Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hazardous to Your Health

By chance the other day, I got word of a fairly new book with fascinating, if not stunning conclusions. Put simply, the rate of violence, especially in the form of homicides and suicides, rises dramatically when Republicans are in the White House.
Can't say I'm surprised, are you? But it's really no so much about war and the continuation of bankrupt policies, or outsourcing war, it's more in the area of socioeconomic stress that the data points

convincingly.
James Gilligan, in the book Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous than Others states his case. Not really looking to prove this thesis out the outset, Gilligan, a professor of psychology at NYU, says that the data surfaced rather by chance and he could not leave it alone. Apparently he was originally looking at other non-specific causes of violent behavior but the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.kept getting into the equation.
Of course there must be exceptions to these findings. Republicans have no monopoly on stressing out the populace. Certainly to my generation, the irony of Lyndon Johnson's presidency jumps out. I clearly recall people in 1966 saying, "We voted for Johnson and got Goldwater." At least Johnson had the foresight not to run for office again after his hands got so bloodied with the Vietnam debacle. The sad thing was always that Johnson fancied himself the incarnation of FDR and he was well on his way to getting there. He wasted no time getting JFK's Civil Rights legislation passed and actually did declare a war on poverty. I became a Vista Volunteer because of his efforts. It's those undeclared wars that do it every time.
So let's say that Mr. Galligan's thesis is right on the money. What could that possibly mean for the future? If Obama wins re-election, maybe the numbers will again tell their story. Already troops are on the way home from Iraq. That means fewer cases of PTSD as well as all the psychological consequences that come with the stress and anxiety of deployment, maintaining relationships, and dealing with uncertain futures. But what about overall health care? What about education? Not sure how that ties in, but it must. I keep thinking of all my former students in their mid to late 20s and early 30s with stellar degrees and no career prospects. Moving back in with your parents after college has go to be stressful.
That begs the question of demographics. Will Republican presidents become a thing of the past when more and more Latino voters join the pool? By 2050 what will this country look like and what will that say about who we elect? Third party movements usually fall as fast as they rise, but maybe now the time is right. Think of the possibilities of a political party based on principles of mental health. All quite fascinating.
There is one other elephant in the room. (Pun intended) That is, why don't more people know about this book? What is preventing other politicians from using this data to their best advantage? Certainly I don't expect James Gilligan to be a guest on Fox News anytime soon. Now, I haven't read the book, but I intend to. With a thesis like that, I'd surely like to know more.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Burning Woods

Christmas nears. The Fox network continues to predictably defend it and it's traditions while it repeatedly airs commercials that re-write traditional songs with messages and tidings of greed. I even saw one this year which flips and twists the notion that receiving is better than giving. Surprised? Not really. More evidence of this over the top culture, pushing boundaries of commercialism to new heights. Gatsby's green light shines...glistens...blinds.
But this year we have a new phenomena, the Layaway angel. People are coming forward and paying off items that the less fortunate (read less wealthy) are trying to purchase for the big day. I'm so tainted, I'm not sure I even believe these folks are on the square, as the old union organizers used to say. Likewise, the major news outlets and the local happy-talk teams are running stories about Secret Santas and first time food bank users. Where is the forest? Is everyone so focused on the trees that they don't see the glaring forest fire in front of them?
Yes, it's important to help those less fortunate; but ask why do they continue to be less fortunate? How can I help there? Why are there more folks living from month to month, depending on food banks or food stamps, or waiting for big box angels than ever?
Maybe it just comes with what's been called the "Season of Sharing." But does that mean we don't share the rest of the time?
Even those more informed or democratic institutions have joined the holiday chorus. I've noticed that most everybody wants to get a piece of the holiday dollar. Education organizations and publishing houses I support are urging me not to forget their products as Christmas gift-giving ideas this year. Hey, it's tough out there and the holidays represent one last opportunity to get in the black.
I'm thinking about this a good deal these days. The trick, of course, is not to raise the issue as a naysayer. Give from the heart, encourage others to do the same, but also figure out a way they can look for the forest. We nee to get in those woods before we can get out of them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

For Love of Robert Creeley

I've been reading and listening to the poetry of Robert Creeley all afternoon. Relieved to find I still have an important little volume of his work, I found his voice all over the internet and You Tube.
He'd like that. I do.


Robert Creeley - A Form Of Women.mp3
Download at rapidlibrary mp3 music
Rapid Library Music

Monday, December 19, 2011

Twice As Deep

As often happens, two figures in the world arena have died within days. I don't know if these passings come in triplicate, only the next week will tell. For now the death of Vaclav Havel and now North Korean president Kim Jong Il represent a most fascinating juxtaposition. I think I'm correct in assuming Kim was the more widely known. It's fairly difficult to repress and oppress an entire nation without being recognized these days. But Havel, the former playwright turned politico may leave a more lasting legacy.


In the days to come North Korea may not even change as the son will take up where the father left off. But for how long? Even the most evil despots, the most pathological plutocrats all have a bit of a say in their own undoing. Perhaps in North Korea's case, the encroaching technology will open that country wide as a treasure chest as it appears to have done in China. But one person's treasure is certainly not always another's. I'm sure horror stories will follow. Hard to believe the power one person can have over an entire nation, but then even a cursory study of history reinforces that notion. Let's hope the son rebels. Let's hope he wants to travel. Let's hope he is well read.
As for Vaclav Havel, his words will live on. His experience and his ability to articulate it are already beginning to open eyes. In a speech given back in 1994, on the occasion of winning The Liberty Medal, Vaclav Havel noted:
By day, we work with statistics; in the evening, we consult astrologers and frighten ourselves with thrillers about vampires. The abyss between the rational and the spiritual, the external and the internal, the objective and the subjective, the technical and the moral, the universal and the unique constantly grows deeper.
It's difficult to imagine many national leaders putting a couple of sentences like those together. It begs the question: what if more world leaders were writers?
Speaking today on NPR writer Ariel Dorfman noted that Havel was more concerned about moral authority than anything else. Makes him the direct opposite of Kim. Maybe the abyss, in some ways can be filled with some of Havel's ideas, his caveats, his wisdom.
Hard not to think about Fidel Castro as the third leg of this trifecta. We are just about 1/5 into the second decade of the 21st century. Let's hope the universal moves in tandem with the unique.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Over and Out?


I like a hero as much as the next person. The U.S. intervention in Iraq, which apparently ended today, certainly produced it's share of heroes. As the late Andy Rooney once wrote, "If war brings out the worst in people, It also brings out the best."
Lots of stories from Iraq about the best coming out. But then, that's human nature. While the media focuses on those heroic stories, the ones that feature dogs, kids, the maimed and psychologically damaged, they rarely look at the big picture. With this rather low ceremonious exit, especially during the height of the holiday season, I'm looking for more on the big picture.
Haven't seen it yet, but I will give it some time. Those of us who learned many lessons from the Vietnam War probably never expected to see U.S. troops involved in an unwinable war again. Too bad those lessons were altered and ultimately trashed. When Dwight Eisenhower coined the term "Military-Industrial Complex" I wonder if he had any idea that a foreign invasion, an undeclared war, could be outsourced. I wonder if he had any inkling that the industrial part of the equation could so heavily involve the private sector?
As writer Chris Hedges has so eloquently stated, "war is a force that gives us meaning." I guess that's why these little international interventions have their defenders. Why they continue to think that all the sacrifices of life and limb really do have a direct connection to their personal freedom. All this while they go to Ikea and buy cheap rugs and home decorations made in Vietnam, our highly rated trading partner. Do they realize that the factories that employ the young workers are built over the bodies of so many of their countrymen that had those same beliefs. Do they see the relationship between their decreased quality of life and the billions spent monthly on this immoral adventure.
The ability to sell war along with $300. sneakers is truly remarkable.
Got to admit, tying Iraq to the shock an awe of the 9/11 attacks was a handy piece of work.
So, 4500 Americans die, 30,00 are wounded, how many more psychologically destroyed forever? How many thousand Iraqis? How many lives knew nothing else but this war. Nine years. What happens now? Well, what do we know? Where do we look to begin to conceive an answer? And...of course, when do we go "over there" again for some vague objective that makes a few very wealthy.
A final question: Who will write this history?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Holiday Card

Found object...found art.



