Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Twoness

This is the penultimate day of the year. The time when everything is "In Review." We take stock, we reflect, we try to make meaning out of life's random offerings. Often the tragedies get most attention, but I saw a small item the other day that merits it's own 15 minutes right here. Apparently, a guy went into a fast food restaurant recently and bought an item that cost slightly over a dollar. He was in possession of two pieces of legal tender, a $50 bill and a $2 bill, that most rarest of bills, if you don't count the $500 and %1,000. I guess. Anyway, the poor kid who worked there was offered the $2 bill as payment and rejected it after talking with the manager of the place. Both were of the opinion that it was fake; that there was no such thing as a $2 bill no matter how good Thomas Jefferson looked. The man then offered the $50 but was told it was too late in the evening to accept a "big bill." He could have left muttering to himself. I think what happened after much debate was they let him have the $1.04 taco rather than take the $2 bill.
What's wrong with this picture? Where to begin. I guess it's to be expected that some pieces of common literacy have fallen by the wayside as life in the suburban bubble continues to define itself. OK, so it's one thing that two people, probably both under 30 had never heard of a $2 bill, but what does it all mean? A regular Zen Koan this one. Do we dare think that the only significance of the story is that it is reasonable to think that many folks in this country aren't familiar with currency that is not in use? What else might be missing from their general knowledge? Is this even all that important? One thing I do know is that I have carried a $2 bill in my wallet for many years now. Sort of a "saver" should I ever get in a jam. I used to get them everyone from a friend who had a small business and knew of my desire to always have one around. Guess that notion is outdated now! Imagine if I actually had to use it and nobody would validate it's existence.
Funny too how the Canadians have used the bill and the "Toonie" coin for decades. What's with the $2 bill anyway?

Monday, December 24, 2012


Most people have a personality that fits into one of three basic types. Our behavior, overall, suggests that we are withdrawn types, aggressive, or compliant types. For those familiar with the Enneagram, these three branch out into nine types. Within that framework are all the sub types and variations. That may or may not be true. In any event, I am a compliant type. I have difficulty saying no, I was a "good" boy as a child, and I do not welcome confrontation. On the Enneagram, I am a NINE. The Peacemaker... I can be indolent when most unproductive, or I can be a gifted negotiator when my behavior is in peak form...the healthiest. I like to think I'm fairly evolved, so my years have taught me a few things. As a compliant type, I can often see the reasonableness of both sides of an issue. If there are more than two sides, I can see that too. Because I tend to be a bit more emotional than most, when I argue fiercely for a point of view, it usually comes after I have carefully considered the other side. That's why I feel a bit dismayed when considering the raging dialogue about gun control, the right to own and bear arms, the care and treatment of those most vulnerable in our society, the continuing stigma of mental illness, and some of the proposed solutions to the recent spate of gun violence this year. When the NRA suggests that we arm teachers and place armed guards in every school...I hit the wall. When I see supposedly religious people turn into Neanderthals with you in their sights...I hit the wall. When I think about the larger connected issues, especially those about public education, I not only hit the wall, I begin to wonder if some folks even have the capacity to understand the implications of their beliefs. I don't say this lightly. Like you, I have some friends with political and religious beliefs very different from my own. I value their humanity, their right to think for themselves, and often the insight they provide into worlds I do not inhabit. Yet, when I see so little outrage about gun owners having the right to own assault weapons with 30 round magazines, I have to wonder. Are these people as dangerous as their thoughts? I have always believed that we do well to remove ourselves from dangerous people. Some of the great thinkers in psychology and the humanities feel this way too. In the past I have made the difficult decision to break off a few friendships with people who I deemed either too needy or too negative. That's one thing. But now I must ask, what happens when someone's position is not reasonable...not moral? There is nothing to see there except trying to reason with someone incapable of change. Someone entrenched. Someone who feels threatened by science, by deep critical thought, by what and who they deem pseudo-intellectual. The teacher in me says keep trying to break down ideas you know to be the truth into understandable statements. Don't quit. Find other ways to enlighten. Continue to believe that imperfect thinking is perfectible.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Snow on

In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer. -Albert Camus
We had a light dusting of snow this morning. For a minute there it looked like it might stick around for awhile. After the first 15 minutes it covered the lawns and topped the trees. Driving became difficult for a half hour or so because visibility became dotted with thick, fleecy flakes. By mid-day the clouds had cleared and all trace of white was gone. Always unexpected, any snowfall in Portland is a welcome change from the constant rain. Snow brings out the kids who yell and scream as if Santa or Justin Bieber, his damn self, was standing on the street corner. Inside, I'm quietly squealing a bit myself. One of my friends mentioned on a Facebook post that the snow, brief as it was,coincided with his reading of the names of the dead in the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting. He went on to say it helped him cry through his reading of the list. I can see how that might be. Snow can be emotional. I know we need more than a dusting of snow right now, but I'll take whatever comes down from above. Maybe it's a start. Maybe the sheer gentleness of big delicate, freezing flakes is what it takes to ease an aching mind. This may be all we get. Even so, it came at a most opportune time. To have this fragile reminder that each day is different and that something as simple as frosty dust can bring out inner children as well as a handful of six year olds is comforting. The latest report says we might get e snow shower tonight. It goes on to say that most of the flakes will fall between two and six a.m. Don't think I'll be up for that but I will have something to look forward to in the morning.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On An....Open Fire

I sit with my computer on my lap in a coffee shop on the Northwest side of town. This is not my neighborhood, but it is a small independent little place with a good selection of baked goods on the healthy side and great internet service. It's a crowded rainy Saturday morning. All ages come and go. Some with dogs, some with laptops, some overdressed, some underdressed. The noise gets progressively louder as more and more people begin this weekend a couple of weeks from Christmas day. As expected, the recent shootings, both here in Oregon, and in Connecticut are on people's minds. I pick up bits of conversation. People don't dwell on the topic. Some seem much more interested in gossiping about mutual friends, planned ski vacations, and the faltering, sputtering, it's up/it's down economy. I imaging property values and taxes are a common topic in this neck of the woods.
From what I can tell, the prevalent feeling is that these overarmed, masked 20 somethings commit these atrocious acts of violence in an attempt to be recognized. To go out with a bang, one well meaning pundit suggests. Then I hear the C word...crazy. Yup, crazy behavior it is, but nobody talks about mental health. Do they fathom that these militarized, violent young people are in pain, are in fact suffering. Odd as that may sound, like many, I'm coming to believe we will continue to endure these awful, gut wrenching events until we adequately deal with mental illness and the conditions that foster it. The coffee shop is really rockin' now. The line at the counter deters some who enter but haven't the time to wait it out. And in the background, weaving in and out of the highs and lows in the conversation pitch we hear the sounds of Christmas. The door opens and closes. Wisps of cold damp air roll in and out. Johnny Mathis spreads good cheer. Andy Williams welcomes the most "wonderful time of the year," and people walking by carry small packages with colorful ribbons adorning them.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Room Service

The world music community is remembering Ravi Shankar today. Like most Westerners, I first came into contact with the man and his music through Beatle George Harrison. From the wonderful s of Norwegian Wood to later recordings like Within and Without You, the Sitar became a welcome addition to the progression of Beatle music. But Shankar will be remembered for the virtuoso he was and his total mastery of the instrument.
In fact, one of the stories that came up this week involved the uninitiated audience that showed up to one of Shankar's first American concerts. After a brief three minutes of music Shankar and his troupe stopped playing. They received a standing ovation. A smiling Ravi Shankar then announced "If you like our tuning up so much, hopefully you will like our music." My own little contribution to stories about Shankar's first days in the U.S.comes from a former roommate many years ago. Stan was originally from Brooklyn and found himself looking for work in Berkeley so he could eventually go back to school. We each shared a room in a large house in South Berkeley in the early 1970s. While I went to grad school at Berkeley, Stan went down to the Marriott Hotel on the marina where he landed a job as a room service busboy. One evening, as all my housemates gathered, someone mentioned that Ravi Shankar was playing a concert at the Berkeley Community Theater. This was shortly after he began to draw a big following in the U.S. We all knew who he was. Stan then went on to say that Shankar was in fact staying at the recently opened Marriott Hotel. "Actually,"Stan said, "I saw him today." Dumbfounded, we all listened to Stan tell us that early that very afternoon he was summoned to the room(s) that Shankar and his entourage were occupying while in Berkeley. "You guys are never gonna believe what I saw when I went in those rooms." We all had visions of incense, dimly lit rooms with spicy Indian food wafting all over the Berkeley Marina. "Nope," Stan said, they were all eating hamburgers and French Fries and watching Soap Operas on TV."
     I'd be less than honest if I said that we weren't surprised.  Secretly, though, knowing that these exotic visitors were not Hindu gods but rather just like most people was comforting.  Within you and without you, indeed.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Almost Iconic

