Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lifted Higher


We've been in the fog for the last few days. Reminds me of my years by the Bay. The Portland fog can be equally as cold at the San Francisco fog. Only difference is that in S.F. it continues throughout the summer. The fog reminds me of how some folk seem to be continually lost in it. Not the Rush Limbaughs, who would spout their vile vomit regardless of who was in the Oval Office. Contraries need to be contrary or they don't exist. No, I'm thinking more about those that know something's wrong with the economy and just seem to be waiting around for it to get better. Not gonna happen for a good while. When it does it'll only happen when we figure out how to be a nation of consumers AND producers, again. We no longer produce much. Ironic that the Steelers are in, and probably will win, tomorrow's Super Bowl. It's an accurate comment on how much we've come undone. Most of the steel we use is consumed, not produced here any more.
The baseballs and gloves come from Haiti; even the little American flag tokens from China. One day this past week 64,000 jobs terminated. Restaurants are closing, schools face cutbacks, even Starbucks is losing more stores in the Northwest. I guess that means only two every few blocks instead of four.
Last week I spent a few days in my student teacher's classrooms. I particularly enjoy one of the placements because I have ample opportunity to move around and work one on one with students. That's what I miss most. But even on this side of the educational table, I continue to battle well-meaning reformers encased in fog. As if aligning standards with objectives with instructional design, accompanied by charts and graphs highlighting pre and post assessments were the most important measure of classroom success.
I know it's important for curriculum to be substantive, to provide adequate rigor, to build crucial skills, but this stuff is overkill. Who is dying? Everyone. Last week, while working with my two beginning teachers, trying to guide them through the narrows of education-speak, I got a call from one of my field supervisor colleagues. She's a few years older than me, definitely more by the book, even has the reputation of being a stickler on all this corporate record keeping. She needed help. She was beside herself trying to follow all the requirements to the letter of the law. I calmed her down; even while driving at the same time. Just a dose of logic in an illogical situation. "Holistic," I kept saying, "think about what matters, think about what you know is the true test of promise."
What are we doing to each other?
What if school superintendents had to have 30 years of classroom experience before they could even interview for that position?
Been watching the progress of Ms. Rhee in Washington D.C. She, who believes teacher salaries should be correlated to test scores. So now we come full circle. What kinds of producers will the next few generations coming out of our schools be? They live in a fog laced with messages of consume...consume more...consume often...consume anything, produce nothing.
We need a re-alignment all right. What needs to come together, in my view, is a reinvention of the American soul. When we figure out who we are, and accept that, then we can work toward who we want to be. Maybe it'll even include who we need to be.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Take Me To Your Leader



We've got ourselves one hell of a moral dilemma up here in Portland. Our very popular young mayor, Sam Adams, was caught in a lie and refuses to step down. It's complicated. As a gay man, politician, and mentor, he's in deep yogurt, over his relationship with a 17 year old "intern" by the name of (are you sitting down?) Beau Breedlove.
For most folks in this town, it's understandable that he chose to keep their brief kissing, and then (after Beau turned 18) their brief dalliance private. It's just that when asked about it before his election, he got indignant, accused his accusers of the most heinous kind of attack on a gay, male, politician. Call it Hubris, call it fear, call it pragmatic, call it arrogant, any way you slice it...big mistake.
"It's not about the sex," some say. "He represents us, therefore he's held to a higher standard," say others. It's about his credibility, it's about his fear of homophobia, it's about his instinctual desire to keep his job, it's about lying. Here's what we know. Sam Adams is a skilled, intelligent, effective politician. He does not want to resign. He can't be recalled for at least 6 months because of an archaic law, subtitled the "sore loser" law. (Don't even go there) Some good old boys passed a law many years ago to prevent any disgruntled losing politician from initiating a recall movement too soon.
So here we sit, a city divided. The more we think and discuss this issue, the more we change our minds. Some folks, tired of the duplicitous response of some of Sam's critics initially felt that his personal life had no place in determining his future as Portland's mayor. They saw why he felt the need to deny any wrongdoing and take an aggressive stance. Then they worried about his dishonesty, fearing if he lied about this relationship, what else might he be tempted to twist the truth about? The reverse was true for those who immediately called for Adams to resign. Many have, after rethinking their immediate response, wondered if his coming clean might just be enough to enable him to reach his promise as a popular, competent, leader. So here we sit, grilling the guy, squabbling amongst ourselves, thinking and re-thinking the situation, and unable to act for 6 months. Those good-old-boys just may have given us a gift.
On the other hand, Gov. Blagojevich, seems to be getting weirder every day. Even if he never got i this jam, if there were no tapes, if he hadn't suddenly started spouting quotes from Kipling and King, Gandhi and Mandela. All this from a guy who looks like a Kennedyesque puppet and sounds like a friend of "Paulie" from the Sopranos.
The beauty here is that these cases do have parallels. I'm not saying they are both moral dilemmas, but there are some striking similarities, not the least of which is intention, political enemies of elected officials, and refusal to resign. To my mind, one of these politicos is in denial, the other in jeopardy of losing a promising career.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Private Property





