Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Two stories have twisted around themselves this week. Two stories that while seemingly unrelated, have much in common. In Massachusetts, at South Hadley High School, as many as 30 students are being questioned as participants or witnesses to the events that led a beautiful Irish immigrant, Phoebe Prince to take her own life. Bullied? Yes, but much more here. A cyber crime, yes, but still more here.
Not the least of the details that are so disturbing about this tragedy is that fact that apparently many teachers and administrators knew, to some extent, about the harassment, the verbal and emotional abuse, the fear involved in this most vicious display of inhumanity. I won't bother with the details, you are no doubt familiar with them by now. Where is the disconnect here? Who saw what? Most importantly, what lies behind the sensational spectacle of the headlines, tabloid media treatment, and temporary outrage? Was it her accent? Did her "hook ups" with a couple of the school's athletes ignite a firestorm of jealousy? Is My Space or Facebook to blame? What do her tormentors think about tolerance? I always wonder how the curriculum at a school could impact the potential for these awful, needless suicides.
The other, equally repugnant story that surfaced involves the arrest of nine people in an alleged Christian militia. (now there's an oxymoron for you) Armed to the wisdom teeth, they are apparently expecting the Anti-Christ. The FBI went in for the bust when it became apparent that they had big plans very soon to take out a cop or two, and then ambush the funerals that followed. Planting bombs was apparently on their agenda too. Their web site showed lots of images of these devoted folks in military gear running around a woodsy area like they were recreating WWII battles. All this in the state of Michigan.
Today the Christian right fighters lost their web site. Even though the FBI pulled it down, I'm sure another will emerge just as fast. There are, no doubt, similar ones out there already. But at South Hadly HS, the web site looks just like business as usual today. In fact, it's quite comprehensive as high school sites go these days. It looks like such a great school. With a wide array of student clubs and organizations that include a Peace Club and a Peer Leaders organization, this appears to be a very aware and socially engaged environment. I noticed that many students read some classic works of literature in their English classes. The kind of books you'd expect to make an impression on developing adolescent minds. Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men, I would think, if taught properly would foster empathy. And then there is the official Mission Statement of South Hadley High School. All schools have these philosophical statements. Usually they are required to meet some code or law somewhere. For SHHS, it seems to be functioning as a "Missing Statement" these days. Like the militia who visualize Jesus armed and in camo, South Hadley, unfortunately has taught the world the definition of Irony.
Our Working Mission
We Pledge to create a challenging and supportive academic community in which each student will acquire the knowledge and skills needed to successfully pursue post-secondary options of their choice and act as a responsible citizen in a diverse and global society.
Can't you just hear Dr. Phil saying, "How's that working for y'all?"
Terrorism takes many forms, doesn't it?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Got Default?

When I was 28 I started drinking coffee seriously. In my second year of teaching, I found that a morning cup really got me going. The revolution in coffee was beginning to brew and Peet's became my gourmet coffee of choice. There was only one Peet's back then, but a few Bay Area restaurants started serving Blend 101 and my department bought a Mr. Coffee machine with the stipulation that only Peet's be used. In the half dozen years that followed, I drank 4 or 5 cups a day.
These days I'm down to only a couple of cups, but Peet's has found its way to Portland as well as many other places. It's almost the same. Not quite. In recent years, I've fought the "corporitization" of Peet's. They only play classical music now, they limit internet use to 1 hr. the baked goods are all sugar/fat laden (no more bagels) and now the issue is milk.
We have to ask for 2% milk these days.
But in this malaise, I recently came across a new term in use: "default milk." In fact, I heard the term twice within two days this week. First in response to a question about what kind of milk Peet's uses in their espresso drinks.
"Well, our default milk is whole milk but...," said the intellectual barist(o) Is that what you call a male espresso maker? At first I thought it was just his technical background slipping out. Default milk, something about that term sounds...funny. But the next day NPR ran a story about Starbucks making 2% milk their default milk. I know that's a good thing, even though Starbucks is not my coffee shop of choice. (They roast too long and lose all the flavor of the bean.) But using 2% in place of whole milk will cut down on fat. It's that term default in front of milk that bothers me. The use of a term like default milk comes from computer science. It describes pre-settings. Nothing smacks of a corporate approach to selling coffee like that term. It presupposes that someone has determined what is best for me, or perhaps more accurately what is best for them. In another context, default means a lack of something, a need for something, or a desire for something. As in why do I have to ask for 2% milk, why isn't it available at Peet's like it used to be? Nothing seems more simple that cup of coffee. Not now.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

American Metaphor

Alex Chilton, dead at 59.
American Artist,
American Original,
American Music Industry Metaphor

