Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Don't Byte Me

I've noticed a disturbing pattern emerging. Our culture is moving too quickly. Nothing wrong with speed, if moves lines along, belongs to your first choice in a 6 furlong sprint, or can hasten a conversation going nowhere. But what's up with so many things being reduced to short sound bytes. It's laughable what has happened to newscasts on most networks. With the exception of PBS, which actually tries to let a few people speak until they've completed a thought, most everything else is useless. After the local crime blotter, the weather (why is that news?) a smattering of national news, it's time to recap.
Want to see something that states the case nicely? Try this. Look at how the morning shows like TODAY, GMA or The Morning Show handle their feature spots. Usually it's some expert in real estate, or cleaning products, or exercise. *Note they recycle the same themes constantly* These little segments are so rushed that both the interviewer and interviewee are spitting out words as if they'll be cut off momentarily. In fact, that is the case. My favorite situation is when they have two "experts" featured in the spot. They often talk over each other, vying for position and speech like two jockeys going for the same opening simultaneously.
No wonder Ringo Starr was pissed when, he cancelled a recent TV appearance because his 4 minute song was cut in half. He said, thanks very much, I'll come back another time when you can hear the entire song. Don't hold your breath. It's not about privilege, it's about not valuing art. What does it mean that some crazed producer thinks he's doing important work by reducing everything to ever shrinking sound bytes? I'm troubled by this trend. Makes me think a bit deeper about a culture where quicker, shallower, more superficial is better. What happens when we read a book too quickly? Oh, I forgot, most folks don't have time for that any more.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

And Away They Go

I have been to the racetrack thousands of times in my life. From Churchill downs on Derby day, to the Humboldt county fair, in Ferndale, on Marathon day. I have memories of tracks and champions that no longer exist. Longacres, John Henry, and a muddy set of goggles worn in a major Derby prep all figure prominently in my personal set of souvenirs. I’ve seen the fog roll in at the old Jefferson Downs, and I’ve seen Lost in the Fog roll on at Golden Gate Fields. Like the crustiest old hard boot, I know that just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes something else. It’s either a psychotic standing in front of Artax in deep stretch, or cobra venom, or even a stalled tractor leaving a starting gate sitting like an enormous hurdle across the track as a full field rounds the far turn. Hopefully, I’m in for many more unexpected sights, astonishing revelations, stellar performances, and heroic efforts. But the one thing I’m not prepared for is the current malaise our beloved sport seems to be battling. I’m not ready for the death of horse racing as a spectator sport.

Like many of you, I read the web sites, the blogs, the magazines and the Daily Racing form. I know what’s in the air. Being a witness to most of the technological advancements that are daily changing the perception and popularity of horse racing, I decided to do something about it. My decision was something I’ve never done before. To borrow a phrase from that noble American Steven Colbert, “I am a live horse racing fan, and so should you.” What I did was simple. I took a group of young people to the races. They ranged in age from their mid 20s to late 30s. They were nearly all half my age, but they were eager to go.

Last year, in the midst of Street Sense’s Triple Crown quest, Calvin Borel was asked about riding at Pimlico for the first time. I love how he answered the question. “It’s a racetrack,” he said deadpan, “it’s an oval; it looks just like the others I’ve ridden on.” My point being that you could probably take any young, eager, yet uninitiated group to any track and have an experience similar to mine.

As a new resident of Portland, Oregon, I knew I was going to miss the quality and pageantry of California racing. I love Portland Meadows, but let’s face it; it’s not Santa Anita, or even Golden Gate. I thought I could rely on cable TV or simulcasting to get by, but seeing the crowds at Keeneland last year, I have to confess I miss being there. Given the way many tracks handle the maze of TV screens, the overlapping post parades and post times, any emotionally sane person eventually succumbs to the confusion and distraction. How were my young friends going to handle their experience?

I noticed that given a short tutorial, they focused only on the live racing, and had a ball. They particularly enjoyed following the runners from saddling paddock to post parade to warm-up to the gate. They listened to what I said and when I was right, they thought I really knew my stuff. When I was wrong, they realized the truth of the variables, the intangibles, the inexact science of it all. They were not ready for Beyer numbers or track bias yet. But that day will come, because they paid attention to percentages, to body language, and to past performances. I was fortunate because all managed to cash some tickets. While I went after pick 3s and trifectas, they seemed content with win bets and an occasional exacta. They didn’t allow themselves to be overcome with anxiety or bravado. They didn’t bring their grocery money with them, and they did indicate that they wanted to return.

