Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Attached to Nothing

Funny how on the bicentennial marking the abolition of slavery all we have in the political headlines is the mini whirlwind created by the Republican party yuking it up over a new rendition of "Barack the Magic Negro." This says it all. Not only does a sizable chunk of our populace not see the problem with a little satire to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon," they apparently don't see the need to deal with the history of the slave trade. So much is intertwined here it's difficult to know just exactly where to unbraid this knot.
Let me begin with the word Negro. As Malcolm X used to say, "It attaches us to nothing. There is no Negroland." Like the racial and ethnic stereotypes needed to justify holding humans in bondage, the "magic Negro" takes its place alongside Uncle Tom, Old Mose, Aunt Jemima and every other mammy, sambo, picaninny, and coon who danced, grinned and yessuh bossed their way through the last 300 years.
But this magic Negro is a bit more complex. He represents what Toni Morrison calls "the Africanist presence" in our film and literature. I'd add our popular culture as well. We see these shadow figures waiting in the wings in novels like The Great Gatsby and TV shows like Designing Women. Jack Benny had Rochester and Shirley Temple had Bill Robinson. It's safe. As George H W Bush (the elder) would say, "SAFE, SAFE, at this juncture."
No sexuality in those ol' Aunts and Uncles, mammys and buffoons. Happy, always happy, just the way we like them; just the way we need them to be.
Growing up in the 50s and 60s, one of my favorite versions of the Africanist presence was in the old Our Gang Comedies. Usually Buckwheat, Farina, or Stymie, these Black Little Rascals all showed up, seldom together, but definitely with equal status. Sure some of the story lines and caricatures were racist, but those actors could do very little about that. As Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award said, "The way I see it, I got two choices, I can work in Hollywood as a maid for $5.00 a week, or I can work in Hollywood, in the movies as a maid for $500. a week."
Hard to argue with that. It's such a difficult thing to assess whether you'd work under those circumstances or not. But then our history shows those pioneering performers also had careers within their own communities. They didn't always have to play those demeaning roles. Even more fascinating is how even under those racist circumstances, the talent of those artists was evident. As the old Maria Muldar song says, "You couldn't call it soul, you had to call it heart." Maybe heart and soul.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Seems Like Years

It's all melting now. But then the end of the year is a perfect time for a meltdown. Why not? Everything else but the snow has melted this year. Let's see, the economy for one. It looks from here that a lot of folks have taken stock this year. More and more get that life is better lived without all that attention to possessions. That the superficial only goes so far. I know it's virtually un-American, but I'm secretly glad that holiday sales are way off. I'm happy that all the dreck that passes for decorations is selling for 90% off. That means that the profit margin on those poorly crafted lights and glitterly gobs of garbage is only 5% instead of 85%.
As we brace for the popular new administration, some of the frozen attitudes of the previous century are thawing out as well. But only some. Fascinating how the tired old stereotypes find enough hot air to raise their sickly heads from time to time. Given the anonymity of the internet, the sad, old, cancerous chestnuts will no doubt be around for another generation. But just one more.
Many in my generation are still waiting for the anvil to fall. Can't help themselves, I guess. But I don't think so. Aside from the neo-sociopaths, who are always dangerous, to anyone, this country is at such an all-time low that all points on the spectrum are probably glad to be on the outside looking in. So much safer there.
So I watch the big chill turn into an urban daiquiri. It's getting warmer up in here. Almost a decade into the new millennium now and already a taste of things to come. It tastes like new sources for information, new schools and new attitudes. It 's trying to figure out what to keep and what to discard.
My generation has an important new role to play. As fresh as the snow melt, we need to take the position of wisdom and be there for those who will follow. Our vision from the days of marches and demonstrations; from depths of our cynicism to the mountaintops of insight must be eased gently into the vision of those who will lead now. We must be pillars of hope, we must function as ethical braces for a new foundation. We need only trust our judgment, speak our truths. Here comes the sun.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Winter Wonders

We've had snow here in Portland for the better part of two weeks. It's a record breaking event and the local media have made the most of it. "Arctic Blast" scream the eyewitness headlines. Apparently these local reporters and anchors think we need them to tell us it's snowing and that snow melts into slush and that we should be careful traveling about. I could see five minutes or even ten at most every hour to supplement the scrolling of traffic information, school closures and the like at the bottom of the screen.
But what is this need to make a few snow storms into a major media event?
I've noticed a few other things that stood out when the white replaced the earth tones, pavement, and concrete normally forming the backdrop of the city. Each neighborhood retains it's own version of snow covered streets. In my NE section, the side streets remain icy and crunchy alternately. People walk on small paths or trails that have appeared in front of houses or near sidewalks. I've seen lots of folks on cross country skis or snow shoes. A family went on an outing to the grocery store pulling their two kids on a sled while they skied in front and behind.
Taking buses around had been revealing. People in this town are overwhelmingly friendly. Bus drivers, some working 18-20 hours a stint, keep their cool, assist, disseminate information and get you from here to there when they can. In the dicey areas, especially downtown near skid row areas, the sidewalk paths are dotted with yellowy brown pock marks: nicotine leeches out from the butts below. And the people...the people dress for the snow with all the grace or lack thereof, as always. Aside from those trying to maneuver in tennis shoes or sweat suits, I saw a person yesterday who looked more like the San Diego Chicken in pajamas than someone out for a winter's walk. I, myself, have adopted the unibomber look, (see photo) as this allows my ears to be covered as well as keeping my favorite hat of the day dry. My photo-gray lenses have been going nuts with all the white flashing back.
Katie has adopted the burka look, (see photo) this also prevents the spread of germs. I've seen some spectacularly looking women dressed for the sub-freezing weather too. Right off the catwalk. All color-coordinated. sexy, and aloof, they glide through these days with the ease of a swan. Finally there are those poor schlumps who, try as they might, always manage to have a snot icicle hanging from their noses. Today the snow turned to freezing rain and it appears to be morphing into regular old Portland rain right now. That means the big meltdown is about to begin. In a couple of hours it'll be dark and then ice will form. Wonder what will be an appropriate look for tomorrow? Oh yeah, it's Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Burning Sensation