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Peach Pear Pyramid

Not once do I burn myself. But the hot steam and hot water pouring out of the fire hose occasionally splashes up and around my face. Fortunately the spaceman outfit I wear, complete with gloves, keeps me dry. I have visions, on slow days, of the boiler erupting as I twist the big valves. Keeps me on my toes. With the women on the line on their dinner break, I hose down the equipment and the floor. No mushy pear detritus anywhere. I roll the hose onto it's bracket, empty the wheelbarrow one more time (the third time since my shift began) and rest on my feet, watching the women on the level above me finish the first half of their shift and prepare for their break. They have a most peculiar job. There are only a half dozen of them, on a rise off to the side. They watch the cubed pieces of pear pour out of a slot and onto a small belt. They look for brown. These fruit cocktail bound chunks are slightly cooked for softness and occasionally a piece is burned. With a small hose about the size of a hand-held vacuum, they suck up the overcooked or burnt fruit. They do this for 9 hours. I think their pay must be better, or maybe they drop acid first, or meditate, or listen to music amid the non-stop roar of empty tin cans that rises and falls like cicadas. At least I get to move around. They stand on their feet and vacuum up small bits of overcooked pear. Maybe they get a misshapen piece that needs to be removed once in a while. But I think, as I watch them silently descend from their pear vacuuming perch, how do they do this?
On this day, disaster strikes. Alarm bells ring and red lights flash. Fruit cocktail spill on Aisle D!
One of the big belts that carries a mix of peaches, pears, pineapple and grapes has suddenly stopped heaping its contents in great mounds on the cement floor. Fortunately the cherries have not been added yet. They arrive separately from another plant packaged in large plastic lined crates having been cooked to perfection for that rose -colored unnatural look. I find four feet of piled up fruit cocktail, minus cherries, growing rapidly at the head of Aisle D. The alarm is for all the wheelbarrow boys, peaches, pears, grapes, pineapple, to get over their ASAP and shovel up the spilled cocktail. We grab large shovels made for the occasion. Not quite snow shovels, not quite oversized scoops, they help us reduce the fruit dune in about 15 min. We shovel the spill onto another belt where it will be re-washed and readied for another attempt when the broken belt gets fixed.
Disaster averted, the rest of the shift goes smoothly. Even the women that suck up the burnt pear pieces enjoy a chuckle watching the fruit cocktail emergency.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


We all wear ear plugs. Thousands of empty tin cans rattling above and in front and all around will eventually wear away anyone's sanity. Those who don't wear plugs have some sort of ear phone plugged in to a radio. It's 1972, only small radios have ear plugs. Some take drugs. Lots of speed in your co-worker's systems because after this shift gets off at 10:00p.m. they barely have enough time to grab a bite, or a another dose of something and head down to the Hunt's cannery in Hayward. Tomatoes are in now and the Ketchup brigade in in full swing.
But we're in Emeryville, the little industrial town between W. Berkeley and W. Oakland, and the cannery belongs to Del-Monte. I'm in pears. Literally. From 1 p.m. till 10 I empty big steel wheelbarrows full of rotten pears, or spilled fruit into large fruit dumpsters on a loading dock that rivals any for activity, noise, muck, and large trucks moving in and out all day and all night.
I have just completed my graduate work at the big U and need to support myself while I wait for my first teaching job. Until then I belong to the cannery workers union. I'm paid a fair wage for this shift that requires much more of my physical strength than anything else.
But I have a job. I can stay in Berkeley all summer and wait for the call that completes my first step to a goal. I await my first teaching contract in the dark, dank, shattering sounds of Cannery #35.
When my shift starts I change into a classic bright yellow rain suit complete with hat. Before the top jacket goes on, I go into the locker room and rub a special lanolin creme on my arms and hands. It's more like warm taffy, sticky and buckskin colored and protective. The lye bath that dirty fruit takes upon entering the cannery can splash up from time to time and injure the skin.
At the mid-point of my shift I have a special task to do. The women who work the stainless steel tray like conveyer belts with peeled, cored pears streamlining by take their dinner break. The belts stop and the pears are temporarily in hiding. I am to hose off the equipment. It is no ordinary hose I use. It's about the size of a fire hose and there are two large valves to turn on first. One valve is for hot water, the other is for hot steam. I need to be careful.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Odd Jobs

