1 so she can be closer to her sweetheart pilot who barely knows she exists. There is remarkable aerial footage for the day, plus a melodramatic backstory of romance and friendship in war.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – Moderately good noir, though no more than moderately good. It has an undeservedly outsized reputation mostly due to the presence of Marilyn Monroe. She does successfully deliver the very tough line, “Haven’t you bothered me enough, you big banana-head?” without laughing. I’m sure that in a remake, the Coen brothers would change the vocabulary.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – Wonderfully creepy low-budget sf/horror movie, which I prefer to any of the remakes.

Scarface (1932) – Despite the backdrop of Miami and cocaine instead of Chicago and Prohibition, the 1983 version with Al Pacino owes plenty to this Howard Hughes original starring Paul Muni, right down to the incestuous undertones of Tony’s relationship to his sister.

Match Point (2005) – Woody Allen’s movie of murder and intrigue in which luck, not karma, determines the outcome. This is very much Woody’s sense of reality, and it is a postmodern one with which I don’t argue.

Heavy Metal (1981) – Several clever animated science fiction tales are tied together by an overarching story, and all are replete with adolescent sexuality: that’s not an insult, just a description. This film inspired The Fifth Element.

Something Wild (1986) – An apparent romantic comedy takes an unexpected midway turn to danger and violence. This suspense film with Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith should be better known than it is. In the 80s and 90s I used to date women like Melanie’s character. This film reminds me why I stopped.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) – This silent was filmed in Weimar Republic Germany, though it stars Kansas-born Louise Brooks. Unmarried teen Thymian has a child, so Thymian’s hypocritical father sends her to a girls’ reformatory while handing the baby to a midwife. The reformatory is run by a cruel and perverse sadomasochistic couple, so she escapes with another girl who takes a plainly sexual interest in her. She finds out the baby has died in the midwife’s care. She then goes to work in a brothel for a kindly old madam and marries a Count. Yes, 1929.

American Psycho 2 (2002) – This is not a cult classic like American Psycho, but it has enough twisted humor to be enjoyable. Mila Kunis is a psychopath pursuing a college path so she can join the FBI and catch psychopaths.

Malibu High (1979) – In the 1970s, home video players still were uncommon and cable offerings were fairly limited. In the niche currently occupied by straight-to-video (STV) movies was a distinctive type of low-budget film with sexual content just on the R side of X (presently NR-17); the primary target audience was late teens. It came to be called “the drive-in movie.” Drive-ins had been around for 40 years by that time, of course, and hadn’t been associated previously with any one kind of film, but in the 70s, as a way of competing with the new multiplexes, the outdoor screens were dominated by these cheap semi-erotic movies. Most were dreadful. A few weren’t so bad. Malibu High is one of the not-so-bads, though that by no means should be mistaken to mean “good.” It means not so bad. A high school senior facing failing grades and a dead end future turns her life around by seducing teachers, moonlighting as a hooker, and then becoming a contract killer. Then she goes too far.

Red Dust (1932) – This steamy precode is set on a rubber plantation in French colonial Indochina. Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor, and Gene Raymond act up with each other in various combinations. One reviewer at the time grumbled, “The title is off by one letter.”

Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) – The late Norman Mailer is an exasperating author who mixes brilliance with tripe on the same page – sometimes in the same sentence. (Ancient Evenings is my favorite of his novels, by the way.) That makes the tripe worse than it otherwise would be, because it always seems he could do better – that may be unfair, but pick up one of his books and see if you don’t have the same response. Or, just pick up this movie which Norman Mailer wrote and directed. It, too, is a jarring mix of high drama/comedy and bad soap opera: the dialogue is alternately brilliant and stupid; credible characters intermingle with impossible ones; human insights are inseparable from obtuseness. Interweaved with it all, there is an inexplicable and utterly irrelevant homophobia.

I played most of these films plus/minus the midnight hour, and every one of them is an entertaining way to end a day. Each also leaves me free to deny such frivolity of purpose, and instead to insist haughtily, “I’m studying cultural history.”

Gable to Harlow in Red Dust: “Don’t you know we drink that water?”

