Monday, August 18, 2014

When I Die

With the nation's eyes on Ferguson, Missouri this week, the dialogue, defense, and disintegration of race and racism in America continues.  Every hour of every day brings new and questionable revelations about the incident that caused the death of Michael Brown.  Trying to figure out how and why an unarmed individual took six shots is tricky business.
So many of the lessons learned from the 1960s have served me well in trying to make sense of this latest episode of the tragedy that is American race relations.  Granted, so much has changed in the last 50 years, but astonishingly, some things remain the same.
Best to distinguish between a riot and a rebellion first.  Both elements are at play here.  Also important to recognize who and where some of the protesters are, and are from, and what views they represent.  There will always be those elements who desire confrontation, and those who will depart with the slightest sign of conflict.
In the end, the personality of the real Michael Brown, whoever he is/was and the personality of the officer who fired the shots will probably get buried beneath all the tear gas canisters, all the ashes, and all the confused, disillusioned notions of righteousness.  Still, some things remain abundantly clear:  There is such a thing as police brutality, and we all have miles to go before we can even begin to sleep.
Some ironies abound as well.  This area, near East St. Louis, was the focal point of one of the most important and disastrous "Race Riots" just about 100 years ago.  Roots go deep.
And while we're in the last century, I was thinking the other day of a song lyric that kept rambling through my head.  From the classic St. James Infirmary Blues, come the lines:

     Oh, when I die, please bury me
     In my ten dollar Stetson hat;
     Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
     So the boys'll know I died standin' pat.

That last line...about standing pat in death is most intriguing.  The expression traces it's origin from poker players who took a stance with the cards they were dealt.  It's a kind of honesty or integrity to stand pat.  So it is with human beings.  To die with dignity is, in another way, like the gambler in St. James Infirmary with his hat in place and the gold piece in his pocket.
No dignity, no peace.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


The small university where I supervise and mentor beginning teachers is hiring a new teacher.  A professor, if you will.  It's a process that invites all members of the Ed. Dept. to participate by attending a formal presentation of the candidate's research, followed by an informal interview type discussion.  I'm not sure who makes the final decision, but I know I can provide feedback from my perceptions and that it will be considered by the dept. head and the other faculty.
There were three candidates, and I only attended one of the presentations because of schedule demands.  No matter.  I don't really work all that closely with the profs and I may not do this very much longer.  Of course, I say that every year and then go back for another round.
So, I decided to attend the presentation/interview for a candidate who attended two branches of the University of California, like me, and then lived and worked in and near the Bay Area.
I was not disappointed.  I say this because this woman had a backstory I found most unusual.
Before the reveal, let me just say that we endured the Power Point about her research, asked pertinent questions, calmed her nerves a bit, and then proceeded to have a concluding discussion that included feedback from everyone from current grad students to other profs and even the much qualified Dept. Secretary.  (She's the one who holds everything together.)

OK, here comes the real story.  This woman, whose research concerns the non-traditional support systems in a Latino community elementary school, was herself a member of a similar community.  In short, she was a white woman, adopted by a family of Latino migrants after receiving foster care in their home.
Ever heard of that?
She is also a first generation college student, as far as she knows.
People assume all sorts of things about migrant workers and their sub-culture.  This woman's life, in my view, has the potential to inspire and inform on a whole other level.  If it hasn't been done already, it should be.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Like what?

His obituary was on the front page of my local paper.  Robin Williams commanded that kind of attention.  Shortly after news of his apparent suicide, the internet lit up like a 50-1 longshot.  But there were really no surprises here.  The price of massive talent, massive intellect, massive sensitivity and genius is often depression.
And yet, this is a different kind of denial.  I'm more angry than sad right now.  The shock and empathy will come later on.  It always does.
There will, no doubt, be testimonials for months to come.  Unlike other celebrities, I won't tire of them.  he was so different.  More like Richard Pryor, the kind of comedian that didn't need to say anything to elicit laughter.

There is a haunting image this morning.  The media shows Robin Williams star on the Hollywood walk of fame.  It is surrounded by people and flowers and all manner of messages and tributes.  Only the stoney monument looks back.  The golden letters that spell out his name stare back too.  Solidified.  This is as close as anyone can get...could ever get.
There will be explanations and analyses.  There will be tears and unfortunately copycats.  Maybe someone will get help for their own depression because of Williams death...many more will not.
The questions swirl around, up and over all the flowers.  How can someone who brings so much laughter suffer so much?
I remember some years ago that I met a woman who was Robin Williams high school English teacher.  I'd been invited to give a workshop for Marin County teachers at Redwood HIgh School.  The room assigned was the classroom of this veteran teacher.  In casual conversation at the end of the day, someone asked her if she had ever had Robin Williams in class.  When she replied that she had, the obvious question sprang from everyone's mouth: "What was that like?"  She smiled softly and said, "You all know what that was like?"
Just as we surely all did, so it appears that most of us still don't know what he was like.

