Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pluto Rule

A few years ago, if you asked someone to play a little word association game and mentioned the word Pluto, I'm sure the smallest planet or the Walt Disney cartoon dog would come up.  Now, I wouldn't be so sure.
Pluto lost its status as a full-fledged planet a while back (though I doubt people will honor that) and Mickey Mouse's dog is seen far less than he used to be.  Not sure why this is the case, but the word Pluto is gaining a new respect with increased use of the term Plutocrat and the concept of Plutocracy.
Defined as rule by the wealthy class, it's slowly becoming the reality here in North America.  Increasingly, we are in daily dispute about the loss of democracy in basic institutions like our schools. If we follow the money (operative word here is money) we find plutocrats behind the ill-informed school reform movement in large numbers.  The Koch brothers and Bill and Melinda Gates let their money inform their ideas about what ought to happen inside a classroom.  Neither has taught a day in their lives.

When we look at a Congress that has the worst legislative record in 40 years and puts new life into the label "do nothing" we find plutocracy lurking in the hallways.
Yet, Plutocracy isn't really defined as a political term.  Nobody elects the wealthy.  They don't advocate a carefully written platform with positions on important issues.  They spend money.  Lots of it.  They buy and sell who and what they desire.  And when that won't work, they keep trying.
And now we have to deal with the latest conundrum: whistle blower or traitor.  Our National Security Agency has taken great leaps forward while wiping it's feet on the 4th Amendment.  We lose twice here.  First our own people ad then our international allies worry about the trust that seems to be evaporating daily.
And what is the oil that lubricates this efficient machine that enables the wealthy to position themselves and ultimately call the plays:  something they own as well, the media.
Here's a fantasy.  What if the dazed masses suddenly had an epiphany and realized that what they cared about the most, what they devoted most of their time and treasure to was vapid.  Oh, it's not going to happen, but just say it did.  Then what?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Back Story

Yesterday's final race at Hollywood Park brought up so many things in a surprising way.  OK, so an old racetrack closes.  What impact could that possibly have on millions of people?  It'll probably be forgotten in a few weeks.  That the 75 year old institution will be replaced by more apartments for the urban sprawl of Los Angeles is in itself a tragedy.  But Hollywood Park's demise clearly illustrates a dominant theme that's being repeated, without sufficient questioning, repeatedly in the early decades of this century.
Is an expanding technology always a good thing?  When we lose tradition, the sense of a past history, do we always lose something irreplaceable?  I suggest that we do.  Horse racing will survive in some way or shape.  That's not the issue here.  I'm far too biased to discuss that question here, but what I worry about is what comprises the trade off when those with decision-making power vote to demolish icons of the past.

People fight about keeping everything from inner city architecture to antique farms and ranch bunkhouses.  Old houses are the site of many a demonstration.  In some cases, and I've seen this in my neighborhood, someone feels so passionately that they buy and move, at great expense, the home to a safer place where it gets, sometimes literally, a new lease on life.
With the advancement in technology, and it's subsequent use in the horse racing industry, came the loss of the crowds that used to come by the thousands.  This is what made the original Hollywood Park so appealing.  Horse racing is only about gambling for some.  For others it's about the spectacle, the color, the back stories, and, most importantly, the HORSES.
Gone now are the swelling crowds that came to see Seabiscuit, Citation, or Native Diver.  Occasionally when a super athlete like Zenyatta comes along, so do the crowds.  But most watch on TV or computer screen.  Some now on smart phones.  The farther from the track, the actual surface, dirt or turf, the more removed we get from the entire experience.  This could apply to many other things as well.  Texting come to mind first.  I get the advantages, but it's rapidly becoming another way to communicate without facing someone.  I'm troubled.
Along with this reservation comes the knowledge and more importantly, the acknowledgement that these shifting winds, these changes, these transitions, are all inevitable.  We're not stopping any of them.  So, in the end, once, more, all we really have is our memories.
My grandfather would leave the confines of his inner city New York home and visit us in Southern California in the 50s and early 60s.   He'd often take the bus to Santa Anita or Hollywood Park.  In his 70s at the time, it was an all day affair that no doubt left him exhausted at the end of a long day.  The walk from the bus stop to our house was enough to do that anyway.  I know he loved going to the track and often enjoyed some success.  I inherited that from him to be sure.  The last time I saw him I was 14 and he left my sister and I a modest bank account with some of his winnings.  When I think of these iconic racetracks, I think of my grandfather.  Another link to the past gone.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Pay It Forward

As a writer, I'm aware of tension in the pieces I write.  As a fairly sane, amiable person, I'm aware of how much I hate confrontation.  Thus, my task is to always provide enough tension.  That means I have to tweak characters from time to time.  It means I must do the same for how I remember experiences I want to write about and stories I need to tell.
So it was with my most recent piece of memoir about how I balanced student groups, going against some of the strongest personalities in one particular class.  I've never been the kind of teacher who proudly and defiantly announces, "This is not a democracy."  I opt to agonize instead.  A fairly good piece resulted about a time I decided that the lessons of The Grapes of Wrath needed to apply to the inequitable groups my students made for a particular project.

But that got me thinking.  First about the novel and then about teaching it this time of year.  It's a good December novel given the mass proclivity for giving back.  But there's more: Katie and I were recently presented with an opportunity to give back that seems to be taking on a bit more life than we ever intended.  I can't even recall how it began, but we decided to play a little game of Pay it Forward.  It seems as if we couldn't do what we originally wanted because the opportunity came and went.  A little boy was flirting with a Peppermint Patty at the checkout stand at my local grocery store.  His mom was preoccupied with two smaller children and locating her Oregon Trail card.  That's the name of the Food Stamp program here.  So I decided it would be cool to buy the kid the candy bar.  Then it got complicated.  There were two other kids and a mom who might somehow feel funny about a stranger buying candy for her kids.  I let it go.  But not the desire.  Fast forward two weeks and I purchase a grocery gift card and ask a clerk to give it to a similar family, if not the one I saw.
She's really moved by that and has a family in mind.  A couple of weeks later she tell me that she did the deed and now the recipient wants to meet us.  That's cool, but I doubt it'll ever happen unless we orchestrate that.  What's more gratifying is that the grocery clerk was motivated to so something similar.  That' just how it's supposed to work.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

First in the Hearts

A real first yesterday.  With the latest school shooting came the distinction of a school shooting occurring on the anniversary of another school shooting.  So now we get the benefit of watching the latest grieving parents and then last year's, who, I might add, are still grieving.
As commentator Bill Maher likes to say, "We're the gun country, that's all, that's how we're perceived by the rest of the world."
True Dat!

Where else can we begin to comprehend statistics like there were more people killed by guns in our country than in our military deployments throughout the past year.
With some politicos fronting solutions like  arming teachers, it's only going to get worse.
Another observation:  When the hand wringing stops and people begin authentic discussions of this phenomena we casually refer to as a school shooting, we easily seem to slide from gun laws to mental health issues.  A vicious circle of commentary.
Why so many shootings in Colorado?  Probably no real meaning here.  Yet it deserves deeper attention.  Why has the 2nd amendment been reduced to illogic with no real retribution from legal scholars?
I read the statistics about how many teachers quit before their 5th year.  It's as consistent as the school shootings.  I read about how many 20 year veterans are leaving the profession because of the pressure of misguided reform, the emphasis on standardized testing, the fear and general malaise that's palpable on school campuses.  And now this, active shooters.  At what point, I often ask myself, will I too stop encouraging young people to enter the profession?
Oddly enough, when I play my role as a field supervisor and enter a school during the middle of the day, I am seldom stopped or asked for ID.  I usually wear a photo badge on a lanyard, but nobody looks at it.  I get that I look like I belong.  But unless they openly carry weapons, so do most school shooters.
It figures that this country is split and polarized on what to do about the fact that depressed, disgruntled, and desperate people walk into our schools and take innocent lives with great ease.
To change that it takes political will.  That takes ethics which needs to be accompanied by courage.
I wonder how that Colorado legislator who was recently recalled because he stood up to the gun lobby and remained true to his moral compass feels today?  What about his constituents?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sensory Impact

