Friday, October 30, 2009

Dance in the Dark


I suppose it's just a matter of time until something or someone you know well shows up on tabloid TV.  Given so many cable news (?) outlets,  so many versions of "talk" shows, and so many TV personality types looking for something to talk about daily, something close to home will show up eventually.  
So it was with the upsetting news that a 15-year old girl was gang raped outside a dance on the Richmond H.S. campus.  Shocking, no.  Sadly, this event could have happened in a multitude of places. The pathological mentality and group behavior needed are on display in every socioeconomic level.   Having worked, and at one time, lived in this community, I've seen firsthand the conditions that comprise the Richmond area known as The Iron Triangle.  A tough neighborhood is way too lenient.  It's depravity at it's worst.  This is a poor, ill-served, physically deteriorating, extremely violent and therefore dangerous place.  BUT, as such, it is also home to far more hard-working and decent people.  I have known many over the years I spent teaching in a near-by community.  Many of the students I had lived in this area but merely reported a relative's address in order to attend another school in a safer community.  I once opened the school year at Richmond High School.  Back in the 70s it was new, having been rebuilt, and had many qualities of a beautiful campus.  The years have not been kind to Richmond High.
Still, Richmond High School struggled to provide for its students.  Like all poor public schools, programs were constantly cut, turnover in faculty and staff was always high, anyone who could afford to go elsewhere had either left the school or community, usually both, and every year, despite the obstacles, attempts to provide everything from athletic events and dances, drama, and college counseling continue.
CNN couldn't decide precisely what to cover first.  The sensation of the gang rape, a two hour event which drew a crowd but no callers to 911, or the lack of security provided by the school and district.  Certainly, all factors help to create such a disturbing situation.  But what helps explain the group behavior that lacks empathy to continually victimize a vulnerable young woman?  What's behind the victim's willingness to drink half a bottle of brandy with a "friend" so quickly?  What explains the fear of being a snitch, the desire to video or snap pictures of such an event with  cell phone rather than make a call for help.  Is this desensitization?  Uber peer-pressure? Lack of moral emotions?  Lack of empathy?  Why are young sociopaths so easy to produce?
How does this happen? For surely it has.
I've seen the origins of this kind of behavior first hand.  I recall a time when I once caught some kids breaking into a soda machine. (that's another equally as interesting story) Before I could make my way toward them, another swarm  of kids surrounded me like the secret service in action.  I was lucky, merely screened out, while the culprits escaped.  Of course, nobody saw anything or knew anyone.  That experience is nothing compared to an individual being repeatedly assaulted, but I'll never forget how quickly and completely anyone intending to interfere in the ongoing crime was taken out of the picture.  I'll never forget how helpless I became at the mercy of the group.  This latest outrage is the stuff of predators in a predatory environment.  
I'm still sorting it out; waiting for all the details, arrests, eyewitness accounts to come in.  Of course, it'll soon pass, and soon emerge again in another place, in another form.  But I'm not done here.  
I know something's happening, but not sure what it is...Mr. and Ms. Jones

Monday, October 26, 2009

Rocking with Rilke





"The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things"    -Rilke
Today was one of those dark rainy Portland mornings that screams stay home.  True we get a lot of rain here, and we like that, but not today.  It pounded down in sheets that flooded streets in seconds and left some neighborly custodians of the storm drains battling just to stand up.  
Part of me just wanted to roll over an die.  I've been battling a nasty cold that moved from sore throat to deep in my lungs overnight.  I would have just rocked in my favorite rocking chair and hoped for sleep too (God I sound old!) but Katie had to babysit for her niece and I needed to get up and get her there and just b on stand-by.  She likes it that way, and we try to be there for one another in bad weather.
So here I sit in a crowded little coffeehouse on the border between NE and N Portland.  Somehow in this hour or two of need I went to the web and found my old friend Rilke.  Even his profundity can be soothing to a head cold.  The quote above jumped out at me, if only for it's contradictory nature. 
Rilke is so much a bridge between Western and Eastern thought for me. His ideas can be stated so simply and contain so much.  To be defeated by greater and greater things is a nice way to look at disappointment.  It's also another way to say that the meaning of life is in the transitions, and to keep pushing forward against everything from all odds to the self-righteous, from the misguided to the misunderstood, the privileged and power-driven to the silent and frightened.
Rilke helps me breathe a little easier today.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sail On Soupy



