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.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Boots on the Ground

Like millions of people all over this country and the world for that matter, I took to the streets to join the Woman's March in the wake of the Trump inauguration.  While the new administration quibbles about the numbers of people who attended the inauguration and how many participated in the marches, the following day, a few facts do emerge.  In most of the large U.S. cities the numbers in attendance were far larger than expected.  Thousands larger.

Here in Portland, that was certainly the case.  The prediction called for as many as 30,000, but in reality the figures were more like 50-75,000.  Standing cheek by jowl in the street, looking in every direction, seeing bridges blocked with folks carrying signs, and noticing people pour into the area as fast as the rain came down, it felt like 100,000 people were there.
And who were they?  They were everybody.  They were children and the elderly. They were Black and Brown, Native and Asian, trans-genderded and questioning.  They were peaceful, angry, confused, afraid, and wise.  They rode on backpacks, in wheel chairs, on the shoulders of parents and relatives, and moved with walkers, or their own two feet.  They moved when they could, because mostly they were standing in packed stacks. Signs, original signs, funny signs, deadly serious signs were everywhere.
The signs screamed misogyny, inequality, grabbing back, and human rights.  They contained caricatures, clever slogans and eye catching art.  "Make America Think Again,"  Tweeting is not Leading," and one particularly poignant one simply stating, "Muslims are peaceful people."
We stood in the street for hours, we stood in rain, for hours, we sang a bit, we smiled at our new neighbors, we helped with an older person's needs or a child's frustrations, when we could, we knew why we were there and we felt active in the act of passive resistance.

Inevitably, I was reminded of a March I attended 47 years ago in Washington D.C. The President was different as were the issues.  But back then Mr. Nixon, was aware that thousands were in the street demanding an end to the U.S. misadventure in Vietnam.  It rained that day too.  The bridge over the Potomac River was gridlocked too.  That march, and the ones that came before it and after it did have impact.  This week I've been given the opportunity to remind my friends that participated in their first march to never forget that these efforts do have impact.  That social change moves much slower than we'd like it to, but it does move. That the future will not unfold as our most fearful misgivings, that there will be uncertainty.  Beautiful, helpful, meaningful uncertainty.
As events unfold, it seems clear that a good pair of marching shoes/boots will be a wise investment. It won't rain every time and perhaps a few new songs will make their presence felt.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Greatest Show is Gone

We all knew it was coming.  Or rather it's not coming...any more.  After more than a century, the Ringling Brothers Circus will be no more.  Definitely a sign of the times and the evolution of social change and attitude change as well.  When the elephants went a few months ago, the entire "Greatest Show on Earth" was sure to follow.  It did.
This is not something to be mourned, but rather acknowledged.  Just think we don't have the dissonance any more about how wonderful the circus coming to town is for kids and how barbaric it has been for the animals under the big top.
As entertainment evolves, the circus had too much to compete with these days.  Although some of the smaller boutique circuses seem to do well and a number of performing horse shows seem to be free of any public outcry.

If anything is sad about the loss of a big circus, it might be the magic and the sheer delight reflected in the eyes of children watching three rings of spectacular entertainers, from cars full of clowns to trapeze artists, to performing horses, bears, elephants, camels, and, on occasion, birds and penguins.
Like the minstrel show and the "freak show" of yesteryear, the circus has run it's course.  To be sure, the time has come, but the tradeoff is still fascinating to look at, if not nostalgic.
All the major circuses used to have a "side show."  Like the stereotypic "freak show," the side show would feature all the acts or people who had to be seen up close for full effect.  Much like the pay to enter tents in county fairs, the side show was off to the side with a separate entrance fee.
When I was about 5 or 6 years old, an elderly couple whose kids were grown and lived across the street form my family took my sister and me to the circus.  Maybe they did that for us, or maybe for themselves. I'd seen pictures in the newspaper of the train pull into downtown Los Angeles, but never dreamed that I would be able to go.  While I recall the elephants and the clowns, the cotton candy and the peanuts, the side show left the biggest impression on my young mind.
Much like walking through carnival booths, I saw a true melange of human experience and existence.  There was a "Giant" who drank a six pack of 7-Up at one sitting, a bearded lady, and a woman in a short yellow dress with no arms or legs.  The Giant was about 8 feet tall, thin and probably suffered from some pituitary disorder. The bearded lady had hormone issues, and the limbless woman smiled, all the while as people gawked and occasionally asked questions.  In my young mind they were celebrities and proud to be on display.  At age 6 it seemed like a great day job to me.
 I saw a sword swallower, ( he swallowed fire too) and a man who, when he removed his bathrobe, had "alligator skin on his back."  Yup alligator skin...I saw it, or something like it.  I'm sure there is an explanation, but it was a greenish brown, and covered his back and shoulders.  He smiled all the while too. Thinking back now, no wonder this left such an impression on me.  All the people in the side show were happy, or so I thought.  They were gracious, informative, and seemed to enjoy their lives with the circus.  What did I know at that age.  That's the way  remember it...and that memory is clear. Before we went home, the couple who took us to the circus, Doris and Henry, said we could each have one souvenir.  My sister picked out a baton, as I recall.  It was red white and blue and all glittery.  She had to wait until we got home to show me her twirling skills.  I went for a plastic sword, so I could play...you know what.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Nurturing our Nature

I wonder how long it will be before we see some toothsome legislation dealing with social media?  Given many of the events of the past week, it just might be forthcoming.  The violent nature of the human being seems to be shouting out for some kind of restraint.  In a world filled with bloody video games and all manner of violent sports and entertainment, who among us can say that there isn't something innate about our species that seems to constantly defy our better nature? Now we have the phenomena of people posting their insane and insane behavior for all to see.  A digital "showing off" that seems to graphically demonstrate how low we can go.
We "tsk tsk" a good deal, we like to say that we, ourselves, don't watch all that much garbage on TV, and we prefer to think that something must be lacking at home to produce a full blown psychopath.
These issues and questions have been debated for centuries.  Thomas Hobbes was sure he knew the answer.  In his classic work Leviathan, Hobbes argued for a social contract that would put strong restraints on the actions of the citizenry because that's what they needed to be civilized.  Many would agree.  I'm sire we can all think of examples of how quickly human behavior can deteriorate.  Especially in group dynamics.  And while it seems our current social contract does seem to be seriously lacking, we fortunately have seen the harm in advocating and fighting for a government that is too oppressive or lacks the understanding and compassion that our weak species so desperately needs.

When I first began teaching we used to teach the entire concept of governing and systems of government  by examining human nature first.  Most religions will tell you that human beings are by nature weak and needy.  We're too competitive for our own good and we are capable of atrocities that hardly fit the definition of human.  Yet, for every negative thought or action, there seems, also to be an equally opposite one. Even within our own experience. I think we drastically want to believe that our nature is positive and that we're more prone to goodness than evil.
Sometimes, with all the computer hacking and scamming going on, it seems as if we are all waiting to be victims.  That may be.  The explosion of technology and its impact on our rapidly changing culture certainly has given us a good opportunity to take a good look at ourselves. A golden opportunity to start from square one.   Do you think that for every hostile troll out there, for every cyber bully, you can also find a "Go Fund Me" endeavor or an inspirational thought or document or video or photograph?  Does it all equal out?
I'm wondering if our legislators have been working on laws that might discourage people from posting their pathologies...from denigrating others to make themselves feel better.  I'm fascinated by what the consequences for violating such statutes would be.  Here's where we really could get dystopic.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Begin Again

Now that we've turned the corner into another year, it's funny how so many folks are blaming 2016 for the current state of affairs.  They're really laying into the year as the culprit for all that has befallen this country and culture.  Of course it's a consequence of the election and perhaps the overall malaise that comes with the increase of violence both home and abroad.
It must be nice to have something as nebulous as a year to serve as an enormous hook on which to hang the ills of the world.  That somehow, now that it's 2017, things might get better.  Actually, there is something to that because it stems from the need to reset.
When we realize that this life we share is all about beginning again, it makes more sense.
Traditionally, we use January to re-boot our lives.  I'm not talking about the R word (resolution) but rather the shining symbol of change and a new start that January has become.
This year, in particular, we do well to remind ourselves that it is a healthy thing to reimagine ourselves as well as our lives.  Just as the rider who falls off a horse must get back up again as soon as possible, we all benefit from stepping on the image of failure or dismay and using it as a springboard to rise again.

That just might be the theme of 2017.  In the words of an old labor song, "every generation's got to win it all again," so too do we who feel trod upon by the current political reality.  We need to reinvent ourselves just a bit and re-imagine and re-define what we are willing to fight for.
Sometimes this starting over is a true test of patience.  That's as it should be.  While there is no guarantee that our waiting will yield more favorable results, there are many examples that it does.  I recall one in particular that I try to use for a helpful metaphor.  It's a fly fishing experience.  They often yield eloquent results.
I was fishing a small stream and came upon an interesting spot.  A large rock wall on the opposite bank provided a deep soft current and I was trying to drift a dry fly just the right distance from the wall.  To do that I needed to cast up and over a low hanging tree branch.  Of course, I tangled up a cast in that branch.  Badly.  Really badly.  The proverbial bird's next.  Part of me wanted to cut the entire thing off and re-string and begin again as soon as possible.  I didn't.  I decided to slowly and deliberately unsnarl the mess.  As I labored, I thought of how wonderful it would be to just be able to begin again.  I had managed to save the fly, which proved to be just the ticket for this time/place.  What resulted was the result I wanted, a beautiful rainbow trout who took the fly just after it soared over the pesky tree limb.  Releasing him back to the shady depths and exiting that stream, leaving it just as I found it, but with a story to tell was my gift.
In truth, we are all faced with the challenge to begin again all the time.