This holiday season there will no doubt be a lot of folks receiving books. The perfect gift, right? OK, maybe not so more because you never know who has gone electronic and who has not. Either way, with the recent spate of memoirs by music icons, rock stars, and...well...survivors of the 60s, the likes of Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Robert Plant will do doubt make their way under a few trees. Some of these offerings are rather large too. Many, like their subjects are filled with vivid images, clouded memories, and rich experiences. They are often large volumes too. No doubt, there will be a few more coming down the road in a few years. We still haven't heard from many of the women who broke tradition, set trends, and sang their way into our souls. What we won't be getting, ever, are the recollections of a few of the best who never made it. We have bits and pieces. We have some film and video clips. We have, forever, the recordings. But no long life well lived and well reflected. The two people from that era that stand out are Phil Ochs and Richard Farina. Oddly enough, both were once thought to be rivals of Dylan, so you know they had something important to say. They also had an original way to say it. Phil Ochs took his own life. There is an excellent film, a pile of record albums, and some writing. If Dylan's words were sometimes challenging, Phil Ochs wrote song lyrics that left nobody wondering. He was the epitomy of an anti-war poet. What part of "I ain't a marchin' anymore" is not clear? Richard Farina had it all. He'd already written and published two novels by the time his motorcycle skidded off the road taking him away from the stunning Mimi (Baez) Farina his young wife. They had two best selling albums together that graced the collections of many a twenty something in 1967. We can only speculate what their careers might have yielded had they lived longer. Farina would have loved the way young people are beginning to embrace acoustic music again. His dulcimer playing would have probably evolved into something wonderous. Phil Ochs might just have experience a huge revival during the G.W. Bush administration. Fascinating how he might respond to Obama's foreign policy and use of drones. We can only speculate because we will never know. What is clear, however, is what Phil Ochs wrote in arguably his best composition: "There but for fortune go you or I."  If you have never heard of or experienced the music of Richard Farina or Phil Ochs, do yourself a favor and check out these two near icons.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


I took the small package out of my mailbox and naturally thought it was the book I'd ordered and knew was on the way. Not so fast. The house number was correct but the street was one block over. It's a fairly common mistake, right? Even the post Office makes mistakes from time to time.
Next day I put a little post-it note on the envelope stating that it was delivered to the wrong address. Instead of attaching it to my mailbox, I put it next to the mailbox of my neighbor. Here's why. I live upstairs and my mailbox is outside at the base of the stairway leading to my front door. My neighbors live in the house below me and have a lovely covered front porch which includes their mail slot on their front door. It's Portland. It's winter. It rains almost daily. I figured the mail carrier would figure it out. Nope. Next day the package was back in my uncovered mailbox. Funny. For a minute or two. Disappointing that the carrier couldn't get past the number to look at the street. Yesterday I decided to take the package over myself. In doing so, I discovered that I could probably throw the parcel from my house to the intended recipient's. It was that close. Instead, I walked down the street, around the corner, and onto the front porch of the house (that shared my number) itself. Just as I thought about placing it in the mailbox, I saw a woman sitting in the window sipping a nice cup of tea. I knocked. I explained the situation. She was amused and then told me that she was just about to answer an email asking if she had received her order by now. She thanked me and I departed wondering how many times this happens and how many endings are similar to this one? I can't be too hard on the postal service. Large volumes of mail this time of year with difficult weather can be dicey. In fact, our regular mail carrier recently retired and we've had a different one every week for the last couple of months. Next week, when I'm waiting for an expected book to arrive, when I've been emailed the notification and find myself wondering...think I'll take a walk around the block.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


I read this morning of another former non-believer in global warming (oops, I mean climate change) having a change of heart. In recent months, it's not been uncommon to see some experts and not so experts change their minds. Perhaps the video footage of melting glaciers has something to do with it. Maybe after Hurricane Sandy much of the data merited a review by those most resistant to the idea. Of course, in thousands of years, there has always been a noticeable, if not predictable extreme in weather and climate. That our weather has been a bit "out of sorts" if not downright wacky, there can be no doubt. I expect to see more warming resistors going public in the month to come. That will leave only those who have an interest... a strong interest in disproving what most already know lining up on the opposite team. That got me thinking. How difficult is it for people to change sides when it comes to political arguments? It must take a special kind of courage to admit," I now believe something I previously did not." Diane Ravitch, the education historian comes to mind. She is now the fiercest opponent of standardized testing and the corporate highjacking of public education. But it wasn't always so. Ravitch, for years, took an opposing view. After reading her book The Death and Life of the American Public School, I believe she has made a moral decision. That's always admirable. So I then thought that if ever I'm confronted with a friend that has an abrupt shift in opinion, no matter what the subject, it might be useful to take the time to find out how that works. In short, what goes through the mind prior to making a decision that noteworthy. Will I ever have that experience? Perhaps. One thing I do know is not too much has changed from my political views a few decades ago. People love to say that with increased age it's fairly common to rethink deep beliefs and decide things differently. They like to say that with age comes a more conservative outlook. Depends on how you define conservative I think. There is also something to be said for people who remain unwavering in their views as well.

Monday, November 26, 2012

To the Bone

Recently I heard about a fairly new book making some waves in intellectual circles these days. The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argues that greater equality in a society makes for more strength. This means that when a society, or country's culture, has less of an income gap, the existence of social, economic, political, and even psychological problems lessens. Seems reasonable, if not mildly controversial. It is. In any case, I learned of this work from some folks on an educational list serve that I occasionally read and monitor. It's always nice to get a non-American perspective on educational issues currently in the public eye and this email list certainly delivers.
One of the brief reviews quoted on the cover of the book states that its contents contains many findings that most of us know, "in our bones" to be the truth. To know in the bones is a fascinating expression. It's akin to intuitive learning. I've often held that a significant part of teaching remains intuitive. Call it common sense or intuitive or just having a Knack for something, it's difficult to explain but when we don't question ourselves, we sometimes find that our deep feelings are often the most accurate. In light of the recent attack of public school and public school teachers, it takes increased courage not to question yourself when many of those around you seem to be in a feeding frenzy. In a recent NY Times article, one observer noted that it was time to infuse the English curriculum with more non-fiction. Still others are questioning that and fear the loss of reading great fiction in favor of reading service manuals and other stimulating documents of a corporate culture. Both points are valid but I can't help but note how infusing a rich curriculum with both fiction and non-fiction seems like a no-brainer. In my old department, we did this for 30 years. Much non-fiction is written like fiction. Memoirs, interviews, deep inquiries into the lives and events of notable people all come under the banner of non-fiction. My students loved Into the Wild, the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, and many of the interviews in the books of Studs Terkel. Oh yeah, and what about the almighty essay. For years, Newsweek's My Turn piece found its way into all my courses from Psychology to International Relations to English. We felt in our bones that all writing is creative writing. Just like Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists of the 1960s and 70s, we taught writing that was alive with electric language, vivid images, and that non-fiction and fiction both had something to say. Sometimes you just have to teach what you know to be true. Reality checks are fine from time to time, but I feel for all those young teachers who will be required to attend meetings designed to teach them what they already know...what, when they get a moment to exhale,they feel in their bones.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Greed Squared

