Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rock Steady

Here's a four letter word that opens up a world of possibility.  ROCK.  You rock! You are my rock.  Rock me mama!  Green, green rocky road...
I always picked up rocks as a kid.  Still do.  Only I don't put them in my mouth and crunch down as if I knew how to test for gold.  That practice stopped, when, as a nine year old, I crushed a dirt clod and spent the better part of a day washing out my mouth.
Rocks are all around us.  Literally and figuratively.  I see people who walk around all day and never lift their heads above the horizon.  That used to bother me because they seemed so preoccupied with smaller things.  Maybe they like to look at the ground for the same reason that others like to look at the sky?

If rocks are evidence of the beginning of this planet, then that evidence is all over the most concrete cities and the most remote wilderness.  How long would it take you right now to walk outside your home and pick up a rock?
We all have people or things in our lives we consider to function as a rock.  They are solid. They are always there, and we can safely say that as long as we breathe, they will be.  I have a list of rocks in my life.  Things that function in my past and present and for long as there will be a future.  Like an anchor, a object to cast down and take a stand.  An art form, a voice, a safe harbor that never abandons us.  My list involves everything from rivers to blues music.  Thoroughbred horses, chocolate, a sunrise and a sunset will always be there.   Don't forget harmonica wails, potato salad and cold watermelon...Rocks.
In my dream last night I was asked to write three short essays on some given topics.  I think I had plenty to say, but while writing, a pen I was using would not deliver the ink to the paper in front of me.  It appeared to be some sort of linen or highly textured paper that was difficult to write on; it wouldn't hold ink and I had no other paper.  Just blue scratches with deep ruts signifying nothing cogent. I vaguely recall some kind of proctor or teacher standing over me asking if I knew what I wanted to say, or if I understood what was required.  I had the sense that with every stroke of the pen I was getting farther behind.  Ideas were inside my head but could not be transferred to the paper.  Quite a symbolic scene, no?

Someone once gave me a "worry stone."  It came with an explanation that this little piece of shiny quartz, with an indention that perfectly fit a thumb inside, was used by Native Americans to deal with their most important fears.  Instead of worrying, they supposedly pulled the little rock from their pockets and rubbed their thumb across, in and out of the indention a few times.  I didn't really believe that, but nevertheless carried the rock in my front pocket for a good while until it ultimately became lost or buried in a pair of worn out pants.  Seems to me it cracked in two once, not from rubbing the proper spot too much, but just because it was too thin.
There are better rocks out their to handle worrying.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Be Prompt

Writers like to talk about writing.  They like to write about writing too.  Most of the time it's worthwhile.  In my writing group we often employed a feature where someone would "share" something about a writer, or an excerpt of writing that resonated with them.  This "share' could be anything, even a bio of a writer or a favorite poem.  It all helps to keep folks thinking critically.
So it was with similar interest that I somewhat reluctantly clicked a link that offered a daily writing prompt.  Even if I didn't write for 10 minutes a day based on the suggested prompt, I figured it's be a good thing.
I'm always interested in writing prompts.  I collect them on occasion.

So far I've written about accordions and been asked to consider what people say when they are uncomfortable.  Today the prompt is to simply write a scene about goggles.  Don't think I need to do that, although I will tell you the last time I tried on a pair of goggles I discovered something rather important for me who would snorkel or scuba dive.  That revelation is the fact that facial hair, especially a mustache really affects the seal you get.  The more the facial hair, the weaker the seal the more water leaks into your mask.
Onward:  I suspect each delivered writing prompt will elicit a scene or instance in my mind.  Those that actually get developed will depend on how intense or significant my reaction will be.  I plan to let a few of these jumpstarts sit a bit as well.  Sometimes the initial reaction is not the best one; sometimes it is.  What remains solid is that al prompts elicit something and it's time well spent.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A One and A Two and...

Her name was Jennifer Goodspeed.  She played the accordion.  Musical family; big time.  For a few years we'd see her mom, Betsy, on TV. She was the harpist in the Lawrence Welk Orchestra.  Jennifer's step-dad, Bert, worked for CBS as a technician.  He helped pioneer color TV.  In fact, they had one of the first color TVs anywhere.  It required a special TV antenna that looked like some form of witching hoop on stilts.
One summer evening, the entire neighborhood was invited into their living room to see a"spectacular" presented in "Living Color." All I remember is a woman dancing around in a pastel filled background with a sheer pink skirt and lots of changing colored lights.  Baseball would come much later.

