Monday, December 27, 2010

Not or Never

A fascinating issue is playing out in the editorial pages of my local paper. Actually, just the fact that I still have a local newspaper is in no small way related to this issue. But that comes later. Here's the deal: The state Superintendent of Public Instruction recently ruled that it's Ok for students to use spell checks when taking tests on computers, or for any assignment. First of all, it's not that they could prevent this, but just the fact that a ruling came down from on high has sparked a huge disagreement. For some it's about the importance of knowing how to spell words. If we allow students to conveniently have their mistakes corrected for them then we are doing a huge disservice to them. On the other side is the view that using a spell check program actually teaches spelling.
I see the merits of both sides. The traditionalists want students to learn spelling and grammar. The progressives feel that while important, it's more important to allow students to take advantage of all the technology, possibly learn to spell by using the spell check program as a dictionary, and turning in a better piece of writing to boot.
I think it's all a moot point. When are some folks going to learn you can't go backwards on technology. It's wishful thinking. If the technology is available, if it exists, students will find and use it. Punto! (that means period...end of sentence...end of argument)*

I think, too, that the expression, development, and illustration of ideas trumps spelling and grammar. Now I know all about the form vs. substance debate. Both are important, but really now, if you had to choose between the two, which is more important?
What's clear is that things are changing and we have to change with them.
What happens when people are not burdened with making spelling errors because anything glaring will be caught? A few things. Proofreading becomes even more important because of all the typos that waltz through undetected. Take a little commonly made error like writing n o t instead of n o w. "We should now pursue that plan."
Let the spell check teach, let the writer proof read.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Confirm Now

Today I had a real social network experience. A friend of mine posted an article from CNN about a new study of Baby Boomers. This study concluded that the majority of boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were depressed. Among other things it suggested that "boomers" were dealing with depression because all their dreams of a better world were not realized. OK things are not going well these days. The economy is in the toilet, the cost of a college education is through the roof, people are seeing terrorists everywhere, while many of the real terrorists look like their next door neighbors. Hate abounds. Homelessness thrives, and it's difficult to have a conversation of substance lest you step on somebody's sensibilities. In my view, we boomers are not any more depressed than anyone of any generation.
OK, so I've been having this ongoing online discussion with a Facebook friend of a friend all day. In the end, though we disagree on everything from the definition of a "hippie" to how the history of the 60s will be written, in the end, we "Friended" each other.
Another confirmation came from the official site of comedian Bill Maher. In his annual Christmas message, he had the "huevos" to say something about the queen of all media Oprah. Here, see for yourself:

Bill Maher's video "Check out my Christmas message t…" on WhoSay

I don't think we'll be seeing Bill on Oprah anytime soon.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I'll be brief, I promise. No lecture. No diatribe. Just the facts.
I saw it in the paper this morning. One of those advice columns, but not the famous ones. This guy writes in with a real concern about his wife. Sees as if she went out and bought an expensive bottle of perfume. Then she gives him specific instructions to wrap it up and give it to her for a Christmas present. That simple. His complaint was that he longed to get back to the way his family did holiday gift giving. He used the words joy and surprise.
I'm not sure which got to me more, the initial scenario he presented or the "advice" he was given. The columnist missed the boat on this one. She told him to accept that his wife has clear expectations about how gifts should be given and wanted to adhere to her family's holiday traditions. She further urged this guy to find what he loved about his wife the most and focus on that. Imagine that, no mention of this distorted notion of holiday spirit.
It's not that I'm surprised, just slightly disappointed. Has this culture's bastardization of any true notion of this season become so disconnected that even a supposed "expert" can't see what's going on here.
What is the definition of a gift anyway? Is it "something I'd like you to have." Is it "something I thought you would like?" How about "something I gotta do?"
I gave a few people on my list this year what I think is a win/win/win. A local artist, in conjunction with raising money for Gulf Coast Recovery, (BP oil spill) is offering beautiful, decorative tiles with the image of a brown pelican for a contribution to the fund. My family/friends get the art work, the fund gets the money, and I get the privilege of keeping to my tradition of gift giving.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What Do You Know?

"How many of you have heard of Nelson Mandela?" The class of 32 high school seniors barely moved until one hand went up.
"Can you tell us something about Nelson Mandela," the student teacher asked.
"Ah... he looks a lot like Morgan Freeman."
In one of my observations the other day, I heard the aforementioned discussion. Yes, it's really true that many college bound high school seniors know very little about South Africa and Nelson Mandela.
When this particular student teacher introduced his world affairs class to the topic, I was asked by the cooperating teacher (aka master teacher) to participate in the discussion. He was eager to have me tell the class about the day that Mandela was released, given that it was a most memorable day in my own classroom and something that these students knew very little about. If you do the math it's easy to see why. They were barely 2 years old at the time.
The intro lessen for my student teacher went very well and when my time came I managed to pack in as much as I could with my allotted 10 min. We never really got to Mandela's release because building an understanding about just what Apartheid was and looked like too the entire time. I decided to do a mini demo about why race is a bogus concept. By having the tallest and shortest kids stand and then the lightest and darkest we talked about how everyone has the same 6 genes for skin color, but that the biggest genetic difference in the classroom was in height. Fortunately the kids responded well and when a blond, blue-eyed kid volunteered to "be the white guy," and one f only two African American girls in the class volunteered to be the person with the darkest skin tone, the point was well taken.
Before the lesson ended I heard a baby cry. Then more noise and a student got up holding a lifelike doll and slowly walked out of the room with the screaming infant. Immediately I knew it was a doll and what was going on. One of those "Social Living" class activities where students are part of a simulation about pregnancy and childcare. Back in the day we used uncooked eggs as the vulnerable life form. Today, the technology is so advanced that the simulated child looks and sounds real. Only the issues about teen pregnancy and birth control are the same.
When I return to this classroom in a month or so (Winter Break) I'll have a chance to see what they know about Mandela. I did mention, though, imagine what it's like going from prisoner to president?

I noted too that someone in Portland last week dropped a S. African gold Krugerrand into a Salvation Army bucket. It's worth about $1200. these days. No mention was made about the system and working conditions that produced that coin. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

