Saturday, July 30, 2011

Throughout the Land



The weekend is half over and we're grudgingly moving toward a solution to the "debt crisis." One thing we know for sure. We're disgusted. We, the people, feel played. We feel powerless to change the rhetoric, the posturing, the lack of empathy, and the degree to which our legislators seem removed from the lives of those they represent.
And while this fiasco plays out, thousands of teachers march on Washington in a planned demonstration that unfortunately coincided, or rather slammed into the debt crisis on the same day. No matter, the media is ignoring it like the paid off institution they often are. There was word that CNN would cover the "Save Our Schools" gathering. So far nothing. Just for information's sake, they want the end to bankrupt legislation like No Child Left Behind. They want to get rid of the corporate interests that would do the bidding of those who threaten democracy and critical thought the most. They want an ounce of respect for the job they do and a pound of don't criticize what you don't understand. We are not the enemy here.
I wonder who will feel relieved when this entire political impasse finally ends? Nothing to feel relieved about is there? Perhaps the best we can expect is for some accountability. That would involve looking at the 3 trillion dollars our government spent in Iraq and Afghanistan thus far. They seem to conveniently forget that sum when filling out the forms of budget creation.
An observation: Politicos of all stripes are fond of using the phrase "The American People." As if there is such an entity that thinks alike on anything. Just who are the American people? How do they think. Presidents and legislators always refer to them in order to remind us all that they are always thinking of them,. Of who? Of the cab driver in Brooklyn or the Vietnamese crabber in Louisiana? Of the organic farmer in Maine or the surfer in San Diego?
Are they trying to build an consensus between the racist, homophobic, fear mongers, and the drugged out politically apathetic meth heads? The American people are much more than all these stereotypes. They are a complex network of ideas, cultures, ethnicities, beliefs, and aspirations that defy any label. So, no legislators, you aren't doing anything for the "American people" as a whole. Only if...not yet.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Blink


This is such a summer of contrasts. While most of the nation has been enduring sweltering temperatures, here in the northwest, we're still marveling at a day with sunshine. We'll get to 89 degrees this weekend so it's safe to use the "s" word; summer is finally here. But it will rain in Portland in a few days. If it doesn't...just wait a few more days. It's what we love about this place. It's the price to pay for the beauty of the green forests, the rivers and streams, and the numerous lakes.
In Arizona, dust storms to rival the Great Depression's dust bowl era have occurred and reoccurred this year. While the rivers and streams in the northwest are loaded with so much runoff that it'll be September before some are truly fishable.
In Somalia, what's left of that country is offering up images of starvation that make the newscasters cringe. Wish there was a way to get some of that excess water from one part of the world to another. It's hard to believe that some of these problems can't be solved. Isn't it just a matter of redirecting our effort and energy from the pursuit of greed and power to preserving and equalizing the resources a bit?
While the weather continues to impress and depress, so does the Congress. We know more about the debt ceiling than ever before. Political posturing reaches new levels. Getting re-elected is clearly the priority. Our polarization is so pronounced it's become a metaphor for the weather. Or vice-versa. Either way, it's fairly dysfunctional.
But wait...
We have a solution. That's the beauty of our Constitution. Perhaps the President will go the route of Executive order. Then the Supreme Court will get off the bench (wonderful pun huh?) and rule one way or another. Let them battle it out since a game of chicken is all we've got anyway.
What if the U.S. government did default? Certainly it won't come to that. But if it did, what would result. Stock market crash? Loss of prestige in the world community? Gridlock? Hey, wait a minute, don't we have these now?
It's not going to happen. Some last minute "compromise" will emerge and they'll all save face. It's what happens in these situations. After all, the best predictor of behavior is still past behavior.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bessie

She was a millionaire, you know. But that's not how most of us will remember "Bessie." Brown Bess, the Eclipse award winner as best older mare of 1989 died last week. At 29, she lived a good long life for a thoroughbred mare. But that's no surprise, she never really got good until she was 7. That's not exactly right, she was always good, but to win an Eclipse as the best in the nation at 7 is rarely done. Most thoroughbred champions are done much earlier. Today, they often don't make it to their 4 year old campaign.
But there was nothing typical about Brown Bess. Owned and bred by Suzanne Pashayan of Fresno, and trained by Chuck Jenda, "Bessie" was based in Northern California. When she won a few Grade III races, the connections decided to go down south and see just how good she could be. We all found out.
I'd done a number of stories on her Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields wins, and a few pieces on the entire team. With jockey "Cowboy" Jack Kaenel, the politically conservative Pashayan, and the former Berkeley radical Jenda, this story was a correspondent's dream. Lots of folks at the track don't talk politics; it's often much better that way.
I recall driving down to Del Mar near San Diego with some Bay Area friends to see Brown Bess run in the Ramona Handicap. When we entered the parking area with Northern California credentials, one of the attendants yelled, "What are you guys doin' here?" The Southern Cali/N. Cali bias was no surprise. Besides it's generally accepted that Southern California racing and horses are a cut above those in the North. But not all horses. Certainly not Brown Bess. We left that afternoon hoarse from rooting her all the way to the winner's circle. She went on to win the Grade I Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita and then the Eclipse. Who else?
What made Brown Bess so exciting to watch was that she was so small. Hardly a mare the size of Zenyata, she always looked overmatched. But Jack Kaenel always said her size contributed to her success because she wasn't afraid to run inside and she could scoot in and out of holes that opened during the running of a race with ease. She loved to win races and knew just how to do it.
Too bad Brown Bess never produced a champion herself. In fact, only one of her offspring ever made it to the winner's circle. But that's the mystery of horse racing and breeding.
In the fall of 1989, right before the big Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco, I drove down to Fresno with a friend to interview Susanne Pashayan for a feature in the Blood-Horse magazine. I'll never forget her 32 cats, (in a spotless compound in her large back yard) the trophies she kept in her living room, and her willingness to answer all my questions about Brown Bess. Given the current state of horse racing, this was definitely the best of times. Like the Dan Fogelberg song says, "the chance of a lifetime, in a lifetime of chance."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Taking a Chance


