Tuesday, March 29, 2011


This week produced two very fine slogans. Sometimes, someone says something in a few words that just shoots through all the other verbiage and makes nothing else necessary. Such was the case when a recent blog written by Peggy Robertson used the line,"I will not feed you, but I will test you."
What's useful here is that all those critics and pundits, and the billionaires who think they can do education reform, must face the fact that poverty is deeply embedded in any crisis in education we currently face. They never want to see that. This summer, at the million teacher march in Washington D.C. I expect to see small children holding signs with those few words. Maybe then some folks, with other agendas will get that about 23% of this country lives in poverty. As always, real poverty is invisible. Poor people wear the mask well and it takes a thousand forms. Back in the 60s there was a neat little slogan that went, "the poor pay more." In Texas, during my VISTA training, we had to investigate that notion and see f it was, indeed, true. I recall going into local mom and pop stores and seeing outrageous prices for a single egg. A dozen eggs back then would go for 59 cents in a super market. But in the ghetto or barrio, it was not uncommon to see a single egg go for 7-10 cents. The little corner stores also gave credit, so if you needed to feed your family for a few days,and the end of the month was a week or two away...you get the picture.
Today I noticed that at Trader Joe's bananas are 19cents each. Those same bananas go for 69 cents a piece at my local 7/11 store. I guess that's the price of convenience.
Another slogan that says so much with so few words came out of the mouth of John Stewart recently. "They're firing teachers and missiles now." Oh yeah. We hear about the extravagance of public employees benefits. Those overpaid teachers and fire fighters. We read about the tax loopholes large corporations like Standard Oil and General Electric have, and nobody seems to ask about our military budget. How many could have benefited from the money the fighter jet shot down in Libya cost? So now we have three hot wars and none one "declared." What happen to letting the Congress talk about these issues before acting. Time to revisit the War Powers Act? Oh I forgot, it's the way you get a doctrine. So now we have the Obama Doctrine. I want a doctrine too. How about we fund our schools, provide "liberty and justice for all" so that corporations pay their share of taxes instead of running off to Switzerland (in name only) and then if anything remains, we can selectively take up the cause(s) of human rights violations in other countries after we debate the merits.
As always, the poor (which is most of us) pay more.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Paper? Plastic? ...Poetry

B.L. Greene

Poetry and Groceries
My grocery store offers more than food,
Fiery temptations to taste aged cheese, compare olive oils, or sip free trade grinds,
So I take time,
deter impulse,
advance ideas,

In the WholeOatsWildSeasonsNewFoods grocery store hides a magazine rack,
Beyond health and current affairs, sidestepping Gourmet, Outside, and Harpers
My eyes rest on Poetry Northwest,
Two chairs, like campfire stumps, invite.
I read poetry
buying toilet paper,
admire similes
before spinach.
Yesterday, while camped,
a poet takes me to Market Street at dusk,
riding the streetcar into the amber breast of darkness,
looking for a lover in red shoes.

I must not forget to pick up milk.

The boundaries of age and wisdom make me an observer now,
Each day youth depreciates like an oak desk,
An atrophied bank account,
A fine wine,

But in the market aisles, I’m finding unbridled joy in bread sampled,
the palate of apples,
a butcher’s banter,

Hours later, I see myself at 30 in the eyes of a coffeehouse model.
Brushing crumbs off her Levied thighs,
talking to her computer screen,
Must I avert my eyes?