I wonder all the time about people's perceptions of public schools. There is still a strong belief in the myth of private schools being "better" than public schools. That, and the fact that public schools are in decline...always in decline.
I suppose if one perceives a school as a tidy place where kids sit in tight little rows, rarely speak, and take multiple choice tests, or live, play, move, run, hide, eat, sleep, and learn in a world where everyone looks the same, then many private schools will do just fine.
Maybe I'm just bitter when people give up on public schools. I know a few folks who recently decided to send their non-Catholic kids to Catholic schools. They believe the schools are safer, more orderly, probably better places to educate their kids. These decisions don't always involve, nor can they involve the kids themselves. They often don't take into consideration the curriculum each school offers. Sadly, many folks are turning their backs on public schools.
I've met a few people, conversely, who see the big picture and courageously support public schools not only by sending their children, but by becoming involved in the school community and informing themselves about the issues and climate that teachers face daily. To me, that's patriotism.
I'm waiting for another "patriot" to come forward and have some faith in the American worker. This week, more and more new stories about thousands losing their jobs emerged. Whole sections of this country are imploding. Perhaps our new president would do well to take a page from FDR's book and help create a new 21st century version of a National Recovery Act. Who will be courageous enough to say to the workforce dumped by our failing and flailing economy here's what I'm going to do. What corporate genius or philanthropist, or entrepreneur, or risk taker will step up and commit to saving the American workforce.
Without our schools and our workers, who are we? Who will or have we become?
How does a nation collectively look at it's priorities? How does it determine what occupations are most valuable?

Monday, January 19, 2009

All Hail


I wish I could say that today marks Dr. King's dream realized. I keep hearing that said, but it's hardly the case. I sure don't want to minimize Obama's election, but the fact is that, as a nation, we have so much more to do. Like many, I wasn't quite sure I would see a black president in my lifetime. When Barack gave his Demo keynote address it was clear that he could go all the way. Of course, it did help that the country has endured what surely must be one of the worst administrations ever. I can't speak about Harding, Grant, Coolidge, or even Milliard Fillmore, but my sense of history tells me W wins the prize.
I love that people are energized, that many now get that community service is about much more than volunteering time, and that a sense of hope is beginning to replace the cynicism and despair we've endured for the last eight years.
When we stop congratulating ourselves, and realize that MLK's dream is about much more than a black president, we'll see how far up the earning curve we can go.
When Martin Luther King Jr. said he had a dream, he found those words off the cuff. They were never written until after the speech. Yet, that's what people remember. Some of the underpinnings for those sentiments are in his "letter from the Birmingham Jail." Dr.King wanted the best for his children and certainly would have loved t see this country today where his son and daughter can enter public facilities and can partake in this democracy in many more ways than he could. But before those comments he expressed stronger feelings.
"America has handed the Negro people a check and it has come back stamped insufficient funds."
There is a little more money in the bank today, but not nearly enough. Checks come back every day. Checks for understanding what race is and isn't. Checks for equity in education. Checks for decent wages, family support, and healthcare.
I'm elated. I know that this inauguration will be a pivotal event in many young people's lives. It is a very big deal. The events we see and experience at crucial times in our lives play a huge role in our developing values. And values are changing. I hear the gears of value shift grinding every day. Because of this, the work that comes now will be complicated.
Today I am proud of my country, whatever that means. Today I feel relief that decent people are in the halls of power. Today I think about yesterday. I see the nine year old with the Willie Mays glove, colorblind, but living in the segregated southwest. I see the 15 year-old crying at news footage of three civil rights workers funerals. I see the 16 year old researching his U S History term paper on voting rights and learning that black citizens that very day are still taking literacy tests with questions like "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" I see the 21 year-old listening to Dr. King link the Vietnam War to social justice. I see the 22 year-old VISTA Volunteer riding a bus in Houston, Texas and being the only one to go to the aid of an elderly black woman who fell on the steps of the bus. I see the KKK poster I took off a telephone pole in my community later that year. I see the young teacher teaching white kids "Rock and Blues Analysis" and black kids something the school board liked to call "Minority History."
Please meet people like Olaudah Equiano, James Forten, Phyllis Wheatly and Denmark Vesey. Say something to Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. Check out Robert Johnson, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. Listen to Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington. Better not miss Coltrane, Miles, The Count and Sarah V. Think about Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Dr. King.
Vote, always vote. This time vote for Barack Obama.