When will folks stop fixing what isn't broken? I heard today that a new version of the Yule Log exists. Some young executive thinks if it looks more like a cartoon of a gas log and is accompanied with soundtracks of old radio shows it'll be better. Different isn't always better.
There is something so pure about 5 hours of watching the log burn. Like many, my friends and I would savor the moment a poker held by a mysterious hand would invade the serenity of the scene and turn the log! The other mystery is why the simple vision of a fireplace with a log burning became so popular. Probably a reaction to all the consumption oriented messages that have become the holidays. I actually like the idea of listening to old radio shows--The Christmas version of the Jack Benny Program, Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos and Andy. Item: Amos and Andy was so popular in its heyday, that Macy's had to pipe it in during peak Christmas shopping hours to get people out of their homes and into the store. Pre TV America has some fascinating stories to tell.
I'm not going to get into a young people just don't get it if they mess with the Yule Log thing. But that's the truth. Anyone at any age can see that changing the vision and expectations of that perfect fireplace scene is not a good idea. Trouble is, that young executive can and probably will make the switch. Of course then we'll have competing logs burning with various styles of music or soundtrack, flame and log color, real fire v. gas jets...the American way.
From Kindling to Kindle
While I'm at it, a quick word about another misguided attempt to make things better: the Kindle. Oh I know that one day people won't remember what real books looked like. Fortunately not in my lifetime. What fascinates me is why someone would want to read books digitally? Don't they see what's lost and gained? Apparently not. Online reading gets to me rather quickly. Blog postings should be no more than 1500 words. That's what makes them useful and succinct. Books, however, should be a s long as they need to be. They are wonderfully adaptive and diverse. They can have colorful covers, seductive textures, and evidence of human hands all over them. I have a friend who insists on spending the night with her favorite books nearby. When she finishes something new that she has thoroughly enjoyed, it stays in the room with her like a lover for a few days. In my view, put the Kindle in with the artificial yule log and click both off.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Carry a Tune

I wonder if I'm particularly vulnerable to getting music stuck in my head. We all know what that's like, but I'd swear it happens to me more often than not. Sometimes I can wake up in the morning and hear the last song on play list of the previous day. Almost like 8 hours of sleep and dreams had never happened.
On days like today when I help baby sit for a few hours, I'm stuffed with all sorts of wonderful tunes. "Hello everybody, it's so nice to see you...Hello John it's so nice to see you...Hello Mary, it's so nice to see you...Hello Uncle Jerry, it's so nice to see you. I don't have an Uncle Jerry, never have had an Uncle Jerry, and don't intend to at this point, but I damn sure have him in my head.
Now this being the Holiday season, we are all very susceptible to having chestnuts roasting in our heads for the next few weeks. Things could always be worse, but here are a few ideas to try before you go for the pain relief, illegal substances or, God forbid, sing that toxic song out loud in public places.
First thing that helps is simply replace the unwanted cranial resident with something more appropriate, more soothing, more your style. Either ear phones or a good car radio/CD player will do the trick. If the intruder is still in residence, up the ante and get on the phone. Call everyone you know, if you have to. Anything that involves talking that you've been putting off, get to it. It's possible that some unexpected piece of knowledge, some unwanted request, or some lovely compliment will take over your thought processes and you're off the hook.
If either of those don't work, there is a way that's guaranteed. I'm not sure why, though I have an idea or two, but I do know it works. Here it is: simply sing or hum aloud or in your head The Girl from Ipanema. You know...Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking, and when she passes, each guy she passes go ahhh.
There is another use for this tune I should mention. In my days on the backstretch, I'd often walk through the shedrows tracking down interviews or taking photos in the barn area of the racetrack. When you walk by thoroughbred horses, best to walk softly and carry a tune. Beautiful as they are, they are quick, sometimes bite, kick or knock you down. Music does soothe the savage beast, and whistling something from Astrud and Joao Gilberto has saved my skin.
The girl from Ipanema is magical realism.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

This Mornin'

Woke up this mornin'
Looked round for my shoes
Lord, I knew I had,
Them ol' walkin' blues..

Last night I was joking with a guy at a gas station about the snow storm we were supposed to be getting today. People had been scrambling around all afternoon at local grocery stores trying to stock up on items that might be necessary in case they couldn't drive for a few days. Between the fearful and the holiday shoppers, the lines were long and the patience short. Since the gas prices are headed back up this week, I decided to fill the tank just in case the snow did come.
We joked about how Portland prepares days in advance for the chance of snow, but secretly are glad the city is on it so well... in advance. The buses are chained, the plows poised, and the deicer ready to roll.
At 8:00 a.m. I looked out my front window and through the lingering darkness saw only black pavement and little evidence of moisture. By 8:30 the flurries came, and by 9:30 walking to my local Peet's coffee shop it was blowing snow and biting wind.
It's nearly 11 a.m. now and I feel like I'm sitting in an Arctic outpost. The chimney howls, the snow swirls off rooftops like waves of frosty grain, and I'm just waiting for a break to shovel the front walkway.
Here in Portland we don't get too much snow, but when we do it consumes the moment. There is just enough awe (so many ex-Californians like me) and just enough respect for Mother Nature, (mostly native Oregonians) that everybody has a good time in the end. Add in the spice of the Holiday season, a warm beverage, and school and road closures, and we're good to go.
Merry Christmas Baby,
You sure look good to me...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Turning cold here in Portland. We'll be waiting for snow this weekend. As we wait December brings chilling news in other areas. The Governor of Illinois gets arrested for trying to sell the vacant Senate seat of Barack Obama. This will feed the pundits for well into the new year. It's a stuffed goose, all the trimmings and plum pudding for everyone. The pendulum swings and the Democrats are fair game. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum so the saying goes. No scorecard needed you can't tell them apart. Ralph Nader must be doing the math right now. Let's see, what might make a good name for a new political party? How about_______________________________. (Your best effort here)
Did you know that 4 of the last 8 governors of Illinois have spent time in jail? Abe Lincoln's pissed.
A few hundred miles away and General Motors fights for it's life. Is it good for America anymore? Who will we be without the big 3 automakers? At the same time workers are beginning to occupy their plants until they get what's due; severance, benefits, at least a fair warning that their jobs have left the building. Good thing they know their history. It helps to have options.
When we look beneath the surface of our political system it won't matter that we can't say the "S" word (Socialism) because everybody knows it's holding up the assembly line, the stock market, and the banks. It won't matter that our high school seniors can't name their legislators, presidents, or cite their Constitution. On the bottom, when the last layer is peeled off all that will remain are those twins.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Won By a Lip

I love when life imitates art. Now and then a story like the one I am about to relate comes along. I used to save a few like this to answer the cynical students of literature whose response to anything symbolic or allegoric was a high decibel Tsk!
Bad enough they couldn't appreciate the beauty, the aesthetic, they'd usually follow up the sound effects with, "You're just reading into this. Why isn't a name just a name, or an object just the object it is?"
Yeah, I know what Freud said about cigars, but Dude, that's the point, to read into it. Go deep, my brother, my sister.
So here's the deal, and it involves a racetrack story too: Last week at Beulah Park, a small D List track that's in that part of Ohio that is just about Kentucky they've uncovered a ringer. A ringer, in horse racing, for those of you who are uninitiated, is when a horse runs a race under the name of another horse. A dead ringer, see? It's highly illegal and difficult to do because aside from being identified by color, specific markings, something called *"night eyes" and a number tattooed under their upper lip, most ringer attempts are easily foiled. I know of one that happened at a small Midwestern track a few years back when the paddock judge decided to forego the identification by lip because a freak snowstorm came up and all horses were covered with white flakes and they just wanted to get in the last race of the day. Because horses run in levels of competition, if you slip in a higher quality horse against a group with less skill-BINGO...Go to the window and collect.
At Beulah Park the other day, a horse called Valid Action was entered in a race. The official results show that he won that race, but it was later revealed that a better horse by the name of Purdy Tricky actually ran and won the race.
What follows now are steep fines and suspensions for the trainer and the horse identifier who are ultimately responsible for this state of affairs. Turns out that the chief horse identifier at the track was out that day and an underling filling in made the mistake. Even if the tattoo number was misread, you'd think they would check the color and markings. * (If you want to know what "night eyes" are send me an email)
Believe it or not this kind of thing can happen with no ill intention. I'm not saying this example is an accident. I don't know. But it has happened accidently especially when horses are shipped from one trainer to another. By the way, the name of the suspended horse identifier was Malarky.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Real Deal