About the Money

It's a vague recollection, but I remember it clearly. Is that a contradiction? Not really, I definitely recall an exchange in the main hallway of my old school. It was late afternoon, between 4:30 and 5:00p.m. As I remember, I was walking toward the main office probably turning in my attendance sheets. A student walked toward me and said hello. He called me by name. I reciprocated, calling him by name. He knew me though he was never in one of my classes. I knew him because I'd seen him play on our school's basketball team and many of my students were his friends. He had just signed a letter of intent to play basketball for the University of Kansas (KU) one the perennial powerhouses of college hoops.
I followed his career through ESPN and was only mildly surprised when he only played two years of collegiate ball and turned pro after only two years. The money is too big to turn down, especially for a kid from Richmond, California.
As with all NBA players, part of his initial salary went to establish a scholarship at his high school. Money well spent. According to tennis great Arthur Ashe, who used to give presentations nationwide, there are only a few thousand professional athletes in this country. That's all. If you take all the pro football, baseball, and basketball players, their number combined is less than 5,000. Given the number of kids who aspire to be professional athletes is in the millions. Ashe used to say that the odds of making it to the big show were 1 in 1000. "Would you bet your future at odds of a thousand to one?" he'd ask.
Yet, they all have the dream, and rightly so. Most don't really care about the odds.
A couple of weeks ago I asked a friend about this particular basket ballplayer because it's been almost 10 years now. I was curious if he was still playing in the NBA and if the scholarship fund was still in tact. I knew he had been traded a few times and enjoyed mild success, but was now more of a journeyman. So I decided to do a little research and found that at this point in his career he has played for no less than 9 NBA teams. On his way out? Hardly, I further read that he just signed a 5 year 32 million dollar contract. Guess the scholarship will be around for awhile.
I tell this story only because it underscores more about the values of this culture than a 10,000 word essay, prolifically illustrated, ever could. He's on his way out of the NBA and is earning 6.2 million a year for the next 5 years.
Every year people try to convince me and others that we really care about education. That it really isn't about money. That this country and culture are the greatest ever. (BTW why must one always be better than all others?) I certainly don't begrudge any professional athlete form earning a living wage. But really now...
The battle lines have been drawn in this latest attempt to ward off a corporate takeover. Teachers won't be signing 5 year deals but like the world of corporate athletics, will be under pressure to produce or fail to make the cut. Their stats will be published in the local press, if injured, their contracts will not be renewed. Unlike the pro athletes, they feel no pressure to terminate their education early. In fact, as teachers, they are lifelong students.
No, it's not about the money. I wouldn't know how to live on 6 million a year. I wouldn't want all the madness that would bring. Aside from a decent place to live, if I had excess money I'd travel. But then, I think a teaching credential should be a boarding pass to anywhere at anytime anyway.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Say Something

I taught Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize winning play Death of a Salesman for over 20 years. Never got tired of listening to the lines either, though I must admit, I was always conscious of where I needed to be by the time a class period ended. That makes for hoping something I know will happen does happen before the bell rings. It means, too, that some discussions have to be revisited because getting back into the moment will take 24 hours.
Still, it all got done and I can truthfully say that it was a rare student who didn't find something to relate to in the anguish of the Loman family.
I thought about teaching the play this week because of a few discussions I've read and had lately about substance. In this tabloid Twitter technological trifecta that is media today, there is much that passes for journalism, that passes for drama, that passes for a good story that is featherweight. Sadly, that's just the way most folks like it.
When I taught "Salesman" I began with a little story that needs to find itself into these pages. Before Act 1 began, I told my classes about my friend Ed Robbin. Ed and I were featured players in a performance called "An Evening with Woody Guthrie" that survived in many bars, taverns, community theaters, fund raisers, benefits, and campus auditoriums throughout central and northern California from 1979 until about 1986. Ed knew Woody; in fact helped put him on the radio when he first got to California. He joined our little troupe when it was evident that his recollections and stories of the Depression era would really provide a contribution to the overall production. Ed died shortly after we stopped playing the circuit of clubs and coffeehouses but during those years we became good friends. His experience as a writer and theater director were an added bonus. So it was no surprise when Ed asked me to accompany him one night to a preview of a major new play in San Francisco. The playwright shall remain anonymous, but suffice it to say, he's a known award winner and very much alive. On this particular evening the director invited audience members to remain after the final curtain and participate in a discussion about the performance. Ed indicated he was interested. We found our way to the first few rows center stage in the Geary Theater (I'd never been that close before) and soon the director came out. The curtain opened and the cast were sitting in a half circle on chairs right in front of us. A question and answer session ensued. Within a few minutes Ed raised his hand and all present turned to look at this 76 year old, long white hair covered by a navy blue seaman's cap. Ed's olive skin, the deep set lines in his face, the pleasant smile, the distinguished look all made him attractive. People waited anxiously for him to speak because, simply put, he just looked like somebody important. Ed rose.
"You're all very good," he said to the cast nodding his head as he panned the group. "But the play doesn't day anything."
"A play has to say something; this play doesn't say anything."
With that, Ed smiled politely and said, "c'mon Bruce, I'm ready to go now."
I know he was right; the play didn't really say much. I'd tell this story to my classes and then hold up a copy of "Salesman."
"This is a play that says something."
As a writer, Ed's little escapade has never left me. Seems like there are a lot of emperors out there today, and they've all got new clothes.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanks, giving (Sic)

A fantasy began in my head shortly after my high school graduation.
I'd be flying in for the holidays with my family, small as it is,
a wife and kids sometimes made their appearance in this internal mirror.
Fireplaces, traditional recipes, fine Kentucky bourbon in the egg nog, mom's pies, and my ever unpredictable Aunt Dorothy all took their places on this set.
This film was never made; could never be made. Not the early death of mom, nor the relationships that never evolved at their proper pace. Not the family home that would always be there, but the reality of flying in this age of scanning and screens, this worldview of instant terror, complex issues made painstakingly simple with the aid of a tabloid mind and a disdain for human kind.
But this year was fun, in it's own way. 21 people focused on each other for an hour and then swirling about one house for three days. 21 people from 2-90 in age. Here's what remains:

ant invasion thwarted before the real cooking begins, 6 year old melts down, Bruce, take out this recycling and trash, where's the beer? How come I can't get online all of a sudden, what time is dinner? 8 year old demands water, now! Detroit Lions are actually winning in the second quarter, Bruce get a turkey roasting pan and rack, and twine for stitching up the turkey (it's 5:00 p.m. on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. How many pizzas will it take? Bruce can you replace these light bulbs... one of the nephews asks me about Portland, forgetting that he's a recovering alcoholic I tell him, among other things, that it's a great town, especially if you like beer. "I liked it too much," he reminds me. No need to stuff the turkey now, just stuff my mouth. Bruce fold these towels, 9 year old trips and falls needs attention. This kid needs a first aid kit around her neck. Detroit loses, again; I really want to duck out the back and go have a drink with some former students who are now in their mid-20s and 30s, window of opportunity slams down when no one moves to do the dishes and I won't let the ants win this round, diswashing and clean up become meditation time. I never forget those less fortunate, out there in sub freezing weather with no family attachment, no certain overnight place, those who experience holidays like this one as a day ling tear drop, waiting for sun up on just a normal...Bruce this garbage needs to be taken out...
On the morning after I meet a friend for coffee and we go to Golden Gate Fields for a couple of hours. I see a few familiar faces, more gray and white hair now. "I couldn't really retire because I need the medical benefits, so I guess I'll just keep working."
My horse wins, but gets DQ'd (bullshit!) and my friend's horse gets the money; so does he. That's O I play one more race and cash a ticket and get ready for the trip home.
Next day, 12 hour drive becomes 14 as we do the chains on chains off? dance up the interstate. The snow falling is beautiful but a cautionary tale...road condition and weather change abruptly. By Ashland, a good meal, place to pee, chance to walk around, better radio station. Gas goes from $3.24 to $2.89 ... By Eugene, a Saturday evening radio show with a stoned wilting flower-child playing Grateful Dead concert recordings from the early 70s, zzzzstaticzzz, she morphs into Portland's Jazz station as far south as Salem....we be-bop into town, over the Ross Island Bridge, up Powell Blvd. over to Division, and around Ladd's Circle and down my street. Leaf picked happened and curb is in sight. Home in time to see Portland now has a Christmas tree bomber. Still, my dental appointment on Tuesday next doesn't look so bad. Scuse me, got to take out the garbage.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mom and Pop Psychology

