Monday, April 27, 2009

Reckless Love

The moment of truth came when I shuffled through the half dozen albums in my hands. The crushed cellophane wrapper peeling back revealed a signature. A dedication. Country music legend Rose Maddox had written a personal note back in 1977 when we both appeared at the Santa Rosa Folk Festival. Being on the program in with a version of the Woody Guthrie show we did back then, I had access.
So here I was 30 something years later and I wasn't ready to sell this album in my yard sale. In fact, I wasn't ready to sell any album. Trouble is, I didn't know that. Not until I saw that inscription did I get a clue.
I committed the ultimate in yard sale sins. I wasn't ready to sell. The grisly SOB standing in front of me huffed away. I'm lucky he didn't yell, "Citizen's arrest, citizen's arrest."
I felt terrible. Then angry. Then nothing.
That night I awoke and the "incident" popped immediately into my head. In the darkened tranquility of my own bedroom I had time to sort it all out. I did.
I had encountered a thief in the night. He'd been caught messing with my records. Sure I was at fault for putting that box of albums out there, but he didn't know the backstory. Earlier in the day I'd had a lovely conversation with a man about music and life in Portland for an African American man. When he asked if I had any records for sale I decided to go get a box I'd recently brought out of storage because I knew what he was looking for. He bought some New Orleans piano albums. Professor Longhair and John Cleary, two of the best from pre Katrina New Orleans. I never took the box back. When I decide to part with some things I find that I'm mindful of where they're going. Silly huh? It's not like I haven't moved things along. My record collection has gone from 300 albums to somewhere near 75. It's just that I'm at a place where I want to move some things along in my own way, at my own pace. Even a hint of appreciation would make a difference. You know what? If that guy who was so put off by my reluctance had shown even a glimpse of empathy, he'd be the proud owner of a signed Rose Maddox album.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Writing on Ice

     The temperature in in the 90s today. It's still April. I'm glad I don't have to begin this Monday after Spring Break back in the classroom. But I am going back today. Tomorrow I drive back up to Portland and today is my only chance to see the new El Cerrito High School.
I'm curious if any of the ghosts of the school that once stood on the exact site will be lurking in the new hallways. Will any of the faculty, administration, the thousands of students I taught, be in attendance. It's quite humbling to see a school disappear into this air, and then reappear. Realizing you know nothing of the new campus is like playing chutes and ladders with your career. And yet, I am there.
In teaching and discussing Arthur Miller with my classes, I often used his ideas on immortality. Miller believed the human desire to be "known and remembered," as Willy Loman said, was the greatest human need. "Greater than hunger, sex, or thirst," he said. But it's akin to, "writing your name on a cake of ice on a hot July day."
I never intended to have my own brick on the wall. When the idea was first announced, I dismissed it completely. Then a few colleagues added encouragement. Finally, the Miller quote resurfaced in my head and I found both amusement and the challenge of writing on the wall. In 20 words how can I sum up 33 years. I wrote, I cut. I re-wrote, cut some more and finally had it down.
B. Greene-Teacher
My Passion
Not My Profession

Today I found the wall, and the brick. Guess I've got a few years before the cake of ice begins to melt. What I never expected was to be included on that wall a few more times. There were other bricks with messages from former students and colleagues. Messages about classes taught, students inspired, careers completed.
It's a fact that a teacher can work for decades in a school community and be forgotten in a year or two. It just happens. Can't be helped. The immortality comes in the words and deeds of of those who follow. Those we worked with and taught. Those who got what there was to get. What we got.
And still, it's lovely to have a brick in a wall. It's all on the brick.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Where in the World

It's an old tale. I've heard it many times. Sad to say, it happened to me as well. If life is full of mystery, and it is, then this one is repeated almost daily. It just might be one of the quintessential experiences of American men growing up in the second half of the 20th century. I lost my baseball cards.
Or rather, they lost me. Somewhere between the throes of my first love affair and the day I left home, they slipped from my grasp. After loss, disillusionment, much wandering, and coming of age, they disappeared from my boyhood closet. I hope they didn't meet an untimely fate. I hope they continue to be appreciated. I hope someone benefitted from that shoe box full of Topps cards from the mid 50s. I had a great collection.
For many of us who grew up in the 1950s, this was the Golden Age of Baseball Cards. We'd buy them for a nickel a pack, chew the brittle pink gum dusted with white sugary powder, and then either complain or marvel at who we got in the latest pack. I bought them in pairs, but occasionally a certain kid who lived on the corner of my block bought the entire box. We'd walk down to Jack's Liquor and watch as he lifted the entire carton on display by the cash register. Larry E. would produce a five dollar bill and deny anyone else the opportunity to buy cards for the day. The worst part was watching him open the packs, methodically stack the stiff pink gum and the taunt us with how many Willie Mays or Hank Aaron cards he now had.
Growing up a Giants fan in LA was hard enough without a Dodger fan having all the Giant's cards. I'd get a few Giants but getting Mays or Cepeda, or McCovey was a crapshoot. I somehow had numerous copies of unheard of rookies or Ferris Fain, or Joe Collins. To this day I still contend that I appreciated them much more than Larry E. Don't think I haven't thought about taking a crisp twenty dollar bill these days and buying a box myself. It's just not the same.

