[People often use “runner’s high” as a justification for running a lot. Why is this attitude allowed to persist? What would happen if crack addicts attempted such rhetoric?]
In an attempt to continue the trend of making the most mundane things pointlessly and unnecessarily academic (see the Work-to-Enjoyment Ratio, National Peninsular Championships, Jiorle’s Theorem), I’d like to take a much deeper look at a few of the mysteries surrounding pizza. I know some or all of these questions bother—at the very least, me and—perhaps many thousands. For a food so central to our culture, so ubiquitous in supermarket frozen-aisles and strip malls, we owe it to ourselves to search for an understanding of the essence of pizza. I won’t be presenting a history of the pizza, its regional differences, or which is “the best.” That I leave to the food bloggers, Facebook Philosophers, and others of weak constitutions. The questions I delve into are much more controversial, more muddled in their interpretation, and definitely fit to be explored by only a 4th-generation New Jerseyan of 75% Italian descent with a non-Italian letter in his last name (the “J”). They revolve around its unique standing among Italian-American cuisine, its misunderstood definition, and its proper spatial orientation. Here I argue that the pizza is a mythical food consisting of, by default, sauce, dough, and cheese to be eaten from the bottom upwards. By reading on, you may find yourself craving a “slice of heaven.”
What is it that makes a “good pizza” so difficult to find? Why are so few restaurants and pizzerias (and why is it not spelled pizzaria, for that matter?) able to make one that tastes right? In all likelihood, it is because I am a native of the Tri-State Area (read: pizza elitist). But that claim is potentially undermined by a point concerning the rest of Italian American cuisine: in my travels throughout the Eastern United States, I have more frequently found delicious pasta dishes than pizza slices. How could that be? Surely a dish of baked ziti, lasagna, or veal parmesan has more working parts, and thus a more delicate balance of ingredients to master. Or perhaps that is the exact reason why pizza is so difficult to master. A good plate of “veal parm” is not dependent so much on the chef; buy a good cut and simply bread and fry it. Baked ziti and lasagna can be masked with a community of cheeses and people might be tempted to think that’s exactly what good lasagna should taste like. Those “complex” Italian dishes, with their many players, are like a party in the movie Animal House: it really doesn’t matter what the extras are doing, so long as John Blutarsky is smashing guitars. But pizza—pizza is Hamlet in the room of the castle. And by the way, the sauce, of course, is Hamlet.
The essence of pizza seems a bit easier to pin down, although the resistance to its native state seems to be utterly perplexing. As an exercise, consider first this question, and then read on: What are the main ingredients of pizza? Now, once you have given that definition, explain how you would indicate a pizza that has simply dough, sauce, and cheese. Where I grew up, I learned quickly that the easiest and most sensible way to order this food was to say a “plain pie.” The point here is not to argue the word choice of “pie,” as pizza is perfectly acceptable. However, upon moving outside of New Jersey (i.e. various states in the South), not only would that be known as a “cheese pizza,” but I was also chided for referring to it as “plain.” When I put forth the above exercise, everyone admitted to the definition of pizza being dough, sauce, and cheese, yet could not agree that such a pizza be communicated without adding the adjective “cheese.” Now some of you Northeasterners might invoke the Tomato Pie Clause (also known in my area as “bakery pizza”), to denote a pizza consisting of dough and sauce. However, two important points arise: first, no one should be prepared to argue that this type of pizza is the standard, or most well-known, type of pizza and thus it should not be considered the default; and secondly, people of the region where this conflict arose have most likely never had the pleasure of knowing, let alone tasting such simple ecstasy. Why the resistance to admitting this redundancy? Surely these same people don’t order a “bacon BLT” or a “bunned hamburger.” Perhaps it is simply a matter of verbal inertia and an unwillingness to change one’s position.
