Saturday, October 3, 2015

Body Politic

After all the initial reactions to the regularity of mass shootings in this country, the comments seem to divide themselves into categories.  It's the gun's mental illness, it's it entire history and totality of violence in this country's past, it's our lack of adequate health care, it's all these things, it's none of these things.
Some folks don't like the pressure put on mental health acknowledging that mentally ill people are no more violent than anyone else.  Others want to regulate guns while some think that arming teachers will be just the ticket.  It seems to me that teachers will not carry least most of them.  I'm sure some already do, but then there is a wide variety of personality types in the profession in case you hadn't noticed.

I favor the gun obsession argument.  Chickens do come home to roost.  Think about how much exposure a typical citizen in this culture has to violence.  It's revered.  It has enormous arenas built to celebrate might.  And those are just the healthy responses!
What also seems to bubble to the surface are the profiles of these shooters.  There are so many similarities with the depressed, disaffected, isolated, alienated 20 something that it seems we could predict some of these paroxysms before they take more innocent lives.  What pains and continues to mystify me is how some of these folks have so many guns in their homes.  In the recent Oregon shooting there were 6 guns on site attribute to the shooter and another 7 more found at his home.  All legal, of course.
In the wake of all this, I've been reading what I consider to be the most powerful and insightful book about race, violence, fear and anger born and bred in America.  Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me  should be required reading.  In fact, that's what Toni Morrison urges in the blurbs on the cover.  What Coates does, that seems to be the singular quality of this book, is set the fear and anger in it's accurate historical context.  There are powerful reasons that people don't feel comfortable talking about these things.  Coates' book is in the form of a letter to his 15 year old son.  Aside from being the familiar father-son talk necessary for African American men, he sheaths his ideas in the form of threats to the body.  You must realize that there are forces out there who are trying to take your body from you.  These forces feel entitled and emboldened in doing so.  The similarities to what many innocent students feel in this moment in time are inescapably glaring.

Friday, October 2, 2015


The postal clerk hands me a sheet of Maya Angelou stamps.  We both hear his radio.  Breaking news tells us of the latest school shooting.  This time in our state.  This time only a few hours down the Interstate.  This time more people reported dead than usual.
The postal clerk is hardly empathetic.
"Criminals will always get guns," he spits at me.
Any gun control will just keep the good people from their right to own guns."
I don't respond; just take the stamps and walk away.
We don't see eye to eye.  In fact I can't begin to fathom how he sees this issue.
But we both know the drill.  Deflections cobbled from "mental illness" a twisted version of the 2nd Amendment, or anything that fits the bill.

These folks want to kill terrorists.  Their lens is clouded because they hardly realize thousands more have been killed by our home grown variety than by any from another country, culture, religion, or organized group.
We've perfected the lone wolf.  The depressed kid that often lives at home with his mother.  The one that can easily obtain an assault rifle.  He poses with his long gun.  He paints his social media efforts with plenty of images...plenty of convoluted thoughts, yet maintains the aura of surprise.
Our politicians have no will.  No backbone.  No huevos.  That adds up to no ethics.  Like my friend selling stamps, they've all gone postal in a rather strange way.
All of these impotent ideas under one flag today at half staff

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Hard Talk

Been wondering about the value of having conversations with people whose politics can only be described as delusional.  I't's really a waste of time.  Just this week I found myself privy to social media discussions on a number of things from the current presidential race to education reform.  In most cases the thread of the dialogues involved people trying to maintain civility while completely disagreeing with one another.
Fascinating how the U.S. Constitution can have such divergent interpretations.  Add to that the Bible, and most of the spewings of political candidates.  People mask and rationalize their racism, their nativism, and their empathy or lack thereof.
I've even come face to face with some folks who will always believe that Barak Obama is a Muslim.  Paranoid delusion is the only explanation I can manage.  I suppose this denial is something they really need to hold onto.  Another "friend" of mine continues to bash teacher's unions in his desire to remove poor teachers and drive his view of "school reform."  He conveniently forgets that these unions are composed of teachers and serve many purposes from securing a just wage to defending academic freedom.
I'm not going to take the bait anymore.  I've been hooked and managed to throw the hook, so not going to go there any more.  I'm coming to believe that it's only worthwhile to exchange views with people on education if they have taught more than a decade.  Ridiculous, I know, but so many people have strong opinions on school reform and education policy who have just not walked the walk.  So, I try not to talk their talk.
Another phenomena that keeps rearing it's ugly head is how to respond when someone makes a blatantly racist or homophobic or sexist  statement in public.  Of course, if you respond directly, you'll be labeled "politically correct."  What happened to simply being correct?  To merely tell the truth and to push back against those who do not.  This would certainly be part of my curriculum.  Great opportunity for role playing.  Maybe one of these high paid TV executives could pitch a TV show that offers people a chance to role play these situations.  "What Would You Do" comes close but what we need now is the opportunity to play the roles from all sides.  Not gonna happen, is it?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


