Sunday, January 29, 2012

Respect Yourself

George Reedy was a former press secretary and political writer who served under Lyndon Johnson. Probably more intellectual than most Presidential Press Secretaries, and sometimes thought of as a Johnson whipping boy, Reedy was nevertheless a keen observer of the White House and the institution of the Presidency.

In writing about the bitterly fought 1964 campaign between Johnson and Barry Goldwater, Reedy noted how the respect for the office of the Presidency was quickly restored after the heat of the campaign ended with the final results. You might recall that Johnson was running for his first elected term after finishing out JFK's term. This was the campaign that featured the infamous "Daisy" political add where a child's game of "loves me, loves me not" was superimposed over an exploding mushroom cloud. In the end, despite the taunts, insults, and fear mongering, Johnson won a landslide victory.
George Reedy once noted that the day after the election, when the President met with Congressional leaders, Goldwater, then Senator from Arizona, was there beaming with the rest of them. It was Mr. President this and Mr. President that. he concluded that despite the bitter campaign, the respect for the office of the President was intact. That the leaders in Congress, especially those in the losing opposition party, never lost respect for the President.
My how things have changed. As the nation debates the recent finger in the face of President Obama by the Governor of Arizona, we might do well to pause and ask where that respect for the office has gone. I'm not really all that surprised, are you? Culturally, we are more polarized than ever and many of the once taboo restrictions on language in thought and action are gone. I've real all manner of reactions to the finger pointing incident and I must say the best appears here:
Yes, we have lost a good deal of civility. That fact stands in line with the overall malaise that sensitivity and appropriate behavior are slogging through right now. Listen to me, I sound like Ms. Manners here, but some things are painfully obvious.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Return to Sender

It's such a simple phenomena. Been around since dirt. But it's oh so true. It has lots of names, some fancy, some academic, some right to the point. Let's see, predictable, indicators, and past performance all fit into the equation. Dr. Phil, in all his prime time glory is fond of saying, "We teach people how to treat us." Certainly do.
The great historian Mircea Eliade called it "The Myth of the Eternal Return." AKA...what goes around comes back. Native Americans built much of their culture on the cyclical nature of all experience. Four seasons, four directions, four quarters or quadrants. The Daily Racing Form and it's advocates swear by knowledge of the past. If it happened once, chances are it will happen again. It's true, often the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior.
I can't leave out police detectives from this discussion. For every one of those, "Gee, he or she was the last person I'd ever suspect of having a double life. Always so nice, never seemed to argue with family members, kept the house neat and tidy, I'm dumbfounded" statements you hear on the nightly news, there is a past history just waiting to glint in the sunlight.
If we apply this principle to the current political scene it explains much. Why wonder about the current use of unethical or racist sentiment when it's all laid out if one would only look over the shoulder and into the past. There is a very good likelihood that similar sentiments are just waiting to be re-discovered.
But people forget. They choose to forget, and when they avail themselves of denial in the process, they can have it their way every time.
I see this in my work as a teacher and now as a teacher of teachers. People lug their satchel of old worn out excuses and projections along for the ride. They re-run the narrative. I remember being on the brink of a new relationship once and having to listen to a phone conversation between my new interest and someone she was trying to let down easy. Even though I was hearing the words I longed to hear, it was most uncomfortable. I was old enough to know that the dialogue, the reasoning would probably apply to me some day. While not always exactly the same, the future is more often than not dictated by the past.
So what's the message? Don't ignore the past...absolutely, but more than that, learn it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Recently, I was given the opportunity to make a small poster about my life as a teacher. As a fan of the medium of collage, I had no trouble deciding which way to go. Then the entire world of computer software opened up to me and I found myself fascinated with how easy it is to throw down a melange of meaningful images. See what I mean:

I'm still playing with all the possibilities of this software, but it appears it is well worth the expense. I'm supposed to sell myself, as it were, to a group of beginning teachers by making this poster so they can learn a bit about my academic and social self. Perhaps I should say selves. In doing this, it occurred to me that I can easily make a lesson out of this inquiry lesson. What questions will the viewers ask? What will be assumed correctly and incorrectly from the images I've chosen?
If I were to replace each image here with a half a dozen other images, what conclusions might be drawn. Lastly, how difficult is it to accurately say something about yourself in a photo collage. For those reading this entry, any responses to these any any other questions would be appreciated.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Still Waiting