It's been a long time comin'
But I know a change gon' come.

Listen Children



Yesterday, while skimming through Parade magazine I noticed something fascinating. Parade, I would remind you is the insert in most Sunday papers not particularly noted for it's literary prowess. I have developed a new respect for Paradee magazine after reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen. After Parade ran an article about his institute in Bozeman, Montana, they got more contributions in one week than in the previous five years. It's still Parade with the tabloid look and content, but I give them credit for running some articles that reach millions of people.
That's why I wanted to read Barack Obama's letter to his kids in the magazine. With a stunning family picture on the cover, the magazine asked Obama to write to his daughters and let that letter go public. A very thoughtful letter it was, but in my view nowhere near the real letter he has probably written them. But no matter, people, many people will read his thoughts. Given that half the country didn't read a book last year, this may be as good as it gets.
Then I flipped through the rest of the magazine. Sliding over the Wal-Mart ad and the Nutirsystem billboard with two images of before and after Marie Osmond, past the ads for large button phones and Paul Harvey's endorsement of a space heater (yes, that Paul Harvey!) Just about to turn the page when a face beckoned. Not from the center of the page or anywhere near it. Not even a complete face. But a familiar face, nonetheless, cut off at the neck and adorning the lower right hand corner of the page...barely.
It was American advertising icon Uncle Ben, of Uncle Ben's "converted" rice. But now it was Uncle Ben that had been converted. He's gone from the servant to the chairman of the board. Like Aunt Jemima, his image has been brought up to snuff, but guess what, he's still in there. I thought it fascinating that he's sinking down there in the corner. Next to him are the words "BEN knows best." I'll leave that to your imagination, but mine is certainly having a good time with it.
Like a Zen Koan, Uncle Ben will not go away. He has survived as the Africanist presence Toni Morrison speaks of and, in part, as the advertising legend he is. And just what has he brought with him into this new century and new zeitgeist currently busy being born? I'm thinking about that one, but I can tell you this for sure: it isn't about perfect rice every time.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Your's, Mine, or Our's?




This morning as I watched a bit of Barak Obama's historical train ride to the Capital, and listened to the pundits filling time, exchanging observations and generally jaw-jackin,'I was struck by two conflicting notions. The prevailing thought they presented was that for the first time in almost 40 years, many people feel the call to service. Further, they feel part of something bigger, much like young people in the late 60s and early 70s. Even this year's celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday is a call to community service with organizations actually doing everything from physical labor to providing workshops for undocumented workers to learn job resume skills or other valuable information.
One of the CNN pundits, an African American man who is about to turn 40, was very excited to see his generation finally stop complaining and start to actually move their asses and volunteer or, dare I say follow direction and be willing participants.
I was reminded of a conversation I recently had with a 30 something friend of mine who essentially told me that my generation had failed his. I kept my cool, but the combination of his arrogance and ignorance hit me like someone's bad breath. I was ready to gag. Maybe he was upset by the floundering economy, or his inability to find meaningful employment despite his graduate degrees and sharp intellect. If my generation did truly fail his, I was wondering how? In one sense, each fails the succeeding one in that the perfectibility of the human condition leaves much to do.
Now I certainly don't think it wise for one generation to compete with another like a reality show, because I know something that my younger friend does not: social change moves much slower than even we can imagine. AND, it does move. To illustrate this, I need go no further than a little ditty I saw on a former student's Facebook page. I hadn't heard this before, but it could likely be all over the internet for all I know. Perhaps a form of urban computer folklore. It goes someting like this: "Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk, so that Barack Obama could run, so that we could fly."
I can see now that what I must do is help those that have never marched against an unjust war or a brutal police department. Help those that have not been able to separate love of country from distrust of government. Help those that have never experienced the joy of teaching, or the excitement of insight, or the sound of music sinking into hearts and minds.
My generation won't be providing too many more opportunities to pick up the torch. We don't work that way. We just work.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Look, Up In The Sky


