Thursday, November 29, 2012

Midstream

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, shifting...so 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 America...at least for now.