Monday, February 27, 2012

Two Choices

Like millions of others, I watched the 84th Academy Awards last night. For the first time since I can remember, I watched it by myself. Just the way circumstances played out this year. In a way, it was advantageous to be without the hoopla of any party or the confusion and bantering of the fashion police. Quite civilized, I might add. But even though I marked my ballot and kept score, I was really keeping score of something else besides the Oscar winners.
This year I began by counting some of the adjectives used to describe the experience. This wasn't a random game of some former English teacher. Not quite. What I was interested in was which of the three words most people use to describe something they deem out of the ordinary was used most. Thee was a clear winner: "amazing." I would have had money on that one if possible. "Incredible" was a distant second. Bringing up the rear was a smattering of "wonderfuls" and "unbelieveables." What was completely lacking was the use of the word awesome. Maybe that's the good news in all this. Maybe Awesome is on the way out. Or at least relegated to the younger crowd.

So what's my motivation? What does this mean, if anything? Quite simply, everything has become amazing. And when it's beyond amazing, then it's become surreal. Our use of language is deteriorating. If everything is amazing, then nothing is amazing, is it?
It's not like we weren't warned. I recall reading something 20 years ago about the amount of words lost to the average vocabulary since the advent of television. Something like 14,000 since the early 1950s. Coupled with the fact that half the population doesn't read a book a year...well, that's amazing.

Another quick observation from this year's Oscars concerns The Help. I read the book, I saw the movie, I get the controversy. Still, I can see both sides. However, Hattie McDaniel's memorable speech after winning the Oscar for Gone With The Wind echoed in another way. McDaniel said to critics back in 1939, "The Way I see it, I got two choices, I can work in Hollywood as a maid for $5.00 a week or I can work in Hollywood as a maid in the movies for $500.00 a week." Octavia Spencer's win for best supporting actress was most deserving. Still, Hattie McDaniel's words took on new relevance. One thing is for certain, though. It's gone from $500 to $500,000. a week. Not too shabby. But then that's not the point, is it?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Wandering Wolf Part II

We've been here longer. We predate your written records. You with the guns and money. You who build fences and slaughter for other reasons. We predate you.
Our math was the arithmatic of necessity. Take away only what yo need. Add to the sum total of all things in harmony. Know why you multiply. Divide when it is time. Your fearful army is saying we kill their cattle. Hardly. We take elk first. Cattle only if we must. The numbers are truth tellers. More cattle die from natural causes. Or coyotes, or weather, climate and conditions. They die from lightning or drought, flood and fire. We take a few only when survival is at stake. Thousands die each year never having been close to one of our number.
The places you call Montana and Idaho are the worst. Pompous, self-appointed leaders blaspheme our heritage, those who support our right to that heritage,and anyone who would embrace a tree. We embrace trees too.

The money handlers with lightning sticks will not survive. Their time here does not sustain. It destroys. Their time here is brief. We've seen sun and rain. Hail and heat. Snow and sand for ages. Only what contributes to balance will survive.
So I move. 700 miles and counting. I'm here now in a quiet valley. Looking, sniffing, plotting my course. Tomorrow another river to cross. But I can follow the bank, skipping over boulders, wading side eddies until just the right log jam makes my crossing possible.
They think I'm looking for their sheep, their newborn calf. A white rabbit, a chicken in a wire box. I prefer elk. But my eyes seek only one thing. She will make me whole. She will aid my survival. She thinks too of the day we will reunite. My mate is my only motivation now. For her, I eat snow, spawned out salmon, wild grass, road kill. I kill if I must; it's the way of my ancestors too. But this is not a sport for me. I require no license. I do not want to be near you. I truly hope we can co-exist. But know this, I have every intention of surviving.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wandering Wolf

Here's an excerpt from a piece I started during a workshop with Heidi Durrow the author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. Heidi was the guest presenter at the annual Oregon Writing Project Renewal Day this year. We were working with character and looking at how certain elements can develop character. We also applies various descriptors of our own personality to the characters.
Since I've been fascinated by the ongoing story of OR-7 the tagged wolf who has made his way over 700 miles from Eastern Oregon to Northern California. The researchers think he's looking for a mate. The ranchers thinking he is after their cattle.

By late afternoon, I was well beyond the little valley. Beneath the deep green and rust of this new landscape, my charcoal coat appeared ashen. It worked. There had been a burn that scarred the hillside for at least 10 miles. I fit in here and decided to spend the night in relative safety.
The change in landscape held my thoughts until the last light slipped behind the timber line. I licked my paws, my tongue sliding over two scars that told the story of an encounter with a trap that misfired and left a deep cut, but failed to immobilize me. Perhaps that's what affected my ability to hunt for food in the same way. I seem now to rely more on what I find rather than initiate a kill. Am I growing soft? Is it true that there is more t sustain me out there? I may have to return to my ancestor's ways.
What I couldn't tell anyone was- I'm driven by a force stronger than hunger.
It's a different kind of pleasure. Not sexual. Something that is not fleeting at best. Something deeper, lifelong. My need to belong; to be with my mate; to define myself by those around me and ultimately the strong instinctual desire to pass on what I know to my children-my family. Without her I can do none of these things. I will keep moving until we unite.
This water that falls from the sky hits hard. Never felt it that way before. It wets my coat, and stings. Sometimes little nuggets of ice fall with it. Still I move. It comes and goes like the changing landscape.
Now there are no large trees. The ground is red. Wet clay...mud. It changes my appearance. For the first time in many days I feel fear. I feel vulnerable. Keep moving until I can blend in. Bed down somewhere.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Racing Now

