Sunday, July 20, 2014

Consderation

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 California...no 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"
                                                                   SPINOZA

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Open Up

One of the books on my summer reading list is the currently popular self-help book called Mindset by Carol Dweck.  I'm not usually in the habit of reading this type of book, but Dweck's credentials are impeccable as an educational psychology out of Stanford, and ...the book was assigned, I mean agreed upon for  a small group of educators I'm currently working with...In other words, I gotta read it and be prepared to discuss its application to current pedagogy.
The thesis of Mindset is simply that the way we approach a task often determines how successful we will become.  An open or closed mind might be another way t think about this.  Dweck offers numerous examples from the world of sports to the academic universe to support this idea.  The book is, in fact, quite repetitious.
Is this idea new?  Not really, but it does force us to think about the mental attitude we bring to everything from daily tasks to life changing decisions.  She highlights the "growth mindset" as the preferable point of view. Hard to argue with that.  We see daily how people who approach a tak or a major life decision with their mind made up will ultimately fulfill that prophecy.
So I've  been thinking how this applies to the life I've lived so far.
What resonated first was the writing group I recently spent a few years attending.  Those writers, myself included, who were able to view severe criticism as a growth opportunity rather than take a defensive stance, ultimately achieve more success.  They welcome the opportunity to grow and learn rather than simply shut down and convince themselves that people just don't understand what they are trying to say.  As one of my writing buddies likes to say, "If one person doesn't understand something I've written, then potentially thousands of others might not either."
Open Mindset.

Last week I realized that I have been learning to open my mindset while learning the craft and skill of fly fishing.
I've always been a bit impatient so one of the things that first attracted me to the skills necessary to be successful at this finesse sport was the opportunity to slow down and be in the moment.  The Zen of fly fishing is well documented.  It's about being there, being in the beautiful settings of lakes and streams.  Everything else will follow.  But the frustration of not catching fish or wondering what you're doing wrong or the difficulty of casting, getting hung up on low hanging branches or unseen tree stumps...you get the picture.  With time and experience came patience and acceptance that every day is different.  Every moment could be the one that yields the prize.  In recent years that's been the case as I sought to validate my skill by catching and releasing (and fooling) fish that are more difficult to catch.  The frustration of seeing others do what I wanted to do has yielded to my own success.  But always, with little or no expectation.  And always, without knowing when.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

No Ladies

Im not quite sure when Feminism turned into Post-Feminism.  I see evidence all around me that the consciousness of the early 1970s seems to have vanished. Beauty contests abound, the media is rife with all the old stereotypes, just in slightly different forms, and much to my surprise, the language hasn't changed all that much.  The "B" word seems to be as prevalent as ever and men continue to put down other men through women whether it be motherfucker, bitch, son of the later, or any of the other possibilities.
And then there is the use of the term lady/ladies.  I thought for sure that woman/women would completely replace that one.  Or so it seemed. The women I knew back then didn't want to be referred to by any term that smacked of "dainty" or "lady-like."  Ladies, they informed the world, were put on pedistels by the patriarchy.  Seemed reasonable.
In one of the most memorable moments from my time spent in Texas I recall an angry young Feminist railing against a friend of mine for making some sort of unconscious statement. "You tiny little punk," she screamed.  He had no idea what he could have done or said, but she was plenty pissed.  Wow, I remember thinking, I need to be very careful in navigating this mine field. My consciousness elevated in that moment, so it was, in the end, a good ting because the language we use can be so biased.  We can be offending people when that is clearly not our intention. All I could do was repeat the words from Dylan's "Ballad of the Thin Man"   ..."You know something's happening, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones."

I don't think it's happening in quite the same way these days.
A couple of years ago I went to a book conference with authors, publishers, and speakers of all types promoting all manner of publishing from small presses to the top houses in the business.
I wandered into a presentation by a young woman somewhere around 30.  She'd written a book about her misadventures trying to meet a man through her wonderful Italian cooking.  During the discussion that followed, the author railed about a first date with a man that wouldn't pay the check at a restaurant where they met.  She was incredulous. "That was it", she said, "there would be no second date, I got everything I needed from that behavior alone."   I get that; or at least how someone could think that way.  But I specifically remember when women requested splitting the check on a first date.  They were moving away from traditional roles, and men had better be aware of that.  Not any more, apparently.
I't's not about the money, really, it's about the confusion.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Medalist

It was the bronze medal for the high bar from the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.  That's what everyone said.  And it belonged to one of the P. E. teachers, Mr. Thom.  They said it was on display in the P.E. office at Sun Valley Jr. High where he taught.  If you got Mr. Thom for P.E.  then you were in for some serious gymnastics from an Olympic medalist.
In 7th grade, I had 1st period P.E.  Mr. Schorr was my teacher, but I got plenty of glimpses of Mr. Thom and a few of the medal in a window display near the Boys locker room.  That first year was uneventful, except for the time Ernest Takimoto forgot to put his shorts on and came to attention in his tightie whities.  We were all barely awake by the start of 1st period and Ernest paid the ultimate price.
My 8th grade year began with new teachers and...of course...Mr. Thom