No wonder it was unsettling. The sound was formidable. Yet I couldn't keep from looking up. What I thought was an unusually loud group of crows gathering in the trees at around 4:00 p.m. this afternoon turned out to be a rather large flock. First I saw two trees full then extended my gaze and took in three more trees, all topped with gathering crows.
Hard not to think of Hitchcock's "The Birds" when earshot of large groups flying overhead. And do you know what the proper term is for an unusually large bunch of crows? No not a flock, or even a gaggle; it's a murder of crows. Apparently, in large groups, crows will turn on one of their own and kill it if need be. Very human-like aren't they?
I tried counting these crows, but gave up because I didn't want to be underneath them for too long. You understand the danger there. I know it's supposed to be good luck to be shat upon, but I'll just leave the luck collection to my truck. All birds seem to find it easily, especially after it has recently been washed. There were probably close to 100 crows by the time I walked by. So what's the deal? I think it has to do with the sun. We had more sunlight today than probably the last couple of weeks combined. Many of those crows had probably eaten well for the first time in awhile. Probably just a lot of after-dinner conversation. I should have known something was up when I saw seven robins this morning gorging themselves on little red berries growing on a nearby bush. It's not Spring yet, not even close. Just the promise of Spring in a few months.

II.
Today the media is awash with the good news of the U. S. Air crash into the Hudson River "miracle." How wonderful that all who boarded the plane have appeared to exit it. This kind of happy ending is so rare that it bears marking. It occurred to me also that on this evening, when "W" makes his farewell address, and Obama is poised to take the helm that this miracle flight is an omen. With tragic air crashes the defining moment in the Bush administration, let's hope that the ability of the human spirit to survive, as it did today, will foreshadow the next eight years.
Promises to keep...
promises to keep...
before I go.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

New School





I heard from one of the young teachers I mentored during my last year in the classroom. It's only been a few years, but suddenly he's in his 4th year and the brand new $120 million dollar high school that was built on the site of the torn down old school is ready to open.
3 1/2 years in a temporary campus of portables is enough. Nicknamed Guantanamo High School, it really felt like it the one year I thought there. But now the wait is over. A brand new school is a thing to behold. Imagine new school bathrooms. Imagine desks and walls with no graffiti, clean-well lighted rooms, heat, all windows present, supplies. Wow!
I feel relief for the young teachers and all of their students who never had a real campus to call their own. It's bound to make a difference. Right? I hope we will be able to tell. What shall we look for? One place to start will be the mood of the campus. The vibe. Will the students take more pride in their environment? Who will draw the first graffiti? Where will it be and for how long?
Next time I go down to the Bay, I'll pop by the new campus and give it a good going over. It won't be easy. I won't know where anything or anyone is. But I'll find a few teachers I worked with for the better part of 30 years. I'll find many new faces. I won't know one student. How strange.
Undoubtedly, both schools, new and old, will show up in my dreams. They are, after all, the same one in a way. What bothers me now is a sneaking emotion that's jabbing me in the gut. I feel a little...dare I say jealous. Maybe it's envy or just sadness for not being around long enough to enjoy the new campus. I wouldn't wish any teacher the condition of my old classroom, but I sure would like to know the feeling of having a brand new one. In the end, I'm just hopeful that it'll be years before any teacher has to concern herself with broken glass, columns of ants bisecting the room, disintegrating linoleum, pounds of chalk dust, desks used by three generations, (really, the carved names don't lie) faulty lighting, (know what a ballast smells like?) broken furniture, hidden asbestos, door-knobs that break off in your hand, cabinets with no knobs (unless you replace them) WWII file cabinets, outdated maps, and a loud speaker that once fell on my head. But those are just physical things. None matter too much when you factor in all that makes up a classroom. Who enters the space and what happens there is really all you ever take away. Besides, I know some great housecleaning tricks.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Signs of the Times



