Monday, June 29, 2009

Axles of Evil

Saw the film Food Inc. last night. Go see this movie if you don't see another film all year. It lifts the VEIL to show the EVIL. Find out how our food is produced, engineered, marketed, produced; find out how it's killing us by degree and instantly, on occasion.
Learn about Monsanto, the link between the corporate interests and the Supreme Court. (Iran has Supreme Leader, we have Supreme Court) Look what happens to small farmers who won't play by the rules. Recall that even Oprah, her damn self, got sued by the beef industry and only because she had a million dollars to spend on legal fees could she win the case. Who has, and who doesn't have a million dollars to spend on telling the truth.
Did you know it's now possible to own a seed...all seed of a particular plant. Monsanto owns the soybean. Most of all find out what there are so many recalls of beef. Learn why spinach can be contaminated with e-coli bacteria, and where that bacteria comes from. Oh yeah, you'll really get to go inside a cows stomach.
In a word, CORN. It is the foundation of high fructose corn syrup. Just imagine what percentage of supermarket products contain corn syrup.
Bottom line: there are only a few corporations. They absorb everyone, even the organic businesses.
BUT: all is not lost. As the film says, "you vote 3 times a day." Food is as political as it gets. Make change.
Author Michael Pollan ( "the carrots should be more affordable than the potato chips") deserves the Nobel Prize for this work. He and a host of others who are fighting this battle. Lifting the veil to expose the evil. It's the classic American value conflict yet again: profit over human life.

Food, Inc.
(USA, 2008, 93 mins)
Wisconsin Premiere
Directed By: Robert Kenner (IMDB)
cinematographer: Richard Pearce
editors: Kim Roberts
music: Mark Adler
executive producer: William Pohlad, Robin Schorr, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann
producer: Robert Kenner, Elise Pearlstein
co-producer: Eric Schlosser, Richard Pearce, Melissa Robledo
cast: Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Gary Hirshberg, Joel Salatin
IMDB Film Info
In Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner (Two Days in October) lifts the veil on our nation's food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that's been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government's regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA. Our nation's food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment. We have bigger-breasted chickens, the perfect pork chop, insecticide-resistant soybean seeds, even tomatoes that won't go bad, but we also have new strains of e. coli, the harmful bacteria that causes illness for an estimated 73,000 Americans annually. We are riddled with widespread obesity, particularly among children, and an epidemic level of diabetes among adults. Featuring interviews with such experts as Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) along with forward thinking social entrepreneurs like Stonyfield Farms' Gary Hirschberg and Polyface Farms' Joe Salatin, Food, Inc. reveals surprising truths about what we eat, how it's produced, who we have become as a nation, and where we are going from here.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

When Music Dies

"The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils."

The Merchant of Venice (V, i, 83-85)

This short speech from Shakespeare's play has always fascinated me. With time comes the evolution of personal taste in music and while we don't or can't always be in the vanguard of cutting edge music, we do hold on to what we know is true. In Woody Allen's "Manhattan" his lead character lists, among the things that make life worth living, Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues." No argument from me here. What would you cite if asked the question?
In the play, Jessica, daughter of Shylock, has eloped with Lorenzo, and they are sitting in the moonlight delighting in each other's company. When musicians enter, Jessica remarks that she is never happy when she hears sweet music and that instead it makes her sad. Lorenzo explains to her that the sadness she feels is the hearkening of her soul to celestial powers. It was a basic assumption among Elizabethans that the musical harmony of the spheres (planets, moon, sun) was a manifestation of the universal Order in which God created heaven and earth. Lorenzo reminds Jessica that music affects even wild beasts, and that nothing in nature is immune to its ability to determine human emotion. "Mark the music."
I was mulling all this over the other day when a thought struck. I have a friend who has lost his music. He used to write, perform, and listen to music constantly. It seems to have dried up. When it dries, he dies.
From this sad state of affairs I then thought about the human ability to bring death to other humans. Are seemingly good people who take human life in war devoid of music? Would it be impossible to conduct war if music were playing? No really; what if governments that continue to ask their citizens to take human life in the name of political or religious concepts were made to provide hauntingly beautiful sound tracks to all this slaughter? Would it become impossible for some to participate?
Music penetrates to the bone. Isn't that what Shopenhaur, the German philosopher, thought? Isn't this worth pursuing?
If, as Shopenhauer postulated, music is the only art that exists whether we are here or not, and if, as he further suggests, there is a relationship between music and the will to live (and other forms of the human will) then perhaps to put an end to war, we need only consider music. Beautiful music. Granted, music stimulates death for some, but those folks aren't mentally healthy, agree? It's possible for a piece of music to send a clinically depressed person over the edge, but most of the time it has the opposite effect. Are the infantry soldiers of any given country mentally healthy, more often than not?
What's the most beautiful piece of music you've ever heard? Why does it stand out as being different from other pieces? Perhaps it is time for a special album, a collection of "sweet sounds" to save humanity from itself. There are plenty of "stratagems, treasons and spoils" afoot in this world today. Find the music and you find the human beings. They'd really rather make art than war anyway.

