Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sincerely Yours

This is the first year in the past twenty five or so years that I have not written a college recommendation letter. That's why a small feature in my local paper caught my attention this morning. It's an ethics advice column where people write in burning questions and get some self-appointed expert's opinion. So here's the deal. A high school English teacher is asking if it's unethical to think about asking for payment for doing as many as 20-30 recommendation letters a year. He notes how time consuming it is and that it seems as if a few teachers get the most requests for these increasingly crucial passports to college admission. The Dear Abby of ethics, a man, tells him that it is, of course, unthinkable to request payment or any compensation for this necessary part of his job. He cites a slew of examples to illustrate his wisdom. Doctors have to tackle after-hours tasks and many other folks in helping professions routinely go beyond their working hours. It simply comes with the territory, he concludes. Then the columnist, in a most condescending way, concludes with the lines " It might console you to consider that you have only yourself to blame: If you weren't a good teacher, you wouldn't receive so many requests. You could strive to write more efficiently."
I get that writing original, first-rate letters of recommendation comes with the territory. I concur that a handful of teachers write most of the letters. What disgusts me is that so many "ethical" people can't see the equity issue here. Unlike doctors and others in the helping professions, teachers don't get paid what they are worth. Unlike most other professions, English teachers, especially very good ones, have a non-stop paper load that is both time and energy consuming. They should be compensated in some form to write recommendations. Not from students or their parents. That makes no sense. But from the districts that employ them. It doesn't always have to be monetary; not that there's anything wrong with it. It could be time, or some other way to relieve the constant burden of paper grading, lesson planning, parent conferences, meetings, pre meeting meetings, support groups, faculty meetings, department meetings, emergency meetings, preparation time, and phone calls. The madness of college admission has forced many creative, inspiring, innovative teachers to abandon some of the things that bring joy to the classroom simply to meet the time restraints that come with wearing so many hats. I wonder if the overall quality of teaching would improve if true compensation were given for accurate hours of work?
I never declined a request for recommendation letters. I may have suggested that perhaps I might not be the best choice, but if a student of mine wanted assistance with college admission, I helped. Of course, I would tell the truth, it's only ethical. My curriculum was designed so that I could cite specific examples of student work and potential. I'm forever thankful that computers have replaced typewriters. That saves hours. But please, good recommendation letters are time consuming. Pay teachers for their work. Sincerely yours.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


We're waiting for the possibility of snow here in Portland. All the weather forecasts promised the chance for flurries to hit the valley floor. We're still waiting. It's certainly cold enough. A few snowflakes on Christmas day would definitely be appropriate. The mystery continues.
Walking around town this morning it was lovely to see so few cars out, so many more folks walking. Fortunately a few coffeehouses are open so those with no particular place to go can find community. It's suddenly simple outside. Passed an older man pushing a shopping cart with a KFC plastic cup in the child's seat. Saw a couple unloading presents from a van, all were wrapped in white with red ribbons. Corporate sterile.
Yesterday, in the big middle of all the holiday rush in a local store, I went for the exit door just as another guy did too. Katie slipped through, but he and I found ourselves side by side in the threshold. My new "partner," an African-American man about my age turned apologetic. "After you, My Man", I offered. (I've been reading Gordon Parks memoir, Hungry Heart, and the use of the expression "my man" must have crept into my subconscious) Instantly his face lit up. "And a happy holiday to you, my man," he replied. More gratifying than any store-bought item.
The sky has turned gray. Since I began writing this it has begun to snow very lightly. The wait is over.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