Sometimes the best "Christmas Cards" are right outside your front door. I've had my eye on this neighbor's display for a few days now, and when the sun came out today, I knew I had to grab the camera and get this photo.
My favorite things: the juxtaposition between two seemingly unrelated things. Here we have greed, love, forgiveness, intolerance, eternal war, heavenly peace.
I wonder how many people drive by this striking image everyday and simply just don't see it?

Yes Worries

What follows is an updated/edited version of an older post. Two additions here: first of all, I did hear from my "friend" and ultimately from my older friend, her father. All is well there. What wasn't so well is that the original illustration shown here needed to be removed because of potential copyright infringement. My bad. It was a wonderful rendering of a rather intense, pensive individual. Looked good here but apparently not for public consumption. No worries mate, it's gone.
I really haven't heard it anywhere else. I'm sure people say "No Worries" in other parts of the country, but I never heard it when I lived in California. In Portland, I hear it every day. Yesterday, I heard a young man say the phrase three times in about a minute. I usually say "No Problem." But worries, for me are not problems. I'm a worrier.
Most of my worry time is either early in the morning when I awake, or at the end of the day, if I can't get to sleep in a reasonable amount of time.
So what's on my worry list these days? A few things. I worry, of course about the situation right now in Egypt. My sense of history tells me that we haven't seen much yet. Today the revolution will be televised. It's a heady thing to see thousands of people in the street. Some ideas cannot be stopped when their time has come. Ask Frederick Douglass, ask French, Chinese, Russian peasants, among others. Ask Nelson Mandela.
I worry about health care in this country. And I have coverage. I can't figure out why we can't take care of our own people. Same goes for education budgets. Lots to worry about there. I even worry about seemingly unimportant things. Case in point, an email I sent the other day to the daughter of a couple I knew about 25 years ago.
I was playing around on Facebook and actually found this young woman while searching for her parents. They divorced some years ago, and their daughter is now in her 20s and living on the East Coast. I only met her once. She was about a week old and in her mothers arms. I got a quick peek and then thee friends moved to the Southwest. I know her mom is still there, but I lost track of her father. He was a wonderful writer, and I see that his daughter has aspirations of following in that path as well. So I sent her a message at the risk of being taken for everything from an internet predator to an "unwelcome" friend. I simply wat to know if her father is alive and well, or if not, what and when? Haven't heard back. I'm worried.

Friday, December 9, 2011

It's All There

This is the time of the year I look for an old cassette tape of "alternative" Christmas music. I made the tape one Christmas Eve from a listener sponsored radio station in the Bay Area about 30 years ago. It's a wonder that the tape still plays, but it does if you stretch it out a bit by fast forwarding it up and back a few times. A good metaphor for me right now!
This year, I decided to forego my search for the cassette and went straight to the net. The tape contains all kinds of Christmas blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, music and a few things that defy categorization. So far my internet search has enabled me to find much of what's on that lost tape. There are all the great Charles Brown holiday classics, Elvis Presley's version of Christmastime in the City (pretty baby) Bill Monroe's Christmastime's a Comin' and wonderful spirituals by the Blind Boys of Alabama and Clara Ward. I found some Conjunto music with Flaco Jiminez and Freddie Fender as well. MyI top 10 alternative holiday music countdown can be found on my Facebook page if anyone wants to give a listen.
It still amazes me how easy it is to locate music, film and video on the internet. Time was when most folks, especially teachers, spent hours trying to find material for their classes. Used to be that you'd have to track down video material at libraries, through catalogs, word of mouth, or actually doing the legwork. If you wanted something rare or out of the ordinary, you paid. Being a fan of pop culture, I used to rent, buy or borrow short films, advertising clips, records, tapes, or other recordings to bring in the likes of blues artists, the voices of poets, films that were either labeled or thought to be dicey for use in high school classroom. So easy now. What used to be just another annoying ad is now a historical document:


Like everyone, I enjoy the technology. The beginning teachers I work with aren't particularly fond of my stories of how easy they have it when it comes to accessing supplementary material. I just hope they realize how difficult it is to type up a short story yo want to use, or how long it took to track down that out of print film clip, or an old TV ad that would really make the point you were driving at so vigorously.
Seems like not too long ago I marveled at having a recording of Woody Guthrie's "Jesus Christ" Today, when I looked on You Tube, I found three, not to mention a few cover versions.
I'd like to think that with all this exposure to previously difficult to find material we, as a culture, are going up the learning curve. Care to comment?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

33 Percent

In this difficult time, I'm constantly looking for things to feel better about, or at least feel some optimism. I'm a firm believer that when things look the most bleak, you've got to dig down a bit further. You know: if you fall off the horse, get back up right away. It's too easy to lose perspective on your own situation when it doesn't take too much to realize that many other folks have it a lot worse than you do.
I worry that so many of my former students must have placed their dreams and hopes on hold. Every now and then I see another college graduate, with increasing debt, and a new job at a temp agency. If I were in the classroom full time these days, I wonder just how difficult it would be to motivate kids given that the goal of a college education, and it's benefits, just might look a little hollow right now. And then this: From a recent Harper's Index comes this little statistic:
• Chance that an American who earned a bachelor's degree in 2008 will be paying off student loans in 2028: 1 in 3
I started thinking about my own history of student loans. After all, I paid for my entire college education myself. Through a couple of part time jobs I financed my undergraduate years. Of course, even as a commuter student at UCLA, the price of gas was a fraction of what it is today. But then minimum wage was under $2.00. I think I made about $2.25 at best in those days. Tuition at the UC system was unbelievingly low compared to today's figures.
When I secured a couple of loans and grants so that I could attend graduate school at UC Berkeley, I was motivated by the promise that if I secured a teaching position, especially in an under-resourced district with a diverse student population, that much of my debt would be deferred. That never happened because the government changed it's mind. The notion of a "National Defense" student loan morphed into a monthly payment and it took me about 5 years to repay it given I was making about 10k a year back then. What a bargain compared to today's costs.


If education becomes too costly for 1 in 3, just imagine how costly it becomes without it. Are we a nation that can't seem to meet the needs of our people without weighing whether or not we can afford it? Afraid so.
No, I won't vent here. I'm too lost in thinking how fortunate I've been. As a first generation college graduate in my working class family, I'm actually happy I bought the picture. I swallowed that star-spangled dream that promised a better life. For me it worked, to a degree. Retired teachers are hardly the epitome of the landed gentry. But with very few teaching jobs, even fewer factory or technology jobs calling the U.S. home, what's that leave? Service industry?
This morning I chanced to look at some children's books in a bookstore. Fresh from monitoring an online discussion on the Teacher's Learning Network about those Little Golden Books we all had as beginning readers, I marveled at how some are still in print. There are a few with copyright dates in the late 1940s and early 50s. Of course there are newer ones, but some of those like The Night Before Christmas still exist in their original form. Then I found one called Daddies.


