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.