There is a little shop in Portland that is part retail sales, part art gallery. It has an outstanding collection of Dia de Los Muertos (day of the dead) objects and is particularly good for finding off beat holiday items for any major, and a few minor, holidays. But last week, none of that caught my eye. What did was a little volume shaped like a ruler and titled The Golden Rule.
The book takes this culture's version of the Golden Rule-Do unto others as you would have them do unto you- and translated that axiom into various languages/meanings in many, many cultures. In other words, most cultures have that little saying in some form or another.
If you like to think that you are a rational person, living in a rationale world, then you no doubt believe in this little ditty. Like me, you may have been taught to do unto others early and often. It's safe to say we need a book to remind us of this important principle these days, but that's not my message here, or is it always a reasonable expectation.
"You teach people how to treat you," is a favorite phrase of TV psychologist Dr. Phil. We all know what he means, and he is quite right. Isn't that another version of The Golden Rule? I offer a small example here. Last night we got in to the Bay Area from Portland. 12 hours straight through to Berkeley, through rain, sleet, a little snow, just like the USPS. As this is written, I've been here 24 hours and my mother-in-law is teaching me well. Oh she's teaching me how to treat her all right. I'm going to avoid her as much as I can because she has taught me to; she's treating me right now like her errand boy, handy-man, naive, son. I am none of the above, so I have learned to make myself scarce. In a day or two, other family members will arrive from all over and there will be grand kids and much ado and some of the nephews will inherit the chores and demands of the grande dame. Till then, I'll keep learning. I will take out the trash, the recycling, and run a few other errands for her. I am not a rock and after all she is 85 years old. But first she'll have to find me. It's not the list of tasks, it's her manner, pure and simple.
The Beatles said it well too. ...And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make." Like Eliade's "Myth of the Eternal Return," it's a final summing up on the cosmic scale of justice, isn't it?
But like most things, it's complicated. Of course it's important to treat others as we would like to be treated, but it is not always possible to do that, I submit. There may be circumstances, because of who we are, that discretion is the better part of fairness.
I remember anti-war activist David Harris trying to explain to a group of inquisitive students why each person has the responsibility for ending war by looking deep into themselves first. To say war will only end when each individual chooses not to participate certainly is understandable, but it is difficult for many to understand. Yet the principle is sound.
"Look," Harris would say, if you do shit all your life, what you are left with at the end is a big pile of shit."
Some say dharma, some say justice, some say a lesson taught, some say "what goes around, comes around."
It's all golden.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sometimes It's Just Tough

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to take on supervision duties for another student teacher. All I knew was that for some reason, she was not able to complete the program last year and needed only one semester of teaching time along with a complete Work Sample, to receive her MAT.
Guess I knew from the git-go that this association would be a short one. The anticipation, the body language, the lack of curiosity...all the signs were there. Yesterday, after only a couple of weeks, she made the decision not to pursue a career in teaching.
"Do we want to same everyone?" was a question posed by the director of the program I work with. We all knew the answer.
The conversation that led to this one particular student teacher not going on was surprisingly easy. Once the decision was made, the aura of relief was palatable. More than anything, this candidate had difficulty with how all consuming teaching can be. She didn't want to bring it home with her; I guess she thought it was like any job. Hardly.
So, all in all, it was a good day. When someone has a tremendous burden lifted, the change in personality is immediate.
It made me wonder, though, how many unhappy people in the profession would feel a similar sense of relief if they were allowed to make that same, tough decision. We talk all the time about easing some folks out of the profession. I remember one colleague of mine and I used to secretly consider placing want-ads and job classifieds into the mailbox of someone who was supremely ineffective as a teacher. Just to let him know it was OK to move on. Arrogant? Presumptuous? Mean-spirited? Yes, I suppose. But I'd counter with caring, supportive, enabling, as well.
This latest experience is all the more fascinating because the student teacher that is no more was young, just starting out. I have another this year who is much older; in fact, almost as old as me. He has the mental toughness and ability to be self-critical that it takes. He gets that teachers, like their students are remarkably resilient. He'll learn, in time, how truly complicated teaching and educational reform really is. Don't think so? Take a look at this:

Thursday, November 11, 2010


I love to check out what other buy in the grocery store. If I happen to go to my local Fred Meyer store it's even more interesting because "Freddies," as most people in the Northwest say, is both a department store and a grocery store. When we place our items on the conveyer belt to be scanned, all manner of still live emerge.
A woman in front of me today caught my attention because right there in the big middle of yogurt in various flavors, some cottage cheese, and various staples, stood a bottle of champagne. I couldn't help myself.
"You must be celebrating something," I said.
Long pause. Oh shit, I'm annoying her, I've overstepped...and then
"Yes, we just finished a renovation, it is a little celebration."
What followed was a wonderful 5 minute discussion about writing. Turns out she was impressed with my observation. Impressed enough to want to continue the conversation.
"You must be an artist or something to notice that," she said.
"No, a writer, but I do notice things like that."
We proceeded to talk about how hard it is to find the time to write and how most people, if not everyone has something to say.
Could have talked longer. She mentioned she wrote things for her job, but procrastinated when it came to her own attempts to be creative.
I decided then and there I wanted to save her, motivate her to take the time to write. But check out at the store is hardly enough time to weave magic.
"Nice talking to you."
Maybe it didn't end there. I suggested she try a blog. Maybe she has more to celebrate.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

So Zen

It's 6 a.m. or at least I think it is. I had to get up and move my truck because the city of Portland will be by with their annual, you get one shot, leaf clean-up and they need to get to the curb. I live on a street with historically large elm trees. In the summer they are strikingly beautiful. In the winter, they shed everything from leaves to seeds, to sap and an occasional large branch, not to mention the continual barrage of small twigs, bird droppings, and a mossy substance that occasionally pelts my windshield.
I looked forward to getting up early. Had to make sure the clock was turned back, alarm set, and I was ready for the rain. My truck now sits about a half mile near home, close to a movie theater on a main drag. No leaf crew there. This is what I needed to sort out Zenyatta's performance yesterday.
Notice I didn't say loss. Sometimes a win and a loss are the same thing. So Zen.
Sure I've been numb since her head crossed the wire about a foot behind the head of Blame, a magnificent competitor in his own right. But it was always about Zenyatta. From where I see it, it still is. We won't see anything like her again in my lifetime.
My forced walk so early this morning gave me the opportunity to figure out a few things. Like the sport of horse racing itself, the race horse is a mirror. It reflects outwardly everything that we are. From the worshipers and haters, to the addicted gamblers, the artists, the dreamers. From the children and the uninitiated, to the child-like and the veterans, we all come to drink from the fountain and we all leave something.
We wanted perfection. Just one time. But Zenyatta took our burgeoning hubris and reminded us... nope, not this time, or ever. It doesn't work that way.
What we are left with is knowledge, insight, and wonder. The kind of things that can come in a dimly lit walk in the rain at dawn. That's not so bad after all.

