Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Reinvention Anyone?

The writer Baharati Mukherjee said in her novel Jasmine that" we murder past selves and reinvent new ones in the images of dreams. " I am a completely different person now that I live in Portland. Even my closest new friends do not really know me. They know only the self that is trying to be born. This reinvntion stuff is heady business.I find that somedays I try desperately to abandon who I was, but then on others, I think about becoming the same person, or re-creating the same life. It probably wouldn't be that difficult to teach full-time again. To enjoy what brought me a sense of accomplishment and pride; to fight similar battles and work toward equity and inspiration in education. We are so identified by our professions or our careers or our lack of them that self-reinvention is only for the strong. Try it, you'll see what I mean. It is at once terrifying and exhilarating.
With reinvention comes freedom- a word I seldom use because it means so much and nothing all at the same time. Self-perception can easily lead to self-deception and that's where the liberation comes in. How particularly American is the chance to begin again. Like the first hint of Spring, or the turning of a page it is the the way we shed the skin of complacency and mediocrity and embrace the mystery of who we will become next.
I'm wondering now who we bring with us? What if we can't murder the past selves? Such a strong word, murder, but I see why it works. Who can I become if I am constantly not becoming? I prefer to bring along some of those past selves. They become a talisman for me. (Talis-men) My future begins with my past. I prefer to be re-minded of that.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Testing 1...2...3...4

The last edition of This American Life, the NPR program turned TV show, was all about testosterone. But what a fascinating and rather different look. In the four chapters comprising the program, a rather ironic picture of the "master hormone" emerged. We all have some testosterone but the first question raised was what happens with none? A man who experienced this and then wrote a GQ article detailing his daily life without the production of "T" focused completely on desire. He had none. So it's not just sexual desire; it's all desire. He ended up liking the rather pleasant sensation of wanting nothing. It does simplify things doesn't it? Of course after this medical condition was corrected he returned to a more balanced reality. "It was nice to be free of some of the things I find offensive about my own personality, like judging people and things," he said.
So just how much does testosterone determine? For a former woman who trans-gendered into manhood, quite a bit. He found that with injections of testosterone the entire way he thought about sex changed. "Everything I looked at turned to sex," he said. "The way I thought about it, changed in just a few days. My mind was flooded with images; even a Xerox machine or a car became a pornographic image." He did have about twice the normal male level.
And finally, when the folks who put together this program, on a lark, had their own levels tested, both men and women were in for a few surprises. The greatest irony was that a gay man had the highest level of anyone. But they brought on a research scientist to make the point that there isn't any real correlation between virility and high testosterone levels. Sure higher levels mean a more fearless, assertive , confident personality sometimes. But also high levels are common in bald or very muscular men. "It doesn't take much testosterone to have sex," the scientist said.
In this Post Feminist age it's important to realize that the big "T" is sometimes responsible for men getting in trouble for how they say things." The impact and the intent get all screwed up. Pun intended.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Where They Have Gone

I always figured when the long hair turned gray or disappeared altogether it would get ugly. Nobody ever expected the counterculture of the late 60s to age gracefully. Some have done remarkably well; myself included if I may be so bold. It doesn't take much these days to figure out that the values of that era are long gone. True, there is a peace movement, and certainly the use of recreational drugs continues, but make no mistake, we live in a mean spirited time.
I'm hopeful that will change. With age and experience comes a different kind of hope. Cycles bring things back around. I'm certainly not waiting for any return to the way things were, that's not what I mean. I'm talking about perspective and what we can take from the past.
Lots of talk lately about the failures of the 60s. A friend of mind recently explained to me why he's voting for Obama. "Boomers have had two chances at the presidency; both have fucked it up, wouldn't you agree?" Hard to argue with that. Between Clinton's wandering eye and Bush's wandering mind, I think it's safe to say they didn't exactly REPRESENT well. Yet there are those from my generation who are supporting Obama because he represents everything that the 60s were about. They further add that there is something in the air and it's moving forward. To borrow a phrase from back in the day..."You know something's happening and you don't know what it is, do you...Mr. Jones?"
Yes, something is happening here, and even if it isn't all that clear yet, I submit that one thing is. I believe that the values and sacrifices and vision of the late 60s didn't go away. They're all over the place. They've filtered into classrooms and medical buildings. They make their presence felt in the workplace and in the board room. Some of the brightest figures burned out early. That's always the case. Too bad Janice or Jimmy couldn't have gone farther down the road. The most violent proved to themselves how limited their methods truly were. They self-destroyed; some sooner, others just a little later. But for most others, I argue they becme the difference they wanted to be. Ask them. See what they say.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mr. Greene v. Mr. Brown