It is the Fall of 1964 and I am walking to my local shopping center deep in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. I'm a high school junior and I have 75cents in my pocket to finally purchase a paperback book that resides on a small revolving book rack near the front of the drug store that sells everything from make-up to first aid supplies, kitchen items to magazines and books. It takes me 2o minutes to walk home and I can't keep the book in brown paper bag because there is a center-set of black and white photos that comes with this edition. The Book is Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King. I want to read his thoughts on the Civil Right Movement as it is happening. Earlier in the year I did a paper for my American History class that changed my life. I'd heard on the evening news that voter education and registration was an important issue. In trying to find a topic I came across a Newsweek magazine with a small article on literacy tests still being used in Southern states. When I read the question "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" I felt the pain in a new way. Coupled with events like the murder of 3 civil rights workers, I felt my perceptions of my beloved country slipping away. I needed to read what wasn't in any textbook I carried. I needed to learn a wider, deeper context that my environment couldn't provide. I've often wondered how that book got to the rack with other pulp fiction and sci-fi and true romances.
It's 1968 and I've been in my poetry seminar for three hours. The sun is setting over the UCLA campus as I walk down the hills that separate the older buildings from the student union and athletic fields. Only a few people are walking the paths to and from the libraries and lecture halls. When I begin the walk up the narrow road toward the parking lots near the dorms I notice a car careening up and down those narrow streets. Occasionally it stops and the windows roll down and the people inside speak to somebody walking along. When the car stops at a stop sign near me I notice that everyone inside is African-American. "What's going on?" I ask.
A woman with large natural tells me that Martin Luther King has been shot and killed in Memphis Tennessee. It is 3 days before my 21st birthday.

This year, 2012, the MLK holiday seems all about "spectacular sales" and three day weekends. The ad for Sears seems blind and deaf. Like everything else in this culture the celebration of the birth of one of the last great orators and leaders has become quantified by slashed prices and limited time only propositions. In so many ways, we're still waiting.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Our Kind of Town

The second season of Portlandia has arrived. Too bad the IFC (International Film Channel) is carried by so few cable or satellite companies that the world can't share a good laugh every week about the contradictory nature of this special place called Portland, Oregon. But wait...this just in. There are at least three Portlands that I know of and possibly more.
Most of the country sees the politically correct, greener than green, foody food cart capital of the world. And it's there all right in all it's wonderful, paradoxical, deliciousness. But its only a small part of the real city on the Willamette River. There are four quadrants of the city Northwest Northeast, Southwest and Southeast, as well as NoPo (north Portland). The river divides more than just these sections, it functions the way railroad tracks often do in other cities. The demographics and socioeconomic realities of these areas are similar to any city in any state. The wealthy live near and in the foothills, the working class lives in the flatlands, and the poorest of the poor live, most often in areas of pollution or industrial decay. Throw in a bit of redevelopment or "gentrification" and you've got it covered.
So while the outside world laughs and imagines what it might be like to relocate to Portland, very little of the other city reaches their media. Case in point, we've had about half a dozen violent incidents on public transportation in the last two weeks. There are some very angry folks out there if yo happen to not hear what they are saying to you, or, as in one case, you suggest they pay their bus fare instead of trying to get over with an expired bus transfer. Many of these attacks are 3 on 1 or adult on minor, or minor on adult. Sure some are the result of the continuing Meth epidemic in the Northwest, but I suspect that a good deal more involve the economic state of the country. Are they racially charged? Afraid so. Hard to be specific, but both the media and the legal system are being very careful right now. Either way, it's a boiling pot that won't make any episode of Portlandia or Grimm or any other regularly filmed TV series or movie made in Stumptown.
Similarly, this is the week that the news of American Marines in Afghanistan defiling the bodies of their enemy by urinating on them and then having that tape show up on You Tube. In fact many of these incidents end up there, at least for a short time. Bitter pill to swallow. But something is happening hear and while it isn't exactly clear, it does make it much more difficult to laugh at yourself.