As the world reacts to the death of Nelson Mandela, I keep harkening back to the days when it seemed there were very few teachers who made the struggle for human rights in South Africa part of their curriculum.  One of my former students reminded me the other day that I also had a poster in my classroom that raised the question Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

In recalling the history of Mandela's journey from prisoner to President, some of the news media (but far too few)  are reminding those who weren't alive or who have conveniently forgotten how as President, Ronald Reagan was on the wrong side of history with his policy of engagement toward South Africa.  Briefly, this policy was far too little too late and never really took a moral stance on Apartheid.  It wasn't until strong economic sanctions (not supported by Reagan) were enacted taht the tide began to turn.  But that's another story, but definitely one we can learn a good deal from in dealing with future ethical issues on the international scene.
The aforementioned posters that hung in my classroom (previous blog entry) were removed the day that Mandela voted.  Just as my students wished.  But in hearing from some of them via Facebook all these years later, I'm not surprised that many recall vividly the impact of those visceral drawings.  Three more are included here as a way of illustrating that contention but also as a way of preserving them for anyone who wants to see them.  The magic of the internet makes it possible to track them down and re-live their impact.  I found the picture of the Passbook to be most useful in teaching about the Homelands policy.  The hand suppressing the head really assaults the senses; it is most often recalled the most vividly.  It's urgency is undeniable.  Finally the "No More" poster was left on the wall as a talisman of sorts so that subsequent classes would know and remember.  It hung at the front of the classroom until the end of the 2004-05 school year when the school I taught at was torn down to be re-built again.  I believe I have it to this day.

Friday, December 6, 2013


In the Fall of 1977 I went to a beautiful old church in South Berkeley, Ca. to see a film and presentation about Apartheid in South Africa.   The film concerned itself mainly with international investments in this openly racist country that just happened to be the world's largest producer of gold and diamonds.
I had been teaching about South Africa for a few years; the same amount of time I had been teaching, actually.  I knew a bit about the political system of cruel and complete segregation.  I knew about Nelson Mandela and the ANC, but was just beginning to learn about recent uprising like Soweto.  That evening I learned about a burgeoning movement to disinvest in South Africa.  The film shown was available to teachers as a filmstrip that night.  I paid the $25.00 gladly as the funds were used to support similar showings.  "Banking on South Africa" served me well over the next15 years.  But it was something else I chanced to find for sale on the folding tables in the church foyer that proved even more lasting.                                          
It was a calendar for the upcoming year 1978.  Each month featured a brilliant painting or photograph detailing the depth and anguish of Black South Africans.  One picture memorialized the victims of the Soweto uprising, another showed a close-up of a person's passbook assigning the owner to one of several "homelands" and denying basic human rights like the right to move freely in one's own home.
By 1980, most of the pictures in that calendar were hanging on the wall in the front of my classroom.  When I was involuntarily laid off one year and subsequently re-hired, they returned to the classroom I occupied for the next 22 years.
Many semesters of International Problems followed.  My students did many problem analyses of South Africa, displaying and representing their knowledge on various projects from pop-up art to dyoramas, to new flag designs and portraits of Madiba himself.  All under the banner of these "posters" as they came to be called.
     Students from English classes asked about them.  Parents at Back to School Night asked about them.  Students and Parents of my Psychology classes asked about them.  Exchange students fro all over the world, and even South Africa, asked about them.
     In the early 90s, when it became apparent that Nelson Mandela was going to be released from prison after 27 years, a student in International Problems asked, "Are you going to keep those up if Apartheid comes to an end and Mandela is freed?"  I hadn't thought about it, but the possibility of a free Mandela would certainly be cause for some celebration.
     "I don't know," I replied.  "Let's see what the class thinks."
After a good discussion about the likelihood of Mandela's release, I asked the class, "How will we know when Mandela is free?"  "When he votes," came the response.  That settled it.  When Mandela votes the posters come down.
     In 1994 with Mandela's election as President of the country that had once held him prisoner, the posters came down.  My students were excited.  The local media sent a TV crew and a few other print journalists did stories on the "ceremony" we conducted that day.  We just happened to have a South African Exchange student that semester too.  He would have been classified as "Coloured" by the Apartheid system.  He was the logical choice to help with removing the posters.  In the end, we left one poster on the wall.  It was a red pair of handcuffed wrists on a white background with two words in large red letters: NO MORE.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Open Up

Between the time the John Kennedy was murdered while riding in a Dallas motorcade on a Friday and the following Sunday when the nation watched his flag draped casket carried through the streets of the nation's capital, two other significant events of that three day span took place.   The murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin took place LIVE on national TV and, of course, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the next president all happened within hours of each other.
I recall wanting to stay in front of the TV every second but my stern father wouldn't allow that.  It was Saturday, the day after the assassination and there were leaves to rake, lawns to mow, and with no football games (at least college games) time to complete some tasks that had long been overlooked.  Maybe it was because my parents had seen the death of a president before, even an assassination attempt on Truman's life, that they tried to avoid the 24/7 media coverage.  I, however, could not.  I kept sneaking into my room and turning on my transistor radio to listen to any further developments in this ongoing tragedy.
When I heard the bulletin that Oswald had been shot, I rushed out to the rest of my family and boldly announced, "Oswald's been shot, we gotta turn on the TV, it just happened."
Even my sometimes tyrannical father couldn't prevent the Packard Bell from showing us the latest incredulous event unfolding.
They showed the scene over and over.  The name Jack Ruby surfaced.  It sounded like something out of the wild west and being Texas, it certainly figured.
We all knew something big was going done, but as Bob Dylan would later sing, "You know something's happening and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

In the last few days, on this 50th anniversary of the events that taken together comprise what we call the Kennedy Assassination, I've followed and heard many stories, recollections, and versions of how those days have impacted and informed the years and culture that followed.  I would agree with the PBS newscaster Jim Lehre who simply noted that the big take way for him was the fragility of it all.  Just how fragile our lives and world view can be.
Sure it was a right of passage, a loss of innocence, and wake up call.  It was any other cliche and personal experience you can name.  For me, it opened the door to mistrust and fear of my own government.  In the years that followed I had an opportunity to see Bobby Kennedy speak about a month before the night he won the California primary and was assassinated himself.  After marveling at the entire Kennedy clan and hearing some opening remarks, a noisy disruption broke out behind me in the large crowd that had assembled at Cal State Northridge.  They were chanting something inaudible but I got a glimpse of a sign one person held.  It was Don Costello, a boisterous character from my high school years.  He's apparently traded in his cheerleader outfit for political theater.  The chant and the sign all said the same thing.  "Open Up the Archives"  They knew there was more to the story.  Somehow if they encouraged Bobby Kennedy, as President, to review the assassination of his brother and tell the truth to the American people, we would all be better off.  They certainly didn't think Lyndon Johnson would do it; he was out of the picture now.  I can't help but wonder how many young men and women in that crowd that day went to Vietnam.  How many never came back alive?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Passing Period

Mr. Carpenter walked slowly toward the speaker on the wall.  He hopped up on the small stage in the front of his classroom and waited for the tinkling xylophone intro to stop.  The sound, similar to the NBC station identification was a calm way to get attention.  But announcements had ended in period 2.  This was period 3 and from the look on Mr. Carpenter's face, something unscheduled was about to go down.  After a few microphone clicking sounds, we heard the voice of Mr. Taylor, our beloved Principal.  Uncharacteristically, he stammered, cleared his throat, and began.
"This morning, the President of the United States has been shot while traveling in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.  He has been taken to a hospital in critical condition.  Further details are not available at this time.  We will keep you informed as the day progresses."