The last point of debate is the most contentious of all, at least for the fact that it has divided such an otherwise unified front on the topic of pizza. This is not North-vs.-South or some semantic debate. Well, actually it’s 100% semantic, perhaps the most semantic. But the point is that it is not geographically semantic. The argument over which part of a slice of pizza is the top and which is the bottom has plagued us over here at PB&Jiorle. The fact that it begins its life as a roughly two-dimensional object lying flat on a table makes this a difficult issue to address. I shall explain both arguments presently. The opinion of my mother is that the point of the slice (which originates from the center of the pie), by the very nature of it being the “tip,” is the top. It is (in most cases) where one begins eating the slice of pizza and—popular rappers aside—you wouldn’t one start (eating) at the bottom. The second opinion, which I personally support, is to contend that the top of the slice is the outward edge of the slice, represented by the thin region comprised completely of crust. The rationale behind this position lies in the way we hold it and how it aligns spatially. While one could certainly argue the very act of holding it there could, and perhaps should, make it the bottom. However, the flimsy nature of a slice of pizza is that it must be held with the crust being higher in the air. For this brief moment, it is oriented in such a decisive way—iconic, even—that the answer to the question of top vs. bottom cannot be conceived otherwise. Virtually every drawing of pizza depicts it in this way. One would be confused to see a picture of a slice of pizza with the “tip” in the superior position; one might be tempted to say that’s “upside-down,” or even be repulsed, illustrating some pizza-equivalent to the uncanny valley. While this question cannot be considered answered for good, I believe the most acceptable answer to be that the crust-end is the top and that we simply eat the bottom first.
Three important points about pizza have been addressed, hopefully shedding some light on the things that keep pizza-people up at night. For some reason, the simplicity of the pizza makes it a deceptively difficult food to master, and this topic may be further addressed in a future work, since, when pizza is mediocre to below-average, it is often the case that the prioritization of the three main ingredients is fatally misaligned. Also exposed was the double standard of how people understand pizza and define it in practice. Finally, the age-old debate of where the top of a slice of pizza is not likely resolved by my musings, but I hope to garner support for my position. In conclusion, please respect the pizza, please know the pizza, and for the love of all things saucy, go to Nicolosi’s Pizza in Phillipsburg, NJ. Just don’t expect to go in there and comb your hair.
[I’m convinced PB & Jiorle will continue to sporadically release content until one day the Cosmic Hungry Mungry eats up the last of his peanut butter and digestively reincarnates the poor lad as some other blogger.]
Welcome to the first (and potentially last, depending on potential content) edition of PB & Jiorle’s Historical Revelation Series, where I blow your mind with evidence that challenges the conventional assumptions about the who, what, when, where, and why of our society’s most relevant attributes.
It is common knowledge that teachers didn’t literally invent Pinterest; it was a complex entrepreneurial endeavor. But what is most interesting is that recent developments in the field of domestic archaeology* suggest American educators in the northwest region of New Jersey—over the course of many years dating back at least to 1997—created a “proto-Pinterest” type of community amongst themselves and other close connections. Admittedly, the practice of arts and crafts is nothing new to American society, but deliberate re-purposement of household materials for the purpose of whimsical creations—both functional and decorofestive**—became a popular educational recreation activity for elementary school children. In this way, the student’s finished product was much like the products that would be posted to Pinterest. When it comes to the platform for dissemination of the craft, the network was less organized, and certainly less explicit than that of our current craft-based social medium. For instance, the crafts spent time both hanging in the hallways of the school—presumably as an advertisement to other teachers interested in having their pupils construct some festive decorations—and ultimately at home with the families. This had the effect of maximizing the audience reached at a time when global connectivity had not yet become commonplace. Let us take a look at a few of the examples found at the old Jiorle estate during an expedition in mid-December 2014.
- The “Ryan” Handprint Hot Plate
Location of Origin: Green St. School
Description: This piece is created from a ceramic plate with a brick-pattern backside. The top surface is painted over with a blue acrylic paint. It is decorated with the inscription “Ryan” and “1997.” In between these two pieces of text is a handprint made with green paint, and I have reason to believe this hand belonged to Ryan—whoever this man (or boy, judging by the size of the handprint) may have been.
- The Puzzle-Piece Wreath/Picture Frame
Location of Origin: Andover Morris School
Description: This piece has a wreath created from puzzle pieces, seemingly from a nature-based puzzle (judging by the green, leafy pieces). They are blotted with red paint, presumably to simulate holly berries. There is a red flock bow used to decorate the bottom of the wreath***. Inside this ring of holly is a photograph and, judging by the close proximity of its location of discovery to that of the aforementioned hot plate, it is entirely possible that this is a picture of Ryan as a boy.