I want to tell you about something. Something I've carried inside myself for a number of years now. Perhaps if I were a different kind of person I wouldn't need to talk about it. I'm not. My need to tell it is stronger than your need to hear it. Because, however, there are a number of teachers and former students of mine who may read these meanderings from time to time, I need to tell this story all the more.
About 7 or 8 years ago I was asked if I would allow a university PhD. candidate to observe an English class. At first I decided against it because I was scheduled to have a student teacher placed with me the second half of the semester in question. After some urging, however, at the request of a respected colleague, I agreed. Soon I was committing to extra meetings, signing documents and explaining to the class in question who the young woman who thoughtfully pounded away on a laptop in the rear of the classroom three times a week was. I knew that the topic of her dissertation involved literacy and gender borders within the classroom. But Ms. Goodly never went into much detail beyond that. I knew, too, that I'd be under a microscope and that I probably would be hyper conscious of what was said or unsaid, by whom, when and how. Therefore, I decided to just let it be. I really couldn't do otherwise. I know, after 33 years of teaching, that each class has a different chemistry and personality, I know my own strengths and weaknesses. My vulnerabilities, my excesses; my motives and my skills.
I have had many observers, from student teachers, administrators, parents, grad students, state committee members, colleagues, and friends. Some were present for just a day, some for weeks on end. Like the Norwegian researcher who took notes, photos and memories back to Norway with her.
Observations followed. Ms. Goodly completed interviews, and showed me some some transcripts. More interviews followed. Finally I received a copy of the dissertation with a note. "You might not agree with everything," OK, no problem, I thought. We'll talk. What could I possibly not agree with? Curiosity peaked, I read the dissertation. In the text I was called Mr. Brown and my school referred to as Montana H.S. (*Note, the novel Montana 1948 was part of my curriculum) As I read, my jaw dropped. I got bashed. Misunderstood, misinterpreted, misquoted, messed up. I don't think I slept for a week. "You might not agree with everything," Really now.
Now I know that dissertations have to argue a strong line. I know that grad school and academia is cutthroat; a haven for intellectualizing opportunists. (I can't believe I said that) I truly wasn't prepared for how my classroom was presented. So many things seemed out of context. This "Mr. Brown" was my enemy.
One illustration here. On the first day of class I usually do some sort of icebreaker. Because in Honors Junior English classes many of the students know one another, I went with something a little different. I asked students to answer a question on the reverse side of a 3 x5 card with routine information. "What is there that most people don't know about you?" Then I ask permission to anonymously read the responses. I never read them if someone is uncomfortable. It's a game. It helps people relax and often gets them talking. Sometimes the responses are funny, sometimes poignant. I immediately learn things about my audience. Who react?, Who says what? Who doesn't? Who laughs? Who doesn't?
When I read on one card: I LOVE GUYS!!!! I read it like it was written. "Somebody in here said I LOVE GUYS!!! with multiple exclamation marks." Immediately a male student responded, "I hope it's a guy." Laughter...nervous laughter. It's a classroom full of 32 teenagers. Of course there are gay and straight and probably questioning students in that mix. Somehow when this scene made the dissertation it was used as the basis of how talking about gender and gender identity was defined in my classroom. It only gets worse. I'm not going to defend myself against a litany of what I consider to be arguable actions, comments, observations, and inaccuracies. I only want to say that the person riding my back to a tenured faculty position had a total of 3 years teaching experience in three different private school settings. At least one of which was not in this country.
I'm sure I'm not completely innocent, but I feel the need to say that as a heterosexual male, I'm going to bring that perspective to what and how I teach. I'm not sure what troubles me more, the original "findings" or the fact that my accuser has never taken the time to talk with me about it. Given the busy schedules we kept it's understandable. But when, a month ago, I sent her a congratulatory email at an eastern university where she now professes, she never even acknowledged it. Please excuse me this little indulgence. I'll entertain any questions you might have in a forthright manner. Mr. Brown has left the building.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How Logo can you go?