Russell Baze won the second race at Golden Gate Fields today. Just another one for the world's winningest jockey? Perhaps, but the guy is remarkable. He rides the cheap claiming horses just as hard as the stakes winners. And, if you know Russell, he wants to win the low level races just as bad.
That was certainly the case when I saw him 24 hours earlier in my neck of the woods in a rare appearance at Portland Meadows.
Baze, along with a group of other Bay Area riders was in town to compete in a brief Portland Meadows vs. Golden Gate Fields jockey challenge. Mostly a media creation, the day did give locals an opportunity to get an autograph from a living legend. If you can think of a jockey, any jockey, Bill Shoemaker, Lafitte Pincay, Pat day, Eddie Arcaro, Lester Piggott, anyone...Baze has more wins.
Before he assumed his position signing promo pictures, Russell Baze was standing by the paddock visiting with some old friends he hadn't seen in years. I glided up to him and re-introduced myself. I knew my face would be familiar so I reminded him that I was indeed the guy that wrote his Hall of Fame article for The Bloodhorse magazine eight years ago.
"Oh Yeah," he replied. The guy is a genuinely nice guy. "I'm up here now and I just wanted to say hello," I said.
"Whatja get banished?" he shot back. We both laughed.
" No, I retired and I like to fish. How about something different?" I asked. "Why don't you sign my Racing Form." Before I finished the sentence, his large slanted signature adorned the front page of my form. It was right next to word PORTLAND (Meadows)
I figured this might be worth more someday. If nothing else, it's documented proof that the great "Russell Muscle" indeed rode a few horses in Stumptown. After all, his first winner was named Oregon Warrior.
II
Farewell to a young turf writer named Claire Novak. She recently lost her job as the Bloodhorse laid off about 10% of their staff. The thoroughbred business, as most others, has been hard hit by the economic recession/depression. As if the financial crisis isn't hard enough, the revolution in technology, the loss of newspapers, the way we get our news, opinions, even ideas is changing daily. Careers are ending before they can fully develop, fully mature.
I refuse to offer up all that drivel about landing on your feet, something good will come from this, keep on keepin' on. Claire is hurting and will be forced to fend for herself quite possibly away from the world of horses she so loves. The opportunities are fading, but the horses aren't. I hope both the young turf writer and the sport can reinvent themselves and survive. I hope.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Incomplete



I heard a piece of Terry Gross' interview with writer James Fallows today. The incisive, dependable Fallows, speaking from China at 2:45 a.m. to a thankful Gross was uncharacteristically emotional. It might have something to do with the fact that the Chinese turn off heat in all buildings at night and it was 10 degrees as he answered Terry's questions. More likely, it was because he was talking bout the recent loss of his father that made Fallows so pensive and non-political. Among other things, he noted that his father was not a world traveler like he has been. In fact, Fallow's dad never left the small town where he practiced medicine, served on the school board, and performed a host of other civic duties.
Fallows then went on to explain that his dad was a World War II vet who was expedited through medical school never receiving his college degree because the need for doctors in the war was too great and they needed to get them through school and working as soon as possible. "I think he felt guilty that he never got his degree," Fallows said. "That's why he felt the need to continue to educate himself throughout his life." He went on to add that his father taught himself a few languages and always satisfied his curiosity through study, inquiry, and first hand experience.
My late father-in-law had a similar experience. He too was shipped out in his senior year at U C Berkeley to complete med school in Kansas so that he could be part of the war effort. It bothered him too that he never finished college. So much so that after a twenty year career as an OBGYN, he went back to Cal, got an advanced degree in public health and went on to teach at U C Berkeley until is retirement in 1993. He still traveled to India, China, SE Asia and the like until his Alzheimer's got the best of him by 2000.
I wonder how many people that never complete a degree for some reason or other, find themselves committed to continuing education. Both these men had the luxury of a doc's income to finance their learning. They had the drive too. I wonder how many folks find some way to go up the learning curve on heir own?
In our tabloid culture, it's no wonder very few any more feel guilt about not completing their education. Your best effort is more of a reminder than an automatic. So many 30 somethings I know are hell bent not to work too much. The school guilt may still be around, but it's intertwined with financial or ethical decisions (barely) not educational ones.
I saw in the sports page today that a ball player who had a history of attitude issues with his previous managers and teams has just signed with the Chicago Cubs pending his passing a physical. He's known to serious baseball fans, but not really recognizable to the casual ones. He's also known for injuring himself while throwing a fit over being thrown out. If he passes the doc's exam with flying colors he'll get $30 million over three years. Ten million a year for playing a game while schools lay off more, a tomato costs a buck and a half, and millions are one check away selling that Street Rag full of poems on the corner. This ballplayer's anger and immaturity will pass as entertainment while people on the street will just be passed.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Bring It On