The word gymnastics was enough to strike fear into my 13 year old self, but when coupled with the thought of Mr. Thom, it became sheer terror.  I wasn't the gymnastics type.  I could catch a fly ball with the best of them, but turning flips or climbing the rope, or what were called "C-circles" on the high bar...I had nothin'.
And then there was Mr. Thom's physical presence.  He had the biggest thighs I'd ever seen.  Massive, and they gleamed like his bronze skin.  Mr. Thom was Filipino, spoke with a little accent, and grinned broadly whenever he spoke his name.  Despite the angst, it wasn't so bad.  We all had to "skin the cat" which was the term for jumping up on the high bar and with him spotting us, turn an under flip and then dismount.  I always wondered what went through his mind as each one of us dutifully went through the motions. Somehow, he got me over the hump.  I landed on my feet after a complete loop and was ready to retire from gymnastics...forever.  I didn't need a medal.
Years later I've thought of that bronze medal sitting in the display case in the P.E. office.  When I tried an Internet search for any details...I again got nothin'.  Except for the fact that no bronze was awarded in 1952, I couldn't find his name anywhere.
So just what was that displayed so prominently for all those middle school athletes to admire?  Urban folklore?  Perhaps.  Just another mystery to let go of if I choose.
But those thighs were real.  I still see them in his bright red-orange trunks.."I am Mr. Thom..."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Snapshot

Today I mark the 48th anniversary of my mother's death.  Over the years, I've noticed that by the middle of June, the date enters my consciousness and I begin to take notice.  It's been so many years but I still dream of my parents and of the house my small family and I shared for almost 20 years.  These constructs are with us for a lifetime.
My mother was only 54 at the time of her death so it's inevitable how many medical advances have come along since she battled cancer.  Back then, the word was difficult t say, and coming out of the mouth of a doctor was as chilling as it gets.

What I wonder about the most, however, is how her death has impacted my life and various decisions and choices I've made over the years.  I wonder if she would have been pleased with my girlfriends, wife(s) and some of the friends I've collected a an adult.  It's all conjecture, of course, but just being able to have those conversations would have been wonderful.
I remember during the last few months of her life I'd have these conversations with her about what I think would probably happen in my future.  I was just about off to college, driving around in a little VW bug, and just beginning to wonder about the draft, the changing music scene, and this place called Vietnam.  She missed all that and sometimes I think it's just as well because of all the pain, the chaos, and realization that things were no exactly as we thought them to be.
Mostly, when I think of my mom, I recall the chance to get close to her in her dying moments, growing to appreciate the struggles of a young couple moving from the east coast to southern California soon after the war ended, and trying to chip off a little shard of the American Dream in a place that came to be known as Sun Valley.  Some things were so simple then.  Television was new, cars became available and futuristic, houses were affordable, public schools nearby and most everyone went there.  My parents, despite being perceived as the other by some, fit in well to their burgeoning neighborhood.  There they found similar folks from Boston to rural Tennessee.  They all became Californians and identified themselves with barbecues, and new Fords, raking leaves and taking snaphots of their gardens.
Today, when I think of my mom, I'll see her sitting on the end of the front porch, smiling as I take her picture, but not really wanting to be photographed.  I'll remember the pain, but also the smiles and all the things she made possible for me from Little League to Cub Scouts, to PTA meetings.  She was the classic martyr because her kids always came first.  Ma, just want you t know that I never forgot.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ben

That summer of 1964 was particularly warm in Southern California.  One more semester of high school to go and then hopefully on to a state college.  I was looking forward to the local Catholic church's carnival and car raffle. (The Monsenior won the car every other year, I swear!) The playground of Holy Rosary school was transformed into booths and stalls with all the teddy bear games and dime pitching glassware you could carry.  There was cotton candy, sno-cones and, of course, lots of girls in small clusters to gawk at for my 17 year old friends and me.
There was also news of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
I knew about the literacy tests, the marches and demonstrations, the danger of trying to bring liberty and justice for all.  My history class the previous semester gave me the opportunity to study current events and my eyes opened to the reality of democracy, or the lack thereof, in America.
When the three civil rights workers went missing in Mississippi, nobody expected a happy ending.  The South, especially Mississippi, seemed intractable. We knew about the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council, and the code of silence that daily covered up all manner of crimes and thuggery. Most of the country knew the time had come. There would be no turning back, but they also knew that this struggle would take sacrifice.  People's lives.
Perhaps I identified with one or two of the young Freedom Riders.  Perhaps my understanding that my baseball idols, like Willie Mays, hadn't had it so easy.  Maybe it was that essay exchange between my English class and one from South central Los Angeles.  No matter, the subsequent deaths of these 3 young martyrs hit me much harder than anything I'd ever experienced.
Before that summer ended I remember watching the younger brother of James Cheney crying at the service for his lost older brother.  That image never left me.

Shortly after that funeral I went to the church carnival and came home with a small goldfish in a bowl.  I named him Ben for the youngster whose grief wouldn't leave me alone.
The following year, my mother's terminal illness would occupy most of my time and turmoil.  I'd go on to study history in college and within five years from that life-changing summer, I'd find myself in the South as a VISTA volunteer.  I'd see parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and yes...Mississippi.  I'd also have a couple of sleepless nights courteously of the Klan.