They came in the cafe together but she went to the counter and he hung back. Probably missed their first class by design. A quick cup of something warm and a bite of something flakey on the way to school is easily obtainable. While she tended to the lid, cream, and napkins, he shifted his weight from foot to foot. I never really saw their faces because I couldn't get past his jacket. On the sleeve of this red white and black pseudo leather monster were a string of advertising logos. The train of colorful badges looked like a page from the stock exchange. Wrangler, Napa Auto Parts, Ritz crackers. From soda to guns, clothing to corporate consensus. When did all this become fashion? Are we that out of touch?
Off they walked, meeting the universe on their own terms. Terribly in but laughably out of it. You tell me what happened to the empty cup.
In 2003 a couple of educational psychologists published a study in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Educational Psychology linking exposure to community violence and poor achievement in school. What constitutes the definition of community violence? Is it only the neighborhood, the family, and the peer group? Could it include the media, or individual biology? All of the above? Maybe we could make this topic the headline of the newspaper one day. It's certainly worthy. Maybe we could devote a national evening to the topic. Instead of hearing the president tell us about the state of the union on every channel. let's get a group of folks whose minds we respect and hear about all the things that impact "achievement." Political will. Try it, you'll like it. Brighter than bright. New and improved.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Why Teach?

Lots of talk lately about hope. From the political campaigns, to the economy, to the future of public education. All education is public, isn't it? Obama talks about the audacity of hope; one must be audacious to hope these days. So many have either lost hope or never seen any that they seem to live in a cloud that not only erases their humanity, it limits their vision. They have no hope because they cannot envision the possible. Such a tragic turn from the ambitious days wanting to make a difference. Yet, all hope is not lost. It lives on in those still able to imagine, those who sense the power of the promise, those who know how to act without being asked or forced.
I was reading an excerpt from a book called Why We Teach and, of course, I applied the question to my own motivation. After all the important, but cliche ideas like making a difference, passing on knowledge and curiosity, and modeling learning and the behavior of learners, I was struck with one teacher's concern that by nature, teacher's often hinder or limit the education of those they purport to teach by the way they phrase a question, or by various sins of omission in creating their curriculum. What a contradiction! Seems hopeless; but we can't get caught up in the unavoidable paradox that is educating a human being. We'd never get anywhere.
Why teach? To help people think for themselves, to prepare those who would learn for the excitement and effort, and fear, and anxiety, and drama, and incredulity, and satisfaction, and wonder, and beauty, and despair, and utter fascination that comes with valuing education for its own sake.
Last week I heard from a half dozen of my former students. One heard something on NPR and thought about a class discussion we had 3 years ago, another heard a new CD by a group who recorded some previously unheard Woody Guthrie songs and needed to tell me, (I'm really glad he did) a third, is uncertain about a psychology major and wanted some clarification about what that might entail...others are just interested in what I'm reading or what I think about this film, or that candidate.
That's why I teach.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