Mr. Carpenter's face drained white.  He said nothing.  We said nothing.  Then we slowly went back to our grammar books.  More sentence diagraming.
 Nobody was prepared for this moment.  Blindsided would be an understatement.
With 20 minutes left in the class period, some of my classmates began to think about the Friday evening that was less than 7 hours away.  Big football game with North Hollywood High.  Beyond that, Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation were on the horizon.  Other topics swirled in our minds to avoid thinking about Mr. Taylor's announcement. Who just got their driver's license?  Who just broke up with whom?  Would Senior Prom be as fun as Junior Prom?  My own thoughts included:  Should I run for Senior class President?  Could I win?  Would my new girlfriend, who went to a Catholic school be allowed to go to my prom with me?
 Oh, and then this thing we just heard about in Dallas.  Scary, but our president is young, just about the youngest ever.  He'll recover.  Right?
With five minutes left in the period we began to close our books.  Mr. Carpenter, usually chatty in those remaining minutes, was still off by himself.  A minute or two before the bell was to ring,  Mr. Taylor interrupted classes again.  His voice was noticeably subdued.  He told us that the President was dead and that the bell would soon ring for period 4.  "Please proceed to your 4th period class," he said.  We will resume our regular school schedule unless instructed to do otherwise.  Busses will run at normal times."  He said something else, I think, but nobody really heard it because all was silent.  If silence can be deafening, than this silence shattered ear drums.
My school, Francis Polytechnic High was one of the largest in L.A. City Schools.  With an enrollment of nearly 3,000 students, noise was just part of the campus.  During that passing period, nobody spoke.  Students moved like zombie robots to their next class.  Henry Ford would have salivated at the efficiency of how so many adolescents could move swiftly down the line and be in position to resume work in five minutes.

People were waiting.  Waiting to hear something more.  Waiting to hear who did this?  Waiting to hear how and why we were without a President.  By mid-afternoon someone mentioned that Lyndon Johnson was now the President.  A Texan is the President and Kennedy was killed in Texas?
What does this event do to the Cold War?  Does it rear up like it did the previous year when we were all sent home from school as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded.  Things could change very quickly; before the brinksmanship that sent those missiles back to the Soviet Union, I saw how fast bread and other staples disappeared from the local supermarket.  We were waiting to see if the world would explode.
It did not then, but on this day, November 22, 1963 the explosion was happening slowly and quietly.  Questions cascaded like rain and sentence diagraming suddenly meant very little.  At 2:55, Mr Taylor made one final announcement.  "The football game tonight has been cancelled."  Everybody just wanted to go home.

Diagram This

Mr. Carpenter was my 11th grade English teacher.  Actually, it's wasn't called English that year.   The official name for the class was Language Skills.  We did very little writing and reading in favor of diagraming sentences.  We seriously diagramed sentences.  there was a little portable chalk board on a small stage that was in the front of the classroom.  Mr. Carpenter would step up on the little stage after taking roll at his desk off to the left.  He'd roll the little chalkboard out so the class could easily see it and have a sentence already written for us to dissect.

The only other thing I recall about that class, save what I'm about to write now, is that we worked out of a grammar book most of the time.  I had my book covered with brown paper that had once held groceries.  Homework and classwork came out of that book.  It was language skills incarnate.
Mr. Carpenter was the Junior class sponsor.  He was fairly popular, youthful, probably gay, and for the most part very serious about his subject.  He could control our class because he knew how to get the environment he wanted and he knew his subject well.  He could diagram the hair off a sentence and we were all impressed.  Once he gave us the sentence:  "The private laid out his bedroll over the Sergeant's objection."  A trick sentence to be sure, but we all rose to the challenge.  The prepositional phrase "over the Sergeant's objection" was the problem, because it wasn't literally what the bedroll was laying on.
I don't remember how the issue was solved and I don't really care.  So far as I know, it has not made a difference in my life.  It was good fun at the time even if we were all a bit confused.  Mr. Carpenter must have had a good laugh adjusting his lesson plan that day.  I hope he did, because, except for the time I said a swear word in front of him while decorating for the Jr. Prom, the thing I remember most about Mr. Carpenter was his demeanor and appearance on November 22, 1963.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

That Year

The programs are starting.  Small nightly pieces in the national news and major documentaries on everything from Public Broadcasting to CNN.  I can't even imagine what Faux News will do.  It's the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.  Time to re-set the conspiracy theories, the shortcomings of the Warren Report, and complete the "where were you when" statements.
One think I've noticed is that every year there are fewer and fewer people who recall the moment.  That's natural, but I did see an interview with the Dallas cop that was escorting Lee Harvey Oswald when he was intercepted and killed by Jack Ruby.  The guy looks great for his age and even admitted he gave little thought to the fact that people would remember him or the event they way they do 50 years later.
I'm in the process of recalling that day as best I can.  In doing so, I've begun to look at the year 1963 itself.  What jumps out for me so far is how many remarkably significant things preceded the actual assassination itself in that pivotal year.  Many crucial events in the Civil Rights movement from the assassination of Medgar Evers to the Birmingham Church bombings and death of those 3 little girls.  There was a young man, too that year who began to get some airplay for a song that rose to number 1 in England.  A timely little ballad called "The Times are Changin'" brought Bob Dylan's name to the lips of man 16 year old kids who wanted a bit of relief from the British Invasion that so captivated the mass media.  Dylan's second album came out in 1963 as well.  "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," with it's iconic picture of Bob and Susie Rotolo walking in the New York snow.  That VW micro bus in the background did not go unnoticed.  Before the end of that tumultuous decade, I too would walk those streets having arrived on the East Coast in a similar van.

By then Kennedy was long gone, and with him most of our illusions about what this country was all about.  Though we looked for answers, and still do, the only one was, as Dylan noted, "Blowin' in the Wind.  Still is I guess.
---More to follow---

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


As this century progresses, I see various vestiges of the last one drop away every day.  More and more electric devices replace every interaction.   I'm not sure it's all gloom and doom, but I do worry about how human interaction is diminishing.  The irony, of course, is that as we get more connected, we actually don't.
If my experience today is any indication of this brave new world, then I've seen the future a bit more and possibly a bit clearer.
I like t read a newspaper in the morning.  I could go online, but I actually like to hold it in my hands, fold it, do the crossword with a pen, look at the sports page and letters  to the editor.  In my town it's even more difficult to get a newspaper.  It's down to 3 days a week for home delivery, and the number of boxes on the street is dwindling.  When you do find one, pray that it works or that there is even one of the few they put inside daily left.
I decided I'm going down with that ship.  I'm going to put the quarters in the slot for as long as it's possible.

I use a debit card on occasion, but I would never buy a cup of coffee or anything for that matter less that $20. with it.  I don't like to leave paper trails, and cash is faster.  But cash is fast becoming a ting of the past for many folks.  I see them swipe a card for everything from a candy bar to a latte.
In the education world I inhabit, the love of data and the use of computers for everything from curriculum to grading is changing the teaching profession.
I fear what is about to happen to human interaction.
Today I went through a brief training session to learn a new online assessment program.  We will soon point and click in neatly organized rubrics for an evaluation that ends up being 1,2,3, or 4.  I actually asked about the comments that could be made.  Answer: 300 characters.  That's about twice the size of a Tweet.
I may not like all this, but I know that it is all inevitable.  No going back.  In about 100 years, it'll be interesting to read what someone says about the latest technology and what it holds for the future.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Model Lesson

It's been 7 years since I've taught a high school class from beginning to end.  There have been a few teacher writing workshops at conferences, and a couple of co-teaching moments in the classrooms of the student teachers I've supervised, but nothing bell to bell.
That might end in a few weeks.  In my role as a mentor teacher, I occasionally have an opportunity to model a lesson.  Trouble is, most of the first year teachers I mentor don't live close enough to me to make that possible.  One is in Alaska, another in Montana.  Still another is on the Oregon coast in a small town, and a few others have been less enthusiastic about seeing the old man in action.
This year might be different.  I've been mentoring a first year teacher close to home.  Well, fairly close to home.
A recent study I read revealed that mentor teachers modeling a lesson and then possibly co-teaching it with the beginning teacher was rated one for the most useful things a mentor could do.  It provides a chance for the mentee to see the mentor as a teacher not just a giver of advice.
There are some considerations before jumping in and taking over a class.  The mentor shouldn't necessarily teach the best lesson ever.  It's important to be vulnerable, perhaps take a risk and fail, struggle a bit so that the beginning teacher is not upstaged in any way.
Problematic?  You bet.