It's no longer possible to say that Thanksgiving is the only uncorrupted holiday. That most American of cocktails, a mix of corporate greed and media hype has finally pinned the notion of a non-economic holiday down for the count. Black Friday can't even wait for the Thanksgiving dinner to end, it now begins the same afternoon. For the duped masses whose need to consume, at an illusory "deal" it's finally become clear what matters most.
Surprised? Hardly. The profit motive has always reigned supreme in the land of the free and home of the brave. And brave one must be on this day because the news stations are overrun with stories of injuries, guns being pulled, people biting, elbowing, verbally abusing their fellow Americans. On the radio today I heard a psychologist explain that the pitiful behavior that we have come to expect stems from our need for competition. She then went on to explain how it just might be related to the hunter-gatherer behavior that's deep in our evolved brain. Perhaps. Thinking ahead, where will this lead? It's a hop skip and a jump to the kind of food and water riots sure to occur some day. How could it not be? Other social scientists seem to explain the disgusting behavior by relating it to anxiety. Lots of folks sure are feeling increased anxiety in this economy. Coupled with the plethora of media nonsense that passes for entertainment, who wouldn't be anxious. I wonder how many of the people lined up overnight to storm the doors of their local shopping mall have read a book in the last year? Really I do. Bet there is a correlation there for the taking. I wonder how many of them make the pilgrimage to the goddess of greed for the savings or for the experience? I'm suggesting that many out there really enjoy acting like pigs at the trough. At least that explains something. But for the guy that pulled a gun when someone cut in front of him, what goes through the mind as he's leaving the house? In other news, the local stations are saying that these sales are somewhat bogus. They are saying that better deals are online. That better deals will be on the way next month when it's really the gift giving season. Many of us will wait until January, when all the need and greed has subsided. There will be plenty of "stuff" left. Besides, instead of Black Friday, we'll have White Sales. It's all black and white thinking.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Writer's Workout

This blog has served me well for the better part of four years.  If anyone has wandered here and benefitted by something said, or been amused or even moved to think deeply about something, all the better.
I try to post something every other week.  That turns out to be about six posts a month.    Usually that goal gets met, sometimes even exceeded.  Yet, I hardly take myself seriously here. (well, maybe sometimes)
 A blog has become crucial for a writer.  It's exercise.  Not unlike running or working out or brisk walking, writers need to work through ideas, to scratch away at possibilities, to save idea fragments before they slide out the back door of consciousness. It's healthy for a writer to start down a road and not have a destination.  Sometimes I do that here.
A blog can be a place of beginnings or endings.  An idea will sprout and go nowhere, evolve into a poem or an essay, become the basis for a short story or memoir piece, or simply live here for eternity.
This week, a few ideas are trying to emerge and transform themselves into something larger.  My fascination with how the pseudo school reform movement seems determined to use the language of militarism in its articulation of a vision is one such idea. Suddenly we have learning "targets" as if we needed to aim and hit something.  Another is the shift in our culture from hero to celebrity. The water here has muddied considerably.  Throw in role mode as well and you have a possible topic for deeper consideration.
Sometimes I start poems here.  A line will surface and in the time it takes to write it down, another 3, 4 or 5 will reveal themselves.  In my universe, a poem can be constantly changing, evolving, once a version shows up here, it might only be "live" for a limited time.
A final function and form this blog takes involves the preservation of photos.  Pictures are worth thousands of words and preserving them electronically give them thousands more.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Thumbs Up

I read an interesting article in the New York Times over the weekend. Ginger Strand, the author, tackles the subject of hitchhiking and suggests that "hitching didn't die a natural death--it was murdered." She contends that in this depressed economy, and this polarized nation, hitching a ride just might be a way to reduce our carbon footprints and bring us together as a nation. An interesting notion, especially coming from one who has written a book on the interstate highway system with a most revealing title: Killer on the Road:Violence and the American Interstate. Strand is quick to point out that despite the fear, despite the sensational emphasis in media on serial killers and psychopaths on the loose, most people and most families are safe on their yearly road trips. Probably so...if one is careful and mindful and alert. Still, I don't think we're headed for a resurgence of hitchhiking anytime soon. If that remains to be seen, what is clear is that I've been thinking about that time when to hitchhike was fairly spontaneous and fairly safe. The 1960s and 70s was just such a time. Certainly even then, there was always a little anxiety, especially hitching a ride alone, or picking up a hitchhiker while driving alone. But, as I recall, that was rare, people hitched rides in pairs and picked up riders even with a car full of people. What's one more?
A couple of memorable experiences come to mind. Living in Berkeley in the 70s made hitching a ride a viable option. All manner of Volkswagen bugs and vans went up and down University Ave. or Telegraph Ave. all day and all night. I literally stepped off my front porch one early afternoon in 1972 and saw a car approaching up the street to the right of my house. I leaped off the stoop, jutting my thumb in the air, and had a ride to the campus before I hit the ground. Sometimes, it was that simple. Often, when friends and I scored concert tickets, while grad students without cars, we'd hitchhike to the venue. No parking fee, though we'd offer to pay the parking of our driver. Thousands must have hitchhiked to concerts by Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Boz Scaggs or the Stones. I remember driving back to the Bay Area from Denver, Colorado once. I was with my girlfriend at the time. When we got to the ungodly stretch that is Nevada, we chanced upon a lone woman hitching a ride on the desert Interstate. We offered her the back of my VW squareback and she piled in, relieved to be out of the sun. That was back in '75 so no air conditioning. Suddenly something flew in the open window and chaos ensued. First I thought it was a bat, but it turned out to be an enormous dragon fly. Turned out to be a good laugh too. Good thing not too many folks out there that afternoon on the road. We swerved a bit before that big bug went on his way. I even went on a date where hitchhiking was the only means of transportation. Her name was Kay, she was beautiful and we met at a party. She, like me, loved horses and we decided to go riding at Pt. Reyes on the Northern California coast. I told her I was a grad student with no car and I'd be willing to hitchhike. She never hesitated. The following day, we met up and headed toward the freeway. Two rides later we were riding horses on the beach. The hitched rides home were the most memorable. Our first, near the small town of Olema landed us in the back seat of a Cadillac. Our driver had recently lost his wife and was spending the weekend driving all over. He wanted some conversation. We listened all the way to San Francisco. As I recall, we were subsequently picked up by a harried young mother with three small kids in an enormous station wagon. I lost touch with Kay shortly after that. There were a couple more dates, and I once stayed the night at her place, but that Sunday afternoon, hitchhiking to Pt. Reyes, was one of the best days of my life. A simpler time?

Monday, November 5, 2012

On My Watch

We're bracing ourselves for tomorrow night. We'll take a seat around 5:00 p.m. here on the Left coast in one of our favorite pubs. It's become a tradition to invite a few friends and get a feel for the political climate expected to follow the results. This year will be no different, save for the foreboding that seems to be growing like a low hanging cloud. No matter who comes away with the victory, it will not be like 2008. That felt more like New Year's Eve here in Portland. We're deep blue, midnight blue, blue-black. There seems to be as much indifference this year as in other places. Probably because we have an awful Mayor's race in which both candidates are undesirable. It impacts the entire voting experience, I'm afraid. When I sit down to follow the early returns in earnest, I'll remind myself of previous evenings. It will be easy to say "well, we survived George W. Bush and his father, Ronald Reagan, even the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Yes, we'll survive this one too, but I see something more. Seems to me the demography and the climate are encroaching on this culture. In the next decade or two the numbers won't lie. These two political parties we seem to be stuck with are going to need some real reinvention. The Congress will replace itself with a younger and hopefully more flexible group of legislators. But what will the two parties do? There are other tendencies too. If the exclusive task of elected officials continues to be the focus on their next election, it'll be a bumpy next few years. I see a last gasp coming. Certainly the make-up of our population will help usher that in, but along with all this re-alignment I hope we can exhale large concentrations of the racism and sexism that stubbornly cling to our notion of democracy. Let's not forget that we don't live in America. There are other Americas to our north and south. We live in a United States of least for now.

