Monday, November 23, 2015


A pumpkin that is too small for anything else cowers near her front door,

              She cobbles a holiday together from scraps of buttered imagination.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Knock Knock Knockin'

Trouble in mind.  I recently read that a new poll reports that 29% of the American people still doubt that their President, Barak Obama, is not a muslim.  Though he regularly identifies himself as a Christian, so do they.  I feel like conjuring up the ghost of Woody Guthrie to deal with this one.  Political and religious denial of the worst order.  What would Woody do, I keep asking myself?  Aside from a few clever retorts in the form of barbs, the great American folk interpreter would no doubt have a few unusual ideas.
"Get these here folks in a room together and then bring in the Pres, " he might say.  "Let them talk face to face with the man they try so hard to ignore.  I'll bet they find they have more in common than not."

What a great idea.  Demystify the cloak of separation and be required to tell a lie to someone's face.  Oh the psychopaths will do just fine, but the one's with a heart and soul might have difficulty.  It could be the start of something big for them.
This week has been filled with all sorts of denials of the human spirit.  The fear mongers are feeding mightily on all the terrorism threats, so their intolerance is flowing like the Texas flood plains right now.  They are closing the wagons while all the while forgetting the compassion that is one of the only remaining positive traits of this culture right now.
Americans have always been a generous, empathetic people because of our history.  Oh I know not always.  When you give smallpox ridden blankets to Native Americans in trade and you mercilessly invade the sovereignty of nations time and again while lying to your own people (Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Grenada, your generosity and empathy quotient declines rapidly.  But on the plus side, billions of dollars in aid, relief, food and weapons constantly pour from the red, white, and blue.  So it is that we approach this holiday season with renewed calls for bombing the hell out of our foes and denying entrance to families who risk their lives daily (some lose the gamble daily too)
This polarization is only exacerbated by the polarization of the media.  Whole news outlets preach to the converted and chisel out the chasm wider and wider all the time.
How much is ignorance and how much is ignorance fed by fear?
It takes it's toll on our daily lives as well.  At least a thousand times a day someone realizes that a friend or family member is spouting untruths or racism, or ethnocentrism or just plain sloppy thinking.  What's double fascinating is that even in what we take for clearly polarized communities there is always contradiction.  Case in point: I've got a number of friends and family members who are rather conservative.  So much so that I completely disagree with any of their thinking.  Some borders on anti-intellectualism.  Some of them live in fancy houses and off of old money, but some are hardscrabble.  Like the thoroughbred horse community I know. They like to remind people that they studied at the school of hard knocks.  That old chestnut of a metaphor becomes their excuse for not reading about or thinking through big issues.  I get that they are wired differently from us folks on the left side of the aisle, but I do like to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to human beings and flat out falsehoods. Just this week, two jockey friends of mine were told by trainers with differing political beliefs that they would no longer be riding for them any more. What to do with these folks?  Don't stop.  Keep telling what you know to be true.  Try to imagine the world from their perspective, and think about Woody's mythical solution.  Sit in a room with them or a virtual room and talk face to face.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Dark and Darker

The temperature is changing.  In every way.  One minute we are dealing with air conditioning and then it's the concern over freezing pipes.
One minute it's the solid red Starbuck's cup and the disappearance of holiday symbols and the next we're on high terror alert.
The President of France declares, "We are at war."  Ten U.S. governors simultaneously say they will not accept any Syrian refugees.  A few of them conveniently forget they once were refugees who fled the political consequences for their families in difficult times.

The sabres are rattling and the machine is crying for oil.  The bombs are already falling and as the season of Peace on Earth Goodwill towards mankind approaches, we have collective PTSD.
If our hair and beards are darker than most, we have cause for concern.
As a culture we like our wars to be the "good war" variety and our warriors to come from the "greatest" generations.  After the recent events in Paris (November 2015) we may get plenty of both.
If our values with the forces of evil that ISIS represents are in conflict, so too are our values among one another in question.  Will the real Islam please stand up?  How can we know what is the bigger threat, our intolerant enemy or our intolerant compatriots?  Both?
The mood feels dark and darker.  If innocents can die so quickly, something must be done immediately.  It's a little like The War of the Worlds.  The antidote to conflict and confusion among ourselves can be a common enemy.  Trouble is, we can't always see or define the foe here.  It's a real guerrilla war because the enemy doesn't always wear a uniform.  So we suspect and we assume to the point of assumicide.  It's a good time to make new traditions.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


This week has been full of disconnects.  I finished reading Michelle Alexander's important book The New Jim Crow about how the Drug War is the new form of racial caste system in this country.  Her research and statistics are impressive.  Simply put, she argues that we have gone from slavery to Jim Crow laws, to mass incarceration.  All are a form of race control. Fascinating too how she quotes both Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin in her final chapter.  Would that both were with us today to provide additional insight.
So then, the day after I finish the book, I sit down for the best entertainment of the week, the next Republican "debate."  Of course these two hour "watch me talk over you and get my time" telecasts aren't really debates, but they are fun to watch because they expose just how polarized our politics are these days both within and without our political party affiliations.
No mention of racial issues anywhere.  Not even connected to the talk about the economy or minimum wage.

