Thursday, November 26, 2009


Among students, the text is the preferred method of communication. It's informal, quick, and enables one to pass on a message without all the messiness of human interaction. South East High school has a no cell phone policy, but enter any classroom and the majority of the kids have a cell phone: a Razor, an Instinct, a Blackberry, an iPhone.

Ironically, 90% of the school is on government food stamps, I have never personally witnessed a student pay for food. Ever.

Which only makes sense, because while you can live without food, but you can't live without a phone. Take away a kid's phone and you are taking away their baby, its like amputating a limb. Some of them would rather be suspended, or even expelled, before giving up their phone.

Despite this, many students still correspond by using one of the more delicate and sensible forms of communication.

The note.

Its more cumbersome, but using notes is much safer then texting, especially in class where a phone can be snatched away. A note is much more egalitarian, it can be passed from person to person and no phone is required to participate.

I'm making the rounds in 2nd block when a student hands me a slip of paper. "Hey Mister? Could you pass this over to Crystal?"

I stare at the student, then look at the paper, which has been folded over in half. For a second I am momentarily stunned. Did a student actually ask me to pass a note? Isn't the idea of notes to whisper secrets across a room away from the prying eyes of the teacher?

Did this really just happen? Did a student actually hand me a note to pass across the room?

I open it, it's a garble of misspelled words written in a combination of street slang, text abbreviations, and broken English. The grammar police would burn it on site.

I stride up to the board and begin copying the first sentence.

"What are you doing, Mister?"

"Correcting your note."

I write the following on the board:

OMG for reals
is he is into yew
Wassup is he hot

I shake my head, clucking my tongue as I rewrite the first sentence.

"Oh my god, for real?"

"It's real ladies and gentleman. Not reals. The only "reels" I know of are film "reels".

The class starts to laugh.

"Second, "yew" is spelled Y-O-U. It's a vowel blend, a diphthong. "Yew" is a kind of tree, not a pronoun." I point at the misspelled words with a marker. "Finally, there is no such word as wassup. It's "what's up". Understand?"

"But that's how we say it."

"How you say it and how you speak it are two different things."

I look the rest of the note over. There's more garble, but it's too much of a mess to correct. I pass the note over to Crystal, whose face has turned bright red.

"Next time, proof read your notes. Don't make me correct this again."

"Okay, Mister. Sorry, Mister."

"Hey, Mister Leiken," another student asks, holding up a sheet of paper.


"Would you correct my note?"

"Put that away." I snap.

"But it's got lots of mistakes."

Put it up on the board, put it up on the board! C'mon mister, put it up. The last one was funny. Do another, do another!

I make a note to myself to not ever correct a personal note again.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What would Spock do?

The Oncotype Dx test.

That's medical lingo for a test that determines the recurrence risk of breast cancer in women like my younger sister who have been diagnosed with early breast cancer. The Oncotype Dx test is an attempt to forecast the risk of cancer recurring.

We expected the chance of recurrence to be low. Dana's only 35, the tumor was caught early, and the odds of it spreading to the rest of the body are unlikely.

The test is a formality, a final check before giving my sister a clean bill of health. All signs are good: the cancer was caught early, the tumor was small, and my sister is a paragon of fitness. Just a few months earlier she was training for a marathon.

No matter what, she'll still need six weeks of radiation and daily medication for five years to help keep the cancer away.

I pick up my father at St. John's hospital as Dana goes in with Christos to get the final results.

Thirty minutes later they haven't called. Forty five minutes later I'm getting worried; I call Christos but he doesn't answer. After an hour there is still no word.

Oh shit.

I finally get ahold of Christos. "What's going on?" I ask. "Is Dana alright?"

"Let's talk about it during dinner." Christos answers in a terse voice. "Meet us at La Vecchia Cucina. It's an Italian place off Main."

Why is bad news always best delivered in an Italian restaurant?

When we meet up for dinner Dana's face is absent of emotion. She is not so much a person as a moving statue.

The four of us sit down as Christos delivers the bad news. Dana's Oncotype Dx test (the test to predict a recurrence) didn't score as expected in the low range; it scored in the medium high range.

Translation: she has a 19% chance of the cancer coming back. That's with the radiation and medication.

If it comes back, the cancer might not come back in the breast. Much like a roaming teenager, the cancer could grow anywhere: the lungs, the skin, the bones, the liver, the pancreas, the brain. If the cancer returns, there is no way to "cure" it, only treat it.

So, the oncologist is recommending chemotherapy to reduce Dana's chances of recurrence by another 33%.

That's a difference of nineteen percent versus thirteen percent.

I can hear the dice rattling in my head.

We eat dinner in silence. Only the waiter is smiling.

Christos, normally verbose and gregarious - silent. My father, capable of delivering entire monologues throughout dinner - not a single word. My sister, my charming, vibrant, energetic sister - nothing.

This wasn't supposed to happen. The script was supposed to turn out differently. The tumor was caught early, it hadn't spread into the lymph nodes, the cancer was supposed to be cut out and then go away and disappear, like Tim Allen after Home Improvement went off the air.

I wanted a Kodak moment, not a Hallmark moment!

I am at a loss for words, and I'm the guy who thinks a soliloquy is a conversation. I've got nothing to say. What do you do? What is the right decision?

What would Spock do? "Captain, having analyzed the available data, reducing the odds from nineteen to thirteen percent makes chemotherapy the only rational decision. It is the only logical choice."

Too bad Spock ain't human.

The lasagna arrives.
I may be unhappy, but that's not going to stop me from eating.
Lasagna don't care if you got cancer.

Throughout history there is one thing that never changes. People will do anything in their power to survive. Whether it's soldiers hiding under dead bodies on Omaha beach, plane crash survivors in the Andes eating the dead, or Anne Frank hiding in an attic, everyone does whatever they can to try and make it. To live another day, another hour, even another minute.

People don't do this because they want to do it. They do it because they have to.

I relate some of this to my sister, then have to fight the urge to break down in tears. I hate myself for having to relay this.

Chemo - fucking - therapy.

In the end, survival is all that matters. Living one more day. It's what Spock would do.

Nineteen versus thirteen.

After dinner I drive my father to the airport. "If I could, I'd take the cancer for her!" he declares helplessly. "I've lived my life. She doesn't deserve this."

But you can't, Dad, you can't absorb the cancer, you can't wish it away.
All you can do is play the odds.

Chemotherapy. It's what Spock would do.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Frankly My Dear, My Students Don't Give a Damn

It all started with a question.

"If you had to ask 100 random people to name a film based off a famous quote from that film, what quote would you use?"

I glance over at Phil. It's late at night on Hollywood Boulevard, we've exited the Roosevelt hotel as we journey back to my car. Most people pay for valet, but you can always find free street parking, provided you are willing to hike three blocks and brave the acme of humanity that washes up on Hollywood Boulevard.

I ponder Phil's question. We are forever asking each other such questions. Would you let the United States military torture you for 24 hours in return for 1 million dollars? Which would you rather have: be super strong but mentally retarded or be able to fly but have no arms or no legs? If you could convince any one person once a year to do what you want, who would you convince and why?

We're writers. We can't help it.

I think about it, eyebrows creased in thought. What movie quote would 100 people know? This is a game we both love to play, asking hypothetical questions.

"What do I get if I win?" I ask, ignoring the homeless kid who is hawking $1 dollar T-shirts to obstensibly pay for his friends funeral.

"Five thousand bucks." Phil pauses to look at the kid. "How can you hope to make a profit on a $1 T-shirt?"

"Beats me." I shrug. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!" Who doesn't know the Wicked Witch of the West?

Phil smirks. "There's no place like home."

Oh, that is a good one.

We pass by 25 degrees, a hot new burger restaurant named for said difference between a burger cooked medium rare and a burger cooked well done. I salivate through the window. The burger's look amazing. Phil tells me people on Yelp constantly debate who has the best burger in LA, and it's an ongoing battle between 25 degrees and Father's Office.

"That certainly looks like one of the best burgers in the city."

Phil shakes his head. "You think every new burger place we try has the best burger in the city. You're a burger whore."

I don't argue. I am a burger whore.

"I've got a quote even more iconic," Phil continues, "May the Force be with you."

Try as I might, I can't think of a more well known movie quote on the planet. Star Wars was not only a mega smash hit that revolutionized the movie industry, it revolutionized movie merchandising. Star Wars toys, Star Wars games, the Star Wars defense system (SDI), the endless Family Guy and Simpson parodies. Even John McCain used Star Wars as a metaphor when he was running against George Bush in the 2000 primaries, comparing himself to Luke Skywalker fighting the evil empire, and McCain is older then dirt.

You don't have to have ever seen Star Wars to know "May the Force be with you."

Phil's got me.

The next day towards the end of class I take an impromptu poll of thirty 11th graders. It's a good class. Time to put Phil's theory to the test.

"Ladies and Gentleman," I begin, "I'm going to state several movie quotes. If you don't know the quote, don't raise your hand."

I decide to start with Wizard of Oz. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!"

The students stare at me with unblinking, brown eyes. A half dozen of them nod knowingly. "Wizard of Oz!" someone calls out.

One of the A students looks completely stupefied. "I've never seen it."

It's my turn to be shocked. "There's no place like home?" I ask. "Surely you've heard that phrase?"

She looks embarrassed. "Should I know it? I'm sorry."

"Does anyone else here not know this movie?" I ask.

Ten hands go up. If any of these kids had been picked, Phil would be out five thousand bucks.

"How about this one? May the Force be with you."

This time most of the class nods. Most. There are still about half a dozen kids, mostly girls, who don't know the quote. "Haven't any of you ever heard of an Ewok?"

"Those are those little teddy bear things," one of the kids shouts out. "They were kind of cute and kind of stupid."

"Yes," I blurt, "they were stupid! That's not the point!"

"So why do we got to know about Ewoks?" a kid in the back answers.

"Because they saved the rebels collective hides from the evil empire!" I cry, pacing back and forth across the room. "That and the yub nub, e cha yub nub!"

My eyes have turned into wide maniacal saucers. Un-freakin-believable! I know these are first and second generation immigrants, but can you not know Star Wars!

Calm down, know your audience. I've got one that they'll all know. "Say hello to my little friends!"

Only about half of them know that's from Scarface.

"I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."
"Here's looking at you kid."
"Go ahead. Make my day."
"You talkin' to me?"
"I'm the king of the world!"

I pull quotes out like a magician desperately seeking a trick that will completely floor his audience. No matter what I try, some of the kids know it, but there is always at least a handful that don't. Here I am living in the city built on movies and yet I can't find a film that all the kids know or have seen.

I throw up my hands. "I give up! I'll be back."

The class lights up. Aiiiiee! Mister! We know that one! Hasta La Vista, Baby! I'll be back. That's that robot movie, starts with a T...Terminator.

"Hasta La Vista, baby!" a student cries out. "I say that one all the time!"

How can they all know "I'll be back" but not "May the Force be with you?" Is it because Schwarzengger uses it in all his movies, or is it because he's the governator? Maybe they remember "Hasta La Vista, baby" because it's Spanish?

"I've got one!" a kid volunteers. "E.T. phone home!"

They know this one too. Of course, the quote is in the title. Perhaps main stream culture is not yet completely dead. I try out the poll in other classes, a rowdy group of 9th graders taking biology, a special ed class of 10th graders, an English class of 12th graders. No matter where I go, the only one they all know is "I'll be back".

That and "E.T. phone home."

Leiken, phone home. Film culture is dead. The modern world is in a semi-permanent ADD state, if your film didn't come out in the past five years, to the young it might not as well exist.
If it isn't a place you can buy a snack, isn't a commercial on TV, and doesn't involve a pop star flashing her private parts for the paparazzi, who cares?

Five minutes ago might as well be fifty years ago.

Because frankly my dear, modern culture just doesn't give a damn.