Monday, October 29, 2012


Studs Terkel, our national treasure and oral historian concluded in his book Working, "Your work is your identity." Sure is. Not only do we identify ourselves by what we do, we lose that identity when we have nothing to do or no longer work. This conclusion that Terkel reached after interviewing hundreds of people in a wide variety of professions is hardly shocking. Americans have valued work from the early days of the republic. It's a huge part of our national character. In fact, we value hard work so much that when faced with the trauma of job loss, or career changes, or loss of satisfaction in the workplace, we often blame ourselves. From the Great Depression of the 1930s right on through to today's stagnant economy, we have been living with identity crises that stem from work. For a teacher this loss of identity is particularly difficult. I know a few folks that have had a difficult time adjusting to their like after teaching. Their identity changes literally, from Mr.or Ms. whomever to just a first name. That's the least of concerns. Since teaching is so all-consuming, the sudden loss of all the necessities can be jolting. Who am I now that I am no longer Mr. Greene? I think I know. But for many it's a real conundrum.
I've been thinking about distancing myself from all things educational. Just take a little break and remove myself from public education, completely, and see what that feels like. I think it's time. I do enjoy my part-time job working with beginning teachers, but it's not the same. At all. It's not the same as teaching. It's often said that something happens to a teacher that leaves the classroom. They lose touch. I believe that; I always have. When you leave the trenches, you lose perspective, by degree. In the six years I've been away from full-time teaching I can certainly relate to that. I realize that things change exponentially. Many of the issues and methods have changed drastically in the last few years. I appreciate these changes, see them constantly, and try to adjust. But many issues and methods are exactly the same. Discussing big ideas, encouraging students to think deeply and challenging them to enjoy their education will never change. I hope. So what would it mean for me to remove myself from the game. It means not getting so emotionally involved when I resist the privatization of public schools. It means taking a break from blogs and websites, editorials and education books. It means, more than anything else, becoming another person and taking a more neutral stance when thinking or talking or especially listening to anything to do with schools. No identity crisis here. My personality, like my profession is fairly established.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


I’ve been a Giants fan for over 50 years. The great teams of the 1950s are hazy childhood memories. My first recollection of the New York Giants being “my team” goes back to the seven year old days of my life when I would retreat to the backyard of my folks little S. California post-war home and practice making Willie Mays’ catch from the ’54 World Series. Not the over the shoulder basket catch that has become an iconic moment, but a jumping version I thought would suffice. Last night, as the final Presidential debate dominated most of the news stations, the Giants again made it to the World Series with a scrappy little team that refused to quit. As President Obama showered Mitt Romney with his forthright, measured foreign policy salvos, the Giants lived up to their name in the San Francisco rain. Nice evening. While I can’t share my politics with my father, every post-season Giants game he’s with me. The transplanted New Yorker, like the team, gave me a love of baseball that has endured for almost 60 years. Growing up a Giants fan in Los Angeles took a bit of toughness too. It served me well. So I’ll watch the World Series, but the best of the season is already over. Another Series win would be nice, but it’s not necessary after the 2010 victory. That was a “one time before I die” experience for this Giants fan.
This morning many teachers I know are enjoying a good laugh at Mr. Romney’s proclamation “I love teachers” last night. I’d sure like to hear him elaborate on that a little more. Is that why his prospective Secretary of Education is anti-union? If any organization gets a bad rap it’s teacher’s unions. They have been demonized. This from people who have never taught. The public perception concerns unions as obstacles to progress. They certainly do have some things to clean up but what gets me is that rarely is the importance of teacher’s unions discussed when it comes to protecting academic freedom. That is the real issue here. Academic freedom that gives the teacher the right to make curriculum decisions is the real threat. It allows teachers to be creative and hones their skills. In whose interests is a skilled, well informed, creative, inspirational teacher a threat? Let’s debate that. Like those scrappy little Giants, there are thousands of teachers who depend their unions to reinforce the democratic ideals they teach.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Please, Sir

It happens with increased frequency. In fact, I like to tell myself that I must have been knighted. That's the only explanation for being called "sir" so many times these days. I know it's a sign of respect. It's also a sign of age or experience or even good home training. I'm not complaining, just taking note. Occasionally I'll get called "young man." A bit condescending since I'm retired. Guess it depends on the age of the person doing the calling. Sir comes with age. It's a constant reminder, but not the only one.
There is a real phenomena called the male gaze. Men look at women. Sometimes appropriately, sometimes not. With age, it can be a real troublemaker whether you care or not. I like to look at people; all people. I also have a long history of talking to young people. In 33 years in the classroom, and another 6 years supervising student teachers, I talk to lots of young people. It's natural for me. It's what I have always done and they reciprocate without question. But lately I've noticed that I can't do that out of context any more. I am no longer the friendly teacher, the comforting, nurturing role model, the mentor to just anyone. I've noticed how my gaze or interest can bring quick judgments or an uncomfortable reaction. In most ways, that's probably a good thing. But in some ways, just a few, it's disappointing, if not saddening. But, I get it. The male gaze makes a fascinating discussion. It's been a lively topic at my writing group on more than one occasion. Yes, men need to be aware and take responsibility for their behavior. They need to be aware of the difference between a gaze and a leer. They need to look at all people, not just women in the eyes, and they need to be especially aware when interacting with young people. But sometimes it's complicated. Sometimes it's much easier to talk to people of all ages and let them sort it out. Aging is subtle, even in this culture. Some of my former students look much the same as they always did 20 or even 30 years later. Some are unrecognizable for various reasons ranging from experience to gender identity, to health issues. A few look older than I really they do. I've noticed that many of my friends who are my age or close to it seem to relate the impact of technology quite differently. Most (especially the educators) adapt and learn from students and peers and make remarkable progress. Others simply retreat into the past for anything that is either comfortable or uncomplicated. They seem to have made decisions about books not E-readers, writing checks as opposed to online bill paying, and having telephones that simply make calls and nothing more. Not I. I'm just taking my time. One thing I do know is that when I talk to young people today, kids in the schools I visit, or my friends children, or the younger generations of my family, I always learn something.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Little Gem

Last week I returned to Little Lava Lake. This beautiful spot, high in the Cascades mountains was where I really learned a lot about fly fishing. And it's not really the lake, it's what happens there. Sitting under the shadow of Mt. Bachelor, a dormant volcano and Central Oregon ski destination, the mighty Deschutes River emerges from this lake as snowmelt from underground springs. The river literally begins as a small stream exiting the lake. About a quarter of a mile from this watery eruption the river, about the size of a large creek, flows through a small meadow. It is in this stunning spot where I have caught rainbow and brook trout, and now, this year a few Oregon Mountain Whitefish.
My day there this year was the latest I've ever been there. I usually go in July or August and once or twice in September. But never in October. Last week there were no mosquitos and very few people. The water was icy cold, but the beauty of the place, even on a cloudy day remains. This site has become a kind of cathedral for me. I always manage to see more wildlife there too. As usual, I saw osprey and deer. In years past I've seen a family of otters, a great blue heron and numerous ducks. While standing hip deep in the swirling waters, fish rising all around me, a Kingfisher perched nearby to check me out. Always something new. One of these days, and it better be sooner rather than later, I'm going to spend a week there. I'm going to spread out, sleep in, walk all over the place, downstream, float the lake, drink in the sunsets and sunrises. I'm going to get my fill of this place because I want to keep it with me forever. I only hope that it will last, in it's present form, for future generations.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mirror Image