So, I've been thinking about what I might do that meets all the criteria and still would be useful.
My mentee has 3 10th grade Language Arts classes in her day.  I'm thinking of teaching the lesson in the first so she can observe and critique.  Then co-teach the lesson in the second class, finally she could do the lesson solo and I could critique.  Ideally it sounds fine.  We'll see.
Now comes the what to do.
I'm toying with and tweaking a lesson on writing voice that just might fit the bill.  It's fun, it's useful, it's something I think I can still do effectively.
But this time, I want to do it somewhat effectively because it's taking on another level of usefulness.  If I'm successful, I'll make a mistake or two along the way; my pacing will be a little off, and probably some of my schtick will seem stale.  If I'm really successful, this lesson will survive in someone's classroom for years to come.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

We Hardly Knew

In a few weeks we will acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.  Thousands of books and hundreds of conspiracy theories later, that day, that event, that moment in time continues to be the defining experience (albeit a tragedy) for my generation.
In thinking about that day, how it began and ended, I realize that my recollections are all filtered through the mind of an adolescent.  Yet November 22, 1963, and the weekend that followed proved to be the tipping point for the remainder of my life.

I will recall that day and the days that followed another time.  As the anniversary nears, and even more books and made for TV movies surface, the Kennedy administration with all it' mythology and curiosity provides a crucial background with which to assess the current political scene.
Today, we see democracy threatened in so many ways.  The rise of the Plutocrat, the huge disparity in wealth, the regressions of the Civil Rights movement all stand out.  The current attack on public schools fits neatly into this portrait because so many of the nations young people were in school when the assassination went down.
It will be interesting to see how the media handle all this.  The troubled history of the Kennedy brothers, the over romanticising of Camelot on the Potomac, JFK the philanderer,  the master of political brinkmanship, the good-looking charming diplomat, the skilled politician, the husband and father, the unfinished agenda will all fall into line as talking points.
Whatever happens between the 2nd and the 22nd, one thing is for sure.  People will repeatedly say that this is one of those rare moments in a lifetime when they knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they got the news.
In retrospect, that's a very good place to start.  The loss of innocence that began that instant continues to this day.  That too is a good place to the pieces together.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Here's What I Think

What happens when you have had enough from a friend with whom you completely disagree on most issues?  On Facebook, it's a simple matter of "de-friending" someone.  In reality it doesn't work that way.  Do we want to dismiss friendships because our political leanings differ so widely from people we might otherwise enjoy being around?  It happens.  Most folks just avoid certain subjects or remove themselves from one another's lives gradually.
But it's complicated, isn't it?
Facebook certainly makes some strange bedfellows.  Sometimes they wind up as juxtaposed portraits, agreeing on something they obviously have a different take on, but nevertheless feel strongly enough to state an opinion.

But we all have people in our lives that don't experience the universe as we do.  People who belong to what we might consider the wrong political party, attend the wrong schools, social institutions, or have world views that are undeniably opposed to each other.
The trend these days is to rant and rage about our polarization.  The trick to keeping a variety of friends is to do the opposite.  State your case, make the points you need to make without disrespecting the other's view point no matter how ludicrous it might seem.  I always try to ask myself when dealing with a religious fanatic, a paranoid personality, or someone I deem ignorant of history, what are this person's core values.  Am I talking to a decent human being here?  Is this person inherently evil?  Might we find some common ground somewhere?
My horse friends don't exactly share the values of my writer friends.  My education colleagues are rarely religious fanatics.  I'm still looking for a compatible fly fisherman and probably will the rest of my days.
I had a student once who sat in the back of the classroom.  Since it was a horseshoe formation it was only three deep but nevertheless behind others.  He liked to participate in class discussions and the class came to value his insights.  But it was how he participated rather than what he said that is so memorable.  Kelly had the voice of an orator.  Yet he seldom spoke loudly.  After considerable discussion he'd slowly raise his hand.  After being recognized, he'd say something like, "well this certainly is an interesting discussion.  Here's what I think..."  He was forthcoming about who or what he agreed with and who or what he found not so much to his liking.  His demeanor created an atmosphere that made sure he was heard.
Isn't that what matters most if we are to make any progress with anything?  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Of Teacups and Dreams

We call them teacup kids.  Teacups because they are or are treated as FRAGILE.  What we've got here are kids who completely control their parents.  The tail wagging the dog.  They get choices.  Choices about everything.  Do you want the yellow cup or the green one?  The blue straw or the red one?  I wonder if they even know.  If they even care.
They dress themselves in all kinds of weather.  It's raining outside but teacup kids are wearing summer outfits.  There is snow on the ground, but those treated like the good china are wearing patent leather dance shoes.
Recently something came to my attention that involved such a child-rearing style and it gave me pause.  Huge pause.  A friend of ours from the coffee shop had a birthday party for her 4 year old.  There were other kids and a great big chocolate cake.  I'm sure there were many presents too.  What was not there was any "singing or laughing."  Apparently that can scare a 4-year-old.
Imagine never experiencing that specific kind of humiliation when everyone you know and care about is singing Happy Birthday to YOU!  Remember how strange that feels.  How embarrassing it is?  Now imagine never getting the opportunity to know that weird mix of emotions.
What are we protecting these kids from?  When did it become OK to bend and snap to every whim and misunderstood desire?
The old Jewish comedian Sam Levinson used to do a routine about his childhood that involved food falling on the ground.  He was raised in a tenement with 6 or 7 siblings.  There was never enough food. If something happened to fall from the table t the floor, six heads were butting under the table to be the first to capture the morsel.  A far cry from the waste and pandering that goes on today at many mealtimes.  It's funny, but not that funny.

So what are the consequences of this child rearing?  Might it instill a sense of entitlement?  Privilege?
How could it not?
Now I realize that things come and go in cycles.  But I wonder where these ideas originated.  My guess is that new parents who have definite ideas about how they were raised, (or perhaps just based on significant experiences) want to do it differently.  Then, because this stuff sells, a few books come out, then a few more.  Pretty soon a philosophy is born and the freedom to be free brings about a new "style" of child rearing.  Hope I'm around to see the results.
Some new evidence of the scientific variety has come to light about the importance and relevance of dreams.  Recent studies are about to apply the new computer technology to quantify and then qualify dream content.  We are beginning to get a picture of the frequency and meaning of dream images and symbols.  It all adds up to dreams being much more than the random firing of brain cells.  Some trends are coming to light.  Gender and age have a great deal to do with dream content.
I recall a few years ago reading in the psych textbook I used to teach with that dream content changes significantly as we age.  I can now report that the book was accurate, at least in my case.  The emotions of aging probably have a lot to do with it.  Last night I had a few dreams.  What I recollect most vividly is that there were two trout in one scene and I was trying to fill some containers to preserve their lives.  I went from something like an old aquarium tank, to a larger vessel like a shallow bath tub that then morphed into a small concrete pool.  I filled the small concrete pool and then realized I was late for school and needed to leave.  Hoping that the two fish, one small and one much bigger, would still be alive when I returned home.  I was concerned with the fact that they went from being in the wild to breathing tap water.  What remains most vivid is the colors on the fish.  Both rainbows, one had reddish gold gill plates.  Lots to work with here.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Going the Distance

I just read an article about teacher turnover.  Latest statistics show that about 50% that go into the profession quit after 5 years.  Not too surprising especially given all the public perceptions and the low wages combined with the work load.  In my work with beginning teachers, I've research the attrition rate now and then and what I've found is no surprise.  The reality eventually overcomes the romantic notion that so many carry in their heads.  Add to that the ongoing corporate attack for privatization, the testing frenzy, and how those interests interpret test scores, the general lack of respect for authority figures, and there you have it.

