5 Things They Should Teach In High School

The students of Beverly Hills 90210 didn't learn much in high school, but that's okay—their parents had money.
The students of Beverly Hills 90210 didn’t learn much in high school, but that’s okay—their parents had money.

My last column was about the demise of cursive writing, how many school districts are phasing out longhand in favor of teaching kids how to type on keyboards.

I’ll begrudging admit it makes sense – everybody needs to know computer basics these days. But it got me thinking about other changes that are needed in the current school curriculum.

Back in my day, you had the option of taking a driver’s education course through the public high school (which offered the uniquely weird experience of cruising around town with your gym teacher riding shotgun). Driver’s Ed was a nice option to have, but I understand it’s not offered in many (any) schools these days. You have to hire a private instructor instead.

I appreciated learning a basic life skill like driving a car in public high school, but I realized in the decade following graduation there were still a lot of life skills to learn. Here are the top five things I wish I’d learned in high school (or college…or anytime in my twenties would have been nice.)

5 Things Graduating Seniors Should Know How To Do

1) Buying a car. It’s probably the first major purchase people make in their adult lives, yet many are clueless about buying and owning a vehicle, the terms of an auto lease, or how to register your car, and get an inspection sticker. You should learn how to maintain and care for your vehicle, too. Things of value need to be cared for.

2) Buying a house. From choosing a mortgage to assessing a property, there are a million and one things to know when buying a home. There are an equal number of pitfalls and mistakes to make, too. I made several hundred thousand mistakes buying my first home, and a bunch more buying my second.

3) Personal finance. Opening a bank account. Paying bills. Managing credit cards. Balancing a household budget. I really, really wish someone had taught me about this stuff when I was a teenager. My parents did their best, but I wasn’t a very apt pupil. I was taught nothing about personal finance in high school aside from a few word problems in math class. I still don’t know how the stock market works, but from what I gather, neither does anybody else.

4) Marriage & family. There’s a gap between home economics (baking, sewing, etc.) and health class (human biology and reproduction) that needs to be filled. You could devote an entire semester to “wedding planning” if you wanted. I’d rather see the course dig into the meat of marriage, the expectations and potential pitfalls, and how children impact a relationship. Not everyone gets married and starts a family, but many do. Half of those end in divorce. Maybe that number wouldn’t be so high if young adults got some basic training.

5) How to pick a college/write a resume/interview for a job. Maybe there should be separate courses for each of these subjects, but they’re all leading to the same place. You’re going to have to do something after school, and chances are good you’ll have to interview for a job. It’s hard to get by without one. The whole point of standardized education is to create fine upstanding citizens that contribute to society. I think colleges should offer more internships and apprenticeships. Students should work in their field of interest before deciding on a major. Then you’ll create a workforce that enjoys giving back to its community.

As I said, I owe a lot of my practical education to my family, Mom and Dad, along with my brothers and sisters. Friends taught me a lot, too. I’m fortunate because I had those things. Not everyone does. That’s why public schools need to step up. You might not need to know cursive writing anymore, but there’s still a lot to learn

Originally published in Wayne TODAY, September 2011

Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n Roll, and Tentacles! or Why My Debut Novel Sucks

Hangman's Jam: A Symphony of Terror by Rob Errera.
My debut novel, Hangman’s Jam: A Symphony of Terror.

Hey, I wrote a novel. It’s called Hangman’s Jam, and it’s awesome, probably the best book ever written, and definitely the best book you will ever read.

It’s packed with love, sex, death, murder, music, mayhem, and cosmic monsters. Check it out for yourself.

But first, let me tell you what blows about my debut novel.

Hangman’s Jam is a rock ‘n roll horror novel about a haunted song that gets passed along through the musical generations. It winds up in the hands of a New Jersey bar band, which rides it to worldwide success…and global destruction.

Hangman’s Jam may not be my greatest creative achievement, but it’s certainly one I’ve put a lot of time and effort into.

But it could’ve been better.

Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind 

Since my novel is about music, specifically rock music, I incorporated many classic rock lyrics into the text. This gave the work an extra credibility, like my haunted song had always existed alongside these classic tunes. It showcased how music and life are interwoven. I packed my novel with all sorts of musical quotes, some subtle, some overt. I polished that draft until it was pretty good. I polished it until it sang.

Then I began researching the legal ramifications of using song lyrics in literary works, and quickly realized I was in deep doo-doo.

You can use song titles as much as you like, but using lyrics without permission and compensation is a big legal no-no.

A friend of mine was writing a follow-up to her bestselling cat story (Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper). Her cat is named Prudence, and one of her characters invites the stray tabby to “come out and play.”

What Cooper found when she ran her manuscript by the Beatles estate was it would cost a couple thousand dollars to use two lines from “Dear Prudence,” plus three cents per copy sold in perpetuity.

I’m sure Paul and Ringo don’t need to make a few hundred dollars off a struggling writer. But evidently their lawyers think otherwise, as do the majority of music publishing attorneys.

