Sunday, March 19, 2017

After Love

In celebration and memory of the late Derek Walcott, West Indian poet and Nobel laureate.  This poem occupies a place among my favorites of all time.






Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.



Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Egg Salad TV



This is Leonard.  You would never want to have the responsibility of waking him up in the morning.  Not when this picture was taken.   He was about 12 or 13 here.  Like the few things he came to the group home with, his bicycle was very important to him.
My introduction to Leonard was abrupt.  It was the day I came to the home for an interview.  Lunch time. A few of us potential "counselors" were waiting to be interviewed in the living room of the large house that was home to the offices and director of the St. George Homes.  The boys that were placed in two other nearby homes came to this home for lunch.  They were in an adjoining room watching cartoons when a fight broke out. A thud; someone hit the floor. One of the counselors jumped up and opened two sliding doors.  I followed.  When he pulled one larger kid off a smaller one I went over to what appeared to be the victim.  He was curled in a ball and crying.  I bent down and tried to roll him over to see if he was hurt.  That's when I caught a fist in the mouth.  He greeted me with a punch.  Leonard.  Angry Leonard.  Extremely angry Leonard.  Working with emotionally disturbed teenagers required knowledge that I did not possess.  Not at that point.
A day, any day was filled with lashing out, fist fights, and violent actions for Leonard.  He'd snap over everyday things.  Living with 5 others with similar issues truly tested his ability to change or gain any insight.  Still we tried.  There were group outings, activities filled with music and artistic endeavors.  There was free time to ride bicycles, there were football games and camping trips.  Leonard and his anger attended all.  Rarely was there no incident to set him off.  Even when things were going well you could always count on Leonard or one of his roommates to calmly walk into a room where 4 kids were quietly watching TV and change the channel.  No talk.  Just action.  On one occasion Leonard grabbed one kid's egg salad sandwich and rubbed it all over the TV screen.  Fight ensued.
Yet, Leonard could be a little boy.  I've seen that quality in some very violent adolescents.  Regression?  Arrested development?  Probably.  One day I tried to find some background information on Leonard.  Through a combination of other counselors and a social worker associated with his placement I learned that Leonard had 8 placements in his first 12 years.  He was part Mexican, part Apache Indian.  He had a twin brother.  Apparently the social worker who knew his brother was overjoyed that he had finally expressed some anger.  His personality was the complete opposite of Leonard's.  The brother had told someone to fuck off and that was perceived as progress.  I do not know if Leonard and his brother were born under the sign of Gemini.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Exercises

I had the good fortune of having a photographer for a roommate many years ago.  It was 1970, the beginning of my life away from home.  After a year in Houston, Texas, as a VISTA Volunteer I wound up in the Bay Area.  Seeking draft counseling and the opportunity to hone my social justice skills I ended up working in a care and treatment facility for emotionally disturbed teenage boys. Because there were so many conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, the place was approved for alternative service.  We were non-violent young men working with very violent youth.  The Feeral Selective Service (draft) law said that approved service had to "dispute your life and involve sacrifice")  This did.  That's why we worked 3 day live-in shifts and got $50.00 a month plus room/board.  Thought these homes were privately owned houses, it was an institutional setting.  The training and support we received was questionable, at best, ineffective at worst, but the experiences and stories that remain from that time are indelible.
The photo here is taken from one of my colleagues' Instagram page.  He recently decided to scan and preserve much of his work from the last four decades.  I have his permission to use this picture and I'm delighted because it is worth at least 2,000 words.
His name was Brent and he lived in the home that had the most mentally disturbed boys.  I say that with a grain of salt because while his roommates had mental illnesses they were deemed less violent or angry as another home with more emotionally, physically, and developmentally mature kids.  While Brent and his roommates certainly were not exempt from some forms of abuse, they were severely limited in their ability to make and flourish with social relationships.  Sometimes people confuse the term "crazy" with the person and not the behavior.  The kids could be funny, entertaining, even lovable, but they were loaded with "crazy" behavior.
Brent had, among other things, a large dose of Obsessive Compulsive Behavior.  His OCD, however didn't involve hand washing or counting, or cleanliness, but rather an obsession with huge disasters.  He was fascinated with natural disasters like tidal waves and volcanic eruptions, but especially enthralled with the disaster of Hiroshima.  In a low almost whisper, he'd say, "Bruce...Bruce... Fifty thousand people killed in Hiroshima."  Then he proceeded to extend both arms forward and violently shake his fingers.  Creepy, yes, but also eerie and somewhat fascinating.
Brent and his roommates were also going through puberty.  They didn't have the skills to discuss sex and their sexual awakening in a mature way, so they were often shunned by the boys in the other 3 houses, who were just beginning to act on their urges and certainly didn't want to be associated with these "crazy" ones.
Brent had a crush on the actress Marlo Thomas.  It was the 1970s and she was a big TV star.  He build huge fantasies around how he would meet her and how they would "get together."  He used to show me long, long short stories he'd written.  Always there was a scene where something happened to Marlo Thomas, and he just happened to be nearby.  She sometimes was in an ambulance after being hit by a car, or perhaps the victim of some sort of misfortunate and he suddenly be there and she would fall in love with him right there on the spot.  He got much pleasure from these stories.
Working in these homes as a 22 year old conscientious objector I learned much about both mental illness and my own threshhold for keeping my cool.  Often, the worst times were waking the kids up and getting them to settle into bed at night.  One of the therapists employed by the facility used to tell us that unlike most people, they felt they had no reason to get up in the morning.  Often, the first hour of the day was fraught with anger that erupted into fights and resistance of all sorts.  As for Brent, the end of the day was the biggest challenge with him.  He used to ask one of the other boys, Charles, who happened to be Japanese, if he was Chinese or Japanese for hours.  "Charles...Charles...are you Chinese or Japanese."  Imagine that in a raspy voice for a couple of hours.  It was always followed with a sniveling little laugh.  I conclude this memory of Brent with one of his evening surprises.  If a woman houseparent was on duty he was likely to do this one.  Slipping off his pajamas, he's suddenly burst out of bed and announce, "Exercises in the nude."  Whereupon he commence doing jumping jacks and encourage all within earshot to do the same.  More about Brent and his roommates in my next post.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Blue Celebration