Monday, November 1, 2010

On the Wall

Social media continues to make it's presence felt in previously unimaginable ways. Bad enough there have been lives ruined, suicides, cyber-bullies, and unwanted advances of all manner and scope.
Another fascinating new dilemma has emerged to add to this unpredictable mix. What about "friends" that you have collected who don't actually share many of your values. People with whom your politics, or concept of religion, or life experience, or taste in everything from reading material to food is 180 degrees the other way.
Yet somehow, the two of you have shared something. A common thread has wrapped it's way around your lives and there you sit, face to face, literally.
I have acquired a number of these contra indications on Facebook and I'm just now beginning to deal with the possibilities. Mostly the consequences take the form of wondering just how my page appears to them. Many of the people I know from the thoroughbred horse industry are religious and politically conservative. Of course there are those horse folks whose views are similar to my own, but for the most part, some real value conflicts exist. They are rarely, if ever expressed. Maybe that's a good thing. Are they as tolerant as I am? That's what I wonder. Do they notice these glaring differences in worldview? Do they care?
One thing is certain, I have never been "de-friended" for my political view as far as I can tell.
I like to think that I may be tempting others to think about the kinds of things that I post. Guess that's the teacher in me. But then I also know that no real comprehensive level of discussion ever takes place on Facebook. Quick comments or a thumbs up click are most often as far as anything gets. Maybe some folks look at an article or video posted. That's a start.
I'm still sorting this situation out in my mind. I think there is something here; just not sure what. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.
A few hours later...
Part of the current political climate involves painting most people with the same broad brush. Labels do that, the media exacerbates the situation, and our thinking becomes exceedingly loose. We seem to have lost the ability and the opportunity to have a civil discussion. I want to pitch an idea for a TV show. Another kind of reality show, perhaps. Not Politically Correct. That's been done. Maybe just correct. A chance for people to explain their beliefs and what supports those beliefs. Then have everything fact-checked. Invite people who listened to a reasoned, comprehensive discussion and actually changed their mind about something or re-thought a conviction to explain what happened. Most of all, discuss what it means when people who don't think alike on anything or many things actually become friends.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Do You See What I See?

Journalism as theater is what TV news is.
-Thomas Griffith

It's all blurry. Hard to see where we are going and difficult, for some, to see where we've been.
We live in a land of illusion. Nothing is more reflective of this country losing it's way than the blurring of boundaries in TV journalism these days. We can no longer differentiate between public and private, personal and political, and authentic and artificial. TV ads look like TV news shows. TV commentators voice their opinions as if they were fact. Some, like Juan Williams, formerly of NPR and now securely of Fox News, get fired on the spot. Talk about culture wars; maybe subculture wars now.
Seems to me it's fairly easy to separate the pretenders from the genuine article. The wannabe's yell, talk over everyone, spout and sprout venom, and my personal favorite, make a joke out of everything. Case in point: Once, just out of curiosity, I turned down the volume on one of those pseudo newscasts and just watched the body language. Points made verbally were often followed by laughing, wide grins, real schoolyard behavior. If you had to guess what these folks were talking about from this silent viewing, you'd be hard pressed to say it was anything worthwhile.
And now John Stewart, one of the funniest comedians around, wants to lead a political march on Washington. Certainly if Glen Beck can, Stewart should be able to. But what's really going on here? What does that say about the real marches in our historical past?
With 500 cable channels, the opiate of the masses is as widespread and toxic as ever. I reprise the P.T. Barnum quote, "Nobody every went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." In this culture, where over 50% did not read a book last year, where the majority care far more about Dancing with the Stars than the infrastructure of public schools, public roads, or campaign finance, where candidates for national office have not read the Constitution (no really) the illusion reigns.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Song of Ourselves

Last night I participated in a most satisfying event. At Pacific Northwest College of Art a staged reading of all 52 sections of Walt Whitman's Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass took place.

The Whitman 150 Project –
A Staged Public Reading of "Song of Myself"
20 October '10 at PNCA

PNCA/ Pacific Northwest College of Art
1241 Northwest Johnson Street, Portland
Reading starts at 6:30 in the Commons

I was proud to read section 47. Some of my poet/writer friends here in Portland also contributed to the event by reading various sections.
What a variety of readers and voices! Old and young, gay and straight, men and women. At one point a young mother with her child in her arms read a section. The little girl, about 4 years old, was frigidity and finally reached for the microphone contributing a well timed "mommy" to the proceedings. It took about two and a half hours to complete the poem. Many of the readers and those in attendance gave themselves a standing ovation at the conclusion.
What struck me most was how many of Whitman's lines hold up these many years later. His comments about war, equality, the need to own or possess things, human rights, and simply being in the moment are all just as important as they were back when.
Mass poetry readings are a good way to build community. Who's next?

Thursday, October 14, 2010


While talking to a good friend of mine the other day, I discovered that he was not familiar with the work of Kenneth Patchen. What an opportunity, I thought. My friend is a writer, musician, poet, and artist. A match for Patchen if ever there was one. With that in mind, I decided to review some of Patchen's books and collections of picture poems. Next thing I knew, I was thinking about writing a poem, sort of a homage to Patchen that I could read at my favorite open mic. In the collection entitled Poems of Humor and Protest, resides a most unusual piece.

Using that a a model, I wrote the following:

The Wounding and Ultimate Assassination of a Culture by an Unlikely President Wearing Crimson Colored Gloves

(For Kenneth Patchen)

Don’t Don’t

Don’t, Don’t, Don’t

Don’t Don’t

Don’t Don’t

Don’t Don’t

Don’t Don’t, Don’t

Don’t Don’t Don’t




OK, Now.

Patchen's work must be seen to be fully appreciated. He was writing in a difficult time and his aesthetic response to World War and inhumanity leave a deep impression on those who find and appreciate him. Sad but inspiring that he was writing with much physical pain. He had major back problems that often left him unable to travel much.

Patchen with Charles Mingus

Still, he was cutting edge. He knew all the innovators, the Beats, the Be Boppers. Kenneth Patchen is an American treasure that we need to polish up right now.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Shadow and Wind

I just finished reading a most satisfying novel: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. Not usually my genre, but then I'm open to anything. Even the paperback version of this NY Times bestseller retains the appearance of an old leather bound volume. What Zafron has done here is bring a gothic quality to a multi-layered story set in Paris and Barcelona in the 1930s through the mid 1950s.
The blurbs all refer to murder, madness and doomed love, but it's oh so much more. I think the parallel stories about lovers struggling to fight their attraction because mystery surrounds everything is what is most powerful. But all the character description and the precise detail of the cities involved are equally part of the fascination. Zafron has a real gift for the contradictions in meaningful relationships, whether they be intimate or casual, spontaneous or long-lasting. And any book with a called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books has got to be worth a look.
Every now and then a quote would appear that stands well on its own. For example:

But the years went by in peace. Time goes faster the more hollow it is. Lives with no meaning go straight past you, like trains that don't stop at your station.

Such possibility in that quote. Makes me think about how we judge other lives, the daily train traffic that passes our station and how we all experience the passage of time.

This week has seen an upturn in suicide stories in the news. From the encroaching world of technology and social media to the eroding notion of privacy in this or any culture, the tragedy is magnified by young people who have the mistaken notion that life is not worth living because some unfortunate circumstance broadcast by unthinking, desensitized, know nothings went viral. Yes, uncaring, illegal, even psychopathic on some level, but definitely survivable. We need to stop our trains at more stations.

Monday, September 27, 2010



There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find
the ways in which you yourself have altered.
-Nelson Mandela

Mile 1

When leaves turn the color of summer squash,
weightless, broken and brooding,
like underground springs,
take the log truck route,
with weekday determination.

Cover up; morning air is the best alarm clock.
Remember that day, when all you could offer
was integrity, when your eyes crossed the country, when Oregon
pulled back, when that return promise was sealed.

Savor these days,
when time is no longer on trial,
when even adults call you “sir.”
After all, it has been 40 years since you’ve seen
your mother’s face;

Highway 19 narrows like the river,
both tiptoe from the high country,
where riffles sing, pocket water promises, and
desire, like sunlight, gets filtered.

Mile 20

First comes the covered bridge: a red cabin riddle,
with side door and dubious origin.
Fishermen used the homey design for cover from the rain.
Fly rods become lightning rods without proper care taken.