Here’s what I learned. The horse still comes first. I was almost apologetic for the fact they wouldn’t see too many future stakes winners or hall of famers in our neck of the woods. That didn’t matter. They marveled at the beauty of a thoroughbred, any thoroughbred. In one maiden race that day, a filly was entered with colts and geldings. She was a nice looking first timer who made the boys a bit studdish in the paddock and almost ran them ragged until she was caught about 10 yards before the wire at 16-1. My pick 3 died with her second place finish but when my friends were thrilled with her performance, I too stopped just a bit longer to appreciate her effort on my behalf. In the end, we laughed, we felt elated, we felt disappointed and we made memories.

If you’re waiting for all this touchy-feely goodness to stop, not to worry, it ends here. It ends here because the dark side of this story is that there may be millions of folks out there like my 30 something friends. They will probably never see the inside of a paddock, or wait for the gate to open with their heart in their throat. If any do happen to wander into a racetrack, they’ll no doubt be intimidated by the dueling TV screens, the impatience of many in the crowd, and the daunting menu of bets available. They may wonder why so few take time to walk outside and watch a race as it’s running. That’s bad enough, but the most fearful thing has yet to arrive on the scene. There is talk here in the Northwest about video horse race machines. You know, those slot-like stations where people bet on videos of old races. Has it really come to that?

Even though it would seem to be fourth and long, I wouldn’t punt just yet. Like that race with a stalled tractor trying in vein to pull the gate off the course, tragedy can be avoided. Those jocks, with a heads up from the track announcer, helped each other out that day. They somehow managed to organize themselves single file, scooted through a narrow opening by the rail, and pulled up their mounts with no injuries. The starting gate, like a dead dinosaur never moved. The will to make things happen can surmount catastrophe.

Like many, I know that the expanding technology is probably the key to bringing in a young fan base. The generation Xers are comfortable with self-service terminals and can easily navigate racing oriented web sites. It’s getting them to the track that’s going to be the ticket and that’s where you come in. Take someone half your age to the racetrack. You’ll both learn a lot.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Billions and Billions

How big is one billion?  The best explanation I ever crossed paths with says that if you gave a newborn one dollar for every second it was old would the child be before it reached one billion dollars?  Seven...eight...nine...ten dollars...That child would be 32 years old before it became a billionaire.  This analogy is most useful when trying to comprehend amorphous numbers.  It is particularly useful when my students try to get their heads around government spending.  So it was with particular interest the other day when I read that our government spending on the war in Iraq has now exceeded $500 billion.  
Just imagine even a fraction of that money going to education or health care.  (I vote for both)
Why is it that we can't seem to elect leaders with the political will to spend billions of life affirming institutions; only war.  War is the breakdown of communication, diplomacy, humanity.  It thrives on mythology and fear.  Greed and psycho pathology always hover at the stage door.  They never play bit parts.
Let's engage in a little fantasy.  Imagine how different our lives and futures would be today if the money spent on the war in Iraq didn't go there.  Imagine how the quality of life in the U.S. would change.  Imagine a bright future.  

Thursday, January 17, 2008


I want to call attention to the passing of an old friend.  Someone we all knew. S(he) had been struggling for quite a while now, and I'm sorry to report that death has come for the letter.  Remember the letter?   Produced by hand, by way of the brain, the letter came in various colors, was done chiefly but not exclusively by pen or pencil, and arrived in the mailbox.  Part of the letter's appeal was its tactile quality.  Letters felt fine.  hey could be thick or thin, long or short, welcome or unwelcome,incredibly artistic, or barely legible.  I think that was part of the appeal.  With the rise of email and various alterations to the human production of text, the letter had died.  Therein lies the tradeoff.  With the demise of this intensely human endeavor, what might the impact on humanity be?  I'll be watching.
I've noticed that emails easily get lost.  Harder to ignore a letter.  Can't click delete.  I recently heard a friend of mine tell other friends, "If you send me an email and I don't respond within the hour, assume it's lost or gone."  Wow! That simplifies personal agendas, but at what risk?  I've noticed, too, that people feel free to ignore emails.  
I like the brevity of emails; you don't get caught with lengthy talkers who never come up for air.  But it seems as if people choose to ignore emails whereas they would think twice about letters.  So...are we perfecting the art of marginalizing people.  Bad enough we have to wade through their false imagery, now we can expect to be ignored.  I'd like to add that thought to the reality/actuality debate.  If emails are reality, letters are actuality.   The other day I saw where some guy has invented and patented a new family activity.  It's a personal mailbox for children in a family.  Each kid has a decorated real mailbox, and on stationery provided in the starter kit, parents and other family members write letters to the kids and place them in the mailboxes.  They even get to raise the little red flag too.  Great idea, no?   Maybe it has come to that. 