Monday, June 8, 2009

From the Heart

I've been hearing from a number of former students on Facebook lately. It's one of the only things I like about it. That's another story. For now, I wanted to put this piece called "On Becoming a Teacher" here for a number of reasons. It is slated to be published in the digital magazine of the Bay Area Writing Project, when their new, improved site is up and running. But it occurs to me that more of its intended audience might find it here. A few of the beginning teachers I work with at Marylhurst University might benefit from seeing it here as well. Finally, it is mine, I own it; it's copyrighted, so it can live here to.

A background note: The theme of the issue was Thanks. I rattled it around my brain for a few days with not much success and then it hit me. Here is the result.

Bruce Greene

On Becoming a Teacher

We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude. ~Cynthia Ozick

I can’t thank them now. It’s not that easy. Too many other circumstances. It’s just not done that way. Would that I could easily step back, across the years whenever a thought strikes. It’s like a dream, the most spontaneous creation of the human mind, isn’t it? Spontaneity and dreams go together well. We needed both. I may not have shown enough appreciation at times, but I’ll never be accused of not being spontaneous enough… not dreaming enough.
Maybe I don’t need to thank them. I doubt that, but maybe, just maybe, they know. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that they saw some smudge of gratitude on my face. Especially after all those circumstances we could have never predicted: broken windows that stare down for years, lock downs, bomb threats, panic attacks, national and natural disasters, and sadly, the sudden demise of one of our own.
I’ve been so preoccupied with the thanks they gave to me that mine may have gone unnoticed. Oh, I know I used to do that awkward little applauding thing directed at them when they clapped for me. Who remembers that? Most of them probably never got to see the letters of recommendation to prospective universities, employers, or scholarship committees. That’s not what I’m talking about anyway. I mean wanting them to know that I truly appreciate all their efforts, their complexity, their patience, and their honesty. Hell, I even appreciate their dishonesty. It occurs to me now, after a little muddy water under the Broadway bridge, that I’ve learned much more from them than I could ever have imagined.
How do I thank 5000+ students over 30+ years for showing up—being there in every sense of the word? You’d think I’d have figured this one out by now. Even when I started showing that little four-minute video on the last day of each class, it was never enough. Tips For Living a Successful Life, or something cliché like that. Too much like those Chicken Soup platitudes, but funny at times. “Call your mother…Wave to children on a school bus… Wear sexy underwear under conservative attire…Take your dog to obedience school; you’ll both learn a lot… Like they really were in a position to take me seriously with so many yearbooks still unsigned.
I should have known their capacity for empathy from the Buckwheat incident. On the wall in the back of my classroom was a galaxy of faces from the 20th Century. Writers, artists, entertainers, politicians and athletes. Philosophers shared space with members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sometimes students would put their own pictures on the wall, smiling back in prom attire aside Woody Guthrie or Alice Walker. If a name like Roberto Clemente or Jean Toomer ever came up in class discussion, there they were, ready to make their presence felt. Pop culture icons like The Little Rascals enshrined next to Freud, Jung, Woody Allen or Toni Morrison. Kate or Frederic Chopin, in attendance, should their names be called. And then Buckwheat disappeared. It was such a wonderful picture too. Not one of those racist or studio poses, but William “Buckwheat” Thomas, my favorite Our Gang member. Gone on a Tuesday, I spoke with a subdued voice to all classes. “I’m saddened that someone felt the need to take this picture, but if I could just get it back, I’d be happy to provide another to whomever wants that one so badly.” I knew that the picture wasn’t coming back. I even found out a couple of days later what happened. Two students actually got in a fight over it. Torn and mutilated, it was last spotted in the boy’s P.E. locker room. I called off the search on Thursday and by Friday of that week I was the proud owner of no less than ten pictures of Buckwheat. They just kept appearing. Oh that beautiful color shot could never be replaced, but they gave me much more. Pictures from movie posters, calendars, video boxes, even card games…I got what I needed.
Sometimes they’d ambush me. Sofia Choi is a good example. She was that student who you knew got everything you had to give. The reality check. Too bad she rarely spoke in class discussions. But that International Relations class had some real pontificators. It just wasn’t her style. She made her best contributions in small groups. Missed nothing. Her’s was the class that studied international famine and became fascinated by coffee as a cash crop. I told them, if they were still interested by the end of the school year, we’d taste the world’s most expensive coffee—Jamaican Blue Mountain. They were.
All 30 plus students threw in a quarter a piece and I made up the difference for the $25.00 a pound luxury. Too bad that when tasting time finally arrived, all the Jamaican Blue Mountain available that year went to Japan. Small crop; they bought it all. We settled for Arabian Mocha Java. Excellent, but it wasn’t the same.
Then 10 years down the road, on the last day of school before Winter Break, Sofia appears in the doorway with a small basket of chocolate chip cookies in her hand. I’m stunned; it’s been a decade. She looks great. Probably finished with med school by now, or maybe a lawyer or high tech maven.
“I gotta run, but it’s nice to see you,” she whispers. “I felt like baking last night, and wanted to bring some cookies to a few of my old teachers. Have a great holiday.”
Then she’s gone. An hour later, I’m straightening up my classroom, bits of wrapping paper, foil balls in three colors from Hershey Kisses, Mrs. Paolini’s Christmas fudge, (fortunately I had both daughters as students) packing up all those papers and projects to grade over the break. I see the little basket of Sofia’s cookies and decide to sample one. The basket is heavier than it should be. Deeper too. Eleven cookies rest on some red napkins but something’s underneath. I lift the false bottom and come face to face with a brown bag and three little words: Jamaican Blue Mountain.
You see what I mean. The full impact doesn’t come until much later. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to go down. But I thought I was the only one planting the seeds. It’s just not fair. When something takes root later on they often contact me. Perhaps I’ve taken them for granted, assuming that when needed, big ideas will simply kick in like morning coffee or other forms of overdrive. But I can’t always find them so I have to get creative. A truth-teller once reminded me to embrace life’s mystery. That’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to say my piece and then trust that it’ll get where it needs to go.
To: All my (former) Students
From: B. Greene
Subject: Gratitude
If you and anyone in your immediate family was ever a student in one of my classes between the years 1973-2006 I have an important message for you.
Thank you for teaching me as much as I hoped to teach you. Thanks for setting the standards for learning about and impacting human lives so high. I want you all to know that you made my time in the classroom all that I hoped it would be. Yes, even those among you who drew blood, touched my last nerve, and occupied my mind too often at 3:00 a.m. Thanks for making me think on and off my feet, for pushing me past complacency, for taking the time to talk, write, anguish, conquer, and realize. Thanks for helping me get through those days when my face couldn’t lie…when flying beneath the radar of misguided administrators or misinformed parents was barely worth the risk. Thanks for dusting me off when the university researcher with 1/10 my experience smiled for weeks and then bashed with disdain.
I want you to know that like my family, my core values, and my ambitions, you are always with me. In my work now with beginning teachers I still call on you. You manage to find me in my time of need. Your wit and compassion, your stubborn neglect and your singular insight, have never abandoned me.
It has been a pleasure becoming educated together. Now when I enter discussions about what it means to educate a person, I feel empowered by my time with all of you. It is very easy for me to leave the one-dimensional world of assessments and outcomes, objectives and instructional design, and enter the realm of human potential. Because of you, I feel confident. I remain eternally grateful.