There are those, on the contrary, who will stay no matter how difficult the conditions or how low the pay.  For a change, I'd like to consider why they stay.  I suspect that many who qualify here feel the same as I do.  My full-time tenure lasted 33 years.  I had intended to take a break about the 10 year mark but that never happened.  In fact, there were times during those three decades that going to the classroom proved to be a lifesaver.  When personal tragedies and pitfalls come calling, I found my work with students helped me escape the difficulties with relationships, family, the inconsistencies of friendships, and the general irrationality of life as an adult.
Again, I can only speak for myself, but I'd like to offer some insight into the mystery of what it takes to go the distance in the classroom.
I have always been into my subject area.  Whether it be history, psychology, literature, writing, international affairs, or journalism, much of my free time, my reading, my chosen education has to do with those topics.  I believe that students can see that.  When a teacher loves his/her subject it shows.  It also motivates.
Another factor has to do with truly liking people.  Particularly young people.  Being around teen-agers, despite their developing brains, is a heady experience.  They may be innocent but they are not jaded.  They have energy and they are idealistic and they truly believe they can do the things they want to do.  And then there is the no small matter of colleagues.  Some of mine were my best friends, for years.  Even now, when I return to my former home I see them.  I seek them out.  That kind of learning community is key to what is wrong today.
Despite the current malaise, the profession and those who enter and exit continue to remain complex issues.  Perhaps if some of the decision making power about curriculum, working conditions, and compensation were left to those who have endured despite all the difficulties, so many would not flee the profession.  See, I'm still idealistic.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


The commentators are saying our wounds are self-inflicted.  It's a logical explanation for why the current government shutdown continues to confuse, anger, and depress anyone outside of Congress.  The metaphor begs the question: what motivates self-harm?
Countries can best be understood by considering the behavior of people.  After all, national character explains quite a bit about why Russians differ from Japanese, or how Americans are perceived world-wide as opposed to Syrians.  The Brits the French and the Italians all have character traits that distinguish themselves from one another.
Thus, it follows that people who self-inflict pain for various reasons, might go a long way to explain why countries do it.  Are we angry, guilty, or in need of attention?  Is that why the U.S. Congress refuses to budge?  Are they all right fighters who will not blink and simply lock themselves into an unmovable position?  No doubt some are.  But is there a picture of this nation that is emerging that could offer an explanation?  How about this: Democracy, as we thought we know it, does not exist.
Add to that the continual misinterpretation of the U.S. Constitution and you have the beginning piece of a puzzle that may never get solved.

Another chunk concerns information.  What passes for objective information about everything from school reform to health care is disseminated on multiple outlets each with their own agenda.  How can we possibly solve any of these problems when we do not use the same set of facts.
Sometimes I listen to a radio station or watch a TV station that I would never choose to select.  It's painful, but enlightening.  The things some folks believe.  Everything from loss of jobs to full-blown Socialism if we dare offer healthcare to those most vulnerable, those most in need.
It's even become our entertainment.  A popular TV host sent a camera crew to the heart of a large city and asked people on the street if they supported Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act.  Most took the latter never knowing they were one and the same.  They seemed so convincing in their reasons too.
We have every right to be embarrassed.
Back to vanishing democracy.  It occurred to me today while driving a long stretch of highway and listening to the news that the current malaise in Washington D.C. is very similar to the attack of public education.  Both threaten democracy, both are disruptive to the extent that they will no doubt make enemies for life, and both involve an unequal distribution of wealth.
We used to pride ourselves on our strong sense of confidence.  It's difficult to like your self and feel good about what you are doing when you continue to inflict wounds on yourself and don't know why.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Attached to Nothing

Yesterday dawned clear and sunny.  That's the reason I decided to hit the road about 6:30 a.m. and get in one of those Fall days of fishing.  It was a Sunday.  Can't remember the last time I went on a Sunday because I usually avoid  the crowds and traffic on weekends.  But the window opened and let in a 75 degree day in the big middle of some intense rain storms up here.  Sometimes you can over think a simple matter like spend the day on a lake or not.
Landing at my favorite little Mt. Hood lake about 8:00 proved a surprise.  Very few people around.  The gate to the little parking lot was still open but the day use area bulletin board with fee envelopes was gone.  Winter is approaching.  Over the course of the day, the temperature rose about 20 degrees.  From better put on a fleece to time to take off another layer.  The chill vanished about 11:00 and a pair of canoes hit the water.  Just three watercraft until a family of kayakers appeared about noon.
Over all a lovely day.  Beautiful rainbow trout, the resident osprey, and a fresh coat of snow on the Mountain.

Sometimes I think the best thing about fly fishing from a float tube is the solitary time.  The luxury to sit and think can be the most valuable thing about an outing of this kind.  So, between changing  how I rig my flies, maneuvering to another part of the lake, and just taking in the sounds and sights, I think.  Sometimes I give the line a tug or two and the movement attracts a trout.  Occasionally  a thought worth keeping settles in.
I thought of Jimmy Chan, a student I once had in a senior class.  He only spoke English during the school day because he lived in San Francisco's Chinatown and spoke with family and community members solely the rest of the time.  But Jimmy's limited English never got in the way of his natural curiosity.  His older brother was a math genius and enjoyed more recognition from students and faculty. But Jimmy was somehow more personable.  "I was wonder..." he would often ask, dropping the ing on wondering.  "I was wonder, is there a word that best describes how food tastes?" His questions would come in a constant stream.  He was always engaged, whatever the topic.  It was such an appropriate interruption, "I was wonder" because that's exactly what Jimmy was; he was wonder.
Just then a fragile wisp if spider web floats by and I wonder how it gets onto the middle of a lake.  It must break off in a gust of wind.  Wonder if it just falls in somewhere or makes landfall and continues as before.  Wonder if it has a passenger.  It's here and then gone.  Like a Haiku, it forms in my mind:

      In the middle of an icy lake
      Spider webs hover
     Attached to noting.

A poem, caught and released.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


According to a new article in Scientific American, people lose civility when they don't talk to each other eye to eye.  In fact, the popular magazine with impeccable credentials is going one step further by eliminating the Comments section form its online publication.
Who among us has not engaged in a simple act of sharing ideas with someone we don't know and possibly don't agree with...Online.
We call them trolls, but these angry responders who feel empowered with their anonymity, are everywhere.  For many, this is a new phenomena.  Not so.  There have been few but definitely other opportunities for the exchange of ideas without revealing one's identity.