Norman Acknowledges His Duality in Trailer to Tough Guys Don’t Dance

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Round One

Last night’s roller derby event in Morristown was a double-header: New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) vs. Jersey Shore Roller Girls (JSRG) Beat Down, and Skyland Roller Girls vs. State College Area Roller (SCAR) Derby Happy Valley Dolls. The teams alternated on the track for each half. It was the first ever formal bout for the NJRD, the brand new Morristown league hosting the event on its home track.

New teams usually have serious flaws that don’t always show up in practice; it takes them a while to become serious competitors. I frankly expected something close to a massacre of the NJRD by Beat Down, a very impressive team whom I’ve seen skate on previous occasions. That’s not what happened. Pixie Bust, the NJRD founder (along with coach Starsky and Miss USAHole) and co-captain, had told me previously that they planned to be very aggressive on the track, and they were. The hits were hard and frequent, and the largely neophyte NJRD blockers were effective at impeding Beat Down jammers while opening holes for their own. The NJRD held its own in the first half, for a time getting hold of the lead. The veteran JSRG regained the edge, however, and slowly built on it; #131 Maureen Langer stood out as an exceptional jammer. At halftime the score was 90/75 in favor of the JSRG; this was still in anybody-can-win territory. The Achilles Skate of the NJRD was revealed toward the end of the second half, though it’s one that no doubt will be corrected in time. For jammers, the NJRD relied entirely on its two most experienced and powerful skaters, Pixie Bust and Miss USAHole. They were very effective, but Pixie’s aggressive strategy proved a bit too aggressive for the refs, and she was removed from the bout. (This took her by surprise. “I’ve never been ejected,” she gasped afterward.) This left Miss USAHole to skate jam after jam in a marathon performance; she did well at it, despite taking solid hits and spills, but it must have been grueling. The JSRG expanded its lead, winning with a final score of 187/138. It was a loss for the NJRD, but a very respectable one for a first bout against tough opposition.

Slyland’s home track is Hackettstown, NJ, which is less than hour from Morristown, though it’s not a team I regularly follow. (Hey, I think I’m obsessive enough with just the Morristown ones.) For the purposes of this bout, however, they were the home team against SCAR, who made a long trip from the Penn State area to participate. The two were pretty closely matched in a bout that got increasingly rough as it progressed. Special mention to #1793 Queen Guillotine (evidently a history buff) for Skyland and Hell’s Mels for SCAR. The scoring remained close throughout, ending with a 120/104 win for SCAR.

It may not surprise the reader that I plan to be back for future bouts. A special shout-out to the NJRD for its opening performance; to all the team-members whose names I don’t mention on all of the teams, you’re all noticed regardless.

Team Links 

Friday, April 20, 2012

On Fords and Magic

If there is one vehicle I regret having sold, it is my 1979 Ford F150, which I had bought new in 1979. About a decade ago I inherited a nearly new GMC Sierra; two pickups seemed one too many at the time. Oh well. I liked the Ford because it was simple, useful, and reliable. However, it did have a quirk common in that year’s models with automatic transmissions. The shift didn’t always slide easily into Park; so, it was easy to assume you were in Park when in fact the shift had stopped just shy of it. When perched precariously in that position, the shift could slip back into Reverse. (Ford mailed out gum-backed dashboard labels with a warning about this.) This caught me only once, though that was enough. I had exited the truck to open the garage door. Suddenly the F150 was off on its own backwards journey. I ran after it yelling, “Stop!” For some reason the truck didn’t listen to me. It kept going. The truck arced to the left, entered the woods, and smacked into a tree. Wisely, it had navigated past two big black birches, and had chosen a young cedar instead. The flexible cedar stopped the Ford without noticeably damaging the steel step-bumper. Nevertheless, I always double-checked the shift thereafter.

My point is not really about a favorite truck, but about shouting at it and attempting to alter its course through emphatic gestures. That’s both anthropomorphism and sympathetic magic. I endeavor to keep my world view a skeptical one. I disbelieve unlikely (but physically possible) assertions until proper evidence is presented, such as the claims of large animal crypto-biology (sasquatch, yeti, Champ, etc.). I don’t think earth’s swamps and power lines are being buzzed by the flying saucers of alien abductors. Most especially, I don’t believe in effects without mechanisms (magic); fanciful mechanisms without demonstrable basis – such as the microchlorians that mediate the Force in the Star Wars universe – don’t count. At least, I don’t believe in any of that intellectually. When acting on instinct I apparently give magic a shot.

