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.