No Harm

What a funny little experience I had today. While backing out of a parking place in my local grocery store, another driver didn't see me and began to back up shortly after I began. We tapped back bumpers. Immediately, we both rolled forward back into our original places, got out and greeted each other. "No harm, no foul," said the gray frizzy haired woman about my age. I glanced at the back of my truck and then at her sedan. Apparently not even a mark.
"I'm glad you didn't hear what I said," she continued. Before I could respond, she leaned forward and gave me a hug; a real hug. While in this sudden embrace she continued, "This is nothing; much more important things to think about, yes a hug is good. OK." She was definitely calling the shots. Then, inspecting her car one more time, she noticed a slight tear in her tail light. "I think that happened because your bumper is higher than mine. But it's nothing to worry about." She was trying hard to convince herself. I agreed with everything she said.
We both returned to our cars. I waited. When her back-up lights went on, I waited, making sure only one of us was moving this time. She rolled slowly out of the parking lot, and out of my life forever. A hug...on Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Above This Wall: An Excerpt

Here is an excerpt from Above This Wall: The Life and Times of a VISTA Volunteer c2008
I’ve been writing this book for the past few months. Hopefully a first draft will be completed in the next few months.

Rabbit’s Hutch

“What can I bring?”
“Just yourself, and make sure your house mates come with you, we need as many VISTAs from inner city Houston as we can get.”
Nancy Hite was adamant about having a good turnout from the Third, Fifth, and Sixth wards. As the force behind this Fourth Ward open house, Nancy wanted as much support as she could muster. Her little strip of downtown poverty was all set for an influx of direct action. Living in this community composed mostly of decaying shotgun shacks and an occasional church or street corner market, she had a good deal invested in its makeover.
My two housemates and I were first year VISTAs. Nancy was in her second year, having endured the political and emotional tornado that was 1968 deep down in the alley of the Fourth Ward. She was tough as scrap iron, having survived a physical assault, numerous verbal threats, and the monthly challenge of making ends meet on a VISTA Volunteer’s scant salary. We needed to be there for Nancy. Hopefully she would help our fledging efforts further on down the road. That was the VISTA way.
By the time David, Larry, and I arrived, the open house was going strong. The little Community Center was scrubbed and polished. Proud seven and eight year olds stood beside the reading books while their prouder parents sat at card tables collecting signatures: promises to return and contribute something. They needed everything. Books and school supplies, of course, but any working fan, ice trays, educational games; chairs would be nice too. Aside from tutoring, the refurbished center would be used for community meetings, receptions, recitals and the like. Having this facility in the heart of the community would change lives. No transportation needed.
“You don’t have to bring food because the locals will provide that,” she reminded us. “We need you to help organize childcare, talk with or assist the elderly so they can eat and visit with folks, and just be a presence.” Our orders were clear. Nancy urged us to talk up our own projects because that kind of networking might uncover a helpful friend or relative in our neck of the woods.
The day went well. After all organized activities were completed, everyone went to Nancy’s place where a buffet occupied every inch of her small front porch. With help from her neighbors, about 300 people were able to eat, schmooze, and extend the goodwill into the late afternoon and early evening. With the Orange Crush sky as a backdrop, musicians emerged. The Blues and the Sixth Ward go together like Pearl beer and barbeque. With most everyone filled with short ribs, chicken, and fish, plenty of lemonade and cole slaw, the only thing left to do was enjoy the moment. Kids shot marbles, jumped double Dutch, or tossed horseshoes. Generations swapped stories, talked politics or just listened to bluesy riffs sent adrift by small homemade amplifiers. Yet, in my mind, something was missing. I found a local VISTA and popped the question. “Do you know where we can get a nice watermelon around here?”
At this point, I must interject that I am a connoisseur of watermelon. I unabashedly adore it and I refuse to buy in to all the taboos and caveats about what I consider nectar of the gods. I know, too, about the relationship between racism and watermelon. Sometimes, however, as writer Ralph Ellison noted, in this short life it becomes necessary to own one’s passions. This is one of those times. I wanted nothing more than to contribute to one of the best meals I had ever eaten. Thus began my search for the perfect watermelon.
A colleague and I joined one of the residents and motored over to a nearby grocery store. Pathetic. They had nothing cold; what they did have looked anemic.
“Any other ideas?” I disappointedly asked. “What about that guy that sometimes has a truckload he sells from the vacant lot over near the freeway,” my fellow Vista asked. Strike two. Nowhere in sight. At least we tried; I consoled myself. The horizon flamed burgundy now and the Gulf Oil sign on the Houston skyline had replaced any trace of the sun when the only true Texan in the car suddenly said, “There is one other place we might try, you guys are up for it?” It’ll take about 30 minutes to go there and back, it’s the best I can do.” For a watermelon, the right watermelon, I ‘d consider the ends of the earth.
After a maze of turns and twists, we rolled down a dirt road with no dwelling in sight. Through the last of a half dozen dust clouds, I thought I saw an oasis.
“That’s where Rabbit live,” our guide said. We parked under an arching shade tree that came to resemble the inhabitant of the sheet metal and clapboard house standing nearby. Out of this tumbleweed with windows walked Rabbit. He resembled the male equivalent of Miss Jane Pittman. Introductions followed and he asked me what I was looking for. Somehow a watermelon, or even a big watermelon seemed so inept. I felt like I was standing before the god of all watermelon. “Take a look over here, “ he motioned. We followed Rabbit into a shed that contained a refrigerator. Inside, on every shelf rested watermelons. Some Charleston Grays, a few cut in half, others still covered with a smear of mud. “This what you lookin” for?” our guru said. I nodded, but must have looked puzzled, because he shot back, “How many people you fixin’ to feed?”
I didn’t want to say a few hundred, so I just mumbled something like “as many as I can.” In other words, I want the biggest watermelon you have. Rabbit got the message. “Follow me boys.” We went down a shaky staircase to another room where an old freezer stood. It was so dented and dusty I didn’t think it was working. About the size of a small bathtub, the freezer was plugged in, humming faintly, and wired shut with a knotted old coat hanger.
We offered to help, but Rabbit would have none of it. I watched him take a rusty pair of pliers and painstakingly free the latch. Inside the freezer sat the largest watermelon I have ever seen; at least in person. Deep green and about the size of a standard recycling tub, this was one watermelon for the ages. The old timer estimated the weight near 50 pounds. I was not going to do better; within minutes it was mine. I can’t recall the price, but I know it couldn’t have been more than a few dollars. Back then; the price of watermelon ranged between 5-10 cents a pound. It was never about money.
When we returned to what had now become a block party, we took the ice-cold trophy to Nancy’s house. It took two of us to carry it comfortably. Still reeling from the sheer beauty of this melon, I stood by as some of the more skillful residents of the Sixth Ward did the cutting. Anyone within a mile of that melon who had the taste for some was satiated. Yes, it was cold, sweet, refreshing and visually stunning. With the clean-up organized and in effect, many of the neighborhood kids and I spent the waning minutes of twilight competing in a watermelon seed spitting contest. I was much too full to be a serious contender for the title.
That watermelon, like the Sixth Ward community center brought a lot of folks together that night. Like my experience as a VISTA it forced me to go beyond the easily obtainable and look into the heart of a culture. Both leave an unforgettably sweet taste.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Work of Art