In my writing group the other night, I asked my fellow writers and poets about the weirdest jobs they've ever had. It was my turn to "share" and since there are a couple of upcoming contests, one of which involves work (Work Magazine). I thought they and I might like to try our hands at a bit of memoir.
So we went around the room with good success. A cab driver in Honolulu, a really bad waitress, drinking vodka with the Polish army, stuff like that came up. I recalled a job that was passed around among roommates in a Berkeley house back in the 70s. I had the pleasure for a couple of months. It was essentially being a janitor in a small "art house" movie theater. I'd go in about 3:30 or 4 p.m. and sweep up then vacuum two small theaters. Next, I'd clean the two restrooms in between Theater A and Theater B. All told, about two hours a day. Aside from free movies... (mostly what were termed "foreign" or offbeat films" back then) sweeping the aisles and between and under the seats could be lucrative. I found lots of small change, occasionally a wad of bills, a big Swiss Army knife, and many, many, sweaters jackets, hats, and even a few wallets. Of course it would all go to a lost and found, but, aside from the wallets, people rarely returned to claim anything. After a week or two, the owner said just throw it away or donate anything useful. Some I donated to myself. The small amounts of money amounted to tips in my mind.
Those "tips" were welcome because often I'd find "surprises" in the theater. It seems there was an ice cream shop nearby. Some folks would buy a pint, smuggle it into the theater and then eat only a half a pint. Quietly, they'd set the container down on the floor or under the seats. By cleaning time the next afternoon...surprise!
That job was as pleasant as popcorn compared to my all-time weirdest: working at the Del Monte cannery.
In the summer between finishing up my student teaching and graduate work at UC Berkeley and getting a full-time teaching job, I went to work for Del-Monte in Emeryville, Ca. If you don't know, Emeryville, is a small town located in what was then a highly industrialized area between southwest Berkeley and west Oakland. Del Monte operated Cannery #35 there since the early part of the 20th century. It was a fruit cannery running work shifts 24 hrs. a day during summer when peaches and pears were in season. Word was that a broke college student could make good money for a few months because all the jobs were union wage. In late June of 1972 I applied and within hours I had joined the union and went to work in the pear department from 1:00p.m.-10:p.m. on weekdays. It took all of my first hour on the job to train me. Here's what I did: Report to work and change into all rubber rain-suit, the classic yellow one complete with hat. Apply a lanolin solution to arms and hands and then cover with rubber gloves. Clock in. Wheel a large steel wheel-barrow from the loading dock to the pear department where teams of women were monitoring peeled and cored pears on conveyer belts for rotten portions of the fruit. They would also arrange the washed, peeled, cored and split in half pears according to size. When a large wheel-barrow was filled with rotten or unusable fruit pieces, I would then wheel it back to the loading dock and empty it into large dumpster-like bins that would eventually be trucked away. That went on for 9 hours. But there were a couple of other duties I performed each day as well. One was an important task when the women took their lunch break. The fruit traveled on stainless steel tray like conveyer belts. The machinery was shut down for their 40 min. lunch break about 5:00 p.m. every day. That's when I'd go into action with an enormous fire hose. The equipment has to be hosed off, first with steam, and then hot water before they returned for the remainder of their shift. I turned very large valves. I dredged the hose through the factory and with steam and then hot water pouring forth, I washed the pear belts down. It took all my strength, but being 24 and in the company of all manner of gritty workers, I tried to fit in, to show my grit, to survive and get that check.
Occasionally, things would not go as planned. That's the topic for tomorrow.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Keep it Weird

The signs are everywhere. On city busses, sometimes, on billboards, and especially on car bumper stickers. KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD. There are even variations. My favorite is Keep Portland Beered. But that's only because of the many fine brew pubs with a sparkling array of home brews to choose from. Portland will always be beered, but it's the weird part that has me fascinated.
By way of definition, weird could mean any of the following: People here dress comfortably. There is a definite look and it often has something to do with the weather. Hats, scarves, casual warm. Weird includes Voodoo Donuts, an institution with it's hangover Peptol Bismol frosted morning offering to it's Fruit-Loops covered special for kids of all ages. It's the horse rings that most streets still have. These are the original steel rings cemented into the curbs left over from the days when people would tie up their horses in front of a business or residence. Now people are fond of attaching small model horses to maintain the tradition. Kids love this. Some of it has to do with the fact that this is a friendly city. Sure it has a seedy underbelly. Too many winos and meth heads surviving on the fringes. Too many petty crimes, some turn into full-tilt tragedies, too many mentally ill folks on the streets. But too many in Portland is not nearly like most cities. Did I mention that people are friendly. No really. It's so noticeable to those of us who have lived most of our lives in crowded urban environments. Friendly is part of weird because it's often rare. I'm not talking about the occasional smile or good morning. No no, people will stop and talk a while, even in the grocery store line. Things move slowly. Too slowly for many people.
It's a knowing your mailman's first name kind of town. Weird means unpredictable too. People do funny things. Like last night, while walking a mile to my local market I noticed that someone had been busy knitting scarves and wraps for some of the objects adorning a nearby coffeehouse. So we're walking along and suddenly notice that the bicycle rack or the bus stop or even a railing or door now has a colorful, knitted wrap of some kind. Weird means that when you tell this to somebody, and then go back the next day to look, it's all still there.
In Portland, people share tables, they open doors, they pump your gas. (It's state law) But you see, it makes for more direct conversation with your fellow residents. This is a bicycle friendly town too. So much so that it WILL change your driving habits. Share the road means be on the lookout at all times. You can only appreciate this driving home at night and seeing the constant stream of bobbing headlights coming at your from every angle, every street, at every hour.
People are migrating to the Northwest and Portland at steady rates. With them will come all their city resumes, their urban illusions, their hometown expectations. Better bring some Weird.