Yes it was sexist, with all the jobs that men do. Kids were getting the message that only men were doctors or worked in factories, or were cops. You get the picture. The original drawings were just as colorful and charming as I recall. Those Little Golden Books are real treasures. Then it hit me. Most of those jobs that those daddies went off to don't exist anymore. Some do, but many were exported. That little book takes on new meaning. It's now a historical document. The way it was.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Silent Fall


For days the leaves have been falling. They soon become ground into a wet mulch that makes it's way into the house, the car, the soles of our shoes. They lie in a soupy mix like saturated corn flakes in an enormous bowl that nobody eats or even cleans up. Until today. The first of the city mandated leaf clean-ups happened this morning. When I see my neighbors park their cars and trucks on their front lawns then I know the time has come. Since we don't pay for this needed service, and our landlords are away, we got no forewarning this time. No matter. By 9:00 this morning most of the leaves were gone...momentarily. Must have slept through the tractors with the big cages on them, the small but highly maneuverable street cleaners and the water trucks. And all the while, the leaves keep falling. By tonight it'll be hard to tell the first batch was removed. It's raining now...cornflakes for everyone.
My observations on leaves have much to do with the fact that I live on a street with gigantic, ancient Dutch Elm trees. These trees define the seasons, decorate the neighborhood in every way imaginable, provide shade in the warmer months of summer, and actually keep rain off whatever resides under them. They support an elaborate culture of squirrels and crows, make wonderful silhouettes on moonlit nights, and are responsible for flurries of leaves, pollen, and small branches that rival any dust storm. They exude their aesthetic while snow-covered, dripping wet, or barren. They can be green, yellow white or

brown. Aside from their eco-biological function of being the lungs of the neighborhood, they get people talking. A day never passes when someone walks up the street and comments on some phase of these elm tree's lives.
Still they are fragile. Once a year they require inoculations to prevent disease. For the most part, they outlive us all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

TGI (your choice)


This week, amid all the Thank Yous infusing everyone's thoughts and requests, saw a couple of mind numbing events. First, the overkill with the event known as "Black Friday." You'd think by the sound that this national day of consumerism was similar to the Black Monday that brought down the stock market some 80 plus years ago. But no. It's the orgy of conspicuous consumption that officially kicks off the holiday shopping season. It's the day after Thanksgiving. It's the worst in this culture all in a day.
Imagine the mindset that waits in a tent in the parking lot or sidewalk in front of some big box store that features a midnight start time to get a few bucks off something that was marked up 50% to begin with. Do these people have no life? Yup. But wait. There is now evidence that the prices on the same merchandise will actually be better as the big day nears on the 25th of December.
Would some folks trample over people to buy an electronic device that will be outdated before the season next year? Yup. Are they that ignorant? Yup. The great P.T. Barnum, master of illusion said himself, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Maybe it's a sport? Maybe they really enjoy tearing apart all manner of consumer goods from the backstreets and by-ways of China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, and Thailand. Maybe they really feel good about themselves after eschewing sleep, nutrition, empathy, and fresh breath, to partake in a mass hog feed.
Who knows? The only thing worse than imagining this annual event is enduring the commercials for it. This year they went whole hog and even incorporated the insipid "It's Friday" song. Can I say something nice about this phenomena? Yes I can. To see "Black Friday" is to see this culture at it's very worst.
Which reminds me...New Gingrich is at it again. This time he's offered up the idea that American Public School kids should replace the janitors at their schools. He's for real, honestly. It's a budget cutting brainstorm, but it also insures that we have enough menial workers for the next century. He thinks the child labor laws need revision too. Could he be that disconnected? Fraid so. It certainly gives me pause. How about you? Is he that evil...that uninformed...that insensitive?
Let's see what happens when we try to give him the benefit of the doubt. Well, for one, some Japanese schools end the day with the student body cleaning up. Sounds pleasant doesn't it? And, it has the added benefit of instilling pride in their environment. I can get my head around that. But, unfortunately, that's not what he's saying. He's also suggesting that the #Occupy participants get a job and a haircut. Does he know how many have college degrees and no prospects? Is he that out of the loop. I'd like to know, but what will it take for someone to ask him directly? Aye, there's the rub, not with screened questions and pseudo debates on the Faux network. Maybe somebody will penetrate the illusion before he asks kids to shine his shoes too. You know, given it's the 19th century, Horatio Alger, kind of self-employed, up by your boot straps kind of thing, it's not all that far-fetched.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Stealing Life





In Per Petterson's sparse yet stunning novel, Out Stealing Horses, the 67 year old protagonist has a conversation with his daughter in one of the final scenes. He's gone to live in the Norwegian woods, near the Swedish border and is at first incredulous that his grown child has even found him. To be sure, he welcomes the visit, but the reader can't help wondering if he's disappointed that he's realized it's really impossible to escape. It may not even be desirable, he's coming to realize. Still he's not disappointed, and savors his isolation as a chance to reflect on his life and life's work.
In a reflective moment the daughter says, "You were always reading Dickins at home...I remember you in your chair with a book, miles away...at first you didn't recognize me and then you replied "Dickins," with a serious look, and I thought that reading Dickins was not the same as reading other books. I thought it was a special kind of book that only we possessed." She then tells her father that she recalls him reading aloud to her on occasion. Asking if he still has a copy of David Copperfield, the daughter quotes the opening from memory:
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
The daughter concludes by urging her father to read those pages again and adds, "I always thought those opening lines were a bit scary because they indicated we would not necessarily be the leading characters of our own lives...a sort of ghost-life where I could do nothing but watch that person who had taken my place and maybe hate her deeply and envy her everything, but not be able to do anything about it because at some point I had fallen out of my life, as if from an aeroplane...and could not get back to it, and someone else was sitting fastened into my seat, although that place was mine and I had the ticket in my hand."
Aside from this profound conversation, the novel offers many more stop and think moments. But this one referenced here seems particularly applicable to life today. This notion of turning out to be the hero of one's life or of forfeiting that to someone else applies to many issues and critical junctures we all face. The writer Baharati Mukhergee once suggested that we murder past selves and create new new ones in the images of dreams. I think it's true even though murder is a strong word. Because if we aren't sure those former incarnations of our self are gone, they are sure to return. So who is the hero of your life? And what are the characteristics of a hero? In our tabloid culture we confuse heroes with celebrities for the most part. But aren't we confronted with our own heroism constantly? Not just making the right choice or the moral decision; I'm coming to believe there is a component that involves coming to terms with our faults and failings as well.
Most biographies have some sort of subtitle that includes the words "a life." A life in politics, or as in Joe Klein's biography, Woody Guthrie: A life. When that book first came out, Woody's old friend Bob Dewitt told me it should be called Woody Guthrie: What a life!
As I move through this world and my years add up, I rather hope my story will have a label similar to the one Les Blank chose for his documentary of bluesman Mance Lipscomb. A Life Well Spent.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

For a Living



We can't save everyone. But we try. A teacher, a real teacher will never stop trying until...until...we're out of the picture. Even then, some students never leave us alone. Like that kid in your neighborhood, the one you catch yourself wondering about from time to time, it's fascinating to speculate how someone turned out.
If it's any consolation, that turning out takes a lifetime for most. Others, however, make their presence felt through a newspaper, an obituary, a rumor, and even a Facebook page. Such was the case when I chanced to see a picture of Allen Woodard recently. My first reaction was he's alive, I think. Allen lived for the military. Specifically the U.S. Marines. Probably because there was no father in his life, and his mom was a teacher's aid at my old school, I came to take an interest in Allen. He liked to talk about world politics and when the U.S. got involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, he couldn't wait to get over there.
His mom was troubled by Allen's eagerness to taste combat. Like most everyone in his life, she too hoped his military career wouldn't be cut short by a roadside bomb and a military funeral at 19. That didn't happen. That's the good news. The only good news. It's one thing to wear a full dress Marine uniform at age 10 and quite another to act out the fantasies of one obsessed with war. Allen is now home and living in the Southwest. His Facebook page, which I ambled upon when his picture and name appeared in the margin with the number of friends we have in common, reveals how he turned out. I'm happy he is gainfully employed. As a bouncer for a bar, he can live his life of authority and rules, keeping his community safe from violent types. I'm sure he gets all the free beer he can handle and still perform his duties. What stands out on this page is Allen's description of what he does (or did)for a living. He's unabashedly not afraid to say that his life skill is killing people...for the good ol' USA. It really says that. I shit you not.
I always wondered if he had a conscience. Still do. I had hoped we could have done more for Allen. But deep inside I realize he was long gone before he came through my classroom door. Still, I secretly hope there is still time for his mind to grow a bit. I noticed another thing too. Many of the kids in his graduating class keep in touch through Facebook. When I get a friend request from one and click on the OK link, I notice that they usually average from 25-50 former high school classmates. Allen's high school friends number less that ten. But what a ten. Within that number are some of the most talented, thoughtful, empathetic, intelligent kids in the class. Maybe they thought like I thought? Maybe it's not too late? Maybe it never is. Maybe?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Worst Case?


