Monday, April 30, 2012

I'll Be Everywhere

     One of the reasons I live in Portland, Oregon is that this city has excellent book stores.  Just spending an hour in a bookstore is something I hope I'll be able to do for the duration.  In our stellar bookstore, Powell's, there are always good bargains, lots of used books along with the latest offerings, all kinds of journals, magazines, book lights, and one of my favorite features: Staff Recommendations.  I love to see what the employees there are reading and the books they deem worthy of recognition.  I trust them.
Powell's has readings by authors, a cafe, a knowledgeable staff, and thousands and thousands of ways to kill an hour or two.  For those most patient, the rewards can be huge.  $30. books reduced to $7.95 if you have a year or two to spare.
     Like newspapers, I know that book stores are on their way out.  Just this morning I heard that Barnes and Noble and Microsoft signed a deal to produce E-textbooks.  Immediately I thought of that stretch on Bancroft Way across from UC Berkeley with all the used textbook stores.  I'm sure one day soon they'll all be gone.  Until that day, like many people, I'll enjoy just wandering around a bookstore.

     The real highlight of today's wandering came when I found a book with a very provocative title.  It was a rather thick little rectangle of a book that dealt with the most important books in American literature and the characters and events they encompass.  Many of the titles chosen were predictable.  Of course Jay Gatsby makes the characters list.  Glancing through the fine print of the index just to get a feel for the contents, I noticed The Grapes of Wrath listed on a couple of pages.  I read the entry.  The author mentioned that this Steinbeck classic was a significant event in the literary history of this country because it recognized the plight of the disaffected migrants during the Great Depression, and also raised questions about deep American values like land, materialism, social justice, and equality.  The author went on to explain that many of the issues/conflicts in the novel are with us today as a disaffected 99% rails against the 1% that is growing wealthier and more alienated every day.  For a minute there I was reminded of a little speech I gave to an 11th grade class urging them to read this novel.  The context involved a choice that had to be made close to the end of the school year.  The class had been with a student teacher who did a fine job, but was still adjusting to the pacing required to keep things moving.  We knew the kids in the class would have to put in extra time to complete the reading in a timely manner, so I gave them a choice of reading Grapes, or another Steinbeck novel, In Dubious Battle, written around the same time.  Now some kids read both, most read one, and a few, as always read most or part of one.  But that day, as I tried to convince them that Grapes was one of the most important books of the last century and would perhaps serve them well as they entered college the following year,
I was a bit more animated than usual.  A doctoral candidate from UC was in the room observing that day and I guess I must have been in fine form.  Months later when I read the dissertation, my comments to the class were referenced and I was taken down a few pegs about the importance I placed on a book that the researcher, "hadn't read until this year."  She couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about, why was this book so special.  She, like many thought it was depressing.
Today when I read the entry for The Grapes of Wrath in this anthology of most significant books I felt a bit of vindication.  The fact that so many of the issues are still with us didn't feel quite so good. But I'm glad I delivered my thoughts from the heart.  In the end, it's what most students will remember.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Head Waters

We snuck off to the Metolius River for a couple of days this week. This magical place, with all its contradictions, yields its secrets slowly. It's been 15 years now since I first set eyes on what must be one of the most pristine rivers anywhere. This year we got a chance to show it to my brother-in-law, John. Like me, he likes to fly fish, hike, and just sit by the water and watch the stress melt away. John is a constant photographer so there will always be pictures wherever he goes. One afternoon he and I decided to travel up an unmarked road between two of the public campgrounds along the river. Following it to the end and careful not to trod on private property, we ended up seeing a portion of the river that most never do. It split into two streams at one point as a side channel meandered in a D shape before rejoining the main body. This time of year the water was at its highest and moving rather rapidly. The fishing wasn't too hot, but John managed one redside (a strain of rainbow trout) at least that's what he said. My luck there usually comes later in the year in the smaller headwaters. I did see an osprey who decided not to fish that afternoon. This river has essentially remained the same for the last two decades. Strict management for wild fish only and very precise building codes keep it that way. There are, of curse, a number of privately owned homes and lodges in strategically beautiful spots. That begs the question, who owns a river? I know what the law says about the water line and the middle of the river being open to the public...but really, must some people put barbed wire across the stream? Apparently so in one spot. The Metolius continues to be a real conundrum. I like it that way. A river that beautiful doesn't have to open up to people if it doesn't want to. My hope now is that I can continue to visit year after year. Every adventure there is different. Every fishing experience is filled with surprises and puzzles. The evenings, with or without a fire in the fireplace are restful and renewing. The Fall is my favorite time there. Maybe October.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Not Yet