The farmers knew their horses would only cross the river
if the way over appeared more a barn than a threat.
Covered, like a prized thoroughbred mare.

The sons became lumber barons,
leaving land fallow and worshipping all the endless resource could provide.
Protect the massive bridge trusses and they will last near a century
in their private dwellings painted bright white, rust red, or not at all.
Horses and trout stalkers be damned! Keep the road passable from mill to office,
office to bank,
bank to…another bank.

Mile 60

Main branch to Middle Fork,
North Middle Fork to headwaters,
myth to eternal return.

Those many years ago my orbit began a dark voyage,
Like an orrery, model planets around a miniature sun, it takes a lifetime to
complete the path, when external light becomes internal peace.
“It’s not how much you cover,” the sage reminds. “It’s what you uncover.”
Each time I find my way back I discover more of myself,
Each rotation ends and I marvel
at water skating over rock,
at roofs, still over rivers.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Wish I Were There

When I look at the picture I begin to wonder. What would that life have been like? Who would I be and what would I care about had I been around then?
When people ask me about my parents, some are still surprised to learn that they've been gone for 30 years. I always tell them that they were married for almost 15 years before they had children; 13 to be exact. What I seldom say, unless they ask, is that my folks lived in a couple of smaller towns back east. In Port Jervis, NY, near the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania border, they owned and operated a small combination grocery store soda fountain. The Deer Park Store was their life. They lived and worked there in the 1930s and early 40s. Right in the big middle of the Great Depression.
They had stories. Many stories. I suppose I'm the keeper of them now. This little mom and pop (literally, huh?) operation was in a town that had lots of road traffic. Pre interstate, the main highway, in those days went right through Port Jervis and all who traveled that ribbon were potential customers.
I'd have helped with the penny candy or arranged the comic books and magazines. Maybe learned to butcher meat or break down cardboard boxes. My sister would have helped my mom at the soda fountain. Make sandwiches, milk shakes, ice cream sodas for her friends.
Sometimes I wonder if my affinity for pop culture items like the images on candy wrappers or tins comes from my roots. Would I have collected a few wrappers and items as keepsakes? There are only a few traces of the Deer Park store left. The photo seen here and a Coca Cola tray, ice pick, and bottle opener. They are all antiques now. I have two other items as well. One is a display card in nearly mint condition for NAVY razor blades. All still cellophane wrapped, they make a nice navy blue impression and look as attractive as they did 60 years ago. I also have the stories.
My dad liked to tell the one where the Boston Celtics professional basketball team travelled through Port Jervis. Actually it was a New York Celtic team because the Boston professional team did not originate until 1946. During a fuel stop for their bus, the NY Celtic team made their way to the Deer Park store where my mom made chocolate malts for them all. My dad said it was something to see these big guys sitting at the counter all in a row.
Another celebrity he recalled coming through was Father Devine. This colorful civil rights activist was part spiritual leader, part social justice crusader and part questionable opportunist. Some saw him as an incarnation of God, while others felt he was more an incarnation of a demigod. Like many Depression era reformers, the truth lies somewhere in between.
When I look at this picture of my parents store I try to imagine what the inside looked like. I picture my parents, in their 30s, working hard, talking to friends, neighbors and customers, wondering about the uncertainties of the future. WWII was a few years away. People were digging in, helping one another, thinking about a better future. Wish I were there.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Leave It

Sunday is not the best day for a yard sale. People are slow to rise on Sunday. But, it's all we had. So when we agreed to participate in a friend's yard sale on Sunday only, expectations were light. We sold a few small items very cheaply to a few folks who ambled by unaware that they couldn't get through the day without that Christmas ornament or piece of colorful material. Mostly we found some new homes for things we haven't used in a good while.
Back in the 1980s I had about $600 invested in 35mm camera equipment for my "working journalist" days. That went to a 10 year old whose mom promised to help her learn the art of developing negatives and printing your own photos. They could afford $20. I liked the fact that a young girl would be learning that not all photos are available instantly and that photography is an art that can still be practiced.
I also found a new home for my depression era candlesticks. They weren't getting the use they deserve; I never stopped loving them, but let's just say they weren't "working" in my current living situation. A thoughtful neighborhood woman (by the way this was in a friend's neighborhood**) kept eyeing them. When she brought over an oak desk chair, the kind that swivel the trade was finalized in an instant.
A couple decided to by our friend's granite top cafe table. In the conversation that followed, we learned that they too had moved from the Bay Area to Portland the year we had. Further discussion resulted in the revelation that the male half and I share the same last name, shortened to it's current state GREENE around the same time for the same reason. We hugged. Stupid, I know, but it was so spontaneous.
Yard sales offer so much more than items for sale.

** Our friend lives in a beautiful part of SE Portland near Reed College. The neighborhood is very close. These people know and care for each other. This is an area of beautiful homes with well tended gardens. Three times, I walked down the street to my truck to put or take something and found myself, quite unconsciously, humming the theme to "Leave It to Beaver." Once, I swear I saw Fred McMurray step outside for his Sunday paper.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Supply Side

First day of school in my town. I still feel the pull. I have the dreams, the anxiety, the inspiration, the never leaves. Instead of 100-150 new students, I'll have a few student-teachers this year.
First it was those "Back to School" commercials and ads that began in July. Then, lots of stories and solicitations for donating school supplies to kids that otherwise might not begin the year with what they need. Mostly it's local news stations that initiate these drives. Occasionally a commercial encourages consumers to collect "box tops" for school supplies and reminding prospective buyers that "you can make a difference."
It's all well and good, right? Or is it? What does it say about a nation that has so many children that require the kindness of anonymous thousands to give it's students a proper sendoff to the new school year?
I would never begrudge a donation for a public school student, classroom, program, teacher or curriculum. The particular kindness of parents helped me get through more than one school year without running out of paper.** Yet this seemingly innocuous method of helping those less fortunate obtain school supplies has me thinking.
This is different. Why, in a nation that supposedly values education, are so many in such need? Yes, it's the economy. Yes, unemployment is abnormally high, yes poverty is just as hidden as ever, yes many of these kids really need new notebooks, pens and pencils, and plenty of paper. (Do they still use paper?) Of course they need paper. But I wonder if I'm alone in wondering about the bigger picture?
I know it must feel great to donate school supplies. I sure have done a bit of it myself on a one on one level. Still the dissonance. Does it mean something for every student to be able to get their own stuff with no assistance? How does that impact their attitude to the entire notion of being a student?