I've seen a lot of them lately. Usually in book stores. These pictures of musicians, writers, generational icons. These pictures of familiar faces grown old. In his new autobiography Neil Young does it perfectly. On the cover is a picture of him, very intense, as he appears today. On the back cover is the same kind of picture of Neil Young in his prime.
It strikes me that some folks don't remember the young Neil. I get that. Many of the new friends I have in Portland don't know or remember me as a younger man. And then there are those like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Sure their faces have deep lines. Their voices are a bit more craggy too. But their aging over the decades is less obvious. Bob Dylan keeps rolling along. Five decades in the business and the new albums keep coming. The image of Dylan today is radically different from the young curly headed boy with no facial hair. The voice is fairly gone, but the lyrics as contradictory and subtle as ever. Maybe more of these rock stars will make their way to postage stamps. Will they do what they did with Elvis? "Do you want the young or the old Elvis stamp?" Some of both please.
I really love the people who age gracefully. The ones who manage to change with the times but don't really change. They accept the gray hair and it becomes silver. Silver is more valuable than obsidian. This juxtaposition of faces is both fascinating and frightening. There really does come a time when we look into the mirror and see someone else staring back. It's what we do about that and how we feel about what looks back that determines the measure of self-acceptance. I was standing on a corner yesterday waiting for the WALK sign. Three twenty somethings waited behind me and one was talking and gesturing wildly about a friend of theirs who had a recent encounter with someone. "She's like Im not gonna talk to him...he was an older man in his 60s..." Clearly this 65 year old being present meant nothing. And that is the stark reality, isn't it? Most people I meet think I'm a bit younger than I appear. The irony is that I use no dyes or make no attempt to hide my age. My silver-gray lightly dusts a bit of black, but my beard borders on white. So be it. Sometimes I read obituaries. There are all kinds and most are far too brief to encapsulate a life. Occasionally there is not just one picture but an array of photos over a period of time. That's really who we are and who we were. It is also much more interesting.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Four years ago 81% of the people questioned in a study agreed that a college education was a good investment. Today, that figure has changed to 57%. It's not difficult to see why. Many of the students in the last high school classes I taught are living proof. They played by the rules. They graduated from college, most with the help of financial aid. Now they are still waiting tables, living at home, wondering what comes next. Of course this does not apply to all. Some are working in careers like teaching and engineering, some are back into graduate programs and some are carving out an existence by working and doing what matters most to them in any way they can. Maybe there is no job in the particular field they studied like fine arts, dance, psychology, or mathematics, but they have figured out how to do make a small living and keep their interest and passion in another field very much alive. This got me thinking. What kind of investment is a college education. Certainly the financial one is substantial, but that is hardly where it ends. If everyone who wanted a good job that promised a lifelong career with full benefits, could get one without a college education, what would they sacrifice? That is, what comes along with attending college that has nothing to do with investing financially in your future? My response to that question would begin with my own experience. For four years I was immersed in an academic environment that offered, perhaps unrealistically, a opportunity to reflect on big ideas. Reading, thinking, clarifying ideas with others by discussion and representing your knowledge in a variety of ways is the most valuable part of the experience. If college enrollments are in decline, and they appear to be, does that mean fewer people will be critical thinkers? I'm not sure. Perhaps college enrollment and the desire to read books or think deeply are exclusive. How do you put a price tag on what it means to be educated?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Beats Me

I received a small gift from a lifelong friend the other day.  He'd been to City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and sent me a copy of a new book of poems by Jack Hirshman.   I go way back with Hirshman.  As an undergrad at UCLA, I used to see Hirshman way up in the stacks of the University Research Library.  I worked there doing various things and one of the most enjoyable was shelving books.  Unlike working at the check out desk or checking IDs, pushing carts of books to be re-shelved was meditative in its own way.  Often I'd find bookmarks and various "souvenirs" left behind in the books.  Who knows how long the pressed leaves or ferns were hiding in volumes untouched for years.  There were thousands of books in hundreds of languages.  There were collections and sets and donated libraries.  Each floor was a universe of literature in its own write.
Occasionally I had to all but step over Jack Hirshman while finding the proper place for a book.  he lived up to his reputation as a Beat poet.  After he'd given up his job as a University faculty member (or lost it) he still remained a presence.  Hirshman has lived in San Francisco for many years now.  He's flourished and seems to be writing better than ever.  Even though I have some political differences with Hirshman the Marxist, he still inspires me:

            Off The Floor
                        (for Jack Hirshman)
c2012 Blgreene

At first, he was just an old poet I found,
Barely awake in the stacks of the research library.
A beaten Beat,
Covered in wooly sweaters and sleep stains.
He’d been somebody,
A University professor with a wife in the Town and Gown

At first, he didn’t move,
But I learned to step over his habit,
And if I worked carefully,
I learned there were surprises in the books
I was assigned to shelve,
Crow quill scratches,
Pressed ferns white as English lace,
Calendar pages still roaring from the 20s.

When I read he’d chosen to quit the multiversity,
I sought out his poetry.
I found a limited edition.
In brightly colored words
Lining white pages,
One red print, one green ink,
Another blue.

He praised the immortality of Blake,
The androgyny of wet flesh,
He said, “You see,
I cannot tell a lie.”

He chiseled with the alphabet of collage,
Layered the riffs,
Extra Miles on the Coltrane

Now, in glossy editions,
He lives,
Resurrected from the research library floor
Jesus with arms spread,
One hand with cigarette burning
The other a fist.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Social Justice is a popular theme in school curriculum these days. In fact, as a concept it is often listed in state standards and graduate teaching programs as a important part of the underpinnings of all curriculum and teaching. And why not? We are all concerned with justice in this society. Often Social Justice takes the form of egalitarian principles or cultural sensitivity. Again, this is crucial stuff on which to build education in a democratic society.
More particularly, Social Justice means making choices in what and how you teach something. That might involve taking into consideration language capabilities, cultural practices, or long forgotten or deliberately omitted historical events. Teachers who are cognizant of a diverse, unbiased curriculum are aware of the limitations of using textbooks. Aside from the fact that textbooks contain some of the worst writing ever published, even the good ones,(and there are good ones) severely limit what can be covered in class. As a wonderful colleague of mine likes to say, "It's not how much you cover, it's what you uncover." Sometimes the primary sources necessary for social science teachers can be painful. Sometimes they are ugly, racist, hateful, distorted views of human beings and their history. I make the case that they still must be included. Rather than "fetishizing pain" as some have called it, I see it more like teaching tolerance through the objects and artifacts of intolerance. To be sure, these tragic pieces of our past must be used carefully. But their power to transform is powerful. I have seen this time and again over the years I have taught. These "ethnic notions" from any racial and ethnic group function like talismans. They are carefully kept and displayed under the most careful conditions because they are documentary evidence of our past. We are fast approaching the time when events like The Holocaust, or the ravages of human slavery in this country, will come under increased scrutiny and pressure to prove that they really happened. Strange and difficult as that may seem, it is happening already. That's why I was pleased to discover, recently, The Jim Crow museum. (see web site) Not only because these folks get that it is important to use some of these difficult images and objects to teach about the past, but because, as one of many collectors of this stuff, I now know where my modest array of these materials will probably end up one day. After all, you don't put racist, stereotypical books, posters, magazines, or advertising images all over you house. They don't belong on the walls or the coffee table. This area is rich ore to mine, but it must be done carefully. And it's not without controversy. I know many teachers who would never use some of the advertising images or the popular music of the early 20th century in their classrooms.
Fine. I'm not one of them. Funny thing is though, you don't have to go back a hundred years to find questionable imagery. It's still out there in mass media, music, TV and certainly in people's minds. Take a look at some of the stuff that has surfaced since Barak Obama took the White House. Social Justice sometimes is nothing more than having the courage to face your past. Like historians always say, how can you know where you are going until you know where you have been. More to follow...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Highway is Alive Tonight