Monday, August 4, 2014

At Your Feet

Like most people I know, I've been following the recent flareup between the Israelis and the Hamas led Palestinian government insurgents.  I guess that's what they should be called.  It's such a complex situation to begin with, so the terminology is always dicey.
I know the roots of this seemingly ageless conflict.  I know the convoluted series of viewpoints and most importantly the glaring contradictions.  I've read, with interest, many articles and op ed pieces detailing all manner of solutions or bleak forecasts.  In recent weeks, the glaring problem here is the continual maiming and killing of women and children in Gaza.  Today alone, another report came of 10 death at a U.N. sponsored school in Gaza.  If the thought of that is troubling, then the pictures available are more so.  Tenfold troubling.  With the technology available today the carnage is PTSD worthy.
     Like all wars, this conflict seems to be bringing out the worst and the best in humankind.  Some people remain grounded in their inflexible beliefs, while others cut to the ethical chase.  At what point, I would ask, is it morally acceptable to bomb schools and hospitals?

Of course the media coverage ranges from fairly objective to downright deceptive.  But this morning, as I walked a few blocks from my car to the coffee shop I found myself atop the issue-literally standing on it.  Someone or ones had chalked the sidewalk on both sides of the street for blocks.  Written in white, pink, yellow and blue chalk were the names of Palestinians recently killed in the conflict.  "Killed by Israel" was written near some of the names.  Here and there the age of the victim accompanied the notice.
Many people failed to see or read the chalk marks.  I always knew people rarely looked up when they walked, but apparently they don't often look down either.  I wonder how long these messages will last?  We don't expect any rain for the next few weeks, so that won't be a problem.  I suppose it's possible the chalk scrawling will offend some.  Will they take action?
Tomorrow, at 8:00 a.m. a ceasefire is slated to take effect.  Shortly thereafter, I'll make my way down the sidewalk to the coffee shop to begin my day.  Like those people in Gaza and Israel, I'll be looking carefully...up and down.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

John Fahey-Red Pony 1969

When I stopped in at my local Powell’s bookstore this morning I noticed a new biography of guitarist John Fahey. I guess I knew died a few years ago, but looking through a few chapters and some of the photos of the book confirmed it for me. One thing that caught my attention was the author saying he regretted having only seen Fahey in concert one time and toward the end of his career at that. I realized that I hadn’t seen him or even heard about him for years but what was even more striking was the fact I used to see him often in the early days of his career. That would be the mid to late 1960s. John Fahey was a master guitar finger picker and had a he following back in the day. He also had a few albums out there and played a variety of venues from small clubs to large theaters. I recall seeing him in The Ashgrove, the famous L.A. folk club a few times but also while a student at UCLA. Fahey played a few times in Royce Hall, the UCLA landmark of Italian Romanesque architecture so prevalent in Hollywood films and now commercials. This morning I sifted through a few You Tube clips to see if I could find what I recall was something unique to Fahey. No luck, but you deserve to know. Back then he was a smoker. He’d often light a cigarette, take a few drags and then place the filter end into the guitar strings near the tuning pegs. It would sit quietly there, burning down until he stopped in the middle of a song, take a few drags and then begin again. He did this with Coca Cola too. Fahey would often come onstage with his guitar and then have two large bottles of Coke just to the left of his guitar mike. He’d take a break, in mid song, guzzle down about half the bottle, and then resume. At first the audience would react or laugh. After they got used to it, it just happened. RIP John Fahey, American original.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


The question stayed with me.  It was so simple, so direct, yet it had been asked so many other ways before.  One of my writing project colleagues asked it of university students, but I couldn't wait to get it into my high school curriculum.  There were so many places it would fit.  the wait would not be long.
About a week later, during my unit on the American Dream /nightmare in 20th century literature, the opening came.  The key to the lock was a small op-ed piece by an Asian American that also happened to be accompanied by a picture of Olympic champion Michele Kwan.
The piece detailed how a TV reporter momentarily forgot that Kwan was an American and then went on to explain and illustrate the author's plight being misjudged the same way.  Hence the question:
Do You Consider Yourself an American?

