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 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 when that che

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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Tremendous Machine

On the afternoon of June 9, 1973, I climbed the stairs of the 3 story old Berkeley house and entered my bedroom.  It was my only room in the house I shared with 4 others.  Great way to split rent for a graduate student finishing up his state teaching certificate.  I was two weeks away from working in a Del Monte cannery while waiting for word of a teaching position.  Like millions of others at the time, I was also waiting for the first Triple Crown winner of my lifetime.

The 60s were beginning to yield to the 70s during this time and my thoughts, when not focused on lesson plans or job interviews, found their way, momentarily, to Big Red: Secretariat.
Horse racing seemed to be in my blood.  From the time I'd wait for the afternoon sport's pages of the L.A. Herald Examiner, to sneaking a peak at the Hollywood Park race of the week in black and white TV, I was enthralled.  Riding a bike became galloping a thoroughbred more often than not.
While I vaguely recall following the Triple Crown trail in 1973, I do vividly remember all the naysayers about Secretariat's chances to take his place alongside the immortals of the sport.  Even the big colt's connections were worried.  So much can go wrong in a contest that lasts less than one round of boxing but on Belmont Park's huge oval the mile and a half distance was believed to be the equalizer.  To get that distance requires the perfect balance of speed and stamina.

So up I trudged to see if I could coax my old black and white TV to deliver a foggy image one more time.  The TV had issues.  Loose tubes, inconsistent static in the sound, and a propensity for the screen to turn light green after it over-heated.  But it was my ticket, it was what I had.
By the time Chic Anderson's famous line poured forth "...And Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine..." there was no doubt.  I was just about holding the picture tube together but Secretariat was a Triple Crown winner and I had avoided electrocution.
This week the naysayers abound again.  The "right-fighters" love to predict it won't happen.  This time I believe they are wrong.  American Pharoah has the look.  True Silver Charm and War Emblem and Smarty Jones did too, but not exactly the same look.  This isn't a race to bet or merely watch.  This is a race to marvel at the ability and magic of a true champion.  AP should bring this drought to an end.
As I write, I've just completed a move and am watching my cable guy have difficulties in getting me up and running.  But I have faith.  Come Saturday, while I'm watching the festivities in color from a much bigger screen, I'll think of that old TV and another tremendous machine.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Teacher Aide

Some years ago I taught middle school for one year.  It was after one of the celebrated major cutbacks in California education history and although I'd taught high school for 10 years, I found myself lowest on the pole.
I decided to wait out the year, and hopefully I I got my old job back, It'd be well worth the time in a middle school.
it was culture shock.  I went from writing college application letters for some of the most gifted students anyone could wish for to giving detailed instructions on how to properly open a hall locker.  I'd be lying if I said I didn't like middle school kids and teaching them, but it definitely wasn't for me.  So I suffered through the year. sometimes happens with what befalls us when we resist the most, It was one unforgettable year that truly impacted my practice as a high school year.  The other thing that happened is that I met some of the most unforgettable people throughout that year.  This morning, as I eased into consciousness, one of those faces returned to me.
She was a Latina woman a few years younger than me and was assigned to work as a Title I aide for a couple of 7th grade Reading classes I taught.  Rebecca had a calm quiet intensity that kids responded to instantly.  Unlike an older woman that served in another of my English classes, Rebbecca was always prompt and never fell asleep.
She drew too.  Beautiful drawings of mountains capes or literary characters that the kids recognized.
I quickly looked forward to her assistance.  Anyone who deals with 150 12-14 year olds on a daily basis would eagerly welcome some help.

After a time, Rebbecca turned her quiet intensity on me.  She gave me drawings, wrote me notes about literary things we'd discussed after hours and ultimately gave me some beautiful gifts, like a beautiful turquoise inlaid belt buckle.  Her intensity blossomed in the hand written notes.  I can still see the blue ink in a bold handwriting on white-lined paper.  She demur ed when I tried to talk to her one day about her personal life.  I wanted to tell her that I knew she knew I was recently married.  I even wanted to tell her that I was pretty sure that marriage wouldn't last but a few years.  (In reality 3 years) but I never did.  When the school year ended, we said our good-byes.  As is often my custom at the end of a school year I like to take student-teachers or beginning colleagues out to dinner.  If they have assisted me throughout the year, it's a safe way to say thank you.  She declined, but at my insistence, did agree to meet me for a cup of coffee.  It was a quick meeting; she seemed uncomfortable to be in public with me and because she depended on public transportation didn't stay long.  She declined my offer of a ride home too.  I got that it was nothing personal, just someone with a strong sense of ethics.  I regret I never talked to her again after that.  I was transferred back to my high school and the next 23 years went by before I retired.  I see via the Internet she married and had a career in education too.  She seems happy and still expressing her artistic visions.  Somehow, in a strange way, I feel a chapter has ended.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Two Minutes

Long about the last week of April I become obsessed with the upcoming Kentucky Derby.  It's my  Springtime dalliance, my rite of passage, my love of thoroughbred horses that offers a convenient escape.  I think, too about the week spent in Louisville some 33 years ago now.  I've carefully pressed the sights, sounds, smells, and satisfactions of that experience so that it will last a lifetime.  So far, so good.
Yet this year feels different in so many ways.  Most likely it's the international tragedy complicated by the recent massive earthquake in Nepal and the current domestic hostility and unrest that centers around the constant battle many inner city residents have with their local police departments.
The Baltimore Orioles actually played a game yesterday with an official attendance of Zero.  The media continues to tell only parts of the stories that comprise these complicated and nuanced situations, and lost is the ongoing poverty and deprivation  that refuse to yield year after year, decade after decade.
So the trick this year is to use the "most exciting two minutes in sports" to get away, temporarily from the intensity and depression, the anger and fear, the overwhelming sense of desperation that the political and environmental disasters of the past week have wrought.

I always try to link big ideas and events that I experience.  The possibilities are sometimes challenging, but always possible.  Here we have the promise of a rebirth in this unlikely trifecta.  A renewal for people in Baltimore and Nepal and a national ritual for those of us smitten by the strength and beauty of a 3 year old colt running a mile and a quarter for the first time.  On another level, all these situations involve violence and confusion.  No less than Nobel winner John Steinbeck once called the Kentucky Derby, "the most violent two minutes in sports."   Just to clarify for those who might be less familiar with thoroughbred racing, the violence has nothing to do with whips or injuries sustained, although that is a major concern.  What Steinbeck was referring to was most likely the bumping and jockeying for position that occurs right out of the gate.  Combined with 150,000 screaming people, half of whom are inebriated, and a sound tunnel one jockey once told me was his most unforgettable recollection of riding in the race, you get the picture.
This year I'm supporting American Pharaoh.  He'll most likely be the favorite, but that's no matter.  he just might be something special.  Something to give the Triple Crown a long look.  But no matter how special, in the end, it takes a supreme amount of luck to win the Derby.  The same kind of luck to survive the randomness of a 7.8 earthquake and returning home safely at night from many parts of this nation.