Cambrian Comic’s Friday Showcase: “It Couldn’t Have Been the Pay: A Life of Teaching and Learning Public Schools” by Irving Rothstein

Today we begin another blog series that I find incredibly exciting.  Part of Cambrian Comic’s mission is to explore and share a wide variety of ideas, stories, and points of view.  Starting today, every Friday will be a time to share and explore something that someone else has made.  It could be a comic, a film, or in this case an excerpt from a book.  

For our inaugural post we are pleased to present an excerpt from 

It Couldn’t have been the Pay: A Life of Teaching and Learning in Public Schools

a memoir by Irving Rothstein.  It’s a strange and funny little story about a professor teaching a science fiction writing class and learning about a strange local legend in the city of San Francisco.  The way I see it, this story is proof that the core of the science fiction genre isn’t rooted in grim and gritty visions of the future but rather a strange and almost playful fascination with the weird and impossible.  But enough from me, sit back, relax, and enjoy this excerpt from a wonderful book.

Anachronisms, Epiphanies and Aliens 

“Strange is only what you don’t understand.”

– Kenny Miller, Old Friend

In 1998 El Niño is kicking up a fuss in the Pacific and California is being inundated. The city approves an 80-foot Coca Cola bottle in the Giant’s new ballpark and state officials are investigating whether or not Kaiser Permanente’s refusal to cover the cost of Viagra violates a state law. The human genome project is in full gear and the kids are all walking around with cell phones. No one is ever out of touch.

To the English teachers at Lowell, Science Fiction and Fantasy—as I teach it—is a non-academic course, but it is a great take-off platform for connecting disciplines. Time machines allow us to travel back and forth in time to explore how the past influenced the present. We explore ecology and human values through stories about robots, androids, cloning and other forms of human engineering. We deal with value systems as we examine possible, probable and preferable worlds. We discuss and debate economic systems and above all the necessity to change as futuristic technology creates an ever-changing world both in fiction and in fact. The UFOs, space aliens and the various characters around San Francisco make it real.

It is May when a book by Robert Heinlein, Stranger in A Strange Land, prompts Anthony to kick off a story. Anthony is a slender Latino surfer dude. “Space aliens? I see one all the time. This dude

wrapped in aluminum foil is always hanging out on the beach where we surf.” Anthony pauses and hums the theme of Twilight Zone.

Tanya, a blonde Russian immigrant who makes her own clothes and looks like a model in Vogue, chimes in. “I see him near the end of California Street. He wears an aluminum suit and a weird aluminum helmet with an antenna.”

Their anecdotes make me curious. I ask, “Is there any relation between him and that house out there with aluminum foil on the windows? I pass that house on my way out here.”

Fong, a self-confessed video game nut perks right up. “I’ve never seen the house but I’ve seen that dingy dude. He’s tall and thin with a white beard and tanned face. He’s got those light blue eyes, kinda like those white Husky dogs. He looks like Gandalf the Gray, a wizard in an aluminum suit.”

Anthony says, “He’d scare the sh—uh, the stuff outa’ you if he didn’t have that smile.”

Tanya laughs and adds, “He’s really got a great smile and walks quickly for an old man. Do you really think he lives in that house?”

I’m really curious now. I say, “I really don’t know this guy you’re talking about. Fill me in some more.”

Anthony responds immediately. “We call him Aluminum Man, and he hangs down at the beach. One time he even came in to surf with us, but he never took off that aluminum helmet. He’s hella good on the board.”

“Did he tell you why he wears the helmet?” I ask.

Tanya laughs. “He’s an alien! The helmet shields him from space rays and messages that tell him what to do. Like that funny guy on Third Rock from the Sun.

Fong picks up on the description. Aluminum man tells people he was born here, the son of a space

alien father and an earth mother. He says his father went back to a planet on some distant galaxy, I forget the name he gives it, and left him here to soak up earth culture. He says his pop is trying to reach him and beam him up to his planet but he doesn’t want to go. The helmet protects him from the beam ray.