A good political battle for the nomination is often referred to as a horse race. "We've got an old fashion horse race here," the pundits often say. Fair enough. Some of these contests are hard fought, neck and neck, with one candidate eking out a win. It would never surprise me if a photo finish was ever required to separate the winner from the rest of the pack. Not sure how that would go, but after "hanging chads" and all manner of recounts, it just seems plausible. So why not apply a few of the necessities of a good old fashion horse race to this year's Republican contest. Let's start with the way horse racing announcers speak.
Believe it or not, some of the more widely know horse racing announcers are flat out among the best entertainers out there. I'm not referring to Oaklawn Park's Frank Mirahmadi and the way he calls a race imitating everyone from Rodney Dangerfield to his fellow colleagues. Frank is great and certainly entertaining, but I'm thinking of certain words and phrases and how they might be applied to the current bizarre sideshow that is currently masking as the Republican primary in many states.
Trevor Denman of Santa Anita Racecourse is a classy guy. The native South African brings a certain elegance to his calls mostly evident in his accent. But Trevor is noted for specific phrases that raise his game. When a horse has a race all but wrapped up and there is nobody in a position to catch him, Trevor might haul out the ever popular, "They would have to sprout wings to catch him." Currently, no wing sprouting is necessary, but by the time most primaries are over, a good pair of wings might be needed by whomever is in second place. Other phrases past and present abound. Just imagine what a good political commentator could do with "Here they come spinning out of the turn" or "And down the stretch they come." Michael Wrona, a popular Aussie announcer now working at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, is not only loaded with special phrases, but he can be downright surprising at times. He's full of poetry too when the situation demands. If a horse has an unfortunate accident or spill, Wrona will call the name and then tell his audience that he's "come to grief." If he says that, and fortunately it's rare, you know it's serious. One time Wrona was calling a race in which an older mare, a real crowd favorite, was in the middle of a formidable win streak. I can't recall her name, but I'll never forget the race. Just when it looked like she was hopelessly beaten, the 9 year old found another gear and swallowed up the field with an impressive move to win going away. Wrona's call was unforgettable. "And here she comes, collaring the leaders now, what an incredible performance, she's nearly old enough to vote!"
In the end, there is only one call I want to hear. Ironically it's the one that Trevor Denman says when the starting gate opens, not anything said during the call of the race. It's how I feel about the entire crop of politicos..."And away they go."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Best and Brightest

I spent half the day at a middle school in SE Portland yesterday. That should be required for anybody elected to public office. It should be required for anybody who would write anything about education reform. It should be required for all taxpayers, especially those with no children and those who will never have children.
This is what I saw. I went to observe a beginning teacher whose mentor I have become. I saw her energy and her patience. I saw her overcrowded classes. Imaging being the only one in the room with 35 6 and 7th graders. They move and dart at such a pace that one pair of eyes can't even begin to keep up. They clap their hands, they are eager...for most anything. (That is good) They push and shove each other. They chew gum when they shouldn't. They pull hoodies over their heads when they shouldn't. They sneak food. (all students do this) They need to go to the bathroom, need to get a drink of water, need to express every thought, every sudden nuance, every whim and every constantly changing mood.
This was the first real diverse classroom in Portland I've seen. These kids were Brown. They were Asian and Latino. They were African-American and Native American. They were maybe 20% white. Did I mention that they were eager.
My mentee is a drama teacher. She's been hired to not only teach drama to 6-9th graders, but also to initiate the first drama program at her school. Even with so much of it in their lives, these kids are not clear on the concept. But they have a warehouse of natural ability. So I shall do my best to provide insight and guidance for this budding teacher-hero. Perhaps I will even do a little one on one with a few of her students. Maybe a special ed. student or an English language learner. Maybe a student with a pronounced learning disability or one diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Even a small group of kids who don't get enough attention because she's busy dealing with all the others who drain her finite energy and resources.
I will give her my best because she is giving them hers.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Hanging Koan

Most people don't notice them. Probably because they never look above themselves all that often. But they are everywhere and have been for decades. You see them in urban ghettos and suburban sprawl. They are on desserted phone wires and near mountaintops. Tennis shoes, sneakers, gym shoes...hanging on phone wires, on streetlight wires, on traffic light wires...twisting in the wind or shining down at night. They are evident.
Urban folklore abounds. They supposedly have been used to mark territory. Gang turf, drug dealer's turf, the spot marked. But the evidence just isn't there because sneakers hang overhead in all sorts of neighborhoods. They hang where no gangs exist, where no dope is sold, where you'd least expect them to be. Wonder how long it would take you to find a pair in your neighborhood?
Some say it's a different kind of ritual. The purveyors of urban legend say they function as rites of passage. First sexual experience, all manner of initiation or even the end of a school year. Tossing a well-used pair of gym shoes does make sense, but then the pair of white tennis shoes I see hanging over the intersection of Hawthorne and SE 37th street in Portland began their tenure in fairly new condition. Maybe some disgruntled kid whose mom bought the wrong logo vented and tossed them up and over for all to recognize his rage. Not really.
I view them as a sort of Zen Koan. Something that you keep turning over in your mind, working thorough your brain. Something that (and here comes a favorite phrase of mine) you finger the jagged grain of until one day, meaning appears, at least for the moment.
This pair of white sneakers I have seen hanging for a couple of years has gone through a range of temperatures from 103 to 23. Still it hangs. It's survived rain, freezing rain, snow, hail, wind and heat. Still the shoe laces hold. Washed and bleached, this white beacon is trying to tell us something about living this life. I've got a few ideas but I'm still refining them. I figure I've got a while to let them crystalize in my head because those shoes aren't going anywhere for awhile.