About 15 years ago, in our pre internet savvy world I chanced to come upon an idea that would allow students in a classroom to exchange ideas with an anonymous identity and hopefully extend an exchange that moved far beyond the confines of a classroom.  I heard about something called anonymous team journals from a friend and colleague in the Bay Area Writing Project.  She had been teaching a Native American studies class at UC Berkeley and noticed that her students who were Native American, as opposed to those who were not, rarely participated in discussions.
Simply put, the class was divided into teams and invited to write entries in journals (spiral notebooks) that might comment on topics that came up in class or personal experiences.  In fact they were required to do so.  The Indian students felt that many class discussions were  akin to "game shows" where people often spoke in a glib or entertaining manner rather than from the heart.
Now we know that some students are extroverts who love to share ideas with anyone who will listen.  Those students often silence others by accident or design.
Needless to say, I decided to give this a try with high school juniors.
The journals themselves were fascinating artifacts in themselves.  I assigned each team member a day for them to write a new entry or respond to a previous entry.  Of course I wanted my students to discuss big ideas or the literature we read, and often they did.  But trolls emerged, especially near prom time.  I wondered if this would happen and was a bit naive at first because many of these kids were "Honors" students who were supposedly emotionally mature.  Not all.  It only takes one inappropriate or smarmy remark to bring down an entire discussion.  Much like what we see in online publications today.
It's the anonymity stupid!
Yes it was, but I think there is much more here and Scientific American is beginning to shed some light on what happens when we don't talk to people directly.  I see this as a developing challenge not only for educators but human beings.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Listen Up

It sits calmly in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet.  Not sure how long it's been since the electricity has brought the small black box to life.  It's outdated.  Another example of how the new technology has replaced what once was state of the art.  It's a small portable tape recorder.
For the better part of three decades, this was my teaching tool of choice.  Funny how in a culture that is so visually oriented, there is much merit in hearing only sound.

I wonder now if this is something to be concerned about or another inconsequential thing to simply let go.  Seems like something that impacted my students lives in so many ways deserves better treatment.  Oh, I know that You Tube and Pandora and many other web sites have everything you need, but I can recall a few techniques/strategies that just can't be duplicated.
When students are asked to simply listen to a voice or a piece of music, it helps them focus.  It requires attention, it demands no outside distraction.  It's not multi dimensional.'s something that a group of people can do all at the same time.
That tape recorder played works of literature often read by their authors.  It brought "Death of a Salesman," the original stage play, to thousands of young readers.
A Depression era farmer explained his plight to every class that read Steinbeck.  When he recounted how corn was down to -3 cents he started weeping recalling how "it was cheaper to burn it as firewood."  Sometimes I detected a tear or two in a listener's eye too.
That little Sony recorder showed thousands how to interview.  With a powerful tiny lapel mic activated, it could pick up everything in that classroom.  Therefore, silence prevailed, less one's personal habits or conversations be preserved for all to enjoy.
One way I learned to engage students with media, is to let them make programs themselves.  When an International Relations class requested to learn about the Vietnam War, that tape recorder was front and center.  "Our fathers and uncles fought in this war, yet we know very little about it," one student  said.  It was in the mid 80's and video tape hadn't become available for all quite yet.  We produced a radio show with script, sound, and first hand interviews.  That recorder did it all.
Then there were the talk shows.  Back before our current tabloid culture took firm hold of the media, there were programs that attempted to discuss big ideas rather than spending hours on who is the baby daddy.  Phil Donahue comes to mind.  He did shows on Tourette's syndrome and nuclear power.  His guests often presented opposing viewpoints.  What a great model for students to have a reasoned dialogue.  Attach a larger microphone with a wind screen to the tape recorder and you are in business.  Students would research a topic like Is intelligence inherited? and take the roles of panelists/ audience questioners/ witnesses,  I'd usually play Donahue.  With a large extension chord I could roam the classroom and record the program.  Then as we listened to ourselves, and fully enjoyed that, we were reviewing all the concepts, arguments, and data relevant to the topic at hand.
These things are not done any more.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  But radio survives, for some.  That tape recorder seldom let me down.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cloudy Day

Small complete poems go through my mind,
When I'm without pen or keyboard,
Driving my truck,
Navigating a lake,
Walking in a river.
Like wispy clouds, once formed,
They dissipate overhead,
Never formed quite the same again.

As a writer, I'm always looking at things.  Perhaps even staring.  At people when I walk, when I drive, when I go to the grocery store.  Sometimes, while waiting for a light to turn green, the best poems come to mind.  They begin as images or little scenes that play out and the evolve into something bigger, deeper, or universal.  Then they vanish. In the turn of a color on a traffic light, or the beginning of a new conversation they disappear like vapor, like wispy clouds, drifting through and then over and then gone.

Sometimes I wonder how many of these little gems have come and gone.  There is a little trick they often play on me too.  In the minutes after I awake, before I get up, I re-play ideas, events, interactions.  Those puffy clouds sometimes reappear.  They are momentarily recaptured, only to drift away again, usually for good.  
I'm hopeful that they reside somewhere in tact.  Perhaps in the unconscious mind. If so, they just might re-appear and allow themselves to be captured.  Hope so.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sex, Religion, and Politics

Watching TV to keep up with the news is like going to a party.  Sex, religion and politics, in any order.  Those are the topics of choice.  We hear about "twerking," and are confronted with all manner of exhibitionism in local news.  Should women be wearing yoga pants in non-yoga areas.  The office, the workplace, school, church...and that's just the teachers!
Religion encroaches in all the right places.  Christian Mingle, the online dating service pops up on the screen during the grisliest of crime shows, the politician's speeches and the sit-coms so full of sexual innuendo that every second of canned laughter barely hides the grins, the gasps, the outcries, or the mindless guffaws.
So what's the message?  Are we a society and culture in decline or just rapidly changing?  Probably both.  I recall a student once coming to school with a most offensive tee shirt.  Offensive in that the cartoon image on the front made it impossible for him to be taken seriously at any point during the day.  It was simply a line drawing of a man with his head jammed up his bare rear end.  You might even have seen this image.  Appropriate?  Probably for somewhere, but hardly school.  I don't blame the student.  He probably never gave the matter a thought.  But what kind of parent sees their child leave for school wearing that shirt?  What goes through the mind of mom or dad when they drop their child off, or send them out the door?  Guess you have to see them in the morning first.  That probably never happened...I'd like to think.  If it did happen, what does that indicate?

So our politicians want to wage war because a government is waging war against its own people using morally deficient methods.  Isn't killing other human beings morally deficient under all circumstances?
We are outraged at Syria for killing it's own people so we decide to kill some of them ourselves to show that it's morally wrong to kill people.
Ouch! The truth hurts.
But war today, just like sexuality or spirituality, isn't what it once was.  Most Americans don't think too far beyond their next day.  As they cut the language down to 40 word responses, 10 second sound bytes, and unknowingly do the bidding of the 1% who own and control about 90% of everything else, they'll do it with the purist form of titillating

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Saving Our Land

While reading the morning paper (as long as there still is one, I'll read it) I came across a fascinating piece detailing a historic meeting between an official of the Ku Klux Klan and a local NAACP leader.  What made this encounter even more improbable was that it occurred in Casper, Wyoming.  Yes, there are African American people in Wyoming.  There is also a KKK chapter too.  The Klan official was from Great Falls, Montana.  Must be some kind of a regional leader.
In the photograph which accompanied the article, the NAACP president was smiling.  The Klan official was grinning too.  The latter carried an attache case and wore a business suit.
Apparently there have been some hate crimes in Casper and at the invitation of the NAACP, the Klan leader wanted to assure them that his organization is no longer committed to violence to further its ideals.

Who knows what to believe here.  I suppose it's a good thing that these two groups are talking to each other.  In an ironic twist, both are clearly of another century.  The Klan leader, according to the article, ended up joining the NAACP and even added a $20. contribution.  Membership in the KKK is only open to white people, so any reciprocal membership by the African American community was not possible.
The final paragraph of the article mentioned that the KKK's chief issue now is to achieve a separate white country in the Northwest.  (not gonna happen)  They are still all about race separation, just not using violent methods to attain it.  The last line referenced the slogan "Save Our Land, Join the Klan...
That gave me pause.  It took me back about 40 years ago, when as a VISTA Volunteer living in Houston, Texas I removed a small poster from a telephone pole in the heart of the city.  Same slogan.
Same Klan?
A few years ago, when I wrote a memoir of my VISTA experience, I told the story of how I got the poster.  I scanned it and included it in the text of the project. (
I remember thinking long and hard about whether I wanted to put that graphic online.  In the end, I did, hoping that it would never taken out of context, but knowing full-well I really couldn't control that.  I include it here, in the interest of preserving history for those who may not know.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Even though I couldn't get past the title, I read the review with an open mind.  Then I read it again; a close reading just to make sure I understood the premise and the process.  With a title like The Smartest Kids in the World And How They Got That Way, I knew I was in for a treat.  At the outset, let me confess that I detest the word smart.  There is something aloof about it.  It's nose in the air snooty.  It seems to imply that I know something you don't know.  I much prefer intelligent.  In face I strongly prefer intelligences.  There are at least 8 kinds, you know.  But it doesn't matter what I think, what matters here is that this new book with this publisher's dream title by Amanda Ripley, will spark a good deal of conversation.