So does everyone else. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy, but it is the way people are wired to learn. It is easy to see why. Early humans had little time (or information) to reason out what was causation and what was just coincidence. Perhaps a gust of wind and the flutter of frightened birds preceded a recent predator attack. Only one of those was caused by the presence of the predator, but it was safer to be alert the next time either recurred. Stopping to think about it was a good way to end up as dinner for a saber-tooth cat. If some big cat appeared but chose not to attack (it was full, perhaps) after one of our ancestors performed some meaningless action (say, a few dance steps or a short recitation), s/he was likely to perform that ritual again the next time the animal appeared because it seemed to have been successful at warding off the danger. Superstitions are thus born. Humans are not alone in making false connections this way: see Superstition in the Pigeon by B.F. Skinner. Pigeons develop meaningless rituals when fed on a random schedule; they repeat what they did (turn left, head-bob, or whatever) just before a previous feeding; then, simply because they do it more often, just by the odds the ritual is more likely to precede another feeding, which reinforces the behavior. A few pointless superstitions are a small price to pay for the ability to learn rituals that actually are useful, such as, for early humans, pointing a row of spears in the direction of the threat. (Cats are not cowards, but they are realists, and they don’t like to charge at pointy sticks.) Those dance steps won’t help at all, but on the other hand they won’t hurt.

Old joke:
“What do I do if the parachute doesn’t open?”
“Flap your arms.”
“Will that help?”
“It won’t hurt.”

Sympathetic magic requires more imagination than is found in a typical pigeon, but all humans indulge in it. Post hoc thinking also accounts for much of this. Bad things occur to people all the time, so, if you stick a pin in a voodoo doll, some ill fortune is bound to befall your intended victim eventually. The pin seems to have worked. Most of us don’t cast spells this directly, but simply offering our “best wishes” or saying “good luck,” as we all do, is just as much an attempt at magic. Who doesn’t try to influence rolling dice by thought and (sometimes) voice command? Also, studies show that people throw dice harder when they want higher numbers, as though this could help; harder effort gets a bigger result in some activities, so we apply the same strategy even though for dice it makes no sense.

So, it’s impossible to shake ourselves free of magical thinking entirely. It is part of being human. Still, it is worthwhile to engage in skeptical critical thinking now and then, if only for the practice. It, too, is a survival skill, at least when we have the time for reflection. We would not have evolved the capacity for it if it were not – in the modern world, it may be our most important skill. That won’t stop me from waving directions to runaway trucks, of course. And, if it makes you feel better to poke pins in dolls representing your enemies, well, what’s the harm?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On a Roll

Spring has arrived and so have the season-openers for an iconic American-born sport. No, not baseball. Women’s roller derby.

The original mixed-gender big league roller derby teams, despite enthusiastic and loyal audiences, folded more than 30 years ago. For a variety of reasons the teams simply stopped making money. (See Wheel Appeal for more on the history of the sport: The revival of roller derby in the 21st century as an all-female sport, however, has been swift and dramatic. There now are hundreds of leagues in the US and hundreds more around the world.

So far, there has not been a major recentralization of derby. For now, organizationally, derby is pleasantly anarchic with new leagues (and new teams within leagues) springing up in odd places every year. They most commonly skate in fairly small venues with ad hoc bout schedules. (There are national associations and an all star Team USA, it should be noted, who won the world championship last December in Toronto.)

The nearest roller derby venue to my door is in Morristown. The home rink for the Jerzey Derby Brigade league is there, and the two established teams of the Brigade, the Corporal Punishers and the Major Pains, originally were scheduled to open the season last night with a bout against each other. More about that in a moment.

The Jerzey Derby Brigade no longer is alone in Morristown. The new league in town, New Jersey Roller Derby held a fundraiser Friday night at The Famished Frog sidebar. I attended. The lottery ticket I obtained from Desiree Rinker, aka Rink E Dink, was off by one digit, so I didn’t win the Wii, but I did catch up with a friend at the bar and chatted with a couple of the skaters. The new league is the brainchild of Kristy Maloney (aka Pixie Bust) formerly one of the Corporal Punishers’  strongest (and photogenic) skaters. I asked Pixie why she started the NJRD. Aside from the desire to do something on her own, she said she was hoping to create an especially feisty league. “Derby is supposed to be intense,” she said. She added that the 19 members include neophytes (“fresh meat” is the preferred term) as well as experienced skaters. The first formal bout will be April 21 against the Jersey Shore Roller Girls Beat Down. I’ve seen the Beat Down girls skate before; they will be very tough competition for the new NJRD. We’ll see if intensity is enough to prevail against them.