A friend of mine is putting together a panel about work/life balance for a teacher education class at UC Berkeley.  I had to sadly decline an offer to be on the panel because I won't be in town but it got me thinking.  In some way I was the poster child among my colleagues for someone who seemed to have the balance figured out.  That's because I had a few very specific passions I incorporated into my life throughout my 33 year teaching career.  After about 7 years in the books, I had what amounted to an "Is that all there is" moment.  I was fascinated by oral history and teaching both history and literature through traditional and contemporary music and began to think about a project where I could combine these pursuits.  What resulted was a radio program I produced for a listener sponsored Pacifica radio station in Berkeley.  I had been involved in a traveling show about the life of Woody Guthrie (another work/life balance adventure) and had some contacts with the radio station after we did a series of benefits.  One of the station producers agreed to assist me with the project and it took life after a couple of years working on it during summer breaks and now and again on weekends and whenever I could get a few minutes. It was an oral/musical history of hobos and rail-riders.  The folklore and folk music is rich in this area.  From that initial venture came another radio program based on another passion of mine, thoroughbred horse racing.  The race track was a perfect sub culture to investigate and contained many similarities to the romanticism and alternate universe that surrounds train hopping.   That second project led to another career in journalism after I was asked to write an article about my interviews with horse trainers, riders, and the plethora of colorful characters that surround horse racing.  The music, from traditional folk to blues, to progressive country is rich in horse racing lore as well.  Over a period of 10 years I became a correspondent for an industry publication that, pre-internet, came out weekly and brought me a small bonus income while allowing me to meet and interview many of the athletes (equine and human) in the sport.
All this while teaching full time, and if I might be so bold, garnering a teaching excellence award from my district and peers.

So, what's missing here?  Well, the balance comes at a price.  It ain't easy and requires some sacrifice.   Let me explain.  When I'd taught about 5 years or so a friend once asked me how it was compared to how I thought it's be.  I used a metaphor to explain.  "Remember that guy who used to be on the Ed Sullivan show when we were little.  You know the one who'd get the plates spinning on sticks and then get some plates twirling on a table in front of him simultaneously, and the have to rush around to keep them going, but all the while still adding more and trying to juggle balls at the same time.  There would always be one wobbly plate you were sure would fall but he'd revive it at the last minute as the audience gasped."
"Well, I said, that's my life teaching."
In the end, the takeaway here is that you have to make room to explore other interests if you want to keep everything spinning.  To do that requires sacrifice.  I used to get up just as early on weekends to do laundry while grading papers or lesson planning so I could free myself for other pursuits.  When I wrote for the horse magazine, an article was on a 24 hour deadline.  That sometimes meant working on school things on a Friday night to clear the weekend and making sure I knew what I was doing (and had everything in place!) for Monday.
I think I fooled a lot of people, because the balance didn't come easy.  I tried to be one of those teachers who said I never do anything after 9:00 pm or I clear all my weekends...always.  When your students write, you can't do that.  But you can overlap.  You can take a couple of hours for yourself daily.  (4-6pm was mine...if possible)   And then there is the complexity of relationships to factor in.  That changes everything and you have to be an expert in compromise.  Again, it's not easy and there were days when I was irritable because I ended up going to a family function or doing something I didn't want to do and lost time on my precious "project."  In the end,  go for the balance and let it take whatever shape works for you.  Teaching is consumptive; you can never do enough for your students and you will never be caught up.  Once you realize this it is possible to develop other parts of your personality, other talents, other interests.  It's all worth it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Talk To Me

