Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on December 10, 2008


typewriter          One of the things that critics often praise most about the show Entourageis the fact that Vinnie Chase seems incredibly believable as a movie star – in large part because Adrian Grenier has never really done much else, and thus the audience doesn’t associate his previous performances with those of his fictional character.  While I understand their larger point, it must also be noted that these critics aren’t exactly correct.  I, for one, was well-aware of Vinnie Chase before he stepped foot onto the Red Carpet in Entourage’s 2004 pilot (although for a long time I kind of confused him with Heath Ledger).  You see, in addition to being a member of the L.A.-based band The Honey Brothers, Grenier starred opposite Melissa Joan Hart in the vastly underrated 1999 date-movie Drive Me Crazy, where he played Chase “Hambone” Hammond, a poorly cast nerd who gets made over into a “cool guy” in order to make the school’s basketball star jealous enough to take Sabrina the Teenaged Witch to the Centennial Dance.  (By the way, the previous four sentences lead me to three tangential points: #1 – I love the predictability of Hollywood movies, and sort of wish life operated along the same principles; #2 – I wonder if, when Doug Ellin was casting Entourage, he was at all swayed by the fact that Grenier had already successfully played one “Chase” character to perfection; and #3 – Part of Drive Me Crazy’s packaging was a nifty tie-in to the Britney Spears song “Drive Me Crazy,” whose video featured Melissa Joan Hart and Adrian Grenier doing an awkward courtship dance at a space-age Dog ‘n’ Suds, and I wonder whether the movie launched the writing of the song, or the song launched the writing of the movie.)

          Anyway, back to the point.  As all nerds do (according to Hollywood), Chase Hammond ran in a pack of three nerdy kids (think about it – Drillbit Taylor?  3 nerdy kids.  Superbad?  3 nerdy kids.), and one of the other nerds in Hambone’s posse was a guy lovingly referred to throughout the movie as “Designated Dave.”  Now, as far as the movie’s other high school students were concerned, “Designated Dave” was basically a one-trick pony – his job was to pick them up from parties after they got hammered on Jello Shots and Tequila, and for this he usually received multiple punches to the face and buckets full of vomit in his car’s back seat.  This seems like an inadequate trade-off from any logical perspective, but to paraphrase the character Eddie,  this trade-off was fair because Dave sucked – and was just doing anything he could to hang out with the “in-crowd.” Note: if this sounds like the plot of an after-school special, that’s because I’m certain that this is the plot of multiple after-school specials (it’s number three on the list of top ten topics – right behind “teenage girl gets pregnant” and “athlete experiments with steroids”).  And just like any good after-school special, one of the things that Drive Me Crazy made so very clear (by letting Dave take “Dee Vine” to the Centennial Dance) is that “Designated Dave” didn’t suck at all.  In fact, he was actually kind of cool in his own nerdy way – which is a nice message that I’d like to hammer home.  The truth of the matter is that SOBER DRIVERS ABSOLUTELY DO NOT SUCK.  At all.  Ever.  Even if when you get into their car, they make you listen to Flock of Seagulls or Jonas Brothers songs.  DRIVING DRUNK SUCKS – and it’s extremely dangerous.

          Don’t believe me?  Well, you should – because car collisions involving drunk drivers have a very real way of making everybody’s lives worse.

          Luckily, I’ve never been involved in a drunk-driving accident – but plenty of my friends have – and it’s not like I couldn’t have been involved in one during that stupid point in my past when I often just jumped into the car and tried to keep the four wheels somewhere close to the middle of the three roads that I saw.  Two of my grandfather’s brothers killed themselves in this manner, so did two girls from my high school, and at least three of my friends have wrapped their cars around a tree.  And these are good examples of why DRIVING DRUNK SUCKS.  But none of these situations is equivalent to the worst thing that can happen to you if you drive drunk.  The absolute worst thing that can happen is that you can kill somebody else – and then recover yourself.  And this is a situation that happens all too often – in large part because alcohol acts as a means of keeping the body relaxed during an accident. 

          Those of you who have been hanging around these parts for awhile have by now stumbled onto the page entitled “Pencil, Paper, Craig” – and it’s from one of Craig’s college experiences that we draw the lynchpin of today’s lesson.  Around five years ago, while Craig was an undergraduate at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, one of his fraternity brothers hopped behind the wheel of his car after a night out at the IU bars in nearby Bloomington.  At some point during the 45-minute drive home, this poor guy fell asleep, got into a wreck, and killed another driver.  Now, some of you may take offense at my calling this young driver a “poor guy” – and certainly you’re right in feeling worse for the family of the victim in this accident.  That’s natural.  But from my perspective, in a situation like this – nobody wins.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend time in prison for committing manslaughter, or what it would be like to return to campus after a year spent in the joint and to see people in class just staring at your ankle monitor, or what it would be like to live with the horrible guilt that must still hang around this kid’s neck like an albatross.  His life must just be Purgatory (and there’s a reason that that Bryan Adams song that got remade a few years ago into a techno-hit wasn’t called “Purgatory is a Place on Earth”).  Driving drunk, something that so many college kids (and adults) do, is like playing a game of Russian Roulette where the bullet metaphorically represents this Catholic torturous wasteland.

          Now, I’m not going to say much more here.  One of the things that I’ve vowed to stay away from at Dr. Wizard’s Advice is being overly preachy – because I’m not a licensed minister.  But it’s just a horrible mistake to not arrange for a sober driver or a cab when going out for the night, and we all owe the people out there in the world like Designated Dave a large debt of gratitude.  Right now, at a time when most of us are going to two holiday parties every weekend, let’s make sure to take our turn with an occasional night off from the boozing, so that everybody makes it home safe.  And if one of your friends volunteers to stay sober for the night, make sure to tell them thanks.  It’s so much nicer than punching them in the face.


Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on December 8, 2008


typewriter1          Well, ladies and gentlemen, I may not always be the most astute observer of the natural world, but as I’ve been walking my dog through the streets of the Central West End the last few mornings, it’s been difficult not to notice that it’s getting really fricking cold outside.  Now, I’m not sure how this whole “Long December” thing snuck up on us so fast, because it seemslike less than a month ago I was still wearing flip flops for a good portion of the week, but evidently there’s already been a dusting of snow across most of the Great Plains, the Rust Belt, and the Upper Northeast.  This can only mean a couple of things.  It means, first of all, as you read this, I’m certain that somewhere in America the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is hurtling towards a local opera house to play yet another horrific mash-up of Christmas Carols.  And it means, more importantly for you, that it’s time for one final push towards the end of the semester before we all go home to play Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel and “Rock Around the Christmas Tree.”  It is time, in short, to “get yo’ muthatruckin’ exam on.”

          Now, the context for this post is more or less the same as the context for THINK BRONZE MEDAL and HOW TO WRITE AN ‘A’ PAPER.  That is, I am much more qualified to give you information about the way the exam writing process works in the Humanities than I am in, say, the Natural Sciences.  But that doesn’t mean that I won’t give it my best shot on all accounts, because I think a lot of the information is applicable to multiple subjects.  Hell, George W. Bush was more qualified to run the Texas Rangers than he was the United States of America, and he did…well, hopefully, this post, whatever else it accomplishes, won’t alienate us from the rest of the world’s leaders.  So, just like Toad says when he picks up a turbo-mushroom in Mario Kart, “heeeere we go!” with four simple rules that should simplify the exam process and make it…simpler.

          Rule #1: Most professors have enormous egos.  When it comes right down to it, most of your professors think that they are awfully smart – and this is because, in general, most of us are smarter than the average cat.  Unfortunately, even though this is true, most of us also probably overvalue our intelligence in comparison with the rest of the world – but this is material for a different post.  The way this useful piece of information about your professors comes directly into play during exam week is this: if you are forced into making a decision between placing your studying emphasis on the original material as covered in a textbook and the meta-textual comments that your professor makes on that material during his or her lectures, go with the careful perusal of your notes.  In the real world, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar work on “Eruption” is way more important than anything your professor could possibly ever say about it, but in the world of semester exams, your job is to regurgitate your professor’s opinions regarding Mr. Van Halen’s tap-tap-tapping as close to verbatim as you possibly can.  Because, in the end, given our enormous egos, we mostly are looking for validation that what we say is important, and we look to you to give us that support – even though the premise of this artificial construction is completely ridiculous.

          Rule #2: If your professor gives you a study guide, that’s what you should study.  I realize this seems like common sense, but you’d be amazed how often students obviously neglect the study guide when preparing for an examination.  Now, let me tell you why this is a bad idea. While most of your professors have entered the teaching world because they derive genuine satisfaction from helping students learn valuable material, you must realize that we are also human.  Just like you, by this point in the semester we are tired – we’ve spent the last four months preparing for classes, writing letters of recommendation, and working on our own research projects – and just like you, your professors are looking to use their time as efficiently as possible.  The creation of a study guide represents additional, unnecessary work on the part of your teachers, and if we do this, you can be certain that we have two goals in mind: 1) to help our students because we want them to know what is important, and 2) to make the grading process go more quickly.  The better an examination is, the easier it is to grade.  If your professor gives you a study guide, use it.

          Rule #3: Memorize a quote or a few historical dates and use them during the exam.  Despite the prevailing notion that academia makes the majority of people cynical (and in many ways, it does), there’s also another common thread that can be traced among the professoriate.  At some point deep in our souls, we hate this cynicism, and as a reaction against this entropic force, we all become roughly akin to six-year-olds watching an amateur magician performing tricks at a birthday party when grading exams.  As Samuel Taylor Coleridge would say, we become very good, when dealing with our students, at willingly suspending our disbelief.  In fact, we want so badly to be impressed by you that we’re just waiting for you to pull a rabbit out of a hat – and, in the parallel world of the final examination, the metaphorical rabbit is a smart quote or an obscure piece of accurate history.  If you can do this well, you’re virtually guaranteed a high grade on any essay or short answer question.  But, you must also be careful, for although we are more than willing to be impressed, our cynical side becomes fiercely agitated if you perform this magic clunkily.  You must, first of all, be correct when presenting historical data, and the quote you select must make sense in the context of your answer.  We want to see the magic, not the rabbit’s ear sticking out of your hat’s trap door.

           Rule #4: Answer the question, but answer it in a way that accentuates your strengths.   The most common mistake that students make when answering essay questions on an exam is to completely ignore the original question.  Sometimes, this is the fault of a poorly constructed prompt.  More often, however, this is fundamental breakdown on the part of the student to recognize his or her primary responsibility – that of actually providing an answer to the question that has been asked.  That being said, you have a significant amount of leeway when writing your response.  Once you’ve answered the question, spend the remainder of your time giving examples (that are at least tangentially relevant) from what you remember best.  So, for example, if you are asked a question about the way Upton Sinclair’s literary naturalism depicts Chicago as a destructive environment in The Jungle, but you happen to also remember similar constructions in Native Son, feel free to impress us by telling us about Richard Wright’s dungeon of iron and steel – once you’ve at least briefly addressed the initial question.  This way, your answer shows depth and the ability to contextualize against other works – which is always a good thing.

           So, there you have it.  Four quick, simple rules to guide your way through the next week and a half.  Then, once it’s all over, we can all use our GPS systems to guide us over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house (we go).  Mine will be making cookies, and I’m quite certain they’ll be delicious.