Monday, January 9, 2012

There Was a Time

I've been thinking about our lives "BC" and "AD." Oh, not that use of these letters. I'm referring to Before Computers and After Deluge. Like many people, I probably spend too much time online. That's because much of the work I do supervising student teachers or participating in an active, rigorous, writing group demands it. If you add in a little Facebook, checking sports scores or streaming events I can't get get the picture. But that's not to say it has consumed my life. On the contrary, I just learned that since my retirement from full-time teaching, I've read 40 books. That averages to about 8 a year, or one every few weeks. Some were quick 175-250 page novels, but others were longer works of fiction in the 600 pg. league. Some were memoirs, history, biography, autobiography and of course, all manner of fly fishing literature from articles to fly tying recipes to books of maps, and collections of Pacific Northwest rivers and lakes by state.
I find time to write too. This blog is my exercise so that I don't get lazy. But aside from working out ideas or venting about something currently on my mind here, I occasionally use it to preserve a poem or character sketch or story starter I've scratched somewhere.
But there has been a deluge of online opportunities. Before computers, it was rather difficult to do the kind of research that Google enables us to do so easily. Even our first drafts come out looking more presentable than they used to. But that's a two way street because there is a lot of garbage in that deluge as well. Good looking garbage is still garbage.
AD allows me to stay in touch with former students mostly through Facebook. Just this past week I was able to participate in discussions about Teach For America, the ideas of Erich Fromm, and The Catcher in the Rye. Of course I'm overjoyed that young people who were in my English and Psych classes in high school still choose to ask me questions, wonder about my opinions, remind me about things I said years ago, and take the time to validate some of the many questions I still have about what and how I taught. Most of them are college graduates now and see the world a little differently. Still, they have a new appreciation for those years, those limitations, and those conditions.
I have ongoing "friendships" with students who will probably never go to college, much less graduate. Some in the military, some working two or three entry level jobs, some still at home. With all, there remains the recognition that we all were part of a wider community at a crucial time in our lives. That's important to me and keeps part of my identity alive. To most of them I will forever be "Mr. Greene." A few have made the transition with me and are comfortable to be on a first name basis. I don't require or even ask for either.
Can't help but wonder though, if not for this little keyboard and screen I visit daily, would we just remain a dim memory? What's lost and gained there?
Sometimes I want to go back to writing in journals or notebooks, writing letters, and just wondering what ever happened to (insert name here)? When I see beginning teachers take two minutes and download a film or historical video from You Tube, I can't help thinking about how much effort, time, and money it took to do that BC. But like everything else that is changing so quickly before our eyes and minds, I know it's an irrelevant question. So I have chosen to enjoy the possibilities and keep connected.

Monday, January 2, 2012

In The Zone

This is the time of list making. Resolutions, changes, best films, restaurants, underrated athletes, politicians, top tens of all sorts. In that mix comes some fascinating information about books and the American psyche.
Recently the New York Times included the top bestseller in non-fiction over the last 35 years.
Seems as if 35 years ago the list was topped by Alex Haley's Roots. This year it was Steve Jobs. But what falls in between really says something. A year ago G.W. Bush held the spot with his version of events called Decision Points. The previous year was Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. 5 years ago saw Obama's Audacity of Hope #1. In 2002, 10 years ago, it was Bill O'Reilly's No Spin Zone. You see where this is going. If we look at 15 years back we find A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite. 20 years ago Me: Stories of My Life by Kathryn Hepburn held the spot. 25 years ago it was Bill Cosby's Fatherhood and 30 years down the road it was Shel Silverstein's A light in the Attic. That will bring us back to Roots. My question: Is there a statement about our culture here? Please fill in the blank________________________.
Another list of books has caught my eye this time of year too. It comes from the American Library Association. Using some data collected over the last couple of years, the ALA has released what it calls the most frequently challenged books. Not banned books, mind you, but books that some folks would love to see banned. So they challenge.
The list, which appears below, also makes an intriguing cultural commentary.

The ALA's top 10 most frequently challenged books of 2010-11

1. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

Reasons: Homosexuality, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group

2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence

3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Reasons: Insensitivity, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit

4. Crank by Ellen Hopkins

Reasons: Drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit

5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence

6. Lush by Natasha Friend

Reasons: Drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

7. What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones

Reasons: Sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

8. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Reasons: Drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint

9. Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology edited by Amy Sonnie

Reasons: Homosexuality, sexually explicit

10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Reasons: Religious viewpoint, violence

I would expect to see some of these titles, but what I find even more fascinating is the inclusion of Huxley's Brave New World. Perhaps the reason is that it is still read in schools. That could threaten some but one has only to look at some of the current TV programming in prime time to see things far more explicit. Must be something else. I love the work "insensitivity" here. I'm going to think about that a little more.
A final note: In the past few days I caught a bit of the "Twilight Zone" marathon presented by the Sy Fy Channel on holidays. To watch these original episodes again and again is equal parts nostalgia, entertainment, and curiosity about how they stand the test of time. Of course, some do not. Advancements in make-up and special effects put them to shame. But when you consider the thematic content, they do quite well. People are often trapped in an existential dilemma with no escape. No Exit, as Sartre called it. They are often Waiting for Godot, as Beckett said. There are many episodes of braver, newer worlds as they were conceived in the early 1960s. And you know what? The same issues of personal identity, personal appearance, the same ethical dilemmas with technology, with intolerance, with materialism shine through in black and white. Wonder if any of those shows will be challenged?