We all know that the impact of ever changing technology is having a dynamic impact on how we relate to one another.  The contradictions are glaring.  We are supposed to be closer to one another than ever, but the reverse is often true.  People walk around tethered to their phones sneaking looks at the small screen.  They often walk into things, lose concentration, and probably most significant of all, don't relate to other people.  They drive around with personal soundtracks booming, sometimes with earphones on blaring something else into ears assaulted with multi rhythms.  I was once reminded by a student who seemed disconnected, "we can do more than one ting at a time."  So can I but is that always a good thing to do?
Out of all tis came the comment from a friend the other day about a sports team from a high school traveling on a bus.  The driver had remarked how quiet his passengers were, and that was only recently the case.  Connected to phones, I Pads and ear buds leaves little time for conversation.  I've noticed, too how every time the media shows a professional sports team arriving for a game the players emerge plugged into something.
Is face to face conversation threatened these days?  Apparently so.  Recent studies suggest we engage in live face to face (face2face) conversations increasingly less than ever.  What are the consequences for a culture when we speak only through text message, email or phone?  Do we speak differently, alter our speech in inflection and content?  What about our ability to focus on another person and actively listen?
This bus ride thing got me thinking.  If young athletes traveling to a venue don't really talk to each other like they once did, what was it like on a team bus20 or 30 or even 50 years ago?  Minor league baseball teams are famous for 12-15 hour bus rides.  Imagine taking one of those trips in the late 40s or early 50s?  What went on for 12 hours?  A quick bit of research yielded an idea of what that must have been like.  Players traveling from Minnesota to Colorado or California to Washington or even across the state of Texas (nine hours from El Paso to East Texas) My guess is that the did two things more than anything else.  Aside from sleep, they played a lot of cards.  So where does that leave conversation?  Probably baseball was high on the list.  They must have talked about their own stats. their opponents, the various cities they rolled through and their opponents.  Then on to the big league players and their dreams and goals of making it to the big time.  Since we are talking about mostly 20 something young men, probably a portion of the conversation had to do with their love lives or lack thereof. In the days of the Negro League, it's a good bet that they talked about their treatment.  Which cities were better for players of color.  What the "Green Book" said about places to stay or eat, or which places to avoid.
 I'll keep looking at this because it's not impossible that they regularly talked about other things, things that seem to go undiscussed these days.
A colleague of mine once suggested that one reason kids were often too talkative in a classroom was that they were rarely in an environment where the TV or other media weren't constantly on, so that when such distractions were not present, they made up for lost time.  Plausible.  At least they are talking...It's what we do with that talk that can make a difference because it looks like opportunities for one on one conversation are dwindling.  Who will we be then?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Loss of Sense

Sometimes time seems frozen.  I'll see a picture of a friend or acquaintance that I've not seen in person for decades and their image from days past is fresh in my mind.  It hardly seems like years since we last hung out or saw one another.
If the person means more than just a passing friendship, the effect of stopping time seems more vivid.   Perhaps a defense mechanism, or another manifestation of holding on to something ephemeral.
The technology we now have incorporated into our daily lives adds to this phenomena as well as creates additional twists of reality.
Scroll through a host of Facebook posts or even a lengthy list of Facebook friend pictures and experience most of the people in your current and past life all flashed before your eyes in a mass of slideshow moving parts.  Most likely most of these people know a limited few of the other faces they are on this moving billboard with.  Yet the juxtaposition of their smiles and grimaces makes for a fascinating kaleidoscope of humanity.  A few tinges here and there too, no?
To this add the realization that some of these folks you probably will never see again.  And that's OK too.  It's that particular phenomena of our internet age where we are closer than ever, but really just as far away.

I experienced this in another way a few days ago.  Looking forward to watching American Pharaoh run in the Travers Stakes, I cleared the day and set up my computer.  Of course I don't have to go to a race track any more to follow the sport.  Even a smart phone will let you place a small wager and watch the race, albeit on a two inch screen.  I refer to that experience as having a race track in your pocket.
Saturday began with all the excitement and anticipation of Derby day until a power outage forced my day at the races onto the I Phone.  While I momentarily felt rescued from the dilemma, I realized in a profound moment what was missing.  No smell of cigar smoke, no mustard or crowd roar.  No seeing the thoroughbred dancing in front of you.  Thoroughbred racing is one of the most intimate sports for the fan.  Getting close enough to talk to the jockey or see a horse saddled with nervous owner and hopeful trainer (or is it the other way around) is easily done at most tracks.  So, for the convenience of watching a televised race and interactive betting, we must sacrifice most of the sensory experience that is such an important and aesthetic part of the sport.
True it is still possible to go out to your nearby horse track.  But with out the throngs that only show up on the biggest days, you might as well just stay home.  So much is missing.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lost and Gained

I think it's the Woody Allen movie, "Play It Again Sam," that features a scene where Tony Roberts character is telling Woody Allen's about how he can feel better about the loss of a relationship.  No matter that the relationship in question is the wife of Robert's character.  Allen is having trouble with accepting loss (what else is new?) and Roberts reminds him that there are certain things in this life that will always be with you.  In fact, he goes on to say that when you feel particularly depressed about the human condition for any reason, these things will always be there.  A Louis Armstrong trumpet solo, a dynamic sunset, great works of art, or even just places you like to visit, foods you enjoy, or the sound of wind, guitars with harmonicas, or a child laughing.  Simple as it is, just knowing these things will always be there makes it possible to endure some of the dark times we all must experience.
I can't remember how this impacts the lives or events of the movie referenced here, but I do know the concept has certainly helped me through a dark time or two.  I've gone so far as passing along this advice in one form or another to friends in need or folks I know feeling the full effect of loss in their lives.
 I had a chance to listen to some song lyrics the other night at a local music venue. One of the featured performers did a cover of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery."  One particular stanza that got me thinking.
             Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery,
             Make me a poster from an old rodeo,
             Just give me something that I can hold on to,
             To believe in this living is just a hard way to go. 

Something that I can hold onto; it's the same issue, isn't it?  We all have angels from various cities and posters from past events that we can and do hold onto.  They will always be there for us.  
Angels and posters come in many forms.