"Smartest Kids" will take its place with all those comparison studies between the education offered and the education systems of the U.S. and, in this case, South Korea, Finland, and Poland.  If you want to find the education of American kids lacking, those are three good places to go.  In fact, as Amanda Ripley did, you can go all the way and embed American students into those systems and collected all the data that's fit to print.  She did that too.
It is hardly surprising that the U.S. doesn't measure up so well.  We know that we don't attract "the best and the brightest" (I detest that phrase too) to the teaching profession, but when contrasted with the highly respected teachers of Finland, or the 6 and 7 figure salaries of some South Koreans who profess to be teachers, we are really on another planet.
As you may know, it doesn't matter that the rigor these systems impose on their young is often mind numbing, if not inhumane, the author argues that this is what we want and need for our culture.  Is it?  As far as ethnographic studies go, the U.S. with its increasingly multicultural demographic doesn't compare too well with mono cultural societies.  One fascinating quote that comes from the NY Times review of this book quotes a British politician suggesting,"If you want the American dream, go to Finland."  Really?  I shutter to think what his definition of the American Dream might be.
When I think of the "Dream," I think of possibility, opportunity, an the consequences of working hard and valuing the achievement that results.  Sure, that's alive and well in Finland and South Korea, but is it really the same kind of accomplishment there as it is here?  Does immigration have something to do with it? Or the burdens of history that, when uncovered, are splattered with racism, xenophobia, and all too often all out violent terror?
If what it means to educate a child, or a person for that matter, involves data collecting, scores on tests, the kind of rigor that can cause rigor mortis then count me out.  It just isn't smart to treat people that way.  They might be the smartest kids in the world, but they probably are the most stressed out as well.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Every now and then a line or two from the play "Inherit the Wind" floats through my mind.  Being a universal work with a timeless message, I can't say I'm surprised.  Today, while stopped in front of a crosswalk, I watched a pair of Twenty somethings cross in front of me.  They were unrelated, she walking a few steps in front of him.  Both had their heads tilted downward, eyes focused on a smart phone screen.  They were obviously preoccupied but managed to walk in front of the cars stopped without looking ahead, behind or to the side in any way.
I've long thought that people in the city never look up and therefore miss much of their environment.  Now it seems many don't even look straight ahead.  This certainly is the work of the new technology. I see tis more and more all the time.  People seem to be in this world but certainly a lot less involved in it.  They manage to maneuver with their own soundtracks, their own conversations aloud, their own priorities.

"Inherit the Wind" deals with a time when radio was the new technology, yet the similarities are striking.  The prosecuting attorney, Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) comments on this burgeoning dilemma:
Henry Drummond:
 Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. 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 teh charm of distance...
Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline."

That we have lost and are daily losing much of our privacy is clear.  It is the other tradeoffs in the mix that often go unnoticed.  Social media is the correct term these days, but it is hardly social and not really media. 
People invent themselves repeatedly online.  In their attempts to meet people, they often encounter only the image of someone who doesn't exist. They have "friends" they have never met.  Some seemed tethered to their electronics. 
Certainly I see the benefits, but I wonder at what costs?  What will the tradeoffs be?  With all those faces looking downward, the birds may lose more of their wonder.  The clouds already smell of gasoline in some places.  In others, they quite possibly not be seen.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Name Game

It was bound to happen.  Most major sports venues have corporate names or logos attached to them.  But when it happens in your home town, the dart stings just a little bit more.
In Portland, The Trailblazers are the only major pro team in town.  In the "Rose City" their arena was aptly named The Rose Garden.  Nobody ever got it confused with the famous literal rose garden in Washington Park.  Both draw millions of visitors yearly.

It's the corporate name that sticks in the craw. In this case it's now called the Moda arena in honor of a health care system that paid $40 million to advertise their name and remove the neon roses that light the arena now.  Of all the recent reactions to this news locally there is one that stands out as most amusing.  Up here we have a product called "Dave's Killer Bread."  It's a healthy loaf that comes in various incarnations of whole grains and named for it's founder, Dave, who turned his life around after being a recovering heroin addict and doing some hard prison time.  Dave learned the value of eating a healthy diet and his passion and product have led to great success.  So, it follows that someone wrote a letter to the editor of The Oregonian newspaper suggesting the name "Dave's Killer Arena."
I'm troubled.  Deeply troubled, but in no way surprised.  After all, as a culture, that's who we are.  Everything has its price and what the people want doesn't matter.  Often it's laughed at.  Power diminishes empathy.
The funny thing is, though, the name might be purchased, but most folks will eschew the new name and keep on using the old one.  For them, nothing has changed.
This phenomena, in all it's ludicrous ramifications, applies in most sports and not with just arenas.  A few years back the Kentucky Derby naming rights went to Yum Brands.  Officially it is now referred to as "The Kentucky Derby, presented by Yum."  But who really says that.  Only the broadcasters and journalists that are forced to.  I love how the notion that some things cannot be bought and sold lives on.
The irony of a health care system spending $40 million on advertising, while many folks can't afford health care has not been lost on anyone here in the rose city.  It's now just a daily reminder of just exactly what matters and how much in this culture.
I recall a book and then a couple of film versions of "Rollerball."  This distopic novel featured an international sports scene where there were no more countries just corporations who owned everything.  Rollarball was a combination of soccer/football played by armed men on motorcycles who tried to maneuver a huge steel ball-bearing into a net.  Much like a very lethal hockey game.  In this brave new world, people often died while the game was being played.
When I look around these days, I see we are well on our way to making that future a reality.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I Coulda...

One of the things I love about horse racing is no matter how many races you have seen in your lifetime, there is always the possibility of seeing something you've never seen before.  Watching a baseball game is like that too.  Just when you think that something so simple as hitting a small sphere and running around the bases, or a small pack of horses running in a circle, is a dull, repetitive, uninspiring endeavor, it isn't.  Things happen.  Unpredictable things happen.  Maybe not all the time, but they do happen.
A perfect life metaphor, no?  Of course it is.  This last month has been filled with such unpredictabilities.  Which is to say it has been predictable.   I'm forced to move, and then I'm not.  I'm moving downstairs, and then I'm not.  I'm going to vacation in Central Oregon, and then I end up in the East Bay dealing with a family emergency.  And in the end, some sort of balance restores itself and I'm reminded why it is crucial to live life a day at a time.
But all is not impermanent.  Some things we treasure are with us at all times.  Will be with us at all times.  Even in the depths of every form of abandonment, Lightnin' Hopkins sings the blues, Billie Holiday sounds just as mysterious, and Paul Klee's colors burn as bright.  Carrying that pit in your stomach might ache, but a brook trout is just as beautiful, a child's smile just as rewarding, and big slice of watermelon as remarkable as ever.
Back to the track...