The discussion goes on and on. Is there intelligent life on other worlds? What would they be like? Are there people with ESP? Would creatures on alien worlds look human, and could they make babies with humans?

A cell phone rings and Tanya is apologetic. “I’m sorry you guys. I forgot to turn it off.” Her face is red as she fumbles for the phone and the buzzer.

Hamid, an East Indian born in Guatemala, riffs away. “Maybe he’s related to the same aliens that invented the cell phone and planted it on earth. They can monitor our conversations and learn all about us.”

Hamid stops and wiggles his little finger. “He’d be redundant, an anachronism. Who would need a human spy if you had technology? He’s probably afraid they’ll terminate him.”

Sylvia, who is from Mexico, loses no opportunity to tease her friend Tanya. “I hope they don’t monitor Tanya when she calls me. They’ll think that all we think about are clothes and guys.”

Everybody laughs, including Tanya, at the period buzzer. To be continued tomorrow.

For me this story doesn’t end at the bell.

It is about four o’clock after school as I drive along Great Highway at Ocean Beach. The day is beautiful. The wind is blowing and the sun makes reflecting beacons as it bounces off the waves.

I think about how my wife won’t be home until seven as my car climbs up Geary Boulevard. Suddenly I get the urge to pull into the parking lot just below Sutro Park. Don’t ask me why. It is one of

those impulses. It’s as if I’m supposed to do it.

I park and climb out of my old, dented Subaru and hike across the boulevard. Between the Cliff House and Louie’s Restaurant there’s a rutty asphalt path leading down a steep hill between some manzanita trees and baby pines to where the Sutro Baths used to be. I’m thinking about the day’s discussion, space aliens, UFOs and aluminum foil when suddenly a friendly voice slips into my reverie.

“Nice day isn’t it?”

I must be dreaming. The guy walking beside me has pale blue eyes and is covered from head to foot in shiny aluminum foil. He is tall, slender, tanned, with a white beard, about my age and wearing an aluminum foil jacket, pants and helmet. The helmet has two antennae coming out above his eyebrows. The kids described him and his rap to a T.

I flash him a friendly smile and he falls into stride with me as if we are old buddies. We talk about the weather, the water, the 49ers and the history of the Sutro Baths. He tells me how the aluminum keeps out the tractor rays from his space alien father who planted him in his earth mother’s womb.

In minutes we are sitting on the wall staring out at the Pacific and he’s confiding to me he’s going to stay right here on earth. He can do more good here than on his father’s planet because here he just feels more comfortable. It is about five now and the sun is hanging lower on the horizon. I see a freighter riding low in the water as it approaches the entrance to the bay and wonder where it’s been and what stuff it’s bringing.

“Besides,” he smiles, “I love to surf and there are no waves on my father’s planet.” Then, as if on cue, the wind picks up and whips the tops of the waves into white-capped riders that spin themselves up against the shore and explode into light spraying on the jagged rocks and over the both of us.

There is the sudden sound of laughter behind us and he and I spin around to see three kids chasing

after a rubber ball across the broken cement where in the 50s people still warmed themselves at the baths. Thirty or 40 yards behind them a man and woman come into view. They are two walking as one in a loving embrace. They stare tenderly into one another’s eyes and glide toward the wall where we are sitting. The woman is slender and tall, wearing jeans and a red sweatshirt. The man is a few inches taller than she is, his hair neatly combed and lacquered into place

Abruptly the man reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a cell phone. He flips it open and begins talking to an unseen somebody. The girl tenses in his arms. Her jaw tightens as she reaches up and yanks the phone from his hand and runs purposely to the wall and, like a quarterback in the last seconds of a close game, spirals the phone up and over the rocks. The phone hits the water and surfs to the break of a small wave and sinks.