- The Christmas Wizard:
Location of Origin: Unknown
Description: This piece is presumed to be a “Christmas” Wizard, as it was found in a box with other Christmas ornaments. It also has a ribbon loop attached, perhaps for hanging from a tree’s branch. The body of the wizard is made of a clothespin, while the white felt cloak, tied with a blue ribbon belt, cleverly disguises this fact. He has white pipe-cleaner arms, allowing them to be bent into various positions, and his hat is made of reflective blue paper with decorative gold stars of the same material. Judging by the poor quality of black fine-point Sharpie facial features, this was likely the work of a young child. The inscribed initials on the bottom of the clothespin (RPJ) suggest this might also belong to Ryan.
- The Paper Towel Dowel Snowman
Location of Origin: Barber School
Description: The crown jewel of this domestic archaeological expedition. The amount of supplies and preparation required suggest much of the up-front work was performed beforehand by the educator and/or architect of the ultimate masterpiece. The foundation is a piece of cardboard—deftly cut into a circular shape and painted black—while the body of the snowman is a paper towel dowel that is painted white. Three black buttons were glued to his “torso” to a nice effect. His “neck” is demarcated by a green tartan scarf, which is tastefully frayed at the edges (whether by design or time, it is unsure). He has actual sticks for arms, broken and arranged to be of similar size. His face is represented by features drawn from a black fine-point Sharpie, and an orange toothpick stuck through the dowel serves as a convincing carrot nose. Of utmost interest is the crocheted red beanie that was created for this snowman. Presumably every student who made this snowman had such a beanie, suggesting an incredible amount of work, almost certainly done by someone other than the students. Both the design and execution of this craft is impeccable.
The above report provides evidence of a proto-Pinterest network, created and maintained by American educators and utilized by their students—at least 13 years before the founding of Pinterest. It also suggests a rich connection between northwest New Jerseyans and their winter surroundings and holiday culture. Although not within the scope of this research, this is a topic that warrants further investigation.
*A nascent, highly respected field structured around the investigation of items occurring in a house that have potential historical and/or cultural value.
**To describe that which combines elements of both decoration and festiveness.
***A small note was found with the discovery of the puzzle-piece wreath. On it was a drawing of a red bow with the words, “That’s our stuff.” The significance of this unsure.
[The trouble with the most important truths of life is that we hear them so often that we stop actually listening to them.]
For a person like me, there’s something wholly demoralizing about being here in Ireland. Something that takes all of my Liner pride, my Garden State pride, and my Land of the Free pride, and gives them all swirlies. OK, so that’s not totally true, I should probably start over. Ireland is beautiful. It’s green, cozy, not-too-hot, etc. However, the inner struggle I’m attempting to articulate is that the land, the people, and the traditions here all create one strong, unified narrative that is much older and tighter than anything I can lay a claim to—even as a fourth-generation P’burger (demonym for Phillipsburg, NJ). In a way, my upbringing gave me what I thought was a vast appreciation for things like local pride, tradition, and sense of place, but now I find myself envious of this country and its people that, as the Nappy Roots would say, “Do it big like a dinosaur.”
As much as I think America has had to work hard, go through its growing pains, and acknowledge its many mistakes along the way, the challenges faced by this much smaller nation seem to be so much greater in every regard. Before coming over here, I knew the Great Famine that started in 1845 was a terrible tragedy. Now that I’ve been here in Skibbereen, Co. Cork—a place that suffered more than perhaps any other in Ireland—I’m starting to learn how little I originally comprehended the size of it all. Then I took a tour of the town of Skibbereen and learned more about the Famine, especially in this area. I tried to imagine how many times I stepped on a spot of the sidewalk or street where someone took his or her last breath. I heard stories about kids who were put on the daily cart for the dead who weren’t really dead, only to be discovered by the gravediggers trying to push down their bodies in the mass graves with a shovel. The most interesting part is that none of this compares to what I learned just by looking at the faces of the locals who were on this tour with me. The lines in each old face, the hard stares of understanding, the ears that have heard countless stories like this, probably about people of their own family: that’s when I knew I had a thing or two to learn about history, hardship, and resilience.
At the risk of further increasing the record for sadness in a PB&Jiorle post, I want to point out something that’s inspiring in a bit more positive way. Ireland is not that large, so its people utilize the physical, social, and cultural energy of the nation much differently than us in America. No hill is too steep to farm or graze, no land is unfit for cultivation.