My Two Cents

I'm keeping a few pennies in my pocket from now on. I usually put them in a jar to be rolled up later. Sometimes I just drop them in the small container that many grocery clerks keep near their register when someone's total ends in an odd number. But yesterday, amid the chaos in my local Whole Foods store, my pennies bought a wonderful moment.
I'm a writer; that means I listen to people's conversations, look at them (sometimes too long for comfort) cross some borders. While checking out, a cheerful twenty something in front of me was concerned about having enough money for the few items she had. When she requested the clerk to put her things in a small plastic bookstore bag she was holding, she was reminded that the 5 cents credit for providing her own bag could be donated to a preselected charity or put towards her total. The bright-eyed redhead said, " Use it for my total then I' will have exactly one penny to my name." I reached in my pocket and found two copper coins. "Here," I said, now you have 3 cents." She smiled, laughed, and took the pennies. I loved that she took my two cents. We silently agreed that no one should have just a penny to their name. I'm sure she probably went to a nearby ATM and reloaded for the remainder of the day, but the fact that she did not politely decline my whimsical offer was especially gratifying. Had I offered paper money, or paid her small total, this little interaction would no doubt have been interpreted quite differently. Most people would have, no doubt, preferred that I keep my two cents out of their business. I am delighted that my brief encounter was not with most people.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


The primary candidates for President now have Christmas (a thousand pardons, Holiday) ads now. Apparently Mike Huckabee has a not so subliminal cross in the form of a window behind his head. As the camera pans over the Christmas tree and lights, the white cross rests firmly on his shoulders for a few seconds. I can't believe people consider this a controversial issue. The notion that this is unintended is both naive and frightening. I'd expect the flack if non-Christians had a problem with the tree, but I suspect many of us have trees ourselves. I guess this pandering to the Christian right is to be expected. But seriously folks, that window is no accident. Every frame in a political ad is purposeful. Every image intended. Don't delude yourself if you think this fuss is all for nothing. It is something.
Crosses abound. As an archetype, they've been popping up in backgrounds for ages. One of the things I miss the most about teaching is working with film and literature. Taking the time to look deeply at everything on the screen always is time well spent. In the opening seconds of the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath, director John Ford begins the exposition with crosses in the form of telephone poles. They surround a crossroads and the faceless form of Tom Joad heads toward the Crossroads Cafe. It is so "Steinbeckian," so right. Keep your eyes peeled for many of your favorite archetypal friends appearing in a theater near you. They never miss a showing. Check out the next wave of political ads too. If they can't get a foot in your door, one in your head works just as well.
The photo that appears here I took on one of my walks across Portland. I especially like the colors and the patchwork design of the wall. The subject of the crucifixion is left for your imagination.

Monday, December 17, 2007

There But For Fortune

We see them everyday. Often they stop us cold, a kind of pop-up porno in 3D. Panhandlers. Some are more creative than others but all have the same goal. Isn't it incredible how they can stir up such contradictory emotions in seconds?
We all have our favorites. Like me, you are probably inconsistent. Even if you know the score, most panhandlers are not homeless, most are probably going to use your spare change for drugs or alcohol. Probably both. Some folks I know make a habit of always saying no. They have it all figured out and just keep moving. Others, like myself are bothered by their own inability to take a position and stick with it.
Today, while putting some groceries in my truck, a guy appeared and thrust a Veteran's Administration card in my face. He said, "I'm not a bum, really, I just need to buy some gas and I have no money." Now what do you think? But who has time to research random meetings in parking lots? Something I've noticed is that people are asking for gas money lately. It happened to me last month while traveling between Portland and San Francisco. My attitude remains anchored to what I feel in the moment. Buddhist teachings remind us that when we see a beggar we are really seeing ourselves. I look carefully.
Some years ago I went to see a production of Les Miserable in downtown San Francisco. The audience was roused to thundering cheers as the play ended in a tremendous victory for the downtrodden. Minutes later I watched as many of these well dressed patrons took to the streets themselves, scrambling by the shivering homeless in the shadows, stepping on and over them to scramble for taxis.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Oh My!