**The guilt that some teachers have for using too much paper is palpable in some faculty work rooms. Where administrators often failed to see this, I had parents who got just how important it is for a teacher to be able to have supplementary materials or a specific article that might require 300 sheets to reproduce for 60-90 students. Teachers who do not rely on questionable textbooks for everything are able to supplement their curriculum with current, relevant, thought-provoking resources. Never understimate the need for paper or a working copy machine.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Defect Reflect

Yesterday was a defective day. It began with the discovery of a twenty dollar bill by the curb where I parked my truck that morning. On closer inspection, it was most of a twenty dollar bill. The top left portion, including one of the two serial numbers, was missing. No celebration; just a trip to the federal reserve for a ruling on the matter. Things deteriorated quickly. The buy 5 summer drinks get one free Peet's card(s) I'd been dutifully carrying in my wallet for weeks expired on Tuesday last. I had 4 of 5 stamps on one card and 3 on the other. Both got tossed; summer's gone.
Next came an encounter with a parking cop. The coin machine was not accepting coins. Put in a quarter, watch it tumble back to the coin return. I was only stopping at a news stand for a few minutes in downtown Portland,but something told me to get back out there. Sure enough the Parking Nazi was there and very short tempered. I tried to explain, but he kept interrupting saying, "You need to put in more than a quarter."
"I know that," I shot back, showing him the massive coin pocket full of change on my Levis. He mellowed, but not before reminding me that technically being away from a non-stickered car could cost me $40. Apparently when the machine spits your coins back you are supposed to swipe your credit or ATM card.
I don't think that's the law, just his opinion. OK we called it even and I swiped. $2.50 is better than $40. for a few minutes of curb rental.
The next episode of de-fect-tivity occurred when Katie opened a cooking magazine she bought at the new stand. Half the printed contents were badly damaged. Dark, smudged, illegible. When we secured another downtown parking spot so she could run in and return the magazine we found all the magazines looked that way. Bummer. I sat in the car and looked away as the same Parking guy went about his ticketing.
Sometimes it just goes that way.
Fortunately the Farmer's Market turned out to be wholly adequate.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the goes the old JAWS promo. I thought the water for teachers would be a little safer when the Bush administration packed it in. First came Obama's "Race to the Top," (why must it always be a competition with winners and losers?) and then this bizarre notion of "value added" teachers from an article in the L. A. Times. Now you know by the sound of that phrase the business model applied to public education is alive and well. A small amount of research leads you to this wonderful paragraph from the Rand Corporation's study linking achievement tests to teacher "performance." (Hey, we're not trainin' seals heah!")

What Is a Teacher Effect?
Applications of VAM often model growth or gain scores as a means
of measuring the effects of incremental inputs on incremental out-
come—as the definition of value-added suggests (Hanushek, 1979).2
Appropriate interpretation of VAM results requires that the causal
effect be explicitly defined. Typically, there are multiple ways to de-
fine a causal effect, and some estimators can provide unbiased or con-
sistent estimates of some causal effects but not of others. For example,
Angrist, Imbens, and Rubin (1996) demonstrate that, under general
assumptions, instrumental variable estimators provide estimates of the
average causal effects of “treatment” on those who will take the
treatment when it is offered. However, they do not necessarily esti-
mate the causal effect of treatment on the entire population or on all
people who were offered treatment. Alternative assumptions are re-
quired to make inferences about those causal effects.

I often wonder about the amount of money used to produce and promote bullshit like that. I see children's faces, their hopes and fears, the daily substance or lack thereof in their lives. Who's zoomin' whom folks.
Then just when you thought...I heard last week about something promoted by the Gallup (as in polls) corporation purported to be a predictor of successful teaching. Apparently there is this "test" that is popular in many districts that has serious impact in determining who is hired and who is not. I've seen some of the questions and scenarios that this test uses. Sort of a multiple choice what would yo do type of thing. I don't know what is more chilling: a.) that prospective teachers are subjected to these things, b.) that admisistrators actually trust, validate, and believe this is time and money well spent or c.) all of the above.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Grocery Store 2010

I walk half a mile to my local the grocery store,
I leave with one bag of popcorn and 38 words on a receipt;
4 inches of paper that includes the time and date, my cashier today's name, and reminders that
if I click, they deliver,

Today I returned to to the "friendliest store in town" to buy a paring knife.
It came on a card shaped like a green apple and included a protective blade cover;
Pictured were one lemon, one orange, one tomato, and one green apple because the knife
comes in "Colors Inspired by Nature."
The green apple nature inspired card also told me that my new paring knife is
a Swiss innovation
made from Japanese stainless steel
It warns of sharp edges and to keep out of reach of children in English, Spanish, and French,
The paring knife, like most everything I purchase was
Made in China

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Announcer Larry Collmus calls the 7th at Monmouth Park

Who says there is no magic in horse racing?
This call will put Larry Collmus in the the the Hall of Fame.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Face the Music

I suppose it's no surprise that Facebook has morphed into so many networking splinters. It seems like every time I go to a new food cart, it already has a Facebook page. A disgruntled airline flight attendant has a melt down and by that afternoon he has a few hundred followers on Facebook. This can't be good. And yet, there are some unpredictable side effects of posting a Facebook profile that are at once both fascinating and frightening.
I guess we all have a few "friends" who aren't really. They have bored their way into our collection of people like small wild fish who enter any body of water that will have them. Irrigation ditches, farm ponds, isolated streams, creeks, lakes. Moved in like flood water, there they are and we really have no idea how they got there. Oh I know we could put the pieces together and probably figure it all out. Somebody's brother or sister, friend of a friend, follower of a follower, or even "accidents." People appear and disappear, don't they?
There are a couple of other phenomena, orchestrated by Facebook, however, that offer intriguing possibilities. Many people have Ex's as Facebook friends. You get to see how their life without you is turning out. This can work both ways. Enter the phrase too much information. It begs the question would I be better off just imagining how someone's life is going or actually seeing it in pictures, and status updates? We who have lived awhile get the benefit of changing hair color, waistlines, complexions and the ever popular "relationship status."
And along came politics. Like many I have a clever response to that one. I don't like political labels because they mean nothing, yet most people go with them...with pride. Here's the dilemma: people you know from one particular realm can be 180 degrees from your politics in the real world. Case in point, my thoroughbred horse friends are mostly religious and conservative. While they are extolling the virtues of home schooling or Rush Limbaugh, they can easily see that I'm considerably left of center, anti-war, pro-choice anti-death penalty, and not the least bit offended by most words or phrases with social in front of them. (hint: social justice, social security, social programs, social studies, social-ism)
So what does all this mean? You can't hide? No, maybe you refuse to hide. Maybe it all leads to tolerance. After all it's there for the world to see. For the world to confirm.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Did The Bell Ring?

The Back to School commercials couldn't even wait for August 1st this year. They slipped in before the last day in July. These are the days that mark the end of summer for teachers. It's the second week of August and already some are in their classrooms, attending meetings, adjusting schedules, making changes. Some are already teaching, so a former colleague told me last week. This 2010-11 school year will mark the 4th year now I won't be going back with them. My semi-retirement has been successful. My full-time days are over. I succeeded in securing a part-time position as Supervisor/Mentor for beginning teachers. STILL...I feel the pull. Of course, my "teacher dreams" continue, with new motifs. For awhile there, it was the I didn't really retire dream, I just did for a short while. I usually end up in these dreams in another school, often a MIddle School not high school, and always there is one class, the last in the day, that I somehow haven't been to in awhile. This is a group I don't look forward to, but I need to organize and keep forgetting about. Sometimes in this dream I don't make it on time, or find that I have forgotten to attend this class. Imagine me forgetting to show up at one of my own classes! I love these dreams because they keep talking to me, keep telling me something, keep me emotionally charged. Sometimes I can't find the office, can't find or never bothered to use attendance sheets, and on rare occasions, I don't know my way around the campus. Seems to me that's directly related to the new school that has been built on the sight of the one I taught at for 30 years.
The pull works in other subtle ways too. Yesterday I bought a package of small 3x5 colored index cards. Teaching so many subjects in English and Science Science over the years I found color coding helped. Guess it's just a part of me now. Another part of that dying world that I still find useful to negotiate my living one.
This school year, as I enter the classrooms of beginning teachers for my observations I'm going to pay special attention to human interaction. Using the technology available is certainly an advantage. But at what cost? I'm wondering how effective or ineffective we are becoming at working with one another. What's lost or gained for the writing process when all writing is done on the keyboard. Are there any characteristics or components of yesterday's classroom that simply can't be replaced in todays? I'll be watching.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rolling Along