Last week a few things finally crystallized for me. Writing a memoir from recall is very tricky stuff. It's a genre unto itself and raises untold questions from accuracy to ethics. Fortunately my writing group began the process of making this kind of writing possible for me to do. Then, quite by chance, last week I stumbled upon a little workshop at Portland State led by Debra Gwartney. I had met her along with her significant other, poet/writer Barry Lopez about a year ago at another event. I was pleased she remembered me. "I was the dude who stood up and read a poem," I reminded her. "Of course," she smiled.
Most of the other folks that showed up were writing memoirs about their father's WWII experiences. And then there was a woman whose 92 year old father, a Holocaust survivor, was about to visit her. Her life has been shaped as metaphor for the survival of her father. Powerful stuff. There was also a woman who was forced to move many times throughout her life. She never revealed why but she is a quilt maker and houses keep showing up in her work.
So, my process has become one of writing a draft to get as much as I can remember down. Then go back and develop these simple one dimensional stories into complete scenes. When I asked Debra about the use of quotations, and mentioned that it's very difficult to recall just what was said, she reminded me that it's OK to embellish the remarks a bit. "Do you think every quote in Angela's Ashes is just as it was said?"
She then added that memoir writing is a work of art, and that the scenes and the dialogue make it that way.
That reminded me of a time when I couldn't sleep some years ago when I lived alone. I turned on the TV about three in the morning and caught the last minute of some program about to end. There on the screen was a wise old figure who looked like a cross between King Neptune and R Crumb's Mr. Natural. A voice off screen askes his if he has any final thought on the secret to a happy, healthy, fulfilled life. The old man smiles and says, "Yes; think of your life as a work of art."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Creative Writing