Time stops. The man looks back at her in surprise and anger. I’m thinking, Better do the right thing buddy. Your whole romance is riding on this one.

He breaks into a laugh. He shouts against the wind, “I’m sorry.” He really looks contrite as he opens his arms and walks toward her. I think they’ve been through this one before. She meets him halfway and they hug and kiss. The scene is sweet and schmaltzy.

I turn to my left and the Aluminum Man is gone. I look around the whole area but he’s nowhere to be seen. As I hike back up the hill toward the street I keep looking back. Wow, that was strange, I think as I drive home past the house with aluminum foil on the windows.

The next day at school I tell the kids about my adventure. They don’t seem too surprised. Anthony tells me, “That’s just where he usually hangs out.”

Hamid laughs and goes theatrical. “I told you. It was the cell phone. He had an epiphany when he saw it in the air. He ripped off the suit thinking they don’t need him anymore and then they beamed him

up.”

The class breaks into laughter. We get a great deal of smileage out of the story as we discuss epiphanies, anachronisms and aliens, the space kind.

Irving Rothstein began his teaching career in 1963 and taught mainly in the San Francisco Public School District until he retired in 2002. This excerpt is from his memoir, It Couldn’t Have Been the Pay: A Life of Teaching and Learning in Public Schools, published by Rocín in 2015. His writing has appeared in Tai Chi Magazine and the anthology Why I Teach. He is a lifelong member of the California Federation of Teachers. He still teaches Tai Chi and is an active member in San Francisco’s Jewish Community.

The Primordial Soup: Terminator, Fate, and Tragedy

So this little movie is coming out in the United States this Wednesday.

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The Terminator franchise is one of my favorite movie series ever and the reason I like it so much is because of one of it’s most important central themes: fate and destiny.  For those of you who don’t know (30 year old spoilers) the Terminator movies are about an evil computer program called Skynet that manages to wipe out most of humanity in a nuclear apocalypse.

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Fortunately enough humans survive to form a resistance led by a charismatic leader named John Conner.

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The humans wind up destroying Skynet, but not before the computer sends back one of their agents in an attempt to kill John Conner’s mother before he’s even born.  In response the human resistance sends one of their own soldiers back in time, a man named Kyle Reese to protect and help Sarah

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So begins a game of cat and mouse that spans decades.  For every robot assassin Skynet sends back the humans manage to counter and kill it spawning the tagline for Terminator 2: “The battle for tomorrow begins”.

The brilliance of Terminator, Judgement Day, and Rise of the Machines (no I’m not including Salvation and the Sarah Conner Chronicles) is that amid the robots, explosions, car chases, and futuristic warfare, all three movies play out like one of the oldest forms of drama in history: the Greek tragedy.

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One of the most important themes of a Greek tragedy was the inevitability of a character’s fate.  According the Greeks your fate and destiny were controlled by three crones weaving the “threads of fate” that would determine your birth, life, and death.  They were unavoidable, unassailable, and inescapable.  Your fate was your fate and there was nothing you could do about it.

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Now, we can see this play out throughout the first three Terminator films as the series progresses.  At first, Sarah Conner is unwilling to accept her role in this as the mother of the resistance.

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At the end of the first movie she undergoes an moment of fatal realization, a moment the Greeks called anagorisis, where she realizes her fate is inevitable and proceeds to undergo a dramatic transformation into one of the most badass women in film for the second film.

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Likewise John Conner undergoes a similar moment of anagorisis in the third film.

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After meeting his good friend the T-850 after the second movie, John remains an unwilling hero who refuses to believe that Skynet will destroy humanity after the events of the second film by stating “We stopped Judgement Day” prompting the chilling response “Judgement Day is inevitable”

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It turns out that Conner’s fate is unavoidable and Judgement Day happens, and as the nukes start flying John accepts his fate, takes command of the last remnants of the human race, and magically transforms into Christian Bale.