It's all there. When a Wal*Mart worker gets trampled to death by an unruly mob at 6:00 a.m. on a day called Black Friday, even the clueless take pause. So many kinds of sadness. Horrible enough that he was only in his mid-thirties, a temp worker trying to survive in New York. Everyone has got something to say about this, from the cynics to the corporate defense lawyers. They will split hairs about who is at fault. They will gasp about how a few hundred people saw this blue collar lamb go down and kept on moving. Gives a new meaning to "shop till you drop." Over, under, around and through. No air. No life. They are no longer people. First they become their machines, fenders and bumpers, lifting the physically and/or mentally obese blithely into crosswalks, over curbs, fast lanes, much faster than the posted speed.
So who is out there, hanging around all night for the chance to by a flat screen TV or a DVD player. High Definition TV certainly warrants some sort of sacrifice, no?
Stampedes are by no means an American phenomena. I think of soccer games and religious celebrations. The individual evaporates into a collective personality. Group norms become a tsunami that blasts through glass doors, digesting human life, and destroying any trace of civility.
A religious experience? Absolutely. Ask what is being worshiped? The biggest, crystal-clear idol of them all.
Who is out there in that consumptive lava flow? Where does this desperation to define the self from possessions originate?
It is the perfect union of church and state. Wal*Mart is the non-denominational shrine of the consumer class. It's about the numbers, it's about price, it's about limited time, it's about me, it's about worship.
It's never about human life. Illusory values; stained glass; bloodstained glass.
But wait.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Spending this week by the Bay has been an eye-opener. It's always a bit strange to return to a place previously called home. Driving from here to there, noting the changes, what is still there, what is long gone. Three years down the road and some people still take their places on the street where I left them. But a new anonymity empowers. Enables me to move swiftly through layers, decades, identities, and touchstones.
Life is faster here. Nobody waits for anything. Public spaces are heavily taxed-by volume. The streets are filled with potholes; the same ones I knew; repaired, repaired again. And again. The graffiti remains unless it offends by volume.
The land is dry here. Many more browns, tans, wheatstraw yellows. The diversity remains impressive. I miss that the most. The needy take so many forms here and ambush with their emotions laid bare. The cutting edge cuts a little deeper today.
There are two places that have remained remarkably the same since I first saw the East Bay. One is a hamburger place, the other a liquor store. I see my green and white VW van in their parking lots. Even the signs, well-faded, are the same ones I saw 30 years ago.
Like all cities, Berkeley is hurting. Many small businesses, bookstores, restaurants are dead and dying. Many on the outside, moving to the outside, denying the outside, looking in. The University, sprawling and vast. magnificent and impenetrable, beckons, always. It becomes the inside of a vast hive, workers scurrying past the promise of honey.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dark Side of the Moon

Be careful out there. It's that time of year. I'm not much for astrology, but I hear the moon is in Scorpio. I've heard all the planets and stars have moved significantly since the astrological science was born, rendering it all meaningless. OK, I can live with that. All I know this is a funny time of year. Be careful out there.
This is the time for political assassinations, for false prophets to unravel. It's when the macabre and the grotesque ambush us. Be mindful out there. Consider each step, make friends with purpose, watch your back.
The economy isn't the stock market. Jobs evaporate daily. I hear the Salvation Army will have many new visitors this year; listen for that little bell, it's going to be important to tolerate the sound, your neighbors could be depending on you.
In our bittersweet bath of hope and fear, let's look alive. It's that time of year. John Kennedy, Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and Jonestown's winter Kool-Aid...all this time of year.
Lay low for a few days. Find a warm, dry spot. Read, write, look at people, really look at them, mind your head.
Watch a leaf fall, there are still a few left; feel the rain, talk to a child, retrace your steps.
Be careful out there; it's that time of year.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

All I Have To Do

Dream research indicates that as we get older the quality and thematic content of our dreams changes. For all their interest in dreams, very few of my psychology students were fascinated enough by that revelation to incorporate it into their individual research projects. It seemed easy enough to do. A good way to interview people of all ages, but delving into how our dreams change as we age never got proper play. I'm going to do something about that right now.
Since my withdrawl from the daily grind, I have naturally been getting more sleep. That means more dreams. I've had the luxury, too, to think qualitatively about my dreams and if, in fact, I notice any changes. The answer is absolutely.
While they seem to come in bunches, as the three I had last night, there is one real difference I sense, and that involves the physical sensations. Where once much of the physical and erotic quality were focused on various body parts (yup, those parts) I find that now the visual focus is on texture, as in the feel of skin, the look, sensation, and scent of hair. The dance of hands and arms, vis a vis the pelvis or the tongue. I say focus, because that's what's noticeable.
It always amazes me when someone I haven't thought about in ages appears in a dream. It's as if the brain is reminding us that yes, all we really possess is our memories, but we do, we really do possess them. Like the brain is saying, "See, here is what I'm giving you tonight, a few minutes with someone who touched your life in some way; someone who maybe you don't want to forget. " Call this a fantasy or misfiring brain cells, it's still there, well-timed, and definitely satisfying.
Like most dreamwork, we do well to reflect and keep reflecting on the content of our dreams. They are always works in progress that add up to a greater whole. Dreams invite our projection, our questions, our revelations, our artistry. All that, and they are loaded with surprise.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sunday, November 16, 2008


And now for something completely different...

Heard the piece on NPR this morning with Jonatha Brooke, the recording artist given access to the Woody Guthrie archive. Working with bits and pieces, scraps, and fragments, she produced a new CD of mostly unknown and previously unrecorded material. It's called The Works, and it's hauntingly beautiful. You might know that Woody wrote on everything.. constantly... matchbooks and napkins, envelopes and paper towels, like the one shown here. It's gratifying to see these little splinters come out of hiding and reform themselves into powerful art. I suspect this will continue to happen long into the future.
Woody once wrote, "I'm gonna mail myself to you." He wasn't kidding.
Of course there is the danger of romanticizing Woody and all that he left behind. Many that knew him well will tell you the other side of the man. The one that was capable of hurting people, the slightly amoral, busted, disgusted, can't be trusted, little piece of hide that would come for a weekend and stayed 6 months, never met a woman he didn't like or wouldn't like to love, and could play all night for drinks and tips and give all his money to the first bindle stiff he met on the street.
Woody's impulsive side was not without its own logic. People never knew where his Huntington's Disease began and his personality left off. He needed to write his autobiography at age 29 because he's lived and traveled so hard, and he knew, on some level, that his time might be running short.
Here's the lyric to one of the new Guthrie songs that's undergone a musical birth. I've included some of Jonatha Brooke's comments about her discovery

