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


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’
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 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


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,'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.