Most of the cars in my neighborhood have been covered with some combination of snow and ice lately. When it melts, it just comes back the next day. Can't remember the last time I washed my truck. I wonder if I get a coat of wax on before the rain starts if it will help protect the paint? Not that I care, just curious.
Just this morning one of my neighbors took the cover off his car. He drives some old rust bucket, but also has another vehicle with one of those gray car covers draped over it that sits in his driveway like a giant boulder. Today, while sunlight broke through teasing Portlanders for half an hour, I found him sitting inside his coverless car. It's a shiny black Ford Mustang, with lots of chrome, impeccably cared for. We exchanged smiles. His grin was brighter than the diamond earring he sports. It's his little piece of the city. It's what he can control. Much more than a car, it probably keeps him sane in some way.
Teacher's classrooms function in the same way. They have the potential to do so much. I like to think that a real classroom can go on teaching without the teacher. Mine could.
I remember once a foolish Vice-principal hollered back at a restless faculty that our classrooms weren't ours. "These aren't your classrooms," she snarled, "they belong to the district and you need to ...blah, blah...I stopped listening right there. They are our classrooms, I submit. They are where we work and live and tolerate, and understand, and cry, and inspire. They contain our furniture, our computers, our files, our food, water, and ideas. They just might contain our souls.
That's why I was saddened to learn from a colleague of mine that the new El Cerrito High School, set to open this month on the site of the old one, may not contain some of the most important parts of the teacher's previous classrooms. My friend tells me, "Can you imagine that, the administration wants the new school to contain everything new. They don't want used furniture, old file cabinets, desks, or other things that otherwise might be perceived as a blight on the new school." Imagine that, these same folks who were silent when concern for the appearance of the old school was on teacher's minds, now want to protect the image of their new campus. Apparently one size fits all is not only in the curriculum, it's in the look!
I urge my colleagues to bring everything they need with them. Your environment is something you have control of...something you need to do your best work. Classrooms, like homes, like buildings and public spaces need to look lived in. They need to feel comfortable. They do their best teaching that way.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Gatekeeper


Here we are suddenly in a new year, just 12 months away from another census, and 24 months away from another decade. Has your sense of urgency gone up a notch? I'm wondering if mine has; too soon to tell.
What follows is a piece originally written as a scene in my memoir. It hasn't made the first draft yet, but easily could. Perhaps my loyal writing group can suggest where it fits best, but for now, it goes here. Because we sense our life changing so rapidly to the many new forms of technology that ease into our routine, I thought it best to set this little piece down here. Consider it a short, short story, or an intelligent essay, or a scene from my book, or perhaps nothing more than a story that needed telling.