Seems like hardly a day goes by when I'm not realizing that something I really like is gone.  It can be as local as that new bakery that opened a few miles from home...the one with the marionberry scones like no other, to a product like soap or a brand of cracker.  Stuff disappears.  They don't make it anymore.  I can see if it's a product that's not selling, but I can't help but feel that someone or something is messing with various goods and services that many folks have come to depend on.
I once wrote a letter to a shampoo manufacturer because they changed the aroma, viscosity, and color of their product.  To no avail.  Seems like it's happening more and more.
Now I realize that this is minor stuff that hardly threatens the existence of civilization as we know it.  I know it's only mildly irritating in the long run.  Other products that I will grow to love will soon be replaced or disappear, no doubt.
That's why I'm going to flip this diatribe and celebrate the long enduring fact that Levis Jeans are, were, and will always be in my life.  I've worn Levis for over 50 years and have no intention of stopping now.  I even went as far as saying that when I retire from full-time teaching I will wear them every day of my life.

Over the years the simple act of wanting and wearing Levis has become more complicated.  In Jr. high and high school there were two kinds, regular blue jeans and then what we called
white Levis."  By my 20s that changed with the introduction of colors, numbers, and corduroy choices.  Today you need to know the difference between 501s and 514s.  Even the sizes vary.  Where once I could go into any story and buy size 34/32 in any variety and not have to try them on in advance, today that's a bit of a gamble.  Still, there is something reassuring about knowing that the Levi Straus company lives on with a fair amount of success.
I must have about 10 pairs of Levis jeans in my closet right now.  Three  of them might as well be retired because of holes worn through.  I keep them for painting rooms, or wearing on evenings I stay at home, or to go fishing and have a back-up.  Another pair isn't my correct size, so it's in the the earthquake kit along with a faded brown pair that once was part of my classroom wardrobe.  I have one new pair, a pair of chords, and three pair of blue jeans that I wear from week to weak.  Oh yeah, there is also a pair of gray Levis I bought for classroom visits when I observe beginning teachers.
All these jeans have distinctive qualities.  I can tell them apart by the color variation, the wear, and the fit.
Sometimes just being comfortable is enough reason to celebrate.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Is It Rolling?

I hate the term.  Every time I hear it it takes me back to the first time I heard it used.  Connotation, I guess that would be called.  Like a specific smell that becomes associated with an emotion or an event, the term "roll out" or more specifically "rolling out," sticks in my craw.
Products are rolled out, Presidential appointees and programs are rolled out, and the latest edition of something...anything... is now "rolled out."
Literally, the image conjures something on wheels.  A curtain opens and Voila! Here it is, our new improved version of something that needed to be rebooted. On wheels.