Monday, January 14, 2008

Dream On

I've always been interested in dreams. Most people are. You really have to spend some time collecting and working with them to get what there is to get from them. When I taught introductory psychology, my students could talk about their dreams for hours. Of course, most want to know what the dream means. The answer to that is ongoing. Dreams are constantly revealing new ideas, layers of meaning, developing and varied interpretations.
A few years ago when I was involved in a research collaborative of teachers I did a thematic study of the dreams of teachers and students. I was struck by the motifs in the dreams of young teachers as well as those of experienced veterans. Some of the images and issues were incredibly powerful. Experienced teachers often dreamed about class size, vulnerability (nudity, not knowing something) and being dispossessed. One second year teacher told me of a haunting dream where the floor of her classroom falls out; hardly the random firing of brain cells. So, when I retired from full-time teaching a year and a half ago I assumed my dreams would change. Not so. New themes have emerged. They continue to reveal and inspire. First it was a series where I did not retire, I'm back but have lost my classroom. I'm in three rooms just like my first year. Most recently, I was teaching a psychology class and I referred to a page in a text. The class is waiting for me to find the passage; I can't find the page in my book I keep looking and looking and they are being very patient, but I can't find the page; the number I'm looking for won't appear in my book. I love dreams.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

My Passion Not My Profession

Here is something I recently read on a fascinating new piece of research: (Parenthetical comments are mine)

" Apparently, teachers who are motivated mainly by intrinsic factors, so called "autonomous motivation," have a greater
sense of personal accomplishment and fewer feelings of exhaustion.  (THIS, I MIGHT ADD IS CALLED, JOY)
Perhaps more importantly, they promote autonomy-supported teaching
This type of teaching then is reflected in students' more positive feelings
for the task at hand and greater behavioral engagement. (THIS MEANS THAT STUDENTS ARE BOTH LEARNING AND ENJOYING THEMSELVES)
The researchers for this study concluded with concern that the increase in high stakes testing would
have a detrimental effect on these highly effective teachers (THIS MEANS THAT WE MAY BE LOSING MANY OF THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST)
by making them feel "less autonomous and consequently act in more controlling ways toward
their students."   Roth, G. et al. (2007).  Journal of Educational Psychology. Vol 99(4), 761-774. 

Here You Are

For those who asked, here is the poem. It was written in February, 2007 at the writing retreat with poet Barry Lopez sponsored by the Oregon Writing Project

When the Knock Never Came
Bruce Greene

Was there ever a time-a specific moment your childhood ended?
Sometimes they fade away, or get stolen; sometimes they dance on willingly
But sometimes they smash into mountains.

In Dr. Halpern’s office I heard the “C” word,
He told
My huddled family, minus mom, that she has cancer,
His bottom lip curled when he said the word;
I see it always.

We all went home for eight months,
Eight months of failed therapy,
Eight months of special medicine,
Eight months watching her drain into that puddle that once held
An inexpensive facsimile of the American Dream.

She occupied the back bedroom-best for everyone,
Please knock before entering,
Knock so you will be prepared to see the disease up close and personal,
So you won’t disturb her sleep;
We always knocked,
Unless we were in the room; I often was.

How do you tell your mom about your life when it isn’t lived yet?
How much 19-year-old detail will satisfy any questions?
So I fantasized; college, a teacher’s life, a loving wife, grandchildren, home…
(Vietnam hadn’t exploded yet; on TV, Father still Knew Best)
And when the day came, we put her in the car--hospital before grave-
But I followed in my VW, alone and crying, watching her look at the neighborhood for the last time,
Thinking of the PTA, wondering what we would have for dinner that night,
Knowing she’d never land in Hawaii…

The room engulfed in silence, door open now, clean but dead.
The knocks never came again.

Mama may have, papa may have,
But God bless the child that’s got his own,
That’s got his own.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

More Please...