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But here’s where it gets interesting.  If you want the best example of how the Terminator movies exemplify the inescapably of fate you have to look at the entire franchise from the point of view of the villain that started it all: Skynet.  From the computer’s viewpoint the entire story is a rehash of one of the most famous Greek tragedies of all time and one of those books that most of you were probably forced to slog through in high school: Oedipus Rex.

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Here’s a brief overview of the play.  Long ago in ancient Greece the king of Thebes named Laius receives a prophecy that his newborn son will kill him and take his throne.  Wishing to avoid this fate the king orders his wife Jocasta to kill the infant.  Jocasta doesn’t want to kill her son and orders a servant to do it, who then ignores his queen’s orders and leaves the infant out to die.  The baby is found, is adopted by another king and queen who name him Oedipus.  The boy eventually hears a prophecy stating that he will kill his father and sleep with his own mother and, in a move that defines every type of irony, decides to leave his adopted parents in an attempt to avoid his fate.  During his travels he meets Laius on the road to Thebes, an argument breaks out, and Oedipus kills Laius which fulfills the prophecy.  Traveling to Thebes he rescues the city from a creature called the Sphinx,

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In their joy the city makes Oedipus their king, which involves marrying their now widowed queen Jocasta, and Oedipus winds up having sex with his mom (eww).  Eventually Oedipus finds out and, not surprisingly, is rather upset which results in him gouging out his eyes and leaving the city ashamed.

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Now how does a play written thousands of years ago bear any similarity to a modern movie about a computer program that attempts to wipe out the human race?  They both wind up setting the very events into motion that lead to their downfall through the actions they take to prevent their downfall in the first place.

As I mentioned earlier in the article the humans send back Kyle Reese in the first film in an attempt to stop the Terminator from killing Sarah Conner before she can give birth to John.  However, it turns out that Sarah and Kyle fall in love, have sex, and Sarah becomes pregnant with John after the Terminator kills Kyle.

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It’s a very tender moment but remember, it’s only thanks to Skynet sending the Terminator back in time that the humans send Kyle back.  If Skynet hadn’t attempted to prevent its destruction it would have not created the very conditions that would have led to its destruction in the first place.  And right about now your brain probably feels like this.

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Now once you’ve wrapped your mind around this you can see exactly why Skynet and Oedipus are similar.  Both of them attempt to escape their fate by changing it.

While Skynet is the tragic antagonist of the story the second movie attempted to do the same thing to the protagonists.  After Sarah turns the first Terminator into pulp with help from an industrial machine press

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Sarah and John discover that the parts from the first Terminator were collected by a company called Cyberdyne Systems, the company that would create Skynet and bring about Judgement Day.

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While I think it would have been deliciously ironic for the very event that brought about Skynet’s downfall to bring about it’s creation as well the second movie destroys that notion by eliminating Cyberdyne’s research in a fury of bullets and explosions

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and turning any trace of Skynet and the evil machines into literal molten slag in a scene that made everyone who watched it burst into tears.

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However, fate decides that free will and choice is utter horse crap and Skynet, which was developed as a piece of military software designed to prevent another virus from infecting every computer in existence (because THAT always works), destroys humanity in a nuclear apocalypse anyway.  After all, “Judgement Day is inevitable”.

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So that’s the ultimate lesson of the entire Terminator franchise: your fate is inevitable and there is absolutely nothing you can do to change it, just like the finest Greek tragedies Western literature has to offer.  However, don’t worry because while human kind is forced to bend to the will of fate it turns out that even evil soulless machines are as well, and any action that it takes to change the future will wind up either making things worse or become the cause of the events it originally set out to change.

Have fun watching Terminator: Genysis.

The Primordial Soup: The most interesting sci fi show you’ve probably never heard of

Here at Cambrian Comics we talk about many things from comics, to Game of Thrones, to tech, to Game of Thrones, to superheroes, and Game of Thrones (okay so mostly Game of Thrones but hey, there’s a lot to talk about with that show).  Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite sci fi television shows out there and one of the most radically different and interesting ideas in science fiction: Farscape.