My Battle

I found this lyric and my heart just leapt. You can see in the liner notes how labored the handwriting was. I think Woody was already in the hospital when he wrote it. But there was something so elemental, and at the same time universal, that I had to go deeper. Then in the archives one day, I was paging through one of his notebooks from years earlier, and there it was: "I never dread the day I will die, "cause my sunset is somebody's morning sky." Nora told me Woody would have loved it that someone was digging and merging and making new songs from his different writings. I was just thrilled that the jigsaw puzzle fell into place and this beautiful spiritual song really came to life.
Show me how, how to fight my battle in life
Show me how to fight
And I'll run away with you

Teach me how, how to fight my hard times in life
Teach me how to fight and
I'll run away with you

And I will never dread the day I will die
"Cause my sunset is somebody's morning sky

Show me how, how to face my troublesome fights
Show me how to face them
And I'll run away with you

Teach me how, how to win my union in life
Show me how to win
And I'll run away with you

And I will never dread the day I will die
"Cause my sunset is somebody's morning sky

Show me how, how to win for all of my people
Show me how to win
And I'll run away with you

Teach me how, how to love this battle of life
teach me how to love
And I'll run away with you

How to fight, how to win, how to love
Teach me how, show me how, teach me how
How to love
How to fight, how to win, how to love

Friday, November 14, 2008

President Davis

When Woody Guthrie was asked how he got his name he usually said, "I was born in 1912, the year Woodrow Wilson was nominated for president. My father was quite a figger is Okfuske County (Oklahoma) politics at that time, so he named me after the president, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, which is too much of a name for a country boy, so I sawed off all the fancy work and just left Woody. I could remember that."
I'm sure Woody wasn't the first and won't be the last to carry a president's name. I've heard of a few Lincoln Kennedys, many Andrew Jacksons, Andrew Johnsons, and a whole shitload of George Washingtons. But this week, in the wake of Barack Obama's election, I thought of one person who must be looking at all this from a most unique perspective. President Davis. No not Jefferson Davis, or anyone sharing that name, but a wonderful person I know named President Davis. That's right his first name is President.
I remember the day we met. He strolled into one of my English 3 Honors classes about six years ago and I was captivated by his smile. But it wasn't until I looked at my attendance sheet until I realized that his first name really was President. I had to ask.
Apologizing for immediately asking how he got that name (still, you don't often meet anyone named President) I soon learned the story.
"It's really very simple," he said. "My father wanted to make sure that I received respect all through my life, so he named me President, because presidents always get respect."
Yes they do. But just because a person has a name that connotes respect doesn't mean they will always get or deserve it. All you have to do is spend a few minutes talking to this President and any concern you might have will be allayed. A warm, empathetic, bright, dynamic person, President Davis did his father proud.
How must he be feeling these days? Wonder what he'll name his kids?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Two Presidents

At 8:00 p.m. everything stopped.  One night a week, in prime time, they turned on the trusty black and white TV prepared to take in everybody's favorite show: Mod Squad.  
This was something new, something never seen before.  One of us, they thought; one of us in a starring role.  Clarence Williams III was one third of the trio young, hip cops who performed weekly morality plays about the dangers of life on the wrong side of the law.  Ex-offenders, these bold, new, narcs often protected their peers from the oppressors who would use them to fund their underworld enterprises.
This was it.  This was the first time the kids in Houston's 3rd Ward, where I was spending my summer, saw a black person on TV who wasn't a servant or a buffoon.  No butler, maid, cook, or janitor.  No Beulah, Kingfish, Willie, or Mammy.  No Yessuh, Nosuh, shuffling scamp.  
His name was Linc; short for Lincoln, Lincoln Hayes (two Presidents!) and he was cool.  In the words of Blackpoet Don L. Lee, "he was triple hip."  
The kids in Mrs. Miller's shotgun shack clustered around that little Admiral TV and saw a role model.  An authentic, 100% American, do-gooder, tough talking, straight shooting, seriously inspiring role model.  And he was cool.  He was super cool.  
     When Barack Obama, equally as cool, addressed the crowd in Grant Park on election night, I thought of those kids watching Linc.  I thought of Randolf, six years old at the time, 44 now.  Just about Obama's age.  I thought of how many people saw the new President-elect that night.  It's only been 40 years.  Half a lifetime, since those kids ran to see Linc; ran to see someone who looked like them, the one person, in all of the variety shows, used car commercials, sit-coms, and daytime dramas.  In all the ads for laundry detergent, old movies, westerns, and detective stories.  And his name was two presidents.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Take Your Place

The vanquished know war. They see through the empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor, and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief. They know the lies the victors often do not acknowledge, the lies covered up in stately war memorials and mythic war narratives, filled with words of courage and comradeship. They know the lies that permeate the thick, self-important memoirs by amoral statesmen who make wars but do not know war.

The vanquished know the essence of war – death. They grasp that war is necrophilia. They see that war is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction. They know how war fosters alienation, leads inevitably to nihilism, and is a turning away from the sanctity and preservation of life. All other narratives about war too easily fall prey to the allure and seductiveness of violence, as well as the attraction of the godlike power that comes with the license to kill with impunity.
-Chris Hedges

On this Veterans Day, 2008, some wise words from Chris Hedges about seeing and words and death and morality and power and violence and human life and killing and deception and mythology and greed, and winners and losers and most of all about

I L L U S I O N.
I can say thank you to all living vets, I can say remember the dead. I will. I will say step back, think, think again, the great mandala approaches.

Friday, November 7, 2008

You Think You Are

If I am not who you think I am,
then you are not who you think you are
-James Baldwin

The euphoria is dying down. Reality takes a chunk in the form of a University of Texas second string lineman's Facebook page. So ignorant he summons a "huntin" party cause "there's a n#$%* er in the white house." The arrogance of ignorance I call it, yet it persists. BUT, ignorance is curable, people learn, they experience, they see, they sometimes think, and they often evolve. The audacity of hope?
As James Baldwin so beautifully cautioned, when you speak about me, you speak about yourself. Jung's shadow, the dark side, the less commendable part.
Baldwin was black; he was also gay. In this historical moment, in the euphoria over the realization of the greatest of civil rights we do well to note that the battle continues: California bans gay marriage. The irony, the fact that African-Americans supported the proposition overwhelmingly....ouch!
Who do you think I am?
Who do you think you are?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Back Pages