Bruce Springsteen's birthday is today. I think he's 62 or 63. When I think about him I don't really think about all his hit songs. I don't think about the concerts I've attended or the recordings I have. Well, almost. I think about one...only one in particular. The Ghost of Tom Joad. That CD and the title song came along at just the right time for me. As I recall, the CD coincided with what has come to be know as the economic downturn in this country. To honor a character in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath while in the classroom I was making comparisons to the 1930s was a gift. I taught Grapes of Wrath for at least 25 years. For some reason it became the crescendo of the academic year. But I learned it was best taught before and after the Winter break. That's because the reading amount is heavy for most high school juniors and they have the holiday break to finish and really appreciate the last few chapters. But today is about Springsteen and his genius in writing and performing "the ghost." One of the most fascinating things in teaching The Grapes of Wrath was always how students and in many ways their families, responded to the text. I must confess that I made a big deal about it because I really believe in what the book says. Its thematic content is needed these days just as much as 70 years ago. But inevitably, every year somebody would tell me that the book is too depressing. How can a novel that focuses on the perfectibility of human beings be a downer? I did my best to stress less depressing themes but ultimately that only goes so far. I prefer to think of the intensity of the human experience as challenging, maybe even inspirational. Not depressing. Sure shit happens. That's the point. So Happy Birthday Bruce Springsteen. So glad you got the message.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sound It...OUT

Like most things, teaching has always been fraught with contradictions. Just as the variety of human personality types, there are many approaches to achieving success in the classroom. I guess that's why the concept of standardization seems counter intuitive to most educators I know. Bottom line is, if it works do it. OK, so that's fine, but what if teachers are being "required" to use methods that they know and feel are intrinsically wrong? This is what is occurring all over the country now with the use of scripted curriculum and one size fits all approaches to skill building. Teachers are being de-skilled in many ways. With that comes one of the most important parts of remaining in the profession...JOY. When you are told what to say and when to say it, when you are evaluated by test scores, when you have lost your voice and your will to pursue the natural curiosity you possess, we have a problem. A very big problem.
This morning I read part of a conversation on a national list serve of teachers. The concern today was the use of dog clickers (those sound making little devices that trainers use to reinforce positive behaviors) in the teaching of reading. A quick bit of research tells me that this is indeed happening in schools where administrators and school boards have tasted the poison Kool-Aid of pseudo reform. People often ask me to explain why teachers need unions, why teachers seem to always be at odds with various attempts at reform, why teachers feel so threatened these days. Think I'll begin with the dog clickers. That will lead to behaviorism v. humanism as approaches to learning and perhaps we can go from there. Now, I have no problem with reward and punishment, or using some of the techniques that reinforce various behaviors. But not for something like reading. That's a no-brainer. No wonder half the population of this country did not read a book last year. (either digital or print!)
In my last couple of years in the classroom we fought off attempts to remove "whole" books from our curriculum. In one of the most meaningful things I've ever done, I recall participating in a public reading of Fahrenheit 451 with colleague and students BEFORE school started at 7:30 a.m. That way parents people driving by, bus drivers and pedestrians could all participate if thy choose. The message got least temporarily. A final thought. My old school district, Richmond Unified, in Northern California, nearly went bankrupt back in the early 90s. The short version is we had a Superintendent who spent wildly but couldn't pay the bills. One of those bills was $29 million in computers and hardware. There was a time when we were encouraged to write curriculum and courses based on what teachers and students wanted. This freedom was heady but short-lived. I was able to teach a class called Black Authors in my school. With 45% of the student body African-American, it was soundly supported and immediately popular. When the debt hit the fan, it ended. Lasted only two years. What remained were the books I was able to purchase before all the funds dried up. How ironic. But then something good can often result from something disastrous. I see a lot of well-trained dogs in some parts of the country some day.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Masked Man

He's got one of those faces you see all over. The kind that you can't place because it's always out of context. He speaks to yo on occasion as if you've known each other for a lifetime. You don't know his name. In fact you know absolutely nothing about him except that you recognize his face and it keeps popping up all the time. Today, he's really animated. Fired up because he has something to say and he's got to say it right now. He spills out of the coffee shop and into your face. He sets the scene. Apparently some guy in there is on the phone or on his computer having a video or audio conference. He's way too loud and could care less. He forces his conversation, which is meaningless to everyone in the room, on the faint music in the background. He rapes the ambiance with his voice. He's wheeling" and dealin"' and oblivious to the reader in the room. Oblivious to 3 other conversations near him. Oblivious to the baristas, their supervisor, the guy who emotes into his journal daily with his head in his hands. He wants you to know, this familiar face. He wants to tell somebody and it might as well be you. You listen. He tells you he is a runner and when he hears voices creeping up on him he gets paranoid. It's because he runs, he says. He wants everyone to play by the rules. But there might not be any rules. You understand and you tell him so.
You share his concern. A thought strikes. You say, "Maybe there should be some kind of universal symbol...a non-verbal sign a person could make to communicate that the border has been crossed." Something that says, hey bud, you're too loud, be aware of yourself and those around you. He agrees. He really agrees and lights up like the Statue of Liberty. You suggest making the time out sign. You form a T with your hands and he's ecstatic. He exits muttering to himself and then turns to see you enter the coffee shop. It's quiet inside, and you still don't know his name.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Very Rich

It only takes one night to see the striking differences between the Republican and Democratic conventions. Even though the process of politics, with all its influence peddling and diluted legislation remains the same, the Democratic Party looks and talks a lot more like the people that inhabit this country. Of course it depends on where you live and how you speak and what you value, but it's abundantly clear that this convention looks very different. Factor in Michelle Obama and her very personal speech. That just cements the perception. Watching the Castro twins from San Antonio, one the Mayor, another running for Congress, is a reminder of what this country will look like in 30 years. After hearing them, It's going to be just fine. Of all the contrasts between the two parties and their conventions, the most striking to me is the role that former presidents have played. I still find it incredulous that George W. Bush was blatantly absent from the big party In Tampa. Cheney I can understand. He's barely alive on a daily basis, but Bush has taken a complete power from public view. How's that for a validation of all his policies and programs. I guess it's terribly inconvenient when none other than Bishop Tutu, one of the most respected world leaders and one of the finest minds on the planet is calling for your prosecution. To paraphrase historian Harvey Wasserman, whose history of the United States from 1865 to the present begins with an intriguing sentence about the Civil War, "The war with Iraq made a few businessmen very rich." That this country is hugely polarized is obvious. Yet both political parties conjure up and embellish the mythology of the American Dream, both have rags to riches stories,and both support policies that have failed. If President Obama is reelected, we'll all have an opportunity to see just how effective a leader he can be. Without the burden of reelection and all the baggage that comes with that, he has an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. In the end, "the American people," whoever and whatever that means anymore, are terribly pragmatic. Only n America can a moderate centrist like Obama be labeled a Socialist by reactionary Republicans. It's clear that the Republican party is in shambles and will need to enter the 21st century if it ever hopes to regain the White House. What fascinates me more is what direction the Democrats will go post Obama. That could be as soon as next year, but I bet it won't.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Smaller Steps