For those of you who don't know, I'm writing a book. It's a memoir of sorts. In June of 1969 I worked as a VISTA Volunteer in Houston,Texas. My book is a memoir of that experience and that era.
It has been a fascinating process to write this book with the help of a journal I kept so many years ago. I'm thankful that I did write in it with some frequency but here and there I wish I'd filled in some gaps. That leaves my memory to do that work. My writing group seems impressed that I have been able to recall and illustrate so much in a fairly seamless way. That's the good news. What is so frustrating, at times, is the way the memory plays tricks. Sometimes names and faces don't merge. Occasionally the names evaporate altogether. But there are times when the event or person is astonishingly clear. Fortunately I have a few friends that can corroborate my recollections from time to time.
Writing on a computer, with the ability to research various places, ideas, events instantly on the internet has made my task easier. As you know, it's possible to find what you are looking for more often than not. And then there is the problem of tension. "More tension," says a member of my group in his critique. I know it'll come. I know the experiences that have yet to be written. I know he's right, but for one who lives life avoiding tension, it 's difficult to accommodate that request. It's a memoir; I can't make it up. It occurs to me, however, that anytime we dig up the past, tension happens. After I get the bones of my story down, I'll get inside my head and the tension will follow. It's all part of the process.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

I Was There

It's not nearly enough to say that I loved the film I'm Not There. This is a film that pushes every sense. It's risky, brooding, exhilarating, bemusing, scintillating, and profound. Just like it's subject, Bob Dylan. Todd Haynes, the filmmaker must certainly be the same. The fact that Dylan's persona is presented as 6 people is a good beginning. Certainly the acting, especially Kate Blanchett as the young, iconoclastic, androgynous Dylan, is superb. The music, even the covered versions drives the imagery. It will be interesting to read the reviews, talk about the film with my friends of all ages, and see the film again. I wonder how the views of older and younger Dylan fans will differ? Or if they will?
For those who merely tolerate Dylan, (I suppose there are some) I'd say see this film so that you can experience the power of the medium. History in the making here.

Friday, January 4, 2008

On The Wall

One of the things I like about living in Portland is that very trippy little things keep happening. My friend Lenny says that Portland is the biggest small town in the country. I know what he means. A few months after we moved in to the fourplex we share, we met Barb, our new neighbor. Turned out she had gone to high school with Katie in California. They were good friends, lost touch and found each other 35 years later. I was a bit skeptical at first, but in the last year they've completely re-ignited their friendship.
Some of the teachers I meet here have roots in the Bay Area too. There have also been new friends, writers in my weekly writing group, and a familiar face randomly seen on the street from time to time. But the most amazing thing so far happened the other day when I found something in a store that features all manner of artsy, avant guard, objects, antiques, gifts and jewelry. There on a rear wall of the store, high above everything else was a print of a painting I recognized. In a rather tattered gold frame was a very view of Lake Como Italy. Turns out I have been researching the artist and an original signed oil painting that looks strikingly similar. In the home where I grew up, the painting hung for 25 years in our living room over the fireplace. My father told me he bought it as a young man in 1929 at a gallery in New York. In the past few years I've learned about the artist, Gottfried Arnegger, an Austrian landscape impressionist. I've had a few so-called experts look at the painting. As is, it's probably worth two thousand dollars. If it were cleaned and re-stretched, it might bring twice that amount. Next week I'm going to find out the story of that print hanging in the shop in NE Portland. The woman who knows about it won't return until then. Somehow I think there might be more to the story. It is Portland, you know.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Montana and Roses

I didn't watch the Rose Parade today. It's not the same for me since Monty Montana died. I have no idea who the Grand Marshall was, or which float won the Governor's award or any other award. I'll survive. I don't even care if most people don't know the difference between the Rose Bowl and the Tournament of Roses Parade. I used to care about things like that. Yet I never fail to think about Monty Montana on New Year's day. I'll always remember when Monty and his horse came to my elementary school, rode around on the blacktop and did a little show. Monty was a good horseman and really knew how to handle a lasso. I'd see him in the Rose Parade every year and recall how cool he seemed and how excited all the kids at Camellia Avenue School. Every year, until 1998, Monty Montana would show up in the parade. Through the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, Monty was in the parade. Presidents and heroes lived and died, and Monty was in the parade. Wars ended and new wars seduced the unsuspecting. Technology encroached, computers invaded, TV morphed, the planet fought back, HIV, melting ice caps, Ebola, Spotted Owls, old growth, new pornographers, and still Monty was in the parade.
Happy New Year Monty Montana.