Theories abound in my head about what happened to the wonderful collection of about 200 cards I kept in my garage. The two boxes could easily have been lifted when I left hope to serve as a VISTA volunteer. I asked a friend of mine to sell my '59 VW bug, stored in the same garage. Maybe he couldn't resist the temptation. I prefer to think my father, knowing their worth, sold them to help defray the cost of my mother's medical bills after cancer took her life when I was a college freshman. Either way, gone are the images of young Mickey Mantle and Sandy Kofax. All my Willie Mays cards, my Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente. There were action shots of Minnie Minoso, Pee Wee Reese, and Roy Campanella. Even the weird cards like KC shortstop "Spook" Jacobs, or Satchel Paige in a St. Louis Browns uniform linger in my mind. Gone forever, but not lost.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Birth Certificate

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations."
_Anais Nin

I'm being pulled by past present and future a good deal lately. Probably because I have the luxury of reflection. A year goes by so quickly. The fraction of our lives grows smaller every twelve months. At two its 50 % longer, at five, 20 % at 40, it's 1/40 today it is 1/62. And yet, I'm 19. If you need proof, just go fishing with me, go on a road trip, or wake up with me. Now that I'm here, it's comforting to know I've some growing yet to do.

Lately, I've developed what can only be termed a new kind of denial. I noticed it when a friend of mine from the Bay Area came to town for a few days and I went to the Airport to pick him up. From a distance, I saw what could be him, but decided the gentleman waiting with bags by the curb was a little too old to be my friend. Too much gray in the beard. Wrong. OK, that's understandable. But when I went to meet him for coffee the next morning, a man I thought was my friend walked my way and I immediately said, "there he is..." I knew immediately it wasn't he. The beard was too dark; in fact it was twenty years ago dark. I see what I want to see. It works that way when two horses cross the finish line. When a ball hits near the foul line , and when I see a familiar form from behind. Makes me wonder what we see when we look in the mirror.
I'd still rather deal with this form of denial than hair color. I could never dye my hair or put something there which isn't. I understand why people do, and try not to judge, but they miss the beauty of aging. The lines are stories, they are talking tattoos. There is no such thing as gray hair; it's silver.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dysfunctional Families

The other day I watched a portion of an Oprah show. Our queen of all media host paid a little visit to the "Yearning for Zion" group compound in Texas. This is the LDS splinter group that made national headlines a few months ago when many of the children were removed. Oprah went to get a first hand look at the polygamist lifestyle, the children, the "prairie dresses" and, of course, the distinctive hair styles of the women.
Obviously prepped for the visit, all the women and kids were filled with smiles and kind words for their "family" their "heavenly father" and their heaven on Earth living situation. They were all quite sincere. Only a few of the men squirmed a bit when the topic of sexual abuse, marrying teenagers against their will, or some of the evils of this post modern age, like TV, computers, movies and other technological innovations. They do have cell phones, though.
Aside from being entertaining, the program was, for the most part, non-judgmental. The elephant in the room is that this little universe is all predicated on an extreme strain of fundamentalism with oppressive, if not misogynist underpinnings. What stands out from all this is that when asked what they do for fun or enjoyment, the kids say, "nothing" They say school and work are fun. Maybe so. After all, no TV, video games, music (CD's records, popular music) no computers, internet, or dance classes, Little League, no Disney. In fact, the only time they leave the isolated compound is when they need Dental, or Dr.s appointments. At this point, it looks as if the state of Texas may have overreacted. (what's new!) The kids have been returned and aside from Warren Jeffs, the much publicized leader of the sect, whose crimes are common knowledge, the state needs more and better evidence to make many of the charges stick. Are there underage marriages? Are the psychological techniques of brainwashing employed? Are many of these women and children incapable of what's happening to them? Yes, yes, and yes.
That evening I watched a portion of a documentary on Jim Jones, and the tragedy of Jonestown. By the time I awoke at 3 a.m. the similarities between these two "cultures" were overwhelming. I lay in bed thinking, sure there are differences, but far more similarities. What jumped out at me is how the people in both institutions looked when they defended those who oppressed them. It was the smile, the one that hardly beams, but simply dribbles forth with mock amazement that anyone would question the smiler's choice. I was struck, too, with how Jones' followers called him heavenly father too. Both communities are steeped in paranoia, the real kind; the one that's defined in the DSM IV as a persecution complex. When asked what his initial thoughts were after the shit hit the fan at People's Temple, a man who had witnessed the demise of his wife and son with the infamous cyanide laced Kool-Aid, said, "I wondered where all the guns had come from." He and only a handful of others escaped inside the jungle suddenly realizing that the mass suicide was an atrocity. At what point does the human psyche recognize the fallacy behind tyranny?