With the passing of Neil Armstrong last week, we were all reminded about the nature of true heroism. Armstrong arguably created one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century as he became the first human to set foot on the moon. Many of the commentators rightly pointed out that it was one of those moments when everyone alive on that July (20th) 1969 day knows exactly where he/she was when history happened. It's probably fair to say that everyone who wanted to se that dramatic moment made every effort to do so. Not quite.
I grew up loving the space program. In my Junior High Homeroom we all listened to Alan Shepherd's first orbit flight. I read books about satellites and knew the difference between the Jupiter C and the Vanguard missiles. Hell, I even took my plastic model of an Atlas missile and tried to launch it with a Co2 cartridge at the local park. I ate, slept and breathed space travel. By high school and college, my interest in science took a back seat to my interest in social science. The civil rights movement had a lot to do with that. Still, I would have watched the moon landing, if I could have. I couldn't. Here's why: July 20, 1969 found me in Houston, Texas the home of NASA. Irony, you bet. I was just completing my training as a VISTA Volunteer and the supervisors of the program made a conscious decision not to have trainees watch the moon landing. Many of us had been involved with the Welfare Rights movement in Houston as part of our training. We had worked with local welfare recipients to help them navigate the maize of rights and potential benefits they were legally entitled to...if they could read. Many could not. In the Houston of 1969 not everybody was enthralled with the moon landing. As the crew of Apollo 11 prepared to land, residents from Houston's 3rd 4th and 6th wards were being arrested in demonstrations designed to protest the amount of federal money allotted to the space program and defense department for it's Vietnam misadventure. The war on poverty was never a clear priority and many of Houston's underclass knew that and wanted to make a statement. VISTA supervisors did not want any of the new volunteers to be arrested. We were encouraged to be invisible anyway, but they thought that there was no margin of error on this day so they packed all 30 of us up in a big bus and gave us a beach party in Freeport, Texas on the Gulf of Mexico. By late afternoon, as we swam in the warm water under dark and darkening clouds, a hurricane warning was issued and we hightailed it back to Houston. We were so hungry when we finally reached a large Italian restaurant back in town. The program sprang for a pasta dinner and we never had much money. I recall most of us ate the butter placed on the table before the bread arrived. Nobody talked about the moon landing. We had seen nothing. We had no TVs. We were on another planet.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Duly Noted

We've probably all done it.  Either directly or as a conduit.  It's been going on for years in most classrooms, if not all.  Part of the fun is that it needs to be clandestine.  There is risk involved.  But information too.  Passing notes.  And now it will most certainly be a thing of the past, another casualty of the new technology.
Recent studies suggest that in class note passing is being replaced by texting.  It's not the same is it?  How could it be?  Certainly the urgency is familiar, and  no doubt the themes, ideas, and gossipy nature.  The look, however is quite different.  Risk, yes, but somehow, in this age of thousands of instant messages daily, an even milder risk.  Unless you factor in that most teachers will confiscate a cell phone...but not for long.  Parental need to be in contact in the era of school lockdowns and shootings will always trump the nuisance factor.
So a tearful goodbye to those juicy notes that students have passed for ages.
In my 33 years in the classroom there certainly were some memorable notes.  Sometimes, I'd find them on the floor while cleaning up after a long day.  All that drama and the receiver hadn't the good sense to even find the waste basket.  Occasionally I'd intercept them.  My policy was to snatch a note mid-pass and rather cooly put in in the back pocket of my pants while suggesting the sender or recipient come back after school to retrieve the precious message.  I got pretty good at it too, never missing a beat if the class was reading aloud or taking a test, or if we were in the middle of a discussion, I could get the job done.
On occasion the notes were never claimed.  Just forgotten.  More than once, while doing laundry I'd find a note and enjoy the contents.  Usually they were a big disappointment.  Noting really earthshaking just some catty remark or a question about the time or date or place of a party or game.  Sometimes there was relationship drama.  That too was ephemeral and seldom had the same meaning or importance 24 hours later.
Of course I did find a few very revealing notes, including the time place and monetary amount for an upcoming drug deal.  Can't recall the outcome there.
Classroom notes did reveal something else that I found quite relevant.  Writing voice.  Kids that struggled trying to conceive an "official" academic sounding voice had no problem showing creativity, vocabulary, and real emotion when they wrote the notes they passed.  That cannot happen with texting for a number of reasons but the two most obvious are that all texting looks the same unlike the color, size, and shape of handwriting and even the paper it's on.  The language is different 2.  See what i mean.
I noticed long ago that students aren't the only ones passing notes in school.  Attend any faculty meeting and you'll see many of the same behaviors by teachers.  Seems like the ones who are the biggest complainers of those behaviors are often the biggest participators in the very same behaviors when they in a meeting.
There are a number of collections of student-passed notes.  Like the rhymes in autograph books and yearbooks they are spicy and revealing, and clever, and poignant.  They are also soon to be a thing of the past.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Going Down Down Down, Down Down

What are the hallmarks of a culture in decline? If we look at historical examples like the last days of the mighty Roman empire we see all manner of amoral/immoral diversions and amusements. If we look at our own, we see TV shows like "Honey Boo Boo." This program explores the daily life and adventures of an obnoxious child, looking more like the spawn of Porky Pig, and her even more ignorant family. The latter was the subject of a recent Today show segment asking a couple of journalist pundits to comment on the appeal of this TLC (The learning Channel) pseudo documentary about the lives of (in their words) a "redneck" family and their daughter, the aforementioned HBB. That these people are idiots becomes translated into "people being themselves." That the parents, one of whom is bordering on morbidly obese, are about the worst models of parenting makes no difference. Right now, it's cheap programing cost that is trumping any form of intellectual curiosity. It works well in an increasingly voyeuristic culture. In fact the recent spate of TV shows giving viewers glimpses into the lives of compulsive hoarders, religious colonies, hog and gator hunters, and all manner of child "beauty pageants," must have lowered our collective IQ, right? Are media executives and their corporate sponsors trying to hasten our decline? Not knowingly. It's just Gatsby's green light shining bigger and brighter than ever. If you show it they will watch. They laugh and text and telephone and slobber on themselves, and the media moguls go to the bank faster and more often than we did last year. At what cost? What Marx called the opiate of the masses is now the religious worship of unreality TV. We prefer the inner lives and workings of alcoholics, the obsessive compulsive, the dysfunctional, and the hyper-materialistic, than the reality of our involvement in Afghanistan, the systemic genocide of a Middle Eastern dictator on his own people, the consequences of climate change, genetically altered food, Wall Street thieves. The real irony, of course, is that much of this repugnant programing occurs on The Learning Channel. Learning what?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sidewalk Noir

I walk past the stately movie theater and read the marquee once again. It's there, in all Capital letters, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, Is this the name of a film, or something necessitated by the construction zone immediately next to the theater's entrance? I've been wondering this for a couple of weeks now. This aging Norma Desmond of a movie palace just might be protecting its patrons. This condo being built right next door to the theater is rife with cement blocks, nails, and all the scraps of metal and wood such a project can provide. The two are just a few feet apart. This condo will literally be backstage. (well, almost) Then again, this warning phrase could just be a film title for the 8:25 showing. Why the marquee? People don't read the marquee standing under it. Safety Not Guaranteed is the story of a disaffected WWII vet new to Los Angeles. He begins his postwar career as a private investigator whose insomnia Takes him over the hilly streets of Hollywood to the fast decaying but barely detectable LAPD. Chinatown Olvera street, City Hall, Griffith Park, Hollywood Bowl, Brown Derby, Santa Claus Lane Parade, UCLA, Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica Pier, Mulholland Drive, and He stalks them all... Like the butter flavoring in the popcorn, Like the wine stained allies, the sidewalk in front of the theater, Safety Not Guaranteed.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

National Geo-graphic

If reality television is, at best unreality, then one program I've recently seen creates a whole new category. It's a distorted view of reality taken to new, angelic heights. (pun intended) American Colony: Meet the Hutterites, presented by the National Geographic Channel must be seen to be believed. It has the look and feel of the National Geographic we all know and love. But that's where any resemblance departs. The attempt here is to showcase the daily life of a Hutterite colony in northern Montana. Like Mennonites and the Amish, the Hutterites have long held a fascination for the rest of us. They live in colonies that manage to stay true to their Protestant/Calvinistic European heritages. They work the land, revere the land, live off the land, and die on the land. They eschew much of what we cal modern technology...or at least they are supposed to. In the voyeuristic world of reality TV there is very little evidence of the Hutterites eschewing anything. The kids drive fast, want I-Pods, violate the dress codes, and swear a blue streak. But then this is a TV show. It's all very entertaining for a few minutes before the realization hits. These programs are not only contrived, they are probably scripted. Some of the episodes resemble the recycled plot lines from Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show. The "acting" is beyond terrible; it's hilarious. "Hey," one of the teenage boys says, "I got an idea. What if we..." and then an evil plot is hatched to tattle on someone, subvert the beef jerky competition, or go deer hunting when they should be doing something else. The Hutterite Dutch/German dialect is very much in evidence. While I'm equally fascinated by this look at the colony life, I can't help thinking this is a real life version of The Katzenjammer Kids. I just dated myself, but as a child I'd read the Sunday funnies out loud to myself and damned if these Hutterites don't sound and act the same. Somewhere out there a program or documentary exists with accurate or realistic images, or at least details of a difficult life without contrived plot lines for a Hutterite colony. This isn't that program, but, if we're lucky, it might give rise to one. The entire experience of relying on National Geographic to give us the quality and depth we've come to expect begs a few crucial questions. There are issues of education, technology, climate change, and deteriorating socio-economic conditions in this society that impact everyone. Given the current state of geographic and economic affairs; given the current moral atrophy, materialistic obsession and lack of political will, we all might benefit from learning how the colony really survives.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Side Tracked