I love history...herstory...our story...I love it even more today. Grab the headline, while newspapers still exist, and stick it away. This one belongs with some of the others...some of the not so happy days.
Last night we went with a couple of friends to a funky bar in SE Portland, settled in with a few beers (Katie drank red wine, but wanted blue wine) and watched CNN with an appropriately diverse group of fellow Portlanders. None of the symbolism of the evening was lost, from the smoke-filled room to the rain outside. Every time a state or projected win came into the fold a cheer went up. Until the moment of victory. Then it was like New Year's Eve. It is the eve of a new era. From error to era!
All this will take a good while to sink in. Politics always has it's reality bite. What's possible? Who needs compensation? Who will best represent this complicated, convoluted, experiment we call a country?
I was fascinated by Michelle Obama's dress. Black and red. Do the math.
The impact of technology, the web, text messages, the role of young people in this campaign was unprecedented. But like many my age, what I'm thinking about the most today are some of the folks I've encountered along the way. The civil rights leaders who disappeared and then re-appeared as martyrs, Medgar Evers, Emmit Till, Rosa Parks, and Fanny Lou Hamer. I see the older woman who fell on the bus steps in Houston while the driver sat, and I ran forward when nobody else would move. I hear the voice of the man in the used appliance store in Texas reminding me what part of town I lived in. And the harsher voice of the baseball scout in Pennsylvania, whose racism was much more explicit than what I usually heard in the South. I see the the 16 year old I was, urging my mother and sister to come look at history as Martin Luther King's grainy image came on our old Packard Bell TV one hot August afternoon. Yessir! That's right! Call and response. I remember the outrage in discovering the real history of the poll tax, the grandfather clause, and the literacy test. (How many bubbles in a bar of soap?)
I know it is time to walk the walk. But for now there are some people and places to ponder. For now there are some back roads to take. For now there is history to recall.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sometimes Wind Stops

Two days before my 21st birthday I am hardly thinking about any kind of celebration. It is 6:30 am and I am driving in my '59 black VW bug through the wasteland of the East San Fernando Valley about to traverse Beverly Glen Canyon. I have an 8:00 class in the Social Science Bldg. at UCLA. I am on schedule, but driving like a zombie. My eyes are forward, the radio is on but I do not hear the Beatles recording of "A Day in the Life" that surrounds me.
It's foggy, both outside the car and inside my mind. I can't see the smoke that may be twisting up from South Central toward the Valley. I can't see going to any classes today. My fear supercedes my anger. In my mind, I keep seeing the one car careening around the UCLA campus the evening before. Holed up in a poetry seminar for the previous two hours, I learned of the death of Martin Luther King by watching this car's mad dashes stopping only for people of color. I wasn't able to put that together until I asked an African American student walking my way in the growing twilight what was going on.
Just before I cross Ventura Blvd. onto Valley Vista to make the climb to the top of the canyon, Peter, Paul, and Mary's version of "Blowin' in the Wind" comes on the radio. I am not prepared for what follows. Every fiber of my physical and mental being responds and I began to cry. Those tears enable me to survive the day.
That moment in time helped me make some formative decisions the next year and throughout the years to follow. Sometimes these moments form stone pieces of a wall that gets built over time. Carefully placed for size and balance the wall forms and takes shape. Another piece will soon join my wall. Sometimes, on rare occasions like today, I feel above this wall.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Take It Easy, But Take It

Studs Terkel died yesterday at the age of 96. Now there's a real American hero. Certainly was one of mine. Studs lived just about a century and from all indications, got the most from his time passing through. I've been tearing up my "cave" today looking for a letter I received from Studs around the time I was part of a show about the life of Woody Guthrie. My friend and fellow show member Ed Robbin had written a book about his own experiences with Woody and he went to Chicago to be on Studs' longtime radio show to promote the book. I asked Ed to give Studs my best and tell him how much my students and I appreciated his books and passion for oral history. Subsequently Studs and I exchanged letters and a few ideas. I loved that he took the time to write me a handwritten personal letter. He was that kind of guy.
My letter from Studs Terkel is somewhere in my files. Since my move to Portland, I haven't managed to get everything from former home and classroom up to present home. Missing too is my copy of Woody Sez, a wonderful book of Guthrie's old columns from People's World, a newspaper most popular in the 30s and 40s. Studs Terkel did the Introduction for that book and called Woody "a tough little piece of leather." Studs was that way too.
Studs Terkel's work will be enjoyed long after he washes from memory. Books like Hard Times, and Working, The Good War, and American Dreams: Lost and Found, give voice to the folks whose stories are the real stuff of history. Yes, Studs could talk too much, but he could get people who never spoke to do the same. Yes, he could listen actively, but it was his energy, the way his eyes came alive and his voice rose and fell, the way he'd say, "Oooh, tell me about that," that inspired, comforted, and elicited all the wonderful stories and memories his interviewees willingly gave.
He once likened the interview to panning for gold. Good thing he had lots of help to get all the nuggets. And he got them.
No mention of Studs Terkel can go without his sense of humor. I'll always hear his cackle. Especially when he confronted a Georgia librarian who actually thought his book was called "Working Studs by Terkel"
Someday, when I'm searching for something else, or maybe setting up a new office, I'll find the letter and even the book. Like Studs Terkel, I know they are always around me, somewhere.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Educational Baggage


Tell, Recite,

Name, List, Ask, Give,

Select, Explain, Predict, Summarize, Identify

Translate, Memorize, Interpret, Demonstrate, Propose

Apply Organize, Categorize, Defend, Compare/Contrast, Analyze

Synthesize, Evaluate, Argue, Conclude

Tease out, Obfuscate,


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Race is a Bogus Idea

What follows are some excerpts from an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1998; this piece appeared the week TV station KRON aired a week long special called "About Race." You might recall that this was during Bill Clinton's second term when the president initiated a national dialogue about race. It's been 10 years since that happened so I thought it a good time to remind ourselves what we already know.

The very concept of race is bogus and has no basis in biology, according to most scientists.

``This dialogue on race is driving me up the wall,'' said Jefferson Fish, a psychologist at St. John's University in New York who has written extensively about race in America. ``Nobody is asking the question, `What is race?' It is a biologically meaningless category. It is a cultural term that Americans use to describe what a person's ancestry is.

``But biologically the human species does not have categories. It just has variations as one travels around the world.''

True, a walk along almost any main street in a major U.S. city will reveal a host of people of various colors and cultures.

Surely, one may suppose,

the American melting pot is brimming with different races and racial mixtures.

Wrong, say a broad coalition of experts.

``The concept of race is a social and cultural construction. . . . Race simply cannot be tested or proven scientifically,'' according to a policy statement by the American Anthropological Association. ``It is clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. The concept of `race' has no validity . . . in the human species.''

Although few people would mistake a group of Arapahos for Finns, or Malays for Tutsis, anthropologists can find no clear racial boundaries to show where one ``racial'' group stops and another begins.

Jonathan Marks, a University of California at Berkeley anthropologist, said the only pattern that shows up consistently is that as one surveys traditional homelands, ``people are similar to those from (areas) geographically nearby and different from those (who are) far away.'' The bigger the distance, the more different people tend to look. Conversely, while people don't fit into neat racial cubbyholes, the more closely related they are, the greater the chances of finding good tissue matches for such things as bone marrow transplants.

Despite this, many Americans still believe in three great racial groups, a system developed in Europe and North America in the 18th century.

Under that notion, indigenous residents of France, Iran and Poland, for example, are all Caucasoids, members of the so-called white race. People from Somalia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe in Africa are all Negroid, belonging to the black race. Ethnic Chinese, Koreans, Malays and American Indians are all Mongoloids, variants of the yellow race.

And people born to, say, ethnic Swedish and Chinese parents are of mixed race.