Memorial services are always tough. It's the celebrations of life that come after that are much more meaningful to me. So it was, yesterday with the service and celebration of Tom Ruhl's life. Tom died suddenly after complications from heart valve surgery. At 61, he had so much more to do. The good news is that this was a man that left a huge impact on everybody he encountered. Some will talk of the teacher, the principal, the college professor...but it was the human being that was most remarkable. The rare combination of wisdom and passion is what struck me. To that I would add humility. Case in point: I met Tom over the phone when a friend in Portland suggested I give him a call. All I knew was that he was the director of a new MAT (Master's in teaching) program at Marylhurst University, near Portland. I'd been in Portland only a year or so and was anxious to get involved in teacher mentoring since ending my 33 year career in the Bay Area. Trouble was that I was an unknown in Portland. If I'd remained in the East Bay, many opportunities were possible. But I was delighted to be in Portland and eagerly awaited the opportunity to use my time, experience, and energy to insure that beginning teachers could see that there is still joy to be had in this particularly difficult time. So I called Tom. He listened. We talked. It was a remarkable conversation. I dropped all apprehension when we just got caught up in the excitement of teaching. He asked me about my classroom, my colleagues at the Bay Area and now Oregon Writing Project, my ideas about curriculum and mentoring. We met the following week and sealed the deal. In the next few years, I had the opportunity to work with Tom at meetings and seminars. We also participated in those tough conversations with student-teachers that range from support to considering the unthinkable: "maybe this isn't the profession for you...and that's OK."
One afternoon during a break in a workshop we both attended, we happened to be walking side by side back into the Ed. building at Marylhurst. What a perfect opportunity, I thought. "Tom," I said, "I just want to thank yo for taking a chance with me. You know when I called you you knew nothing of my work in the Bay Area. Oh I know I sent you a resume, but we both know there is often a difference between what looks good on paper and the person behind the words. It was strange trying to tell you about what I could offer the program without you really knowing me." Tom smiled that caring, all-knowing smile. "Oh no," he said. "Thank you for taking a chance with me." Humility.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Confirmed


I once figured that I've had about 5,000 students in about 12 different subjects over the years. It's a bit tricky to calculate because there are two different types of class schedules to factor in and, of course, other teaching situations. Should I count the classes I taught as a VISTA Volunteer in "Rock and Blues Analysis?" Oh, it's not what you think. They were an attempt to introduce mostly white, middle class kids to ethnic studies. If you follow the evolution and development of American traditional and popular music it's inevitable to teach racial attitudes and ethnic history.
There were also the Adult school classes in ESL and something I called "A Folk History of the United States." Probably a few hundred students there over a 5-6 year period. What about teacher training workshops? Do they count? Or the "guest lessons" I've taught to model something for the student-teachers I currently supervise. No matter. 5,000 is clearly a useful figure.
So what?
Well, I was thinking that since the advent of sites like Facebook and Linked-In, it's now possible to keep track and stay in touch with many of those people. In the last 3 years or so, I've been able to do just that. How gratifying it's been to see their families, their children, their travels, their education in action. How fascinating and satisfying it has been to communicate with them, to exchange ideas, updates, memories, and future plans.
As expected, most still have trouble referring to me as Bruce. Mr. Greene is much more comfortable; so be it. But there are a few who immediately refer to me by my first name. Just a few, but they are definitely more comfortable that way.
Some, actually more than I thought, have become teachers themselves. Others live all over the globe. Still others make it a point to call or meet up with me when they come through Portland. There is even a group who meet annually in the Bay Area the Friday before Thanksgiving when they all come home for the holiday. I've been invited but yet to show up for one of those get-togethers. This year, for sure, if I go to the Bay in November.
This week I heard from a former student I had in class about 25 years ago. It often takes a minute or two to look at the profile picture on Facebook, figure out if there is a maiden name, or another name or even in a few cases, another gender. But the "friends" we share, if any, usually are the most help. In fact, I think that's how they find me. And I let them find me. I still don't feel comfortable initiating the contact. Not everyone might want their high school teacher in touch with personal information. Only rarely have I "friended" a former student. My intuition is strong enough to know that it was OK to do that. The day after Obama's election victory would be a notable example.
Lately, I've come to believe that each month, each year will result in getting in touch with a few more. Steadily, I reel in a few more. I've yet to be disappointed.
Last week, as I wrote a letter of recommendation for a beginning teacher, it occurred to me that I've only written 3 or 4 of these letters this year. Up until 5 years ago, I would write between 40 and 50 letters. Thinking further, I realized that the last students I taught have graduated college this year...at least most of them. No deluge of letters, but a trickle of "friends."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Step Right Up