I really didn't want to sit at that table. No choice. I need a plug for my lap top and that was the only one available. It's the designated "Handicapped" table, but everyone I know uses it all the time at my favorite coffee shop. I always figured that if anyone actually needed the table because of their physical disability, I'd vacate it in a heartbeat. So, I'm sitting there cooling down from our first 90 plus degree day and this couple walks in. Well, not exactly. He, morbidly obese, was walking unassisted and she, heavy, but nowhere near his weight was moving with a walker. They both edged toward me and naturally I offered to move. There's the dilemma. Am I moving because I want to, have to, or because I need to? We all agreed there was room for everyone and ended up sharing the table for about half an hour. To say that this pair was right out of Gary Larson's "The Far Side" would be an understatement. But I'm not trying to denigrate them, just trying to capture the accuracy of the scene. Drinking their Cafe Freddos (a mocha milkshake) they shared courteous, casual conversation with me. After a while it became clear to me that they had a lovely co-dependent relationship. I mean that in a positive way. I mean it like there is someone for everyone...maybe. Eventually they decided to make Ben and Jerry's their next stop but not before the male in the equation took out a Bible and started copying a verse from Matthew onto a yellow legal tablet. His handwriting was small and meticulous. I've always managed to attract people who are often the direct opposite of myself. From the squirmy social dance days of Jr. High school to the people who friends thought might be a good match when I was single. (I never knew 20 minutes could be so long) The truth is, if you center yourself during these awfully uncomfortable situations you can really learn a lot about yourself. Today I learned that I should probably stay away from designated tables.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Other Side

July folds into August.  I'm fortunate to be writing this from a cabin on the Metolius River in Central Oregon.  Not only one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but one that seems to remain unchanged, with it's ever flowing water that springs from the side of a mountain.  I've been coming here for almost two decades, but one notable difference this time is the fact that I'm seeing the river and it's  environs from the other side.  I've always seen the water flowing to my right, but now it's on my left side.  Although the remedy is simple (cross over ) it got me thinking about fresh perspectives on things I take for granted.
The other night, while watching a baseball game, one of the announcers mentioned that he'd been thinking about the game of baseball with only one pitch per batter.
"What if they changed the rules," he said, and each at bat was just one pitch."  Intriguing, not to mention the game would certainly speed up.  You miss, you're out.  A ball, you walk.  Foul ball, you're out.  Really intriguing now.
I fear that could happen one day.  After all, the case for faster, quicker, non-stop everything is already being made.  From trains to cars to internet service...why not baseball?
But what's lost?  Watching a game of baseball, like fishing the Metolius River is never the same.  Something you've never seen before can happen any time.

Monday, July 23, 2012


"It's like flood control in L.A." That's the first thing that came to mind. The expression describes something that everybody gets excited about but then soon forgets. Growing up in the L.A. area, I recall being sent home from school because of flooding from intense rainfall. There would be prolific public outcry about improving the drainage system...and then the sun would come out and with each day the issue would seemingly lose its importance.  Finally it would evaporate.
Gun control...effective gun control, never loses its importance.  But this isn't about gun control.  If any issue has ever had its day in court, this is the one.  There simply is no political will to change what passes for defense of the 2nd Amendment.  Still, the pundits discuss the issues.  They say things like who needs an assault rifle?  Deer don't wear bullet-proof vests.  They say things like we need safeguards like background checks on people who feel the need to order and own 6000 rounds of ammunition for their personal use.  Why does a person need four guns?
In the wake of the Aurora, Colorado theater massacre, we'll hear the outcry all day and all night.  We'll hear the experts and the illiterate alike.  The presidential candidates will skate around the center of the issue but in the end will be too afraid to really say anything meaningful.  Like others, they will focus on the victims, the difficulty in comprehending and putting a life back together.  The Congress will watch from afar.
There may even be some who want to examine the impact of violence in this culture, especially as it relates to media images, video games, the current wars we fight, and what passes for entertainment in the second decade of a still developing century.
On one of the entertainment news programs the other night, a media psychologist said that she didn't "think that Hollywood plays any role in this." (the shootings)  Really?  Nothing?  Wonder what and who is behind the fee paid for uttering that comment.  Certainly no producer has a horrific event in mind when they reinforce the violence rampant in "action films."  But no role in this?  Does that include the red-orange hair that perpetrator James Holmes carefully crafted to appear like a Batman character.  Granted, if a mentally unstable person identifies so completely with a fictional character, we can't blame the author, the film director.  It's nothing new.  Look at John Lennon's murderer, Mark David Chapman, who tried to live the life of Holden Caulfield.  There are other examples, equally as chilling.
Yet, would it be so difficult to look at the big picture?  Would a sane society take the initiative and attempt to protect it's citizenry from those who can't quite distinguish between reality and fantasy?
This morning, when young Mr. Holmes was brought into the courtroom to hear and respond to the charges brought against him, he sat there alternately closing his eyes, furrowing his brow, seemingly disconnected, and then abruptly appearing to regain consciousness.  Probably didn't sleep too well the last couple of nights.  Brian Williams of NBC news commented on the range of emotions that seemed to flash across his silent countenance.  Fear, disbelief, grief, some recognition of presence, indifference, and perhaps boredom.  Yet, when I turned on NPR news a few minutes later I heard that he "sat there emotionless."
It's complicated...and it isn't.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Talkin' Dustbowl Blues for Today

The comparisons have begun. This summer's drought is definitely the worst since 1956 but some folks are comparing it to the Dust Bowl. The news media is filled with reporters holding up pieces of shriveled corn. Cameras pan over dried caked lake bottoms. And well they should. The similarities are fairly accurate. With unemployment, corrupt bankers, Wall Street in chaos, and now the weather, it's easy to say, "we've been here before." But let's not get lost in these striking comparisons because things are not the same. True we could use a few federal programs to put people back to work and begin to repair our crumbling infrastructure, but there are glaring differences as well. The Middle Class is evaporating as fast as the water in south central Texas. The price of a college education has at least quadrupled in the last few decades. Technology has connected more people, but it has also separated them in new ways. What does it really mean to day someone is your "Friend" these days? How can a public school education be experiences while online? All this and it's an election year. Some years ago, while teaching The Grapes of Wrath I had a most exceptional class. It had been an eventful year in many ways, and these kids didn't need to do another literary analysis essay. I decided to challenge them (and myself) in a new and frightening way. We wrote a parallel novel to Steinbeck's classic. That is, we took a family, not unlike the Joads but facing the social issues of the day, and had them migrate from one part of the country to the next. It was both frustrating and rewarding, but in the end some valuable comparisons were made and in emulating and modeling Steinbeck, we were able to appreciate his masterpiece in a most original way. I think this is a year that could easily lend itself to the same kind of activity in a Junior English class. What would the great issues of social justice be for the year 2013? Of course, I'd begin with Woody Guthrie's "Talkin Dustbow Blues." It's haunting to hear it now, so give a listen. I'm sure kids today could write some new verses. Woody would definitely love that.