The writing prompt said Worst Case Scenario. That's all, just three little words. Some went to work immediately, others leaned back, leaned forward, squirmed, dug deep into the wells of their lives to retrieve the fully repressed or fully fantasized. No me.
The thought came quickly. "What if" was the lead line. The substance was being perceived by others. Wouldn't it be horrible if people ...the people in your life to be exact, all shared a perception of you and your personality that was far...very far from what you thought. In short, what if people did not think of you in the way you thought they did?
Writer James Baldwin once said, "If I am not who you think I am, then you are not who you think you are." That's what I'm talkin' about. Not being who you think you are. Worst case scenario.
I suppose it could be a tremendous opportunity. After all, how many times do we get to adjust our personalities. How much insight do we really get from those in our lives who define our identity? Our significant others, be they husbands, wives, partners, companions know much more about our authentic selves than most. No worst case there. But the notion that people we count on, people we share important parts of our lives with may be simply tolerating us without our knowledge is an earthquake.
So I created a character that essentially looked like what Carl Jung called our "shadow" side. This dark side is much more than an Id unbound. It's, as Jung himself said, "the less commendable part of our personality. It's all our quirks, neuroses, evil impulses, un-evolved, crap that we carry around and display from time to time.
Think about what that looks like. For me, it's the name dropper, the gossip, the guy that interrupts. It's the guy that spews anger while driving because someone displayed human error. It's every time I told myself I wasn't going to react in an emotional way and violated that pledge instantly when someone or something touched a nerve.
Seems to me that this kind of worst case scenario is much more difficult to overcome than a flat tire or an unexpected car repair. It's more devastating than some kinds of loss (a job, mediocre friend, an appetite) After all, it's you not knowing yourself or how others see you.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Who was that...


When the photograph of two people holding a sign that read, "Occupy Tundra," first appeared, I wondered how many small towns were participating in the groundswell #Occupy movement. There must be some rather non-urban settings. My sister, who lives in Bozeman, Mt. made me aware of camps currently in Missoula, Helena, as well as Bozeman. Gotta love those college towns. (two out of three in Montana.)
While they are nothing like the tent cities in Oakland or on Wall Street, they do contain the same amount of disaffected, disappointed people from retirees to veterans, to unemployed college graduates, to laid off factory workers. They have kids, and wet conditions this time of year, and less than adequate food, and all manner of hangers on. The media has a field day with the sub-stories. Recently, in Portland, the coverage centered on a rat in the food tent and a syringe found on the ground. Finally, an elder covering the story for an alternative radio station pointed out that some of those high end restaurants no so far from those demonstrators also have a few unwanted diners. She added that the syringe could also have been left by a diabetic. I know, not likely, but you get the point.
What's most troubling is the splinter groups, and their composition. Unfortunately there are people who are more interested in provoking violence than in participating in a populist movement. If we learned anything in the 60s, it was that along with their physical beings, people bring their personal psychology to demonstrations and marches. Coupled with the fact that the occupy camps are magnets for the homeless, the dispossessed, the mentally ill, and the addicted, there was bound to be some difficulty maintaining consistency, safety, and sometimes morality.
On that first day when Occupy Portland was born, the Guy Fawkes masks appeared. Then the black bandanas. Anarchists? Maybe just admirers of the popular V is for Vendetta graphic novel set in a dystopian world where the overthrow of the oppressive regime is heroic. But are many of these masked marchers after heroics? Are they seduced by dystopian dreams? My guess is that under the guise of political change, they seek the excitement. They are young and eager to confront. Yet, there are young and younger in the crowd that know how violence plays into the hands of authority. It gives them license to use tear gas, clubs, handcuffs. They will protect property before human life in many instances. Certainly the media adore blood.
To my mind, masks serve only one purpose.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Metro Morphing




I love living in a place where I can see the seasons change. This is that time of year when some of the trees in my neighborhood celebrate Halloween by imitating fire. That they are ablaze is an understatement. The reds, oranges, and yellows are day-glow.
But there are other transitions too. They don't come at predictable times of year. They move slowly, even slower than many people might imagine, but they too are everlasting. One such change is the gradual disappearance of the newspaper.
We know this is happening, but the form it actually takes is just beginning to take shape. Every morning when I buy my hometown paper I'm aware that the little yellow metal box is soon to disappear. Hell, the paper is literally disappearing. It's often embarrassingly thin. And that's with all the ads still in tact. But there is a notion that maybe the daily newspaper could survive with a different function. One NY Times editor recently made the observation that the American newspaper is taking the place of the magazine because it now serves to review the news we already know. It becomes a summary of the information we've received from instantly following issues on the Internet.
Either way, the ways and places we receive our information about the world are changing. And with all change, the situation is unavoidable so the way we handle it or not is increasingly important. I've decided to savor the physical product called a newspaper. I do this by seeing how long it can be purchased on the street. That is, I don't subscribe any more, I buy it from the box. One day someone will explain to a curious child what those were. Perhaps a colorful contraption will show up at an estate sale one day and go from there to "The Roadshow."
I look at some of the newspaper department that now seem an anachronism. Who sells anything in a newspaper these days? Why? I read the comics, look at the weather, scan the letters to the editor, and of course, work my way through the sports section. You know, it is often all a review of things I already know. If the paper helps me know them more accurately, then it's done it's job.
And then there is the crossword and the Jumble. Good brain exercises. It's become ritual for me now. When there is a crossword sitting around unmarked, it's enough to turn off the computer. Most days I live dangerously, I do them in ink. My finished puzzles (occasionally I fill in all the boxes without asking for help) are enough to light me up like those trees outside right now.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Vacant Lot


It was one of those moments when you just don't think. You react. For me, it's complicated by the teacher in me. We write and talk about social justice all the time but when it comes to actually doing something there is often no time to think.
I have a distant relative in my family that often spouts some racist notion. Everybody hears but nobody reacts. If it happens again, I've thought about what to say in such a way as to make a point without losing my cool. We'll see. I tend to go off around ignorance. That's when the teacher in me saves myself. I flip into the default personality that tries to make such an awkward situation a teachable moment knowing full well that my own demeanor and emotional state will make a huge difference. Out in the real world of grocery store parking lots, there if hardly enough time. So it was yesterday when a loud car horn blast shook me from my Saturday morning serenity and I noticed one of those Seinfeld moments. Some guy and his girlfriend were frustrated by a stopped car in front of them and blasted a warning before abruptly pulling out and around the source of their frustration. Trouble is, that stopped car was serenely waiting for a parking place which the impatient driver then took for his own. That flagrant behavior really pisses me off. Anybody can make that mistake and not be aware of their surroundings. People pushing baby strollers emerge from parked cars and into crosswalks in front of me all the time. It's one of those damned if you do /don't moments. The meaning of life, don't you know. But that's not the point. The point is I said something. "Hey, didn't you see that guy was waiting for that parking place?"
It's really a bullying situation, isn't it? We've all been on that end of things whether we intended to or not. As expected, Katie, my wife, asked me to keep quiet. I can't. Some semi-id like characteristic emerges in me and I want to push back. I'm prepared for any consequences. I know people carry guns, the engage in road rage crimes all the time. Often I do refrain, letting my sense of common sense take over. But sometimes...most times...I just react. And I proud of it. I'd like to think that the guy driving that car yesterday took a moment and in his head said something like, I really did fuck up, I didn't mean to not notice what was really going on. The smile that emerged on my lips was one of nervous face-saving because my girlfriend was with me. And anyway, some people are just too slow. It's no big deal. But next time I'll see if there is a reason someone in front of me seems like they are just sitting in the middle of a crowded parking lot.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Take It

Sometimes, when it seems as if everything is too complicated to understand, or as one of my favorite baristas likes to say, "too many moving parts," it's best to go back to the basics. We see this all the time in music. So many musicians tire of the pace the amplification of sound, the artificial inauthenticity of it all and go back to the blues. Deep roots. So it is with this fickle economy of ours right now. In fact thee is much to compare with today's malaise and the big one of the 1930s.


Another little chunk of knowledge to remember is to see what some of the finest minds, at least who you consider to be the finest minds, have to say on the matter. I reached back for Woody Guthrie today because a little quote trapped in my brain would not leave me alone. Seems as if Woody had a lot to say about Wall Street. No doubt in my mind where he's be were he alive and well today. In fact Woody not only wrote songs with Wall St. in mind, he also drew some cartoons and said a fair amount on the subject. There is a wonderful little collection of his wit and wisdom called Woody Sez. Long out of print, it continues to amaze because Woody's words are so timely. Try on this little gem:
"What Wall Street is a lookin fer is a humen being to put out in front--to front for em--the reason for this is cause you caint hardly find none on Wall St. I mean no humens. When youre mind gits to where it rangs like a cash register ever time you think , why you wood make a good hand on Wall St., but you woodent make a good enything else."
Now don't have a cow, Woody knew how to spell, but he often wrote his newspaper columns with the kind of colorful spelling that reflected just how his people, the dust bowl migrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas..., spoke. That left no doubt he was not only for the people but of the people.
Woody's writings and ramblings are full of these rather eerie predictions about things that have been repeated. We all know what happens to those who ignore history, and it continues to keep happening doesn't it. Woody was fond of saying, "Let me be known as the man who told you something you already know." Fair enough. Trouble is, so many of us don't even know our own history.


If Woody were here today, and in many ways he's occupying a city near you in spirit, he'd be able to reduce his message in no uncertain terms. Six words that say it all would surely come out of his hard'travelin' little mouth: "Take it easy, but take it."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Power Panel?

Sometimes I watch the news in the morning. Often,the Today show will come on and while I'm working on something else or answering emails or paying bills, I'll have one ear on the content. It's fairly easy to do because they repeat their stories every year. All the recurrent themes about diet and relationships, child rearing, and of curse how to cook chicken and pasta, and the latest vegetarian discovery. But today, I chanced to catch a new feature. I think it's called Today's Professionals. The concept is a power panel, but essentially Matt Lauer sits down with three "professionals" and asks their opinion about a few of the current news stories.
So here's Matt with the resident doctor Nancy Snyderman, the resident lawyer, Starr Jones, and businessman Donny Deutsch. The doc is OK with me but not so sure I care what the others think. First Matt asks them about the pregnant woman who gave birth after running the Chicago marathon. They kick that one around for a few minutes, disagreeing about whether or not that was a wise thing to do. The women think so, Mr Deutsch says it's not common sense. Then Lauer reveals the results of a recent survey. "Americans were asked, would you rather your children have good grades or good manners?" He soon says that 75% of those surveyed said good manners are more important. All four on the set seem surprised but then settle down to discussing the merits of manners and grades. Only Ms. Jones goes for the grades. "I know my child will get good manners from me so that's why I say grades. Dr. Sniderman says that manners open more doors than grades. Mr. Deutsch agrees that manners are more important. But what follows is really fascinating. The proceed to discuss the issue equating grades with intelligence. At no point does anyone question the concept of grades as they apply to learning, much less intellect. Nobody questions the validity of IQ or the fact that grades are both highly subjective and often inaccurate representations of knowledge.
Surprising? No. Unfortunately, it's to be expected. Just another example of how people who purport to know what they are talking about know very little. I could write a letter, make a phone call, push harder, but it'd be to no avail. Tomorrow, Today will be just like all the yesterdays. New recipes, what men/women really want, what should I do about my 401k, a promo for a new NBC program...All this from the folks that once again bring you Education Nation...in orchestrated sound bytes.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Friday, October 7, 2011

Portland Occupied


Easily 5,000. The local media said between 3 and 4,000. Probably closer to 6,000 occupied Portland. In synch with the burgeoning movement that started on Wall Street, my town put it’s name next to those other cities where people want to express their frustration and anger with the current political malaise. Katie and I decided we needed to go there, so on a gloomy Thursday afternoon, we boarded the nearest bus and headed for Waterfront Park. Best not to drive anywhere near political demonstrations. My 60s experience always kicks in and I focus on what shoes to wear, having enough pockets, and something to write with. Too bad I forgot my camera. At least a couple of friends of mine didn’t and I can use their pictures as well as those of the Oregonian newspaper.
For me it was all about the signs they carried. Those said it all. That and the cross section of people represented. It was billed as the other 99%, and if the diversity of the Portland crowd is any indication, it surely was.
So, in the spirit of Bob Dylan "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, here's a teaspoon of what I saw,heard, and felt my blue and brown eyed darlin' young ones:
I saw 5000 people carrying signs* and calling and responding
I saw people of all ages who felt it was important to stop their daily routine and put their bodies in the street to make a statement together
I saw hundreds looking down on all this from office high rises and hotels
I saw an older man in a suit carrying a triangular folded American flag (as inoff a coffin)
I saw more dogs and children than I've ever seen at any political demonstration
I heard "The Times are Changin'" on a boom box
I heard the monitors and organizers stress non-violence in any encounter with others
I heard the local media keep referring to this 99% as "protesters."
I smelled all manner of smoke, from herbal cigarettes, to tobacco to weed, to sewers, to expensive perfume, to rain.
I felt my youth return in the faces of the 20 sometings present.
I felt proud of Portland that, for the most part, people get that they need to do something without alienating others.
BUT...The best way to experience all this is to take a look at the signs people carried.* Here is a random sampling from my eyes to yours:
"Never be deceived the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth"
Lucy Parsons
The only way to practice democracy is to practice democracy
Care aobut our future not Snookie's new shoes
We are the ones we've been waiting for
It's easier to get a gun than buy my education
I need a job; fuck your bonus
The police are part of the 99%
If I stole 50% of your 401k, I'd be in jail
I"m wait listed for Chemo thanks to Wall Street
Will work for democracy

Thee were hundreds of others.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Down Cold


"They don't know what they don't know." That's a line we often use in education. It can apply to teachers working with students, but more often it works best when considering teachers. Many of the beginning teachers I work with often think they have to continually reinvent the wheel. Of course, they don't. In mentoring or coaching someone else, it's important to listen more than talking to or at someone. But sometimes the notion to "drop knowledge" is just too tempting. Time and experience can inform what we don't know best.
Ignorance is not an excuse, nor is it something to be overly critical about if a person simply does not know something. This morning, while making my way up one of Portland's narrow neighborhood streets, a car appeared in front of me rather suddenly. The driver, a young woman, appeared frustrated. I raised my index finger (none other) backed up and over to the side, and then motioned her forward. This happens often in my town. Usually the other driver will wave or smile, or somehow acknowledge that they are grateful for the effort. Today nothing. Some people don't know common courtesy, some could care less, some don't know what they don't know.
In that same vein, I watched a couple of sports broadcasters on a local call in program trying to discuss the recent incident where Hank Williams Jr. compared President Obama to Hitler when remarking on the recent golf game the President played with the Speaker of the House. These two novice broadcasters couldn't seem to figure out what all the fuss was about. "Who cares what he thinks," they said. "Why are people talking about this?" Apparently they don't know that this particular entertainer has an iconic father. That alone gives him an audience even when he wraps his arrogance around his ignorance. Most disturbing is Williams Jr.'s follow-up remark that "Obama is the enemy." As Waylon Jennings once sang, "I don't think Hank done it that way." Click this link for details:
Hank Williams Jr. cites tea party in defense of 'Hitler' comments

Yes, I'm aware that I have given Hank Williams Sr. the benefit of the doubt here. But that was then, his red, white, and blue tinted son, the icon of Monday Night Football because of his theme song, this All-American performer is apparently fighting his own private war right here at home. Isn't that treason? No, not really just immensely simplistic thinking.
Even the seemingly most patriotic don't know what they don't know. Enough said. THis one is a no-brainer in more ways than one.
Post Script: The last NFL game I watched featured a comment by the announcer detailing how many millions of dollars each lineman on one particular NFL team were now making. To my way of thinking this is as much a statement about the values of this culture as anything else. That the real obscenity, isn't it? In this era where 1% of the population as most of the wealth, in this week where more and more people are supporting the "Occupy Wall Street" movement that won't go away, in this current age, where the American Dream has gone beyond nightmare into the realm of non-existant and dare I say irrelevant, our political parties are referred to as "the enemy." Are you ready for some football, or maybe something better? Like Hank the original once wondered, how can I "melt your cold, cold, heart.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Best Medicine

I have no doubt in my mind that I could make it as a stand-up comedian. In fact, there is ample proof. In my 30 year teaching career, many's the time I did a routine or two. You get a lot of practices with 5 audiences a day. Timing can easily be fine tuned. Bad jokes eliminated (though I rarely did that) and new material is constantly falling all around. Anybody who can't find humor in a public high school isn't breathing.
More proof that I could survive as a comedian comes from the couple of years I had one for a roommate. I met many others in the burgeoning Bay Area comedy scene of the early 80s and often socialized with them. It was a heady time. To say they are "always on" is an understatement. This is the class that produced a few Sat. Night Life alum and one or two of the comics I knew went to work for one of their number who really made it big...Ellen Degeneres. Success for a comic is to go the way of Ellen or Seinfeld or Larry David.
From all my comedy club experience...mostly observation, I noticed that a good routine often centers around complaining about something. Not the whiney bitching that German culture is famous for, but the complaining that can be righteously funny. The observation of irony in every day life. With this in mind, I'd like to offer my short list of complaints.
As Andy Rooney would say..."Did you ever notice how..."
1. People now pay for a cup of coffee with a credit card. What happened to cash? Even just a few dollars. By the time all the buttons are pushed and receipts signed it really slows things down in the morning line. I wish people would carry cash with them once in a while and think about how ridiculous it looks charging a cup of coffee, not to mention generating more paper and leaving the corporate conglomerates a handy paper trail of all your purchasing choices so they cam pile on the spam and enrich their dossiers of your buying potential.
2. Movie theater prices for everything are completely out of control. Who, in their right mind, would pay $5.00 for the same bottle of water that the overpriced coffee shops sell for $2.00 and Costco sells for .50 cents. Are they encouraging us to bring in our own beverages?
3. What's with all the sonic noises and the TV ads before the previews too? I actually know of situations where people went to a movie on time but by the time all the ads, previews, more ads, and more previews were over, they forgot what they came to see. How long till someone gets PTSD just sitting there exposed to that sound barrage. Pathetic.
3. Corporate take-overs of coffee shops, like Peet's (still my favorite because of the people that work there) have polluted the experience mightily. They play only one kind of music. They think it's classical but it's really the perfect soundtrack for a beginning minuet class. If you want low-fat or 2% milk now, you have to ask for it.
No, western civilization is not threatened by these simple annoyances. We will al survive. But it does suggest the possibility that either no body is listening or nobody cares. Take your pick. By the way, I gotta go. My limited internet access time is about to run out and I need to hit a parking meter, which now costs ....oh who cares?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ancient Perceptions


An educational research colleague of mine once referred to "ancient perceptions of the self." It's a particularly apt description of how learners in a classroom deal with all the emotional baggage of who to be as a student. I recall students asking me not to put them in a group with___ because "back in 2nd grade something happened..." We sometimes cling to outdated beliefs and unconsciously confirm their power and accuracy. Educators see this all the time. I saw it last week in a classroom when a student could not see a link between creativity and the study of anthropology. He truly believed that an anthropological perspective, the subject of the lesson, could only be expressed one way. This kind of resistance often takes root in an early experience that sustains the perception, "I am not creative."
That theme seemed to predominate a number of events this past week. Those images of how things are seem to peek over the edges of our thinking from time to time.
Case in point: A TV station in Portland ran a story juxtaposing two high schools and their opening weeks for the new school year. One, a predominately African-American school (The only one in the state) was mentioned because of shootings in the community and the resultant safety issues for the campus. The other school, mostly white and arguably the "best school in the district" was mentioned because of recent cuts affecting the academic program. I'm sure the former, named for Thomas Jefferson, has many fine academic programs worthy of mention that are also impacted by budget cuts. At the same time, the later, named for Abraham Lincoln, has security issues on it's downtown campus too. Perceptions get fed. Interesting too that the school named for Jefferson is perceived as black (Jefferson was a slave holder) and Lincoln ...well you know the rest.
Last night I finished a most remarkable book, Empire of the Summer Moon, the Pulitzer Prize nominated account of the rise and fall of the Comanches, by S.C. Gywne. The book also details the like of Quanah Parker, the last great chief who was half white. His mother was kidnapped during a raid and remained with the Comanches much of her adult life. When she was finally reunited with her family, after having children and living with the tribe for about 40 years, she regretted her decision to re-enter "civilization." There is a most remarkable scene near the end of the book where Quanah, forced to live on a reservation, but realizing it is that or death, is allowed to leave for a short time to go on a buffalo hunt. Trouble is, after a few days and traveling more miles that originally allowed to, there are no buffalo left. They end up shooting some cattle with bows/arrows, but it's hardly the same. Books like this detail the reality of Native American life and history. Talk about ancient perceptions. Much of what we see is what Indian historian Gerry Vizner from U C Berkeley calls "simulations." You know the feathers, drums, kind of imagery. The Comanche were and wore many things. They were as violent, peace-loving, skilled, spiritual as any culture. That old demon, the concept of owning land, along with disease, alcoholic beverages, and greed, did them in, just like all the rest.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Variant


It's one of those small community spaces that's not sure what it wants to be. Like many in that vein, it's located in what is euphemistically termed a "transition" neighborhood. But last night, as I attended an event at the Variant Lab, in Portland, I was struck with a most stunning thought.
What if these places became increasingly significant in the years to come. What if, and it's not all that far-fetched, these spaces were the only ones available for people to experience live poetry, avant-guarde ideas, freedom of speech, in all its manifestations, and the opportunity to share artistic expression across generations. What if?
Maybe it was the fact that the polarization is this country seems to be reaching new heights. In a recent piece I heard on the radio, Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked about his relationship with President Barack Obama. "Sometimes it's like we live on different planets," he said. To which, I thought, sometimes?
I don't do a lot of science fiction, but in this case I'll make an exception. Should some of the current crop of politicians and their ilk claim the throne, it's not outside the realm of possibility that additional freedoms could be in jeopardy in the name of national security. Given how widely some of these folks read, their capacity for empathy, (see recent comments on healthcare and capital punishment) their undercurrent of racism, mean-spirited tactics and inability to understand historical perspective...we just might be headed for a rather dim future.
So here I was, sitting in the audience of this barely lit performance space. I'd read a few poems with 3 of my writing group colleagues after one of our number was invited to be part of the evening's program. Our set went well and we all stayed to support the other poets on the program. Like many events I attend around Portland, I'm usually one of the oldest people in the house. Funny, I still feel 19 on the inside. Last night, the room was predominately the 25-35 crowd who are budding creative artists. They usually smoke, have tats, wear anything they want, often in shades of black with colors that pop, and liberally sprinkle their writing with 4-letter words and erotic/pornographic imagery. I have no problem with most of that. But it occurred to me, the aging hipster that I am, that spaces like this could one day be underground bastions of sanity and expression. That metaphor could be literal too.

