Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Picture This

I spent some time this morning looking at a slide show of photos from the 1930s.  Most of the work in this collection was of African Americans.  Having taught about The Great Depression many times, I'm familiar with many of the books and photos from that crucial time period.
Visual literacy is a subject that always played a role in the curriculum I created.  Who doesn't love to look at pictures.  Granted, there are historical photo essays that are difficult to look at, but in the long run, they are, in my view, always worthwhile.
One particular photo caught my attention.

This picture of a man walking up stairs to the segregated section of a movie theater wouldn't leave me alone.  As I've often done, I asked myself what I see first... and then what?  There is an artistic symmetry to the photo; a dualism from black and white to shadow and light, to have and have very little.  Lots of symbolism too.  The clock the Dr. Pepper message and of course the ladder that appears under the price of admission to the "colored"section of the theater.
That section would have been the balcony.  From there I wonder what films the good people of this little town had seen at this theater.  Since the photo dates to the 30s, there is a good chance that some of the most popular films of the era where shown.  If so, then they no doubt saw films that were characteristic of hard times.  Films that showed a better world, a world where want wasn't so extreme.  The era produced many of those.  Maybe they saw King Kong.  The beast that humanity eventually conquers serves to provide additional symbolic comfort for those who feared even more than fear itself.
Sitting in that darkened balcony, what must have gone through the minds of that audience?  If they were fortunate enough to purchase 10 cents worth of escapism, what reality did they exit the theater to?
I suppose I could do the research and answer some of my questions, but right now, I prefer to simply wonder.  I'm curious too, if in this segregated movie theater, some of the short films and advertisements directed at a Black audience were shown.  Maybe there were separate days/nights when Black folks could sit in any part of the theater.  Maybe not.  Occasionally, the old films surface locked away in a warehouse, for decades, and sometimes restored to once again reveal so much of our history.  For now, we do have some of these wonderful photos (sad and alarming as some may be) that still have the power to open up the imagination.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

RPM in Peace

There is a wonderful little record store in my neighborhood.  That's right a record store.  It's name says it all: Vinyl Resting Place.  We seem to have hastily buried the notion of records a few years back and now, as a culture, we may be having second thoughts.  It's no secret that younger generations prefer listening to vinyl.  They say the same thing that we said when CDs first came out.  All that stuff about sound quality and tone.  I've never really been able to tell the difference but I confess I did buy into it.  I used to find myself buying albums I had on vinyl as CDs only because I thought they might sound better.  Still not sure if that was a mistake but I have a few hundred of each now.
So, I peeked into the resting place the other day and found it was much more alive than I suspected.  One of the owners was there, a woman about my age and playing some Muddy Waters.  The selection was modest, but all albums were reasonably priced and appeared in good condition.  If I ever decide to send some of my vinyl to it's big turntable in the sky, this is the venue.  Someone will have the pleasure of discovering some of my best stuff anew.  Much more satisfying than a funeral.

As a result of my little venture there, I began recalling just how important buying was to me as a kid growing up in LA LA land.  Guess that began when I saw a 45 of Elvis' Jailhouse Rock in it's original sleeve.  I bought that exact record at the Community Market In North Hollywood when I was in the 5th or 6th grade.  Think I must have given 50 cents back then.  It sells for ten bucks today.  If my copy exists some where it might not have any sound left on the disk.  So many parties and bedroom performances...The same would go for one of the first 33 albums I bought, Ray Charles' Greatest Hits.  I played the hair off that album along with Hully Gully by the Olympics.  So much for Jr. and High school.  Along came Dylan and things changed.   Very few of my vinyl recordings from 1965-75 would bring much of a price. That's because I traveled a good deal from coast to coast those years and the times being what they were saw heavy use and many additions and subtractions from my collection. That's just the price paid.

There is one exception, and that is the RCA Vintage Jazz and Blues series that I consciously began to collect in the early 70s.  I had my first teaching job and the resources to "invest" in what I thought would be a worthwhile group of albums.  Besides, it was fun trying to find as many of those still in print as I could.  It often took a trip to another state, or even Canada to find something unavailable in Northern California where I lived most of my life to date.
My vinyl is in a couple of boxes, having recently moved.   I still haven't got a turntable but that may come.  At least one thing is settled.  I know where it's going to go when the time comes.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Hot Time