Outside the Gates


It felt like we were about to pull off a bank job. We were. Our favorite kind, the Dylan, surprise. Like any premeditated act of guerilla theater, preparation was the key to success.
In Houston, the target was usually our local branch of The Bank of Houston. Its downtown location made for easy in/out access. But my hit and run skills were honed in California, where the practice originated. After all, California had the archetypal villain; The Bank of America. By 1970 it was common knowledge that B of A’s majority owners were the Vatican Jesuits. The inquisition metaphor extended from their 51% controlling interest to the dicey morality of the other 49%. The combination of war profits, investments in Apartheid South Africa, and questionable real estate holdings made B of A the perfect target.
The Dylan surprise was nothing like what happened in Isla Vista. In that student community of U. C. Santa Barbara, the Bank of America came to symbolize every oppressive, capitalist and landlord in Gaucho-land. Emboldened by anger and alcohol, students burned the local branch to the ground. I’d seen the branch office on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley transformed from a modest edifice with glass windows, tasteful landscape, and easy access, to something resembling a World War II bunker. No, the Dylan surprise was quick, nowhere near a felony, and quite possibly capable of long term consequences. Here’s how it worked. Enter the bank, checkbook in hand, and confidently walk to one of the available islands well stocked with deposit and withdrawal forms. Usually stacked in neat piles, they’re often available in two colors, perhaps white for deposits and blue or yellow for withdrawals. While undetected, remove a few slips and neatly print one verse from Bob Dylan’s “Gates of Eden” on the plain backside. Bury the slip, or slips, if time permits more than one, deep in the remaining pile with the neatly printed lyric face up. That way, some unsuspecting cog in the great grinding wheel of ruthless capitalism will be treated to a message from the next generation. A message from the future in the words of the verbal architect himself.
In comes John or Suzy Q citizen to deposit their paycheck. Blindly reaching for a deposit slip they come face to face with this set of words:

The foreign sun, it squints upon
A bed that is never mine
As friends and other strangers
From their fates try to resign
Leaving men wholly, totally free
To do anything they wish to do but die
And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden


I don’t know what we thought this would do. A transformative experience? A momentary diversion? A warning, eliciting guilt, shame, fear? Maybe just a friendly reminder of the one message that provoked the older generation the most: “We are everywhere.”

There was something special about “The Gates of Eden.” Sure, it had a driving, guitar strumming, and harmonica piercing sound. That wasn’t it. It was all in the baffling lyrics. We really had no idea what Dylan was saying, but leaving portions of “Gates of Eden” behind, like random acts of kindness, was somehow empowering. And nobody was any the wiser. God those lyrics could intimidate. I pity the poor plumber who, upon wading through a sewer all day chanced to draw:

The lamppost stands with folded arms
Its iron claws attached
To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail
Though it shadows metal badge
All and all can only fall
With a crashing but meaningless blow
No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden


One afternoon, after a frustrating wait for the mail carrier, I rushed down to The Bank of Houston to cash my bi-monthly $90.00 check. The late Friday afternoon crowd was only about 10 minutes away so any Dylan theatrics today would need to be done quickly. After filling out my deposit slip, I snatched another and neatly printed

The savage soldier sticks his head in sand and then complains
Unto the shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf but still remains
Upon the beach where hound dogs bay at ships with tattooed sails
Heading for the Gates of Eden


The moment my pen stopped writing I sensed someone approaching. No time to slip this “ace” back into the deck, so I placed it lyric side up right on the top of the pile and moved swiftly to the window of an available bank teller. Completing my transaction, I headed for the door. Curiosity got the best of me in time to see the yellow slip adorned with a portion of “Gates of Eden” firmly in a young man’s grip. He wore a U.S. Army uniform. My heart beat faster. It was rare to see any beneficiary of these poetic gifts in person. Before my exit I watched the infantryman smile, nod in recognition, and neatly fold the slip of paper into his breast pocket. We are everywhere.
That night I listened to the song a few more times. No new insight resulted. If anything, some of the images were laughable. Four-legged forest clouds, cowboy angel, Utopian hermit monks, motorcycle black Madonna two wheeled gypsy queen…man Dylan must have been smoking some powerful dope. But there was one verse that stood out from the rest. I carefully copied it on a small note card and placed it in my wallet just behind my identification.

Relationships of ownership they whisper in the wings,
To those condemned to act accordingly and wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs the lonesome sparrow sings,
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden


Then I added the last two lines of the song:
At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true
And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden