Monday, March 31, 2008

Evening News

First came the picture of a young man whose remains were found and positively identified. Matt Maupin been captured in Iraq, tortured and killed. His parents held out hope. You know the story. You know the drill. In his Army photo, he seemed the picture of health; square jawed and almost a smile. The grainy videotape purporting to be his execution was inconclusive, but that doesn't matter now. Then came the local story of the woman who argued with her husband after mass. She ran him down in church parking lot when the service was over. The photo showed only her mug shot and then the convex, smashed front windshield of their car. He is in the hospital. One month ago she sought and obtained a restraining order against him. Two weeks ago she married him.
What percentage of our news is now medical? Last night we find out that Vytorin doesn't work. Never did. Five Billion dollars in profit later and it's determined to be ineffective. Now that's a heart attack.
Next up a tow truck driver is missing, his truck with needed medication surfaces but he's nowhere in sight. Family is hopeful.
A couple loses a child; prayer the only culprit here. They really believe their faith is all that's necessary. Is this violence? Abuse? Ignorance? Pathos or pathetic?
All this is sandwiched in between the relentless merchandising.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why, What's the Reason For?

Sometimes words are not necessary. This seems to be one of those times a picture will do nicely. "Camouflage colored Easter eggs," he said, so I thought I'd better investigate. Sure enough now, here they are. The possibilities are endless, but I really want to know what you think about camouflage Easter eggs?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Thought About Second Thoughts

We live in a paradoxical cosmos. Sometimes the contradictions are transparent, but on other occasions they lied buried in the mud of all that gets discarded in daily garbage mills. Yet garbage is just as life giving as sterile blood. What it produces can either be recycled or used to fertilize new growth.
A case in point, the recent rush to find self-realization through Oprah's Book Club or Big Gives, or a hybrid vehicle, or essential Omega 3 Oils, or solar panels, or political hope, or LA weight loss, or the Final Four, or Income tax rebates, or being an American Idol, or Meeting the Press, or America's Next Top Model, or Viva Viagra, or Making the Playoffs, or Rollover minutes, or Air Miles, or great tasting, less filling, Constitution loving, Star Spangled, truth-telling, yes I can dance consciousness.
But seriously folks, why do my landing gear retreat when the way to Nirvana is again on the New York Times best-seller list. Could it be *The Myth of the Eternal Return, like Godzilla or the Bride of Frankenstein waiting to take you away, and your money, and your mind?
How many versions of Cinderella are there?
How many parallels to a virgin birth?
How many roads must we walk down?
Before we realize the Existential Dilemma doesn't care what you are wearing.
Before we learn from our own experience that being in the now is something we
resist naturally until the paradox kicks in with assistance from our very own feet.

And in the end...
It's all Bueno;
I don't care how you get there, just go.

*M. Eliade

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Race Is On

I wish I could just write about the Run for the Roses here. It's easier and certainly more fun to speculate about 3 year olds like Pyro and War Pass than to focus on all the muck coming out of the Democratic Party's stables these days. In light of recent developments, however, the RACE is on.
A short week ago, War Pass was undefeated and looked like the Triple Crown was his for the taking. Barack Obama was running for president and enjoyed a narrow delegate lead in this historic stretch drive for the nomination. Now War Pass is questionable, his pedigree and health in doubt. Obama is suddenly a Black man running for president. Wasn't it all inevitable?
Americans (North Americans, that is) have such a difficult time talking about race. It's no wonder we have to ask ourselves if we should even have the conversation. Of course we should, but root canal often becomes preferable because we fear that we'll be misunderstood.
So a Black minister assuages his anger from the pulpit; he's of the generation that experienced the deep seated viseral racism as well as the current institutionalized variety. When people speak of discrimination, he can put specific dates and times to it; he can tell you what was said, thought, and how it felt in the moment. Makes me wonder if part of the problem is that many people don't know too much about history any more. That's one of the casualties of a test driven curriculum. What do young folks know of slavery? Do they know the numbers? Have they read Black Cargoes? Do they know why the "peculiar institution" was so different in Latin America? Hell, young Black kids easily defend their use of the "N" word in music and speech today because they rarely have the experiences of their grandparents. It's an old tale; generation to generation.
It's so pitiful watching the old Liberal guard putting their feet in their mouths daily. Pitiful because they don't have a clue. Soon it'll be easier to just say nothing.
I think what we need here is some modeling. I think, too, that young folks can show us how it's done, how to have a conversation about race. It takes an enormous amount of honesty to even begin. That and the will to persevere. We'll do it, though...because we really have no choice but to get it right. You can't win every race... right? But maybe ...maybe...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Lookie Here...