Bruce Greene
El Cerrito High School
Room 60-1972-83
Room 504-1984-2005
Room 71-2005-06

Thursday, June 4, 2009

How Great Thou Aren't

If there is one thing that most of us have heard from the time we realized we were "Americans" to this very day, it is that we are living in the "greatest" country in the world. I've always bristled at that notion because it seems to be such a shallow idea. The term GREAT is tossed around so easily anyway. A great country, a great hamburger, a great play, a great day... A truly great apple, a great date, a great cup of coffee.

OK, let's say that we need to have a greatest country on Earth, like the "Greatest show on Earth" or the idea that "I am the greatest." (Ali was the best i ever saw) that begs the question, what does a country have to do or be to fit the bill? It's reasonable to assume it easily provides the basic essentials. Democracy, autonomy, health care, education, and social justice would certainly have to be on the menu.
Wait...this just in...we here in the U S of A do not all have health care, and do not have equal access to education. Aside from the number of homeless on the streets, the gun violence statistics, and the splintered pieces of the American Dream lying all over the place thee days, we're now faced with the possibility of states like California going bankrupt. Seems to me that a truly great country would provide for it's own on every level. Further, it seems to me that such a country, if it were to exist, would have the will to care for and educate it's citizens.
Right now, in all fifty states educators are being laid off, budgets are slashed, kids are demonstrating, walking out of classrooms, making signs to support their teachers( now if that doesn't debunk the stereotypes of high school students, what does?) and wondering why nobody seems to care.
Like Bill Mahr says: New Rule!
New Rule: Don't say you are living in the greatest country in the world. You aren't. I don't know which is the greatest, nor do I care. But I do know that the old adage that says that the true measure of a culture is how it treats those most vulnerable fits well here. The greatest country in the world would be one that values education and acts accordingly. Not just talks a good game. It's laughable that the USA can't find the political will to provide for a sound education. If ever there were a national security issue, this is it.