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.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Woody Guthrie Centennial

Woody Guthrie is 100. His official biography, by Joe Klein, is entitled Woody Guthrie, A Life.  But  about 30 years ago, when I was part of a production on Woody's life *  one of his old friends from the 1930s, Bob Dewitt,, casually mentioned that the book should be called, Woody Guthrie, What a Life!
Enough said for now.
 Woody is an American treasure. Haunted by the threat of developing Huntington's disease, he wrote an autobiography at 29. His book Bound for Glory rivals Huckleberry Finn in many ways. Woody wrote over a thousand songs. Some of them are just now coming to light and life. I was fortunate to have befriended two men who knew him in his prime. When Ed Robbin first put Woody on L.A. radio station KFVD, he asked him, "Woody, who writes these songs." '"I do," he said. Ed then asked, "How many do you have?" "Oh I got two notebooks full," Woody said. "I had three, but I lost one notebook on the road coming out to California." Gives one pause.
This morning I decided to celebrate Woody's life by doing something that he apparently did.  People who knew Woody all say he's often spend the evening playing in bars and coffeehouses for tips and anything else that might come his way: a place to spend the night, a meal, a car, a bed, a get the idea.  But what most folks don't know is that it wasn't uncommon for Woody to give his "earnings" to the first needy person he saw.
In that spirit, I decided to make some modest donations to street musicians.  At the downtown Farmer's Market this morning I found a couple of duos and then an old-timer playing Hank Williams tunes on a shiny National steel-bodied guitar.  Two young women from Atlanta caught my ear and after one mentioned they slept in their car last night, I thought, Woody would certainly relate to that.  As he used to say, "Take it easy, but take it."

Monday, July 9, 2012

By the Cover?

At first the title of the article caught my attention. What's on your bookshelf? A most intriguing question but a little too much like the advertising slogan, What's in your wallet. Sure enough, the "article" was nothing more than a front for an internet dating web site. And like the latter, it turned out to be just as superficial, just as loaded with all the complexities of shallow images and stereotypes. Ok, so here's the deal; if you look at somebody's book shelf, you'll get the portal to the soul. That way you can either pursue the friendship or let it be because there wouldn't have been a connection anyway. Please! Are people that naive? Aren't there any number of reasons that a book could wind up on someone's shelf? How about gifts, or classes taken, or even the ones that people just abandon. Then there are those books that come into and out of our lives through friends, family, neighbors, and happenstance. Found books, inherited books, uncovered and discovered books. There are the mistakes and the outtakes and the just plain how'd that get in there? Still, the question beckons. What can we tell from looking at a person's book shelf. I know I never pass up the chance to look at or in a bookcase. It's actually one of my favorite things when going to someone's home for the first time. Aside from the staged books in a living room or on a coffee table, I'll admit that there is much to learn about a person from tallying up what they read or appear to read. I look for a balance between fiction and non-fiction. Seldom find one, but when I do, I'm sure to find some familiar titles. The article referenced above said that if a person has Alice Munroe and Raymond Carver then expect the person to be quietly offbeat. I have those two, but that's hardly me. It mentioned that J.D. Salinger's books probably mean a person is idealistic. No, it means that Salinger's work is popular, enduring, and often read in high school. I was trying to think of a few things on my book shelves that truly say something about me or would be the kinds of title that defy any classification. Perhaps something like my small collection of Kenneth Patchen picture poem books, or my trove of fly fishing books, or maybe the adolescent literature I own. OK just kidding, but there must be something that throws a curveball. How about Oregon's Covered Bridges, or the novel The Sharpshooter Blues? Getting there. I know, I'll go look and get back to you.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Still Life in Black and White

Funny how Andy Griffith died so close to the July 4th holiday. This year the holiday came on a Wednesday, so many people began celebrating a day or two before. It'll probably linger well into the weekend too. Andy Griffith, and the TV series of the same name, were such a huge part of so many baby boomer childhoods that he's bound to be missed by millions. It was a simpler time in so many ways. Literally, in the early 1960s when the world of Mayberry, North Carolina came into living rooms and black and white TV screens, there were only a handful of channels to watch. Pity the poor attempts to compete with Sheriff Andy and the cast of Mayberry's good people. For the 13 year old world I inhabited back then, Andy reminded me, in so many ways, of my neighbor Homer Taylor. Homer brought his family out to California from Ripley, Tennessee at the same time Andy and Barney worked their way into the hearts and minds of people all over the country. Homer, like Andy, was as homespun as it gets. But he could teach a kid like me all about horses and fishin' and most anything I couldn't get from my New Yorker parents. Homer let us drive his '55 Ford around the block a few times too. Like Andy, there were many firsts...all came from just hanging around. But while Andy Griffith and Don Knotts and Ron Howard were amusing us with their lives and loves in Mayberry, there was another version of the sleepy south, the real one, playing out on our TV screens and in our classrooms.  Ironically the Andy Griffith years coincided perfectly with major events in the Civil Rights movement.  While Floyd the barber was making us laugh with all his "ooohs and aaahs," American citizens were taking literacy tests with questions like "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap."  While Gomer Pyle"Gollleeed" and Goober did his imitation of Carey Grant ("JudyJudyJudy...") The Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were losing their lives fighting for basic human rights for African Americans.
There were no marches or demonstrations in Mayberry.  No Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks.  There may have been black folks there but we seldom went to the other side of the tracks with Andy and Barney.  Still the town and all its inhabitants found a fond place in our hearts and minds.  The themes were universal.  It would be a few more years before we saw our diverse population reflected in anything faintly resembling reality on our TV screens.  It's a real paradox but then it accurately reflects life in the 1960s, doesn't it?
In the end, it'll be Aunt Bea, and her nosy friend Clara that we remember.  It'll be all those lessons Andy taught us with his sense of fairness and his thoughtful grace.  It'll be all the laughs that Barney Fife, with the one bullet in his pocket and girlfriend named Thelma Lou, gave us.  And, of course, it'll be that whistled theme song and Opie and Andy walking down to the fishin' hole.