The towns are smaller, the plots of land bigger. Most people know a few people, but they know them better. It’s interesting to wonder how many of these differences are driven by larger historical themes (although to be fair, one huge commonality between the U.S. and Ireland is oppression by the British) and how many are simply a result of scale. From the beginning, Americans were encouraged to spread out, grab some land, or else continue adventuring onward. The Irish, on the other hand, did not have the room to spread out, and so instead, it seems they started looking more closely at what they already had as a means of advancing themselves. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh expressed this sentiment nicely, saying that all a man needs in his life is a one-mile radius around his home.
It is my wholeheartedly unqualified opinion that the history and scale of Ireland have combined to create this connection to the land that is much more developed than anything I’ve ever witnessed in America. For those of you who listen to the band Mofro (probably about eight of you, or 75% of my readership), the Irish mentality evident in West Cork is similar to JJ Grey’s connection to Florida, except somehow much stronger. They seem to know everything about who has lived where, what they did, how things have changed, and generally how it all fits together. One of the most mind-blowing things for me has been learning bits of the Irish language (aka Gaelic). Hearing the words and their rough translations makes it sound like the people did not invent it at all; rather, the words were always there being spoken by the land, and the people picked it all up. It’s all so expressive, and each word seems just right for what it describes. One I heard recently that has no one-word English translation is teaspach (prounonced tish-PAHCH, the hard –ch coming from the throat). It refers to a pointless, yet intensely spirited type of energy or happiness, which I equate to a dog running full speed in a yard or through a field, simply because it just got outside and loves being there. Overall, the nation of Ireland is a victim—no that’s the wrong word, perhaps product is better—of its historical scope and its size. It has not been given much, but it uses exactly what it needs, and needs nothing more.
*Forgot about that other buzzword–how about Efficiency?
[Apparently, if you make ecology puns on porpoise about taking shellfies (selfies with shellfish), people who aren’t a fan of such jokes don’t lichen you very much.]
Céad mile fáilte, or, a hundred thousand welcomes. This is the first Gaelic I learned, something I saw on a little souvenir sign. When I asked an Irish girl in the crafts shop what it meant and how you say it, the words sounded so beautiful coming out of her mouth that I blacked out and probably didn’t get much past “thank you” before scurrying away. You see, I didn’t want her large father to get the wrong idea from my speechlessness, as she appeared to be at least a few years younger than me.
Anyway, a note about the title: The phrase “Quays to the Lough” is pronounced “Keys to the Lock,” as I later found out, when an Englishman (currently living in Ireland)—pointing to an area with both an island and a pier—corrected my Florida bias by clarifying that in Ireland, a “quay” (pronounced “key”) refers to a point or promontory and not a small, often tropical island. This humorously enlightening instance was one of many such lessons I have since learned concerning the surprising amount of differences between American English and, well, English English. Just for good measure, here is a list of such translations I have picked up in just six days in the country:
- “Canoe”—a kayak that you sit in;
- “Kayak”—a kayak that you sit on top of;
- “Dug-out tree canoe”—canoe;
- “Tomato puree”—tomato paste;
- “Quay”—a type of pier or peninsula (pronounced “key);
- “Half nine”—9:30, the time;
- “J-Os”—a generic, store-brand Oreo cookie (and not an abbreviation of a much more lewd activity); and
- “Digestives”—a type of cookie, still not sure what the name is all about.
Other than that, I find myself disoriented simply by the general word choice used here. Ironically, I have yet to do work with any real Irish people—just Englishmen, Englishmen living in Ireland, English/Scottish/Irishmen, an Englishman who has lived in most, if not all, parts of the UK and now works in Ireland, and pretty much every other combination except for a Guinness-blooded Irishman. But all of that is neither here nor there. I imagine the variations in vocabulary are equally jarring no matter what part of the English-speaking North Atlantic an American may be.