Hey look; it's the Chairman of the Board! No, not Frank Sinatra, another American icon, Uncle Ben is now the Chairman of the Board. Uncle Ben has been converted just like his rice. He's gone from the kitchen cook of the 19th and 20th century American imagination to the owner of the company. His bow tie works with his new three piece suit as easily as it adorned his white cook's uniform.
If ever you have difficulty measuring change in race relations or the power of advertising images, just think of Uncle Ben. His friend Aunt Jemima has under gone a similar makeover in recent years s well. What is now merely a head band worn by a healthy looking young adult was once the bandana of the world's most recognizable mammy. Just think, in a few short years there will be an entire generation who will have no idea about the past lives of our famous Aunt and Uncle. Maybe that's a good thing? Maybe it isn't.
In light of some of the recent comments of ageing politicos these days, it's getting harder and harder to recognize the vestiges of racism in our popular culture. Unfortunately if the visual images are changing, many of the mental ones are not. It's always been a complicated discussion to have.
A few years ago, some of the most outrageous images got watered down. Darkie toothpaste, very popular in some Asian countries emerged as Darlie, almost overnight. You can find the upgraded versions of cartoon characters as well if you collect comic books of the 50s 60s and 70s. These upgrades are both necessary and striking. Never underestimate the power of the advertising icon. Who's next, Moses, Jesus, or the Chairman of the Board, himself?

Thursday, March 13, 2008


I've been thinking about getting a tattoo for the last few years. Two young teachers I worked with in "06 wanted to give me one for a good-bye gift. It just never happened. I moved to Portland, and they moved to different schools. It was going to be on my forearm. A rainbow trout; colorful but small and tasteful, I imagined.
It still may happen. Katie wants to get one too. Probably a Buddha...a tiny Buddha.
In thinking about the word and concept: tattoo...seems to me I already have a few. We all do, even our cars, trucks, bikes, but definitely our bodies. When I look at what were once very small freckles or birth marks on my arms, neck, back, I think, they've become a kind of tattoo. Scars are tattoos also. I see the mark made at 14 in wood shop. A slipped chisel leaves a tattoo. By my elbow is a spider webb fragment from a horse who wanted all my carrots and nudged me into a barbed wire fence because I resisted. Invisible is the tattoo I wear under my lip from Leonard. The violent 12 year old I met and worked with in a residential treatment center. His teeth form another one on the underside of my right bicep. He would always ask the next day, "What happened to you?" I'm sure, if he's still alive, he has many tattoos.
I figured a beautiful little rainbow on my forearm would honor all those who I've caught and released. Their color is so instantly vibrant, their eyes, large and aware. When I lose the ability to perceive the sacredness of a trout and all it takes to keep one alive, I'll be no good for anything, so at least I could take one with me this way. Seems a fitting tattoo, but until I "catch" the notion to get one, I'm content knowing I have a few that tell stories all along the way.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Poe Boy, Long Way From Home

     What I like about Poe Ballantine is how he takes us out to the ragged edge of our towns, which are any town, as he stumbles around and across this country.  In his collection of essays, Things I Like About America, Ballantine rambles all over and across the country hanging on by dime here and a quarter there.  He takes most any job that will last a few days or weeks, cutting himself on sheet metal, or fending off the noise assault from hammering freight pallets together.  He cooks in questionable kitchens with questionable people. Poe takes rooms in places most of us would eliminate on sight.  He eats either the same fast food that's plentiful on the frozen streets of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin or the melting asphalt of Mexico. He notices how strip mall restaurants have red plastic roofs. Sometimes Poe eats wonderfully colorful combinations of supermarket fare.  Sardines and oranges, or buys cookie cutter cheese burgers, homemade chile and apples. His KFC, has no wings...he's charming.
     Poe reminds us that we really aren't all that far from walking a few miles by his side.  That a Greyhound Bus  trip or being caught in a storm haunt the dreams of millions. 
A few months ago I met Poe at the big Wordstock festival in Portland.  I found him most comforting.  He encouraged me to move forward with my book.  He recommended Things I Like About America, saying, "It's a better book than the others." 
     I liked the title anyway.  Poe signed a copy for me and I moved on.  Some of the things he likes about America are decent wages, the first snow in Wisconsin, and toilet paper in public restrooms.  Some of the things I like about him are his beautifully sad descriptions of people, his ability to take us to the margins, on the side of the road, the aesthetic of cheap beer or wine, his constant humanity, and attention to all the detail that tumbles through this American lifetime. Poe has mastered the art of traveling blind while most of his contemporaries remain blinded by masters.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Pain into Power