When things get spinning too far out there, it's important to remind ourselves that there is a way to reel them in. I offer up the myth of the eternal return. Sure it goes by other names, but just when we think that all is hopeless, a way out appears. It's like the musicians who keep coming back to the blues for grounding. Baseball will certainly survive it's current malaise because the game has always been bigger than the individuals or the accomplishments of a few individuals.
Willie Mays' famous catch from the 1954 World Series works as an appropriate metaphor here. Aside from immortalizing both Mays and Vic Wertz, the Cleveland Indian who hit the drive, this perfect moment in time reminds us that the ball doesn't always drop. In this case, it ended up in the basket; then Willie turned and threw back to the infield in one fluid motion.
We'll get the the ball back in time.
Some years ago I had a perfect moment with Willie Mays myself. I was passing through Sacramento and the California State Fair was going on. I stopped by the racetrack to visit some friends in the press box. Being a correspondent for the Blood-Horse magazine at the time, my credentials allowed me access to the entire facility. As luck would have it, both Willie Mays and football great Johnny Unitas were appearing between races signing autographs. This fan promotion ended shortly before I made my trek to the press box. Climbing up a private staircase underneath the grandstand I noticed that Mays and Unitas were walking a few steps in front of me. I've always wanted to meet Willie Mays; he was my first idol. I wanted to tell him how my dad and I had searched all over L.A. to find a Willie Mays glove and were finally successful the summer of my tenth year. I'm convinced it helped me make many nice catches, including one home run theft in a championship Little League game. Yet, I hesitated. I knew that star athletes grew weary of autograph seekers. I knew that Willie might turn me down and even gripe at me. It was too much to risk. I decided to settle for just being in his presence. Fate handed me this moment and I made the most of it. No regrets. My relationship with Willie Mays remains intact.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

National Pastime, Last Time?

Have you heard the news? Drug use in professional baseball is rampant. (Insert the sound of Goofy laughing here)
No; say it ain't so...
It is, has been for quite a while now, and no blue ribbon congressional committee findings will shock anyone.
Barry Bonds must be breathing a little easier tonight, right?
Maybe now we can get down to the real business at hand. Let's get real about role models, salary caps, ethics, and someting called the love of the game.
What we've got here is two issues. First, the actual decision to take steroids, mindful of the consequences on career, health and conscience. Then, and equally as important, the coverup. The decision to rationalize, deny, parse words, and flat out lie. The game, like most everything driven by obscene amounts of money in this culture is beyond tainted. As always, it's still an apt metaphor for the larger issues. If the pastoral, beautiful, uniquely American game of baseball is dripping with poison, so too is our environment, our foreign policy, our declining sense of ethics, and this bizarre notion known as the "American Idea." We need a real Superman now because it is about truth justice and the American way. For an inexpensive crash course on how to deflect straightforward questions, play the victim, and salvage your Hall of Fame career, pay particular attention to the responses of the athletes and their lawyers. If you act now, we'll throw in a lesson on eschewing responsibility absolutely free. This offer is not available in stores. But wait! You knew that didn't you? LLLET'S GET READY TO RUMBLE!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Merry Christmas Baby

Charles Brown where are you?
It's Christmas time in the city and Charles Brown is not in town. Charles died back in 1999, but his version of "Merry Christmas Baby" will always be the one-the only one. A major influence on the likes of Nat King Cole, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, I used to see Charles all the time in the 80s and 90s inside the Top of the Stretch room at Golden Gate Fields. Sometimes he'd sit alone, sometimes near another blues great, Jimmy McCracklin, and now and then he'd be accompanied by one or more women admirers. Charles loved horse racing and he never missed an opportunity to go to the track. You couldn't miss him on weekends because he'd always be wearing an outfit for his evening gigs. Usually Charles had on a seaman's cap in royal blue sequins with matching suit. In his last few years he was wheel chair bound, but that never stopped his wardrobe or his racetrack appearances. Even when he'd taken a tough beat in a photo finish, Charles remained friendly. He never refused an autograph or signature on a program or CD. He made the time, and knew there was always another race coming up somewhere. He liked people and his breathy voice was just as recognizable cheering for a thoroughbred as it was in a smokey blues ballad.
Charles had his own style of betting horses too. During his hey day, he'd often play 6 or 8 horses in a trifecta box. Sometimes there were only 8 horses in the race, but that didn't stop Charles Brown. He liked saying I got it! I caught the Tri! My friend Leonard, a ticket clerk at the track, used to show me some losing tickets he'd found laying around. In a 9 horse race, the ticket would read $2 exacta box 1 2 4 5 6 7 8. "The 3 horse ran third, Leonard would say, this is Charles Brown shit." Like his love for the blues and his massive talent, Charles had his share of big winners too. They had a big memorial for Charles Brown at the Golden Gate Fields Turf club. His pallbearers included Johnny Otis, and Richard Penniman. Sometimes when I go to the track I can still see Charles Brown moving through the clubhouse, grabbing a program, asking who won the fifth at Hollywood Park, and and smiling gently all in one motion.
Merry Christmas, Baby, you sure been good to me.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Hello In There

Driving home the other night I realized something about Christmas (pardon me, Holiday) lights. Sure I like to see them appear this time of year and even look forward to the first sighting. It's usually sometime before Thanksgiving. Some folks have the "contest winner" mentality and go for amount, volume or stunning effects. Growing up in La La land, the yearly cruise to neighborhoods to view these competitions was always a part of the celebration. But that's not what gets me. I question the motivation of many of those folk. Some are religious, some wealthy, some driven, and many are drifting progressively away from any holiday at all. What I especially like are the houses that suddenly sport a simple string of lights. Sometimes it's a small tree or electric wreath, or perhaps just a colorful star or silvery icicle display. Somebody has taken the time to light the dark. Rolling through the neighborhood I traverse on late Wednesday evenings, the houses are usually so dim and sullen. This week, with the addition of a few lights, and I really mean just a few, they had a very different appearance. The lights were calling out, "Hey, someone's livin' here." These modest decorations say much more than I'm celebrating the holiday now. They remind me that I'm not just passing houses in the night, I'm passing people, families, households.
One year I went for a walk alone on Christmas Eve in the neighborhood I knew from childhood. I must have been about 15 years old and just wanted to walk up and down the street while my parents entertained some folks. It was a particularly cold winter and even in the San Fernando Valley there was frost and visible breath. By the time I got to the end of the street I turned and looked over my shoulder and noticed that every home on Bonner Ave. was colorfully lit. I squinted. The colors bled in the cold night air. I promised to lock that image in my mind forever. So far I have. I've locked all the folks within those homes there as well.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Hobo's Lullaby

Last weekend I spent a few hours baby sitting with Katie for her niece. It was a relatively smooth evening until bedtime of course. It seems like Katie spends most of her time with Naomi, the 3 year old, while I entertain Annika, the 5 year old. I love Annika's philosophical mind. She asks questions constantly and asserts her ideas with the certainty of a tenured professor. This particular bed time featured her reading to me. Oh, she doesn't really read yet, that will come in a few months. What she does is make a huge effort to memorize the text of various story books, and then retell the story to me. At times she id dead accurate; her retelling can be word for word for a stretch. Then she regresses and makes something up that sounds logical. All the while I'm giving her cues and comments. "Yup, that's exactly what it says." While this is going on, Naomi is attempting to do the same thing. She flips the pages and tells Katie a few logical phrases and then is abruptly finished. While I was scrambling for a scary (but not too scary) story for Annika, Naomi was giving Katie fits squirming around, getting out of bed, throwing the pillow around and bouncing up and down. So, we started singing. Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer was the best received, but I kept scrambling for a Beatle tune or a clever kid's song to help the little girls focus. There must be hundreds of songs in my head, so why can't I come up with the entire lyrics for just a few. We tried Rocky Raccoon and Blackbird. We tried old standards and new novelty songs. Then it hit me. I need a lullaby. Out poured Hobo's Lullaby. Having sung this song for 7 years while part of "An Evening with Woody Guthrie," I let it rip. I sounded pretty good too.
Go to sleep you weary hobo,
Let the town's drift slowly by,
Can't you hear the steel rails hummin,'
That's the hobo's lullaby
Immediately Naomi snuggled up and Annika pulled her covers forward and turned on her side. I changed the verse about the "police cause you trouble" to the bad guys and kept going. Naomi's eyes closed and her thumb went into her mouth. Annika was still. I kept going singing softer and sweet as I could. It was working-well. When I ran out of verses I improvised some careful to keep rhyming with my voice becoming quieter and softer and as on key as I could muster. When I sang, "Go to sleep you weary hobo, don't forget your underwear, We can get some more tomorrow, and we'll wash it all with care," Katie started giggling, trying to stifle her laughter. I sang on. Naomi was out. Annika was still awake trying to figure out my lyrics and then mom and dad came home. Note to self: Bring plenty of lullabies and learn the complete lyrics to at least one song each week.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Something Special