In a truly Shakespearean turn of events, I found that keeping a tight seal on the face with snorkeling goggles is quite a pain when one has a thick mustache. Because this is the longest and thus most sentimental beard I’ve ever had, it was difficult coming to terms with the fact that the mustache, if not the whole beard, would have to go if I wanted to keep this 17-degree centigrade saltwater out of my nose. Finally, I made the decision to get rid of the mustache and see if the rest was salvageable—perhaps in the form of some Civil War-esque sideburns. Being too long for just the razor, I reached for the beard trimmer, only to find that it wouldn’t hold a charge and was thus effectively broken. And since neither the Fields of Skibbereen grocery store nor the local chemist had a beard trimmer to buy, my beard is intact and strong as ever. My nose remains a bit cold, though.
I guess I should speak on the area of Lough Hyne or what sort of work I’m doing here, instead of selfishly rambling about my verbal curiosities and trivial beardly matters. Although really, blogging in and of itself is a very selfish thing, so I’ll see what I can do to make it still explicitly about me. I will soon begin my research project on marine fish communities in this saltwater body of water known as Lough Hyne. **For more in-depth information on my and other science done here, see the internship blog: http://oimbucc.weebly.com/ires-blog.**
Until then, I’ll be helping other students with their research and continuing long-term monitoring work, since this is the oldest marine reserve in Europe. I recently found out that a survey I’m doing—which involves turning over rocks and looking at the animals that live under such rocks—is one that was started in the 1950s. And being from Phillipsburg (or as I sometimes from here on out call it: the greatest town in the greatest state in the greatest nation on Earth), you know I appreciate tradition. I’ve seen starfish, sea squirts, anemones, crabs, and various other primitive forms of animals like sponges—some of which remind me of flattened gum, some of Slimetime Live. Either way, the color and complexity of these isolated communities is darn-near incredible to me. As the narrator of Spongebob once said, “Yes, genius can be found, even under a rock.”
Until next time, sincerely yours,
In memory of Ryan McGuinness, 1992-2014. Undoubtedly one of the biggest fans of the blog, may you continue to help guide the thoughts of my mind and keep my humor fresh. Rest in peace, mang.
[There’s no “I” in “happy,” but that’s a faulty premise for making any assumptions on what leads to being happy. After all, there is an “I” in “happiness.”]
I don’t know how anyone could have missed it—a peach tree that was practically unpicked. Somehow, every other patron of this peach picking farm must have missed it.
Wait, maybe not every other patron.
On the other side of the tree, but about the same distance away, was an elderly woman. She was modestly dressed, hunched over, but definitely—and I mean definitely—eyeing up this pristine peach paradise.
I started to sprint over, initially because I was afraid she’d beat me to the punch (or the pick). Then I realized:
1) She was way too short to reach any of the peaches on this particular peach tree;
2) There was no way that hag was faster than me; and
3) Where were my wife and kids?
None of these things—not even when taken together—ended up detering me from continuing my ridiculous pace over to the peach tree. Naturally I beat her to the site by about thirty seconds and starting picking the fruit. I reached high, I reached low. I felt superhuman at this point. By the time the old lady had waddled over, I must have plucked twenty peaches. She fell to her knees.
“Where is it,” she shrieked, pointing to an arbitrary location on the peach tree.
“The tree?” I asked. “It’s still here, it’s just not as bountiful anymore.”
“No, the peach, the peach,” still wagging her finger at the same spot. “It was right there.”
“Well, I probably picked it.”
“Where is it then? Please give it to me immediately.”
I looked down into my packed parcel and frowned. “Which one?”
The lady sighed. “If you can’t bestow on me the correct peach, I’ll have to take the whole bag and decide which one it is when I get home.”
“What? No way, that’s totally unfair. I got here and picked them first. It’s not my fault I was the better peach-picker on this day.” She started reaching madly, at which point I simply held the basket high above my head, like some schoolyard bully who hit his growth spurt way before anyone else.
The lady stepped back, breathing heavily. “Very well,” she croaked as her eyes narrowed until her eyelids were but one atom apart. “If you wish to be so attached to these peaches, I’ll do you a favor and ensure you never have to be parted from them.”
“Attached? You’re the one demanding a particular peach, off a particular peach tree. I’d give it to you if I knew which one you were talking about.” But it must have been too late. The gargoylette pulled a round, shiny stone from one of her pockets and rubbed it, chanting:
Love you have for these peaches round,
Hording them all in your basket.
So I’ll anchor you to their ground
Until they build your casket.