Last week I got the chance to take a workshop from Daniel Beaty, a very talented writer/poet who works with students on turning their pain into power. He's noted for appearances on Def Poetry Jam and other spoken word programs. The Oregon Writing Project's annual writing retreat was the venue. A teacher working with a group of teachers is a powerful thing. After modeling a piece based on speaking to a person about the way it was and the way it could be, we worked on duality pieces. For Daniel, being a Yale educated kid from the ghetto states the case nicely. His piece cleverly featured a dialogue between the hustler homeboy and the educated young man. Kind of a Nigga/Negro thing. Since my previous efforts from his inspiration were intense personal pieces, I wanted to focus on something lighter. I immediately thought of my passion for horses as well as blues music. What resulted was this poem:

Bluesman V. Horseman

Inside the same pair of Levis
rides the horse whispering harmonica blower,
The world they inhabit wants them separate,
wants the sun to light a chestnut's mane
and the blackness of midnight glare
to shine off the chrome blues harp in my hand.

To put on those cowboy boots and walk
the tall stalls--talk all western-bout hoof picks and alfalfa
bits and bridles,
Then change that snap-button plaid shirt
put on burgundy satin,
the pulse of Southside Chicago when the first
bent note breaks your stride,

All in one day

From horse auction...
Do I hear 50...110...250...
Last chance, $300,000 for that Storm Cat filly...
To Juke joint...
Call it Stormy Monday-but Tuesday's just as bad,
Wednesday ain't no better,
And Thursday...Thursday
Thursday-Today and everyday now,
Same Blues; same blue jeans
Same sound-hoof beat
& back beat
It's all the same beat-

Ride Daddy Ride.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Tell Me About Your Mother...

My mom showed up in a dream the other night.  Unlike most of her appearances she wasn't in a particularly good mood, and certainly didn't have her usual kind appearance.  But then I knew it was a dream and that means it wasn't she, but what she represents.  
My dreams lately have had a few twists.  Some new motifs have emerged and they give credence to the theory that as we age, our dream content changes.  Still the teacher dreams continue.  But now, I have not retired.  I only indicated I did, and in the dreams I will teach this year and then retire.  What's the message?  That we never stop teaching?
I'm always removed in these re-teaching dreams.  I'm always at another school with some classes I like and then one that I never seem to give adequate attention to.  When I finally find where that class meets (I frequently forget in the dreams) I'm relieved to find that I'm such a professional that I can flawlessly launch into something meaningful-a seamless continuity.  
And then there is the matter of trying to get back to some place.  A rather frequent motif these days.  I'm either at a hotel, or trying to get to a college campus, or sometimes living back in Texas and trying to find my old neighborhood.  Whenever I begin to return to wherever it is I need to go, I seem to get farther away; it's like trying to exit a maze but then realizing that there is a maze within the maze.  
Since I removed myself from the daily grind, waking at 5:45 am and crashing somewhere between 10 and 11:00 pm, I seem to be having more dreams.  Although I awake most days between 7 and 8 am with an occasional earlier or later day, it makes me wonder how having more dream time affects my mental health.  Surely it must be a good thing to have more REM sleep.  
Since I seem to be lucid in many of these recurrent motifs, I'm going to conjure up another meeting with my mom.  I'll see if I can arrange for her to meet me in one of the places I can't seem to return to.  If I can pull this off, I'm sure we'll both be in better spirits.  You can take the preceding line any way you want to.