Jennifer Goodspeed could play the accordion fairly well.  She even had a rendition of "Lady of Spain." Of course Jennifer didn't shake her accordion for the big finale like the guys on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour did.  But she did play it all the way through.  Her first love, though, was Peter Pan.
As I recall some 50 years later, we all had roles to play and then Jennifer would direct the production which consisted of singing all the songs to the stage musical version starring Mary Martin.  I was Captain Hook, a role of considerable status.  I'm sure Jennifer Goodspeed liked me because she once asked me to practice kissing with her.  That's another story.

Meanwhile, back at the accordion...I haven't thought of the Goodspeed family in decades.  But, every so often I see a harp being played and I think of beautiful Betsy, looking much like the lovely "Champagne Lady" herself, and after reliving all those times I swept my fingers across the same harp played on the Lawrence Welk show for years, I ultimately come back to Jennifer and her accordion.
Postscript:  In 1970, I spent a below freezing month in Chicago.  While waiting for the downtown Airport bus at the Parker House Hotel, out walks Myron Floren the world class accordionist of the Welk orchestra.  Looking every bit the person I was forced to watch while navigating the ages 8-18, I couldn't help but think of the Goodspeeds.  6 degrees of separation?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Carrying On

The sun is making frequent appearances in the Northwest these days.  So it was amid a bright glare that I drove toward the little Oregon town of Sandy to meet with the first year teacher I'm currently mentoring there.
This was not an observation or a consultation.  She'd asked me to be a guest speaker and give a presentation to her three Sophomore English classes.  I'd worked with these groups before a few months back.  Modeling a couple of lessons on writing voice, I was able to co-teacher with her for a bit and get to know her students.  This time, my purpose was to be a resource.

Her classes are reading Tim Obrien's powerful book The Things They Carried.  As is often the case, the class has benefited from having a Vietnam veteran come in and talk about his experience.  Since O'brien, himself a Vietnam vet, reveals his own conscientious struggle with participating in this undeclared war, this teacher thought that my experience as a conscientious objector to the war would be a good balance.  I asked her to have the students write down a few questions they would like me to answer.  Their questions were predictable and fairly simple:  Why didn't yo go to the war? What did your friends and family think of your decision?  Did you know anyone who did go to the war?  And then a few more substantive questions like, What would yo tell kids our age about your experience that you think we should know?
I perceived early on that I needed to set the context of Vietnam and how the U.S. got involved in the conflict.  With all due respect to the veteran, all they had to go on was that "our freedom needed to be protected."  Deep breath.  Onward.
They were interested in the 1960s.  High school kids are always interested in the 60s.  By the time  reviewed some of the history of the region, the turmoil of the anti-war and civil rights movement, and gave a brief overview of the Selective Service System (the draft) there was little time left.  A brief attempt to explain conscientious objector status and levels of moral reasoning and then...that's all folks.
Hopefully some of these kids will think about all of this.  Maybe when they finish the book they will understand Tim Obrien's statement after choosing not to leave the country or resist the draft.
"The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again.  I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward, I went to war."

If nothing else, I'm pretty sure these classes understand the meaning of the word paradox.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hear This

Ross Perot, that strange little billionaire who ran for president some years ago, used to talk about a "giant sucking sound," when speaking of the NAFTA trade agreement.  Of course Perot was referring to the jobs being sucked away from American workers, out of the country, and into Mexico. In many ways that came to fruition, but today, I hear that sound again, only this time it's coming from millions of Americans being sucked out of the Middle Class and back down to the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid.  In fact, the Middle Class in the U.S. is disappearing faster that an ice cube on the sidewalk on a scorching July afternoon.

Two glaring consequences of this phenomena crossed my path last week.  First was in the form of a film called "Paycheck to Paycheck" that was produced by Maria Shriver.  We'll dispense with the irony here and simply say this documentary on the life and times of a single mother trying to raise a couple of kids while working in an elder care facility for minimum wage.  "Working" is an understatement here.  Very few folks could do that kind of job and this young woman does it with all the sensitivity and grit it takes to get through these long shifts.
You'd have to have a heart of granite, or no heart, not to feel for this proud independent survivor.  Then, just the other evening comedian Bill Mahr was railing against the Walton family as he often does.  Only this time he was describing how one of the billionaire daughters was trying to "give back" with the inception of some kind of art museum.  "How about a raise, you nitwit," Mahr said.  Simple as it sounds, that seems to be the question.
Many people my age have recently come to realize that if they were to be college age today, they could no longer afford to go to college.  That's serious.  That's undemocratic.  That's ultimately disastrous.
I have always been proud of the fact that I'm a first generation college student who actually paid for his entire college education from mostly minimum wage part-time jobs.  Something t be proud of for sure, but virtually impossible any more.  That says it all.
I hear that sound again.  It's all the books and knowledge being sucked away.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not Training Seals