At that moment, gnarled wooden roots popped from the ground and wrapped around my feet. Or maybe my feet became gnarled wooden roots—it happened so fast I couldn’t tell. What I could tell was that my body was now intertwined with that of the peach tree. Whether I’d start to sprout peaches was something I could only speculate at this point.
The wooden transformation stopped at my ankles, causing me to fall onto my face. I’m sure the old hag had been cackling at me already, but now she was definitely howling with laughter. “Could you at least make the wood go up to my waist so I can stand?” I quickly checked myself, thinking of my wife. “Errr, maybe like, just below the waist? Or at the knees? Hmmm, well whatever, I’ll make do.”
“This is a curse, you selfish moron; you don’t get to choose your fate.” With that, she shuffled away and—bless her heart—poached my peaches, too.
I was perplexed at this moment, though probably not as perplexed as most other people would have been in this situation. As much as I wanted to get out, or at least see my family, I kept my cool. You may not think it is possible to yell calmly, but that’s what I did. “Honey? …Honey? Carol?” When that didn’t work, I resorted to singing her name, throwing in random phrases of affection, which is what ultimately inspired me to begin my now successful music career.
Now I no longer wondered why this peach tree was as pristine as it was: no one ever ventured this far into the orchard…or farm, not sure. It was a good two hours before anyone responded to my hit song “Carol.” It wasn’t my wife, but he went and got her pretty quickly, given the unique nature of my situation.
My wife was—understandably so—petrified when she saw my interesting state. “Pentley, what happened? How?”
“I beat an old witch to this productive peach tree and got all the sweet goods, so she cursed me. Real sore loser. But don’t worry, I have a plan. Go build me a casket, like one you could legitimately bury me in.” See, I was thinking; I told you I kept calm.
“Pentley! What are you saying? Don’t die on me.”
“No, no, I’m fine, honey. It’s hard to explain, I think there’s a loophole here.” To make a long story short, my wife dropped four hundred dollars on a casket and brought it all the way out to the fated peach tree/me. Turns out there is no loophole. I think the wording of her curse was more figurative, and I was in fact stuck here for life. It took a week or two to get past that fact, but once I did, I got calm and started thinking again. My hands and head were getting cut up and sore from me falling over so much, so I had Carol buy me a nice stake to lean on. The owner of the farm even agreed to let my wife have a small house built on the property next to me, once a team of botanists, doctors, and psychic mediums determined I couldn’t be separated from the peach tree without passing on. In exchange, I served as some money-making sideshow for his farm, which was ultimately fine with me. I enjoyed the attention.
I must say the only truly unfortunate consequence of my situation was that, once I started sprouting peaches from the top of my head, my appetite for them was ruined. Could you imagine eating your own kind? I tried strawberries, oranges, and apples, but that just felt like what I imagined eating primates would be like. On the bright side, now I could grow peaches, which everyone seemed to like.
That brings me to the one thing I never really understood. A curse is only a curse if you really understand the person you’re cursing, right? There are very few universally deplorable things, if you ask me, and getting planted into the ground and having peaches poking out of your head is certainly not one of those pitiable “punishments.” Why didn’t the witch think it over? She only knew me for three minutes and based her curse off of something I clearly loved.
I told her all of this the one day she returned. Judging by her defense of the peach tree hex, it sounded like she was trying to make me eat my words, instead of my peaches. Speaking of which, she tried to get smart and pull a peach off me, so I made it go rotten by the time she grabbed it. I told her I was just kidding and let her take another one. She really seemed to appreciate that. I never found out why she needed that specific peach many years ago, but she bought one of my CDs, so I think I won this one after all.
[If you surround yourself with like-minded people, you’ll find yourself stagnant. The only prerequisite for compatibility is kindness, so go out and make friends with people who aren’t at all like you; that creates potential for true growth for both yourself and your relationships.]
I can only call myself a casual Wu Tang Clan listener, but that is not to say I don’t really care for them. In fact, I love what they’ve done, and the only problem is that between rock, R&B, punk, metal, bluegrass, and rap, I can’t give the amount of attention that all these wonderful artists deserve for their work. Honestly, Wu Tang remains one of the most influential groups in the history of the industry, which doesn’t even begin to include its members’ individual contributions. I thoroughly enjoyed RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists, I have multiple Ghostface and Method Man albums, and everything else I’ve heard from the rest of them is just as good. But in my opinion, the most significant Wu Tang member—and right now, the most significant emcee period—is the GZA. What he’s doing transcends just the realm of hip hop. What he’s doing is something people merely talk about but never really do. What he’s doing is delivering education to kids in a way that actually engages them.