Sad day.  I just heard about the death of Soupy Sales.  Not sad for long.  It's impossible to talk or even think about Soupy without laughing.  
Even the CBS Evening News had a piece about Soupy tonight.  For any Baby Boomer, the Soupy Sales Show was like no other.  Here's the thing: lots of slapstick, really bad jokes, two dogs for pets represented by huge white or black arms with claws.  (White Fang and Black Tooth)  Two puppets for friends (Pookie the lion and Hippie, a hippo.)  And lots of knocking on his door which usually ended in a shaving cream pie in the face.
Soupy Sales made everybody laugh.  He was the perfect sucker, the perfect dupe, the grown up who acted like a kid.  His world was ridiculous.  That's why it worked.  If you came home in 1965 with Middle School angst, one episode of Soupy Sales would be all it took to release all those wonderful brain chemicals that come with laughter.  
Case in point: Right in the middle of something his phone would ring.  "Excuse me," he'd say to the big white paw known as White Fang.  He's answer the phone.  "Yes?  You don't say.  You don't say.   Hmmm...You don't say.  You DON"T Say.  You don't say.  OK bye."White Fang would reply, "WA Raa Raa EuAA AH AH?"   
"Oh who was that?"  Soupy would say.  "He didn't say."
Bam! A pie in the face.  No matter how many times, it was funny.
Like all institutions, a good deal of folklore about Soupy existed.  It was true that once his crew sent a topless stripper (who never got on camera) to the door when he was on the air.  
One Halloween, from the 9th grade years of my life, I came to school dressed as Soupy.  For months my friends had been telling me that thee was quite a resemblance, so I decided to milk it for all I could get.  My mom helped me make a checkered bow tie on elastic so everyone could pull/snap it just like they did to Soupy.  I got a plastic replica of a crushed top hat, wore a pullover sweater, and damned if I didn't look like the man himself.  I think I even won honorable mention in some sort of competition at the dance that afternoon.  (Vampires always win these things)  For a few shining hours, I was Soupy Sales and I didn't even get hit with a pie!
Of course, the Soupy Sales Show was full of double entendre.  It existed on many levels, but all of them were funny.  Simply funny.  He didn't need to put anybody or anything down.  He was just funny.
Sail on Soupy.   

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Best Policy






This morning on my local Public Broadcasting station I listened to a portion of a call-in show on class size as a crucial issue in education today. I'm sure some figures were recently released placing Oregon among the states with the highest class sizes. I'm sure too, that some socially conscious producer put together a panel of "experts" to discuss the issue and invite listeners at home to call in and make comments.
I admit I only heard a portion of the program, but I feel compelled to comment on what I did hear. OK, I'll go straight to the point; what got my goat was a panel member who had taught for a little while and is now a "policy wonk." When this person was asked why she left the classroom, her answer skillfully moved from never giving any specific detail to a description of how policy was her real calling, to some other murky mumblings about other murky things. My point: how can someone who has never taught more than at least one decade be qualified to discuss the issue of class size? Granted, it only takes one year in the classroom to learn that the number of bodies under your charge has major consequences. Sure they can spout figures and studies, but my feeling is if they are still questioning whether or not class size matters, they' haven't a clue.
Emboldened by my surging frustration, I placed a comment on the OPB web site.
I fear I'm becoming a curmudgeon. It seems as if I have this strong drive to react to things I hear in the media, especially about education issues. Maybe it's become my role. If so, I need to think about how to continue to play this role without alienating the people I'm trying to reach. It's just rather difficult to keep my cool when the issue, like most in education today has a lot to do with political will. Why do we continually have to convince ourselves that we deserve good schools? Most educators I know have come to realize that people who study the issues and sit in think tanks all day mean well, but their efforts rarely effect change.
More and more I'm coming to believe that there is a strong parallel between education reform and health care reform. Put simply, what do we care about more...health or profit. Who do we care more about people or insurance companies? In our public schools today, what do we care about more, test scores or educating people. Who do we care more about...teachers or policy makers.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Suddenly Sexist