Of all the quotes and rants, of all the looped tapes playing the same pathetic faces endlessly saying the same inane things...of all the sensational headlines, the tabloid blathering, the bobbing sea of talking heads...one statement about the recently concluded Casey Anthony trial stands out. "That family can best be described as a circus of dysfunction," said Anthony's former fiance. That metaphor goes far beyond the family and the trial that seems to have riveted the voyeuristic fantasies of the American public. It works beautifully to describe the current Congress's attempts to agree on anything, much less the deficit. We know we've hit rock bottom when the good of the order (you and me) takes a back seat to posturing so that re-election is not in doubt. For decades our legislative body has been in perpetual gridlock. They seem to have elevated the concept lately.
We in this country are certainly not alone in our greatest show on earth dysfunction. This was the week that the British tabloid News of the World finally went under. Apparently committing crimes by hacking into crime victims mailboxes, or the Royal family's personal communications, or even the lives of those that served in the Iraq war and didn't come home, in no way is an ethical issue. Rupert Murdock's Fascist media juggernaut just might be temporarily stalled. We'll see. Perhaps it's time to make morality and ethics required reading.
II.
Dysfunction takes many forms and another that surfaced this week in a strange way concerns a colleague of mine. In for heart surgery on a Tuesday, and no longer with us two days later, I will miss Tom Ruhl every day, every time I enter a classroom. On paper he was the Director of the MAT program at Marylhurst University. In person, he was the perfect combination of passion and wisdom. Four years ago, a phone conversation with him led me to his office and to a second career supervising and mentoring beginning teacher. We know when we hit it off with someone. We know when we feel comfortable taking a chance on something. Tom and I both felt that way with one another. A few years down the road from our initial meeting, that sense only grew stronger. If ever there was injustice in someone dying too soon, in losing someone who makes a huge difference in people's lives, Tom's untimely death is that example. But alas, he is not dead.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Bursting In Air


I love July 5th. Any day that follows the 4th is going to be better. Oh, I believe I'm as patriotic as the next guy/person. But July 4th is loaded...literally. My neighbor's well drugged dog has survived another evening of shell shock. We often forget how a canine's sensitive hearing perceives the onslaught that continues well past midnight. Where I live, I can hear both Portland and Vancouver, Washington's annual explosive offerings. Those echos bounce around the Willamette and Columbia rivers like toy boats crashing into all manner of air currents and sound tunnels.
It's really got very little to do with the Declaration of Independence any more, hasn't it? But this morning dawned sunny and peaceful, with only the white noise of traffic and a slight breeze.
Little Toto was still not normal, but he's beginning to believe that the immediate danger is over.
The crows took off for more rural surroundings on Saturday evening. I think they knew what was in store. Either that or they'e been to Iraq or Afghanistan and decided to just abandon the large elm trees they usually occupy for a few days. I'm not sure how the squirrels fared. Conspicuously absent, they will emerge by this afternoon to pick up some of the pieces...peanuts, fruit peels, berries.
So it's done and the flag was still there. Bring on the summer.
Last Sunday afternoon, while at a friend's BBQ backyard gathering, I chanced to get into a conversation with some folks seeking shade under a giant umbrella. As often happens, politics reared it's frothy head. What a great opportunity to discuss the current state of affairs without getting over emotional I thought. And I did.
The conversation, led by a verbose woman who, as luck would have it, was sitting on a stool about a foot higher than everyone else, got around to particular politicians. When our "leader" called MItch McConnell "stupid" a rather portly man piped up, "He's not stupid. He may be a right wing, intolerant, Republican, but I assure you he's not stupid." At that, an intense woman who had joined the circle of conversation a few minutes earlier decided to respond. I was wondering about her. A tall,thin, rather Balkan looking woman, she was intently listening with her head down most of the time. I was waiting for her to either leave or erupt. She erupted. First she told us that she was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia and felt her perspective on American politics was such that she had a hard time with Americans who whine all the time about their political institution. What ensued was a sort of "try being locked up for what you say or not being able to travel anywhere when you want to" kind of diatribe. Tough to argue with that. Nobody did. I'm sure everyone sitting around the only naturalized citizen at the table wanted to offer more. But nobody did. I was thinking of going down the "you are quite right, but even the politics of the U.S.A. is perfectible. That intolerance and greed and unethical politicians are unfortunately the norm. I could have elaborated on the current attack on that most democratic of all our public institutions: our schools. Best not to mess with someone's notion of The American Dream on July 4th weekend. Wait till Labor Day.