How's this for irony. I'm writing a piece on my development as a fly fisher. It's taken me about 15 years to go up the learning curve in this very precise sport. Sometimes I think that the finesse involved in placing a micro mini piece of feather and thread on a tiny hook in exactly the right place in a fast moving body of water is the exact opposite of any skill I could ever master. No so. I've made progress. So here I am writing this piece about how I realize that whenever I'm particularly patient, good things happen. Some of the most memorable experiences (and fish too) have resulted from letting go of the impatience that often smothers me. Cut to the finish line: I end up deleting my draft in a rush of impatience that saw me empty my digital trash after mistakenly putting in the file I was working on. First time for everything. But then what's the message? Rewrite. I did. All 3000 words. Starting from memory, I made an outline, but it only took a couple of paragraphs before I realized that the second draft would be quite different. Not saying which one was better. Just different. Much of the same content, but the structure of the telling changed. New material leaked out of my head and onto the page. It'll be all right in the end, but I can't help thinking that there is more to this experience than I now realize. The remainder of last week was just as strange. A number of unexpected circumstances reared up. Case in point. I had a simple form to file with the public employees system. In rounding up some of the documentation, I found out that I needed to get more documentation to obtain the original request. Just so happened the only available appointment open was on the morning I's booked a cabin by my favorite river. OK reschedule for another week later on. Downward spiral. All further whining ends here. These things are annoying but hardly comparable to anything that matters. On second thought, an unwanted "delete" now and then helps to put larger issues into perspective in a hurry.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


There is a line or two from the play Inherit the Wind that's been rattling around in my head for the last few days. This play, you might recall, features the classic battle between the lawyers Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady. In reality, of course, it is the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" and the lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan that set the tone and backdrop for the play. Aside from the fact that this intellectual battle still rages between the scientific community and the religious right, this play contains additional gems of wisdom on all manner of topics. So I recalled this line about the price of progress. In an age when everything from the book and the telephone have been reconfigured, I still wonder about what is progressive and what might be regressive. I realize that it's futile to think or even wish that some things would remain the same. But there is a good deal of comfort in wondering about what is lost and what is gained. So, here's the quote:

"Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it."

Henry Drummond: Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, "All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline."
What I want to question here is the definition of progress. By that I mean, what happens when some things change for the worst. I'm not thinking about technology here, What about a simple thing like a baseball cap.
Our national pastime has evolved to the state where we can no longer expect our favorite players to remain with the same team for long. Back in the day, a player played for one or two teams in his career. Babe Ruth was a Yankee (I know all about his Bosox beginning) Roberto Clemente was a Pirate, Willie Mays a Giant, Jackie Robinson a Dodger...
Since I support free agency, I know we can't do much about where a player's contract ends up, but what I want to question is the de-regulation of colors.

Have you ever seen a red Giants or Yankee hat? What's up with that? Again, I have no problem with pink uniforms or hats for Breast Cancer Awareness, I'm talking about all this baseball clothing out there in random colors. Apparently any cap is available in any color. What happened to the sanctity of each franchise having its own colors? These teams have a long history, with a faithful fan base and a heritage passed down from one generation to another. Don't mess with that, because when that goes so does so much more. It's bad enough that inauthenticity has entered the worlds of music, fashion, literature. Keep baseball attached to its roots. As Malcolm X liked to point out, "a people with no history is like a tree without roots...attached to nothing" We're been uncoupled from our culture bit by bit, I fear. Definitely not progress.