It’s her black cowboy boots I want most.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Near and Far Sided

Sometimes I wonder if cartoonist Gary Larson ever lived in Portland. Some of the Far Side images he draws seem to appear in this town. I see them everywhere. If not at bus stops, on the sidewalks, in the grocery stores, and most definitely in the pubs, bars, and coffeehouses so abundant here.
Last night I took the 10 minute drive from my home to Three Friends Coffeehouse to see the weekly Monday evening program and try out a couple of new poems during the open mic they always have. Gary Larson would have loved this audience. Just enough one-of-a-kind folks to give him material for another year. But then that's Portland. Where else can you get two hours of poetry, original music, and a few inexplicable other "performances" for very little cash?
I arrived at 7:00 just in time to catch Robert Griggs, an 82 year old former Beat poet who has called Oregon his home for many years. Griggs read for about 20 minutes, saying at one point," Here's a poem I wrote 50 or 60 years ago. I tried to throw it away two or three times, but it just kept coming back." He was in good form. As is the custom, he was followed by two of his friends who offered very different styles. One read poetry, actually sonnets all based on Aztec culture and the other read mostly anit-war rants that pumped up the crowd and set the tone for the open mic that followed.
I was too casual and almost missed the sign up because I ran into a poet friend of mine, Shawn. He had just returned from Japan, where his wife is from, and recounted a riveting tale to me of driving on the coast before the tsunami hit. Shawn said that he saw the ocean recede and there seemed to be hundreds of black pointy things left behind. Sea urchins. By the time I responded to this I noticed the open mic was about to start and ran to see the sign up list. Only #5 was left. The first two readers left a bit to be desired. The energy was good, but the material wasn't either funny or profound. Next came a wiry artsy looking woman in her 60s who announced that she hadn't been her in about a year but tonight she was going to do something she'd been thinking about for a long time. That turned out to be singing. Her offering began just fine; a little verse about dreaming and dreamers. She then launched into what can best be described as a kind of folksy scat singing. The time limit for the open mic is 7 minutes. After about 8 minutes of her repetitious tune, Melissa, the woman who runs the events there just started clapping. Everyone followed suit. The woman emerged from her trance, mumbled something like someone just awakened by an alarm clock and then accepted the applause of relief. Glad I didn't have to follow that. By the time I read my two poems and returned to chat with Shawn for a moment, I realized I'd had enough and slipped out the back door. One of my poems was about a recent tragedy in Amish country where a family of 7 lost four of their children when their buggy overturned in a rain-swollen creek. As I was getting up to leave, one of the more vocal patrons asked, "You're not Mormon, are you?"
I love this place. It's like a good poem: unpredictable, emotional, puzzling, satisfying.
Oh Yeah, I'm going to read those two poems I tried on that crowd tomorrow night at a more formal reading. We'll see how that goes. Depending on the reaction, one or both of those pieces could end up here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


On Friday, March18, we went to a memorial service at the Japanese Garden in Portland. It was a simple ceremony and vigil in memory of the loss of life in the recent earthquake and tsunami. This garden is arguably the most peaceful place in Portland. It lies at the base of the west hills and features an overlook where it is possible, on a good day to see both Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens. It was not a good day for viewing the mountains, but the small crowd assembled was not about sight seeing.
A local Buddhist monk chanted, and then we were offered the opportunity to take a small bit if incense and place it into a burner, as is the custom. This we did.
Participants in the service were also encouraged to walk the grounds of the garden and reflect/worship/mediate/contemplate...in their own way about the recent tragedy. The location resembles one big Zen garden. There is also a small stream that empties into pools filled with Koi.
Other events were simultaneously taking place in the city as well. Groups gathered to take part in other tsunami related services, anti-war demonstrations, and education rallies. A harmonic convergence, of sorts.
In my long history of demonstrations, and vigils, the simple ceremony at the Japanese Garden was singular. It gave a glimpse of a sane, non-violent, serene world. There was something timeless about it, something inspirational, if I dare.
Today we hear that the U.S. is military is involved in yet another country with the news from Libya. All the arguments sound hollow when we rely on the old "humanitarian crisis." How many other crises of a similar nature do we ignore. I just ask that (oil) the commander in chief, (oil) and his advisors, (oil) and the pundits, journalists, (oil) and other countries involved in this "coalition." tell the truth. This time.
Item: the number of American military suicides last year was slightly lower than combat deaths.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