With so many people going to electronic reading devices, is it any wonder that Amazon reports that more "book"s were downloaded last year that actually purchased as hard copies. The funny think about being in the middle of a revolution is it's often too slight to notice. Real change often moves even slower than we think. So many people my age proudly declare that they'll never give up books. Perhaps. I think that eventually many of those resistant to the inevitable will make the switch. Consider some of the things most of us no longer do. Writing a check is a long-gone necessity any more for most things. Little by little, we'll all be transferring numbers electronically. Even now, I swear there are some folks who never touch cold cash any more. What's next? This got me thinking about the choice to swim ahead or go against the current.
Imagine a sub culture where, not unlike the Amish, people consciously choose to eschew man of the electronic replacements for objects/possessions that have be revolutionized by the impact and encroachment of computers on our psyches. A land of books, and currency. A place with bank tellers and all manner of pencils and pens. It's fascinating to think about what other rapidly vanishing things might be added to this world of the unimpressed.
Oh I know it'll never happen. Probably the closest we'll ever get is the opportunity to live in the past for either a reality (unreality) TV show or a public broadcasting series. You know, those programs where people try to live just like it's 1850 all over again.
With this in mind, I suggest we all notice some of the things we'll soon find missing from our lives. Things like snail mail delivery, used book stores, coin operated parking meters, the penny, perhaps even the schoolyard. Soon? Maybe not, but possibly within 100 years. It's all relative.
Oh yeah, here's one more. The other day I took my niece's 8 year old in my truck to get some ice cream sandwiches for dessert as Katie and I were baby sitting her and her two younger siblings. It was the first time she rode in the cab of my pick-up and she was excited about buckling her seatbelt and ridin' shotgun. On the way home form the grocery store, she began fiddling with anything close by.
"What's this thing?" she asked.
"Oh move it around and see what happens," I said.
She had never seen a window that wasn't electric. My 2002 Toyota Tacoma actually has windows that have to be rolled down. Not sure why, but that's the way it came.
I told her to remember this day because she needed to tell her family and friends about doing something that they may never get a chance to do.
She liked that.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The state of Oregon contains more covered bridges than most other states. Like everything else from the past couple of centuries, they are endangered. Fortunately, most if not all of them are on smaller, less used roadways and valued by both the local population and just about everybody else who finds these wonderful structures.
With all the hoopla surrounding the 100th anniversary of some of Portland's best know bridges, there has been much talk of bridges in Oregon lately. Closures, celebrations, new design competitions and the like. Fortunately, some of the musing has filtered down to covered bridges.
On a local radio program a Lane County expert shared some of the folklore about covered bridges. The key question, of course, is why are they covered. Answers and theories abound. Three ideas are most popular. One school of thought goes back t the days of horse transportation. Since most of these structures are over or close to a hundred years old, the original vehicles over them were horse-drawn. In order for the horse to feel comfortable going over the rivers and streams below, a barn-like structure was built giving the illusion of entering a barn and thus getting whatever was being pulled, (people, hay, barrels, lumber...) to the other side of the river. But covered bridges continued to be built well after the automobile. The second theory suggests that the cover was for fishermen who needed a way to take refuge from sudden storms and lightening strikes. Having fished a couple of Oregon rivers when lightening suddenly streaked the sky, this makes good sense to me.
The final and most widely held theory is all about the wood. Lane county, Oregon (near Eugene) has perhaps the most covered bridges of any county. It also is home to many lumber mills. The trusses of covered bridges are magnificent pieces of timber. If covered they weather and wear less than if not. Covered, they can last up to 70 years. Mystery solved? Maybe. Each theory has it's merits. Take your pick; here they are.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

So Close

I spent a few hours at Trillium lake yesterday. This small gem in the shadow of Mt. Hood is very popular because it is only a little more than an hour from Portland, but it is still possible to have something akin to a wilderness experience there. Most of the people who fish at Trillium are either bait dunkers who hurl their offerings off a small pier, or an occasional kayak, canoe or row boat. I was the only float tuber there yesterday.
The lake is usually stocked with "catch able size rainbow trout" and a few trophy size fish and there are holdovers from previous years along with a small population of self-sustaining brook trout. I caught a few rainbows yesterday, but they were the cookie-cutter rainbows they put in there. Only a few other fly fishers visible but nobody seemed to be catching much...except for a pair of osprey who continued to entertain me the entire four hours I kicked around the lake. One of the skillful predators even got one of the rainbows I released. There vision is exceptional. From hundreds of feet above they circle, they fall out of the sky at top speed with their legs and talons coiled up, and then they strike deftly lifting a fish from just beneath the surface of the water. I'm going to get up there a few more times before the snow returns to Mt. Hood because of the osprey as much as the fishing. Weekdays tend to be better for all things connected to Trillium.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Bread and Chocolate

He wants money. Trouble is, you'd never know it because he's got an original scam. He operates with the element of surprise. You are minding your own business or lost in a newspaper, or simply walking down the street lost in thought. A sudden glance, your eyes meet his and he smiles and charges toward you first waving and then extending his hand to shake.
He's Southeast Asian. His accent, appearance, say Laos or Cambodia. Maybe Vietnam or Thailand.
"Heeey, How you dong?
If you talk to him for any length of time he'll ask for a dollar. In the time it takes to realize you don't know him at all, he runs his scam. And then he's gone. Sometimes, if you keep him in eyesight, you can see him walking down the other side of the street and then like a bull that suddenly realizes the fight is on, he'll charge. His smile flashes, he waves, his arm extends like a boom and in the distance, "Heeeeey"

Last Wednesday I went to the Carolina Chocolate Drops concert at the Zoo in Portland. This red hot string/jug band heated up the already 95 degree weather. It took the crowd a bit to give them their props. Probably baked for a couple of hours, they finally got into the spirit of things. These 3 super-talented African-American musicians go all the way back to roots music. Fiddle, jug, bones, banjo, kazoo, vocals, guitar, and probably a few more surprises.
At this point in their career they are bathing in the glow of their popularity. Nice folks too, as they stuck around to sign copies of their CDs and posters. Sold out to T shirts too.
This group is original in so many ways, but the thing that gets me is that they'll make you move and smile. Their music is so old (Old Timey) that it seems new to many. They remind us of our history since any look into how African-American first learned to play many of these instruments, hell, even got many of these instruments, is quite a story.
Most of all, in an odd way, the Chocolate Drops are authentic.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Being There

After watching all the bad news from the gulf for a month now, I was wondering what it is that people who want to help can do aside from actually cleaning up the oil. Then it hit me. Go there. This holiday weekend, all the big news outlets did stories on how the business of hotels, motels, restaurants, and resorts is down. In fact, it's next to nothing. NBC news did another story on the wave of depression moving in with the tide also. For folks who were just beginning to get out from under Katrina, this tragedy is the knockout blow.
What if various organizations planned to have their conventions there. OK maybe a little too late for that. What if families looking for reunion sites, or groups, organizations, clubs, couples, individuals all made a point of going to the gulf to support these failing businesses? True, no swimming, but the beach is still there. The climate remains the same. The facilities are in good order. By going there, helping these small business folk survive it's be quite a statement. I suggest it would be a rather memorable and one of a kind experience too.
Just a thought.
And while I'm thinking...
The one phrase that keeps coming up since the beginning of BP's attempts to do damage control is "make things right." Sometimes "make this right" takes its place. I wonder...just what would that be? What exactly makes something like the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history right? Does that mean that the Gulf will be completely as it was, completely healed? Does that mean that everyone concerned will be compensated? Is any of that actually possible?
Maybe it means that offshore oil drilling will cease. Maybe it means that the people and interests involved in this catastrophe have learned something and will act accordingly.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I See You