No way, say scientists, who call such thinking a folk myth.

``We don't even come close to having enough genetic diversity for races, or subspecies -- not close,'' said Robert Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis and editor of a newsletter of the anthropological association that has taken on race and racism as its yearlong theme.

``It's hard to get across,'' said Sussman. ``The best audience to try to get to is probably high school and young college students. But even they are steeped in American folklore, and the folklore is that races really exist.''

One reason race is a myth, the great majority of anthropologists agree, is that there has not been enough time for much difference to build up between human beings.

By most measures, modern humans arose in Africa less than 200,000 years ago, a short time by evolutionary time scales. And the migration out of Africa by the ancestors of today's Europeans, Asians, and North and South Americans took place less than 100,000 years ago.

Environmental pressure produced different physical appearances, including slightly different physiques, and Africa has the most human genetic diversity of any continent.

``But the environment, literally, works only on the surface, changing skin and hair a little bit,'' said Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, a Stanford University geneticist. ``Underneath, there has been little change.''

``If Americans in general understood the history of the concept of race, the erroneous biological connotations of race, and the cultural and social dimensions of race, they could better address the initiative's goal of `One America in the 21st Century,' '' said Mary Margaret Overbey, a lobbyist for the association.

But even without race, racism can exist as a belief that ancestry is a significant factor in cultural and behavioral differences among peoples.

Rather than race, scientists like to discuss ``clinal variations,'' or physical types that may be found in one general area but that fade more or less evenly into other types as one move about the globe.

Yet even anthropologists admit they use the term ``race'' -- even if they don't really approve of it -- because so far there is no better term to describe the subtleties of the human species.

``I use it because for some uses, it works,'' said Dennis Stanford, chairman of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

But at best, it is a clumsy term for people like Fish, the St. John's University psychologist, who is married to a Brazilian.

By standard American usage, he is white because his ancestry is all European, and she is black because some of her ancestors were African. But she is not really the color black, rather more of a light brown, with ancestry from many parts of the globe.

In Brazil, people are labeled not by race, but by ``tipo,'' Portuguese for type, and some families have many tipos. And she is a morena, which means, roughly, brunette. ``Americans think you can't change race, that it's like changing genes,'' Fish said. ``But my wife can change her race by taking an airplane home.''

Last year, the association urged the government to drop the term race from its census categories in favor of blurrier, but more useful, terms such as ethnicity that also reflect culture and the psychological tendency of people to label themselves.

Now, while strict racial categories are not being abandoned altogether, censuses will permit people to list themselves in several races if they so choose.

Since 1900, 26 different racial categories have been used in various censuses, including Hindu and Mexican. At the turn of the century in the United States, Italians, the Irish, and Jews were all thought to be racial groups.

Nearly all college textbooks have long since dropped the idea that humanity can be neatly, or even sloppily, divided into races.

And a recent survey found that some experts in the 19th century graded humanity into as many as 300 races. Even current encyclopedias routinely list as many as nine races (African, American Indian, Asian, Australian, European, Indian, Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian).

In years past, children of mixed marriages ``were assigned the racial (and legal) status of the more subordinate parent,'' said Faye Harrison, an anthropologist at the University of South Carolina.

``That rule, called . . . the `one drop rule' (for one drop of blood), has worked to classify me as African American, period,'' said Harrison. ``Despite the fact that I, like most other African Americans I know, have a mixed heritage and mixed `race' genealogy. But that multicultural or multiracial reality is part of my extended family's private transcript, not our public identity as blacks, as African Americans.''

Studies show that the ancestry of American blacks is about 70 percent African, with the rest European and American Indian.

Stanford geneticist Cavalli- Sforza and his colleagues are collecting genes from traditional peoples all over the world. From them, they can get a good idea how past populations migrated and intermingled.

The gradients, or rate of change from place to place, ``are all gradual. The idea of race is not tenable,'' Cavalli-Sforza added. The geographic patterns of some sets of genes do not match other sets of genes, showing clearly that human populations have been merging, migrating, and intermarrying from the start.

While some racist groups may believe there once were pure African or Nordic or other races, genes tell a different story, according to Alan R. Templeton, a biologist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Still, anthropologists know they have a hard sell.

``Teaching that racial categories lack biological validity can be as much of a challenge as teaching in the 17th century that the Earth goes around the sun,'' said Marks.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

One Word

Three years ago one of my students asked me what I was looking forward to most when I retired. I instantly replied, "One word: October." She seemed puzzled. What could I possibly mean by that?
"Would you like me to explain?" I asked. She would. "It's simple," I replied. "I am looking forward to warm October day, just before autumn yields to winter when, in the middle of the week, I can find a beautiful mountain stream and spend the day wandering around, fly fishing, and just marvel at having the place to myself."
She smiled, "October, I get it."
This week, this October, I got it.
Most of the leaves were banana yellow. The ground was damp from rain the previous day. Many of the stream-side rocks were covered with fresh wet moss-soft as pillows to the touch. The sun peaked in and out; mostly out. Winter is only a week or two away, but being in this moment is timeless.

** All fish shown on this blog were released unharmed.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Good Old Days?

Classroom Discipline Your assignment is to watch this film and complete a journal entry of your personal reactions. It is due when you finish.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fetishism of Pain

We all knew it would get worse before it gets better. Anyone who lives anywhere in this country knows that the racism can ambush you anywhere, anytime. It's no surprise in California's great inland empire that the Republicans in Upland see nothing wrong with their racist depiction of Obama on a food stamp.
"It's just food," they protest. "Like spaghetti and meatballs is with Italians." (They often pronounce I raq and I talian alike)
No, it's not just food; it's history. It's the history of racism in American something beautifully, if not painfully depicted in films like Marlon Riggs' "Ethnic Notions."
I have a collection of this history. I often used it when teaching either history or literature. It's the kind of primary source documents you won't find in the textbook version of America's past, but the kind that exceptional teachers or teaching units don't omit.
To think that this Republican racism is not harmful, is not racist, is not deliberate, is not vicious, is not our history, is to be ignorant. It sometimes takes the form of denial, but the older folks perpetuating this hate filled fear know better. They know about the cartoons, from Bugs Bunny to caricatures that go all the way back to minstrel shows.
These images, embedded in our popular culture, in everything from kitchen items, food labels (Aunt Jemima, the Cream of Wheat man, and Uncle Ben being the most famous) post cards, buttons, Christmas ornaments, story books, fruit crate labels, sheet music, toys, movie images, art, sculpture, song lyrics, even school text books, are who we are, they are where we came from, they are important to know about because they can and do return from time to time.
A few years ago in an institute on American Literature at UC Berkeley that brought together teachers from Atlanta, Georgia, Michigan, and the Bay Area, some of us suggested we watch the film "Ethnic Notions." Yes, it's shocking, difficult to watch, lacerates the eye as H.L.Mencken would say, but critically important. A few of the Georgia and Michigan teachers walked out. They'd seen enough and obviously felt sickened, almost offended that we'd make them sit through this tough history. I overheard two of these so-called teachers talking. "Why do we need to feed their fetishism of pain?" they whispered.
Over the years I have often thought of this comment. It typifies the way some academics intellectualize. But they were right about one thing-pain. It's painful. We need to know.
So what's behind all these images of happy watermelon eatin', fried chicken loving, grinnin' black folks. Happiness. Everybody's happy. Always happy. This is all I need to make me happy. If that's how people are perceived, then you or I don't have to deal with the truth. Don't have to deal with poverty, ignorance, disenfranchisement, oppression, hatred, prejudice, or change. See, everybody's happy. Everything is just fine. What's the problem?
Slavery is a two way street.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I have only positives when discussing my medical care provider. It's the Northwest division of a well known HMO. I'd rather not reveal the name, but suffice it to say it starts with a K and my benefits are permanente.
My doc isn't medication crazy and that's fine with me. She suggested I get my blood pressure checked every few weeks for the next few months because that way we'll know that I've got it under control. I'm one of those people whose BP goes up in the doctor's office. It's called the "white coat effect." If I check it on the spur of the moment from time to time, the readings are far more accurate. Today when we stopped by to pick up a prescription, I found a nearby nurse's station and checked in for a quick blood pressure reading.
A male nurse with a shiny diamond earring led me to a small booth and said, "Think of beautiful things and I'll be back in a few minutes to squeeze your arm...err rather to take your blood pressure." That was his schtick. I'm sure he says it 25 times a day. While waiting I heard another nurse talking to a very old man about how to remove ear wax. She told the man and his wife, easily in their mid 80s that some "warm cooking oil left in there over night with cotton stuffed in to keep it in would do the trick. They talked a few more minutes with increasing volume. He could hear only out of one ear and it was the clogged one. Just before the elderly couple left the nurse said, "now you got it, right?" To which the man replied, "yeah, fish oil."
"COOKING OIL," she screamed laughing.
My little BP meditation was over; I was chuckling too. In came another nurse and cuffed me in an instant. My smile was really beaming when she announced, "122/70, wow that's great."
This nurse, like all the others at that station was wearing what appeared to be a smock made from children's pajama material. Lots of pastel colored flannel covered with animated Disney characters, or Sponge Bob, or some other child-friendly face. Reminds me of the stuff sold in Target.
I can hang with their "uniforms." What amazes me is that all these nurses are obese. Yup, really overweight and unhealthy looking. I've actually seen one or two drinking huge whipped cream covered latte drinks.
I know something about stressful jobs. But role models are important, especially in health care.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This Is The End, My Fickle Friend

"Could this be the end of capitalism as we know it?" asks the talk show host. The economics professor agrees, but he knows you can't say the "S" word. You can say social security, social justice, social dancing, and social dating. You can say social drinking, social science, and social mobility, but you can't really say social-ism.
While people are scrambling to refresh their memories about the differences between capitalism, socialism, communism and the like, it's important to remember none of these "isms" exist anywhere in their pure form. And therein lies the problem. While our politicians are scrambling to parse their remarks about the necessity of our government's role in meeting the needs of the people it serves, it's fascinating to note how the once Socialist/Communist world (2nd world) is slouching toward Capitalism all the more. We know that 90% of what we purchase in this country comes from China, or at least came through China while being assembled somewhere else. We know that millions of jobs have been "outsourced" to cheap labor and deregulated working conditions and product standards. Yes, the economic world we live in is in flux. BUT, do you really think the U.S.A. will ever honor the core principles of "to each according to his/her needs?" Hell, most folks choke on the word, let alone the concept.
And then there is the overriding matter of all those who dutifully rushed off to battle to defend the "free world." Those who swallowed the mythology of war, pure of heart, but void of knowledge. The Chinese and Vietnamese are now the Capitalists, the Americans (North Americans, of course) are flirting with Socialism to survive.

...the first one now will later be last,
as the present now will later be past,
the order is rapidly fading,
for the times they are a changing...
All this talk about Obama "palin" around with terrorists. Easy to refute, I know because he was only 8 years old when William Ayers was building bombs for the Weathermen. (... you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows) What's missing in all the emotional exchanges is the fact that this country was founded by "Freedom Fighters" also known as "Terrorists." George Washington and his rag tag band of revolutionaries embraced violence as a cleansing force as I recall. Ask people about the U.S. role in Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Iran, not to mention Cuba, Panama, and the sovereign Indian nations on our very own soil. Who's asking just what was it that made a young Ayers, now a professor of early childhood education, embrace such radical ideas. Was it the illegal war, the poverty and hunger amid the wealth and arrogance? Was it sadism, or just pure evil at the core? Could it be impressionable youth, a lust for power, or perhaps a genuine desire to improve the quality of life for all?
It can be tiresome reminding some folks about their own history.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Being Subversive

One of the first books I purchased as a grad student at UC Berkeley was Postman and Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It was in the fall of 1972, and my cohort of education graduate students had not only survived the late 60s, we were ready to take the reins, get in the classroom and begin to subvert the dominant paradigm.
We cut our teaching chops on Postman and Weingartner's main ideas. Here are the things outstanding teachers do:

They avoid telling students what they “ought to know”.
They talk to students mostly by questioning, and especially by asking divergent questions.
They do not accept short, simple answers to questions.
They encourage students to interact directly with one another, and avoid judging what is said in student interactions.
They do not summarize students’ discussion.
They do not plan the exact direction of their lessons in advance, and allow it to develop in response to students’ interests.
Their lessons pose problems to students.
They gauge their success by change in students’ inquiry behaviors (with the above characteristics of “good learners” as a goal).

Today, given the oppressive nature of so called "school reform," this book and these ideas are enjoying a resurgence. Not surprising. I found myself referencing Teaching as a Subversive Activity in a recent meeting with one of the student teachers I am now mentoring. It's so difficult for teachers to find themselves in the classroom with constant criticism, continual questioning, outright bashing, and the copious barrage of verbiage that passes for constructive analysis of what, when, where, and how all this effective teaching should be done.
One of the benefits of my 33 years in the profession is that I have the perspective of time. Many of my former students have gone into teaching; that says something. Many have kept in touch, certainly not enough to ay anything with any degree of certainty. Now and again there are surprises.
Last week I received a letter from a student I had in two classes 15 years ago. I will protect her identity, but include most of what she wrote here:

Hi Mr. Greene~

I have often wanted to send you a thank-you note for the incredible experience I had with you as a student at El Cerrito High School. I just cannot tell you how many times, and in how many ways, your class has helped me in the 15 years since leaving high school. Your passion for teaching, your ability to expose your students to your rich perspectives without seeming overbearing or condescending, is a true gift bestowed on all of us who were fortunate enough to learn under your guidance. I still vividly remember the amazing, albeit sometimes obscure, books, the fishbowls, the posters and music… and I could go on and on. You truly opened my eyes while feeding and encouraging my curiosity. I really credit the experiences in your classes for making me a deeper, more critical, thinker and a person willing to stand up for what I believe in.

This is not my best piece of writing and it probably does not adequately express my gratitude. I really just want you to know that you have left a lasting impression on me and I am so lucky to have had you as a guide.