All Things Japanese

The world is watching all things Japanese these days. If the nuclear radiation worsens, it seems as if we'll remember the events of March, 2011 for the meltdowns, rather than the Tsunami. Like others, the minute I saw the videos and the photographs, the minute I heard the voices that told the stories...In that moment in time, I thought of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even if the nuclear reactors were safe I'd have thought the same. The devastation is similar. So too is the massive dignity of the Japanese people.
I sense that scientists and geologists will learn a good deal from these events. So will anyone who follows the story. That story is one of heroism, stoicism, discipline, and always hard, hard, work.
My best friend in high school, Tomio Nishimura, first showed me those values. Like me, he was soft spoken but passionate about learning and living. It wasn't until I had studied history at the University of California that I learned of the Japanese American experience during World War II. I guess the political uprising of the 1960s was necessary before high school textbooks were ready to tell the whole story. Hard to believe, but throughout my entire friendship with Tomio and the other Japanese-Americans in my high school class, I never knew that their parents and grandparents had been interred in those "camps." It wasn't taught, and they never spoke about it.
By the time I had learned ALL about American history, and began to teach it, a few things clicked in. I learned about the cultural values that make Japan a strong nation and that Japanese people here and there, in Japan, often use to guide their lives. I could list a string of adjectives or "isms" but a better way would be to look at how the Japanese people are responding to this current tragedy.
First of all, it's an ancient culture. That means there is tradition, there are roots that go deep; and even though they may have been undermined by a Tsunami, this is a nation that will survive. If, as the only country to be the recipient of two atomic bombs, they survived in the past, they will survive now. Reporters and journalists are astonished by the lack of looting and the calm demeanor of the people as they attempt to gain some measure of control on all that has been destroyed. This too is something Japanese. It is a reminder that even if tragedy brings out the worst in nature and people, it can also bring out the best. Sometimes one inspiring story is enough to want to continue on.
Over the years I have allowed myself to learn from my Japanese students and colleagues. They have helped me keep perspective when my inclination would be to become overcome either by fear, anxiety, anger, or depression. It was with Dina Murakawa, a former student and friend that I first started an Amnesty International student group. That group has survived long after we both moved on with our lives. It was with colleagues Jan Matsuoka and Carol Tateishi from The Bay Area Writing Project that I first learned to question my practice, value social conventions like bringing a gift to social occasions ("It's so Japanese," Jan would say as she asked us to stop at a store many times. "I just have to do it, I can't help it.") and consider the difficult question of asking all my students to speak in class.
So now, in these difficult days, I wish to play the role of student because I know there is much more to learn. If/when I meet with my student teachers I'm sure the topic of helping young people understand these historic days will come up. I will encourage them to begin by understanding all things Japanese.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why They Don't Know