Thursday, September 15, 2011




Soaring Poverty Casts Spotlight on ‘Lost Decade’
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
Published: September 13, 2011 New York Times

The aforementioned article spells it all out. The Lost Decade is a good description for the reality most Americans face today. 1 in 6 of us now live officially in poverty. That's about 47 million people. Very close to the number with no health care. Lost...
What happened along the way. 40 years ago I became a VISTA Volunteer after reading Michael Harrington's book The Other America and seeing the CBS news documentary Hunger in America. Back then the median income was well below $10,000, today the poverty line is about $22,000. Do the math and see how a family of four can live on 22k in the U.S. today.
I particularly like the use of the term "Lost" because poverty largely remains invisible. People expect that because someone wears an expensive pair of shoes or has a fancy electronic device that they aren't poor. They often argue that 47 million Americans can't possibly live in poverty because of the epidemic of obesity in this country. They conveniently forget the relationship between junk food and the poor. The price of food vis a vis the quality of that food. Cast in point, I bought 3 beautiful peaches at my local farmer's market today for $5. Used to be the price of a bag full.
If poverty goes unnoticed, it is also a double edged sword. In my view, one of the reasons that this problems has worsened since my days as a "poverty warrior" in VISTA (that's the domestic Peace Corps for any younger readers...called Americorps today)is that there is another kind of poverty...a poverty of the will. Our Congress is gridlocked. Our sense of self as a nation is in question. We are constantly bombarded with messages to consume, with very little means to do so. No wonder poor people possess some of the trappings of our material culture...how could they not?
So what am I saying? That the U.S. is no longer a great country? You tell me.
Here's a little game we can play. In the next year, we'll be subjected to numerous political discussions and debates. We'll hear the candidates of all perspectives continually refer to the U.S. as the "greatest nation" of the face of the globe. As my grandfather would say, "You can set your watch on that." But who will question that? Who will take exception to this perception? Can a country with millions of people in poverty and a gap in wealth wider than ever be the greatest? For that matter, why must one nation be better? Therein lies the problem.



We are waiting for the next duel leader. A later-day FDR, if you will. Someone who can be a nurturing father figure, a strong mother. Studs Terkel in his wonderful oral history Working concluded that "your work is your identity." If our nation isn't working, who are we?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Re-Member


9/12.  We have reached beyond the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.  Millions of words written, hundreds of songs.  Thousands of poems,  a myriad of art forms, presentations, interpretations, explanations, and exultations.
For me, what remains is Paul Simon's haunting rendition of Sounds of Silence.  I read somewhere he was going to do Bridge Over Troubled Water, but changed it at the last minute.  I get that.
My hope is that as a country, we have learned to ask the tough questions, the over-arching ones.  Hardly seems like this nation is a united one at all.  One look at the current political debates or the achievement  of Congress tells that tale.  So many non-parallel lives and belief systems under the 13 stripes and 50 stars these days.
New York's Mayor Bloomberg has requested that the term Ground Zero no longer be used.  I get that too.  It's become a memorial now.  people etch names and leave all manner of things on, near, attached to, or on top of the inscribed name.  So reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial.  But when you have 58,000 names instead of 3,000, they are a bit smaller in size.  But size means nothing here.
     My hope is that we won't need to build any more memorials. That remains to be seen.  Remains for those who come after to find answers to those tough questions.
Yes, it's true that we are not the same nation now.  We have lost much.  From civil liberties to a sense of safety.  We've lost time, our economy, our identity as a nation, and in some ways, our way.

     I remember one of my favorite Jr. High teachers, Mr. Macaluso, drawing a graph on the chalk board and asking us if we thought the U.S.A. was still rising on it's way up, or if the country had peaked, or if we might be on the downward spiral.  I remember, too, never thinking anything but upward.  This gave me pause.  Probably not too long because there were other things at age 14.  There were school dances, and my changing body.  There were things like older friends getting driver's licenses and homework and baseball and something beginning to make an appearance on the clear blue horizon...something that came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement.  But I never forgot that chart.  Could it be that the direction of my country (tis of thee I sing) my sweet land of liberty, was on a plateau.  Certainly the next 10 years provided ample evidence.  Some in the form of memorials.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Helping Hand


"...expressing anger rarely solves anything. It makes us feel powerful but draws a line between people subtly reinforcing one's own "correctness" at the expense of others. We often possess the same noxious qualities (expressed differently) as we target in others."


This quote came from Peter Coyote in a recent Sun Magazine response he made to a letter critical of something he said in a featured interview. It's problematic. It begs the question, aren't some things correct?
What if someone expressed anger about being held in slavery? What about anger over being victimized? Or getting in touch and finally expressing anger over being scammed, or dismissed with condescension? Are we that sensitive to the word correct that we can't allow the expression of anger?
I know that anger is not an end in itself, but I think it's a step toward mental health if handled appropriately and without vengeance. Yes, I agree with Mr. Coyote that we do tend to project our emotions onto others. But there are times we don't. Can you imagine saying that any one enslaved, either literally or figuratively, is projecting their anger onto their oppressor. The noxious quality is not a two way street here.
There's been a bit of anger expressed lately over two offerings in the world of entertainment. The latest revival of Porgy and Bess and the film version of The Help have polarized many viewers and critics. Both productions are taking flak for stereotyped African-American characters. Not surprisingly, people of all backgrounds and ethnicities are split in their views. Since both are works of fiction, some would say this is a non-issue. I've recently read the novel version of The Help, and last weekend did see the film, so I'll confine my remarks to that work. Interestingly enough, there are many similarities that aptly apply to Porgy and Bess.







Yes, there are stereotypes. If you have a black character that passionately likes fried chicken, or looks like a "mammy" or is named Leroy and batters his wife, people will notice. No matter that every stereotype possesses a kernel of truth somewhere. It's still problematic, and worth noting. But The Help goes a bit further than that, weaving fact into the fictionalized world of it's players.  For example, it briefly deals with the violent, untimely death of Medgar Evers.  The domestic workers, whose experiences contribute to the oral history that ultimately gets published, never once talk about public accommodations, segregated schools, or voting rights. Nevertheless, it's a touching story that does detail the complicated interplay of race relations in the South at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Every film dealing with a historical era says equally as much as the era in which it was made. You can sometimes see this literally in the dress and dialogue of 50s films about the Greek or Roman empires. You can find it in some of the classic Westerns too. (One of my Jr. High teachers used to tell us to watch for Indians with blue eyes and vaccination scars on their arms.) I suppose if The Help is guilty of anything it paints a saccharine picture of the early 60s, complete with Golden Oldies like the Twist and Watusi. We don't see the dead bodies, the blood stains, or the verbal venom spewing from distorted mouths. We don't hear about missing civil rights workers.  We aren't exposed to the speeches of politicos like George Wallace or Strom Thurman. A few well placed epithets among the magnolias is all. Still, the film has the potential to educate, and that can't be bad.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

See what Develops


I spent some time this morning talking to a student teacher of mine about ice-breaker activities for high school students. A few tried and true things came to mind. It occurred to me, also, that it's possible to combine something enjoyable and that gets students moving around with a traditional diagnostic activity. Just stand back and observe the behavior and then read the responses and you'll have a fairly good idea of who you are dealing with. Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that, but often, the first few days of a class, like other new experiences in this lifetime, can be very revealing.
A therapist I know once told me that often the days where someone says, "things are fine, I really don't have anything pressing to talk about" are when the most significant things surface. Not surprising, it takes time to reflect to see what surfaces. Writing is often like that too. It can start out in one direction and then something takes over. Something rises from the depths and commands attention. That attention quickly turns to direction. From there, it's up to the writer to find form and substance and "take it to the house," as they say.
I've been working on a new short piece of fiction. Been trying to see where this piece will take me as I let it out of my imagination. It's got all the requisite parts, feisty characters, a strong sense of place, dialogue as people truly speak, and, hopefully will say something as any thematic work of fiction will do. It's the plot that's floating on this lake of uncertainty right now.
If I sit back, open all my sensibilities, reflect, respond...it's take shape. In fact, it will take more than one shape. That's one thing I've learned about writing, each piece takes on various shapes...has various incarnations. I seem to be much more open to that process these days than ever before. I seem to come to the task with specific ideas, but ready to abandon anything at any moment, ready to follow, ready to discover.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