I hope all is well and that life has been good to you.

Take care,

To be sure, I am flattered, proud, and humbled. What matters most is that this note came out of the blue. I know I made mistakes, wasn't always as professional as I might have been, and, at times, could have been more self-reflective or less didactic. Yet, I know that much of what teachers do is like planting seeds. We rarely get to see them grow. When we do we begin to learn the most about what and why we teach.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Their World

I wonder about their world. I've got the time to. He and his two sisters and their parents, (my niece Rose and her husband Eric). I wonder about his education, and how many of my favorite wilderness places will be the same when he is ready to see them, to enjoy them?
I wonder if he will ever write a letter, an actual letter, or read from actual books like I do? Will they look the same, when he's ready? I wonder how much of his life will be online? Will he drive a car? Will he want to?
He's very open to new things. Readily grasps my hand, a carrot, or a rubber ball. Yesterday I watched him struggle with a large plastic bottle of water. He finally got it upright before it suddenly rolled away. He went after it. Put his mouth on the rounded bottom. Rolled it around for a while and felt proud. He'd mastered the universe for an instant.
I wonder if he will like his name, Soren, as much as I do? His namesake was a famous philosopher and already he inspires thought. I wonder if he'll wonder what I wonder?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Two Songs

The other morning I awoke with a verse from an old song in my head. "Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door, oh hard times come again no more." By the end of the day another old tune chimed in. They are both from our collective past. Let me know if you want to hear any of the wonderful versions of either. I thought it might be useful for all of us to read the lyrics as poems in this hour of our need.

Stephen Collins Foster

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh, hard times come again no more

'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times come again no more
Many days you have lingered
Around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say;
Oh, hard times come again no more

There's a pale sorrowed maiden who toils her life away
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day
Oh, hard times come again no more

'Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
'Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
'Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh, hard times come again no more


Blind Alfred Reed

When a man has got the blues and feels discouraged
And has nothing else but trouble all his life
But he's just an honest man like any other
Living in a world that's tearing at his mind
If he's sick and tired of life and takes to drinking
Do not pass him by don't greet him with a frown
Do not fail to lend your hand and try to help him
Always lift him up and never knock him down

If he stays out late at night because he's troubled
Or because his home is not what it should be
Have a smile for him wherever you might meet him
It will help him find the right way don't you see
If he gambles when he's in the town or city
Tell him what he ought to do to win the round
Do not fail to lend your hand to show him pity
Always lift him up and never knock him down

If he has no friends and everything's against him
If he's failed in everything he has tried
Try to lift his load and help him bear his burden
Let him know that you are walking by his side
If he feels that all is lost and he has fallen
Help to place this poor man's feet on solid ground
And when this world has turned its back against him
Always lift him up and never knock him down

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Strange Views

While running a few errands the other day I chanced to hear an international call-in program on PBS. You may know this broadcast; it features people from all over the world having a say in a chosen topic. Like most media attempts to deal with crucial issues, it seems to be exhaustively rushing through it's time slot and capable of little more than a few sound bytes, people talking over one another, and an occasionally salient point made amid all the frenzy. I think it's a BBC program, so all the hosts are Brits and they do a reasonably fine job of sorting out the mess. Sometimes they ask inane questions.
I usually talk to the radio when I hear this program in the car. Rarely do I want to join the conversation.
A few days ago I caught this worldwide discussion in mid-stream. They were discussing compulsory voting and much of the conversation centered on how practical this idea would be. Seems like people who live in more recent democracies think it's a good idea to make people vote, while those who have known only a democratic government would never think of forcing anyone to vote, but felt the need to remind them that that if they don't vote then they have no right to complain about the results. They get that, but unfortunately feel that when they can't support any candidate, they just can't be bothered with voting.
And then came the call of a young man in college who announced he has never voted and wasn't planning to start now. Ironically he now attends the University of Mississippi where the first presidential debate was recently held. What followed was a series of responses encouraging, if not admonishing that young man to vote. What can you tell someone who can but won't vote? I was gnashing my teeth. This guy was so out of touch with his history. I kept thinking of Malcolm X's line that people who don't know their history will unfortunately destroy it. If I knew I could miraculously get through and speak my piece, I'd tell him to recall two words: Strange Fruit. Not the Billy Holiday song, but the metaphor it's based on. I'd remind him that people were lynched in his very state for trying to vote. That's reason enough to exercise his citizenship. But I'd also tell him the story of an old Kansas couple who I heard about a few years ago. Every election day they rise at 5:00 a.m. and drive three hours from their rural farming community to the county seat to vote. They have lunch, then they drive three hours home. Day is done. Here's the kicker. He's a Republican and she's a Democrat. Their votes cancel each other out yet they never miss the opportunity to vote. They get it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Stormy Monday

While the stock market self-destroyed we watched; some of us waited. We're still waiting. Some folks panicked. They moved their money around, lest they have nothing to move if the bleeding didn't stop soon enough. What shall we do with our money? Do we have any money left to do something with? When will this stop? Who is to blame? All good questions, but the wrong ones.
There is really only one question, as I see it. How much of what I care about is related to money? That is, what do I care about, and how will my life and ability to live it according to what matters most to me be affected by all the financial crises and maneuvering going on around me?
I'm not at all surprised at the Congress' inability to act. Anyone remotely familiar with our national legislative branch knows it's been broken for years. Some of the corporations that are major players in this fiasco have a few legislators in their pockets. When the stock market losses hit -777 yesterday, it looked like the huge slot machine it is. What an appropriate metaphor for those who see.
Maybe, just maybe, in the middle of all the anxiety and anger will come the realization that it's "a fool's errand" to be about the money, nothing but the money. My hat is off to George Santayana*...yes, they are condemned and they will repeat it.

*Perhaps best known as an aphorist, and for the oft-misquoted remark, "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it," from Reason in Common Sense, the first volume of his The Life of Reason.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Digital Art

After I accidentally took a dip in Gold Lake (Western Cascades) I knew my digital camera was toast. At least I had the presence of mind to pull out the memory chip. Both the chip and the camera basked in the high lakes sun with me for the next six hours, but by the next morning there was major condensation in the camera.
I did what I could to clean up the camera and was thrilled when my local photo store nerd told me the pictures on the chip could be saved. "There are 25 images on the memory, but corrosion will set in; the camera is history," he said. I took the camera home, set it aside, bought a new one, and turned the page. A month passed. Somehow, I couldn't leave the old Sony Cyber Shot alone. It looked so good, so pristine from the outside, so...so... dry. One afternoon last week I placed some new batteries inside and was astonished to see it jump back to life. Of course the flash didn't work, but after pushing the shutter sternly four or five times, it snapped a picture. In the days that followed, the shutter loosened up and I took a dozen pictures. Some come out perfectly, some seem rather faded or too light, some appear out of focus, and some have an impressionist painting look that changes dramatically every time I click ENHANCE on the IPhoto button.
So now I have a "Regular" camera and an "Artsy" one. Here are a few of my newly crafted offerings from this reincarnated paintbrush of a camera.

1. Barack pays a visit to our house
2. My feet
3. A Portland Rose