"They don't know what they don't know." That's a phrase often heard when I discuss how complicated and difficult it is to be a full time teacher today under the present circumstances. In supervising beginning teachers these past few years, I've heard myself say it a few times. Case in point: two of my student teachers have previously taught on the college level and severely underestimated how much more work teaching high school can be. When you add in nuanced approaches to dealing with adolescents, their parents, some school administrators, and the current climate, you begin to get the picture.
Not knowing is a useful definition of ignorance. We can't blame people for being ignorant if they were never in a position to learn, grow, question, and/or receive accurate information. Too bad the term ignorance has such stigma attached because we might be able to use it without it being a pejorative.
When arrogance links itself with ignorance you get a different animal altogether. Such is the case with the current handful of states and their governors bent on taking collective bargaining from public employees. I wonder how many of those legislators even know the history of how those rights were won?
Though it seems a dark time for teachers and other public employees, there is still plenty of light at the end of this ugly tunnel. What they don't know is that teaching was, is, and will continue to be the ultimate political act. What they don't know is that in all their posturing, bluff and bluster, they cannot begin to comprehend or control what goes on behind closed classroom doors. I wonder how many history departments are reviewing and revising their labor history at this very moment in time?
When will politicians get that they know very little about what it means to educate a human being? They are going to learn a difficult lesson in the days to come. I'm not naive enough to believe that teachers will be able to organize themselves in such a manner that they might display the power the truly have. I know better. I know that some of my colleagues would not abandon their students or their classroom for any reason. Unfortunately, I disagree. Like the Declaration of Independence says, "when in the course of human events it becomes necessary..." This is the part that states there comes a time when you have to stand up and say enough! For teachers, standing up may be walking out.
Now the Republicans, Tea Party fanatics, the uninformed, the ignorant, and all those without the empathy gene, will no doubt clamp down on that one. "Abandoning your duties," "If they really cared about kids," they will say, "good riddance," others will counter. That might last a few weeks, but make no mistake, it might be necessary, as it was in the 1930s, to shut it all down. It could happen. Chances are it won't, but just sayin,' this time it could.
If it did, if a General Strike like the one in San Francisco in 1934 occurred it might really get interesting.
My only hope in all of this is that the truth comes out... in all forms. The tactics are getting despicable, the methods of manipulation more sophisticated, the consequences grave.
As I wrote this blog entry today I was listening to CNN. In an all to short piece on Wisconsin's current struggle I heard a Republican strategist say that the average teacher salary in Wisconsin was $100,000. I choked, then I checked. Latest figures put the average somewhere under $50.000. Wisconsin ranks 22 nationally and almost $3000. under the national average.
But there it was, in stunning arrogance...more ignorance.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Astrologers call it a grand trine. It's when 3 planets align 120 degrees apart giving the appearance of an equilateral triangle. I'm not the best at math, and hardly into astrology, but it's an intriguing metaphor for the current state of affairs. At one end we have the current wave of democracy rolling over the Middle East and North Africa. Powerful stuff; definitely an idea whose time has come. Libyans now rebelling know full well that they are in for the fight of their lives. This is no Egypt. But they will not turn around now. Their inspiration is currently igniting fires in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Point two on the triangle is none other than Charlie Sheen. He's chosen to place his bi-polar self on the airwaves every day for pundits and pseudo-journalists to pick apart. He too inspires the immature, the uneducated, the duped. They admire his "life-style," his obscene income, and his choice of female companionship d'jour.
Finally, the massive 3 point shape is anchored by the battle for wealth and power currently taking place in state capitals like Madison, Wisconsin, Sacramento, California, and near me in Salem, Oregon. For Sheen, it's the CBS executives, the LAPD and anyone who would tell him something he doesn't want to hear. To Sheen, he's winning. It's all about winning. Certainly some democratic uprisings are about winning too. Col. Gadhafi, also quite reminiscent of a manic megalomaniac, has already announced he will take his last breath of air and shed his last drop of blood in the land he so earnestly sucked dry. He will win or die trying. Likewise Gov. Scott Walker, the committed union buster covets a win too. His personal psychology is entwined with coming out number 1 as well. We're just now finding out how he was disciplined and ultimately dropped out of Marquette University for campaign violations during a student body elections. This purveyor of democracy wasn't endorsed by the school newspaper, so he decided to destroy all copies of same. Great preparation for governing a state, don't you think?
So here we are, witnessing the grand trine of decomposing political battles.
Now I can't speak for the freedom fighters in Africa and Asia, and I certainly even utter a sound for Charlie Sheen. But when it comes to my own situation, I have no problem. What we have hear is a battle royal for power and money. As much as I'd like to believe the struggle for unions and a decent wage is at the bottom of it all, I know better. Eliminate unions and you eliminate funding for the Democratic party. Convince an apathetic public that test scores are true indicators of outstanding teaching and you have a say in how budgets are funded and money is spent. (wealth and power)
When you study the history of this republic, one thing emerges repeatedly. Our great conflicts come down to questions of human life and rights vs. wealth and profit. You know where the legal system usually lines up on these issues. What's different this time is that the gulf between haves and have nots has never been so wide. In monetary terms, there will be a price to pay. Along with rising gas prices and blood pressure and flags, and consciousness, will come the tides. As the old labor song used to ask, "Which side are you on boys? (or girls) which side are you on?"