You Know I Will



It's back. The back to school week. The advertisements, the news stories, the letters, the editorials, the ads, the photos, the films, the ads, the sales, the interviews, the ads, the specials, the feature stories, the meetings, and the resolutions.
A colleague of mine shared his new mantra with me: I will not become emotionally involved. I'm going to try that one. Anyone who knows me will no doubt find that in a few weeks it will change slightly: I will not become emotionally involved...NOT! Some things never change.
Already there is a burgeoning new parents movement to opt out of standardized testing. This time it might gain a bit of traction because as one observer has noted, "parents can't be fired." Amen.
I'll be supervising a handful of beginning teachers and mentoring a couple of first year teachers as well. I've noticed that when I work with novice teachers I'm careful not to get either too emotional or too cynical. I really do believe that there is still joy in teaching no mater what the ill-conceived messengers of school reform think or do. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there always will be because when the bell rings and the roll is taken, it's still teacher with class. The well-meaning reformers come and go, just like the principals, the superintendents, the "revolutionary new ideas" the cynics, and the insincere. Unfortunately,some of the potentially excellent new teachers go as well. Recent studies show that as many as 50% leave the profession in the first five years.
My role now will chiefly be to insure that those statistics don't ring true. It can be such a lonely existence filled the the worst kind of self-doubt. Funny thing is that even the best, even the most experienced, even the proven, award winning, veteran, most innovative professionals have self-doubt. The testing frenzy feeds on it. But it too will pass. In this age of encroaching technology and lightning communication, those that care will learn the complexity of educating a human being.
If we can bail out our car-makers, our financial institutions, our windswept, flood-soaked cities, our deteriorating infrastructure, then we can fight a war that liberates our teachers and does a better job at providing an equal education for all our kids.
So here we are, 57 years beyond Brown v. Board of Education and our schools, for the most part, are just as segregated as the were in 1954. Here we are, having difficulty reaching consensus on what matters most, a standardized test for the most unstandardized entity of all, the human mind. Have we learned nothing? We certainly have learned...a good deal too. We know about learning styles and multiple intelligences. We know that many of the systems and countries we constantly compare ourselves falling short to are trying to do what we do best. Encourage critical thinking, take risks with project based curriculum, reflect on our own practice, read the research, try to enjoy the totality of educating people.
But I will not become emotionally involved...for a few weeks.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Double Hurricane


I thought that Katrina had made a difference. Perhaps people wouldn't entertain the notion that it's an enjoyable experience to ride-out a hurricane. Perhaps it's that rugged individualism we're so famous for working again. People don't like to be told what to do. Therefore they sometimes die. We see it again today as Hurricane Irene hits the Eastern Seaboard. A few scattered souls taking long walks on the beach, tempting the gale force winds to blow them around, or, as in the case of the news reporters, making some memorable television. It's a damn shame they don't listen. Or is it because they have no idea. Maybe they don't watch the news, catch the weather report, or even bother to look at whatever electronic device they tote around talking and texting, and otherwise fondling. Rather ironic that in this age of technology, it makes no difference for some people. In the Northwest, we see a simple phenomena with the local lakes, rivers and mountain ranges. People are forever falling in or coming up missing. They usually don't wear life jackets or have any food, or aren't dressed properly for the drop in temperature that almost always happens in the Cascades. They conveniently forget that when the temperature is 90 degrees, the water in our beautiful rivers and streams is ice cold. Those salmon and trout like it at about 45 degrees. Snow melt is snow...melted.
The technology really does separate us from one another doesn't it. We appear to be more connected, more informed, more aware, but seems to me it's an illusion. We certainly aren't more cordial to each other if conversing in chat rooms, or discussing comments on a news article, or replying to an editorial is any indication. Some folks thrive on the anonymity of it all. It gives them license to say what they'd never put their name next to,or sign.
I often saw thin phenomena when I was experimenting with team journals in my classroom. Not revealing your name can be empowering, but it works both ways. Some people just adore making snide remarks. With no name...fewer consequences.

The other day, I heard the latest from Beloit College. They are the people that comment at the beginning of every school year about the frame of reference of the latest class of college seniors. The class of 2011 has some particularly fascinating attributes. Just imagine, there has never been a Soviet Union in their lifetime. Sputnik must sound like a new band or the color of their Nikes. Let's hope they have heard of Mother Nature. If you're on the East coast and were born after 1990, stay inside this weekend and check Wikipedia under "Cold War." It'll keep you warm and safe. Here are some of the most interesting items on Beloit College's list for this year:
2011 List

What Berlin wall?
Humvees, minus the artillery, have always been available to the public.
Rush Limbaugh and the “Dittoheads” have always been lambasting liberals.
They never “rolled down” a car window.
Michael Moore has always been angry and funny.
They may confuse the Keating Five with a rock group.
They have grown up with bottled water.
General Motors has always been working on an electric car.
Nelson Mandela has always been free and a force in South Africa.
Pete Rose has never played baseball.
Rap music has always been mainstream.
Religious leaders have always been telling politicians what to do, or else!
“Off the hook” has never had anything to do with a telephone.
Music has always been “unplugged.”
Russia has always had a multi-party political system.
Women have always been police chiefs in major cities.
They were born the year Harvard Law Review Editor Barack Obama announced he might run for office some day.
The NBA season has always gone on and on and on and on.
Classmates could include Michelle Wie, Jordin Sparks, and Bart Simpson.
Half of them may have been members of the Baby-sitters Club.
Eastern Airlines has never “earned their wings” in their lifetime.
No one has ever been able to sit down comfortably to a meal of “liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
Wal-Mart has always been a larger retailer than Sears and has always employed more workers than GM.
Being “lame” has to do with being dumb or inarticulate, not disabled.
Wolf Blitzer has always been serving up the news on CNN.
Katie Couric has always had screen cred.
Al Gore has always been running for president or thinking about it.
They never found a prize in a Coca-Cola “MagiCan.”
They were too young to understand Judas Priest’s subliminal messages.
When all else fails, the Prozac defense has always been a possibility.
Multigrain chips have always provided healthful junk food.
They grew up in Wayne’s World.
U2 has always been more than a spy plane.
They were introduced to Jack Nicholson as “The Joker.”
Stadiums, rock tours and sporting events have always had corporate names.
American rock groups have always appeared in Moscow.
Commercial product placements have been the norm in films and on TV.
On Parents’ Day on campus, their folks could be mixing it up with Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz with daughter Zöe, or Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford with son Cody.
Fox has always been a major network.
They drove their parents crazy with the Beavis and Butt-Head laugh.
The “Blue Man Group” has always been everywhere.
Women’s studies majors have always been offered on campus.
Being a latchkey kid has never been a big deal.
Thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time.
They learned about JFK from Oliver Stone and Malcolm X from Spike Lee.
Most phone calls have never been private.
High definition television has always been available.
Microbreweries have always been ubiquitous.
Virtual reality has always been available when the real thing failed.
Smoking has never been allowed in public spaces in France.
China has always been more interested in making money than in reeducation.
Time has always worked with Warner.
Tiananmen Square is a 2008 Olympics venue, not the scene of a massacre.
The purchase of ivory has always been banned.
MTV has never featured music videos.
The space program has never really caught their attention except in disasters.
Jerry Springer has always been lowering the level of discourse on TV.
They get much more information from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert than from the newspaper.
They’re always texting 1 n other.
They will encounter roughly equal numbers of female and male professors in the classroom.
They never saw Johnny Carson live on television.
They have no idea who Rusty Jones was or why he said “goodbye to rusty cars.”
Avatars have nothing to do with Hindu deities.
Chavez has nothing to do with iceberg lettuce and everything to do with oil.
Illinois has been trying to ban smoking since the year they were born.
The World Wide Web has been an online tool since they were born.
Chronic fatigue syndrome has always been debilitating and controversial.
Burma has always been Myanmar.
Dilbert has always been ridiculing cubicle culture.
Food packaging has always included nutritional labeling.