This is the same week that the President of the University of Missouri resigned for inaction involving blatantly racist incidents on his campus. We're talking explicit KKK type acts.  That spells ignorance, but it also spells take this seriously...immediately.  Alexander, in the aforementioned book says that indifference is, in part, responsible for the new Jim Crow.  I see that.
A couple of weeks ago the Internet was filled with examples of a Texas approved history text that attempted to whitewash slavery, calling the "immigrants" from Africa, "workers."  I guess more accurately workers with no pay.  Which brings up how each Republican candidate spoke against raising the minimum wage to $15.  In their view that would cause unemployment.  What about the cost of living in a time when rents are rising faster that American Pharaoh, the Triple Crown winner.  Disconnection.  To this mix add the introduction of a simply red holiday cup from Starbucks.  No snow flake or snowman, no musical note or green tree.  Red...just red with their pagan mermaid logo. Christian persecution.  Never mind that for the previous 300 years only one kind of religious icon was "acceptable" for the red and green.  Some of the entitled are feeling the pangs of disconnection.
The clock is not only ticking, it's melting.  As we digitalize everything, we are becoming multicultural whether we like it or not.  Most of us do value the mix.  Like the research in The New Jim Crow, the numbers don't lie.  I only hope the latest versions of the American story include the old Jim Crow. Lest we forget.
A final thought:  Alexander's work also retraces the tragedy of poor people, both black and white throughout our history, to unite.  There have been brief periods when poor and working class Whites realized that with Black support, both could defeat a common foe.  Enter the race card played by White power brokers.  "You may be poor, but at least you ain't black," is the implicit message.  This division represents the biggest disconnect of them all in many ways.  This capitulation to racism is eloquently detailed in C. Vann Woodward's seminal work, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.  Connection, yes, but disconnection as well.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Face Facts

It's been about 9 years since I wondered onto Facebook for the first time.  I'd been retired from full-time teaching only a couple of months and I was trying to track down an Amnesty International petition so I could keep up my involvement.  Amnesty had gone to Facebook in an attempt to use social media to reach more people.  Without thinking too much I filled out some information via my new laptop and suddenly I was confronted with the challenge of filling out a profile.  Literally within minutes of this initial log on, I began to receive "Friend Requests" from former students.  The first one came from Paris, France.
In my 30+ years in the classroom, I must have had a few thousand students.  Suddenly, they began to return to my life.  This was heady stuff.  Of course I wondered what ever happened to so many and now I began to find out.  I soon realized that as I accepted new Friend requests, I was getting more exposure.  As the class of 2004 began to find me, so too did the classes of 2005 and 2006.  Now and then, because of a sibling, I began to hear from classes in the 90s and then the 80s.  There may even be a few from the late 70s at this point.
This re-connection has been welcomed and highly satisfying, for the most part.  Recently I felt the desire to "unfriend" a couple of folks because their politics and mine are so opposite that I can't stand some of the junk they leave on my page.  I can tolerate a difference of opinion, in fact, I welcome it, but it's those long conversations that people feel compelled to prolong.  The kind that generate an email notification 25 times a day.  No thanks.

One particular former student is a most intelligent young man whose thinking appears convoluted to me.  He delights in starting discussions about school reform.  A crack debater in high school, he's now a lawyer who will no doubt read this.  I have always admired the depth of his intelligence, but for the life of me I can't figure out how he came to have some of the opinions he holds.  I'm beginning to think it's genetic in that we're all wired differently.  He enjoys an argument, to be sure.  I get that.  But his latest post decried the "myth" of schools needing more money.  It's no myth, sir.  He's convinced that an influx of money in public schools would make no difference because it's the teachers that need to be replaced that would cost nothing.  How absurd!  Some schools need everything from new furniture to technology, to simple daily supplies and copiers.  It occurred to me the other day that the debate team he was on in high school used to fund their trips to tournaments by selling junk food.  They took over a small room that used to be a student bookstore and turned it into an unsightly space with a sticky floor that housed about a half a dozen soda and candy machines.  What angered me even more than the crap that was freely disseminated to the student body was that these budding intellectuals were selling mostly to the underclass of the school.  This was a fascinating phenomena to watch because it became a large elephant in the room.  But the reality was there wasn't money for programs like forensics, hence the junk food hustle.  I discussed the outrageousness of this with a few of my colleagues at the time, but nothing happened.  It couldn't because the district was complicit in it's commitment to selling junk food in the cafeteria and elsewhere.  Then there were he hundreds of other candy drives to deal with as well as handing out the kind of candy that pulls out fillings for kids taking standardized tests.  They encouraged that.
There are many ways a school teaches, aren't there?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Water Signs