Meanwhile, back at the Jerzey Derby Brigade, last night’s intra-league bout was modified from the initial plan of a face-off of the two formal teams. Instead, skaters from the league were divided into two divisions sporting seasonally appropriate Easter-egg shades of Purple and Green. The two were well matched (see lineup below), and the score, accordingly, remained close until well past halftime. Heinz Catchup, Ginger-Ail, and Voldeloxx stood out for the Greens, and Baked Beanz, Maggie Kyllanfall, and ASSault Shaker for the Purples. Even a small edge can build up a lead over on hour of playing time, however; Maggie and Assault largely accounted for extra power on the Purple side. The final scoreboard read 133-81, advantage Purple. Other skaters on each team (Dorothy Punker and Raven Rage among others) also displayed energy and competence. The Brigade looks to be in shape for upcoming interleague bouts.

Kids from the Peter Smith School of Irish Dance provided the half-time show. The performance was a little unexpected for the venue, but then the side events at derby bouts often are. The kids certainly had learned their steps.

Anyone who hasn’t seen a local derby team skate (there is likely to be one near you) is advised to try it. You may find it addictive, as I have, but at least it’s an addiction that comes without a hangover.

 Jerzey Derby Brigade

NJRD (Pixie on Left)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

On Dust and Disks

There is a problem with DVDs – with view-on-demand, too, but more especially with DVDs. Perhaps you’ve noticed it. Typically, we buy a particular DVD (or, at least, I do) only when we expect to view it more than once. At anywhere between 2 and 6 times the price of a typical pay-per-view cable movie (depending on the film’s age, popularity, format, and copyright status), a DVD is just a little too pricey for view-once-and-discard. Yet, once we put it on a shelf, the DVD tends to stay there. Why? Precisely because it is readily available.

There was a time when if, say, The Philadelphia Story (1940) or Midnight (1939) appeared on TCM or some other channel, I’d be sure to tune in. Now I don’t bother because both are in my collection and can be viewed anytime. Yet, it’s been more than a year since I’ve watched either. Toward the end of March, I at last decided either to put them all on eBay or play them. So, for the past couple weeks (skipping only a few days) I’ve been working methodically through them, starting at the bottom shelf, and have watched one per night before bed. Oh, I’ve cheated a little: some of the DVDs are multipacks containing mostly dreadful fare along with a few gems. I watch only one movie from each multipack. If I really can’t force myself to watch a DVD (or at least one from a pack), I figured, it shouldn’t be taking up space in my house at all. So far, even though I often wasn’t quite “in the mood” at the start of a film, I soon got into the mood and haven’t regretted a single one. It turns out that there was a reason I bought the DVDs after all. These are the forced views to date.

Murder, My Sweet (1944) – Simply marvelous. The character Ann Grayle, after saying she hates men, adds, “I hate their women, too - especially the ‘big league blondes.’ Beautiful, expensive babes who know what they've got... all bubble bath, and dewy morning, and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold - cold like that... only not that clean.” Come on, what’s not to love about dialogue like that?

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – Fun in the old monster-meets-girl tradition. Regrettably, my version is not 3D. The original theatrical release was.

Assault of the Killer Bimbos (1988) – OK, I regretted this one a little, but just a little.

The Big Sleep (1946) – Bogie and Bacall in one of the best noirs ever made. It’s easy to lose track of the plot the first time you see it (it makes sense the second time), but it doesn’t matter. It’s fun to watch regardless.

Girl Shy (1924) – Harold Lloyd at his best. This is the silent movie I recommend to people who think they don’t like silent movies. Harold, terrified of women, writes a book on how to seduce them. Very very funny.

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939) – Interesting film simply because of the time frame. Released on the eve of World War 2, the movie sports an Imperial Japanese secret agent as hero. He thwarts a plot against the Suez Canal and a world war. (If only.)

Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965) – Sublime trash. I blogged about this last year when actress Tura Satana died.

World Without End (1956) – Surprisingly good post-apocalyptic science fiction. An accident with velocity and time dilation lands astronauts in the distant future where they find effete humans hiding underground while the surface is dominated by dangerous mutants.

It (1927) – The other silent film I recommend to people who think they don’t like silents. Clara Bow at her most charming.

The Palm Beach Story (1942) – Sophisticated comedy in which a woman (Claudette Colbert) unapologetically leaves her husband (Joel McCrea) to find someone wealthier, which she does. The ending is contrived, though it makes sense out of the very beginning which, until then, is baffling. But this is 1942. I detect sour irony: a nod to the audience in that dark year that contrived happy endings are the only kind of happy endings there are. (The last words on the screen are “And they lived happily ever after…or did they?”)

Last night, though, I gave myself a break. What with? A DVD, but a new one which proved to be at least as good as the average of the ones above. Dirty Girl, with Milla Jovavich and Juno Temple, flew almost completely under the radar in theaters last year. Critics noticed it though, and with good reason. Juno’s character, raised by a single mom, thinks the father she never met might save her from her unhappy life, not wanting to ask why he hadn’t been in her life previously; her gay friend meanwhile needs to escape from his dad altogether. The trailer to this film is misleading; it creates the expectation that this is just another low-brow high school movie, though set for some strange reason in 1987 Oklahoma. The opening scenes reinforce that expectation. The film, however, takes a very different and very sentimental turn. Sentiment in teen movies doesn’t always work well, but this time it does.

So, my recommendation: skip the reality TV shows. Dust off those DVDs on your shelf and play them; let them earn their keep.

Second recommendation: skip the DVDs some nights, too, for the real world. Tomorrow is a meet and greet of Morristown’s newest roller derby team (New Jersey Roller Derby) and Saturday is an intra-league bout of the two established teams. I’m going to both.

Trailer (double-click for full screen)

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Room with a Queue

I drove a friend to the NJMVC (which most folks still stubbornly call the DMV though it’s been years since the name change) the other day for her driving test. She passed. Home free? No, nothing is so simple anymore. Her ID documents (birth certificate, passport, transcript, etc) were declared inadequate because a bank statement she had brought as proof of her current address was more than 60 days old. So, we were off to the closest Bank of America for a current stamped and signed statement and then back again to the long lines at the NJMVC. By the end of a long day she had her license.

This sort of thing is not confined to the NJMVC. All of the persnicketiness about identity at the state and federal level in the US arrived after 9/11, supposedly for security reasons. It doesn’t help much. There are an estimated 11 million illegal aliens in the US who apparently are untroubled by the precautions. In truth, though assembling the documents is a major nuisance for honest citizens, there is not a single required document that can’t be counterfeited adequately on Photoshop. Dishonest folks (presumably the intended targets of security) aren’t much deterred. Nonetheless, there is no sign of any scaling back of such dubiously effective but definitely irritating measures.

Younger people, though as annoyed at queues and bureaucracy as the rest of us, are unaware of just how different this is from years past. I often marvel at the lack of security and surveillance with which I grew up. When I was in college the USA was not a tranquil place. The nation was at war in Vietnam. At the same time it was in a Cold War. There were racial, political, and anti-war riots. There were homegrown terrorist groups (e.g. the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground) who robbed banks, planted bombs, and considered themselves insurrectionists. Yet, everyday security was so relaxed that I could and did walk into the Capitol Building in DC and wander around alone, including into the basement where there are paintings, getting no more in the way of a challenge than a smile from one aging security guard I passed. I sometimes took Shuttle flights between DC and Newark, for which there were no advance tickets. Completely anonymously, and with no preliminary metal detector or pat-down, any passenger just walked on the plane (either a DC9 or a 727) and bought a ticket from the flight attendant, just as on a commuter train; if a plane filled up, another one was added to the flight list. No names asked. At the local county courthouse, where nowadays everyone funnels through detectors and past guards at only two entrances, there were a dozen unlocked and unguarded entrances. Surveillance cameras were almost nonexistent outside of businesses at high risk for conventional crime, such as liquor stores and banks.