I love this little illustration of a classroom through a teacher's eyes (eyeglasses). This drawing accompanied a NY Times article on educational issues a few weeks ago, but it seems appropriate for so many related things. On first glance, many of the kids look bored or sleepy. To be sure they are. Sleep depravation continues to explain much that the pundits and critics and bashers of the current condition of schools and schooling often miss or dismiss altogether. But kids, especially in a classroom arranged like the one pictured, get fidgety, they yawn, they daydream, they take their time. Some of the kids are reading, some appear unconscious, and some are thinking. By most standards, this is a normal size class. These kids don't look hostile; they don't look angry or "at risk" in too many ways.
What's fascinating to me is not what you see, but what you can't see. Even if all the kids were sitting in neat rows perfectly engaged, it would still be an illusion. You can't see their lives after school, their families, their wishes, fears, hopes, anxieties and dreams.
The picture presents the appearance of a "public school" and a diverse student population as well. As such, it just might be an endangered species. I know a number of public school teachers who send their own kids to private schools and a few other folks, not credentialed teachers who are considering home schooling. In a democracy, this certainly gives me pause. While I worry about these trends I know that I may not be around to see how they will all play out. But what I do see is a definite movement away from the public school and all it's challenges and shortcomings. Those that can, move. They go to other schools, other communities, other methods. The public school implodes. The very people who are most committed to being the change, being the support system, being the backbone, take off. And what remains?
What remains is the reality of democracy in America today. What remains are those who do not have the luxury of going anywhere. But know this: there are many teachers that remain too. Many professionals who know that if this country is to come anywhere near its promise, anywhere near its perfectability, it must maintain strong public schools at all cost.
With the encroachment of "virtual culture" this will not be easy to do. If we fail, we all fail.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sail Away

June has been kind to me, but I'm crawling out of my skin, anxious to get up into the mountains and check out a few small lakes and streams I know. With rain and snow late into the spring, there is no reason to panic. Still, I get itchy. Back to the bounty of June: two articles published and promise of one more. Some readings and open mic performances, and possibly more. Winning a little memoir writing competition has been a nice boost and now, with warm weather and the promise of some travel, all's well.

This morning while browsing around in my local Goodwill, a wonderful bit of synchronicity occurred. Katie wanted to go to the big Goodwill in search of blue work shirts, so we drove down there. I'm always aware of who shops in Goodwill and why, but these days it's most everyone. Definitely a diverse experience for Portland. This morning more blacks and Latinos than white folks, (again, rare for Portland) but who's counting? So here I am walking up and down the rows, dealing with that unmistakable musty smell, looking at books, sports equipment, sweaters, shirts, and a song playing in the background gets my attention. It's Randy Newman's "Sail Away." I love this song but it's important to note that it's Randy Newman at his satirical best. The song is about the slave trade and sung through a paternalistic, condescending voice telling how great it's gonna be in America.
"Aint no lions tigers or Mamba snakes,
Just the sweet watermelon and buckwheat cakes,
You'll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree,
We're all gonna be an American."

What an interesting contrast as I looked through the contents of the store and faces around me. I wonder what forces are at play in the universe to make this juxtaposition possible. But I don't wonder too much. Just enjoy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Just Do

Today I bought a couple of tickets to an upcoming concert. Finally. Something so simple seemed to bring great relief. Here's why: I made the decision to go without waiting for a handful of friends who expressed interest but have been unable to act.
It's the Carolina Chocolate Drops outdoor concert at the Oregon Zoo. Great venue, perfect time of the year. July in Portland can be ideal. I just couldn't wait for anyone who was still "thinking" about going to decide. Things don't happen when people think too much. That's what I'm coming to believe.
Oh, I know it's not such a big deal, but there is a bigger picture here. Doing is important. Thinking about doing is often ineffective. It's my new mantra.
I've lost a few fly fishing buddies too. Nobody died, not yet. But one friend has been seriously ill, another unwilling to travel to Portland, another a new father, (he's in his 30s) and another is a gamble because he's never fly fished before and believe me, that's work. I'm still contemplating going away for a few days alone, but that's always dicey, and never as fun. But the time to do has come. Even a simple act like making a decision to go somewhere or do something that you really enjoy, that your need to preserve your sanity, that brings you pleasure...can be crippling.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On The Radio

Last night some of my writer and poet friends and I did a radio performance of our "show" called Love Outlives Us. The performance was originally done at Three Friends Coffeehouse in SE Portland last February.
Doing live radio, especially at a listener sponsored station like KBOO, is always an adventure. After some initial guitar amp problems, we settled into two side by side studios and using headsets began the 50 min. program on time. Having to pass around one pair of earphones between three of us was less than desirable, but harkened back to something out of the early days of radio. Seems like all the nervousness and anxiety vanished because we were having fun juggling the headset, moving about the small studio, trying not to rustle our pages, cough, or get caught saying something unwanted into a live mic.
It looks like we'll get a good recording of all our efforts.
Hard to tell how many people listen to a small station on 10 p.m. on a Monday night. But since there are sister stations in Hood River and Corvallis, Oregon, we may have reached a few hundred or a few thousand people. Three listeners called during the show, but our engineer, Patrick, was never able to respond to their calls because he was so busy keeping the right mic live, and adjusting volume and recording levels.
I truly hope radio becomes immune to all the technology changes going on in this culture right now. Somehow, even with advances in recording and sound quality, and availability, the core structure and utility remain the same.
I wonder how many people stuck working in bars, cafes, and other businesses listen to a station like KBOO? I'm sure there are students in residence halls and apartments that listen to radio on a Monday night.
No way to know, but I do know that they got a most original and entertaining dose of spoken word.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Once again the state of Louisiana faces cultural extinction. We can be frustrated and angry at the response time, but with Katrina, Mother Nature still had the last word. This time it's different. Just as the gulf and it's ecology will never be the same, so to will BP never be the same.
As one creole fisherman said the other day, "the gulf the canary, and if you don't like what you see here then take heed, it's coming near you next."
The oil spill may have made a sludgy mess of the gulf waters, but in another way it has sent out a ripple clear and powerful as a Cajun fiddle.
Here's what we can expect now: Lots of critiques of the Obama administration. Even when he's angry, it's hard to see that the President is angry. So what's appropriate here for a head of state? We don't doubt that he is intelligent, that his emotions don't get in the way like they do for most politicians, but perhaps it's time to get righteously pissed.
What impact do Obama's corporate ties have on his ability to lead here? That ripple is certainly exposed now and should lead to some potentially uncomfortable findings in the next year.
Heads will roll somewhere, federal agencies, local politicians, Oil companies, oil engineers, and finally at the gas pumps.
There is also a particularly troubling conundrum that's surfaced along with the tar balls. Have you heard the calls from Louisiana residents who fear losing the oil rigs. Aside from tourism, which is certain to take a major hit for the next couple of years, oil drilling rigs make up the balance of the industry in the state. It is so. That's the real challenge here. What next? That just cannot be any more. That's a recipe for repeated disaster. Maybe the biggest ripple of them all will be the political will to bring back industries and occupations that don't strip the culture from our most vulnerable landscapes and our most vulnerable people.