Together with Dr. Chris Emdin, an Assistant Professor at the University of Columbia, the GZA has partnered with RapGenius.com to pilot a project that uses hip hop to teach math and science to kids in NYC’s public schools (you can learn more about it here). The above article does a great job of summarizing the program’s foundation and goals, but there are so many other reasons why this is such an awesome idea. In a world that raises children in a manner radically different from those that grew up thirty years ago, we need to bypass these tiny changes in teaching practices and adopt a system that is consistent with the way they grow up and challenges students of all ability levels.
We are learning every minute of every day. When we talk with our friends, we learn what they are going through and how different people view the world. When we stare out the window, we learn (even if only subconsciously), about the nature of our universe. When we watch TV or surf the web, we absorb whatever it is we are viewing and listening to. The point: we are being lectured less and less as we interact more and more. Maybe there was a time when kids were accustomed to being spoken to, but that is far from the truth now. Teaching is not about talking to, it is about talking with, and what the GZA and Dr. Emdin are doing now is the closest approach to that belief as I’ve ever seen. If kids grow up listening predominantly to the language of hip hop, then educate that in that same language or else you won’t reach them at all. Likewise, if a kid identifies with cartoons, then find a way to incorporate that into his or her learning. Music and the rest of the arts are here to stay, so you can’t realistically expect to cut kids off from them and force them to grow up in a way that makes them more fit for our current schooling practices. Instead, we need to figure out what these kids like the most and convince them that those interests can help them excel to a level of knowledge and wisdom they never thought possible.
Perhaps equally as important to adopting a new system is ensuring that this system keeps kids challenged and focused. My mom teaches kindergarten, and although you won’t find the most mind-boggling material in that classroom, it is the perfect environment for figuring out the best way to teach kids. For the most part, they’re inattentive, lacking in manners, and aren’t yet familiar with the actual process of learning. The problem is that some kids are attentive and are ready to learn, and that discrepancy never goes away. Some kids are simply smarter than others, but that doesn’t mean the kids on the lower end have no chance. It’s only that we haven’t found the best way to engage them. The other side of that story is that we don’t have the means for keeping the smartest kids in check. One of the most evident problems at any grade level is that intelligent kids get bored too easily during school. And when they get bored, they get into trouble. Whether you approve of his lyrical content or not, you have to respect Biggie as a truly brilliant man. His rhymes were so complex at such a young age that I can’t help but wonder how boring grammar and algebra must have been to him. It’s no surprise that he wasn’t interested in school.
This example highlights a monumental implication that the GZA and Dr. Emdin realize: hip hop represents a medium through which kids can constantly rethink everything they know and express complex emotions and concepts in a cool sixteen bars. In other words, the boundaries of hip hop, as in science, are endless. You can always get better, you can always learn more, and thus you can always accomplish more. And that’s a great way to keep bright kids driven and out of trouble. Give them an interesting topic like outer space or evolution—with all of its mysteries and unsolved phenomena—and a form of expression like hip hop—that is constantly evolving itself—and the results will be astounding. At this point, I can only imagine how successful some of these rappers would also be if they had chosen to become scientists. Their work ethic and attention to detail is nearly unmatched. If this project can convince these kids that the opportunities for achievement and enjoyment in the sciences are both real and feasible, there’s no doubt that they would be well-represented in those fields.
As a former physics major and current graduate student in conservation biology and fisheries science, I’ve been impatiently awaiting the release of the GZA’s album Dark Matter, and hoping that the rumors of an album about the ocean are true. But now I realize why it’s so important that he’s taking his time. With the proper support and execution, the plan he and Dr. Emdin have developed has the potential to change the way we educate kids. This project is far bigger than the albums he plans to release, and the fact that he’s physically going around and visiting these schools literally made me tear up. He truly cares about hip hop, he truly cares about education, and he truly cares about these kids. The GZA is no more deserving of his title as “The Genius” as he is right now. This is one of the most inspiring projects I’ve seen in a long time, and it concerns one of the most important issues our culture faces today. If you don’t believe me, watch this video; it says much more than I could ever hope to in this small essay.