This changed over the course of the 70s thanks mostly to a series of airliner highjacks to Cuba and the Middle East. The Weather Underground also contributed by setting off a small bomb in a men’s bathroom in the Capitol. As we know too well, stricter measures didn’t stop politically motivated attacks.

Nowadays, we expect to be surveilled pretty much everywhere. Even when a traffic light changes to red while we’re still in an intersection, we’re likely to get a ticket in the mail accompanied by a photograph. We carefully empty our pockets of as much as a penknife if we have to enter any public building. We wear shoes we can remove and put on easily when we travel so they can be scanned. We need documents and more documents – and sometimes fingerprints.

It’s not at all clear we have made ourselves any safer as a result. I suspect we frustrate ourselves far more than we frustrate the plans of those who mean us harm: they’re very unlikely to be standing in line at the DMV.

For all the popular cheering of the “Don’t touch my junk!” guy a couple years ago, I doubt there is any chance of the rules easing anytime soon, if ever. In fact, now there is a firmly established security industry (including the government employees) to lobby against any changes. If an 80s scifi movie was prescient, though, those employees still face the possibility of redundancy through automation.

Robot Security Goes Haywire When Lightning Jolts the Mainframe. Don’t You Hate When That Happens?

When It’s Not Robots with Kelli, It’s Zombies

Sunday, April 1, 2012

School as a Contact Sport

I recently watched a DVD of Diablo Cody’s wickedly and eccentrically funny Young Adult (2011). Charlize Theron stars as a 37 y.o. writer of a series of young adult novels that has just been canceled. A former high school queen, she feels she has lost her way and so returns to her home town to rekindle a romance with her former (now married) high school flame. She accidentally encounters another former classmate “Matt” (Patton Oswalt). Matt had a brief moment of fame in school for having been mercilessly beaten by homophobes; however, as soon as the media discovered he was not, in fact, gay, they lost interest because the assault no longer was news as a hate crime.

Few of us, fortunately, encounter school bullying as brutal as that faced by Patton’s character, but nearly all of us face some degree of it – and more people than ever will admit to it must have been the bullies, at least on occasion. In my old prep school of 120 students (grades 7-12), before I was a junior, by which time I had outgrown being handled easily, I was stuffed into a locker, pummeled on buses, hung over a porch rail by my feet (it was an 8 foot drop to asphalt), and sprayed by a fire extinguisher, among many other things. It wasn’t even especially personal. I was just handy. Other underclassmen would have served as well, and just as often did. My experience was pretty typical, and I didn’t think that much about it. (I actually liked my school on balance.)

The psychology of the time was very different from today when it came to official responses to these incidents. No one ever considered calling the police. There were no lawsuits. To be sure, bullying was never “OK”; if a faculty member spotted it, there was punishment. Yet, never in my six years there was there an expulsion or suspension for it; all punishments were of the in-school kind such as Saturday detentions and work details. This was part of a broader instinct to keep the law out of campus issues; kids caught with marijuana, for instance, were turned over not to the police, as they likely would be today, but to their parents.

Today, we are all about Zero Tolerance. This term is a misnomer, because school administrations in my benighted schooldays did not “tolerate” bullying any more than administrations do today – they intervened whenever it came to their attention – but they responded in a measured way. By Zero Tolerance we really mean more extreme punishment; we “set an example for others” with more punitive responses. Though this has led to more minors being charged with criminal offenses, it is not at all evident there has been any reduction in bullying as a result. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case.

Some anti-bullying experts take an alternate approach. Izzy Kalman, for example, argues that we lose sight of the victims when we focus on severe punishment. Greater success can be had teaching kids how to deal with bullies – on how not to be victims. This also is a valuable life skill, since bullying hardly ends with a high school diploma. (He doesn’t say schools should overlook bullying, of course; he simply says that increasing the severity of punishments is an ineffective way to try to reduce it.) He points out that the most horrific events such as suicides and school shootings are not carried out by bullies but by the kids who see themselves as victims. Helping them not to see themselves that way is the most constructive thing to do. He may well have a point.

The handful of students who don’t face school bullies in any serious way – the bright stars of the campus such as the one portrayed by Charlize Theron – most certainly will encounter them where we all do: at work, in various relationships, and with petty officialdom. It’s bound to be a shock.

One of Izzy’s Workshop Videos