By the time I got to Wordstock, Portland's very own literary festival, it was Sunday. I'd carefully underlined all workshops and author presentations about memoir, because, let's face it, I'd still like to market my book in this economy. Seeing and hearing, and hopefully talking to some writers who had scored book deals would be inspirational, fun, beneficial. Most of what I thought might be useful was slated for Saturday. In the final analysis, I was not willing to give up the opportunity to watch some of the Breeder's Cup prep races, and, of course, Zenyatta win her 13th consecutive race.
So here I was on Sunday, touring the booths, the book sellers, the opportunities from self-publishing, to all manner of MFA programs. At noon, I noticed a pairing of authors that had both recently published memoirs. Giulia Melucci and Andy Raskin are both Brooklyn born writers, but that's where the comparison ends. Both have books out about their love lives. Raskin's is a clever book called The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life. Aside from learning much more than I could have ever imagined about he history of Top Ramen and its wealthy, recently departed inventor, I have no clue how the sodium laced, just add water favorite saved anything. Raskin announced that his present girlfriend was in attendance, so he wouldn't be reading any letters from his ex-girlfriends found in the book. Apparently he had a problem with fidelity in his many previous relationships (he appears to be in his late 30s) and the business philosophy of the Ramen king was better than any therapy available at the time. We'll never know. Maybe it was a clever guise to make us buy the book.
The other writer, Ms. Melucci, was all too eager to give us every detail, as described in her book, I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti. She's an attractive, slightly zoftig 42 year old (I looked it up) who details, with recipes included, how she cooked for and lost all the marriage potential she ever found, fed, f'ked and frightened away. In the middle of her reading, she announced that the mother of one of her ex-boyfriends was present. She was pleased and from the reciprocal reaction of the older woman sitting in the front row, they still were great friends. "He's let me down too often," she said, "but he's read my book and OK with it."
In the selection she read to the 50 or so in attendance, there is a scene recounting her first meeting with "Mitch." Much like a blind date, they agree on a coffeehouse and meet for the first time. Giulia describes how they are in line, ordering a beverage, when he takes out some money. She counters with a $10 bill, saying "here's some money." He takes it.
During the Q and A session that followed, a young woman took the mic and offered a comment: "You should have known right then, when he took your money, what kind of person he was and that this relationship would never work." Applause. Probably right. Certainly had I been in that position, I'd have paid for the drinks. But I kept wondering about the entire area of dating etiquette in this post-feminist era. I remember a time when men were getting a strong message that women were independent, that they often preferred to pay their share on a date, especially if it's a first date. These equity issues also spilled over to opening up car doors, and other suddenly "sexist" forms of male behavior.
Many men my age get this. We understand that having someone pay for you all the time is not always preferable. I clearly recall wondering, when I opened a car door for a date, whether or not this would be judged as a good or bad thing. Feeling the cognitive dissonance of this issue, I remained after the presentation was over and managed to get my question heard by Ms. Melucci. "Giulia," I asked, when did the feminist movement decide that it was OK for men to pay all the time.?" I also added that I get what she's saying, and that my concern was not about the money, I simply wanted to know what the latest thinking was on this issue. I figured that since she worked for a number of publishers, had a book deal for her first book, and was a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she'd be the perfect person to inform me.
"It's post-feminism," she said, and then shot me a look that dismissed my question as anything but serious.
I think I know why marriage is eluding this writer.
Post Wordstock
I went home and looked up the term "post-feminist dating." Apparently I am not alone. And not just men what to know what's going on. A number of women acknowledge 3rd wave feminism, but still are concerned with a generation who are all too willing to sacrifice the consciousness that was raised and overcome a few decades ago.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Whitopia at Sundown



" By 2042, whites will no longer be the American majority. As immigrant populations -- largely people of color -- increase in cities and suburbs, more and more whites are moving to small towns and exurban areas that are predominately, even extremely, white. Rich Benjamin calls these enclaves "Whitopias" (pronounced: "White-o-pias").
A couple of days ago I listened with ever increasing interest to a program on NPR featuring Rich Benjamin, the author of the new book Whitopia.
Benjamin a black journalist, went to live in 3 enclaves that are overwhelmingly white communities. Places like St. George, Utah or Couer d 'Alene, Idaho. His book looks at this phenomena and without any heavy handed message, simply asks some questions about how the changing demography of the U.S. will impact our lives.
By the way, Benjamin was treated very well in these all-white communities, enjoyed playing golf, talking to people, and moving about without any problems.
After the program I logged on to the NPR web site and began to read the many comments that came filtering in. Lot's of spirited dialogue. Most folks took offense at there being something wrong with communities that don't seem to care about diversity. I was a bit surprised. Any notion that we are living in a post-racial America died right there on the computer screen.
"What's wrong with people living where they want to live? You liberals and bleeding-hearts can go on and live in your "diverse" crime-infested, trashed communities all you want; just stop guilt-tripping me about this. What about a blacktopia? or a browntopia?"

(Isn't that a ghetto?) If it is, there's not too much topia about it.)

Lots of fear,
Lots of anger,
Very little knowledge and understanding of American history, in my view.
One of the people who commented on the NPR site did mention another important book. She cited Sundown Towns, by James Loewen. The were (and still are) towns which had laws that no non-white person could remain after the sun went down. Now some folks find this rather hard to believe. They need only study history to document this claim. This puts a different spin on the reason why people decide to live where they do.
Taking a peek at other sites and discussion boards about Whitopia, it's clear that the systemic segregation in this country is not an important issue for many people.
How does that bode for the future? No wonder there is a cultural war. No wonder our schools are so segregated.
This story contrasts sharply with the murder of a black honors student in the meanest streets of Chicago last week. Lots of finger pointing there. Imagine, some folks blaming the teachers in that community. When so many young people are aimless, violent, without moral emotions, without families, it's a no brainer.
When I see the departure of so many tangible things like books, newspapers, school budgets, music made by musicians on real instruments...
I wonder about life in 2042.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Met





Spent the first two days of October on the Metolius river in central Oregon. This was my first time between July and December. I've seen the Metolius on triple digit days and covered with a white winter ground cloth. October brings the changing of the seasons to this miraculous topography. If you don't know the Metolious, be advised. It is like no other region in the world. It's silent beauty put the awe in awesome. With that comes it fragility. Nonetheless, the river and it's environs are protected by those who inhabit the area and the small hamlet of Camp Sherman. They know what they have; they get it.
For fly fishers, the Metolious is uber unforgiving. That's part of it's charm. It takes more than luck or skill to catch fish there. It takes time. As in years. Even in the small tributary, Lake Creek, that I love to fish, I encountered nobody who caught anything. All were happy just to be there. If the fishing is difficult, the scenery more than makes up for the disappointment. This year was unlike any other I've seen in the last 10 years. The river was full of Kokanee salmon. Visible in holding patterns near the banks, they are the result of rigorous regulations and the political will to restore the area to it's original state. The locals were ecstatic. After the salmon spawn, their eggs will feed many of the resident redside and bull trout populations, and the decomposing flesh of the spawned out Kokanee will enrich the aquatic insect life. Win, win.
The water and the air felt like they were both in the 40s. Aside from some small stream spawned trout (first photo) who enthusiastically rose to a dry fly (why do 4 inch fish rise to a fly almost as big as their heads?) the Kokanee had other things on their mind. They fed on invisible plankton and couldn't be bothered with anything thrown their way.
It wasn't until Friday afternoon, when the sun came out from behind marbled clouds that I noticed a small hatch of cream-colored mayflies. Katie was with me, placing her folding chair on ground that would support, lifting her head up from reading Wally Lamb long enough to suggest a seam in the water or a location free of backcast interference.
"I want to try a small mayfly pattern," I said. "There is a small hatch happening and I think I have something that would drift well in the right spot." We moved a final time. The stream leveled out nicely to a broad swift section with subtle eddies and swirls. On about the fifth cast, we were rewarded with a spunky Redside bending the rod and trying to duck under overhanging vegetation right off the bank. I brought him in and asked Katie to hold the rod while I fumbled for my camera. This fish was a shock of bright red and gold with black spots. He had no plans to be photographed and let me know right away. Shaking free of the hook, he tumbled back into his pristine world leaving me as abruptly as he took my fly. Left with only his striking image I'm reminded, again, that these waters are like no other. The mystery continues. I so wanted to enjoy his coloration all winter long. Instead, I'm satisfied that we both made it home safe.