This has all the hallmarks of a long hot summer.  Start with the literal.  here in Oregon, the record for consecutive 90+ degrees was not broken, it was smashed...with authority.  No rain here in Portland for over a month and though the city's beautiful parks still have greenery, the grass is turning brown.  Maybe a thunder shower or two will stop by this evening, but things are dry and getting dryer.
Last week I drove up to one of my favorite little lakes on Mt. Hood to do a little fly fishing for the first time this year.  The water temperature in the morning was well over 70 degrees and even at 7:30 in the morning, there was very little fish movement.  Only a few half-hearted rises and no interest in a dry fly whatsoever.  I managed to hook three in a two hour period, while landing only one.  The other two came unbuttoned either because they only nibbled at my nymph or because I was deliberately taking it easy on them and opted for the quicker release.  Either way, I went in early and called it a day before noon.
Hopefully things will straighten out before Fall arrives.  August appears a real desert right now.  We'll see what Central Oregon has to offer in a few weeks.  The altitude might be just the ticket, because there are a few places with shreds of snow remaining.  Even just looking at it might make the weather more endurable.

But while Portlanders have a difficult time with 90 degree weather, it's still nothing compared to a summer in Texas or Louisiana or any number of East Coast cities built on swamps.  We get a bit of humidity now and then, but more often than not, the heat is not as intense and besides, this is Beervana, so we have ample opportunity to mitigate the issue  in our favorite pubs.  Air conditioning helps too.
The Presidential campaign too has sparked a few outrageous thoughts recently.  Donald Trump is such a wonderful representative of the worst our culture has to offer.  His values spill out of the convoluted musings he utters daily.  To my refined educator's sense, he has no editor, his comments are unrehearsed, right off his expensive cuffs.  The question persists: For whom does he speak?  Could there be millions that share his racism, his misguided greed and his inflated sense of self-importance?  Probably.
And in the other corner sits Bernie Sanders.  Bernie has lit the fire under a simmering middle-class.  I'd love to see them go toe to toe.  That might heat up the air waves.  A good bit more than the luke-warm lessers of evil we will have in the end.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

What It Is

My problems are first world problems; of that I'm painfully aware.  If I struggle to find a semblance of satisfaction or belonging in my new neighborhood, I contrast that with the plight of many former Syrians today.  Living in Lebanon, or other countries and hiding in plain sight. Not wanted, having no other place to go or means to get anywhere.  It must become my problem.
As the country bathes itself in an orgy of sparkling red white and blue, I continue to see the non-sparkling, dove gray of homeless veterans begging for something, anything.  It has become my problem.

This country overflows on it's holidays.  People stubbornly cling to the fireworks that celebrate something most haven't the faintest idea about.  They know only the simplest history.  Freedom to flaunt ignorance is certainly something to shout about.
These are uncommonly hot days...in every way.  We are continually asked to support our troops without helping them ask the questions they need to ask so they wouldn't be stuck with defending something that's not clear.
What does it mean to "do what you gotta do."  Is that like saying "it is what it is..."

         SAID...Yeah, I said it.
Tonight, after repeated warnings, somebody will start a fire in their eagerness to celebrate Independence from England for the 13 colonies.  Tonight someone will get 3rd degree burns, resulting from their need to misinterpret their history.  Public resources and labor will be wasted on those too wasted to consider the common good.  With no Common Sense, they are a (Tom) Paine in the collective neck of this patch of North America.
So star-spangle your barbeque sauce and try not to be too shocked.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


We drive miles
                so we can walk,

We take the time to do what took very little time


Simple acts, reading a newspaper, buying an apple

             become identity conflicts,

We inch out our loyalty, embarrassed but air conditioned,
     mindful, but out of touch,  in earnest,

waiting...for  this move to be complete.

Funny how when people move, they return to their old neighborhoods, again and again, and depend on the familiarity to function.  W've been doing just that for the past few weeks.  Almost in
defiance of logic and our own intelligence we seek the companionship of familiar friends and knowing where to find each day's necessities.
It will not last forever.  But for now, in uncommon hot weather day after day, it seems to be working.
Is this the price of making a tough decision?  I know it cannot last.  I don't even want it to last, but like an addiction, it gives momentary relief and eases some deep felt but illogical pain.
Perhaps when the weather changes, it will be easier to explore the new neighborhood, make new friends and feel a part of something bigger on the horizon.  Maybe it will take a hard rain to fall before that happens.  We have time.  That seems to be the key here.  It's not all that far and if it brings some sort of illicit pleasure, some geographical guilt as well, then it will go on and on for a bit.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Birth of a Flag

The national conversation has suddenly shifted to the removal of the Confederate flag in the wake of the tragic shooting deaths of nine Bible study participants in a Charleston, South Carolina church.  The "stars and bars" of the confederacy still fly above some state capitals in the south and and as part of state flags like Mississippi.
The comparison of that flag to the flag of Nazi Germany is a point well taken.  Why do we still allow one to fly when we'd never dream of letting the other one near a flagpole? Yet the Confederate flag lives on in more than banners.  From Tee-shirts to bumper stickers it rears it's image from coast to coast.  I've seen it used as horse racing silks from an owner/trainer combination whose politics are as dubious as their desire to be identified by that emotional image.
With these calls for removing the flag I hope will come even more calls to re-teach the way we understand the Civil War and the complexities of Reconstruction.  To do this, we'd have to confront America's racist past and how it defines both our history and ourselves.

I had to enter my Junior year of college before I learned all that happened in this country from 1800-1900.  The oversimplified accounts of slavery, secession, and reconstruction,  from high school, gave way to one of the most complicated and fascinating eras since the nation began.
It wasn't until I researched and first saw D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," that I learned and felt the full impact of overt racism in the U.S. of A.
Some years later, I recall taking a group of 10th graders to see the film on a field trip to U C Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive after a special arrangement with the archive to show such a provocative film.  There were other teachers and classes who piggybacked on the opportunity, but they were from other schools and appeared to have much less preparation before seeing this once-banned classic in all it's racist glory.  My class was an African-American history class and just about all the students were Black.  They knew what they were in for.  Still, the film shocks.  Based on a famous 1915 novel by Thomas Dixon  called the Clansman (sic) it's role in determining subsequent racial attitudes cannot be underestimated.  Replete with white actors in blackface, the film is a living document that should never be banned despite the hatred, falsehoods, and pain that accompany it. How can we understand how bad the racism was unless we see for ourselves? Maybe it's time for the nation to go on a field trip...fully prepared.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Saying No

Note: This piece was originally written for Sun Magazine's Reader's Write feature.  The title is the theme prompt.  I don't think they are going to use this, therefore it can appear here.  I think the ironic message about standing up to misguided authority is relevant as teachers like soldiers clarify their moral conscientiousness and how to effectively act upon those beliefs.

I remember the moment the thought crystallized. I was looking for a parking place near the Berkeley campus, thinking about the draft closing in on me.  I’d done a year as a VISTA Volunteer in hopes of serving my country in a way that would preserve my pride in being an American.  “If you do nothing else with your life,” I told myself, “this refusal will be the most important thing I ever do.”  That day I decided to say no.  I would not allow myself to participate in an illegal and immoral war. 
Deciding to refuse induction into the U.S. army was difficult for a compliant person like me.  I was the one that avoided confrontation, the “good boy,” the kid with perfect attendance at school.  I was the Eagle Scout, on the honor roll, the Senior Class President.  But now, fresh out of college, moral compass in hand, the direction of my life finally seemed certain. 
I was 22 but tired.  Tired of thinking about the government lies, tired of the nightly newscasts with their scoreboard of American and Vietnamese deaths. Tired of finding the death notices of 19-year-olds I knew in local papers, and tired of living with this agonizing decision.
Saying no was much more than a convenient decision.  In the minds of many neighbors and family friends it meant rejecting the values instilled since birth.  I saw it differently.  To me, I was rejecting mindless obedience to authority and making a strong statement about conscientiousness.  In good conscience, I did not want to, could not, kill another human being in a war that had yet to be justified. 

I have never regretted that decision.  Along with it has come the misunderstanding that those like me might see the situation differently 40 years later.  Hardly.  When I go to that big warehouse wrapped in an enormous Swedish flag and see three dollar rugs made in Vietnam, I realize that the U.S. and Vietnam now have lucrative trade agreements.  Who won what?  Did my high school friend, who drove us all to the beach on Friday afternoons in his ’59 Ford convertible die at 20 for my right to buy cheap electronics and expensive running shoes?  No.

My moral dilemma concluded with alternative service with emotionally disturbed children and the label conscientious objector.  What followed that was a 35-year career in public education.   Today when I see the teaching profession under attack by corporate interests who, with the ballistics of standardized testing, and a one size fits all approach to human creativity and curiosity, the words   I see people in authority doing harmful things with no accountability. I worry about collateral damage. Again, I must say no and urge other colleagues of conscience to do the same. 
conscientious objector take on new meaning.