Monday, April 9, 2012


One of the biggest trade offs that has become a casualty in all the recent attempts at school reform is creativity for literacy. In some ways they might be considered the same thing, but in light of the corporate crusade against public education, they most assuredly are not. Pablo Picasso once said that all children are born artists, and that the problem is to remain one as we grow older. I've seen this many times in many ways. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's the chief reason I went into teacher education: to give permission to hold onto creativity in curriculum.
For any educator, the opposite of creativity is de-skilling. That, perhaps, is the most odious thing hiding behind all the well-intended politicians and non-educator corporate types. It's about control. When creativity is reinforced and encouraged the air of oppression lifts. With that comes all the intrigue, all the enjoyment, all the fun, and all the realization that you are beginning to do what you hoped you'd be able to do. Project-based curriculum, which is often the first creative ting to go, lets students think deeply, work through conflicts and contradictions, make decisions, and learn about the consequences of the choices they made. What e preparation for the future is there? Certainly not measurable bits of information.
I still marvel at the use of the term creative writing. All writing is creative writing, isn't it? In a wonderful, if not dense essay, Cynthia Ozick states the case for the poor misaligned essay. Her "Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body" gives the essay its due. And how did we get to such a place? I'd venture a guess. All the emphasis on quantifying human learning. All the evaluation...over evaluation. All the emphasis on correctness tends to make Jack and Jill rather dull when you get right down to it. Oh I know the grammar Nazis are just waiting to pounce, but believe me when I tell you, once the creativity is scared out of a young mind, it seldom returns.

In the constant battle between structure and voice in writing, you know where my line in the sand is drawn. But that doesn't mean both aren't equal partners. They are. They just have to be approached differently. Hopefully the spotlight will find its way into the dark corner that seems to be reserved for the joy of teaching. As Sir Ken Robinson, the noted British educator likes to point out who knows what things will be like for students today in five years? What will they need to learn to be successful in the world of 2040? If by then that inborn creativity is in tact let's hope that some of the kids we taught have remained artists and many more will have the opportunity to do so.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What's In Store

In the unreal spectrum of what passes for reality TV is a little genre that follows the exploits of people who buy storage lockers. Storage Wars is probably the leader of the pack. I watch an episode or two now and again because some of the characters and some of their recovered loot perks my interest. If you stop judging the quality of this entertainment and the people who seem to make it their avocation, you can learn a thing or two about the treasures they bid or gamble on. They're risk takers, dreamers, who discover a real find now and then.
Antiques Roadshow it's not. They've glammed it all up to make "powerful TV." In other words it's an exaggerated mess that's orchestrated for an audience that's mostly materialistic or in a coma. Still I watch from time to time. But after you get past the locker with nothing but dirty mattresses, or the one with a valuable coin collection in a dresser drawer, something else is sneaking into your brain. After the ending feature where that snuff box recovered from an otherwise messy assemblage of Tupperware, outdated and musty clothes, and painted pine furniture, gets appraised at $3000. Something is raising it's unwanted head.
This stuff stored away, this stuff up for sale because someone didn't pay the rent on the locker, this stuff which contains personal effects, family photos, collections, accumulations, packed up lives...this stuff belongs to somebody. Somebody else.
The entire premise of this show is that all's fair in storage facilities and those who can't pay the rent. There is just one logical question that nobody seems to ask, much less answer. Why don't those in arrears use the contents of the locker, or even just something they can easily sell, and pay that overdue rent. Nope. They just abandon these pieces of furniture, these doll collections, these antiques? Couldn't pay the $100. due this month so I just walked away from the entire locker worth 5K?
How about a hard hitting documentary on the people who lost it all. Who are these folks who would rather walk away from an intriguing pile of life's detritus than to let some unctuous bargain hunter buy it for half it's worth and resell it for double or triple that?
I'm interested in the other war going on in their lives.