The clocks are re-set; Halloween is over.  Rainfall graced the streets with a few ponds and made the curbs small versions of the bigger dams that surround the local rivers.  The calendar page reads November and a brief glance out my window makes clear the reason that Portland, Oregon was named after Portland Maine.
Orange is ubiquitous.  Butternut squash, pumpkins and candy corn, Indian corn, popcorn, persimmons and a new crop of navels. Leaves...many leaves. Fall is inevitable.
It means I must stow away all my fishing equipment until Spring...except for that travel rod which offers hope when snow is on the ground.  I reluctantly remove all the gear from metric and wonder where the chains I think I have might be.  Time to think about holidays and winter travel and of course, time to take stock of the previous year.
I've heard this is the time when some folks think the moon is in Scorpio.  I don't follow astrology, but history shows us that strange things do happen between the first of November and the end of the year.  Just last year I found myself in the hospital for an unplanned visit.  Fortunately only overnight, but it goes with all the data about this "time." Age has taught me to take things slowly, when possible, and live from day to day.  For an ever vigilant person like me, that's a moment to moment challenge.  But I'm learning.
The days ahead have some wonderful things to anticipate.  Cold, wet weather with warm drinks and good books to curl up with and contemplate.  Visions of the Spring to come.  Fingering the grain of years and people passed.  Realizing what stays in the consciousness and no doubt always will.  Writer Neel Mukergee has called this chewing the cud of memory.  Do you do this?  I find that it increases with age as well.  Maybe that's what we do...most everything we do... play and re-play.  And re-play some more.  Isn't that what a blog is all about?

Yesterday I spent much of the day watching the Breeder's Cup Championship races from Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky.  I anticipate this day for weeks and when it finally ends, I feel bit of post part depression.  Maybe that's the wrong term, but in a way the images of anticipation are, in a way, something we give birth to, aren't they?  I have no real sadness, rather the loss of something to look forward to.  Maybe the next time I walk 6 blocks, sloshing in the icy rain, dipping my feet into newly created lagoons, I'll think of a pasture and a new crop of  2 year olds, romping in the Bluegrass state.  That  will get me through the darkest days and still have plenty of time for painting watercolors in my mind of rainbow and brook trout.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Music is the Medium

"There's only two kinds of music, good and bad."
I'm not sure who said that, but it's been attributed to many.  I rather like the story that Duke Ellington's father imparted it to a young, gifted, son.  Duke certainly got the message because he made so much of the former kind of music.
Most of us have our favorite genres.  A quick look at someone's playlist or Pandora radio stations will reveal much about the person.  For those who have stacks of tape cassettes, or boxes of vinyl records even more knowledge and experience shows through.  Case in Point:  I went to a popular breakfast place the other day only to be greeted by the voice of Blind Willie McTell.  A record was playing...a real record making circles under a needle arm.  Felt like I'd walked into a Texas roadhouse.  I think it even made the food taste better.  I may have been the only one in that room who knew the voice, or even cared, but the music was the medium in that moment.

I've always marveled at how advertisers use the music of our formative years to sell their products.  When the Pillsbury Doughboy showed up playing blues riffs on a harmonica, I used to tell my classes that someday they'll see him as a rapper trying to sell the same old puffy white dough.  Lots of laughs, but mark my words, it's coming when they reach the right demographic in a few years.
As we age, we seem to get frozen or at least locked in for awhile to certain music genres and/or artists.  Again, Pandora helps because if you create a Neil Young station, you'll get lots Crosby Stills and Nash along with those Beatle songs that remind you of when and where you were at a certain time in your life.
I hold on to the Blues.  I'm overjoyed when anyone today covers a classic artist, but truth be told, I'd rather listen to the originals.  I'm old enough to have seen many of the classic Blues performers in their hey days.  Some like me feel it our duty to keep the music alive, so we wear T shirts with Blues graphics, and listen and talk up the music whenever we can.
With every year I'd say I know less and less about current popular music.  Can't tell you how many Grammies anybody won and it takes a good cluster of years before I feel certain I can put a date on a particular song or band.  It's of little value to do so now.  But make no mistake, I care about and listen to new artists.  In my hometown of Portland, Or, I hear all manner of street performers.  Occasionally I'll feed the kitty because it takes guts and resilience to stand out there (often in rain) and sing your heart out.  Now and then it's painfully obvious the busker on the street has a past.  They're too good, they have complete mastery over a piano, a fiddle, or a guitar.  The have a voice!  But then we all do.