I had my class respond anonymously to the question and then shared some of their statements with surprising results.  My students did and did not consider themselves Americans.  Whether they were in fact American citizens did not matter.  A few had bizarre notions of what and who had the right t consider themselves Americans.  Notions of race, skin color, religion, eye color, nationality.
It occurred to me that these notions exist mightily today.  I saw a woman interviewed on the local news yesterday about the current immigration/refugee crisis involving Central American children at the border.  She kept referring to them as Mexicans (not true) and in a few words managed to unfurl all the feat and ignorance so prevalent today.  She certainly considered herself an American...on her terms.
Sometimes I wish I could intervene and remind people like this that the very land they are standing on, living on, all belonged to Mexico not all that long ago.  I know they don't know that, but did they ever?
What if American citizenship were a renewable requirement to "consider" yourself an American?  Then people like that self-righteous, ignorant, arrogant woman would have to be accountable for their knowledge about what an American really is and what it really means.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Shipping News

The other day, I thought of something that happened decades ago.  I was 18 and a college Freshman, working a minimum wage job for barely a dollar an hour.  Summer...Southern air conditioning and bottom of the totem pole.  The distributorship for Sony tape recorders had recently opened a plant in my home town of Sun Valley.  Cassettes were just coming within reach, video tape was a few years away, but reel to reel stereo recorders were the thing and this business was growing daily.
I packed small electronic parts and weighed them for either United Parcel or the U.S. Postal Service.  I ran errands which could be anything from picking up food orders for the executives when they worked overtime to taking their Cadillacs to be washed and gassed.
By 4:00 in the afternoon we'd load a VW van and whoever was working with me that day and I would take a truckload of small parcels to the post office.  Clean up and one last interoffice mail delivery and that was the day.
I got two 10 min. breaks and a 40 min. lunch break daily.  Sometimes during those breaks I'd wander over to the shipping department where guys loaded big semis with tape recorders for orders that included large department stores or electronics retailers.  Lots of heavy lifting there.  A silver-steel conveyor belt with what looked like roller skate wheels often led into an immense truck backed up to the shipping dock.  The shipping guys were tough.  They worked hard and at the end of each day, most went across the street to a small bar for a few beers before going home and doing it all over again.  Sometimes they fought, sometimes they joked with one another, sometimes they sat with me and talked about baseball, or politics, or what assholes the owners of the company were.

I learned how to swear in Spanish from those breaks.  I saw first hand how most of those guys were trapped in a situation where their labor, non-unionized, was all that they had and there was really no room for discussion of their conditions or rate of pay.  The trucks rolled in and out.  Recorder parts were transformed into units and large lots rolled out.  A couple of beers and it started all over again until one day someone didn't return and someone else was hired.
That's where I met Charlie.  Charlie worked on the shipping dock.  Just one look and you knew immediately here was a guy with a back story.  About 55 or 60, Charlie had been well-built.  His biceps were still outstanding, but when he took off his shirt, not uncommon during the hot afternoons, you could see that the elasticity of his skin was beginning to diminish.  Charlie had been a stunt man in Hollywood.  One of the guys called Gypsy had told me that at one time he'd done very well playing a heavy in films of the 40s.  It was evident; he'd had the body of a body builder.
This was before Arnold's "Pumping Iron."  Charlie was more in the mold of Charles Atlas.  In fact, one day Charlie told me that he'd prefer I use his whole name, Charles Treadwell.
Over the months from June until October, we talked about all manner of things.  Charles was fascinated that I was taking philosophy in college.  When I'd show up for an afternoon shift he was often eager to ask me what philosopher I was currently studying.  From the Greeks like Plato and Aristotle and Heraclitus, to Kant and Shopenour, Charles was enthralled.  One day I happened to mention Spinoza, saying that he called emotions "confused ideas."
The weeks turned into months and the guys in shipping came and went.  One day, I wandered back to the shipping dock after running an errand.  Dickie, the leader of the men there ran up to me and asked if I'd seen Charlie.  "Not yet," I replied.

 "He's been asking about you all day, wants to show you something."
I looked around but couldn't find him so I went back to the mail room.  Two hours later, on my last break of the day I made my way over to shipping.  There was a huge semi backed up and a gang of guys, Charles included, working feverishly.  I didn't want to disturb them so I decided to creep closer hugging the wall.  The conveyor belt was rolling full tilt.  A portable stairway on wheels was just off to the side.  That's where the foreman perched with his clipboard as the units entered the truck. As I neared this scene I could see some letters painted on the side of the stairway.  In dripping royal blue letters I read, "Emotions are but confused ideas"