Oh that meeting...here's the story.
I was once summoned to an English Department meeting where a newly appointed district administrator was going to be introduced and then inform a group of veteran teachers that the curriculum they wrote, created, and lovingly taught and improved for decades was to be scrapped in favor of some new anthology where all the lessons were predetermined and pre written.  Sort of a microwavable way of teaching.  Just take the amount you want, add water and nuke it for 20 seconds. Never mind that that administrator and every other underling in the room had no knowledge of what  these veteran teachers were teaching, or how, or how effective.  Never mind the teaching of whole books,  they were saying, the snippets of classics and classic writers were all here in their fragmented glory and all you have to do is use this newly minted rolled out anthology now and we'll all do the same thing at the same time...district wide.  Great, huh?
Oh Hell No!
That was the conclusion my colleagues and I reached.
We got advance word that this was coming so we entered the meeting with a bit of a chip resting on our tired shoulders.  Then the new Mr. Big was introduced and used the expression.  Reminding or perhaps warning us that he had a PhD from Berkeley and probably knew best what and how we should be teaching, the woman introduced Dr. Big and he began by saying today "we are rolling out the new curriculum that you'll be using from now on."  I don't believe any of us in that room who would be going back to classrooms full of students believed for one moment that they would use the new mandated text and accompanying lessons.
In what would certainly be one of the best rejoinders I've ever heard one of my colleagues, countered, with, "well, I have a PhD from Cal too and I think we should be teaching whole books."
The meeting ended shortly after that.  Hard to tell what people thought, but this I do know.  That administrator and the one who introduced him are nowhere near the district these days.  No, we never used what was rolled out and rolled over us that day.  What followed were a series of student and teacher demonstrations that used a public reading of Fahrenheit 451 to make the point.  I guess we rolled out our reaction...to great effect.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Advanced Composition for Teachers

Mrs. White was Black,
     I, white, loved blues,
She taught me to put rhythm in my prose,
     A dab of Charlie Parker shortened some sentences;
smoothed some edges,

     Mrs. White spoke every syllable,
Nobody said "particular" they way she did,
     Her voice was smooth as a Louis Armstrong solo,
She always called him Louis.

Sometimes we spent extra minutes talking about Billie, or Jean Toomer, or
the Big Bands she saw at the World's Fair

Jimmie Lunceford was her favorite,
     I love how she said Lunceford,
Not ferd but f o r d.  Lunce f o r d,

Mrs. White never lost her sense of humor,
     She understood why black actors played the parts they did,
She saw the power that came from their pain.

We talked about images in the mind... Amos 'N Andy...the TV version
     The massive talent of Tim Moore (Kingfish) was something she placed in front of
her students who were members of the Black Panther Party.
     Mrs. White defied them not to laugh; they smiled then erupted in laughter,
               (she knew they would)
she knew there was real comedy in those forced roles.
     She praised talent,
   She wanted to give credit where it was due,
 to make Black Power part of enduring.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

At The Core

As the Executive Orders keep tumbling out of Washington D.C. and the Trump administration continues to make good on it's promises, the atmosphere around the nation is palpably depressed, confused, and angry.
I'm finding that I'm hearing from all sorts of folks from the corners of my live about what I think of it all, and what I think we can do about it.  As much as I want to compare the goings on these days to other Constitutional crises we've experienced, it is not a perfect comparison.  Far from it.  We are in new territory because the President, in my view demonstrates severe personality disorders.
Writers have often postulated universes where the leader of a country is a "madman" or for some unknown reason has surprisingly changed his views on crucial issues.  Perhaps the person on the other end of the puppet strings suddenly emerges, or suddenly assumes more control.  In our enjoyment of such a fantasy, we often ask ourselves, could that really happen?  Now we know.
In the present, we are getting a beautiful lesson in historical perspective.  We are reminded how a megalomaniac takes over the reins of power.  We've seen it all the time, but thought we'd seen the end of it.  Hardly.

What I tell my friends is that in times like these I always do two things.  First, I think about the finest minds out there...who I consider them to be, and see what they think about things.  If they are not saying anything currently I look to them to find their views on similar issues historically.  Often their wisdom helps to calm the riled soul.  What also does the same thing is to soothe myself with art or artistic expression that I know will always be there.  Usually, for me, it's music.  I can always find some Blues master, or the purity of traditional American music or a jazz solo that has moved me in the past.  Comforting to know that it is always there for me.  The other thing that occupies my thinking is all the forms of resistance that are do-able and within the moral expanse of my thinking.  This can be something as simple as signing a petition or donating to an organization, or, and here's the hard part, to try to talk to people.  This time around, it is especially important to continue some sort of dialogue with folks with whom we don't agree.  When that stops, we're all in trouble.
Finally, people keep asking me, "How are we going to get through 4 years with this guy in the White House?"  Granted, it won't be easy, but what it will do is mobilize people.  Two weeks in and there has been more mobilization than in the last 10 years.
By way of prediction, if the current administration continues on the path they've now trod, it won't be long before a full blown Constitutional Crisis emerges and we'll all get to see what our Congressional representatives are made of.  Even though it seems like many of the fundamental values are being shredded along with the Constitution, what does remain is the fact that a majority of the people will recognize what is happening, take steps to alleviate that, and continue to live lives that follow a moral compass.