I have disparate interests. I guess that makes me more complicated than some folks. In revising my CV, these contradictions present themselves in various ways. That's why when I sent out my CV in response to a request for possible employment mentoring beginning teachers, I was wondering how my writing experience would play. There, next to memberships in professional organizations like the American Psychological Association's high school affiliate, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Council for the Social Studies, sits my NTWA membership. National Turf Writers Association. My colleagues in the Bay Area Writing Project have always found it fascinating that I managed to balance two worlds. Thoroughly supportive, for them, it was always about the writing.
People still judge the racetrack through a clouded lens. I guess they can't get past the gambling. Good reason for some. That addiction has taken its toll in similar fashion as other addictions. But it's always been about the horse and the horse people for me. Sure, I'll bet a race or two or three. I don't owe explanations to anybody, yet the thought of being judged lingers. People harbor so many myths about the racetrack. I think that's what kept me so interested for so long. Doing stories on trainers who had advanced degrees from prestigious schools, or grooms with more compassion than many doctors can be quite satisfying. Watching, with the breeder, the first race of a "baby" can be breathtaking. I love the tradition, the color, the mind numbing puzzle of figuring out a race. I love the characters (they're all there) like Adrian the OCD horse player, Hoover or Tony or Henry, all grooms who could be in any film. I respect the knowledge of trainers I've interviewed; the way they know individual personalities, the psychology of their animals, the body language and their ability to communicate without speaking. I been fortunate to see and discuss horses with the rich and famous, and the poor and infamous. Sometimes it was just the rich and poor; depends on how you define those terms. But the friends I have with low level claimers bring just as much awe and insight as those with graded stakes winners.
Living vicariously through the experiences of my favorite jockeys has been with me since I was 10. A bicycle can be a stretch runner too.
So now that it's time in this new year to renew my memberships in professional organizations, I'm taking stock and reconsidering a few. I'm pleased that my voice will still be heard in The Blood-Horse magazine from time to time. Turf writer is only one part of the whole. But all writing is creative writing. Isn't it?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Odds and Ends

So Exxon Oil achieved some corporate distinction the other day by being the first company to post earnings of $34 Billion (that's Billion with a B) That's not really a surprise, but what's fascinating is that according to an online poll 85% of respondents find that statistic troubling, while 64% said they NEVER fill up at an Exxon station.  Makes me wonder about the other oil companies earnings.  But maybe there are no other oil companies.  I wonder what percentage of respondents believe there is really only 1 oil company? 
 Reminds me of a little town in Northern California with three Basque restaurants.  A friend of mine once suggested that all three serve the same food.  Each restaurant is connected by an underground tunnel with one large kitchen serving all three.  I can just see the waiters and waitresses all converging on the massive kitchen from three angles, dressed very differently but serving the same food.  Nobody knows the difference. They may suspect something is up, but it's too outrageous to suggest.  Hmmm...
As my once dark brown hair becomes dusted with silver I've noticed the "S" word being used more and more in my direction.  Not that "S" word, another: " Sir."  Who says young people don't respect their elders? Sometimes I could use a little less of that respect.  Sir always smacks of class for me.  Either that or militarism.  I don't have much use for either. I know they mean well, and I'm probably just being overly sensitive to my more mature look. I'll bet George Clooney doesn't get called sir as much as I do. Not being one to complain, I'm actually  delighted that my hair color can turn but the amount stays the same.   Salt and pepper are necessities; they make things taste better.