Dr. Chris Emdin: http://news.rapgenius.com/Gza-science-genius-121212-speech-lyrics#note-1436722
[Next time you run out of milk and want to have some cereal, just pour applesauce in there instead. It’s not nearly the same, but it’s an option if you have applesauce.]
It’s finally time to tackle one of the issues closest to my heart—that’s right, kids’ cartoons and trying to enjoy both the old and the new. I may be twenty-one years old (almost twenty-two), but ten years ago I was already having my mid-life crisis in dog-years, so I don’t want to hear your age-related arguments about “being too old” to watch cartoons. And one day, I hope to have kids, and I sure as shrimp don’t want to be out of the loop when they get into that phase. So I stay tuned in because I still like them and have enough free time to do so. Naturally, that leads to me trying to watch them in the company of people who aren’t as familiar as I am—people, presumably, who think they’re too old or mature for that kind of stuff. In that case, someone inevitably brings up one of my least favorite comments: “Man, cartoons are so weird these days. These writers are clearly on drugs. They were so much better when we were younger, right, Ryan?” (For a mention of other entertainment-related comments that bother me, read my last post, specifically, about professional wrestling).
Now before I go on with the deconstruction of that criticism, this illustrates an important, more general point worth making. Obviously the world around us changes as we get older, but we of course change as we get older, too. When you’re a little kid, you read stories about monsters under your bed ignorantly attempting to put on clothes and pigs running around building houses.
Combine that with cartoons and neon-colored food, and you’re practically bathing in a kiddie pool of imagination. Your brain is so overloaded with absurdity that sex references in your kids show can’t possibly get through to you as being creepy or “off” (plus you just didn’t know about that stuff yet). Of course when you get older, people try to force reality down your throat and up your ass simultaneously, so anything colorful or fantastical is too sweet for your big boy taste buds.
OK, now for some explanation of why I believe current cartoons aren’t any weirder than they were ten or fifteen years ago, and if writers are on drugs now, they were definitely snortin’ the same stuff back then, too. Overall, cartoons were always about being unrealistic and silly while containing a heavy dose of social commentary lurking in the background. So to think that cartoons are more risqué than back in the day is wrong. Go back to the very beginning (not counting Steamboat Willie): if you can picture all the cross-dressing and lipstick marks in the Looney Tunes cartoons, you probably know what I mean…not to mention the very explicit gun, bomb, and piano-related violence.
Or to go with something that hits a bit closer to home, consider this video as anecdotal evidence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xbNEhezUfVE#! . If you take out Adventure Time and Spongebob, those are all clips from shows we would have watched as little kids. Admittedly, not everyone would argue that cartoons never had sexual content or material that was meant to make the parents chuckle, but I didn’t want to leave that unattended.
The more common issue I hear is that cartoons have gotten weirder in a more broad sense—that they have outlandish premises or ridiculous animation. Now keep in mind I don’t have any problems with the old shows I’m using as examples; I just want to defend some of the newer shows that I really find enjoyable. Three of my favorite cartoons—Spongebob Squarepants, Regular Show, and Adventure Time—come under heavy fire for being silly, stupid, and disgusting. Yet the same people who rag on them would talk about how great Aaahh!!! Real Monsters or Ren and Stimpy was.
I understand that some people have their innate nostalgic sense of loyalty to the cartoons that were bumping when they were younger, but I feel like there’s no need to trash the new stuff. It’s not like newer cartoons are threatening the classics or stealing airtime—the reason those shows aren’t on anymore is because people you stopped watching them. Using the excuse that they’re not on air anymore because they’re old is nonsense; not even Bill Cosby could keep Looney Tunes off TV. Look, you don’t have to follow Adventure Time or Spongebob; I get it if you think they’re stupid, because they are stupid. I just happen to still find “stupid” funny these days. Just understand that they’re fundamentally similar to what was around in the 90s. As Method Man once said, “Before you play the game know the rules//Cuz still ain’t nothing changed but the jewels.” All cartoons are gems of an idea; they’re just coming in different shapes, sizes, and colors now.
Bugs Bunny: http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/21928?page=1227
Krumm (left): http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/51244/aaahh-real-monsters-season-one/
Adventure Time (right): http://adventuretime.wikia.com/wiki/Talk:Nightosphere_(location)