If there is one word that hits a nerve for me it's the word performance.  Used in many of the educational circles I frequent, that one word, so popular today when discussing student assessment, seems to encapsulate all that is wrong with the so-called "reform" movement today.  Humans, unlike corporations, are people.
The use of the word once prompted me to interject at a faculty meeting, "We're not training seals here."
Yet, the constant use of the term student performance leaves some doubt.
Sure, teachers care about "outcomes" and scores and how data can "inform" our practice, but we care more and know more about people and their diverse learning styles and what motivates an individual.
In a recent interview, leading education historian Diane Ravitch noted that because of the corporate assault on public education, some large American cities (Dallas, Philadelphia) might no longer have public schools.  She followed that comment with the statement that this just might be the most significant threat to democracy that we, as a culture, face.
I think so.
Especially when performance involves so much judgment.
Some think that data in the form of test scores is objective.  Impossible.  Consider this metaphor.  Two boxers in a ring for 10 rounds.  Three judges see the same fight and come up with three different scores.  Sometimes they give the victory to different competitors too.  Hardly objective.

Some years ago a important and thoughtful book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity scared a lot of people.  It's true message wasn't something to be feared, but you know how that word subversive can conjure up images.  Postman and Weingartner were simply saying that teachers need to build relationships with their students, teach the whole person.  Modeling empathy is another message that comes across clearly.  They emphasized the inductive method of class discussion as well.  Complicating questions, not settling for simple one word answers was part of the message.  A classroom where students talked to each other about big ideas was often the goal.
Given the current state of affairs, the threat to public education and how the vast majority of the American people can be easily lulled into believing that "choice" is the answer to all the ills that face public education, we need something that borders on the subversive.  It's crunch time.  Subvert the mistaken notion that student's "perform" rather than think critically.  Teaching is, after all, the ultimate political act..

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ethical Treatment

Only a matter of time.  Given the new technology, the motivation, and the ease with which people will be themselves if given the opportunity, PETA was going to get what it wanted--in a big way.
With the New York Times article by Joe Drape last week, one of the top thoroughbred trainers in the country now finds his nomination to the Hall of Fame "tabled."  Looks like it's going to be on the table for a good while now.
Apparently an undercover investigative reporter with PETA backing has got trainer Steve Assmussen, and his assistant, by the balls.  It's all on tape, captured by a hidden camera.  Reputed accusations of unlawful medications and running injured horses seem to have been norm for the Texas born and bred trainer.  As shocking as that is, what's worse is the way assistant trainer Scott Blasi talks about it all.  His use of expletives in such an uncaring and careless way is telling.  You wouldn't want this man around horses, ever.
And while Assmussen is not quite the Bernie Madoff of horse racing, he does seem, now, to represent the worst of the sport.
I'm sure, in his defense, he'll claim that he is not doing what many others are doing.  He might be right, but that doesn't justify his or those under his employ from their actions.  It doesn't shed any light on the fact that there are thousands of hard working people in the sport that play by the rules and always will.
But Assmussen, who is accused of heartless methods like giving performance enhancements to his charges through thyroid medication or legal drugs like lasix, is definitely in deep horseshit.  The video and it's sound track are damning, if not reprehensible.
Let the chips fall.  To those who don't spoil deserve the victory.

Postscript:  There is also an interesting exchange on this undercover tape featuring the voices of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lucas and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens.  Stevens, often known for his starring role in the wonderful film Seabiscuit, talks with Lucas about the frequency of "buzzers" used by some in the sport.  These are battery operated devices jockeys use to stimulate horses with a small shock.   They don't injure, but they are illegal and unethical.  This is equally disturbing, though known. Again, it diminishes all the hard working honest people in the sport who must grapple with the fallout. Hopefully the sport will get off it's collective ass and regulate, suspend or expel law breakers, and possibly shoot for federal regulation that clearly and effectively deals with medication and ethical behavior.