Lawyers Can’t Dance

As a songwriter, I understand the reason for this legal protection. You can’t have people stealing your lyrics.

But all art builds on the art that came before it. Why can’t I use a piece of another artist’s creation to illustrate my own? Hip-hop producers do it all the time!

If I wrote a book called Attack Of The 50-Foot Steve Buscemi, Steve Buscemi could rightfully say I was using his name and likeness for financial gain. Still, somehow Being John Malkovich got made. It’s possible, but in the case of my work—a novel that was liberally sprinkled with musical quotations—it wasn’t financially feasible to get all the rights and permissions I needed to write the book I wanted to write.

So I rewrote the novel, and took all the musical quotes out.

It irritates me. Why can’t one confused character say to another, “There will be an answer. Let it be”? Well, you might get away with it in a mystery or romance novel, but in the context of musical fiction it’s asking for legal trouble. As a result, my characters now say, “We’ll let the music speak for itself,” instead of, “We’ll let the music do the talkin'” for fear of being sued by Aerosmith’s attorneys.

The final published draft of Hangman’s Jam is still pretty strong. I hope you’ll check it out and see for yourself (you can find both print and digital editions on Amazon, Barnes&Noble.com, iTunes, etc.) Maybe if enough people buy it, I’ll have the means to publish a revised edition with the music put back in.

Until then, jam on!

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, January 2013 

 

A New Year, A New Attitude, A New You — 5 Easy Steps

I published this feel-good, self improvement piece in January 2009. I thought it was pretty schmaltzy, but people seemed to like it, so here it is. The advice is still sound, and will work just as well for you in 2013 as it did in 2009…probably even better! (Your results may vary.) Happy New Year all!

Laughing Budda knows the secret to true happiness. I knew a guy in college who believed the laughing, standing Budda was celebrating after exhaling a massive bong hit. College was fun.

I avoid self-help books like the plague. Who needs some sanctimonious moron telling you how to live, offering up a bunch of Dr. Phil-type platitudes that are either meaningless or obvious or both?

What? You like self-help books? You want to be a better you in the New Year? Well, fortunately you’ve come to the right place.  I’m no good at taking advice, but I’m a whiz at dishing it out. Heck, give me enough time and I’ll solve everybody’s problems…except for my own!  Here are five self-help tips that will get you “feelin’ fine in ‘09”:

1)    Get Your Head Together – Get your priorities straight. There are only three things that matter in life: health, family and inner peace (aka happiness). Stop worrying about money – it’s not on the list. As Marlon Brando says in The Godfather, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” The same goes for women (except, you know, they’re not actually men.) The point is you have to value and cherish the people in your family – they are the only things in your life of any real worth. That’s where you should invest your time and effort.  Rich is the man who discovers the treasure of love under his own roof. If only family wasn’t so expensive

2)    Get Your Body Together –I’m not going to pitch you on a fitness kick. (Ha! Talk about a sanctimonious moron!)  If you’re happy where you’re at, then so am I. Getting to the Happy Place is all that matters. But you have to be comfortable in your own skin, and in order to do that you have to do something physical on a regular basis. It could be a sport or a physical hobby or a walk around the block; what’s important is feeling connected to the body that surrounds you. If you want to get spiritual, the body is the vessel of your soul. If you want to get literal, the body is the input device for your computer brain.  Either way, you deserve to treat it right!

3)    Laugh More – Is it the best medicine?  Don’t know, but a good laugh sure can pick you up. Sometimes my wife will scowl at me. “Everything’s a big joke to you, isn’t it?” she’ll ask. Actually, honey, life’s a big joke on all of us. You have to learn to roll with the punch-lines. We’re all bewildered extras in a Monty Python sketch. Life’s funny…laugh ‘til you puke.

4)    Feed Your Head – Learn something. Read a book. Watch a documentary (though this is the most passive—and lamest — way to learn).  Take a course and acquire a new skill. Age doesn’t matter; neither does the skill as long as it challenges you. The important thing is to stay sharp and keep the brain active. Do Sudoku…but only as a last resort. A trusty crossword puzzle is a healthier choice for your mind diet.

5)    Stay Positive – Think you’re going to have a lousy year? Then you probably will.  Doom and gloom has a way of begetting doom and gloom, and negative thoughts have a way of manifesting themselves. But if you’re optimistic you’re open to new experiences, new potentials. Anything can happen. Contrary to what you might think, reality is quite malleable. It’s like one of those optical illusion tricks you find on a diner placemat; look at the drawing one way and it’s a beautiful young lady, look at it another way and it’s an ugly old crone. Perception is everything — it shapes your reality. Start looking for the good in life every day. Pretty soon you won’t have to look. The good will just be there.

As comedian George Carlin said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Hope your 2009 is filled with breathless moments!

And your 2013 is even more magical!

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, January 2009