I love to read the Daily Racing Form.  It's an intellectual challenge, it keeps the brain active, and on occasion, it can be fun and profitable.  But getting one has it's drawbacks.  In Portland, my choices are limited.  A few outlying liquor stores, the racetrack itself, a downtown news stand (which carries only a small quantity) or one of the OTB parlors.  The latter are as seedy as they sound.  Sure there are a few regulars there, racing is full of tropes.  Old Asian men, retirees trying to fill free time, addicted gamblers, losers of all stripes, temporary winners, and very angry wanderers who come and go and display 50 shades of paranoia.  Not a nice place to hang out.
I suppose I could print out a racing form from their web site, but it's just not the same.  I've decided to stay with newsprint for as long as it's around.  It'll soon be gone.  Maybe that will eliminate the problem of picking up a form, but it won't make going through one any more enjoyable.  Part of the fun is unlocking the puzzle of each race.  The clues, the keys, the information is all there somewhere.  If you locate it beforehand, it can be beyond satisfying.
So for now, I waltz in and out of the downtown OTB now and then to pick up a form.  Sometimes I stay to watch a race or two and marvel at the local color.  It's the same everywhere.  I've been in OTBs from Philly to Vancouver, B.C. and the characters are interchangeable.  The disgruntled say the same thing.  Lots of "woulda, shoulda couldas."    If nothing else, it's a great place to find your emotional vulnerability.  That can't be bad.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

We're Rolling

I set the alarm for 3:30.  That would give me half an hour to get on my waders, warm up some coffee, gather up all my gear, and maybe make a piece of toast.  If I left the house by 4 a.m. I'd have 45 min. to get to the Sandy River on time.  This was no ordinary fishing trip.  There would be lots of fishing but no catching.  Lots of casts into the rushing stream, lots of anticipation, but no real fishing.  I was an actor in a commercial.  That's right, cast as a caster!
Long story short, I'd signed up to be in extra for the IFC series Portlandia and in filling out the questionnaire mentioned that one of my interests is fly fishing.  Five years later a casting company making a commercial for Ramada Inns gives me a call and I get the part: one of three fly fishers to be filmed casting their hopes to the Sandy River, one of Oregon's classic steelhead streams.
I don't know what the better story is, the actual making of the commercial, or all the prep work that goes into the shoot.  Suffice it to say, I received about half a dozen emails and another half a dozen phone calls from half a dozen people all connected with the project.  Organization was definitely their strong suit.  They checked and double checked my clothing and gear down to the logo-less hat and the non-shine make-up on my face.

There were three of us.  I was the old guy in the middle surrounded by a thirty something professional fly fisher who could double haul with the best of them.  To my right was  the shortest of this trio, the only one with an agent, but he could cast a fly well and had experience with being "onset"
So we casted our lines in the big Sandy over and over for about two hours.  From 5 feet farther out to a little to the right.  Three or four times beautiful flocks of wild geese flew in formation overhead.  Once a Great Blue heron strolled through the scene.  They got it all on tape.  But we'll see what actually makes the final product.
After standing in the river so long and not being able to move, my legs began to tighten up and I found it difficult to negotiate the slimy, rocky river bottom.  I was hoping they wouldn't ask me to move anywhere because I feared taking a dip.  That would ruin the shot if I suddenly became wet or drowned!  The Sandy has deceptive currents and more than one well-prepared fisherman has met a watery death in it's clutches.
In the end, it all came out fine.  I removed the hook-less fly, re-case my rod, changed into dry clothes and was back in Portland with Katie having breakfast at Helser's Cafe by 8:30.
Maybe they'll call me gain for something.  I was proud of my casting since I'm mostly self-taught.  I only hope it all doesn't end up on the editing room floor.  Either way that's OK too because they paid well for the spot.
Now...I just want to go myself.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Her Own Pace

The call came on a Saturday night.  She'd fallen and not only couldn't get up, she was in the hospital. My 88 year old mother-in-law.  No ordinary person, Betsy is complex.  She's generous and stubborn. She's conniving and warm.  We don't call her the dowager for nothing.
Betsy likes her wine.  Sometimes too much.  Initially, we thought that might have something to do with her latest misadventure.  Wrong.  She'd been the victim of an irregular heart beat and was in intensive care.

     Over the next week, we made the 12 hour drive and headed for the hospital.  In a couple of days we were in another hospital and sweet Betsy from Berkeley had been given a pacemaker.  The symbolism was not lost.  At almost 99 her pace is fast and faster.  When the heart slows down the body can't help but follow.  This is one reason why we worry.  Betsy has two speeds: moving and sleep.  She's not going to follow doctor's orders very well and seems to be operating as if nothing out of the ordinary has taken place.  Hopefully she won't raise her left arm too high over the next 30 days.  That and a few other things.  She's on so many medications she needs the top of the line, super sized pill box.  You know, those Monday-Sunday plastic organizers that fit in purse or pocket.
And then there is the matter of the wine.  The daily glasses of wine.  To most, she's a sweet elderly woman who likes a little glass of wine EVERY DAY.  To her family, she's a sneaky alcoholic who dilutes her white wine with ice cubes but keeps a flask or two of Vodka here and there.  It's the elephant in the room, or the closet, or the kitchen cabinet, or possibly in the trunk of the car.
But then she's 88.  Going on 89...and doesn't drive at night.  Actually, at night, there is not too much sweetness.  She becomes a different person.  Everything kicks in and the past and present become a blurrrrr.  Her children avoid her at night.  Fortunately, she turns in fairly early and by morning the sweet, charming,  slightly privileged person returns.
If memory serves me correctly, and I recall how stubborn my post hospital, post heart attack father was, we'll be dealing with this and other issues again very soon.
Funny thing is, I hope I make it to 88 or beyond.  Sweet Betsy from Berkeley is many things, depending on what time of day you catch her.  Among them, however, is a remarkable survivor.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Here's the Catch

So I get this phone call and a chipper young man asks me if I am a fly fisher.  Uh huh, I say and he proceeds to tell me that I'm being contacted because I signed up to be an extra for the TV series Portlandia a few years ago and in the questionnaire I mentioned I fly fish.  I'm not calling about Portlandia, but rather a commercial that's casting and needs a fly fisher. I agree to an audition in a couple of days and then get an email that tells me where to report and to come dressed and "with gear."  A feeble attempt at humor, it goes on to say that they can't promise any fish.
Three days later I'm sitting in a basement office with a dozen other folks waiting to be auditioned for the same commercial.  Most are 20 something women for the roles as bridesmaids.  A few 30-40 something men dressed casually but some no doubt with a change of clothes for the business traveler parts.  And then this older dude dressed in waders, carrying a fly rod and looking like he made a wrong turn and ended up on a sound stage instead of a river.

     Everyone in the room, save the chipper young man who called and is acting the role of secretary, photographer, greeter, organizer...everyone else in the room  is consumed by their smart phones.  Nobody speaks.  I finally get another guy in the room to smile at me because he sees the ridiculousness of my predicament and realizes that I must be warm and there is nobody else in the room for the fly fisher role but me.  But he soon gets comfortable with his head buried into his small screen.  So on the click and slide, and push with their fingers, never looking up, never realizing who is with them and seemingly consumed by their devices.
I've heard about this.  How social media is really anit-social media.  How people actually believe that we are living in a much more connected time but in reality we are alone while together.
Now this commercial is for a large hotel chain and it obviously will center on all the types of people that depend on said organization to make their events, pastimes, lifetimes function smoothly.
Funny thing is that older fly fishers are being featured a good deal these days in advertisements.   Especially medical ads.  I sit at home and laugh when one of these commercials graces my TV screen.

 They usually get it all wrong.  Only rarely does the older gent look realistic, know what he's dong,, and knows how to hold or otherwise manipulate the equipment.  A recent ad for Oregon health care actually featured an excellent fly caster.  No pressure here.  I doubt I'll get the call back.  But if I do, it'll be a chance to bring some more authenticity to the production values.  I hate that it's non-union, but the pay is good.
I'm sure this little flirtation with the image factory is all but done.  Time for the real fishing to begin.