Of all the horses I ever wrote about, John Henry was the most memorable. John was a lot more than a champion. Even people who know very little about thoroughbred horse racing know the name John Henry. Like Seabiscuit, he was a people's horse. Like Seabiscuit, he wasn't much to look at, but he achieved immortality. John was just as ornery and unpredictable a any horse can be, but he had a presence that few people, let alone horses have. When John Henry died last month, at 32, there were fewer tears than memories. He lived a full life for a gelding and still entertained his adoring public at the Kentucky Horse Park until the end. Back in 1987 while covering stakes races for The Blood-Horse magazine, I had my 15 minutes with John Henry. In the days before the Golden Gate Handicap that year, I used my press credentials to visit John in his stall. He'd been reclusive that day because people were coming by on stable tours and media photo ops all week. But when everyone left, and I quietly talked to him, John came over and let me take a few photos. I know it's presumptuous to assume he did this for me. But that's how it went down. That's how John Henry operated. Ask anyone ever connected to him from owner, trainer, exercise rider, or groom. He was that kind of personality. Of course he went on to win that race and set a course record in the process. I recall how he'd walk out on the track for his workouts before the race and just stop and take in his surroundings. He had Gatsby's Platonic concept of the self. He enjoyed everything about the racing game and if any horse dared think he could pass John in the lane, he had a struggle coming. Given the current state of affairs where many promising horses are retired after their 3 year-old season, we'll never see another John Henry.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Extra Extra

Last week I was an extra in a movie. It was a date with destiny, of sorts. I always knew I'd do this someday, and I must say I have extra talent. On a lark, Katie and I answered a casting call a couple of months ago. We had our mug shots taken and filled out a questionnaire, and then waited. A few weeks later I all but forgot about it thinking that was it. Not so. The day after Thanksgiving the call came. It was for the film Management starring Jennifer Anniston, Woody Harrelson and Steve Zahn. This is not the kind of movie I go to see, but it certainly is one I would be in. We showed up at 6:30 am and found that part of the Portland Convention Center had been transformed into the Baltimore Airport. I's not difficult to do. Airports and Convention Centers have lots of directional signs, escalators, thick carpet, underground parking lots, and lots of folks running around. Ushered into a holding room, the three sets of clothing we were required to bring were inspected for the right color palate-Jewel in this case. My navy blue raincoat was perfect and the gray plaid shirt I brought worked well too.
The first scene was cross traffic in an airport. For five takes, just as I got the cue to walk in front of the camera the director yelled, "cut." This proved to be quite a blow to my extra sensibilities. The frustration rose, I was becoming angry and hyper, and extremely competitive. Fortunately, when I asked Katie, "what do you think we should do about this," she shot back something I'm always telling her to do.
"Be in the moment,"
That's when the entire experience changed. We were then selected to play a couple returning from the best vacation of their lives and placed in a "pod" with five other people. Six times we rode an escalator in front of the camera emoting about a trip that never happened. It was moviemaking at its best. It looks as if we are having a spirited conversation but in reality were bickering all the way down. She thinks I'm moving my head too much, that my antics are over the top. I'm asking her to smile a little and reminding her that overplaying a bit won't appear on film that way, it'll simply look like we're really talking rather than half alive.
After a few hours, the movie wrapped and we were sent on our way. I don't think that Management will be my first film. I'm hoping for an extra career now. I have the time, for the first time in my life. I have the talent. I have seized the moment.