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While most of the sci fi television landscape is dominated by joint Canadian and American shows for tax reasons (and the same reason why almost every single planet in these shows looks like the same patch of British Colombian forest) Farscape was a joint American and Australian show that ran for four season from 1999-2003.  The show was written and run by the future creator of the current Sci Fi channel show DEFIANCE Rocke S. O’Bannon and has developed something of a cult following over the past decade.

The show begins with the series protagonist and audience surrogate John Crichton, played by science fiction television stalwart Ben Browder

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being flung into a distant part of the universe via wormhole.  After being dropped in the middle of a alien spaceship dogfight he finds himself aboard a living ship that was transporting a group of prisoners which include a Luxon warrior named Dargo.

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A renegade priestess, who is also a living plant, named Zhaan.

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A small, fat slug like creature named Rygel who needs a hover chair to get around and was once the ruler of over 600 billion people.

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And one of their former jailers.  A mysteriously humanoid soldier from a race of menacing soldiers called Peackeepers (because with a name like that what else could you be other than a militaristic warrior society dedicated to using violence in the name of order?) named Aeryn Sun.

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And the ship itself, a biological organism known as Moya who is controlled by her Pilot, a creature grafted into Moya’s systems in order to help her function and navigate the stars.

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And that’s the main cast.  There were several other characters that joined the crew as some of the original cast left but the show followed the ship and its crew as they wandered the galaxy and searched for a way home all while dodging Peacekeepers and trying to stay out of trouble.

This is my favorite show for two reasons.  First, you may notice that Pilot and Rygel look like they’re puppets.  That’s because they are.  Farscape was produced by Hallmark and Jim Henson Productions, the same guys who helped bring the Muppets to life.  As a result all of the prosthetic body work and puppetry was done by a company that knew what they were doing and really cared about their work.  This resulted in creatures like this.

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and this

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and this

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Sure some of the designs looked freaking and were occasionally clunky but in an age where real visual effects were becoming a rarity (this was the early 2000’s, CGI was king) this level of creativity and dedication deserves a lot of respect.

The second thing I love about this show is the sheer imagination it had.  Instead of having everyone speak the universal language of English and just have the audience accept it, Farscape said “no, we’re going to have each of the characters injected with translator microbes and give a plausible explanation as to why everyone speaks English”.  They were also the first show in my memory to not only treat the concept of a “living ship” as a gimmick but as a fully developed character as well.

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Over the course of the show Moya displays signs of love, loss, anger, and even depression and if she’s upset you can bet the crew will feel it.  They even wrote a plot line where Moya gives birth to a baby (it turns out to be a berserk hybrid warship baby but to go on would spoil a huge part of the story).

Oh, and for any fans of the new Battlestar Galactica series, you know how they replace the word “fuck” with “frack” in order to circumvent censors?  Guess who did that first?

Bear in mind I’m just scratching the surface of what Farscape did, I didn’t even get to the interdimentional vampires or the time Crichton got turned into a statue because he was a genetic match for an alien princess, but you get the idea.  That being said the show was not without its problems.  The show was so full of creative ideas and creatures that it tended to wander about, what was originally a group of fugitives trying to get home turned into an inter galactic manhunt for something in Crichton’s head that would help the Peacekeepers win a massive war and it just got silly after a while.  Also some of the dialogue is incredibly campy and weird but it was the early 2000’s where that sort of thing was understandable.

Still, the show’s faults and foibles were few in comparison to it’s many strengths.  Farscape is an awesome show that deserves a look if you have chance.  It’s on Netfilx instant if that’s your thing and there is talk of a movie coming in the not too distant future.  Whether you’re a fan or not we can all appreciate the genius and imagination the show brought to television.